Posts Tagged ‘luxury travel’

Splendors of Australia and New Zealand

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Ed Kanze’s love for Australia and New Zealand became a major part of his life after his first trip there in 1984. In 1996, he made a 25,000-mile journey around Australia’s mainland and Tasmania. Further adventures in both Australia and New Zealand have expanded Ed’s wealth of knowledge and stories to share. Ed has published several books, served as a national park ranger, won a prestigious John Burroughs Award for one of his nature essays, and shared his love of nature, literature, and history at venues great and small. Here, he recounts his recent adventures as Study Leader on our Splendors of Australia and New Zealand tour. Click here  for more on Ed, including Q&A.

Ed Kanze at Ayers Rock

The author at Ayers Rock.

Up we went into the wild blue yonder, and down we came into Queensland, in northeastern Australia, just as Cyclone Yasi, the biggest storm in Australia’s history, was bearing down on the coast. But thanks to a high-spirited group of travelers, an excellent hotel, and Yasi itself, which veered to the south, we were spared major discomfort. After a few minor adjustments, all went well, and our intrepid group was off and running.

After riding a train into the Great Dividing Range and seeing Australia at its wettest, we flew off to the dry desert interior. Here we found another surprise. Recent rains had turned the desert green. So instead of a very red Uluru, or Ayers Rock, rising out of red sand, we saw the world’s most famous monolith as few ever get to see it, rising from a landscape of green. Temperatures were mild, and we enjoyed memorable visits to “the Rock,” as locals call it, at sunset and sunrise.

Sydney came next. Here we immersed ourselves in Australia’s early history as a British penal colony, wandering narrow streets where the early settlement at Sydney Cove sprang up. Some members of the group chose to take in a performance at the world-famous Sydney Opera House, while others rambled in the botanical garden that entranced American conservationist John Muir when he visited in 1903 and 1904. In the garden we saw massive native trees, delicate wildflowers, and wild parrots—rainbow lorikeets and sulphur-crested cockatoos–up close.

Smithsonian travelers enjoy a walk in the desert. Photo: Ed Kanze

Smithsonian travelers enjoy a walk in the desert. Photo: Ed Kanze

From Sydney it was off across the Tasman Sea on a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. From this point on, weather and temperatures were sublime. We enjoyed a specially arranged tour of the richly endowed Canterbury Museum, walked through gardens bursting with color, and zoomed off into the South Island’s Southern Alps. A visit to Mount Cook National Park, where Sir Edmund Hillary honed his skills as a climber before taking on Everest, led to a stay in the mountain resort village of Queenstown. This was the base from which we enjoyed an epic day touring through high mountain passes and cruising on Milford Sound, a fiord so grand and magnificently walled in by cliffs and forest that to see it on a sunny day (as we did) is to grasp the full sense of the word “awe.”

Our last days were spent on New Zealand’s North Island, only slightly smaller than the South Island and my home state of New York. Here the focus was on the rich cultural history of New Zealand’s original Polynesian inhabitants, the Maori, who still form a vibrant part of this South Pacific nation’s populace. We ended our memorable time together with a Maori dance performance, visits to geysers and hot springs, a cave tour, and a visit to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. A farewell banquet produced tearful goodbyes and sent us home in a state of irony—full, yet hungry for more adventures in this exciting part of the world.

Ready to go? Explore Australia and New Zealand on our next tour.

Have you been to Australia and New Zealand? How was it? Share your thoughts!

On the Tiger Trail in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization that promotes arts and crafts as livelihood. She serves as Study Leader on our popular Mystical India tour. Click here to learn more about Minhazz and traveling with her.

Tigers have been venerated in India since ancient times. Photo: India Tourism Board

Tigers have been venerated in India since ancient times. Photo: India Tourism Board

To look into the eyes of a tigress is a wonderful, truly mystical experience. For that instant, the elemental beast and you are one in soul and spirit, the tawny eyes staring deep into your very being. You are enraptured, unable to break your gaze, so totally in the moment. You are intensely aware of even a blade of grass moving, of the leaves falling around you, of the wild bird’s call. Yet, she has you enthralled; she is the only focus of your being. Such is the magic of a tigress sighting in the Ranthambore National Park, which is a major highlight of the Smithsonian Journeys Mystical India trip.

The tiger is India’s national animal and the pride and joy of all Indians.  Tigers have been venerated in India since ancient times. The great warrior goddess Durga Devi has the mighty tiger as her vahana (vehicle). The all powerful Lord Shiva is always shown seated on a tiger skin. For the Warli tribespeople in western India, Vaghdeva or the tiger deity is an important deity to whom a part of the harvest is always offered. In West Bengal, the Sufi saint Gazi Pir is always depicted riding a tiger—he is venerated as one who can control even the fierce tiger.

Sadly, the status of tigers in India is dismal today. Despite the fact that India holds over half the world’s tiger population, there are fewer than 1500 tigers left in the wild in the country.  Man-animal conflicts over land use, decreasing forest cover and extensive poaching have resulted in dwindling tiger numbers, a fact that is of great concern worldwide. Nature preserves across India like the Ranthambore National Park are some of the safe havens for India’s declining tiger population and offer a chance to see the tiger in the wild.

