Articles

  • Gentle Giants of the Bushveld

    Africa is a place of enchantment. The power and pure energy of this ancient land and its inhabitants is palpable. As I cruise along an unpaved road, I scan the horizon for civilization and instead spot countless impalas, warthogs and giraffes. A refreshing breeze whips through my hair as the late afternoon sun warms me.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    A Meeting with the Elephants

    With an abrupt stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, my field guide, Jason, instructs me to hop out of the vehicle. Camp Jabulani‘s Elephant manager, Tigere, greets me with a genuine smile. He asks if I am nervous about meeting the world’s largest land animal. I respond quickly, “of course not”; there’s no possible way for me to be anxious due to Tigere’s calm demeanor. With ten years of experience under his belt, I trust that he will keep me safe in this unfamiliar environment.

    We wait patiently in the middle of the open savannah near a fallen Acacia tree. Four tons of sheer mass silently approaches us. His name is Jabulani. I gently walk towards this humongous creature and place my hand on his trunk. Coarse bristles and hardened mud cover his wrinkly skin. He has scraggly eyelashes and human-like eyes. There’s an instant sense of mutual appreciation and respect.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    I dump pellets of grain into Jabulani’s trunk and his hot breath fogs my sunglasses. His trunk twists and turns in every direction. The elephant’s strength, compassion and intelligence intrigues me. I am in awe of every moment. After Jabulani finishes two canvas sacks of food, his caretaker escorts him back into the bushveld. My soul is bursting with gratitude for this deeply personal interaction.

    “Where would we be without this herd of elephants? Two days will stand out in my mind as long as I live. The day that Jabulani arrived as a tiny baby – terrified and on the brink of death. And the day that the rest of the herd arrived and welcomed Jabulani as one of their own.” – Founder of the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), Lente Roode.

    The Roode family, owners of HECS and Camp Jabulani, adopted these helpless elephants and now offer them a sustainable home. The love for these elephants is at the core of HECS and Camp Jabulani and is the purpose for their existence.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Life at the Camp

    Camp Jabulani’s work with these orphaned animals is intertwined in the design of the camp. Elephant emblems adorn the pillows, coasters and walls. Seven villas overlook the dry riverbed. Each villa is fitted with canopy beds, mahogany furniture, cozy fireplaces and exquisite craft pieces such as colorfully beaded African dolls. These accents are handcrafted by local artisans and mixed with heirloom pieces. It immediately makes you feel at home.

    Due to the intimate size of the camp, you get to know staff members and fellow travelers right away. Oil lanterns and a bonfire provide for a traditional South Africa braai (barbecue). Locals pop by to sing soulful songs and dance under the starry sky.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    As intrepid travelers, the Roode family offers the unique adventures that we crave. The passion of those who work in this special part of the world is profound and inspires all who have had the privilege to experience it. Guests of Camp Jabulani are actively contributing to the well-being of these magnificent animals. This creates personal fulfillment and enriches memories to last a lifetime.

    December 11, 2018 • Africa, Destinations, Kathryn Fischer, Property Highlights, Travels • Views: 55

  • The Ngorongoro Crater

    Tanzania is a beautiful country covered with sprawling hills, open savannas teeming with wildlife and the magnificent Mt. Kilimanjaro. I recently spent ten days in Tanzania, and the biggest highlight of my trip was Ngorongoro Crater. I last traveled to Tanzania back in May, and after spending four amazing nights exploring the Serengeti, I made my way to the highlands. On the foothills of the highlands, we stopped for lunch just outside of the Olduvai Gorge National Park, overlooking the enormous herds of the great migration. Just after lunch we stopped at one of the many Maasai Villages to learn a bit about their culture. While these villages are a bit commercialized, you still see firsthand how the Maasai people live.

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    The Crater

    After the Maasai village visit, we made our way up the steep hills of the Ngorongoro Crater. I kept my head on a swivel, as the views on the way up were remarkable. During the three-hour trek we passed a few dozen villages before we reached the rim of the crater. At the summit our gracious guide pulled over so that we could admire the beauty of the interior bowl. It was breathtaking. On our way back to the lodge we were lucky enough to get a rare glimpse of a male leopard right on the main path and trailed the majestic animal for fifteen minutes. Upon arrival at the lodge, I dropped my bags at the front desk and once more took in the astonishing views of the beautiful crater floor.

