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Nine best reasons to visit Namibia

Namibia is hot, desolate and ornery as an un-neutered bull. With the unheard of luxury of space (nearly three times the size of Germany, its 2.3 million residents average a half a square kilometer to themselves), this country on the southwestern corner of Africa recently hosted the 10th Adventure Travel World Summit, a delegation of 600 adventure tour operators, journalists and other seekers from 64 countries.

These intrepid travelers scouted this still-in-diapers country (independence from South Africa wasn’t granted until 1990), hobnobbed in its two biggest metropolises (Windhoek and Swakopmund), traipsed like Lawrence of Arabia across its seemingly-endless deserts and enjoyed one of the last bastions on earth where wildlife is actually making a comeback.

Here are nine actually pretty interesting things to emerge from the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit:

1. Tourism may be our best chance to save endangered species. Like everywhere else on the planet, Namibia’s wildlife was nosediving at a drastic clip. Home to Africa’s legendary “Big Five,” this land of stunning landscapes was systematically reducing its game either by shooting it to protect livestock or eating it to survive. Its wily government took a long hard look at its resources, realized that lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalo, rather than providing meat, could lure travelers with deep pockets to its shores.

With much of the country averaging less than 50 millimeters of rainfall per year, farming, despite all the seeds, Peace Corp workers and other international support, was simply unable to provide a long-term solution. But capitalizing on the resources it already had (animals that residents of already-developed lands will pay good money to see), Namibia chose to build an economy by convincing its residents to embrace five simple words: “We will live with wildlife.”

2. Namibia was the first country to include the protection of its natural resources in its constitution. Take a peek at the average constitution and you’ll find a long list of yawn-inducing items about governance, rights of the populace, elections and other human-centric concerns. Namibia, in a move since copied by other African nations, chose to grant its wildlife, its vast landscapes, its natural resources equal protection, a stunning proclamation.

When the Namibian Constitution went into effect on March 21, 1990, the protection of natural resources was guaranteed in Article 95 that clearly stipulates that the state shall actively promote and maintain policies to “maintain ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity…on a sustainable basis for the benefits of all Namibians…”. In other words, Namibia is constitutionally obliged to protect its environment and to promote sustainable use of its natural resources.

3. Namibia has a bizarre tree that’s less than two-feet tall. To call the Welwitschia mirabilis a tree is misleading even though it has bark, cones, leaves and its closest relatives are pines, spruces and firs. This truly weird plant grows only in the Namib Desert, hails from the Jurassic Period, lives up to 1500 years and grows a grand total of two leaves. These thick, leathery straps lie on the ground, get shredded by wind and typically grow longer than the tree is tall.

This freak of nature was first “discovered” by Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch (his grave in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery is engraved with the plant he brought to the attention of the Western world) although native Herero people, who often cooked it in ashes, called it onyanga, the wild onion of the desert. This unattractive, but fascinating plant survives in a tiny strip of the planet that often goes without rain for years at a time by soaking up moisture from the fog that regularly rolls in from the Atlantic.

4. The Namibian government owns the world’s largest population of black rhino. Despite a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declaring the Western black rhino to be extinct, the country of Namibia boasts a growing population of both black and white rhino, all of which are technically “owned” by the state. Recent counts estimate Namibia’s population of the South Western black rhino, a nearly-identical cousin of the extinct Western, at nearly 1795, a huge jump from 1992 when rhino population were nearly decimated thanks to Chinese herbalists’ claims that ground rhino horn revive patients in comas, bring down fevers and aid in sexual stamina and fertility. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (notice these two agencies are joined at the hip), Namibia’s black rhinos (28 percent of Africa’s population) are rigidly protected in Etosha Natioanl Park, Waterberg Plateau Park and in the 70 communal conservancies that make up a good 46 percent of Namibia, more than twice the land mass of the UK.

Although controversial, Namibia brings in millions of dollars auctioning the right to hunt five post-breeding rhino bulls per year. All proceeds are plowed directly back into anti-poaching and other conservation efforts.

5. Namibia is a surprisingly fitting place to wear lederhosen. Other than the swaying palms, Swakopmund, now a vibrant beach resort, could easily be mistaken for any town in Bavaria. Founded in 1892 as the main harbor of German South-West Africa, Namibia’s earlier incarnation, it has traditional German architecture, hotels with names like Hansa Haus and Europa Hof and boisterous German beer halls. It’s as easy to get strudel and wiener schnitzel today as it was before colonial Germany lost its claim to the colony after World War 1.

Beer is cheap and there’s an annual Oktoberfest in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. This two-day drinking extravaganza comes complete with oompah bands flown in from the ex-Motherland, drinking songs, knockwurst and Bavarian pretzels, all served with Windhoek lager, one of many Namibian beers that strictly adhere to Reinheitsegebot, the German Purity Law of 1516.

Waitresses wearing dirndls vie to carry the most beer steins, men in felt hats compete in wood sawing competitions and the average stein, served from big yellow tents, run less than $1. Compare that to the Munich version where steins will set you back as much as $13.

6. Always proofread your menus. At Tuesday’s dinner sponsored by the Chilean Tourism department, the menu, left beside plates in the Erongo Dining Tent, listed the main courses as oryx lion. Oryx, of course, is the national animal of Namibia and a culinary staple along with mopane worms, the caterpillar of the emperor moth that Namibians collect, dry (after squeezing out their innards) and either munch like potato chips or serve with pap, a popular maize porridge. Nutritionists claim they have three times the protein of beef.

But lion? Really? Turns out oryx lion was nothing but an unfortunate misprint, an inadvertent spelling of oryx loin.

7. Tourism accounts for one in 20 jobs in Sub Saharan Africa. According to a new book, Tourism in Africa: Harnessing Tourism for Growth and Improved Livelihoods, tourism is expected to employ 6.7 million people by 2021. Published by the World Bank, this new report cites successful examples from Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and, of course, Namibia.

Since 1990, Africa has quadrupled the number of tourists and in 2012 reaped more than $36 billion in tourism dollars.

“Given the continent’s abundant natural and cultural resources, the fundamentals are in place for Africa to claim its fair share of world tourism, ”says Hannah Messerli, co-author of the report and Senior Private Sector Development Specialist in the World Bank’s Africa Region. “Although Africa’s tourism potential has largely gone untapped to date, it can now take steps to close the gap with other regions.”

