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Cruising the Volga River on Volga Dream

Volga DreamThe luxurious Volga Dream — the most elegant yacht on the Volga River — seems more like a charming floating hotel with a library, lounge-bar, and sun deck. The gracious service, sumptuous cuisine, and thoughtful planning made us feel right at home. and there’s no better way to see river cities between Moscow and St. Petersburg like Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhi, Mandrogy, and Valaam.

Along the way are beautiful churches, lively marketplaces, somber statuary, magnificent wooden architecture, elegantly detailed lacquerware, talented craftspeople, and a museum with 2,740 different kinds of Russian vodka.

Elegant Volga Dream interior:

Dining on the Volga Dream:

Volga Dream cabins:

A few views from the Volga Dream:

Some of the friendly Volga Dream crew:

North Africa on Le Levant

le levantOur trip aboard Le Levant was a triple delight:

  • The yacht accommodates only 90 guests in 45 elegant outside staterooms — elegant as in marble bathrooms, inlaid wood accents, and 195-square-foot cabins.
  • Our tour of North Africa included stops in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, at which we were able to view magnificent museums and archaeological sites, some of which are, unfortunately, no longer accessible.
  • And we were privileged to travel in the company of Dr. Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History and Dr. John Swanson, a professor of history and Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who has lived in Egypt for more than 30 years. Their on-board lectures were insightful and fascinating.

Here are cabins:

And here’s fine dining on Le Levant:

Le Levant has since been sold, refurbished, and relaunched as Tere Moana.

The Dalmatian Coast aboard Le Diamant

Le Diamant, accommodating up to 189 passengers, is one of the largest small ships we sailed on. Even so, it felt intimate, with comfortable cabins and a luxurious lounge.

Ports of call on our spectacular voyage to the Dalmatian Coast included:

  • Trogir
  • Split
  • Hvar
  • Dubrovnik
  • Kotor

Side trips to Zagreb in Croatia and Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina were also included. The popular voyage incorporated a World Leaders Symposium with presentations from these distinguished and learned lecturers:

  • Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001.
  • William Perry, US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997.
  • Peter Galbraith, US ambassador to the Republic of Croatia from 1993 to 1998 (and principal architect of the 1995 Erdut Agreement that ended the war in Croatia).
  • John Mroz, founder and president to the East/West Institute.
  • Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Norwegian Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Le Diamant has since been refitted with an ice-strengthened hull and now specializes in voyages to the Arctic and Antarctica. Renamed Ocean Diamond, she offers the first carbon neutral voyages in polar travel history.

Southeast Alaska aboard Island Spirit

Island Spirit was the perfect small ship from which to observe and enjoy southeast Alaska. We saw:

  • Humpback whales and sea lions so close we could actually hear them breathing.
  • Brown bears enjoying an evening salmon dinner — while we enjoyed ours.
  • Bald eagles, cormorants, tufted puffins, loons, and other seabirds gliding past rugged shorelines.

Hoonah, AlaskaWe also got to tour island communities like Haines, Gustavus, and Hoonah (pictured) that are accessible only by small ship or seaplane — experiencing native crafts and art, meeting local characters, and learning about their unique lifestyle in Alaska’s remote wilderness.

A highlight was Island Spirit‘s special kayak dock — designed by the captain — for super-easy loading and exiting from the ship’s 6 single and 4 double kayaks.

Island Spirit is designed for comfort and intimacy. It carries just 32 passengers, and every room has a private shower and opening windows. Each evening the crew shuts down the generators and the ship runs on batteries, so passengers can enjoy a quiet and relaxing night. Here’s how she’s laid out:

IS layoutFor more photos and information about our southeast Alaska cruise, check out the Destination Insights Southeast Alaska Travel Journal, available as a free PDF or a print-on-demand book:

