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  • Hobbiton: New Zealand’s Natural Soundstage

    J.R.R. Tolkien, the architect and author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, once wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Nearly 70 years later, visionary director and native Kiwi Peter Jackson gave life to Tolkein’s words on the silver screen. Using New Zealand as his backdrop, Jackson recreated the spectacular and mythical world of Middle-Earth. Featuring the stunning mountains, rolling hills, and rivers that make up New Zealand, Jackson succeeded. Middle-Earth exists and, as you will see below, Hobbiton is a testament to this notion.

    Hobbiton Discovered

    When preproduction commenced in 1998 on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, location scouts scoured the New Zealand countryside. It was in the middle of Waikato that the location of the Shire was discovered. Set amidst the lush rolling hills of a 1250 acre sheep farm, the land was tailormade for the Middle-Earth. Work on Hobbiton began. In March 1999, with help from the New Zealand Army, the production team constructed 39 Hobbit Holes were set over a 12 acres. After filming concluded, the shells of 17 Hobbit Holes remained. These shells would serve as the foundation of Hobbiton as it is today.

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    Hobbiton Today

    With 44 permanently constructed Hobbit Holes, Hobbiton is a fully functioning natural soundstage. Visitors see the same sets that graced the silver screen, spanning two decades and six movies. Take in the Party Tree, the site of Bilbo’s 111st birthday, and then enjoy a beverage at The Green Dragon Inn, the favorite haunt of Frodo and Sam. And then there are the Hobbit Holes. Built into the picturesque hills, the Hobbit Holes are as beautiful and intricately designed in person as they are in the films. Hobbiton offers several different touring options, each one showing off the Shire and the gorgeous scenery that makes it.

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    More Middle-Earth

    New Zealand features more than Hobbiton. The team at WETA workshop in Wellington created the physical effects for The Lord of the Rings. At Mount Sunday, you can see the majestic setting that would become Edoras on the appropriately titled Edoras Tour. Visit Mount Ngauruhue in Tongariro National Park, the site that became Mount Doom. Venture through Fiordland National Park in Te Anau and see what would become Fangorn Forest. And, should you want to walk the Paths of the Death as Aragorn did in “Return of the King,” a trip to Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve in Wairarapa would be mandatory.

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    Hobbiton | Photo Credit: Hobbiton

    New Zealand serves as the universe for all things Middle Earth. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the Fellowship of the Ring, “Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, until the stars are all alight.” Go on your own journey through Middle Earth in New Zealand. See where your imagination becomes a reality.

     

     

    February 28, 2020 • Destinations, Max Wasserman, New Zealand, Travels • Views: 4

  • My First Great Migration in Africa

    The Great Migration in Africa will give you goosebumps. Millions of animals moving clockwise, following the rain and the promise of food and water. The Great Migration is an ancient practice and to see it is to see the circle of life unfold right before your very eyes. In Kenya, that is precisely what I saw.

    The Great Migration Begins

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    I raised my camera when I saw them all begin to move toward the river. We had stood for hours in the back of open roofed truck observing the great herd, watching them wade through the oceans of Kenyan tallgrass. It was in those hours of anticipation of the Great Migration—and instinctual practice of these animals that was as old as time itself–that I developed a bond with the herd. And then the migration began. It happened all around us.

    Into the River

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    The herd streamed past the vehicle and I felt wonder as I watched the primal practice play out before my very eyes. The wildebeest and zebra leapt into the river and water lapped across the banks in torrents. I trained my camera and snapped as many photos as I could. But my eye was drawn to something moving along the water’s edge on the other side of the river. Crocodiles were gathering, massive but quiet. Excitement faded to concern but they stayed still. This too was part of the Great Migration experience.

    The Circle of Life

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    It was not until the tail end of the herd entered the river that the crocodiles slid into the murky water. The zebra and wildebeest at the rear—the weakest of the herd—struggled across the river. There was an eruption of muddy water and crocodile clamped its jaw shut on one of the herd and disappeared back below the water line with the animal struggling in its teeth. This was that great circle of life playing before me, one that was raw and without reservation. One that was undeniably brutal and beautiful at the same time.

    The Great Migration is life at its most visceral and raw. This struggle for survival breeds violence and beauty that you can not only see but can feel. My first Great Migration was a humbling and life-affirming experience that allowed me to see something I will never forget. I look forward to my second migation soon.

