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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Traveling in Russia: Images of Moscow

Just revisited Moscow in July thanks to Viking River Cruises. Here are nine images taken there. Check them out while listening to this radio segment updating the tourism situation in Russia.

Vintage Portrait of a Young Pioneer
at Izmailovsky Market.

Cyrillic 101: Mockba=Moscow

I spy the Kremlin.

The famous GUM department store has transitioned
into a luxury mall featuring Louis Vuitton and
Manoli Blahnik.

Leaving Moscow on the Viking Truvor.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

It's the Experience, Dude

Based on information supplied by yours truly during a radio interview for Washington, DC's WTOP,  Rachel Nania did a write-up. **

Travel Trends for Adventure Seekers: It's About the Experience

WASHINGTON — Gone are the days when windsurfing, parasailing or zip-lining qualified as a unique vacation adventure. Today’s travelers are upping the ante and redefining what it means to live it up.

Laura Powell, travel expert and writer for The Daily Suitcase, says the latest craze doesn’t involve jetting off to the most exotic locations — it’s all about collecting experiences.

Riding around Saigon, Vietnam on a scooter is a hair-raising
experience, even with a helmet on. Only attempt it
as the passenger of an experienced driver.
(Courtesy Laura Powell)

“The world is pretty much open to all, so in order to have that different kind of adventure, you need to have a unique experience, as opposed to solely going to an offbeat place,” she says.**

And throughout that experience, collecting the best photos, composing the best tweets and checking in at the most interesting locations is imperative. “Now that everyone is trying to outdo each other on social media, the more unusual the experience, the better,” Powell says.

Ready to plan your next trip?  Here’s how you can make sure your Instagram account gets more likes.
Vietnam Cruise
In 2016, AmaWaterways and Backroads will team up for
bicycling-focused cruises to Vietnam and Cambodia, along with
several European destinations.
Above: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Travel with your taste buds

While some prefer to soak up a city’s culture by visiting museums and historic sites, others prefer to slurp it up with authentic bowls of ramen and heaping servings of pasta. Food tourism is a booming industry, and there are more options available for tourists looking to get a taste — or a sip — of foreign destinations.

“Whereas it used to be you [could go] to a cooking school, now you can do even more,” Powell says.
In Italy, travelers can tour a pasta factory or have Sunday dinner with grandma; Switzerland offers a variety of cheese and chocolate tours; and tourists in Bangkok can ride a boat through a traditional floating market. Plus, there are companies such as Home Food and Bookalokal that make it possible for travelers to attend dinner parties hosted by locals.

Cruise the water by night and bike paths by day

AmaWaterways recently launched a partnership with the adventure company Backroads to create a journey that combines cruising, biking and hiking. (Courtesy Backroads)
AmaWaterways recently launched a partnership with the adventure company Backroads to create a journey that combines cruising, biking and hiking. (Courtesy Backroads)
One cruise company is rocking the boat with its nontraditional tours.
AmaWaterways is teaming up with the adventure company Backroads to create a journey combining cruising, biking and hiking.

By night, guests who sign up for the Backroads adventure cruise can dine and sleep on the boat as it travels up river. During the day, they’re led on biking and/or hiking adventures with Backroads tour guides. Powell notes that the bike and cruise adventure is currently limited to the Danube River route. But, the itineraries will expand to other rivers throughout Europe and Asia in 2016.

A new degree of adventure

From Canada to Copenhagen, ice bars and ice hotels were once the rage. “All of the sudden, everywhere that had a cold winter had an ice hotel,” Powell says. But a chilling new destination is taking the excitement over ice structures to a whole new level. In June, travelers will be able to walk into the ice tunnels and caves of Langjökull, Europe’s second largest glacier. “They’ve burrowed out a tunnel within the glacier, so that people can actually go ice tunneling in the middle of a glacier," Powell says.

Peek inside the tunnels of Langjökull:

Experience nothing

In a constantly connected world where it’s hard to escape work, no matter how many miles are between you and the office, it’s no surprise that some travelers are in need of a little peace and quiet on vacation. And the travel industry is taking notice.

“Another thing people are interested in experiencing these days is nothing,” Powell says. She adds: “Silence tourism is kind of the next big thing.  There’s growing demand for places where people can get away, walk in nature, and not necessarily have access to Wi-Fi and cell service.”

In fact, “Silence, please,” is the slogan on Finland's official travel site. The slogan is accompanied by recommended escapes to remote lakeside cottages, igloo huts in the middle of the forest and foraging tours through the Finnish forest.

