Travelers Roundtable

Category: Travel Essays

An hour after coming ashore, I am climbing brick stairs that are warped with wear from the elements and the bare feet of the faithful over several hundred years.

The overwhelming number of U.S. visitors to the Yucatan stick to the coasts. And that’s a shame. Unless all you really care about is working on your tan, resolve to go deeper. 

While one could spend an eternity exploring the rich layers of culture and history in Istanbul, what lies deeper into Anatolia is equally wondrous. If you have the time, perhaps just an extra week, there are a couple places you can try to work into your itinerary.

I’m standing on an outcropping of rock at Glacier Point looking out over Yosemite National Park when the sun finally disappears over the horizon. I’ve brought my wife and eight-year-old son here, home of one of the darkest night skies in the world, to show them something they’ve never seen before with their naked eyes: a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy that we call home. Neither of them have ever really seen the stars. But they’re about to.

Heads of state sometimes gather in Port of Spain to jockey for position, with some reaching out and some more antagonistic.  Often overlooked is a lesson in personal diplomacy that the entire world might take from the host country, Trinidad and Tobago. 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Mardi Gras, I think drunken revelry and “show us yer boobs!” A driver in Trinidad once told me the ladies’ Carnival costumes could be picked up in a small envelope. In Rio, maybe just stapled to a postcard. In other words, not exactly a family event. If you want something a bit less racy but no less fun and exotic, consider getting whacked in the streets of Sicily.

“It’s time,” I whisper to my sleeping eight-year-old son. At the sound of my voice, his eyes open a crack, then go wide as he remembers our plan from the night before. Bounding out of his bed as if afraid I might change my mind, he dresses quietly and quickly so as to not waken his sleeping mother (who was unambiguous about her desire to sleep in) and together, as furtive as thieves, we slip out the door and make our escape.

Disney raised admission prices this month for all of their theme parks. While this comes as no surprise—regular increases have become the norm over the years—it’s a good reminder for families to spend a little time carefully planning their budgets for their eagerly anticipated vacations toDisneyland and Disney’s California Adventure. Most families skimp and save for their dream vacations to even make them possible at all. But by picking and choosing your moments to cut loose, you can transform a budget-minded Disney[…]

  Ontario’s Stratford Festival is one of the great live theater attractions in North America, and they’re celebrating its 60th anniversary this year with yet another splendid season of theatrical excellence. The question is not whether you should go–you absolutely should — but how you should go about it. Here are some helpful hints about how to get there, where to stay when you arrive, and some interesting sights to enjoy along the way.

I rounded the corner to the little eddy where the travel books lived at the very back of my favorite independent bookstore and came face to face with a nattily dressed old man in his late 70s. He wasn’t browsing amongst the titles; his hands were empty, and he clearly wasn’t on his way in or out of this little literary cul-de-sac stuffed with guides, maps and memoirs. He was clearly waiting. But for whom? Me?

SHHHHHHH! Don’t be afraid, I’m a friend. Listen to me: They’re coming, they’re hungry, but we won’t be here when they crash the place. Don’t worry, you’re not trapped, we’re gonna get you outta here, pal.

Around Thanksgiving, I always recall the time my wife and I were in Istanbul near the end of the festival of Ramadan. Ramadan is a period of prayer, reflection, charity and good deeds that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, Muslims fast—no food, drink or any other earthly pleasures from dawn until dusk. Once night falls and the moon rises, then the faithful take to the streets, offering food to the poor, and[…]

It’s well over 100 degrees and the Spanish sun feels like a physical weight on my skin as I descend dusty stone steps to the skeletal ruins of Madinat al-Zahra. Though it’s difficult to believe now, this parched landscape a few miles outside of Cordoba was once a magnificent palace resplendent with thousands of fountains, an architectural marvel exquisitely decorated with jasper and marble and covered in lush greenness. The shining glory of the Umayyad Caliphate built by Abd ar-Rahman[…]

