Author: Richard Telling

Ghent Belgium

Due to its small size, Ghent is easy enough to explore and partly exudes that cozy feel that provincial towns possess. These days Ghent is a vibrant university town, equipped with lovely cafes, reasonably-priced restaurants and accommodation. But during the Middle Ages, it was one of Europe’s most powerful and among the richest cities. As you walk around town, you can still see imposing and exquisite structures that remind you of Ghent’s glorious past. The cosmopolitan and dynamic energy that the student population brings seems to mix well with the medieval look of the city.

Get to know the city quickly by checking out its most notable attractions. The Castle of the Counts, also known as the Gravensteen Castle is one of the impressive buildings Ghent is proud of. This formidable medieval fortress mostly intrigues its visitors with its torture chamber and the battlements which are perched high on the keep. The Castle was rebuilt in 1180 under the direction of Philip of Alsace. During your visit, you will learn more about the history of this powerful structure through a unique and interactive movie guide.

After visiting Ghent’s famous castle, you have the choice of exploring any of the city’s hundreds of historical buildings, 13th century Gothic churches and 18 museums! At Saint Bavo Cathedral, you will find the priceless polyptych (panel Painting) called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In the middle of Saint Bavo and Saint Nicholas Church lies the Belfry, which symbolizes the city’s independence. Just beside it is the Cloth Hall, which shows off the Brabant Gothic design. When you walk to the corner of Cloth Hall, you will encounter another historical landmark: the old jailer’s lodge.

You can stroll around Ghent freely, especially in its lovely center where cars are not allowed to enter. But if there is one place in the city that will take your breath away due to its picturesque setting, it will be the Graslei. This medieval port features a row of historical buildings, whose structure is famously reflected on the long river.

It is truly a distinct and very atmospheric place that locals and tourists make their way to enjoy one of the several cafè patios to just enjoy the scenery. Some of the prominent historical houses in Graslei include the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, the Spijker and the house of the Grain Weighers. Just on the other side of the water lies another scenic neighborhood called Korenlei.

Northern Coasts of Sardinia

Northeastern trails

The northeastern trails of the island are a great place to start your outdoor adventure on your holidays to Sardinia. The area around Supramonte is the best place to start, and the rugged region is one of the least populated in Europe. You will come face to face with chalk walls and stunning gorges and, at the Supramonte di Oliena, you can follow the trails of Stone Age tribes who fled to a hidden cave near Monte Tiscali. If you are feeing energetic, take on the challenge of the highest peak in the range: the Monte Corrasi, stretching up 1463 metres. If you enjoy a bit of a hike but still want your beachfront within reach, plan a trek that begins or ends on the Costa Smerelda. These trails won’t take you up any huge mountain peaks, but they will give you a chance to experience some truly breath-taking natural beauty.

The Northwest

For a spectacular hike taking in the very best of the island’s interior, head to Monte Limbara. The abundance of trees, streams, waterfalls and undulating trails often makes the experience a highlight of holidays to Sardinia. As you ascend you can visit the lovely mountain church, Madonna of the Snow, and if you fall in love with the region you can even stay in a hotel situation up the mountain.

Another excellent hike is along the pink granite cliffs of Garulla. The cliffs here spill on the beaches lapped by the most beautiful waters in the Mediterranean. You can enjoy a leisurely swim, diving off the boulders, before carrying on to the cove at Tinnari – where you’ll get an unequalled view over the ocean (don’t forget your camera). This is an area that is mostly untouched by tourism and, at times, it can almost seem like your own private beach.

Galley Slaving on a Yacht

The toilet isn’t the only thing that’s primitive on this 36 foot bath toy we’ve hired for the weekend. Before we left port yesterday, a bloke with a grey beard showed us the ropes.

His language was so archaic it was like watching a foreign film. Why call it a cleat when “thing you wind the rope around” would do? He kept trying to scare us with stories about people getting beached and having to be rescued. Silly old barnacle.