For original article, follow this link: http://wtop.com/travel/2015/05/travel-trends-for-adventure-seekers-its-about-experience/  © 2015 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

**Note: I modified quotes and copy in order to clarify and/or add information to the story. I also added the Vietnam images and captions.

Monday, August 17, 2015

New Spa Treatments and Wellness Trends

Interested in innovations in spa treatments? Watch me chat on Let's Talk Live in Washington, DC.  Click this link and take a look.


The Umstead Spa in
Cary, North Carolina
offers forest bathing, which
involves neither getting wet
nor getting naked.

The Spa Nalai at Park Hyatt in New York City
is one of the first places in the
United States where you can
indulge in a sand massage.

SpaFinderWellness named Cannabis, Forest Bathing and Islamic Treatments top wellness trends for 2015.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Quirky Museums of St. Petersburg, Russia

After leaving the oh-so-chic Faberge, my next mission is finding the Museum of Hygiene, a Soviet-era relic that would appeal to my taste for the quirky. I head to Italyanskaya Street, which is right around the corner from the Faberge Museum. I stumble upon the sign below  and assume I have accomplished my mission.

It's a natural mistake to make. One sees a microscope, and understands the Cyrillic to read "Museum Russia Levsha".  I don't know what Levsha means, so I'm thinking maybe he's a famous Soviet doctor.  Thus, I go in, pay my admission (300 rubles--same as
the entry fee to the Hermitage), and come upon a caboodle of microscopic masterpieces.

A wee Winnie the Pooh, Piglet
and Eeyore sitting on a walnut shell
I'm talking teeny-tiny works of art--all less than 1 millimeter in size, and all viewable only through a microscope. Clearly, this is not the Museum of Hygiene. No, I have discovered the Russian Levsha, founded by the International Craft Guild of Masters.

Microscopes lined up inside
the  Russian Levsha
Aside from Winnie the Pooh and friends hanging on a walnut shell, you see things like the world's smallest matryoshka doll balanced on the top of a strand of hair and camels carved into the eye of a needle. 

A miniature masterwork by Vladimir Aniskin

In case you are wondering, it turns out that "Levsha" ( Левше) is a Russian folk hero, a left-handed artisan who is able to craft shoes for a flea.   

After peering through dozens of microscopes, it's time to continue my quest for the Museum of Hygiene. And there it is, located just down the block. Housed in yet another St. Petersburg palace (circa 1755), the interior definitely hearkens back to Soviet days. 

I translate this as
"Profane the Nature"
Russian speakers, please correct me.

The museum was founded in 1919, shortly after the Russian Revolution. It was part of the plan by the new Soviet of the People's Commissars to drive home the importance of health and hygiene. 

Aside from numerous posters depicting warnings against all sorts of evil, there's Pavlov's Dog. I kid you not. An encased Pavlov's Dog, which should ring a bell to my intelligent audience, is the centerpiece of an exhibit covering conditioned reflexes. I must admit, looking at the caged beast inspired a gag reflex in me.*

Unconditionally, this is Pavlov's Dog.

Speaking of KG-beasts, another offbeat St. Petersburg museum is Gorokhovaya 2: The History of the Political Police and State Security. The  locals call it the KGB Museum. Sadly, I stumble upon it during the weekend, when it is closed (it's open from 10-6 weekdays). So, I cannot provide a first-hand report. I can say that it is located in an Art Nouveau building that housed the  bodies of political control from pre-Revolution days through the Soviet era. According to the website, inside are expositions covering the "activities of secret services that ensured the political security in the Russian Empire and the USSR, the suppression of dissent, and the role of secret services in political society." 

*More on Pavlov's dogs here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

St. Petersburg Travel Tips: Museums

Having just spent five days in St. Petersburg, Russia, I learned that there is a paucity of good travel information about the city. So, here's some inside skinny just for you.

1. Everyone knows about the Hermitage. But not everyone knows about the newest Hermitage outpost.

The Hermitage is Russia's largest museum. The main building is housed in the Winter Palace, the former home of several tsars. For years, the most popular galleries in the behemoth building consisted of works from Western Europe--more specifically, from the studios of Impressionist and post-Impressionist era giants like Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse. But here's the scoop. Last December, this collection was relocated across Palace Square to the General Staff Building. As of yet, no one seems to know about the move. So, while the old Hermitage is packed with throngs of tourists, the General Staff Building is almost empty. So, canvas this impressive collection before word gets out.

