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Why We Still Travel – Witnesses to Terrorism Speak

It was a beautiful September morning.  I and my colleagues went to work like any other day never suspecting that we would be witness to a world-changing, life-altering event.   Emily Vieyra-Haley, witnessed with me in New York to the events of 9/11, agreed to discuss what she saw, and why after being just miles away from a terrorist attack, she still travels.  I also discuss my thoughts.

You were witness to the horrific events of 9/11 in New York City in 2001.  What did you see?
Emily:  I remember standing with all my coworkers, my friends, at the windows of the office we worked at, on the 42nd floor, in Midtown.  I state the floor number to indicate we were at roughly a similar height to many of the people in the towers.  We saw the towers burning, burning, and one of us had the radio on. We were transfixed.  I heard one of my friends yell out, “Now they’ve got the Pentagon!” when the crash at the Pentagon was reported on the radio.  And then…one of the towers collapsed – I remember both distinctly and hazily – all of us screaming as it went down.  My friend Mike shrieked, “We’re watching 50,000 people die!” And it was at that moment, I think collectively as one, we all decided to leave the building.  We ran as one, to the elevators, and I remember pausing to think, “We were trained to take the stairs in an emergency,” but I think, we just were all desperate to get out of that building, to get out of that sad height.
How did the events of 9/11 affect you?
Emily:  I was afraid to leave my apartment in the morning to go to work; I had a ritual of locking the front door and looking at it a certain way because every day I thought this might be the last time I was ever going to be home.  There was a woman in my building who worked at Windows on the World – neighbors talked about how she diligently got up at dawn every morning and headed there; so it was on 9/11, and she never came home. There was a quote from, I think the NY Times, and I am only paraphrasing it here, but it struck me – it was, “Death could come to you while sitting at your desk in the morning.” I had bad dreams for months; and trembled and my mind blanked out every time the train got delayed in the tunnel on the commute to and from work.
How did the events of 9/11 affect your view of travel?
Emily: I was afraid, like many people, to get on a plane for months after.  But my sister and I went to London the next year – we swore to ourselves we would be vigilant and be loud if we saw anyone suspicious on the plane.  We also took non-American owned airlines – we felt that loud, proud American named and/or themed airlines would present an attractive target to anyone wanting to make anti-American statements.
Since the events of 9/11 you have been overseas several times.  Why did you go?
Emily: The first trip I made after 9/11 was to London to see a good friend; and I had to go – it wasn’t just due to the popular slogan, “if you show fear, the enemy has won”; it was more of, I need to go to prove I can do it, plus I have people I love all over the world.  Since then I’ve been to Germany several times, also, Austria, Italy, Ireland, and just this past October, Argentina for the first time in 31 years to see long-lost family.  I do still have the nervous alertness of looking around to see who else is on the plane; and I also take some valium with me to keep me calm as I am a bit of a nervous flyer anyway.
Do you still plan on traveling after the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium?
Emily: Yes I do; though I don’t have any travel plans yet, and I am glad I don’t right now.
What advice do you have for people who are afraid to travel because of terrorism?
Emily: I say oh I understand, but you also need to look at the whole picture and think, will I look back on my life in 30 years and have a lot of should haves and would haves? I think you should heed the travel advisements and warnings that your government gives you – i.e. Americans are targets for many reasons in the world (not just for terrorism), so I would listen to the warnings our government gives for safety, but also be aware of what is going on in the world and know if you are going to a depressed area, that you may be targeted for money scams.  For your own personal comfort – bring whatever makes you feel safe – a prayer book, a little token, no matter how silly you think others may see it as.  And just – always be aware of your surroundings; be looking out for suspicious behavior or packages.
On The Streets After the Towers Fell
As you can see, I was lucky to have such an extraordinary companion with me on 9/11.  I remember when I saw the second tower fall, I screamed, “They’re dead!  They’re all dead!”  I hope to never utter those words again.  I, like Emily, was one of the thousands of people on the street after the events of 9/11 walking toward home or what we perceived as relative safety.  When I walked out onto 42nd Street, I saw numerous bomb-sniffing dogs close to Grand Central Station; I panicked and ran and subsequently fell.  I realized that I had to keep my composure and walk uptown to my boyfriend’s apartment—away from the trouble and not toward it.  The walk toward my boyfriend’s apartment was like a slow-motion dream.  There were people lined up at ATMs and people leaving bodegas with numerous bottles of water—no one knew what was going to happen next.  When the fighter planes flew in, I and everyone else ducked uncertain of whether it was friend or foe above of us.  Someone yelled, “They’re ours!”  I arrived at my boyfriend’s apartment nearly uncertain of how I got there.

Lasting Effects of Terror and Why I Still Travel 
Witnessing the events of 9/11 has had a lasting effect on me—not all bad.  I learned that day firsthand what so much of the world has experienced—a war zone, destruction, a near police state, and the uncertainty of wondering if what and who flies over your head means you harm or is harmless.  My empathy for the world’s suffering has increased, and I find myself sending up my prayers heavenward when I see a nation suffering from terrorist attacks like Istanbul, so many cities in Iraq, Paris, and Brussels.   These things used to be things that affected others, and not myself.  I now know better, and I am humbled and in awe of others who endure such tragedy.