    Photo Credit: Tanzania Tourism

    Photo Credit: Tanzania Tourism

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    The Big Five

    The next day was dedicated to game viewing in the crater. Among the incredible landscapes of the bowl, it did not take long to spot the Big Five animals. From the open plains of the crater, to the densely vegetated landscape, to the marsh area, which I learned is where the elephants like to go for their final resting place, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of my day. What amazed me is how big the crater floor is in size. Viewed from the rim the day previously, I thought to myself there is no way you can spend a whole day below – but was I wrong. This area, I believe, should be in every Tanzania itinerary, and I cannot wait until my next visit.

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    Photo Credit: Kevin Murray

    December 3, 2018 • Africa, Travels • Views: 1383

  • My Birthday in Cambodia and Thailand

    First Stop: Cambodia

    Queen's Palace - Siem Reap

    Queen’s Palace – Siem Reap

    My family set off and flew to Cambodia! Upon arrival we connected to Siem Reap where we had arrived in time for my birthday. My plan was to have something special most days. The night of my birthday – we are staying at Amansara – they assisted in creating a memorable night. The night began with us hosting a giant shadow puppet show to the small children of a village close by. It was great to be surrounded by such happiness as this was the first time they had seen this show. Then we went to one of the ancient temples, where hundreds of candles lined the path to guide us through the maze to a dinner set up with rugs, great food and wine and a fortune teller. Looking at the stars in this 1000-year-old temple was magic.

    Amansara

    Amansara

    On to Thailand

    We then moved to Chiang Rai and the Four Seasons Tented Camp. Here, the general manager at the time, Jason, helped with a special dinner in the elephant camp. What a thrill to be there after dark with these massive animals! They had surprised me by releasing 51 Kongmings (sky lanterns) in my honor.  What a thrill to see these candles helping me celebrate for the next 50 years in the sky.

    A private cooking lesson at the Lanna Cooking School in Four Seasons Chiang Mai followed where we all enjoyed learning more about Thai Cooking.

    Food in Thailand

    Food in Thailand

    We finished our trip in Bangkok and took small boats along the canals. We visited the grand palace and temples, and dined amongst the stars at Sirocco.

    Thailand and Cambodia are such special places with wonderful resorts to stay in and enjoy the culture in luxury.

    Chiang Mai Temples

    Chiang Mai Temples

    November 19, 2018 • Asia, Ian Swain Sr, Property Highlights, Travels • Views: 442

  • Rwanda – “The Land of 1000 Hills”

    Rwanda is a very clean country and quite impressive with all the progress it has made from the genocide days in the 90s. Every last Saturday of the month, the people come together to clean the cities and do community service.

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Genocide Museum

    The Genocide Museum is truly a must-see for anyone visiting Rwanda. What this country went through and how it is today is inspirational. The experience is very emotional and tough to get through at times, however, the commemoration is well-documented and worthwhile. It really does show hope for humanity after such a heinous past.

    Some parts were very sad and emotional and quite difficult (loads of tissues are needed!) I would recommend including this experience at the beginning of the trip.

    Nyungwe

    Nyungwe is a gorgeous area that is a must for those that have a little extra time to give in Rwanda. The drive is beautiful and picturesque – you truly get to see why it is called the “Land of 1000 Hills.”

    The highlight of the area is the Chimp Trek which is amazing. However, this does require a certain fitness level as Chimpanzees tend to swing from tree to tree and do not sit still for you to watch them or interact with them. Steep hillside climbs in dense bush is the requirement of the day. You are accompanied by a guide and three trackers. Trackers meet you in the forest, help you get close to the Chimpanzees and stay with them afterwards.

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Porters are readily available to assist with the trial through the dense bushes and shrubbery. We highly recommend hiring porters to assist the trackers. This process is giving ex-poachers work, therefore giving more security to conservation efforts.

    After the trek, if you still have energy, I recommend a Canopy Walk. The view was stunning, and the walk is not strenuous. It is good exercise though the canopy itself can be a little nerve-wrecking at first as the bridge swings while walking along it.

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Photo Credit: Donna Blumeris

    Gorilla Trek

    Though strenuous, the Gorilla Trek is much easier than the Chimp Trek.

    Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    In the morning, guests meet with the head trackers and get separated into groups to visit with the various gorilla families. There are only eight people allowed with each family. Tourists can visit a total of ten families. After allocation, you meet your tracker for a quick briefing, then you get back into your vehicles to visit your next family. Once you climb up to them, you spend about an hour with them and are able to get very close.

    Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    You are accompanied by a safari guide and three trackers (similar to the Chimp Trek). It is recommended to also hire porters to assist the trackers.

    November 2, 2018 • Africa, Articles, Travels • Views: 713

  • Amankila: A Balinese Paradise

    Over an hour away from the bustling parts of Bali, Amankila is a remote hideaway up a winding hill on the East Coast. This property is tucked within a lush mountainside overlooking the Lombok Strait. Amankila means “peaceful hill” and it truly exudes a sense of tranquility. It’s perfect for discerning travelers seeking an exclusive escape in paradise.

    Arriving at Amankila

    Bali, Indonesia | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Bali, Indonesia | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Upon arriving in the open-air lobby, guests are first greeted by smiling staff members and panoramic cliff side outlooks. Mesmerizing views continue as you are escorted past the iconic three-tiered infinity pool towards the standalone suites. A ginger and passion fruit frozen sorbet awaits on your terrace. Amankila makes your check-in a breeze, so you can quickly soak up the blissful setting.

    Balinese Offering | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Balinese Offering | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Concrete stilts support the elevated walkways which link the 34 suites to the main complex. Mango, coconut and frangipani trees line the paths, and their fragrances fill the air. All suites have authentic alang alang thatched roofs, spacious marble bathrooms, and coconut wood, rattan and bamboo décor. Tan and cream tones create a warm, sensual ambiance. Also, there are private decks with a daybed and dining table, ideal for relaxing and eating at any time day or night.

    Activities at Amankila

    Resort facilities include two restaurants and a bar, spa services, well-equipped beach club and an expansive pool area. Set above the pools, the primary alfresco dining venue offers Balinese and International cuisine. Executive Chef Shane Lewis highlights the regions bounties utilizing native Indonesian cooking methods. Afternoon tea, served by the library, features handmade Balinese cakes, “Kopi Bali” coffee and ginger and honey tea. You’ll also have the opportunity to chat with locals from the village and watch them create ornate offerings.

    Alfresco Dining | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Alfresco Dining | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Reserve a few hours to relax by the breathtaking three-tiered pool. Lounge chairs are plentiful, and the pool staff treat you like royalty. They’ll happily deliver whatever you desire – from magazines to freshly caught lobster. The staff anticipate your needs and provide you with what you want before you get the chance to voice it, like a refill on ice water and a cold towel slightly scented with jasmine. Stylish pool-side cabanas provide respite from the sun and are a comfortable way to soak up the heavenly atmosphere.

    View from Amankila | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    View from Amankila | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Signature experiences include visits to ancient palaces and lush gardens, cooking classes, village encounters, trekking and cycling adventures. You may also partake in romantic hilltop picnics and bonfire beach dinners. If you’re into snorkeling or scuba diving, charter the Aman XII – a 50-foot traditional outrigger equipped with a plush cushioned top deck. You can also cruise around Amuk Bay and enjoy a sumptuous champagne breakfast or light lunch after swimming beside an array of sea life.

    The Beach Club

    A steep five-minute walk or on-demand buggy ride transports you down to sea level to the Beach Club. A coconut grove fitted with hammocks, swings, fitness equipment and a soccer field await you. Wispy trees create ever-changing reflections in the 135-foot-long lap pool. On the other side of the pool lies an enchanting black sand beach. Made of volcanic minerals and lava from Mount Agung, the sand is surprisingly soft, and the specks of black and silver glisten in the sun. Take advantage of the waterfront activities, such as paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing and boogie boarding.

    The Beach Club

    The Beach Club | Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    As with all Aman properties, you can expect attentive, unobtrusive service. Over three-fourths of the employees have been there since the resort’s inception over 25 years ago, and their genuine happiness radiates. Along with the welcoming staff, the sprawling and secluded grounds make it feel like a home away from home. Amankila will leave you inspired and rejuvenated and is an idyllic haven to end a Balinese vacation.

    October 18, 2018 • Asia, Kathryn Fischer, Property Highlights, Travels • Views: 587

  • Exploring African Wildlife and Culture

    I can still remember my first time flying from the craziness of an African city out onto safari in those small propeller planes. With the hustle and bustle of the city behind you, you prepare for the unknown adventure ahead.

