Thursday, March 29, 2012

10 Budget Travel Tips for Saving Money


Travel doesn't have to be expensive! Use these budget travel tips to help save money by traveling like a savvy backpacker rather than a vacationing tourist.
First, use this step-by-step Asia travel planning guide to start cutting trip expenses before you leave home.

1. Don't Buy Useless Travel Gadgets

Saving money on your trip starts before you hit the road. Don't be tempted by the wide range of gadgets and toys aimed at travelers; most end up not being used or packed at all!
Travel-sized toiletries and liquids are overpriced -- fill your own reusable travel bottles instead so that you can refill them later. With a few exceptions such as sunscreen and deodorant, most consumables can be purchased for better prices once you get to Asia anyway.

2. Avoid Western Food

On any extended trip abroad, cravings for food from home are inevitable. While Southeast Asian food is famously delicious, nearly every budget traveler is tempted at some point to splurge on a pizza, fast food, or a familiar taste from home; rice and noodles do lose their appeal after so many iterations!
Restaurants and cafes in Asia are happy to oblige, particularly along the Banana Pancake Trail through Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Western food always costs more than local fare, and is usually a sore disappointment.
From ketchup being substituted for pasta sauce, to white bread smashed flat for rolling up burritos; local eateries will always attempt to meet your cravings with food that is never worth the price in the end!

3. Get Off the Beaten Path

Cheaper accommodation and eateries can often be found just one or two streets away from the "main drag" in tourist areas. These perimeter shops, restaurants, and guest houses are often overlooked by travelers who want to stay in the center of the action.
Bangkok's famous Khao San Road is a good example. Although a few well-priced Khao San Road hostels can still be found, the better deals are located just a short waking distance away.

4. Try Couch Surfing

Accommodation can quickly add up to one of the largest expenses for budget travelers. Even staying in discounted hostels and guesthouses will quietly bleed your travel account. to the rescue! is a social site where people offer up guest bedrooms or couches for friendly strangers who are visiting their city. The hosts are often expatriates who are interested in meeting -- and helping -- travelers. The site's rating system ensures that arrangements remain safe and that poor hosts are avoided by travelers. People can choose hosts based on location, gender, type of room, and even email other travelers who have stayed with the host in the past.
An added benefit of couch surfing is that you can befriend a local in your destination. Knowing a local will save you money that otherwise would have been blown in tourist spots. Having a kitchen will help you save money by cooking meals at home rather than eating out.

5. Keep the Partying in Check

Experienced backpackers will confirm: The number one expense while on the road is often alcohol. While prices for food in places such as Malaysia and Singapore are cheap, prices for alcohol are disproportional.
You will inevitably spend far more time socializing while traveling than you normally do at home, so learn early to keep the party expenses in check!

6. Be Smart When Calling Home

Depending on the method used, calls home from Asia can be either ridiculously expensive or pleasantly cheap. Calls made home using public phones, credit cards, calling cards, or the phone at your accommodation are archaic and costly options.
Calls can now be made across the internet via programs such as Skype and Localphone. Many internet cafes offer headsets, or you can purchase a cheap set to carry on your trip. A typical call to the US using a VOIP service costs less than two cents per minute.

7. Skip the Guided Tours

While legitimate guides can often enhance a visit to places such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia by explaining the history, you can probably do without hiring a guide for the day just to see local waterfalls and other sites.
Backpackers and budget travelers simply make their own way to local attractions for a fraction of the costs, and often get to enjoy places longer and at their own pace rather than being rushed along by an impatient guide.
Before accepting one of the many offers of a local guide for the day, first see if you can use public transportation or team up with others to see local landmarks and sites.
If you do hire a guide, try to go with a local organization rather than a Western company that is trying to cash in.

8. Negotiate for Everything

Nearly anything and everything in Asia is negotiable. Although negotiation is often an uncomfortable process for Westerners, it is a part of daily life for locals.
Try these budget travel tips to save money:
  • If staying in a place for a week or longer, try negotiating for a cheaper rate when you first check in.
  • Team up with other travelers to negotiate bulk pricing on tours, rooms, and transportation.
  • Don't buy the first kitsch souvenirs that you encounter. Make trinket purchases in bulk to gain more leverage for negotiation. Learn how to shop in Asia intelligently.

9. Skip the Air Conditioning

Aircon rooms always cost more than fan rooms in hostels and budget guesthouses, and the temperature difference often makes travelers sick who are slower to acclimate when going outside.
Although temperatures outside can be scorching in parts of Southeast Asia, you will probably only be inside your room to sleep -- a fan works just fine.

10. Know the Exchange Rates

Know your currency exchange rates before you arrive at a destination, and shop around before you exchange money or cash traveler's checks immediately at the airport.
Using ATMs is often the most convenient way to access money while abroad, and the rates are usually very competitive. Check with your bank before you leave home about foreign transaction fees, which hopefully should be two percent or less. Notify your bank and credit card companies about your travel plans so that your cards are not disabled for potential fraud when they see charges pop up from abroad.

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10 stunning travel destinations

Tuscany, Italy (Photo: Peter Zelel/Vetta/Getty Images)

Everything has beauty, according to Confucius, but not everyone sees it.