What I Learned from Witnessing Terrorism 
I still travel overseas, and I love it, though now, I am more curious about the suffering of the country I am going to visit.  Why have some of the Greeks I have met have a certain melancholy to them?  How have Italy’s artistic treasures and people endured after so many wars?  Why do the Irish still sing patriotic songs about being a nation?  I have learned that the trials a nation has endured are imbued into the culture and people of that nation.  I travel because I am still trying to overcome my fear of that awful day.  What better way to overcome fear than to face it?  I travel because despite the awful things people inflict on one another, humanity also built Rome, created the Uffizi museum, and saw fit to build the Acropolis atop a hill in Athens.  Outside of humanity’s accomplishments which engender hope, nature offers enduring hope everywhere just by virtue of its existence despite what we have done to it. 

Advice for Others 
The advice I have for others who are afraid of traveling because of terrorism is this:  do it despite hate—despite the possibility of death, for don’t we face our mortality every day?  Doesn’t every day we live bring us one step closer to our death anyway?  Why not see more of this interesting planet before we leave it?  Why not breathe in the majesty of another nation’s natural wonders, culture, victories and pain?

Do you want to see more of the world?  International Vacation Home Exchange can help.  Read testimonials, and see how it works.

Thanks to Emily Vieyra-Haley and writer Sona Schmidt-Harris - Follow her on Twitter at @Sonag2000

A Rustic Place to Unplug - Jackson Hole

There are many places to choose from when you plan a trip to the United States. Whether it is the white beaches of Florida, or the flowers of Central Park in New York City, or the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in California, there are certainly enough to see and do from sea to shining sea. Far from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, is the wild side to the United States. Places like Montana and Wyoming offer extraordinary rustic experiences for tourists and residents (complete with daily shootouts). One such place is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And if you have never been to Jackson Hole, then you are truly missing out.  

Work trips have brought me to Jackson Hole on two different occasions. Every time I leave, I always make it a goal to come back. The town is literally at the doorstep to the Grand Teton National Park. In fact, the regional airport here is within the boundaries of the National Park itself. A really quick history lesson about Jackson Hole - the very first people to settle in the region were Native Americans. The town became incorporated in 1914. Since then, the tourism industry has exploded as visitors from around the world come to explore the Grand Tetons, ski the local resorts, and raft the Snake River. The section of the Snake River that runs near Jackson Hole is notorious for its Lunch Counter and Big Kahuna rapids. I’ve rafted these rapids and I can say they are not for the faint of heart. You will get wet and you will scream and you will have a great time.

There are two seasons in Jackson Hole: summer and winter. In the heart of the town is the famous Town Square that features local eateries and shops. More on the Town Square in just a second. Just outside of town is the National Elk Refuge. According to its website, the National Elk Refuge, “provides, preserves, restores, and manages winter habitat for the nationally significant Jackson Elk Herd, as well as habitat for endangered species, birds, fish, and other big game animals.” A walking and biking trail runs parallel to the National Elk Refuge and you usually will see some wildlife from this trail. While driving to the airport, I spotted several bison and a herd of elk inside the National Elk Refuge. So be sure to bring your camera or some binoculars. I should mention you can book a tour through the refuge. I would strongly recommend booking a tour well in advance.

Jackson Hole is well known for its biking trails. The valley has more than 56 miles of paved bike trails that link the town of Jackson to Teton Village and Grand Teton National Park. There are also more than 100 miles of mountain biking trails. Don’t have a bike? No problem. There are several shops in town that rent bikes to visitors. After a bike ride in the shadows of the Grand Tetons, you can enjoy a number of après bike activities in town.

The pace in Jackson Hole is slow. There is really no rush to be anywhere. This is the perfect place to turn off your phone and unwind. You can take a stroll through the historic Town Square and shop. The Town Square has been the backdrop to a number of Hollywood western movies. The square’s distinctive arches (all made from elk antlers) is arguably the town’s main attraction. The Square itself is surrounded by dozens of galleries, bars, restaurants, factory outlets, and gift shops. The shops are set up as if you are walking along a boardwalk. During the summer months, you can hitch a ride through town in a stagecoach. I mentioned shootouts earlier. Daily shootout reenactments bring Town Square to a standstill as everyone stops to watch. It is an incredible and unique experience you won’t likely find in Times Square in New York City.

Aside from shopping, you can also walk along the bike path and watch wildlife pass you by. Or you can drive to a river or creek and try your hand at fly fishing. Local bands will often perform free shows at local restaurants or bars. There are regular performances at the historic Jackson Hole Theater. Phones are not required for any of the abovementioned activities so leave your phone behind. You don’t want to miss a single sight. This is a small town; if you blink, you will certainly miss a piece of the town that many of the locals here cherish.

I mentioned earlier there are two seasons: summer and winter. With that said, the population of the town tends to swell with tourists during these two seasons. If you want a great deal on flights and less tourist traffic, then I would recommend coming out during the off-season. If you have your heart set on hitting the slopes at a local ski resort, then book one of the International Vacation Home Exchange properties in Jackson Hole during the winter season. In fact, one of the vacation home exchanges is near the base to Snow King Mountain Resort. If you want to find your heart and soul in the Grand Tetons during summer, then now is a good time to start planning your trip. Jackson Hole was once a secret. The secret is now out as more and more people are adding the town to his or her travel bucket list.

