Mind Bending Big Bend

One of the many attractions of our national parks is the chance to get away from it all.

We planned to take a trip to one of America’s most remote areas, Big Bend National Park. CONTINUE READING >> 

One of the many attractions of our national parks is the chance to get away from it all.

With that in mind, I planned to take a trip with my sister to one of America’s most remote areas, Big Bend National Park.

She had never heard of it, and I was only vaguely familiar, so we did a little research and decided to load up the camper and give it a try. Boy, are we glad we did.

Not that I’ve been to every park, but I’ve been to a bunch and I would rate this one near the top of the list, right up there with Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.

The name comes from its location along a huge arc in the Rio Grande River in West Texas, but what we saw as we drove into the park was not what we ever expected to find in in The Lone Star State.

There were mountains, I mean real, big, mountains, rising high out of the seemingly endless desert.

Millions of years ago faults and plate tectonics thrusted the area up and formed the Chisos Mountains which stand right in the center of the park.

But Big Bend is huge, so we had mapped out a plan to see it in sections. This meant that the peaks would have to wait while we explored the west side.

The Mule Ears

In this isolated region services are scarce, so we decided to stay our first few days just outside the park boundary in the only civilization to be found for miles and miles, the tiny town of Terlingua.

Even though the population as of the most recent census was a whopping 58, at least we knew that we would have fuel and supplies available before we headed into the wilderness of the park.

We arrived early in the afternoon and set out for our first taste of the park by taking a drive, making a loop around the western portion of the park. In this vast section a vehicle is by far the best way to experience the landscape because there is so much ground to cover.

Luna’s Jacal

We started heading south on Old Maverick Road and soon came upon an old structure on the side of the road.

The map identified it as Luna’s Jacal, named for Mexican pioneer farmer Gilberto Luna. We were intrigued to find that even in this hostile environment settlers scratched out a living.

The jacal, an adobe house typical to this part of the southwestern United States and Mexico, was built about 1890. It was a style of building that settlers adopted from the natives, and this one has been preserved well enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Santa Elena Canyon

A little farther and we came to an even more unexpected sight, Santa Elena Canyon.

This is a spot where the Rio Grande has cut fifteen hundred foot sheer cliffs into the limestone. The stark walls seemed almost unreal, so I had to go in for a closer look.

Going in required wading through a muddy arm of the river, which meant my shoes had to stay behind.

My lack of footwear came back to haunt me when the trail up to the lookout became covered with sharp rocks that forced me, or at least my feet, to retreat.

Wish I would have tied my shoes around my neck.

Moving on, we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive north through the geologic formations in Tuff Canyon. Tuff is volcanic ash that has solidified through the ages, but is still very soft and erodes easily.

The bizarre formations left behind reminded us a lot of the Badlands in South Dakota, although not nearly as large.

Homer Wilson Ranch

Just past a pair of buttes known as Mule Ears we found another abandoned settlement, the Homer Wilson Ranch.

This was once one of the largest ranches in Texas, and acquiring it in 1942 was instrumental in the formation of the park.

We were surprised to see these outposts in this harsh environment, but it sits in a valley with runoff from the mountains that creates somewhat of an oasis in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Tarantula

As the sun began to set, we saw several huge black spiders crossing the pavement.

I had to jump out for a close up photo of a Tarantula, which other than birds was the only animal we saw that day.

It seemed like it might have been a rare sighting, but it turned out that we saw these giant arachnids out on the roads every evening.

The next day we met up with a group for a rafting expedition down the Rio Grande. The trips can range from half a day to a week, but we just wanted to get our feet wet so to speak, so we only signed up for the morning.

Our river experience we would not be in the national park, although the longer trips do go through, we would be in Big Bend Ranch State Park to the west.

As one might expect, the canyons in the state area are less spectacular, but much more accessible, since a paved road parallels the river.

We floated serenely through the valley, under cliffs, and along lush shoreline, even getting a chance to touch Mexico on the southern side of the river from time to time.  Half the day flew by, and before we knew it we were pulling our rafts out and loading them back on the trailers.

