Saturday, 11 September 2021

Cayo District - Belize

The tropical broadleaf forest of western Belize’s mountainous Cayo District was the heart of the ancient Maya world. Of the 600 ruins buried in the jungle near the Guatemalan border—reachable by horseback or jeep— none compare to Caracol. Though not as well excavated as Tikal in Guatemala (see p. 970), it was one of the great Maya city-states, occupied from the 1st to the 11th centuries and known for its 140-foot-high “sky palace.” In its heyday, there were thousands of buildings across a 30-square-mile area that supported a population of more than 150,000. Set off with a guide to explore Caracol and other nearby treasures, such as underground river cave systems and natural pools and waterfalls that are perfect for a swim.

Or spend the day zip-lining, trekking, kayaking, exploring butterfly gardens, or spotting the birdlife for which the country is famous. The riverside Lodge at Chaa Creek features thatch-roofed cottages, an excellent hilltop spa, horses for jungle treks, and a large, airy restaurant. It is set on a private 365-acre riverside nature preserve, where guests can enjoy a butterfly farm, visit a Maya medicine center, and hike miles of trails. Guides point out exotic jungle residents, such as quarrelsome howler monkeys and some of the 300 species of tropical and migratory birds. A few miles away at the more rustic Mountain Equestrian Trails (MET), horseback riding is the specialty.

A guide will lead you along 60 miles of narrow, winding trails into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, pointing out wildlife and recounting jungle lore. Back at the lodge, repair to a kerosene-lamp-lit cabana, and in the morning feast on banana pancakes. Set by a scenic creek and a series of gentle falls, the nearby Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, is the most stylish in the district, with 20 detail-rich accommodations ranging from modest cabanas to a sprawling villa.

Amenities include a riverside spa and a restaurant with the jungle chorus in the background. Worth the detour north of Cayo to Orange Walk, the jungle-enveloped Chan Chich Lodge lets you feel as if you’ve stepped into the ancient world. Built on a Maya plaza dating to the Classic Period (a.d. 300–900), Chan Chich’s elegant thatch-roofed bungalows are surrounded by 130,000 acres of vine-tangled wilderness teeming with more jaguars, jaguarundi, pumas, ocelots, and margays than you’ll find in any other part of Belize. Nine miles of trails wend around temples concealed under grass-covered mounds, and local guides are as well versed in the region’s flora and fauna as they are in the history of its ancient peoples.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Keoladeo Ghana Nationa Park India

If you like birding to be ridiculously easy, there may be no better place in the world for you than the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in northern India. Usually, known simply as Bharatpur, this site is small (only 29 sq km in area), flat, ease of access, and it simply teems with birds for most of the year. Over 400 species have been recorded here, and it is not at all unusual to see 150 in a single day (in the winter). Not much effort is required to observe the masses of herons, ducks, cormorants, and storks on the flooded lakes (jheels); they are there in front of you, and often allow a close approach. Your only problem is to identify them all.

Keoladeo Ghana lies on the Gangetic Plain 180 km south of Delhi and 60 km west of Agra. It is an ‘island’ in a vast flat area of cultivation and its continued existence in such a populous region is a quirk of history. It seems that there were always marshes in the area but in 1890 the Maharajah of Bharatpur, who was keen on duck shooting, extended and enclosed the local wetland by setting up a network of canals and earthen embankments, known as bunds. He henceforth used his newly created reserve for ‘sport’, inviting various visitors and dignitaries to join him on regular massacres of the wildfowl. But happily, despite the persecution, the birds kept coming, and by the 1960s they were afforded protection by the government of India.

Then, largely thanks to pressure from the great Indian conservationist Dr Salim Ali, the national park was declared in 1982. The most obvious inhabitants of Bharatpur are the waterbirds, which can be divided into residents and migrants. The monsoon season lasts from July to September, and this encourages many tree-nesting species to set up colonies in the branches of the acacias that grow on islands within the jheels. Throughout the reserve some 50,000 pairs of large water birds nest, including Little and Indian Cormorants, Darter, four species of egret, including Intermediate Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Grey Heron, Painted and Black-necked Storks, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbill. Many colonies are mixed, allowing superb comparisons of all the species.

