Category Archives: Middle East

New Tourism Push to Palestine

Tour operators promote West Bank opportunities.

I’m not chasing after work these days, but when I am contacted by someone I’ve known for a long time with a project to promote a destination I care about, I’m on board. So it was when I was asked by an astute marketer whom I have worked for over the years to help with a focus group that would test how to best communicate the underappreciated aspects of Holy Land travel to the American market.

While this project embraced the Holy Land in general, it specifically addressed messages regarding travel to Palestine, which I had the opportunity to visit in 2010. WE began in Bethlehem, but visited other ancient cities too, places we usually seem to hear or read about only if there had been an “incident” of some sort. You can read my daily reports on this between from June 20 , 2010 and  July 7, 2010.

Since my memorable and meaningful visit, the  Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Assn.,  was formed by the knowledgeable folks who provide visitors with insights to the history, sites, food and even politics of these places. Founded in 20015 in East Jerusalem to promote what I call “the rest of the Holy Land, these are the folks who will show you around and look after you when you visit.

The assignment brought up my fascinating, evocative, heart-breaking and inspiring visit. Below part of what I wrote for the organization. Remember that this is aimed at the travel industry, but the basic information is useful for travelers too:

The Holy Land is arguably the most compelling, most intriguing, most captivating destination on the planet. Only in this timeless region is it possible to visit so many places from antiquity so conveniently close together. Churches, temples, amphitheaters, markets and ancient roads where prophets and pilgrims, legionnaires and traders walked draw today’s travelers into the distant past.

The best-known sites are on everyone’s list of must-sees and must-visits, but the Holy Land also offers many that are not so well known or visited – ones that can set your tour offerings above the rest. Key members of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association can provide first-hand information about off-the-beaten-path places and memorable activities to enhance your Holy Land offerings or create new ones. By going above and beyond the usual offerings, your company truly can provide your clients with the proverbial “trip of a lifetime.”

Ask about the best parts of Abraham’s Path, the most the famous long-distance walking route in the Middle East. Learn about the archeological resources in Jericho, at more than 10,000 years, the oldest city Earth. Find out where the best markets are for local handicrafts, where to ride a camel and where to camp in the desert.

World’s Longest Flight

Doha-Auckland an airborne marathon.

Qatar Airways’ inaugural being welcome with water at Auckland.

The first run of the world’s longest commercial flight — Qatar Airways’ 9,032-miler from Doha to Auckland — has been completed.  Flight QR920 landed ive minutes ahead of schedule after a  daunting 16-hour, 23-minute flight across 10 time zones — longer than the entire “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies that were filmed in New Zealand, the airline noted the airline. Bring on the compression socks.

Four pilots and 15 cabin crew members were aboard. The latter served 1,100 cups of tea and coffee, 2,000 cold drinks and 1,036 meals during the flight. I hope to food on Qatar is decent and the seats not too uncomfortable. In keeping with international tradition to welcome inaugural flights, the Auckland airport rescue service showered the plane with water cannons on arrival.

The Qatar flight replaces  Emirates’ 8,824-mile flight from Dubai to Auckland in the record books. Last year, I flew for 14 or more hours from Los Angeles to Shanghai. I watched four movies, read some and napped a little. By that measure,  Qatar Airways’ new flight would be good for five movies.

Ride High Over Las Vegas in a “Super Wheel”

World’s biggest Ferris Wheel derivative is Sin City’s newest attraction.

LasVegas-signIn Las Vegas, the house always wins. It is the site of the world’s largest “observation wheel,” several generations removed from the old-time Ferris wheel. With the inauguration of the High Roller launched yesterday with champagne-bottle-breaking fanfare, Las Vegas has won bragging rights for the world’s largest observation wheel for now.

The SkyView HighRoller, or HighRoller Sky Vue, or some other ame welcomed its first passengers yesterday.
A rendering of the SkyViue High Roller or High Roller SkyVue, which welcomed its first passengers yesterday.

It is 550 feet high with 28 40-passenger stand-up glass cabins suspended on the outside of the wheel so as not to obstruct the view. The cabins are designed to revolve around SkyVue, an enormous LED screen promoted as “one of the most effective advertising platforms in the world….With over 100,000 square feet of high definition LED screen, SkyVue integrates the bright lights of Times Square with the eye popping views with the London Eye.”

If eyeballs from pedestrians and people in vehicles the ground aren’t enough, SkyVue screen on the High Roller is visible to more than 39 million airline passengers a year as they take off and land at nearby McCarran Airport, along with guests at high-rise hotels whose rooms look toward it. Caesar’s Entertainment, the High Roller’s developer, sold the naming rights to SkyVue for $1.2 million., an award-winning local blog, has tempered its enthusiasm for this spectacular attraction, noting:

“SkyVue, plagued by rumors of financial problems and construction delays, was considered by some to be an unlikely candidate to get naming rights to what industry insiders consider “a competing attraction.” Caesars Entertainment, however, felt otherwise. Caesars Entertainment has not been without financial turmoil of its own. The company has approximately $24.5 billion (yes, billion) in debt, or about what it would cost to purchase Paraguay.”

