Iconic Itineraries

Iceland bares its secrets

Posted on Oct 2, 2013 | Comments Off on Iceland bares its secrets

iceland horse

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – This week Iceland will launch a new tourism campaign to inspire travelers to seek out the country’s undiscovered treasures.

Share the Secret is a new campaign by Inspired by Iceland, the country’s tourism promotional effort. The campaign will draw on local knowledge to reveal some of the country’s hidden treasures by encouraging Icelanders to share their secrets and offer visitors the opportunity to discover unique experiences around the country.

The campaign will cover a wide variety of themes from Icelandic nature and culture, with secrets and insider tips from locals and Icelandic experts shared on food, design, music, shopping and adventure across all the Inspired by Iceland platforms. Icelanders will share personal favourites and travel tips with visitors online, via social media (#icelandsecret) and through experiential activity, offering a more intimate experience of their much beloved homeland to tourists. Using both physical and digital secrets the campaign will bring to life some of Iceland’s greatest wonders.

The campaign will encourage travellers to arrive with a spirit of adventure, to go further and do more, and will ask Icelanders and previous visitors to Iceland to share their best kept secrets of the country; be it their favourite record store, secret family recipe, or a spot by the lake with the very best view of the Northern Lights.

The website http://www.inspiredbyiceland.com will become a hub for secrets, with Icelanders and tourists sharing secret places and activities on an interactive map and blog. Fans and visitors on social media will be encouraged to contribute their own secrets and experiences via Facebook and Twitter, which will be shared across all platforms.

Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, Director for Tourism & Creative Industries at Promote Iceland, comments, “This year we want to encourage Icelanders and visitors alike to share with others just what makes the country so magical. We want to highlight the undiscovered side of Iceland and show that Iceland is a place of adventure and discovery and we are hoping that travellers will be inspired to come and seek out the secrets of others and leave with their own to share.”

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iTT addresses the luxury in the experience

Posted on Sep 1, 2013 | Comments Off on iTT addresses the luxury in the experience

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On Sunday September 1, Luxperience 2013 opened in Sydney, Australia’s Town Hall with a “Thought Leaders” evening. David McGonigal of iTravelTree was asked to present as the opening speaker –
his topic was “The Luxury in the Experience”.

Good evening. From Andrew’s introduction you may gather, I’ve been a travel writer/author and photographer for too many decades.

100 places to visit

In fact, a friend recently send me one of those Facebook quizzes on  “100 places to see before you die” –  and I had visited 90 – I’m either well travelled or ready to cark it.

My latest venture is a start-up called iTT. Basically, iTravelTree conducts a meta search of travel data filtered by your social preferences. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to “luxury” lately – the trend I see in luxury is to collect exotic experiences not things or famous hotels.

If you had asked my mum, she probably would have defined travel luxury as a grand old hotel – like Sydney’s Australia Hotel.

Marstrand-Island-in-Bohuslan-Photo-Lisa-Nestorson

I suspect Scandinavia may agree with her. While flying on SAS last month I read in the in-flight mag: “Marstrand has something that no new luxury resort can buy: dignity and soul”.

It was both a sweeping generalization and wrong. Marstrand may do it well but so do many new resorts. Brilliant architecture, environmental sensitivity and empathy with local residents lie at the heart of dignity and soul. Some go further:

D on ele

© David McGonigal

The Anantara Golden Triangle gives you a chance to be part of a care centre for mistreated Asiatic elephants. More on that later.

My last 18 months have been special as my wife Sandra, stepped down from running Rupert Murdoch’s Australian magazine division early last year and, after a lifetime of being tied to an office has finally had a chance to travel. We’ve been referring to it as her executive gap year. Seeing our industry through her eyes is enlightening. Fittings and service are a given – and only noted in their absence – but special moments like hugging a baby orang utan or being taught to cook Tiramisu by the head chef of the Villa San Michele are prized.

Galleria

* This is Milan’s Galleria Hotel – self proclaimed 7-stars

First can I say how I hate the attempt to add more stars – Dubai’s Burj al Arab started it and the Galleria has taken it further. I think the trend is in reverse: high degree of comfort is no longer limited to 5-star properties. Some 4-star resorts now offer a standard that would have been 5-star a decade ago. And why is it new hotels that think they might be 6 or 7 star: what about grand, established hotels like Monaco’s Hotel de Paris that could probably lay a better claim?

And, anyway, many of us would forego the front door being opened (or yet another chandelier) in exchange for free high-speed internet or the chance to make a cup of coffee and tea in the privacy of our room.

So what makes a property or travel experience truly special? There are three possibilities:

  1. The destination itself is enough
  2. The travel experience itself is enough
  3. The experience maximizes the location

1.       In some rare cases, the place itself is enough.

Simply being there is a luxury. And here I’m talking about discerning, experienced travellers. For the first timer in London, a dodgy hotel in Kensington might seem like paradise – it isn’t.

What’s a destination where the privilege is simply to be there?

Paro

  • Bhutan Paro Festival © David McGonigal

I was fortunate enough to go to Bhutan some 15 years ago. The food was terrible, the accommodation basic and the roads were shocking. But the richness of the culture – and its lack of cultural pollution from modern pop culture – left all of us, all very experienced Himalayan travellers, saying that we had found Paradise. And, then and now it wasn’t cheap.

But what’s the impossible dream? As a boy, I always thought I’d go to the moon but never thought I’d visit Antarctica.

