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Canada Travel news and opinion

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    Traveling is one of the best ways to learn about the world we live in, as well as gain perspective of our own place within it. However, human interaction with greater parts of the world is just one of the factors leading to the depletion of animal habitats. Luckily, the tourism industry has adapted to this need for change and responders are creating increasing opportunities for individuals to discover new places, while keeping in mind the needs of the land and the animals that inhabit it. Below is a list of just a few species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources deems "critically endangered" and examples of some organizations that can help you thoughtfully and ethically visit these species' homes.

    http://www.flipkey.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Screen-Shot-2013-12-11-at-1.32.26-PM.png

    Photo Credit: Ikiwaner/Wikimedia Commons
    Black Rhino

    Thanks to the efforts of several conservationist organizations, the population of the black rhino has risen to just under 5,000 individuals worldwide. However, this species is still in critical danger of extinction largely due to hunting, poaching, and habitat loss. Wilderness Safaris is an eco-tourism organization that not only allows you the chance to experience tracking of several different free-roaming African species, but does so with the animals in mind. A stay at the Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia puts you amongst the "largest free roaming black rhino population in Africa." This accommodation also exists in partnership with the Save the Rhino Trust, an NGO dedicated to preserving this endangered species as well as its habitat. Wilderness Safaris conducts all of its tourism with a standard it calls the "4 Cs," which stand for conservation, community, culture, and commerce. In keeping with these values, Wilderness Safaris has also created two separate charities to benefit the children and the wildlife of Africa.

    2013-12-06-ScreenShot20131206at11.07.11AM.png

    Photo Credit: Petra Karstedt / www.Tiermotive.de / Wikipedia Commons
    Sumatran Tiger

    In Sumatra, the population of the sumatran tiger teeters just below 400 individuals and is under constant threat of losing even more of its already depleting habitat due to illegal deforestation and clearing of the land for settlement. Wild Sumatra is just one organization that is working towards reversing this threat. Wild Sumatra offers tourists a variety of guided tours throughout the Sumatran wilderness as well as suggesting accommodations for guests. They have the knowledge and services geared towards all types of travelers, from hotel locations with full amenities to providing camp gear for those who prefer to tour in a more rustic manner. While introducing tourists first-hand to the Sumatran forests, this organization also donates 5 percent of all tour profits to 21st Century Tiger, a fund dedicated to the conservation of wild tiger habitats and populations.



    Photo Credit: Rabon David, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikipedia Commons
    Leatherback Turtle

    The leatherback turtle calls several different areas of the world home including Coastal East Africa, The Galapagos, and even the Gulf of California. Since the 1980's, however, the population of these beautiful, unique creatures has been quickly declining due in large part to the overharvesting of their eggs as well as complications with commercial fishing equipment. An exciting alternative to visiting the Costa Rican habitat of this species is to book an expedition with Earthwatch Institute. This organization offers several nine-day excursions in Las Baulas National Marine Park, home to the largest nesting population of leatherback turtles on the Pacific Ocean. With the exception of travel to and from your home and Costa Rica, the booking cost of this trip almost completely covers your vacation needs, including food and a beachfront accommodation. Traveling with Earthwatch Institute is much more than just an observatory vacation; while in Las Baulas National Marine Park you will work directly with marine scientists to help relocate eggs from dangerous nest locations as well as attach location transmitters to larger turtles so that the scientists can further track their movement. This vacation is perfect for any turtle lover looking to get up close and personal with the animals, as well as helping secure a future for the species.



    Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons
    Mountain Gorilla

    As war raged in the jungles of Rwanda throughout the early 1990's, the mountain gorilla's habitat also came under attack, as troops moved further and further into the highlands, causing destruction to this species' forest home. In addition to this event, poaching and even human disease have led to the further depletion of the mountain gorilla's population. Visiting their Rwandan habitats has been made easier with the help of Governors' Camp Collections, a business that commits itself to community and conservation while providing scenic tourist accommodations in Kenya and Rwanda. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in the Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda is a group of several luxurious and comfortable homes that are all conveniently located to popular gorilla trekking services available in the park. In addition, Governors' Camp Collections is dedicated to its Responsible Tourism Rwanda program, which funds projects that not only go towards the preservation of the mountain gorilla's habitat, but also help sustain human life in Rwanda so that the two may live peacefully side-by-side.



    Photo Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikipedia Commons
    Amur Leopard

    With a population of around only 30 individuals worldwide, the amur leopard is so endangered today that it is constantly threatened by the possibility of extinction. In 2012, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, the Russian government was able to establish a 262 hectare piece of land as a protected territory where this species could have a chance to breed and ultimately thrive. Named Land of the Leopard National Park, the established area, which covers much of the existing leopards' natural habitat, was separated into zones of varying protection and purpose. One of these zones includes 72 thousand hectares of "recreational space" where tourists are welcomed to view the habitat of these rare creatures. In Russia's capital, the Moscow Zoo offers tourists a guaranteed view of this particular species of cat. Although the animal is in captivity here, the Moscow Zoo partners with organizations such as the ALTA: Amur Leopard and Tiger Association to aid the continued efforts to study, protect and potentially repopulate this species, so you can feel confident about supporting this establishment as well.

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    Unless Elon Musk invents a teleportal in the next 20 years, visiting different countries is the closest I'll ever get traveling through time. I think that's why I get so unabashedly romantic about journeying to foreign destinations. When walking through the ghost-drenched alleys of Edinburgh, Scotland, I feel hypnotized and haunted. When stomping through the high-tech streets of Seoul, Korea, I feel catapulted into the future. While traveling through Costa Rica in November, and learning about the country's sustainability initiatives, I had a different experience. I didn't go backwards or forwards in time. I glowed in the now, and nothing could pull me from the present -- not even my over-engaged brain, or the incessantly upgraded Los Angeles and New York City lifestyle I've grown accustomed to over the years.

    Costa Rica is one of the world's leading sustainable tourism destinations, and often referred to as "Pura Vida." In English, the phrase translates to pure life. However, after eight days in the country that possesses the highest density of biodiversity of any nation on the planet, I attest that Pura Vida means something much more profound, because Costa Rica can give you whatever you need if you let go and allow.

    During the first three days of my trip, I attended the fourth annual Planet, People & Peace (P3) Ecotourism Conference, where speakers from 14 countries gathered to exchange ideas about the future of green economics, sustainable destinations, country branding and how to best market sustainability. On day one of the event, when sustainability specialist Julio Bin asked who in the audience worked for the planet, a small percentage of people raised their hands. By the third day, when Francisco Villalta asked the same question, significantly more members of the crowd held their hands high.

    "P3 is really about bringing together world thinkers and letting them just hear the ideas and experiences of others," said Glenn Jampol, President of CANAECO (Costa Rican National Association of Ecotourism). "Hopefully we'll have a broader knowledge of sustainability afterwards. It's akin, to me, to a poetry jam session, where you just get to hear everyone's poetry, and you leave feeling like you want to write some more."

    After a series of presentations by experts, such as journalist and author, Elizabeth Becker, ecotourism pioneer, Tamara Budowski, Director of the Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development, Lawrence Pratt, and others, it became clear to me that authentic sustainability is about balance of heart, mind spirt and business. One facet does not function properly without respect to the others.

    During his speech, Francisco discussed the importance of entrepreneurs asking why they start businesses in the first place.

    "This 'why' has to do with you on a personal level," he said. "It has do you with your team. It has to do with your organization. How clear is it with all the people in your company why you do what you do?"

    This question struck a chord in my chest that vibrated throughout my entire stay in Pura Vida. Why did I become a journalist? Why was I living a bicoastal life, spending most of my time either running through the streets of Manhattan, or sitting in traffic on the gridlocked highways of Los Angeles? Why was I in such a rush, and for what? Was I even getting anywhere?

    After three full days of P3, the Costa Rica Tourism board escorted a group of travel writers and me to a number of beautiful destinations, focused solely on sustainability. Upon arriving at Irazú Volcano, the open air began to fill my lungs. Hours later when we reached Casa Turire, which is bordered by La Angostura Lake and the Turrialba mountains, layers of city life began to shed from my psyche and spirit. Of course, having a full day away from my laptop sparked this transition, but it was the care and attention to detail put into making the establishment a sustainable hotel that solidified the deal.