Still, the waiting line for the inaugural day of the super-sized observation wheel was measured at five hours — but maybe that was just to be the first to ride it. The cost is $30 for a 30-minute ride. Each cabin can accommodate a roll-in bar for an intimate private party — even a modest wedding. Reports are that the first marriage proposal occurred on opening day.

This Vegas attraction is the latest entry in what I think of as the “wonder wheel wars.” In the US, contenders are the High Roller (550 feet) and 190 meter (623 feet) the New York Wheel (623 feet), which was scheduled to start construction “early in 2014” on, of all places, Staten Island. Elsewhere, the Singapore Flyer (541 feet), the Star of Nanchang in southeastern China (525 feet) and the London Eye (443 feet) reign over their respective landscapes. Construction was supposed to begin last April on Bluewaters Island, a new island that I believe was recently completed in Dubai, will be the site of The Dubai Eye (650 feet), which will surpass its existing and planned rivals — until China or someone else comes up with an even bigger one.

It is not Las Vegas’s first High Roller — and I’m not counting humans. In 1996, a steel roller coaster called the High Roller opened on top of  the 909-foot Stratosphere Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in the country. It wasn’t all that popular, was difficult to maintain and was dismantled in 2005.

Whole Journeys Cites International Food Festivals

Travel offshoot of natural food market lists five faves.

globeWhole Journeys, a travel branch of Whole Foods, just sent out a list of five compelling international food festivals. There’s not one that doesn’t make me want to whip out my credit card, make a reservation and go. I actually have been to the Food and Wine Class at Aspen several times, but alas, not recently. At any rate here’s the Whole Journeys list, several of which are over for this year, but there’s always 015:

  • Alacati,  Turkey. Festival of Wild Greens along the Izmir Coast. A contest involves who can gather the largest variety of  wild greens and who prepare the best recipe with them. Sounds like an event from the fertile mine of a Turkish Rene Rezapi.    It also includes concerts, races, a large farmers market and outdoor stalls selling food and crafts from Izmir.
  • Motovun, Croatia. Teran & Truffle Festival (TETA). Local winemakers who produce traditional Istrian Teran wines gather with top chefs and truffle hunters during the harvest season to feature truffle dishes.
  • Carnivale in Italy. Whole Journeys directed readers to a blog post written by Carol Sicbaldi, a Whole Foods operations manager who resides in Italy. She notes that during February towns all over Italy celebrate Carnival, “a few weeks traditionally devoted to enjoyment, pleasure and naughtiness in the period preceding the austerity of Lent. ” In the US, this period culminates with Mardi Gras.
  • Logroño, Spain’s Basque Country. Riojan Harvest Festival during which people pay homage to San Mateo, patron saint of Logroño. Young people wearing traditional dress stomp the grapes and offer the first grape juice of the season to the Virgen de la      Valvanera. Village ceremonies include Herri Kirolak, Basque rural sports that I’d never heard of, includ stone carrying and wood chopping competitions
  • Cusco, Peru. Corpus Christi Festival,  Villagers carry statues of 15 saints  for  many days to the Cathedral in Cusco.  On the eve of the main day of Corpus Christ,i twelve typical dishes including cuy, chiriuchu, huatia and chichi or prepared to represent the 12 Apostles. They do not contain meat in honor of Christ’s passion, though I don’t understand how cuy, which is guinea pig, can be meatless.
  • Aspen, Colorado. Aspen Food and Wine Classic attracts people in the food industry such as top chefs, international and domestic wine makers, cheese mongers and others, plus well-heeled foodies who are all passionate about food and wine.

Cross-posted to

Hiking in the Land of the Nabateans

Petra Redux: The Gear Junkie visits Petra, Jordan’s acclaimed ancient treasure

The Gear Junkie on a hiking trail above the fabled Treasury in Petra.
The Gear Junkie on a hiking trail above the fabled Treasury in Petra.

In January of last year, I visited the splendid Nabatean site of Petra in Jordan, and just about a year ago, I finally wrote this blog post both about my brief experience and also what experts view as a threat to this major archeological site and tourist draw. I was captivated by what I saw, even in a few short hours on a day trip from Eilat, across the Israeli border. Even after I returned, I looked at maps and read guidebooks and learned that those with more time could actually go hiking in Petra. The Gear Junkie, Steve Regenold’s adventure/sports/travel site, did just that — and here, roughly a year after my Petra post, is his report, “Hiking Petra: Desert Heights, Archaeological Sites.” I enjoyed revisiting it through his eyes and hope you do too.

