Tag Archives: travel writer

WELCOME!

img_0698a1Welcome to my blog!

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

Thanks to all of my blog followers for your continued interest!

I’m happy to say I’ve been on the road again after a busy winter taking care of a few personal things and extra workloads. Look for future posts on Gulf Shores, AL and Florida’s Emerald Coast; from my upcoming trip to St. Maarten and the small Dutch Caribbean islands of Saba and St. Eustatius; and my following trip to the comeback city of Detroit and Michigan’s dreamy Mackinac Island!

My most recent post is from two stories published from two trips last year to Italy and Romania.

In the meantime, previous posts are from last fall’s trip to China, including Shanghai, Wenzhou and Guilin, and posts from my assignment on this year’s 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, visiting  Wittenberg, Halle, Leipzig, Erfurt, Schmalkalden, Eisenach, Eisleben and Mansfeld.

Great reflection, Wittenberg Market Square

In Wittenberg, Germany. Great reflection off sphere in Market Square.

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Richard in China, near Guilin’s twin pagodas.

(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

Germany 2017: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Martin Luther Statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Martin Luther Statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Following in Martin Luther’s Footsteps

Luther cast from death mask, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther cast from death mask, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

The faint light reveals his sallow color, his face so life-like that I can almost believe he’s sitting right in front of me.  I’m looking at the waxen mold of the face cast from Martin Luther’s death mask, one of the most sensational exhibits I saw during my week in Germany.  It’s an exciting time over the coming year as the country and the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther painting, Museum of City History, Leipzig.

Luther painting, Museum of City History, Leipzig.

It all started in 1517 when Luther, then a monk, boldly protested against the Catholic Church’s practice of selling tickets for forgiveness of sins called indulgences, arguing money can’t buy God’s forgiveness.  Luther nailed his 95 Theses of protest on a church door in Wittenberg, where my journey began as I followed in his footsteps.  Luther is a key figure in German history – his rebellion resulting in the Lutheran and other Protestant religions, and his translation of the Bible from Latin leading to the development of the German language today.

Painting in Luther House Museum, Wittenberg.

Painting in Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Detail. Courtesy Luther House Museum.

In September, I visited some of the key towns where Luther lived and preached; where he was born and where he died.  I visited some of the original homes, castles and churches that remain today, 500 years later, as these towns celebrate this remarkable heritage.  On a personal note, my grandmother on my father’s side came from Germany.

Church door, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Church door, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

This blog post will highlight just some of the things to see and do in the coming year.  There are so many buildings, references to historical events and footnotes to one of history’s greatest religious movements that I simply cannot fit into just one blog post.  I suggest booking a trip to Germany, like I did, and see it all for yourself!  I traveled on assignment, flying into Leipzig, and then renting a car and driving between towns, all within 1-2 or so hours of each other.   My assigned story will appear in May 2017 on the website of the American Automobile Association’s Home&Away Magazine, www.homeandawaymagazine.com (enter zip code 73099), with references in the actual magazines as well.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.visit-luther.com
www.germany.travel

Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Wittenberg central square. Photo by Richard Varr

Wittenberg: Birth of the Reformation

Luther's Tomb, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s Tomb, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

A larger than life statue of Martin Luther in a flowing long robe stands high on a granite pedestal, the centerpiece of Wittenberg’s central Market Square surrounded by the whitewashed Town Hall and muted earthen-toned buildings.  I look up at the Great Reformer and imagine what he was thinking when, just down the street from here, he nailed his 95 Thesis on the door of the Castle Church.  The church with its imposing rounded tower has just been refurbished for the anniversary.  Inside are the tombs of Luther and the Reformation’s other key leader, Philipp Melanchthon.  And while the actual wooden door where the Theses were nailed is long gone, it has been replaced by a bronze door with intricate carvings of the Theses’ actual words.

Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

The colossal four-story Luther House, once an Augustinian monastery and the world’s largest museum showcasing the Reformation, sits alongside a quiet courtyard fronted by a life-sized statue of Luther’s wife Katharina von Bora.  Inside are some of Luther’s important papers and pamphlets, Bibles, his pulpit, paintings and the Luther Room, part of where his family lived.

Cranach the Elder statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Cranach the Elder statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

The old master Lucas Cranach the Elder was another of Wittenberg’s famous sons, with buildings he owned enveloping a courtyard that once housed his own art studio, pharmacy and printing businesses.

Castle Church tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Castle Church tower. Photo by Richard Varr

For 2017, the town has already built an impressive round panorama with a giant painting of Wittenberg in Luther’s time.  The World Reformation Exhibition scheduled to run next summer will include seven “Gates of Freedom,” with the Welcoming Gate as a lookout tower.  “We will develop discussion platforms, rooms and spaces so people can exchange ideas about the Reformation – what it meant 500 years ago, what it means now and what will come of it 500 years from now,” says project marketing director Cathrine Schweikardt.

Panorama painting. Courtesy Asisi Panorama Wittenberg 1517 Foto Tom Schulze tel. 0049-172-7997706 mail post@tom-schulze.com web www.tom-schulze.com

Panorama painting. Courtesy Asisi Panorama Wittenberg 1517.
Photo by Tom Schulze

Courtesy Asisi Panorama,Wittenberg. Photo: by Tom Schulze

Courtesy Asisi Panorama,Wittenberg.
Photo: by Tom Schulze

Halle: A Life-Like Glimpse of the Reformer

Luther cast of death mask and hands, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther cast of death mask and hands, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther preached in Halle many times during his lifetime.  His eerie likeness – the original wax cast of his death mask and hands – is tucked away in a small room of Halle’s four-tower Market Church that anchors the city’s central square.  The church’s historic library houses many original documents, including the first 1534 edition of Luther’s translated Bible.  “Luther used a common German language and because of that, we can say that he invented the modern common German language because of his translation of the Bible,” says Halle city tour guide Hans-Joachim Kres.

Luther's handwriting in Bible. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s handwriting in Bible. Photo by Richard Varr

Other library documents include a Bible Luther presented to a noble family with original script written by Luther himself and a mention of the 1685 baptism one of the city’s favorite sons, composer Georg Frideric Handel, written in a church log.

Handel baptism entry. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel baptism entry. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel Museum, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel Museum, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Other Halle sights include the Handel Museum (the composer was born there), and the Moritzburg Art Museum housed in the late 15th century castle of the same name.

Moritzburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Moritzburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Eisleben and Mansfeld

At the end of his life, an extremely ill Martin Luther trudged along dirt roads in winter to where he was born in 1483, the countryside town of Eisleben at the foot of the Harz Mountains.  It’s also where he died.  A reconstruction of his birth home is now the Luther Birthplace Museum, highlighting his early life and final days through exhibits showcasing his father’s copper mining activities and Luther’s baptismal font from 1518.

Inside the Death House Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Death House Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The Death House Museum, just off the town square, showcases paintings of his final hours and exhibits of describing his bouts with kidney stones and heart disease.  Most impressive is the original pall – now dramatically faded – that covered his coffin when he died in 1546.

Luther's parents house, Mansfeld. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s parents house, Mansfeld. Photo by Richard Varr

As a child, Luther’s parents moved to the nearby town of Mansfeld.  Their original small brick home where young Martin lived from 1484-1497 still stands as a museum.  Across the street, an exhibition hall showcases artifacts – coins, colored window glass, nails, marbles and more – the family used, unearthed on the very site during an archeological excavation.

Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Eisenach

After he was denounced by the Catholic Church, Martin Luther took refuge for 10 months in Wartburg Castle, a fortification perched on a hilltop outside Eisenach.  In a small wood-paneled room, he would sit at a desk where he translated the Bible’s New Testament.

