Queen of the Atlantic


A visit to the Portuguese island of Madeira, a veritable floating garden blessed with dramatic landscapes and lush plantlife.

Arriving on the Portuguese island of Madeira, several hundred miles north-west of the Canary Islands, is something of an experience in itself. The island is so mountainous that it was impossible to find a flat space to build a runway on; instead, stilts were built into the sea and a runway laid on top. It makes for an interesting landing, and is a fitting introduction to an island with more than its fair share of quirkiness.

Most visitors to the island head first to Funchal, the pretty, terracotta-roofed capital beneath the vertiginous slopes that dominate Madeira. This is not an island of gentle rolling hills; vast cliffs drop angrily into the ocean and tiny hamlets cluster among the rich, green peaks. And everywhere stepped terraces are crammed with fruit and vegetable plantations, testament to the sub-tropical climate that has led Madeira to be christened ‘the floating garden’.

If, on first sight, Funchal seems Mediterranean—pavement cafés, cobbled streets, whitewashed houses—a closer look reveals a more Caribbean feel. Private gardens and public parks are full of banana trees, palms, lush grasses and purple bougainvillea. The terraces brim with grapes, avocados and passion fruit. The island has long been loved by gardeners, but even those without green fingers cannot fail to appreciate the fertility of the Madeiran soil.

This is an island where orchids grow like daisies and the balmy climate means every inch is covered in flowers and fruit. The sheer physicality of the landscape is breathtaking – driving around the island takes hours even though distances are small with tiny roads zig-zagging up and down mountains.

Madeira enjoys good weather, with temperatures averaging 70ºF all year, so there is never a bad time to visit. Gardens are in constant bloom and the island makes a specialty of rearing rare and endangered species that find it hard to flourish elsewhere in Europe.

The Botanic Gardens alone have 2,500 different species, from the ice-blue blossom on the jacaranda trees, to magenta orchids, jade-green palms and a rainbow of fruit trees in the agricultural garden. Divided into six areas, the garden combines a shady arboretum with an area of succulents and cacti, and a large collection of plants indigenous only to the Madeiran archipelago.

Close to the Botanical Gardens lies the Orchid Gardens, with an orchid jungle unrivalled anywhere in Europe. With over 50,000 plants, it is one of the foremost collections of these rare flowers in the world.

Visit the Botanic Gardens by cable car from the picturesque village of Monte—reachable by a separate cable car from Funchal. Perched high above the city streets, Monte is a picturesque hilltop town with a bustling central square. The traditional Portuguese black-and-white frontage of Monte’s church, Nossa Senhora de Monte, is a spectacular sight, and the town is also home to the Monte Palace Gardens. The house and grounds of an abandoned hotel site had laid derelict until it was bought by businessman José Berardo. Now transformed, there is a museum housing over 1,000 sculptures and an impressive collection of minerals, including collection of diamonds.

The gardens themselves are an eccentric counterpart to the Botanic’s quiet organization. Berardo has worked his own passions into the landscapes: there is an oriental garden, a vast collection of orchids and one of the largest collections of cycads in the world. The tranquil lake is a great place to stop with a picnic and take time to soak up the richness of the gardens.

The cable-car rides are a great introduction to the scale of Madeira. Funchal to Monte is a 12-minute glide across the rooftops, and Monte to the Botanical Gardens takes 9 minutes, swooping across the João Gomes Stream Valley, offering views down to the sea.

But there is more to Madeira than Funchal and its surrounds. A must-visit is the astonishing village of Curral das Freiras, located in the center of the island and founded by nuns in the 16th century. Surrounded by sheer mountains on all sides, no one left the valley for hundreds of years and the villagers still exist almost entirely on what they grow themselves. There was no road into the village until 1959 and no one had a television until 1986.

It’s also worth exploring the north coast, where the coastal towns of Seixal, Porto Moniz and Santana are regularly beaten by ferocious seas. Vast slabs of rock jut out into the Atlantic with the villages clinging on in-between. An afternoon can easily slip past sitting in one of the beachfront cafés, watching 12-foot waves crash onto the shore.

The north is also home to the most expensive road ever built. The slim stretch of road that links Sao Vicente to Porto Moniz clings to a cliff face so vertiginous that men had to chip away at the road surface by hand. It is also one of the most exhilarating drives in Europe. Fortunately a tunnel follows a parallel route, for those who prefer their journeys a little less white-knuckle.

But a car is not the only way to explore Madeira; the island is criss-crossed by levadas, ancient water-carrying channels that provide irrigation across the island. They provide safe, easy-to-follow walks that can be done easily without a guide, although some of the gradients can be very steep. The older levadas, built centuries ago, tend to plummet steeply downhill. The newer levadas are wide ‘mini-canals’, and run horizontally along the island’s contours, making for easy walking.

But there are plenty of opportunities for more gentle exercise as well, with two well-maintained golf courses. The Santo da Serra course is part of the PGA European tour and the Palheiro course offers breathtaking views from its hillside location to the east of Funchal.

Of course, a visit to Madeira wouldn’t be complete without tasting its most famous export, Madeiran wine. A guided tour at Old Blandy Wine Lodge in Funchal is a great way to learn the history of the drink and take a sip or two.

Madeira is an island that constantly surprises—the island’s heady mix of natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and unique atmosphere makes it an unforgettable place to visit.

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The Unexpected Algarve


For an alternative to Portugal’s busy beaches, head inland to villages rich in history, art and food traditions.

It’s no wonder that the coastal cities of the Algarve, in southern Portugal, have long been hotspots to escape from tepid summers into bountiful sunshine.

The streets of the Algarve pulsate with visitors, eager to try local restaurants, and around-the-clock entertainment. But fewer travelers seek out the Algarve’s interior, an hour—and worlds—away from the coast along quiet country roads winding through orange and olive groves.