Hotel Pastry Chef Wins Top Dessert Award

Bosphorale incorporates Turkish ingendients in chef William McCarrick’s cake

If you think baklava or halvah whenever someone mentions Turkish sweets, think again. Bosphorale created by the executive pastry chef of Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul was named the Kempinsky Dessert of the year. Granted, William McCarrick, said executive pastry chef and also a master chocolatie, is not Turkish. More importantly, he was open-minded in adpating Turksh ingredients into an international confection, also made with Bergamot-scented tea from the Black Sea sweetly paired with delicately dried Malatya apricots and Valrhona chocolate. It is going to be available at all Keminski hotels in 2013, but unfortunately, there’s not a single Kempinski hotel in North America.

Bosphorale, so named becuase the Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul is  situated on the European shores of the Bosphorus. It was once an Ottoman Palace
Bosphorale, so named becuase the Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul is situated on the European shore of the Bosphorus. It was once an Ottoman Palace.

Among the ingredients ingrained in Turkish cultural traditions and  creatively used in the cake are dried fruits, including apricots that are usually served at village festivals, weddings and other celebrations, while tea has become a culture of its own, with specific brewing techniques and drinking customs. Offering tea and drinking it together are considered a gesture of friendship and hospitality throughout Turkey.Cross-posted to Culinary Colorado.

‘Van Gogh Alive’ Coming to Tel Aviv

Glitzy traveling multi-media show alighting in Israel for a month

Shortly after the exclusive ‘”Becoming Van Gogh” exhibition closed at the Denver Art Museum (I saw it three times during its three-month run) comes word that “Van Gogh Alive!” is  coming to the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv for one month (February 3 to March 3). If I had not seen the reverential show with thematic selection of authentic works — mostly Van Gogh’s during an explosive 10-year period — and a few artists who influenced and inspired him, I might be more receptive to the multi-media exhibition produced by an Australian firm called Grande Exhibitions, which also operates several “Da Vinci —  The Genius” museums in Italy and has other traveling exhibitions on the road now (among them, “101 Inventions That Changed the World” and “Planet Shark“).

Van Gogh Alive! is a way larger-than-life multi-media exhibition coming to Tel Aviv for one month.
Van Gogh Alive! is a way larger-than-life multi-media exhibition coming to Tel Aviv for one month.

The two Van Gogh shows illustrate the contrast between a carefully museum-curated exhibition like “Becoming Van Gogh” that put a premium on originality, authenticity and art history, and a dazzling commercial sound and light show like “Van Gogh Alive!” The latter, which has previously been on display in Istanbul, Ankara, Phoenix and Singapore, has been viewed by more than 300,000 people and features 360-degree life-like images of the works of Van Gogh projected onto massive HD screens, as well as the ceiling, walls, pillars and floor — all to powerful classical music. Click here for more information on the upcoming Tel Aviv stop of this dazzling, high-tech interpretation of some 3,000 works of a simple, humble man who happened to become one of the late 19th centyury’s greatest artists.

This Traveler Yearns for Peace in the Middle East

Old animosities flare up again in places I’ve visited in recent years

The sun has just set behind the Flatirons in peaceful Boulder, Colorado, but I’ve been glued to the CNN footage of rockets lobbed into Israel from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli missiles shooting down many of those rockets and tanks massed on the Israeli side of the border.

This makes me inexorably sad, first on general principle but even more so because in the last few years, I have visited the tumultuous Middle East several times –once for 8 days days to the West Bank (aka, the Occupied Territories or Palestine); next for 10 days in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring, and most recently, for eight days to Israel with a day in Jordan. Each visit has been memorable, for the antiquities, for the pervasive sense of wariness and for the regular people living in a perpetually troubled part of the world, with a tug-or-war between ancient animosity and longing for peace. Especially with the approach of Thanksgiving, whose story, at least according to myth and legend, began with Native Americans and strangers from across the sea sharing a harvest feast.

Earlier this year was my third trip to the Middle East in just a couple of years. By the standards of the American West, the places I visited — namely the West Bank, Cairo, Luxor in the Nile Valley, Alexandria, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Eilat and Petra — are practically on top of each other. They would fit easily within the borders of Montana with room to spare.

Of those three visits, the most recent was an SATW Freelance Council meeting in Tel Aviv — a vibrant Mediterranean city with Art Deco buildings, modern skyscrapers, 21st century nightlife and the picturesque old port city of Jaffa, once an Arab city and now a gentrified Israeli neighborhood. A couple of years ago, I had visited the West Bank, where nothing was gentrified as far as I could tell. The Palestinians I spoke with then seemed weary and frustrated, but still hopeful that their desire for an end to the occupation would be a homeland of their own — and a little of what the far more prosperous Israelis enjoy.