Luther's room, Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s room, Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

In town, the Luther House with its half-timbered façade is now a museum.  Owned by a town councilman who lived there with his family, Luther boarded at the home from 1498-1501 while attending a local school.  Upstairs is the so-called Luther Room where it’s believed he slept, with one beam in the wall dating back to 1269.

Luther Room, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Room, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther sang with the school’s boys’ choir.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Luther had so much in common with another of the town’s favorite sons, composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach.  “Luther was the initiator of Lutheran church music.  Without Luther, we wouldn’t have the music of Bach who realized the ideas of Luther for his own music,” says Eisenach tour guide Cornelia Hartleb.  The renovated Bach House was the first Bach Museum on the actual site of the house where Bach was born in 1685.

Twin churches on Domplatz, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Twin churches on Domplatz, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Erfurt

Erfurt’s medieval skyline at nightfall is breathtaking.  Spotlights bring sharply into focus the twin houses of worship dominating the view:  St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus, separated by a colossal stairwell on the central square Domplatz.  Luther studied law in Erfurt, but soon vowed to become a monk if he survived a fierce thunderstorm when trapped in nearby fields.

Altar of Luther's first sermon, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Altar of Luther’s first sermon, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

After the storm, he entered the Augustinian Monastery to fulfill his promise and was later ordained as a Catholic priest.  Today, the Monastery is a Protestant conference center and houses exhibits including a library, artifacts and original prayer cells.  Next door, I enter the nave of St. Augustine Church and see the original altar where Luther gave his first sermon.

Merchants' Bridge, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Merchants’ Bridge, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Stone. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Stone. Photo by Richard Varr

With a population of about 400,000, Erfurt has retained its medieval heritage with its centerpiece Merchants’ Bridge, lined with cafes and shops along its cobbled road over part of the Gera River.  The large Luther Stone in nearby countryside marks the spot where Luther feared for his life during the thunderstorm.

Schmalkalden's scenic half-timbered homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Schmalkalden’s scenic half-timbered homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Schmalkalden

Classic German half-timbered houses line the cobbled streets of Schmalkalden, a small town nestled along the edges of the Thuringian Forest.  Some of those structures date back to the 13th and 14th centuries with their crisscross of beams, red tile roofs and white and cool-colored facades.  One of those houses is this town’s Luther House, where the reformer stayed during the Schmalkaldic League’s meetings in 1537.

Luther House, Schmalkalden. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House.

The League was a group of Protestant counts and princes teaming together to further the cause of the new Lutheran religion created by the Reformation.  Luther preached in the original upstairs rooms when too sick to attend meetings at the Town Church of St. George, where he gave sermons only twice because of likely kidney stones.  If you have the energy, you can hike up 158 steps along the narrowing, twisting stairwell of the town’s tower with splendid views of Schmalkalden’s central square.

Auerbach's Cellar, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Auerbach’s Cellar, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Leipzig

Madler Passage, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Madler Passage, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Throughout his life, Martin Luther visited the city that Bach called home.  Along Mädler Passage, one of Germany’s best known arcade buildings, I visit the underground Auerbach’s Cellar, one of Leipzig’s most popular restaurants.  During Martin Luther’s time it was a wine bar for students owned by Heinrich Stromer, a professor of medicine.  Stromer took in Luther who was disguised as a bearded “Squire George” when hiding out from the Catholic Church.  A modern-day painting of them together hangs on a wall there.

Katharina von Bora's wedding ring, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Katharina von Bora’s wedding ring in the Museum of City History, Leipzig.

The Museum of City History in the Old Town Hall exhibits a portrait of Luther, some of his writings, one of his goblets, and perhaps most interesting, the wedding ring of his wife Katharina von Bora.  The museum also has one of Bach’s classic portraits from 1746.  The same Bach portrait, meanwhile, sits inside St. Thomas Church’s museum where Bach was music director for 27 years.

