Thursday, April 22, 2010

Top 10 Little-Known Dream Islands

Head to one of these undiscovered islands, where you'll find that dream beach vacation – minus the crowds

Everyone loves a little slice of island paradise! Unfortunately, that's the problem with an island beach vacation – you're often forced to share your stretch of sand with countless others in search of a little R & R. If you're looking for an island getaway minus the crowds, we've rounded up 10 undiscovered islands around the world where you'll find just that – and while you may have to work a little harder and travel a little longer to get there, you'll be rewarded with deserted beaches, fascinating culture, exotic cuisine, and the satisfaction of "discovering" a fabulous, off-the-beaten-path island destination. And if you've heard of every island on our list, pat yourself on the back – you're a well-traveled wanderer whose passport must be worn from use!

1.Anegada, British Virgin Islands

A small airport and ferry service makes getting here from one of the other British Virgin Islands fairly easy, but Anegada still feels a world away. The only coral island in the volcanic BVI chain and surrounded by the largest coral barrier reef in the Caribbean, this undiscovered island is a haven for beach bums, fly-fishermen, and wildlife enthusiasts alike. The north shore boasts nearly deserted white-sand beaches, the south is home to a huge population of bonefish, and the west end lays claim to large salt ponds and exotic birds. Spend your nights feasting on local lobster – rumored to be the best in the Caribbean – and rest your head at one of the island's few hotels and quaint guesthouse inns.

2.Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

If you needed another reason to visit Halong Bay – often hailed as the world’s Eighth Wonder – the limestone outcropping that is Cat Ba Island is it. The best way to explore the natural wonders of this undiscovered island – home to the remarkable Trung Trang Cave, cascading waterfalls, plummeting cliffs, and awe-inspiring National Park – is via motorbike. An hour-long ferry ride from Halong Wharf will get you there, where you can opt for accommodations that range from sparse and basic affairs to full-fledged four-star resorts. You'll have no problem staying awhile on this untouched, unspoiled masterpiece of Mother Nature.

3.Fakarava, French Polynesia

Overshadowed in popularity by neighbors Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea, Fakarava – a pristine Polynesian island enveloped by a coral reef and blue lagoon waters – is so remote, it's not even found on most maps. Yet, it's part of a UNESCO nature reserve and rich in natural fauna, offers pink-sand beaches, and is rife with rare aquatic life that includes loach, meru, and barracuda – not to mention hammerhead and tiger sharks. Not surprisingly, scuba diving is the undiscovered island’s top draw, but other attractions include the ancient village of Tetamanu, where you’ll find a Catholic church made of coral that dates back to 1874, and pearl farms, where rare black pearls are shelled.

4.Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec

Remote, beautiful, and altogether unique, the stellar Iles de la Madeleine (or Magdalene Islands, in English), 130 miles off the coast of Quebec, are the ultimate off-the-path escape. Of the dozen undiscovered islands that comprise this windswept archipelago, only seven are inhabited, six of which are connected only by sand dunes and long grassy reeds. The islands boast 200 miles of virgin beaches, the freshest seafood, and an uncomplicated atmosphere that make them a joy to visit. Given their northern location, summer is, not surprisingly, the best time to go. Of all the settlements here, Ile du Havre aux Maisons is our favorite for its colorful houses, charming boardwalk, and salty pubs and restaurants rife with local character.

5.Ischia, Italy

Though well-known to European and Asian travelers, the island of Ischia, Italy, is oft-overlooked by Americans whose sights are more often set on nearby Capri. Though you’ll hardly have Ischia to yourself, you will find fewer crowds and a less-pretentious attitude on this volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Though predominantly green and mountainous, beach bums will have no trouble scoping out a stretch of sand. And, when the sun sets, you’ll have your choice of accommodations for every budget to rest your head, plenty of al fresco perches that are primed for aperitivo, and some of the world's best food – this is Italy after all.

6.Lamu, Kenya

Kenya’s oldest living settlement, Lamu boasts golden sands fronting the Indian Ocean, tiny villages, and a breezy, slow-moving pace of life. It's an undiscovered island that offers a glimpse into the past – a place where donkeys are the main mode of transportation and residents still keep their arms and legs covered out of respect while out in town. The rich atmosphere and history alone makes Lamu worth the trek, but so do its beaches: Shela Beach offers the best swimming, while excursions to ruins and coral reefs could have you snorkeling alongside frolicking dolphins.

7.Monhegan Island, Maine

Though artists have sought out this remote, car-free destination for over a century, Monhegan largely remains an undiscovered island. Full-time residents number around 75, whose main occupation is fishing or lobstering, supplemented by an artists’ colony and tourism. Visitors who make the hour-long ferry ride from the Maine mainland can discover firsthand the beauty and simplicity of the village and surrounding landscape. Lobster Cove in particular draws nature lovers for its bird-watching and coastal views. Don’t miss the Monhegan Museum, housed in what was once a lighthouse and residence – it showcases the history of the community and boasts an extensive collection of local artwork. There are a handful of quaint inns and cottage rentals to choose from, though note that some accommodations are only open May through October.