Breaking Ice South of the Antarctic Circle DSC0727

  • Antarctica © David McGonigal

I now work in Antarctica as an expedition leader – I’ve been there more than 100 times and feel privileged every time. Passengers will pay the fare for a basic cabin on a Russian icebreaker that would give them five star accommodation for the same duration anywhere in Europe: $60,000 for two weeks.

The luxury to travel to Bhutan or into polar ice is at least as special as 5-star luxury.

Lunar

Space remains the ultimate travel destination and it looks like I won’t make it there. Space travel is coming but affordability might be a problem. Mike McDowell popularized Antarctica as a travel destination – and his Space Adventures have arranged all 8 people who have paid (a lot) to go into space.

Virgin Galactica

Virgin Galactica says it’ll have first flight on Christmas Day this year. Cost for 2.5 hr flight to 360,000 ft is $250,000. Not bad value for 110 km up.

This is the category where indulgence doesn’t correlate with luxury. There are people prepared to pay $1/4M to throw up in a capsule a long way from home.

2 What about creating the unusual? Manufacturing the whole experience from scratch?

castlebuilding

In the non-luxury market, it’s hard to go past Disneyland then DisneyWorld as places that create their own need. While you’d go to London or Paris regardless, would you go to Anaheim or Orlando without Walt’s worlds?

MONA

© David McGonigal

Closer to home – both in terms of location and audience – we have David Walsh’s MONA that has brought a whole new travel group to Hobart. When a gallery is talked more about in tourism stats than in the Arts pages you know it’s significant. Amazing and confronting, too.

Dubai

Creating something from nothing is hard. Yet that’s what Dubai has done – taken a small fishing village and turn it into the world’s hub of luxury hotels and shopping.

us on eles

© David McGonigal

I go back to the Anantara because it epitomizes the luxury in the experience. And it drew us to a place we wouldn’t have visited. We signed up for a three day mahout course – and we were allocated our own elephants for the duration. Having your own elephant is absolute luxury – coming to understand the likes and dislikes of this giant gentle creature was very special. We still dream of elephants.

Oasis

*Oasis of the Seas

The modern cruise industry has done it, too – created a huge growing industry out of nothing. Of course there were cruises before but ships were mainly a form of transport not entertainment.

Fat DuckFat Duck © David McGonigal

Then we have the modern phenomenon of food tourism. Perhaps it has always existed in a small way. nearly always directed towards France.

But now Noma has as much drawing power as the Little Mermaid, El Bulli rivals Sagrada Familia and The Fat Duck has put Bray UK on the map. Even in my suburb of Balmain, many hear the name and think Adriano Zumbo’s macarons.

When you are creating something from nothing, you are limited only by your imagination. Here luxury can be indulgence and the experience.

3      Finally we have the experience that works to enhance the location – the most common scenario

Cipriani

  • Cipriani Hotel © David McGonigal

Every company that delivers a travel product needs to be thinking “what next?” There was a time when just having been to the rim of the Grand Canyon was enough. Then people said “what next?” So now we can raft through it, hike to the bottom or walk out on a glass platform. Likewise, Sydney Harbour Bridgeclimb changed the bridge (and Sydney) from a static setting to an experience.

I experienced this first hand in Venice last year. Once it would have been enough to have Venice as my destination. And for luxury it’s hard to go past the legendary Hotel Cipriani. But then the Cipriani raised the stakes into the stratosphere – “come stay with us and kayak the canals of Venice.”

kayak Venice

© David McGonigal

This was luxury at all levels – the pampered indulgence of the hotel and the experiential indulgence of seeing Venice from my own kayak. I fondly remember the Cipriani – especially breakfast on Easter Sunday – but I’ll never forget paddling under the Rialto at sunset then turning to glide under the Bridge of Sighs.

It’s hard to up the arms race in hotel amenities. Better champagne – but when you get to Krug vs Dom, what’s next? Better beds? More service? If you want to stand out you have to think laterally and offer the unusual – as the Cipriani has done.

David Bowie

Luxury can simply be service. A great concierge is there to realize your dreams. A couple of weeks ago I was London for the day and wanted to see the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A but it was sold out. So we contacted Red Carnation Hotels where we had stayed the last couple of times we’ve been in London and Egerton House Hotel provided a couple of passes that they were offering their guests. They have our loyalty.

Summer Palace

  • Summer palace, St Petersburg © David McGonigal

The ultimate luxury is not more brocade but rather “Access All Areas”. So a cruise that features a private dinner in one of Catherine the Great’s palaces has special appeal. Or a Danube cruise that includes rare tickets to Oberammergau Passion Play. In Sydney you’d hope a hotel has some Springsteen tickets in a drawer. Think big – come to LA and we’ll take you to the Academy Awards. Who would say “no”?

Hugh Jackman

“Access All People” is a luxury for the sociable. I spent a weekend at Gwinganna Health Retreat when Hugh Jackman was there (he’s a part owner) and that’s been good for a few stories afterwards. The lesson I learned was don’t try to hold eye contact with any woman when Hugh is heaving himself out of the pool behind you. I always thought the ultimate would have been on the Antarctic cruise that had the reclusive Neil Armstrong on board.

&Beyond

There’s also the wonderful experience when the environment and the property perfectly interlink. I first discovered this in South Africa where game parks like &Beyond’s are luxurious but have strong links to not just wildlife conservation but also the local community. Luxury for visitors is feeling part of the place not a casual observer.

Turtle Island

Things change. Many years ago I was asked to give Bernie Eccleston suggestions for a tropical Australian resort with no expense spared. I suggested he go to Fiji instead. Places like Turtle Island gave a better experience because you are immersed in local culture while being treated royally. Australia has evolved – today I’d say to Bernie – have a look at the website of Luxury Lodges of Oz.

