Archive for the ‘Destinations’ Category

Contrasts of a Journey Through Australia and New Zealand

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

692_thumbnailGeorge Losey, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii, received his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on the behavior and ecology of the fishes of the East Pacific. His research, mostly on coral reef fishes, includes cleaning symbiosis, intraspecific aggression and learning behavior. His most recent work on ultraviolet vision and coloration in reef fishes led him to Australia’s Lizard Island Research Station on two research expeditions.

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I love the contrasts in traveling. I look forward to the contrast of my destination with my home. The destination may be inspiring, challenging or awesomely beautiful, but usually makes the return home very comfortably familiar. Our Natural Wonders of Australia and New Zealand Journey was a stark contrast with nearly every day distinct from the previous day. The Great Barrier Reef challenged some of us to snorkel far out to the coral and giant parrot fish. Others near the beach were suddenly yelling “turtle” as a green sea turtle swam between their legs. Then when I was silently admiring a giant clam, my flippers were brushed aside as a turtle passed just beneath, either oblivious to my presence or possessing a cheeky desire to startle me (successfully!).

Kuranda and the awesome beauty of the rainforest were, for me, almost belittled by the beautiful olive-backed sunbirds nesting in the middle of the food court yard with their nest hanging from a vendor’s display. They busily traveled out and back, feeding their young, despite our violation of their privacy. Then walking down into the lower market it was transformed into a familiar set of commercial activities to a holdout hippie-style community as an echo of the old days in Kuranda.

Travel to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock brought additional contrasts. I was very pleased to have a stop at the local headquarters for the Royal Flying Doctors Service. Years back they had evacuated a very sick me from Mackay to Townsville in a rather nasty storm. Thanks Mates!

On to the outback, that contrasts not only with other places but with itself. The harsh red of the ground clashes almost violently with the stark blue sky. The remarkably complex and ancient culture of the people from Uluru is difficult to rationalize with our own. Many carry on with the traditional lifestyle that dates back many thousands of years. I chose my aboriginal painting purchase to remind me of that contrast AND the wichitee grub that I was challenged to eat during the bush tucker demonstration. (It was actually quite good!)

Then iconic Sydney from Opera House to Bondi Beach that all fit nicely into expectations only to clash that night with dinner in a Bavarian Bier House complete with sausage, Oompah band and nail hammering contest.

Mount Cook with clear skies and a sprinkling of snow forced us to dig a bit deeper into our luggage to stay warm. Our group split into various activities ranging from bush walks to a glacier to scenic cruising on an alpine glacial lake.

One portion of our trip that had little contrast was the quality of our accommodations. They were absolutely top flight with delicious meals, great wines and friendly conversations. Our Tour Guides contrasted in style but not in the depth of their presentations as the bus portions of our tour progressed. All of us left this journey with a contrast in the scope of our knowledge of Australia and New Zealand and an eager desire to visit again.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Natural Wonders of Australia and New Zealand

tour here.

A Sumptuous Tour of Peru

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

681_thumbnailJames Kus recently retired after forty one years at California State University, Fresno, where he taught courses on South American geography and archaeology. He first traveled to Peru in 1966; since then he has lived in that country for more than eight years, taught at Peru’s leading university, and carried out archaeological research on ancient agriculture in the northern coastal region. Jim has led more than twenty tours to Peru and has published widely on Andean archaeology and geography, in both popular media and professional journals. Jim is particularly excited to introduce Smithsonian travelers to Andean culture and food; he notes that Peruvian cuisine has recently become very popular worldwide.

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When people hear that I’m going to Peru again, they often assume that it is to visit archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu or others in the Cuzco area.  Or perhaps it’s to see some of the spectacular scenery – snowcapped peaks, the rainforest, or Lake Titicaca.  But more and more these days, when asked why I go to Peru, my answer is “for the food.”

In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has become world famous, thanks to the work of such noted chefs as Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid Gutsche, who have several restaurants in Lima and elsewhere around the world (several of our tour participants have been lucky enough to secure reservations for one of their Lima spots – but this takes much planning well in advance of the tour).  But every one of the hotels that we use on the Smithsonian Journeys tours have great restaurants, so it is possible to sample a wide variety of typical dishes as well as some of the new eclectic fusion plates and the local wines.