    Botswana

    On this particular trip, we were circling an airstrip near the Okavanga Delta area of Botswana. I was wondering why we were not landing when the pilot turned and let us know that the local guides were busy chasing a herd of elephants off the runway and we should be able to land once they pass. It finally hit me that this is the real thing – not a zoo, not a wildlife park – this is Africa. Once we finally landed, the safari experience began!

    Photo Credit: Botswana Tourism

    Photo Credit: Botswana Tourism

    Safari Experience

    The morning flew by with one wonder after another. Warthogs running off in the distance with their tails in the air, lions chewing on an evening prey or lying in the grass protecting their meal. The giraffes are munching along from tree top to tree top. One of the most beautiful sights was when a huge adult giraffe ambled toward a watering hole and slowly crouched down, knees buckling, and took a drink.

    Photo Credit: Cory Payton

    Photo Credit: Cory Payton

    The next day we hadn’t seen any giraffes, which was odd since they are usually everywhere. The trackers that join you on safari are incredibly knowledgeable and they had the most fascinating answer: there was a small brush fire a few miles away and the giraffes can smell the burning. We all thought they would be rushing in the opposite direction, but no! Giraffes love the taste of the leaves that have been ‘caramelized’ at the edge.

    You will discover many amazing aspects of wildlife in Africa. While lounging on the Zambezi River, a huge bull elephant came to take a drink – so we thought. He walked up to the river and looked out across the landscape before slowly wading into the river. He swam across to the small islands dotting the river, but he did not stop there. Lunging up and down, trunk in the air, he swam from one country to the other! The elephant swam from Botswana to Zambia and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I had no idea an elephant could swim!

    Photo Credit: Cory Payton

    Photo Credit: Cory Payton

    South Africa

    I like to suggest ending an Africa travel experience in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is a relaxed city by the bay with great last-minute shopping and is perfect for taking time to remember all of the amazing safari adventures you’ve had on your trip. Perhaps you’ll have time for one more incredible learning experience by taking a tour of Robben Island just off the coast.

    Photo Credit: South Africa Tourism

    Photo Credit: South Africa Tourism

    Robben Island

    Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison and 18 of those years were here in an eight by seven-foot cell which you can tour and visit. Even taking the two-hour ferry ride from the mainland is a journey through a historical struggle for equality. It is very emotional as each of the tour guides were once prisoners here. They share their stories, show images of their meager ration cards and explain the daily routine. Though very painful memories to share, they also add the hopeful stories and memories they had of Mandela – the kind and gentle president. Our guide said he and many others – even guards – helped smuggle in his children over the years or helped send his messages to the outside world. You’ll come away, once again as Africa seems to always do, changed and a better, more compassionate person than you came.

    Photo Credit: Tourism South Africa

    Photo Credit: Tourism South Africa

    This is Africa

    I’m always telling my friends, “Just go!”

    Yes, it may sound complicated and intimidating at first, but shove those worries down and make it happen. It will truly change you – make you appreciate the simple aspects in life, appreciate the land and our planet, take care of others and give what you can. Once again, Africa changes you.

    October 2, 2018 • Africa, Cory Payton, Travels • Views: 524

  • Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    Founded in the early 2000s with the intention of providing orphaned and hurt rhinos with a secure environment, Care for Wild has grown into the largest rhino sanctuary in the world. We spoke with Dorota Ladosz from Care for Wild about how they promote conservation in the travel industry.

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    There seems to be a special bond between humans and African wildlife. What do you think contributes to this? What are some attributes of African wildlife continuing to fascinate and draw guests to your experience?

    “Often people see the wild freedom in wildlife and it evokes the feel-good feeling in them. People enjoy watching wildlife doing their natural thing and being care-free. People want to be able to enjoy the beauty and energy of the wild African bush, whether it is a bird of prey in a thorn tree or a baby rhino hopping about near its mom – people want that freedom. Being able to see all these beautiful wild things, first-hand, is an experience that is enjoyed time and time again.”

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    How does this kind of conservation travel create better travelers? Do you think there is a bigger impact when people can see these animals first-hand?