8. Namibia’s famous White Lady was a cross-dresser. Deep within the Namib Desert, on the granite monolith of Brandberg Mountain, 2000-year-old bushmen paintings have puzzled archaeologists for nearly 100 years. In particular, the White Lady, the largest of the 1000 paintings scattered throughout rock shelters and caves on Namibia’s highest peak, was originally identified as a woman even though she had a penis and was clearly a shaman performing a ritual dance. The rumor was started by French Abbe Henri Breuil, an overeager interpreter of cave art. He went so far as to claim the White Lady was probably Isis, painted by an ancient tribe of Europeans that once inhabited Africa even though 50,000 acknowledged San paintings were already recorded in the region. In 1956, the archaeological community threw out Breuil’s interpretation of the ochre, charcoal and ostrich egg “lady” with a bow in one hand and a goblet in the other, but to this day the most famous of the Namibian bushmen paintings is still known as the White Lady.

9. Africa always wins. Try as you might to prevent catastrophe, organize efficient transportation and even take extra spare tires (two is the bare minimum) for the unpaved, rocky roads in Damaraland and Kaokoland, Africa has and always will have its own rhythm and sense of timing. Westerners might as well face that sobering reality and even embrace it.

All the world’s a stage and here’s where to spend the 7 stages

“To be or not to be” is probably Shakespeare’s most famous line, but “All the world’s a stage” runs a close second. In that monologue from As You Like It, a human life is broken down into seven distinct ages, all with splashy entrances and exits. And while the Bard himself wasn’t much of a suitcase-toting kind of guy, here’s where we think his “one man in his time” could best play his seven parts:

Age One: “At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.” Get that infant to Bali ASAP. The Balinese adore children. Most of the resorts have kids clubs, babysitters and gushing employees who are likely to come to fisticuffs over who gets to hold that mewling bundle next. The food is not too spicy with lots of rice, noodles and other easily digestible items (cuts down on the puking) and when said bundle does toss the cookies, it’s easy to kick under the sand (there are beaches everywhere) and pull off as a lopsided sand castle. Not only that, but infants will feel like Julia Roberts (who did take her kids to this gorgeous Indonesian island during the filming of Eat Pray Love) with fans continuously cooing over “those cute little cheeks.”

Stage directions: Ubud, the cultural and craft center of Bali, offers a wealth of family friendly restaurants (think large gardens with cats, fish ponds full of tadpoles and day beds where tired youngsters can relax and color while waiting for opor ayam), rice paddies and a sacred monkey forest. Cheap bananas, sold in the nearby market, lure the long tailed macaques that, if have moustaches, are female. Go figure. http://www.balitourismboard.org

Age Two:Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” Hello!!! Anybody who has set in a classroom lately knows those wooden seats are damned uncomfortable and no way to stimulate a mind. A much better approach is Italy (although it’s much debated, some think Willie S. had to have traveled there to write about it so convincingly) where Art History Abroad (AHA) trains young eyes to appreciate art, sculpture and architecture. But more than opening doors to hidden Italian treasures, AHA’s mission is to produce cultivated minds.

As its director, Nicholas Ross, likes to say, “We see students’ minds as fires to be kindled.” Whining schoolboys not only see the cream of Italy’s masterpieces, but they eat at local cafes, many that haven’t yet made the guidebooks, romp with 20-somethings who still believe anything is possible, re-enact gladiator flights in Verona, pretend to be wealthy Medicis in their Florence palaces and imitate sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello.

Stage directions: AHA tutors, as they call themselves, teach with such infectious gusto that the end result is a life of endless devotion to art of all kinds. Ross, who was recently voted the No. 1 Guide in London’s Daily Telegraph, carries a sketchbook to explain ideas that don’t translate well into words and has a gift for recognizing the best channel for imparting his passion. In impromptu plays that he’s known to stage in the lively market square Campo dei Fiori, he’ll cast a shy students as Lorenzo the Magnificent or a student who’s full of himself as Pope Leo X, a not-so-closeted gay who died of an exploding intestine. http://www.arthistoryabroad.com

Age Three: “And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” Forget the ballad. Take the mistress to Paris which, as 473 million Google hits prove, is indeed the “city of love.” Although there’s no evidence that Napoleon thought of his capital as especially romantic, the rest of the world sure fell for this marketing ploy. And why not? With it’s famous art museums, historic churches, sidewalk cafes and penchant for turning food, wine and hand-in-hand strolls into a veritable art form, Paris enhances, if not out and out clothes ripping, at least romantic interludes.

Stage directions: Get ready for the games to begin with 2 a.m. strolls along the Seine and visits to the pond at Jardin du Luxembourg, the tomb of star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise at Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the Sully Wing at the Louvre. http://www.en.parisinfo.com

Age Four: “Then a soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth.” Not totally sure I want a bubble reputation, but any kind of reputation can be furthered by hanging with outrageous billionaire Richard Branson. His Virgin Limited Edition portfolio includes South Africa’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Morocco’s Kasbah Tamadot, Switzerland’s “The Lodge” and Kenya’s Mahali Mzuri that’s opening mid-2013, just in time for the Great Migration.

But when it comes to sticking your neck in the cannon’s mouth, the madcap entrepreneur’s first vacation home in the British Virgin Islands (where else?) is probably most apropos especially after one of its eight-bedroom, palm-roofed buildings went up in flames last year during Hurricane Irene. The fact that Kate Winslet and her family narrowly escaped that lightning-imposed fire on Necker Island only adds to the esteem juju.

Branson uses his private retreat to host symposiums (Tony Blair, Google’s Larry Page and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales met there to discuss global warming), but he also rents it to anyone who doesn’t balk at the $43,000 nightly rate. It sleeps 28, has 14 private beaches, a staff of 60, its own spa (where guests like Oprah Winfrey get caviar facials) and fleets of Hobie cats, windsurfers, boogie boards and a 3-person submarine. A Balinese drum calls guests to meals which can either be held in the Crocodile Pavilion around a giant table carved in the shape of a crocodile or in the bar where James Bond movies play in the background.

There’s also a floating sushi bar during Happy Hour, plenty of tree houses (Branson calls them love shacks) and pickup games of beach volleyball played with a coconut.

