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The Birthplace of Earth Day

I find it fun to learn about surprising things right in your own backyard, and the connection Warrenton, VA has to Earth Day was unexpected.

Airlie is a hotel and conference center tucked away in the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont region. That’s where Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator from Wisconsin, was inspired to take the social consciousness of the 60s anti-war movement and channel it into a message of environmental stewardship. It was also at Airlie that Senator Nelson revealed his plans to formally announce Earth Day to a group of students at the conference center. It became a defining moment for Airlie’s identity.

The main house of the Hotel and resturant

The main house of the hotel and restaurant.

The center began the Airlie Local Food Project in 1998 as a way to demonstrate sustainability by creating a 4-acre garden. A farm-to-table attitude is used in the hotel kitchens; the chefs and gardeners plan seasonal menus based on the time of year and what they can grow (and what they can find locally) to not only shorten the distance between farm and table but put money into the local farming economy. You can also learn about the food that’s headed to your plate on one of the garden tours, which include explanations of organic gardening, tours of the green house, chicken coop and a recently started orchard. You need to make sure you book in advance in order to have the chance to snack on some appetizers made from ingredients grown on the very plot of land you explored. You can also wash them down with a wine from one of the area’s many vineyards.

wine and horderves all sourced locally

Wine and hors d’oeuvres all sourced locally

Airlie isn’t just focused on the helping save the planet by feeding you well, they also continue a decades-old recycling and composting  program and they’ve upgraded all of their lighting  in the main building and all of the cottages to energy-efficient LED lighting. The parking lot even has PEP stations for your cars plug-in power needs.

You truly find yourself immersed in nature on the 1,000-acre estate. Much of the property is designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. The hotel has bikes that are free to use for exploring the property as you do your best to get back to nature.

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Checking out China

We’ve been doing a little planning the last few months, setting our travel priorities for the next few years. We both know that many things can get in the way of our “jet-setting” lifestyle. Things like new jobs, unexpected expenditures (new cars, new HVAC systems), or even political events (I’ve wanted to visit the ruins of Babylon for years but they’re in Iraq).

For the things we can control, like budgets, we find it’s best to start doing planning a couple of years out, like we did with our trip to Tanzania.  I find it’s always easier to save the money if you have a specific goal in mind, much like a PBS telethon. We did a little talking during one of our coffee dates and decided that China is our next big trip. We have a European adventure in the planning stages for next year, but we’ll get to that another time.

We (I) start out planning a trip to a place we’ve never been like most people do, with research. I admit some of the fun has gone out of that research; which used to involve going to a bookstore and perusing book after book as you sipped a cup of coffee and got to know your traveling companion (my friend — now wife — Amanda and I did a lot of that planning our first trip). I now just hit the sterile internet for faster and more varied results (especially if you have a specific reason you are taking a trip somewhere, like something your wife wants to do more than anything in the world).

Panda Search

You often get the paid adds right off the top, my instinct tells me to ignore them and go straight to the top searched sites. I, like most consumers, start the clicking and weeding out the results that don’t fit my needs. I also take a look at travel sites like Frommers and Fodor’s to see what they suggest as the must-sees and best itineraries and compare them to what’s offered by the tour companies.

I took a look at Wendy Wu Tours, which has a top-notch China tour that includes a visit to the Panda breeding facility in Chengdu, though the prices were in British Pounds and a little steep. The trips from Beijing Holiday and China Tours both had packages running around $2,300 (excluding air form the US). All three of these tours offer trips to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding  where you can actually hold a panda and volunteer (for a fee) taking care of the cute balls of black and white fur.

panda in tree

One of the best things about the internet age is if a company offers a crappy tour, they can’t easily hide it. Our next search is through review sites like Trip Advisor. The Beijing Holiday, China Tour.com and Wendy Wu Tours all got good reviews, giving us a lot to think about as we plan.  I’ve said it before, the planning of a trip is just as fun as taking it. We will keep you updated as we plan this next big adventure.

