Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Philadelphia is a jewel box of unique and spectacular, even life-enhancing attractions, a trove of national treasures of history, heritage, culture that glitters particularly during the holidays. The holiday splendor is eye-catching and warms the heart, but any visitor still has to make time to experience first-hand at least some of these iconic places. I manage to bookend my holiday merrymaking with a mix of art (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia Magic Gardens) with history (Independence Hall) with heritage (National Museum of American Jewish History) with science and enlightenment (Philly is the hometown of one of our most enlightened inventors, Ben Franklin, and so I end this visit with the Franklin Institute.
We spare no time once we drop our luggage
at The Roost East Market, park the car in the garage, but grab an Uber to race
over to The Barnes Foundation. The Barnes Collection is one of the world’s
greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist
paintings, with especially rich holdings in Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and
Picasso. Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951, the
collection also includes important examples of African art, Native American
pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde
painting, and wrought-iron metalwork. In fact, we are told, Dr. Barnes has the
greatest collection of Renoir anywhere – 181 of them acquired by Dr. Barnes
between 1921 and 1942 that you actually see (as opposed to museums that keep
most of their collections in storage). Plus 69 by Paul Cézanne; 59 by Henri Matisse; 46 by Pablo Picasso;
21 by Chaim Soutine; 18 by Henri Rousseau and the list goes on and on, as
you walk from gallery to gallery to gallery.
The building complex is new, but the
gallery rooms re-create the rooms and how Dr. Barnes displayed his art,
intentionally juxtaposing masterworks by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and
Pablo Picasso next to ordinary household objects – a door hinge, a spatula, a
yarn spinner; a French medieval sculpture displayed with a Navajo textile;
African folk art with Modigliani and Cubists. Dr. Barnes called these dense
groupings of objects from different cultures, time periods and media his
“ensembles.” He meticulously crafted the ensembles to draw out visual similarities
– even the source of inspiration. He meant them as teaching tools, essential to
the educational program Dr. Barnes developed in the 1920s.
“He believed you could
as likely learn about how to do surgery wandering through a hospital as art
wandering through a gallery – you have to be taught how to see, what to look
for,” a docent explains. “He wanted people to appreciate how culture influences
art.” She adds, “He wasn’t an artist himself.” In fact, she relates, 10 years
ago, Central High School (Dr. Barnes grew up in a working class family in
Philadelphia), came across his school books. “He got A’s in everything but
At the Barnes, you experience these
masterworks in the most intimate manner, as if visiting a home (albeit a
mansion). We are exceptionally lucky to visit when the museum is not at all
crowded (actually we are there until closing) – I even get to have some of the
art completely to myself. It is very comfortable to view – many of the rooms
(and they seem to go on forever, one after another) are small and there is
seating in each one, with guides to the artwork at hand. But you should try to
take a docent tour. At one point, the docent pulls up a photo of Henry
Matisse, sitting on the very bench and gazing at his own painting in that very
In every room, you are astonished to see art that is amazingly familiar – because they are so famous: Georges Seurat’s “Models” (the basis for “Sunday in the Park with George”); Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Postman”; Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”; Edouard Manet “Laundry”; Pablo Picasso “Acrobat and Young Harlequin”, and a plethora of Renoirs – so many, you get a sugar high. Every gallery takes your breath away, and for that moment, the art, the masterpiece, is yours.
And then there are the surprises – the art and artists you “meet” for
the first time. I fall in love with a Van Gogh country scene I have never seen
There is a wonderful painting of Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1951) by
Giorgio de Chirico (1926), which makes you wonder more about who he was to have
assembled such an astonishing collection. Dr. Barnes was born and raised in
working-class Philadelphia, earned a medical degree from the University of
Pennsylvania and went on to study chemistry in Germany. After starting his own
business and making a fortune in pharmaceuticals, he began collecting art.
“Dr. Barnes believed that art had the power to improve minds and
transform lives,” the notes read. “In 1922, he established the Barnes
Foundation as a school for learning how to see and appreciate art. He had a
gallery built in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to house his growing
collection. He held classes in the gallery so that students could learn
directly from the artworks.”
In 2012, the collection was moved to Philadelphia, to a building
designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architecture. The collection gallery
replicates the original gallery building in Merion.
From here, we go to a family gathering at the mega-popular Zahav Restaurant (the Uber driver can’t believe we are getting in there since lines are usually around the block), an award-winning restaurant which elevates Israeli cuisine to gourmet status. The small plates menu is designed for diners to sample the variety of cultural influences on Israeli cuisine, from Eastern Europe to North Africa, from Persia to the Mediterranean. “Creamy, nutty hummuses, sizzling skewers of meat grilled over hardwood charcoal, and laffa breadar, the soul of Zahav, baked to order in a wood-fired Taboon.” (237 Saint James Place, 215-625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com).
holiday happenings (see:
Holiday Happenings Give
Visitors to Philadelphia Even More to Enjoy) are bookended by visits to several of Philadelphia’s
incomparable sites and attractions. Next: Independence Hall (you need to get a timed
ticket, either walk up for free or in advance online for $1 fee, www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/independencehalltickets.htm); a fabulous exhibit
devoted to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG) at
the National Museum of American
Jewish History, located within the Independence Hall area
(thru Jan. 12, at 5th & Market, mnajh.org, 215-923-3811); Philadelphia Magic Gardens (doesn’t
need any holiday embellishments, 1020 South St., 215-733-0390, phillymagicgardens.org);and Franklin
Institute (222 North 20th St., 215-448-1200, www.fi.edu), before having to pull myself away from Philadelphia.
Staying at The Roost
East Market apartment hotel really enabled us to be part of the city, most
of what we wanted to see within walking distance. It’s not hyperbole to say the
comfort of a fully-equipped, gorgeously furnished apartment meets luxury
amenities of a boutique hotel. All of the apartments feature
full-size kitchens with cookware and utensils (I especially love not having to
go out for breakfast) and king size beds. A third-floor is
devoted to guest amenities including a well-equipped 24-hour fitness center,
magnificent and comfortable lounge areas and library, a huge demo kitchen, a
private screening room, an outside, 20-meter heated lap pool, barbecue area,
landscaped terrace, community vegetable garden;
and bike-share program. There is also 24-hour front desk and concierge,
security (you need your card to access the elevator and public areas); and
direct access to a parking garage. They
even arrange dog-walking and grocery delivery services. (The Roost East Market, 1199 Ludlow
Street Philadelphia, PA 19107, 844-697-6678, https://myroost.com/philadelphia/east-market/).
A Visit Philly Overnight Hotel Package includes
overnight free parking and perks, and is bookable at Greater
Philadelphia’s official visitor website, visitphilly.com, 800-537-7676 where you can explore things to do, upcoming
events, themed itineraries and hotel packages.
by Karen Rubin, Travel
Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The best thing about Christmas is that the festivities that brighten and warm all the days of the holiday season go on from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. And the best part is you don’t have to wait for Christmas week – festivities are happening throughout December. Here are some of our favorite places to revel in the holiday spirit:
in the Capital
Here are some of the best,
can’t-miss ways to experience the holidays in Washington DC::
The National Christmas Tree, one of DC’s iconic holiday traditions, lives in
President’s Park on the White House Ellipse, surrounded by trees decorated with
handmade ornaments from 56 U.S. states and territories. Each night throughout
the holiday season there are musical performances. The display is free to visit
and open from 10 am – 10 pm while the National Christmas Tree is lit
each day from 4:30-10 pm, from Dec. 5, when the lighting ceremony takes place.
Visit the Smithsonian National
Zoo during ZooLights, when the zoo is illuminated with
more than 500,000 environmentally-friendly LEDs, animated light
installations, live music and various animals on display. ZooLights runs Nov.
29 – Jan. 1 (closed Dec. 24, 25 & 31).
Enchant Christmas is a light maze, billed as the biggest in the world, that
is in DC for the first time at Nationals Park from Nov. 22 – Dec. 29.
Throughout the holiday season there are ice skating trails and a large holiday
market offering products from more than 60 vendors, including local businesses
and international brands. (Use promo code “VISITDC” to
get 10% off when you buy tickets.)
GLOW exhibition of light-art, a stroll
through DC’s most historic
neighborhood has proven to be such a
hit that it’s now a month-long celebration (Dec. 6 – Jan. 5,
5-10 pm). Afterwards, wander through a winter wonderland at The Washington
Harbour, one of the district’s favorite places
to ice skate.
The U.S. Botanic Gardengets decked out for this
annual exhibit. This year’s display focuses on gardens from Hawaii to
Maine, including iconic spots like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Franklin Park
Conservatory and Huntsville Botanical Garden. Inside the Conservatory are the garden’s collection of DC’s iconic
landmarks and a showcase of poinsettias. Season’s Greenings is
open from Nov. 28 – Jan. 5 (10 am – 5 pm), and stays open until
8 pm, with holiday concerts on select Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
A magnificent tree decks the Great
Hall of the Library of Congress‘ Thomas Jefferson Building each December, visited from
the First Street SE entrance between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm (the Jefferson
Building is closed Sundays and on Christmas). (Check the guide to visiting the largest library in the world so you can properly
Harbor, a shopping, dining and amusement
park-like landmark located just 20 minutes south of DC (reached by public
transportation). Step inside the Gaylord National Resort for ICE! (Nov. 15 – Dec. 30), an indoor winter wonderland
featuring two million pounds of hand-carved ice sculptures, ice slides, a live
carving area and a retelling of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole
Christmas. While at National Harbor, view the tree from atop the Capital Wheel, shop for gifts at the Tanger Outlets and experience weekend
events like holiday markets,
performances and movie screenings.
The Willard InterContinental Washington offers a holiday tradition throughout December. You can enjoy afternoon tea from 1-4 p.m. in the elegant Peacock Alley every day of the month (except Dec. 24, 25 and 31). There will be seasonal decor, sandwiches, pastries and the beautiful sounds of a harp to accompany you as you sip on festive teas from one of DC’s most historic hotels.
Now in its 15th year, Vintage Christmas, taking place throughout December, transforms Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which National Geographic/Travel described as “possibly the greatest small town in the USA,” into a picture-postcard winter wonderland.
Those who visit Portsmouth during
the holiday season discover an intimate streetscape framed by 19th century
storefronts, boutiques and sidewalk cafes. The city’s reputation as a
“foodies’” haven is upheld by chef-owned restaurants on more than every corner.
The thriving craft beer and local music scene banish all suggestions of “staid
New England” without losing the charm. And sales tax-free shopping offers
delights for every age and taste.
For 2019 Vintage Christmas in
The Music Hall, a historic theater dating from
1878 on Chestnut Street, presents “Annie” from November 27 to December 22,
with Sally Struthers reprising her Broadway tour reprisal of Miss Hannigan. Juston
McKinney: Last Laugh 2019 on Dec. 27, 28 & 29, looks back at “the
year that was” with one of the region’s most “popular stand-up comics. New
Year’s Eve Champagne Pops with the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra on
Strawbery Banke Museum: 40th Annual Candlelight Stroll on December 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22, showcases 300+
years of daily life and holiday festivities around the theme “A Tradition for
Every Family” in the historic waterfront neighborhood and living history museum
of Puddle Dock. Saturdays 5-9 pm. Sundays 4-8 pm. Adult $25; child (5-17) $10,
Family (2 adults/2 kids) $60. Children under 5 and Military families, free.
Labrie Family Skate at Puddle Dock
Pond, Strawbery Banke’s seasonal outdoor
ice skating rink, open daily 9 am to 9 pm, also hosts costumed Victorian
skaters evoking Currier & Ives during each of the December evenings of
Vintage Christmas Trolley. This free trolley, courtesy of the City of Portsmouth,
shuttles visitors on a 15-minute loop throughout the festively decorated
downtown, from hotels and parking garages to the key events and shopping areas
on weekends, December 7-22, 1:30-10:30
more information, visit VintageChristmasNH.org; Discover Portsmouth, PortsmouthHistory.org, 603-436-8433.
Christmas in Newport, RI
Newport, Rhode Island, the Gilded
Age’s favorite summer resort, is always
enchanting, but never more so than at the winter holidays, when, it seems, the
entire town is one big festival. A sampling of “Christmas in Newport”
(now in its 49th year) and winter festivities include:
Holiday Lantern Tours: Hear the
history of early American holiday traditions on an evening walk and learn how
Newporters did, or did not, observe the holidays. Tours depart from the Museum
of Newport History and Shop (Nov. 22 – Dec. 28, Fridays and Saturdays at 4 p.m.)
Christmas at the
The glitter of gold and the sparkle of silver dazzle as you tour three magnificent
mansions decked out in yuletide finery. Music, tours and spectacular
decorations highlight celebrations at The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House –
each of which will have Gingerbread Mansion replicas on display. Special events
include “Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions” and “Santa Sundays.” (Nov.
23 – Jan. 1)
Enjoy elaborate holiday decorations around every corner of this historic early
19th century estate in Bristol. (Nov. 29 – Jan. 1)
Features a curated selection of travel, lifestyle and fashion finds. (Nov. 29 –
Dec. 20, Friday – Sunday).