About 55 miles north of Jackson Hole, is the south gate to Yellowstone National Park. You can certainly take a day trip through the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone, depending on the time of year. The road leading to Yellowstone National Park tends to close during the winter months so if you want to trek into Yellowstone during your trip, you may want to come out in the summer or fall.

American Airlines, Delta, and United all have flights into Jackson Hole. However, not all airlines provide daily flights into the town, so be sure to plan accordingly. And as always, safe travels!

Thank you to guest travel writer Carla Pruitt. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @crobscarla

Travel Keepsakes Keep Memories Alive

I had a great conversation with a colleague the other day. It was one of those conversations where you wanted to sit on the floor with your legs crossed like you did back in elementary school and just listen for hours. It started when I asked her about a beautiful scarf that she was wearing around her neck. That scarf was passed down to her from her grandmother. Her grandmother loved to travel the globe. The scarf was purchased from a market in Venice. The conversation continued about where her grandmother had traveled and the keepsakes that she would always bring back and have since been passed down to the next generation. I think I actually saw tears in my colleague’s eyes at one point. I think she missed her grandmother and the keepsakes were more then just items - they were also memories.

My mom is actually somewhat of a travel collector herself. She has a cabinet full of small bells that she has collected over the years. The bells are from different states, cities, and even National Parks. She probably has close to 200 on display and I can’t tell you how many are in storage. My mom says half the fun of collecting bells is exploring the different shops just to find the perfect bell to take home. I’ve been on some of those journeys with her. I can honestly say they were a lot of fun and a great way to explore a new city.

I am ashamed to admit that I fell off the keepsake wagon. I’ve been on several trips where the only thing I brought back was dozens of pictures that were uploaded to my Facebook account. Before smartphone technology, I always sought out local items. Usually it was either a picture frame, or a bar of sop that was made from a local vendor (and usually the bar of soap I would take from the hotel). I eventually ran out of room for the picture frames and my dog ate several bars of keepsake soap (my vet found this hilarious after a lunchtime snack landed us in his clinic).

So I stopped collecting items during my travels. After my recent conversation with my colleague, I think I need to get back on the wagon sort-to-speak. Now that I have a kid, I think it would be fun to acquire items from my travels that I can hand down to him. And then maybe he can pass down to his kids, as long as my dog doesn’t destroy whatever we bring back. The trick is finding items that I can bring through customs without any hassle; items that will fit in my suitcase; items that I can easy store or display at home.

If you just booked your International Vacation Home Exchange, and you want to embark on the keepsake journey with me, here are some ideas that I have been kicking around.

·         Small blankets or pillows made by local vendors
·         Key chains
·         Scarfs
·         Snow globes
·         Shirts that can be turned into quilts

I am still looking for suggestions. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

Thank you to guest travel writer Carla Pruitt. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @crobscarla.

Mom's Argument for Home Exchange Vacations

In my traveling prime, my husband and I would typically travel several times a year. I called it our hobby and that hobby took us to places like Italy, South America, and Mexico. Our running hobby took us to start lines in Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City. Our travel bucket list currently includes places like Iceland, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and London. We love to discover new places. We love to explore. We love to travel.
In early 2015, our hobby had to take a backseat to our newborn son. The money we would normally spend on flights, food, and souvenirs was being used for things like diapers and baby food. I am not complaining (expect for the price of diapers these days); I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. And our son is now getting to the age that we can resume traveling once again. However, a recent road trip taught us that traveling now is a lot harder. We now have an extra suitcase, a diaper bag, a stroller, and a car seat (required no matter where you travel) to pack. There’s also juice boxes, toys, and formula to pack. We also have to carefully consider accommodations now that we are a family of 3 versus a family of just 2. We have to strategically plan outings around bath time, nap time, dinner time, and bedtime.
We’ve stayed at hotels with our son and as a parent, I can honestly say the experience is always stressful. When we stay at hotels, we are always concerned about overnight meltdowns that could wake our neighbors. And sleep? We don’t sleep. Our kid knows we are in the same room so he would rather play with us then sleep. Keeping baby food and formula cool and edible is always a challenge, especially if the room doesn’t have a refrigerator.
Thus the argument for using a vacation home exchange. Now granted, not every home exchange property allows children, and that’s okay. Luckily, most home exchanges that allow kiddos. Here are some reasons why as a mom, I would argue that any family with small children should consider using a home exchange:
Separate rooms. Everyone sleeps better when our kid sleeps in a different room. Even the kid sleeps better and will usually sleep through the night. All we have to do is bring something for him to sleep in (i.e. the Pack and Play) during our vacation. There are even some home exchanges that have cribs available for use. Also, I should mention to parents that there are places that will allow you to rent things like cribs, rocking chairs and high chairs during your vacation. They may even deliver those items to your vacation home exchange. That means less stuff you will have to bring on a plane.
Kitchen amenities. Parents will agree with me on this one – bringing babies and toddlers to restaurants can be disastrous. Our kid does not sit still for very long so it is more convenient to cook meals at a home exchange versus going out to eat and risking a tantrum before the main course is served. Having your own kitchen also can help you save some money on your food budget. You can also store formula, juice, and leftovers in the refrigerator. 
Room for family. Many IVHE home exchanges feature multiple bedrooms. This means we can bring friends, family, and even the nanny. I like to think of them as the so-called village to child-rearing. And the bigger the village, the better.  
More storage. Depending on where we are staying, we may have more breathing room. Anyone with kids will tell you that they require a lot of stuff (see paragraph 2). In a home exchange, we would be able to stay organize with additional storage space.  
Kill time during naps. Aside from reading, there isn’t much you can do while waiting out a nap in a hotel room. I guess you could also nap. But at a home exchange, there may be some fun things you can do while the little one snoozes. The property may have a pool or a deck overlooking the ocean. Regardless, it beats sitting quietly in a hotel room staring at a wall for an hour or two.
Now if you are traveling with older kids, cost becomes a factor. Normally, you would have to pay for an additional hotel room. Not the case if you stay at a home exchange. Plus, there may be some amenities that will keep your kids entertained. If you have questions about the home exchange property and policies regarding kids, you can talk to an IVHE coordinator.