In the afternoon we stopped off to check out the Terlingua ghost town. It dates back to the 1880s, when the minerals terlinguaite and cinnabar were discovered. These form the ore that mercury is extracted from, and soon a booming mining community sprouted up.

Terlingua ghost town cemetery

Remnants of many stone houses remain, but for us the cemetery was the most interesting. While perusing the headstones we began to notice that an exceedingly abnormal number of the deceased men died in their early thirties.

For some reason, that seemed to be the most common life expectancy for male residents until after the mines closed post World War II.

We couldn’t find anything that mentioned it, either in the town or online, but it didn’t take a genius to surmise that mercury poisoning was the most likely cause.

Working our way into the park meant that Chisos Basin would be our next destination. The basin is surrounded by the Chisos Mountains, the only range in the US to be completely inside of a national park.

In this alpine area, with peaks rising as high as 7,825 feet above sea level, our feet would be the preferred mode of transport as we explored some of the twenty miles of trails. We warmed up on the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, which took us two miles around the bottom of the valley.

The Window

With that under our belts, we felt prepared to tackle the more difficult Window Trail. Most of the three miles leading to the edge of the mountains was, let’s say, a walk in the park, but the last few hundred yards were a real doozy.

The trail becomes one with Oak Creek as it descends into a Canyon, then abruptly pours over a drop known as the Window.

We had to carefully, make that very carefully, pick our way toward the final edge where the rock walls form a frame for a panoramic desert view.

But what goes down must come back up, so the hike back was a bit of a challenge, especially late in the day. With the sun getting down behind the peaks we scurried to make it back in time to drive to the Rio Grande Village Campground for the night.

The “village” is on the far eastern edge of the park, and stretches the definition a bit. It is actually just a small store and a campground. I guess in these parts that passes for at least a village, maybe even a city.

Roadrunner

In this section of the park the landscape has a classic southwestern look about it. We almost expected to see the roadrunner running down the road.

Then, much to our surprise, we saw him in a tree, fortunately with no coyote to be found.

It seemed that this was our morning for spotting animals. Most shy away from the heat of the day, so we were lucky to be up early enough to catch a small herd of javelina.

These guys certainly look like wild pigs, but they are actually Collared Peccary, a cousin on the family tree.

Watch a herd of javelinas: 

Passing the pigs, we set out on the Hot Springs Historic Trail to see one of the first tourist attractions of Big Bend.

Back in 1909, J.O. Langford heard tell of a spring with healing powers. In need of a remedy himself, as well as wanting to share the miraculous waters with others, he settled the land under the Homestead Act and proceeded to build a motel and a bathhouse for guests.

hot spring

The motel remains standing, but all that is left of the riverside bathhouse is the foundation, which is filled with the 105° water that still flows from the spring.

A little farther downstream, we followed the Boquillas Canyon trail to another astonishing gorge. This dramatic cut forms a perfect bookend for the park opposite the Santa Elena Canyon on the western edge.

Boquillas Canyon

Having covered nearly the entire park, at least the areas accessible without requiring days of backpacking or rafting, we were most impressed by how every part of Big Bend is so different.

The landscapes go from lush and green near the water to arid desert not far away. We found alpine forests within a few miles of cactus and scrub, and astounding stone chasms that almost immediately give way to placid river banks.

Our memories will be of being pleasantly surprised almost every time we turned a corner or crested a hill.

David, GypsyNester.com

Make Orlando Your Home Base for Florida Fun

In the center of the Sunshine State, we found an incredible variety of sun, fun, and excitement at almost every turn.

Orlando sits right in the middle, so it served as a handy hub for our explorations… CONTINUE READING >> 

In the center of the Sunshine State, we found an incredible variety of sun, fun, and excitement at almost every turn. Orlando sits right in the middle, so it served as a handy hub for our explorations of the amazing array of attractions within about an hour’s drive of the city. This meant that one of the many IHG hotels near downtown Orlando would be the perfect place to stay for a base camp.