A shared history and age-old traditions weave this peaceful region together. Each village, for example, has a handful of Catholic churches, and most are topped with a stone fortress or castle. Long lunches begin with bread, olives and cheese, and end with a shot of medronho, a traditional fruit brandy. An afternoon nap inevitably follows.

Despite similarities and geographic proximity, the Algarve’s landlocked towns have retained their own sense of self. They were far more isolated in centuries past, when traveling from one hilly destination to the next required more than just following satellite navigation directions. Today, however, the interior villages are easily reached via exits off the A22, the main highway (a toll road), while the roads are well paved and simple to navigate.

Each of these villages is worthy of attention, especially since the region is quickly changing. New highways and modern plazas are signs of investment in the future, and cultural evolution is inevitable. Travelers today have the rare opportunity to experience a simple, magical side of European life that may one day look entirely different. Here is our guide to three of the Algarve’s secret villages.

This central city may be the most appealing in the Algarve’s interior. Neighbors chat across slender streets from second-story windows, orange and lemon trees give off a citrus scent, and rows of houses are covered in azulejos, Portugal’s famed painted tiles.

More than half of the world’s cork products come from Portugal. You can shop for beautifully detailed purses, wallets and shoes made from supple sheets of cork bark, which feels almost like suede, at Loja Regional A. Silva. See artists Dimitrios Mantzavrakos and Florbela Moreira at work in their studio. They often use the town as a backdrop in their watercolor, acrylic and collage paintings. Lace-bordered tablecloths are sold at the sewing shop Casa das Lãs e Retrosaria Anita. Bottles of Portuguese wine await at Rui Marisqueira, a seafood restaurant with a loyal following. Garlicky prawns and succulent spider crab are standouts. Save room for cataplana de peixe, a stew of red snapper, grouper and clams prepared in a traditional steel pot. End the meal with a mel, or honey liqueur, and take in Silves’ backlit castle crowning the village in a golden glow.

Hidden among pine groves and fig trees, Alte has long attracted poets, artisans and expat artists. Get an overview of the current arts scene at Off the Wall Gallery, owned by enamellist Susan Searle. She aggregates works, ranging from brightly colored oil paintings to silk and merino wool scarves, by contemporary Algarve-based artists. At O Cantinho do Artista, Maria Martins hand stitches lace, one of Portugal’s oldest art forms, into tablecloths and handkerchiefs. A balcony overlooking the countryside awaits next door at Agua Mel, where you can sample almond cakes and warm custards.

While pottery is a staple at shops throughout the Algarve, Porches Pottery, 30 minutes from Alte, has some of the best examples of the craft. Its female staff paint majolica, the earthenware with floral designs. Across the street, Casa Grade stocks pottery from all over Portugal, from rustic plates to ornately painted pieces.

This village in the foothills of Fóia, the Algarve’s highest point, has streets so steep and winding that a successful job of parallel parking may earn polite applause from entertained town residents. Once on foot, a hike to the peak is highly recommended, though not before exploring the café-filled courtyards and climbing the stone staircases, which are often lined with blue hydrangeas and dotted with bronze figurines and other public art.

Hikers can find picnic provisions at the farmers market (Estra. da De Sabóia), where residents haggle over the purchase of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. More artisanal food souvenirs are sold at Loja do Mel e do Medronho, a modest shop where portraits of proud farmers hang above shelves filled with olive oils, liqueurs, honeycomb and tomato jams.

A 3-and-a-half-mile path leads trekkers from Monchique to the Fóia mountaintop. For those who don’t associate exercise with holiday, a scenic road also winds to the peak. In either case, the reward is a view all the way to Sagres Point, the cliff-lined tip of Portugal.

Freshly caught seafood is popular throughout the Algarve, but Monchique’s higher elevation and cooler temperatures have historically led to meatier meals. Fortunately, traditional dishes still make the menu at A Charrette, a three-decade-old restaurant with old-fashioned wooden cupboards and antique dishes. Clay bowls are heaped with rice, beans and sweet chestnuts or cabbage and pork.

In the evenings, cocktail crowds head to Barlefante, a hip lounge framed by potted succulents. Inside, rose-colored walls and sequined throw pillows lend a Moroccan vibe.

These inland village treasures offer a taste of a traditional way of Portuguese life not to be missed.

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The Art of Progress


The history of the island of Lanzarote is filled with tumultuous changes — from volcanic eruptions to tourist invasions, but Joe Cawley believes that the island has benefitted from the drama.

Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.’ He could also have added progress. Very little on this planet remains the same over a long period of time – including holiday destinations. Take Lanzarote for example …

Around 35 million years ago, give or take a fortnight, the island surged from the seabed 100 kilometers from the African Coast in a powerful volcanic awakening. For years it remained nothing more than a barren rock until populated by the Guanches from North Africa and subsequently by the Spanish, who built villages, small towns and trading harbors. Then in 1730, a violent eruption spewed fire and ash for six whole years, refurbishing the landscape with rivers of lava and swathes of black volcanic rock, giving parts of the island a lunar-like look.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the progression of the island leapt forward again. In 1970 international flights were permitted for the first time and word soon spread about this sub-tropical island with its broad swathes of golden sand. With average temperatures loitering around the 75°F mark, 3,000 hours of sunshine a year and less rainfall than parts of the Sahara, it wasn’t long before the 2,000 tourist beds available at the time became woefully inadequate. Eight years later, the resort of Puerto del Carmen was created and the capacity to accommodate visitors began to swell.

It was during this eruption of tourism that one man stepped up and vowed to save Lanzarote’s landscape from being overwhelmed by the tidal wave of tourism. That man was César Manrique, a local painter, sculptor and architect. This environmental warrior ensured that the progress of tourism developed in harmony with the island’s dramatic beauty and has been, without doubt, the single most dominant figure in influencing the progression of Lanzarote. It was Manrique who persuaded the authorities not to build any house higher than 2 stories, to only allow homes to be painted white and to limit the color of those archetypal olive green or powder blue shutters that keep rooms cool enough for a midsummer siesta.