Stage directions: Steven Spielberg, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro and Kate Moss are just a few with bubble reputations who have stayed at this exclusive island. Whether or not they donned the island’s signature pirate costumes, we can’t say. http://www.virginlimitededition.com.

Age Five: “And then the justice in fair round belly, with good capon lin’d, with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws, and modern instances, and so he plays his part.” Now that Shakespeare’s man has achieved social status, prosperity and love, he’s fed up with canned tours. He wants his vacations (and the rest of his time on planet earth) to count for something. Thanks to that sentiment, he becomes a volunteer vacation groupie.

“When I started the voluntourism website in 2000, you couldn’t even find the term on Google. Today, if you Google voluntourism, you’ll get hundreds of thousands of hits,” says David Clemmons, long-time volunteer and founder of VolunTours that offers health, education, and travel programs. “People are taking the onus upon themselves to change the world.”

Part Peace Corps, part cultural immersion, volunteer vacations give the round-bellied justice the chance to lend a hand, to experience a place in a new way and to make friends with locals, not just take snapshots of them.

Stage directions: For more than 100 ideas for volunteer vacations, check out my National Geographic book, 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life. http://www.voluntourism.org.

Stage Six: “Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side, his youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide, for his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again towards childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound.” Ah, old age, when knees give out, faces sag and trips that sound most enticing involve some kind of inexpensive surgery. Nearly every country in Asia is vying for a share of the burgeoning medical tourism market. While Thailand, Singapore and India have been consistent growth leaders, my money’s on Malaysia that recently established a government agency (Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council) to promote health care travel and set up a global hotline for inquiries about their dirt cheap knee replacements, cardiac care and cancer treatment.

Stage directions: The Kuala Lumpur International Airport even has a 24-hour medical clinic and pharmacy. It’s near Burger King on the third level of the main terminal. http://www.malaysiahealthcare.com

Stage Seven: “Last scene of all…mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Los Angeles, California offers the most convincing proof that none of us is immortal, not Marilyn Monroe, whose crypt at Westwood Memorial has had to be replaced numerous times from slobbering fans kisses, not Rudolph Valentino who’s mausoleum at Hollywood Forever hosts a memorial service every August 23 at exactly 12:10 p.m., the anniversary of his death, not Douglas Fairbanks, whose lavish memorial at the same cemetery screens movies on weekends during the summer.

Stage directions: For a complete listing of more than 400 interesting graves in Southern California, check out Steve Goldstein’s, LA’s Graveside Companion:Where the V.I.P.s R.I.P.
http://www.hollywoodforever.com

Important advice that every travel guidebook fails to mention

Travel guidebooks have it all wrong. They tell us about hotels and restaurants and sights we don’t want to miss.

What they SHOULD tell us has but five words:

“Get to know a local.”

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When that happens (and it’s a lot easier than you might think), real magic can begin. Locals, of course, know the best restaurants, have true insight about the must-see “sights” and will introduce you to things those writers of travel guidebooks couldn’t begin to know.

A recent example of this happened to me in Rize, Turkey. Rize is in the Black Sea region of Turkey and, as the guidebooks will tell you, it has stunning Alp-like vistas, ancient monasteries carved into cliffs and charming seaside villages, all of which you don’t want to miss.

But nowhere did any guidebook tell me about Cemal, Nazmiye and Fethi Yetkiner. This beautiful, open-hearted family invited me into their home one Sunday afternoon, fed me a meal that rivals the best of Istanbul’s many fabulous restaurants (and that’s saying a lot. Istanbul has really, really, really good restaurants) and made me feel like a treasured guest. Maybe I should rephrase that. They made me feel like an important part of their close-knit family.

Sure, I could have spent my day in Rize visiting the Rize Museum (according to the guidebook it’s an old Ottoman house complete with a weaving room and antiques) or the Genoese castle that, the guidebooks tell me, has its own tea garden.

But by instead hanging out with the Yetkiners, I learned a travel truth that is far more valuable. I learned about the connection that all of us humans have whether we speak the same language, whether we practice the same religion or whether we live thousands of miles away from each other. I also learned that the State Department doesn’t know everything.

The day before my trip to Turkey, the State Department issued a travel warning. It wasn’t a warning about the region where I was traveling, but nonetheless, it gave me pause. Plus, what news-savvy American hasn’t picked up the notion that we’re not likely to win any popularity contests with some Muslims? I don’t buy that kind of stereotyping, of course, but I’m a human with a reptile brain. I wondered, “Did I need to be on guard?”

Like most decisions made with my reptile brain, that question was so misguided, so off-base that I’m embarrassed to admit it here.

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And to pay penance, I want to tell you how beautiful and meaningful my day was with the Yetkiner family. By the time I met them, I’d already been in Turkey for a week and I was getting accustomed to the call for prayer. Even in remote mountain villages where maybe two or three families lived, the Adhaan was piped over a loud speaker system. I had grown to love it, to look forward to it and to utter my own “wassup” to the Divine each of the five times a day it rang out from mosques and loud speakers across the country.

I also learned quite quickly that hospitality is an art in the Muslim world, a cherished virtue that encourages practitioners to view every person who comes across their path as sent to them by Allah himself. In fact, it’s next-to-impossible in Turkey to be in the general vicinity of another human being without being handed a fig or a hazelnut or a bowl of fresh yogurt made that morning from the milk of their own cow.

Hospitality is so over-the-top (commerce, it seems, is beside the point) that any crusty idea I ever had that foreigners are different or that life sucks or that the world is a going to hell in a handbasket were properly dashed against the inhospitable shores of the Black Sea, a region in Turkey that looks more like the Colorado Rockies than Lawrence of Arabia.

Sure, Nazmiye and Fethi disappeared for a few minutes every time the call to prayer sounded (to a room where they kneeled on their prayer rug) and our language barriers prevented us from burrowing deeply into long conversations. But none of that mattered. When they were off praying, I sat on their gorgeous balcony gazing over the misty tea fields, reveling in the beautiful chanting that reminds all who hear it, “There is more. There is more.”

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When I faltered in trying to saying thank you (my “Tesekkur ederim” still sounds like something my 15-month-old granddaughter might say) for the five-course meal Nazmiye so generously prepared, she hugged me and let me know that she “got it” and that some things are bigger than words.