Dinner Train: Immerse
yourself in the classic tale of humbuggery, ghosts and redemption with this
interactive retelling of “A Christmas Carol” by the Marley Bridges Theatre
Company. Experience a dining journey along the Newport and Narragansett Bay
Railroad in a custom-designed theater car featuring special tables for two all
facing center stage. (Nov. 30 – Dec. 21, Saturdays)
A Rough Point Holiday: Experience the
holiday traditions and winter caretaking practices at Doris Duke’s Rough Point
with various rooms of the mansion museum both spruced up for the Christmas
holiday and cloaked in their winter coverings. 30-minute guided tours offered
throughout the day. (Dec. 7 – 28, Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m)
Gurney’s Newport Resort: Features heated multi-sensory igloos overlooking
Narragansett Bay, each with its own theme including Santa’s Workshop, Winter
Wonderland, Cozy Log Cabin, Roaring 20s, Harry Potter, Tropical Summer,
Northern Lights, Astrology and Après Ski, complete with activities and cocktail
pairings. Proceeds will go to Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Rhode Island. (Nov.
22 – Feb. 29)
Resort Skating Rink:
Opens for the season with outdoor skating on the North Lawn overlooking the
Newport Harbor Lighthouse, The Point and the Newport Bridge. Open seven days a
week. (Nov. 26 – March 1)
Goat Hikes at
Spend an afternoon on a two-hour hike led by Farmer Karla and her crew of
adventurous, fun-loving goats. Each participant gets their own goat to
walk on a leash. The afternoon finishes with hot chocolate made with the milk
from the farm. (Nov. 24 – Jan. 1)
Painting with Color and Light,” an exhibit of colorful glass artwork and objects by the renowned Louis
C. Tiffany opens at Rosecliff beginning Sunday, Dec. 8, and continuing through March 1. The exhibition is free to view with paid
admission to Rosecliff (548 Bellevue Ave.). For tickets and information, visit
newportmansions.org/learn/adult-programs or call (401) 847-1000, ext. 178. Rosecliff
is one of the Preservation Society of Newport 11 historic properties, seven of
them National Historic Landmarks, collectively spanning more than 250 years of
American architectural and social development. (NewportMansions.org)
See more holiday and winter events in Newport and plan a visit
at DiscoverNewport.org, 800-326-030, 401-849-8048.
A Longwood Christmas
at Longwood Gardens, is magical with 500,000 lights gracing 150 trees throughout the outdoor
Gardens, a four-acre Conservatory with holiday sing-alongs accompanied
by a 10,010 pipe Aeolian organ – the largest organ ever constructed in a
residential setting. At the Open
Air Theatre, fountains dance day and night to holiday classics. Delight in
Longwood’s outdoor train display as it travels past miniature Longwood
landmarks illuminated for the holiday season. In the Meadow Garden, stroll
through a 140-ft tunnel of light in the winter landscape, and discover a grove
of glowing architectural orbs that pulse and change to the rhythm of holiday
music. Grab a hot chocolate and
cozy up to one of the many fire pits. ALongwoodChristmasruns November 22, 2019– January
5, 2020 (including Christmas Day). Admission to the Christmas display is by
Timed Admission Ticket, with tickets purchased in advance for a specific date
and time. (Tickets and reservations at longwoodgardens.org.)
Yuletide at Winterthur: From November 23 through
January 5, you can experience one of the Brandywine Valley’s most memorable attractions. Henry du Pont’s mansion is
transformed into a magical holiday spectacle, with food, music, exhibits, an
exquisite 18-room dollhouse mansion, and an Enchanted Woods children’s garden.
Reservations are recommended for the Yuletide exhibits, and the last chance to see Winterthur’s Costuming
THE CROWN (showcasing costumes from Netflix’s Emmy winning series) before it
closes on January 5.
Nemours Estate: Starting November 17, you
can experience holidays in traditional du Pont style as you tour the 1907 mansion and gardens that Alfred du Pont built for his wife
Alicia. See original decorations (including a 19th century
German crèche), twinkling lights, and bright colored ornaments.
Holidays at Hagleyat Hagley Museum takes
you back to 1803 as you visit the du Pont ancestral home Eleutherian Mills,
decorated in vintage holiday charm. There’s also a “Christmas Trees Past and
Brandywine Christmas atthe Brandywine River Museum of Art, renowned for its collection from three generations of Wyeth family artists, during the holiday season showcases the region’s most impressive model train display, which includes nearly 2,000 feet of track. Throughout the season, festive trees and crafts, live musical performances, and imaginative “Critter” ornaments made by local volunteers. There’s also a Polar Express Pajama Party, breakfast with the trains, and more special events. (www.brandywinemuseum.org)
Holiday Light Express: throughout
December you can take a 45-minute ride in 100-year old (heated!) coaches and
experience thousands of holiday lights twinkling as you pass decorated homes
along the route.
A Christmas Carol: Delaware Theater Company’s adaptation of the Dickens classic has
a twist: performed with just five actors
bring Charles Dickens’ beloved characters to life using props, puppets, bold
physicality and the imagination of the audience. Opening night is December 7,
so make this a cultural must-see on your holiday road trip.
Experience the magic of the
Christmas City: Bethlehem, in Lehigh Valley, PA boasts one of the top-ranked
holiday markets in the world, now celebrating its 27th season. Christkindlmarkt (weekends, Nov. 22 – Dec. 22) offers visitors wares
from 100 vendors, musical performances, and glass blowing demonstrations.
Along Main Street, browse the Christmas Huts on Main (weekends, Nov. 22 – Dec. 22), a shopping experience
inspired by a German Weihnachtsmarkt, complete with charming wooden huts
lining the streets offering holiday gifts. Browse the Moravian Book Shop, the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the
Join Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites for a variety of tours including Christmas City
Stroll, which takes you on a walking excursion through the city’s National
Historic Landmark District. Led by a guide in period dress, this tour will give
you a peek into what Moravian life was like in the 1700s.
To get a great view of the famous
star atop South Mountain, get tickets for the Bethlehem by Night bus tour. On this tour, participants will learn
why the north side of the city dons white lights and the SouthSide dresses up
in colored lights. (Reserve in advance.)
One of the most distinctive holiday
traditions is the Bethlehem’s Live Advent Calendar. Thought to be the only one
of its kind in the country, visitors can join locals in this activity nightly,
Dec. 1 – 23, at 5:30 p.m. Crowds gather outside the Goundie House at 501 Main Street. A selected visitor knocks on the
door and the group is greeted by representatives from local businesses offering
a surprise for all to enjoy. Nightly surprises could include musical
performances, a story, or a tasty treat.
As you wander along Main Street,
enjoy the music. Trombone choirs stroll the sidewalks playing holiday tunes, a
nod to the city’s Moravian heritage.
For a special view of the city’s
historic district, take a horse-drawn holiday carriage ride, hosted by the
Bethlehem Carriage Company.
A free Christmas City Trolley is
offered Fridays-Sundays, Nov. 15 – Dec. 22. The trolley runs every 20-30
minutes, shuttling between the Historic District and the SouthSide Arts
a special holiday tradition with friends and family on a festive tour of
Victorian Cape May during Christmas Candlelight House Tours, presented by the
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC). Every year since 1974,
a large selection of Victorian inns, homes, churches and hotels open their
doors and welcome visitors to share the warmth and hospitality of the season
during these popular, self-guided, walking tours. You will be welcomed inside
with holiday hospitality and cheer. Enjoy Christmas carols by candlelight,
strolling musicians along the historic streets of Cape May and beautiful
holiday decorations. Walk from site to site, stopping at hospitality centers
for warm beverages and holiday treats during your travels. Free heated shuttles
make limited stops along some routes. The three Christmas Candlelight House
Tours of the 2019 holiday season are held on Saturdays, Dec. 7, 14 and 28, from
5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (tickets should be purchased in advance). The
festivities begin Friday, Nov. 22 and continue through Jan. 1, 2020.
For information about MAC’s year-round schedule of tours, festivals, and special events, call 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278, or visit MAC’s Web site at www.capemaymac.org. For information about restaurants, accommodations and shopping, call the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May at 609-884-5508 or visit www.capemaychamber.com. For information about historic accommodations, contact Cape May Historic Accommodations at www.capemaylodging.com.
Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
From the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the Christmas Tree Lighting at Rockefeller Center and the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square, New York City offers unparalleled ways to celebrate the holidays with vibrant performances, tours, lightings, special events taking place from early November into January.
“New York City’s celebratory spirit and excitement are palpable during the annual holiday season. From iconic attractions and events to hidden-gem activities in all five boroughs, there’s an endless roster of memorable programming to enjoy from November to January,” said NYC & Company president and CEO Fred Dixon. NYC & Company, New York City’s official destination marketing organization, is forecasting seven million visitors will visit the City during the 2019–2020 holiday season.
Here are some of the festive events, performances and activities across the boroughs to celebrate the holiday season in New York City.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, November 28, Manhattan The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a classic New York City celebration of the holidays, featuring larger-than-life helium balloons, fantasy floats, clowns, performance groups, Broadway’s best musicals, celebrity appearances and more. The 93rd Annual spectacle will feature new balloons including Astronaut Snoopy, Netflix’s Green Eggs and Ham, SpongeBob SquarePants & Gary, Smokey Bear and Yayoi Kusama’s Love Flies Up to the Sky. New floats include Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues & You!, The Brick-changer by The Lego Group, Home Sweet Home by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store®, Rexy in the City by COACH® and Toy House of Marvelous Milestones by New York Life. The parade begins at 9 am on 77th Street and Central Park West, snakes around Central Park South and heads down Sixth Avenue before concluding at Macy’s Herald Square at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Balloon Inflation, November 27, 1-8 pm: Head up to the American Museum of Natural History on November 27 from 1 to 8 pm to watch the balloon inflation at West 79th Street and Columbus Avenue but be prepared for long lines (entrance at 73rd and Columbus.)
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, December 4, Midtown, Manhattan: The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center has been a tradition for more than eight decades. Lighting up Rockefeller Plaza, the tree lighting ceremony features performances and classic Christmas songs. The tree will arrive on November 9, light up on December 4 and be on view through early to mid-January.
New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball Drop, December 31–January 1, Times Square, Manhattan: Each year, millions of viewers watch the Times Square Ball Drop from New York City and around the globe. The Waterford Crystal Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball sparkles in Times Square for visitors to see all season, but its descent is a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime way to ring in the New Year.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks at Prospect Park, December 31–January 1, Prospect Park, Brooklyn: The Grand Army Plaza’s iconic New Year’s Eve Fireworks at Prospect Park offer an alternative to the frenzy of Times Square. This spectacular celebration includes live music, followed by a fireworks show at midnight.
Shine On at Hudson Yards, November 29-January 5. A new tradition being introduced at Manhattan’s newest neighborhood. Kicks off the day after Thanksgiving with full day of live performances featuring award-winning New York musicians, dangers and entertainers, plus Only at Hudson Yards offers. Then, every Tuesday through December 24, music and dance performances throughout Hudson Yards, and Saturdays children’s activities and family events. Immersive Light and Music Shows: the New York premiere of artist Christopher Schardt’s light sculpture Lyra, 5 pm daily at multiple locations throughout Hudson Yards. Visit Wells Fargo Lodge for hot chocolate tastings and 360-degree photo ops, plus interactive Star Stations with gift wrapping. Unlock holiday offers from SAP with shine ON LED bracelet available at Hudson Yards retailers.
Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo, November 21–January 5, Fordham, the Bronx: Returning for the first time since 2007, the stunning light displays at the Bronx Zoo will cover several acres in a walk-through experience with wildlife-themed LED displays, custom lanterns and animated light shows.
LuminoCity Festival, November 23-January 5, Randall’s Island Park, Manhattan: Sixteen acres of lights will illuminate themed worlds during this inaugural festival, creating an immersive journey for visitors that includes a castle, skating unicorn and enchanted forest.
Brookfield Place Light Up Luminaries, December 3-January 4, Battery Park City, Manhattan: This spectacular light installation kicks off December 3 with an evening of free ice skating, snacks and live performances.
Festival at Citi
Field, December 6–January 26,
Flushing, Queens: The debut of this international lantern, food and art
festival will include 60 global cuisine vendors, arts experiences, live
performances and a holiday market.
NYC Winter Lantern Festival, November 20–January 12, Randall Manor, Staten Island: The NYC Winter Lantern Festival is returning for a second year to Staten Island. Sponsored by Empire Outlets and venue partner Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, eight acres will be lit up by more than 50 LED installations, accompanied by live performances of traditional Chinese dance and art.
New-York Historical Society, (November 1, 2019 – February 23, 2020: A holiday favorite returns this season, reimagined to celebrate the 100th birthday of Busytown series author and illustrator Richard Scarry. Holiday Express: All Aboard to Richard Scarry’s Busytown showcases artwork and graphics of Scarry’s characters like Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm from publisher Random House Children’s Books alongside more than 300 objects from the Jerni Collection’s antique toy trains, stations, and accessories. Using Busytown stories and characters, dynamic displays explore the workings of the railroad, the services it provides, and the jobs required to keep people and goods moving. Fun, train-related activities for kids of all ages take place through the exhibition’s run―all free with museum admission. These include: Celebrating Richard Scarry and Busytown! (Saturday, December 14 and Sunday, December 15; 1–3 pm); December School Vacation Week (Thursday, December 26 – Wednesday, January 1) (170 Central Park West (77th St), New York, NY 10024, www.nyhistory.org)
Gingerbread Lane at New York Hall of Science, November 23–January 12, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens: Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science invites visitors to witness the vast collection of gingerbread structures embellished with candy canes, chocolate and frosting.