DESTINATION INSIGHTS: Destination Insights: Southeast Alaska

A photojournal showcasing the best of southeast Alaska—visit Juneau, Glacier Bay, Hoonah, Sitka, Gustavus, Skagway, and Haines. See grizzlies, humpback whales, mountain goats, bald eagles, and puffins. Explore the original Hammer Museum and the Fortress of the Bear. Discover Tlingit culture, totem…

Find out more on MagCloud

The Western Mediterranean aboard Sea Cloud

Sea Cloud is an elegant 360-foot, four-masted barque, with a snow-white hull, endless mahogany brightwork, and polished bronze fittings. The brochure in our cabin says it all: “Sea Cloud’s unique charm and charisma remain true to the romantic spirit in which she was conceived more than 70 years ago. To sail aboard her is not only to occupy a museum-quality heirloom, but to relive the splendor and gracious lifestyle of cruising in the grand tradition.”

Built at a time when the greatest attention was paid to detail and fine craftsmanship, Sea Cloud is decorated with original oil paintings, antique furniture, rich wood paneling, and gold, brass and bronze fixtures.

We enjoyed a tour of the original staterooms, which are larger and more luxurious than the ones that were later added above deck. These spacious, elegant interiors include fireplaces (no longer working), wood paneling, marble bathrooms with gold fixtures, and original oil paintings. Even the hallway is impressive, with a spiral stairway, sitting area, display of china, and small bureaus.

We descend into the depths of a warren of immaculate, interconnected chambers for our engine room tour. There are consoles and canisters, hoses and pipes, ladders, wires, polished brass fittings, and big metal boxes with labels like Reintjes and Geprüft. I counted 6 control panels and 45 dials in the first compartment alone. Very impressive, until the chief engineer confides, in a voice barely audible over the roar of the engines, “Very little of this works. The computer has taken over.”

We learn that the original electric engines were chosen because they were quiet enough not to disturb passengers, but today the ship runs on two 8-cylinder, 1,000 horsepower diesel engines. The ship uses 3.5 tons of fuel a day, and has a capacity of 380 tons of fuel. When she’s under sail all the way, Sea Cloud can cross the Atlantic in 14-16 days.

The immense sea shows her whitecaps today.  Our crew has hoisted the sails, and all around are blue and white, sea and sail and sky. The officers look crisp in their uniforms, and—although the Mediterranean swells are relentless—the passengers look very relaxed.

Temperatures are in the 70s, and there’s a cool breeze. We are reading, sunning, and writing postcards; in the background are the gentle murmur of voices, the clink of china, and the restless sea.

To discover where she goes and when, please visit the Sea Cloud site.

Travel Tip: Best way to fold shirts for traveling

Best way to fold a shirt for travelingPacking for your trip doesn’t need to take a long time. Here’s a quick travel tip, a spectacularly speedy shirt-folding video, handily illustrated with fold lines and sequencing letters, that shows you how to fold a shirt in less than two seconds.

Travel Tip: Best packing method for organized travelers

Best travel packing tipHere’s another great travel tip — a video demonstrating the clever one-outfit, one-roll travel packing technique, which is brilliant for anyone organized enough to know ahead of time what components they’re going to wear together. It also has a lively soundtrack.

San Jose’s SOFA Murals

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Surprise — San Jose, California has blossomed into an art-lover’s paradise! Public art enlivens every street in the city’s vibrant SOFA (South of First Area) district. On a recent visit we enjoyed sculpture-lined streets and these lively murals. By the way, San Jose used to be called “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” which explains the mural with that name. And our hearts were delighted on our San Jose walking tour.

The Cotton-Candy Beauty of Pamukkale, Turkey

By Suzie Rodriguez

Even 10 miles distant, this bleached-limestone plateau is a dazzling sight, rising an abrupt 400 feet from a flat and dry valley. Beautiful but incongruous, it seems to float on a hazy edge of reality until, as you draw closer, its massive whiteness sharpens in detail. Graceful ripples and convolutions appear, forever frozen into the rock. Snow-white stalactites and water rivulets glint in the sun. Still, shallow pools mirror the bright blue sky. The beauty is so overwhelming—so unexpected—that even the most jaded traveler is stunned into silence.