Daytona Beach


Image via Flickr by familymwr

Just northeast of Orlando, Daytona Beach has been known as the holy grail of auto racing for over 100 years. In fact, NASCAR began here in 1948. The cars used to race right on the beach, but these days, they run on the high-speed Daytona International Speedway, where every driver dreams of winning the big one, the Daytona 500.

That’s not the only time the track is rocking, though. There are numerous other races, along with tours of the speedway, throughout the year. We had a chance to ride on the track, climb atop the podium on Victory Lane, see the Daytona 500 winning car, and check out the Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Space Coast

A few miles south, high-speed history of another sort was made. This area is known as the Space Coast because the John F. Kennedy Space Center has been the site of every manned launch in the U.S.

For a real-life brush with outer space, the Kennedy Space Center offers several opportunities. It’s hard to beat seeing the Apollo 14 command module scorched from re-entry or the Shuttle Atlantis, which was the last manned shuttle to fly and retired here after 33 missions.

Wandering through the Rocket Garden, a dazzling display of historic rocketry featuring the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, was a bit like walking through the redwoods or skyscrapers in New York. By the end, our necks were aching from looking up so much.

Crystal River


Image via Flickr by psyberartist

On Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Crystal River area has dozens of mammoth freshwater springs flowing year-round with the 72-degree water that manatees love. These sea cows come in from the colder ocean to rest, mate, and feed.

We were lucky to spot several of the gentle giants while walking and biking around the river, but the highlight had to be snorkeling with them. No, we didn’t just dive in. Manatees are carefully protected, so we signed up for one of the Swim With Manatees tours available in the region.

Weeki Wachee

Speaking of manatees, some say they were the inspiration for the legend of mermaids. Our guess is that overly imaginative sailors had been at sea too long. While we can’t speak to the accuracy of that theory, we can say that mermaids are real.

Yup, we saw them with our own eyes at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. While they may not be the mythical beings of lore, they are happy to perform underwater.

The show’s history dates back to 1946, when former U.S. Navy diver Newton Perry came up with the idea. By building a theater and developing a system of hoses for breathing while submerged, he created perhaps the country’s campiest roadside attraction. It grew to become one of America’s most popular tourist traps, but fell on hard times in the 1980s. Happily, the Florida Parks Department saved it and made it a unique state park that became an instant favorite of ours.

And so did this slice of Central Florida.

This article was created in collaboration with InterContinental Hotels Group.

Mardi Gras Goes to the Dogs in Lafayette, LA!

Lafayette’s Krewe des Chiens Annual Dog Parade  is geared toward children, but brings out the dog lover in all of us. Vibrantly costumed fur babies proudly trot… CONTINUE READING >> 

Lafayette’s Krewe des Chiens Annual Dog Parade is a must-do. This parade is geared toward children, but brings out the dog lover in all of us. Vibrantly costumed fur babies proudly trot down Lafayette’s downtown streets as both participants and spectators. Everyone has a grin on their snout as beads are thrown, puppies are rescued and donations are accepted for Acadiana’s less fortunate furry friends!

To see more about this event and how Mardi Gras is celebrated outside of New Orleans: http://www.gypsynester.com/mardigras.htm

Delve deeper:
See our entire journey discovering Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans
Visit the crazy Courir de Mardi Gras, in Church Point – chicken chasing!
Check out the authentic celebrations in Eunice and Mamou
Go hog wild at an old-fashioned Boucherie meat fest!
Watch dogs celebrate Mardi Gras at the Krewe des Chiens Dog Parade
Find out how to get booze at a drive-thru window
Join us at the parades in Jeanerette and Lafayette
Learn more about the Acadian, Canadian, and Cajun connection
See our thank you to the mysterious person at the Dog Parade who commited a wonderful act of kindness!

Visit our GypsyNester YouTube Channel!

