Visit to the High Arctic

By guest blogger Roger Herst

You don't travel to the Canada's high Arctic without a good reason. Aboard the Akademik Iofe, a converted Cold War Soviet spy ship, my enthusiastic shipmates and I headed north from Resolute Bay into the Baffin Bay between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Aboard are professional photographers, geologists, meteorologists, zoologists, professors, writers and just plain lovers of the polar regions. The majority had been to the Antarctic, a large land mass at the South Pole surrounded by water. The opposite north pole is quite different. Here at the top of the planet is ocean covered with sea-ice but surrounded by land.

I joined this band of brothers in order to tweak my latest novel, No Land too Desolate, a geo-political thriller set in this semi-frozen region, populated by Inuit in scattered in distant villages. These hardy people once derisively referred to as Eskimos still maintain their traditional hunting-fishing cultures, surviving in bitter sub-zero cold without sunlight for four full months of the year. The best and only time for those of us from warmer climates to visit is during the summer when the days are long and the sun never dips below the horizon. Don't dream about the legendary northern skies. There's no darkness to view these heavenly bodies.

In the course of our short trip, it's hard to observe the effects of global warming, though experts who keep annual statistics are unanimous in their evaluation. Each winter the sea ice is thinner and each summer a great deal less survives exposure to sunlight when cold once again heralds the coming of winter.

We travel to shore twice a day to explore the tundra aboard Zodiacs. Near glaciers one can witness calving as tons of ageless compacted snow and ice tumble into the sea. This material is 100 million years old. As this ancient ice floats beside my Zodiac I snatch a hunk to nibble in my mouth, without doubt the purest water I have ever tasted. Small air bubbles trapped in this ice have survived from earliest geological time. In my mouth I sample oxygen and nitrogen older than the air breathed by Abraham 1600 BCE or by an ancient Pharoah, 2500 BCE!

My fellow explorers and I feel privileged to be here, realizing how we live only on the skin of this vast planet. Mother Earth doesn't belong to us. We are only visitors who like the native polar bear and walrus come and go, leaving this eternal legacy to future generations.

Roger Herst is the author of several novels, short stories and scholarly articles. He is an ordained Rabbi with a doctorate in Middle Eastern History, holding undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins and the Hebrew Union College. He is an avid tennis player and musician. There’s nothing outdoors he doesn’t love.


Sailing Over the Canadian Alps

By guest blogger Clark McCann

Looking straight down between my knees 6,000 feet to the blue expanse of the Frazier River, I catch a sudden gut-shot of vertigo and fear. Reality check: I’m a mile in the sky, borne forward by a soft paraglider wing that can fold up like a cheap suit when struck by turbulence. I suck in a couple of deep slow breaths, steady my gaze on the distant horizon of snow crusted peaks, and the queasy moment passes. "Okay, you wimp," I tell myself. "You paid for this ride, now enjoy it!" I lean back in my padded harness, comfortable as an easy chair, and look up at my beautiful red wing, inflated with air, bearing my weight—and life—through the winter sky. I make a slow turn to the right to look back at the sheer icy face of Mt. Cheam, where minutes before I had taken off from the gentle south side, turned back across the ridge, then flown out over the magnificent Frazier River valley. Below was a checkerboard of green pastures, in the distance lakes and mountains, as pretty as any landscape in Switzerland.
 
Less than four hours before I’d left Seattle by car with a half-dozen paragliding fanatics, led by Marc Chirico and his wife Lan, all of us eager to fly off of 7,200 Mt. Cheam in British Columbia.  Among us were seasoned veterans with more than a thousand flights, as well as beginners, like me, with less than 100. One brave girl had just seven solo flights. Marc and Lan run Seattle’s most respected paragliding school and have trained hundreds of pilots over the last decade. Located at the foothills of the Cascades in Issaquah, the school sits at the foot of Tiger Mountain, one of the best paragliding sites in the Pacific Northwest. 

