Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Travel Favorites of 2015

What a whirlwind of travel experiences that 2015 ushered in! As I look back over the year, it feels like I stuffed two years worth of adventures into one. I traveled to 11 different destinations and I'm grateful for the sights, sensations and memories that will always be with me. I can't adequately list every single favorite experience because there were so many but here are the standouts: Walking through the cold and rainy cobblestone streets of the Czech Republic and being dazzled by the fairy tale scenery, like in the UNESCO town of Telc, pictured above. I strolled through castles dating from the 9th century,ate dinner with singing Czech miners and explored the oldest and best preserved Jewish quarter outside of Israel. And that's just a few of my Czech memories.

The colors and vibrant culture of Guatemala immediately grabbed me, there was so much history and life, everywhere I turned. I climbed my third volcano, sampled classic Guatemalan ciusine and met Liria, shown above, a Mayan Nana (female shaman) who delivered a message from my grandmother that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I returned to my sweet Jamaica and had the honor of visiting Bob Marley's Kingston house and Nanny Town, the Maroon Village high in the hills of Portland that was settled by Jamaican freedom fighter and national hero, Nanny. 

I sailed a stalled cruise ship (stuck for 24 hours) and landed on the Bahamian out island of Bimini by sea plane. The striking blue of the sea and sky surrounded everything on the island, including the homes of Adam Clayton Powell, Ernest Hemingway and the legendary Fountain of Youth.

My first trip of the year unfolded in Stockholm, where I learned about Swedish design and culture and met fellow journalists from India, China, Japan and Turkey. It snowed every day but Stockholm was still warmer than Chicago.

Memphis is always a good idea and I gorged on music history with visits to the Stax Museum, The Blues Hall of Fame, Beale Street, The Rock N Soul Museum and the newly opened Tina Turner Museum, shown above. The museum is located inside the one-room schoolhouse that Tina attended,

I will never get enough of St. Lucia and this year's visit allowed me to see another perspective of the stunning landscape with a stay at the iconic Anse Chastanet Resort which boasts only three walls, for up-close views. I also hiked Tet Paul Nature Trail, which rewarded me with visions like the one above and went jungle biking for the first time.

The wild and beautiful landscape of the Yukon will always be symbolized for me by Caveman Bill, shown above. I wandered the streets of Dawson City with Aussie blogger Lorraine, searching for the elusive local who lives in a cave. We found him and he took us in a boat to see the cave he's lived in for 20 years. Only in the Yukon. Here's to more adventures and fascinating new friends in 2016! What were your favorite travel memories for 2015?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Living High in St. Lucia

One of the most unforgettable experiences that I've had in St. Lucia is being enveloped by the beauty.  Being surrounded by turquoise-colored water,soaring mountain peaks and lush vegetation all at once fills all of my senses. I never have to do anything in St. Lucia, just partaking of the natural wonders is enough. So when I was invited to Anse Chastanet, the famous St. Lucia resort carved into cliffs, I was ecstatic. What better way to experience the island's assets than up close and personal?

Besides offering stunning views, many of the resort's rooms have only three walls, so that you can be completely connected to the landscape. This was my room, complete with a swing and a homemade bottle of T-punch in the fridge. I think staying in this room was the closest I've come to being hypnotized. I sat on the swing, sipping punch and gazing out at the view for hours.

When I managed to tear myself away from the view, I just wandered around the lovely room. I've slept under mosquito netting before but never on a four poster bed with billowing panels that close on both sides. I was completely wrapped in the netting with a fan on the roof of the bed. It was such fun, although it took me several attempts to find the opening in the netting to get out of bed!

But the coolest thing about my room besides the singular view, was the tree in the middle of  the shower. The room was built around the tree, which rose up through the roof. Birds hung out in my bathroom and when a storm started, raindrops from outside poured down the sides of the shower, sprinkling the plants. It was like living with the landscape but way better than camping. I'm not usually focused on hotel accommodations because I like to spend as much time as possible connecting with the destination but at Anse Chastanet, the destination and the accommodations are one.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Secluded Paradise on St. Lucia's Anse Mamin

St. Lucia is an island that epitomizes the idea of paradise. From striking views of the Pitons twin peaks to lush rain forests and surreal beaches, this island overflows with natural beauty. So I guess I should have been prepared when I arrived in the village of Soufriere at Anse Chastanet Resort and was greeted with a three walled room that showcased the vistas up close. I'll do a post about my room later but non-stop gazing out at that stunning landscape made me think that I had absorbed all the perfection possible. I was so wrong. After hopping a water taxi to Anse Mamin, about 10 minutes north of Anse Chastanet, my mouth dropped. A tiny black sand beach surrounded with cerulean waves and only a handful of people unfolded before me. It looked like a Gauguin painting, it was so unspoiled and tranquil.