Civil Rights History in Birmingham

When we discovered that Alabama’s largest city was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, we were excited to explore and learn more.
CONTINUE READING >>
 

Birmingham may not have sprung to mind when we were thinking of destinations to visit in the Heart of Dixie, but boy are we glad we looked a little deeper. When we discovered that Alabama’s largest city was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, we were excited to explore and learn more. Once we chose one of the many hotels near Birmingham’s historic sites, we were ready to go.

In the early 20th century, the rapid growth of industrial jobs in Birmingham drew thousands of rural residents into the city. Much of this expansion was due to the fact that the iron ore, coal, and limestone used to make steel were all readily available nearby. In fact, eventually the city became known as the Pittsburgh of the South.

At this time, many of the city’s new arrivals were the descendants of slaves and hungry for a better life. This influx of new residents unfortunately led to rising racial tensions. By the early 1960s, several violent episodes caused the city to take on a new nickname: Bombingham.

The 16th Street Baptist Church

The most nefarious of those bombings occurred at The 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning in September 1963. Klansmen planted a bomb in the basement and killed four young girls, yet only one of the culprits was arrested. His only penalty was a small fine for illegal possession of dynamite.

The incident came after nearly a year of protests against segregation known as the Birmingham campaign, which led to unrest across the city. In the aftermath of the bombing, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the thousands of mourners and implored them to continue peacefully fighting for equality.

The location of the blast is marked with signs dedicated to peace, but the church is still active, so we were hesitant to approach it as a tourist attraction. It was impossible not to feel the weight of the past or embrace the reverence that it deserved.

We were buoyed by the fact that the tragedy was not completely in vain. In fact, public opinion turned when the nation learned of the crime, and ultimately the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

To find out more about the struggle that led to that groundbreaking legislation, all we had to do was walk across the street. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened in 1992 with the stated mission, “To enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.”

The powerful Oral History Project reveals the narrative of the movement and includes multimedia exhibits featuring many of the people who were there. Seeing and hearing their stories in their own voices transported us back to the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

Kelly Ingram Park

Much of that turbulence took place at Kelly Ingram Park, and once again, all we had to do was cross the street to experience a bit of what it was like to participate in the protests. The park served as a staging ground for many of the demonstrations, and the Freedom Walk commemorates some confrontations from those encounters.

The path led us through some of those march’s most powerful moments, which James Drake has captured in a series of sculptures. The names are self-explanatory, such as “Police and Dog Attack” and “Firehosing of Demonstrators.” The most compelling to us was “Children’s March (‘I ain’t afraid of your jail’).” A work that required us to peer through the bars of a cell at two children representing those arrested during the protests.

We weren’t at all surprised that the Alabama Tourism Department named Kelly Ingram Park, along with the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Attraction of the Year in 2012. A visit to these historic civil rights attractions had a significant impact on us, and it’s sure to have one on you when you visit Birmingham.

We were happy to write this in collaboration with hotelplanner.

St. Petersburg the Great

This is a city that evokes the heyday of imperial Russia at almost every turn, with very few reminders of the Soviet era when it was known as Leningrad.

By the time we spent our two days exploring, we were certain… CONTINUE READING >> 

Written aboard the Viking Star on her voyage through Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. Thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

See all of our exploits aboard the Viking Star through the Baltic Sea here.

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia

Very much like when we visited China, a stop in Russia was not something we ever thought would be possible back when we were growing up.

So when we awoke on the Viking Star docked at St. Petersburg we were pretty dad-blame stoked.

This is a city that evokes the heyday of imperial Russia at almost every turn, with very few reminders of the Soviet era when it was known as Leningrad. By the time we spent our two days exploring, we were certain that would have been the way Peter the Great would have wanted it.The Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Due to some quirky visa requirements, we were only allowed off of the ship with a government certified tour group, so we couldn’t go running around on our own as we usually like to. Still we feel like we managed to see almost everything we wanted to.

It is possible to get a visa that includes the freedom to roam about freely, but the process can take quite some time, and cost more than a couple of rubles.

As cruise ship passengers we could avoid that hassle, but it meant that we would be required to stay with officially sanctioned guides, so we set out with our group on an introductory tour.

