Monday, June 26, 2017

Saint Petersburg, Russia: Scarlet Sails on the Neva River – June 2017

Bidding farewell to memories of a dark, frosty winter and embracing the long, summer days, the people of Saint Petersburg, Russia enjoy “white nights” every May through July. Due to the city’s latitude, during this period the sun only sets for a few hours each day with some nights only seeing a hazy twilight. Energized and grateful, the locals have devised a number of ways to celebrate the extra hours of light.

The city of Saint Petersburg hosts the White Nights Festival which features the “Stars of White Nights” program at the Mariinsky Theatre consisting of a series of classical ballet, opera and orchestral performances, and numerous carnivals and concerts throughout the city and its suburbs. But of the many events, the most famous public celebration is Scarlet Sails which takes place the weekend closest to the summer solstice.

Scarlet Sails, or “Alye Parusa” in Russian, is a late-night affair centered around a tall wooden ship with scarlet-illuminated sails navigating down the Neva River with the backdrop of a spectacular fireworks and light show. The city’s main drawbridges open for the sail which takes place after midnight and attracts several million onlookers annually. The tradition, commemorating the end of the school year, began in Saint Petersburg after the end of World War II. The legend surrounding the event is tied to a novel with the same name which tells the story of a young girl who is promised by a wizard that one day a prince will come on a ship with scarlet sails and carry her away.

Due to its popularity, if you'd like to catch a glimpse of Scarlet Sails, it's best to plan ahead. A few options include:
  • Enjoying the display from the comfort of a dinner boat. The Volga-Volga restaurant is housed on a two-story riverboat with an open top deck and enclosed lower level. A full bar and dinner menu become available at 10 p.m. and guests can enjoy live entertainment on the boat which undocks for a short period during the evening. The Gollandec is a stationary restaurant set on a ship and has a special prearranged food and drink menu for the event.
  • Viewing the sails from an aerial perspective. Professional roofers gather small groups to admire the evening’s festivities from one of the many building rooftops along the river. The viewing area is flat but revelers should take caution of the height and dress appropriately.
  • Braving the crowds along the embankment. While several areas are reserved for Russian graduates, if you are able to stake out a spot early enough, it’s possible to find a place along the river’s edge to partake in the festivities. If you elect to go this route, ensure you bring identification and if you are visiting from another country, your passport or at minimum a copy of your photo and visa page. Police stage barricades closing many streets to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic throughout the day and night.
However you decide to view Scarlet Sails and enjoy white nights, the experience is sure to be unforgettable and will undoubtedly affirm the notion that Russians know how to put on a breath-taking show.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Ancient Temples and Tarantula Kebabs - March 2017

Would you like to watch the sun rise over temples that date back to the 12th century? Does a tarantula kebab, scorpion salad or ant-stuffed spring roll sound appetizing? Are you in the market for a holiday where you can get by on less than $50 a day?  

If you answered yes to any of these tantalizing questions, and are down for seeing some buffalo racing in your spare time, the country of Cambodia in Southeast Asia just may be the place for you.

I visited Cambodia for the first time ten years ago. From the moment I stepped off the plane until I waved goodbye, I was showered with smiles and hospitality. The Cambodian people are welcoming and eager to share their rich and unique culture.

I attribute much of my positive experience in Cambodia to my friend, Peou. When I met Kanh Peou he drove a taxi cab and offered to show me around his hometown of Siem Reap. Now Peou is a professional guide and licensed tour driver who operates his own business. Angkor Family Taxi provides one to four-day tours throughout Cambodia with options for any budget. Here are a few of the attractions and activities you can enjoy in and around Siem Reap with Peou:

Angkor Wat. Built in the mid-12th century by King Suryavaraman II, it's the largest temple in the world and Cambodia's most well-known tourist attraction. The structure is a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from the ground and surrounded by a moat. Nearly 2,000 distinct carvings decorate its walls depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and historical wars. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and served as the state temple under Khmer rule.

South Gate of Angkor Thom. The best-preserved entrance to the ancient city, it extends about fifty meters across a moat. Each side of the causeway is fashioned with 54 stone figures telling a famous Hindu story.

Ta Prohm. One of his first major projects, this temple was dedicated to Khmer King Jayavarman VII's mother. It was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time boasting control of over 3,000 villages. This temple was also the location for the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Bayon. Constructed in the 12th century, Bayon is a Buddhist temple known for its giant stone faces with serene and smiling expressions.

Baphoun. Built as Hindu temple and later converted to a Buddhist temple, this structure has unique animal carvings at the entrance and a large reclining Buddha on the west side.

