Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Underwater Travel: Dive With Sharks

Divers in Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas (© Bryan Haraway)
Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas boasts a 1.3-million-gallon exhibit that’s home to sharks, rays, sawfish, green sea turtles and schools of fish. Feeling bold? Dive into the 22-foot-deep tank and swim with seven different species of shark, including white-tip reef sharks and zebra sharks. Divers must present a valid certification card from a recognized dive instruction agency (PADI, NAUI, etc.), are required to sign a liability waiver and must wear chainmail for protection. You may also be interested to know that young sharks are fed daily and adult sharks are fed three times per week.
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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Underwater Hotel planned for Dubai


shipbuilder Drydocks World has signed on with Switzerland’s BIG InvestConsult, on behalf of partner Deep Ocean Technology (DOT), to become the sole construction contractor of the futuristic Water Discus Underwater Hotels in the Middle East. Tailored to the luxurious lifestyle, aspiring divers and marine life enthusiasts, the patent-protected concept by DOT is comprised of disc-shaped volumes that are both above and below the water’s surface, exploring the depths of the ocean while taking advantage of the warm climate.

Continue after the break for more on the Water Discus Underwater Hotels.

Courtesy of Deep Ocean Technology

The single water discus module works as an independent structure, with the possibility of joining other modules to create a larger resort complex. Each module consists of two discs; one disc is submerged ten-meters underwater and the other floats five to seven-meters above the sea’s surface. Both parts are connected by three structural “legs” and a vertical shaft containing a lift and stairway.

Courtesy of Deep Ocean Technology

Enormous panes of glass frame the vibrant sea life within each of the twenty-one private rooms, located in the underwater disc. A special lighting system is integrated within each room, allowing visitors to illuminate the water world and view the sea creatures. Adjacent to these rooms is an underwater dive center and a fully stocked bar.

Courtesy of Deep Ocean Technology

The above-water disc is comprised of a restaurant, spa, a special recreation area and a multifunctional lobby that is built inside an enormous swimming pool. The swimming pool can be accessed by the roof, along with a rooftop garden and the helicopter pad.

Courtesy of Deep Ocean Technology

The safety of the occupants is placed at high priority. The structure is designed to withstand the most adverse weather conditions. And, in the event of any danger, the underwater disc will automatically surface. However, one must question the safety of the marine life if this hotel is constructed. DOT highlighted the fact that each disc is sized according to the local condition and has the ability to be relocated if “any changes in the environmental or economic conditions occur”.

Courtesy of Deep Ocean Technology

Technology: Lech Rowinski (Technical University of Gdansk)
CEO: Arkadiusz Majerski
CFO: Jacek Zdrojewski
Company’s Development : Grzegorz Malenczuk
Architecture: Pawel Podwojewski
Executive Creative Director: Pawel Podwojewski
3D Artist: Dimitriy Belozertsev at MOTYW

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coolest underwater attractions

Instead of navigating overcrowded Pompeii, why not explore another intriguing ancient city—resting just five to 15 feet underwater. You’ll be snorkeling past eerily beautiful mosaic-floored villas at Italy’s Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia in no time.

We’re just beginning to appreciate the depth of the ocean’s wonders, as demonstrated by director James Cameron’s recent seven-mile free fall to the lowest point of the Mariana Trench, roughly 50 times the size of the Grand Canyon.

While Cameron’s not eager to promote deep-sea tourism, inspired travelers might be surprised by how much we already have to gawk at below the waves. The coolest underwater attractions include ancient ruins, shipwrecks, art, and kitsch—and you don’t necessarily need to be a scuba diver to enjoy them.

Take the plunge now to explore these cool underwater attractions. It’s a brave new world down there.

Museo Subacuático de Arte, Cancún, Mexico

British artist Jason deCaires Taylor’s under-the-sea museum features more than 400 pieces molded from pH-neutral concrete and sunk in Cancún’s National Marine Park off Isla Mujeres (a much larger endeavor than his first sculpture park in Grenada’s Moliniere Bay). Look out for the orange coral–studded “Man on Fire” and Terracotta Army–esque “Silent Evolution.” Corals and sea life will gradually stake a claim on the figures, transforming them into living reefs to surreal effect. You can visit via snorkel, scuba, or glass-bottomed boat.

Museo Subacuático de Arte (Photo: Jason deCaires Taylor)

Parco Archaeologico Sommerso di Baia, Pozzuoli, Italy

Pompeii doesn’t have the lock on ancient Italian trauma. Thanks to bradyseism—the gradual raising or lowering of earth due to filling magma chambers—the neighborhood of Baia, 30 minutes west of Naples, now rests in about five to 15 feet of water. Guided tours for both snorkelers and divers cover eight underwater (and four terrestrial) sites like Villa Protiro and Portus Julius. Intricate black-and-white mosaic floors, loose statues, and frescoes mingle with sea stars and anemone shoals...for now. As recently as 1984, the sea floor raised six feet.
Parco Archaeologico Sommerso di Baia (Photo: Stefano D'Urso / Centro Sub Campi Flegrei)

Truk Lagoon, Micronesia
At the top of even the most casual wreck enthusiast’s bucket list, Truk (a.k.a. Chuuk) was the forward stronghold of Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II before it was bombed into oblivion in February 1944. The coral-encrusted ghost fleet (some 60 ships, 275 airplanes)—with gas masks, ammunition, guns, and bones still rattling inside—litters the sandy floor at an average depth of 65 feet. The lagoon’s calm waters host reef sharks and a rainbow of fish, as seemingly in paradise as the divers photographing rusted artillery tanks aboard the San Francisco Maru and the shattered hulk of the I-169 Shinohara submarine.

Truk Lagoon (Photo: Chris A Crumley / Alamy)

Neptune Memorial Reef, Key Biscayne, Florida
Introducing the first cemetery that requires PADI certification to pay your respects. The founding Neptune Society has taken burial at sea to a monumental level with what will ultimately be the world’s largest man-made reef: 16 acres sprawled under 50 feet of water about three miles east of Key Biscayne, near South Beach. Modeled after Atlantis, with stone lions guarding an entrance canopy and porticos, the reef has space in its first phase for 850 “placements”—cremated remains mixed with concrete and put into niches or molded into shell and coral shapes on the sea floor. The ultimate capacity will reach 125,000.

