« March 2012 | Main | June 2012 »

April 2012 Archives

April 30, 2012

Mayan Ruins at Tulum: An Easy Introduction to Exotic Yucatan

By Laura LaBrie
ITWPA Member

A Mayan temple perches atop a cliff overhanging the sea. Stand beneath its massive stones and watch the waves crash far below and you can almost picture ships coming through the cut in the reef guided only by lights in the tower above.

Mayan ruins typically conjure up pictures of jungles thick with strangler figs and passion fruit vines, where the year 2012 looms from the glyphs of ancient calendars and threatens the end of the world. Not so at Tulum, where sweeping green lawns and Caribbean blues carry you away with images of a port city bustling with commerce and rife with the colors and languages of faraway places.

An easy drive down Quintana Roo’s newly-paved route 307 and just an hour south of Cancun, Tulum is an out-of-the-way destination accessible to the not-so-adventurous. If you’ve always wanted to explore exotic Yucatan, but have been a little hesitant to do so, this is a great place to get your feet wet. And don’t forget to bring your bathing suit, as the beach beneath the ruins offers luxurious white sand and rollicking surf. It’s a great way to cool off after a morning perusing the ruins, ducking through limestone arches, and greeting the local iguanas -- who love munching on hibiscus flowers, by the way.

If you visit, make sure to arrive early to avoid the tour bus crowd. The park opens at 8 a.m. Park your car and ride the shuttle down to the ruins. Make sure to wear light, comfortable clothing and carry water and sunscreen with you. There is a handicraft market near the parking lot. I suggest you stop on your way out. The market is filled with silver jewelry, onyx masks, bone chess sets, cotton blankets, and embroidered dresses, not to mention food for the hungry traveler and my favorite drink, agua frescas, a local drink made from lightly sweetened fresh fruit and cold, pure water. If you shop at the handicraft market, make sure to barter. The locals expect it. And while you’re there, have an agua frescas for me.

If you’d like to purchase this article for your publication, click here to contact the author directly.

*Additional photos from the author are available upon request.

Louisiana’s Other Mardi Gras: Celebrate Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, Louisiana (Without Going to New Orleans)

By Roy Stevenson
ITWPA Member

Mention to friends that you’re going to Mardi Gras and their immediate assumption is that you’re going to New Orleans. This happened to me dozens of times before I went to Louisiana last February. The conversation went something like this.

Me: “I’m going to Mardi Gras.”
Other Person: “Cool, you’re going to New Orleans. That should be fun.”
Me: “No, I’m going to Lake Charles for the Mardi Gras.”
Other Person: “Oh, is Lake Charles a suburb of New Orleans?”
Me: “No, Lake Charles is three hours east of New Orleans, and it has a Mardi Gras too, and it’s big.”
Other Person (with blank look): “Huh?”

The fact is, Mardi Gras, a.k.a. “Fat Tuesday,” is celebrated in several states throughout the southeastern United States and each of these festivals has its own claim to fame.

The friendly lakeside town of Lake Charles, population 72,000, boasts that their Mardi Gras is the second largest after the Big Easy extravaganza. Other towns might dicker over this claim, but I’m not too fussed because the Lake Charles festivities sure seemed big to me -- and a lot of fun! No drunks staggering about throwing up on the sidewalk. No overzealous cops harassing revelers. No obnoxious frat boys asking girls to get their clothes off. None of the above!

The Lake Charles Mardi Gras has a reputation for being a family-friendly event where you can take the kids without worrying about overexcited people under the influence of whatever -- so you can just get on with enjoying the event.

What exactly is Mardi Gras, anyway? Based on the day before Ash Wednesday, this quasi-religious event signals the start of the Lenten season. But Mardi Gras -- Louisiana style -- morphed long ago into a multi-day event that celebrates the season, rather than one day.

Dredged from the recesses of Louisiana’s fascinating milieu of French/Cajun/Catholic history, Mardi Gras is a good excuse to throw a really big five-day party. And it means different things to different people.

For some, it’s an excuse to dress in outrageous, colorful, and glitzy costumes -- many of which defy description -- and parade around at a Ball or Gala, soaking up the spotlight in front of thousands of enraptured spectators. To others, it means being on a parade float resembling a pirate ship or a huge alligator, and for foodies it’s an excuse to overindulge in Cajun and Creole cooking -- gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, and catfish, to name a few.