But that’s nothing new. Pamukkale has amazed visitors for centuries. It was, after all, one of the world’s first thermal-water resorts, a mecca for ancient spa-goers. Evidence exists that the Hittites erected a religious shrine on the site 3500 years ago. The early historian Xenophon wrote that King Darius of Persia spent the winter of 401 BC here with his entire army, soaking away the travails of battle. The Apostle Philip is believed to have been murdered here in AD 80, and, a few years later, the Roman emperor Hadrian came to enjoy the waters.

It’s these same waters that have, quite literally, made Pamukkale what it is. Thanks to a tectonic fault, hot waters, high in calcium salts, sprang from an outlet atop the plateau. For at least 14,000 years the calcium-rich water has bubbled upward from the earth’s depths, flowed along the ground, and tumbled over the high cliff edge, gradually hardening and forming a few square miles of glistening-white limestone layers. These mineral deposits, influenced by weather, take on fantastic shapes: There are 50-foot stalactite waterfalls, evenly-stepped travertines, shallow petal-shaped pools, and large flat expanses with the texture and look of snowy fields.

As if sheer beauty and a dip in curative thermal waters weren’t enough to make Pamukkale interesting, it shares its cliffsite with the well-preserved ruins of an ancient Roman city. Long thriving by the time of Hadrian’s visit, Hierapolis (“Sacred City” in Greek) was small but wealthy and crowded with temples. It also contained an immense theatre, a mile-long colonnaded street, a necropolis, a gymnasium, an agora (marketplace), and two splendid baths.

Despite this visual splendor and fascinating history, I’d never even heard of Pamukkale until I visited Turkey. I spent a month traveling the country, discovering how difficult it is to categorize. With its feet set in Europe and its body sprawling into Asia, it’s at once Western and Eastern, modern and archaic. I witnessed Turkey’s dual nature everywhere.

For instance, I remember journeying along the Black Sea, close to the Georgian border, with my companion, Dennis, a university professor. It was an extremely hot summer day, yet the women watching children play on the white sandy beaches were cloaked head to toe in heavy black chadors. Two weeks later, on Turkey’s Aegean Coast, women wore bikinis.

Once in Turkey, it is hard to ignore Pamukkale. We saw big posters of its snowy white travertines and stalactites displayed in every single train, bus and ferry station. We decided we had to see the place. So when we found ourselves on the Aegean coast near Izmir, a few hours from Pamukkale, we turned inland.

We caught our first sight of the travertines the minute the road carried us past Denizli, a prosperous provincial capital 10 miles south of Pamukkale. Dead ahead were the white cliffs which, at that distance, look a little like a palace for giants (the word Pamukkale means “cotton castle” in Turkish). The road wound beside, and then atop, the cliffs, where we found a few small hotels sharing the plateau with the limestone formations and the Roman ruins of Hierapolis.

Our simply decorated room in the Hotel Belkes/Palmiye had a mesmerizing view of the valley far below. The best thing about it, though, was that we could jump through the sliding doors at the back and into our very own thermal pool. But we saved that for later. The day was too hot to spend immersed in volcanic waters and, besides, we were anxious to explore the travertines.

Most guidebooks use words like “fairy-tale world,” “wonderland,” and “dreamscape” to describe Pamukkale, and when I moved onto the limestone, I understood why. Surrounding me was nothing but whiteness. The limestone formations’ shapes and angles changed constantly in the sun, from puffs of cotton to long, flat fields. Here and there water flowed, descending pool by pool to the valley floor. My senses were constantly set off balance. When I walked across a flat white expanse, I expected the crunch of snow but met the resistance of rock. Wading barefoot through a basin seemed like walking upside-down on the sky.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast overlooking the travertines, we took off to explore the ruins of Hierapolis. Founded during the Greek Hellenistic era (beginning in the 4th Century BC), the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 AD and restored over the next century by the Romans. Hierapolis reached its peak of wealth and fame in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, a time in which many monumental temples and other structures were erected. Repeated earthquakes finally destroyed the city for good. Thanks to excavation and partial restoration, however, today’s visitor can catch a glimpse of Hieropolean life.