Bach statue, St. Thomas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Bach statue, St. Thomas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

www.visit-luther.com

www.germany.travel

Shanghai: Dueling Skylines along The Bund

Pudong, Shanghai. Photo by Richard Varr

Pudong, Shanghai. Photo by Richard Varr

Walking along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Walking along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

The sun peeks through a hazy sky, reflecting off the curving glass of the twisting Shanghai Tower, its narrowing apex still flirting with wispy cloud cover.  I’m strolling the Bund, the broad pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu River, with great views of the 21st century downtown Pudong District.  It had been raining for two days, so a bit of clearing and some blue sky made my first visit here all the more special.

Customs House with clock tower and historic bank building along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Customs House with clock tower and historic bank building along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Before coming to Shanghai, the Bund was foremost in my mind as the place to visit – even if you only have an hour in the city.  It’s perhaps Shanghai’s signature landmark reminding me of, for example, what La Ramblas is to Barcelona, Broadway to New York or the Champs Élysées to Paris.

21st century skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

21st century skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

The Bund’s riverside promenade juxtaposes two skylines a century apart.  On one side, there’s the early 20th century business district with its stately brick bank towers and the Customs House with the city’s signature clock tower.  “It’s a typical British-style building,” explains Shanghai tour guide Qiao Yong Gang, whose English name is Charlie.  “Let’s wait a few minutes and we’ll hear the tower’s bells sound off with a melody,” he adds.  While there, I hear the bells ring every quarter hour.

Pudong from across the river. Photo by Richard Varr

Pudong from across the river. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEO: A quick clip of my walk along the Bund.

Cross the river via ferry or the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel and behold the exact opposite – Shanghai’s futuristic glass and steel towers of the Pudong district including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower offering stunning views, the pagoda-topped 88-floor Jinmao Tower and the spiraling Shanghai Tower with the world’s fastest elevators.

The neon glitz of Nanging Road at night. Photo by Richard Varr

The neon glitz of Nanjing Road at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Another pedestrian thoroughfare just a 10 minute walk from the Bund is Nanjing Road, one of the city’s foremost shopping streets with a stream of shoppers and sightseers seemingly day and night.  I pass storefronts which pulse at night with neon lights, and where sales people standing in doorways chant their pitches into portable loudspeakers.

Saleswoman on Nanging Road. Photo by Richard Varr

Saleswoman on Nanging Road. Photo by Richard Varr

Centuries old ceramic figurine in the Shanghai Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Nanjing Road stretches from the Bund to People’s Park with its green lawns accented with manicured patches of flower beds.  One edge of the park is home to the Shanghai Museum, displaying some of China’s best relics spanning 5,000 years.  I was particularly impressed with some of the 1500-year-old, hand-painted ceramic figurines looking like they just came out of a specialty shop.

Yu Gardens in the rain. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens in the rain. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Another must-see is Yu Gardens and Bazaar, a complex of buildings with Chinese-style architecture laced around small ponds that are crisscrossed with foot bridges over rocky shorelines.  To one side is a bazaar where bold salespeople will approach you on the alleyways and try to sell you jewelry and watches – a good way to sharpen your bargaining skills.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum tells the story of how Shanghai became a safe haven for 18,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and how they lived peacefully with Chinese residents.  After World War II, most had survived and returned to their homelands.  The museum includes the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, the primary temple used by the refugees.  Exhibition halls include items from that period and highlight some of the survivors’ stories.

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

As a westerner, I also appreciated my visit to the so-called French Concession, a once separate district with narrow alleyways and old brick architecture.  Upscale shops and cafes are now situated in those buildings.  The complex is a great place to enjoy coffee or beer on outdoor tables along pedestrian packed courtyards.

French Concession. Photo by Richard Varr

French Concession. Photo by Richard Varr

Charlie with Richard at the Shanghai airport.

Charlie with Richard at the Shanghai airport.

TOUR GUIDE “Charlie” Qiao Yong Gang

Shanghai independent tour guide Qiao Yong Gang, whose English name is Charlie, led our writers’ group during our visit.  He’s an excellent guide and I will look him up when I return.  I recommend him as a private or group guide!