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A World Full of Cherries

Cherry Blossoms The cherry blossom (Sakura) is a well-known and ubiquitous symbol of Japan frequently depicted on traditional Japanese goods and art. The cherry blossom is particularly important in Japanese culture as it represents the end of the winter and the new life and growing season of spring.

The most popular cherry blossom in Japan is the Somei Yoshino, which has nearly pure white petals, with a hint of pink close to the stem. This variety of cherry blossom takes its name from the village of Somei (now part of Toshima in Tokyo). It was developed in the mid- to late-19th century at the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period. The Somei Yoshino is so widely associated with cherry blossoms that jidaigeki and other works of fiction often depict the variety in the Edo period or earlier. Each flower has a short life; lasting for about a week. That lifespan can be cut even shorter by strong winds or rain. The short, dramatic and potentially fickle life of the cherry blossom influences its role in traditional Japanese culture.

Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

The castle was constructed in the mid-14th century and is said to resemble a White Heron. The castle hosts the Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Fair. The castle grounds, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located 60 miles northwest of Toyko and has more than a thousand cherry trees, many of which are illuminated at night. The festival and typical peak blooming time takes place during the first two weeks of April.

Copenhagen Sakura Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Sakura Festival in Copenhagen is scheduled for April 25-26th this year, so you still have time for a last-minute trip. The Dutch cherry blossom festival is one of the youngest, only in its 8th year. The two-day festival is full of events from drum shows to martial arts demonstrations.

International Cherry Blossom Festival, Macon, Georgia USA

The city of Macon considers itself the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World with more than 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees. It holds the Pinkest Party in the south. The dates for this year have already passed so you should check back for the dates next year around the end of March or the beginning of April.

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, Jinhae, South Korea

This festival gives you a rare look at the Republic of Korea Naval Academy as the grounds are opened to the public to show off the hundreds of blooming cherry trees. The city of Jinhae is also lined with cherry blossom trees creating a “flower tunnel” in some areas immersing you in the delicate petals.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival Washington, DC USA

The festival, which we’ve mentioned on this blog before, runs this year between March 20th and April 12th. The celebration of Japanese culture and friendship with the United States (along with the simple pleasure of viewing the more than 2,000 trees along the tidal basin) has become a signature event in the nation’s capital.


The Cherry Trees in bloom along the tidal basin in Washington, DC.

The Cherry Trees in bloom along the tidal basin in Washington, DC.

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The Jefferson Memorial

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It’s Small, But Important

A riddle: Which country’s area is only 110 acres and has the smallest population worldwide, yet it also boasts the most “members” at 1.2 billion (almost the population of China)? It’s also considered one of the richest countries, yet estimates itself to be one of the poorest, valuing its most priceless assets at $0.

The answer: The Vatican

The tiny nation, and capital of Catholicism, was established as an independent nation by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 within the city of Rome, Italy. The city’s boundaries are in many cases defined by stone fortifications, some old and some new. In the case of St. Peter’s Square, the only thing that marks where you leave Italy for Vatican City is a white line. You won’t even get a passport stamp after you cross, since the Vatican considers its borders open to the faithful and tourists alike to share all its treasures accumulated in the 2000-year history of the church.

If you’d like to visit the Vatican as a pilgrim or a tourist, here are a few tips:

  1. Book in advance – I don’t think it matters if you planning on going with a tour group or doing it yourself, book early. The Vatican has some of the world’s greatest treasures, including the master works of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and almost any other great renaissance artist you can think of. So you aren’t the only one who wants to visit. A $17.50 ticket gives you admission to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel with its legendary painted ceiling. It’s also home to the Conclave of Cardinals when electing a new Pope. The Vatican Museum ticket office is a clearing house for tickets, information and booking guided tours.
  2. Ask if you can see that thing – The Vatican likes to consider itself open with many of its treasured works of art. If there’s a particular piece of art you’d like to see, check with them; they might be willing to accommodate you.
  3. Cover up – You may not be Catholic, but they are. Access to the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately. Even if it’s in the middle of a hot Roman summer, no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts and like your grandma said, “take off your damn hat when you’re inside.” A comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts (but mainly don’ts) from photography to phones is under the Helpful Hints tag on the website.
  4. Papal Audience – Even if you’re not Catholic, you’ll want to do this. It’ll impress your Catholic friends, and it never hurts to cover your bases in case your view of the afterlife is … inaccurate. The Pope gives an audience every Wednesday beginning at 10-10:30 a.m. If you want to get a good look, arrive early (you’ll have to go through security).  The audience is held in the Paul VI Hall of Audiences, but for big events he speaks from the balcony or a stage in St. Peter’s Square. You will need a ticket for the audience in the hall or the celebration of mass, but the tickets are free. The Pope also speaks from the window of his study on Sundays. Remember this pope is a traveling man so check his schedule before hand for tickets and times.