Take even the glorious Taj Mahal, for example—deemed “breathtaking,” “stunning,” and “spectacular” by most TripAdvisor reviewers, but “overrated,” “uninteresting,” and “a disappointment” to others. Who can account for taste?

That’s exactly why attempting to narrow down the most gorgeous spots on the planet is no easy feat—and why we decided to turn to a handful of pros, who have come up with a collection of sumptuous, oft-surprising picks ranging from remote natural wonders to glittering cities:

Tuscany, Italy
“From Piemonte to Sicilia, each of Italy’s regions has its own magic, but hill-town-studded Tuscany (Toscana)—like the timeless location you’ve seen in Merchant-Ivory films—takes the prize,” said Patricia Schultz, author of the best-selling trip bible "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." “The showcase city of Florence is its zenith, but look just beyond the city walls to a painting-perfect campagna of rolling hills blanketed with Chianti vineyards and olive groves, ancient Etruscan sites and history-rich towns like Lucca, Siena, and San Gimignano." Along its less-visited coast, the added surprise of sandy beaches and a sprinkling of islands is a welcome sight (Napoleon spent years of exile on Elba), Schultz adds.

Petra, Jordan (Photo: Sylvester Adams/Getty Images)

Petra, Jordan

“With the rise of Palmyra in Syria and sea-trading routes, the death knell was sounded for Petra, ancient capital of the Nabateans,” says the expert panel at Geographic Expeditions. “By the Arab invasion of the 7th century A.D., Petra was a forgotten city and remained so until it was rediscovered in 1812 by the young Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt.” Today the elegant site, which dates back to 1200 B.C., is known as the “Pink City” because of the rose-hued sandstone used to create the phenomenal palaces and tombs. It’s perhaps most stunning at dusk, when the ancient city is aglow with thousands of candles.

Torres del Paine National Park (Photo: John W. Banagan/Getty Images)

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

“Looking across the lake from the Explora Lodge you see one of the most magnificent mountainscapes in the world,” says Peter Friedman, a trip expert with Unique Travel, citing his favorite spot from which to take in one of the newest and grandest parks in South America, and a UNESCO World Heritage Reserve. The 598,000-acre park, tucked at the far south end of the Andes, offers a stunning mix of landscapes and fauna. Say the folks at Geographic Expeditions (who had it on their shortlist, too): “Paine’s unique physical attributes of glaciers, lakes, gnarled Magellanic trees, and dramatic mountains offer some of the most awe-inspiring hiking in the world.”

Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Getty Images)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“Rio is possibly the most beautifully sited city on the globe,” says Schultz. “Head up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado for a take-your-breath-away view of la Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City). It is a unique city in many ways—where nature collides with a thrumming metropolis, the elegant with the seedy, and the rich with the poor.” The spot's proximity to the water makes for arresting views.

Midway Island (Photo: Paul & Paveena McKenzie/Getty Images)

Midway Island

Located about halfway between the United States and Asia, this stunning atoll is a U.S. territory known for the Battle of Midway, which played a major role in World War II; today it’s home to a massive albatross population and is a designated National Wildlife Refuge. “History lives here,” says Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor. “The site of the most decisive naval battle in world history, Midway is where I go to think, to write without interruption. If you’re looking for footprints in the sand, just look behind you, because the only ones are the ones you made.”

Bordeaux, France (Photo: Sylvia Ottel/Getty Images)
Bordeaux, France

“Truly a beautiful location, and a wine connoisseur’s delight,” says Friedman of this historic and fertile region. It’s studded with more than 7,000 wineries and bursts with sweeping vineyards, mighty rivers, gorgeous beaches, picturesque villages, and the stunning city itself, which has earned Bordeaux a place in the collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Mount Everest, Nepal (Photo: Getty Images)

Mount Everest, Nepal

“Mount Everest is perhaps nature’s most magnificent creation – certainly it is the raison d’etre in the climbing world,” offer the travel planners at Geographic Expeditions. Part of the Mahalangur Himal—a link in the Himalayan chain—Everest, soaring to 26,035 feet, is the highest mountain on Earth. “The Tibetan word for Everest is Chomolungma, which means ‘Mother of the Universe,’ and the Nepalese, Sagarmatha means ‘Goddess of the Sky.’ Both are perfectly fitting, as there is no other mountain as grand as Everest.” Friedman of Unique Travel also has a soft spot for Everest—along with Himal Chuli, Manaslu, Pabil and the many other peaks dominating the spectacular views from Kathmandu. “Looking out at some of the tallest mountains in the world,” he says, “you ponder the reality of how small we truly are.”

Fire Island, New York (Photo: Alida Thorpe/Getty Images)

Fire Island, New York

“This might seem a surprising choice, but imagine a 32-mile-long barrier island—and National Seashore—just 50 miles east of Manhattan. No cars, just bicycles and wagons and bare feet. Fire Island is the Hamptons without the attitude,” says Greenberg, who has lived there, at least part-time, since infanthood. Accessible via ferry, the island is home to 17 resort communities, a massive white-tailed deer population, and extraordinary stretches of sand dune-edged beaches. “It is a place I return to every year in April, May, June, and again in September (the most magical month), where I can relive my youth, my freedom and my innocence.”