I didn’t much like the way he smiled when we waved him goodbye and motored away from the wharf without pulling the rope off the thingee he called a bollard. We weren’t trying to demolish the wharf.

Nautical door heights haven’t changed since the Battle of Trafalgar – which accounts for the huge lumps on my head. Not that I’m complaining. Nothing worse than a belligerent sailor.

I don’t mind being stuck down here really. I much prefer roosting in the woody womb of the vessel to being up there white knuckling the wheel and screaming.

But I only did that once yesterday. Sailing’s like war, I’ve decided – long periods of boredom interspersed with brief moments of life threatening terror.

I was steering through a stretch of perfectly empty water, when suddenly hundreds of little yachts started whirling around us like angry bees.

The famous camaraderie of the seas went right out the porthole. You’d think the Anglo Saxons had invented only one word.

I can still see the faces of the yachtsmen I nearly sliced in half – pale and open-mouthed like portraits of the damned in a medieval painting.

A miss is as good as a mile, I said. But they told me go downstairs and cook dinner. All they think about is their stomachs.

Soon after, my husband visited me in the galley saying he needed the radio. Well, the boat does have a nice cd player. No, he said, we’d run aground.

The man with the grey beard’s smile seemed to have widened an extra few centimentres when he turned up in a yellow rescue launch. He told us to sit on the far side of the boat while he tied a rope around the mast and hauled us out of the mud.

The yacht leaned on such a sharp angle as he roared off into the distance we were heaved into the air like acrobats from Cirque du Soleil.

Cenote Dos Ojos

Cenotes, ultimately, became the only water source for the Mayan civilization. Thus, the people consider them sacred spots. Perhaps the most prominent cenote in the region is the Cenote Dos Ojos (two eyes). It earned its named because of the two rivers that unite in a big underwater cavern. Dos Ojos is also very famous because it is, at the moment, the deepest known cave passage in the Yucatan. It is estimated to be more than 415 meters deep.

This cenote lies 13 kilometers north of the town of Tulum, juts a kilometer south of Xel Ha. The dirt road, which stretches 4 kilometers, off Highway 307 leads to the entrance of the cenote. This journey is an adventure in itself as you may most likely come across some interesting flora and fauna along the way. There are two hardwood decks that are set up at the entrance that serve each river. The left side (eye) is usually where the divers enter, while the right side is where more swimmers and snorkelers go.

Cenote Dos Ojos dazzles visitors with its large cave system, which features large columns and clear water. There are many ways to explore Dos Ojos; the first one being scuba diving. By doing so, you will be able to marvel at the deep cave walls up close. With miles and miles of extensive cave systems that connect to more than 25 cenotes, you have a lot of freedom of which direction to dive through. Take note that you need an open water diving certification to be allowed to dive.

If you don’t have the needed certification, you can always to snorkel, which is also fun. There are even tourists who just swim or look around the cenote. If you intend to snorkel, climb down the stairs from the right entrance or second eye. From here, you can explore the secret passageways made of stalagmites and stalactites. The passages can bring you different caves. One of them is called the Bat Cave, which is part of the cave system called Hidden Worlds.

Cenote Dos Ojos receives the same water that flows into the large Caribbean cove called Xel Ha. This water is believed to have healing powers and is considered very pure as it comes from a massive area pristine jungle. To protect the pureness of the water, divers and snorkelers are highly discouraged to not use sun tan lotion, which may pollute the water.

Otway Sound Penguins

Otway Sound (Ping¸inera de Seno Otway) is home to a penguin sanctuary, which is considered to be the most easily visited area on earth to visit these amazing creatures. The Spheniscus magellanicus or Magellan penguins are relatively small penguins that thrive in slightly warm weather. Almost 10,000 penguins migrate to Otway Sound during the month of September, which is the beginning of the Patagonian summer period. All of the penguins come here in couples! Why? They choose Otway Sound as a place to build their nests and lay most of their eggs.