    2013-12-11-1453276_10201822712144983_888093199_n.jpg


    The Costa Rican Board of Tourism grants Touristic Sustainability Certificates (TSC) to companies based on the evaluation of four aspects of a business. These include the following:

    1. Physical-biological parameters.

    Evaluate the interaction between the company and environment, interesting policy implementation and sustainability programs, environmental protection, and others.

    2. Infrastructure and services.

    Evaluate aspects of the systems and internal processes of the company, mainly of waste management and cleaner technologies for saving water and electricity.

    3. External clients.

    Evaluate the actions taken by the hotel management to invite the customer to understand and participate in the implementation of sustainability policies of the company.

    4. Socio-economic environment.

    Evaluate the identification and establishment of interaction with communities, analyzing the degree to which tourism businesses respond to the growth and development of the region through job creation or gains for the communities.

    During this leg of the trip, I thought about a conversation I had with Glenn Jampol right after the conference.

    "I'm a huge fan of anyone who wants to do this [ecotourism], and I love to share and help," he said. "We're the leaders. We're the people who pioneered this idea in its practical form. Eighty percent of our country's hotels have 21 rooms or less, and they're still surviving, which is really against all the rules of the Cornell School of Hospitality."

    After a short stay at Casa Turire, my group and I traveled on to EARTH, a private, international university offering an undergraduate program in agricultural sciences and natural resources. The campus is 100 percent CO2 free. Next, we ventured to Finca Suria, an organic farm, run by a local family -- possibly my favorite part of our expedition. I fell in love with a Morpho butterfly and a pig named Mathilde that day.

    2013-12-11-1457492_10201826261513715_856791704_n.jpg

    2013-12-11-1456724_10201825825102805_1689294428_n.jpg


    On the final day, we basked in hot springs heated at the foot of Arenal Volcano in the town of Fortuna. It was here that everything came full circle.

    2013-12-11-1459911_10201838562021220_316858497_n.jpg

    The chord vibrating in my chest began to shift. Why did I start my business? Why did I become a writer? Why was I traveling so much? The answers have always been to connect, to learn and to grow. In the midst of a chaotic schedule and the noise and pressures of the big city, I had lost sight of that. I had built up so many walls to keep the commotion out, that I'd inadvertently closed a number of other passages, as well -- the ones that kept me centered and at peace. Being in Costa Rica, meeting change makers there and reconnecting with mother Earth, opened me back up to my purpose, and expanded it even more. Balance, gratitude and peace of mind -- that's was Pura Vida means to me. It's really the best of all worlds.

    We all work for the planet. What good will you do for Earth today?

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    NANAIMO, B.C. - Crew members aboard an Air Canada Express turboprop aircraft managed to put out an engine fire before returning to an airport on central Vancouver Island Thursday morning, says a Transportation Safety Board investigator.

    Glen Friesen, the TSB's acting regional manager, said passengers saw flames in the plane's No. 2 engine at about 7:30 a.m., shortly after the Dash 8-300 took off from the Nanaimo Airport.

    "The crew extinguished the fire with the emergency fire bottles that are installed on each engine," said Friesen.

    The engine was shut down and the plane returned to the airport, which is located just south of Nanaimo, B.C., and in the community of Cassidy, B.C.

    He said one engine is capable of sustaining flight in the Dash 8-300.

    Russ Burke, chairman of the Nanaimo Airport Commission, said emergency crews surrounded the plane quickly.

    "All the passengers deplaned out on the runway, and emergency crews from both the airport and the... local fire departments and RCMP all responded," he said.

    There were 35 passengers aboard.

    "Everybody was fine, as far as I know not even minor injuries. They put the fire out quickly of course."

    Friesen said the TSB is working with the company to determine what caused the problem and will then decide on how it will follow up on the incident.

    Debra Williams, a spokeswoman for Jazz Aviation, said three crew members were aboard the plane at the time of the incident, the plane was headed to Vancouver, and the company's maintenance crew is now in Nanaimo to take a look at the aircraft.

    "Our crews are well trained to deal with such emergency situations and responded according to our standard operating procedures, and the flight landed safely and without incident," said Williams.

    Williams said Jazz flies for Air Canada as Air Canada Express.

    According to the Air Canada website, the Dash 8-300 has 50 seats, is manufactured by Bombardier and carries two Pratt & Whitney Turboprop engines. Its range is 1,389 kilometres and its cruising speed is 531 kilometres an hour.

    -- by Keven Drews in Vancouver


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    The Grand Canyon may be the de facto tourist attraction for Arizona but you may want to reconsider after seeing Remi Zik's stunning photos of Antelope Lower Canyon.

    It may not look like much from above but venture a bit further and things start to get interesting.

    lower antelope canyon

    The French photographer paid a trip to the what the local Navajos call "Hasdestwazi" or "spiral rock arches" back in the summer after moving to the town of Page, Ariz. where the canyon is located.

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    The rocks' flowing appearance is thanks to years of rainwater rushing through the canyon's passageways, carving, eroding and smoothing out the corridors.

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    In a Reddit thread, Zik tells future visitors to specifically visit the lower portion of the canyon as the upper half is beautiful "but crowded with people". He describes the lower portion as "peaceful" and it's easy to see why. From time to time, rays of sunlight permeate the upper canyon walls and highlight some of the canyon's nooks and crannies.

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    antelope lower canyon

    Remi also gives out a few tips for any travellers looking to recreate his photos: "bring a tripod, chose your lenses before going in, and stick with it. It's very dusty in the canyon."

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    In-flight entertainment has nothing on Mother Nature.

    Photographer Paul Williams captured this stunning scene of the northern lights while aboard a flight from London to New York last month and later uploaded a time-lapse of the phenomenon to YouTube.

    "I balanced my camera on a rucksack and left it snapping away out the window ... what an amazing spectacle was to be seen!" Williams notes in his video description.

    He's also uploaded photos of the aurora borealis as seen from the plane to Flickr in a gallery fittingly titled, "In-Flight Movie."

    Most of the other passengers slept through the show, tweeted Williams, who added that his camera lens -- a 24mm f1.4 -- picked up more light than was visible to the naked eye.

    We're just sorry they missed it.

    Watch the aurora borealis, as seen from a plane window, above.

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    Vancouver is preparing to throw a huge, free New Year's Eve party— just not until next year.

    Vancity Buzz is the driving force behind NYE VAN, a new annual end of year bash kicking off on Dec. 31, 2014 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

    Plans include lighting the Olympic Cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza and populating the area around the convention centre with food carts, exhibits, roaming attractions and kids' activities.

    An "Early Eve" countdown will be held for families with young children, while the Midnight Countdown Celebration proper will feature fireworks launched over Coal Harbour.

    The group organizing the revelries—Vancouver New Year's Eve Celebration Society— is a coalition of groups including Vancity Buzz, brand.LIVE (organizers of the Celebration of Light), the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, Port Metro Vancouver, the Vancouver Convention Centre, PCI Developments Corp. and Tourism Vancouver.

    The City of Vancouver will work closely with organizers as the event moves forward.

    "It’s exciting to see community partners stepping up to bring a New Year’s celebration back to Vancouver," Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a news release.

    The announcement comes after Vancouver Coun. George Affleck suggested in March that the city host a New Year's Eve bash in the downtown core using money from media and corporate sponsorship, Metro News reported.

    The city has only sporadically hosted New Year's events over the past three decades, while the province has put on family events at Robson Square that end at 9 p.m for the past four years.

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    Oh London, as if we didn't love you enough.

    Now you have to get all foggy--just like the song!--which, OK, causes flight delays and cancelations but, oh, how pretty you are in the fog.

    Check out these photos the Metropolitan Police UK took:

    london fog

    london fog

    london fog

    And just general awesomeness
    london fog

    london fog

    london fog

    london fog

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    As the road leading to the hot springs in Santa Rosa de Cabal turned to kilometers of dirt, I assured myself that it would be okay. I don't usually enjoy riding offroad, but these few kilometres of dirt were actually quite enjoyable, and I was all by myself. Maybe I'm actually getting more confident?

    I pulled down into the parking lot, and the attendants told me that my friend had been there a few minutes ago and then continued up the road. How did they know I was the friend? Guess there aren't too many gringas on motorcycles around there.

    Apparently there were more than one set of hot springs along that road, and Tom had thought I may have continued to the second set. As I pulled out of the parking lot, he appeared on his Suzuki DR650. He reported that the other hot springs looked fancier (ie more expensive), so we decided to stay at these ones.