Driving straight north to Bellingham we crossed the Canadian border at Sumas, then headed East on Highway 1 along the Frazier River. Near a town aptly named "Hope," we climbed aboard a small helicopter that ferried us up to the summit of Mt. Cheam, three at a time. The ride was spectacular, and harrowing, as the chopper ducked around swirling clouds and looked for clear air and a level spot near the summit to set us down. Once on the mountain, we found ourselves in a cold, alpine environment. I was worried about the clouds and poor visibility. What if we get socked in and we can’t fly off and the chopper can’t pick us up? My fears subsided as the mists rose in the warming sun and we caught a window of clear skies to launch from the steep snow slope.
 
Now, relaxing into my flight, I’m amazed by the smooth air—not a ripple of turbulence. I indulge myself with a series of lazy turns to better admire the view and still arrive at our grassy landing field with plenty of altitude. After a soft touch-down, we give each other high-fives and head to the resort town of Harrison Hot Springs for beers and pizza.

Too exhilarated to drive back, some of us elect to spend the night at the resort hotel, spending hours outside in the warm mineral waters, talking and reliving our winter flying adventure.

If you’re interested in group paragliding, and live in the Seattle area, contact Marc Chirico at Seattle Paragliding for tips, lessons, training and more. For reputable schools in other parts of the country, contact the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. Contact the Harrison Hot Springs Resort in British Columbia for more information about accommodations.

Clark McCann is a Seattle area freelance writer and adventure sports enthusiast.


German Group Journeys

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie

Germany is a wonderful place to visit for anyone who loves art, architecture, culture and history. It's also a bike rider's paradise. On a group trip with your friends, family or wedding party, there's plenty to do and see in every region of Germany.

Bike, Art and Culture - Here are some ideas for places to visit with a focus on art and architecture. You can tour these areas by bike (it's easy to rent bikes locally) or by car: 

Focus on Art - Muenster and Kassel:

  • If you and your group of friends or family members love contemporary art, there’s a "solar art eclipse" taking place in the Westphalia region (until the end of September 2007). In Kassel, documenta 12, a prestigious, contemporary art exhibition—like the Venice Biennale—takes place every five years and the Muenster Sculpture Project takes place every 10 years—see them both now! (Trains linking Muenster and Kassel take about two hours.)
  • Muenster is a lovely town with cobblestone streets, historic buildings and charming churches. The Sculpture Project is not in a museum but strategically-placed throughout the town. You can tour the sculptures with a knowledgeable guide on a bike or walking tour. Even when the Sculpture Project is not taking place, it’s worth a trip to Muenster. This university town is full of pubs, restaurants and year-round cultural events. Be sure to sample some local beer at Muenster’s oldest brewery, Brauerei Pinkus and enjoy regional specialties at the oldest restaurant, Gasthaus Leve. In the surrounding countryside of Muensterland, there are 100 castles to be viewed on a bike tour or by car.
  • Hotels: In Muenster – Stadthotel; Hotel Feldmann. In the countryside - Hotel Hof zur Linde; Hotel Schloss Wilkinghege. In Kassel – During documenta, there are special hotel package deals.

Focus on Industrial Design - The Rhur Region:

  • The Ruhrgebiet area has transformed sites from its former industrial past—steel mills, coal mines, gas tanks--into incredible venues for art exhibitions and other leisure and cultural activities. As a result, the area has been named European Capital of Culture 2010.
  • In Essen, the Zeche Zollverein, a former coal mine, is now a UNESCO world heritage site and a vibrant arts center with space for emerging artists and an outstanding showcase for design at the Red Dot Design Museum. You and your group can hike or bike around the site as well as have a great lunch in the Zollverein Casino.
  • In Oberhausen, the Gasometer at CentrO used to store gas for the steelworks. An installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude made the site popular for unique art exhibitions.
  • Other cultural highlights in the area include Essen's Folkwang Museum (its fabulous collection is currently in the Villa Hügel). In Duisburg, stroll along the lovely Inner Harbor. The Lehmbruck Museum is a must-see, then head for Landscape Park on the grounds of the former Meiderich Ironworks, now an entertainment and recreational center. The Ruhrgebiet tourism office can help arrange tours for your group. If you'd like to discover the area on your own by bike, the RuhrTalRadweg is a signposted trail or your group can do an organized bike tour.
  • Hotel: Castle Westerholt is a lovely and convenient base to use for visiting the region.