Dignitaries at the elegant Sabbath dinner served to SATW Freelance Council delegates. The cantor with the unforgettable voice is the third from the right, the one rather formally clad in a suit and not just shirtsleeves.

When the sun sets on a Friday anywhere in Israel, Jews — very observant and less so — enjoy a Sabbath meal by candlelight. One such feast was prepared for our group at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv. The tables were festively set, and the meal was leisurely, generous and congenial,  but to me the best part were the prayers sung by a cantor whose glorious bass filled the large room and my heart. Everyone in the room gave him a standing ovation, but  I am frustrated that I can’t find his name. I don’t understand Hebrew, nor do I know what the subject of Sabbath vocal music might be. But even at the time, when the political situation was relatively quiet, I hoped there was at least one with a wish for peace. And I still do. More than ever.

My wish for Tel Aviv and for innocent civilians on both sides of the border is the dawning of a day of peace.

The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are not the same place, but unfortunately, IMHO, the leaders of the two Palestinian areas — I believe the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and more militant Hamas in Gaza — did join political forces. Now with the current conflict escalating and occasional rockets reaching from Gaza the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I keep thinking about that Sabbath dinner and the cantor’s wonderful voice, wishing that he is singing of peace — and that someone, somewhere will heed his song.

Air France: Passing the Hat

Passengers asked to contribute to fuel costs when jet diverts to Damascus

If I were on a plane that had been diverted to Damascus and was asked to contribute to an emergency refueling tab, I’d open my wallet. It wouldn’t be much, because I usually return from an overseas trip with just enough money for the bus from the airport and maybe some random foreign coins. But they’d get what I little had. And that’s what passengers on AF562 from Paris to Beruit were asked to do.

In one of the more bizarre travel news stories I’ve read recently (and there have been some bizarre ones) the headline in USA Today reads, “Air France: Diverted fliers asked for fuel money as ‘precaution’.” According to the report:

The problems for Flight 562 began when the Paris-to-Beirut flight had to find an alternate airport to land at because of civil unrest near that Beirut airfield. Air France had hoped to continue on to Amman, Jordan, but instead opted to land in relatively nearby Damascus as the plane was low on fuel.

Reuters writes “on landing the local airport authorities said they could not accept a credit card payment and would only take cash, an Air France spokeswoman said.”

“As a precaution and in anticipation, the crew asked how much money the passengers had in cash to pay to fill up with fuel,” an Air France spokeswoman explained to Reuters.

Fortunately for passengers, a solution was found and Air France was able to refuel without passing a hat around the cabin. The situation was fraught with political overtones (or undertones), since Air France suspended scheduled to Damascus sometime ago and has publicly called for President Assad’s ouster. Passengers, who eventually arrived in Beirut after being diverted to Cyprus, report armed personnel at the Damascus stopover. No surprise.

Petra Threatened? Hard to Tell in a Few Hours

The splendid site in Jordan looks rock solid, but UNESCO and others are worried about its stability

Petra, an ancient Nabatean site in southern Jordan, had been on my bucket list even before Indiana Jones visited on horseback. Sculpted sandstone, slot canyons and spectacular structures carved into the pink-hued rock. The most spectacular façade is The Treasury, made famous in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” an unreal story filmed in a very real place. One of my motivations for signing up for the recent Society of American Travel Writers Freelance Council meeting in Israel largely so that I could also visit Petra, once the crossroads of the Nabatean kingdom and now a splendid, captivating archaeological site in southern Jordan.

I spent a few precious hours in Petra, like many tourists, on a day trip from Eilat or from a cruise ship calling on Aqaba on the Jordanian side of the border. For visitors like me coming from Eilat, there are border formalities, both Israeli and Jordanian, so that officials can do whatever with passports and collect exit fees ($55 when leaving Israel, $8 when leaving Jordan on the return). Then there’s the bus ride over the mountains, which had a dusting of snow in January, an obligatory stop at a barely heated gift shop and finally, to the entrance to the site on the outskirts of the town of Wadi Moussa. Petra was an important as crossroads for camel caravans that traveled the trade routes linking it with China, India, southern Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The Nabateans established it sometime around the 6th century B.C., with golden age of construction between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.  Problems came first when the Roman Empire swallowed all and then when the Crusaders had their turn at invading this land.

Petra had long been considered a “lost city” from antiquity. It was discovered — or rediscovered — in 1812, just 200 years ago. It has since become a UNESCO World Heritage site, is listed on the “new list” of seven wonders of the ancient world (the new list being of wonders that still exist) and is Jordans #1 tourist attraction. As Petra Archaeological Park, it is now managed by an autonomous authority. Continue reading Petra Threatened? Hard to Tell in a Few Hours