Neptune Memorial Reef (Photo: Todd Murray)

Port Royal, Jamaica
It wasn’t rum or syphilitic excess that undid the 17th-century Caribbean’s notorious hotbed of piracy and privateering, so dubbed “the Wickedest City on Earth.” It was bad urban planning. Port Royal was built on a sand spit, and when an earthquake struck on June 7, 1692, liquefaction caused 33 acres, streets and all, to sink. Today, it’s one of the New World’s best nautical archaeological sites, with depths reaching 40 feet. Consult dive shops for permits to explore paving stones, parts of the former city wall, and nearby wrecks.

Port Royal (Photo: Rory Roopnarine / Alamy)

Yonaguni Monument, Okinawa, Japan
A sport diver tracking hammerhead sharks in 1987 discovered a megalithic temple 82 feet under the East China Sea: solid rock slabs, carved with near right angles in a stepped pyramidal structure; ancient walls and water channels; stone tools and carvings. Or did he? Japanese scientists proclaimed it the Lost Continent of Mu. Dissenters chalked it up as a unique, though natural phenomenon, like the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway. What’s not up for geological debate: the flights of fantasy you get from diving here.

Yonaguni Monument (Photo: Chris Willson / Alamy)

Underwater Post Office, Vanuatu
At the world’s first underwater post office, 150 feet out and nine feet down off marine sanctuary Hideaway Island, it’s not slow-moving lines of humans you have to contend with but schools of shimmering fish. Cyclone Jasmine damaged the structure in February 2012, so for now scuba-gear-clad mailmen have been replaced by an unmanned yellow post box; about $4 still gets you a waterproof postcard mailed anywhere in the world.

Underwater Post Office (Photo: paul abbitt rml / Alamy)

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show, Spring Hill, FL
Fed by the massive Weeki Wachee Springs, the Mermaid Show Theater an hour north of Tampa is an aquatic cousin to the terrestrial tackiness of road-trip classics like South Dakota’s Corn Palace and Route 66’s dusty concrete dinosaurs. Campy, you betcha! It’s a slice of Americana layered on thick. And yet, in the right mood, its old-time charm and balletic prowess—and occasional stage crash by a pirouetting manatee—is enchanting nostalgia, an act largely unchanged since pretty girls first donned fabric tails in 1947.

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show (Photo: John Athanason)

Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail
Stretching 120 miles from Key Largo to Key West, this aggressive artificial reef program supplements the area’s shallow, fish-filled reefs and wrecks of early 1700s Spanish galleons. Free dive logs highlight the main sites, such as the massive radar dishes of the 524-foot-long missile tracker USS Vandenberg, host to an underwater photo exhibit. North of Key Largo, near Miami, The Spirit of Miami—an entire Boeing 727 jetliner sunk in Biscayne Bay in 1993—was subsequently lost during a tropical storm and rediscovered in multiple pieces in 2010.

Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail (Photo: Florida Keys/ Newman PR)

Vaersenbaai Car Piles, Curaçao
Divers know the candy-colored island of Curaçao for the Marine Park all along its southern coast, offering easy shore dives and snorkeling, sheer drop-offs, and coral bays. There are wrecks for beginners (a cutesy tugboat) and, for the more technically skilled, car piles roughly 90 feet down. Classic rides from the ’40s and ’50s were junked in Vaersenbaai along with cranes and construction equipment in an ill-conceived attempt at reef building. But where sponge and coral didn’t quite flourish, photo-ops do—namely you behind the wheel of a rusty Chevy.

Vaersenbaai Car Piles (Photo: Hill Knowlton Strategies)

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Seattle's iconic Space Needle turns 50

A popular way for visitors to get an overview of a city is from the observation deck of an iconic structure such as New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) or Seattle’s Space Needle, which joins the Seattle World’s Fair in celebrating its 50th anniversary on April 21.

Created as the centerpiece of the 1962 space-themed exposition, the 605-foot-tall Space Needle has been described as looking like “a UFO on stilts” and was for many years the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. Today, the still futuristic-looking Needle is an iconic landmark in the Emerald City, its most visited attraction and home to one of the few remaining rotating restaurants in the world.

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3 of the Best Summer Holiday Destination

There really is no better time to escape on a holiday than in the Summer and there are two ways of looking at this proposition. You can make an overseas escape during the Australian Winter and make the most of the warm weather in the northern hemisphere, or you can depart Australia during our Summer and enjoy the off-peak season and beauty of so many locations in the northern hemisphere.
If we assume that you are capitalising on the holiday season in Australia and taking your overseas trip over the Australian Summer, you will find a variety of wonderful places to visit. Here we take a look at three of these:

1:  Thailand
Thailand is a perennially (and understandably) popular choice of holiday destination for Australians. The location of Thailand makes it quite an easy journey from home and travel to and within the country is generally affordable.
In fact, many people choose a Summer holiday to Thailand because it offers a smorgasbord of opportunities – everything from pure relaxation and indulgence, cultural festivities and delicious cuisine to adrenaline fuelled activities and breathtakingly beautiful scenery. No matter whether you are seeking a romantic destination for a honeymoon or the perfect spot for a family holiday, Thailand will fit the bill.
Planning a holiday to Thailand is indeed exciting – there is plenty to do and see and many gorgeous islands to explore. You will find world class resorts and a wide range of other accommodation options.
As with every destination for a Summer holiday (or a holiday in any season), it is important that you organise travel insurance cover before leaving home. Do not leave it to chance; too many travellers have been financially and otherwise disadvantaged by failing to take out cover and then having the unthinkable happen to them. Many flexible and cheap travel insurance options are available and there really is no excuse to take the risk of leaving for an overseas journey without having sufficient travel insurance protection.

2:  Fiji
Fiji has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a Summer holiday travel destination for Australians. The fact that the island nation caters so well for families, groups, individuals and couples, makes it a perfect choice as a Summer holiday destination and because it enjoys warm temperate weather almost always, means that visitors are all but guaranteed to experience perfect holiday weather!
The hospitality, warmth and attentiveness of the Fijian people are completely delightful and such a welcome leaves you with little else to do but have a wonderful time. No matter whether you desire a relaxing, casual holiday in which you have the perfect opportunity to unwind, or a holiday that is characterised by adventure and plenty of activity, it is possible to have your aspirations fulfilled in the island nation.
Chances are that upon seeing the glorious white sandy beaches of Fiji you will want to factor plenty of waterside relaxation or activity into your schedule!