And after our feast (it’s really the only word that aptly applies), Cemal, who speaks perfect English, gave me a personal took of the tea factory (where he knew everyone and proudly provided anecdotes and perspective all guidebooks missed) and a craft factory (where prices were dirt-shockingly cheap), but he introduced me to most every one of his family and every one of his neighbors.
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It’s an experience I will treasure forever. And a vivid reminder always that “there is more. There is more.”

You want to go where? The planet’s 10 most challenging destinations

There aren’t any travel brochures or last-minute deals for getting to the destinations in this article. Most of them, in fact, don’t even have airports. Or ports.

These solitary pieces of real estate are mercilessly remote, extremely hard to get to and, except for the members of certain destination collecting groups (Travelers’ Century Club or Most Traveled People), not listed on too many bucket lists. To get to any one of these is roughly the equivalent of a stamp collector finding an 1856 British Guiana 1 cent Magenta.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can get to these ten places, you will have developed so many desirable qualities that you can either A) apply for sainthood, B) have your pick of the guy or girl of your dreams or C) secure your own television talk show. At very least, you can fire your therapist.

1. Diego Garcia. This British territory that’s leased to the American military and halfway between Africa and Indonesia requires securing a permit, informing the U.S. you’re not a Somali pirate (so they’ll call down their missiles) and making sure the native Chagossians who were evicted from the island in the 1960’s and still not happy about it haven’t hitched a ride on your boat. It’s also considered wise to hire armed guards to make the journey with you.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll foster tenacity and possibly be able to encourage one of the 16 commands located on this remote island with the motto: “ONE ISLAND, ONE TEAM, ONE MISSION.” Plus, according to the latest conspiracy theory, you’ll be crowned a hero because that’s where the missing Malaysia Flight 370 landed along with its passengers.

2. Howland Island. Sure, this remote isle just north of the equator in the Micronesian Pacific has a stunning four-mile beach, but it’s windy, has no fresh water supply and hasn’t been inhabited (except by errant sea and shore birds) since World War II. Getting there requires filling out a six-page special use permit request and having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, “C’mon Down.” Let’s just say neither happens very often.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll develop persistence and be able to say, “na-na-na-na-boo-boo” to the memory of Amelia Earhart. Despite the fact that the U.S. government ponied up $12,000 to build three runways for the famous aviatrix’s 1937 flight around the world, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan never made it to this now-deserted island, creating a mystery that has spawned numerous books, movies and TV specials.

3. Baker Island. This tiny atoll that’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia has an overgrown, good-luck-to-any-pilot-trying-to find-it airstrip and technically qualifies as a Pacific island, but forget any notion of swaying native girls singing “Bali Hai.” It’s economic heyday occurred in mid-1800’s when guano miners, under U.S. federal legislation, took possession of the doo-doo encrusted dot. Back then, guano was a hot commodity used as fertilizer and saltpeter for gunpowder. Today, it’s part of the Baker Island National Wildlife Refuge, uninhabited and only visited by scientists and representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every year or two. To get there, you pretty much have to know someone and/or be willing to charter an 8-day, $60,000 boat ride from Hawaii. And even then, you don’t want to get too close. The low-lying reef around this island has bested many ships including 11 Navy ships that sank here during World War II.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll prove your financial worth, not to mention you’ll enjoy the rare chance to see a sizable colony of both green and hawksbill turtles, several species of endangered birds, the grave of an American seaman and a sad-looking clump of coconut palms established by the four Americans sent there in 1935 to colonize. Evacuated in 1942 during Japanese air and naval attacks, the colonists didn’t leave a Holiday Inn. Take a tent and lots of sunscreen.

4. The Balleny Islands. English whaling captains John Balleny and Thomas Freeman were the first to visit these desolate, frigid and utterly hostile Antarctic islands in 1839. Very few have been there since. Earthquakes are common (eight so far this year), volcanoes are still suspected of being active and they’re only reachable about 28 days of the year. New Zealand, that administers these islands as part of the Ross Dependency, has been attempting to the turn them into a Protected Marine Area, but, because these 160 kilometers of ice and rock are also governed under the Antarctic Treaty System, the proposition hasn’t gained a lot of traction. After all, who needs to protect a place without humans?

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll achieve fame. Or at least a place in the history books. So far, no one has yet climbed the 1705-meter Brown Peak on Sturge Island. Take crampons.

5. Scott Island. The first difficulty in getting to this tiny island with the two beaches is that there are imposters, a full three other islands with the same name. There’s one in Maine, one in West Virginia and one near Vancouver Island with a ferry service from Chemainus to Thetis, close enough to swim. No, the Scott Island we’re talking about is smack dab in the Ross Sea, a good 505 kilometers from the Antarctica’s Cape Adare and has nothing remotely resembling amenities. Even the two beaches are covered with ice most of the year. The other hindrance is that, until a 2006 mapping expedition, this Scott Island was believed to be 2.3 km south of its actual position. And finally, one of the only boats to ever get close to this craggy island is the MY Steve Irwin, the 19-meter flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that throws butyric acid and other dangerous chemicals aboard Japanese whaling ships. Not to mention that members of the crew have been kidnapped and tied to “enemy ship” masts with ropes and zip ties.

Why it might be worth the bother: 1.You’ll attain environmental savvy. 2. You could be in the movies. The crew of the MY Steve Irwin and their conservation efforts are the stars of the Animal Planet Show, “Whale Wars” and 3. Apparently, it’s a desirable place to get married. On February 12, 2009, Andrew Perry and Molly Kendall, crew of the MY Steve Irwin, got hitched on top of a rock formation wearing matching orange all-weather Mustang suits with reflective trim.

6. Peter I Island. Located in the Bellingshausen Sea, 450 kilometers from Antarctica, this Norwegian dependency is surrounded by pack ice and nearly inaccessible 365 days a year. First sighted in 1821, it took 108 years before anyone was able to set foot on it. The Russian ship that first spotted it and named it for Tsar Peter I “The Great” couldn’t get within 25 kilometers. Neither could the French. Norwegian whaling ship owner Lars Christensen (the island’s 1640-meter peak is now named after him) financed a couple failed attempts before finally claiming it for Norway.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nurture international goodwill. On a 2006 expedition that was dubbed the most expensive expedition in the world and required getting dozens of financial sponsors, participants drank wine (in the same evening) with Chileans, Russians and Chinese scientists who manned the closest polar bases. They also met Nikolai Litau, an intrepid Russian explorer, who was circumnavigating the Antarctic on a 15-meter sailboat.