It’s hard to explore any part of the island now without coming across Manrique’s trademark styling of Lanzarote’s natural assets. He created a feature from the underground caves and tunnels of Cueva de los Verdes and Los Jameos del Agua which now incorporates tropical gardens, a swimming pool and a 600-seat auditorium where musical concerts are held. He also worked with the volcanic landscape to create the Mirador del Rio viewpoint with its head-spinning heights and views across the Strait of El Rio to the archaic island of La Graciosa. His influence can also be seen in the wind toys dotted around the island. These large-scale sculptures are designed to work with the elements, their moving parts coming alive when the wind blows.

There’s no doubt that both tourism and Manrique have benefitted the island significantly. Lanzarote stands out for its harmonious blending of nature and man. Between the volcanic cones, the fertile plains are peppered with sugar-cube houses, the compact villages studded with palm trees. Visitors flock to marvel at the natural wonders such as the ruddy red slopes of Fire Mountain. It’s here that visitors are reminded of the island’s fiery origins with volcano-fuelled barbecues and flaming examples of the incredible heat still bubbling away inches below their sandals.

But they also come for the modern, man-made attractions: the daring cowboy antics at Rancho Texas Park; the quayside shopping and dining at the Marina Rubicon; and the lush green fairways at the golf courses of Tias and Costa Teguise. Progress doesn’t stand still. Lanzarote will see more change. You can’t halt the path of progression, either natural or man-made. Like death and taxes, that is a certain.

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Fall for Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

As the snow melts, an outdoorsman’s paradise awakens. So grab your bike, kayak or fishing gear and set out into nature. You won’t be disappointed.

Steamboat Springs is best known as a winter sports town, home to the Steamboat Ski Resort and dozens of winter Olympians. Yet at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Steamboat is equally lively in summer and fall, when its dry-as-ranch-dust snow is replaced with a sunny, cool mountain climate that’s idyllic for an outdoorsy getaway. In a single weekend, you can fly-fish mountain streams, horseback-ride across rolling ranchlands, hike through wildflower meadows and aspen glades, mountain bike on a growing network of single-track, browse a downtown lined with boxy Western storefronts, and finish it off with a soothing soak in one of the town’s steaming natural hot springs.

Long before it was a sports town, Steamboat Springs was a ranch town. Along with multimillion-dollar vacation homes, working ranches occupy much of the Yampa Valley—thousands of acres dotted with beef cattle and bus-sized hay bales. The cattle dogs you’ll see in the back of muddy pickups really do herd, and the cowboy hats worn in town—some of them, anyway—are the real deal, too.

The 10-block-long downtown still reflects Steamboat’s cowboy roots. Ranch supply stores sit alongside bike shops, boutiques and wine bars on the main artery, Lincoln Avenue. Foremost among them is F.M. Light and Sons, a century-old dry goods store where shoppers can browse the 2,000 pairs of cowboy boots, stop by the Hat Services counter and pick up a handbag with a built-in gun holster.

To sample cowboy culture yourself, take a horseback ride at Del’s Triangle Three Ranch, in the Elk River Valley a half hour north of Steamboat Springs. Guides lead half- and full-day rides over sage-covered slopes and through the hills, keeping an eye out for the elk herds that often gather on the property. Come fall, blooming fields of yarrow and mule’s ear daisy give way to blazing yellow aspens. At this time of year, the elk put on their own show, as the males bugle loudly for female attention.

For those who want to hoof it in hiking boots, trails abound. Four miles from town, an easy quarter-mile route leads to Fish Creek Falls, descending 283 feet into a deep rocky seam. Paths continue to Upper Fish Creek Falls and 5 miles south to Lost Lake. Also near town, the Spring Creek Trail climbs gently for 5 miles through a broad canyon glowing gold with ferns and aspens. The surrounding Medicine Bow–Routt National Forest offers a dizzying array of options for long day hikes.

On a mountain bike you can cover even more terrain. Locals flock to the trails on Emerald Mountain, which rises up from the southwest side of downtown, and the 50 miles of trails at the Steamboat ski area, accessible with leg power or by gondola. Explore the ski area’s trail network or leave its boundary to connect with a web of national forest trails.

A cloud of fog and the tang of sulfur hang over Lincoln Park at the edge of downtown, where several of the region’s natural hot springs gurgle out of rock fissures and ponds. When early trappers came upon a nearby spring on the Yampa River’s western bank, they thought that the funny chugging sound it made resembled a steamboat whistle—which is how this landlocked town got its unlikely name. (Alas, construction of the railroad silenced the spring years ago.)

After a day on the trails, a visit to one of Steamboat’s hot springs provides the perfect remedy for weary muscles. You’ll find two decidedly different options for a public soak. The Old Town Hot Springs right downtown and open year-round offers 8 man-made swimming pools fed by hot mineral springs. Also part of the facility: waterslides and a fitness center with a range of exercise classes.

On the more rustic end of the scale, Strawberry Park Hot Springs lies in the woods, 8 miles from town (including 3 miles on a rutted dirt road). Steamy 147-degree water trickles down a hillside into a series of stone masonry pools, where it’s cooled with creek water to about 105 degrees. For the complete experience, take at least one plunge into the cold-water creek. Though it’s not the freewheeling flower-child scene found at many hot springs, Strawberry Park is clothing optional and adults only after dark.