    Me posing at the entrance to the hot springs

    Tom on the path to the resort

    The approach to the hot springs was much more beautiful than the resort itself (Apologies, I didn't take any pictures at the pools themselves)

    I had been expecting something more natural than the 1970s style resort that we entered. It was about $15 each to enter, and several times we were approached by women selling mud masks, hikes to the source of the hot springs etc. The hot springs were a series of swimming pools filled with hot, yellow tinted water set in a beautiful location, with waterfalls and mountains all around. A holiday destination for middle class Colombians, we were the only white people there.

    It wasn't a long ride to Salento, where I checked in to one of the most beautiful hostels I have ever stayed at. La Serrana was about a 15 minute walk outside of town, along a road that looks out over pastures filled with cows, horses and sheep, and green valleys. The hostel itself is like an old farm house, with an area for camping, and an organic garden. Every evening they cook a delicious, reasonably priced meal that is eaten in a separate kitchen/dining room building.

    The stunning view from the road between town and the hostel

    Tom had already been staying there for a couple of nights, and so was able to show me around.

    That evening we went into town for dinner, and randomly wandered into a restaurant advertising the local speciality, trout. The food was delicious, one of the best meals I ate in Colombia. I hadn't really spoken much to Tom when we met him in Cartagena and Medellin, so it was fun learning about his family and life over the past six years he's been away from Australia. He met a girl while travelling in Asia, and eventually moved to Seattle to be with her. He spent four years in Seattle before buying a motorcycle and heading South in March 2013. He's also planning on visiting Ushuaia before he finally returns home to Australia.

    The general concensus about Tom is that he is a real gentleman. His mother did something right. He is always concerned about the other people he is with, and puts their happiness ahead of his own. A trait rarely found in people these days.

    Note the stairs going up the hill in the distance

    We spent four nights in Salento. We met up with some of Tom's friends from Medellin, Lacey (Canada), Eliza (Aus) and Nick (NZ) and the five of us formed a stellar team. We climbed the big staircase in town (Lacey ran up and down it FIVE times while waiting for us, walking up once was enough for me!) to have a beer while watching the sunset from the top of the hill.

    Sunset from the top of the stairs

    The beautiful Solento sky

    Later we learned how to play Tejo, a popular bar game that involves throwing heavy metal pucks at small paper envelopes full of gunpowder. Only in Colombia could this be considered a good idea. We had a great time!

    Each folded triangle is explosive (and LOUD) when hit by a metal puck...

    Tom with a Tejo puck and a beer (mandatory to buy beer to be allowed to play)

    Me showing my expert, gunpowder exploding, form.

    The gunpowder field of dreams - it's a long way to that target!

    The next day we climbed into one of the ubiquitous Jeep taxis (referred to as Willies) and went to hike the Valle de Cocora. It was a beautiful hike, but much more strenuous than I had been expecting. I was suffering the tail end of a cold, and annoyingly could hear myself breathing because of clogged sinuses, but I pushed through and it was worth it in the end.

    The jeeps have set times they go to and from the Valle de Cocora

    Our Willy taxi

    Lacey and Eliza ready to hike

    They still use pack horses in Colombia, This guy greeted us at the start of the trail

    Along the hike there were many streams to cross

    Crossing one of the more stable bridges

    Just one at a time on this bridge

    One at a time for a reason!!

    When we made it to the top, there were many beautiful hummingbirds buzzing around. The hot chocolate the park rangers gave me was very delicious!

    My favourite of the many hummingbirds at the ranger station at the top of the hike

    It wasn't the end of the strenuous part however, there was a choice of ways back down, the way we came, or a steep climb up to a peak, and then down through a valley filled with Colombia's national tree, the tall and skinny wax palm. We chose the palms.

    Nick (showing how we all felt), Tom, me, Lacey and Eliza (random German guy who joined us in the back too).

    Valle de Cocora: Wax palms are Colombia's national tree, and grow VERY tall

    Me and the Valley of Cocora

    On our way home, the back of those willies are not made for tall people

    Back in town, we returned to a brilliant cafe called "Brunch" which serves delicious American style food and has a cinema room where you can chill and watch movies while you eat and drink. We went there several times, and one time we met Adrian and Lauren - an Australian couple riding two-up on a BMW GS1200. They are riding Alaska to Ushuaia in just five months. Quite a difference from the 14 months I had been on the road just to get to Colombia!

    Tom and the gang toured a coffee plantation the next morning. As I had only recently been to the one with Phil and Kelly in Manizales, I used the time to sleep in and catch up on some blogging instead. I met everyone for lunch, after which we had been planning to ride horses up to a waterfall. However it started to rain and so we opted to change our plans. Tom and the girls hadn't had enough coffee, so did a coffee preparation course.

    I was planning to go back to the hostel, but started talking to a man in the restaurant called Alan and his lady friend Martha. They bought me a glass of wine, and we eventually parted ways 3 or 4 hours later. I love randomly meeting new friends!

    Nick was trying to convince us all to join him visiting the Galapagos islands in Ecuador. It's very expensive to go there, and so there was much debate about whether it was worth it or not. I was swayed by everyone's enthusiasm, and so emailed my friend Marty from Panama to ask what he thought about it, as I knew he had been to the Galapagos before. His reply?

    "Come sailing with me there or fly there once I am there, as will need crew at stages and will be fun. Much cheaper.

    Wow - it turns out that he's taking Sabatayn, the sailboat we stayed on with him in Panama, to the Galapagos in February, and I'm invited. Awesome.

    With that offer on the table, I decided not to spend $1000+ to go with the gang.


    The gang hanging out in the hammocks at our hostel

    Salento was a very relaxing change from the big cities of Cartagena and Medellin. Lots to do, all in an extremely beautiful setting. However the time had come to move on. I put in a couple of couchrequests, and Pipo in Buga accepted, so with Phil and Kelly still in Bogota, Buga became the next destination for Tom and I.

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    It's holiday season in Hawaii, which means the islands are beginning to feel a bit crowded.

    Tourists come in droves, looking to trade in frigid winters for the chance to sip a cocktail under the tropical Hawaiian sun. It's also the time of year when thousands of surfers cram a mere seven miles on Oahu's north shore (which, by the way, only has an unfortunate two-way street) in search of perfect waves and world class surf competitions.

    Given the bad rap tourists get across the globe, it's easy to assume that Hawaii's locals generally loathe the influx of tourists, but the truth of the matter might actually surprise you.

    When we asked HuffPost Hawaii readers what tourists' most annoying habits were, quite a few responses revealed that locals don't see them as a problem at all.

    'Island Newbies':
    person standing on beach with luggage
    Many locals embrace the idea of island newbies, relating it to their own experiences in a new place. Ryan Y., a Hawaii native, said that living in another country for four years -- where he was treated like a "dirty foreigner" -- changed the way he views new visitors.

    "They don't bug me," another replier, Sonia M., wrote, "I was once a newbie here, too!"

    'Aloha Spirit':
    aloha
    One reader named Patrick put it plainly:

    "I love everything about tourists, period."


    People in Hawaii try to constantly live with the spirit of aloha. This often translates into a community filled with love, kindness, compassion and empathy for others.

    The island spirit is captured perfectly in a response from Misty B.:
    "But seriously, the tourists have never bothered me. I love seeing the smiles on their faces while they are experiencing the Aloha spirit of the islands! I feel truly blessed to live here."



    'Lifeblood Of Our State':
    waikiki shopping
    Another response from Patrick C. explained the economic importance of tourists:

    "They're the lifeblood of our state, bringing in millions of dollars and employing thousands of Hawaii residents. I can tolerate pretty much anything, when put into perspective."


    According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, nearly 8 million people visited the islands in 2012, bringing in a total of $323.9 million in Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) to the state. More TAT collected means more benefits for the state and an improved quality of life for those who call Hawaii home.


    'Living Pono':
    picking up trash on the beach
    Many of the other responses, however, were not as positive. Walking in the middle of the busy streets of Waikiki while concentrating on a smartphone instead of traffic; trying to touch a wild honu, or endangered sea turtle; and littering on pristine, beautiful beaches were all common complaints and they all go against the Hawaiian value of "living pono."