7. Eritrea. It isn’t the fact that most Western countries have issued travel warnings. Or that Somali pirates are rumored to have sanctuary. Or even the coup that occurred earlier this year. Getting to Eritrea, nicknamed the North Korea of Africa, is next-to-impossible because the government requires visas, but turns down the lion’s share of requests to obtain them. They happily take your visa application money, but granting the document that’s required for entry into this sliver off the Horn of Africa? Not so much. That might be digestible, sorta like playing the lotto, except that to even apply for a visa you have to have an air ticket which, of course, costs a bit more than the average lottery ticket. It’s also necessary to get permission, even if you’re a diplomat, to travel outside Asmara, the capital.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll obtain nerves of steel. Plus, the Eritrean coastline is pristine and untouched, Asmara has a truly remarkable collection of Art Deco architecture and the people, hailing from nine diverse and colorful ethnic groups, are, believe it or not, actually quite friendly.

8. Tokelau. There’s no airport and the nearest land mass, Somoa, is a good 30-hour boat ride away. Luckily, this three-island nation in the South Pacific does have its own boat, the MV Tokelau. But it’s a cargo ship with no cabins and it has a grand total of two toilets. So take blankets (locals do) and an umbrella. Plus, it runs an average of once a month, mostly to bring supplies to the 1411 residents who scratch out a subsistence lifestyle on the three islands, Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu. Even so, Tokelau was the first nation to use nothing but renewable energy. All three islands generate 100 percent of their electricity from solar power.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nurture grit and determination. And possibly win the prize of being the last to say, “goodbye.” This little nation, a mere five meters above sea level, is predicted to become the first casualty of global warming.

9. Nicobar Islands. This group of 19 islands is located in the Indian Ocean, south of the Andaman Islands and requires dealing with one bureaucracy after another. And just when you get the permit from Madras (Nicobar is a territory of India and has military installments), you’ll find the guard has changed or the helicopter is full and there’s no a new government official you need to contact.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nourish your inner doggedness. Plus, in May of 2013, UNESCO named the Nicobar Islands a World Biosphere Reserve.

10. Bouvet Island. Just for the shot to get to this lonely pimple that juts out of the grey, forlorn South Atlantic costs $25,000. And even after you cough it up and board the icebreaker that travels there, your 25 G’s entitles you to but three chances. If Mother Nature fails to cooperate, that’s 25 grand down the drain. And just so you know, it’s 1000 miles further than Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited spot on earth.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll develop flexibility and the chance to be one of a few dozen humans to have left footprints there.

For some, that’s enough.

Flower to the People: ME London’s Radio features cocktails with edible flowers

Not since the Beatles came out with “She Loves You” has a London institution created this much excitement among the hip, young coolios of London’s West End.

Yes, I’m talking about Radio, the rooftop bar, perched atop ME London. Every weekend, block-long lines snake around the exquisite five-star hotel that has pulled down nearly every possible hotel award since it opened near Covent Garden last year. And every stiletto-wearing beauty, every Crombie-carrying hipster is waiting for their turn to ride the dedicated elevator to the tenth floor and Radio’s panoramic view of River Thames, Big Ben, the London Eye, the theater district and other icons of oh-so-cool London.

So how does a zeitgeist begin? In the case of Radio and ME London, it was already pointed in the right direction as the latest offering from Melia, the savvy, cosmopolitan Spanish hotel group. But it was also blessed with the leverage of location, wedged between Westminster and Trafalgar Square and butting up against the West End Theater District.

Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who pioneered radio transmission, had a telegraph station here in the 1920’s and some of the BBC’s early broadcasts were boomed from this location near St. Paul’s Cathedral.

But perhaps ME London’s biggest coup was timing and dumb luck. It opened just in time for London Fashion Week 2013, serendipitously across the street from Somerset House where the catwalk is set up and where more than 150 designers have exhibitions.

That Donatella Versace, Victoria Beckham and Diane von Furstenburg showed up at ME London to judge the International Woolmark Prize certainly didn’t deter interest in this stunning hotel that makes a fashion statement of its own.

Architects Foster + Partners, in their first hotel project, wrapped the 157 rooms, the two bars and three restaurants around a nine-story, white-marble atrium that soars to a distant triangle of natural light. The rooms, including 16 suites, have white leather panels, floor to ceiling windows and an interactive TV and lighting system that requires concierge instruction. From every vantage point, from the hotel’s dark hallways to the atrium’s nightly eight-minute light show, the design is fresh, original and worthy of every honor it reaped.

But what about all those beautiful people waiting in those lines? Was Radio really worth this kind of commitment, especially when a numerous selection of West End bars were within stiletto-wobbling distance?

Having the good fortune to stay at ME London (I was writing a story on the upcoming Banksy exhibition to be held here April 24-27) and to preview the bar that hundreds of people half my age were lusting to enter, I boarded the elevator that led to its vaunted heights.

My first clue that I was in for a treat was the size of the drink menu—12 pages filled with such cocktails as Thames River Iced ME (Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, Bacardi, El Himador, peach liqueur, lemon and ting), the AM/FM (Bacardi, Chambord, mint, lemon and passion fruit) and Flower in the Rain (Grey Goose, rhubarb, lemon, cranberry and strawberry).

The vodka menu had 15 offerings from Finland, Poland and, of course, Russia and the more than 16 imported whiskeys hailing from Japan to the U.S. bode well for our group’s party vibe.

But perhaps the most fascinating feature of the drinks at Radio are edible flower garnishes, a welcome sight after a record-setting winter. Not only do Radio mixologists take advantage of such fragrant elixirs as rose water, lavender and elderflower, but they top many of their gorgeous cocktails with a tantalizing reminder of spring and all that that entails.

Istanbul’s Ciragan Palace home away from home for the A-list

The moral of this story: “Don’t mess with whirling dervishes.”

Yes, we’re talking about the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. This Imperial Ottoman palace turned five-star hotel offers intrigue, romance, history and its own jetty and heliport for bringing in the A-list celebs who make the $40,000 a night Sultan’s Suite their “home away from home” while in Istanbul giving concerts (Madonna stayed here during the infamous breast-baring concert of 2012), hosting parties (Oprah threw a giant bash for her employees and their families in 2009) and resting up between basketball gigs (Kobe Bryant has stayed here twice).