An open air kitchen served up what was reported to be "the world's best burger," to be enjoyed under palapas with views of the sea. I ordered the fish burger on traditional johnny cakes doused with banana ketchup and accompanied by plantain chips.

I honestly don't remember what it tasted like. I think it was good but the beach was such a distraction that all I could do was take a few bites so that I could finish and dive into the water. And I remember what the water was like. It was warm and enveloping, with only a few fish joining me. The canopy of palm trees waved as I floated out of the water and laid out on the soft black sand. It was paradise indeed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Next Stop: Lovely St. Lucia

I'm so grateful to be returning to one of my favorite islands--stunning St. Lucia. This time, I'll be focusing on wellness and active adventures on the island. I'll be trying Snuba and jungle biking for the first time and re-visiting the Soufriere mud baths. I'm also really excited about going back to the legendary Gros Islet jump up street party, I have lots of fond memories of the music and warm locals there. Hopefully, I'll also get a chance to talk to an herbalist about traditional Lucian remedies. My press trip is sponsored by the St. Lucia Tourism Board, which has re-vamped their travel focus since I was last on the island two years ago. I expect to have many new discoveries at this charming locale so please stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

4 Places to Capture Chicago Music

I've been writing for a slew of new publications this year, including a few international sites. I was excited to be contacted by Brilliant Noise Media to craft a story about the best places to hear classic Chicago music for London's Heathrow site, Good to Go. You know I was pumped about sharing Windy City sounds! I supplied details about where to hear signature Chicago blues and jazz. Check out my post here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Prague's Astronomical Clock

Prague is famous for its medieval architecture and one of the most unusual landmarks is the astronomical clock in the middle of the Old Town square. I have to admit, although I'd heard about the castles and Charles Bridge, I had never heard anything about this clock. But there it was, an imposing structure in the middle of the historic square, with hordes of tourists surrounding it.

I learned that the clock is 605 years old and has been working non-stop for all of those centuries. All the excitement is centered around wooden figures of the apostles,which appear in windows every hour. Some of the statues also move, with the death figure beckoning to a Turkish man, who shakes his head and a miserly man with a money bag shaking a stick. Sounds cool. But as I gathered with the crowd at 4 pm, I didn't see any of that. I saw the windows open and I suppose I glimpsed the apostles but it all happened so quickly that I can't say I did for sure. It literally only lasted for a few seconds and I stood there, as the crowds moved away, waiting for more. But that was it so it's no surprise that I was underwhelmed by the astronomical clock. What I did enjoy was the view after I climbed the tower, below. Have you have any travel experiences that weren't what you expected?

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Fall Day in the Czech Republic

The beauty of Prague and the nearby towns of Telc and Trebic was staggering. Castles, pristine medieval architecture and monuments filled every other street. The weather was chilly and rainy but that didn't seem to affect the vistas. Golden leaves covered the cobblestones and courtyards and the rain glistened off the buildings, making them look even more fairy tale-like. It was a lot to absorb since there is so much history connected with all these sights. I walked for miles through each town and besides the beauty, I was struck by the friendliness of the Czechs. Despite a dour reputation, my experience is that Czech people are helpful and proud of their heritage. I learned a lot and I'll be taking you along as I relive my Czech journey.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Next Stop: Prague

I'm headed to the "City of 100 Spires" and I couldn't be more excited. I'll be exploring the fascinating history of Prague and surrounding towns, courtesy of Czech Tourism. The focus will be the castles and chateaux that make the city so striking but I'll also visit  the UNESCO Heritage Site of Telc and its historic Jewish quarter, the catacombs of Jihlava  and of course, the famous Charles Bridge. I've even pulled out my dusty copy of  The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to finally start reading it in Milan Kundera's home country and inspiration.  So look out for posts on Prague literary inspirations as well as the landscape and history.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Bob Marley's Kingston House Part I

There's no person that has done more to promote Jamaica and her culture than Robert Nesta Marley. My exploration of Kingston and Port Antonio involved many standout experiences but I have to start with the island's most famous son. The Kingston house that Bob lived in during the height of his career has been transformed into a museum. It holds his recording studio, gold and platinum records,original bedroom and an eerie hologram image.

