Collect And Share Travel Experiences With AFAR

Pinterest became the hottest social network this year, with millions using the site to collect and search for recipes, design ideas and inspirational quotes. Many travelers have used Pinterest for planning and sharing trips, tips and destinations (you can find Gadling here). Now Afar.com, the website and community behind AFAR magazine, has introduced a new feature to curate travel experiences, chronicle favorite destinations and discover new places in a way that’s Pinterest-like in ease of use and appealing interface but designed just for travelers.

“Wanderlists” are part of AFAR’s collaborative travel guide, comprised of a collection of travel “Highlights,” similar to an inspiration board. Users can create a Highlight incorporating a photo and description of a place or experience, adding contact information and location tags to make it easier for other travelers to find. A Highlight might be a moment in a field of Irish wildflowers, a favorite breakfast spot in Istanbul, or a Victorian town in New Zealand. Highlights are integrated with Google Maps for easy reference, and can be shared over Twitter, Facebook, or email (you can even pin to Pinterest too). If you feel more like gathering ideas than sharing your own, you can search for any destination or topic like food or surfing.

Currently, Highlights and Wanderlists are all user-generated, but will soon include magazine content as well. You can get inspired by collections from the AFAR team like American road trip pit stops, markets around the world, or favorite spots in Cairo.

Create your own Wanderlists and search for Highlights at Afar.com.

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

Today is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Once Upon a Time in the Wee Small Hours of Ireland

Agusti Curto Calbet, the Night Manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, in County Wicklow, Ireland, arrived to work for his midnight shift on a cold February evening. Ordinarily, during his scheduled time at the five-star luxury hotel, a guest might phone in for a wake-up reminder, the arrangement of an early morning taxi, or perhaps a bottle of champagne for a romantic interlude. But, as the young Spaniard was about to discover, this fated night was about to become anything but ordinary.

A woman staying in one of the Mountain View Suites with her husband rang the Reception desk after 2:00 a.m. in a most agitated state.

“I hate to bother you at this late hour, but a very valuable item of mine has disappeared from my room!”

“I’m so sorry to hear that Madame,” he replied. “What does it look like?”

Whatever it is, he thought, it surely must be priceless.

“It’s a small, white Teddy Bear,” she explained in between sobs. “One of its button-eyes is slightly broken and…and…it’s irreplaceable! I’ve carried it with me for over 35 years!”

As her voice faded into low sniffles, the 30-year-old Night Manager kept the lady calm and assured her all would be well.

“Where did you see it last?” he asked.

“It was on the bed. Maybe it went astray when the room was cleaned today?”

Agusti told her that the stuffed animal couldn’t have gone far and that every effort would be made to retrieve it.
He first phoned Loss Prevention to see if a toy matching its description had been turned in to the Lost & Found. No such luck. Glancing at the clock, then at the stack of paperwork on his desk, he could have easily passed the call onto the morning staff by writing a note describing the events, but instead, intrigued by the guest’s desperate longing to find her keepsake, he decided, “No. I’m going to do this myself.”

He summoned the Housekeeping night team on duty to meet him in the Laundry Room. Five minutes later, Rafal Mlynarski, Andrzej Koziol, and Cassio Schuler were soon listening to Agusti re-enact the woman’s plea.

The trio was eager to help find the misplaced bear, but suddenly the reality of sorting through mountains of soiled linens made their eyes widen at the sight of the ten or eleven trolleys before them. Each cart overflowed with tightly wrapped bed sheets and soggy, wet towels. This quest took on the classic “finding a needle in a haystack” scenario, only the lost pin in question had paws, and these bales weighed much more than straw. The unpleasant stench prompted Cassio’s much-needed encouragement, “Don’t worry, guys! This is not a ‘dirty’ job. We have to go for it!”

They all agreed, then split into two groups with each duo dumping out the purple bags in unison. Towel by towel, sheet by sheet, they toiled together in the basement. As the heaping 20 kilos of laundry slowly dwindled, it was Agusti who finally discovered the Teddy Bear entwined in the folds of a king sheet.

“Look!” he shouted. “Here it is!”

An eruption of cheers and hoots filled the Laundry Room as though their favorite team had just won the World Cup. Rafal decided to tidy up their fuzzy friend and lightly sprayed its worn fleece with a bit of air freshener.