Hot springs may be Steamboat’s identity, but the Yampa River feels like its lifeblood. Starting from modest streams high in the Flat Tops Wilderness, the Yampa grows into a broad river that flows right through town, just a block south of Lincoln Avenue. The 7-mile Yampa River Core Trail weaves along its banks, busy with runners, bicycling kids and stroller-pushing moms. Kayakers play in its waves, while inner tubers float past waterfront restaurants. Anglers enjoy several miles of public access, casting for rainbow and brown trout.

Outfitters like Steamboat Flyfisher can offer even more, accompanying you to private stretches of river that run through ranchland south of town. Here the Yampa instantly feels wild, framed by red dogwoods and golden willows, flowing cold and clear the color of single-malt scotch.

Casting a fly rod here is an utterly peaceful way to spend a morning. You’re serenaded by the sounds of the water, the trill of blackbirds and the distant mutters and moos of ranch animals. You mend your line just so and watch it unfurl downstream, mesmerized, as you wait for the almost imperceptible tug of a rainbow.


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The Snows of Summit County: Copper Mountain

Copper Mountain

Wedged between behemoths Vail and Breckenridge, Copper Mountain is favored by Denverites but is still a sleeper to much of North America. Once you ski or ride there, you’ll hope it stays that way. Lovely fall-line cruisers go on forever, fringed with glades and powder stashes. High-alpine bowls crown the peaks like rough-cut diamonds.

Like the old ad slogan, Copper Mountain just tries harder. A well-designed network of high-speed lifts makes it easy to move around the mountain. Beginner and intermediate runs are impeccably groomed, as is the 22-foot half-pipe, the new Olympic standard. On weekends, a snowcat offers rides—free with a valid lift ticket!—up double-diamond Tucker Mountain.

At the end of the day, skiers and riders glide seamlessly onto sundecks that skirt the entire base. Copper Mountain doesn’t really qualify as a town—it has Frisco for that, 6 miles down the road—but it exudes a happy vibe, with live music, bonfires, festivals and torchlight parades. It quickly feels like a friendly community, where you wave and smile at newly familiar faces.

That makes Copper great for families. Along with its tubing hill and terrain parks, the resort offers loads of programs for kids—all within walking distance—including pizza-making night at a pizzeria, Bricks 4 Kidz (LEGO activities) and the Cage, a teen lounge with table tennis and video games. Frisco’s Peninsula Recreation Area offers dinner sleigh rides, an acclaimed Nordic ski center and the Frisco Adventure Park, with tubing, a terrain park and a day lodge.

But good luck dragging your kids away from the indoor ski and snowboard training facility, Woodward at Copper. “The Barn” has trampolines, rails and synthetic-snow ramps that launch riders into giant pits filled with foam blocks—a good testing ground before trying tricks on snow. One-day camps and shorter sessions let participants learn at their own pace.

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The Snows of Summit County: Keystone


Veer south off the interstate at Dillon, and the first ski town you reach is Keystone. Its River Run base area looks as if it had been custom-made for an easy, low-stress vacation—which, in fact, it was. In its car-free village, condos and restaurants are clustered around pavilions and cobbled walkways. Families clomp around in ski boots, sprawl beside fire pits and soak up the brilliant Rocky Mountain sunshine at the Kickapoo Tavern.

Across the Snake River, the River Run gondola quietly whisks skiers and snowboarders to the summit of 11,640-foot Dercum Mountain. While its Area 51 terrain park is fairly challenging, the signature front slopes will please beginners and intermediates with their mellow groomed runs.

But first impressions can be misleading. Keystone encompasses 3 peaks; the challenge increases as you work your way south from Dercum. North Peak offers some steeper cruising and long thigh-burning mogul runs. The Outback hides stashes of powder and nice lines threading through spruce forest.

Enticing snowy bowls gape above North Peak and the Outback like hanging glaciers. Follow the locals trudging to the 12,000-foot ridge above, or hop on the Outback Shuttle, where five bucks gets you a snowcat ride to the top.

When you’re spent, it’s easy to skip the end-of-the-day crowds skiing back to the base. Keystone thoughtfully has strung a second gondola from Dercum Mountain to North Peak, so you’re just two relaxing gondola rides away from après ski.

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The Snows of Summit County: Breckenridge


As soon as you head west of Denver on Interstate 70, the scenery transforms. Steel and concrete morph into pine and granite, and the front range of the Rockies fills the windshield. WATCH FOR WILDLIFE, cautions a yellow sign; bighorn sheep, pushed from the peaks by heavy snows, casually gaze through a curlicue of horn at the cars streaming by.

By the time you reach Dillon 60 miles later, you’ve nearly climbed to the roof of the Rockies. Summit County sidles up against the Continental Divide, spiked with peaks and elevations that range from 8,000 to 14,000 feet. Its ample dry snows, top-notch ski areas and picturesque resort towns—all linked by the free Summit Stage bus system—make this region a no-brainer for winter sports fans.

Fifteen miles southwest of Keystone, Breckenridge seems to have been plucked from a snow globe. Flakes drift down on a Main Street lined with brightly painted cabins and steep-pitched Victorians, now filled with restaurants, shops and galleries. The Blue River gurgles under pedestrian bridges and a snowy massif, etched with ski runs, rises right from town.

Prospectors flowed into this 9,600-foot-high outpost in the mid-1800s, bushwhacking their way up river drainages as they panned for gold. They hit pay dirt, including the largest gold nugget ever found in Colorado. “Tom’s Baby” weighed more than 13 pounds; the miner swaddled it in blankets like an infant on the way into town.

Of course, it was snow, not gold, that turned out to be this town’s greatest fortune. Today Breckenridge anchors the nation’s second most-visited ski resort (after Vail). The resort stretches across 4 peaks and seems to expand every year. Its south end, Peak 10, skirts the town; the north end, Peaks 7 and 8, sits higher, linked to town by the free BreckConnect gondola.