At the heart of this energetic bash are the krewes, the cohesive glue that binds all Mardi Gras events together. The term is based on Cajun French for “crew,” and Lake Charles boasts about 60 of them. They’re civic groups of friends, families, neighbors, and work associates who, every year, select a theme for their krewe and work all year preparing their costumes, floats, and shows, many of which feature devilishly clever assemblages of finery. Then they don these outfits like giant peacocks and strut their stuff over the Mardi Gras season.

The krewes go by pseudo-French names like Krewe de Autre Chance, Krewe des Bon Amis, Krewe de Carnivale, Krewe of Chaos, Krewe of Illusions, Krewe des Lunatiques, Krewe des Pirates -- you get the idea. Some families have been in krewes for several generations.

Such is the otherworldly mystique associated with the krewes that they have almost taken on a deeper meaning than can be explained in a two-minute elevator talk to a stranger. Perhaps the best way to plumb the depths of this meaning is to attend a Gala or Ball, where the whole concept seeps into your psyche bit by bit, as the krewes parade up the central aisle, each trying to outdo the others with their mind-blowing costumes.

The krewes elect a King and a Queen (with titles like Duke & Duchess of Splendor and Opulence, or Duke & Duchess of Mysticism and Passion) who wear over-the-top regalia resplendent with multi-colored feathers, glittering sequins, lengthy gown trains, and towering back pieces, all of which weigh 40 or 50 pounds and can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There’s a museum where you can view dozens of these costumes, but more about that later.

Here’s how you can enjoy the full and complete Mardi Gras experience in Lake Charles.

Your Mardi Gras Party Transport
If you’re with a group, hiring a bus or van is a must. It makes the whole experience much more enjoyable if you’re partying together, rather than driving in a long line of cars (and parking is sooo much easier). Ralph Huval’s appropriately named Bon Temps Express bus was our transport, with plush leather chairs arranged around the sides, a bar, and a dancing pole in the back (seriously!).

Your First Mardi Gras Stop: The Party Time Store
Getting dressed up in gaudy beads, masks, and hats (and whatever else takes your fancy) is an integral part of the Mardi Gras experience. Visit The Party Time Store to stock up on your MG paraphernalia. It’s a fun place to browse for trinkets classy and tacky, and both are essential for a Maximum Mardi Gras.

The Krewe of Illusions Presentation and Ball
Now that you have your Mardi Gras beads and masks, the Krewe of Illusions Presentation and Ball, held in the Lake Charles Civic Theater, is a perfect way to get your Mardi Gras game on. This lavish two-hour show (tuxedos and full length gowns only) features a series of song and dance acts, with most performers wearing the ubiquitous Mardi Gras costumes.

But this cross between a costume party, a sing-along, a rock show, and an MTV takeoff is only the first half of your evening. Immediately following -- in a huge ballroom next door -- is the largest BYO and potluck you’ll ever see. Food, drink, party favors, and elaborate Mardi Gras decorations are crammed onto the ballroom’s round tables. People hop from table to table socializing and dance to the onstage band. Fun bash!

The Children’s Parade
The Children’s Parade also gives a taste of things to come and gets you in the Mardi Gras spirit. Here you’ll see many of the krewes and their floats in a dress rehearsal for the BIG parade on Fat Tuesday. And, if you’re fleet of hand and eye, you’ll score dozens of strings of trinkets, beads, necklaces, candy, and doubloons from the “float people.” Make eye contact with a bead thrower, yell the standard Mardi Gras call (“Hey mister, throw me something!”), and you’ll be bombarded by dozens of colorful bead necklaces flying through the air.

The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu
This museum should feature quite early in your Lake Charles itinerary so you can learn about the customs and costumes of Mardi Gras. Located on the second floor of the Central School Arts & Humanities Center, the six rooms in this eye-catching museum contain the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the world. (Take that, New Orleans Mardi Gras World museum!)

These costumes are so spectacular they are displayed at the museum by invitation -- the crème de la crème of glitter. Expect to see a kaleidoscope of rainbow-colored cloth, silk, feathers, and sequins, in costumes large and small, with decorations and themes that simply defy the imagination. Dragon’s heads. American flag suits. African voodoo suits. Imperial Roman garb. And more.

The Iowa Chicken Run
For a healthy dose of rural Louisiana, visit the annual Mardi Gras Run in the small town of Iowa. This is no slick big city parade, nor does it pretend to be; rather, it’s a series of floats mounted to pickup trucks or semis that trundles through the town along Highway 90. The decorations are often taped together with duct tape and the floats are filled with locals enjoying their neighborhood.

