Category Archives: Travel

WELCOME!

img_0698a1Welcome to my blog!

I am a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

My latest blog post is from my December trip to The Bahamas while on a four-day cruise with Holland America Line. Before that, posts from my October trip to Singapore – on my bucket list for a long time so I’m thrilled I finally made it.  I’m going to a conference in New York later this month, and then on to Southern Spain and Gibraltar for an assignment. Stay tuned…

Thanks for your continued interest!!

(Header image is my photo from St. Barth, view from the Colombier Lookout.)

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My novel of international intrigue, Warming Up to Murder, is available as an ebook, and in Kindle and Nook formats.  It’s about a TV reporter who finds himself chasing the “big story” spanning two continents.  See the links below.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/richard-varr

http://www.amazon.com/Warming-Up-Murder-Richard-Varr/dp/141344976X

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Paradise in The Bahamas – Holland America Line’s Half Moon Cay

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Photo by Richard Varr

Finding a beach where the water is perfectly calm is not always easy. But that’s what I found on The Bahamas’ Half Moon Cay while on a four-day cruise aboard Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam last month. Also known as Little San Salvador Island, Half Moon Cay is now a private island leased for 99 years by Holland America – still pristine and beautiful, used as a port of call for day excursions.

Nieuw Amsterdam. Photo by Richard Varr

In fact, I found Half Moon Cay to be just about as perfect a Caribbean-like beach destination as you might find anywhere (I say Caribbean-like because The Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean and not part of the Caribbean islands).

Photo by Richard Varr

Half Moon Cay is so-named because of its elongated crescent-shaped shoreline which probably plays a role in protecting the white-sand beaches from any harsh ocean currents. During my visit, the aquamarine-tinted surf sparkled – while soothingly still like pool water. Rows of beach chairs line the beach along with hammocks and several cabanas available for rent.

Half Moon Cay. Photo by Richard Varr

Only 50 of the island’s 2400 acres are developed, leaving lots of green space for wildlife – the occasional iguana you might see, and waterfowl including ducks and geese. A staff of 40 or so live on the island year-round, while others working with water sports, hiking, horseback riding and other activities commute from nearby Eleuthera Island when a ship is in port.

On “I-95.” Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit, I joined a biking and kayaking excursion. Our biking journey took us along the island’s main road – “I-95,” as the guides call it – parallel to the beach, stopping at the horse stable and then at an inner-island lagoon for a half-hour or so of kayaking. Come lunchtime, a main fish-fry outdoor buffet-like restaurant offers many great food choices, while a lobster shack serves tasty lobster rolls (during my visit, lines formed quickly, so get there early). A few beachside bars are great places to relax and enjoy the views, including the one next to the sign reading, “I wish I could stay here forever.” Kids enjoy splashing at the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park.

Photo by Richard Varr

Also look out for the island’s chapel, pineapple plants, and wandering goats and chickens. One activity gets you in the water with stingrays while glass-bottom boat tours offer a look at marine life without a snorkel mask.  And at the horse stable, you might run into the island’s most noted resident: Ted the Lucky Donkey. “He brought the island luck and guests love him,” says tour guide Wendy Symonette. “He’s not aggressive, but just a lucky donkey.”

Ted the “lucky donkey.” Photo by Richard Varr

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  www.hollandamerica.com

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Pink-tinted colonial architecture in Nassau. Photo by Richard Varr

NASSAU

Artist in the Straw Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Our cruise ship also stopped in Nassau, the Bahamian capital on Providence Island, which I found to be a thriving city. I strolled along downtown streets to visit a few museums and a fort, and along squares with swaying palm trees, including the courtyards of the pink colonial Parliament and other government buildings. Shops seemingly stretch for blocks just outside the busy cruise ship terminal. For the ultimate Bahamian shopping adventure, stop in the bustling Straw Market, where artists sculpt wooden figurines on the spot and where vendors hawk just about everything you can imagine that might be sold in such a sprawling marketplace.