3:  Cuba
Much further away is the unique and enchanting nation of Cuba. With a rich and fascinating history and abundant sunshine, Cuba attracts many travellers from the antipodes who wish to witness and experience the vibrancy of the place and people and marvel at the incredible – but crumbling – architecture of its capital, Havana.
Travellers to Cuba can and should expect to learn about the country’s Communist history and present and, of course, its leader – Fidel Castro. This is a country with an amazing history that offers an incredible cultural experience for visitors.
Regardless of your reasons for visiting Cuba, you are bound to be captivated by the vibrant energy of the nation and the hospitality and warmth of local people. It is almost impossible not to have an incredible Summer holiday in Cuba!

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Thursday, May 17, 2012


By Supreet Raj Pradhan

      The sun does arise,And make happy the skies;The merry bells ring To welcome the spring;The skylark and thrush,The birds of the bush,Sing louder around

To the bell’s cheerful sound,While our sports shall be seen,On the echoing green

Such are the words of welcome for spring visioned by William Blake in his poem, The Echoing Green. Late February marks the beginning of the spring trekking season, which peaks around mid April. The weather grows progressively warmer, days are longer and multi coloured rhododendrons can be seen blooming at high elevation. The spring certainly strikes a welcome note for the trekking season and this year we will be looking forward to a great season.

With the fiftieth year of the ascent on Everest was celebrated and honoured by many a climber and lover of this “Abode of Snows” and with the great Himalayas as a backdrop what more would one want to see and feel happy about. It is the time of year when after the gloom of the winters the bright and glorious sun shines down upon the earth to show us our nature’s colours. The trekking season is mainly divided into two halves. The spring and the autumn seasons. Although the trekking season in the Mustang region happens to occur during the monsoon, in the more popular Everest and Annapurna regions trekking is mainly during the months of late February to May (spring) and mid September to December (autumn). People have their preferences as to when they like to trek but each season seems to have it’s own attractions and specialities. The Annapurna region is the more popular of the two main trekking regions of Nepal. In the spring people come to look at the rhododendrons in bloom especially in the Annapurna region and the bird life and the wild life are quite vibrant at this time of the year. The beautiful rhododendron forests in the Ghandruk and Ghorepani region are resplendent with the colour and beauty of the flowers in bloom. There are magnolias blooming also at this time of the year. Birds such as the thrush, sunbird, robin, magpie, warbler, river chats and bush chats can be sighted at this time of the year as they come to feed on the nectars. The lush green forests are filled with the freshness of spring and the Daphne seems to be growing everywhere spreading its sweet scent. The Langtang Valley, which is visited less often than the Annapurna or the Everest region, is also one of the many places which turn beautiful in the spring. The 1700 square kilometres (660 square miles) park is not as large as the other parks but it still has much to offer. A single range divides the valley from Tibet and the Sherpas who live there, look as much like the Sherpas of Solu Khumbu region though they have a different dialect. The Tibetans are thought to have mingled with the Tamangs of the Helambu area to produce a different ethnic mix. The woods of the Langtang Valley are forested with oak, birch, bamboo and blue pine. The Langtang Valley also boasts of about a hundred and fifty varieties of birds, which can be seen mostly during the spring. Also in the valley are about thirty different mammals. The spring brings to bloom the great greenery of the Langtang Valley and with it the joyful colours of nature. White Erica, Dwarf rhododendrons, ground orchids, high cream primulas, bronze bell-shaped fritillaries, copper coloured lilies, and poppies cover the hillsides in spring.

The Solu Khumbu or the Everest region is the second most popular trekking area in Nepal. With the onset of the spring season towards the middle of February the region comes to life after a hard cold winter. The weather starts to get warmer and the fields start to look greener (in the lower reaches). As one starts to trek from Lukla towards Phakding the peach trees along the trail just above Muse (Moo-say) are in bloom and is a pretty sight. Rhododendrons around Phakding and on the trail through Monjo to Namche are in bloom and one can see many of the magnolias across the Dudh Kosi River. With the coming of the spring season and the tourists to the Khumbu region even the local population seems to be in a happy mood. As you trek higher up from Namche towards Tyangboche you will come across more rhododendrons and primulas. The rhododendron forest in Deboche becomes resplendent in red. The rhododendrons around the Tyangboche area also start to flower and the sight is just awesome and beautiful. The spring season is also the time when the expeditions to Everest take place so there is quite a huge flow of tourists at this time of the year.

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Top 5 U.S. Eco-Travel Destinations