One item that surprises many first-time visitors to Peru is cuy (guinea pig) – usually served roasted, and frankly not an everyday dish for most Peruvians .

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Consumption of cuyes is most often associated with special celebrations for Peruvian families, but tourists may have a chance to sample roasted cuy at a restaurant in Cuzco.

A very typical Andean food is the potato – several hundred varieties are grown in mountain regions.  Although baked, boiled, or fried potatoes are part of many meals, a great introduction to the Peruvian potato is a dish called causa – essentially cold mashed yellow potatoes, stuffed with chicken, seafood, or vegetables.  Kus-photo-two515My favorite is a causa stuffed with mariscos (shellfish), but some restaurants, such as the dining room at the Inka Terra hotel, feature three different causas as an entrée. Kus-photo-three515 Another typical entrée is ceviche – often a white fish, shrimp, or shellfish prepared in a strong lime/onion/chili pepper mixture (the citric acid “cooks” the fish).  Usually thought of as a coastal dish, some highland restaurants now serve a ceviche done with local trout.

One of the most typical main courses found on dinner menus is lomo saltado – thin slices of meat stir-fried with french fries and vegetables and served with a side of rice.

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Other dishes that you might find on the menu include lots of varieties of chicken (my own favorite is aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a mild spicy sauce over rice) – or try pollo a la brasa (whole chicken roasted on a spit).

Then there are desserts – a whole range of sweet treats made with local fruits –try lucuma ice cream for something distinctly different.  But my all-time favorite has to be the messy sundae at the Inka Terra restaurant.  That’s the name for it (although on the menu it’s called the “miskey sundae”) – vanilla ice cream, homemade brownies, and a fudge sauce to die for, with the serving glass dipped in the sauce to create the “messy” name.   !Kus-photo-five515

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Legendary Peru tour here.

A Journey Through Southern Spain

Friday, November 8th, 2013

_DSC6039_1140H. Rafael Chacón is Professor of Art History and Criticism at The University of Montana-Missoula where he lectures on a broad range of art historical subjects. He received his doctorate in art history with honors from the University of Chicago, having been awarded numerous research fellowships to study in Europe, including an award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for his dissertation on Michelangelism in renaissance sculpture. He has written on a range of topics related to renaissance and baroque art, both in Europe and in the Americas, most recently focusing on Spanish-style revival architecture in the U.S. northwest during the late 19th century. In 2002, he completed the full pilgrimage from France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain and in 2010 one of the four principal routes across southern France leading to the “camino.” Dr. Chacón has led numerous successful travel abroad trips with students and has been a speaker for the Smithsonian Journeys program.

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The evening sun is casting long shadows across the vast Andalusian plain and from the vantage point, high on the balcony of the Parador in Carmona, it is easy to contemplate the rich history of the Iberian peninsula. It is autumn, yet the air is still warm and redolent with the scent of boxwood. It is also harvest time and row after row of the silvery blue olive trees hang dense with the promise of another season. Gold begins to tinge the leaves in the vineyards also ready for harvest. In the distance, we see thin wisps of smoke as farmers clear brush and prepare their fields for the rainy season still to come. Portugal-and-Spain-2013-188515

From this perch, it is easy to imagine the thunderous sounds of horses’ hooves on the plain and the clang of steel as armies of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and Christians clashed over centuries to seize the promontories and thus take control of these precious agricultural lands. The very stones we have tread on our walk around the charming town of Carmona evoke Roman soldiers marching across ancient Hispania and merchants haggling over the prices of fruits and vegetables: “No thank you, Tullius! Your oranges are much too bitter, only good for decorating the garden or marinating that suckling pig I intend to roast next week!” Today’s faithful enter churches populated by the subtly carved saints and richly embroidered tapestries of renaissance- and baroque-era bishops, but whose foundations were laid by Visigothic kings or Moorish emirs.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-187515
In fact, as we enter through the horseshoe arches of the gates of our parador, once a fortified palace, and walk past the courtyard with its lovely portico of slender marble columns, patterned stucco walls, and bubbling fountains, we cannot help but think of the Moorish kings who built and defended these very walls and spaces for centuries or of King Pedro I, whose love of Islamic ornament guaranteed that mudejar workers would continue to elaborate and expand the palace after it fell into the hands of Christian conquerors.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-183515
But now as the sun begins to set, we finish sipping our glass of sherry from the nearby Jerez region; it is time to retire and our minds turn to the gifts of art and culture that this amazing peninsula will reveal to us tomorrow.