Fort Fincastle. Photo by Richard Varr

Queen’s Staircase. Photo by Richard Varr

My first stop was the 1793 Fort Fincastle perched on Elizabeth Hill, and at the base of the 126-foot tall, white water tower, the island’s tallest structure. Below the fort lies the Queen’s Staircase, a stairwell with 66 steps leading down a shady and narrow walkway. While not so impressive from the outside, the two-story 18th century Balcony House is a Nassau landmark as it’s the oldest wooden structure on the island. Most impressive inside the elegant home is the mahogany staircase, thought to have been retrieved from the inside of a 19th century ship.

Balcony House. Photo by Richard Varr

The Octagonal Library, another old island structure, was once a prison and what were once its narrow prison cells now hold the library’s books, documents, old newspapers and more. I found this uniquely impressive, but unfortunately, taking photos inside the library is prohibited and thus no such photo for this blog post.

Octogonal Library. Photo by Richard Varr

Other downtown sights include the Pompey Museum, named after a rebel slave and housed on the site where slaves were once sold. The museum showcases the country’s slavery and emancipation history. The Bahamas Historical Society Museum is certainly not on the radar of most visitors, but I found it teeming with historic photographs, artifacts and explanations highlighting more than 500 years of Bahamian History.

Pompey Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Other popular island sights I didn’t have a chance to visit include the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas housed in an Italianate colonial mansion, the Graycliff Chocolate Factory, and John Watling’s Distillery featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. But I did have time to take a ferry boat over to nearby Paradise Island to see the sprawling Atlantis Resort with its casino, huge hotel towers and outdoor water parks. Particularly impressive are its surrounding aquarium-like pools, home to stingrays, fish and other marine life that can be easily seen up close through large glass panels – just like an aquarium – on the mega-resort’s lower lobby level.

Atlantis Resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore: From Fishing Village to World Port City

Downtown with Fullerton Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Raffles Landing. Photo by Richard Varr

National Gallery Singapore. Photo by Richard Varr

When Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company first landed on the small fishing village’s shores in 1819, he probably never imagined that Singapore would be the world port city it is today. In the city center, cross the Singapore River and span more than a century in history. The 19th and early 20th century structures of colonial Singapore – the Old Parliament House, iconic and historic Raffles Hotel, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Chapel of the Chijmes, for example, sit on the river’s north bank. Cross a bridge to the river’s southern bank and stand under ultra-modern glass and steel office towers.

Photo by Richard Varr

Super trees of Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Leaving Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Long before Singapore’s skyscrapers took root, primary rain forests and mangrove swamps stretched across the island nation. Today, that raw environment remains in nature reserves including the Jurong Bird Park with more than 5,000 birds, the Singapore Zoo, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Botanic Gardens. In the city, Gardens by the Bay features a rainforest and waterfall inside one giant dome, and flower and plant gardens in another colossal domed structure. A ring of 16-story-high garden structures that generate solar power and collect rainwater dot the grounds, while a skywalk connects a few of these so-called super trees. The skywalk offers great views of the imposing three towers of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and mall complex.

High in the super trees. Walking along the skywalk, Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Cloud Dome, Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEOS: Waterfalls inside the Cloud Dome at Gardens by the Bay, and the finale act of one of the bird shows at Jurong Bird Park.

Little India. Photo by Richard Varr

Arab Street store. Photo by Richard Varr

Whether haggling in a Chinatown market or stepping into an ornate Buddhist temple, Singapore’s Chinatown and Little India have a feel of the mother countries. Chinatown bustles with eateries and markets in the so-called shophouses, while golden-domed mosques and Buddhist temples topped with colorful figurines of Indian gods embellish the neighborhoods’ ethnic skylines. Arab Street is a must see for those who love to shop in a souk-style setting, with shops selling everything from sarongs and Islamic prayer mats to jewelry and perfume.