The flight, the cab rides, and the water it takes to wash your towels every day at the hotel … vacations are great for relaxing, but even better for making an enormous carbon footprint.
For those who’d rather be a little more ecologically conscious this travel season, here’s a list of the cities where you’ll be more likely to find five-lane bike paths than freeways.
Chicago, IL
Chi Town’s motto, “Urbs in Horto” when translated into English means “City in a Garden”. And what a garden it is, with no less than 552 parks spanning 7,300 acres of land, 33 beaches and 10 wildlife gardens. Chicago surprises it visitors who may have expected a more intimidating metropolis.
It’s easy to go green in Chicago, thanks to labels like the Green Seal and “Guaranteed Green” which help tourists make informed decisions about where to stay and eat. The city boasts a total of nineteen “Guaranteed Green” restaurants (look for the green fork decal in the windows) and thirteen hotels certified by the Green Seal, more than any other city in the U.S.
Since Chicago is one of the five most walkable cities in the country, getting around doesn’t necessarily involve motor vehicles. It’s home to the second largest public transportation system in America and has recently started a bike sharing system like many major European cities. The Bike 2015 Plan promises to install 500 miles of bikeways and over 10,000 bike racks citywide by 2015.
For even more fresh air, check out some of the largest parks in the countrywide, like Lincoln Park, which welcomes over 20 million visitors each year, or the famous Navy Pier on Lake Michigan’s waterfront, where you’ll find restaurants, museums, exhibition halls, a ferris wheel and a bustling harbor. Many of Chicago’s biggest museums have also started using environmentally friendly practices by participating in the Green Museum Initiative.
austin city hall1
Austin, TX
Not only is Austin home to the “best people” according to Travel & Leisure magazine, but it’s also one of the most environmentally friendly cities in America. Officials have concentrated heavily on ecological issues even before going green became cool, so you’ll be hard pressed not to find plenty of green hotels and restaurants that cater to whatever travel experience you’re looking for.
Austin’s public transportation system is one of the cheapest in the country; the bus will take you from the airport to downtown for only 75 cents! And as the home of Lance Armstrong, it’s ideal for cyclists. A $3 million bicycle highway project that bears his name is currently underway, with five miles of road already completed.
In a city that gets 300 days of sunshine each year, there’s always something to do outside. Austin has 220 parks and a 10-mile hike-and-bike trail around scenic Lady Bird Lake, where you’ll find water temperatures as high as 70 degrees year round. And for those who prefer to stay off the beaten track, there’s Hippie Hollow Park, the only officially sanctioned clothing-optional park in Texas, if that’s your kind of thing.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Austin this summer is the City Hall rooftop, a LEED gold certified 12,000 sq. ft. plaza that features a waterfall, solar panels, and garden terrace that was built in 2007 to promote sustainability in public places. As the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World”, the green roof has an amphitheater where live music takes place every Friday at noon from April to December.
Portland, OR
Fans of Portlandia already know it’s home to some of the most eco-conscious people in the world, and also the most likely to tell you about it. But the city’s slew of environmental awards gives the locals more than a few bragging rights.
With over a dozen hotels that are green-certified, Portland makes it easy for tourists to enjoy its natural beauty without having to worry about wasting water or energy during their stay. Plus, half of the city’s power comes from renewable sources.
Outside, there’s plenty to do as well. Waterfront Park spans the length of downtown, and Mount Tabor Park, which sits atop a volcano, is known for its scenic views and reservoir. Every week between March and Christmas, head to the Portland Saturday Market where you’ll find artisan crafts and imports, or take advantage of Portland’s bike-ability by renting a bicycle and hitting up a mountain trail.
Foodies love Portland because of its long history of farm-to-fork practices. Over 20 farmers’ markets and 35 community gardens contribute to Portland’s restaurant scene, where there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, too. The city’s also a coffee snob’s delight; it’s the home of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, a leader in fair trade practices.
Boston, MA
It’s a big accomplishment that Boston is one of America’s greenest cities when half the year it’s covered in white. But with an impressive campaign to reduce pollution, increase recycling and promote clean transportation, Beantown and its surrounding suburbs lead New England in eco-friendly practices.
In Boston, there are 28 green-certified hotels and 29 restaurants and event centers, a convenient metro system (the T) and even hybrid taxis. Best of all, it’s commonly called “America’s Walking City”, so skip the wheels altogether and take a stroll through Boston’s historic winding streets.
While you’re there, stop by the famous New England Aquarium (there are penguins!), play a game of kickball on the Boston Commons, or if the weather’s nice rent a sailboat or kayak on the Charles River. The 17 mile Esplanade trail which runs alongside its banks is great for biking or rollerblading.
If you’re hungry, check out one of Boston’s many vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants like 303 Café, which specializes in local food. Haymarket, the oldest and largest farmer’s market in the city is open on Fridays and Saturdays, and if you don’t mind the lines, there are also numerous Trader Joe’s locations around town.
While it’s certainly green during the summer, Boston’s even better in the fall, when orange, yellow and red foliage cover scenic college campuses. So even if you can’t make it up north for Boston’s Greenfest August 16-18, there’s still more to see before the sub-zero weather kicks in.
San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
It’s no surprise that the hippie haven of the world is also home to some of the most eco-conscious citizens.  With its famous cable cars and a taxi fleet of 92% hybrid vehicles, it’s easy for tourists to go green, too.
As a city small in geographic area, it’s even more impressive that they reserve 17% of its 47 square miles to parks and open space. Check out Golden Gate Park, which takes up three miles of land and features a botanical garden, a music concourse area, a stadium and even a lake. But the best part about it is the California Academy of Sciences, one of the largest natural history museums in the country and the largest public LEED certified building in the world, making it just about the greenest tourist attraction you could possibly imagine. The center houses an aquarium, planetarium, 3D theatre, lecture hall, two restaurants, garden, aviary, and panoramic views of the park, not to mention an entire four-story rainforest.
To eat, hop on over to the Ferry Building, where you’ll find over 30 vendors with locally grown organic foods and a farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. And if you’re shopping around for a place to stay, consider the Orchard Garden Hotel, one of the nation’s only LEED certified hotels that has a rooftop garden and an energy-control feature in its rooms. Just be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