Photos aren't allowed inside but there's more than enough to document outside.  The bronze statue of Bob stands atop of a painting of his "three little birds" the I-Threes backing group that consisted of Judy Mowatt, Bob's wife Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths. On the side of the structure are paintings of significant Rastafari figures: Haile Selassie who represents God and Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica born cultural activist.

Lions representing Selassie's lion of Judah flank both sides of the statue. There were several more outside images that are important to Bob's legacy and I'll share them in the second part of this post.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Next Stop: Sweet Jamaica

I never get tired of traveling to Jamaica but I'm especially excited about visiting a parish I've never experienced: Port Antonio in the Northeastern parish of Portland. Noted for bamboo rafting down the Rio Grande, this rustic transport was once used to ship bananas. The whole process was made famous by Harry Belafonte's  classic 'Day O" tune and I can't wait to see the Rio Grande as well as the rest of the lush region. A highlight of my trip will be a visit to Moore Town, more widely known as Nanny Town, the settlement founded by enslaved Africans called maroons, who fought off the British and lived in the mountains in independent communities. Nanny was the female warrior who led the Portland maroons with highly developed ambush techniques and won a peace treaty from the British in 1739 for tax free lands. Nanny is the only female Jamaican national hero and I am thrilled to visit her second settlement (the original was up in the Blue Mountains) and meet her ancestors. I'll also spend some time in Kingston, where I'll explore Trenchtown and Bob Marley's Tuff Gong studios. My trip is sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board. Please stay tuned for posts and pix!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Surprise Yukon River Concert

In Whitehorse, the capitol city of the Yukon, the Yukon River commands much of the city's focus. Running along the town in untamed waves, it really represents why Whitehorse is called "Wilderness City."  I strolled the boardwalk near the river and was excited to see a musician playing his guitar. He had come from Montreal to play for his cousin's wedding that night. He was practicing by the river and the guitar rhythms seemed to flow at the same pace as the waves. Check out my video to hear a portion of  his soothing tune.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Desert in The Arctic Circle

I was prepared to see glaciers and gold during my visit to the Northern Canadian region of the Yukon but I was not prepared to see a desert. In the first of many fascinating surprises that I discovered in the region, the Carcross (Caribou Crossing) desert has been declared the world's smallest desert by the Guinness Book of World  Records. Measuring just one square mile, it looks more like a scenic sandbox than an actual desert but according to Canadian history, 10,000 years ago, this spot was the bottom of a large glacial lake and its connecting sand dunes The retreating glacial ice expanded the dunes,which serve as handy recreation for sand boarders and skiers in the winter. Technically, the climate is too humid to be considered a real desert and the Yukon is actually six degrees south of the Arctic Circle but those facts are just not as fun.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Totem Poles and Teepees in the Yukon

One of the things that I loved about traveling in the Yukon was the vibrant First Nation culture that was visible everywhere. Traditional paintings, sculptures, food and clothing were displayed in every town that I visited but I really enjoyed seeing the totem poles. The one above stands in Whitehorse.

This totem pole sits in the middle of CarCross (Caribou Crossing), surrounded by shops covered in beautiful First Nation symbols. All tribes don't have totem poles but those that lived near forests carved them to represent the tribal nation's history and stories.You can see the intricate detail and work that goes into the carvings. I was tempted to climb them to look at the figures up close, but I didn't. Besides being difficult, it would be highly disrespectful to climb a totem pole.

I spotted this teepee on a farm just outside of  Dawson City. It's made with traditional elk skin and wood, with an opening on top for smoke. I really enjoyed connecting with First Nation culture when I was in the Yukon, have you ever experienced any aspect of the culture?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Yukon Wedding

There is no place on Earth like the Yukon. I had no idea what to expect when I visited this striking and unconventional region of Canada and that was probably a good thing because you just have to experience it. Descriptions and expectations just don't measure up. So when I sifted through the hundreds of photos I took of all of my out of this world experiences--glaciers! elk hearts! human toe cocktails! a real caveman!, it was hard to choose a singular image of how to sum up the Yukon. But this pic of a Yukon wedding does a great job of capturing the spirit of the place. This wasn't posed or set up, this is the real wedding party on a vintage fire engine, rolling through the dusty streets of Dawson City. It was actually the first of two wedding parties that I witnessed, the other was on a pickup truck. They waved and invited me to join the reception as they rolled off.  They didn't know who I was, I didn't know who they were but they didn't hesitate to invite me to their special day. That's the Yukon; adventurous, welcoming and unexpected.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Next Stop: The Yukon