Some call Breckenridge “the gentle giant” for its gradual slopes; indeed, many will find the intermediate runs here quite tame. But advanced skiers and riders will find plenty of pitch in the bowls accessed from the nation’s highest chairlift on Peak 8, which tops out at 12,998 feet. Breck’s renowned terrain parks and pipes—considered some of the best in the country—ramp up the challenge, with an array of boxes, rails, kickers and other features that seem to go on forever. And everyone can enjoy Breck’s stunning serrated scenery, looking across to the Continental Divide scraping at the sky.

Even if you never intend to get on a chairlift, Breckenridge dishes up plenty of entertainment, which makes it the best base for a Summit County vacation. Take a thrill ride on the Gold Runner Coaster, where two-person sleds on rails twist wildly downhill. At the Breckenridge Nordic Center below Peak 8, some 30 kilometers of trails wind through old-growth pines, across meadows and to overlooks with postcard views of the Ten Mile Range.

In town, there’s great dining at every turn, from reliable stalwarts like the South Ridge Seafood Grill to newcomers like Ember and Twist. The Arts District is home to a growing number of galleries and art classes. Sign on with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance for a walking tour—the town has more than 250 historic structures—or a snowshoe tour of gold-mining sites.

And be sure to check out the Breckenridge Welcome Center. Its great little history museum reveals Breckenridge “firsts,” including the nation’s first half-pipe and the first ski resort in the world to allow snowboarding. Clearly, Breckenridge recognizes a gold mine.

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From Christel House Kid to UN Employee - Maryari's Story

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Steve Holmes, Chairman and CEO of Wyndham Worldwide

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Meet Nontando, a Christel House Alumni and Biochemical Engineer

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Why RCI, and Geoff Ballotti, support Christel House's mission

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An amazing group – It’s Christel House Week on the RCI Blog

Christel DLet me introduce you to an amazing group of young people. Last year, while I was in India for my annual visit, a group of Christel House (CH) graduates who are now studying at university, working or doing both, came to say hello. They had a gift for me. It was not a painting of some flowers they had purchased on the street corner – but an oversized model of a check in the amount of 24,700 rupees—approximately $450 USD. Let me put this in perspective. That amount of money would cover the living expenses for a typical CH India family of 4 for about 3 months. Their own families depend greatly on their earnings, but these young people chose to show their appreciation and gratitude by making donations to Christel House. It was their way of saying “thank you” and becoming contributing members of society.

To say that I was over the moon would be an understatement. This giving back by our children speaks to much more than educating the child. It speaks to fostering in them social responsibility and the art of giving. Character development, social responsibility, and making the world a better place are all integral components of the CH program. To witness their manifestation in these young people was truly an impactful moment in my life.

This week on the RCI Blog, you will have the opportunity to read blogs from Christel House students, teachers and RCI associates who have visited Christel House learning centers. These stories are truly touching. To learn more about Christel House now, check out the Christel House website here.

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Nashville Nabes: East Nashville


Feeling adventurous? Cross the Cumberland River and venture into East Nashville, a once-gritty area where trendy shops and restaurants have popped up along streets lined by humble bungalows. In the Five Points neighborhood, Wonders on Woodland has two floors full of antique furnishings, toys and tchotchkes. Next door is the Five Points Collaborative, a pedestrian lane lined with boutiques selling gifts and men’s and women’s clothes. While you roam the area, you might hear I Dream of Weenie calling your name. It’s an old VW van converted into a hot dog wagon, dishing up such delicacies as a mac-and-cheese weenie and the “Frank and to the Point.”

Not far from here is another good lunch spot: Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, serving Tennessee beef burgers, salmon burgers, sausages and ice cream sodas. And, for your caffeine fix, make your way to Nashville’s ultimate coffee bar: the cutting-edge Barista Parlor, which targets coffee connoisseurs with state-of-the-art brewing technology. With its hip interior, dominated by a stunning ship mural by local artist Bryce McCloud, this former car-repair shop could be the coolest place to hang out in Nashville.

Like we said, the Music City offers much more than music these days.

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Nashville Nabes: Germantown


Just north of downtown, follow the back roads past establishments with names like Southern Mop and Broom to find what looks like an abandoned meatpacking plant (that’s what it was!) with the name Peter Nappi in stylish wrought-iron script above the door. Inside is a soaring space with the regulation exposed brick walls and concrete floors, plus shelves of leather boots, shoes and bags. The town’s well-heeled musical artists have fallen for Peter Nappi’s old-world-style lace-up boots (around $700 a pair). The footwear is all handmade in Italy, but custom-distressed here in the shop—which is an über-cool space just to hang out in, facilitated by the small stage where musicians perform several times a week.

In and around Germantown are many other spots worth a stop. Marathon Village, once a redbrick auto plant, now houses Bang Candy, selling artisanal marshmallows (in flavors like rose cardamom and toasted coconut); several artists’ studios; and Corsair Artisan Brewery, whose taproom dispenses craft draft beers from microbreweries around the country. Marathon Village’s biggest tenant is Antique Archeology, a retail spinoff from TV’s “American Pickers.” The merchandise might make good souvenirs for rabid fans of the show, while others might judge that a metal “standing desk lamp,” rewired but with its authentic grime left intact, doesn’t warrant the price tag.

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Nashville Nabes: 12 South


You won’t find many tourists in 12 South, a chic neighborhood where locals hang out, just east of Hillsboro Village. What you will find: Urban Grub, which calls itself a “fish pit and Southern Cantina;” Edley's Bar-B-Que, for genuine ‘cue and small-batch brews; and Las Paletas, serving artisanal Mexican-style popsicles in flavors like hibiscus, honeydew, peanut butter and avocado. The coffee hangout here is the Frothy Monkey, a homey place in an old house.