    January 15, 2020 • Africa, Articles, Destinations, Ian Swain II, Travels • Views: 2554

  • Winter Blues? No Worries! Here Are Our Top Five Island Getaways

    The great comedian and actor Carl Reiner once said, “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” With old man Winter just now settling in, many will come to echo the sentiments of Mr. Reiner. Shorter days, colder temperatures, and those pesky snow storms will have us clamoring for the return of Spring. Fortunately, you need not wait for the flowers to bloom to beat those winter blues. Here is a list of our top five island getaways for those who would rather wear trunks and shades to hats and gloves.

    Lizard Island: Winter Blues Prohibited

    Lizard Island Resort | Photo Credit: Lizard Island Resort

    Lizard Island Resort | Photo Credit: Lizard Island Resort

    Who needs snow drifts when you have 24 private beaches to choose from? The answer? No one. What’s more, the good folks at Lizard Island Resort provide complimentary boat transfers to each of those beaches so that you can visit as many as you want. Secluded and exclusive, the resort is Australia’s northernmost island-beach getaway that will have you staying right on the Great Barrier Reef. This means snorkeling, paddle boarding, and diving, as well as exposure to some incredible marine wildlife. Lizard Island Resort simply delivers.

     

    Fiji: Paradise As You Pictured It

    Kokomo Island Resort | Photo Credit: Kokomo Island Resort

    Kokomo Island Resort | Photo Credit: Kokomo Island Resort

    Is there a more fabled island destination than this chain of South Pacific islands? Islands covered with forests, the sun setting into the Pacific, and cocktails adorned with umbrellas. This is represented no better than at Kokomo Island Resort, a private island upon which there are no winter blues to be found. The Beachfront Villas are just that: beautiful villas equipped with private pools and set amid palm trees on the beach. Additionally, many of our travelers opt for a relaxing stopover in Fiji on the backend of an adventure-laden trip in New Zealand. There is no better place to unwind and reflect than Fiji. You will not be disappointed.

    Bali: Winter Blues Banished

    Ayana Resort | Photo Credit: Ayana Resort

    Ayana Resort | Photo Credit: Ayana Resort

    In Bali, the mountains are not covered with snow but instead with volcanic forests and rice paddies. This Indonesian island is perfect for sweating out those winter blues, whether it be on the beach or as a result of some delightfully spicy cuisine. Should you want to stay in the tropical forest, look no further than The Samaya Ubud. Set in the jungle, the accommodations are stunning and the nature trekking is unforgettable. Or opt for the beach and stay at Ayana Resort. Immerse yourself in culture whether it be through their rice planting program or a traditional Balinese cooking class. Exotic and warm, you may never want to leave.

     

    Koh Samui: A Cure for the Cold

    Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui | Photo Credit: Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui

    Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui | Photo Credit: Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui

    Seeing a monkey scale a tree and snap up a ripe coconut will melt those pesky winter blues. In Koh Samui, it’s difficult to feel anything but wonder amid the palm-fringed beaches and coconut plantations. It is that idyllic paradise that you daydream about as you scrape ice from your windshield and, once there, reality exceeds the dream. A stay at the Four Seasons Resort, with its gorgeous tropical views and private plunge pools confirms this notion. Or lodge at the Six Senses and feast your eyes on panoramas of the Gulf of Thailand and its turquoise waters in a setting inspired by a traditional Thai fishing village. Regardless, the only frozen water you will encounter will be the ice in your cocktails.

     

    Lord Howe: The Hot, Hidden Gem

    Capella Lodge | Photo Credit: Capella Lodge

    Capella Lodge | Photo Credit: Capella Lodge

    Lose those winter blues on a hike through this green gem of an island. Iconic and World Heritage-listed, Lord Howe Island is less than a two hour flight from Sydney and is a gateway to a tropical haven. The land is lush with greenery and coral reefs line the sea floor that surrounds the island. And, in the center of it all sits Capella Lodge, the island’s premium boutique accommodation. Offering breathtaking views of both the ocean and the mountains, Capella Lodge offers a quintessential island experience. Feed fish at Ned’s beach, learn to surf at Blinky’s Beach, or go on the ridge walk to Kim’s Lookout. The options are many and the days are memorable.