Southern Ocean Lodge

  • Southern Ocean Lodge

We’ve come a long way from the days when Australian tourism culture was a reflection of Crocodile Dundee.

Bulgari Bali

It’s predicted that more hotels and resorts will align themselves with luxury brands – think the Armani Hotel in Dubai, the Missoni Hotel in Kuwait and the Bulgari resort in Bali. I hear even Vogue is considering moving into the area. Of course, the name gives instant cut-through but I think it’s lazy.

Doing the hard yards to find a way to offer a unique experience that provides your property with an authentic, memorable life moment that ties to its location will result in enduring success.

Easter island

  • Easter Island © David McGonigal

A recent report  by the Adventure Travel Association and George Washington University  defined adventure travel as any trip that includes at least

2 of

a)    physical activity,

b)   interaction with nature, and

c)     cultural learning or exchange

It valued the industry at $US263 billion pa, with 65 per cent annual growth since 2009. There’s certainly money in experiential travel.

But, if I can distill a lifetime of travel into a few words – For me luxury is not about limos or five-star fittings and glamorous furnishings, it’s about taking time to create a memory that’s held in my heart and stands out among all others. In our privileged world we can always buy ‘luxury’ things but access and experience stands out as the ultimate luxury!

Hindu devotees travel on a crowded passenger train in Goverdhan

Sadly, there are a lot of ordinary travel experiences being sold. Exceptional ones stand out – from the time you hear about them to the moment you do them. It doesn’t have to be grand –

Cafe Tartufi

© David McGonigal

I smile when I think of Café Tartufo in Florence where we had perfect truffle paste rolls and good red wine for lunch on a rainy day – it was the perfect Florentine experience.

Bora Bora

© David McGonigal

It was a highlight as much as snorkeling with stingrays in Bora Bora lagoon or

Mig 21

flying a Mig 21 jet fighter as a paying guest of the Slovakian Airforce.

It’s no coincidence that it’s 2013 and we are here at an event called Luxperience. We’re in a Golden Age of Travel and you are at the cutting edge of it. Thanks for the experiences you offer – and the wonders that are yet to come.

If you have special vision – please come and tell me about it. Meanwhile, please “like” iTravelTree on Facebook or bookmark the webpage to follow us as we develop.

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What pilots won’t tell passengers

Posted on Aug 30, 2013 | Comments Off on What pilots won’t tell passengers

What pilots won't tell passengers

 

Aug 28, 2013

Reader’s Digest and Good Morning America from ABC news in the United States have conducted a survey on 13 issues pilots won’t tell.

Here is the result:

“I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you’re running out of gas, and you have to go to an alternate airport.” – Captain at a major airline

“Sometimes the airline won’t give us lunch breaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food.” – First officer on a regional carrier

“We tell passengers what they need to know. We don’t tell them things that are going to scare the pants off them. So you’ll never hear me say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we just had an engine failure,’ even if that’s true.” – Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot, Phoenix

“The Department of Transportation has put such an emphasis on on-time performance that we pretty much aren’t allowed to delay a flight anymore, even if there are 20 people on a connecting flight that’s coming in just a little late.” – Commercial pilot, Charlotte, N.C.

“The truth is, we’re exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.” – Captain at a major airline

What we want you to know

“Some FAA rules don’t make sense to us either. Like the fact that when we’re at 39,000 feet going 400 miles an hour, in a plane that could hit turbulence at any minute, [flight attendants] can walk around and serve hot coffee and Chateaubriand. But when we’re on the ground on a flat piece of asphalt going five to ten miles an hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR.” – Jack Stephan, US Airways captain based in Annapolis, Maryland, who has been flying since 1984

“The two worst airports for us: Reagan National in Washington, DC, and John Wayne in Orange County, California. You’re flying by the seat of your pants trying to get in and out of those airports. John Wayne is especially bad because the rich folks who live near the airport don’t like jet noise, so they have this noise abatement procedure where you basically have to turn the plane into a ballistic missile as soon as you’re airborne.” – Pilot, South Carolina

“At some airports with really short runways, you’re not going to have a smooth landing no matter how good we are: John Wayne Airport; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Chicago Midway; and Reagan National.” – Joe D’Eon, a pilot at a major airline who produces a podcast at flywithjoe.com

“I may be in uniform, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best person to ask for directions in the airport. We’re in so many airports that we usually have no idea.” – Pilot for a regional carrier, Charlotte, North Carolina

“This happens all the time: We’ll be in Pittsburgh going to Philly, and there will be a weather delay. The weather in Pittsburgh is beautiful. Then I’ll hear passengers saying, ‘You know, I just called my friend in Philly, and it’s beautiful there, too,’ like there’s some kind of conspiracy or something. But in the airspace between Pittsburgh and Philly there’s a huge thunderstorm.” – Jack Stephan

“You may go to an airline website and buy a ticket, pull up to its desk at the curb, and get onto an airplane that has a similar name painted on it, but half the time, you’re really on a regional airline. The regionals aren’t held to the same safety standards as the majors: Their pilots aren’t required to have as much training and experience, and the public doesn’t know that.” – Captain at a major airline

“Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot’s skill. So if you want to say something nice to a pilot as you’re getting off the plane, say ‘Nice landing.’ We do appreciate that.” – Joe D’Eon

“No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.” – AirTran Airways captain, Atlanta

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CNN’s view of 10 of the world’s best motorcycle rides

Posted on Aug 14, 2013 | Comments Off on CNN’s view of 10 of the world’s best motorcycle rides

An interesting post by CNN. Do you agree – or have other rides to add?