The award for trendiest shop in the area has to go to Imogene + Willie, a store and factory housed in a ’50s-style gas station. Here you can buy a pair of old-school jeans in a style inspired by vintage Levi’s, made of fabric from North Carolina’s Cone Mills, one of the last factories in the country with the narrow looms that produce vintage denim. Fans include Gwyneth Paltrow (who wore the jeans in “Country Strong”), Sheryl Crow and Kings of Leon.

Stop by Katy K’s Ranch Dressing to browse through new and vintage western clothes for men, women and children. The long hallway is lined with autographed musicians’ headshots; on the racks you might even find rhinestone-coated suits made by Nudie (tailor to the stars) that might once have appeared onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.

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Nashville Nabes: Hillsboro Village


Music is what draws most visitors to Nashville, and with good reason. The city is teeming with talented performers, and you’ll hear them playing everywhere you go. That’s more than apparent in the new TV hit, “Nashville”—while the show might be a bit soapy, it gives a pretty accurate portrayal of the city.

But in between your visits to all the obligatory stops (Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame and so many more), you should explore some emerging neighborhoods to see where real Nashvillians live and play. You’re still in the South, remember, but this is the hip South, forward-thinking while venerating the past—for example, many stores have a retro, villagey look, with exposed brick, high ceilings and weathered concrete floors. This week we'll explore the coolest spots to check out.

Anchoring the Hillsboro Village neighborhood, southwest of downtown, is the Pancake Pantry, which opened more than 50 years ago and today is more popular than ever. For breakfast, you’ll need to be there by 8 a.m. or face a wait. Better yet, get your buttermilk flapjacks in the early afternoon—the restaurant closes around 3 p.m., and by then it’s almost tranquil.

Once you’re fueled up, check out some of the village stores. Bookman/Bookwoman carries more than 10,000 books, both used and new, including first and signed editions. If you’re wondering about the name, here’s the story: The original shop was called Bookman; when the owner decided to expand into a second storefront next door, the owner’s wife suggested it was time female book lovers received their due.

Among the other shops worth a stop: quirky, colorful Pangaea, for hipster clothes and accessories, plus lots of cool Mexican stuff; Retropolitan, for an artfully arranged display of furniture, both vintage and contemporary; and the sprawling Posh, for more hipster clothes, plus boots, accessories and music.

Nashville is full of trendy coffeehouses; the one to visit here is Fido, for more than java: It serves breakfast all day, plus lunch and dinner too.

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Charming Victoria

Mornington Peninsula

From the bush to the river basin, Victoria, Australia, offers a unique taste on a historic piece of the continent.

It might be Australia’s second-smallest state but it is also arguably Australia's most scenic and most exciting travel destination. Welcome to Victoria--where you can discover a wealth of regional areas and attractions ranging from the sweeping coastlines and pristine beaches of Mornington Peninsula to the wildlife and wineries of Kyneto, and the charming cafes and streets of Mildura.

Located just hours south of Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula is home to numerous sandy coves and quaint seaside towns offering an array of activities. Here you will be able to go hang gliding on the steep cliffs overlooking Point Nepean, surf the sun-kissed waves of Port Phillip, tee off on one of the area’s many highly-ranked golf courses and dive to explore 19th century ship wrecks.

Families and beach bunnies alike will love the area's many diverse swimming beaches. Of these, Rosebud and Rye are the most family-friendly and laid-back, with calm waters and soft sands. Portsea, while rockier, boasts of wonderful coastal views.

Rising 1,000 feet above sea level, Arthur’s Seat is a must-see with its natural bushland and magnificent views of Port Phillip. Its many attractions include the McCrae Homestead--a historic property located at the foot of the small mountain. Built in 1844, it is one of Victoria's oldest homesteads and is a reminder of how early Aussie pioneers worked, farmed and lived.

Nearly by is Fort Nepean, a former defensive facility built in 1873 to protect the narrow entrance to Port Phillip. Used right up until World War II, the fort is now a national park where visitors with a thirst for history can view and learn more about Australia's military past.

One of Victoria's most popular and well-loved natural attractions, Mornington Peninsula National Park is a sanctuary to many forms of Australian wildlife. The Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park is a 25-acre sanctuary showcasing the fauna that existed on the Mornington Peninsula prior to European settlement. The park's nocturnal animal walks are very popular.

Located only an hour's drive from Melbourne, the historic town of Kyneton draws visitors looking to escape the daily grind and gourmet food aficionados. After all, the area is famous not just for its stunning bush vistas but also its many gourmet food producers.

Held every second Saturday of the month, the Kyneton Farmer’s Market at St Paul's Park becomes a hub of activity for the town. Both locals and visitors gather to socialize, shop fresh produce and sample regional offerings such as award-winning olives, olive oils and preserves.

It's not just the food that draws visitors to Kyneton--it's also the dry climate wines of the region. Here's your chance to visit one (or more!) of the region's many family-operated boutique wineries dotting the countryside.

Kyneton was originally a gold rush town--and evidence of these halcyon days still abound on its buildings and streets. Take a walk through the town center and check out the beautiful old bluestone churches and buildings, many of which still boast their original facades and ornate verandas.

Don’t forget to check out Hanging Rock; it is one of Australia's most enduring mysteries--the as-yet-unsolved disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic at Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day in 1900. Today, you too can picnic at Hanging Rock and then explore the majestic peak of Mount Macedon nearby.

Located in the far northwest of Victoria, Sunraysia is known for its sunshine, grapes and oranges. Its center, Mildura, is known for its Mediterranean charm, set as it is on the sandy banks of the idyllic Murray River and surrounded by vineyards.

Just an hour's flight from Melbourne, Mildura is rich in architectural attractions and natural ones. Its wide, leafy streets are lined with art deco buildings and its location by the Murray River offers plenty of recreational activities.

The town is also home to a thriving cafe culture, with many restaurants and cafes at which you can kick back and take in atmosphere while you sample the excellent wines and produce of the region.