    These five island getaways represent some of the best we have to offer. Sun, sand, and jungle, but most importantly, all lacking dark evenings and winter chill. So stop dreaming about an island getaway while you spread salt on your sidewalk or layer on your third jacket. Instead, escape the dreary winter with one of our Team’s favorite exotic getaways to an island paradise. You will not regret it.

    December 13, 2019 • Asia, Max Wasserman, South Pacific Islands, Uncategorized • Views: 1739

  • Honeymoon on Safari

    When it came time to plan a honeymoon, the choice was easy. Africa. Most honeymooners crave a respite after the madness of their wedding day, opting for a relaxing beach vacation. While a few days on the beach did seem appealing, we instead chose a safari-infused excursion into the African bush. Here is why we will never regret our honeymoon on safari.

    Why Africa?

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    My husband and I were drawn for many reasons. First, we have the good fortune of having friends who immigrated from Africa and, with the way they speak of their former home, it’s impossible to not want to visit. Second, my husband and I wanted a cultural experience. We wanted to learn about this stunning land and the its wonderful people. We’ve always preferred to be on the move during our travels which is why safaris and game drives appealed to us more than beach days. Undoubtedly, the wildlife was the biggest denominator in deciding to take a honeymoon on safari. We pined to see the iconic African wildlife. We grew up seeing elephants, lions, and, giraffes only in zoos, so when the opportunity to see them in the wild presented itself we jumped at the chance.

    The Honeymoon Moments

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    What makes a honeymoon moment in Africa? Well for one, it is the lodges. We received incredibly warm welcomes wherever we stayed and the realtionships we developed with our hosts made leaving so very difficult. Bottles of champagne awaited us in our accommodations and we were treated like long lost friends. What’s more, at Singita we were surprised with a sundowner honeymoon meal. The manager of the property arranged for us to eat dinner alfresco while watching the sun set into the African plains. Having paid attention to our preferences during our stay, our favorite dishes and drinks were provided to us. Sharing a silent sunset with my husband made our honeymoon on safari unforgettable.

    A Safari and a Cruise

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    On our first safari, we set out to find six-week-old lion cubs that had just been born from two lionesses of the main pride. However, our plans changed when we came upon a wandering elephant. Our guide stopped our safari vehicle and the elephant slowly approached. The elephant, a young male, turned and locked eyes with every person in the safari vehicle. This was the moment that changed me. There was something so overwhelming about being so close to these gentle creatures that I, along with the rest of the guests, teared up. It felt as though the elephant stared into the soul of each of us and touched us. It was a feeling that I still think about now and one that will never leave me.

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    South Africa | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    In Africa, everything and everyone feels connected. Animals and peoples are integrated in a way that is remarkable. People are a part of the natural world instead of being apart from it and that is what made my honeymoon on safari special. To look out over the plains and simply be present along with my husband, away from wifi, emails, and stress. Africa is a different world and we cannot wait to return.

     

    November 18, 2019 • Africa, Jacqui McDonald, Travels • Views: 1516

  • African Proposal: My Trip to Eastern Africa

    In Africa you can disconnect from the world at large and enjoy what is right in front of you. It is this quality of simply “being” that drew me to the continent. It is also why, on my most recent trip to the continent, that I decided to propose to my partner. Here is how my African proposal went.

    A Sobering Start to the African Proposal

    Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    The trip began with gorilla trekking in Rwanda at the gorgeous Volcanoes National Park. We hiked through a volcanic forest and then came upon a family of gorillas. I froze. First, the majestic creatures gazed at us and then, finally, they approached us. One of little ones actually reached out and touched me. It was a sobering experience. These creatures, facing the threat of extinction, are not that much different than us. Moreover, gorilla trekking is an activity that directly benefits the conservation of both the species and the natural habitat. And, to be able to share this life-affirming experience with my partner made it all the more special.

    The Great Migration

    Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    You never feel more alive than when you are reminded that life is always in question. In Kenya, the Great Migration is a testament to this question and to see it answered live gave me goosebumps. Every year, millions of zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle migrate across Tanzania and Kenya in search of food and water. The river crossings are treacherous, the water teeming with crocodiles and the banks patrolled by lions, and to see a crossing is to be reminded of the great circle of life. In the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, we sat transfixed by the sight. Loud, violent, intense, and transfixing to see, the experience served as a reminder that life is thrilling but unpredicable. A rollercoaster ride that we have little control over, I took solace in hoping that by the end of this African proposal trip that I would never again have to face it alone.