Plain of Temples (Photo: Jeremy Edwards/Vetta/Gett Images)

Plain of Temples, Bagan, Myanmar

“One of the great sights of Asia, Bagan’s Plain of Temples displays pagoda after pagoda, large and small, rising up from the green delta plain,” notes Geographic Expeditions, which chose this sacred spot. The kings of ancient Bagan built more than 4,400 Buddhist temples here in only 230 years. Today, around half of the red brick works of artistry are still standing; many of them, such as Anando Pahto, are on every visitor’s hit list, though the more obscure ones offer thrills, too, from hidden frescoes to spectacular views of the landscape.

Okavango Delta, Botswana (Photo: Torsten Karock/Vetta/Getty Images)

Okavango Delta, Botswana

“A tributary of the mighty Zambezi, the Okavango River creates a unique ‘water in the desert’ ecosystem, considered the world’s largest inland oasis and a magnet for wildlife,” notes Schultz. “Explore it by dug-out canoe (makoros), jeep, by foot or on elephant back—a safari here promises birdlife second to none." Add to that legions of elephants, zebras, buffaloes, giraffes, and hippos.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring Fever

Amid colder than usual weather on the West Coast and milder than usual temperatures on the East Coast, the vernal equinox on March 20 signaling the end of winter and a hint of spring to come.

Photo: Dannymac15_1999 / FlickrPhoto: Dannymac15_1999 / Flickr
Unusually mild, warm weather meant the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., bloomed at least a couple of weeks earlier than usual this year. This cherry tree frames the Jefferson Memorial in the background.

Visitors to the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.  - home each year to the Cherry Blossom Festival - enjoy an earlier than usual display of flowering bowers near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

A fern in Alabama unfurls under springtime light.

A lone yellow tulip stands out among a field of pink at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in northwest Washington state.
A train sweeps through the vernal countryside near Glyndyfrdwy, Wales.

An apricot blossom catches a hint of sunlight at the Orchard Heritage Park in Sunnyvale, CA.

Creeping ivy reaches upward toward the Chicago skyline.

At the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, England, a "giant's" head is sprouting spring growth.

A splash of daffodils mark the beginning of spring near Ravenglass, Cumbria, U.K.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

6 Great Scenic Overlooks in Arkansas & Missouri

The Best Places to Retire Overseas

When choosing a place to spend your retirement years, the cost of living is important. But it is only one consideration. The ideal retirement spot is a place where you can live a rich life filled with friends, travel, discovery, physical and intellectual distractions, and opportunities for growth. A super-low cost of living is great, but more important is the quality of life your retirement budget is buying you.
Many of the best options for enjoying an enormously enriched retirement lifestyle on even a very modest budget can be found overseas. Here are the world's 18 top retirement havens, where an interesting, adventure-filled lifestyle is available for a better-than-reasonable cost.

