Monday, December 5, 2011

Discovering Finnish Lapland

I just returned from a week long trip to Finnish Lapland in the Arctic Circle sponsored by Visit Finland. I was there writing my very first story for and had an amazing experience discovering the culture of Rovaniemi and the Lappish people. Read all about it: Where's Jennifer - Rovaniemi, Finland

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Tenerife's Loro Parque

Incredible dolphins performed acrobatic stunts, mischievous sea lions show off their talents, a family of orca whales soared and dived and cheeky parrots had us laughing at Loro Parque in Puerto de la Cruz in the north of Tenerife. And that's not all. There are more than 300 species of birds, gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, sloths, jaguars, meerkats, and giant tortoises - just to name a few.

Just a few days before our visit, Loro Parque also welcomed the Canary Islands' and Spain's first  orca whale born in captivity. The baby weighed in at 150 kilos and measured 2 meters long. We were lucky to not only see a short video of his birth, but also got to meet Loro Parque's newest orca.

The Loro Show was quite cute with parrots showing off just how smart they are. One parrot loved riding his tricycle, another amazed us with his geography and yet another knew his car was out of gas. 

The largest replica of the Antarctic continent yet constructed is also located in Planet Penguin. There is ice and snow, courtesy of Loro Parque's machine that produces 12 tons of snow daily so that the penguins can feel perfectly at home.

Loro Parque was a great way to spend a day on Tenerife!

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spain's Highest Mountain: Mount Teide

Rising a staggering 12,200 feet above Tenerife in the Canary Islands, stands Spain's highest mountain and Europe's largest volcano: El Teide. The ascent to Mount Teide is like going to another world. As we left the beach and climbed, the landscape slowly began to change from black volcanic rock and cacti to an alpine forest and finally to a lunar-like landscape.

The park itself lies at around 6,562 feet above sea level and is home to the rock formations of Los Roques de Garcia. Here, you can see the work of thousands and thousands of years worth of erosion, where the wind and grit sculpt eerie and strikingly beautiful shapes out of standing pillars of rock.

The best way to reach the highest point of the peak is by the cable car, Teleférico del Teide. In just about 8 minutes, the cable car swooped us up to just 200 meters from the summit.We were literally above the clouds and enjoyed breathtaking views of the islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro.

With a pre-arranged permit, however, you can walk up to the very mouth of the dormant volcano itself. We learned, unfortunately too late, that to get the permit, you have to contact the Park Administration office in Santa Cruz and take your passport there to get the free permit. Limiting visitors in this way protects the extremely fragile ecosystem. 

Since we couldn't ascend, we hiked down to the Refugio de Altavista where we were hoping to locate the Cueva del Hielo, or ice cave, we'd read about. It too proved elusive; despite following the directions given to us at the Refugio, we never did locate the ice cave. None the less, the lunar landscape was beautiful and we both got quite the workout on our hike back up to the cable car station. 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Adventure on Eden Catamaran in Tenerife

The boat sails away from the busy Porto Colon harbor and we gaze back as El Teide mountain reveals itself, reaching into the clouds behind Tenerife’s popular coastal strip.

There are few sights more awe-inspiring than a whale or dolphin rising from the surface of the sea. The south-west coast of Tenerife is a privileged place for watching whales in the wild as there are permanent pods of dolphins and pilot whales living just three miles offshore. 

The pilot whales did not disappoint! As we idled halfway between Tenerife and La Gomera a shout goes up: "Look! Whales!" Breaking the surface a few meters away is a big black-backed pilot whale. Then there's more, lazing in the water on the other side. 

Pilot whales are smaller whales that seem to have permanently smiling faces. They are highly social and can grow to around 6.5 meters in length. 

After some time watching the whales, we sailed on to a cove along the coast where Tim and I had the opportunity to swim with a family of giant sea turtles living in the cove. What a great adventure we had with Eden Catamaran!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Buckingham Palace: Changing of the Guard

The men you will see in front of Buckingham Palace (and other locations like the Tower of London Jewel House) are not just ceremonial guards but also serving soldiers. While upholding the traditions of the past, they also perform duties throughout the world as professional soldiers and are known as some of the most elite and skilled soldiers in the British Army. The soldiers are drawn from one of the five regiments of Foot Guards in the British Army: the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards.