Bassorah Mall pedestrian street and Masjid Sultan Mosque, Kampong Glam, Singapore. Photo by Richard Varr

Clarke Quay at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Shophouses in Kampong Glam neighborhood. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore’s unique shophouses, adorned with pastel hues, large shuttered windows, balconies and ochre roofs, are two- and three-story houses sharing sidewalls like row houses – Singapore style. Typical of the city’s unique early architectural style, they house markets, shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. Shophouses line the

Chinatown with shophouses. Photo by Richard Varr

bustling waterfront streets in both Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. They come in five or so different styles of shophouse architecture ranging from early 19th century traditional design to later art deco and ornate styles.

 

Outside ION Mall, Orchard Road. Photo by Richard Varr

What might look like a downtown boulevard or a business district with office towers is actually a megalopolis for shopping. Those skyscrapers and large buildings on Orchard Road are actually home to atriums lined with shops, seven-story malls, department stores and specialty and antique shops. The twin towers of Ngee Ann City, for example, house 30 restaurants and more than 120 stores. The Centrepoint has six floors and a basement of household goods, while Paranakan Place is lined with Baroque Chinese shophouse facades.

Photo by Richard Varr

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

http://www.visitsingapore.com

Fullerton Hotel Singapore: An Iconic Landmark

Fullerton Hotel at twilight. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore has many excellent high-end hotels including the iconic five-star Fullerton Hotel, where I stayed for two nights during my visit. Housed in the neoclassical former Main Post Office and government building dating back to 1928, the Fullerton becomes ablaze in lights at dusk and stands out at the base of the downtown skyline and at the mouth of the Singapore River. It’s an ultra-luxury property with marble interiors, a grand stairwell, Infinity Pool beneath the outer façade’s Doric columns, and with striking cityscape and waterside views.

View from the Fullerton of Marina Bay and the towering Marina Bay Sands complex. Photo by Richard Varr

For a closer look at the hotel’s plush amenities and an ambiance that just makes you feel good about yourself, the below link takes you to my hotel review and photos of the Fullerton recently published by the London Telegraph.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/singapore/hotels/the-fullerton-hotel-singapore/

For more information: https://www.fullertonhotels.com/the-fullerton-hotel

 

 

The Singapore Musical Box Museum – Home to Colonial Jukeboxes

Musical box with cylinder. Photo by Richard Varr

Singapore’s Thian Hock Keng Temple. Photo by Richard Varr

When visiting Singapore’s Thian Hock Keng Temple, the city’s oldest, I stumbled across a small museum you might not think would be found in Singapore. Housed in a pagoda adjacent to the temple complex is the Singapore Musical Box Museum, opened in 2015.

Singapore Musical Box Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside, 40 or more mostly 19th century wooden musical boxes – a few standing tall like large cabinets or dressers – chime out the distinct melodies created by rotating spiked rolls hitting precisely-tuned teeth of a steel comb, or perforated sheet metal disks using the same concept. Most are European or American made, so the question might be, how did they end up in Singapore? The short answer is because of a yearning the British colony had for music back home.

Wind musical box with cylinders. Photo by Richard Varr

“Today we carry maybe a smartphone or years ago a Walkman everywhere we go to listen to music. Before this, there were no such devices,” explains Naoto Orui, a Japanese collector who founded the museum. “The people coming from England to Singapore had a very boring time here because they had no music for entertainment. They brought pianos, but there were no European musicians. So they brought musical boxes here to listen to folk songs and classical music.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Cylinders with different songs. Photo by Richard Varr

Most of the museum’s boxes, spanning from 1860 to about 1910, come from mostly Switzerland, Germany, England and the U.S. Some have cylinders, some need to be wound, and yet others have the large rounded metal disks with punched-out holes. The simple melodies might run anywhere from 30 seconds up to two minutes or more.