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To learn more about our Treasures of Southern Spain and Portugal tour, click here.

The Summer Home of Storks – Falling in Love with Poland

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

638_thumbnailCarol Reynolds weaves high energy, humor, and history into everything she does. After a career in music history at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Professor Carol and husband Hank began designing multi-media fine arts curricula. Her unprecedented Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture (2009) has reached students across the world. In 2011 she released a cross-discipline course called Exploring America’s Musical Heritage. She is now creating a curriculum on the history of sacred music from Jewish Liturgy to 1600. Her research interests include German Romanticism and the musical court of Frederick the Great. She is fluent in German and Russian and maintains a home in Weimar. Dr. Reynolds is a staunch advocate of arts education at every stage of life and speaks regularly at educational conferences across the U.S. A pianist and organist, she is a popular speaker for organizations like The Dallas Symphony, Van Cliburn Concerts, The Dallas Opera, Tulsa Symphony, Kimball Museum, Fort Worth Opera, San Francisco Wagner Society, and the Davidson Institute.

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Storks. They were quite a topic during our Fall 2013 Old World Europe tour. Particularly true in Poland, where the stork is an iconic figure. Twenty percent of the world’s population of storks—as many as 50,000—make Poland their summer home. And while storks migrate to Africa for the winter, they return to their massive nests when the weather warms.

Villages are proud of their storks, whose nests are tucked into all kinds of rooftop alcoves and built even atop chimneys. People see themselves sheltered from bad fortune by the presence of those nests. And the nests are astonishing: up to six feet wide, they can weigh over a thousand pounds. They are easy to spot.

And that’s what our Smithsonian Journeys’ guests did in our first days of travel across Poland (Warsaw to Krakow) and on the dazzling ride across the Carpathian Mountains to Budapest. It became a stork-nest spotting competition: “I’m up to four,” cried someone in the front of the bus. “Oh, that’s nothing: my husband has seen six nests so far.”

“Counting storks nests” won’t appear in the promotional material for Smithsonian Journeys, but it’s a perfect example of the delight that characterizes this terrific itinerary across Old World Europe. We spend a generous amount of time in some of Europe’s most significant cities: Vienna and Prague, of course—the two that draw many guests to join this tour; also, Budapest which entices those who’ve never been and many who have longed to return.

The big surprises on the Old World Europe tour, however, are Krakow and Warsaw. Often, we aren’t taught much about these cities, unless we have Polish ancestry.

Recalling the unspeakable destruction of Warsaw in the Second World War, our Smithsonian guests aren’t sure what to expect. They discover a vibrant city filled with the country’s best talent, dedicated to making careers in the new, post-Communist economy. They see a swirl of fashionable young Poles, proud of their ultra-clean business district and excellent public transportation. And they shake their heads in awe, strolling through a resurrected pristine Old Town that war had reduced to ruble.

Krakow is an even bigger surprise. It’s just about the perfect European city.  Small enough so that you can traverse the historic areas in an afternoon, Krakow teams with activity. Museums, cathedrals, towers, arcades, and picturesque alleys remind us that this city was one of few to escape large-scale destruction in Hitler’s time. The miraculous survival of much of the Jewish Quarter allows us a rare chance to imagine how vibrant Jewish life was, before the horrors of genocide tore Europe asunder.

In my experience as Study Leader for this itinerary, I enjoy watching people fall in love with Poland. I hear comments like “I didn’t expect to be so impressed by Warsaw” or  “I can’t wait to come back to Krakow—I had no idea how wonderful it was.”

After all, travel is about discovery and enjoyment. Partly that happens with the impressive architecture and breathtaking scenery. But it happens, too, in the little moments: standing beneath St. Mary’s Tower in Krakow Square as, twenty-four times on the hour, a lone trumpeter serenades Krakow with the plaintive fanfare Hajnal. Or it happens when we breathe the fragrant air of the Łazienki gardens, realizing what a garden paradise Warsaw must have been before its destruction in World War II.