The original article is at: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/12/travel/motorcycle-rides/index.html

By Christopher Baker, for CNN
August 13, 2013 — Updated 2325 GMT (0725 HKT)
Few activities offer the feeling of freedom, speed and adventure than a long trip on a motorcycle. Here are some of the top views to be had while biking the world.
Few activities offer the feeling of freedom, speed and adventure than a long trip on a motorcycle. Here are some of the top views to be had while biking the world.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Taking in France and Spain, the Pyrenees Loop is a favorite with European bikers
  • Dales and Moors in north England offer nonstop bends, fast straights, wild scenery
  • California’s Pacific Coast Highway takes in redwood forests, ocean cliffs

(CNN) — Nature’s beauty seems so much closer from the seat of a saddle.

Bikes offer a more intimate connection with the people of the places you pass through.

No wonder adventure motorcycling has grown massively in the last decade.

The 2004 “Long Way Round” and 2007’s “Long Way Down” TV documentary series (both featured Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s round the world rides) helped spark the trend.

In 2011, the Motorcycle Industry Council reported that sales of adventure touring bikes were up 14.2% across 12 major brands.

There are hundreds of scenic roads worldwide, but the greatest rides are spiced by the thrill of twisties and smooth hardtop where motorcyclists can crank open the throttle.

Here are 10 of the best rides worldwide, whether for a day out or a longer adventure.

All are in places where motorcycles can be rented or where tours are organized.

1. Ceuta to Marrakesh loop, Morocco

2,570 kilometers (1,600 miles)

Bikers on this route journey through an exotic realm of ancient kasbahs (citadels), souks (bazaars) and desert cultures.

After rolling off the ferry at Ceuta, riders switchback through the wild Rif Mountains to Fez, then traverse the Atlas Mountains (snow-capped in winter) to hit the Sahara at Erfoud.

More on CNN: 10 thing to know before visiting Morocco

Snaking west through the Todra Gorge, the route passes palm groves of Ouarzazate and the imperial city of Marrakesh.

Beyond, the Tizi n’Test Pass runs down to the Atlantic coast at Agadir.

It’s two days from here along blacktop to Casablanca, then the final 321 kilometers (200 miles) via Tangiers to Ceuta.

Edelweiss Bike Travel, +43 5264 5690

2. Pyrenees Loop, France and Spain

2,410 kilometers (1,500 miles), Bilbao to Biarritz

A head turner for its sensational scenery and mind-bending hairpins, this route is a favorite among European bikers.

From Bilbao you spin east on the N260 (a legendary biking road worming into the Pyrenees), hit La Seu d’Urgell, then wind north to Andorra, dropping back to Spain at Bourg-Madame for 48 kilometers (30 miles) of twisties coiling down to Ripoli.

At Figueres you can stop at the Dalí museum before rolling along the Mediterranean coast to France.

The D117 from Perpignan threads through narrow mountain passes to Col d’Aspin, with grin-inducing bends all the way to Biarritz.

Pyrenees Motorcycle Tours, +33 (0)5 62 45 08 11

3. The Great Ocean Road, Australia

Blue sky, white sand, red hot wheels.
Blue sky, white sand, red hot wheels.

290 kilometers (180 miles)

This one-day ride from Melbourne to Petersbrough winds through shoreline rainforest, skirts sensational surfing beaches and unfurls along the rugged Shipwreck Coast, renowned for limestone pinnacles piercing the sea like witch’s fingers.

More on CNN: World’s 10 ultimate drives

It’s a perfect northern winter ride.

Big Boyz Toyz, +61 (0)8 9244 4293

4. California and the American West

5,630 kilometers (3,500 miles), Los Angeles to San Francisco (the long way)

This undisputed champion of road trips weaves together many of the West’s iconic national parks.

From Los Angeles, Route 66 traces back in time to Arizona, the Grand Canyon and mesmerizing formations of Monument Valley.

More on CNN: 10 easy ways to experience Navajo Nation

Heading north, the road takes in Natural Bridges National Park, then arcing west takes in Bryce and Zion national parks.

You can twist the throttle across the Mojave Desert to Death Valley then skirt the snow-capped Sierra Nevada northbound to Lee Vining and Yosemite National Park — unrivaled in grandeur.

EagleRider Motorcycle Rental & Tours, +1 310 536 6777

5. Cape Town Circuit, South Africa

1,690 kilometers (1,050 miles)

Fantastic roads, amazing scenery and excellent climate — South Africa is perfect for a one- or two-week fly-ride vacation.

From Cape Town the wild coast heads east then the road turns north over the Olifantskip Pass to Addo National Park — a good chance to shoot big game with your camera.

A throttle-open ride across the Great Karoo to Oudtshoorn heralds dizzying switchbacks — via Route 62 — over the Little Karoo Mountains to sample the wines around Robertson before closing your loop in Cape Town.

Motorcycle Tours South Africa, +27 12 804 3805

6. Pacific Coast Highway, California

Tempting to stop at every turn.
Tempting to stop at every turn.

320 kilometers (200 miles), San Luis Obispo to San Francisco

No top 10 would be complete without this stellar ride.

Civilization disappears quickly as you dance a thrilling two-lane tango past seal-strewn beaches, redwood forests, plunging cliffs and the crashing surf of Big Sur.