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Early Artists

Claude Monet and his “Waterlilies,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” Paul Cezanne and his post impressionist work “The Bathers,” and Edgar Degas and his ballerinas are all giants of French art whose contributions to western culture have been felt for more than a hundred years. But not all great French artists are remembered by the world so well, in spite their major impact on western culture. The names of these ground-breaking masters are lost to time and their works don’t hang in a museum, but in the dark corners of our past in the caves of the France.

I can imagine how hard it must have been like for those early artists, stepping into the dark with only a flame to light the way, with only pigment rendered with their own hands creating great murals of the world around them.

I did a little research and was surprised at the difficulty of finding companies that specialize in these cave-hopping tours. I imagine, as with most tours, you get what you pay for.

The Archaeological Institute of America offers a 13-day Prehistoric Cave Art of Spain and France tour lead by Dr. Paul G. Bahn. He’s a Cambridge-educated historian and a published expert on the cave paintings and prehistory and as your the tour leader he’ll guide you from Bilbao, Spain to Toulouse, France while filling your mind with the educational experience of a lifetime.

The Smithsonian offers Smithsonian Journeys Traditions of Southwestern France: Sojourn in the Dordonge. While it doesn’t exclusively focus on the prehistory of man, it does touch on the topic as part of a larger look at the history of the Dordonge River Valley. The focus on the cave paintings at Lazcaux II and Rouffignac as well as the location of the discovery of fossils Cro-Magnon Man dating back 35,000 years are shared as part of the amazing history of a region dotted with medieval fortresses and small villages.

I’m sure you could find your way through the valleys of France, seeking out the caves and hotels on your own.  I do know it can be done. But I’ve found that when you’re dealing with such a niche as cave paintings, finding an expert helps even if you’re just looking for advice, not a complete tour. You can also use the more formal itineraries as inspiration to develop your own plan — with a more conservative budget in mind.

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A Flying First

I’ve been traveling around for more than 20 years, taking flights to exotic and not-so-exotic destinations. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the last 10 years in the winter months, mainly February and March, due to the availability of time off from my day job that time of year and Amanda’s desperate need to escape winter.

I’ve also had my share of travel hiccups, such as planes delayed due to mechanical problems, late pilots and kittens.  But this February was the first time the weather had ever actually canceled a flight I was booked on and impacted the length of my trip.

A few weeks ago, old man winter was pounding the northeastern US like a red-headed step child, again. We didn’t have much snow in Pittsburgh, but that wasn’t the problem. The issue was our connection at New York’s JFK airport.

We breezed through check-in at PIT and were loaded onto the plane — and sat. The push-back from the gate was only a few minutes late and we began taxiing along the runway. The live seat belt demonstration was especially entertaining due to the flight attendant’s hand slipping, which brought the loose end of the belt extremely close to a passenger’s head. She didn’t even notice because she was too busy being obnoxious with the girl next to her (she was plucking the girl’s eyebrows and — according to the girl — missing the hair and pinching and pulling on her skin; this caused a great deal of squealing and whining from both parties). Neither of them were paying attention. Amanda and I shared amused looks with the flight attendant.