For more information on Home Exchange, download a free Home Exchange Guide.  The above graphics are on IVHE properties.  Thank you to guest travel writer Carla Pruitt. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @crobscarla. 

Final Resting Place for Las Vegas

The Las Vegas Strip is home to many world famous resorts and casinos. From the South Pointe Casino on the south end of the strip to Golden Nugget and the Fremont Street Experience, there is a lot of real estate for gambling, shopping, dinning, and shattered dreams and bank accounts. The first casino to call the strip home was the El Rancho, which opened in the 1940s. More casinos opened shortly afterwards including Hotel Last Frontier, the Flamingo, and the Desert Inn.

Many of the hotels that made Sin City the city it is today are now gone. Some hotels burned to the ground. Others were demolished for bigger casinos. It’s a lifecycle of casinos in the glitz and glamour of The Entertainment Capital of the World. The Dunes, Sands, Stardust, and the Hacienda were all once the hotspots for celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. These casinos have all since been imploded to make way for bigger casinos such as the Venetian and the Bellagio. The implosion of a casino is an event for those who live in the city. I like to think of it as a funeral. The service happens overnight and hundreds of people usually attend to see history come crashing down.

The neon signs that stood outside of these once famous casinos have a final resting place. And you don’t have to look far to find the cemetery. Just north of Fremont Street, is The Neon Museum. The museum features a collection of some of the most famous neon signs from the 1930s to today. The two-acre museum is next to the Boneyard itself, which houses more than 150 historic signs from the Stardust Hotel to the Algiers Hotel.

My husband and I toured the Neon Museum during a trip to Las Vegas. This was the second attempt to visit the museum. We didn’t realize on our first attempt that we needed to reserve a spot for a tour. A travel fail for sure but we learned our lesson. A few years later, we walked through the door to the final resting place for the history of Las Vegas. Our tour guide was a walking history book. He talked about the beginnings of the city and all of the major players. He also talked about YESCO – the company that started the neon sign business in the 1930s. We walked around the museum looking at the different signs and romanticized what life was like when these neon signs once glowed along the Las Vegas Strip.

Like I mentioned above, you will need to purchase tickets for a tour. If you catch a tour during the day, it will cost you $18 per ticket. If you want to tour the museum at night, the cost goes up to $25 per ticket. Daily tours usually sell out so plan in advance. Parking is free. The tour generally takes about an hour. Afterwards, you can visit some of the historic hotels that still stand today including the Flamingo and the Tropicana.

And since it is Las Vegas, you can plan an entire vacation that includes visits to the Neon Museum, Hoover Dam, and even the West Rim to the Grand Canyon (about 2 hours from Las Vegas). Need a play to stay? Just check out the many International Vacation Home Exchange properties around Las Vegas and surrounding communities. And as always, save travels.

Thank you to guest travel writer Carla Pruitt. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @crobscarla 