This year is the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World. And 40 years ago, I was a nine-year-old boy visiting the brand-new Disney World with my family. We could not afford to stay the night there. And my family could only afford to explore the new park for a single day. But we made the most of it. I remember the smell of the newly turned earth at the fringes of the entrance, the black sheen of the freshly poured[…]

My six-year-old boy just caught a fish. We’re standing where the edge of the green lawn meets the boat docks at The Abbey Resort and, after only a few minutes of casting, a nervy sunfish has brazenly decided to try to make off with his bait. After a furious battle, my son reels the creature in and lifts it into the air to admire it, the first of half a dozen that we will catch that afternoon. He’s acting like he just won the lottery[…]

There’s a wonderful illogic about India that drives many mad, but is also a great part of its appeal. The printed sign outside the Kathakali dance venue summed it up; tonight’s performance, it announced, would be postponed “due to technical reasons at the end of every festival.”  Of course, it would be easy to sneer at every mistranslation, and if I tried to explain myself in Malayalam or in Hindi, I would no doubt appear quaint and bungling, but nevertheless[…]

It’s getting late and I’m lost in the winding lanes of medieval Toledo. Normally I wouldn’t mind — it’s one of my favorite cities in the world to be lost in — but I’m due back at the hotel shortly, and first I have to find an address I haven’t looked for in more than a decade.  Somewhere in this warren of weathered doors and dusty stones is my favorite place to buy Andalusian marzipan.

I was born and raised in South Carolina. Even after my family moved north in my early teens, we still returned each summer to the old gentility of Charleston, her lush gardens and cobblestone streets, and the peaceful barrier islands that nestle along the coast. I’d not been back in almost twenty years, and while I was eager to go, I also had some trepidations about it. We don’t like to think about it, but the world moves on without[…]

For quite some time, the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin, Pennsylvania were open to anyone intrepid enough to hike there. After making your way through an overgrown employee parking lot, down an embankment and back up onto an elevated railroad track, they loomed up above you in the distance like a steampunk mirage.

In the dream, I’m lying facedown on a broad, six-foot-long leaf while being drenched from above by a warm tropical rainstorm. The rushing water cascades off my back and pools briefly between my head and the crooks of my arms before seeping away beneath, tracing the veins of the leaf as it swirls away from me. When I went to bed in Milwaukee last night, it was two degrees. Live long enough with that kind of cold and your body[…]

If Jordan had a calling card in the tourism industry, it would most likely be The Treasury. The rosy-colored, rock-cut star of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra had a film career (Indiana Jones anyone?) that tickled the imaginations of moviegoers around the world and brought the archaeological park to worldwide recognition. The Treasury is, in fact, not a treasury, but likely a tomb–we don’t know for sure–built by the Nabataeans, but the real treasury of Jordan is much[…]

Reggie Singh, in a blazer, white shirt and old-style cravat, greets us with a billiard cue slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. Traditional jazz music is blaring out of his huge sound system. “Hello,” he booms in his educated Indian English, “So glad you could make it, would you care for a gin and tonic? Just potting a few balls.”

I’m closer to a wild Great Blue Heron than I’ve ever been in my life. It’s just across the water from me, maybe twelve feet away, standing at the base of a waterfall that empties into a shallow lagoon. While I’m watching the huge bird, it stares at the large fish moving through the clear water that separates us. Then I sense movement on my right and turn to spot another large predatory bird, this time a Black-crowned Night Heron[…]

The Grand Teton National Park is on fire. For two weeks in September, slender tendrils of smoke have risen into the sky here like flags planted by an invading army laying claim to enemy territory. There are five different fires in the park when I arrive; two prescribed burns to control overgrown areas, and three that occurred naturally as a result of recent lightning strikes. The forest service keeps an eye on things to ensure that the fires don’t threaten[…]

I’m standing on the sidewalk on a bright, sunny September afternoon in the south of France. A lovely young woman dressed in late 19th century clothes walks past me, her eyes modestly averted. In one hand she holds a leash leading a baby goat, and in the other she leads a small boy who looks like a Dickensian paperboy. More people stream past, some dressed as Roman soldiers, others as medieval archers, and still others attired like Renaissance royalty. An adorable collection[…]

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