The Americas
1. Panama. Panama is the world's top retirement haven. Panama City no longer qualifies as cheap, but other spots in this country certainly do. Panama continues to offer the world's gold standard program of special benefits for retirees. The currency is the U.S. dollar, so there is no exchange rate risk if your retirement savings and income is in dollars. The climate in Panama City and on the coasts is tropical, hot, and humid. However, the climate in the highlands can be temperate and tempting. Panama is the hub of the Americas, meaning it's easily accessible from anywhere in North and South America and Europe.
2. Belize. Belize is a great place for reinventing your life in retirement. This tiny, under-developed, sparsely populated country offers two distinct lifestyle options: Ambergris Caye is the best of the Caribbean at a discount, while the Cayo is a frontier where independent-minded pioneers can make their own way and do their own thing, peacefully and privately. The climate is tropical, warmer on the coast, and cooler in the mountainous interior. The official language is English, so there's no foreign language barrier for Americans. You'll find a well-established and welcoming community of expats in San Pedro and on Ambergris Caye, and an emerging community of expats in the Cayo around San Ignacio.
3. Colombia. Medellin, a city of springtime and flowers, is the unsung jewel of Colombia. This city is pretty, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, safe, and affordable. Perhaps the most appealing advantage in Medellin is the cost of real estate. It's an absolute global bargain. You can buy property in a good neighborhood for as little as $1,000 per meter.
Medellin's second biggest appeal is its climate, which is spring-like year-round, thanks to the high elevation. Medellin is a more developed city than you might imagine, with five of the best hospitals in Latin America, universities, museums, art galleries, and an efficient and reliable metro system. It also has international-standard shopping and many interesting nightlife options. If you fancy Paris or other Continental city choices, but don't want or can't afford Europe, I strongly recommend you take a look at Medellin. This city is one of the best places in the world to hang your hat.
4. Uruguay. It seems that the more troubled the rest of the world becomes, the more people are finding appeal in Uruguay, a stable commodity-based economy with a sound banking system. Uruguay is neither an aggressor nor a target of aggression in the world arena, and it's not a high-stakes player in world politics. Costs have risen in recent years thanks to the strength of the Uruguayan peso and the sinking value of the dollar. But, even as the cost of living and of real estate rose, Uruguay has become even more popular as a lifestyle and retirement destination. Accordingly, people are coming to Uruguay in record numbers, with residency applications up over 300 percent since 2007, many of these coming from the United States.
5. Ecuador. Ecuador is perhaps the best choice in the Americas for a retiree looking to enjoy a rich and interesting quality of life on a limited budget. I recommend Cuenca, the former Inca and Spanish capital, a current UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the intellectual heart of Ecuador. Cuenca is home to about 1,500 full-time residents from North America. This is not a big number compared with some more recognized Mexican retirement choices, but Cuenca clearly qualifies as an expat-friendly city, offering one of the most interesting retirement lifestyles available anywhere. Amenities include theater, orchestra, shows, restaurants, broadband Internet service, reliable electricity and telephone, and drinkable tap water.
Cuenca's appeal as a retirement haven is expanding in important ways, thanks to a recently developed program promoting the city as a medical tourism destination. The city's five top hospitals have joined together to offer bundled programs of medical tests, procedures, and services available for from $66 to $401. Costs for comparable services in the United States would be multiples of these amounts. In addition, Cuenca is now offering nursing care of a standard suitable for and appealing to the expat retiree at a cost of just $450 per month, including 24-hour doctor and nurse attendance, food, laundry, personal care, and occupational and rehabilitative therapy.
6. Nicaragua. Another top choice for a retiree with a very limited budget is Nicaragua. This country's Pacific coastline is every bit as dramatically beautiful as that of neighboring Costa Rica. Infrastructure is under-developed in both countries, but the cost of living and especially real estate are noticeably lower in Nicaragua, making the pot-holed roads easier to bear. Nicaragua also boasts two of the top Spanish-colonial cities in the Americas: Granada, a pretty and romantic city that everyone should see once, and Leon. Both places were founded in the early 16th century by Cordoba.
7. Roatan, Honduras. I'm not a big fan of mainland Honduras, which is under-developed and, in some places, unsafe. However, the Bay Island of Roatan is a world apart and one of my two top picks for affordable retirement in the Caribbean (the other is Ambergris Caye, Belize).
8. Argentina. Argentina is a dynamic and charming nation that rides perpetually between crisis and boom. This rich country boasts abundant natural resources and offers many appealing retirement lifestyle choices, including the eclectic and cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, the provincial capitals, a finca in the countryside, and a boutique vineyard in Mendoza. Retirement life in Argentina could be many things, but never dull. The downside is a rising cost of living, thanks to local inflation and the falling value of the U.S. dollar versus the Argentine peso.
9. Mexico. This is historically one of the most recognized retirement havens for Americans. But Mexico today is suffering from a lot of bad press thanks to its drug wars. However, Mexico is a big country, and the drug goons haven't overtaken it entirely. It continues to offer some of the best coastal lifestyle and retirement options in the Americas, including Puerto Vallarta, my number-one choice for an affordable life of luxury on the Pacific. A couple could enjoy a a five-star retirement in this beautiful and romantic coastal town of marinas, golf courses, yacht clubs, and fine dining on a budget of as little as $2,500 per month.
10. Chile. Chile is a developed, First World destination that is also quiet, safe, and stable. Unlike its more scandalous neighbor, Argentina, Chile offers a cultured, comfortable lifestyle that is relatively calm. Santiago is a city of classic-style architecture, cobblestoned streets, and cafes with outdoor seating, in many ways reminiscent of Paris or Barcelona. This city of 7 million is also remarkably clean and friendly and boasts a diverse and expanding property market that is affordable on a global scale. You could own property at some of the city's best addresses for less than $2,000 a meter. One important downside to retirement in Santiago is the air pollution, which is a serious problem, especially during the winter months. A better option could be the country's beautiful Lake District to the south of Santiago, which is a favorite retirement choice among Chileans themselves.