Focus on Medieval Architecture – Lower Saxony:

  • The Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) region of Germany is a treasure trove of half-timbered architecture (similar to Tudor style with strips of horizontal, vertical and diagonal wood framing on the houses). One of the most picturesque spots is Hannoversch Münden, located at the juncture of three rivers—Werra, Fulda and Weser—it has over 700 half-timbered buildings centuries old. The town is on a few incredibly scenic routes that your group can tour via bike or car including the Fairy Tale Route and the Framework Road.
  • Hotels: Try Hotel Alter Packhof.

Focus on Modern Art and Architecture – Düsseldorf:

  • Düsseldorf: Although people often come here on business, anyone who loves art and architecture should definitely put Düsseldorf on their travel itinerary. First, it is situated on a lovely stretch of the Rhine River lined with magnificent buildings such as Neuer Zollhof by Frank Gehry and William Alsop's Colorium that have made Media Harbour a hot spot for architecture. Next, Düsseldorf has outstanding museums (Kunst means art): the Kunst Palast features old masters, contemporary art and a fantastic glass collection. K20 displays 20th century masterpieces and K21, cutting-edge contemporary art of the 21st century, while KIT (Kunst im Tunnel) is a unique exhibit space for emerging artists and the Hetjens Museum features ceramics.
  • After all that museum-hopping, you and your group of family and friends might need to recover with a cold brew. The best place to taste test Düsseldorf's famous Altbier is in Altstadt, the charming old section of town with more than 260 bars and restaurants.
  • If you like, do some designer shopping along the tree-lined boulevard Königsallee and have a tasty meal in one of the all-glass restaurants along the riverside such as the Cafe Curtiz or the Lido with a view of Media Harbour.
  • But don't leave the area without a visit to the splendid Insel Hoimbroich, art pavilions in a nature preserve and the adjacent Langen Foundation, a stunning museum for Japanese art designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando.
  • The Düsseldorf tourism office can arrange any kind of biking, city or cultural tour for your group.
  • Hotels in Düsseldorf: Lindner Hotel Rhein Residence; Sir & Lady Astor Hotel; Carat Hotel.
  • Arrival: All the above regions can be easily reached from Düsseldorf. Delta, LTU and Lufthansa have direct flights from several U.S. gateways, as well as flights to Berlin. In Germany, there's an excellent train network between cities; you can even get your tickets before you leave through RailEurope.

Focus on Culture and History - Berlin:

  • No trip to Germany would be complete without visiting Berlin. Not only is it a major European city, its also become a trendy spot for contemporary art. East and West Berlin now form one huge, fascinating urban scene. But you can get anywhere in a jiffy in the excellent subway system (U-Bahn and S-Bahn). If your group prefers biking, there are several biking tours or you can just rent a bike and pedal around on your own.

Sightseeing highlights include: The Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the Holocaust Memorial: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by internationally-renowned architect Peter Eisenman. Sections of the Berlin Wall that still stand, with landmark status, have become a canvas for modern graffiti art. There are museums galore and contemporary art lovers can tour hot, new galleries with Go Art! Berlin.

  • For an authentic cabaret experience, spend an evening at the Bar Jeder Vernunft. For trendy nightlife, the East Berlin neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg are the new hip spots, filled with twenty-somethings partying to all hours at the clubs.
  • Classical music fans will also be in seventh-heaven here as there are three opera houses and eight symphony orchestras; the Berlin Philharmonic is considered one of the world's best.
  • Berlin even has two zoos—one in the East and one in the West. In fact, your group should spend some nights in a hotel in East Berlin and some nights in West Berlin to fully experience this marvelous city.
  • Hotels: In East Berlin - Juncker's Hotel, a small, friendly place with great breakfasts; in West Berlin - Steigenberger Hotel, a pleasant spot in the heart of the shopping district.

The tourism offices in all these places can help you arrange any kind of group trip—city tours, bike tours, museum visits. Almost everyone in Germany speaks English and those that don't will still make every effort to help you. In Germany, it isn't just the art and culture that shines, even the sparkling-clean restrooms are impressive! So, no excuses. Get your group organized for a great journey to Germany.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


Garden Tour Destinations

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie
See How to Organize a Group Garden Tour as part one of a two-part series.