New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show, November 23–January 26, Fordham, the Bronx: Conveniently accessible via the Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central Terminal, head to the New York Botanical Garden to be enchanted by model trains zipping through a display of more than 175 NYC landmarks, each re-created with natural materials.
Belmont BID Arthur Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony, November 30, Belmont, the Bronx: Experience Christmas in the Bronx’s Little Italy at the Belmont BID Arthur Avenue Tree Lighting. The annual event features a visit from Santa, cookies and hot chocolate among the twinkling lights.
Seaport District NYC Celebrations, Seaport District NYC, Manhattan: Festivities in this neighborhood include the Winterland Holiday Tree Lighting on December 2, Menorah Lighting on December 22, a pop-up tree farm, ice skating and a light display at Pier 17.
Holiday Workshop Weekend at Wave Hill, December 7–8, Riverdale, the Bronx: Create one-of-a-kind holiday decorations by the gorgeous gardens and galleries at Wave Hill during their interactive Holiday Workshop Weekend.
Historic Richmond Town Candlelight Tours, December 14–21, Staten Island: This Christmas season, experience the tastes and scents of centuries past at Historic Richmond Town. Step back in time while touring the unique New York City which is illuminated by candles and oil lamps.
11th Annual Latke Festival at the Brooklyn Museum, December 16, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn: One of New York City’s most unique and delicious holiday tasting events, the Latke Festival is a charity event that celebrates the best and most creative potato pancakes.
Melrose Holiday Parranda, December 21, Melrose, the Bronx: The Melrose Holiday Parranda follows in the footsteps of Puerto Rican holiday caroling with a procession based on plena music and holiday songs. Cheer-Filled Performances:
Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes, November 8–January 5, Midtown, Manhattan: The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes returns to Radio City Music Hall, dazzling audiences of all ages with incredible costumes, festive songs and synchronized high kicks.
Four Renditions of
the Holiday Classic A Christmas Carol
Holiday Performances at the World
Famous Apollo Theater, Harlem,
Manhattan: The Apollo Theater, celebrating its 85th anniversary in 2019, hosts
holiday events including a Harlem gospel choir performance at Coca-Cola
Winter Wonderland on December 14, followed by the Amateur
Night Holiday Special. Gospel legends Yolanda Adams and Donald
Lawrence headline annual concert Holiday Joy: A Gospel Celebration on
December 21. As a grand finale, the annual Kwanzaa Celebration on
December 28 features Abdel Salaam’s Forces of Nature Dance Theatre and guest
Year’s Eve Concert for Peace, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, (1047 Amsterdam Ave. at 112th St., New York 10025,
212-316-7540,firstname.lastname@example.org, www.stjohndivine.org), Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019,
7-8:30 pm,: Founded by Leonard Bernstein in 1984, the
annual New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace is a signature Cathedral event with performances
by the Cathedral Choir and Orchestra led by Director of Music Kent Tritle.
Harry Smith, host; special guests Paul Winter, Jamet Pittman,
Jason Robert Brown, and David Briggs. General admission seats are free and open
to the public on the night of the show. Reserved seats are available now.
Holiday markets: New York City is full of incredible holiday markets, with must-buy gifts, sweets, drinks and winter activities. This year, the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park opened earlier than ever on October 31. Other popular markets include the Union Square Holiday Market, Columbus Circle Holiday Market, Brooklyn Flea and Astoria Market.
Iconic Holiday Windows: Awe-inspiring window displays at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s Herald Square and the new Nordstrom Women’s Store sparkle, inviting visitors to explore the magic of New York City shopping.
Empire Outlets, St. George, Staten Island: New York City’s first-ever outlet destination, Empire Outlets, will ring in the holiday season with a special Black Friday sale and their first annual tree lighting ceremony. Easily accessible by the free Staten Island Ferry from Lower Manhattan, the outlets will be adorned with thousands of lights, garland wraps and a 40-foot tree.
23 Days of Flatiron Cheer,
December 1-23, Flatiron District, Manhattan: 23
Days of Flatiron Cheer will include free, holiday-themed events showcasing the
intersection of shopping, dining and culture in this vibrant neighborhood.
The Shops at Columbus Circlehas kicked off its fourth year of Broadway Under the Stars, a five-week series of free public performances taking place this holiday season.Select cast from today’s hottest Broadway musicals will perform against the backdrop of the destination’s famous 12 massive stars. These stars, one of the largest specialty crafted exhibits of illuminated color displays in the world, are suspended from the 100-foot-high ceilings. Performances, lasting 20 minutes, begin at 5 pm and are free to attend and open to the public, no reservations or tickets are required. (Nov. 11, Waitress, Chicago, Oklahoma!andThe Lightening Thief; Nov. 18, Come From Away, Rock of Ages;Nov. 25: Dear Evan Hansen, The Illusionists, Frozen; Dec. 2: Beetlejuice, Tootsie, Mean Girls; Dec. 9: Phantom of the Opera, Wicked). Additional Broadway Under the Stars offerings include specialty cocktails from the Shops at Columbus Circle’s Restaurant and Bar Collection which includes Monday night drink specials like Center Bar’s Pomegranate Smash cocktail ($16). Visit www.theshopsatcolumbuscircle.com for more information and list of events and happenings.
Shop at Your Hotel: Several hotels are home to retail pop-ups this holiday season, partnering with iconic stores to make shopping easier than ever for visitors.
Grand Hyatt New York is partnering with Macy’s Herald Square for a pop-up located behind the check-in desk, featuring New York City-themed gifts, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade apparel and novel gift items November 25–January 1.
Loews Regency New York Hotel and Bloomingdale’s are teaming up to bring a curated selection of holiday gifts to the lobby lounge November 29-December 24, including on-site monogramming of leather gifts by ROYCE New York.
Conrad New York Midtown is launching the first FAO Schwarz Holiday Suite, filled with shoppable toys, stuffed
animals and gifts that will be restocked for visitors who book a stay in the
suite November 18–January 5. Additionally, all guests during this time period
will be able to order gifts on demand to their suite or home address.
You always make
fascinating discoveries at the New-York Historical Society, but the nexus of
exhibits and experiences that are being showcased through the holidays makes
this particularly prime time for a visit: flesh out who Paul Revere was beyond
his mythic Midnight Ride; see why Mark Twain, featured on the 150th
anniversary of the publication of his seminal book, “Innocents Abroad, or The
New Pilgrims’ Progress” was our first travel blogger; learn about the Baroness artist
in exile who made a visual diary, and, of course, become enchanted at the “Holiday
Express,” re-imagined to celebrate the 100th birthday of Busytown series author
and illustrator Richard Scarry.
Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere
Paul Revere is most famous for his
midnight ride warning people of Massachusetts “the British are
coming,” but the larger than life legend is not the focus of this
first-ever exhibit now on view at the New-York Historical Society. And while
his prowess as a silversmith and artisan is very much displayed, we are
surprised to learn about Revere as a printer, an engraver, an entrepreneur and innovator,
a savvy businessman, a Mason, a “proto-industrialist” – all of which figured
into his role as a patriot.
Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere separates fact
from fiction, revealing Revere as a complex, multifaceted figure at the
intersection of America’s social, economic, artistic, and political life in
Revolutionary War-era Boston as it re-examines his life as an artisan,
activist, and entrepreneur. The exhibition, featuring more than 140 objects, most
never before exhibited in public, highlights aspects of Revere’s versatile
career as an artisan, including engravings, such as his well-known depiction of
the Boston Massacre; glimmering silver tea services made for prominent clients;
everyday objects such as thimbles, tankards, and teapots; and important public
commissions, such as a bronze courthouse bell. There are personal items, as
well – most touching is the
gold wedding ring Paul Revere made for his second wife, Rachel, in a case below
portraits of the two of them, a thin band engraved inside with the words, “Live
Organized by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester,
curated by Nan Wolverton and Lauren Hewes, Beyond
Midnight debuts at New-York Historical through January 12, 2020, before
traveling to the Worcester Art Museum and the Concord Museum in Massachusetts
for a two-venue display (February 13 – June 7, 2020) and to Crystal Bridges
Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (July 4 – October 11, 2020). At New-York Historical, Beyond Midnight is
coordinated by Debra Schmidt Bach, New-York Historical’s curator of decorative
“When many of us think of Paul Revere, we instantly think of Longfellow’s lines,
‘One if by land, and two if by sea’, but there is much more to Revere’s story,”
said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society.
“This exhibition looks beyond the myth of Paul Revere
to better understand the man as a revolutionary, an artisan, and an
entrepreneur, who would go on to become a legend. There is much more to the
Revere story than the famous ride. We are proud to partner with the American
Antiquarian Society to debut this exhibition in New York.”
The New-York Historical
Society partnered with the American Antiquarian Society (of Boston) which holds
one of the most encompassing collections of Paul Revere’s documents, largely
due to the society being founded by Isaiah Thomas in 1812, an “omnivorous
collector,” who was a printer, publisher, patriot, colleague and customer of
Paul Revere’s as well as a fellow patriot advocating for a break from Great
The Antiquarian Society,
the oldest national historical society, is a research library and not a museum,
so its collection is not publicly exhibited. That’s why this collaboration with
the New-York Historical Society is so extraordinary.
A Revolutionary activist, Paul Revere was a member of the Sons of
Liberty, a secret group opposed to British colonial policy including taxation
that kept track of British troop movements and war ships in the harbor. The
exhibition displays Revere’s 1770 engraving of the landing of British forces at
Boston’s Long Wharf.
Four versions of Revere’s provocative engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre are also reunited in the exhibition. The engravings capture the moment when British soldiers fired upon a crowd of unruly colonists in front of the Custom House. The print inflamed anti-British sentiment, and different versions of it were widely disseminated as Patriot propaganda.
The only known copy of a
broadside that still exists is on display under canvas.
But the print that most
fascinated me was the one that depicted the first casualty of the American
Revolution, a black man, Crispice Attucks, at the center. It was used to
advance the cause of abolition before the Civil War.
Paul Revere was a master craftsman specializing in metalwork,
including copperplate engravings and fashionable and functional objects made
from silver, gold, brass, bronze, and copper. An innovative businessman, Revere
expanded his successful silver shop in the years after the war to produce goods
that took advantage of new machinery. His fluted oval teapot, made from
machine-rolled sheet silver, became an icon of American Federal silver design.
You see marvelous
examples of Revere’s artistry as a silversmith – a skill he learned from his father.
There is a Revere tea service that had belonged to John Templeman, on loan from
the Minnesota Institute of Art, the most complete tea service by Revere in
existence, which he made toward the end of long career that lasted until he was
in his 70s.
Among the silver objects on view are two rare wine goblets
possibly used as Kiddush cups made by Revere for Moses Michael Hays—his only
known Jewish client—as well as grand tea services, teapots, tankards,
teaspoons, and toy whistles created in Revere’s shop.
But Revere, a genius at working with metals, also worked in brass and copper. He produced bells and cannon. Featured in the exhibit is a 1796 cast-bronze courthouse bell made for the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts (about 100 Revere-created bells are still in existence and one, in Cambridge is still rung). The exhibition also explores how Revere’s trade networks reached well beyond Boston, even aboard ships bound for China. He frequently bought and sold raw and finished copper from New Yorker Harmon Hendricks and supplied copper for Robert Fulton’s famous steamship.
We learn that the silver that Revere
and the colonial silversmiths would have used came from South America, from
mines run by the Spanish with African slave and Indian labor. “Spanish coin was
the currency of colonial America. Revere
would melt old objects and coin for the silver.”
Meticulous account books
that are in the collection show that Revere had customers in and around Boston-
they are never shown except on microfilm, so it is very special to see these
originals. In one, we see where Revere made notations and sketches.
What we learn is that
Revere, who had 16 children, would create new businesses, set up new workshops
and put a son in charge as he went on to create a new one. “He had a drive to keep changing technology,
but he built on what he learned as a silversmith.”
Revere was a proto-industrialist
of the nascent nation; he changed from a workshop model that would employ two
to four people, to more of an industrial model, with six to eight people paid
The connection between
being an artisan, an entrepreneur and an innovator plays into his role as a
As you enter the exhibit, you see a nine-foot-tall re-creation of
the grand obelisk made for a 1766 Boston Common celebration of the repeal of
the Stamp Act, the first tax levied on the American colonies by England.
Originally made of wood and oiled paper, and decorated with painted scenes,
portraits, and text praising King George while also mocking British
legislators, the obelisk was illuminated from inside and eventually consumed by
flames at the Boston event. Local newspapers of the time described huge event.