Visiting the Ranthambore National Park is a magical experience—it is one of the most picturesque wildlife sanctuaries not only for its beautiful grasslands, crystal clear lakes and dry deciduous forests but also because of its setting against a magnificent thousand year old fort.  Scattered throughout the wildlife sanctuary are evocative ruins of old temples, hunting lodges and pleasure palaces. Seeing a tiger or tigress moving gracefully through the old ruins is a surreal experience—a poignant reminder that humans once ruled where now Nature reigns supreme.

Earlier the private hunting preserve of the rulers of Jaipur, Ranthambore was declared by the Indian government as a wildlife sanctuary in 1957. In 1974, the park was included in the government’s tiger conservation programme, “Project Tiger” and was designated as a National Park in 1981.

Getting to the Ranthambore tiger preserve is an experience in itself. After the busy city streets and markets of Delhi and Jaipur, a ride through vibrant yellow mustard fields brought us to the small town of Sawai Madhopur where we were to spend the night in the former hunting lodge of the Jaipur royal family, now a luxury hotel. Here, we boarded an open canter bus and set off for the National Park. The first view of the Ranthambore Fort in the distance is breathtaking – perched high up on the edge of the tall cliffs, the ancient walls have withstood the test of time. We pass through an ancient gateway, surrounded by huge trees where langur monkeys lounge. Gigantic stone boulders festooned with the aerial roots of banyan trees give a very Indiana Jones kind of feel to the place, and the possibility of sighting a tiger any minute adds to the excitement.

Tigers are elusive creatures … and not ones to appear on command. There have been trips where we have seen as many as five tigers and others where we have seen none. Sometimes, one turns a bend and a tiger is right there on the road. At other times, the tiger/tigress has been partially hidden in the foliage or in the lake. In India, like with many other aspects of life, we believe tiger sightings are dependent on whether you are fated to see one. I tell guests that the more good karma one has, the stronger is the possibility of seeing a tiger. Needless to say, if we spot a tiger, everyone is happy. We have both good karma and have seen the magnificent beast.  When we do not spot tigers, it can be a bit disappointing. But in the spirit of mystical India, there is nothing to worry about. There are many life-times still left, more good karma to accumulate and of course, a reason to come back to India!

Click here to learn more about traveling to India with Minhazz and here to learn about our Independent Journeys to India, which we’ll customize according to your schedule, budget, and interests.

On Patagonia

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
Glaciers of Patagonia - Photo: Allison Dale

Glaciers of Patagonia. Photo: Allison Dale

Veteran Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader Jeff Cole has led over forty of our tours in Latin America since 1992. He has also directed lecture series for the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program here in Washington. Here, Jeff shares his thoughts on a recent cruise around Cape Horn and a visit to Torres del Paine. For more on Jeff, including Q&A and his upcoming tours, click here.

I had seen Cape Horn from ships a number of times in the past, squinting through my binoculars to make out the handful of buildings and monuments. I always wondered what it would be like to step foot on that last little bit of the Americas, and promised myself that one day I would do just that. My hopes were only heightened by documentary films featuring the island (e.g. Captain Irving Johnson’s 1929-30 footage), or the written accounts of mariners, including Darwin and Fitzroy.

When at long last I was able to amble up those 67 stairs from sea level to the island’s top, and stand before the Albatross Monument erected in the memory of sailors who never made it home, I felt a real sense of joy and accomplishment. Now that I’ve done the landing twice, and gotten the t-shirt, I enjoy seeing our Smithsonian Journeys travelers realize their own ambitions, whether to step on Cape Horn, to walk with penguins on Isla Magdalena, or to follow condors circulating overhead in Torres del Paine National Park. Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Cape Horn are magical places, and only a lucky few get to see them. For me, they are a second home.

Ready for the ultimate adventure? Click here for our tours to Patagonia and here for upcoming tours with Jeff Cole.

Japan’s Hidden Treasures

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011
Women enjoy tea in Japanese garden. Photo: Japanese Tourism Bureau

Women enjoy tea in Japanese garden. Photo: Japanese Tourism Bureau

Tokyo, the capital of Japan and its largest city, is a fascinating city – full of crowded streets, unusual dishes, and secret corners. Travelers exploring Japan can participate in a traditional tea ceremony, visit the famous Meiji Shrine, and walk the gardens of the Imperial Palace.

Click here for more on our most popular tour to Japan. Vacations magazine writer Elizabeth Armstrong tells us more about her fascinating trip with Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures.

The Chateau de Chenonceau

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010


The romantic Chenonceau is one of the best known and most visited Loire chateaux. Photo: MLDF/Daniel Philips The romantic Chenonceau is one of the best known and most visited Loire chateaux. Photo: MDLF/Daniel Philippe

Built on the river Cher, where the unique beauty of its architecture reflects in the water, the Château de Chenonceau is one of France’s most romantic chateaux. Surrounded by a formal garden and park, the château is remarkable for its architecture and history as well as the fine quality of its interior collections. Built on the site of an old mill on the Cher River in the Loire Valley, the first generation castle was first mentioned in writing in the 11th century. Known as the château de femmes for the strong female impression made by its many woman inhabitants, the château is a mixture of late Gothic and Renaissance style.

Visit this lovely and romantic castle for yourself on our journeys to France.

 What’s your favorite romantic or striking castle?