Love a Senior? Give the Gift of Travel

One of the greatest gifts we can give our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or simply a special elderly friend is the gift of travel.  Most seniors have collected enough material goods, and are now ready to enjoy experiences more than things.  This is part of what makes travelling with the elderly so rewarding; most of them really cherish and relish experiences.
After taking my aunt to New York and watching my parents include their parents in some of our family vacations, here is some of what I have learned about travelling with seniors:
Sometimes Seniors Just Want a Travelling Companion
Many seniors have the money and desire to travel, but simply want and lack a travelling companion.  A senior’s fear of travelling alone may seem unsubstantiated, but a study by Shelley Taylor at UCLA found that older adults do not pick up cues of untrustworthiness in others as much as younger people do.  Though older folk become more positive, they begin to trust the world and people more.  So doesn’t it behoove the younger and meaner of us to protect our elders from those who might want to take advantage of them generally or when they’re on vacation? 
In addition to a little bit of anxiety about travelling alone, a senior may just want to share his or her experience with someone.
Make Sure You Plan for Any Mobility Issues
I took my aunt on a trip to New York City; she has two artificial hips and one artificial knee, but she was so excited to go, she enthusiastically declared that she did not need motorized assistance at the airport.  I regretted not talking her in to it, because after a walk through the JFK Airport, she was pooped.  I learned to always plan for mobility issues.  For example, some seniors have a hard time stepping up into a van rather than stepping down into a sedan.  This was the case for my aunt.  Don’t be afraid to ask your senior what he or she will need when travelling.
People Have a Soft Spot for Travelling Seniors
I have been pleased and stunned with how most people treat travelling seniors.  It turns out that most people respect their elders.  When hailing a cab in New York, two people paid deference to my aunt, and offered us the cab that they themselves had flagged down!  I lived in New York for five years, and no one ever did that for me.  I also watched in wonder as an airport employee brought me and my aunt to the front of a long line.  If someone should offer your senior this courtesy, simply say yes; I can almost guarantee that if you are not disabled and under fifty years old, the chances of this happening to you are almost zero.
For Some Seniors Their Vacation with You is a Dream Fulfilled
I have heard almost nothing but good things about the younger generation taking the older generation on vacation.  My friend brought his mother over to visit him in Ireland; she had never been out of the United States.  Not only did she have a wonderful time, but she was surprisingly independent while she was there.  “She was really doing her thing,” my friend said.
When I took my aunt to New York, I thought I would need to slow my pace for her, but she surprised me—she wanted to do everything she possibly could including walking halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and she relished some of the characters we encountered.  One had a boom box and a yellow snake around his neck.  Another stopped to pose for pictures with my aunt though we had never met this man in our lives.
After our walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, my aunt excitedly and happily called her sister, “Was fϋr eine verrϋckte Stadt!” (What a crazy city!).   She enjoyed every minute of it.
If Possible, Why Not Treat Your Senior to a Luxury Vacation?
Seniors have earned the right to some luxury.  If you are able, why not treat one of them to a luxury vacation?  International Vacation Home Exchange has some exclusive luxury homes which are spacious and can house many people; both you and your senior guest can have some privacy, yet you will still have the comfort of knowing that your senior is with you under one roof.
Taking Your Parents on Vacation Is a Nice Thing to Do After All You Put Them Through
Remember all the things your parents did for you?  Remember some of the things you did which tried their patience?  Why not take them or send them on vacation to thank them for all that they did for you?  (even if it was just changing your diapers—that’s a biggie).
Plan Ahead for Senior Discounts or Accommodations
Whether or not you will be travelling with your senior, do a little more research.  There are often senior discounts or special accommodations offered or needed.  For example, when I was in Santorini, we stayed in a glorious hotel on a cliff side.  My husband and I climbed many steps every day, which was okay for us, but may be impossible for some seniors.  I spoke to the concierge who said that they had special senior housing near the top of the cliff side so that the seniors wouldn’t have to go up and down all of those steps.  It’s also okay to call ahead and ask the hotel or luxury home exchange owner what is needed for your senior(s).
If You Bring Seniors on a Family Vacation, Important Bonds Form between the Generations
My parents were very good at inviting and taking our grandparents on some of our family vacations.  There we were—three generations in a Dodge van motoring across the desert to Palm Springs.  My grandfather insisted on helping with the gas, and he enjoyed the temperate weather in the winter.  We grew closer to my grandparents, and I recall with great happiness the times we spent picking citrus in the sun at an old farmer’s home.  My grandfather came with us almost every year, and would reconnect with the old farmer.  Our holidays were enriched.
Take a Senior Back to His or Her Homeland
Whether your senior’s homeland is in Smalltown, USA or an exotic, exclusive locale, taking a senior back to his or her homeland is normally a wonderful experience.  My grandfather served as tour guide in the small, southern Utah towns where he was raised, and explained with great pride what buildings our great-grandfather had built.  You could see my grandfather come alive.
My aunt accompanied my grandmother to her homeland in Poland, which at the time she lived there, was Germany.  She had not been back to visit since she was seventeen years old.  My aunt said that as she and my grandmother walked the streets of Wroclaw, my grandmother’s happy tears would not stop coming.
Ready to help make a senior’s dream come true?  IVHE can help.  Peruse luxury home exchanges and see how it works.