    Locals, it seems, are happy to welcome visitors that want to experience the beauty of the islands and its people, just as long as its done with a conscious decision to do the right thing in terms of self, others, and most importantly, the environment.

    And with that, we say, "Aloha!"

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    LONDON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Many holiday shoppers order their gifts online to avoid crowds, but there are some unique shopping opportunities around Europe during the holiday season that can be enjoyable for the whole family.
    Traditional Christmas Markets, originating in Europe but now popping up all over the globe, provide a celebratory atmosphere and seasonal delicacies to enjoy while shopping for your gifts. To help you determine your next shopping destination, the members and editors of travel website VirtualTourist.com (http://www.virtualtourist.com) compiled a list of the "Top Ten Christmas Markets."
    1. Vienna, Austria
    Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas, begins on the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Eve, so Viennese celebrations and decorations often begin in mid-November. Rathausplatz, the square in front of the city hall, is home to Christkindlmarkt, a traditional Christmas market with more than 150 stalls selling gifts, Christmas decorations, gluhwein (mulled wine) and hot chestnuts. Two other popular Christmas venues are the Old Viennese Christmas Market on Freyung, which is more traditional and sells handicrafts, and the Christmas Market in front of Schonbrunn Palace, which offers the imperial backdrop and hosts a New Year's market, staying open until January 1. The market on the Rathausplatz runs from Nov 16 at 5 pm to December 24 - other markets around the city on average run from around Nov 20 - Dec 23.

    2. Salzburg, Austria
    One of Europe's oldest markets, the Christkindlmarkt in front of the Salzburg cathedral is a more intimate affair than some of the larger city's markets. The town's baroque architecture and looming Hohensalzburg Fortress give it a fairy tale feeling, heightened by the sparkling lights and holiday garlands. As the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg has an outstanding musical tradition, so there are wonderful choral performances and opportunities to hear some of Europe's best students perform. In fact, the city also has another musical claim to fame: Joseph Mohr, the lyricist behind the famous Christmas carol "Silent Night" was also born in Salzburg.
    3. Munich, Germany
    While many people associate the Bavarian capital with Oktoberfest, Munich also holds a fantastic Christmas market in the center of the city on the Marienplatz. The market surrounds an enormous Christmas tree, which glitters with almost 2,500 lights. While sipping on gluhwein (mulled warmed wine) or beer, visitors can find many traditional Bavarian gifts, like wood carvings and gingerbread called lebkuchen. There are also smaller themed markets throughout the city - one unique to Munich is the Manger Market, which sells the pieces and important components for those who want to build an authentic manger.

    4. Prague, Czech Republic
    The two best Vanocni trhy (Christmas markets) are held in the Old Town Square and on the long slope of Wenceslas Square. While the markets do feature the expected wooden toys and holiday decor, they also sell Czech specialties, like glasswork, blacksmith's wares, and ceramics. The food is also slightly different from the German standard: although blood sausages, gingerbread, and grog are offered, there are also vendors with corn on the cob and trdelnik (cooked dough with cinnamon and sugar). If you are in town around December 20, you will start to see carp offered frequently - dining on the fish is a Christmas Eve tradition in Prague.
    5. Dresden, Germany
    A new addition to this year's Christmas markets list, multiple VirtualTourist members suggested that Dresden, Germany is a must visit for market lovers. The Striezelmarkt on Dresden's Altmarkt Square is one of Germany's oldest fairs with a particularly unique setting - the town erects a 48-foot- (14.6 m-) high wooden "Christmas Pyramid" in the centre of the market. The market's name is derived from stollen, the Christmas bread, which is also known as striezel in this area of Germany. In addition to this delicacy, the area is also known for the pflaumentoffel, a good-luck charm made from dried plums, and famous for its handicrafts that come from all over Saxony.

    6. Strasbourg, France
    For centuries, the French-German border has swayed to either side of the Alsace region, so it makes sense Alsace's capital, Strasbourg, would have the oldest and most famous Christmas market in France, the Christkindelsmärik on Place Broglie. The city's Great Christmas Tree on Place Kleber is also a spectacle that shouldn't be missed. In addition to the spiced wine usually offered at Christmas markets, markets in Strasbourg have a tradition of spicy hot orange juice. The markets are also a great chance to try some of the region's food products, including Alsace wines, bredle Christmas biscuits and foie gras.

    7. Budapest, Hungary
    Located on Vorosmarty ter (Vorosmarty Square) in the Pest district of Budapest, the city's Christmas fair is a great opportunity to experience traditional Hungarian food, folk dances and live music. A VirtualTourist member mentioned that one aspect she enjoyed was the variety of hot drinks, including a spicy hot apple juice and hot chocolate punch, and the chance to try Hungarian baked goods, like langos (fried bread with a variety of toppings) strudels and toki pompos (oven-baked dough). It is also a great spot to shop for handmade items, as the city has an association which checks products for quality and authenticity and certifies all items sold at the market.
    8. Lille, France
    Along France's northern border and the capital of French Flanders, it makes sense that Lille would have great activities during the holiday season. Around the Christmas market, the whole town is covered in a huge crown of garlands. The city's primary market is located on Place Rihour, where 80 wooden chalets teem with gift ideas, nativity figurines, Christmas decorations and festive food. On the nearby Grand Place, a 50-m (165-ft) high Big Wheel lights up the square and provides visitors with an amazing view of the city. As a city with Eurostar direct services, visiting Lille is an easy stop whether you are en route to Paris, Brussels, or London.
    9. Bruges, Belgium
    In prior lists, we've featured Brussels as our Belgian Christmas Market stop, but the city of Bruges was mentioned by multiple VirtualTourist members as a holiday stop to make sure to hit this year. In addition to being surrounded by the city's spectacular medieval architecture, Bruges's Christmas Market is distinguished by the ice rink erected in the Markt. For children, the city also hosts a Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival, and it is only a five minute walk from the Christmas Market and skating rink.
    10. London, England
    In addition to London's renowned Christmas decorations, there are great markets and activities on either side of the Thames during the holiday season. The Southbank Centre Christmas Market features 80 wooden cabins selling gifts, mince pies, gluhwein, and bratwurst to enjoy while you stroll along the waterfront. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is probably the best known market in London - it has more than 200 wooden chalets offering handmade gifts and decorations. The food and drink selection at Winter Wonderland is the most extensive of any spot on the list, with options including a Bavarian village, an outdoor fire pit, and even a bar modeled after an alpine ski lodge. In addition to the food and shopping, Winter Wonderland offers a 60-m (197-ft) high Observation Wheel, Britain's largest ice rink and carnival rides. Another option for ice skating is the Skate at Somerset House Ice Rink, which has DJs spinning the tunes after dark.
    (Editing by Michael Roddy)

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    By Mary Milliken
    ST. HELENA, Calif., Dec 13 (Reuters) - When a pair of wines - a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay - from California's Napa Valley won the 1976 Paris Tasting over some of France's most famous wines, the area was home to just a few dozen wineries.
    Today, there are some 500, owned by multigenerational families, big corporations, Silicon Valley millionaires, celebrities and everyday people, drawn by the allure of winemaking and the beauty of a valley located just 45 miles (70 km) north of San Francisco.
    It may be a booming business, but Napa is still a relaxing destination for those seeking both the luxurious and the laid-back. The small towns that dot Highway 29 are charming, the people are kind, the food is outstanding, and the wine, well, the wine is as good as they say.
    Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Napa Valley from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.