Last month, it knocked Parisian landmark Hotel Le Bristol off its vaunted perch as the best hotel in Europe at the 2013 World Travel Awards–think Oscars for the hotel industry.

But this stunning palace alongside Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait hasn’t always been so lucky. Allegedly, when Sultan Abdulaziz had it built between 1863 and 1871, he got a bit overzealous, co-opting a monastery of whirling dervishes which resulted, curse or not, in a string of unhappy consequences.

Even though Abdulaziz hosted French Empress Eugenie de Montijo at the palace hamam (and, according to rumor, might have snuck in a dalliance with Napoleon III’s wife), he was only able to live at his luxurious new digs for a few short years before being deposed and found mysteriously dead at the tender young age of 46. His heir, nephew Sultan Murad V, lasted but 93 days before being declared mentally incompetent and forced to live under house arrest in the palace harem.

Disaster struck again in January 1910 two months after the second Imperial Parliament convened on the palace grounds. Except for its high marble walls and bridges, one leading to Yildiz Palace, and the famous hamam that hosted the French Empress, Ciragan burnt to the ground with all its luxurious furnishings, art work and rare books.

Luckily, luxury hotel group Kempinski broke the dervish curse when it restored the baroque palace, re-opening it to glorious fanfare in 1991. Today, the former palace, back to its original opulence, is divided into 11 ooh-la-la suites complete with 24-hour butler service and the famous Tugra restaurant.

And the decadence doesn’t end there. Lush lawns with gardens, palm trees and gazebos line a long promenade leading to the new “wing” of the palace where guests can enjoy a Moet & Chandon champagne bar, heated infinity pool and rooms with handmade carpets, spacious balconies and pillow menus.

Turkey’s Black Sea Region: Where Acts of Kindness aren’t Random, but an Everyday Reality

“Bu lezzetli!”

Learn this phrase if you’re heading to the Black Sea Region of Turkey. It means “this is delicious” and, I guarantee, you will use it more than “Hello!” “My name is_____” and “Where is the bathroom?”

Cuisine, throughout Turkey, is a point of deep pride and, particularly in the Black Sea region where it’s impossible to be in the general vicinity of another human being without being handed a fig or a hazelnut or a bowl of fresh yogurt made that morning from the milk of their own cow.

Hospitality is so over-the-top (commerce, it seems, is beside the point) that any notions you ever had that foreigners are to be feared or that life sucks or that the world is going to hell in a hand basket will be dashed against the inhospitable shores of the Black Sea, a region in Turkey that looks more like the Colorado Rockies than Lawrence of Arabia.

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It’s definitely not the place to give up caffeine, because every shopkeeper, every museum guide, every little old grandma wearing a colorful hijab (head scarf) will offer you a glass of tea (cay) along with a little teaspoon and a bowl of sugar.

And how can you refuse? The tea is grown right there on lush, green mountainsides in small family plantations. Ömer Faruk Öğretmen, the never-married tour guide who whisked us around to one little yayla (village) after another, says he averages between 30 and 40 glasses of tea per day. Just because people offer.

By the time you’ve had your second cup of the always-ready tea, you’ll be introduced to the whole family — second cousins and all — serenaded with folk music and invited back for dinner.

Over and over again, our little band of three Americans was invited into local’s homes not only for tea, but for full-blown meals. Even on deserted mountain roads, where we had to pause for chainsaw-bearing men to remove fallen trees that would otherwise have deterred our journey, young boys wearing rubber boots and Sponge Bob t-shirts appeared out of nowhere to offer pears they had just picked.

The nomadic herders of the Black Sea Region, ethnic Georgians, Armenians and Pontic Greeks, summer on ancestral lands throughout these isolated valleys. They earn their living off the land, herding cows, making cheese and harvesting tea, citrus and honey.

Although the Hamsis, as the locals are nicknamed (after the anchovy caught in this region) are often the good-natured butt of jokes in Turkey, their inexhaustible cheer, smiles and friendliness are wildly infectious, enough to sway the most cynical of tourists. Their local dance, the horon, an upper body shimmy modeled again after swimming anchovies, is said to have inspired Irish jigs and whether or not it’s true, I can attest that Michael Flatley has nothing on their exuberance.

One late morning, after a “one-hour drive” to the Santa Ruins, a crumbling 17th century village high in the Kackar Mountains, turned into three and a half hours, several farmers who were busy harvesting the last of their summer squash and ruing the wolves that had made quick work of one of their cows the night before, dropped everything to make us, their uninvited guests, feel welcome.

Ahmet Cukur showed us around the one-room shelter where he, his wife and three kids slept at night. He proudly showed us his gun, offering to shoot wild boar that he would happily send us if we wanted to start a business. He was Muslim and, of course, couldn’t partake.

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His wife — on the spot — whipped up an incredible lunch of muglama, a cheese soufflé-like dish made from corn flour, cheese and butter and rumored to deliver superhuman powers. She served it with just-baked-in-the-stone oven bread, grapes and a fresh salad of tomatoes and cucumbers that the kids picked that morning before starting a soccer game on a makeshift field that cascaded down the mountain. We dined outside on rocks and small wooden benches that Ahmet pulled from his home as the entire community stood around, offering jokes, handshakes and sincere invitations to come for the whole summer next year.

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Another evening, our driver who had been married just 14 days earlier, invited us into his home (completely unbidden) for a feast prepared by his gorgeous new bride. In Kavron, a little village above the tree line that looked more like Nepal or Tibet than Anatolia, we were graciously invited into the home of a 100-year-old woman, still spry, quick-witted and, of course, as welcoming as any concierge.

So, yes, the Black Sea Region has stunning Alp-like vistas, castles, ancient monasteries carved into cliffs and charming seaside villages with ancient Ottoman homes, but it is its people — it’s open-hearted, joyful people — that are the true treasure and the reason I may just take Ahmet up on his offer to return next summer.

Only in Chicago: The top 5 Things You Can’t Find Anywhere Else

Some vacationers look for Marriotts and McDonald’s, anything to uphold the status quo. Not me. I blaze into a city, a country, a destination looking for one-of-a-kind rarities, attractions I will likely have but one opportunity to see.