Our plane got all the way about to the runway, and we were next in line for takeoff when the captain got on the speaker and announced a ground stop at JFK — for at least the next four hours. We would be returning to the gate and getting off the plane. I was happy for that because back in the old days they would make you just sit on the plane and wait. The new laws penalize the airline if they do crap like that now.

Watching hockey at the airport

Watching hockey at the airport. #LetsGoCaps

So we got off the plane and decided to get a bite to eat. We also got the chance to sit at a bar and watch the hockey game. We tend to watch a lot of sports in airport bars; we watched football as we waited for our flight the day we left for our honeymoon.

We took our time at a sit-down restaurant and treated it like a mini-date (at the airport, but who cares?). We were also excited that due to the flight delay we’d been upgraded to business class for our transatlantic flight. A few hours later, we got in line to board the plane again. The cabin crew explained we had to board as quickly as possible because the window of opportunity to get off the ground and to JFK was limited. Everyone cooperated, strange for a group of passengers I know, but we loaded the plane in record time.

The doors were closed and cross-checked but as I was looking out the window, I saw the death knell of our flight. One of the baggage crew (who, for the second time had just finished loading our plane) shook his head and tossed his his gloves in the air with a sigh of defeat. It wasn’t long after that we heard the captain come on the speaker and apologize that the flight was now canceled and they would re-book us for the next earliest flights to get us to our destinations.

Crowded gate at PIAAmanda talked to the ticketing agent, because she’s good at that kind of thing, and selected a flight that connected in Atlanta rather than New York. There weren’t any options leaving for another 20 hours. I was annoyed that this meant our short trip to England was going to be made shorter, but we knew there was nothing we could do. The weather was the weather, and we’d heard of planes sliding off the runway in the northeast.

It helped that we were close to home, too. Pittsburgh International Airport is just 25 minutes from our apartment, so we were able to go home and sleep in our own bed.

We also got to spend that time together. I know for some of you that kind of sappy sweetness of a couple that loves to spend all their time together is a little much, but because of our work schedules the last year time together is something we’ve had very little of.

So there you have it: Our very first flight cancellation. Certainly not ideal, but we rolled with the punches and started our trip a day later than we originally planned.

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Lyme Regis: The Quintessential English Seaside Town

When you travel along the Dorset Coast in South West, England, you’ll come across many small towns dotting the coast, but none quite like the beach-side community of Lyme Regis. The town, with its mix of pastel and white-washed homes climbing up the hillside away from the beach, is reminiscent of much sunnier and tropical locales. I can only assume that the picturesque village becomes even more vibrant in the summer months since both times I’ve visited has been in late winter/early spring.

The village has connections to some great women in English history, too. Jane Austen uses the town as a backdrop in the her story Persuasion. The lesser-known (but no less important) Mary Anning was one of the greatest fossil hunters in the earliest days of paleontology (we’ll talk more about her when we tell you about our fossil walk).

The town is most of all a beach town and the center attraction is the sand and water. The town boasts of an “award-winning environmental protection scheme that ensures the waters around the town are safe and clean.” You can spend your summer days relaxing on the beach and soaking up the up the sun or going for a dip. The constant breeze makes the coast a great place for wind surfing, kite surfing and sailing. I have to say one of the most striking things along beach is a collection of small pastel sheds that seem to be used for everything from beach storage to shelter for residents spending the day at the beach.

A great sea wall that juts out into the water sheltering the harbor and calming the surf is simply known as The Cobb.  The sea wall is an impressive stone structure that dominates the seascape and is an attraction all its own. It’s popular for evening walks in the summer, watching the waves crash over it in the winter, or fishing no matter the season or weather. John Fowles used the dramatic setting of The Cobb in his book The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the film adaptation features Meryl Streep.

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The town is packed with cafés and art galleries and is a great place to spend a windy day sheltered from the weather.  A range of activities from a Jazz festival, Carnival, and regattas pack the yearly calendar ensuring visitors have more than enough to keep them busy.

I’ve been to this little village twice now, and would love to go again to see it in the warmth of summer.  I do recommend a trip if you’re ever in Dorset, regardless the weather.


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