Coin drop “jukebox.” Photo by Richard Varr

Some of the larger, cabinet-sized boxes activate with the drop of a coin. One with several musical “disks” operates like a jukebox of yesteryear with a display of song selections. Once the coin is inserted, mechanisms take one of several two-foot in diameter perforated metal disks up to the player. Selections include Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and other classical tunes most likely popular at the time. “These machines were used in restaurants, train stations and on cruise ships,” says museum General Manager Tay Ser Yong, while demonstrating one that both chimes music while hammer mechanisms beat two separate drums within the cabinet. “You have a live band performance with a music box before records were invented.”

The museum also has old gramophones, phonographs and only one box made in Singapore that’s doesn’t play. To hear the music boxes, click on the link below for a short video I shot and edited.

 

Detroit’s Comeback Fever is Contagious

GM Headquarters, Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr  

It’s Saturday morning and Eastern Market is packed with locals and sightseers. I’ve joined tour guide Linda Yellin’s “Feet on the Street Tours” which winds in and around kiosks under open-air sheds packed with fresh produce, spice racks, meats and gooey cheeses. Overhead signs sport such headers as “Grown in Detroit” and “Detroit Food Academy.” “We’re seeing more people from outside the city proper that are interested in coming back, and connecting with the city in ways their parents didn’t,” says Yellin.

Bustling Eastern Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside, tasting samples clutter the table tops – crunchy tortilla chips, roasted peanuts and sweet potato pie. And they’re all Detroit made. “Being at this booth, I see people from all over the country and they tell me how great it is to see Detroit on this jar,” exults Jack Corley, a former automotive parts supplier for 25 years who’s now selling locally-owned McClure’s Pickles. “They say isn’t it great that’s happening in the city.”  Outside, street art murals awash in brilliant hues emblazon Market warehouses, one with a caption affirming city pride. “We have been considered many things: a city in decay, a city in distress and without hope,” it reads. “However, we have never given up and we never say die. We are born fighters, we rise from the ashes.”

This theme abuzz at Eastern Market reflects Detroit’s spirited comeback in recent years – a dramatic turnaround from the downtrodden years of auto industry decline, municipal bankruptcy in 2013 and people leaving decaying neighborhoods for the suburbs. “I’ve seen the hard times and I see us coming back,” says vendor Allen Love who pitches his peach and blueberry cobbler pies made from family recipes. “We have regular customers that come back every week,” he says. “We’re closer together and we want to see the city grow.”

Downtown Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

When visiting, I sensed a rebirth of sorts summed up in rebuilding, new businesses in bustling city core neighborhoods, and what seems to be a burst of renewed energy and pride. “Businesses pop up overnight; it’s crazy,” says tour guide Kim Rusinow with Destination Detroit Group Tours and Services who’s leading us in and around the city center. “There’s no denying we’ve been slammed pretty hard. We have some challenges to overcome, but we are an amazing comeback city.”

Downtown Detroit. Photo by Richard Varr

Alongside the multi-towered General Motors Renaissance Center, our first stop is the Detroit RiverWalk, a 3.5 mile-long walkway with benches, public art, parks and a lighthouse. Shops, cafes and residential units now occupy what was once an industrial base with factories and warehouses.

Comerica Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Skirting the edges of downtown’s 19th and 20th century granite and limestone skyscrapers, and shining steel and glass towers, the Stadium District has marked downtown’s resurgence with new 21st century sports stadiums. Statues of clawing tigers hover over the entrances to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, just across the street from football’s Detroit Lions’ Ford Field. The area’s yet greatest expansion comes with the $1 billion-plus, 50-block redevelopment project known as The District Detroit with its new Little Caesars Arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team and Pistons basketball.