Chicago, notorious for its architecture including the world’s first skyscraper (the iron-and-steel-framed Home Insurance Building that was torn down in 1931), the world’s first parking garage (also now history) and skyscrapers big enough to have their own zip code, was more than happy to oblige my predilection.

Here are the top five things you can’t find anywhere else:

1. A puppet show on wheels. Unlike Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, the elusive Puppet Bike, a Chicago institution for 10 years, really exists. It was built by inventor/artist Jason Trusty and, if you’re lucky, you can catch the pantomiming puppets as they dance, pop out of trap doors, blow kisses, wave and give high-fives to audiences that quickly form whenever the bike spontaneously appears. Often sited in Chicago’s Loop, the Puppet Bike is a seven-foot brightly-painted box with a curtained stage, solar panels that power the ghetto blaster and disco ball and room (just barely) for one (maybe two if they really like each other) puppeteers.

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Photo: Compliments of Puppet Bike

2. A museum that only Dexter could love. The International Museum of Surgical Science, a 1917, four-story mansion on Lake Shore Drive, shows off ancient Roman surgery tools, glass eyes, a case of fake legs, X-ray proof underwear, amputation saws and more than 600 paintings, prints and sculptures depicting surgery throughout the ages. As for Dexter, it might be difficult to pry him away from the paintings made from animal blood that, if you didn’t know, are actually quite beautiful. Opened in 1954 and run by The International College of Surgeons, this perfect-for-Halloween museum has more than 7000 medical artifacts including radiology pioneer Emil Grubbe’s first x-rays, a unique collection of heart valves, a pump invented by Charles Lindbergh for keeping organs functioning outside the body and a “Rolling Stones” exhibit with gallstones, bladder stones, kidney stones and other odd things pulled from the human body. 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive.

3. A perfume that creates jobs and drives economic growth. What do Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and the city of Chicago have in common? They all have signature perfumes. But in the case of Chicago, Tru Blooms, a limited edition perfume sold only in the Windy City, has a noble mission — urban beautification, job creation and support of local economies. This sophisticated perfume is made from roses, lavender and violets grown in 22 parks around the city including a half-acre plot in Grant Park where Lollapalooza is held every year. Suffice it to say, it’s a win-win for everyone. Growing the flowers that are eventually distilled into the perfume’s essential oils creates more than 100 jobs, neighborhood green spaces and an economic driver that’s local and unique to Chicago.

Although it won’t be long before other cities take the idea and run with it, Chicago was the first to launch their own limited edition scent. As Debbie Roever, director of marketing said, “Similar to wine reserves, once this batch is sold out, we cannot replace it.” Last year’s harvest produced 2150 bottles of numbered units. It’s a marketing bonanza that Chanel would kill for. Pre-orders for the exclusive 2013 edition begin online October 14.

4. Giant dancing hot dogs and yellow arches that represent two ends of the American fast food phenomenon. The first McDonald’s franchise, that opened in suburban Chicago in 1955 (the first non-franchised McDonald’s was in San Bernadino, CA) is now a museum showcasing the history of the fast food behemoth, the largest in the world with more than 34,000 locations in 119 countries. As for me, I’d rather get fast food at Superdawg, a classic Chicago drive-in with a grand total of TWO locations. Started in 1948, Superdawgs have been called the Rolls-Royce of hot dogs which is saying something in a town that has more hot dog stands than burger joints. Maurie and Flaurie, the 12-foot fiberglass hot dogs dancing on the roof in their Tarzan-Jane outfits, oversee the iconic drive-in’s vintage Order Matic speakers and carhop waitresses.

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Photo: Compliments of Superdawg

5. A hall of fame for gay athletes. On the same day pro basketball center Jason Collins came out and Barack Obama hailed his bravery, a Hall of Fame for LGBT athletes and their allies was launched in Chicago. The first 26 inductees including tennis icons Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, golfer Patty Sheehan, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, boxer Orlando Cruz, umpire Dave Pallone, skater Johnny Weir, Collins and the late MLB outfielder Glenn Burke were introduced on August 2 at Chicago’s Center on Halsted. It’s a first from a town that’s famous for LGBT firsts: having the first openly-gay baseball owner (Laura Ricketts owns the Cubs), starting the first gay rights organization (Chicagoan Henry Gerber started the Society for Human Rights in 1924) and publishing the first American magazine for gay rights (Friendship and Freedom). Hats off to Chicago for leading the charge!!

Where to stay:

The Peninsula. Look for the hotel’s signature guardian lions that are believed to have mythic protective powers. The Chicago lions, flanking the door on Superior Street, just 18 discreet steps from the Magnificent Mile, don’t just provide powerful Feng Shui. They harbor a certain, shall we say, reputation. Guests might be put off at first by all the questions at reservation. The Peninsula just wants to know which direction to head when providing that extra mile. For example, if the reservationist discovers a guest is in town to golf, a selection of golf magazines will be stocked in his room. Peninsula’s pageboys, the guys in the white pillbox caps, are employed for the sole purpose of running errands whether that’s filling a prescription, walking dogs or taking an American Girl doll to have her hair fixed for a birthday party.

When they found out my most recent book just made the New York Times bestseller list, they left in my suite a cake decorated to look just like the book.

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Fairmont Chicago, Millenium Park. You can practically see the Fairmont in the mirrored surface of Cloud Gate, the Anish Kapoor sculpture that’s nicknamed “The Bean” and has appeared in more than half dozen Hollywood films. The 687-room Fairmont is that close to Millenium Park, where you can catch free movies, concerts and yoga classes. The Fairmont, hailing from the esteemed Canadian brand, has undergone a recent renovation including its top floor suites that are all connected and housed a—shh, don’t tell– top tier performer during Lollapalooza.

Here’s to a great beach vacation in….Chicago

Summer’s coming to an end and you’re torn. You want a weekend at the beach, but you could also use a little culture, a bit of big city shenanigans.

Why not have it all in the beach town of… Chicago. The third largest city in America has more than 26 miles of free, public beaches (more, in fact, than Bermuda), all with gorgeous views of Chicago’s stellar skyline. Let me just say that Oprah did NOT abandon Chicago because of its summers.