    “When a person experiences the raw, wild beauty of African wildlife, they learn to appreciate the world around them. For example, seeing a pride of lions drinking from a river during a drought may teach and encourage a traveler to conserve water and use it more wisely. By experiencing first-hand the basic necessities of the wild, it stirs an emotional feeling which is often more powerful than any digital advert or billboard. Conservation Travel touches a person on a deeper level.”

    What kind of research and with what kind of animals do you work with? Can you cite a specific example of successful wildlife conservation programming?

    “Care for Wild is the largest rhino sanctuary in the world. All rhinos that are orphaned through poaching in Kruger National Park in South Africa are taken to Care for Wild. They are cared for, rehabilitated and reintroduced back into the wild. Research on successful rehabilitation and future release back into the wild is being done daily. The orphans are weighed and monitored regularly with minimal human contact to ensure the successful release. Having access to the records on the orphans and information on rhinos, their rehabilitation and biology is growing tremendously. Even during the reintroduction phase, the rhino monitors and rangers record vital information on their behavior. All of this information helps save many more orphaned, injured or abandoned rhinos and thus helping save the species from extinction.”

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    How can travelers help in the quest to end poaching of African wildlife?

    “Care for Wild is also a wildlife sanctuary that rescues, rehabilitates and releases all kinds of wildlife. As a non-profit organization, Care for Wild depends on donations and sponsors to keep the animals fed, healthy, comfortable and safe from poachers. There are a variety of options available for anyone who wants to help the wildlife. One option is to volunteer and work hands-on with the injured, abandoned or orphaned animals. There are also various options to send donations such as PayPal, check donations, direct bank deposits and even purchasing animal groceries on the ‘Rhino Market’ online grocery store. You can also sponsor an orphaned rhino where you can enjoy the benefits of regular updates on the progress of the rhino. Travelers can also share their experiences and act as ambassadors – to spread awareness on the poaching crisis happening every day.”

    What is your favorite part of working with these animals?

    “Being able to see these wild animals up close and being able to connect with them makes a person humble. Caring for orphaned, injured abandoned animals gives a great feeling of accomplishment. It makes you feel good to do something to change a life for the better. You are giving another life a second chance and hope for the future that will be as wild and free as Africa itself. Often people think caring for animals will make a positive impact on the animals’ life, but that injured animal heals the people that work with them instead. There is a mutual benefit when working in conserving wildlife. By making a difference in one life, you can be making a difference in more lives than you think. We are all connected in nature and it all begins in Africa!”

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    Photo Credit: Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

    September 11, 2018 • Africa, Interviews • Views: 3366

  • Five Days in South India

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Day 1

    I flew from Bangalore to Madurai before embarking on a two and a half hour drive to Chettinad where I stayed at the Visalam Hotel.

    In February, when the weather is pleasant in South India, I traveled to Chettinad and Tamil Nadu to explore the Hindu temples of Madurai and Thanjavur. The exquisite Chettiar cuisine was another reason for my visit! I flew from Bangalore to Madurai – a short non-stop flight on Jet Air. Unfortunately, the airline didn’t transport my bag to Madurai so I was forced to go shopping. Equipped with local, colorful clothes, I was excited! After an easy, two-hour drive from Mudurai to Chettinad, I arrived at Visalam Hotel. It is a grand, 75 year-old house that has converted to luxurious simplicity. The rooms are very large and one could feel the heritage, art and architecture of olden times.

    Day 2

    Today, I explored Chettinad on a bullock cart.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious steaming local South Indian filter coffee, we walked around the village and admired the abandoned mansions that lay still with its history of the past. Later on, I took a bullock cart ride and stopped by some local structures. Its architecture of open court yards, tall steel pillars and beautiful tile work was impressive. It seemed that time has stopped here and I was living in the past. The Chettiars – a caste of traders and bankers – built these mansions beginning in mid-19th century and ending just after India’s independence. Most of these homes are looked after by caretakers now – the Chettiars long gone from them. This place is so unlike any other part of India. The region is also full of beautiful boutique hotels, local tours and cooking classes. I was lucky enough to also visit the cotton weavers, the Athangudi Tile Factory and a Shiva temple.

    Late Morning, I visited Chettinad’s capital of Karaikuddi. I enjoyed a lunch with a 75 year-old doyen of Chettinad culture and cuisine at Bangala Mansion. Her mansion was full of guests from all over the world enjoying the cuisine!

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I drove to Thanjavur and enjoyed a culinary session and cultural performance at Hotel Svatma.