    A WINE EDUCATION
    Napa Valley really is all about the wine. But don't let that intimidate you.
    No one really wants to go to school while on vacation, but a wine course can go a long way to helping you get the most out of this destination. You can also impress your friends and one-up your boss back home.
    The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena offers a variety of classes, from a two-hour "Tasting Wine Like a Pro" for $95 to a five-day "Wine Lovers Boot Camp" for $2,100. You will taste dozens of very good wines each day, studying color, bouquet and body over and over. The spit bucket will be your best friend. (http://enthusiasts.ciachef.edu/wine-explorations)
    Auction Napa Valley is an upscale weekend of charity events and wine tasting in June. While the pricey Saturday Live Auction is the banner event, the Friday "Barrel Auction" is an affordable way to taste hundreds of yet-to-be-released wines and bid for cases for later delivery. It's a favorite of locals and nearly all the winemakers and winery owners are there.
    For winery tours and tastings, ditch the stretch limo crowd at the big wineries along Highway 29 and head to the hills, where a plethora of medium- and smaller-sized wineries awaits. For many of the best tastings, a winery will charge $20 and up and visits are by appointment only. Here's a small selection of wineries that get high marks for their wine and atmosphere:
    - Joseph Phelps off the picturesque Silverado Trail serves wines on a pretty terrace that looks out on the undulating vine-covered hills. A renovation is under way in 2014, but tastings will continue in the vineyard. (www.josephphelps.com)
    - Pride Mountain sits high up on the Mayacamas Mountains in the famous Spring Mountain district of St. Helena. (www.pridewines.com) Fisher rests on the other side of Spring Mountain in Sonoma County and makes wines from both Napa and Sonoma. (www.fishervineyards.com)
    In Napa, you'll taste Cabs and Chardonnays, but also great Sauvignon Blancs, Syrahs, Pinot Noirs, and the real authentic California gem, Zinfandel. Many restaurants offer a curated selection from other places, like Oregon, Europe and South America. Your cup, or rather your Riedel wine glass, runneth over.

    BREAKFAST, LUNCH & DINNER
    There's an old saying in the wine world that "what grows together goes together" - a way of saying that a region's wines pair well with its foods. A Napa spin on this could be where great wine flows, great food follows.
    There is no shortage of excellent dining choices up and down the valley, from Thomas Keller's Michelin three-star restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, where the prix fixe tasting menu costs $270 per person, to the Azteca Mexican grocery's taco and burrito counter in St. Helena.
    Yountville, population 3,000, must have one of the highest concentrations of fine dining establishments anywhere in the world. Locals love Keller's more casual restaurant Ad Hoc, where the four-course, family-style dinner menu for $52 changes daily. Fried chicken night is a favorite.
    At the northern end of the valley, outside the old Western town of Calistoga, is Solbar in the upscale but casual Solage resort. The one-star Michelin restaurant combines local produce with soul food recipes and dinner or lunch by the pool is a favorite of the vintner crowd.
    Napa is a city of 75,000 in the midst of a makeover that has put it back on the food-and-wine map. The Oxbow Market, which opened in the middle of the last financial crisis and thrives today, is one of the best places to try and buy regional food and wine, from homemade charcuterie at the Fatted Calf to oysters from nearby Hog Island to innovative tacos at C CASA. Go on Tuesdays, Locals' Night, for specials and a hopping scene.
    In St. Helena, at the intersection of wine sophistication and small town quaintness, it's hard to go wrong. But breakfast at The Model Bakery on Main Street is a must, with its mountains of pastries, breads and a chipotle pesto breakfast sandwich made on its famous homemade English muffins.
    For lunch in St Helena, Gott's Roadside is known for its hamburgers, fries and shakes and other Americana staples. Cozy up to a picnic table in the lawn out back, and grab a glass of wine or one of the interesting draft beers, for a nice break from the grape juice.

    TAKE A DRIVE
    Hopefully, you've rented a convertible and can take advantage of the warm, sunny days for a spin through the valley. The Silverado Trail on the east side is a gorgeous curving drive through the vineyards from Napa to Calistoga, not to be missed.
    In the hot springs resort town of Calistoga (supposedly named by a pioneer who wanted to make it the Saratoga of California but mistakenly called it "The Calistoga of Sarifornia") try the mud baths. You could do this at one of the chic spas, but go for the real pioneer treatment at the authentic, no-frills Dr. Wilkinson's.
    If you've got time, continue the drive to another wine region, Sonoma's Alexander Valley and its pretty town of Healdsburg, also a famous dining destination.
    It would be a shame not to continue the drive out to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds." Apart from stunning coastal scenery complete with sea lions and seals, Bodega's Dungeness crab catch is a main draw when the season opens in November. Spud Point Marina has live and cooked crab and a mean clam chowder.
    As you work your way back to Napa Valley, a stop in Tomales Bay for the freshest of oysters at Hog Island is highly recommended. As the sun sets, families, friends and couples picnic with wine and oysters at the bay's edge and you will wish this were not just a trip to Northern California, but rather a prolonged residence. (Editing by Michael Roddy)

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    No one wants to truly be a castaway. But if the idea of being shipwrecked on a tropical island excites your imagination, you can pay to be stranded in paradise.

    Travel company Docastway will send you to a remote island where you will be left to fend for an experience where where luxury meets Lost.

    The company has dedicated years to seeking out uninhabited, isolated islands with pristine beaches, lush greenery and rich animal life where travelers can escape reality and reconnect with nature.

    Travelers with a wild side can opt to experience "Adventure Mode." These castaways are given the option to construct their own accommodations and are given fishing equipment and machetes to gather sustenance, according to the Daily Mail.

    Those looking for a less labor-intensive getaway can choose "Comfort Mode," which sends travelers to islands with "private villas, secluded retreats, eco-resorts and luxury mini-hotels" according to Docastaway's website.

    Getting stranded in paradise doesn't come cheap though. Adventure Mode experiences range from $88-$254 per day and Comfort Mode retreats range from $116-$226 per day. Each island can accommodate only a single traveler or a couple.

    "Exploring remote islands and staying on them for a while has been the biggest passion in my life, and I wanted to give other castaways the opportunity to experience the feeling of seclusion at the ‘world's last paradises’," Docastaway creator, Alvaro Cerezo, told the Daily Mail.


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  • 12/13/13--04:42: 10 Most Awe-Inspiring Caves
  • The natural world can be pretty spectacular, but what we see on the surface isn't even the half of it. Deep underground, hidden away in mountain caves, or submerged underwater is where you'll find some of the world's most awe-inspiring natural wonders. From giant crystals to glowworm-illuminated crevasses, there are truly miraculous sights just waiting to be explored. These are 10 of our favorite natural discoveries.

    By Amanda Oppold

    Cave of the Crystals
    crystals

    Where: Mexico
    Discovered in 2000 when two miners followed a seam of silver until it broke into this vast cavern filled with the world's most magnificent crystals. Research suggests that the largest of the crystals are 600,000-years-old, some weigh 55 tons, and are 36 feet long. Located on a fault line this limestone cavern and its crystals were created due to close proximity to magma, which make temperatures within average 112 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 to 100 percent humidity. Unfortunately because of this debilitating heat the caves are not widely open to the public unless you happen to have a connection or can secure a permit from the mining company. Take a virtual tour with the BBC's footage from inside.

    Photo Credit: Alexander Van Driessche via Wikimedia Commons

    Kungur Ice Cave
    kungur

    Where: Perm, Russia
    Delve deep into the Ural Mountains for a magnificent array of over 120 ice formations and frozen natural wonders. Multiple tourist routes let visitors experience the cave's many icy attractions and soak up its historic roots by learning about two ancient settlements that once existed on Ice Mountain. Dante's Grotto features sinister red spotlights shone on deep crevices of ice, while the Peoples' Friendship Grotto has a large underground lake. Book a travel service to enjoy a guided tour of the cave complete with historical tales and exciting myths.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Russia Guide

    Photo Credit: Nzeemin via Wikimedia Commons

    Eisriesenwelt Cave
    eisriesenwelt

    Where: Werfen, Austria
    Enter this "World of the Ice Giants" to experience the largest ice cave. Created nearly 100 million years ago, the ice formations continue to change today as the changing temperatures of the seasons freeze and melt the ice into fantastic shapes. Officially discovered in 1879, the caves were known before then by locals who wouldn't explore because they considered it an entrance to Hell. Tours of the cave cover the equivalent of a 40-story building and include 1400 steps. You'll see the amazing Ice Organ with icicles that form a glistening curtain and examine the Mork glacier that shows the ice layers like the rings of a tree.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Werfen Guide

    Photo Credit: Wildfeuer via Wikimedia Commons

    Waitomo Glowworm Caves
    waitomo

    Where: Waitomo, New Zealand
    Float through a magical glowing subterranean wonderland where the ceiling is illuminated by the light of thousands of glowworms whose brightness is reflected in the water as well. In addition to the tranquil boat ride, you'll also experience Waitomo Cave's Cathedral where many famous performers have reveled in the outstanding, natural acoustics. Get a hands-on adventure with the Black Water Rafting Co.'s Black Labyrinth tour where you'll climb, tube, and leap over waterfalls during your journey through the glowworm caves.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Waitomo Guide