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Marvelous, Irreverent Ghent

If you’ve been to Flanders—Belgium’s northern reaches—chances are you’ve explored Brussels, from its gourmet restaurants and chocolate shops to its Manneken Pis, or Petit Julien, one of the world’s most beloved statues.  Possibly, you’ve toured Bruges, where mists rise moodily over canals plied by flat bottomed barges and lined with medieval stone houses.  You might even have ventured to Antwerp, capital of the world diamond trade, a major European art venue, and site of a charming in-city zoo right next to an ornate central train station.
Catedral Ghent Belgium
But Ghent?
East Flanders’ capital and largest city lies about midway between Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp, but foreign visitors often bypass the city.   Ghent is Belgium’s fourth-largest city, and has a vibrant restaurant scene, scores of chocolatiers, and even its own Manneken Pis.  Like Bruges, it has canals, and its two in-city rivers, the Lieve and the Leie, have been “canalized,” dug out and straightened to give the appearance of canals.  Like Antwerp, Ghent also has a lively art scene.  In fact, the city is home to the 15th-century “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a.k.a the Ghent Altarpiece, a 24-panel religious work by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.  Having a major van Eyck in its portfolio would be enough to cement Ghent’s reputation as a European art center.  But this is no ordinary masterpiece.   Critics consider it the first major work of the Renaissance, the seminal work from which all other great Renaissance paintings flowed.   Indeed, if the altarpiece were moved to Paris, declared American art historian Noah Charney, “it would easily knock the Mona Lisa off its throne.”
Ghent—or Gent in Flemish, Gand in French—is certainly an amalgam of Flanders’ best.  But what’s really best about Ghent is its individualistic, even quirky nature.  “Ghenttitude” initially reveals itself in the tourist brochures.  One states that everyone is welcome as long as they don’t behave like drunken tourists.  Another says if you don’t like the way things are done in Ghent, go home.   And yet another opines:  “In Antwerp, you can win a debate with the loudest voice; in Ghent, we just ignore you.”   That “in-your-face” style typifies Ghentian tourism promotion—take it or leave it.
Gentenaars, as the locals are called, have had centuries to perfect their independent streak.  From 1,000 to 1,500 A.D., when Ghent was second in size only to Paris and controlled Europe’s lucrative textile trade as well as the major river routes to the North Sea, they refused to be conquered.  When they finally were conquered in the 16th century, they refused to follow their new ruler’s edicts.  So in 1540, Emperor Charles V forced them to parade through the streets wearing nooses around their necks.   What was initially contrived as a mark of humiliation has, in true Ghentian fashion, been turned into a badge of pride.  On major occasions like the 10-day Ghent Festival, which draws upwards of 1.5 million visitors each July, locals parade through the streets wearing miniature nooses around their necks.
graffiti street Ghent Belgium
Irreverent ancestors certainly contributed to the locals’ independent, individualistic character, but so have today’s youthful residents.  Like most Flemish cities Ghent is small, yet it has a student population of 65,000 who attend the University of Ghent and other academic institutions and conservatories.   A populace fueled by youthful energy and innovation give Ghent the feel of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, or a Berkeley, California.  It has also resulted in what rock-star Prince has called “the funkiest place in the world.”
How funky?  Well, consider food, for starters.  Ghent is the home of “the Flemish Foodies,” three of Europe’s most innovative young chefs, including Michelin-starred Kobe Desramaults of De Vitrine, Olly Ceulenaere of Volta and Jason Blankaert of the recently opened J.e.f.  Despite the high flown culinary pedigree, Ghent also bills itself as the “Veggie Capital of Europe,” boasting the continent’s highest number of vegetarian restaurants. To prove it, there’s an official map listing scores of establishments.  Not into vegetarian?  Try Raj Bathhouse, where you can nibble on Indian treats after taking a sauna, or “a sewing café” called BoHo where you put several stitches in your latest garment, then relax with a simple meal and a few drinks.  Even the most time honored Belgian culinary traditions have been “Ghentrified.”  Take fries, or chips, as they’re called in this part of the world.  Throughout the country, they’re eaten with mayo.  But the Ghent topping of choice is stoverijsause mee mayonaise—a beer-infused brown meat sauce mixed with mayonnaise.
What about art and culture?  Aside from the Ghent Altarpiece, which could cover an entire wall, there are some 30 graffiti walls in the center city, also listed on maps extolling the city’s two greatest graffiti artists, Bue the Warrior (who specializes in color pieces) and Roa (who works in black and white).  There are quite a few well-respected museums, including S.M.A.K. (the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art); MSK (the Museum of Fine Arts) featuring Flemish masters like Bosch, Rubens, Magritte and van Dyck; and STAM, the new city museum.  Yet, housed in Belgium’s oldest psychiatric hospital is one of the city’s most beloved institutions, the Dr. Guislain Museum, whose offbeat collection includes an early brain cutting machine and disembodied testicles under glass.
jazz Ghent Belgium
Travelers clever enough to put Ghent on their itineraries usually arrive by train, thirty minutes northwest from Brussels, forty-five southeast from Antwerp, and an easy trip from Amsterdam, London or Paris.  Trains stop in Gent-Sint-Pieters Station, a gray-stone bulwark with enough turrets to make you wish you’d ridden into town on your destrier, or at least packed your lance and longbow.  Upon arrival, pick up a bus and tram map at the station.  From its east side, trams, buses (and taxis) take visitors on a 15-minute ride to the Old City, about a mile north.  Or, rent a bicycle in Sint-Pieters Station from Max Mobiel, open daily, except Sunday; closed December and January.   You have, after all, just arrived in what city promoters call “the most bike-friendly city in Europe.”
If you’ve come just for the day, start your explorations in the old city.  But if you were wise enough to book several nights in Ghent, check into your hotel first.  Like any city worth its salt, Ghent has a handful of multinational hotels, including a Marriott and a Novotel, as well as charming canal-side houses with stepped-gable roofs.
To really immerse yourself in Ghent’s trademark quirkiness, stay in one of the city’s bed-and-breakfast inns. Bed & Breakfast Gent puts out a map describing more than 75 B&Bs.  Or contact the Ghent Tourist Information Office and ask for specific recommendations, not just about the establishments but also about your prospective hosts.
Festival Ghent Belgium
Into music?  Ghent, a UNESCO City of Music like Glasgow and Seville, has an opera house, various classical venues, and a thriving club scene for jazz and virtually any kind of contemporary music.  You might even be lucky enough to be in town for one of the city’s music festivals—Gent Jazz (one of Europe’s top 16 jazz festivals, held in July), the free Jazz in ‘T Park concerts (including midnight screenings of jazz documentaries in the Koning Albertpark), or the classical Festival Van Vlaanderen, to name just a few.  Why not ask for a host who is into music, too?