The Changing of the Guard is when a new guard exchanges duty with the old guard. The handover is accompanied by a Guards band. The music played ranges from traditional military marches to songs from films and musicals and even familiar pop songs.

The guards march out of one gate, around the Victoria Memorial, and back in to the other gate in front of the Palace. The Horse Guards parade down the Mall to the Admiralty Arch and back before exchanging duty. The whole process takes approximately 45 minutes.

To get a good spot, you must arrive very early at Buckingham Palace. The Changing of the Guard takes place in front of the place at 11:30am daily from May through July and on alternating days the remainder of the year. 

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

NFL International Series Game 5: The Chicago Bears Take London

Tim's dad called one Saturday and said he heard the Bears would be playing in London. American football in London? No way! A quick Google search confirmed that the NFL does in fact play in London as part of the NFL International Series in which one game per year is played the last weekend in October overseas. I didn't even have to ask if Tim wanted to go; I knew the answer would be yes! We had been planning to visit the Canary Islands for eight days, but a little shifting of our plans, a multi destination plane ticket, and two lower level tickets to Wembley Stadium, we added a stop in London to our itinerary.

On game day, Wembley Stadium was packed full of Americans and Brits alike all eager to cheer on the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Goo Goo Dolls kicked off the party with a pre-game concert. In a show of American patriotism, each seat on the lower level had either a red, white, or blue card to be held up during the national anthem. On queue we all donned our cards and from overhead, the cards made up a Union Jack inside the stadium while those on the field became the American Flag. Both the American and British National Anthems were performed.

The Bears led 21-5 going into the fourth quarter after touchdowns by Matt Forte, Roy Williams and Marion Barber. The momentum then switched to the Buccaneers with Kellen Winslow and Dez Briscoe both going over over in the space of five minutes. But a field goal and an interception made it safe for the Bears, who came back to win 24 - 18.

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Tower of London

The Tower of London, with its 900 years of history, has earned itself a multitude of spine tingling stories, mainly due to its infamous reputation as a place of execution. There are many stories of ghosts, poltergeists and other malevolent spirits connected to the Tower of London. Who hasn't heard the one about the headless apparition of Anne Boleyn stalking the Tower grounds at night or stories of the chained and headless Sir Walter Raliegh being seen on the ramparts close to where he was kept prisoner? One of the thirty-six Yeoman Warders that guard the Tower and live there may just take you on a tour and tell stories of the Tower's many famous prisoners.

The Yeoman Warders are also popularly known as the Beefeaters most likely because the Warders' payment was in rations that included beef, mutton and veal, and various historical commentators have noted a preference for beef among the Warders and the Yeomen of the Guard.

Another of the Yeoman Warders is the Ravenmaster, who takes care of the Tower's most celebrated residents: a colony of seven ravens. Legend has it that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London the White Tower will crumble and a great disaster shall befall England.

Ravens were not the only creatures to reside at the Tower. In 1235, King Henry III received three lions from Emperor Frederick II. The Emperor had just married Henry’s sister Isabella so this gift was a sign of their alliance and friendship.More exotic animals were to follow such as ‘a white bear’ (believed to be a Polar bear) from King Haakon of Norway in 1252 and a male African elephant from King Louis IX of France in 1255. Visiting the exotic animals at the Tower was a popular excursion and the only way that most people could see such creatures they would normally only have heard about in stories.
Today the only live animals that remain are the ravens. Recreating the menagerie of various exotic animals in sculpture form, visitors can see lions, monkeys and all kinds of exotic beasts as you roam the Tower's rooms.

Of course, one of the highlights of the Tower of London is the Jewel House, which holds the Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels are the regalia of crowns, scepters, orbs, and swords used at coronations and other state events. Most of the Crown Jewels date from 1661 when a new set was made for the coronation of Charles II. Parliament had destroyed the previous crowns and scepters after the execution of Charles I in 1649 and only a few pieces survived which had been hidden by the clergy of Westminster Abbey.

