Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

A Grand Entry to Venice

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Guest Blogger William J. Higgins, FAIA is an architect with 37 years of worldwide experience, has practiced in 10 different countries, and has traveled through more than 20 countries across Europe, Asia, and North America. He is contributor to two recent books: International Practice for Architects and Founder’s Folly. He has a Masters of Architecture degree from Harvard University, a Bachelor’s Degree from Louisiana State University, and has taught at Stanford University. He is a founding Principal of Architecture International, Ltd and was a Principal of The Architects Collaborative, Inc. Here, he shares a tale of arriving in Venice with family.

Venice's Grand Canal. Photo: William J. Higgins

Venice’s Grand Canal. Photo: William J. Higgins

The anticipation built as we approached Venice from Mestre along the narrow causeway. Entering magical Venice by car through the depressingly ugly square, Piazzale Roma, with its hulking parking garage and lines of buses, seems an unfair, cruel introduction to a glittering city. How can this be the gateway to ethereal Venice? But here we are, a family of eight in two rental cars, among the motorists who are naïve enough to endure the long lines at the Piazzale Roma garage.

Having been advised by good friends about the Venice parking challenge, I thought I understood the system. I proceeded to guide my rental car and my sister-in-law’s car behind me to the toll both of the main garage. Upon approaching, I took the parking ticket, and in my best Italian, told the booth attendant that we had two cars and we wished to park near each other. He forwarded me on to the garage attendant, who was the one in charge of our destiny. As I pulled forward and addressed the attendant, I could tell that he had already started to negotiate with me. First, he told me that there were no spaces for any cars. But we had just taken the entry ticket!

Remembering the advice of our friends, I flashed a few thousand lire (this was during the B.E. period, Before Euro). He paused and then waved me on to the left. I did not move. I said that we also had a second car right behind me with more family members including Il Bambina (my then two-year-old niece). He smiled, paused, smiled again, paused, and it was then that I realized that a few additional lire were necessary. After palming his hand with more lire, he walked with our cars to two parking spaces in the far corner of the garage that were now empty due to the absence of the owners who were on holiday. I pulled in and my-sister-in-law pulled in next to me. Voilá! We had technically arrived in Venice. Well, almost.

Our family ranged in age from two to eighty-two and we scurried off to catch the next vaporetto (water bus) to our much anticipated destination, the Piazza San Marco. Towing luggage, we approached the queue for the next vaporetto and were informed by the dock personnel that the next boat to Piazza San Marco was now at the boarding dock to the left. En masse, we moved toward the incoming water bus, each of us scurrying along with our luggage. My father-in-law, Rus, being the gentleman that he is, was carrying his tote bag and that of my mother-in-law. On rusty replaced knees, he was shuffling along the best his eighty-year old legs and three-year old knees would take him.

View of the Grand Canal. Photo: William J. Higgins.

View of the Grand Canal. Photo: William J. Higgins.

As we boarded the vaporetto, Rus was directly behind us and about ready to step onto the boat when the young macho attendant suddenly closed the shin-high gate. The boat immediately pulled from the dock and Rus, loaded with luggage, nearly stepped into the brown murky water of the Grand Canal. My wife yelled, “Papa!” as the vaporetto motored its way down the canal to Piazza San Marco. We all looked at each other and wondered, “Would we ever see dear Papa again?”

Our attention was soon drawn to the Grand Canal and the great scene ahead of us. Boats and vaparetti were motoring every which way along the canal like cars on a street, except there were no lanes or stop signs. We had never experienced anything so captivating. The emotion, the thrill, and the wonder of entering Venice by boat was powerful. Here we were cruising in a vaporetto looking out onto streets that were flooded. Unreal. I glanced over at my Mom, mother-in-law, and wife and saw happy anticipation reflect on their faces as they gazed at the majesty of the Byzantine and Renaissance villas that flanked the Grand Canal. It was like a parade of architectural gems, except that we were the moving float.

Then I looked at my toddler niece, who was carefully cradled between her parents, and saw a special amazement in her eyes, as if she were entering Disneyland for the first time. I wondered what was going through her head, and all I could think of was awesome delight. She was nothing but beaming smiles and welcoming innocence. That is how you should enter Venice.

Upon our arrival at Piazza San Marco, we anxiously waited for the Papa, not knowing if he really knew at which stop to disembark. Many fretful minutes passed before we saw him arriving on the next boat, positioned at the helm, waving to us with a broad grin and filled with the same sense of joy that we had. Papa had arrived in Venice! We all then walked along the Calle Larga XXII Marzo to our quaint hotel a few blocks away, the Hotel Flora. Upon check-in, we immediately went to the nearest café for a beer to relax our feet, and our nerves.