Want to try the best—or most offbeat—restaurants?  Some innkeepers can point you in the right direction.  Skeptical that anyone from a city tourist office could provide such specifics?  Well, think again.  For all of Ghent’s cosmopolitanism, for all its world-class restaurants, bars, cultural institutions and dance clubs, the city is one of Europe’s biggest small villages.  As a student lucky enough to attend the university here put it, “In Ghent everyone knows each other like one big family.”  Not surprisingly, if you’re also lucky enough to be born—or to give birth—in Ghent, the streetlamps in Sint-Veerleplein, one of the old city’s main squares, will come on during the day so everyone can celebrate.   Does it get more small town than that?
Once you’re settled, spend your first day strolling the Old City, at Ghent’s northern edge.  Begin in Sint-Veerleplein, an L-shaped square at the y-shaped confluence of the Rivers Lieve and Leie.  The Castle of the Counts, or the Gravensteen, a gray-stone authentically medieval pile topped by heraldic flags lowers over the narrow square threatening to burst its very seams.  If there’s time, pop inside to visit the dungeons, and gawk at knightly arms and medieval instruments of torture.  Built in 1180, the castle is authentically medieval, but several windows were added for the city’s 1913 World Exhibition.
Licht festival Ghent Belgium
A few other Ghent landmarks were similarly tweaked.  In fact, there are two Masons’ Guild Halls because overzealous reconstructionists somehow overlooked the original 16th-century hall near Sint-Niklaaskerk and decided to build another along the Kraanlei, Old Town’s lovely canal-side promenade.  Don’t be surprised if a local jokingly brings up the matter of Ghent’s 20th-century “medievalization.”   Gentenaars are blessed with more than their fair share of pride, but they also don’t mind a little humor at their own expense.   That, along with their intellectual and creative bent, is what makes them so likable.
While in Sint-Veerleplein, stop at the new Tourist Information Office (No. 5), and surf city attractions on the state-of-the-art computerized light table designed by hip Belgian artist Arne Quinze.  Be sure to pick up maps and brochures, especially the quirky USE-IT Europe “Map of Ghent: Made by Locals for Young Travelers.”   You also can purchase a Museum Pass (20 Euros), good for three days’ admission to 14 museums and monuments as well as use of the local De Lijn public buses and trams.  Next door is one of the city’s hottest new eateries, Bord’Eau, a contemporary style seafood restaurant with big picture windows right on the river and an outdoor terrace in summer.
Head south over the bridge to the 15th-century Groentenmarkt, or Great Butcher’s Hall, where cured Ghent hams, or Ganda hams, hang from big wooden rafters as in days of old.  Enjoy simple Ghent fare here—like waterzooi, the national stew supposedly invented in Ghent—or coffee or tea with a couple of bagel-like buns called mastellen.   While there buy Ghent gourmet specialties like the pyramid-shaped candies called cuberdons, various kinds of  genever, or gin, and assorted mustards from Tierenteyn, whose shop is just across the square.
Catedral Ghent Belgium 2
When you’re done, make a left at the Langemunt, a major thoroughfare, then hang a right into the Vrijdagmarkt.  By now, you’ve probably noticed that old-city Ghent, like Bruges, is a warren of small pedestrian squares, or pleins, that flow gracefully into one another.  Some squares are named for markets held here in centuries past and still held today; others for medieval professional guilds once headquartered there, and still others for various saints, like Baaf, or Bavo, whom most Catholics on this side of the Atlantic have never heard of.   Nowadays, the Vrijdagmarkt—site of a Friday and Saturday market for clothing and other goods and a Sunday bird market—is also known for Friday night blowouts in bars like De Dulle Griet, where you hand over a shoe as a deposit for using one of Ghent’s trademark tall hourglass shaped beer mugs in wooden frames.
Just outside Vrijdagmarkt is Sint-Jacobskerk, or St. James Church.  From there, take Belfortstraat to Sint-Baafsplein and Sint-Baafskathedraal, home of the aforementioned “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” or Ghent Altarpiece.  Art lovers won’t want to miss this elaborate masterpiece.  But be forewarned: The cathedral and a separate chapel housing the altarpiece are open daily, but on Sunday, the altarpiece chapel is only open 1-4 p.m.  Check out several other buildings on Sint-Baafsplein and nearby Limburgstraat, like The Belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site topped by a gilded dragon.  Take the elevator to the 215-foot-high gallery for panoramic city views, or on Sunday enjoy a centuries old tradition, carillon music, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.   Just behind the square, is Bij Sint-Jacob’s, or Beverhoutplein, a pocket square shaded by plane trees.  This is the centerpiece of the Ghent Festival in July.  Throughout the year, a popular flea market is held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m.- 1 p.m.
Heading north along the crescent shaped curve of Limburgstraat, you’ll soon reach another major church, Sint-Niklaaskerk, known for its baroque altarpieces and life sized statues of the Apostles.  St. Nicholas is across from Restaurant C-Jean, where “Flemish Foodie” Jason Blankaert once reigned and which the city newspaper once hailed as the city’s best.  Peek into St. Nicholas Church, then cross the Michielshelling Bridge.  From the vantage point of Sint-Michielskerke—known for masterpieces like van Dyck’s “Christ on the Cross,” the three towers of St. Nicholas, St. Bavo and The Belfry line up perfectly for a perfect photo opportunity.
ghen fest night Ghent Belgium
At this point, if you only allowed yourself one day in Ghent, you can be forgiven for hurriedly hopping a tram or bus back to Sint-Pieters Station for the ride back to Brussels or on to Antwerp.  But you’ll probably never forgive yourself.  If only you had only carved out three days in Ghent!  Imagine the possibilities!
Tomorrow, you might have hopped aboard a flat-bottomed boat for a dreamy river or canal cruise.  Or you could have headed to Citadelpark to browse S.M.A.K’s contemporary works or MSK’s old masters.  That night you might have strolled just east of the Castle of the Counts to the Patershol, the medieval enclave that’s become a trendy restaurant district.  Or you could have patronized one of the many international restaurants stretching from nearby Oudburg Street all the way to Sleepstraat.
The next day, your third in Ghent, you might have spent the day visiting the city’s old monasteries, perhaps St. Peters Abbey, now an art center with a garden and in-city vineyard. Or perhaps Old St. Elizabeth Beguinage, one of the city’s three original beguinages—medieval religious communities where women stayed, often for years, while their husbands were off fighting the Crusades.  You could have wandered around the student quarter, Sint-Pietersplein, just northeast of the train station–browsing the hip shops and boutiques then sampled the many restaurants, bars and music clubs by night.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Top City Break Destination: Chicago, Illinois