They are so easy to see and so close that you have to pinch yourself to realize you are not in a safari park or zoo. In the surrounding marshes, there are dozens of other colorful or interesting breeding birds to see. These include the delightful long-toed Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, which trot energetically over the emergent vegetation, plus ubiquitous Indian Pond Herons, White-breasted Waterhens and Purple Swamp-hens. Sarus Cranes walk sedately over the marshes, towering over everything else, while less obvious ‘birders’ birds’ well worth searching for include the weird Greater Painted Snipe and the highly secretive Black Bittern.

From October onwards these resident species are joined by many thousands of wintering Palearctic water birds. One of the commonest, the Barheaded Goose comes here after an epic flight that takes it over the peaks of the Himalayas; it has been recorded flying at 9,000–10,000 m altitude, and studies have shown that it has four types of hemoglobin in its blood, each working at different partial pressures of oxygen. Alongside it, many of the ducks sharing the jheels in winter will be familiar to visitors from Europe or North America, and include large numbers of Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Eurasian Teals and Northern Shovelers.

However, mixed in among them are good numbers of more typically Asian species, including the resident Indian Spot-billed Duck, Lesser Whistling Duck and Cotton Pygmy Goose. Bharatpur is also famous for its birds of prey and, again, these can be divided into residents and winter visitors. One of the most important of the former is the sedentary Indian Spotted Eagle, which is now a very rare bird indeed; there is usually one pair on the reserve. 

The crisis among Indian vultures has hit here as everywhere; the White-rumped and Indian have disappeared, while the more solitary Redheaded Vulture still hangs on. Winter is the best time for birds of prey, when dozens may come to Bharatpur from Eurasia to spend the season harassing the water birds. One of the most numerous, often numbering 30 or more, is the Greater Spotted Eagle, a bird that can be extremely difficult to find in its breeding haunts: Bharatpur is probably the best place in the world to see it.

There can also be a few Eastern Imperial, Steppe and Bonelli’s Eagles on-site, all of which loaf about in the trees for hours on end, causing identification headaches for visiting birders. Less tricky are the numerous Western Marsh Harriers, and the snake-eating Short-toed Eagle, which is found around the drier parts of the reserve. 

Once you have got to grips with the larger birds you begin to notice that there are plenty of small passerines around as well. Not content with being fantastic for waterbirds and raptors, Bharatpur in winter is a superb place for catching up with mouthwatering migrants from northern and central Asia. One of the best places is known as ‘The Nursery’, close to the barrier where you present your tickets, where there are scattered bushes and trees.

Such gems as Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat and Red-breasted and Taiga Flycatchers can be found here, along with Tickell’s and Orange-headed Thrushes. If all these birds are too easy for you, a fine range of difficult wintering warblers will tax your skills to the full: these include Sykes’s, Dusky, Hume’s Leaf, Blyth’s Reed, and Paddyfield Warblers, together with two specialties, Smoky Warbler and Brooks’s Leaf Warbler. 

In short, there is something for everyone here, whatever their birding ability and the sheer number of birds can be almost overwhelming. You could easily spend a month at this marvelous reserve and still be seeing new species right to the end. In recent years Bharatpur has suffered a major water shortage, mainly caused by its source of water being siphoned off for other uses, leading to fears that it would become degraded and lose its value as a reserve. Hopefully, this crisis can be remedied so that Bharatpur can continue to be flushed with water and birds. 

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Iditarod – The Great Dog Race on Earth

 Starting from Anchorage every March and ending 8 to 15 days later in Nome, the Iditarod is one of the great endurance tests in the sport, with competitors mushing sled dogs across 1,150 miles of snow and ice in temperatures as low as 60°F below zero. It is Alaska’s largest spectator sport and few things celebrate the pioneering spirit of our 49th state better.
Now a National Historic Trail, the Iditarod began as a mail and supply route for miners. It winds across frozen rivers and desolate tundra, through dense forest, and along miles of windswept coast from Seward, near Anchorage, to Nome, on the western Bering Sea coast. In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a lifesaving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome.
Diphtheria raged, and serum had to be brought in by intrepid mushers and their hard-driving dogs. In commemoration of those heroic feats, the route was turned into a racecourse in 1973, and today mushers come from as far away as Japan and Norway to compete for a share of the $600,000-plus purse. You can get into the race yourself as a passenger, or “IditaRider,” by bidding for a spot on a musher’s sled for the first 11 miles (the auction begins in November, with a $7,500 offer guaranteeing your choice of musher). For a less competitive take, contact Raymie Redington, son of Joe “Father of the Iditarod” Redington Sr., leads short trips on the Iditarod Trail.
Winterlake Lodge, one of the remote fly-in outposts directly on the trail, offers four handsome guest cabins and opportunities to traverse the trail with a team of 24 Alaskan huskies (it’s also one of the state’s few wilderness lodges that stays open year-round). The dinner menu is remarkable even by big-city standards. Nome, the “end of the line” for the Iditarod (and almost everything else), stands on the coast of the Bering Sea.
Its dirt streets and rough-and-tumble saloons are quiet until the month-long Iditarod celebration rolls into town every March. Along with the race, fans come northern lights aficionados, as well as participants in the Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic, who hit orange golf balls onto Astroturf laid across the frozen sea.
Where: Headquarters in Wasilla, 40 miles north of Anchorage. Tel 907-376-5155 or 907-248-6874 (race time); www.iditarod .com. When: early Mar. IditaRiders auction: Tel 800-566-7533 or 907-352-2202; www When: early Nov–Jan. Raymie Redingtion: Tel 907-376-6730.
Cost: half-hour dog sled rides $50. When: beginning with 1st snow in Nov. Winterlake Lodge: Tel 907-274-2710; Cost: 2-night stay, $2,130 per person, all-inclusive with air transfer from Anchorage.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Finger Lakes New York, United States