New businesses have found homes in rejuvenated old city buildings. Driving north on Woodward Avenue, we enter the Midtown District where the original facility of a former jeep factory now houses upscale condos. Detroit-based Shinola, the flagship store for the first watch company making watches out of Switzerland with guaranteed Swiss movement, opened a factory with six workers and now employs about 500, according to Rusinow. “They could have gone anywhere,” she says. “We’re so excited that for their manufacturing they chose Detroit because we hadn’t had any new manufacturing here in a very long time.”

Another example of repurposing is downtown’s recently opened Detroit Foundation Hotel, housed in a former Fire Department administration building and firehouse. The fire commissioner’s former office is now a suite. Doorways that once opened for fire engines now lead to a swanky restaurant and bar hopping with a lively crowd during my Saturday night visit.

Rosa Parks bus in the Henry Ford Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Historic cars in the Henry Ford Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Must-See Museums

The metro area’s institutions and museums seem to be better than ever. At the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I toured adjacent Greenfield Village with its reconstructed and refurbished historic homes with a ride in an original 1914 Model T Ford. Driver Don Ludwig tells me there are still 200,000 Model T’s still running in the U.S. “People come here to step back in time. Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?” he asks? Greenfield Village has historic buildings including Henry Ford’s birth home and the Wright Brothers home and cycle shop where they worked on their fledgling aircraft.

Model T Fords at Greenfield Village. Photo by Richard Varr

Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop at Greenfield Village. Photo by Richard Varr

The facades of the entrance to the Henry Ford Museum building was modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The collection includes prototype and original early 20th century cars, planes, locomotives and more, including the refurbished bus in which civil rights pioneer Rosa Park refused to give up her seat. There are many old Model T’s and former presidents’ cars, including the very ones in which Kennedy was shot (original chassis only) and in which Reagan was driven to the hospital after his gunshot wound.

President Reagan’s limousine. Photo by Richard Varr

Industrial Murals by Diego Rivera. Photo by Richard Varr

Other must-see museums include the Detroit Institute of Arts with is wall-sized Diego Rivera industrial murals in a central atrium. The Motown Museum in two adjacent neighborhood homes offers a close-up look at the small studio where Motown greats like the Supremes and Four Tops got their start.

Motown Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

While much has been done in Detroit, challenges remain. In the 1950s, the population was close to two million, down to about 700,000 now. More than 40 percent of the city’s 140 square miles is vacant land with 80,000 abandoned homes. “That’s the reality of a city that loses its tax base and its population,” says Rusinow. “What we do with it, how we go forward with purpose to bring quality of life back to our neighborhoods and our residents, to rebuild smart, to become a city that is desirable and affordable for everybody, is our goal.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

http://www.visitdetroit.com

 

Saba: ‘The Unspoiled Queen’

View of Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Elephant ear leaves. Photo by Richard Varr

Taxi driver and tour guide Donna Cain whisks me along Saba’s main road as it weaves up the lush green hillsides and cuts through valleys sheltering the island’s main towns of Windwardside and The Bottom, each dotted with red-roofed white cottages. I see tree ferns, hanging orchids and giant elephant ear leaves along the way as we pass hiking paths leading up to the island’s central peak, 2,910-foot-high Mt. Scenery, the highest point in the Netherlands. With each stop, Donna calls everyone she meets by first name. And it doesn’t take long for me to realize why this small mountainous island of only five square miles is called “The Unspoiled Queen.”

View of The Bottom. Photo by Richard Varr

“If you’re a partier, this is not the spot,” Donna tells me during my island tour. “It’s beautiful, quiet and peaceful. For just total relaxation and unwinding, Saba is the best spot in the world.”

Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Along with neighboring St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, Saba is part of the Dutch West Indies. But unlike St. Maarten, you won’t find sprawling hotel resorts along white sand beaches. Saba is a community of only 2,000 or so friendly residents, like a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Crime is rare. Hotels are small, welcoming and with a personal touch, often housed in villas or cottages. There are no hotel or restaurant chains. Streets are quiet with hardly a traffic jam and not one traffic light.

