Photo Of The Day: Puerto Rico Vista

This beautiful Puerto Rico vista, snapped by Flickr user trishhartmann, was taken in Guzmán Arriba, Río Grande, toward the eastern end of the Commonwealth territory.

With temperatures dipping and daylight at a premium in the north temperate zone, this image is a reminder of the near-magical appeal of the Caribbean, and the tropics in general over the winter. If you don’t sort of want to jump into this canopy of green now, you surely will by February.

Upload photos of your favorite vistas and vantage points to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We choose our favorites from the group pool to be Photos of the Day.

[Image: Flickr | trishhartmann]

Cocos (Keeling) Islands: Australia’s Indian Ocean Idyll

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been.

This is strange to admit, even embarrassing. Travel writers are not supposed to make such claims. We’re supposed to give information, provide historical context and show how our readers might make the journey we’re sketching. We’re not supposed to lose our cool and submit to the sheer gorgeousness of a particular place.

But the fact is that the Cocos Islands, an Australian external territory, are exquisite. The beaches are damn near close to perfect and the lagoon is full of exotic marine life. For anyone who has gone out of his or her way to visit deserted beaches, the Cocos Islands are the Holy Grail. And for those who have waited for hours to witness a single sea turtle clamber ashore on one or another Caribbean beach, the thousands of sea turtles simply hanging out in the Cocos lagoon will come as a revelation. The same goes for the reef sharks, of which there are an impressive number.

It’s also hard to beat these islands for their remoteness. They’re 1700 miles and two time zones to the west of Perth, the most practical launching pad for the islands. (It’s also possible to book a charter flight to the Cocos Islands from Kuala Lumpur via Christmas Island on a Malaysian airline called Firefly, but most visitors fly from Perth with Virgin Australia.) It takes over six hours to reach Cocos Islands from Perth, with a 50-minute refueling stop on Christmas Island.

In terms of geography, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two coral atolls, 26 islands in all. Of these, just two are inhabited: West Island, home to the territory’s airport, most of its administrative offices and around 100 mainland Australians, and Home Island, home to around 500 Malay descendants of the indentured servants brought to the island by its previous owners, the Clunies-Ross family. (I’ll write more about the territory’s tangled colonial history soon in a later post.) The island is characterized more or less by residential self-segregation, though there is some mingling – students from Home Island take the ferry to West Island daily and people travel in both directions for work.

The Cocos Islands are by no means a five-star outpost of luxury in the Indian Ocean; the territory cannot compare on this front to Seychelles, the Maldives or Mauritius. For high rollers, Cocos’ basic guesthouses, motels and house rentals will seem terribly simple. That’s fine. The rest of us – who by the way will have already paid a pretty penny to get to Cocos – will not mind simple accommodations in a place as beautiful as this one.

So who visits Cocos? Government officials, kitesurfers, birdwatchers, fishers and divers – and me. I visited in November, soaking up enough tropical heat to last me through the impending winter. I have a few posts forthcoming on Cocos, on island activities and the different cultures of Home and West Islands, as well as some notes on the nature (and future) of tourism in such a remote and remarkably gorgeous place.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Photo Of The Day: Hampi

Hampi is a village in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important religious place. It is photographed here at sunset by Flickr user arunchs, who has captured a glorious fragment of time at the most poetic time of day.

We like sunsets. They’re beautiful and they allow us to imagine that we’re on the road. So upload your best sunset images to the Gadling Group Pool. We pick our favorites from the pool as Photos of the Day.

[Image: Flickr | arunchs]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Tawlet: Lebanese Locavore Love

On my first visit to Beirut’s Tawlet, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper directions. “Tawlet?” she verified. I nodded. “C’est très bon,” with a delicate flutter of the fingers accompanying her très, before she pointed me in the right direction. I’d heard great things about Tawlet for quite some time. The shopkeeper’s gesture was the icing on the cake. I knew the way I know my own name that this meal was going to be exceptional.

I found Tawlet at the rather inauspicious end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an exciting slate of new shops, some of them quite innovative.

It was still on the early side but I couldn’t wait. I walked into Tawlet before the restaurant opened for lunch and sat patiently for the wait staff to finish setting things up. A Saudi television crew was taping interviews of the day’s chefs. Just when my hunger had reached epic proportions, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer, a distinguished looking man approached me in English and told me I could begin to eat. He carried himself like a proprietor. And as it turned out, he was Kamal Mouzawak, the head honcho. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.

Mouzawak has pioneered and tended a food revolution in Lebanon. Souk El Tayeb is the umbrella organization behind his efforts. It has spawned the Beirut Farmers Market, founded in 2004, Dekenet, a farmers shop, established in 2006 and regional food festivals, which followed in 2007. Tawlet, interwoven into the other Souk El Tayeb endeavors, opened its doors in 2009.The restaurant is an emporium of fresh, organic, and very local food from all over Lebanon. It is set up essentially as a farmers table. Different individual chefs or cooperatives host the buffet every day, working with a few permanent kitchen support staff. The result is essentially home-cooked food that reaches a clientele far wider than most home-cooked food tends to do. The presence of different chefs means that every lunch is different. (I didn’t think twice about returning for a second lunch the day following my discovery.) Including VAT, the buffet costs 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). Water and dessert come with the meal. Not included are regional wines, some very good.

The chefs-for-the-day come from all over Lebanon, bringing local variations in recipe and ingredients to the attention of a wider audience, elevating local regional culinary traditions to national attention. Tawlet publishes weekly menus online, which detail upcoming menus and chefs. On occasions Mouzawak himself does a turn as guest chef. Tawlet also offers brunch on Saturday.

What Mouzawak has done with Souk El Tayeb has major far-reaching implications. He has established a blueprint for encouraging and supporting local food traditions, for transforming vernacular food into recognition-deserving “cuisines” and for giving a wide range of cooks and chefs exposure to larger markets. This blueprint is broadly applicable to other countries and territories. It is a model for championing sustainable local food traditions.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]