The penguin couples usually have 1 or 2 offsprings. The male and female penguins take turns to feed and watching over their young. If you want to see baby penguins up close, plan a visit to Otway Sound in November and December, which is also the most common months for tourism. During this time, the adults are fishing for food for their babies. The fishing time takes most of the day so the best time to visit the sanctuary is after 5 pm, when you can witness how the penguin parents come back from the sea to feed the little ones.

The Otway Sound penguin colony is situated northwest of Punta Arenas town, which sits on the Straights of Magellan. Punta Arenas houses the Carlos Ibanez Airport (PUQ), which facilitates direct flights from key cities. From this airport, you need to travel approximately 40 miles or 65 kilometers to reach the sanctuary. You can easily catch a bus from Carlos Ibanez to Puerto Natales, which is the prime gateway to Otway Sound.

There are also a couple of tour operators that conduct visits from Punta Arenas to Otway Sound. The tours are usually conducted from 4 pm to 8 pm. Both Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas are equipped with the usual tourist facilities. You can opt to book an accommodation in either of these towns as they have a wide range of lodging options.

Sumaco Volcano in Ecuador

It is only 50 kilometers east of the Andean Mountain Range and is within the country’s western Napo province. The Sumaco region’s isolated location makes it a rarely visited site and results in its excellent preservation. The park that houses it covers about 200,00 hectares or 500,00 acres of land area and is representative of about 8% of the Ecuadorian Amazon area.

The hike to Sumaco promises to be an incredible jungle adventure. Before you even get to the peak, your eyes will be treated to the beauty of an untouched jungle landscape, packed with diverse flora and fauna like monkeys, giant anteaters and tapirs. Such a memorable trip can only be rightfully culminated by reaching Sumaco’s summit.

Once you reach the top of the rim, you will get to see the extinct crater and marvel at the group of snowcapped mountains of Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe in the distance. If you look towards the south and east, the extensive landscape of the Amazon basin unveils itself for admiration. Because of the difficult up and down trek, and forested and muddy terrain, the ascent to the summit usually takes about 4 days to complete. You will need to be physically fit as well mentally sound to make it to the end.

The only access area to the Sumaco Volcano is a community of approximately 300 people called Pacto Sumaco. Despite its small size, the community has been successfully running sustainable ecotourism initiatives to preserve the cultural and natural value of the volcano and the park. This Sumaco region has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. There are some simple lodging facilities within the village. Spending some time here guarantees you an invaluable cultural experience.

The route to this Ecuadorian volcano is challenging and presents some real risks. That is why it is mandatory that you hire a local guide to help you reach Sumaco safely and on time. Fortunately, there are many guides that reside in Pacto Sumaco and other villages along the Loreto Road, which crosses path with Tena-Quito Road. The estimated daily guide fee is 38 USD, and also covers the use of the shelters. You will most likely do the hike with a group of people.

After exploring the volcano, consider trying out birdwatching! After all, you are in Sumaco Park, one of the places with the highest number of bird species to land area in the world. In fact, there are about 830 species that populate 66 square miles of land. So there are plenty of chances to see some of the fascinating birds within the park vicinity and some that you have never seen before.

Cruise Ship Dining Explained

CRUISE TIPS: There is usually open seating for breakfast and lunch in the main dining room. Be adventurous with the menu because if you don’t like something you can send it back for a replacement. And if they have two things on the menu that you like ask for both of them. My husband, John, always orders the Filet Mignon and the Lobster Tail when they are served on the same night. Many times he tells the waiter to bring what the waiter recommends for that evening.

This means you don’t have to choose first or second seating. (First seating is 6:00 to 6:30 and Second seating is usually 8:00-8:30). There can be more than one restaurant where you just walk in when you are ready to dine. Every ship will ask for your dining preference when you book your cruise. You can indicate first, second or flexible dining, whichever will make you more comfortable. The newer ships have a 24 hour dining spot which is always casual so if you don’t want to do the formal nights you don’t have to, although I find dressing up to be quite fun.