Also en route — the fishing town of Monterey, the surfing capital of Santa Cruz, and everyone’s favorite city with a famous bridge, San Francisco.

EagleRider Motorcycle Rental & Tours, +1 415 647 9898

7. Dales and Moors, Yorkshire, England

440 kilometers (270 miles) from Kendal to Whitby

This one-day ride across North Yorkshire offers nonstop bends, fast straights, wild scenery and gentle vales dotted with market towns.

The A684 launches you over the Pennines to Hawes, gateway to the Yorkshire Dales National Park via Aysgarth to Leyburn.

Turn south here to Masham for Ripon and Thirsk, then over the heather-clad moors via Pickering to drop down to the peaceful fishing village of Whitby, where you can celebrate an exhilarating ride with fresh fish ‘n’ chips and a pint of ale.

White Rose Tours, +44 01423 770 103

8. Fjordland, Norway

450 kilometers (280 miles) Bergen to Andalsnes

The land of the Vikings is biking Nirvana. The road network takes in terrific switchbacks and awesome fjords — some crossed by ferries.

You begin in Bergen and head for Gudvangern where a ferry takes you through Naerlandsford, the world’s longest and deepest fjord.

Beyond Belstrand, you’ll need to drop gears as you climb over Gaularfjell to Moskog, then Stryn and Eidsdal, where a ferry links to the Trollstigen road, zigzagging crazily to deliver you exhilarated to Andalsness.

Edelweiss Bike Tours, +43 5264 5690

9. Istanbul to Anatolia, Turkey

Modern and ancient tech meet.
Modern and ancient tech meet.

2,980 kilometers (1,850 miles) Istanbul to Anatolia

Istanbul provides a superb starting point for an exotic circuit, taking in Cappadocia’s troglodyte houses, ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins and the beauty of the Black Sea and Taurus Mountains.

More on CNN: Best of Istanbul

A ferry across the Sea of Masmara links you to Bursa, then Safranbolu, and the eerie volcanic landscapes of Cappadocia, riddled with Christian churches.

A ride west via Konya to hit the Aegean coast — taking in the Greco-Roman town of Ephesus — closes the loop.

MotoDiscovery, +90 830 438 7744

10. Chasing Che, Cuba

2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles)

Chasing Che Guevara’s ghost down the highway of an enigmatic Communist island nation that resembles a Hollywood stage set is a thrill in itself.

Classic American cars and creaky ox carts are companions on your clockwise loop from Havana to Baracoa, with plenty of time for salsa, cigars and rum.

More on CNN: What to do in Havana

For five decades forbidden fruit, Cuba recently opened to U.S. citizens on licensed group motorcycle tours offered by Texas-based MotoDiscovery.

MotoDiscovery, +53 830 438 7744

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Hydro Majestic Hotel Begins Again

Posted on Jun 15, 2013 | Comments Off on Hydro Majestic Hotel Begins Again

Hydro Majestic Hotel

 

The much-anticipated revitalisation of the iconic Hydro Majestic Hotel has commenced in early 2013, a $30 million redevelopment aimed at reviving its golden age.  Owners Huong Nguyen and George Saad are behind the grand revival. The couple paid $11 million for the property five years ago.  Following almost four years of detailed planning and review, the Hydro is scheduled to open in two stages, with Stage (1) building works scheduled for completion in April 2014. Opening is scheduled for July 2014.

The long awaited opportunity to peel back the layers and rediscover the essence of the most famous historic holiday resort in the Blue Mountains has arrived. The refurbishment scheme will see the hotel’s facilities, interiors and gardens – which now stretch more than a kilometre across the escarpment – revitalised to a world-class standard. Past glories, architectural and design aspects, and lost atmospherics are to be revived and rediscovered, while a touch of the here-and-now is set to take the building into the future.

Stage One will include the revitalisation of the majority of the existing buildings including the Casino Building, The Wintergarden, The Billiard Room and Cat’s Alley, The Delmonte Building and Conference Rooms and The Majestic Ballroom. This famous and fondly remembered space will have a beautiful new Lobby and pre-function area and will also include a large garden reception terrace.

Casino Lobby Artists impression

Casino Lobby Artists impression

majestic ballroom Artists impression

majestic ballroom Artists impression

winter garden Artists impression

winter garden Artists impression

 

The new Mark Foy Pavilion will reflect the spirit of the much-loved Easter Show Pavilions of Sydney’s old showgrounds. Operating as a magnificent interactive living history space and the vibrant Providores showcase – demonstrating the best regional gourmet food and wine of the area: A Taste of The Blue Mountains. This retail and exhibition space will be a tourism destination: a place to discover the history of theHydro, including multimedia screening suites, tours and places to discover the amazing produce of the Blue Mountains and surrounding regions (including Bathurst,Mudgee, Orange and the Western Plains).

Hydro View

The Boiler House (which has been neglected for decades) is to be restored, celebrating the fact that the Blue Mountains was wired for electricity four days beforethe Sydney metropolitan region. The Boiler House will be opened to the public for the first time in history, and is to include the gallery and beautiful Megalong Terrace Café looking over the breathtaking Majestic Point Lookout.

The new Majestic Point Lookout, picnic and market grounds will provide public access to the best views of the Megalong Valley. Located 10 minutes drive from Jamison Valley in Katoomba, the lookout provides a panoramic vista for picnics, music and the lost art of public promenading!

The rejuvenation and expansion of the accommodation facilities at the Hydro Majestic are planned for 2 years following the opening of Stage One. During this time the Belgravia Wing will be used to house the Hotel Management Institute, an exciting new hospitality school with its first intake scheduled for Feb 2014 .