 The Iroquois attributed these long, narrow lakes to the Great Spirit, who laid his hands in blessing on this particularly beautiful area of upstate New York, but it’s more likely that glacial activity carved them out eons ago. Most are deep—Cayuga and Seneca, the largest, are 435 and 618 feet deep, respectively, and about 38 miles long. Together, these 11 parallel lakes cover an area no more than 100 miles across in a bucolic region where the sleepy Main Streets of waterfront towns like Geneva, Skaneateles, and Hammondsport invites strolling and antique hunting. 

The Finger Lakes are particularly known for their “boutique” vineyards—today numbering close to 100 and recognized for some of the country’s best Rieslings and chardonnays. The Finger Lakes is a group of eleven long, slender, jaggedly north-south lakes in an area called the Finger Lakes region in New York, in the United States. This part of the world straddles the northern and transitional edge, recognized as the Finger Lakes Uplands and Gorges ecoregion, of the Northern Allegheny Plateau and the Ontario Lowlands ecoregion of the Great Lakes Lowlands.

Of the area’s various trails, the most popular is the Keuka, named for what is widely considered the most beautiful of the lakes. The route takes in the pioneering Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, outside Hammondsport, and nearby Pleasant Valley Wine Company, whose eight historic stone buildings add up to one of the best tours in the region. Geneva on the Lake, a 1910 Roman villa–inspired hotel, has a beautiful expanse of parterre garden leading down to a pool on the shore of Seneca Lake. 

At Skaneateles Lake—among the cleanest in the country—the Mirbeau Inn and Spa is a Francophile’s dream with a garden that would woo Monet. Along Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway lies Aurora, a tidy little town of 650 that is experiencing a renaissance thanks to Pleasant Rowland, creator of the American Girl dolls. Rowland restored the lakeside Aurora Inn, a redbrick Federal-style inn from 1833, and its neighbor, the 7-room E. B. Morgan House. The Aurora Inn’s dining room opens onto a waterfront veranda, where American classics, like oven-crusted pork tenderloin, are paired with wines from neighboring vineyards. 

Monday, 3 May 2021

Hadrian’s Wall - Hexham, Northumberland, England

Here legions once marched, sheep now peacefully graze. A few sections are all that remain of this dividing wall that was constructed some 1,800 years ago as the demarcation line for the  northwesternmost border of Rome’s mighty empire. Named after Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 76–138), who ordered its construction, the wall spanned 73 miles across England, between Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast (beyond Carlisle) and Wallsend on the east coast (beyond Newcastle), with major forts and smaller “mile-castles” dotted along its length.

Work was begun in 121 by some 18,000 soldiers and indentured slaves and was abandoned around the year 400 as the Roman Empire crumbled. Today, the wall is Britain’s largest ruin dating from the Roman era and is one of northern Europe’s most impressive and important Roman sites. The best-preserved chunk is a 10-mile stretch in Northumberland, to the east of Carlisle and within striking distance of England’s much-visited Lake District (see p. 16).

Also, in this area are some of the region’s finest Roman forts, including Birdoswald, Vindolanda, and Housesteads, all with attached museums giving a fascinating insight into daily life on the wall for Roman soldiers. Walk beside the wall for a mile or two or hike its entire length on the Hadrian’s Wall Path—one of England’s most popular national trails. Or rent a bike and sample the equally popular Hadrian’s Cycleway.