You will have many options for each meal. You may have any meal delivered to your room, taken in the buffet restaurant or in the dining room. There is usually outdoor dining around the pool with hot dogs and hamburgers, pizza, salads, even Tacos.

There are also alternative dining rooms available on some ships that require an additional fee but the service and food are generally 4 to 5 star and worth it if you want to splurge.

In my experience families with young children and people who go to bed early usually dine in first seating. But if you don’t want to be on a schedule or want to meet new people every night, go for the alternative dining option. Of course you can always ask for a table for two, but be aware that there are only a few of them.

If you make a special request one night, John always asks for blue cheese, your waiter will bring it every night. They pride themselves on remembering your tastes. (This only happens when you choose traditional dining). On one cruise we asked for Melba toast, and you bet, every night we had Melba toast. There is one thing I always make clear to the waiter. I am not a big eater but I like to taste everything. I tell this to them the first night so they don’t think I am unhappy with the food. It is their job to keep you happy and they take it very seriously.

If you don’t want to eat in the main dining room almost all ships have a Lido café where it is casual but you order from a menu and are served by a waiter. It’s one of the many choices if you don’t want to participate in a formal night or if you just want to eat by yourselves. On Carnivals single cruises they encourage this style of dining so the singles can meet more people. There are exceptions to this but not many. On some of the newer ships the Lido is open 24 hours a day.

On most of the cruise lines they offer the food of the region that you are visiting. While on Hawaiian cruises expect to be served Hawaiian food. When on an Alaskan cruise you will be given the choices of salmon and Alaskan king crab legs. It makes more fun to dine on the local cuisine.

All of the cruise lines offer healthy alternative menus or what they call spa menus. So if you want low-fat, low-salt, low cholesterol, vegetarian or any other type of diet, they are available. It is best however to inform your travel agent of any special needs so they can notify the cruise line ahead of time. If you have special dietary needs make sure the cruise lines knows before hand. For example, Royal Caribbean cruises cater to food allergy, Kosher, Indian, Vegetarian and Gluten Free Diets.

South America Cruises

Cruising through South America is really not as expensive as you think. When you cruise, you save on expenses such as lodging and food, and get to travel through many South American countries at once. More and more people have already realized the cost-effectiveness of cruising – in fact, a growing number of tourists come back year after year. Gone are the days when luxury cruising cost a fortune. Now, the South American cruising experience is just within your reach.

Expect to spend only about $900 per person for a seven-day cruise. These rates can go even lower during off-peak seasons. If you are really a regular traveler, you can save money by renting out a “cruise condo” instead. Rates go for as low as $100 a day (that includes food and basic utilities). That’s just $3,000 a month – lower than the costs of living on land! With these rates, you can afford to practically live in a South American cruise ship for months, even years.

Cruising around South America is never boring. Don’t ever think that you’ll be confined to one particular deck. You’ve got plenty of space to move around and a lot of activities to engage in. You will be given a chance to meet all sorts of people on board. Nightlife is way beyond compare in a cruise ship. Just take your pick from dance bars, style entertainment, casinos, serene piano lounges, arcade amusement rooms, and movie theatres. Or, if you are on dock, then step out and enjoy South America’s vibrant night life. Every port offers amazing adventures.

Noong Nooch Gardens of Thailand

The best way to explore the Noong Nooch is to experience it on foot. Most visitors will begin with the Butterfly Hill where you will be greeted with three huge corn installations, surrounded by well- trimmed colorful flower patches. Expect a lot of people taking pictures here because of the incredibly vibrant burst of yellow, burgundy, orange and pink flowers. It transitions via a bridge to another garden full of palms. This part is a sea of dark olive and emerald green. There aren’t any flowers but a puff of pink somewhere in the middle of the garden will surprise you. They are not real but the multitude of concrete flamingoes surprisingly work well in the landscape.