Sona Schmidt-Harris – Follow me on Twitter @Sonag2000

Amazing Nature: Sandhill Cranes

Nature creates spectacularly amazing sites and seeing tens of thousands of birds overhead is one of them to experience.  Every year, for thousands of years, 80% of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes migrate through the Platte River Valley near Kearney Nebraska.  From late February to early April (and again in October) around half a million of these great birds stop for a couple weeks while on their epic journey of thousands of miles migrating from around the Gulf of Mexico up to Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
Their visit in the Platte river area is primarily for ‘fueling up’ for the next segment of their journey.  They weigh on average around 4 kilos / 9 pounds but during this stopover they gain up to 20% of their body weight for their continued journey north.  Sandhill Cranes have a wingspan of ~78 inches / 200 cm and fly around 38 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour).  During their migration periods they cover up to 450 miles (720 kilometers) a day.  With a lifespan of well over 20 years, they do this annual journey many times. 
The most exhilarating times to watch these great birds are just before sunrise and just after sunset.  This is when they are gathering in groups of tens of thousands for their night time rest.  In the evening these giant flocks will circle overhead, scouting out the area, until a decision is made on where to spend the night.  It is an amazing event to watch as what appears to be highly coordinated, the birds will gracefully fly a pattern to come in and land amongst the forming flock.  Remember that these flocks can up to ten thousand strong and each bird, in their own time comes in to land from the same angle.  It really is like there is air traffic control guiding them in.  Depending on the size of the flock, this process in the evening can take over an hour before all of them land and get settled.
Equally impressive but very different is the takeoff in the morning.  You will hear the Sandhill Cranes cooing and squawking well before sunrise.  At some magic moment they suddenly decide to takeoff.  So unlike the evening landing which are only a few birds at a time, the takeoff is almost at once.  To see thousands of these impressive birds suddenly take flight is awesome. 
During their couple week stay in the area the giant flocks sometimes stay together, but often they break up in search of food.  As this is plentiful Nebraska farmland,
they feast on the leftover grains in all the local fields.  By exploring the fields in a several mile radius of the river you will find the Sandhill Cranes feed away, putting on strength for their onward journey. 
You don’t need to be a bird watcher or bird fanatic to enjoy this miraculous wonder of nature.  After all there are up to several hundred thousand of these giant birds, so no chance of missing them.  By the way, it is not just Sandhill Cranes that stop in the Platte River valley to rest and revitalise – Eagles, Whooping Cranes, snow geese, pintails and mallard ducks, to name just a few are also here. 

A perfect way to enjoy Sandhill Cranes and the rest of your time in the area is with a vacation home exchange.  Right on the edge of Kearney Nebraska is a perfect vacation home for you to enjoy.  Hope you have the opportunity to visit soon; you will certainly cherish the experience.  

Ghost Towns Surrounded by Beauty

If you are looking for a little adventure, I would highly recommend a trip to Southern Utah. I just returned from a trip through the area, and every time I go to Southern Utah, I discover something new and exciting. More on my latest find in a just a second. First, the sales pitch. Here are a few reasons why you should visit Southern Utah.

·         Zion National Park
·         Snow Canyon
·         Red Cliffs National Conservation Area
·         Monument Valley
·         Goblin Valley
·         Dinosaur Discovery Center
·         Four Corners
·         Petroglyphs
·         Coral Pink Sand Dunes

To sum it up, if you are looking for a rather large sandbox to play in during your vacation, Southern Utah is the place to go. The community of St. George is about 2 hours from Las Vegas and has a few International Vacation Home Exchange properties for you to choose from for your visit. And be sure to bring sunscreen. Southern Utah tends to get rather warm during the summer months (think triple-digit Fahrenheit temperatures, plus 40 degrees Centigrade). Also, if you plan to hike through any of the abovementioned parks, be sure to check the weather. Flash flooding is common during the monsoon season.  

There is another “treasure” located in the heart of Southern Utah. And it wasn’t until recently that I realized it exists. The “it” is actually a ghost town that is located just minutes outside of St. George. The town is called Silver Reef. Here is the history lesson: Silver Reef was a mining town that was established in the late 1800s. The catalyst for development of Silver Reef was the discovery of silver in sandstone.  Once word of the discovery got out, the population of Silver Reef exploded. At one point, the town had more than 2,000 people walking the streets of Main Street. There were hotels, stores, saloons, shootouts, and a hospital. However, the population in the city began to decline when the last mine was closed in 1891. By 1901, most of the buildings in town had either been demolished or moved to neighboring communities.

More than a century later, remains of the town still stand today. The old Wells Fargo bank that once served the patrons in the town is now a museum. If you walk about 400 meters, you will see the final resting place for one of the several mines that was once the lifeline for the community. The town’s cemeteries are also accessible and within walking distance – a fact I didn’t even realize until after I returned home. There is also a gravestone marker for where a church once stood in town.

If you go even further back in time, you will learn that dinosaurs once roamed through the area. In fact, dinosaur tracks from the early Jurassic period have been found in the area. A few centuries later, Anasazi Native Americans were believed to have inhabited the Silver Reef area.

There is more to just the term “ghost town” at Silver Reef. There have been stories of actual ghosts wandering the abandoned streets. I didn’t see ghosts during my walking tour of the town. I did however, pause in the middle of a dusty dirty road and tried to picture what the town was like during its prime. I tried to picture the people and the buildings that once stood here before everything was lost to history. I closed my eyes and tried to listen for voices from the past. Maybe a distant relative of mine walked the same dusty road that I was walking. My imagination was working hard to fill gaps that online history narratives couldn’t. A reason why I adore ghost towns.