The Crown Jewels contain some of the most famous diamonds in the world. The  First Star of Africa, now mounted at the top of the Sovereign's Scepter, is the largest cut diamond in the world. The Imperial State Crown alone has 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Not Hell's Kitchen: Our Experience Dining at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's

After nine seasons of watching contestants try to make a perfect beef wellington to meet Chef Ramsay's standards, I just had to see what all the fuss was about! Tim booked us a reservation for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and off we went to the lavish restaurant for a once in a lifetime meal.

We both opted for the three course meal, which was more like nine courses by the time we were done!

After deciding on our first courses, the sommelier brought an iPad with the wine list on it. We chose the 2009 Malbec from Argentina.

Lobster ravioli
We began the meal with an amuse bouche of delicate breadsticks served with hummus and a yellow tomato mustard. Next, compliments of the chef, was a vegetable connsome that had an almost sweet after taste. Then we were served beef carpaccio with foie gras mousse rolled in shaved truffle and Parmesan on toast. Our first courses then arrived: thai-spiced lobster ravioli in a lemongrass, lime and coconut broth for me and roasted loin of rabbit for Tim.

Bread choices were onion, olive and potato with homemade lemon and curry butters. The onion with the curry butter was fantastic!

Beef Wellington
Finally our beef wellington (only served for two) arrived and our waiter carved it table-side. A traditional British dish, it is a perfectly seared piece of beef tenderloin wrapped with parma ham and encompassed by a light puffy pastry shell. It practically melted in our mouth.

Of course, the surprises weren't yet over. We each received pre-dessert of passionfruit mousse, sorbet and foam with a pistachio biscuit.  For our actual desserts, I ordered the pecan and coffee soufflé with rum and raisin ice cream and Tim ordered the dark chocolate pear and cinnamon sphere. The waiter poured a hot milk sauce over the dark chocolate sphere table-side, releasing the aromas of the pear and cinnamon.

Pecan and coffee soufflé
Dessert was followed by one last surprise: an assortment of homemade chocolate truffles and marshmallows.

Although we both left stuffed, everything was delicious and it is a meal we will always remember.

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Autumn in Hyde Park

One of the largest parks in London and one of the Royal Parks, Hyde Park is a great place to spend a sunny autumn afternoon on foot, bike, or even horseback. Take in the changing leaves: bright yellows, blazing oranges, and fiery reds. Bring some peanuts to feed the friendly squirrels; they will practically come take the peanuts from your hand!

Aside from the wonderful autumn colors, there are some other sights to see in Hyde Park.

Begin your walk at the Marble Arch, which was the chief entrance to Buckingham Palace until 1851 when it was moved to Hyde Park.  By tradition, only senior members of the royal family, the King’s Troop and the Royal Horse Artillery are allowed to ride or drive through the Arch. 

Stroll along to the Queen Elizabeth Gate. This gate was opened on July 6, 1993 by the Queen to honor the Queen Mother's 93rd birthday. The six gates, railings and lamps are made from forged stainless steel and bronze and the design of the gates is meant to span the styles of the 20th Century. 
Also at Hyde Park corner is the biggest monument: the Wellington Monument from 1822. It consists of a nude Achilles, with cloak draped over his arm, his armor beside him. He carries a leaf-shaped short sword, and holds aloft a shield.

My favorite sculpture in the park is much less elaborate. There is a humble fountain on the west side with two embracing bears. It dates from 1939 and is due to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association celebrating their 80th anniversary. 

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Burg Hohenwerfen

Situated high on a 155 meter cliff in the Salzach valley, Burg Hohenwerfen is a fortress built between 1075 and 1078. Hohenwerfen has served as a military base as well as a residential and hunting retreat for Salburg's rulers. It even served as a prison for many centuries. Rulers such as Archbishop Adalbert III (1198), Graf Albert von Friesach (1253), the Styrian governor Siegmund (1525) and Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau (1611) were held captive here.

