Photo of the Day: Western skies

There’s something indescribably calming about looking over a body of water at sunrise. Flickr user James Wheeler captures this feeling in today’s Photo of the Day, taken at 6 a.m. from an old pier in the West Point Grey district of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The image’s quality is partially thanks to Wheeler’s Nikon D5000, but the scenery doesn’t hurt either.

Does your photo belong here? Upload your favorite travel shots to the Gadling Group Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

Luxury Vacation Guide 2012: Baku, Azerbaijan

Alternately called the Paris of the East and the Next Dubai, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is poised to become the Middle East’s next big luxury travel destination.

Once the busiest harbor on the ancient Silk Road, Baku is the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region. A recent flood of oil money has led to massive development in anticipation of a 2020 Olympics bid, and early 2012 will mark the opening of the Flame Towers, an iconic complex which will significantly alter the Baku skyline. With a design inspired by the natural gas-fueled fires that once sprung spontaneously from the Azerbaijan landscape, the towers will house offices, high-end apartments, and a new luxury property from Fairmont.

As a country, Azerbaijan is no stranger to progress, having been the first Muslim country to build operas, theatres, and a democratic republic. Baku’s walled inner city, which contains Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and the city’s cultural agenda includes world-class ballet performances and philharmonic concerts. To boot, Lonely Planet recently ranked Baku one of the world’s top destinations for urban nightlife, alongside Buenos Aires, Dubai, and Cape Town.

[flickr image via teuchterlad]

Budget Vacation Guide 2012: Kiev, Ukraine

This summer, soccer fans from around the world will flock to Ukraine when the country co-hosts UEFA Euro2012 with Poland for the very first time. There’s no better time to visit the capital city of Kiev, which has spent the past few years beefing up its tourist infrastructure and recently unveiled a completely redesigned Olympic Stadium in preparation for the final match of the quadrennial European soccer tournament.

If you’re not a soccer fan, or don’t want to shell out the big bucks to ticket scalpers, Kiev offers plenty of cheap diversions. In the warmer months, the city comes alive with flora and fauna, not to mention a packed agenda of free outdoor activities. Lie on the beaches (yes, beaches) of Hidropark in the Dnieper River, or take a cultural stroll through Andriyivskyy Descent, advertised as the “Montmartre of Kiev”. You can even try scaling the Moskovskyi Bridge (but please don’t).

While Kiev has experienced inflation in recent years, it’s still a bargain compared to other European capitals. To keep things cheap during the games, try a short-term apartment rental instead of a hotel; check Airbnb or 9flats for listings. Food-wise, traditional Ukrainian cafeterias are a cultural experience as well as money-saver. Specialties like potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, and dumplings will provide more than enough fuel for the games.

[flickr image via Matvey Andreyev]

Orphanage tourism and Cambodia’s fight to end it

In Cambodia, it’s not uncommon for tourists to be offered tours of local orphanages in the same way they’re offered tours of Angkor Wat.

It might be tempting to accept the opportunity to experience “the real Cambodia,” especially when you’re confronted by extreme poverty at every turn. But before you do, a new campaign backed by international NGO Friends-International and UNICEF asks you to think again.

“Travelers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children,” said Sebastien Marot, Executive Director of Friends-International, whose headquarters are in Cambodia. “It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children.”

A recent study of Cambodia’s residential institutions showed that the rapidly growing practice of “orphanage tourism” actually does more harm than good, violating the rights of children and contributing to the separation of families. The study revealed that 72 percent of children living in institutions labeled “orphanages” have at least one living parent, and that the number of these types of institutions has grown in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphaned and vulnerable children has shrunk. The study also showed that a number of these orphanage tourism schemes are run by unscrupulous business operators, and many aren’t regulated.Orphanages in themselves aren’t bad, but visitors must be aware of the effects of their actions. The Friends/UNICEF campaign encourages tourists to ask themselves a number of questions before they decide to visit an orphanage, including:

  • Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision? Orphanages that allow strangers off the street to interact with children unsupervised, without conducting sufficient background checks, are not protecting the interests of the children.
  • Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage? The songs and dances may be cute, but they can also be viewed as child labor and groom children for begging and street work that leaves them open to exploitation.
  • Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program? The extended family plays an important role in Cambodian culture, and efforts should be made to reunite orphaned children with family members that can care for them.

One of the most important questions, though, is one visitors should ask themselves.

“You aren’t allowed to go anywhere and hug a child in your own country,” said Marot. “Why should you be able to do it here?”

To learn more about positive ways to protect children in your travels, check out these seven tips from Friends-International.

6 last minute travel gift ideas for the frequent flier

There was once a time when if you hadn’t finished your Christmas shopping by now, you’d be, well, pretty much screwed. But now, thanks to the ole Internet, you can order up virtual gifts and deliver them by email or print-out card with just a few clicks. And with all the free wifi specials in airports and airlines (thanks Delta, Skype, and Nintendo) you can even take care of your shopping while flying home! Here, a selection of great last minute travel gift ideas.

Travel experiences
For some, diamonds are forever. I personally prefer experiences: catching a show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, taking a helicopter ride over Manhattan. Gift these unforgettable travel experiences and more with gift vouchers from online travel activity booking companies like Viator and Isango.

Priority Pass membership
Airport hoppers will appreciate access to more than 600 VIP airport lounges worldwide through a membership with Priority Pass. A standard annual membership starts at $99 with a $27 per visit additional fee.Virtual travel books
With the proliferation of the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers, big bulky guidebooks are going the way of the Walkman. Give your favorite traveler a virtual travel book, or literature from their next destination, through the Apple iBookstore or Kindle Store.

Frequent flyer miles
The travel hacker in your life will flip over the gift of frequent flier miles. You can transfer miles that you have already accumulated, or directly purchase miles as a gift. Fees for these services vary from airline to airline. At United, it costs $15 per 1,000 miles to transfer and $35 per 1,000 miles to give.

Custom travel playlists
The perfect music mix can be an excellent companion for the solo traveler. iTunes makes it easy to create and gift a custom travel playlist — Gainsbourg for a jaunt to Paris, or maybe some electrotango for a trip to Argentina. Just create a playlist in iTunes, populate it with songs, then select the “Store” menu and the “Share Playlist” option. When prompted, indicate that you want to gift your playlist, then choose how you want your gift to be received.

Gifts for others
What do you get for the guy/gal who has everything? Something for someone else. Chances are, the traveler on your list has witnessed poverty and hardship in the places they’ve visited. Kiva gift cards provide a way to sponsor micro-entrepreneurship projects in developing countries, while a donation to charity: water provides clean drinking water in poor rural areas. Both sites offer printable gift cards.

[flickr image via Max Braun]