This parade may sound modest, but you’ll have more fun than you imagine participating in the festivities. Where else can you see dozens of excited kids (and a not inconsiderable number of adults) chasing terrified chickens under houses and across porches and fields? After the event, enjoy the gumbo made with food donations given by people along the parade route: everything from smoked sausages to chicken, shrimp, crab, okra, rice, and seasonings, cooked in enormous army-sized pots on the local KC Hall stove.

The Royal Gala
The social culmination of Mardi Gras, the Royal Gala is held on the evening of Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras) in the Lake Charles Civic Theater. This is the only event in Louisiana where the public is allowed to see the Lake Charles Royal Courts in full costume before the Mardi Gras parade.

Make special arrangements in advance to walk around backstage so you can admire the dazzling costumes as the krewes prepare for their limelight promenade down the center of the adjacent stadium. The bright, cavernous room buzzes with excitement for this dress rehearsal as the participants run around borrowing tape and pins from each other to assemble their costumes, and pose ridiculously for each other. You’ll be awed by the color and creativity.

Inside the stadium, spectators sit in the bleachers high above the parade or rent aisle tables right next to the central promenade. Most people bring their own food and drinks and kids can sit right on the sidelines to watch the show, their eyes wide open in amazement at the spectacular costumes.




The Grand Finale: Krewe of Krewes Parade
It pays to assemble on the parade route a couple of hours before the grand parade, to ensure an uninhibited view and maximum bead catching. It gets crowded quickly, with residents holding lively block parties along the course.

Then, as darkness falls, the 60 krewes emerge along the parade route in a cacophony of music, gaudy costumes, and bead throwing. If you’re not catching scores of bead necklaces, you’re not trying hard enough. And this seems like an appropriate time to end this story with the official Mardi Gras Battle Cry, Laissez les bons temps rouler!



Eating Southern in Lake Charles
Don’t miss these popular Lake Charles restaurants:

Harlequin Steaks and Seafood -- This well-known restaurant boasts a combination of southern food (chicken and sausage gumbo, crawfish pasta, crawfish étouffée) and a variety of steaks. The Mrs. Hunters’s Bread Pudding is divine.
Steamboat Bill’s -- This place absolutely buzzes with a friendly clientele and serves a traditional Cajun and Creole menu including enormous platters of boiled crawfish, shrimp pistolettes, gumbo, étouffée, po-boys, and much more. Ask one of the waiters to show you the resident alligator in the swamp out back, beside the parking lot.

Big Daddy’s Sports Grill & Restaurant -- Billing its food as “Cajun comfort food, and a little restaurant with a lot of flavor,” Big Daddy’s is a relaxed neighborhood grill where the locals will chat with you without reservation. You’ll find hamburgers, seafood, steaks, and salad here in generous portions. W. Sale Rd., Lake Charles



Le Beaucoup Buffet, L’auberge Casino Resort -- This is the largest and best-prepared buffet I have had the pleasure of dining at. The choice of meats and foods is fantastic!

Delicious Donuts & Bakery -- Stock up on heavily-iced King Cakes here. King Cakes are an important part of the traditional Mardi Gras festivities, and celebrate the Twelfth Night of Christmas, or the Epiphany. The cakes are like giant round donuts, filled with a selection of confections, and are irresistible (strawberry cheesecake filling, anyone?). A small plastic baby is inserted into each cake as a symbol of “finding the baby Jesus.”

Mardi Gras Gumbo Cook-Off -- You get to sample pots of chicken, sausage, and wild game gumbo in this contest held in the Lake Charles Civic Center Exhibition Hall. You’ll meet the locals and taste some superbly-crafted gumbos for a small entry fee.

Where to stay

L’auberge Casino Resort
No shortage of rooms here -- more than 1,000, in fact. The selection of restaurants is excellent and the staff friendly and welcoming, more so than you’d expect from a place this size.

If you’d like to purchase this article for your publication, click here to contact the author directly.

Yangshuo, Picturesque China

By Georgiana R. Frayer-Luna
ITWPA Member

Yangshuo nestles along the Li River in Guangxi Province amongst karst hills sculpted for millennia by wind and rain. Han Yu, a poet who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), said the Li River was like a green silk ribbon and the karst hills were like jade hairpins. Everything in Yangshuo is in walking or bicycling distance, but taxis and electric buses are on hand when you’re ready to get off your feet. There is no airport in Yangshuo, but visitors fly into Guilin to the northeast and take a bus or taxi to Yangshuo. Guilin is a three-hour flight southeast of Beijing near the Vietnam border.