Email: Chinese_charlie@hotmail.com

Wenzhou and China’s Spectacular Yandang Mountain World Geological Park

 

Pagoda on Jiangxin Islet, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

Pagoda on Jiangxin Islet, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

A boat ride across the Oujiang River brings us to Jiangxin Islet, the historic heart of Wenzhou, a coastal city about an hour’s plane ride south of Shanghai in the Zhejiang Provence.  Flanked by two pagoda towers on either end of this elongated island, Jiangxin is the so-called “Island of Poetry,” where poets have for successive dynasties written about the island’s tranquil riverside and lakeside gardens now dotted with camphor and maple trees and tiny potted pine trees.

Jiangxin Islet. Photo by Richard Varr

Jiangxin Islet. Photo by Richard Varr

“The poets liked to come here to enjoy the scenery and write poems, so all together there have been more than 800 poems written by renowned poets from all over the country,” says Hu Nianwang with the Wenzhou Tourism Administration Bureau.  Also on the island sits Jiangxin Temple, rebuilt in 1789 with a Buddha, and other pavilions.   The two towers are called East Pagoda and West Pagoda, dating back to 869 and 969 respectively.  “When there was no light at night, the fishermen would look for the two pagodas to steer their boats,” says Hu.

The "Five Horses" shopping street, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

The “Five Horses” shopping street, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

In the afternoon, I visit Wuma Street or “Five Horses” Street, the city’s main pedestrian shopping thoroughfare.  To one side is a statue of five charging horse leading a chariot of sorts, highlighting how the street got its name when a magistrate first rode through in a carriage.  Today, salespeople lure shoppers into brightly lit stores selling jewelry, clothing, shoes and more.  “Wenzhou is regarded as a shoe capital in China,” says Hu, as we pass both Adidas and Skechers shoe outlets.

Nantang River at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Nantang River at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist in the Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist in the Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

In the evening, I take a boat ride on the Nantang River flanking yet another pedestrian area along adjacent Nantang Street.  It’s a popular spot for locals with restaurants, cafes and stores.  Arched pedestrian bridges cross the waterways, with strings of lights along storefronts reflecting off the water.  The Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall showcases the area’s art forms including traditional puppets, stretch drums, marble carvings and bamboo filament lanterns, to name only a few.

I visited Wenzhou in October for the Society of American Travel Writers’ (SATW) 2016 Annual Convention where our hosts, the city’s municipal and tourism staff, had arranged sightseeing tours and impressive cultural presentations and performances during our evening dinner events.

Yandang Mountain World Geological Park

Artist capturing the hazy image of the Two Bamboo Peak rock formations. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist capturing the hazy image of the Two Bamboo Peak rock formations. Photo by Richard Varr

Wenzhou is a great base to explore the imposing peaks, deep valley views and spouting waterfalls of the Yandang Mountain World Geological Park.  Jagged, steep mountains dusted with green vegetation feature huge cracks in their faces, looking like the giant mastiffs could seemingly break apart with a seismic jolt.

Buddist Temple in Lingfeng Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Buddist Temple in Lingfeng Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Our group hiked up more than 400 steps to reach Guanyin Temple, a Buddist shrine dating back to 265 AD within a hillside cave in Lingfeng Peak.  Inside, a central golden Buddha is flanked by smaller such figurines placed on rocky ledges.

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall pool. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

We make another stop to see the so-called Big Dragon Waterfall, with water spewing down 197 meters into a pool at the base of a mountain.  “The view looks like a dragon drinking from the valley,” reads an informational tablet, noting that the waterfall is one of the four most famous such natural wonders in China.

The Two Bamboo Peak rock formations reflect off a peaceful stream in the valley, where I see artists trying to capture the two slabs against a backdrop of morning haze.  In the afternoon, we stop to see the so-called “Flying Man” acrobat suspended from a cable traipse down the mountainside.