The only remaining visual evidence is Revere’s 1766 engraving of the design
which was used to make the reproduction.
was a member of the Sons of Liberty and helped plan and execute the Boston Tea
Party in 1773, hurling tea into Boston Harbor. You get to see a vial of tea
from the Boston Tea Party that was collected from Dorchester Beach (the water
was cold so the bales of tea didn’t dissolve). One of the vials was given to
the Antiquarian Society in 1840.
place where the Sons of Liberty met to discuss their plans for the Tea Party,
the Green Dragon Tavern, was also where the Masons met. Revere was a member of
this secret society as well. The Masons were humanists, a clique and seen as
anti-Christian, inspiring anti-Masonic societies, because all religions,
including Jews like Hays, could join.
Thomas, a Masonic brother, was a patriot and like many of the merchants saw
America as independent of Great Britain, with its own ability to make
(manufacture), sell and distribute goods and not rely on Europe. Thomas
published a newspaper and hired Revere, who was a printer as well as an artist,
to do the book plate and masthead for his newspapers.
Isaiah Thomas, a Masonic brother, was a patriot and like many of the merchants saw America as independent of Great Britain, with its own ability to make (manufacture), sell and distribute goods and not rely on Europe. Thomas published a newspaper and hired Revere, who was a printer as well as an artist, to do the book plate and masthead for his newspapers.
Paul Revere was born in
America in 1735. His father was a French Huguenot who came as a young man from
Bordeaux France, emigrating first to the Isle of Jersey, and then to Boston as
a goldsmith. Revere’s father dies young and Paul, having finished his
apprenticeship, takes over at 19.
Revere belonged to an economic class called “mechanics,” ranked below merchants, lawyers, and clergymen. But Revere was a savvy networker, and what he lacked in social status, he made up for by cultivating influential connections. Membership in the Sons of Liberty led to commissions from fellow Patriots, but he also welcomed Loyalist clients, setting aside politics for profit. On view are nine elements from a grand, 45-piece beverage service that Revere created in 1773 for prominent Loyalist Dr. William Paine—the largest commission of his career—just two months before the Boston Tea Party.
A key associate was Isaiah
Thomas who, like Revere, exemplifies an American success story. Thomas was
poor but taught himself how to read, write and set type and became one of
wealthiest Americans as a printer, employing 150 people. It was the same with
Paul Revere and Ben Franklin – they all started from nothing, but became
successful – each of them had the ability in America to rise up, each was a
printer, and each was a great innovator and thinker. The exhibit makes clear
that a big part of Revere’s story is his importance as a printer.
The end of exhibit
focuses on the Revere legend and the reality.
Paul Revere died in 1818, at the age of 83 (he worked until his
70s), but his fame endured, initially for his metalwork and then for his
patriotism. In the 1830s, Revere’s engravings were rediscovered as Americans
explored their Revolutionary past, and his view of the Boston Massacre appeared
in children’s history books.
In 1860, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, after visiting the Old
North Church and hearing the story about the lanterns, was inspired to write
“Paul Revere’s Ride,” romanticizing (and somewhat embellishing) the story of
Revere’s journey to Lexington. The poem first appeared in the Atlantic
Monthly in January 1861 (an original copy of the magazine is on view
in the exhibition).
“Listen my children and you shall
hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” Longfellow wrote 85 years after the event,
April 18, 1775. It was the eve of another revolution, the Civil War. Longfellow’s intention was not to promote the
idea of revolution but to remind Americans of our common foundation, our roots,
our unifying experience.
Before the Longfellow poem was
published, a new print of the famous Revere print of the Boston massacre was
published that put the black man, Crispice Attucks, the first man to die for
Revolution, America’s first martyr, in the center.
“The Civil War started in 1861. Longfellow was
an abolitionist and Boston was a hotbed of abolition. He wanted to remind the country
of its shared past. That is why he brought Revere back to life, but his life was
stripped down to one event,” curator Debra Schmidt Bach explains.
The exhibit is timely
now for much the same reason: with such intense partisanship, there is the
sense of needing to remind people of our common foundation.
In reality, Revere, who was 40 years old when he undertook his
famous ride, was on foot until he crossed the Charles River to Cambridge and
then rode a borrowed horse to Lexington. He was
also one of three riders and was stopped briefly by British officers and then
released when Revere talked his way out of being arrested. A map of the actual
ride is on display.
Works like the Longfellow poem, artist Grant Wood’s 1931 painting Midnight Ride of Paul Revere depicting a dramatic scene of Revere riding past Boston’s Old North Church (also an embellishment) and others enshrined Paul Revere at the heart of the nation’s founding story. By the turn of the 20th century, the tale of Paul Revere and his midnight ride was firmly established in the nation’s psyche as truth, not fiction, and Revere’s contributions as a metalsmith and artisan were overshadowed.
The Revere exhibit, and
the people who we are introduced to like Isaiah Thomas, reveals the DNA that
propelled the American Revolution: how Americans had become their own culture,
their own society, where an individual was not limited by birth, but could rise
up. The Stamp Tax and the Tea Tax imposed by Britain clarified the limitations
placed on the Americans’ economic development. More than a political
revolution, the American Revolution was an economic and social revolution.
In piercing the bubble
of the Revere legend, the exhibit exposes an even more interesting and
“Paul Revere” exhibit on view in NY until January
12, 2020 before
traveling to the Worcester Art Museum and the Concord Museum in Massachusetts
for a two-venue display (February 13 – June 7, 2020) and to Crystal Bridges
Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (July 4 – October 11, 2020). Special
programming is offered in conjunction with the exhibit, check the website, www.nyhistory.org.
Mark Twain and
the Holy Land
This small alcove within
the New-York Historical Society is hallowed ground for a travel writer,
consisting of artifacts, leaves from journals, letters, stereotypes, photos
that re-create Mark Twain’s journey through the Holy Land in 1867. Twain’s
cruise aboard the Quaker City was a first – the first organized tour in
American history – and Twain was the first travel writer, sending back
dispatches of his impressions that were published in a San Francisco newspaper,
two years before his subsequent 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, one of the best-selling travelogues of all
Historical Society celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publication of Innocents Abroad with Mark Twain
and the Holy Land, on view through February 2, 2020. This new
exhibition traces the legendary American humorist’s 1867 voyage to the Mediterranean
and his subsequent book through original documents, photographs, artwork, and
costumes, as well as an interactive media experience.
by New-York Historical in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation,
it is curated by Michael Ryan, vice president and director of the Patricia D.
Klingenstein Library, and Cristian Petru Panaite, associate curator of
sail from New York for a great adventure abroad, Mark Twain captured the
feelings and reactions of many Americans exploring beyond their borders,
inspiring generations of travelers to document their voyages,” said Dr. Louise
Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “We are pleased
to partner with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation to present the history behind
this influential book by Twain, a uniquely American writer whose work helped to
define American culture in the postbellum era.”
What I delighted in most
was an interactive display where you can summon up a specific site Twain
visited, like the Holy Sepulchre, and read Twain’s notes and observations,
adjacent to a historic photo, that read like today’s travel blogs.
“We spurred up hill
after hill, and usually began to stretch our necks minutes before we got to the
top-but disappointment always followed – more stupid hills beyond – more unsightly
landscape – no Holy City. At last, away in the middle of the day, ancient bite
of wall and crumbling arches began to line the way-we toiled up one more hill,
and every pilgrim and every sinner swung his hat on high! Jerusalem!”
“Just after noon we
entered these narrow, crooked streets, by the ancient and the famed Damascus
Gate, and now for several hours I have been trying to comprehend that I am
actually in the illustrious old city where Solomon dwelt, where Abraham held
converse with the Deity, and where walls still stand that witnessed the
spectacle of the Crucifixion.”
“The great feature of
the Mosque of Omar is the Prodigious rock in the centre of its rotunda. It was
upon this rock that Abraham came so near offering up his son Isaac – this, at
least, is authentic – it is very much more to be relied on than most of the
traditions, at any rate. On this rock, also, the angel stood and threatened
Jerusalem, and David persuaded him to spare the city.”
expressed disgust at the way his fellow travelers treated hallowed sites. “Pilgrims
have come in with their pockets full of specimens broken from the ruins. I wish
this vandalism could be stopped.” But Twain himself carried back items (a list is
provided) including marble from the Parthenon in Athens, mummies from Egyptian
pyramids, a letter opener made from Abraham’s oak and olive wood from Jerusalem.
Artist in Exile:
The Visual Diary of Baroness Hyde de Neuville
Artist in Exile: The Visual Diary of Baroness Hyde de Neuville introduces visitors to a little-known artist whose work documented the people and scenes of early America. The exhibit, on view November 1, 2019 – January 26, 2020 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery of the Center for Women’s History, presents 115 watercolors, drawings, and other works by Anne Marguérite Joséphine Henriette Rouillé de Marigny, Baroness Hyde de Neuville (1771–1849). Self-taught and ahead of her time, Neuville’s art celebrates the young country’s history, culture, and diverse population, ranging from Indigenous Americans to political leaders.
All Aboard to Richard Scarry’s Busytown
holiday favorite returns to the New-York Historical Society this
season—reimagined to celebrate the 100th birthday of Busytown series author and
illustrator Richard Scarry. Holiday Express: All Aboard to Richard
Scarry’s Busytown (November 1, 2019 – February 23, 2020) showcases
artwork and graphics of Scarry’s characters like Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm from
publisher Random House Children’s Books alongside more than 300 objects from
the Jerni Collection’s antique toy trains, stations, and accessories. Using
Busytown stories and characters, dynamic displays explore the workings of the
railroad, the services it provides, and the jobs required to keep people and
goods moving. An assortment of kid-friendly activities, story times, and crafts
accompany the exhibition throughout its run, welcoming families into the world
of classic toys and trains. Richard “Huck” Scarry Jr., the son of Richard
Scarry, will make a special appearance on December 14 and 15. Holiday
Express: All Aboard to Richard Scarry’s Busytown is supported by
Bloomberg Philanthropies. Additional support provided by Random House
Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (77th St), New York, NY
At the start of Leg 6 of the Global Scavenger Hunt in Amman,
Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing are still in contention to
win, so several of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for
planning and booking, get help from the hotel concierge, and be generally
unrestricted by the rules but still enthralled by the challenges of the
But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a
difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that
proves problematic requires the team to travel one way to or from Petra along
the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t
take that route and the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing
how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.
We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Amman W, have our meeting and get our booklet with the scavenges, and a bunch of us (no longer competing) pack into a taxi to visit an ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD. We cross the street to a local restaurant, where we enjoy a meal of rotisserie chicken served with rice, and get a sense of this ancient city.
Whereas Abu Dhabi seemed unreal in many respects – a modern
invention, manufactured even – Amman, the capital of Jordan, is very real and
reflects its age as an early city. Jordan is where one of the largest Neolithic
settlements (c. 6500 BC) ever discovered in the Middle East exists; Citadel
Hill contains early Bronze Age tombs (3300-1200 BC). By the beginning of the
Iron Age, Amman had become the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the
Bible as Rabbath-Ammon (“rabbath” means capital, or “king’s quarters”). We can
look out from the high floors of the hotel to the hillsides crammed with houses
and imagine what it might have looked like.
All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen
various means to get there. I find myself on the 6:35 a.m. Jett Express Bus
with three of the teams, including one that is in second place in the Global
Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Five others (including my
teammate) hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing),
and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and teenage son Luka are
traveling separately. Each of us leaves at a different time by a different
conveyance. But what a surprise! We all wind up at the same mid-way trading
post at the same time. Hugs all around.
Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and
then by hearing a New York Times Travel Show talk about “Petra at Night,” I
decide to arrange my own overnight stay so I don’t have to rush back. I learn
that the Petra at night is only offered twice weekly and am lucky enough to be
there for a Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none
available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a
hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance
to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of
the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it within seconds.
The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the
morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5
City of Petra
We travel 240 km south from Amman (120 km north of the Red Sea
city of Aqaba – the trip through the countryside is interesting – the vast
emptiness, the sand, flocks of animals. Wind turbines!
The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company
has put on a second bus to accommodate all the passengers – arrives at the
Petra bus station next door to the entrance to the archeological site at around
I use our Jordan Pass (which Chalmers had obtained in advance,
providing pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two
consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy
the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).
While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact,
they don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point of coming at
all?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, immersing
myself in the scenes and the details, knowing I will return in the evening and
the next day.
I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view of the Church painting (and Indiana Jones movie) that comes into focus as you walk through the cavern (known as the Siq) with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then the teaser of The Treasury through the opening. It is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra is a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much was built during the Roman era (The Great Temple where Brown University is doing archaeology and the Colonnade).
All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance – it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury (an electric cart is available for those who have difficulty walking in addition to horse-carts).
It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable.
Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking
place – you can take trails that bring you up to fantastic views. One of the
toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down
again (and one of the challenges on the scavenger hunt – in fact, visiting
early and doing the hike is worth 500 points).
I decide to reserve that for the next day.
The city of Petra, aptly known as the Rose-Red City for the
luscious color of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were
carved, was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs, and is today one of the world’s
most famous archaeological sites.
The Siq, the main road that leads to the city, starts from the
Dam and ends at the Treasury. It is a rock canal 160 meters in length, 3 to 12
meters in width and reaches up to 80 meters in height. The main part of the Siq
is created by natural rock formation and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans.
If you look carefully, you can see a channel carved from the
rock to capture and even filter water – the secret to how Petra was sustained.