You can discover the history and architecture of Mildura with a self-guided walk that will bring you to all the highlights of the town; including the Old Mildura Homestead and the original Rio Vista House. Both were built in the 1800s and offer a good peek into life back then.

Another way to view the city is by paddling! Paddle steamers and paddle boats have plied the Murray River since 1853. Today you too can experience this bygone era by taking a paddle boat ride down the Murray.

If anthropology is your game, check out The Perry Sandhills, which make up 10 hectares of striking red sandhills that were once part of the huge Willandra Lakes System and date back to an ice age 40,000 years ago. There have been bones found in the sandhills that reveal that huge kangaroos, wombats and other creatures once roamed this region.


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Australia's Gold Coast

Gold Coast

All that glitters is gold in this city of sunshine, sand, sea life and rainforests of yore.

The Aussie zest for life is infectious—and when you think ‘vacation,’ there are few places on the planet that offer travelers as many treasures. From jet-boating and windsurfing to 100-million-year-old rainforests and glitzy concrete jungles, the spirit is always high. The choice is yours, really: boogie by the beach or tango in the technicolor ecstasy of the sea.

The birthplace of the bikini, Australia’s golden sands are never quiet. For beach bums, water sport enthusiasts and surfers of all skills, Surfers’ Paradise is exactly what it promises. Catch the high waves by the beach or scuba dive into the exciting world of coral gardens and shipwrecks and dodge around turtles, sharks and manta rays. And if you think you are astride a rainbow, maybe you are! Purple sea urchins, green clams, crimson starfish, pink sponges, curious fish in bright blue and shocking yellow … every conceivable color of the spectrum darts right around you. And once you’ve stumbled on the theme parks, get yourself a koala cuddle with hopping kangaroos for company, at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.

With so much going on, you will be hungry--often. And studded with world-class restaurants and classy bars, the Gold Coast is just the place to chow down.

Sign up for a cooking course and relish the flavors of fresh produce from the farmers’ market. And for a gastronomic delight, we strongly recommend Room 81’s goat cheese with beetroot chips. You will be blown away.

“Timeless” comes close to describing this miracle of creation that is the Gondwana forests of the Gold Coast Hinterland. As inspiring as their aboriginal heritage of stone art is, they are a pre-historic legend full of native surprises that have retained their primitive charms. Ancient, magnificent and blessed with Earth’s abundance, the rainforest’s towering canopy overhead and the busyness of the reef barrier below abound in fantastic stories longing to be told. Take a dreamy walk in Heritage National Park within and enjoy the spectacular sights of deep gorges, crystalline waterfalls and glittering waterholes.

Cut to an entirely different scene en route to Mount Tambourine with its quaint highland trails and end the day in the comfort of a wine boutique, with a soothing Australian classic.

The good life knows no bounds on these shores that transform into the Sunshine Coast further north. Glamorous in its blend of swank city culture and subtropical natural bliss are the laid-back and relaxing luxuries of Noosa, where sophisticated spas, boutiques and fine dining strike a happy contrast with tropical rainforests, indigenous flora and fauna and a surprising reef system just beyond Noosa Heads.

Or you can whale watch at Moreton Bay and feed the dolphins on your way through the ship wrecks of Tangalooma.

Make the most of it with a stop-over in Brisbane, distinct in its ‘Queenslanders’--cottages on stumps--that add a peculiar charm to an otherwise high-gloss setting. Bubbling with nightlife and cultural fervor side-by-side, Queensland’s capital city nestles between Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. Leisurely, stroll through Brizzy’s markets, theaters and art galleries or hop onto a river cruise and meander through its many twists. And climb! The skyline view from Story Bridge is a dream and so is the rush of abseiling (rappelling) off Kangaroo Point cliffs. If you’d rather ogle from above, hitch a helicopter ride or tandem skydive into the fabulous cityscape.


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Enjoyments in Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach

There's so much happening at once in this popular Southern vacation spot, you'll feel like you're tackling yet another of its popular humongous buffets.

From toddler to tween to retiree, there’s a fun park or miniature golf haven in Myrtle Beach to suit everyone. Rollercoaster fans hit Freestyle Music Park while aquatic types tackle the slides at Wild Water & Wheels. Engine hounds race carts at Nascar Speedpark and miniature golfers take swings at Mutiny Bay. For old-school versions of all the above, try the nearly half-century-old Family Kingdom.

At the southernmost end of the new boardwalk, rent fishing poles and tackle from the 2nd Avenue Pier, a family-owned joint. The best biking is around the Market Common or Myrtle Beach State Park. Joggers, walkers and beachcombers avoid the summertime crowds when they hit the shore between sunrise and breakfast.

Serious golfers do well at any of the area’s courses, but the ones that regularly snag accolades are Barefoot Resort’s Dye, Love and Fazio courses, Dunes, Tidewater, and TPC of Myrtle Beach. While those courses can cost $100-plus a round, the well-loved Heritage Club, 40 minutes south on Pawleys Island, can run half as much.

Spa goers rave about the getaway in the North Beach Plantation community—Cinzia, The Spa at North Beach Plantation. With a saltwater whirlpool and internationally themed massages, it’s the region’s crown jewel.

And for a blast from the (distant) past, visit Medieval Times’ Myrtle Beach Castle to watch swordplay, falconry and a jousting tournament over a roast-chicken feast.

Find the best of the worst cheap T-shirts and snow globes at Wings or Eagles, or visit the grandfather of them all—the gargantuan, 6-decade-old Gay Dolphin Gift Cove on the boardwalk. The area’s bounty of outlet malls keeps bargain hunters busy. The 2 Tanger Outlet malls alone include the likes of Banana Republic, Coach, Nine West and more. And the Coastal Grand Mall, with more than 170 shops, is one of the state’s largest.