Today, the castle is home to the historical Salzburg Falconry Center. Impressive falconry flight displays included vultures, red kites, falcons and other birds of prey. Try to keep track as many of the birds fly around the castle and surrounding Tennengebirge mountains.

The weapons museum with 700 years of melee weapons and firearms is also quite interesting to visit while at the castle.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Europe's Biggest Party: Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest is is arguably Europe's biggest annual party, attracting nearly six million people.  Of course, the biggest draw of Oktoberfest are the fourteen free-to-enter beer tents. Want a seat? Get up and join the crowds as they make a dash for the tents bright and early. The massive Hofbräu Festzelt is considered the biggest beer tent at Oktoberfest with a capacity of nearly 10,000 and is the famous counterpart to the Hofbraeuhaus located in the city of Munich. The tent is packed with picnic tables and benches that fill up quickly and you can expect to see some craziness as "chug, chug, chug" is shouted all around. It is also the only tent at Oktoberfest where you can buy your mug of beer and have a drink without having to sit down.

The beer is traditionally served in one-liter krugs (steins) and beer wenches impressively carry ten at a time. When toasting, make eye contact with your drinking compatriots, raise and clink your glasses together, shouting Prost! (Cheers!), before taking a swig.

Local delicacies like hendl (a half spit-roasted chicken, wurstl (sausages), and Bavarian brezel (soft pretzels) are sold in the tents.

Everyone needs a souvenir of their trip to Oktoberfest. A favorite and easy-to-find souvenir is the Lebkuchen (gingerbread necklace). These gingerbread hearts are decorated with German phrases such as Ich Lieve Dich (I love you) and come strung with a ribbon for wearing home. Tim says I earned mine!

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Spy From the London Eye...

On a clear day, just like the day as I took a spin on the London Eye, you can see as far as 25 miles. The all glass capsules of the observation wheel afford you 360° views over London. It's location right in the heart of the city mean many famous landmarks are clearly visible, including Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Gherkin in London City and of course the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben right across the Thames.

Completed in 1999 as part of London's millennium celebrations, the giant observation wheel is the tallest in Europe at 135-meters (443 ft). It moves at a slow, but steady pace with one revolution taking just around 30 minutes. Be prepared to hop on and off because the wheel does not usually stop.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Royal Day Out at Buckingham Palace, London

Buckingham Palace serves as the London residence of The Queen. During August and September, when the Palace is not being used in its official capacity, the magnificent State Rooms are opened to visitors. The State Rooms are lavishly furnished with some of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection - paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Canaletto and Claude; sculpture by Canova and Chantrey; exquisite examples of Sèvres porcelain, and some of the finest English and French furniture in the world.

The 2011 opening of the State Rooms had two special exhibits. The Royal Fabergé, a collection of over 100 masterpieces by Peter Carl Fabergé, the greatest Russian jeweler and golsmith of the early 20th century. The Royal Fabergé exhibit explored how six successive generations of the British Royal Family, from Queen Victoria to The Queen have shaped the finest collection of Fabergé in the world.

I found the collection of jewel encrusted Imperial Easter Eggs the most impressive in the lot. The Mosaic Egg is without a doubt one of the most sophisticated and extraordinary of Fabergé’s Imperial Easter Eggs.

A special display of The Duchess of Cambridge's royal wedding dress, designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. The dress is stunning and yet a bit ghostly as it is displayed in a low lit room on a headless mannequin. A short video plays of Sarah Burton explaining the construction of the dress.

Also on display are the diamond acorn earrings gifted to Duchess Kate by her parents, the Cartier Halo tiara loaned to her by The Queen, and a silk flower replica of her bridal bouquet.

The traditional fruitcake is also on display in the State Dining Room.

The tour of the State Rooms leaves through the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Stop at the cafe to snack on a miniature chocolate biscuit cake, a favorite of Prince William and also served at the Royal Wedding. A stroll through the Palace Gardens leads you by The Queen's private pond.

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