When rapper Lupe Fiasco branded Chicago the "best city in the whole wide, wide world," he may have ruffled some feathers. Upon closer inspection, there's plenty to back it up: a destination-worthy dining scene; deeply rooted music culture; and soaring, significant architecture. Throw world-class museums and a cutting edge cocktail culture into the mix, and you have the makings of a memorable jaunt.

Hugging the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, where sailboats bobble when weather allows, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each one with a distinct feel and intriguing, historic context. Long pegged as a working-class city, Chicago is so much more: a hotbed for top chefs, an epicenter for sports enthusiasts and a source of inspiration for innovators old and new.

Edible adventures can be had along ethnic stretches, such as Devon Avenue, Wentworth Avenue, and Argyle Street, though many of the city's most interesting eats are tucked into unassuming storefronts and found off the beaten path. Culinary tours -- especially those with an insider's bent -- can help acclimate and steer you beyond stereotypes. By the same token, bike, canoe, architectural and even Segway tours reveal points of interest from unique vantage points.

Needless to say, Chicago has its share of tony boutiques; Oak Street and the Mag Mile offer proof of that. But it's also a hub for local designers; vintage Ukie Village finds; and galleries, salvage and indie music stores galore. Even boozehounds can rejoice, thanks to lauded, city-centered microbreweries and distilleries.

Easy to navigate, Chicago streets follow a grid system, with addresses generally increasing 100 each block. Most of its primary neighborhoods -- to mention, its two airports -- are easily accessible by 'L' (elevated train). Buses and cabs fill in the blanks, which means you can get around with ease.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Introduction to Glacier National Park

Majestic and wild, this vast preserve overwhelms visitors, beckoning with stunning mountain peaks (many covered year-round with glaciers), verdant mountain trails that cry out for hikers, and the sheer diversity of its plant and animal life. The unofficial mascot in these parts is the grizzly, a refugee from the high plains.

Named to describe the slow-moving glaciers that carved awe-inspiring valleys throughout this expanse of nearly 1 million acres, Glacier National Park exists because of the efforts of George Bird Grinnell, a 19th-century magazine publisher and cofounder of the Audubon Society. Following a pattern established with Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Grinnell lobbied for a national park to be set aside in the St. Mary region of Montana, and in May 1910 his efforts were rewarded. Just over 20 years later, it became, with its northern neighbor Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park--a gesture of goodwill and friendship between the governments of two countries.

If your time is limited, simply motor across Going-to-the-Sun Road, viewing the dramatic mountain scenery. Visitors with more time will find diversions for both families and hard-core adventurers; while some hiking trails are suitable for tykes, many more will challenge those determined to conquer and scale the park's tallest peaks. Glacier's lakes, streams, ponds, and waterfalls are equally engaging. Travelers board cruise boats to explore the history of the area; recreational types can fish, row, and kayak.

However, to truly experience Glacier requires slightly more effort, interest, and spunk than a drive through--abandon the pavement for even the shortest and easiest hiking trail and you'll discover a window into Glacier's soul.

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10 most romantic gestures of all time

With the media buzzing over Angelina Jolie’s engagement ring and upcoming wedding to Brad Pitt, lavish expressions of love seem to be in vogue again. But how does Brad’s custom-designed bling stack up against other grand gestures meant to win a lover’s heart throughout history? Here, we list gifts from the heart that were so extravagant — or original — that we simply had to salute the people who came up with them. Let them inspire you to new heights of sweetness with your amour...

1. Richard Burton’s rock for Elizabeth Taylor
Sure, their relationship was a rollercoaster — they married and divorced each other twice — but wouldn’t you be somewhat forgiving of a guy who liked to shower you with expensive jewelry like, say, a 69.42-carat diamond? Burton bid on this Harry Winston wonder at an auction in 1969, but lost out to business tycoon Robert Kenmore, who coughed up just over a million bucks for the beauty. Burton didn’t take the auctioneer’s hammer for an answer, though, and after some heated haggling on the phone, Kenmore sold the gem to Burton for an undisclosed sum. The Taylor-Burton diamond, as it’s called, ended up being a gift that kept on giving: After the couple parted ways, Liz sold the gem in 1979 for a whopping $5 million.

2. The Taj Mahal
India’s most popular tourist attraction is actually a tomb that was created for emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. Heartbroken, the Shah commanded 20,000 workmen to spend 22 years building this marble-and-jewel-studded effigy. As if that weren’t enough blood, sweat and tears spent, rumor has it that upon its completion, the Shah ordered that the right hand of the chief mason get chopped off so the building could remain truly one of a kind. Let’s just say that when an emperor’s in pain, his subjects feel it — personally.

3. Victoria (a.k.a. Posh Spice)’s cologne for David Beckham
What do you get for a toned, tan, highly swooned-over metrosexual millionaire who has everything? If you are Posh Spice, you get your husband — soccer superstar David Beckham — the world’s most exclusive cologne. The one-of-a-kind, $50,000 bottle of Clive Christian No. 1 fragrance took six months to produce, and came encased in a crystal bottle shaped like — what else? — a soccer shoe.

4. Joe DiMaggio’s flowers for Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe may have dated some pretty powerful guys, but no man showed her more TLC than her husband of nine months, baseball player Joe DiMaggio. After Marilyn’s death in 1962, Joe placed a 20-year standing order with a local flower shop to have long-stemmed roses placed on her grave three times a week. Talk about touching.

5. O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi
This author crafted what many consider to be the most generous — albeit cheapest — romantic gesture ever. In this short story, a poor-in-pocket but rich-in-love couple secretly makes huge sacrifices in order to buy each other Christmas gifts: He sells his grandfather’s gold watch to buy his wife a set of tortoiseshell combs for her beautiful hair; she cuts off that beautiful hair and sells it to a wig-maker to buy her hubby a platinum chain for his watch. When they realize what’s happened, they’re wise enough to just be thankful that they have each other.

6. Eric Clapton’s love song, “Layla”
Talk about annoying neighbors: when guitarist Eric Clapton moved into best friend George Harrison’s neighborhood, he fell in love with Harrison’s wife, fashion model Pattie Boyd. Clapton pleaded for her to leave the Beatle, but Pattie tuned out his requests. Despondent, Clapton began recording a song fueled by the words of the ancient Persian love poem, The Story of Layla and Majnun. The resulting tune, “Layla” — which included the lyrics, “Please don’t say, we’ll never find a way, and tell me all my love’s in vain” — was a hit in more ways than one. Pattie soon left her husband and got hitched to Clapton. Even though they divorced nine years later, the popularity of “their song” will probably last forever.

7. Justin Bieber’s private screening of Titanic for Selena Gomez
After watching their pal Demi Lovato perform in concert at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles one Friday in September 2011, Bieber led Gomez through an underground tunnel into the nearby Staples Center — which had been emptied out completely, minus one table set for a candlelit dinner for two on the court floor. There, they enjoyed a catered meal followed by a surprise showing of the film, Titanic. Perhaps the most frustrating part of this sweet story is that it reportedly didn’t cost the young crooner a dime: after selling out the 20,000-seat arena three nights in a row, Bieber was given the run of the place for a single night free of charge. Afterwards, he tweeted: “Romance isn’t dead. Treat your lady right, fellas.”