Top: Vincent Van Gogh: Chaumieres a Auvers-sur-Oise (1890)
Bottom: Henri Matisse: The Red Room (1908)

2. The Hermitage is dirt cheap. 

The Hermitage is actually a collection of museum facilities. Six hundred rubles buys you an entry ticket to the Main Museum Complex and the branches, including The General Staff Building, Winter Palace of Peter the Great, and the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory. If you want to go to just one branch, entry is 300 rubles (less than 6 dollars). If you don't want to stand in an endless line to purchase tickets, buy online The first Thursday of the month is free entry. More information can be found here.

The Hermitage and Alexander Column
3. The Faberge Museum is fabulous. 

This addition to the St. Petersburg art scene opened in the fall of 2013. The museum contains the largest collection of the works of Carl Faberge, jeweler to the tsars. Many of the pieces come from the famed Malcolm Forbes collection, which was purchased by Russian gazallionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2004. The highlights are nine Imperial Easter Eggs created by Faberge for the last two Russian tsars--Alexander III and Nicholas II. (Prior to Vekselberg's purchase, St. Petersburg had been eggless).

There are more than 4,000 works of art in the museum, so make sure to spend some time. The Faberge Museum is open every day except Friday. From 10 to 6, the exhibition is only available for viewing with a guided tour. An English-language guided tour is available at least once per day, or you can join any tour wearing an audioguide. From 6 PM to 8:45 PM, visitors can explore the museum on their own.

Lilies of the Valley
Imperial Easter Egg 1908

The renovated Shulalov Palace (circa 1799), in which the collection resides, is a masterpiece in and of itself. 

The dome inside the main hall of
Shulalov Palace

Exterior of the Faberge Museum

4. In addition to its glam museums, St. Petersburg also has its share of the quirky. 

To wit, one museum features Pavlov's dog. Another showcases micro-miniatures: wee pieces of art smaller than one millimeter...and only visible by microscope. More on those unconventional menageries in the next post.  

The Hygiene Museum or the
Miniatures Museum? See next post for the answer.

Retro Soviet posters at the Museum of Hygiene

Monday, August 3, 2015

Things to Know Before Traveling to Russia: Part I

While international tourism arrivals in Russia are down this year, the fact is, politics aside, now it a fine time to visit the country. The ruble's value has plummeted, and fresh artistic attractions in St. Petersburg are among the draws.

  1. At the end of 2012, $1 U.S. bought 30 rubles. In July 2015, $1 buys 57 rubles. In other words, the ruble has nearly halved in value in two and a half years. The dollar's new buying power is especially noticeable in the Moscow hotel market. Hotel rooms that cost $400 a night in 2012 are going for $150 a night today.
    Shopping at GUM, Moscow's
    famous shopping mecca, is much
    less expensive than it was just
    two years ago.
  2. The Cyrillic alphabet was imported into Russia during the 9th century by St. Cyril and St. Methodius (poor St. Methodius. All the work and none of the credit). Back then, the alphabet had 42 letters. Now, there are only 33 to confuse you. Try to learn a few key letters before you go. The skill will greatly help you navigate your way.
    Learn the language by reading the signs.
  3. Good cheese is hard to find. In August, 2014, Vladimir Putin put sanctions on many agricultural imports from the European Union, including cheese. While domestic production has soared this year (the first quarter of 2015 was up nearly 30% from the comparable period in 2014), eating local cheese is making Russians bleu.
    Customers at the upscale Eliseevsky Market
    in Moscow are missing their imported cheese.

Mayokovskaya (Маяковская) Station, built in 1938,
is considered among the most beautiful
in the Moscow Metro system.

4. The Moscow Metro is 80 years old. The first line was launched in 1935, part of Stalin’s vast plan to update the city's transportation system while creating "palaces for the people". Today, the Moscow Metro carries about 2.5 billion passengers a year (versus about 1.5 billion in Paris and 1.7 billion in New York). Many of the system's 200 or so stations are works of art. The earliest stations are filled with scenes depicting the idealized Soviet citizen--the farmer, the factory worker, the athlete, and the soldier.

Soviet solder in bronze at the
Ploschad Revolyutsii ( Площадь Революции)
,Metro Station

Ceiling mosaic at
Маяковская Station

5. Getting a visa for Russia is a giant pain, even if you live in a city with a Russian consulate. If you go through the process, get a three-year visa. It's not that much more expensive, and it will spare you the red tape if you want to travel to Russia again within the time span. Want to go to Russia without seeing red? St. Petersburg has a relatively-new 72-hour visa-free program which I will detail in the next post.      
Tourist poses with Lenin and
Stalin near Red Square