11. France. France is a land of superlatives. Its capital has been called the most beautiful, most romantic, and most touristed city on earth. It also boasts some of the world's best wines, cheeses, restaurants, shopping, castles, gardens, parks, beaches, museums, cafes, galleries, vineyards, and architecture. The typical concern for anyone who has ever dreamed of a new life in France is that it's too expensive for the average retiree to consider seriously. Not so. Paris isn't cheap. But elsewhere in France you can find realistic options, even if your retirement budget is modest. Perhaps the most retirement friendly region in this country is in the southwest, north of Spain, where small country towns offer a way of life that is quintessentially French and also very affordable.
12. Italy. The cost of living in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Tuscany might be beyond the limits of your retirement budget. But that doesn't mean you should take Italy off your list entirely if this is the country that stirs your imagination and speaks to your soul. A retiree on a budget interested in Italy could look at Abruzzo. From this beautiful Old World base, within a half-day's drive of both the coast and the mountains, you could plan excursions to Italy's better-known and more expensive outposts as often as you liked.
13. Ireland. Americans have long dreamed of retirement on the Emerald Isle and with good reason. Ireland is safe, peaceful, relaxed, welcoming, friendly, hospitable, and English-speaking, making it an ideal retirement choice for many. Ireland today is also more affordable than it has been in more than a decade, and its property market has fallen off a cliff. Real estate prices are down 50 percent or more in many markets and are still falling. If you, like so many others, have dreamed of wiling away your retirement years on your own little piece of the Auld Sod, this could be the best time in your lifetime to think about making that purchase.
14. Spain. Spain is known among expats for its Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, especially its infamous (and unfortunately over-developed) Costa del Sol. But there's more to this country than its costas. Barcelona, for example, is a world-class city on the ocean, perfect if you're looking for a cosmopolitan life near the water. Real estate prices in this country have fallen tremendously since the highs of four or five years ago. If retirement in Spain appeals to you, this could be the time to search for a great deal on Spanish retirement digs.
15. Croatia. Croatia, a country with an extraordinarily complicated history and an extremely open-minded, forward-looking population, is at another turning point in its long history. Countries at turning points are interesting places to be. I recommend the country's Istrian Peninsula, which serves up some of the most delightful scenery on the planet. The land seems to rise up to embrace you, and everywhere you look, something nice is growing like olives, grapes, figs, tomatoes, pumpkins, blackberries, and wildflowers. Even the buildings seem to be part of the earth, built of its white stone and red clay. This sun-soaked region offers one of the most appealing lifestyle options in Europe today.
16. Thailand. Thailand boasts both really cheap and developed and comfortable lifestyle choices. It is also noteworthy as being one of the few countries in this part of the world that offers formal options for long-term and retirement visas. Hua Hin is one of the few classic retirement havens in Southeast Asia, complete with golf courses, factory outlets, and gated communities. Foreigners make up approximately 15 percent of that population, and most of them are retired. With 12 golf courses in operation and another 3 under construction, this is definitely the place to go if you're a golfing enthusiast. Hua Hin is a place where, if you were so inclined, you could live a North American lifestyle and never have to involve yourself more than superficially with the local Thai culture. This could be a plus or a minus for you, but it is worth noting when discussing options in this typically exotic part of the world.
17. Vietnam. While Thailand is well-established as an interesting option for expats and foreign retirees, Vietnam is an emerging choice, which could get a lot more attention in the coming few years. Nha Trang offers an interesting coastal retirement option for adventuresome retirees. Nha Trang's total population of more than 200,000 includes an expat population of about 1,000 people, meaning foreigners here are still pioneers. You'll find no organized activities for foreigners, such as expat clubs or softball leagues. The lack of a big foreign population makes it easier to have meaningful interactions with the locals. The major attraction in Nha Trang is its cost of living, which can amount to much less than $1,000 per month for a retired couple. If you're a budget-minded retiree with an interest in Asia, this town should be on top on your list.
18. Malaysia. After Thailand, Malaysia is the easiest country to navigate in this part of the world. The country's capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a city of contrasts. The shining stainless steel Petronas Towers, two of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, anchor a startlingly beautiful skyline that is truly unique to this city. Modern, air-conditioned malls flourish, selling everything from beautifully handcrafted batik clothing to genuine Rolex watches and Tiffany jewelry. In the shadows of these ultra-modern buildings, the ancient Malay village of Kampung Baru still thrives, with free-roaming roosters and a slow pace of life generally found in rural villages. Less than a 20-minute walk from the city center, you can find yourself conversing with monkeys in the city-jungle surrounding one of the highest telecommunications towers in the world. A walk of less than 30 minutes leads you to Chinatown and Little India, where merchants offer their wares, foods, and culture in happy neighborhoods that showcase the amazing diversity of the city.
Unlike some places in Asia, foreigners are genuinely welcomed in Kuala Lumpur. Language isn't a problem, as almost everyone speaks adequate English. Immigration is easy, and it is possible to stay for an extended period with a simple tourist visa. Although Kuala Lumpur is more expensive than rural Malaysia, it can be marvelously inexpensive by Western standards. You can realistically expect to cut your living expenses by a third and still enjoy a lifestyle comparable to what you are accustomed to now.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cherry Blossoms Around the World


Cherry blossoms at dusk, Hirano Shrine, Kyoto, Japan (© JTB Photo Communications, Inc./Alamy)
For centuries, the Japanese have cultivated the practice of hanami, visiting cherry trees (sakura) in full spring bloom for a drink and a bite, an eyeful of cloudlike pink blossoms and a reminder of the impermanence of all things. While Japan is still the prime spot to appreciate the bloom — hundreds of sites (such this one, at the Harano Shinto Shrine in Kyoto) host visitors every spring — the phenomenon has become popular outside the country. Over the years, the Japanese government has given cherry trees as gifts to cities in the United States and elsewhere — meaning that, come spring, travelers to many different parts of the world can experience the ethereally beautiful sight of trees covered in masses of pale blooms. Join us for a tour of 9 gorgeous viewing spots, from two must-visit sites in Japan to locations in the United States and China.

Waimea, Hawaii

Cherry blossoms & rainbow over Imiola Church, Waimea, Hawaii (© Pacific Stock/SuperStock)
You might not think of Hawaii, with its tropical temperatures, as a cherry-blossom hot spot, but you’d be wrong. Cherry trees require a period of cold — followed by a warm spell — to bloom, and the mountainous community of Waimea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, provides just the right climate for the sakura that were first planted there in 1953 to honor a distinguished community member. The Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the trees and the community’s relationship with Japan with cultural performances, music and other activities. In 2012, community members planted seedlings, cultivated from cherry seeds presented by the Embassy of Japan, as a tribute to the iconic 1912 gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C.

When to go: The cherries in Waimea bloom in February, and the festival is held on the first Saturday of that month every year.