The challenges of adding another layer of history to these significant buildings have not been taken lightly. A team of highly regarded heritage experts, architecture specialists and designers have been enlisted to realise this vision, with particular weight being given to examining and respecting the Hydro Majestic’s social history and heritage.

The team has been assembled by Sydney based hotel investors and is under theguidance of the acclaimed heritage consultant Graham Brooks with Jonathan Bryant of Graham Brooks & Associates, with over 30 years of professional experience inAustralia, Asia, UK, Europe and US.
“We are all proud to play a key role in the revival of the much loved Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath,” said Brooks. “The Hydro Majestic Hotel has developed eccentrically over time under the guidance of retail baron Mark Foy, from relatively humble beginnings as an Edwardian house hotel and hydropathic resort to its glory years as a grand hotel and resort between the two World Wars. Throughout, it has enjoyed periods of great success and periods of lengthy decline. Despite recent refurbishment under previous owners, the hotel has become increasingly run down, with a host of inherent short comings that have never been appropriately or comprehensively addressed. We are delighted that the current scheme to rejuvenate the hotel includes a comprehensive plan to revive gardens, interiors and facilities to a truly world class standard.”

The team philosophy is mindful of the past but always has an eye to the future, to ensure the hotel continues to live well beyond current generations. Our alterations choose to borrow from the existing structures, enhance the old and provide a feeling of total renewal.
The vision for the rejuvenation is to continue the Hydro Majestic’s unique and eclectic combination of architectural styles; where additions made to the hotel over the past hundred years reflect time and place. Architect Ashkan Mostaghim of Mostaghim &Assoc has created a series of magnificent new additions for Stage One and Stage Two of the development. The Mark Foy Pavilion and the new Belgravia and Mark Foy Wings add the 21st century layer to this famous Australian landmark – with absolute style and reverence for the staged form that is the Hydro Majestic.

International interior designer Peter Reeve of CRD will create luxurious, new, and historically-inspired interiors which reference the past and fold into the present with absolute luxe. They will work to harness the atmosphere and mood of the Hydro Majestic with a range of carpets and rich textiles based on period influences, timbers and stones, referencing the austere beauty of the Edwardian, the generosity of the Art Nouveau of the Belle Époque and moments of Art Deco.

Using the whites and soft tones taken from its original palette and expressed against the elegant contrast of ebonised timber and Black Japan, the interiors will work to reflect the Hydro’s flamboyant origins under the auspices of the retail baron Mark Foy. Design cues are also seen in the Raffles of Singapore and the Lavinia in Sri Lanka – sister hotels in a time of Empire, reflecting the flavour of the original Hydro Majestic.

The Avenue of Pines is to be reinstated with magnificent new landscape plantings reflecting the great gardens of the Blue Mountains and inspired by legendary landscape architect Paul Sorensen. The historic croquet lawn will live again, plus a beautiful new garden terrace entry to the Majestic Ballroom and lookout and escarpment aprons, encompassing a unique horticultural vision incorporating both European and Australian plantings.

Steeped in historical and social significance, the newly renovated Hydro Majestic Hotel, with its outstanding facilities, fine dining and accommodation, is set to offer an enormous boost to tourism and employment in the region and will re-establish the Blue Mountains as a glamorous national and international tourist destination.

The Hydro’s original owner Mark Foy was a visionary and this next chapter aims to continue his grand vision for the Blue Mountains.

Official Site

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10 things to know before visiting Morocco

Posted on May 20, 2013 | Comments Off on 10 things to know before visiting Morocco

Writers, rock stars and eccentrics flocked to Tangier's cafés in the first half of the 20th century. Cliffside Café Hafa, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, was a favorite hangout of Tangier's most famous expat, Beat writer Paul Bowles.

 Writers, rock stars and eccentrics flocked to Tangier’s cafés in the first half of the 20th century. Cliffside Café Hafa, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, was a favorite hangout of Tangier’s most famous expat, Beat writer Paul Bowles.
By Lara Brunt, for CNN
May 8, 2013 — Updated 0945 GMT (1745 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cafés are where Moroccan men socialize, gathering to drink sweet mint tea
  • Cumin is used to flavor everything from tagines to mechoui
  • Train company ONCF operates one of the best train networks in Africa
  • Morocco’s souks teem with hagglers, hustlers, mule-drivers and motor scooters

(CNN) — Rainbows of color, spice-market smells, an urban orchestra of sounds: Morocco can be overwhelming at first.

Lying 13 kilometers, or 8 miles, from the coast of Spain, the North African country mixes Middle Eastern magic, Berber tradition and European flair.

Tourism has more than doubled since 2002, to nearly 10 million visitors in 2011. King Mohammed VI wants to increase the annual visitor numbers to 18 million by 2020.

The royal ruler’s strategy is underpinned by infrastructure development, making traveling around the country even easier.

Add to this a program of ongoing social, political and economic reforms, and Morocco is one of the most moderate and peaceful countries in the region.

Cafes dominate life in Tangier

Cafes are the key place to socialize, for Moroccan men at least. They gather to drink sweet mint tea and watch people as they go about their affairs.

The northern port city of Tangier has a history of literary bohemianism and illicit goings-on, thanks to its status as an International Zone from 1923 to 1956.

The Interzone years, and the heady decades that followed, saw writers, rock stars and eccentrics flock to the city’s 800-plus cafés.