And it definitely happens as we look for stork nests! Ancient legend comes alive in the brave and loyal stork. Art, too, abounds in storks, as in this beloved painting by Józef Chełmoński entitled Storks (Bociany).

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The Old World Europe tour is filled with generous blocks of free time in every city. So when you join us, walk just a few blocks from our hotel in Warsaw to the National Gallery. In its spacious galleries, expect to be captivated by storks and an array of dazzling images as you begin your journey into Eastern Europe’s beguiling history and tradition.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

Cono Sur of Patagonia

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole is a Latin American historian. His interest in the region was kindled at the University of Connecticut, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. in history, including a semester at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, México. At the doctoral level, Jeff focused on civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile, the archaeology of the Americas, modern Chinese history, and – primarily — colonial South American history. He won a Fulbright grant to complete his dissertation research in Perú, Bolivia, and Argentina. Upon receipt of the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, he taught at Tulane, SUNY, Cornell, the University of Massachusetts, and Smith College. Jeff also served as Associate Director of the UMass exchange program with Argentina from 1985 to 1991, during which time he taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. His last full-time job was as Director of International Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. For the last twenty years, Jeff has served as a Study Leader for Smithsonian Journeys (nearly sixty in all) and as a lecturer on other academic excursions to Latin America.

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This departure of “Patagonian Explorer” was special for three very unusual reasons, all of which were unplanned and, as our Argentine Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay put it, “espontaneous.”

The first, of course, was that our group was witness to the inauguration of the first South American (and Argentine) Pope, Francisco I, and the celebration of the events of his first week in that role by the people of Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole.  The obelisk in the middle of the “9 de Julio” avenue was draped in yellow and white (the Papal colors), the Plaza de Mayo was packed – from Monday evening to late Tuesday morning – with people following events at the Vatican on large television screens flanking the Cathedral, and the city as a whole showed symptoms of hope for the future than were absent as recent as a month ago.  No Argentinians were more proud than the fans of San Lorenzo, the new Pope’s favorite football (soccer) team; indeed, the supporters presented Francisco I with a team jersey with his name and a halo as his number!

pope

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

The second grand surprise was the morning of our landing on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, just north of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Disembarkation in zodiacs for this visit to a huge Magellanic penguin colony always comes early, as the winds tend to be lighter and the waves lower in the morning, but on this occasion we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over Tierra del Fuego to the east and a bath of golden sunshine flooding the penguins ashore and in the water.  There was no wind at all, and even the ship’s crewmembers were on deck taking pictures.  As we all sat down to breakfast later that morning, there was an enthusiastic comparison of photographs to see who had taken the best image.

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Third, Easter Sunday brought a forced change of plans caused by the closure – probably because of an accident – of the Pan-American highway south of Santiago.  We were returning to town after a wonderful visit to the Haras de Pirque winery, when access to the highway was closed off.  Taking side streets to get back into town, we were destined to miss our appointed times for a visit to “La Chascona,” one of Pablo Neruda’s homes.  Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay, local guide Iván Bustamante, and I agreed to go instead to the Museum of Remembrance, which chronicles the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973, which toppled the government of Salvador Allende, through to the removal of Augusto Pinochet by the 1988 plebiscite which told him “No” to his staying in power until the end of the twentieth century.  Iván’s family had been forced into exile in Britain as a consequence of the coup, and his guiding of the Associates through this powerful museum was extremely moving.

The Patagonian trip offers Smithsonian travelers many different dimensions of two wonderful countries, Argentina and Chile, including landscapes and nature, but we never ignore the terrible moments in their recent histories, for the two peoples’ ability to recover and progress despite those events are all the more remarkable after we learn what they have suffered.

So, by the time we traveled from Valparaíso to the Santiago International Airport on 1 April, we all knew that we had been witness not only to Buenos Aires and the Argentine tango, fabulous Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia aboard Vía Australis and in Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the pleasures of the Chilean Lake District, but also to three different experiences that were unplanned and unexpected, but very special indeed.  Such surprises are often the most memorable moments of a tour.

I am sure that the 2013-14 season of “Patagonian Explorer” will bring similar “espontanous” experiences, and so am already looking forward to my return to the Southern Cone and Cape Horn.  My license plate and its frame say it all:cono sur

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To learn more about our Patagonia Explorer tour, click here.