8. Wagner’s symphony to his wife
Some lovers bring their ladies breakfast in bed; others, like Richard Wagner, bring them symphonies. To celebrate his wife Cosima’s 33rd birthday, the famed composer had written Siegfried Idyll for her — and then hired a 15-piece orchestra to play the tune on their staircase as he conducted them, to boot. Recalled Cosima in her diary: “When I woke up, I heard a sound. What music!” Wagner kept this intimate ditty private until 1877, when financial strains forced him to publish it. Their loss, our gain.

9. Carole Lombard’s car for Clark Gable
Hollywood hunk Clark Gable loved fancy cars, and screen siren Carole Lombard could afford to buy him the best. Ain’t it quaint, then, that on their first official date in 1936, she bought him a beat-up Model T Ford for just $15? Quainter still, she had it painted white with red hearts all over it, then had the gift delivered with a note saying: “You’re driving me crazy.” Thoroughly swept off his feet, Gable got to return the favor to his future wife that evening when he picked her up in his newest set of wheels to go dancing at the legendary Trocadero Ballroom.

10. The garbage disposal
Architect and inventor John Hammes wanted to bestow a nice birthday gift on his wife — who, we imagine, had a sink full of dirty dishes and a disinclination to scrape the leftovers into the trash. Thus, the world’s first garbage disposal was born in 1927. Called the In-Sink-Erator, it soon swept households across the country. While it might not sound as romantic as a dozen roses, what could say “I love you” better than an invention that cuts down on the amount of housework that needs to be done?

Dan Bova is deputy editor at Stuff magazine. The best gift his wife has ever given him is their son, Henry.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

National Park Must-Sees

Olympic National Park

Highway to Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Wash. (© Dale Jorgenson/SuperStock)  America is lucky to have 392 national parks, and seeing them all is a worthy goal. If you can’t cram all that into one summer, however, here’s a list of the top 15 sights that you simply must see in our nation's parks.

Start in Port Angeles, Wash., and drive 45 minutes up the twisting, mountainous road to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. As you leave the lowlands, blanketed with old-growth forest, you’ll climb higher until you can see views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Hurricane Ridge, your final destination at about 5,200 feet, has open meadows bursting with purple lupine and red paintbrush. Hike around, look for black-tailed deer grazing in the meadow and ogle the snow-capped Olympics.

Glacier Bay National Park

 Sea Kayakers, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (© Paul Edmondson/Corbis)
Explore the rugged wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska from a sea kayak. Wildlife abounds here. You might see humpback whales, bears, sea otters, seals or bald eagles. Kayak trips start from Bartlett Cove, or the daily tour boat can transport kayakers via the camper drop-off service. Make reservations with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks for a rental kayak and the daily tour boat well in advance.

Crater Lake National Park

 Tour boat cruises past Wizard Island, Crater Lake National Park, Ore. (© age fotostock/SuperStock)
Oregon's Crater Lake is 1,943 feet deep, making it the deepest lake in the United States. The lake is a volcanic caldera left over from an eruption 7,700 years ago. The best way to explore this pure blue gem is Crater Lake Boat Tours, available daily from July to mid-September. Be sure to bring your walking shoes. The boat tour requires 2.2 miles of hiking round trip on a strenuous trail. First-come, first-served tickets are sold at the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead parking area. Check with Xanterra Parks & Resorts for a current boat tour schedule and reservations.

Bryce Canyon National Park

 Hikers on Queen's Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (© George H.H. Huey/Corbis)
Queens Garden, named for Queen Victoria, is the least difficult hiking trail in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. It begins at Sunrise Point and descends only 320 feet. Traveling this trail, 1.8 miles round trip, you will see many hoodoos, which are pinnacles, spires or odd-shaped rocks left standing by the forces of erosion. Use your imagination and you may be able to see Her Majesty at the end of a short spur trail, overseeing the “garden” before her.

Petrified Forest National Park

 Petrified wood on Long Logs Trail, Petrified Forest National Park, Ariz. (© George H.H. Huey/Corbis)
How did living coniferous trees, tree ferns and ginkgoes turn to rainbow-colored stone? Find out on an easy guided walk along the Giant Logs Trail in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Meet in the Rainbow Forest Museum sunroom for walks at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. The 0.4-mile loop trail boasts some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. "Old Faithful" at the top of the trail is almost 10 feet wide. This paved trail has several sets of stairs and is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk stag in meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo. (© Frank and Susann Parker/SuperStock)
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is a great place to spot charismatic megafauna including elk, bighorn sheep, moose and mule deer. Elk can be seen anytime. Look for them in meadows and where meadow and forest meet. Elk spend much of their time at or above treeline during the summer, moving to lower elevations in the fall, winter and spring. Favorite feeding times are dawn and dusk. Bighorn sheep are commonly seen at Sheep Lakes from May through mid-August. Moose frequent willow thickets along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley on the park's west side. Mule deer are common and can be seen anywhere. See more attractions and trails in the park.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

 Brazilian free-tail bats exiting Carlsbad Cavern, N.M. (Nick Hristov/© National Park Service)
Every evening in summer, about 400,000 Brazilian (aka Mexican) free-tail bats exit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico in search of a smorgasbord of insects for dinner. Prior to the evening bat flight, a program is given at the cavern entrance by a park ranger. The starting time of the talk varies with sunset. Check at the visitor center for the exact time. Bat flight programs are scheduled from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October and they are free.

Shenandoah National Park

Horseback riders on Limberlost Trail, Shenandoah National Park, Va. (© Jeff Greenberg/age fotostock)
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia includes 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the central Appalachians. Explore the park on horseback. Hourlong guided trail rides leave from Skyland Stables throughout the day from April 2 through November, weather permitting. The stables are near Skyland Resort. Guests must be at least 4 feet 10 inches tall and weigh less than 250 pounds to ride horses. Pony rides are available for smaller children 5 years and older, and feet must reach stirrups to ride the pony.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Helicopter near Kilauea volcano, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island of Hawaii (© Pacific Stock/SuperStock)
A helicopter ride is an exhilarating way to see Kilauea, an active volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Companies like Blue Hawaiian Helicopters will whisk you over the steaming Pu'u 'O'o cone and past screaming orange lava flows. Noise-canceling headsets allow you to hear the pilot’s narration and the lilting voice of Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, aka “Iz.” The pilot records every flight, so you can take home a DVD of your experience.

Acadia National Park

Waves hit shoreline, Acadia National Park, Maine (© Joanne Wells/


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