Exploring the Rio Camuy Caves
There was a time when I knew as much about Puerto Rico as I do about Quantum Physics. Nada. My cultural and historical references for this exotic U.S. territory were limited to lyrics from 1960s musicals (i.e. the catchy “I want to live in America” tune sung in West Side Story, that paints Puerto Rico in a somewhat disparaging light). So what to expect from this Caribbean nation of 3.6 million people, nestled between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands?
A hub for adventure activities across rainforests, oceans, canyons and caves, the country has a lot to offer the thrill-seeking tourist. On a recent trip, I explored Puerto Rico’s wild side. Eager to get my climb on, I signed up for a day-long excursion offered by Aventuras Tierra Adentro, a Puerto Rican-owned outfitter that runs caving, zip-lining, climbing up ferratas (vertical pathways equipped with cables, metal rebars and ladders) and spelunking trips through the famous Rio Camuy. One of the most popular natural attractions in Puerto Rico, Rio Camuy is a network of natural limestone caves and underground waterways. The cool thing is that Aventuras Tierra Adentro is the only company with rights to access the Angeles Cave, an underground gem that’s part of the Rio Camuy cave system.
The Great Irish Famine and Ireland's great houses
Today, we marvel at the grandeur of the architecture and the opulence of the lifestyle when touring these magnificent manors, but we must always remember the days when landlords refused to feed their starving tenants while exporting the unaffected provender overseas to support their sybaritic dependency.
Strokestown’s modern association with the Great Irish Famine results from the fortuitous discovery of reams of famine related documents during the initial restoration of the manor. This archive not only contained London newspaper clippings and cartoons that falsified the famine’s reality, but logbooks of those forcefully emigrated to Quebec and New York on “coffin ships,” so named because of the high passenger death rates. (The “Jeanie Johnson,” a replica coffin ship, remains moored on the River Liffey in Dublin.)
Historically, Strokestown Park House played an equally significant role in 1847, when Major Denis Mahon, lord of the manor, was assassinated as he returned home after attending the Strokestown Relief Committee meeting, resulting in widespread panic and suppression. Like many other English landowners, Mahon had expelled over 3,000 tenants from his lands because they could no longer afford to pay rent as part of a grand “Emigration Plan” to maximize estate efficiency during the famine.
When the Pytophtora infestans fungus first appeared in Ireland, potatoes occupied one third of Ireland’s crops and laborers consumed 14-pounds of potatoes per day. To many non-Catholics outside of the country, the blight had nothing to do with the fungus but was clearly God’s punishment on the Catholic people.
We mostly travel to see beautiful objects, to taste exotic foods, to witness vibrant festivals and to experience cultures far removed from our own. Yet a tour of Strokestown Park House and the Irish National Famine Museum reminds us that we must also sojourn to learn from history, to obtain perspective, and ultimately to realize that our education abroad best informs our progress back home.
Images courtesy of Crai S Bower
Mixed martial arts events across America
From the Muay Thai rings of Bangkok, to the Sumo wrestling matches of Osaka, Japan, the tradition of fighting for sport and public entertainment exists across many cultures around the globe.
Travelers visiting these countries will often adopt a ‘when in Rome’ mentality, eagerly paying their admission tickets to cheer on local contenders. But, as MMA (mixed martial arts) dominates pay-per-view popularity here in the U.S., travelers don’t necessarily have to go far for gladiator-style grappling with global flair.
For newbies like me, MMA could be described as the melting pot of blood sports, combining the elements of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, kickboxing and Taekwondo, among others. This full contact combat sport is at once a modern phenomenon (created in the U.S. in 1993), with roots dating back to the Olympics of ancient Greece.
While it’s one thing to watch a UFC fight on TV, it’s another experience entirely being part of the crowd. I recently found myself at Commerce Casino for Badbeat 9, the live pro cage-fighting event held by Badbeat MMA. The event, located just outside of Los Angeles, showcased ten professional MMA bouts including two championship title fights and one retirement fight.
My first time at a MMA fight was an immersive cultural experience. Bare-chested opponents circled around each other in the octagon-shaped cage, strategizing their striking and grappling techniques. One lunged at the other and both fell to the floor. Slithering around in a sweaty athletic embrace, the pair performed choke holds on the ground for an action-thirsty crowd. A few wild kicks, a surprising take-down and a series of submission holds before one adversary submitted and the crowd went crazy. While at first glance it might look brutal, today's MMA puts a high priority on safety, making legal head butting, hair pulling, and groin strikes a thing of the past.
The MMA phenomenon continues. Check out http://www.ufc.com/schedule for upcoming mixed martial arts events across North America.
Image courtesy of Badbeat MMA
National Get Outdoors Day happening on June 8
While summer doesn't start officially for two more weeks, days are now long and warm — perfect for outdoor recreation.
As a bonus, this coming Saturday marks the 6th annual National Get Outdoors Day, a countrywide collection of events designed especially with kids and families in mind.
Various participating locales will have activities such as fishing, geocaching, camping skill demonstrations, hiking, rafting and more.
There will be opportunities to learn about nature as well as healthy living. Animal characters including Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl will be on hand for photos, too.