Two must-visit spots: Cafe Hafa (Ave Hadi Mohammed Tazi), overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, was a favorite hangout of Tangier’s most famous expat, Beat writer Paul Bowles.

Smoky and slightly edgy, Cafe Baba (1 rue Sidi-Hosni) is the coolest spot in the Kasbah. A photo of Keith Richards, kif-pipe in hand, still adorns the grimy walls.

Most mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims

Nearly 99% of the population is Muslim, and hearing the muezzin’s melodic call to prayer for the first time is a spine-tingling moment.

While very few Moroccan mosques are open to non-Muslims, one exception is the towering Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Blvd Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah; +212 522 22 25 63).

Located on a promontory over the Atlantic Ocean, the mosque was completed in 1993 and can hold 105,000 worshipers inside and out.

Tradition and technology sit side by side, with colorful zellij (mosaic tiles), intricate stucco and carved cedar complementing the retractable roof and heated flooring.

If you can’t make it to Casa, Marrakech’s 16th-century Ali ben Youssef madrassa-turned-museum (Pl Ben Youssef; +212 524 44 18 93) is open to all and also features impressive Islamic design.

Multilingual Moroccans will put you to shame

Arabic is the official language, but you\'ll also hear French, Spanish, Berber and various dialects.
Arabic is the official language, but you’ll also hear French, Spanish, Berber and various dialects.

Moroccans switch languages mid-sentence, reflecting the cultures — Berber, Arab, French and Spanish — that have crisscrossed the country.

Arabic is the official language, and you’ll hear the Moroccan dialect, Darija, spoken on the street.

French continues to be widely spoken in cities; foreigners are often addressed in this first. Spanish is still spoken in Tangier.

There are also three main dialects spoken by the country’s Berber majority: Tashelhit, Tamazight and Tarifit.

You’ll be able to get by with English in the main tourist hubs, although “La, shukran” (“No, thank you” in Arabic) is one phrase to master.

Don’t get stuck in Marrakech

Marrakech is justifiably popular, but there’s so much more.

Fez tops the list for its maze-like medina, fabulous foodie scene and annual Festival of World Sacred Music.

For a slice of the Sahara, there’s the desert town of Merzouga, near the impressive Erg Chebbi sand dunes, accessible via camel treks.

Active types can hike between Berber villages in the High Atlas or head to the blue-hued Andalusian town of Chefchaouen to explore the Rif Mountains.

Beach bums will love laid-back Essaouira and Sidi Ifni on the Atlantic coast, while surfers often head south to Taghazout.

For quiet contemplation, Morocco’s holiest town, Moulay Idriss, is hard to beat. Plus, you’ll have the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis pretty much to yourself.

If you don’t like cumin, you may starve

Cumin is one of the main spices used in Moroccan cooking. This pungent powder is used to flavor everything from tagines to mechoui (slow-roasted lamb).

Cumin is used as a condiment on most Moroccan tables, along with salt and chili. It’s also a popular natural remedy for diarrhea.

“Cumin has anti-parasitical properties, so if you’ve got an upset tummy, a spoonful of cumin knocked back with water will help,” said food guide Gail Leonard with Plan-It Fez.

Trains are cheap, comfortable and reliable

First class train travel in Morocco is affordable and worth it. Just be prepared to share your food.
First class train travel in Morocco is affordable and worth it. Just be prepared to share your food.

Train company ONCF operates one of the best train networks in Africa, making it the easiest way to travel between cities.

It’s worth paying extra for first class, which comes with a reserved seat and A/C.

First class carriages have six-seat compartments or open-plan seating. Stock up on snacks, or buy them onboard, as it’s customary to share food.

When it comes to traveling to smaller towns and villages, buses and grand taxis, usually old Mercedes sedans that can seat six (at a squash), are best.

Couscous is served on Fridays

You’ll see it on every restaurant menu, but traditionally, couscous is served on Fridays, when families gather after prayers.

This is because the proper (not packet) stuff takes a long time to prepare.

Coarse semolina is hand-rolled into small granules to be steamed and fluffed three times. It’s pale in color, deliciously creamy and served with vegetables and/or meat or fish.

Bread is the staple carb and is served with every meal, except couscous.

It’s baked in communal wood-fired ovens, one of five amenities found in every neighborhood (the others being a hammam, or bathhouse; a drinking fountain; a mosque and a preschool).

Riad rooftops rock

The traditional Moroccan house (riad) is built around a central courtyard with windows facing inwards for privacy.

They’re decked out with elaborate zellij, stucco and painted cedar and are easily the most atmospheric places to stay.

While Moroccans tend to use their rooftops as clotheslines, a riad roof terrace is the place to be come sunset.

In Marrakech, Italian-designed Riad Joya (Derb El Hammam, Mouassine Quarter; +212 524 391 624; www.riadjoya.com) has prime views of the Koutoubia Mosque minaret, while five-star La Sultana (403 rue de la Kasbah; +212 524 388 008;www.ghotw.com/la-sultana) overlooks the Atlas Mountains.

Top picks in Fez are the bohemian Riad Idrissy (13 Derb Idrissi, Sieje, Sidi Ahmed Chaoui, +212 649 191 410; www.riadidrissy.com) and its suntrap terrace, while Dar Roumana (30 Derb el Amer, Zkak Roumane; +212 535 741 637; www.darroumana.com) has sweeping views of the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city.

When you hear balak!’ watch out

The narrow streets of Morocco\'s souks are filled with hagglers, hustlers, mule-drivers and motor scooters.
The narrow streets of Morocco’s souks are filled with hagglers, hustlers, mule-drivers and motor scooters.