Ready for your own Venetian adventure? Click here for all our journeys to Venice.

What’s your favorite city? Please share.

Volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010


File:MSH82 st helens plume from harrys ridge 05-19-82.jpg

Mount St. Helens on May 19, 1982. Photo: US Geological Survey.

Located only 50 miles from Portland, Oregon, Washington State’s Mount St. Helens is seared into our memories for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980. The eruption took life, property, and the summit of Mount St. Helens, which is now topped by a large crater. While Mount St. Helens is the nation’s most active volcano, the Pacific Northwest actually has a long history of volcanic activity, centered on the Cascades mountain range.

At Oregon’s Newberry National Volcanic Monument, visitors can explore the Lava River Cave, a lava tube formed after a volcanic eruption when surface lava cooled and hot lava continued to flow beneath. The underground channel where this lava flowed now forms a long cave. Crater Lake, also in Oregon, the deepest lake in the United States, was also formed by volcanic activity.

Of course, there’s more to the Pacific Northwest than volcanoes. Join us next September for our Pacific Northwest Hiking experience to learn about all of the state’s stunning natural wonders and biodiversity, as well as the delicious food and wine of Oregon and Washington.

Where’s your favorite place to go hiking? Please share.

Did you know? The Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program tracks volcanic activity worldwide, and you can click here  for more on Mount St. Helens.

Shopping in Hanoi

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Study Leader Dana Sachs is the author of three books and numerous articles about Vietnam. Having lived in Hanoi, she loves to share her favorite places with our travelers. Click  for more on Dana and traveling with her.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. The garden in front of the Mausoleum features more than 200 different plant species, all native to Vietnam.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. The garden in front of the Mausoleum features more than 200 different plant species, all native to Vietnam.

I’m not a shopper, but I bring an extra bag with me to Vietnam because there are certain things I can’t do without when I’m back home: candied fruit, prayer paper, and knives. Although Vietnam produces beautiful handicrafts that foreigners love—bamboo serving dishes, hand-painted pottery, lacquer boxes, silk—it’s these inexpensive items manufactured for the Vietnamese themselves that I need most. On my most recent visit with Smithsonian Journeys to Vietnam, we took a walking tour through Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Because I lived in Hanoimyself, I had my favorite shops I wanted the travelers to visit. I say “shops,” but “stalls” might be a better word for the tiny establishments, usually just a salesperson standing behind a display case, her customers facing her from the sidewalk. On Hang Duong (Sugar Street), we stopped to sample the traditional candied fruit, known as mut, which Vietnamese consume in enormous quantities during winter months surrounding the Lunar New Year, but love all year round. At first, the Americans looked skeptically at the display of dried apricots, persimmons, apples and sliced ginger, all coated in crunchy sugar. I bought a bag of ginger, another of apricots, and a third containing o mai, a sweet-and-sour concoction of shaved ginger and tamarind that you eat in pinches. “Try it,” I urged. This was an open-minded and enthusiastic group of travelers and so, though the candies looked different, everyone wanted to try some. “Sour!” someone said, puckering her lips. Another, who had tried the ginger, said, “Spicy, too. But also sweet.” One of the men pulled out his wallet. He raised his fingers toward the vendor—“three!”—and, without a translator, bought a pile of snacks that, it turned out, he would share with the rest of the group during our next bus ride through the city.

On Hang Ma (Prayer Paper Street), the shops sell the paper goods that Vietnamese burn as offerings to their ancestors. After death, according to Vietnamese belief, souls enter a new world that, in many ways, parallels our own. If we need to eat, so do they. If we need clothing, so do they. If we need television sets, cars, credit cards, jewelry and motorbikes, well, so do they. It wouldn’t be practical or economical, though, to burn the real thing, so for centuries craftspeople have developed an industry in these parallel goods, all made of paper. On Prayer Paper Street, then, one can find paper clothing, paper jewelry, watches, credit cards and even TVs. It’s an amazing thing to see, and photogenic, too. When I’m shopping, I drop by Hang Ma Street to purchase sheets of handmade paper, dyed in vivid shades of purple, red, yellow, pink and blue, often stamped in delicate patterns, too. I use it for wrapping paper back home. “Anyone else want some?” I asked. The saleslady was squatting on the sidewalk, rolling up my purchase and securing it with a rubber band. One of the California visitors stepped forward, “I think I could squeeze some of that into my suitcase,” she said. Then she opened the fingers on her hand to convey her purchase to the vendor, saying, “I’ll take ten sheets.”