    From Chettinad to Thanjavur – the drive was about three hours. Welcomed by tall trees and the beautiful fragrance of jasmine, I arrived at Hotel Svatma. The hotel has a spiritual feel with an indulgence of luxury. In the afternoon, I took part in a culinary session with a local chef. I learned to make the South Indian snack of paniyarams and a traditional South Indian sweet sheera. In the evening, I enjoyed an amazing dance performance of Bharat Natyam. The young dancer had traveled six hours from Chennai to perform! That night, my lost bag (completely intact!) arrived at the hotel. I was more than delighted!

    Day 3

    Today, I visited the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple and a tour of the Thanjavur streets.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The morning began quietly with the local, in-house priest chanting the Vedas. My guide for the day took me to the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage monument. The temple was built by the Chola Empire. Of its sculptures, the most distinct ones are those of Shiva’s 108 dancing postures. Following this, I visited the bronze-casting and bronze gallery. Afterwards, we walked the Thanjavur’s streets to explore its cultural heritage. I met the Tanjore painting artist and explored Bommai Kolu – the wooden and clay dolls. I even bought a clay doll as a souvenir since they are locally crafted.

    Day 4

    I explored the 16th century Nayakar Palace and visited the famous Meenakshi Temple.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The breakfast at Svatma was a wonderful spread of East and West cuisines. Omelets for the western palates and fresh, thin rice and lentil pancakes (called dosa) for the ones who want to try the local fare. An easy drive on a well-paved road was a comfortable way to reach Madurai. After checking into the hotel, I went to explore the palace and then the famous Meenakshi Temple. Many people were there for prayers and blessings. The architecture of the temple is stunning.

    Day 5

    On my last day, I participated in an interactive walking tour for an authentic experience of the local lifestyle in Madurai.

    I loved the early morning tour of Madurai. We went to small streets where our guide, Karthik, took us to off-the-beaten-path back streets and fruit and vegetable markets. The city was waking up to the hustle and bustle of the local Tamil morning traditions. My favorite stop was the flower market – the scent of roses and jasmine filled the air. After some leisure time at the hotel, I caught my flight to Bangalore.

    Local Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Local Produce Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Roses | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    August 10, 2018 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 2456

  • The Wonders of Rotorua

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    My husband Kyle and I visited New Zealand for the first time in December, fulfilling my long-held dream of seeing this beautiful country. Like many visitors before me, I was amazed by the diverse landscapes, crystal-clear waters and welcoming people. However, there’s one particular place I fell in love with: Rotorua.

    Rotorua is the spiritual heart of the North Island, home to a thriving Maori community, beautiful forests, lakes, rivers and, most famously, a unique geothermal environment. This is a must-visit destination for those seeking a glimpse of the Kiwi lifestyle, hospitality and culture.

    The drive from Auckland to Rotorua takes three hours, though I highly recommend taking your time to enjoy the scenery along the way. Tune into a local radio station to listen to some delightfully quirky talk shows, and don’t forget to stay on the left side of the road!

    Exploration

    In Rotorua, nature is never far away. Walk along the edge of Lake Rotorua, and you will find yourself in carefully-preserved native woods that seamlessly coexist with the surrounding streets. In the summer, this green microcosm is fragrant with manuka flowers, though the lake itself smells vaguely of sulphur. Keep walking, and you will come across the sulphur springs themselves, bubbling from beneath the ground and emitting steam. These alkaline and acidic waters, along with the mud, have been used by generations of the local Maori for a variety of medicinal purposes. If you don’t mind the “aroma,” consider visiting Kuirau Park mud pools or the Polynesian Spa.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    A short drive away from city center, you will find the majestic Whakarewarewa Forest, or “The Redwoods.” This mixed landscape of native ferns and North American redwoods is a perfect setting for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Kyle and I are road cyclists who have never been on a mountain bike before, so we decided to find a nice beginner trail and give it a try. Having the lush forest scenery all around made me feel like I was riding in a more ancient time. The canopy provided enough shade to keep us cool. I would recommend these biking trails to anyone from novice to expert.

    Another fun experience is taking the Skyline Gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha for some walking trails with truly amazing views. You can even take your mountain bike into the cable car with you! In addition to hiking and biking, kids-at-heart can take a luge ride down the mountain.