At the start of the Siq the original Nabataean dams are visible, and these
prevented flooding in the Siq and collected water for use.
Then, through a narrow, curving break in the rock, you get your
first teasing glimpse of The Treasury, just as Frederick Edwin Church painted
it in 1874.
According to the website, www.visitpetra.jo, it is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices (stalls sell the spices). Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD. The earthquake, combined with changes in trade routes (and politics), eventually led to the city’s downfall.
“The city was pretty much abandoned by the middle of the 7th
century and lost to all except local Bedouins,” according to the website, www.visitpetra.jo. “But in 1812, Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt set out to
rediscover Petra. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to
take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the
West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting
visitors and continues to do so today.
“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were
cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and
following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded
street and churches” the ruins of which we can explore.”
I climb the path up to the Royal Tombs and go into cavernous
rooms – I can’t tell if it is the rock’s own configuration or whether the
surface has actually been painted or carved to expose swirls of different
colors and textures, but they are exquisite.
“In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city,
human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra,
where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge,”
according to the website.
Walking back out through the Siq, you have to keep moving to the
side to let pass the horse-drawn carriages which go through at quite a clip.
The park closes at about 6 p.m. and reopens at 8 pm for the
8:30-10:30 night program (it is operated separately and privately from Petra).
I still have to get my pack, which I have left with the fellow at the CV
Currency Exchange, just before you enter ($5 tip) and get to the hotel, which I
had thought was within walking distance (0.7 mile), but turns out to be totally
uphill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate since I don’t have very much local
My el cheapo-supremo hotel (more of a hostel than a hotel), The
Rose City Hotel, turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part is the name and
the front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I think the fellow made a
mistake and has brought me to a room under construction (or rather
deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower,
cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that is falling apart, only a small bed
and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that are too
disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no
bugs. So this will do for a night, I think, laughing to myself about my room at
the five-star, ultra-hip, chic and luxurious W Hotel (which is like living in
art, it is so creatively designed) I had left behind in Amman.
I head out just after 8 p.m., walking down the hill into the
park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the mile-long
stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking
how dramatic and wonderful. It turns out to be the best part of the evening.
After 45 minutes of walking (it is dark in the cavern), I arrive
at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1,000 people sitting on carpets. I
stuff myself into a place. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the
event, but The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some
traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then
garish neon-colored lights are projected against The Treasury, completely
destroying the mood. And then it is over at 9:30 pm (not 10:30 p.m.). People
start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so I leave, too. I hike back up the
hill to the hotel getting lost so a fellow very nicely leads me to where I need
to go. I fall asleep to the meowing of feral cats just outside the window.
Solitude at Petra
My overnight adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am
able to return to the archaeological park as early as 6 a.m. The hotel
proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. I take my
pack with me and find a nice man at one of the refreshment stalls at the bus
station who offers to hold it for me for the day.
When I arrive at Petra, who should I come upon at 6:14 a.m. but
the Lawyers Without Borders team! What are the odds! (Literally on the run, so
not to lose time, Zoe tells me of their amazing adventure in a tented camp
about two hours away where they could get their scavenger points being
photographed on a camel, so they were up at 4 a.m. and had to organize a taxi
to get here by 6 a.m.). Rainey and Zoe have to literally race through Petra and
do the strenuous hike up to the Monastery in order to earn their 500 Global
Scavenger Hunt points.
I could be more leisurely because I am not trying to earn
points. Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is
unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points.
There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of
people stopping and posing for selfies. And once inside, there is perfect peace
also at The Treasury – the camels perfectly positioned to re-create the 19th
century paintings of the scene.
As soon as you arrive, though, you are swooped upon by a legion
of guides. One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the
overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100 percent
and hope I will be able to hike the Monastery Trail if I take it slow.
A word about the guides – they try to convince you that they
will take you places you can’t go yourself, which is highly dubious– but though
I don’t hire any, what I observe is that they are very knowledgeable, very
considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you
have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provide the
camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and
the carriages work very hard (the animals work even harder). Later, though, I
see guides leading people up the Monastery Trail that spend their time on their
cell phone coordinating their next gig.
And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look
pretty good) – and you realize that Petra was a trading center, a stop along
the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have
looked like even then. And I am sure the experience was the same for the early European
tourists 150 years ago, guides, merchants, donkeys, camels and all.
I walk through the park again, this time to hike the Monastery
Trail at the other end of the park. I get some scouting information from people
coming down and begin the steep ascent up stone steps. It is a very interesting
hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors and the views
back down, but because of the market stalls and refreshment stands set up along
the way. (You can also take a donkey up, which means that hikers have to keep
moving aside for the donkeys). I wish I had my hiking sticks with me (the hike
reminds me of the Bright Angel trail up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon) –
a fellow from Spain hiking with his mother, offers a hand when I trip (then we
take a wrong turn and find ourselves scrambling over boulders, instead of
climbing the stairs).
The Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger
than The Treasury – one of the largest structures carved out of a rock face (if
I have that right). The hike is absolutely worth it and feels so satisfying
when you make it to the top. There is a lovely rest stop at the top (as well as
stalls improbably situated along the way and a refreshment stand picturesquely
set about two-thirds up the trail with a stunning view).
But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett
Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive at the W Hotel after the 8 p.m. deadline
for the Global Scavenger Hunt teams but have informed Bill that the bus likely
won’t be back until after 9 p.m., and I won’t miss a flight to our next
destination, will I?)
I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the
entrance to the Monastery Trail, a veritable oasis, where I sit outside under
trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At
this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I have had in the early
morning when I had Petra to myself when I see coming at me some 2,000
passengers off the MSC ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC ship, and hundreds
more off a Celebrity cruise that look like an invading army. Each group is led
by a guide holding high a numbered sign (I spot the number 50) for their group.
My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is
located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend
for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early
morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate price).
I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum,
sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers
an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – with some
250 artifacts and displays that explain extremely well how Petra developed, the
Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious
engineering and the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three
kingdoms. Artifacts including art as well as everyday materials going back to
the Stone Age are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays
that are engaging and informative.
Petra was designated a World Heritage Site on Dec. 6, 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named Petra one of the 28 places you should visit them before you die.
(More visitor information from Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, www.visitpetra.jo)
I board the Jett Bus
(it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the three-hour trip
Abu Dhabi is one of those places
where the impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At
least for me. Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt is yet another instance
of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself,
and undoing stereotypes and caricatures.
Yes, Abu Dhabi is about conspicuous
ostentation. That part of the pre-conception seems validated.
But what I appreciate now is how an
entire nation state was built relatively recently out of a chunk of desert. The
skyscrapers and structures have grown up here in a matter of decades, not
My first awareness comes visiting
Fort Hassan, the original defensive fort and government building, and later the
sheik’s residence built around (it reminds me of the White House, which is both
the home of the head of government and government office). Fort Hassan has been
restored (not rebuilt) and only opened to the public in December 2018. It
provides the history of Abu Dhabi (https://qasralhosn.ae)
Qasr al Hosn, as it is properly called, is the oldest and
most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent
structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure
overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement
established on the island.
It consists of two major buildings: the Inner Fort (originally
constructed in 1795) and the Outer Palace (1939-45). Over the centuries, it has
been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council
and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the
narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.
Transformed into a museum in 2018 after more than 11 years
of intensive conservation and restoration work, Qasr Al Hosn is a national
monument that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement
reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to a modern, global metropolis,
with displays of artifacts and archival materials dating back to as far as 6000
You see photos of how the
fort/palace looked in 1904, with nothing but desert and a couple of palm trees
around it. Today, it is ringed (yet not overwhelmed) by a plethora of
skyscrapers, each seeming to rival the next for most creative, most gravity-defying,
most odd and artful shape. It is like a gallery of skyscrapers (New York City
Museum of Skyscrapers take note: there should be an exhibit) – for both their
art and engineering. I note though that as modern as these structures are, they
basically pick up and mimic some of the pattern in the old fort. And the
building boom just seems to be going on.
And then you consider this: it’s all
built on sand (and oil). “In 500 years from now, will these be here?” Bill
Chalmers, the organizer of the Global Scavenger Hunt for the past 15 years,
remarks. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been
standing since the 11th century despite earthquakes and world
events, and Yangon, where we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda that dates back
There is also a Hall of Artisans
which begins with an excellent video showing how the crafts reflected the
materials that were at hand (eventually also obtained through trade) and then
you see women demonstrating the various crafts, like weaving. (Indoors, with
very comfortable air-conditioning and facilities.)
From there, I walk to a “souk” at
the World Trade Center that had stalls of some traditional items – wonderful
spices for example – but in a modern (air-conditioned comfort!) setting, and
directly across the street from a major modern mall promising some 270
different brand shops. Souks are aplenty here.
My walk lets me revel in the
skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal
Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
I find myself dashing to get to the
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where I had pre-booked the 2 pm tour. I didn’t
realize how far it is from downtown – a 35-minute drive. The taxi driver, who I
learn was recruited to come work in Abu Dhabi from his home in Ghana along with
many other young men, and lives in an apartment building with other migrant
workers, has to stop for gas and I worry I will miss the tour altogether.
The visit to the Falcon Hospital is
truly a highlight of a visit to Abu Dhabi. It is fascinating to learn how these
prized birds are handled. We are taken into the treatment area, surprised to
see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting
room for their “appointment”. Their owners drop them off for the day for
whatever checkup or healthcare they require; others stay in the falcon hospital
(the biggest in Abu Dhabi and one of the biggest in the world), for months
during their moulting season, when, as wild falcons, they would otherwise live
in the mountains for six months. They are provided the perfect cool temperatures
they would have in that habitat, before coming to the desert in spring to hunt,
and later to breed.
We get to watch a falcon being
anesthesized – they quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws
into the gloved hand holding him, and his face is quickly stuffed into the mask
and put to sleep. His claws, which normally would be shaved down in the wild,
become dangerously overgrown in captivity; the falcon doctor also shows how
they can replace a feather that has become damaged, possibly impeding the
bird’s ability to fly or hunt (they can carry prey four times their weight).
The feather has to be an exact match, which they match from the collection of
feathers from previous moultings. Then we get to hold a falcon. Not
surprisingly this is one of the scavenges on the Global Scavenger Hunt (worth
35 points in the contest to be named “World’s Greatest Traveler”).
We learn that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the
first public institution in the United Arab Emirates providing comprehensive
veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. It was established by
the Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and opened in October 1999. The Abu
Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become the largest falcon hospital in the United Arab
Emirates and in the world, caring for 11,000 falcons a year and more than
110,000 patients since its opening.
From being established as a purely veterinary facility,
the ADFH has expanded in the fields of education and awareness, training and
research. Due to the huge demand the falcon hospital has became a full-fledged
specialized avian hospital for all kinds of birds and poultry species in 2006.
In 2007, it added services for a wide variety of VIP pets and in 2010 opened an
animal shelter. In 2011, it began its own falcon breeding program and breeds
Saker falcons for the H.H. The Late Shk Zayed Falcon Release Program.
2007, ADFH opened its doors to what has become an award-winning tourism program
and has become the most important tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi – for good
It is a thrilling and unique
experience. I meet a woman from Switzerland who is engaged in a four-week
internship at the falcon hospital, learning how to handle and care for the
falcons – information she will bring back as a high school teacher. She tells
me the falcons are very kind and gentle and bond with their owner. The feeling
is clearly reciprocal – these prized falcons, which can cost up to $1 million,
can fly on an airplane in the first class cabin with their owner (they have to
have their own passport to prevent illegal trafficking), have their own seat
and their own menu (fresh killed meat).
The Grand Mosque
Next I go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand
Mosque – an experience that is not to be believed. If you thought the Taj Mahal
was magnificent, a wonder of the world, the Grand Mosque which was built in
1999 and uses some of the same architectural and decorative design concepts,
vastly surpasses it, in architectural scale and in artistic detail. Not to
mention the Taj Mahal is basically a mausoleum, while the Grand Mosque is a
religious center that can accommodate 7800 worshippers in its main sanctuary,
31,000 in the courtyard and altogether up to 51,000 worshippers for such high
holy days as Ramadan. At more than 55,000 sq. meters it is the largest mosque
in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. And every
cubic meter of it spectacularly decorated – the courtyard is one of the largest
mosaics in the world.
I time the visit to arrive about
4:30 pm in order to be there at dusk and sunset – and go first to what is
labeled “the Visitors Happiness Desk” – how could I resist? The two gentlemen
who manned the desk (surprisingly who are natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent
of the population here come from some place else) are extremely well suited to
their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who
should come down the escalator but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small
world!), so we visit together.
The experience of visiting is
surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected
(especially after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar where even when
the stones are hot enough to fry an egg, you have to walk completely barefoot).
Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free). (I
look like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)
Indeed, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque “aims to cultivate interaction between Islam and world cultures… Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the Grand Mosque was to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity by creating a haven that is truly diverse and inspirational in its foundation. The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and drew design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries, to create this glistening architectural marvel accommodating 40,000 worshippers and visitors at a time.