Morocco’s souks are not for the faint-hearted. The narrow streets teem with hagglers, hustlers, mule-drivers and motor scooters.

Rule No. 1 is to step aside when you hear “Balak!” It means there’s a heavily laden handcart or mule bearing down on you.

You’ll inevitably get lost, as maps don’t usually include the warren of small alleys that make up the medina.

A guide can help you get your bearings and fend off touts, but be aware that anything you buy will have his commission built in to the price.

Alternatively, taking snaps of landmarks with your smartphone can help you find your way back to your accommodation.

It’s not weird to be bathed by a stranger

There are plenty of posh hotel hammams, but nothing beats a visit to a no-frills public bathhouse.

Spotting the entrance can be tricky, as most signs are written in Arabic. Look for a shop selling toiletries or a mosque, as these are usually nearby.

It’s advisable to stock up on black olive oil soap, ghassoul (clay used as hair conditioner), a kiis (exfoliating glove) and a mat to sit on. Visitors need to take their own towels, comb and flip-flops.

Women strip to their knickers (no bra), and men wear underpants. Then you’ll be steamed, scrubbed and pummeled until you’re squeaky clean.

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Road Trip: the Alaska Highway

Posted on May 18, 2013 | Comments Off on Road Trip: the Alaska Highway

Alaska Highway sign

The Alaska Highway across Canada’s British Columbia and Yukon is stunning, but even more memorable than the road trip itself are the people Anne Kostalas meets along the way

Alaska HighwayView larger picture

The Alaska Highway is 1,500 miles of open road through north-west Canada. Click the magnifying glass icon to see a bigger version. Photograph: Anne Kostalas

There is something about a highway through the wilderness that attracts eccentrics. The 1,500-mile Alaska Highway, which crosses British Columbia and the Yukon for most of its route, has its fair share. Even the construction of the road, which turned 70 last year, was anything but normal.

US soldiers were ordered to build the road – described as one of the greatest engineering feats in history – through unmapped territory. They endured extreme cold, mud and mosquito-infested forests. The highway, which joined the contiguous US with Alaska, was a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It enabled the Americans to transport planes to Russia to fight the Germans, via a chain of airfields and remote airports. Remarkably, it was built in just eight months, carved through rock and forest from Dawson Creek in BC to Delta Junction in Alaska, providing a wartime morale boost for the US.

Canada mapThe characters who live along the route are every bit as fascinating as the story of its construction. Marl Brown, the 80-year-old curator of theFort Nelson Heritage Museum in northern BC, sports a long white beard because, he says, he hates shaving. The former mechanic’s collection of vintage cars was the inspiration for the museum. His favourite is the 104-year-old McLaughlin Buick with its “mother-in-law seat” that can tip the rear passenger out the back.

At Double G Services near Muncho Lake, three hours west, truckers share road tales of bobcats, lynx and grizzlies. There are shelves of fresh bread and an Alaska licence plate with a picture of Sarah Palin, which reads: “Where the air is cold and the governor is hot!” They agree both caribou and tourists are stupid, and discuss the merits of a moose bumper.

More than 300,000 people drive the Alaska Highway every year between May and September and, as the last US frontier, it is on the to-do list of many Americans. There are bears, wild sheep, bison and moose to photograph, against a backdrop of increasingly spectacular mountains as you travel north and west.

At Liard Hot Springs RV Park on the eastern edge of BC, we had soaked in the waters with full-time RVers – people who have sold their homes in retirement and are on the move constantly.

“You have to really get on well with your partner to do this,” warns one.

Alaska Highway Sign, Dawson Creek. Photograph: Patrick Bennett/CorbisMany have their dogs along for the ride – yorkshire terriers and pomeranians are being exercised all along the highway.

A woman named Button (her mother loved the actor Red Buttons) oversees the Signpost Forest Visitor Centre at Watson Lake, over the border in the Yukon. In 1942, a lonely GI working on the highway started the tradition of leaving a sign pointing the way home. More than 70,000 signs have since been left here by travellers on the road.

Every road trip needs good snacks. Look out for cinnamon buns atTetsa River RV Park , west of Fort Nelson, and the Canadian favourite “butter tarts” at the Yukon’s Rancheria Lodge. The lodge has a long history of sheltering travellers from storms. It hosted 100 unexpected guests last year when the road was washed away in a flash flood. Stories from the 1940s tell of strangers having to sleep two to a bed.

Marl Brown at the Fort Nelson Heritage MuseumMarl Brown, curator at the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum Photograph: Anne KostalasThere is a quirkiness to road-stops here. At the Toad River Lodge in northern BC, you can eat a toad burger (which comes with a hot dog, too) under a ceiling covered in baseball caps, or drink a coffee while a stuffed wolverine watches over you at the Yukon Motel on Teslin Lake.

We spot a moose at Sikanni River RV Campground. Campsite owner Jackie says it is called Dandelion, and appears every summer. Soldiers from black regiments built a bridge in record time here, an achievement credited with helping end segregation in the US army.

John Rusyniak, who runs the Wilderness Lodge in Tok, Alaska, got a taste for the north when he rode his motorbike up the highway in the 1970s and moved there. Many have similar stories.

There is plenty to do along the way – fishing in holes, panning for gold at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, daring to walk the Pouce Coupe trestle bridge, the Alaska Highway House museum in Dawson Creek and the sausage rolls at Johnson’s Crossing Bakery – but it is the memory of people of the Alaska Highway that will stay with me.

 

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