The alter of The Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

We began at the place where the city began, at least as far as its Russian history is concerned, the Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great started building his city here in 1703, immediately after taking the land from Sweden during the Great Northern War.

Thus began the home of the czars, and the capital of Imperial Russia, that more than lived up to his vision. The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the walls of the fortress became the final resting place for all of those czars.

The tombs of the czars in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia

Perhaps that is where the old saying You can’t sling a cat in here without hitting a czar came from… oh wait, that’s not a saying.

Catherine the Great's house, the Winter Palace, is now the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Directly across the Neva River from the fortress, we got a great view of the opulent lifestyle of those Russian emperors at Catherine the Great’s house, the Winter Palace.

Her penchant for collecting fine art has made it now one of the most impressive galleries on the planet, the Hermitage Museum. Unfortunately our time constraints only gave us the chance to see the outside.

Palace Square, St. Petersburg, Russia

In front of Catherine’s incredible crib, the Palace Square spreads out as a monument to Alexander the First and the Russian victory he led over Napoleon.

The square is centered around the huge solid granite Alexander Column, which at 150 feet high is the tallest of its kind in the world. It is so heavy, about 500 tons, that it stays in place with no support or attachments.

Speaking of huge chunks of rock, our next stop featured the largest ever moved by humans, weighing in at a mere 1250 tons.The mounted statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia

The equestrian statue of Peter the Great in Senate Square, commonly called the Bronze Horseman, stands atop this giant boulder known as the Thunder Stone.

Just for comparison sake, that is more than ten times as big as any of the Easter Islands figures and twenty times more than the largest stone at Stonehenge.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Peterburg, RussiaWe took a quick walk from the statue over to the nearby Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, our only brief time alone, before boarding the bus to head over to our next stop, the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, patron saint of Peter the Great who was born on his feast day, but more than anything stands as a monument to the czar that founded the city.

St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia is massive!

This stands as a landmark not only for its size— the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city and the fourth largest cathedral in the world—but also for the gold plated dome that can be seen all across St. Petersburg.

Looking up into the dome of St. Isaac's Catherdral in St. Petersburg, Russia

There are over two hundred pounds of the precious yellow metal spread out on the thing, and more incredible gold gilding adorns the interior. To us the exterior was more impressive, and perhaps it was meant to be.The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia

While Saint Isaac’s was most certainly remarkable, the Church on Spilled Blood was even more eye catching. The view screamed imperial Russia with its wildly colorful onion domes, and plenty of gold gilding of its own.

The odd name comes from this being the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881, but is not official; it is formally the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

A festive atmosphere greeted us as we waited to go inside, with performers and several animal acts working the crowd, so we were more than adequately entertained as we stood in line.

Raccoon outside of Spilled Blood church in St. PetersburgAs striking as the outside of the church had been, the interior is what truly set it apart. The walls and ceilings are covered with over 7500 square meters of colorful mosaic tiles.

This is said to be the most in the world, although folks in Missouri dispute this, claiming that the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis has a slight edge.

The interior of The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia is completely covered in mosiac tiles

As with most all of the churches in Russia, during the soviet era this was stripped of any religious significance. The building was used as a storage facility, and even scheduled to be torn down, before being saved and restored.

Judging by the crowds filing through the building, we are not the only ones who are happy they preserved it.

Looking up in to the dome of the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia

See all of our exploits aboard the Viking Star through the Baltic Sea here.

On our second day we set out to see how St. Petersburg is thoroughly connected to the sea. The reason Peter the Great wanted this particular spot was based solely on his desire for Russia to have a sea port and to build a navy.

Cruising the canals of St. Petersburg, Russia

As a part of this maritime vision he also designed the city to be structured around a system of canals, an idea he brought with him from time he spent in Amsterdam as a young man.

Cruising the canals of St. Petersburg, Russia

Now, hundreds of years later, we would get to see his city from those canals as we set out on a boat tour.

Even though we would be seeing many of the same highlights as yesterday, we were excited to be seeing them as Peter would have wanted us to.