“The open-door policy invites tourists and celebrants from all around the world who can witness the spectacular onion-top domes, the reflective pools that engulf the courtyard and the iconic prayer hall, which not only overflows with blissful sunlight, but also houses the world’s biggest chandelier and carpet, both meticulously handmade. Be sure to spot the calligraphy encircling the hollows of the domes, etched with verses from the Quran and painted with gold leaves in An-Naskh lettering.”
When you arrive at the Visitors
Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you walk underground to where
there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a
tunnel like an airport (an electric cart is available for those who can’t walk
distances; it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its
The public tour (an absolute must)
is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free.
(Fortunately, Margo manages to get us on the last public tour of the day which
had already left, getting the guard to let us slip under a barrier.) Our guide
is a delightful young woman who cheerily walks us through and points out the
amazing art and details. The mosque is massively large in scale, but looks
Just as we leave a touch of sunlight
breaking through clouds that make the structures even more beautiful, if that
were possible. By the time we get outside, the lights have come on (www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/Home ).
I ask the Happiness guys where to go
for the best view of the Grand Mosque after dark, and, instead of the adjacent
hotel where I had first been directed, they point us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al
Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view is
Global Scavenger Hunt Challenges
We had arrived in Abu Dhabi about
midnight local time the night before, after having left our hotel in Myanmar at
5:15 am, flying an hour to Bangkok where we had an eight-hour layover challenge
(I only managed to do a water taxi on the canal and explore the Golden Mountain
and some buildings and watched preparations for the King’s coronation (I later
heard it was for a parade that day). Then flew six hours to Abu Dhabi where we
gained 3 hours (that is how we make up the day we lost crossing the
International Dateline and why it is so hard to keep track of what day or time it
is), so for us, midnight was 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and
Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt tells us this was the
most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver
to Vietnam was the longest airline trip).
We have had a full day in Abu Dhabi
to do our scavenges. Tonight’s scavenger hunt deadline is 10 pm, when we will
learn where our next destination will be on the 23-day day mystery tour. Only
five of the original nine teams are still in contention to win the title,
“World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next year).
The scavenges are designed to give
us travel experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to
people and immerse us in cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that
would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in their home.
“It is always a good thing to be invited for dinner with a family in their
home. If you are, and you do – please do bring something nice for them, be
patient and be gracious. Of course, we want proof.”
Another is to “hold an informal
majlis with actual locals (people actually from UAE and not at any hotel) over
an Arabica coffee; talk about a few things like the future of Abu Dhabi, oil,
tourism, arranged marriages, Western values, etc.” That would earn 35 points.
Other possibilities: ride “the
world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks and
returning champions, did that and said it felt like 4G force); walk the
Emirates Palace from end to end and have a “golden cappuccino” (they literally
put gold flakes in the cappuccino, this is Abu Dhabi after all) for 35 points;
take in the grandeur of the Presidential Palace, only recently opened to the
public, and visit Qasr Al Watan, a building within the compound dubbed “’Palace of the
Nation” (complete with huge white domes,
lush gardens and dramatic chandeliers, the new landmark is intended to give
visitors a stronger understanding of the UAE’s governing traditions and values.
There is also a spectacular nightly show.) (50 points).
Many of the scavenges (including
mandatory ones) have to do with local food, because foods and food preparations
are so connected to heritage, culture and environment and bring people
together. One of the scavenges here is to assemble three flavors of camel milk
from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).
Unfortunately, an attraction we all
wanted to visit, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was closed. The museum, which opened in
November 2017, is a collaboration with the famous Louvre of Paris, France, and
intended to be a “universal museum in the Arab World,” focusing on “what unites
us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures or
civilizations, times or places.”
The pioneering cultural project
combines “the UAE’s bold vision of cultural progression and openness with
France’s expertise in the world of art and museums.” The museum was expected to
exhibit Leonard Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, considered the most expensive
painting in the world (purchased for $450 million at auction in November 2017,
believed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sulman), but delayed the exhibition.
A lasting impression that I will
carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi is that its theme this year is
“Year of Tolerance” which also goes to what we have experienced here:
attractions and programs intended to promote understanding of Islamic history,
heritage and culture.
Our accommodation in Abu Dhabi is
the five-star St. Regis (just about all the accommodations arranged for the
Global Scavenger Hunt are five-star), which serves the most extravagant
breakfast. Purposefully, our ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, Bill
Chalmers, has arranged it so we will have two, lavish breakfasts here, much to
our collective delight.
The hotel has a stunning rooftop
pool and bar (what a view!) and is connected by a tunnel under the busy
boulevard to the beach on the Persian Gulf.
We gather together at 10 pm in the
lavish lobby of the St. Regis, excitedly trade stories about our travel
adventures during the day. Inevitably, I am jealous of the things I didn’t do,
couldn’t fit in to do – like visiting the Fish Market, the Iranian Souk, the
Presidential Palace! (can’t believe I missed that), built for the tidy sum of
$5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30 pm).
And then we learn where we are going
perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final day on Leg 3 of the Global
Scavenger Hunt, in which we set out from Yangon to travel about the country,
making a triangle that takes me to Bagan and Inle Lake and back to Yangon to
fulfill the Par 5 challenge on this a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.
45-minute taxi ride from the delightful, five-star Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle
Lake is wonderful – I catch people driving oxcarts and donkey carts and people
riding the backs of trucks, villages and pagodas. But I have some trepidation
about Heho Airport because of the snafu in booking my ticket, resolved
long-distance by text to my son in New York to phone the online booking agent,
as I bounced around on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. But I arrive,
am checked in to Golden Airlines without incident, and relax during the
45-minute flight back to Yangon.
morning flight gives me time to explore Yangon which I didn’t have when we
first arrived on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt from Vietnam, and were
given our challenges, to travel around Myanmar and return to the Sule Sangri-la
Hotel by the 6 pm deadline.
the airport, I attempt to take the public bus back into downtown, but after two
buses pass me by, I take a taxi instead.
back, I review a brochure I picked up at the airport which mentions a synagogue
in Yangon – in fact, the last synagogue in Myanmar. So I resolve to find it.
turns out it is only a 15-minute walk from our hotel, the Sule Sangri-la,
bringing me through various bustling market streets and shopping districts. The
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue itself is set on a busy market street where there are
chickens and fish for sale – the chickens clucking, the fish squirming to get
out of their container (I see one jump out of its container), the rich scent of
spices, and every other manner of item you can imagine.
the time I arrive at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, it is 1:40 pm – which proves
extremely lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday).
Inside, it is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. At one
point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the mass migration
of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one
of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for
generations, a plaque notes.
not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market,
which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I am surprised to see
all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as
well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I come
upon a seller of interesting post cards, and find the post office on the third
level (one of my traditions of travel is to send home postcards, which not only
have stamps, but mark the date and give some visual and personal notes). Also,
I have been impressed by the absolute lack of political messaging in the streets,
but here in the market is one art seller who has images of Myanmar’s most
famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wondering about the name, I later learn that Bogyoke
Aung San market is named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung
walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away, to refresh (it is 104 degrees),
in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which I have been saving
for the late afternoon (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger
Hunt is to visit at dawn or dusk), so that I will be there at dusk (but back at
the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges), but nothing could have
prepared me for the experience of seeing it.
as I am about to leave, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I
went on to Inle Lake, walks in. She relates that after a snafu with her airline
ticket, she had to hire a taxi to drive her back to Yangon (ironic because I
couldn’t get the airline to cancel my ticket when I changed my plan to go to
Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures). We go off
together to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located west of the Royal
Lake, on the vast, 114 -acre Singuttara Hill.
cleverly hires a guide to show us around this vast, vast complex and it is
fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, he tells us.
the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive
Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other
holy relics. It is breathtaking.
The Shwedagon Pagoda stands 326
feet high, its dome covered in 60 tons of gold (we watch workmen on scaffolding replacing some of the
gold plates). At the very top, too small to be appreciated from where we stand
at the base, is an orb, 22 inches high and 11-inches wide, encrusted with 4531
diamonds, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. The base is
surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side.
There also are four sphinxes, one at each corner, with six leogryphs (a lion-like
creature). Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda. are Tazaungs (shrines) in
which are images of the Buddha and where offerings are made.
There are also figures of elephants crouching
and men kneeling and pedestals for offerings all around the base. In front of
the 72 shrines surrounding the base of the Pagoda, there are images of lions,
serpents, ogres, yogis, spirits, or Wathundari. Among the most dazzling art is
a Jade Buddha. There are also mystical and mysterious places, like the well
where Buddha’s sacred hair was washed and Buddha’s foot print.
the highest achievements of Myanmar’s sculpture, architecture and art, there
are hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues spanning nearly 2500 years. It
is known as Shwedagon, “the Sanctuary of the Four,” because it contains relics
of four Buddhas who had attained Enlightenment.
We move among the bustling
activity of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers,
worshiping, and meditating.
interesting is coming upon a procession of families celebrating the induction
of two young boys into the monastery.
Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived in Yangon – was it just four
days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of magnificent.)
could easily spend hours here, but we must dash back in a taxi to get back to
the Global Scavenger Hunt group, arriving a few minutes past the 6 pm deadline
(we aren’t competing to win the challenge to be the “World’s Best Travelers,”
so we did not have to turn in our scorecards documenting our scavenges, though,
in fact, we have been doing as many as we can.
a hosted dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all of us trade our stories of adventure
and exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle
Lake. One of the scavenges invited the teams to take part in a volunteering
opportunity and Lawyers Without Borders, the team from Houston, volunteered at a
Youth Development monastery in Yangon. “The monks take in, house,
feed and educate orphans from far-flung and remote villages around the
country,” Zoe Littlepage writes on her blog (http://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com). “My favorite
part was eating lunch with the kids. They sing their prayers before they
can start eating.. magical.” (Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Houston, are
on their 12th Global Scavenger Hunt, and are five-time champions,
and their law firm helps support the philanthropic works of the Global
Scavenger Hunt Foundation.)
return to the hotel to get our four-hour notice and learn where our 23-day
“Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next: an eight-hour layover
challenge in Bangkok and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in
Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.
are out the door at 5:15 am (the hotel sends us off with breakfast boxes), to
get to the airport.
is worth noting that in addition to having a unique alphabet and language,
Myanmar (formerly Burma) asserts its identity by keeping its clocks half-hour
different from its timezone.
realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed ordering our day,
a concept rather than an invention. We lost a full day crossing the timezone
during that first flight of more than 14 hours, and have been picking up an
hour or so here as we go.
end of this Par 5, Leg 3 dash through Myanmar, SLO Folks, a team
from central California who are the returning champions from last year’s Global
Scavenger Hunt, earned the second most points with 37 scavenges in Yangon,
Bagan and the point rich area of Inle Lake for 2,055 points; and Lawyers Without
Border, a team from Houston on their 12th Hunt (they have won it
five times) had the most, completing 52 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan & Inle
Lake earning 2,745 points.
Having set out from Yangon, Myanmar on
our Par 5 Challenge on the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world
mystery tour in which we solve scavenges to amass points in order to win the
title, “World’s Best Travelers,” we arrive at Bagan airport.
after arriving at the Bagan airport in Myanmar (and paying the mandatory ticket
to the archaeological zone, 15,000 Kyat, or $12), we see why Bagan was only
this July was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site: known as the city of Temples,
Bagan has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas within 16 square miles,
its ancient ruins rival Angkor Wat in Cambodia, though in Cambodia, the
prevailing colors seem grey and green, while here, they are the red, orange and
beige of sandstone. Temples here are as common as skyscrapers in Manhattan,
dotting the plain.
The profusion of
temples is astonishing. The stunning architecture and the fact that they are
centuries old is mind-boggling. On top of that, you realize they have survived
earthquakes as recent as 2016 when nearly 200 temples were damaged by a 6.8
that Myanmar was shut off from the world for 60 years, only reopening since
2011, Bagan is still relatively unknown and draws fewer tourists than so many
of the world’s great archeological sites that are endangered by their very
popularity. In Bagan, you have the feeling of discovery and authenticity. Here,
local worshippers vastly outnumber Western visitors and you can be immersed in
are so many temples, some are just out in overgrowth that makes you think of
fairy tales with the castle buried by a forest. Some of the most breathtakingly
beautiful architecture comes immediately as we set out. We stop the taxi to
the taxi driver who takess us from the airport, is a delightful man who speaks
English very well, and immediately expresses appreciation for us coming to
visit his country. On our way to the hotel, he stops where we ask to take
pictures. We decide to hire him to take us around and make an appointment for
him to come back at a certain time. (Had we been competing for points and to
win the crown, we wouldn’t be allowed to hire a taxi for a whole day or use the
driver as a guide).
hotel, Aye Yar River View Resort in Old Bagan, inside the city walls, which I
booked on hotels.com, is absolutely lovely – walking distance to several of the
places I want to visit (such as the Archaeological Museum) and some of the
temples, with an absolutely lovely pool (so welcome in the heat that exceeds
100 degrees), and open-air restaurant.
instead of racing out to start on the scavenges as other teams have done (some
racing from the airport to Mount Popa, an hour’s drive away), I find myself
losing a frustrating couple of hours trying to switch my travel arrangements
from Mandalay to Inle Lake. Making the reservation on the overnight bus (first
class!) to Inle Lake turns out to be easy on the JJ Bus website,
www.jjexpress.net); booking the hotel which I select from the list Bill
Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt organizer and ringmaster, has provided, on
hotels.com is a cinch, but the flight to get back to Yangon on Saturday in time
for the 6 pm deadline in is the real problem. Because of the national holiday,
I can’t get through to the airline itself, not even the hotel manager who does
her best, in order to change my booking on Golden Airlines from Mandalay. I can’t
even book a new flight. But finally, I make the booking through an on-line
the others are having lunch, I only have to stroll out the front gate of the
hotel to come upon temples and archaeological sites. I wander over to the
Shwe-gu-gyi Hpaya (temple), which the
sign (in English) notes was built by King Alaungsithu in 1141. The temple is
built on a high platform, topped by a sikhara, or curvilinear square-based dome
and has a projected porch, or vestibule.. A stone inscription describes the
merit of King Bayinnaung in 1551.
in this immediate vicinity, walking distance from the hotel are: Mahabodhia
Pagoda (1215 AD); Shwe Hti Saung Pagoda (11th C), Saw Hlawhan Pagoda
(598 AD), and the Lacquerware Museum.
take note of a tourism school and a sign that says, “Warmly Welcome & Take
Care of Tourists.”
we set out with our taxi driver, San Luen, to visit some of the notable temples
(there are 2,000 in Bagan) – we only have a day. It’s 108 degrees (116 with
heat index). We set out initially
following some of the scavenges which steer us to prime places and experiences.