    The African Proposal

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    We ventured out to the bush to a small community of family homes. The families greeted us warmly and showed us the fences they tended to which kept out wildlife. After a nice dance off with some of the family members, our guide and driver took us on a “private tour.” This was part of the proposal that the guide and driver had helped me plan. I trusted them and they came through, picking out a gorgeous overlook that provided a perfect backdrop for the proposal. Champagne was set out on a table. All that remained was for me to take a knee and ask the question that had brought us to Africa. I asked and she said yes.

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Kenya | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    My African proposal trip is one that I will never forget. While I was able to disconnect from the world at large, I was able to connect with my partner forever. For that, I will always be grateful to this continent where the next chapter of my life began.

    November 18, 2019 • Africa, Ian Swain II, Travels • Views: 1391

  • Indian Fabrics: Silks and Spectacles

    Indian fabrics are a feast for the senses. The vegetable dye hues form an unmatched combination of style and texture that I find magnetic. With this in mind, I set out to the center of Indian handloom weaving, Maheshwar. There, I learned that these fabrics are not only beautiful but also cultural touchstones.

    Indore Today, Indian Fabrics Tomorrow

    Ahilya Fort | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Ahilya Fort | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Indore netted the countrywide award for the “Cleanest City” for three consecutive years and its reputation is well-earned. I spent the night at the beautiful Radisson Blue hotel before my journey to Maheshwar the next day. In the afternoon, I visited the Lal Baag Palace which belongs to the Holkar royal family. Built in the 1920s, the home is elegant, complete with lavish interior and beautiful gardens. A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the gardens, a nod to Indian history. Afterward, I toured the night market of Sarafa Bazaar. The Bazaar is a haven for adventurous foodies like myself and I sampled the local delicacies of poha, jalebi, dahi vada and malpuas. Sarafa served as a fitting appetizer for the journey to Maheshwar, the capital of Indian fabrics, the next day.

    A Stop in Mandu

    Mandu | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Mandu | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious buffet breakfast at Radisson Blue, I departed to Mandu where I met my guide, Pervez. Together we visited Jahaz Mahal, the Ship Palace. Vast and well-planned, Jahaz Mahal is a sight to behold, sitting like a magnificient ship between two lakes. Additionaly, I also saw my favorite sight in all of Mandu, the Roopmati pavilion. The pavilion provides spectacular views that overlook the Narmada valley and is in close proximity to Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Rewa Kund. Built in the 16th century, both sites feature big courtyards, high terraces, and a reservoir that supplies water to Roopmati’s Pavilion. Before hitting the road, we ate lunch at a local restaurant and reflected on Mandu and its gems.

    Maheshwar, Capital of Indian Fabrics

    Prince Richard Holkar | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Prince Richard Holkar | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The striking Ahilya Fort greeted us when we made our way into Maheshwar. It was around 5pm and the Fort stood engulfed in evening light;  an unforgettable sight. Our rousing introduction continued when we were warmly welcomed to Fort by our hosts, the Holkars. Our hosts greeted us with garlands and we were given a tour of the grounds before settling into our rooms. Afterward, we joined Prince Richard Holkar and some other guests for a drink and watched a spectacular sunset over the river. The Ahilya Fort is 250 years and I can confidently say that it provides an experience like no other. Prince Richard is so warm and inviting, always sitting and chatting with guests. He made us feel like we belonged there which is the highest compliment that I can pay to any host.

    Indian Fabric Market By Day

    Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After breakfast on the terrace, we made our way into the city to watch local weavers create beautiful fabrics. Visits at the Rehwa Society and then the outlets at Women Weave at Gudi Mudi were vivid windows into the weaving of Indian fabrics. The weavers use beautiful silks and cottons and I bought a Maheshwari sari for myself. I wore it as we walked the small lanes of Maheshwar with its cloth handlooms, art workshops and hotels. The locals were so friendly and greeted us with warm smiles. After lunch, we took a boat ride on the Narmada river to enjoy the sunset with hot tea and fresh biscuits. Dinner was an Indian thali set up at the courtyard with flowing red flowers and beautiful lit clay oil Indian lamps called diyas. It was the perfect way to end the trip.

    I traveled back home attired in my beautiful Maheshwar fabrics and saris. They serve as reminders of my time in India; a fulfilling and wondrous time.

    Sunset over Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Sunset over Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    November 18, 2019 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 729