One of the most impressive buildings is the large 2nd century Roman baths, with its massive walls and arched vaults. The Romans—men and women alike—were constantly in baths, using them less for cleansing than for ceremonies, sports, chatting, showing off, and just generally hanging out. The Hierapolis baths contained a steam room, cold and hot pools, an enclosed sports field, and two ceremonial rooms measuring 120 by 170 feet, both faced with high-quality marble.

Perhaps the city’s best-preserved structure is the theatre, which contains fairly intact marble pillars, arches, statuary and reliefs. In its heydey the theatre could hold 15,000 people. Performances are sometimes held in summer on the beautifully restored stage.

By lunchtime the day had turned too hot to tramp through ruins, no matter how fascinating. We opted for lunch and a swim, planning to continue our historical tour in early evening.

And what a swim! For a few dollars we gained entry to the Pamukkale Turizm Hotel and its bubbling springs. Two thousand years ago, on this very spot, the ancient spa-lovers immersed themselves in the Sacred Pool. An immensely popular place visited by three Roman Emperors, the pool was surrounded by marble columns and a graceful portico. When earthquakes destroyed Hierapolis, the columns and other marble structures fell into the pool, where they remain to this day.

Swimming over these fragments of the past is akin to floating atop Atlantis or some other mythical kingdom. A marble arch, still bearing a bas-relief of grapes, hints of bacchanalian rites. An elegant, fluted column speaks of delicate white robes limned in purple.

That night, after another glorious sunset, we strolled to the theatre, climbed to the highest seats, and sat silently beneath a butter-colored moon. From our aerie we could gaze over the ruins of Hierapolis, across the shadowed travertines of Pamukkale, and into the darkened valley. I thought of Hadrian sitting here, of Darius resting nearby, of the Hittites erecting a shrine.

Then a match flared on the stage below, breaking the moment. A silky laugh rang out, and the scent of thyme and roasting lamb wafted through the night air. We stood, suddenly hungry, and headed to dinner.

 

Pamukkale 1: Limestone concretions – GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 or later.Pamukkale 2: Travertine hot springs formations. – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0Pamukkale 3: Travertine hot springs formations. – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0Pamukkale 4: Hot springs – GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 or later.Pamukkale 5: Reflection of limestone in hot springs. Released into public domain.Pamukkale 6: Roman ruins at Hierapolis, Pamukkale. Released into public domain.Pamukkale 7: Limestone travertines of Pamukkale. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany.Pamukkale 8: Walking on the travertines. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0Pamukkale 9: Pamukkale pools. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0Pamukkale 10: More pools. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Sri Lanka’s Festival of the August Moon

From our Sri Lankan correspondent Lakshman Ratnapala, Chairman, Enelar International

MS08302015P_6The 2,000-year-old DALADA  PERAHERA paraded the streets of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last royal citadel for 10 nights, concluding with the August full moon, yesterday, Saturday, August 29th 2015. Held every year in honor of the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the parade features scores of gaily caparisoned elephants, hundreds of dancers, drummers, acrobats, whip crackers and torch bearers. Thousands of foreign tourists mingled with a million local citizens along the sidewalks to view the magnificent spectacle as  cries of piety of the faithful reverberated among the hills ringing the old capital city.

On Sunday morning Kandyan chieftains in ancient regalia, marched to the Presidential mansion in Kandy, following royal tradition, to report to the Head of State, the successful completion of the annual event.

MS08302015P_2Here, the chief  lay Custodian of the Dalada  Maligawa (or Palace of the Tooth Relic) presents the report engraved in a silver scroll to the President, seen here flanked by the first lady and the Governor of the Kandyan Provinces.