    Photo Credit: Donnie Ray Jones

    Fingal's Cave
    fingals

    Where: Staffa, Scotland
    Imposing, impressively neat, hexagonal basalt columns compose the entrance of Fingal's Cave. It's almost impossible to believe that the cave's pillars are natural wonders as they present such smooth, square corners and lines they appear sculpted. The cave's mysterious beauty was inspirational enough for Mendelssohn, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Tennyson, and Queen Victoria to visit. Be inspired yourself by traveling to the small, uninhabited island of Staffa and climbing into the cave column by column where you'll hear the echoes of waves crashing upon the columns.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Iona Guide

    Photo Credit: Tt/Dreamstime.com

    Mammoth Cave
    mammoth

    Where: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
    As the world's longest cave system, Mammoth Cave offers vast chambers and extensive labyrinths. The cave's human history spans back thousands of years to the Native American culture that mined it 4,000 years ago for gypsum and other minerals. They disappeared and the caves were forgotten until they were rediscovered in the early 1800s. While exploring the cave notice the specially-adapted cave fish that do not grow eyes, and see many of the other 70 threatened or endangered species the national park is home to. With a variety of tours for all adventure, skill, and age levels, any visitors can explore the historic cave.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Kentucky Guide

    Photo Credit: Zhuxi1984/Dreamstime.com

    Marble Caves
    marble

    Where: Chile Chico, Chile
    Smooth walls and arching caverns reflect the shimmering blue colors of Lake General Carrera as its water twists through the Cuevas de Mármol (the Marble Caves) that lie on the border of Chile and Argentina. Accessible only by boat, tourists can take a 30-minute tour through the caves to wonder at the majestic arches and turquoise caverns that have been formed by the lake's incessant pounding on the marble over thousands of years. Varying stripes of different-hued marble creates an incredible natural masterpiece as you float through the tranquil setting.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Chile Guide

    Photo Credit: Serjio74/Dreamstime.com

    Avshalom Cave
    avshalom

    Where: Israel
    Twisting stalagmites and tapering stalactites abound in incredible shapes and formations in Avshalom Cave. Over thousands of years the water flowing from the ceiling to the floor of this Israeli cave has created some spectacular natural designs. Areas of the cave resemble melting candle wax and underwater coral formations. Only a short drive from Jerusalem, the cave is open year-round and tours are held every day but Friday. Some unique formations have been give names like sombrero and Moses, but many other forms can be found in the twisting wonders of this cave.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Israel Guide

    Photo Credit: Alexplepler/Dreamstime.com

    Orda Cave
    orda

    Where: Russia
    Plumb the mysterious depths of the world's greatest gypsum cave located underwater beneath the Ural Mountains. The incredibly clear water that flows through the many chambers allows divers to see over 50 yards ahead of them, the better to examine the unique underwater formations. Intrepid divers wishing to explore this cave should contact experienced divers of the Orda Cave Awareness Project. For those unable to make the dive, check out the dive video that shows the clarity and scope of this underwater marvel.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Russia Guide

    Photo Credit: Maximovich Nikolay via Wikimedia Commons

    Son Doong Cave
    son doong

    Where: Vietnam
    First officially explored in 2009, this Vietnamese cave system, near the border of Laos, still holds many unknown wonders. With over 5.5 miles of tunnels and chambers, a jungle, a river, and ceilings high enough to fit a 40-story skyscraper, this is truly a world wonder. Parts of the cave's roof collapsed centuries ago, allowing the jungle to crop up inside the depths, today monkeys and flying foxes live in this lush environment. Visitors will also see rare cave pearls, which are created when water drips and dries on grains of sand. In most caves these pearls are the size of marbles, but in Son Doong they're baseball-size. Step back in time and explore untold wonders at this impressive locale.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Vietnam Guide

    Photo Credit: Micha Klootwijk/Dreamstime.com

    More from Fodors.com:
    World's 10 Best Ski Towns for Foodies
    America's Best Wine Bars
    World's 10 Coolest Ice Hotels

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    Smartphones have revolutionized the way we travel. No vacation is complete these days without an array of nicely filtered Instagram photos with witty captions, striking envy in friends back home.

    Check out which spots made the list for most Instagrammed in 2013.

    10. The High Line, New York


    9. Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand


    8. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles


    7. Central Park, New York


    6. Staples Center, Los Angeles


    5. Walt Disney World, Florida


    4. Bellagio Fountains, Las Vegas


    3. Disneyland, California


    2. Times Square, New York


    1. Siam Paragon shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand



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    What do you want to do for dinner tonight?

    If you're looking for something new, chances are you'll turn to user-review sites like Yelp or paid reviews like Zagat. But Los Angeles food blogger Cathy Chaplin is hoping to convince Angelenos to go analog with her new, softcover guidebook Food Lovers' Guide to Los Angeles.

    cathy chaplin

    "You have to pay Zagat as a service to come rate your restaurants," explained Chaplin in a phone interview with HuffPost. "And with Yelp, you never know what you're going to get -- complaints about parking, a paid review, whatever."

    Instead, said Chaplin, "it's all about the trusted voice and opinion." And you can trust Chaplin, a Pasadena-based writer who has been documenting her culinary adventures in LA on her site gastronomyblog.com since 2006.

    Last summer, inspired by the book Hungry For Paris, she spent four months (and her entire book advance) eating at more than 300 restaurants to create a list of LA's most essential, drive-worthy restaurants, markets and food neighborhoods. The book is also a guide to LA's foodie scene, complete with a calendar of food festivals, list of must-follow food writers and recipes from celebrated chefs.

    To give HuffPost readers a preview of her book, Chaplin has picked five reviews that showcase the best of LA's restaurant scene [see below].

    "These are the kinds of places that I love about LA -- they are small, family-owned and have extraordinarily passionate people behind the stove," said Chaplin. "It's just really good food in places where you'll feel comfortable going into and places that do what they do very well -- the best in their class."

    Chaplin's book comes out Dec. 17, and she hopes it'll earn a coveted spot in your car's glove compartment.

    Mom's Burgers
    moms burgers

    Photo by Cathy Chaplin

    336 W. Alondra Blvd., Compton, CA 90220, (310) 632-6622; American; $

    The most basic offering is Mom's Burger, a single beef patty with shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped white onions, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, and a slice of tomato. The bun is of the squishy commercial variety, while the meat is hand-formed and well-seasoned with salt and coarse-ground pepper. Griddled on a flattop, the patty is cooked through and beautifully caramelized. The shop's most popular burger is The Chronic, a double-patty situation with thick-cut bacon and a fried egg in addition to the regular cast of toppings.

    Good Girl Dinette
    ggd
    Photo by Cathy Chaplin

    110 N. Avenue 56, Los Angeles, CA 90042, (323) 257-8980, goodgirlfoods.com; Vietnamese; $$

    The imperial rolls are the quintessential starter. Filled with wood ear mushrooms or chicken, carrots, and glass noodles, the rolls are fried to order and beautifully blistered. Whether eating them straight up or wrapped in lettuce leaves, make sure to dunk 'em in the accompanying vinaigrette for extra pow. Another winning starter is the deep-fried tofu slabs perched atop carefully constructed rice cakes. Drizzled in a mixture of scallions, oil, and fish sauce, the tofu is transformed into an umamified raft.

    Lark Cake Shop
    lark
    Photo by Cathy Chaplin

    3337 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, (323) 667-2968, larkcakeshop.com; Bakery; $$

    A dozen different creations, including Stacey's Old-Fashioned Coconut Cake (coconut cake with cream cheese icing and coconut shavings) and the Berry Shortcake (white cake layered with fresh berries, pastry cream, and whipped cream), are baked fresh every day, ready to be personalized and picked up for backyard birthdays and celebrations of all sorts. The best cake of all is barely a cake at all. The Old-Fashioned Ice Box Cake, seven layers of chocolate wafers and fluffy whipped cream, is a tall stack of dear sweet richness.

    Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa
    cathy chaplin
    Photo by Cathy Chaplin

    9016 Mission Dr., Rosemead, CA 91770, (626) 286-3370; Vietnamese; $

    Vietnamese meatballs are a curiously loud bunch that snap at first bite and squeak at first chew. At New Nuong Ninh Hoa, grilled pork meatballs and skewers are served on grand platters along with rice papers for wrapping and a forest of greens for garnishing. The parade of proteins includes the restaurant's namesake nem nuong (sweet pork skewers and meatballs), as well as nem cap (pork patties wrapped in banana leaves), nem chua huong (grilled sour pork patties) and cha ram tom (shrimp egg rolls).