Off to Dong Xuan Market, the cavernous building that serves as the commercial heart of this most commercial district, with vendors spilling out in all directions, selling everything from live chickens to wholesale rice to alarm clocks, bolts of fabric, children’s shoes. My goal now was to find my favorite knife seller, who sat on the floor of a secondary building, her “hardware goods” spread around her in piles and baskets. I’ve been buying her knives for years. At home, I call them “ugly knives” because they are ugly—with a rectangular blade and a rough wooden handle. The steel doesn’t shine. The wood sometimes splinters. You can’t put them in the dishwasher. They rust (a problem remedied with a swipe of the sponge.) But they are the best knives I’ve ever used. You never have to sharpen them and they cut through a tomato as if it were butter. I have given away so many of these knives over the years that I can no longer fly to Vietnam without taking orders from my friends, particularly the ones who are serious chefs. “I want another knife!” They’ll say, “But this time, bring me two.” Or, “My mother stole mine. Bring me more!” I buy them by the chuc, or parcel of ten. Ten knives cost about two dollars, so it’s not only a valued gift, but an economical one, too.

My favorite part of taking the visitors out shopping is watching their interactions with the Vietnamese. Without a shared language, buyer and seller often begin the transaction nervously. The Americans look uncertain. The Vietnamese (these are not vendors who often deal with tourists) look scared. What amazes both sides is how easily they communicate with one another, holding up fingers, nodding, shaking their heads. The American tourists are, from my experience, enthusiastic and good natured. The Vietnamese, who can drive a hard bargain, are also curious and kind. At the end of the exchange, we begin to walk away, bags in hand, while the Vietnamese count their money. I hear the Americans say, “That was fun,” and I hear the Vietnamese say the same thing: “Vui lam.”

What’s your favorite foreign shopping experience? Share below!

Craving your own personal supply of candied fruit, prayer paper, and ugly knives? Click for our tours to Vietnam.

Five Reasons to Take the Family to Egypt for the Holidays

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

So maybe it’s a little early to be thinking about holiday plans, but maybe not. If you’re thinking about traveling as 2010 draws to a close, you might want to book now to get the best vacation possible. We’re taking families to Egypt  from December 27 – January 3 for a unique vacation that celebrates family, history, and tradition in a whole new way. Here are five reasons to treat the family to Egypt this year:

Kids do some holiday shopping in Cairo's Khan-El-Khalili Bazaar. Photo: J.D. Kling.

Kids do some holiday shopping in Cairo’s Khan-El-Khalili Bazaar. Photo: J.D. Kling

1) Mummy’s curse – real or fake? Let your kids check out King Tut’s treasures and decide for themselves.

2) Take an unforgettable camel ride with your kids around the Great Pyramids of Giza, and help them gain an intrinsic understanding of the meaning of “big” and “old.”

3) Team up for a scavenger hunt around Cairo’s colorful Khan-El-Khalili bazaar, and find out how creative, intelligent, and fast your kids really are.

4) Take a family bike ride along the banks of the Nile and enjoy the long lost gift of simple companionship.

5) Enjoy lessons in ancient and modern engineering on a visit to the temples of Rameses II and his wife, Nefertari, which were moved to make way for the flooding caused by the creation of the Aswan Dam.

Travel is one of the best ways to open children’s eyes to the pleasures of history, archeology, and exploration. Our Egyptian Family Odyssey makes travel easier with airfare included. First time travelers get $250 off if you book now.

Where would you like to take your kids? Please share.

Video: Vermont from the Air

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

With artisanal food producers creating everything from hand decorated chocolates to cob-smoked specialty meats (and of course, the fantastic cheese), Vermont is one of the nation’s top culinary destinations. Not only that, Vermont is a leader in sustainable agriculture, producing all those tasty things with local ingredients in a greener way.

But Vermont’s not just about food, there’s great scenery too. Thanks to the folks at the Smithsonian Channel, take a peek at the land that produces some of the best cheese, cider, and maple syrup in the country.

Packed yet? Get the inside scoop on everything food from the New England Culinary Institute, Dakin Farms, the Morse Sugar Farm, and of course, Ben & Jerry’s on our Food Lover’s Vermont  experience.

What’s special food will you travel miles to enjoy? Please share.