There’s no cost to visit Silver Reef; donations are accepted. Again, the ghost town is about 10 miles or so north of St. George. Silver Reef is not the only ghost town in Southern Utah. Those traveling to Zion National Park can swing by the ghost town of Grafton. That community was first settled in 1859 and some of the remains of the town can also be seen today. This ghost town has been used as a backdrop for a few movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you are interested in reserving a home exchange in Southern Utah, be sure to contact an IVHE coordinator. There are a few ways you can get to St. George. You can fly into Las Vegas and drive to St. George along I-15. Or you can fly into Salt Lake City and drive or take a shuttle. The trek from Salt Lake City will take you about 5 hours. If you do decide to come to Southern Utah, please let me know. I would love to hear about your trip!

Thank you to guest travel writer Carla Pruitt. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @crobscarla  
For more information on the area, read this blog on the St George area.

5 Must-See Medieval Castles in England

After living in England for several years, we’ve certainly seen our share of castles.  So many that every time we’d leave the house my kids would moan, ”We aren’t going to tour a castle, are we?”  As much as they complained, I think they absorbed more information on these history lesson tours than both their father and I combined.  I’ve put together a list of some of our most memorable castle tours that you are sure to enjoy as much as we did. 

1) Hever Castle
Hever Castle is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII.  It tops my list not only because of it’s a beautiful medieval castle but because experiencing its stunning grounds and peaceful lake will transport you back in time.  It’s located in Hever, Kent 30 miles southeast of London and was built in the 13th century.  The castle is 3 stories high and houses many antique furniture pieces.  The wooden beams are original to the castle and you’ll find many Tudor paintings on display.  Try to plan your visit on a beautiful, sunny spring day and you can take advantage of the rowboat rentals.   The views of the grounds and the gardens from the lake are breathtaking.  As far as attractions, they offer a water maze, jousting and archery which provide a full day of fun and entertainment. 

2) Tower of London
Located on the North bank of the River Thames in Central London, this castle is a family favorite especially for my boys with its torture chambers and dark dungeons.  Its most famous prisoner was Anne Boleyn.  She was later beheaded on the grounds of Tower of London for failing to produce a male heir and for accusations of adultery.  Many others were beheaded for not accepting Henry as the head of the New Church of England.  Tower of London is home to the famous Crowned Jewels exhibit which is a top attraction at the tower.  Be sure to book a tour with a costumed Beefeater as your guide to learn more details about the history of this famous castle.

3) Windsor Castle
Located in the English countryside of Berkshire, this castle was originally built in the 11th century.  It is the oldest occupied castle in the world and is one of the official residences of the Queen.  How do you know if the Queen is in residence, you ask? Just look at the flag flying above any Royal residence.  If the British Flag (the Union Jack) is waving in the wind then the Queen is NOT in residence but if the Royal Standard flag is flying high then the Queen IS in residence. 

4) Leeds Castle
This 900 year old castle is surrounded by a moat.  It is built on 500 park-lake acres and located in Kent.  The interior of the castle went through a massive refurbishment in the 1920’s and 1930’s when Lady Baillie, the last private owner, resided there.  The formal garden is truly spectacular.  There are many year round attractions and special events offered at Leeds Castle.

5) Dover Castle
With breathtaking views of the White Cliffs of Dover, this castle is located in Dover, Kent and was founded in the 11th century.  Known mainly for its defensive significance throughout history, it is also recognized as the largest castle in England.  You’ll be amazed as you tour the medieval tunnels, Saxton Church and Roman Lighthouse.  A tour of Dover Castle is a must-do for any war buff. 

Of course, these are just a few of the many awe inspiring castles found in England (just ask my kids), with each one offering its own history and attractions.  You can experience the splendor of England for yourself by booking your next home swap through International Vacation Home Exchange where any one of our luxury properties are sure to leave you feeling like Royalty. 

Thank you to travel writer Lisa Medeiros.  Follow her on Twitter @lisamedeiros_

France’s Catalan Coast –Mediterranean Meditation

Just over the Spanish border, France’s Catalan coast offers quiet pleasures.   From the gnarled arms of long-standing olive trees to the Pyrenees reigning silently over the vineyards and sea, this historical region beckons history buffs and resort seekers alike.  About ten years ago, I had opportunity of visiting Banyuls-sur-Mer, Collioure, and Port Vendres; it was both a restful and stimulating experience.
Birthplace of world-renown sculptor, Aristide Maillol, Banyuls-sur-Mer offers a quiet beach and vineyards nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  Also of note is the thalassotherapy institute, Thalacap Catalogne.  I enjoyed everything from seaweed treatments to vigorous exercise classes in seawater.
To be amongst the vineyards and see some stunning vistas, consider riding Le Petit Train de Banyuls.  The driver stops regularly for photograph opportunities, and it’s a great way to get an overview of the Catalan coast.
Centuries ago, the Knights Templar arrived on the French Catalan coast.  Amongst their many engaging activities in Banyuls-sur-Mer, one was winemaking.  Remnants of their activity remain today, and a tour is available to see a winery started by the Knights Templar.
Banyuls-Sur-Mer itself has a wine named after it—Banyuls Wine. It is a sweet, red wine said to have been produced since the thirteenth century. 
Dining in Banyuls-sur-Mer is a lovely experience.  Some of the restaurants are tucked pleasantly into old caves where wine was stored; this evokes a warm and cozy feeling. 
For rainy days, a visit to the Aquarium of Banyuls-sur-Mer is worth a visit.
Artistide Maillol’s cottage has been made into a museum.  Some of his sculptures are artfully arranged on the grounds, and it’s almost as if the sculptures breathe before you; don’t miss this tour.
Famous for the Fauvists who frequented it, Collioure was often the gathering place of Matisse, Picasso and other giants of the movement.  Said to have existed as earlier as 673, Castrum Caucoliber—a dramatic castle set on the Mediterranean, inspired not only the Fauvists, but continues to inspire artists to this day.  Collioure, like Banyuls-sur-Mer, has numerous vineyards. 
During my brief visit there, I found the people warm and accommodating, and the crepes—C’est fantastique!
Port Vendres
Port Vendres has a natural, beautiful harbor with numerous boats bobbing in the blue.  The town moves at a faster pace; a stroll through the streets is definitely invigorating.  Port Vendres is also known for its fine seafood restaurants and a rich history.
A Mediterranean Meditation
There is something about olive groves and vineyards on France’s Catalan coast that cultivate patience and meditation.  Perhaps it is the centuries-old traditions associated with the harvest, or the sheer age of the olive trees; perhaps it is the spirit of the numerous artistic souls who found solace and inspiration here.  Whatever it is, a visit to French Catalonia is a Mediterranean meditation.
IVHE has many beautiful exclusive home exchanges in France, one in French Catalonia.  See how this works.