Lingfeng Peak, Yandang Mountain World Geological Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Lingfeng Peak, Yandang Mountain World Geological Park. Photo by Richard Varr

 

Guilin’s Dramatic Karst Landscape and Cruising the Li River

 

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

We behold more of Asia’s dramatic scenery both above and below ground in Southwest China.  It’s where karst mountains – steep, weathered limestone formations – shoot straight up from the ground like crooked teeth, some with pointed peaks and others at 90 degree angles with flat mountaintops.  My trip to Guangxi Province included stops in Guilin, a bustling tourist destination along the Li River, surrounded with the beauty of these karst formations.

Guilin's twin pagodas. Photo by Richard Varr

Guilin’s twin pagodas. Photo by Richard Varr

Cormorants were once used for fishing. In front of Elephant Trunk Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

Cormorants were once used for fishing. In front of Elephant Trunk Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

The town’s signature twin pagoda’s along the Rong and Shan Lakes help frame Guilin’s scenic urban setting, especially at night as the waterside towers and trees are bathed in bright orange and brilliant green hues from powerful spotlights.  But the real draw is the area’s natural beauty.  Sights to see include the city’s most famous rock formation, the 100-meter-high Elephant Trunk Hill with a cavernous hole along one end resembling, with a bit of imagination, an elephant’s trunk dipping into the Li River.

Reed Flute Cave. Photo by Richard Varr

Reed Flute Cave. Photo by Richard Varr

Reed Flute Cave. Photo by Richard Varr

Reed Flute Cave. Photo by Richard Varr

Karst mountains formed when the softer layers of the limestone plains were eroded by rainwater over the millennia, leaving harder limestone formations intact.  Erosion also carved sinkholes and caves, including Guilin’s Reed Flute Cave, one of the most spectacular and spacious subterranean vistas I’ve ever seen.  It’s where 30-foot-high passageways snake within Guangming Hill.  Illuminated with colored lights, I walk along dramatic underground panoramas of dangling stalactites melding with stalagmites, spurring on a spelunker’s imagination with shapes resembling rock gardens, rock palaces, contorted faces, creatures and more.

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

Yangshuo waterfront. Photo by Richard Varr

Yangshuo waterfront. Photo by Richard Varr

The next day, we hop on a riverboat for an afternoon cruise along the Li River, from Guilin to Yangshuo, another scenic waterside town.  We pass karst formations along the way including so-called Bat Hill, a formation resembling bat wings; the Painted Hills of Nine Horses, and a rock formation resembling a woman carrying a baby – figures, no doubt, maybe discerned with a bit of imagination.  One rock looks like a dragon’s head, and we see a large opening in the base of one mountain.  “This cave is one of the biggest in Guilin, and we call it Crown Cave because on the top is a rock shaped like a crown which the emperor would wear in ancient times,” says tour guide Lisa Bai.

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

On the Li River. Photo by Richard Varr

Our cruise is taking place in October, the time of year when the water level is waning and thus tranquil.  On this day, the sun at times peeks through hazy cloud cover.  While blue skies might set a clearer backdrop for photos, I learn the locals actually prefer seeing the mountains shrouded in haze.  “In China, people like legendary stories and with mist we think it’s so mysterious,” Lisa tells me.  “Like there are fairies and gods staying there reminding us of imaginary stories, and that’s why we prefer to look at the view with a misty background.”

VIDEO:  Short clip while on the cruise boat.

Longji Rice Terraces. Photo by Richard Varr

Longji Rice Terraces. Photo by Richard Varr

From Yangshuo, we drive north along the Mao Ming Highway for a couple of hours to the mountain village of Ping An and the surrounding Longji rice terraces.  They’re called terraces because the farm land is actually layered along sloping mountainsides where golden rice stalks sway in the wind before the fall harvest.  We hike more than 1,000 steps to the top of the mountain for the dramatic views below.

Mountain Town of Ping An. Photo by Richard Varr

Mountain Town of Ping An. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEO:  Tour guide Lisa Bai explains why one hillside with rice terraces is called “Seven Stars with the Moon.” 