Our first stop is Dhammayangyi
Temple, one of the most massive structures in Bagan and one of the most
popular for visitors. It was built by King Narathu (1167-70), who was also
known as Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’. Luen drives us to a side
entrance so we will have a shorter distance to walk over the extremely hot
ground in bare feet (not even socks are allowed in Bagan). Here in this holy
city, strict rules mean we can’t even wear slippers or socks into the temples,
but have to walk over intensely hot sand and stone, baking in the 108 degree heat.
Luen calls it “the Temple of the Evil King. I later learn that
Narathu ascended the Bagan throne by murdering his father, the king, and built
this temple as penance. “It is said that Narathu oversaw the construction
himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between
bricks they had laid. But he never completed the construction because he was
assassinated before the completion.” Apparently he was assassinated in this
very temple in revenge by the father of an Indian princess who Narathu had
executed because he was displeased by her performance of Hindu rituals.
I guess thanks to Narathu, the interlocking, mortarless
brickwork at Dhammayangyi, is said to rank as the finest in Bagan.
We wander about what feels like a labyrinth of narrow
hallways to discover the art inside. The interior floor plan has two
ambulatories. Almost all the innermost passage, though, was filled with brick
rubble centuries ago. Three of the four Buddha sanctums also were filled with
bricks. What we see in the remaining western shrine features two original
side-by-side images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas
– they are magnificent.
Coming out of the temple, we come upon some of the most
wonderful pastoral scenes of women leading a herd of goats, temples in the
A short distance away is another temple, Sulamani Phaya, “The Ruby of Bagan”, which
dates from 1183 AD. Considered the most frequently visited temple in Bagan, the
Sulamani was built by King Narapatisihu, who found a small ruby on the ground
on the Bagan Plains and built a temple in its place. A description notes, “The
word Sulamani means ‘small ruby’ and is a fitting name for this sand-orange and
elegant ‘crowning jewel’.The temple is surrounded by a high wall; its layers of
terraces and spires give the structure a mystical fairytale appearance. Inside,
intricately carved stucco embellishments adorn the doors and windows.”
We drive passed
the Ananda Temple, known as the
“Westminster Abbey of Burma” for its elegant and symmetrical design,
intending to return to visit. The golden spire on top can be seen from miles
across the Bagan Plain and is lit up at night by spotlights, creating an
impressive beacon in the sky. The temple is known for its four gold-leaf Buddha
statues, each standing an impressive 30 feet tall. Built in 1090 AD, Ananda
Temple is one of the largest and best-preserved temples in Bagan and is still
very important to local people. The temple was damaged in the earthquake of
1975, but has been fully restored and is well maintained. In 1990, on the
occasion of the 900th anniversary of its construction, the temple spires were
Shwesandaw Pagoda is considered one of
the most impressive temples in Bagan. Standing 328 feet high, it is visible
from a great distance. You can climb to the top for a wonderful view of the
plain. It also is an excellent place for interacting with locals as they come
to worship. One of the first to be built with what has become a classical
golden bell shape, Shwesandaw became the model for Myanmar’s pagodas. The
pagoda has survived invasions and natural disasters but has undergone renovations.
Thatbyinnyu Temple is distinctive
because it is one of the earliest two-story Buddhist temples and, unlike many
other temples in Myanmar, is not symmetrical. At over 120 feet tall,
Thatbyinnyu towers above nearby monuments. The area around it is picturesque
and offers a panoramic view of Bagan.
Gubyaukgyi Temple is known for having
the oldest original paintings in Bagan. According to notes, “The interior walls
and ceilings of the temple are covered with ancient murals that tell stories
from the previous lives of Buddha. The murals have been well-preserved because
the temple is lit with natural lighting from large perforated stone walls. Each
mural is paired with a caption written in old Mon. These captions are the earliest
examples of Old Mon in Myanmar making it an important site for the study of the
ancient language. No photography is allowed inside the temple, in order to
preserve the murals for future generations.”
heat (114 degrees with the heat index) has gotten to Margo who wants to go back
to the hotel. After a swim in the gorgeous pool at the hotel, I set out again
with Luen at 4 pm to take me to a nearby village known for crafting the lovely
lacquerware. I wander around – seeing the crude living conditions (they don’t
have running water but they have electricity), and am invited in to watch
people as they craft. At the entrance to the village, there is a large retail
shop and workshop of master artisans.
on my way back from the village, about 5 pm, when I see a message on my phone
from the online booking agent that the airline booking from Inle to Yangon did
not go through – I basically would be stranded. The booking app gives me a
California 24/7 help number to call.
interferes with my plan to see the sun set and watch the golden light take over
the dramatic landscape.
The setting of
the temples on the Bagan Plain make for expansive views – one of the reasons
you should look for opportunities to get to a height, preferably at sunrise, or
late afternoon toward sunset, when the light and the colors are most dramatic.
For this reason,
one of the popular ways to see Bagan is taking a hot-air balloon ride is an
incomparable experience to see the thousands of temples scattered across the
Plains of Bagan, Balloon tours
normally begin at 6:30 am, just a few minutes after sunrise. They offer a
bird’s-eye view of the monuments in the misty orange morning light. The
picturesque spectacle of the temples at sunrise from red balloons above, has
become iconic for travelers in Myanmar. Hot-air balloon flights in Bagan
normally cost around $330 per person and are seasonal (from October to March;
book in advance).
Another is to drive about 1 ½ hours outside of Bagan to Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, climb to the top and see down at the whole plain laid out in front and visit the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery at the top. Several of our group did that, literally racing by taxi from the airport so not to lose valuable time for our all-too-brief stop here on our Global Scavenger Hunt.
There are also river cruises, an archaeological museum, crafts like cotton weaving and lacquerware, oil processing, palm sugar production. Almost none of it am I able to take advantage of because I have abbreviated my time here and frankly, my experience in Bagan proves a lesson in the frustration of poor planning, but a learning experience, none the less.
Many of the
scavenges bring us to these important sites, but also to experiences. Among the
mandatory experiences in Bagan is to try toddy juice or Black Bamboo; finding
the “Rosetta stone of Myanmar” in the Bagan Archaeological Museum, where you
learn the interesting origin of Burmese distinctive alphabet of circles and
curleycues; rent a horse cart for half a day to compete 3 scavenges.
though Bagan is surprisingly compact and it doesn’t take long to travel from
one incredible sight to another, seeing Bagan properly would require planning
and sufficient time. I don’t have either but I chalk up my visit to a preview
for a future visit. You should spend at least two or three days here.
at the Aye Yar River View Resort, the manager again tries heroically and fruitlessly
to reach the airline directly but says the office has already closed. (I highly
recommend the Aye Yar River View Resort, located Near Bu Pagoda, Old Bagan,
meet up with Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks team from California who were last
year’s Global Scavenger Hunt champions, who are also going to Inle Lake on the
overnight bus and we go together to one of the two restaurants listed in the
scavenger hunt (more points!). The first is closed; the second is a lot of fun.
(Many of the scavenges involve food.)
the taxi driver, picks us up to go to the bus station.
I ride on the night-bus to Inle, at 10 pm, bouncing and rolling on the roads
that quickly turn into mountain passes, I text my son in New York to call the
airline in California. The texts go back and forth. “There’s no ticket, no seat.”
“We got you a seat, yay!” “No seat, he made a mistake. Drat.” “A seat, yay!” (On
the same flight as I originally booked! Yay!).
continues as I bounce along the overnight bus on twisting, winding roads
through the hills and darkness to Inle Lake.
Joyous Journey Express (JJExpress) bus is actually geared for foreign tourists –
first class modern buses with comfortable reclining seats, providing passengers
with a blanket, bottle of water and snack, even some variation of a TV monitor
which I couldn’t figure out (but no onboard bathroom – the driver stops when
necessary). In busy season, they even do a pick-up at your hotel. (www.jjexpress.net)
is only a two-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Yangon (formerly
known as Rangoon), Myanmar, the third leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day
around-the-world mystery tour. We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Sule
Shangri-la, around noon. We will have our meeting at 2:30 pm when we will get
our booklets, spelling out the challenges we will face in the Golden Land.
60 years closed to the world, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was only
reopened to the outside world in 2011, so I am most intrigued to see it for
myself. The country has also received horrible press over the persecution of
the Rohingya people, which raises controversy for Bill Chalmers, who
meticulously organizes the Global Scavenger Hunt. But it encapsulates his
philosophy, bordering on religion, that appreciates travel as a way of forging
understanding, bringing people together and yes, fostering progress and change.
Throughout this Global
Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date With the World” – where we don’t know where we
are going next until we are told when to go to the airport or get ourselves
there, and along the way, complete scavenges and challenges – we are
encouraged, even forced, to “rely on the kindness of strangers,” to interact
with local people even when we can’t understand each other’s language. (Towards
this end, using cell phones or computers to research, access maps or GPS is not
Though it is a conceit
to think we can parachute into places and understand the nuances of complex
issues, travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding
of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly,
not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways.
In very real ways,
travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Isolating people is not how
change happens – that only hardens views and makes people susceptible to
fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human
history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
Chalmers offers this to ponder: The point of a travel boycott is
to force a government to reform their ways (corruption, human rights, democracy
and such) is based on the concept that tourism income mostly goes into the
hands of government, not the people, so enables their power and policy. But
others believe that tourism is not only economically helpful to locals, giving
them the means to improve their living conditions, but vital to pro-democracy,
humanitarian movements because of the two-way flow of information.
balance, Chalmers tells us, “I don’t like the idea of a boycott. Travelers are
serving as ambassadors, doing fact-finding. This country is emerging from decades
of isolation – there are problems, humanitarian problems on a large scale. It
is a troubled country with great suffering.
witness for yourself. Enjoy the rich culture, the people, play journalist,
bea reporter, have conversations, learn
and gain perspective. Parachuting in can’t give you full expertise. All acquire
more accurate idea, local perception. Talk with locals, see for yourself.
issue with not coming is you paint a broad picture about everyone. When we
travel, a lot of people disagree with our government but don’t take it out
against us as individuals. We practice diplomacy of engagement. Not coming
won’t change minds but possibly, coming can help change minds.” I contemplate
that point: imagine if the people we meet as we go around the world held us
personally responsible for caging migrant children and keeping parents
separated in conditions that wouldn’t meet the Geneva Conventions requirements
is breathtakingly beautiful,” Bill tells us. “Say yes to things. There are
extraordinary sights.” But he isn’t naïve. Anticipating the problems,
frustrations we will have, he gives us a list of to-do’s and don’ts (buy food
and water before getting on a train, ferry or bus; Myanmar roads are among the
most dangerous; have a safe word between
teammates that is code for “danger.” Travel,
he says, is about “conquering fears, heat, holidays.” Indeed, the fact it is
Myanmar’s New Year’s Day and many services are closed becomes a major issue for
The Global Scavenger Hunt is also about teamwork, and one of the rules is that you can’t separate from your teammate (Chalmers actually feels very guilty about the possible friction the competition can foment in couples). So, though we are not officially competing for points, I go along with my teammate, Margo, who wants to travel to Mandalay instead of Inle Lake, which I become extremely excited to see after hearing about this enchanting place, after visiting the temple city of Bagan.
learn that the Myanmar leg is designated a Par 5 (very tough, the highest is
Par 6). The challenge we are given is to spend the next two nights on our own,
that we have to go to two of the three cities (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle
Lake), but can only take two flights (necessitating ground transportation between
two cities of the triangle) and have to be back to The Sule Shangri-la in
Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday. Chalmers spends much of the time spelling out the
special rules for this leg of the contest, the winner of which is designated
“World’s Greatest Traveler”.