We began on the Fontanka River, which was once just a small stream known as Anonymous Creek. Then Peter contained it within stonework embankments and used it to supply water to the fountains in his summer garden. That is why it was given the new name meaning Fountain River.

Cruising the canals of St. Petersburg, Russia

This stretch of water was a fantastic way to begin our day since the Fontanka is lined with the former lavish residences of Russian nobility.

It also gave us the chance to see some of the hundreds of bridges over the canals and rivers of St. Petersburg.

The Anichkov Bridge is perhaps the most famous, and one of the dozens we had to duck to get under. There was a strict rule of no standing up on this boat… unless you are willing to lose your head.

Anichkov Bridge is perhaps the most famous of St. Petersburg's hundreds of bridges

Best known for the four bronze Horse Tamers statues on that frame either entrance, the bridge was originally built of wood in 1715 and named after its engineer, Mikhail Anichkov.

The horses were added later, in the mid eighteen hundreds, after the span was reconstructed in stone.

Leaving the canal, we entered the Neva River, just opposite the Peter and Paul Fortress that we visited the day before. From the water it looked much more like an imposing fortress than the view we had when entering on land.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia

This spot, where the Neva splits and flows into the Baltic Sea, is the heart of the city. From our vantage point in the water we got a perfect panorama of all of St. Petersburg, especially Catherine’s palace, before turning around to retrace our path.

Floating back we got one last look at both the Church on Spilled Blood and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and once again felt the overwhelming awe of being in this place.

Can’t say that it made up for our lack of freedom to roam at will, but we can say that we have been to Russia.

Tell that to our duck-and-cover-drill grade school selves.

They never would have believed it.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our exploits aboard the Viking Star through the Baltic Sea here.

Written aboard the Viking Star on her voyage through Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. Thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

In Honor of President’s Day

In these days of crazy political partisanship, we thought it might be a good idea to honor our presidents from the past that we almost all agree were among the greats.

No place can bring out a feeling of patriotic awe like… CONTINUE READING >> 

In these days of crazy political partisanship, we thought it might be a good idea to honor our presidents from the past that we almost all agree were among the greats.

No place can bring out a feeling of patriotic awe like Mount Rushmore. The grandeur of the setting matches the achievements of these historic leaders.

For an inside look at the life of a president, it’s hard to beat the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

It was Roosevelt’s hope that by donating his home and all of his papers he could leave a library that would become an important research center, as well as a preservation of the history of his time in office.

He was certainly successful, and created a precedent where all of the presidents that followed him would also build libraries to preserve their legacies.

Perhaps a slightly less dignified tribute stands along the Interstate Highway in Kankakee, Illinois.

This Ginormous Abe Lincoln stands a whopping 40 feet high, doubling the size of his likeness sitting in the memorial in Washington, D.C.

From up there he can really keep an eye on the Land of Lincoln.

Our guess is that he would also ask us to put aside our differences, at least for his day, and celebrate this great country that we all share…

…and the leaders who shaped it.

David and Veronica, GypsyNester.com

London Travel Tips

London offers a wealth of art and culture, trendy shops and global dining opportunities on both sides of the River Thames. Its thriving entertainment scene ranges from theaters and concerts to clubs and comedy venues. When the excitement gets too much, London’s parks are ideal for relaxation… CONTINUE READING >> 

London offers a wealth of art and culture, trendy shops and global dining opportunities on both sides of the River Thames. Its thriving entertainment scene ranges from theatres and concerts to clubs and comedy venues. When the excitement gets too much, London’s parks are ideal for relaxation.

London

London’s West End takes in Oxford Street and Regent Street, with their busy shops and department stores, and the entertainment hubs of Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue.

Also in the West End are buzzing Soho, with its gay pubs and funky cafés, and majestic Trafalgar Square, graced by Nelson’s Column and twin fountains. From here, you can walk down Whitehall to Westminster, the political heart of the country.