TOUR GUIDE LISA BAI

img_7759Lisa led our writers’ group.  She is an excellent tour guide and I would recommend hiring her when visiting the area.  You would be fortunate to have her assigned to your tour!  Email: 443891070@qq.com

Amber Cove: Carnival Cruise Line’s New Port in the Dominican Republic

Amber Cove cruise port. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber Cove cruise port. Photo by Richard Varr

My latest assignment brought me to the bustling city of Puerto Plata along the Dominican Republic’s northern shoreline for a look at Carnival Cruise Line’s Amber Cove cruise port.  Opened October 2015, the new port is a gateway to miles of white-sand beaches, the surrounding hilly and verdant countryside, museums, attractions and some of the Caribbean’s most noted colonial history.  The port itself can dock two ships at a time and can accommodate up to 8,000 cruise passengers and 2,000 crew members daily.

Amber Cove cruise port. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber Cove cruise port. Photo by Richard Varr

From the port, the majestic Mount Isabel de Torres dominates the city view at about 2,600 feet high.  In fact, it was the mountain that led to the naming of Puerto Plata (port of silver) when Christopher Columbus, during his first voyage, noticed a silver-like shimmer reflecting from the frequent foggy haze along the mountaintop.  In 1496, Columbus and his brother Bartolomé designed the city.

PUERTO PLATA

Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

Sights to see include the Fort of San Felipe, an impressive stone-faced fortress completed in 1577 and used to defend the city from pirates.  It’s now a museum with old weapons, cannonballs and other artifacts.  Atop the walls and at corners sit the sentry posts, where my voice echoes within its narrow walls.  “When you cross the door into the fort, you start feeling like you’re going back into past centuries,” says tour guide Oscar Rodriguez.

Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

In the heart of Puerto Plata’s old town, homes and buildings with Victorian-style architecture dominate the narrow streets around central Plaza Independencia with its art deco gazebo, statues of two of the Dominican Republic’s founding fathers and the imposing San Felipe Cathedral at one end of the square.

Plaza Independencia. Photo by Richard Varr

Plaza Independencia. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber with insect. Photo by Richard Varr

Amber with insect. Photo by Richard Varr

I visited the nearby Amber Museum for a look at the museum’s impressive collection of insect-filled resin stones dating back up to 50 million years, with one used in the movie Jurassic Park.  “In 1988, Steven Spielberg was in this museum to get a piece of amber with a mosquito,” says museum curator Carlo Vega.  The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s main sources of authentic amber – a fossilized resin from the tree Hymenaea Protera which became extinct about 25 million years ago.  Amber pieces used in jewelry have been highly polished and are lightweight, colorful and, of course, expensive.  Dominican blue amber is thought to be up to 40 million years old.

Murals along the streets of Puerto Plata. Photo by Richard Varr

Murals along the streets of Puerto Plata. Photo by Richard Varr

Other attractions for visitors include cable car rides up Mount Isabel, tours of the Brugal Rum Factory and Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina and Casino.  The Malecón, or Ocean Boulevard, stretches almost two miles along the sparkling waterfront.

Outback Adventures Tours

Guide Manny Acosta with Outback Adventures. Photo by Richard Varr

Guide Manny Acosta with Outback Adventures. Photo by Richard Varr

Outback Adventures cultural tour. Photo by Richard Varr

Outback Adventures cultural tour. Photo by Richard Varr

From the Amber Cove cruise port, I joined a cultural tour with Outback Adventures (www.outbacksafari.com.do) aboard a safari truck venturing deep into the hilly countryside and to a few communities outside the city.  Outback Adventures’ tours share a more genuine look at local life.  “You meet the people, see the typical homes and plantations, see the schools and come into contact with some of the children,” says Outback spokesman Roger Keith.  “You also get to savor the local food, and get to see a secluded beach after a trek through a tropical forest.”  Outback has an agreement with local schools, says Keith, where some of the proceeds from sales of merchandise go to improve the school, provide supplies and uniforms and more.