“Today the real travel test will begin. Our teams collective travel savvy and travel IQ will be tested here in Myanmar… in this daunting, breathtaking, frustrating, exhilarating haunting, sacred, dynamic, traditional, thrilling, rapidly changing (and I could go on and on) destination! It will be an interesting four days. Have fun and be safe folks,” Chalmers writes on the Global Scavenger Hunt blog.
We spend the next 3 1//2 hours organizing where and how we will travel to Bagan, Mandalay and back to Yangon. Under the rules of the contest, we are not allowed to use our own computers or phones to book flights or hotels, or even the hotel concierge, but have to go out and find a travel agent. That proves problematic because of the holiday, but Kim says that a fellow on the street has told her where there is a travel agency. Sure enough, he is waiting for us on the street (internal warning light goes off) to walk us down dinghy alleys to the agency which looks and smells like a hovel. Another team is already there, handing over a wad of cash, since the agency isn’t accepting a credit card (ostensibly because of the holiday). I get nervous and suggest we leave, and make the bookings on our own (since we are not competing, we can use our computers). But this proves an interesting experience.
By the time we finish, I only have time to walk down a modern boulevard to the Sule Pagoda, which sits at the center of the city as well as the city’s political and economic life.
According to legend, the stupa was built even before the
more famous Shwedagon Pagoda
during the time of the Buddha, which would make it more than 2,600 years old.
The Sule Pagoda served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the
2007 Saffron Revolution.
the last day of the New Year celebration and place is packed with people
bringing offerings, lighting candles and spilling water at their Weekday
shrine. It is dusk when I arrive, and I watch the moon rise and the sky deepen
in color to azure blue, the brilliant gold of the pagoda a blazing contrast. A
guide immediately comes up to me to offer to take me around and checks his book
to see exactly what day of the week I was born, so I know which is my shrine
(Thursday is my shrine; the mouse is my animal); he shows me a photo of
President Obama striking one of the bells during his visit here.
the way back, I walk across a bridge that spans the boulevard for a sensational
photo of the pagoda.
have yet to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Fortunately, I will have more time
to explore Yangon when we return on Saturday.
are up at 4 am to leave at 5 am for the airport for a 7 am flight to Bagan on
Golden Airlines. The hotel has very kindly packed a to-go breakfast. It turns
out several of us are going on the same flight to Bagan.
morning in clearer light, having become entranced by the description of Inle
Lake, a villages built on stilts and only accessible by boat, and hearing one
team discuss the overnight bus they will take from Bagan to Inle Lake, I decide
to go on my own to Inle Lake instead of to Mandalay. But that depends on
whether I can get seat on all-night bus, a hotel in Inle Lake and a flight from
Inle Lake on Saturday morning to be back in time for the 6 pm meeting/deadline.
Saigon is the second leg of nine
during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date with the
World,” where we don’t know where we are going until we are given 4-hour
notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you are not allowed to use a
phone or computer for information or reservations, hire a private guide, or
even use a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to
force you to interact with locals. Though we were not officially competing for
“World’s Best Travelers,” my teammate, Margo (who I only met on this trip) and
I basically followed the rules in Vancouver and during our first day in Vietnam,
but we had to deviate on the second day.
It is shortly before 4 pm in Ho Chi
Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, by the time we have received our book of scavenges
from Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt ringmaster (as he likes to be
called), who has ranked Vietnam a “Par 3” in difficulty (on a scale of 1-6),
strategized what scavenges we will undertake, and after a swim in the hotel’s
pool (so hot even the pool was like a bathtub), we head out of the Majestic
Hotel, a five-star historic property, toward Ben Thank Market, one of the
scavenges on the list.
Built in 1870 by the French who
colonized Vietnam for 100 years, it is where then and now, you can find locals
and tourists alike, with row after row after row chock-a-block full of almost
everything imaginable. (Be prepared to bargain aggressively; the shopkeepers
are even more aggressive). I come away with a few things I can’t bear to pass
up, when Margo realizes a second scavenge we can accomplish: tasting three
separate fruits (there is heavy emphasis on “experience” scavenges that involve
food, and Vietnam, Bill says, is one of the great food places in the world).
We find a fruit stand and sure
enough, there are fruits I have never seen before, including one, called dragon
fruit, which looks like it was divined by JK Rowling for Harry Potter; the
others we sample: rambutan, mangosteen, longan. We are standing around these
ladies, asking them to cut open the various fruits so we can sample them to
complete the scavenge, taking the photos we need to document.
Among the other scavenges on the
list here in the market: to find a cobra in jar of alcohol; the tackiest
souvenir in market; and a wet market (which befuddles most of us and turns out
to be the meat market which is hosed down).
We ask locals for directions to our next stop: the Water
Puppet Show of Vietnam at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. It seems
walkable but we get lost along the way (technically we can’t use the GPS on the
phone, but we aren’t competing – we still get lost) and are simply amazed at
the rush and crush of mopeds (mainly) and cars in this city of 9 million where
there are an estimated 7 million scooters, and the range of what people carry
on them without a second thought. I literally stand in a traffic island to get
the full view.
We are also amazed we are able to
function having departed Vancouver, Canada, for Vietnam at 2 am for a 14-hour
flight to Taipei, followed by an hour lag time before a 3-hour connection to
Saigon. Time has become a very fluid, meta thing.
But we forge on (the secret to
avoiding being taken down by jet lag is to stay up until bedtime). This is also
on the scavenger list and as it turns out, we meet several other teams from our
The performance proves fabulous and unexpected – the puppets actually emerge out of water; water is their platform. There is musical accompaniment on traditional instruments and the musicians also become the characters and narrators and sing. This is quite an outstanding cultural performance – the artistry and imaginativeness of the puppets (who swim, fish, plant rice which then grows, race boats, dance, catch frogs and do all sorts of things with incredible choreographed precision, is incredible.
These seem to be folk stories, and the music is traditional. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Vietnamese. It confounds me how they do such precise choreography from the water (the puppeteers are behind a gauze curtain; controlling with bubble wands horizontally). The artistry is magnificent and the experience an utter delight. (Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 558 Ngyuyen Thi Minh Kahi Street, Dist.1, HCMC, www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com).
From there, we take a taxi to hit
another scavenge, going to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitesco Financial Tower, which
affords beautiful scenes of Saigon. From here, all you see is a very modern
city. Many of the buildings below are decorated in colored lights. This is an
example of modern Saigon that is rising. (Skydeck senior rate $5; some places have
senor rates, others don’t, so ask)
at the Hotel Majestic, we go up to the 8th floor M
Club, a delightful rooftop bar, where there is a band playing. The open-air
views of the Saigon River and the skyline are just magnificent. Margo orders a
“Majestic 1925” which is Bourbon, infused orange, sweet vermouth, Campari,
orange bitter, orange zest, and smoked – the whole process done on a table
brought to us, as a crowd gathers to watch the mixocologist light a torch to
generate the smoke. Quite a scene.
Day 2 in Vietnam: Confronting the Horrors of War
my first afternoon and evening in Ho Chi Minh City was devoted to seeing the
city as it is today – albeit dotted with centuries old buildings, markets and
heritage – the second day is a somber, soul-searching journey back in time.
Indeed, as I wander around the city, you don’t see any obvious scars of the
One of the signature sights of a
visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels. My teammate Margo has already
been there and doesn’t want to return, but I feel duty-bound to see it for
myself. I wake up early and go down to
the hotel concierge to see if I can get on the 7:30 am half-day trip to the Cu
we travel outside through the city, the guide points out sights and gives us a
history of Vietnam, going back to the Chinese who came in the 1600s, the French
who came later, the Vietnam War and the aftermath, while hardly disguising resentment of the
North Vietnamese who have flooded into the city since the war. Ho Chi Minh City has grown from a city of 2 million to 9
million today, with 7 million scooters (here, instead of Uber car, you summon a
an opportunity to see more of the city and soon we are in the countryside,
traveling through small villages and farms where we see cemeteries, markets,
houses, a few animals, rubber plantations. We see new agricultural techniques
being used on farms and pass an agricultural research center. It is about an
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense
network of connecting tunnels located in the
Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which the
Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the
Vietnam War. The site has over 120 km of underground tunnels with trapdoors,
living areas, storage facilities, armory, hospitals, and command centers, and
were used going back to 1948 against the French, and later against the
The visit is profound, and though
the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that
wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was
no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want
the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple,
especially not in the world of geopolitics).
You have to appreciate the
commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they
did – creating a virtually self-sufficient underground community, planting
booby traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and
old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come
up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give
away the location of the tunnels).
We get to climb into a tunnel, and
can go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you
have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. It is hot,
uncomfortable, you feel claustrophobic and it is a bit terrifying.
Our tour guide leads us through – he
is incredibly kind and considerate. He gives special attention to the children
who are visiting – grabs them when they want to go down into a tunnel where he
fears there could be scorpions (he shows us carcasses), snakes or rats.
There is also a shooting range where
you can shoot an AK 47 or M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire
gives you some sense of what the people were living through. There was a
hospital, a sewing area where they would make uniforms, there is a trap door to
escape. We see where they would have made sandals from old tires. We watch a
woman demonstrate making rice paper; another at a sewing machine where she
would be making uniforms, a rifle hung close by on the wall.
All of these things which we see
above ground are recreated from what they would have looked like underground.
There were also constant bombings –
B-52s could fly from the base in just two minutes time.
We get a sense of that in
documentary-style films that are presented at the end. The film uses grainy
black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save
the Fatherland from US aggression, which basically depicts much of what we have
visited in the tunnels, but as these places were used during the war. I must
say that as gruesome as the film is, the only “propaganda” element is that it
does not discuss the civil war between North and South Vietnam, only that the
war was perpetrated by the Imperialist United States.
Many of the scenes show women and
girls as soldiers. “They took unexploded bombs and turned them into their own
weapons; they took from the Americans the new guns but never stopped using
traditional weapons – the traps devised to hunt animals were used against the
American enemy… Every person can be a hero. They had to live in poverty but
wouldn’t retreat. A rifle in one hand, a plow in the other. Attacked in the
morning, they farmed at night so they had enough food to win the war. The
Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead zone, but they lived underground.”
what we see in the film looks exactly like what was put on view here. We see
people climbing through tunnels to the sound of gunfire.
and female enrolled to kill enemy..Cu Chi guerrillas would rather die and
become hero for killing Americans… never afraid of hardship to kill
Americans. In hardship, they came together.”
Believe it or not, they actually
make the experience as pleasant and as comfortable as possible, which somehow
masks the terror of the place. Children smile and laugh as they get to descend
through the camouflaged openings in the ground.
We leave the tunnels after spending about two hours here.
On the way back, the guide asks if we would like to make a detour to visit a factory, created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory, 27-7 HCMC.Co.Ltd, produced cigarettes, but today, Handicapped Handicrafts produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered and inlaid items.
returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings
that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind
up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards,
buying stamps and writing the cards, the sweat streaming down my face and
stinging my eyes so that a nice lady hands me a tissue). Then onto the
Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at
4), so I go on to the War Remnants Museum.
have trouble following the map, so when I ask directions of a young man, he
leads me through back alleys to the entrance of the museum, which I visit until
it closes at 6 pm, because there is so much to see and take in.
You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war.
The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context of the image, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the soldiers walking along as this young girl is coming down the road in terror, their demeanor in such jarring contrast to these fleeing Vietnamese. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame and wonder why there has never been accountability for war crimes.
only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war
are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should
have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another
exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.
The first floor, which should be
visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the place where American prisoners of
war, including Senator John McCain, were kept. Here, though, is where it can be
said the propaganda offensive takes place – there are photos showing a female
nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds, the caption noting how she had put
down her gun in order to care for him. This exhibit brings things up to date,
with the visits of President Clinton in 1994; in another section, it notes that
Clinton’s visit brought the end of economic sanctions, and with the country’s
shift to market economy, produced revitalization, as measured by the boom in
But on the bottom floor, they show
photos of Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
This floor also has an exhibit
devoted to the peace movement in the US and around the world, with some famous
incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State four. There is a photo of John Kerry, who
went on to be a Senator, Secretary of State and candidate for president, testifying to Congress in his military
uniform, on the necessity of immediate and unilateral. “how do you ask a man to be the last man to
dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
special exhibition, “Finding Memories” attempts to recreate the struggle of the
people of Hanoi and Haiphong to overcome the pain and loss of war. “It helps
those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane
wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in the
‘Hilton-HaNoi’. Finding Memories is an opportunity for Vietnamese people to
develop greater pride for their victory – a 20th century miracle;
for American pilots to recall a serene period of their lives; as well as for
each and every visitor to understand the severe destruction and painfully grim
nature of war, in order to call for all people to work together and dedicate
our efforts to build a world of peace and love.”
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I look around for an American who
might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and
saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but
only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what
they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of
reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist
language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all
Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption
is particularly telling: it shows an American hauling off an ethnic minority,
noting “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing
about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living
near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.”
I leave feeling that the experience
is close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and
remorse that is deserved.
meet at 8:30 pm to hand in our score sheets and share stories – one team got up
at 5 am in order to get to the floating market; a team was able to get on the
street market food tour, where they take you around by scooter (they only take
8 and it was closed out); another took a cooking class.
get our notice of where we are going next:
be up at 6 am for 7 am bus to airport for 9:35 flight…. to Myanmar!