    Class 302
    class 302
    Photo by Cathy Chaplin


    1015 Nogales St., #125, Rowland Heights, CA 91748, (626) 965-5809, Dessert; $

    Skip over the menu's savory bites and zero in on the house special shaved snow. A distant cousin of shaved ice, shaved snow has a unique ribbonlike texture that is achieved by freezing huge chunks of flavored water and milk and then shaving it using heavy-duty machinery. The resulting sheets of snow are gloriously creamy and dissolve ever so quickly on the tongue. The green-tea flavored snow topped with red beans, mochi, and condensed milk is perfectly balanced, while the mango snow with fresh mangoes and mochi is as tart and refreshing as they come. The most decadent dish is the caramel pudding shaved snow, which is doused with sweetened condensed milk and caramel syrup.

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    2013-12-13-croppedsplit.jpg
    Photo Courtesy of Dreamstime. Article by Robert Firpo-Cappiello Budget Travel.

    BIRMINGHAM, U.K.: A foodie destination in England's heartland

    Anybody visiting a city from which both J.R.R. Tolkien and Ozzy Osbourne sprang should be prepared for a dose of cognitive dissonance, and Birmingham (or "Brum," as it's affectionately known in the U.K.) delivers, with canals (yup, they surprised us, too), more contemporary architecture than you might expect from a sixth-century city, and a foodie scene that has earned more Michelin stars than any U.K. city other than London.

    WHY BIRMINGHAM IS SECOND TO NONE. In a word, food. But we don't mean nearby Cadbury World (though we have a fondness for any tour that hands out free chocolate!) or that justifiably popular Birmingham fixture, the Custard Factory. These days, this town is more about innovative cuisine and locally sourced ingredients. The Balti style of cooking Kashmiri curries--in small, artisanal batches rather than in one enormous pot -- was developed here in the 1970s, and an entire district, the Balti Triangle, serves up tasty varieties at bargain prices at restaurants such as Al Frash. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian dishes out heaping plates of wild-rabbit tagliolini and crab spaghettini. And for contemporary riffs on classic English dishes, there's a lot to love about, well, Loves; Steve and Claire Love's waterfront restaurant has been wowing U.K. food critics with dishes like (vegetarians, avert your eyes) Warwickshire venison and Gloucestershire pig's head.

    MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery offers one of the world's most acclaimed collections of pre-Raphaelite paintings, including the iconic, otherworldly work of 19th-century Birmingham native Edward Burne Jones. Speaking of other worlds, Lord of the Rings fans must spend time at Sarehole Mill, said to have inspired the locale of Tolkien's trilogy. And no trip to Brum is complete without dropping by the Bull Ring Open Market, which is at once a throwback to England's agrarian past and a forward-looking source of local fruits and vegetables at great prices. The nabe is also known for its Rag Market (not as dismal as it sounds -- think eye-popping fabrics, vintage clothing, household goods, and treats like mince pie and pickled chile peppers for a song).

    WHERE TO EAT. Al Frash is a great place to try some award-winning Balti-style curries (186 Ladypool Rd., alfrash.com).

    WHERE TO STAY. The Bloc Hotel is located near Birmingham's historic Jewellery District (Caroline St., blochotels.com).

    GET THERE. Birmingham is 117 miles northwest of London, a two-hour drive or a three-hour bus ride.

    Click here to see photos of the cities!

    ANTWERP, BELGIUM: An inland port with a world-class sense of style

    Antwerp's playfulness is evident everywhere you look -- whether it's the quirkily dressed local in a public square, a fashion model in the city's historic district, or the mind-blowing design of its Museum Aan de Stroom. Located on the docks that have made Antwerp Europe's second biggest port (after Rotterdam), the museum's exterior mimics giant packing crates stacked on one another.

    WHY ANTWERP IS SECOND TO NONE. Stroll down any Antwerp street and you'll see it -- style. Whether you're looking for imaginative architecture, the most inspiring new art galleries, or a great selection of vintage and second-hand clothing, Antwerp will pleasantly shake up your expectations and likely send you home with something surprising.

    MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Zuid ("south") district is the place for art lovers; here, you'll find the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (featuring an exquisite collection of paintings by Baroque-era Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, such as "The Adoration of the Magi"), galleries of contemporary art, and a thriving cafe culture. Running north from the square in front of the museum, Kloosterstraat offers a stretch of cool antique shops that often boast mid-century design finds alongside older pieces. (On Sundays, the shops open for business at 2 p.m., so plan to visit after, not before, the museum.) Ready to cleanse your palate of modernism? Het Steen ("old fort") was originally built in the early Middle Ages to defend against -- wait for it -- marauding Vikings; it has been made over many times since those days and basically looks like a child's fantasy of a castle.

    WHERE TO EAT. Fiskebar is an outstanding seafood joint in a port that knows from seafood (Marnixplaats 12, fiskebar.be).

    WHERE TO STAY. Crowne Plaza Antwerp is a 10-minute bus ride from the city center, (Gerard le Grellelaan 10, crowneplaza.com).

    GET THERE. Antwerp is 28 miles north of Brussels, a 40-minute drive or a 40-minute train ride.

    SPLIT, CROATIA: History comes alive on the Mediterranean

    You don't have to remember the name Diocletian to have a blast in Split, a city of more than 250,000, but you can thank him for pioneering the notion of Split as a lesser-known Mediterranean getaway. A Roman emperor who abdicated his position in the face of rival claims, Diocletian built an amazing palace here, completed in A.D. 305, and to this day the city has one of Europe's finest collections of Roman ruins.

    WHY SPLIT IS SECOND TO NONE. From Diocletian's day to the present, Split has done an exceptional job of preserving its past, making it a first-rate destination for immersing yourself in living history -- even in the face of the civil war that rocked Croatia in the 1990s. This UNESCO World Heritage Site invites you to balance your beach-going and nightlife with visits to its Roman ruins, medieval forts, Romanesque churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, plus Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque palaces and other noteworthy buildings; a historic district, archeological museum, and of course the ruins of Diocletian's palace round out the historical offerings.

    MUST-SEE SIGHTS. When you yearn to return to the land of the living, drop yourself on Bacvice beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand that rivals any of the tonier -- and pricier -- Mediterranean beaches. We won't tell if all you want to do is stretch out on a blanket and soak up some rays. But when the sun goes down, dip a toe into Split's lively bar scene, with popular "crawls" around the neighborhood of the Roman palace ruins. In the morning, get classy again with a trip to the Metrovic Gallery, spotlighting the work of Croatia's best-known sculpture, Ivan Mestrovic.

    WHERE TO EAT. Buffet Fife serves big portions of grilled local meats and fish (Trumbiceva Obala 11, 385/21-345-223).

    WHERE TO STAY. Hotel Globo is a 10-minute walk to Split's historic district (Lovretska Ulica 18, hotelglobo.com).

    GET THERE. Split is 140 miles northwest of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a three-hour drive.

    Click here to see three more charming and affordable European cities you haven't visited yet!

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    (Relaxnews) - For the second year in a row, a destination in Bangkok has bagged the most Instagrammed location of 2013, suggesting that Thais are serious smartphone shutterbugs.

    The Siam Paragon, a massive shopping complex, outdid last year’s most Instagrammed place, the Bangkok International Airport, to take the top spot in the most photographed location ranking.

    Impressively, the Thai retail centre beat out New York’s Times Square and Disneyland which took second and third spots respectively.

    A scan of this year’s top 10 most photographed locations echoes the results of Facebook’s recently released list of most popular check-ins: it appears users like to boast about being at theme park attractions like Disneyland, sports and entertainment venues the most.

    While the Facebook listing isn’t ranked, four of the top 25 checked-in places are Disneylands, from California, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

    Interestingly, this year one of the most visited landmarks in the world -- the Eiffel Tower -- dropped off Instagram's top 10 list altogether, while the Bangkok airport also fell to ninth place.

    The popularity of the photo-sharing site has also grown particularly in countries like Indonesia, Russia and Brazil, says Instagram: 60 percent of Instagrammers are now sharing photos and videos outside the US.