Love the Ocean

Charter a Sailboat

 'The Moorings' charter sailboat moored off The Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI (Courtesy of The Moorings)
 If Jacques-Yves Cousteau were alive, he’d be 100 years old. Pay tribute to the French filmmaker, scientist, ecologist and co-inventor of the Aqua Lung with an undersea or oversea adventure.

If you truly wish to get in touch with the rhythm of the ocean, charter a sailboat with The Moorings. Tie up to a mooring buoy in Canouan, in the Grenadines, for example, leave the hatch open, and you’ll wake up to the tradewinds tickling your face. You can jump off the boat for snorkeling and instantly behold a school of Caribbean reef squid, sea turtles or starfish. The Moorings offers skippered sailboat charters in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Bahamas, coastal Mexico, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. No sailing experience is required. Skippered sailboat charters come with a professional captain, and sometimes a cook, too.

Cruise on a Small Ship

 Clipper Odyssey cruise passengers interact with locals, Indonesia (© Rob Dunbar/Courtesy of Zegrahm Expeditions)
Small-ship cruises such as those offered by Zegrahm Expeditions take a different tack than the megaship cruises. Zegrahm aims to practice responsible tourism, using the cleanest-possible fuel on its ships, installing environmentally friendly engines in its Zodiacs, selecting sustainable seafood to serve in its dining rooms, and encouraging travelers to recycle. Small ships can get closer to nature, too, so you’re more likely to see those humpback whales in Alaska. Zegrahm offers small-ship expeditions to Antarctica, Europe, Indonesia, India, the Middle East, the Galapagos, South America, Africa, the Arctic and the South Pacific.

Sleep Over the South Pacific

 Oceanside dining, Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji (© Greg Taylor/Courtesy of Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort)
Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s son, created the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, an environmentally friendly hotel on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji. It was conceived as a model to prove to the business community the economic benefits of environmental concern and design. It boasts a full-time, on-site marine biologist, an organic garden, edible landscaping and a wastewater system that uses coconuts and recycled bottles to protect the lagoon waters. Check out the snazzy oceanfront accommodations.

Take the Plunge in the Caribbean

 'Necker Nymph' three-person submarine (© Virgin Limited Edition)
Guests at Necker Island, Richard Branson’s 74-acre private island in the British Virgin Islands, can book a ride on the Necker Nymph, a three-person submarine created by Hawkes Ocean Technologies. Two passengers sit on either side of a trained pilot who can submerge the submarine 100 feet. Scuba training, available on the island, is required for anyone going underwater on the sub. The Necker Nymph is available for $2,500 a day.

Paddle with the Nature Conservancy

 Polar bear & two cubs, Svalbard, Norway (© Michael S. Nolan/Specialist Stock/Corbis)
The Nature Conservancy has customized nature travel tours, and some of them focus on loving the ocean. Consider a sea kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands of Washington state June 27–30. Participants camp one night on an island accessible only by boat and spend two other evenings at local bed-and-breakfasts. Paddlers in the San Juans can sometimes see resident orcas, harbor seals, Dall’s porpoises and bald eagles. The conservancy also has a trip in search of polar bears in Norway July 5–18. Nature lovers explore Norway’s coastline and the wildlife-rich island of Spitsbergen during a voyage aboard Zegrahm Expeditions’ Clipper Adventurer.

Adopt a Whale

 'Southern Resident' pod of orcas near Pender Island, B.C., Canada (© Chris Cheadle/All Canada Photos/Photolibrary)
Visitors to the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands of Washington state will learn that the orca population off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Vancouver Island are endangered. Whale lovers can help by adopting an orca. Pick your favorite member of J, K or L pod and receive an adoption certificate, the whale’s personal biography, matrilineal genealogy charts of the southern resident orca population, stickers and more. (Actual whale not included.) If you head to Lime Kiln State Park’s designated whale-watching area on the west side of San Juan Island, however, you might actually catch a glimpse of your whale or, more likely, its pod members.

Combine Sailing and Kayaking

 Schooner 'Californian' under sail off the California coast (© Maggie Piatt-Walton/Courtesy of Maritime Museum of San Diego)

The Maritime Museum of San Diego offers a variety of sailing adventures off the California coast. The Adventure Sail trip includes a four-hour sail aboard the schooner Californian along with admission to the museum. The four-day Catalina Kayaking trip includes a trip to Catalina Island aboard the same schooner, this time with the opportunity to paddle a kayak and look for sea stars, flying fish and orange garibaldi fish.

Sleep Underwater

 Guests inside the Jules’ Undersea Lodge, Key Largo, Fla. (© IndexStock/SuperStock)
Want to stay at Jules’ Undersea Lodge — the world’s only underwater hotel — in Key Largo, Fla.? You’ll need to take a scuba diving lesson. Guests must dive 21 feet below the sea and through a tropical mangrove habitat to get to their underwater rooms. Fortunately, the lodge itself offers scuba classes. Then, it’s off to your room to look through your porthole for grouper, nurse sharks, parrotfish and seahorses.
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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beautiful Ireland: Introduction

 Sheep grazing in pasture with stone walls, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland (© LOOK Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH/Alamy)