Trendy accommodations across the Indonesia island
A honeymoon, surfer and yogi mecca, the Indonesian hub of Bali is a dream destination, ripe with unique culture, incredible food and affordable wellness retreats. But with endless hotels to choose from, actually deciding on where to rest your head may foster accommodation anxiety. On a recent trip to Bali, I slept around… sampling many hotels the island has to offer. Here were some of my favorites:
For a high-end resort experience that’s near the international airport, check into Ayana, a luxurious hideaway with infinity pools, Koi ponds and stunning private villas. Spend an afternoon of relaxation at the Aquatonic Seawater Therapy Pool, a roman bath-type setting with high-powered hydro jet stations. Dine on grilled prawn at the Kisik seafood restaurant, before hitting Rock Bar, an intimate cliff-side hangout with dramatic ocean views and a killer sunset panorama.
The Oberoi is traditional Bali meets impeccable service. Ocean view villas are extravagant with four-poster beds, traditional thatched roofs, teak furniture and private courtyards that transport you to ancient times. While it’s in the heart of the action, you need not leave the grounds for some good eats. Kura Kura, dubbed one of Indonesia’s best restaurants, serves up fine dining Asian fusion combining mouthwatering local morsels with international accents
If you’re looking for a swank hotel with a hip Miami Beach vibe, the W delivers. Rooms are decked out in a lime green minimalist modern décor with rain showers, skylight and ocean side balconies. Cabanas overlook infinity pools, restaurants boast over-the-top chandeliers and lobby-adjacent galleries sell Andy Warhol-style Indonesian artists. After dark, Woo bar promises pretty people in the latest runway fashions dancing till the wee hours of the morning.
When visiting the monkey forests and Hindu temples of Ubud (Bali’s cultural center), stay at Uma Ubud Como. It’s a boutique hotel offering well-manicured grounds and luxury rooms overlooking pristine landscape. Uma Ubud Como is walking distance to Naughty Nuri’s, an iconic street side eatery that serves up succulent barbecue spare ribs and possibly the world’s meanest martini.
Bambu Indah, a luxury boutique hotel located above the Ayung River just outside of central Ubud, offers agricultural savvy accommodations made from black bamboo from the forests of Java. Owned by jewelry designer John Hardy, these antique teak Javanese homes boast organic gardens and spectacular views of the local rice paddies.
Images courtesy of Julia Dimon.
You can participate in helping urban forests while on vacation
If you're a fan of trees, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend might find you camping out beneath pines, oaks and other majestic flora in a state or national park.
Maybe, though, you'll find yourself in a city for the holiday.
Good news, arbor-lover, urban centers have forest canopies of their own, and you can turn some time with your computer, a tape measure and an inquisitive mind into a fun and environmentally useful activity.
Numerous cities have started online urban forest inventory programs powered by OpenTreeMap. This software enables nature lovers to note the trees they come across on their ambles. Data gathered includes the location of individual trees, their species and their circumferences (that's where a tape measure comes into play).
Literature often proves the best travel guide
I wish I read more books--like anyone with three kids, 50-plus-hour work weeks, a mortgage, and a garden. These days, I don’t possess much patience for fiction, my café days reading Joyce, Heaney and Yeats well behind me. It isn’t that I don’t love fiction, but I’ve reached that age where I feel compelled to learn something concrete when I read. Still no genre, including travel guides, compares to literature for gaining insight into a new country.
But how do I, as an English minor who loves literary history, prepare for my first extensive trip to Ireland? And how do I avoid feeling completely overwhelmed, surmounting impossible tasks such as a rush through “Ulysses” or an attempt to skim Yeats as if I were reading the back of my McCann’s Irish oatmeal box?
I’ve chosen to reread Seamus Heaney’s poetry and “Stepping Stones,” a book length interview with the Nobel laureate. Like most great literature, Heaney’s poems and biography provide a comprehensive triptych through his homeland.
From “Stepping Stones,” I’ve learned about the ambivalence many rural Catholics felt toward the “Troubles,” as well as the poet’s inner conflicts teaching in Belfast’s “Queens University” and portrayed as the Ulster clarion to the world.
Whether choosing Balzac for Paris or Joyce before Dublin, literature captures more than history and landmarks. One line, “It is the drums preside, like giant tumours” from Heaney’s “Orange Drums, Tyrone 1966” takes us into the heart of his people during this tragic period of sectarian violence.
Reading literature also provides much more color than simply political insight. Yeats captures Ireland’s magic, in one couplet from “The Rose” collection:
“And from its murmuring greenness, calm of Faery, a Druid kindness, on all hearers fell.”
Who, having read these lines, would not feel enticed to travel into Ireland, without a travel guide in sight?
Images courtesy of Crai S Bower.
Designing Love's CEO sings Pittsburgh's praises
Neal Holmes is a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac—his company, Designing Love, Inc., helps the lovesick plan spectacular dates to woo their prospective partners. The Pittsburgh local has traveled the world and worked as a concierge, educator, and counselor; now, he gets to put all those skills into play in his non-profit game of love. What does Holmes love most about the Steel City? Read on: