Photo Of The Day: Fantastic Voyage

Today’s Photo of the Day is a lovely Renaissance fresco from Rome‘s Villa Farnesina, taken by Flickr user AlexSven. It’s not the most famous artwork from the museum, that of Raphael’s “Triumph of Galatea,” but it depicts another voyage of the gods. It’s what we all hope our travel will be: swift, elegant and a bit magical. The mode of travel, chariot pulled by a pair of oxen, is as old-fashioned as it gets, and a group of hidden angels assure safe passage for the rider. May your next trip be as smooth.

Upload your magical voyages to Gadling’s Flickr pool for another Photo of the Day.

Free amenities and break on rates at Sandestin this spring

The list just seems to go on and on – there is no shortage of activities and amenities waiting for you at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. If you’re into biking, kayaking, tennis or sweating it out in the fitness center, you’ll have plenty of choices available to you. And there’s even a Wednesday concert series. Simply put: you won’t get bored at this destination on Florida‘s northwest Gulf Coast. Fleeing cold weather? The seven miles of beaches are the cure or the cold that’s been hounding you for months. Well, if you book a three-night stay by May 26, 2010, you’ll get free access to Sandestin’s many amenities – which is reason enough to plan the trip you’ve been putting off.

The resort offers accommodations from studio condos to villas and cottages of up to five bedrooms. They come with fully equipped kitchens, whirlpool spa baths, laundry facilities and views of the beach, bay or golf course – with 1,500 units in all, spanning 30 neighborhoods.

Contest: Abercrombie & Kent will welcome winners to Provence

Luxury hospitality company Abercrombie & Kent wants to put you up in a beautiful villa in Provence for a week. In a new online contest, a week at a villa in Luberon is at stake: all you have to do is read minds.

Surrounded by 20 hectares of countryside, Le Mas du Luberon boasts seven bedrooms, a heated saltwater pool (enclosed) and other recreational activities. On the bikes available at the villa, you can pedal over to the nearby villages Bonnieux, Lacoste, Gordes and Roussillon. The villa comes with a separate cottage, ideal for extended families or large groups of friends that may require some extra privacy.

To enjoy your week in Provence, all Abercrombie & Kent wants to know is what the vacationer above is thinking. Come up with the best reflection or reverie, and you could find yourself in France … wrapped in the luxury that only A&K can provide.

South by Southeast: Exploring Luang Prabang

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. As travelers, we have a tendency to overload our trips with adventure and movement. This is especially true in Southeast Asia – as I’ve discovered in Thailand and Laos, there’s no shortage of motorbikes to ride or zip lines to catch. But if you truly want to understand this part of the world, it’s not a vigorous itinerary you need. Instead, you need to spend a few days on foot, letting the pungent smells, vivid colors and urgent sounds of the Southeast soak into your subconscious. And there’s no better place for this to happen than Luang Prabang.

Located in the sleepy nation of Laos, Luang Prabang is truly a crown jewel of Southeast Asia. This former royal capital, atmospheric river port and UNESCO World Heritage Site has emerged in recent years as one of the region’s newest must-see destinations. It’s not the blockbuster sights that make Luang Prabang such a fantastic place to visit. It’s the simple act of walking and observing that becomes the focus of your stay: exploring fading French villas and evening handicraft markets, sampling the town’s fresh-baked baguettes or watching a procession of orange-robed monks silently march down the road.

This sensory overload is what makes Luang Prabang a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler’s itinerary. Curious about visiting this underrated Laotian capital of French/Asian style, vivid color and Buddhist serenity? Let’s take a look at some of the essentials and highlights of any Luang Prabang visit. Keep reading below for more.

Getting There
Luang Prabang is located smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos, making it easy to reach from points North or South. Overland travelers from Thailand will often stop in the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where a two-day “slow boat” plies the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang. From within Laos, frequent buses connect Luang Prabang with the nation’s capital in Vientiane and backpacker hub of Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang’s airstrip is also served by a number of Southeast Asian regional airlines including Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.

What to Do
Due to its unique location at the confluence of two rivers, Luang Prabang has long been an important religious, political and economic hub. You’ll find the town reflects this historic grandeur, dotted with ornate Buddhist temples and lavish royal palaces. The main highlights include:

  • Wat Xieng Thong – in a city studded with important Buddhist “Wats,” Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most ornate and well-known temple complex.
  • Royal Palace – until they were deposed by the Lao Communist Revolution in 1975, the Lao royal family made its home in Luang Prabang. Visitors can tour the ornate royal complex, peering into the King and Queen’s teak-lined living quarters. Out back is a collection of vintage cars gifted by the French and American governments.
  • Night Market – as the sun begins to set each evening, Luang Prabang’s main street is crowded with an huge array of vendors, selling everything from grilled fish to locally made textiles to handicrafts.
  • Kuang Si Falls – about an hour’s ride outside Luang Prabang you’ll find an impressive series of waterfalls at Kuang Si, as well as a swimming area and a “Bear Rescue Center” for mistreated animals.

Keep in mind that “seeing the sights” of Luang Prabang is only half the story: the longer I spent wandering this picturesque river peninsula, the more I enjoyed simply soaking in the town’s unique atmosphere. Make sure to leave some time to simply explore without purpose.

Where to Stay
There are accommodation options in Luang Prabang to suit just about any budget and lifestyle, from luxurious boutique resorts housed in ancient French villas to clean no-frills backpacker haunts. For those on the thrifty side, you’ll find plenty of simple and clean guesthouses (under $10/night) clustered around Sisavong Street near the Joma Bakery. Those looking to splurge should check out 3 Nagas, a beautiful mansion nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s historic district (rates start at $125/night).

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Four top-shelf New Year’s Eve destinations (and something else)

If you plan to make New Year’s Eve memorable, you need to start pulling the trigger now. The best stuff does get snapped up quickly, and even if you have a load of cash at your disposal, you could wind up late to the party. So, if a shortage of ideas is the only thing in your way, check out the five suggestions below. For four of them, be prepared to spend some dough. The fifth is for everyone else.

1. Villa Sancha (Spain)
Head out to the Andalucian valley of southern Spain and make Villa Sanchez your spot for the biggest party night of the year. Enjoy the private outdoor courtyard at this Abercrombie & Kent villa, and be sure to pass a relaxing day at an Arab bath in Malaga. Sip some sherry in nearby Jerez. This sort of luxury isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it: eight adults, one child starts at $6,207 … but a welcome meal is included.

2. Hotel Martinez (France)
This is a disco-lover’s dream. Groove along to tribute band Bee Gees Magic at the Hotel Martinez, which is apparently a hot group for those who are into that kind of thing. Enjoy an amazing gala dinner in the Salon Royal Galuchat, prepared by Chef Christian Sinicropi, and then let the glitter fly. The deal starts at $719 a night, but it includes the New Year’s Eve party (with dinner, champagne and wines selected by master sommelier). For an extra $120 a person, you can celebrate the 80th anniversary of the hotel. Stay overnight on December 31, 2009 in a Superior room, and indulge in a buffet breakfast or continental breakfast served in your room.

3. Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel (United States)
The Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel and 606 Congress restaurant next door are ready to help you celebrate the start of 2010 in style. The “New Year’s Eve Beantown Bonus” package includes a night at the hotel, dinner for two at 606 Congress on New Year’s Eve and breakfast the next day and a late checkout. To help you get your motor running, you’ll receive free use of the health club and lap pool … not to mention a Starbucks card loaded appropriately to $20.10. Rates start at $299 a night.

4. Palmasola (Mexico)
This is beyond insane. A staff of 16 will attend to you and up to 17 other guests in a 25,000 beach-front villa. You’ll have a Michelin chef preparing your meals, and a party will be held for you and your friends. And, if that isn’t enough, you’ll have access to the Four Seasons resort not far away, and the Jack Nicklaus golf course. Be prepared to spend: partying at this level will set you back $18,750 a night, for a minimum of five nights.

5. Set yourself up for next year (Anywhere)
Take one last mileage run to see if you can finally hit gold or platinum elite status on the airline of your choice. Do shots of Absolut in an airport bar, and feast on whatever’s left at Au Bon Pain. Hey, this is an investment in the 365 days to come.