Doing a garden tour with family or friends is a nice activity for all ages; and there are gorgeous gardens across the globe. Have a look at these sample garden tours to whet your appetite for plants, flowers, shrubs, and all things botany:

Philadelphia: Gardens Galore

  • Philadelphia is famous for its annual Flower Show in early March but in the greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area there are more than 25 beautiful public gardens to visit. They range from the historic Bartram Gardens to the Chanticleer pleasure garden to the rare tree specimens at the Morris Arboretum and gorgeous plantings at Longwood Gardens.
  • If you'd like an extra special, private tour of these exquisite gardens and the area's cultural and historic treasures, contact: Philadelphia Hospitality. Or, if you'd like to do a tour on your own, several hotels offer special garden packages. For more information, contact: https://www.gophila.com.

Washington State: Celebrate spring

The right mix of climate and soil has made Washington State a wonderland for flowers. Each year during peak bloom season, festivals are held throughout the state to celebrate the glorious variety of flora. You can walk through tulip fields, visit lavender farms, stop at nurseries and get gardening tips from professional growers.

  • Over 500 different species of rhododendrons grow wild in Washington State (it’s the state flower). To see how remarkable these shrubs can look, visit the annual Rhododendron Festival in May.
  • Some fifty varieties of lavender grow on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. In July, at the annual Lavender Festival, you can go into the fields to pick your own lavender.
  • At the annual Tulip Festival each April, garden lovers wander through colorful tulip fields larger than those in Holland and visit display gardens and greenhouses. If you find a few favorites for your own garden, you can have bulbs shipped home.

England: Britain in bloom

England is a divine location for garden lovers because of the wide variety of garden design styles (formal, informal, etc.). You can attend the Chelsea Flower Show in May or the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July, when the perennials and roses are at their best. Be sure to include stops at gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley gardens—240 acres with model gardens offering planting ideas.

  • In the Cotswolds, visit fine gardens such as Sudeley Castle with radiant old-fashioned roses, parterres and colorful herbaceous borders and Hidcote's classic English garden "rooms" with different color schemes and planting themes.
  • Southern England has fabulous historic and romantic gardens such as Vita Sackville West's Sissinghurst Castle Garden with color-themed garden rooms; plus, Hever Castle, complete with romantic moat, maze, Italian gardens, classical statuary and fine topiaries.
  • These garden tour companies offer excellent itineraries: Coopersmith's; Brightwater Holidays.

France: Vive les fleurs!

France is a dream destination for glorious gardens. Everywhere you turn, there's another botanical beauty--from the Bagatelle Gardens in Paris, filled with irises and roses, to the formal gardens of Versailles and the world-renowned gardens of Claude Monet at Giverney in Normandy. In the Loire Valley, Villandry is thought to be one of the most beautiful and authentic Renaissance gardens. On the French Riviera, the Rothschild's Villa Ephrussi, with its seven distinct gardens, is a must see and in the south of France the terraced gardens at Chateau Val Joanis are a visual wonder.

  • For an extra special French garden experience, try this for your group: The Prieuré d'Orsan is a spectacular, recreated medieval garden on the grounds of a restored, 12th-century monastery (now a 7-room boutique hotel). In addition to staying at the hotel and visiting this magnificent garden, you can also take gardening and cooking workshops. All the meals are prepared using herbs, vegetables and fruits and other ingredients fresh from the garden. This is a not-to-be-missed experience.
  • These garden tour companies offer excellent itineraries: Jeff Sainsbury Tours; Brightwater Holidays.

Morocco: Everything's coming up roses

  • If the desert is the only thing that comes to mind when you think of Morocco, you’ll be surprised that some of the most gorgeous roses bloom in the fertile Dades Valley. The Rose Festival of El Kelaa in Ouarzazate province celebrates the flower harvest in mid-May. This event dates back to the 17th century, when roses were brought to the Dades Valley of eastern Morocco by pilgrims returning from Mecca.
  • In this magnificent setting, the rose crop is celebrated with music, folk-dancing and singing, handicraft exhibitions, banquets, flower-decked floats, the selection of a "Miss Rose," camel-rides and an excursion down the valley of roses. 