Many clich├ęs come to mind when thinking of Ireland this time of year: leprechauns and limericks, to name a couple. Yet this country is so rich in heritage, culture, history and scenery it would be a shame not to explore it further. So in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, take a few moments to enjoy these iconic images of the Emerald Isle — perhaps its lush beauty will inspire you to plan your next trip to Ireland.
Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, Ireland (©
You can’t swing a fiddle without hitting a stone castle — or the ruins of one — in Ireland. Dunluce Castle stands out for its dramatic setting high on a headland near Bushmills in County Antrim. The earliest recorded residents of the castle were the MacQuillans in the early 1500s, but later Dunluce changed hands to the Clan MacDonnell, Scots who beat the MacQuillans in battles during the 1600s. Today the ruins are open to the public, and it’s not hard to imagine them in their heyday. Nearby are remains of the town of Dunluce, which was recently uncovered in an excavation.
Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Ireland (© Alessandra Albanese/SIME/4Corners Images)
Geologists say that the unusual hexagonal rocks on the coast of County Antrim in northeast Ireland were created by ancient volcanic activity. Others prefer a more romantic story, namely that the warrior giant Finn McCool walked across the Giant’s Causeway all the way to Scotland to meet his rival in battle. Looking at the stones, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Many people are coming to see and decide for themselves; the causeway is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Ireland.
Four people sitting on edge of the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland (© David Lyons/Alamy)
Dramatic vertical walls of rock mark the spot where County Clare meets the Atlantic: the Cliffs of Moher. Stretching five miles along the coast from the town of Doolin, the cliffs are a natural attraction not only to tourists, but to nesting seabirds — keep an eye out for puffins and razorheads. O’Brien’s Tower, built by an enterprising local in 1835, provides the highest vantage point for wildlife viewing and soaking up the views of the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and beyond.
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Spring Flower Fests in Bloom

Lilacs and magnolias and orchids, ah yes. After a winter that almost never was, the season of renewal is upon us. Ten festivals celebrate the beauty of its arrival.

By John Rossheim for MSN Local Edition

Courtesy Pella Historical Society(Courtesy Pella Historical Society)
The town of Pella, Iowa, opens a window onto spring with a festival that celebrates its Dutch heritage--and the tulips that are Pella's claim to fame. (Courtesy Pella Historical Society)
TO SHAKE you out of your winter torpor, there's nothing like the nose-to-horizon spectacle of a field of flowers, whether it's a singular wild species or hundreds of cultivars. That's the promise of festivals of bloom that are breaking out across the United States from the first day of spring 2012 nearly to the last.
While acres of bloom are the centerpiece of these festivals, cities and towns--eager to tap your wallet as they prune their budgets--often offer a range of attractions, from food vendors to parades to county-fair-style contests. Take or leave these trimmings as you prefer; the view of the flowers is usually free.
Millions of us have had a winter that almost wasn't. And the moderate temperatures and slim-to-none snow cover aren't lost on the buds: in many locales, they're busting into bloom sooner than usual. So it pays to call ahead and get an honest answer from an eyewitness about what the flowers are actually doing, even a few weeks before the nominal start of the festival.
In projected order of bloom, here are 10 of the top blossom festivals across the country, starting with a famous one that's celebrating a milestone birthday.
© Lester Lefkowitz, Getty Images // Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial.(© Lester Lefkowitz, Getty Images)
A view of the Jefferson Memorial, at the Tidal Basin in Washington, framed by the cherry blossoms that mark their 100th anniversary as a rite of spring in the nation's capital. (© Lester Lefkowitz/Getty Images)

National Cherry Blossom FestivalWashington, D.C
March 20-April 27
The mayor of Tokyo presented our national capital with flowers on March 27, 1912, and we're still enraptured by the bloom of the sweet gift of cherry trees, even as the two nations' complex relationship continues to unfold. The centennial celebration of the 3,700 beauties ringing the Tidal Basin will include Japanese musicians Misia and Hideki Togi, a lantern-making workshop, a kite meetup, a Japanese street festival, jazz at the Jefferson Memorial, and many more. Want to get married under the cherry blossoms? Apply to the National Park Service now or forever hold your peace (well, until next year, anyway).

Festival of FlowersMobile, Ala.
March 29-April 1
This deep South phenom is really a tent-and-parking-lot outdoor flower show on the grounds of Providence Hospital, and is produced to benefit the hospital's foundation. Picture 300,000 square feet of orchids, bonsai and cut flowers, from tasteful arrangements to prop-filled extravaganzas that could double as the world's most challenging miniature golf holes. The headline display is the floral carpet, promoted as a "stunning and massive" weave of bloom.
© Carmen Brown, Getty Images // Tulips in the Skagitr Valley of Washington state(© Carmen Brown, Getty Images)
You could call April "Tulip Month" in Washington state's Skagit Valley. Events throughout the month will indirectly or directly showcase the region's most vibrant attraction. (© Carmen Brown/Getty Images)

Skagit Valley Tulip FestivalWashington State
April 1-30
What a preternatural natural spectacle: acres of tulips at the peak of bloom, arrayed in broad stripes of color that converge under distant, snowcapped Mount Baker. That's the draw of the spring tulip festival in northwest Washington's Skagit Valley. Drive or bike your way along the county roads that crisscross the region's famous tulip farms. Head for the fields as early as you can; tulip watchers are legion when the bulbs are blossoming, especially on weekends. If you're in the area on the right Saturday, don't miss your chance at the Tulip Run (April 7), the Tulip Frolic (April 14) or the Tulip Pedal (April 21).
Fields of poppies in and near Lancaster, Calif.(Courtesy City of Lancaster)
Lancaster, Calif., and the surrounding countryside are the backdrop for fields of poppies, one of nature's gaudiest fashion shows. (Courtesy City of Lancaster)