Anglers revel in the Bass Pro Shop. For a traditional Southern souvenir, check out the hand-tied hammocks at the Original Pawleys Island Rope Hammock.

Myrtle Beach has a crazy number of huge buffets, most offering more than 150 different dishes. These massive dining rooms can easily handle the busloads of hungry visitors who descend on them before heading off to nearby attractions. Places like The Original Benjamin’s  and the Great American Steak & Buffet Co. offer local flavors like Calabash-style fried seafood and “chicken bog,” a Low Country dish of rice, chicken and sausage. The buffets are good value, but you might miss out on the nuances of Southern hospitality and home cooking.

Barbecue joints like Big D’s Bar-B-Que Barn or Little Pigs Bar-B-Q lack frills but serve up perfect pork platters, hushpuppies and barbecue and slaw sandwiches. For a more traditional Southern supper, dine on crab casserole at one of the few waterfront dining spots on the beach: the more than 80-year-old Sea Captain’s House.

Just south of Myrtle Beach is Murrells Inlet, lined with restaurants, bars and a marina. Visitors stroll the marshwalk, carrying their drinks as they move from one spot to another to catch live music and enjoy straight-from-the-water appetizers. Sports lovers head to the Market Common’s upscale King Street Grille, while club goers check out the evening scene at Broadway at the Beach.

Epicureans no longer get short shrift on the Grand Strand. The best options are the mod SeaBlue for small plates that start at $10; Greg Norman’s Australian Grille for surf and turf; and Pawleys Island’s High Hammock for nouveau renditions of Southern seaside favorites like shrimp and grits and crab cakes. The Cypress Room at the Island Vista serves upscale versions of downhome food and fresh catches; Divine Prime is the place for dressy steaks.

If you have access to a kitchen, visit the Mr. Fish seafood market for fresh-off-the-boat shrimp. The Crab Cake Lady sells handpicked, hand-shaped crab cakes. Go to a Piggly Wiggly to stock up on grits, ham hocks and peanuts for boiling. The farmers market sells fresh produce on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Finally, don’t miss the Sunday gospel brunch at perhaps the coolest joint in town—the House of Blues.


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Myrtle Beach Bounty

Myrtle Beach

Tame Myrtle Beach’s array of enjoyments with a game plan.

As you cruise down Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, you’ll pass buffet barn after barn, each with a sign shouting “170 items!”, “150 items!” or “200 items!” The owners hope that diners will rush in from nearby beaches to load up on barbecue, fried seafood, “chicken bog” and piping hot hushpuppies. These Southern-flavored all-you-can-eats are kitschily entertaining, rather tasty and a pretty good deal.

The same can be said of this coastal portion of the Palmetto State. There are so many different things to sample in the Myrtle Beach area—miniature golf, spas, musical revues, shag dancing, outlet shopping, amusement parks, beachcombing—that you might feel as if you’re tackling a monster buffet. So pick up a plate, decide what you’re craving and see how much you can pile on, given your limits. Here’s the best of all Myrtle Beach has to offer.

Myrtle Beach is the main hub of what’s known as the Grand Strand, some 60 miles of shoreline, small towns and strip malls, running from Little River at the North Carolina border southward to Georgetown. Towards the southern end is Pawleys Island, which became a warm-weather getaway back in the 1700s for plantation owners seeking cool beach breezes. In the same century, pirates (like Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard) hid out in the coves, barrier islands and marshes around Little River. One hundred years later, Civil War blockade runners did the same thing. All along this stretch of coast, miles of fine sand, dunes fringed in sea oats, and ragged maritime forests rife with wax myrtles and live oaks are set off by the ever-changing blues of the Atlantic Ocean. At the turn of the last century, developer F.G. Burroughs and his sons capitalized on the area’s appeal by building a railroad that barreled into Myrtle Beach.

Decade by decade, Myrtle Beach blossomed. The first golf resort and the waterfront Pavilion opened in the 1920s. By 1950, the rebuilt Pavilion had its own lavish carousel. Soon an 11-acre, Coney Island-flavored park had sprung up, with sweets shops, hot dog joints, soda fountains, ice creameries and attractions (miniature golf, Ferris wheels and bumper cars) that stretched along Ocean Boulevard. Flat-roofed motels sprouting giant cement pelicans, shells and the like were joined by high-rise resorts. And beachfront bars were crowded with people doing the “shag,” a Low Country dance in which partners hold one hand, then slip-slide across the floor. And that free hand? Well, you’ve got to hold your drink, now, don’t you?

Today, Myrtle Beach is transitioning into a carnival of a different sort. Yes, the beaches are still beautiful, but now the buildings stand 20-plus stories high and are squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder along Ocean Boulevard. Resorts have indoor water parks and spas. The old Pavilion is gone, but there’s a new, mile-long boardwalk in its place. Many of the mid-century motels have been refreshed, and their old-time cement accessories now hold vintage appeal.

Inland, a former Air Force Base has recently been refashioned as a shopping hub/neighborhood called the Market Common, where you can get a superb steak at Divine Prime, walk or bike Valor Park or check out the sales in stores like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn. At the entertainment complex Broadway at the Beach, Ripley’s Aquarium draws crowds to its walk-through tank tunnel and baby animal exhibit, and MagiQuest fulfills kids’ Harry Potter dreams with interactive wand play. The Carolina Opry, the first of the revue-style shows in the area, won the Governor’s Cup for the state’s most outstanding tourism attraction a while back. And there are now more than 100 highly ranked golf courses.

In the old days, things were a little wilder here. In recent years, however, reinforced helmet laws and noise ordinances have tamped down “Bike Week,” and stricter decorum and rental policies inhibit the former spring break rowdiness. These days, Myrtle Beach is showing its mainstream persona year-round, and adding affordable luxuries to the picture. Maybe that explains the 14 million-plus visitors who appear annually.

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