Across the Thames are South Bank and Bankside, the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Moving eastwards from Trafalgar Square gets you to The City, where gleaming skyscrapers rub shoulders with historic buildings. To the north of the West End are literary Bloomsbury and leafy Regent’s Park.


Image via Flickr by mangMangW

Top attractions in London

The National Gallery collection spans from the Middle Ages to the early 1900s. If you prefer contemporary art, Tate Modern, a former industrial complex across the Thames, houses rotating exhibitions.

Further down the Thames at Tower Bridge you can enjoy great city views from a glass-floored walkway high above the river. Nearby, the Tower of London gives an insight into British royal history.

If you’d rather be outdoors, Covent Garden has street entertainers and a lively covered market. The Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30am outside Buckingham Palace, or you can head to St. James’s Park to see the pelicans being fed.

The concierge recommends…

  • Visiting the British Museum – not only for its world-class collection, but also for the Great Court, an airy indoor piazza designed by Sir Norman Foster.
  • Catching a riverboat service to Royal Observatory, Greenwich, where you can straddle the Prime Meridian – that is, the imaginary line dividing east from west.
  • Taking a spin on the London Eye, a large Ferris wheel on South Bank, for views over London.
  • Browsing the latest fashions at Camden Market. If your interests run towards food, Borough Market is not to be missed, while Portobello Road Market is your destination for antiques, vintage clothing and bric-a-brac.

Hotels in London

London has a wealth of accommodation options, from boutique hotels in leafy neighbourhoods to large establishments in more urban areas. An efficient transport network means you don’t have to stay in the West End to enjoy all the city has to offer.

Thanks to its proximity to The City, East London appeals to business travellers. From here, it is easy to reach Shoreditch, where there are many sleek bars and ethnic restaurants in which to relax after closing a deal.

With attractions such as the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, plus the open spaces and activities at Kensington Gardens and adjacent Hyde Park, Kensington is a magnet for families. It’s a short bus or Tube ride from here to Knightsbridge, home of the famous Harrods department store, or to King’s Road with its stylish boutiques.

Eating Out in London

Visitors to London can try local British specialities – such as jellied eels or pie and mash – or take a gastronomic trip around the world, whether it’s burritos from a street-food stall or sushi at a fine-dining restaurant.

Once the go-to area for Indian food, Brick Lane still has plenty of curry houses. It has now opened up to other ethnic restaurants and gourmet burger joints. Nearby Spitalfields Market has lively cafés and eateries to suit all tastes and budgets, as does Soho.

Both The City and Mayfair offer sophisticated dining options, including several restaurants run by celebrity chefs. Mayfair also has many charming venues in which to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea.

In addition to stalls selling charcuterie, cheeses and baked goods, bustling Borough Market also has sit-down establishments offering global bites such as tapas, stir-fries and oysters.

No trip to London would be complete without a visit to a pub, where you can sample real ale – and a real slice of British life.

The chef recommends…

  • Pie and mash: Typical of London’s East End, this dish consists of beef mince encased in pastry and served with mashed potatoes and a green parsley sauce known as liquor.
  • Jellied eels: Another East End speciality, these are chunks of freshwater eel boiled in a fish, vinegar and herb stock. When left to cool after cooking, the eels naturally develop an outer jelly layer.
  • Sunday roast: This meal traditionally features a few thin slices of roast beef, served with roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables, gravy and a horseradish sauce.

Shopping in London

At the cutting edge of fashion, music and the arts, London is a retail paradise. You can find anything your heart desires in its charming independent shops, glitzy flagship stores of international chains and well-stocked department stores. London’s antiques markets are treasure troves of one-off pieces.

Bond Street, Sloane Street and Knightsbridge have a high concentration of luxury French and Italian boutiques. More exclusive products – from watches and cashmere to lingerie and upscale toiletries – are for sale in Mayfair’s elegant Burlington Arcade.

Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Shoreditch and King’s Road are good bets for casual and affordable clothing.

Charing Cross Road is great for books, with both second-hand shops and Foyles’ flagship store, while Soho has a number of independent record stores.