    Adventure

    The next item on the agenda—whitewater rafting—was the most exhilarating experience during our stay in Rotorua. Although we have never done it before, our choice fell on the fast-moving Kaituna River with its Grade Five rapids and three waterfalls.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Our guides provided thorough instructions before we set off on the river. In no time at all, we were paddling along the river into the canyon. The fern-clad cliffs towering over us were alive with bird calls. The sun peeking through the thick canopy filled the canyon with green light. Where the river slowed down, we took time to marvel at the surroundings. When it picked up speed, we paddled according to the guides’ commands. Our support team included a kayaker scout and a lifeguard raft, so tackling the rapids and the first two waterfalls felt perfectly safe—even for beginners.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Yet even with the expert guidance, I couldn’t stop my heart from racing when we approached the mighty Tutea Falls. Were we going to flip over? Our guide didn’t think so. The lifeguard raft that went ahead descended without screams. Somewhat reassured, we got down to the floor and braced ourselves, as our raft slowly approached the waterfall and tipped over the edge.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Immediately engulfed by the rushing water, we were in the most sensory-deprived free fall I’ve ever experienced! For a split second, my ears, nose and mouth were full of water; there was no light or sounds, only immense downward pressure. Then it was all over. We were at the base of the waterfall, safe and upright, with everyone managing to stay in their place. I would do definitely do this again in a heartbeat!

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Culture

    No trip to Rotorua is complete without meeting the Maori people and learning about their heritage. We visited Ohinemutu Village, a living Maori community that has resided on the shores of Lake Rotorua for 800 years.

    We met our guide on the Marae (meeting grounds), and set off together on a walking tour of the village. It was fascinating to see a living community where homes with modern conveniences coincide with traditional buildings. We learned the history of the tribe, including how they adapted the geothermal energy and biochemistry of the hot springs to heat their homes and treat all kinds of ailments, from common colds to joint inflammation.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    With great enthusiasm our guide answered questions on how the tribe handles matters of life and death, marriage and family, religion, local politics, civil rights, and even appearances of Maori actors in Hollywood movies. I felt so privileged to have this knowledge shared with me. Next up was the Mitai Maori Village, a reconstructed traditional village with an outdoor theater for cultural performances. This is a large group tour, with a Hangi dinner and conert where charismatic hosts act out a traditional way of life.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Rotorua: There’s Something for Everyone

    In Rotorua, there’s something for everyone, from cultural immersion to active adventures. So between landing in Auckland and pushing your physical limits in Queenstown, consider experiencing this geothermal, natural, and unique wonder!

    June 29, 2018 • Articles, New Zealand, Travels • Views: 3555

  • Best Brekkie Spots in Bondi Beach

    Porch and Parlour

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Porch and Parlour typifies the “local Bondi” breakfast scene – gorgeous customers, beautifully presented food and a chilled-out, bohemian ambiance. The cafe specializes in healthy, wholesome choices. Try and grab a seat at the wooden tables outside for a sweeping view of Bondi’s glistening waters from its north end. A favorite of many is the green brekkie bowl. This bowl is packed with an antioxidant-rich mixture of kale, silver  beet, spinach, coriander, mint and parsley. Quinoa, two soft-boiled eggs, avocado and a slice of lemon are also served with the bowl.

    Trio

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Set on the bustling Campbell Parade, Trio has perfected brunch. Elegant touches, like the seamless white tablecloths, glass water jugs stuffed with fresh mint leaves and polished silverware allow this restaurant to stand out amongst the plethora of eateries along Bondi’s main strip. The menu is brimming with savory and sweet options, and caters to all sorts of eaters. Prime position is out on the sidewalk, which allows you to take in the panoramic views of Bondi Beach. If you can’t get a seat outside, the floor-length windows allow the sea breeze to waft in.

    Brown Sugar

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    This small eatery whips up tasty brunch items with a Mediterranean twist. The black and white checkered floors, dark lacquer tables and chalkboard walls create a contemporary, casual vibe. My top choice from the Brown Sugar menu is the black stone eggs: a fluffy English muffin topped with a hearty slice of bacon, broiled tomatoes and a free-range poached egg. It comes with crispy golden hash brown balls, which knock traditional, bland breakfast potatoes out of the park!

     

    June 11, 2018 • Articles, Australia, Destinations, Kathryn Fischer, Travels • Views: 4006

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