VIDEO:  In the following video, tour guide Manny Acosta (known for his great jokes along the tour) cracks open a cocoa pod.

 

SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS

La Aurora Cigar Factory

La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

Many cigar aficionados will tell you Dominican cigars are just as good as Cuban cigars.  The popularity stems from a history of ties to Cuba; namely, Cuban tobacco farmers settling in the Dominican Republic after Cuba’s farms became state owned.  Coming from generations of tobacco growers and cigar makers, these Cuban farmers would take advantage of the similarities in climate and soil to continue their traditions in the Dominican Republic.  I visited the colossal La Aurora Cigar Factory, dating back to 1903, to learn more about that industry and how cigars are actually rolled from dried tobacco leaves.  The factory in Santiago de los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic’s second largest city, is maybe an hour’s drive from Puerto Plata and the Amber Cove cruise port.  “La Aurora is the oldest cigar factory in the country,” says tour guide Eugene Palanco.  “The Dominican Republic is the biggest exporter of tobacco in the world with close to 400 million handmade cigars each year.”

Tobacco leaves in La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

Tobacco leaves in La Aurora. Photo by Richard Varr

The cigar-making process can be complicated.  In a nutshell, it involves drying tobacco leaves for seven weeks and aging for four years or more.  Tobacco is then rolled with an outside wrapper and a binder covering added, and then the cigars are pressed, cut and inspected.  They’re fumigated for 96 hours, aged for six months more, and then finally packaged.

VIDEO:  The videos below showcase highlights of La Aurora.  The first video features guide Eugene Palanco explaining the cigar-making process, while the second shows how one worker adds binding to each cigar in just seconds.

Centro Leon Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Centro Leon Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

While in Santiago, I also visited the Centro León Museum featuring exhibitions on the Dominican Republic’s Taino culture and history, Dominican art and the island’s biodiversity and ecology.  A separate building portrays the history and houses certain furniture and keepsakes of the León-Jimenez family, founders of La Aurora.

Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. Photo by Richard Varr

Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues on the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues on the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. Photo by Richard Varr

And a must see with any visit to Santiago de los Caballeros is the soaring Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, built upon a hill during the time of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the 1940s.  Although Trujillo wanted the monument – then called the “Monument of Peace” – to honor him, it was later changed after his assassination in 1961 to its current name as a tribute to the heroes of the Dominican War of Independence from Spain.  The monument is a museum of sorts with dioramas of the momentous events of this colonial history.  And I couldn’t help but notice the astounding 360 degree views of the city.

Tour Guide Oscar Rodriguez

Oscar Rodriguez at Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

Oscar Rodriguez at Fort San Felipe. Photo by Richard Varr

A shout out for the excellent tour guide Oscar Rodriguez… I was lucky to have Oscar escorting me for two days as we visited the sights in both Puerto Plata and Santiago de los Caballeros.  Oscar knows his history and is a great guy as well!  Oscarrodriguez1964@hotmail.com   Office:  809-586-2866.

Blue JackTar Hotel/Resort

Beach at the Blue JackTar resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Beach at the Blue JackTar resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Blue JackTar Resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Blue JackTar resort. Photo by Richard Varr

My business trip included a stay at the Blue JackTar, one of the resort hotels along the Playa Dorada shoreline.  I was very pleased with the resort – my room one of three within one of the bungalow-like buildings along the property, just a stone’s throw from the beach.  I was also very pleased with the restaurant and the dishes I ordered.

 

 

Stories Published!

IMG_9067My story on my travels through Kansas – from Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, to Manhattan and through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – has been published in the March issue of Trailer Life Magazine, currently on newsstands.   http://www.trailerlife.com/trailer-travel/destinations/in-the-land-of-oz/

IMG_6339

And my December visit to Guadeloupe’s Marie Galante, the “Island of 100 Windmills,” is currently on the AAA Home & Away website.

http://homeandawaymagazine.com/Content/Article/5256

(If asked for zip code, enter 73099)