The Caribbean: Garden jewels

Several Caribbean islands are a floral paradise.  Jamaica’s botanical gardens are a showcase of showy, exotic plants. You can visit them all--Hope Gardens, the Goodson Garden, Cranbrook Flower Forest and Shaw Park Gardens.

Cruises: On-shore gardens

If you love gardens and cruises, here's a way to combine the two:

  • Spring Pilgrimage: Relive the glory days of steamboating with a trip down the Mississippi River. Along the banks lay the beautiful gardens and plantations of the Old South. During "Pilgrimage Open House" in the spring, local garden clubs host tours of lovely homes and gardens.
  • Dutch Bulbfield Cruise: There are few things more beautiful than the Dutch countryside in bloom. Cruise along the Rhine and Waal rivers and connecting canals, past historic towns such as Amsterdam, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Utrecht, Dordrecht and Delft. Springtime in Holland means flowers galore. On this cruise, you'll visit the world famous Keukenhof gardens, with over 6 million tulip, daffodil and hyacinth varieties on display, and the grand Het Loo Palace, considered one of Europe's finest formal gardens.

Final thoughts on visiting gardens:
Booking an organized garden tour is a wonderful option. The tours are led by horticulture experts, everything is arranged for your group and you stay in lovely accommodations. But, these tours can be a bit pricey. (They range from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars per person. However, most garden tour companies will give a price break if you are booking for a group.) So, in addition to selecting a garden destination, you need to factor in your group's budget.

You can always book rooms at a centrally-located hotel or resort in your preferred area and arrange day trips on your own from there to the various gardens. However, plan it so that wherever you go, a garden trip will be a delightful experience for everyone in your group. And when at a family reunion, destination wedding, weekend getaway, retreat, and so forth, don't forget to stop and smell the roses.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


World Heritage Sites Over-Crowded

It's no shock, but sooner or later we all had to realize the best global places to visit would be discovered by more tourists and eventually get overrun, threatening the natural charm and character of area and/or the site itself.

Such is the case with some of the World Heritage Sites in Asia and elsewhere. Booming global tourism industries are meeting the increased demand for travelers to go the distance and see something extraordinary. At a cost. Gadling reported on how National Geographic Traveler created their own rating of World Heritage Sites based on sustainable tourism.

Top 5 World Heritage Sites, by NGT's sustainability rating:

  1. Norway's West Fjords (rating 87)
  2. France's Vezelay (rating 81)
  3. Spain's Alhambra and medieval Granada (rating 81)
  4. New Zealand's Te Wahipounamu (rating 80)
  5. Mexico's Guantajuato (rating 80)

Bottom 5 World Heritage Sites, by NGT's sustainability rating:

  1. China/Tibet's Potala Palace, Lhasa, and environs (rating 46)
  2. Italy's Venice and its lagoons (rating 46)
  3. Ecuador's Galapagos Islands (rating 44)
  4. Panama's Portobelo-San Lorenzo (rating 41)
  5. Nepal's Kathmandu Valley (rating 39)

Every traveler should read the full list and consider the impact of flocking to see an international treasure. Then do what you can to support improvements, if possible. It's sort of a macro-economic tragedy of the commons. Food for thought.


Best Sunsets

No matter what destination your travels take you to, sunsets seem be a reason for people to gather, drinking in the cloud art and colorful sky. Sunsets form rituals. On my recent boating vacation sunrise and sunset were the big events of the day. We set our daily rhythm and schedule around them, and I watched other travelers and animals do the same.

Sunsets seem to be the cue for vacationers to gather for dinner, take in those happy snapshots for family photo albums, retire from the day and hunker inside boats, houses, hotels, restaurants for pre-sleep activities. 'Tis our cue for winding down. And the soft-light hues are radiant, often an explosion of colors like a big bang punctuating the day's end. No two sunsets are alike. I'm sure of it.