Thank you to Sona Schmidt-Harris @Sonag2000

St. George, Utah – A Red Rock Reverie

In the southwestern corner of Utah on the Utah / Arizona border, St. George sleeps contentedly in a valley surrounded by red rock bluffs.   As the sun rises, the bluffs awaken in crimson and the residents, some permanent, some snowbirds, stir towards the day.
Dotted with an increasing number of second homes and golf courses, St. George is fast becoming another Palm Springs though dressed in red.  Pockets of sophisticated and cleverly designed desert homes are the architectural heart of the valley.  Some of these are exclusive exchange homes with International Vacation Home Exchange.
Near St. George is Snow Canyon State Park.  Located amongst the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Snow Canyon State Park is home to miles of hiking and equestrian trails.  Featuring primarily Red Navajo sandstone, the topography is interesting and beautiful.
Not only is Snow Canyon State Park nearby, but some of the world’s most famous nature parks are within driving distance.  Spectacular Zion National Park is approximately a 1-hour drive away, and Cedar Breaks National Monument, an enormous natural amphitheater of sorts with not only the regional reds but also entrancing yellows, is under a 2-hour drive just outside of Cedar City, Utah.   A 2 hour and 20 minute drive away, Bryce Canyon National Park calls to nearly everyone, particularly photographers.  I recall an enthusiastic visitor exclaiming at Bryce, “You wait your whole life to see something like this—your whole life”!  An average of 4 hours and 30 minutes away, are the otherworldly Goblin Valley State Park, the iconic Arches National Park, and the incomparable Grand Canyon.
Depending upon the time of year, while visiting these natural wonders, you are sure to see tour bus after tour bus of Japanese and German travelers; this tour of American Southwest parks has become very popular.  For a quieter visit, try touring in the autumn.  For a contemplative, reflective and apropos read in this region, try, Red:  Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams, a local author and enthusiastic conservationist.
If you want a faster pace, Las Vegas is only a 2-hour drive away; interestingly, you won’t escape stunning vistas on the way to more worldly pursuits.  To get to Las Vegas, you need to drive through the majestic Virgin River Gorge; it is a stunning ride with dramatic cliffs on either side of I-15—as beautiful as any state or national park.
For a visit to a cooler climate, consider Cedar City, just an hour’s drive away from St. George.  Home to The Utah Shakespeare Festival and a Globe-like theatre, there are also contemporary plays.  The festival takes place in the summer, and is a great reprieve from the heat
Family-centered entertainment dominates at the unmatched outdoor theatre of Tuachan near St. George.  The plays’ backdrops are dramatic red bluffs—a truly unique experience.
For fine dining and a nice view of the St. George valley, consider dinner at the Cliffside Restaurant.   For shopping, Coyote Gulch Art Village in inventive Ivins, Utah offers photography and other unique galleries.  IVHE has an spaciously beautiful exclusive exchange home in St. George (see video below).
For unmatched pampering, The Sagestone Spa and Salon at Red Mountain Resort features indulgence in a beautiful setting; my sister Laura said that the pregnancy massage she received there was the best massage she ever had.  Also featured is a healthy menu for lunch which I enjoyed.
Are you a history buff?  The St. George area has both ancient and more recent historical sites.  There is a tour of Brigham Young’s  home offered for free (St. George was a Mormon settlement).  For ancient history, consider the Little Black Mountain Petroglyph Site or the Dinosaur Discovery Site.
Wow!  Though I write about many wonderful places in the world, detailing just some of what the St. George, Utah area offers has made me want to return—to bask in the ambient, red light of morning, or to just visit my little sister, Laura, St. George resident.

Sona Schmidt-Harris @Sonag2000 and Special thanks to Laura Hafen, St. George resident and Sona’s Sister Extraordinaire
For another great blog on a ghost town in the area - read the blog Ghost Towns.  

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