California Poppy FestivalLancaster, Calif. and vicinity
April 21-22
The highlight of this festival is out in the country, an hour north of Los Angeles: the eight miles of hiking trails in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve. Rolling hills and Mojave desert grasslands are the backdrop for an eye-searing display of yellow-orange poppies; it's a Teletubbies set for grownups, without those models of good behavior. This all-natural flower show varies a lot from year to year; you can call the state park's wildflower hotline (661-724-1180) to check on what's in blossom. Back in the city of Lancaster, the festival's non-blooming attractions include arts and crafts vendors, live music, and high- and low-brow treats from local restaurants.
Courtesy of Ennis Convention and Visitors Bureau // Bluebonnets in Texas(Courtesy of Ennis Convention and Visitors Bureau)
If you're in a mood indigo, the fields of bluebonnets in and around Ennis, Texas (a beeline from Dallas) should satisfy a quest for bluebonnet bloom. (Courtesy of Ennis Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Bluebonnet Trails FestivalEnnis, Texas
April 21 and 22
Whether you prefer an endless vista of pure indigo, or bluebonnets mixed with the flaming oranges and reds of Indian paintbrush, the fields in and around Ennis--45 minutes south of Dallas--are the place to be in April. Drive the country roads that crease the great expanses of blue, then get out to stretch your legs and get up close and personal with those enchanting blooms. Back in town, there's a traditional menu of bluegrass and country music on stage and lunch to fuel you for more afternoon viewing of those amazing blues. Call 800-452-9292 for the latest information on the state of bluebonnet bloom.
© Southern Stock, Getty Images // Daffodils, spring staple of the New England woods(© Southern Stock, Getty Images)
It's a soft invasion: Daffodils transform the landscape of Meriden, Ct., a town that claims 600,000 daffodils in more than 60 varieties. (© Southern Stock/Getty Images)

Daffodil FestivalMeriden, Conn.
April 28 and 29

Daffodils are to lucky patches of the New England woods what wildflowers are to the sunny Southwest: an invasion of spring that transforms the landscape. Meriden claims 600,000 daffodil bulbs in 61 varieties spread across the town's Hubbard Park, an 1,800-acre bounty in this town half an hour north of New Haven. Free musical acts range from The D. Smith Blues Band to River City Slim & The Zydeco Hogs. Lunch, served up by local nonprofits, range from clam fritters to pinchos (a small but hearty snack related to tapas) to peach shortcake, enough to induce a nap among all those gold-, white- and orange-cupped blooms.

Pella Tulip TimePella, Iowa
May 3-5
Pella, the settlement that Dutch immigrants (and, more recently, window manufacturing) built, is the ideal Middle American setting for a tulip festival. This town of 10,000 people an hour east of Des Moines celebrates its Dutch roots by not only nurturing thousands of tulip bulbs in its city parks, but also with Dutch-style Main Street storefronts and even the Vermeer Windmill. Festival highlight: the Tulip Queen and her court, who crown the town's tulip parade, which also entrains a float bearing "Tulip Queens of yesteryear." Proost!
© Anne Keiser, Getty Images // Lilacs(© Anne Keiser, Getty Images)
What cherry blossoms are to Washington, lilacs may be to Rochester, N.Y., whose 10-day lilac festival can be expected to offer hundreds of variations on a theme. (© Anne Keiser/Getty Images)

Lilac FestivalRochester, N.Y.
May 11-20
Before the Japanese gave D.C. those cherry trees, Rochester was celebrating its stupendous collection of blooming lilacs, a medley that has expanded to include more than 500 varieties on 22 acres of the city's Highland Park. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can you see and smell so many variations on the theme of spring perfume. And that's not all: this 10-day orgy of bloom includes free music by national recording artists and others. The 155-acre Frederick Law Olmstead park also features rhododendrons, azaleas and the Lamberton Conservatory--duck in if there's a spring shower.

Magnolia Blossom FestivalMagnolia, Ark.
May 18 and 19
The town of Magnolia actually combines its blossom festival and a world championship steak cook-off. The reason? Denizens of this small town 90 minutes northeast of Shreveport, La., like to balance the sweet aroma of their magnolia-lined streets with the savory smell of beef on the grill. The gospel singing, the art show, the dog show, the car show and yes, even the magnificent blooming trees--they're all just prelude to the big event at 4 p.m. on Saturday: The Lighting of the Grills. Belly up.

Mackinac Island Lilac FestivalMackinac Island, Mich.
June 8-17
Mackinac's bloom fest is an outlier in more ways than one: It's about as late in the season as a spring flower celebration can get. It's a couple of hours from the nearest metropolitan area of consequence, Traverse City, Mich. And it's on an island--peaking at 900 feet above sea level--in the uppermost reach of Lake Huron, where it meets Lake Michigan. This genteel, historic retreat is a sublime setting for the lilac festival, which culminates in a parade wherein the floats are pulled by draft horses, since private cars are barred from the island. Wear your whites - and your good walking shoes.

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