Best sunsets from my travels (based solely on personal opinion, as there's no way to be objective about such ethereal, transcendent beauty):

  1. Ia on the island of Santorini, Greece
  2. 2nd Beach in the Olympic National Park
  3. Sucia Island in the San Juans
  4. Marinas anywhere (picture shown is at Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands)
  5. Jerusalem
  6. Via del'Amore in Cinque Terre, Italy
  7. Kauai's western-most beach (I can't recall the name)
  8. Manuel Antonio Beach, Costa Rica
  9. Kerry Park, Seattle, WA (amazing cityscape and Puget Sound views for sunset)
  10. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (for the memories alone)

Where have you seen the best sunsets?


Ecotour Adventures

Ecotourism is a growing trend in travel. As our world shrinks, thanks to globalization and population expansion, sustainable travel naturally tags along as people want to help preserve communities, native habitat, and the little creatures that inhabit the planet.

Step out of the ordinary and raft down a river, tour a village, meet the locals, and touch nature without leaving too much of a mark. Here are a few eco-friendly tours and organizations to get your green trip with friends or family started.

  • Conservation International and ResponsibleTravel.com jointly launched an initiative to get travelers off the beaten path in a sustainable way by promoting community-based tourism. Here are two wonderful examples of how this program is helping travelers see the real Ethiopia or tour Thailand via locally arranged tours. They offer tours in many other countries as well.
  • Maui's Pacific Whale Foundation, an organization solely dedicated to marine ecotourism and habitat preservation, has naturalists aboard every snorkeling cruise, whale-watching tour, and other water activity. Great for families who seek to add a little education to their adventure and enlighten the kiddies.
  • Costa Rica is a pioneer in ecotourism and one of the best places to see nature's bountiful biodiversity. Ergo, there are several ecotour operators of choice. A few that look appealing are Adventure Life, "affordable, personalized tours" from Key to Costa Rica, and customized adventure tours from Southern Explorations.
  • Sierra Club has outings across the U.S. and Canada. Outdoor adventures such as kayaking, canoeing, hiking, rafting, sailing, biking, and specific family adventures are all done in an eco-friendly manner.
  • Volunteer through Earthwatch Institute to help scientists in the field across the world do research that helps preserve habitat, animal species, and local cultures. This organization is a leader in sustainability, but there are plenty of volunteer vacation opportunities where you can make a positive impact while traveling.

You can plan a group ecotour or sustainable travel vacation with friends, family, or members of an association or organization you belong to using TripHub's travel planning tools.

Know of any other great ecotours or organizations that facilitate sustainable travel?

 


Flights at Code Red and Orange

With recent arrests of terrorists plotting to target flights from London to the U.S., there is a temporary code red on flights from London to the U.S. and temporary code orange for flights into the U.S. What does it mean for travelers to travel under a code red or orange?

Smarter Travel gives insight on deciphering the codes. Here are airport security short-term changes known to be in effect:

  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is prohibiting all liquids, hair gels, and lotions in carry-on baggage within the United States. This includes coffee, soda, and even contact solution.
  • Essential liquids, such as baby formula, are being allowed.
  • No carry-on baggage is being allowed on any international flights.
  • Expect severe security delays at the airport. Television news reports are putting some security line wait times at one to two hours long.

USA Today's blog Today in the Sky gives a run down of the various airline policies for handling the temporary security situation. American Airlines canceled six flights today, United revised its ticketing policy to give travelers a break in changing travel plans and re-booking seats, and other airlines alert travelers to give even more time at airports for tightened security measures.

Homeland Security issued a release about cooperating with Britain to ensure traveler safety and stated, "These measures will continue to assure that our aviation system remains safe and secure.  Travelers should go about their plans confidently, while maintaining vigilance in their surroundings and exercising patience with screening and security officials."


Mi Hacienda Es Su Hacienda

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie

When planning a family reunion or wedding, taking over a small resort for your exclusive use works wonders. Certain criteria apply to site selection: The resort (or villa or hacienda or block of rental homes) should be a superior facility, offer sumptuous food, non-intrusive service, first class accommodations, and a secluded setting away from distractions.