Neak Pean. An island temple that sits at the axis of a lotus pattern created of eight pools. Named for the surrounding coiled serpent sculptures, its waters are believed to have healing properties.

Preah Ko. The first temple to be built in the ancient city of Hariharalya in the late 9th century. Its six towers and their carvings are beautifully preserved as are the statues of sacred bulls staged at the temple's entrance.

In addition to this sampling of ancient sites around Siem Reap, Peou can customize your tour to include a visit to a floating village, the Angkor National Museum, Kulen Mountain and waterfalls, or any number of other interesting places in the region. So whether you're into sunsets or scorpions, temples or waterfalls, Cambodia is well-worth a visit, and Peou is just the guy to show you around.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Almaty, Kazakhstan: Don't Whistle After You Drink Milk Champagne in a Yurt

Thinking about whistling in Kazakhstan? Think again.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, however we learned at the airport that Russia continues to regard the country as a domestic destination.

Nonetheless, a five-and-a-half hour, overnight flight from St. Petersburg took us to the world's largest landlocked country and specifically to its former capital and most populated city of Almaty.

Almaty is located in the southeastern part of the country at the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Literally translated, Almaty means "a place of apples" and is believed to be where the first apple trees grew around 20 million years ago.

Upon arrival, the locals advised the thing to do was to go up into the mountains. In addition to enjoying incredible views of Big Almaty Lake and the forested surroundings, the Medeo Sports Center is housed in the mountains boasting the highest skating rink in the world at 5,545 feet above sea level.

While the country isn't yet on many tourists' radar, the city of Almaty does have a few notable attractions including Holy Ascension Cathedral, the Green Bazaar, Republic Square, Central Almaty Mosque and Park of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

While visiting we learned that Kazakh refers to both the country's people and its language, and that the language is of Turkic origins with many Russian and Arabic words. It was not written until the 1860s where it was captured in Arabic script, and then in 1940 the country adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with a few extra symbols.

The names of seven countries in Central Asia end in "stan:" a suffix meaning "land" in Persian. The word Kazakh itself means "wanderers" or "outlaws," and is fitting for the nation comprised of formerly nomadic tribes. Traditionally, Kazakhs lived in yurts, or collapsible tents with wooden frames covered by felt which they could carry along in their travels.

It is believed that ancient Kazakhs were the first to domesticate and ride horses, and horses are still a dominant theme in their culture today.

Kumis, or what the locals refer to as milk champagne, is a traditional drink made of fermented mare's milk, and the national dish is beshbarmak which is a collection of noodles, boiled horse meat and spices. A popular sport in the country is kokpar in which riders on horseback play a variation of polo with a headless goat carcass.

The adventure to our first "stan" was memorable and educational. Of all the cultural facts, likely the most critical was the local belief that whistling a song inside a building will make you poor for the rest of your life. A word to the wise: keep your whistling lips on lockdown or stick with humming unless you are riding horseback through the mountains!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tenerife, Canary Islands: Carnival in the Canaries - February 2017

Located off the western coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands are an autonomous community of Spain. The archipelago includes seven main islands and several smaller islets all with a pleasant subtropical climate. When considering a weekend getaway to the Canaries, each of the islands has unique offerings and it's important to do your research.

Because we were visiting during Carnival, or Mardi Gras, we chose Tenerife. The island of Tenerife is known for having the second most popular and internationally well-known carnival after Rio de Janeiro.

As the majority of Carnival festivities aren't scheduled until after dark, we were able to spend the days exploring the island. We stashed our suitcases in the northwestern port town of Puerto de la Cruz and rented a car so that we could easily navigate the island.

A scenic spot to walk along the ocean and grab some fresh seafood, we stopped by the area around Castillo San Felipe before driving south along the coast. It takes approximately two hours to drive the entire perimeter of Tenerife. The largest and most populated of all of the Canary Islands, its most well-known attraction is Mount Teide which is the highest elevation in Spain, the third-largest volcano in the world and located in the center of the island.

The roads on the western side of the island wind in and around small coastal towns and climb to high elevations before dropping down to sea level in the south.

We spent the afternoon in the town of Los Cristianos on the beach and admiring the elaborate sand sculptures. The beaches in the south are golden compared to those in the north with black sands.

Based on the architecture we saw, Tenerife's heyday was in the 1970s and coincidentally many of the island's visitors looked like they may have peaked during that time as well.

Nevertheless, no matter your age, when the sun went down the party started. Drinks in hand, we stood next to the live band and watched as the Carnival Announcement parade moved into the main square. Marching bands and dancers flooded the streets and the Carnival Queen sparkled from head to toe waving to the crowds as her feathered float passed by.