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Photo: ©Choose Chicago

But even better than all the beach volleyball, the laidback vibe, the bikes, the piers and the soul-warming sand is that you can walk or ride a bike (look for the powder blue fleet of 700 DIVVY bikes that can be rented for a mere $7 a day) to Michelin-starred restaurants, two world-class conservatories, fabulous museums and shopping that plays in the major leagues with New York, London and Paris.

I’m more of a blue jeans kind of gal so I chose a first night on the town at Second City, the iconic comedy club that spawned everyone from John Belushi and Gilda Radner to Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. From North Avenue Beach where you can even get WiFi while perfecting your tan lines, it’s a short three-quarter-mile stroll. Can someone say, “piece of cake?” You probably rack up that many steps just walking back and forth from your beach towel to the lake.

I’ve been to Second City several times and it never disappoints. Unlike Saturday Night Live that over the years has recruited more than a quarter of its staff from this Chicago institution and tends to be uneven, Second City is consistently, pee-your-pants funny.

Started in 1959, this comedy improv troupe that holds no cow sacred combines improvised and scripted scenes with new material generated through audience suggestion during the unscripted second act.

On night two of my beach vacation to Chicago, I caught the Tony-award winning Book of Mormon, not an easy feat since it has rolled over Chicago like a deviant tidal wave.

From 12th Street Beach, the beautiful sandy beach where Chicago’s second World’s Fair was staged, it’s a short two-mile bike ride to the Bank of America Theatre where the Trey Parker/Matt Stone send-up of organized religion has been selling out night after night.

The Chicago production that some claim outdoes even the original (Trey Parker did direct when it debuted there last December) runs through October.

So why decide? In Chicago, you can beach and big city in one great weekend.

Only in Riviera Maya: the top 5 things you can’t find anywhere else

On my perpetual quest to find the rare and one-off, I gave myself a monumental challenge. Would it be possible to find one-of-a-kind attractions in the manufactured tourist metropolis of Cancun, Mexico and the soon-to-follow Riviera Maya?

Turns out, yes. This tourism district that parallels the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula is much more than mega-resorts and partiers spilling, drinking and throwing tequila.

Here are the top five things you can only find in Riviera Maya:

1. A sculpture gallery that requires fins and a mask to visit. It’s one thing to snorkel around a reef, ogling octopi, massive sea turtles and cousins of Nemo and Dory. But at the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA, for short) in the Cancun Marine Park, you can swim by 450 life-size sculptures created by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor. Sculpted from coral-friendly materials, this unique installation that hopes to draw visitors away from over-visited reefs is divided between two underwater art galleries and weighs more than 200 tons. There are sculptures called The Last Supper, Time Bombs, The Gardener of Hope, The Dream Catcher and The Silent Evolution that includes 400 figurative sculptures depicting the evolution of the Mayan people. According to deCaires Taylor, the 18-month project that he dedicated to his parents took “120 tons of cement, sand and gravel, 12,460 feet of fiberglass, 8000 miles of red tape and 2500 bites from mosquitoes, tabano, fire ants and Damsel fish.”

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2. The longest underwater cave system in the world. When British cave diver Steve Bogaerts and cohort German Robbie Schmittner finally confirmed, after four years and 500 dives, that Sac Actun was, at 95 miles, the world’s longest underwater cave system, they dropped a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne at the junction of Nohoch Nah Chich (Mayan for “Giant Birdcage”) and Sac Actun (White Cave), previously thought to be separate cave systems. The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey reports more than 435 miles of flooded caves in the Yucatan Peninsula including, to go with Big Daddy Sac Actun, the next four longest underwater cave systems, all accessed through clear cenotes (sinkholes) that Mayans considered sacred and depended on for water. Other discoveries in these impressive subterranean passageways include Mayan artifacts, 12,000-year-old human skeletons, stalactites and bones from mastodons, horses, giant tapirs and giant sloths. Not surprisingly, the 2005 horror flick, “The Cave,” although set in Romania, was filmed in the Riviera Maya.

3. A growth spurt worthy of Guinness
. Choosing Cancun to host the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference was an ironic twist if ever there was one. If indeed humans cause global warming, this city of nearly 750 thousand residents could be its poster child. When the Mexican government began developing this potential tourist draw on the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun had a grand total of three residents, all of whom worked as caretakers for a coconut plantation. From that auspicious day of January 23, 1970, Cancun has grown into a mega-tourism playground drawing close to 5 million tourists a year who expend large amounts of carbon getting there to enter wet t-shirt contests, drink bathtub quality booze and play volleyball in resort swimming pools.

4. The ability to swim with 60-foot sharks without being in a cage. The average whale shark, weighing in at 20,000 pounds (think grey school bus with polka dots), has more than 300 rows of teeth. That fact alone would be enough to dissuade most people from getting anywhere near. But north of Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of the Mexican Riviera where each summer the world’s largest concentration of these monsters congregate, people pay good money to get up close and personal with the world’s largest fish.

There’s even a whale shark festival complete with a parade of school kids dressed like marine life. The good news is that whale sharks are mostly vegetarian–so those 3000 teeth (an average 10 vestigial specimens per row) are bypassed a unique filtering system that scoops up mass quantities of plankton, krill and clouds of spawning sperm. In other words, shark cages aren’t necessary. There are a few other places to swim with these benign, wondrous creatures (Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, for one, and off the coast of Captiva where 19-year-old Chris Kreis made headlines when he jumped aboard one’s back and rode for nine seconds), but nowhere else besides this seven-mile radius where the Gulf of Mexico joins the Caribbean Sea can you do the backstroke with a whole pod of between 20 and 50 school bus-size fish.

5. An eco hotel that cleans the ocean, generates renewable energy and is entirely self-sufficient. Okay, so Grand Cancun Eco Island isn’t operational yet. But by 2020, when Cancun celebrates its 50th anniversary, this offshore platform with a zero carbon footprint will be in full swing. Designed by award-winning architect Richard Motera Castillo, the Grand Cancun resort will be covered in solar panels, employ vertical wind turbines and will filter hydrocarbons and other pollutants.

Where to stay: Sandos, a young company headquartered in Spain, lives and breathes sustainability. They’re busy remodeling all their properties, adding solar panels and since 2011, have reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent. There’s even an on-site windmill and an interactive program on Climate Change developed by NASA at the Caracol property. Look for three Sandos in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Photo: Compliments of http://www.underwatersculpture.com

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