It rained almost the entire two weeks in January that I was in Yangshuo. The locals said this was unusual weather for this time of year. The rain, however, made for a dreamy atmosphere, with wisps of fog softening the edges of all that could be seen. The rain did little to discourage sightseers who braved the elements to bask in the glorious scenery.

For glorious scenery, a trip to 3,000-foot Longshen Mountain and the Dragon Backbone Rice Terrace Fields is a three-hour bus ride from Yangshuo. Work on the terraced fields began during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and ended during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The fields are called Dragon Backbone because the terraces look like the scales on a dragon’s back and tail. The top of the mountain was socked in, with limited visibility the day of my trip. The limited visibility, however, did not dampen the adventurous climb up and down hundreds of stone steps with no handrails and a sharp drop off one or both sides of the stairway. It’s not a climb for the fainthearted.

After the fog on Longshen, rafting on the Li River back in Yangshuo was refreshing. The river was smooth, the air crisp, and the views spectacular. The rafts were traditionally made of bamboo and propelled with oars or long poles. These days, they are made of PVC with a little outboard engine tacked on the rear. During summer months, larger vessels for every budget and taste cruise the river, but in the winter months only the smaller vessels traverse out on the water. This means greater opportunity, with fewer distractions, for the eye to linger on the majesty of the great hills and for the heart to fill with the mildness of the graceful river. It was a glorious cruise.

It was nevertheless satisfying to get back to shore for a walk along tourist-oriented West Street. Glancing down a bicycle-lined alley, I saw a woman carrying crisp, green, leafy vegetables for sale in the centuries-old tradition of a pole slung over the shoulders with two baskets strung from each end. The bicycles are a more modern means of conveyance, but still echo leisurely-paced charm. You can find rentals everywhere and there are bike tours along the river to nearby villages.

Food tends to be spicy. The popular local dish is beer fish, a one-dish meal of Li River carp and nine different vegetables and spices. Western food is served and, for those who must have their fast food Western-style, McDonald’s and KFC are near West Street.


The karst hills and Li River are majestic and serene. There are many English-speaking folks here, getting around is easy, and costs are nominal. It’s a popular tourist destination, so two- and three-day tours from major metro areas like Beijing or Shanghai are easy to arrange and a very affordable way to get away to Yangshuo, a picturesque corner of China.

If you’d like to purchase this article for your publication, click here to contact the author directly.

Discovering Palawan, “The Last Frontier” of the Philippines

By Steven Graham
ITWPA Member

Do you dream of making your escape to the tropics… to the island life? Does the thought of exploring a remote island full of coconut palms and banana trees, surrounded by a warm, greenish-blue sea, fill you with yearning?

The Philippines is sure to have an island just the right size for you. After all, there are 7,107 of them -- some no larger than a Buick! But there is one in particular that is less known and more of a mystery. It is Palawan, “the last frontier” as it is known in the Philippines. Palawan is not only sparsely populated, but also the least-developed province of the Philippines.  

This 280-mile-long stretch of land lies far to the west of the main group of islands between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, just north of Borneo. It is not uncommon to see a farmer riding his “caribou” (think water-buffalo) while pulling a cart, or to see workers stooped over in the rice paddies.

Your first brush with the friendly locals will most likely occur in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan. The small airport is served by Cebu City and Manila, and is only a one-hour flight from either city. Puerto Princesa is a small town, although busy with traffic. Most people in the Philippines speak fairly good English, and Palawan is no exception.

Located at the end of a two-hour scenic drive heading south along the coast from Puerto Princesa is a charming oasis known as the Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery. Here, elegance meets tranquility in a beautiful, sprawling garden cove on the beach. Coconut palms and tropical flowers are everywhere! Fantasy Island will surely come to mind in this serene setting.

The staff is remarkable -- either anticipating your every need or quickly tending to them with grace and charm. As you arrive, you are welcomed with a smile and a garland of yellow flowers that is draped around your neck. Then you are escorted into the pavilion and served “Buko” -- a large, freshly-picked coconut filled with coconut water that you drink from a straw.

The beach-front villas are the epitome of modern elegance, with solid wood and rattan furniture, white-tiled floors, and canopy beds. The most surprising feature is the incredible view through the sliding glass doors opening up to your very own private infinity pool. And just 10 feet beyond that is your own private stretch of beach.