“Ah, that’s better,” he said, handing it back to his leader.

Even though dawn soon approached, Agusti somehow knew the woman would not mind his early morning delivery. But before returning the precious bundle, he crept down to the culinary department and placed five homemade wrapped cookies inside a green hotel gift sack complete with the wandering bear peering out over the top.

As the woman opened the door in her bathrobe, she found the almost seven-foot-tall Agusti on the other side holding the bag, his dark brown eyes twinkling back at her, with a smile as big as his heart.

“Look who we found in the kitchen looking for cookies!” he regaled, selflessly omitting the painstaking search details.

“Oh! I thought he was gone for good!” she cried out. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”

Agusti stood motionless as she tenderly removed the one-eyed treasure and clutched it to her chest, her expression showing reverent gratitude.

“You see, this bear once belonged to my little boy,” she confided softly. She explained how she and her husband, now in their 60s, take it with them wherever they go.

The lady looked up at Agusti and whispered, “He’s now an angel in Heaven.”

Agusti knew his decision to “own” this guest’s problem was meant to be, for his beloved father had passed away before he was even born. His mother had raised him and two older brothers on her own in Barcelona.

As he bid the woman good-night, he asked if he could assist her with anything else.

“I don’t think there’s anything you could do better,” she said sweetly. “It’s as if you’ve given me back my son.”

He was all too familiar with the power of a mother’s love and right there, in the wee small hours of the morning, let go of his tears.

Jill Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in The Best Travel Writing 2009, The Saturday Evening Post, Travel Africa, Thought Catalog and other publications. She has an M.A. in Humanities and a Master of Professional Writing degree from USC. She travels for the inexplicable human connection.

[Flickr image via neal]

7 Great Hotels Where You Can Cook Like a Local

One of the best parts about a vacation? The food. We love trying local delicacies and adding to our recipe books with tips and techniques learned from our travels. Immerse yourself in native cuisine with these seven great cooking experiences that combine luxury travel with fun, hands-on cooking classes.

Time to Thai in Bangkok
Learn traditional Thai cooking in Bangkok at Lebua. You’ll cook a five-course meal with a Thai chef in this three-hour class taught in both English and Thai for the exceptionally affordable rate of $160 per person. Combine it with an overnight at this all-suite luxury property for a true one-of-a-kind experience.

Game & Guinness in Ireland
Fish for wild trout and learn to make homemade chowder at the Guinness family’s 18th C estate-turned-hotel in Cong, Ireland.

Green Gardening in Jordan
Garden alongside locals at the bio-garden at Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort in Aqaba Jordan, then learn to cook traditional Jordan dishes like Mansaff (roast lamb in a saffron yogurt sauce) using the fruits of your labor.

Shopping and Tapas in Barcelona
Shop Barcelona’s legendary Boqueria with Spanish Chef Roberto Holz, then prepare a Mediterranean lunch at Hotel Arts Barcelona.

Surf n’ Seafood in Nevis
Dive and dine” for your own spiny lobster at Four Seasons Nevis, then prepare it at a traditional Caribbean barbecue.

Food Safari in Australia
Discovery the bounty of Australia’s Kangaroo Island at Southern Ocean Lodge. The hotel hosts an annual KI Food Safari. Activities during the six-day journey will include hands-on classes with the island’s purveyors, who operate on a mostly small scale, sustainable and personal basis while tasting the unique products straight from the source.

Say Olé in Mexico
Learn the secrets behind perfect salsa, ceviche and more at one or three-day cooking classes (shown in the photo, above) at the luxurious Capella Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We’d suggest the three-day class – it includes a trip to a local farmers market.

10 free things to do in Dublin, Ireland

With the big St. Patrick’s Day festival in Dublin, Ireland, coming up it’s likely that people traveling to Dublin in the near future should expect to bring lots of extra cash. Although you may need to splurge on food and festivities, there are ways to help you save money on other aspects of your trip. To help Dublin travelers make their trips as budget-friendly as possible, here are ten free things to do in the city.