There are a number of properties around the country (and the world) that exemplify such high standards. Here are tips on how to research your group's idyllic casa away from casa:

  1. Look for places that have the feel of a private estate, an ambience of another time and place and are so well run that you (the planner) can relax and enjoy yourself as well.
  2. Pick a spot with a distinct change of atmosphere to reinforce the concept of getting away from it all. Also, make sure it's the type of place where guests are pampered and made to feel special. You can feel the difference in the level of relaxation for guests when a resort is reserved for your group's exclusive use.
  3. Small resorts with a residential feel and hotel amenities work best for groups of friends and/or family. The sense of being on a private estate helps people let their guard down and unwind, fostering camaraderie—the reason you all wanted to get together in the first place!

Prep Steps Before You Go

  1. Before your group arrives, send the property a detailed list of a) The names of all the people in your party, b) The names of people sharing rooms and c) Of those sharing rooms, which ones require a double bed or two single beds.
  2. Charm also has its downside. In a hotel, most rooms are uniform but in an estate or hacienda, every room is unique, both in size and decoration. Make your guests aware of this beforehand so cousins don't get miffed because one has a nicer, larger room.
  3. If the property offers activities (such as horseback riding or tennis) or has a spa facility (with facials and massages), check if these services need to be booked in advance. If so, let your guests know and provide a way to tally who wants what when - before you arrive!
  4. If you are going to a resort outside the U.S., make sure everyone has a valid passport (and remembers to bring it).

Recommended Haciendas in Chile and Mexico

Hacienda Los Lingues in Chile:

Hacienda Los Lingues is about an hour south of Santiago in the heart of the wine-producing Cachapoal Valley. It's one of Chile's oldest and best-preserved estates and the same family, whose home it's been since 1599, now runs it as a hotel. The debonair Don German Claro Lyon and his family are your delightful hosts.

If you're looking for old-world, South American charm, the Hacienda Los Lingues is the spot. Shaded verandas lead to 18 rooms and suites furnished with heirloom antiques, family photos and memorabilia.

Activities for groups: a) wine tasting - there's a lovely vineyard on the property and day trips to local wineries; b) horseback riding - the stable of "Aculeo" horses, related to the famed Lipizzanas, is world-renowned.

And, if looking for a destination wedding spot, you can get married in the estate's beautiful, traditional Chilean chapel. You'll feel as if you're on the set of some fantastic South American movie.

Hacienda Temozón in Yucatan, Mexico:

In the early 1990's, abandoned (and formerly luxurious) haciendas from the economic heyday of the Yucatan region around Merida, were restored and converted into luxury hotels. Hacienda Temozón, about a half hour from Merida, is the grandest of three newly-restored properties, now part of The Luxury Collection of Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

As a result, you get the best of both worlds: a sense of the affluent lifestyle enjoyed during the economic boom and lovely, modern amenities. Much of the original décor, such as intricately-decorated floor tiles and beamed ceilings, has been preserved in the 28 elegantly-furnished rooms and guest quarters.

Spacious gardens, a spectacular swimming pool, and spa make this an ideal place to relax. It's also an excellent base for exploring the rich cultural heritage of the Yucatan peninsula and the surrounding Mayan architectural sites.

There is also a 17th-century church on the property, ideal for weddings.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


Prudish Decree: Topless Ban in Paris

If you're looking for nude travel, don't go to Paris. The French, widely known for romance, love, and lax clothing policies on beaches, recently decreed a ban on nude, topless and bare buns (g-string) sun-bathing in the city of Paris. French beaches are still OK to bare flesh, but the city government seeks to mitigate temptations and reign the ropes on skimpy, sunning Parisians.

Defending the decree, city hall sports official Pascal Cherki told Le Parisien that indecent clothing "could have led to temptations and dangerous behavior on the banks of the river." The fine for nude or partial nude sunbathing is 38 euros ($48).

Perhaps this is a French standard for making the city more family-friendly? At least for reigning in the unruly behavior potentially caused by a distraction of bare bods. I'm surprised that Paris would issue such a decree. But then again, French (Parisians, in particular) do pride themselves on being unique and non-conformist. Perhaps nudity has become too commonplace; leave it to the French to set the record straight. Prudity is now unique?

Source: Yahoo via Gadling