Beautiful, swaying palm trees frame an idyllic, aqua-blue sea as you sit on a lawn chair by the pool, sipping your favorite beverage. The warmth of the sun and the sound of the pounding surf just a few feet away are guaranteed to calm even the most pent-up traveler. Pure heaven!

Dinner is served in a huge gazebo-like structure with a view of the tropical garden surrounding you and the ocean just beyond. The menu is well-thought-out, presenting you with a wide assortment of delectable choices… all quite reasonably priced. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served.

If a spa treatment is on your must-do list, be sure to try their one-hour cleansing scrub using all-natural ingredients, plus massage, for only $18.76. This is done as you lie on a pedestal of warm circulating water.

Palawan really is a pristine paradise worth exploring for at least a few days, and this resort is the perfect place to stay while you do it. You will walk away knowing that you’ve been thoroughly pampered and spoiled. The Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery is perhaps Palawan’s best-kept secret.

If you’d like to purchase this article for your publication, click here to contact the author directly.

All in a Day’s Visit to the San Diego Zoo

By Carrie Dempsey

On a warm spring day in southern California, my friends and I find ourselves standing at a crossroads. Panda and polar bears, go left; monkeys, go right. An indecisive lot, we stand awkwardly, no one wanting to miss any of the exhibits during our day in San Diego. Finally, bears are determined the winners for today. And they do not disappoint.

Located in sunny San Diego, the birthplace of California, the San Diego Zoo is a world-renowned and progressive zoo. Spacious exhibits sprawl out over 100 acres, housing more than 4,000 of nature’s finest creatures. It is home to 800 species of animals, including giraffes, elephants, zebras, polar bears, lions, and monkeys, and is one of the only zoos in the world to house the giant panda.

The animals are at home here, roaming about comfortably in San Diego’s mild climate. In fact, this zoo is one of the few that contains nearly all outdoor exhibits. Polar bears swim happily in their own private pools, then sun themselves while being hand-fed by one of the zoo’s staff. Here, visitors get an up close and personal view of the cuddly-looking animal.

An aerial tram called the Skyfari zips us across the vast property, while providing an impressive view of the zoo’s natural beauty. The ground is dotted with exotic plants, some rare and endangered, which form the zoo’s colorful backdrop. Visitors may examine the plants more closely in the Orchid House, which is open on the third Friday of every month and select Sundays. 

A leisurely trip up a moving walkway is a welcome respite from our long journey around the park. Elephants drink water from a garden hose. The water gurgles loudly as it rushes down their long trunks and into their mouths. Rounding the bend, Panda Canyon comes into view -- easily the most popular exhibit. Long lines are expected, but within a few minutes, a cameraman is telling us to cradle an imaginary panda cub in our arms for a souvenir photo. The line moves quickly, winding left and right, then through an opening in the foliage. And there he is, Gao Gao, the giant panda, more cuddly teddy bear than wild animal. A collective “aw...” echos through the crowd as he sits happily munching away on his ample supply of bamboo. Gao Gao seems to smile as he eats, as if posing for the countless cameras focused on his every move.

All too soon, it is time to move on; there are many more visitors like me who can’t wait to see the panda.

The San Diego Zoo is a perfect way to spend a day in San Diego. There is so much to see and do that you’ll wish you had more time in the city. The zoo itself deserves at least a full day, and even then you’ll find that there is more to discover. Daily admission is $42 for ages 12 and up and $32 for ages 3 to 11, and it includes unlimited use of the Guided Bus Tour, Express Bus, and Skyfari Aerial Tram. There are also multi-day and multi-park tickets, which include the San Diego Zoo, Africa Tram Safari, and SeaWorld San Diego. Visit http://www.sandiegozoo.org/tickets/zootickets.html or call (619) 231-1515 for ticket information. The San Diego Zoo is located at 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego. It is open 365 days a year, but the hours vary depending on the season, so go to http://www.sandiegozoo.org/zoo/plan_your_trip/hours_directions for the current schedule.

There are still many discoveries waiting to be made at the San Diego Zoo, so until then, my photo with Gao Gao beckons me to return and explore.

If you’d like to purchase this article for your publication, click here to contact the author directly.

About April 2012

This page contains all entries posted to Travel Post Monthly in April 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2012 is the previous archive.

June 2012 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.33