Music lovers can also head to Shoreditch, where Rough Trade East often organises record launches and intimate in-store performances. While in Shoreditch, you can also browse for vintage fashions.

Best indoor shopping

  • Decorated with chandeliers and gilding, the food hall at Fortnum & Mason is worth a visit even if you’re not in the market for its premium range of preserves, chocolates and cheeses. Harrods has a similarly breathtaking food hall, with a tiled ceiling and Art Deco details.
  • With its contemporary decor, Harvey Nichols is a reliable destination for the latest fashions by world-renowned designers such as Michael Kors, Maison Margiela and Paul Smith.
  • Westfield Stratford City in East London has more than 300 stores covering all price points, plus restaurants, cinema screens and bowling lanes.


Image via Flickr by Alan Perestrello

Culture & Nightlife in London

London is abuzz with cultural activities, and there is something for everyone happening every night of the week, whether it’s a play or a gig by a touring rock band.

Stage productions in London’s West End span from musicals to drama. Fans of the Bard will not want to miss a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside. Just up the road is the National Theatre. The adjacent Southbank Centre is a cultural complex where you can enjoy world-class concerts.

Boasting a vast dance floor, Ministry of Sound has put Elephant & Castle firmly on the map, and venues like Corsica Studios have helped cement the area’s reputation as a clubbing haven.

The choices in Soho include karaoke bars, burlesque clubs, dimly lit cocktail lounges and the live jazz temple that is Ronnie Scott’s. At the end of the night, Bar Italia provides the perfect pit stop before heading back to the hotel.

Best live music venues in London

  • Camden Town is a hub for indie and rock music, with venues like The Roundhouse, with its industrial Victorian architecture, and KOKO, housed in a former variety theatre and featuring a gigantic mirror ball.
  • As well as hosting gigs by national and international acts, Kensington’s Royal Albert Hall is the main home of the Proms, a series of classical concerts that takes place every summer.
  • High-profile bands tend to play at The O2 arena in Greenwich. Located in the distinctive Millennium Dome, this venue can hold as many as 20,000 people.

Visiting London with a Family

There is no shortage of family-friendly activities in London, and many of them – museums, parks and city farms – are free of charge. Dining out isn’t a problem, since many restaurants provide children’s menus, and some positively welcome pint-sized patrons.

The Science Museum and Natural History Museum in South Kensington provide hands-on displays and child-orientated workshops. Both museums run a “spend the night” scheme, which allows participants to get up close and personal with the exhibits and enjoy special activities.

South of the Thames, animal-loving kids will enjoy a visit to Vauxhall City Farm, which is home to goats, pigs and other farmyard animals. Riding lessons are available, too. Battersea Park Children’s Zoo has small mammals like lemurs, meerkats and chipmunks, plus an interactive play area.

Best family-friendly restaurants in London

  • The Rainforest Cafe recreates the Amazonian jungle with lush greenery, animatronic creatures and special effects such as periodic thunderstorms.
  • At Tom’s Kitchen Canary Wharf, kids eat for free at weekends between 10am and 4pm. An activity room and supervised crafts sessions ensure that parents get to relax as well.
  • Bringing together food and bowling, All Star Lanes supplies bumpers and extra-light bowling balls for a child-friendly experience.

Just in Time for Valentine’s Day – Travel Pick-up Lines!

When Lonely Planet put out the word that they wanted submissions for clever Travel Pick-up Lines we were all in.

We love us some puns. The more corny the better… CONTINUE READING >> 

GypsyNesters

When Lonely Planet put out the word that they wanted submissions for clever “Travel Pick-up Lines,” we were all in. We love us some puns. The more corny the better.

You’d think after thirty years of marriage we’d be a little rusty, but they were flowing out of us so fast it was hard to get them written down. Frankly, it was a bit disturbing how un-rusty we were.

Here are our winning submissions:


Here are some of our favorite entries:

Haven’t had enough? See all of the winning pick-up lines here!

YOUR TURN: Which is your favorite? Would you use any of these? Do you have one to add?