    New York tops the most Instagrammed city of 2013, followed by Bangkok and Los Angeles.

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    (Relaxnews) - The verdict on JetBlue’s wifi service is in: It’s fast. Real fast.

    In an inaugural press flight this week, bloggers and journalists were invited to test out the US carrier’s in-flight wifi system Fly-Fi, touted by the airline as a gamechanger for its speed and bandwidth capacities.

    And after putting the system through its paces, blogs and sites like Jaunted.com and Conde Nast Traveler have decided that the airline wasn’t exaggerating.

    “Naturally we tried our very best to break the network or at least throttle it, but to no avail,” writes a blogger at Jaunted.com.

    “Fly-Fi is a beast of technology, an in-flight WiFi network passengers can finally rely on, and likely even come to love.”

    The wifi service also won over a travel writer at Condé Nast who was likewise convinced and impressed.

    “I just logged on myself and, yes, it struck me as quite speedy.”

    Until June 2014, while still in beta, the airline is offering free Wi-Fi service on select aircraft. 'Simply Surf' is the basic web browsing plan that allows users to access Facebook, send out a tweet, post Instagram videos, make Skype calls and access FaceTime.

    For $9 more, users can also stream the latest movies and shows on their laptop and download large files.

    Currently, Fly-Fi is available on three Airbus A320 aircraft, which are identifiable by a Fly-Fi decal on the plane exterior. The full schedule can be found on the airline's blog.

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    We may be more alike than we are different, but when it comes to culture, differences are celebrated! Not only are Canada and Lebanon on opposite ends of the map, they're also on different ends of the cultural spectrum. Going back and forth between the countries, I've observed some interesting distinctions. Read and feel free to share some interesting differences between countries you've visited!

    Peace -- Canada has the international reputation of being peace-loving. It's all about coexistence, multiculturalism, and respecting differences -- not out of higher moral ground, but because the nation's foundation was built on immigrants coming from all walks of life.

    Lebanon is situated in the Middle East, in the heart of unrest where every decade is marked by devastating war. These are often sectarian wars fueled by religious and political divide. In Lebanon, people accept that they belong to opposing groups, it's a basis for identity and belonging, so it's not considered a taboo topic to be outwardly exclusive to one's group. The presence and history of war is always in the Lebanese periphery.

    Religion -- Government and church are separate in Canada; a secular nation where religion, if it's adhered to, is left within the confines of home and mind. With over a quarter of the population claiming to be atheist, considerable animosity is directed towards the institutionalization of religion. In Lebanon, religion is intertwined with every aspect of life; it is respected as an institute because it is the stronghold of community and politics, many believing it should never separate. Prayer to God is the wake-up call to everyone's day. Even without a deep spiritual belief, it's linked to tradition, politics and a way of life that many feel obligated to preserve.

    Life -- Canadian's are goal-oriented, that's not to say that Lebanese are not, but when it boils down to it, Canadians associate goals to every respect of life, even fun. When youth go clubbing or out to bars, it's usually with the intention of getting drunk, hooking up, and did I mention getting drunk? In Lebanon, drinking and sexual culture aren't heavily infused in their world-famed night life. In fact, it's all about going out, taking in the heat, sitting with a group of friends and having fun for the sake of fun. They dance, but their dancing isn't laced with pre-sex ritual as is often the case when you enter a Canadian nightclub.

    Family -- Family is law in Lebanon. They are the source of guidance, the central magnet by which the rest of life revolves. Tradition dictates that the children should not move out unless married, and if it's the case, it's considered "Aayb": inappropriate, causing speculation about unrest in the home. In Canada, it's a mark of independence to move out of the home early.

    Canadians are hooked on the idea of self-reliance, while the Lebanese say you can be independent even with family by your side. The idea of being alone in Lebanon is unnecessary. Living through the delicate balance of life and death during the war, Lebanese say this short life is best and only lived with loved ones. Even after marriage, children stay close to parents, often living in the same house or building.

    Roads -- The roads in Lebanon are turmoil; stop at a red light in Beirut and you'll be met with a symphony of horns and curses. Lebanese temper is hot, abiding by road rules just slows down everyone rushing to get somewhere. In the sweltering heart of gridlock, people want to get in and out of their oven-like cars as fast as possible. Swearing, cursing; the horn is honked to either say hi or to curse someone's mom, so you must have a thick skin. Prepare to get yelled at, don't take it personally, because in another meter you'll be the one cursing someone's mother. The roads in Canada are meticulously laid out, despite the inevitable stress, the rules keep peoples' sanity slightly intact.

    Add to this article with your own observations!

    2013-12-12-flagpinslebanoncanada.jpg

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    Diana was a perfect baby. I remember sitting in my study room during law school, folding my laundry, reading constitutional law, and watching Diana as she slept that peaceful sleep that only babies sleep, unimpeded by the world's troubles.

    When she awoke, she didn't cry; she just opened her eyes and looked at me, knowing, wise beyond her years. I smiled at her, kissed her all over her little face, and removed every trace of lip gloss before her parents picked her up. Her father Kerven is a close friend and an attorney, and her mother Angel will be a doctor any day now. Haitian father, African-American mother. The mix of law, life, reality. A perfect, whole, little being before me, her whole life before her.

    As I read my constitutional law book, I never foresaw that by the time she was 4 years old, another nation would overlook its own Constitution to treat people like Diana as less than human. Why do I care about how persons of Haitian lineage are treated in the Dominican Republic? I care because I don't want Diana to grow up in a world where she would be recognized as less than human anywhere she steps foot.

    The Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic retroactively rescinded the citizenship of persons of Haitian lineage born in the Dominican Republic from 1929 until present day. If Diana had been born in the Dominican Republic, she would have been one of those children -- no longer a person recognized by any state, not entitled to an education or a vote, denied basic humanity and recognition of her existence.

    Since I authored my initial blog post on this issue in October, "Dominican Republic's Disappearing People," tensions have escalated, and physical violence has been directed at persons of Haitian descent by citizens of the Dominican Republic empowered by the recent court ruling.

    One particularly unnerving image depicted a man tied to a tree while a mob mercilessly beat him in broad daylight, eerily reminiscent of old lynching scenes in the southern United States. Although the violence does not appear to be state-sponsored, the Dominican Republic's judicial proclamation so devalued Haitian life that its nation's citizens feel comfortable publicly beating a man to death.

    I recently read a story by a Holocaust survivor in which she describes one of the Nazis' first steps toward dehumanizing Jewish people: rescinding their citizenship and labeling them as persons of no nation in their passports. The Holocaust survivor further discusses the psychological impact that essentially becoming a "non-person" caused her as a child. We are obligated to learn from history, to learn to recognize the symptoms of social ills like genocide and racism, and manifestations of those ills, like public beatings and denial of basic humanity, and we must apply the antidote to prevent widespread social infection of the disease of inequity.

    For Diana, we must entertain an economic boycott of business and the tourism industry in the Dominican Republic until the Constitutional Court reverses its decision and restores human rights to persons of Haitian lineage.

    While I hold fast to the implementation of an economic boycott, I cannot speak without a discussion of the ramifications of a fiscal affront. As leaders, we too often speak with a misplaced confidence in notions of eternal truth -- we must uphold human rights at all costs. One should not lead with authority absent truth. The truth is that economic sanctions are an imperfect solution to a complex problem.

    An economic boycott in the Dominican Republic to uphold the rights of displaced Haitians and restore international human rights norms will come at the cost of innocent suffering negatively impacting the poor and marginalized members of society. The legislatures and judges' children will still have food on their tables and uniforms to wear to school. The maids who work at the hotels where business will suffer from a boycott of tourism -- what will they feed their children when they lose their jobs?

    Although the human rights violations warrant economic sanctions, I cannot in good conscience masquerade an economic boycott as a perfect solution when in reality, "helping" restore the rights of some will trammel the rights of innocent others. We must continue to advocate for human rights anywhere forces of inequity threaten justice, but we must also acknowledge our own imperfections, imbuing resolution with a greater sense of truth.

    I pray for the persons of Haitian lineage who are suffering in the Dominican Republic, and for the innocent citizens who will be negatively impacted by people participating in an economic boycott to restore international human rights. I pray that one day Diana will visit the island of her father's birth, an island home to two nations, and whether she steps foot in the Haiti half or the Dominican Republic half, she will be treated as a whole person.

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