Airport with short runway. Photo by Richard Varr

Diving, Hiking and an Unforgettable Landing

To many, arriving on Saba might be a touch harrowing as its airport has one of the shortest commercial runways in the world – about 1300 feet, the length of an aircraft carrier. Actually, it’s quite safe as the pilots of Winair land their twin-prop planes there several times a day with remarkable ease. When I landed, the aircraft’s incredible braking power kicked in, stopping the plane maybe halfway or more down the short runway. The landing is certainly worthy of the T-shirt I found at one shop in The Bottom, the island’s seat of government, reading “I survived the Saba landing.”

Hiking up to Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

The Ladder. Photo by Richard Varr

Because of Saba’s dramatic waterside cliffs and rocky shoreline, there’s hardly a beach to be seen. But a national marine park with excellent diving spots surrounds the island, luring divers and snorkelers. Hikers also flock here as there are a dozen or more trails cutting through the countryside, some connecting Windwardside to The Bottom, while others ascend Mt. Scenery. One northern trail leads to old sulfur mines. A challenging hike is The Ladder, a 400-step stairwell once used to haul up every piece of clothing, furniture, food and medicine from the island’s first port at Ladder Bay to The Bottom. The rewards of the hike down are great ocean views, but hikers are then faced with the arduous climb back up.

Hiking the Tide Polls. Photo by Richard Varr

I opt for the unique Tide Pools hike, stepping on jagged igneous rock ledges along the shoreline. This moonscape was formed over the millennia as surf pounded and formed deep pockets and gullies in the rocks. “When you hike the Tide Pools, watch out for wet rocks,” warns James Franklin Johnson, my tour guide who is proud of his pirate ancestry dating back eight generations. “Just don’t get too close. If there’s a sudden wave, you can get swept out.”

Harry L. Johnson Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Windwardside courtyard. Photo by Richard Varr

Windwardside highlights include the Harry L. Johnson Museum housed in a 19th century cottage. Once the home of a sea captain, the museum includes period furniture, photos depicting Saba’s recent history and traditional Saba lacework. The Dutch Museum has blue Delft tiles, 18th century paintings and a remarkable collection of 17th-18th century books and bibles. In The Bottom, the Saba Artisan Foundation features Saba lacework sewn by local women who are continuing the tradition, hand-screened linens, and original Saba liquors made with rum and spices. Saba has many excellent restaurants serving up everything from Caribbean and Dutch dishes to fine French cuisine and other international flavors.

Saba Lace Ladies. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Windwardside. Photo by Richard Varr

Wakeup Call, Saban Style

During my stay in Windwardside, I heard a horn bellow every morning – a wakeup call of sorts, sounding off maybe five or six times in a row at the crack dawn. I soon learned local resident Percy ten Holt blows his conch shell at 6 a.m. sharp from his home on a hillside overlooking the town. Before leaving Saba, I was able to interview Percy and videotape him blowing the conch shell.

Percy ten Holt blowing his conch shell, overlooking Windwardside. Photo by Richard Varr

“I do it because it’s a tradition on Saba,” he told me, admitting he got in trouble with neighbors when he first started blowing. But now it’s something all of Windwardside seems to expect. “I’ve been doing it for 34 years and I feel proud doing it,” he said. Click on the link below for my video clip of him blowing the conch shell and explaining why he does it every morning, except Sundays.

Cottage Club cottages with views of Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Convent Cottage. Photo by Richard Varr

Accommodations

While on the island, I was a guest at the Cottage Club Hotel with its spacious rooms in individual cottages, each with its own kitchen area. A luxury villa rental, Convent Cottage is a two-bedroom, old-style Saban house in Windwardside. The property has been recently restored and is furnished with antiques and artworks.

For more information

www.sabatourism.com

www.cottage-club.com

www.sabaislandpremierproperties.com

Donna Cain, TAXI   dlcsaba@hotmail.com