After several years of scheduling issues, I'm excited to finally be visiting The Yukon. This region of stunning scenery is home to Canada's highest peak, Mount Logan, pictured above. It's also home to the world's largest nonpolar ice fields, which I'll be viewing along with glaciers on a flightseeing excursion. I'm actually traveling to The Yukon for its annual culinary festival, where I'll be learning about cuisine traditions and chef innovations. I'm also looking forward to gold panning and a visit to Diamond Tooth Gertie's in historic Dawson City and exploring the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site. My trip is sponsored by Tourism Yukon , who will be hosting me and three other journalists in what promises to be a really adventurous experience. Please stay tuned!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Quebec City Parliament Building

My first glimpse of Quebec City history and culture was the stately Parliament building just outside of Old Quebec. I thought the building looked distinctly French with its Second Empire architecture so I wasn't surprised to learn that it was inspired by the expansion of Paris' Louvre Museum when it was constructed in 1877. I was surprised, however, when I discovered that the Parliament houses a restaurant, Le Parlimentaire, that's open to the public. Anyone can make a reservation and eat with the prime minister if he's in the building. I watched the restaurant's chef pick herbs from the garden and then show visitors what they were used for. With a highly rated restaurant in the province's capitol building and a chef that works with fresh ingredients, it's clear that the French influence in Quebec shows up on every level!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Next Stop: Quebec City

For the first time ever, I will forgo, my first Quebecois love, Montreal and travel to  historic Quebec City. I'll check out the Le Festival de'ete de Quebec (French hip hop!) as well as the UNESCO Word Heritage Site of Old Quebec City and all its cobblestone and walled charms. My visit is sponsored by  Quebec Tourism so I'll be diving into all aspects of Quebec City history and culture. I expect to be dazzled so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Medicine Woman

In the highlands of the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, there are communities of  Mayan women who carve out a living from traditional ways of life. Many of these villages are filled with mostly women because Guatemala's Civil War claimed the lives of so many men. I didn't sense much sadness however, only a gentle determination to provide for their families. The cooperatives of women weavers are quite famous but there are also women who showcase and earn money from other Mayan traditions, including food, art and music. I met this woman in the back of a village, where her shop displaying medicinal herbs and herbal beauty products overlooks a river. I was impressed with her herbal knowledge and the innovation she used to display her potions and plants in recycled water bottles. But looking at this photo, snapped on the fly as I was leaving, I'm more taken with the strength and beauty reflected in her face.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In Remembrance of Charleston Part Two

In remembrance of the nine people who lost their lives in the Charleston Massacre, this is my second re-blogged post about South Carolina Gullah culture, which holds a strong connection with Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Like the resilient Gullah culture that continues to live on after hundreds of years, the spirit and names of  DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson will also live on.

Learning about a destination's culture and history are important aspects of the travel experience for me. I enjoy gathering insight into a place from a cultural perspective. One of the most fascinating culture's I've ever encountered is Gullah culture. This week, I have a feature story about Gullah culture in Travel Muse. The piece focuses on Gullah history in Hilton Head and St.Helena, South Carolina but the culture extends way beyond that.

The Gullah trace their heritage directly to the skilled rice farmers of Sierra Leone, West Africa. They were enslaved specifically because of those skills and were transported to work on rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida. The swampy conditions and malaria that went with it, made it uncomfortable for the plantation owners to live so they left the Gullah people to work the plantations mostly unattended. The isolation allowed Gullah dialect, customs and art to survive undiluted for 100 years. One of the hallmark's of Gullah culture is sweet grass basket "sewing" which mirrors Sierra Leone's centuries-old basket weaving tradition. Jery Taylor, pictured above, represents the fourth generation of her family to create sweet grass baskets. Jery has had her creations displayed at the Smithsonian and I quickly bought one of her designs, not just for the beauty but for the significant culture and history that it symbolizes.