Stroll through the National Botanic Gardens

The National Botanic Gardens is home to various plants as well as serene woodland settings, lush trees, romantic bridges, and peaceful ponds that make for enjoyable scenery on a midday stroll. To help expand your knowledge of flora even further, programming that includes discussions, workshops, and films is available to the public. Furthermore, every Sunday visitors can take a free guided walking tour at 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.Take a free walking tour of the city

When traveling through Europe, I swear by SANDEMAN’s NEW Europe walking tours. These tours are completely free and guides get paid in tips only. While this may seem risky, the quality of the tours is so high it really isn’t a problem for the guides. During the Dublin tour, you will learn the history of city sites in a fun and interactive way while also stopping off at a traditional English pub for lunch. If you still want more, sign up for their nightly pub crawl.

Explore Trinity College

Trinity College is not your average university college; in fact, it’s not only beautiful but historical. The college, which is the oldest in Ireland, was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 and features neatly manicured lawns, charming cobblestone paths, and beautiful Georgian architecture. While it’s free to walk around the campus and take photos, there is an admission fee to go see the ancient “Book of Kells” which is located in the Old Library.

Check out the street performers on Grafton

Street performing, or busking, is very popular in Dublin. If you want to increase your chances of seeing top-notch performances, head over to Grafton Street, which is the unofficial stage for street entertainment. Here you’ll be able to see everything from acoustic performers to people on stilts juggling basketballs.

Trek the Howth Coastal Path and feed the seals

At the northern tip of Dublin Bay, you will find the beautiful area of Howth Head (shown right). During a coastal walk of the region, you will be able to view Lambay Island, Ireland’s Eye, Baily Lighthouse, Howth Castle, and the Wicklow Mountains as you traverse over rugged cliff tops. Additionally, you’ll be able to feed seals once you reach Howth Harbour and stop for lunch at local pubs along the way. You can begin the hike east of Howth Village at the Balscadden Bay parking area and make your way around the Nose of Howth.

Learn some history and culture at a local museum

When visiting a city, it’s always a good idea to get a sense of the place by visiting a museum. One of Dublin’s best free museums is the National Museum of Ireland, which is actually a set of separate museums containing exhibits on archeology, history, culture, decorative arts, and more. Additionally, if you stop by the former Mariner’s Church there is the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, which allows visitors to explore the country’s maritime history. The museum is closed right now but will reopen on April 3, 2012. The Irish Jewish Museum, the National Photographic Archive, and Pearse Museum are also excellent free museums to add to your budget-friendly itinerary.

Get creative at an art museum

There are plenty of options in Dublin where you can experience high quality art for free. Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art features an array of impressionist and postimpressionist artists, with the main component being from Hugh Lane, an Irish art connoisseur who died in the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. If you’re there April-June, you can enjoy a free summer concert series that takes place each Sunday. There is also the country’s most popular art gallery, the National Gallery of Ireland, where you can explore Irish and European art from the 14th-20th centuries. Other options for free art include the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Chester Beatty Library, and the Temple Bar Gallery and Studio.

Explore the Docklands

This is one of my favorite area’s of Dublin, especially since you don’t need to spend any money to enjoy its aesthetic features. There’s nothing like witnessing the city skyline behind the River Liffey and visitors will get the chance to take in unique art galleries, lively markets, beautiful bridges, Mayor Square, Chimney Park, Grand Canal Square, and lots of public art.

Get religious at a local church

While the more well-known churches like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral charge an admission fee outside of mass times, there are many other beautiful and worthwhile places of worship that are free to enter. There is Saint Ann’s Church of Ireland (shown right), which incorporates an array of unique architectural styles and features memorials of well-known Dublin locals; Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where you can see a 16th-century shrine of Our Lady of Dublin along with relics of Saint Valentine; and Saint Mary’s Pro Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Take in natural beauty at a Dublin park

There are many picturesque parks in Dublin where visitors can play sports, people-watch, read a book, or just lounge on a sunny day. First there is St. Stephen’s Green, with bright floral gardens, charming fountains, and various memorials honoring notable Dubliners. There’s also Phoenix Park, which was established in 1662 and is one of the “largest enclosed recreational spaces within any European capital city.” Merrion Square Park is also a worthwhile visit and features historical sculptures, beautiful gardens, and live performances.

[flickr images via infomatique, budgetplaces.com, infomatique, qthomasbower, Saint Ann’s Church of Ireland]