The most visited of the gardens would be the French and the Italian gardens. They are separated by several other gardens but their prominence due to excellent geometrically shaped plants capturing the splendor of their European counterparts, can make you forget what the gardens in between were. These are two of the most photographed in all of Noong Nooch.

The Stonehenge that sits right beside the French garden deserves attention too. The contrasting rough rock arrangements with the neatly manicured lawn and perfectly trimmed shrubs are a delight to behold.

The Mammoth garden is also very picturesque, and the Cactus garden draws volumes of delight! Other gardens you should not miss are the Desert Rose garden, the Cycad Valley and Cycad conservation center, the Orchid garden, the Topiary trees that look like a green zoo, the Palm of the World, the Ant hill, which is a hit among kids just like the Animal sculpture garden, and the zoo garden where animals are not sculptures but real and alive. Here kids can feed deer and goats, see ducks, tigers, turtles etc.

The garden tour is mostly done on foot but if you’re feeling a bit lazy, or perhaps you haven’t ridden an elephant yet, for a fee, you can go around some of the gardens on an elephant’s back. But if you want to make the most of your garden tour, walk! Exploration of the gardens can take up half a day. If you have some hours left to spare, why not also catch Noong Nooch’s cultural and elephant shows.

The cultural show dazzles audience with graceful Thai traditional dance performances; vibrant Thai costumes; short funny Thai acts/ skits and a depiction of the famous Thai martial art called Muai Thai. Another highlight for this marvelous show is the presentation of a portion of Thai history with the participation of the beloved elephants which usually gets the most cheers from the audience.

If you can’t get enough of elephants, stay longer to witness the elephant show staged after the cultural one! This particular show may feature similar elephant tricks and antics similar to the ones seen in places like Samphran but, Noong Nooch’s version is still very much adorable because of the elephants. Prepare your baht for the experience of feeding the elephants, being lifted by an elephant trunk, and any photo opportunities you wish to have with these gentle creatures.

Full Moon Of Kason

Only some two weeks have passed since ‘Yay’ (water) played an important role in Burmese people’s life. That was when in Tagu (March/April) during ‘Thingyan’ or ‘Water Festival’ – the ‘Burmese New Year’ – the people poured lots of water over one another to wash away all physical filth and dirt and the spiritual sins and evils in order to enter with a clean body and soul into the New Year. Meanwhile we are coping with the heat of the summer as best as we can. All my clothes are dry again and I have recovered from the cold I had caught during that time.

And now, again, yay plays in more ways than one an important role in and for the lives of the people of Burma who are in their vast majority – some 86% – Buddhists.

Again, they pour and throw water; only this time not over one another (so you must not worry, we will stay dry) out of earthen pots (atar pots) they have bought earlier (at the full moon of Kason they can buy them literally at every pagoda corner) but over a tree (or its roots) of the genus ‘Ficus’ that belongs to the family of ‘Moraceae’ and is classified as ‘Ficus religiosa’. This tree is commonly known as ‘Banyan tree’, ‘Bo tree’ or ‘Bodhi tree’ and is a fig tree, more precisely the ‘Indian fig’ tree. Especially on the full-moon day of Kason this sacred tree is of great significance to Burmese Buddhists as it is closely related to Gautama Buddha. In order to understand why this is so, we have to travel some 2,500 years back in time.

Before we start to time-travel and beam ourselves back into the time of around 500 B.C., I must once again draw your attention to the fact that it is often extremely difficult if not impossible to separate historical facts from myth and legend particularly, when it comes to Siddhartha Gautama and his life. Those accounts of his life that still exist were mostly handed down by the Buddha’s disciples as oral traditions and written down long after his death by often idolising followers. For this reason it is most likely that they do not always reflect the historical truth. Therefore, not everyone may agree with all of the details of my writings. However, I have done my very best to find out the truth, which according to the historical ‘facts’ available to me could be as follows.