Friday, June 26, 2015

In Remembrance of Charleston

In remembrance of the nine people who lost their lives in the Charleston Massacre, I am re-blogging my posts about South Carolina Gullah culture. There is a strong connection between Mother Emmanuel AME Church and the Gullah community. Many of the slain were members of the Gullah community: a formidable culture that has managed to retain roots to their African heritage in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, and many other violent attacks in this so-called free country.  This is in memory of DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

My first introduction to Gullah culture came with Julie Dash's seminal 1992 film, Daughters of The Dust, The film showcases the languid beauty of the land and the language. Set at the turn of the 20th century on St. Helena Island, the movie tells the haunting story of three generations of Gullah women. Since the tale took place in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that the culture was still alive until I stepped onto the dusty roads and marshy landscape of St. Helena myself. The lyrical dialect of the Gullah people floated around me and it drove me crazy. I have a pretty sharp ear for language and what I heard sounded like Jamaican patois, but not quite, like Nigerian Yoruba intonations but not completely, like the sing-song melody of St. Croix Cruzan speech but not totally. When I was told that it was Gullah language that I was hearing, a light went off. I had heard Gullah semi-recently but never realized it. My daughter loved to watch the Nick Jr. children's TV show, Gullah Gullah Island during the mid to late 90s. Somehow, I never connected the snappy songs and amusing folk tales that the show's creators, Ron and Natalie Daise, used to illustrate Gullah speech and customs with the ancient culture I had glimpsed in Daughters of the Dust.

But as I explored more Sea Islands, including Hilton Head and Beaufort, I discovered that Gullah culture is vibrantly alive on many levels. One of the highlight's of my trip was meeting Ron Daise and witnessing Gullah culture firsthand. Ron is one of the leading experts on Gullah culture and dialect and he acted as the dialect coach for Daughter's of The Dust. Hearing Ron roll melodic Gullah words and sing Gullah songs brought everything to life for me. We visited the Spanish moss draped campus of Penn Center, the first school opened for freed slaves in the South.

Founded in 1862, Penn was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to strategize and meditate in the 60s and where Daise's parents and grandparents studied and became educators.
The school closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service. The site now hosts dorms, homes and a museum, whose small gift shop is full of plaques with Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene.

Whenever I asked how to sum up Gullah culture, spirituality was always the first response. So it makes sense that the most significant representation of Gullah culture is the Gullah Bible. Called "De Nyew Testament," the bible was translated by the Sea Island Translation Team, of which Ron Daise was a member. The team translated the bible in 2005, entirely in Gullah with translations in the margins. Here's a verse:

"Dem Wa Bless Fa True. Wen Jedus see all de crowd dem, e gon pontop one high hill. E seddown dey, Jeddus staat fa baan um. E say, dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deyself."
Don't recognize the passage? It's Luke 16:20-23. In the five Gullah Baptist churches on Hilton Head alone, the singularity of the language flows through the pews. (I visited one but didn't quite make it through the required 3 1/2 hour service.) That lyrical dialect also represents the spirit that sustained the Gullah culture for over 200 years in tact.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Flamenco Dancing in Granada

It's a thrilling experience to watch flamenco dancing. The rhythms, the dramatic flourishes and chants capture you immediately. I climbed the steep cobblestone hills of Granada, Spain to watch a flamenco performance in the famous caves of Sacromonte. Formed around ravines and supplying striking views of the Alhambra Palace, this historic neighborhood is worth a visit even without flamenco but the dance and the music is closely tied to the area. The area was settled by Roma, Moors and Jewish people fleeing persecution. The derogatory term of gypsy is still used but Roma is the preferred name for these nomadic people who arrived from India in the 15th century. It's said that elements of Indian dance can be glimpsed in flamenco as well as Moorish and Jewish influences. What I recognized was the strong connection between cultural expression and systematic oppression. Many of the movements and phrasing reminded me of American blues culture and I think that there are many historical parallels.

The dancers vivid dresses were often raised to show their intricate footwork or zapateado.

The hand clapping looked effortless but palmeros weave intricate patterns around the baseline of each song. The audience was encouraged to join in the clapping but our claps were nowhere near as refined.

It was interesting to see a male dancer. Although the image of a flamenco dancer is usually a woman, men have always performed the dances and many of Andalucia's most famous flamenco artists are male. This dancer's moves were very fluid and quick, it was mesmerizing to watch his feet whirl around.

The echos of the percussive movements rang through the cave. The musicians who played behind the dancers were just as skilled and the overall effect was unforgettable.  Some travelers feel that a visit to Sacromonte flamenco shows is a tourist trap but I think it's a special opportunity to learn more about a distinguished culture.