South of the ancient wall sits several modern towns, including Haltwhistle, which claims to be the geographic midpoint of the country, a fact celebrated by the Centre of Britain Hotel. Dating from the 15th century, the hotel combines classic and contemporary style with a friendly welcome and good service. For more history and greater creature comforts, retreat to the nearby Langley Castle Hotel, about 7 miles east of Haltwhistle in the village of Langley-on-Tyne.

Built-in 1350 during the reign of King Edward III, its turreted 7-foot-thick walls and original medieval stained-glass windows, and spiral staircases enchantingly evoke the past. It’s a pocket of modern luxury complete with an acclaimed restaurant. Where: Hadrian’s Wall is between Carlisle and Newcastle, about 250 miles/ 400 km north of London.


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Qandil Mountains

The Kurdistan region adjacent to the Iran-Iraq border has a range of the Qandil Mountains. This part of the mountainous area belongs to the Zagros mountain range. By nature, the area is extremely rugged terrain and hard to access. The Kuhe Haji Ebrahim Mountain is the highest peak in Qandil Mountains, has an elevation of 3,587 meters a subrange of the Zagros Mountains. The Kuhe Ebrahim Mountain range is sit in Western Iran and Eastern Iraq in Western Asia. The Qandil Mountains sprawling several high summits, a clutter of interlocking peaks and plateaus, is snow-covered for much of the year, and further up the mountain, there are deciduous forests.

The region is noteworthy as a sanctuary and headquarters for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). This is about 5,000 PKK and other armed factions control an area of approximately 50 km². However, which has been at irregular intervals bombarded by the Turkish Air Force and shelled by Iranian military artillery for some years. The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) is also based in Qandil, which lets them infiltrate into Iran. The Turkish military carries out operations in the Qandil mountains where they believed PKK are hiding. Turkish military believed Qandil Mountains are a safe place for Turkey and no more doubt in them. However, the bulk of the Qandil Mountains itself is in Iranian territory.


Friday, 12 March 2021

Block Island – Rhode Island United States

Unpretentious Block Island is a barefoot-and-bicycle kind of place, with rolling green hills, hundreds of freshwater ponds, and dramatic 250-foot bluffs that remind many of Ireland. So bewitching is it that Nature. Conservancy was inspired to call the island “one of the last great places in the Western Hemisphere.” Not much happened here until tourists began arriving in the 1870s (leading to a boom in the construction of grand Victorian hotels).

Today, on peak summer weekends, up to 20,000 tourists flock to this 11-square-mile New England gem. Despite the island’s popularity, there is no Martha’s Vineyard–style social fuss. Residents and visitors tend to be quiet and protective of the natural beauty around them. A third of the island is set aside as wildlife refuge, with more than 30 miles of hiking trails and gorgeous cliffside biking paths.

The island is ringed by some 17 miles of beach, while the Great Salt Pond harbors hundreds of pleasure boats, most from nearby Newport (see next page). Situated on the Atlantic flyway, it’s a favorite of birdwatchers during the autumn migrations, when huge flocks representing more than 150 species pass through. Dubbed the “Bermuda of the North” during its Victorian-era heyday, Block Island still boasts a number of rambling porch-fringed buildings, which wear their age with dignity.

The Hotel Manisses is a big 1870s charmer that surprises by way of its upscale restaurant with garden seating. (Order the signature lobster mashed potatoes.) Of several sister properties, the nearby 1661 Inn is the most inviting while the ten-room Sea Breeze Inn is delightful: It sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and is surrounded by flowering gardens. Where: 12 miles south of mainland Rhode Island. Visitor info: www.blockisland 

How: Ferries depart from Pt. Judith year-round. Seasonal departures from Newport; New London, CT; and Montauk, NY. Hotel Manisses and 1661 Inn: Tel 800- 626-4773 or 401-466-2421; www.blockisland Cost: Manisses from $75 (offpeak), from $240 (peak); dinner $50. 1661 Inn from $100 (off-peak), from $375 (peak). 

When: Hotel Manisses, Apr–Oct; 1661 Inn, year-round. Sea Breeze Inn: Tel 800-786- 2276 or 401-466-2275; www.seabreezeblock Cost: from $160 (off-peak), from $230 (peak). Best times: May–mid-Jun and mid-Sep–Oct for fewer crowds; Aug for nicest weather; Sep–Oct for bird-watching.