On the morning of the full-moon day that is celebrated by Burmese Buddhists as the full-moon of Kason, Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the head of the Indian ‘Sakya’ warrior caste (which accounts for the name ‘Sakyamuni’, ‘Sage of the Sakya’, a name Siddhartha Gautama was also known by) sat under a Bo tree near Gaya (now Buddha Gaya in the north-eastern Indian state of Bihar) south of Patna (present-day Bihar’s capital) when he had his ‘Great Enlightenment’ that revealed to him the way of salvation from suffering. This he tried to find for many years by looking for as he is said to have put it: “Who wrought these prisons of senses, sorrow, fraught.”

On this full-moon day under the Bodhi tree he is said to have declared: “I know thee, never shall you build again these walls of pain.” He made the ‘knowledge’ he had acquired in the course of his Enlightenment the basis of his following some 45 years of preaching and teaching as a religious philosopher while travelling as a mendicant. He was about 80 years old when he died in Kusinagara in Nepal after being poisoned.

Legend has it that A) the day he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama in ca. 563 B.C., B) the day of his ‘Great Enlightenment’ under the Bodhi tree (Tree of Enlightenment) in ca. 533 B.C. and C) the day of his death, i.e. his passing on to ‘Nibbana’ or ‘Parinibanna’ (a state of neither being existent nor non-existent that to reach is Buddhism’s ultimate goal) as ‘Buddha’, meaning the ‘Enlightened One’ in ca. 483 B.C. fell all on a full-moon day, the day celebrated by the Burmese Buddhists as full-moon day of Kason. For this reason this day is also called ‘Thrice Blessed Day’ or ‘Three-fold Anniversary’. Subsequently the ‘Full-moon Day of Kason’ marks the three main events of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life and as such it is celebrated in a fitting manner by Burmese Buddhists all over the country.

People of all ages, women and men alike go to ‘Payas’ (Pagodas), ‘Zedis’ (Stupas) and ‘Kyaungs’ (Monasteries) in processions to water the sacred Bodhi tree, give alms, make offerings, keep precepts or practice meditation, enjoy the company of other worshippers, the music made by ‘doh bats’, (folk music groups) accompanying the processions and people even dance a few steps to their music. The celebrations are marked by good deeds, songs and music, dances, happiness, hope and many believers make a wish while pouring water on the Bodhi tree from your atar pot to water the tree in this hot summertime and gain religious merits. I too have made a wish, which is that you will enjoy my articles.

The ‘Board of Trustees’ in Yangon organises and conducts an official ceremony to celebrate this day in the context of which a huge processions is led around the great gilded ‘Shwedagon Stupa’. The people leading this procession are clad in the garb of celestial beings such as ‘Thagyamin’ (King of Celestials), the ‘Galon/Garuda King’ (a mythical being half human and half bird) and the ‘Naga’ (Serpent King). This much to the religious, the commemoration part of the full-moon day of Kason. But what about the anticipating part mentioned earlier?

Well, if you remember correctly I have mentioned that in Kason water is in more than one way important to the Burmese. And water is the subject of anticipation. Burmese farmers put it into the following words: “Water in the ponds recedes in Tagu and the whole land is parched in Kason.”

Weary of the scorching sun during high summer that now comes to an end both people and nature are longing for water and are looking forward to the first rains that herald the monsoon that will begin in June and bring the water so badly needed in this agriculture country. And the first light showers, that are drastically changing the natural environment, are falling around the full-moon day of Kason.

Now everything turns green and colourful, the air is cool and clear and people – especially, of course, children – are happily dancing in the first showers, also called ‘Mango showers’ as they bring forth the delicious mangoes which will soon be ripe and available in abundance. So, I hope you have enjoyed the celebration of the full-moon of Kason and have become familiar with what it is that makes this festival so full of meaning to the Burmese people. I suggest that we have a rest now because soon we will celebrate the next festival, the ‘Full Moon of Waso’ in the month of Waso (June/July) that marks the beginning of the ‘Buddhist Lent.

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