8.Terre-de-Haut, Guadeloupe

Les Saintes, a spectacular cluster of eight undiscovered islands situated just off the coast of Guadeloupe and accessible only by ferry or private yacht, is the very essence of French West Indies life – without the crowds, to boot. Terre-de-Haut is the most appealing of them all, with its attractive beaches, mouth-watering Creole cuisine, and laid-back French-speaking locals; it also has the most options for overnight accommodations of Les Saintes' islands. Beach bums will love the powdery white sands of the palm-lined Plage de Pompierre, while the spectacular underwater world of colorful reefs and exotic fish (attracting divers as renowned as Jacques Cousteau) makes scuba diving and snorkeling another huge draw. Rent a golf cart to get around (you won't find much in the way of cars here) and zip around to a different beach at dawn, midday, and dusk.

9.Vis, Croatia

With its medieval villages, deserted beaches, ancient ruins, rambling olive groves, and the best vineyards in Dalmatia, Vis is poised to become the next "it spot" for sun and fun on the Adriatic. The winding streets of the two main towns – Vis and Komiza – are brimming with restaurants serving delicious seafood and Italian-style fare, while miles of sandy beaches, pebbly enclaves, and glittering shores attract sunbathers (Srebrna, a beautiful beach covered in large flat stones that appear silver in the sun, is one of the most beautiful). At just 2 hours by ferry from Split, Vis offers only three modest hotels, but visitors can also opt to rent apartments and villas.

10.Yap, Micronesia

Part of a remote tropical archipelago in the midst of the Pacific, Yap is the most intriguing destination in the island nation of Micronesia. Having managed to escape most outside influences, like colonization and mass tourism, the undiscovered island's traditional way of life remains both authentic and distinct: Legends are portrayed in colorful dances; village women dress in grass skirts, the men in brightly colored loincloths; and ancient stone money discs are still used as local tender (though the U.S. dollar is the official currency). Spend your days hiking among the island's rolling green hills, mangrove forests, and antiquated stone paths or, go off and explore the ocean’s coral reefs and swim with dolphins and magnificent manta rays.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Kingdom of Dwarves

In China, it's a small world after all...

KUNMING, China — The casting call went out across China earlier this year, in newspapers and online: Entertainers needed for a new theme park, no special skills required.

Applicants should be 18-40 years old, from any part of the country. The only stipulation? To work at the Kingdom of Dwarves performers must be shorter than 4' 3".

Since the park opened this summer in the mountains outside of Kunming, about 80 little people have signed on. Twice a day, they take to the stage to entertain smatterings of Chinese tourists by singing, dancing and performing slapstick comedy in the model of ubiquitous Chinese television variety shows. The dwarve are not, for the most part, accomplished singers, comedians or Qi Gong masters. The “king” is a 40-year-old dwarf and the shortest performer on the payroll, a tough-looking, silent character dressed in gold silk pajamas, who cruises away on his three-wheeled motorcycle after the show.

They are on stage because they are different, and in China, being different often means being a spectacle.

“I think this is a very unusual place, and quite funny,” said Li Ximing, a visitor from Kunming.

To many around the world, the very idea of putting people on stage to perform simply because they don’t look like everyone else is cringe-inducing. But even though they must dress up in frilly princess and caped warrior costumes befitting small children and dance for tourists, performers at the bizarre theme park see this place as a haven from the overwhelming discrimination they face in China at large.

“Back home, strangers will stare at and they look down on us,” said Yang Lichun of Beijing, who moved across the country to work at the park this summer with her fiance. “If we can even find jobs at home, we have to work harder than everyone else to prove ourselves.”

This is not a protective commune founded by dwarves, as some media reports have insisted. The performers do not live in the tiny concrete mushroom houses that serve as a backdrop for their shows, but in nearby dormitories. It is a for-profit theme park run by a Yunnan province-based venture capital company. The workers simply see this as dagong — the modern Chinese notion of migrant work, leaving your hometown for a job elsewhere. Tens of millions do it for factory and construction work; these workers came here to put on a show for tourists who want to see little people.

Disabled and different people are often shunned in China, and hiring discrimination based on physical appearance is widely accepted. Still, parks where the amusement is people are a dicey topic, especially given a shady past rife with stories of China’s ethnic minorities being rounded up and displayed in the mode of circus freak shows.

But to hear the workers tell it, there’s no better place to be right now — the underlying social attitude actually made the workers want to come to the remote park, and want to stay.

Yi Shaobo, 28, used to work in an auto parts factory in his native Wuhan, 1,200 miles east of here. He doesn’t earn a lot more at the Kingdom of Dwarves, but he prefers it.

“I didn’t come here for the money. I came because it made me happy,” said Yi. “People at the factory had to help me with my job, and I wanted to be independent.”

Performers earn between $120 and $175 per month, depending on their role. It’s about as much as a factory worker earns, and more than most could make back home. More importantly, the little people here say they have found camaraderie and respect they don’t often get in the outside world. Inside the Kingdom of Dwarves (the park’s own translation), because the performers are all small, nobody is judged on height. They joke and tease about dating and about falling in love. The gossip has it that eight little people already have met mates here.

The park, which sits about an hour away from central Kunming, is tucked away in the mountains, inside a larger venue devoted to butterflies. The performers live there, isolated from city life — both a good and a bad thing for most. It’s clear the honeymoon phase won’t last forever, especially as tourist numbers are low so far. Still, the performers hope for the best.

“I’ll work here as long as this park is open,” said Yang.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Iceland Volcanos

Iceland, the land of ice and fire, is a true paradise for volcanologists. In few places on earth, geology and human history are so closely connected to volcanism as on Iceland. The island owns its existence to a large volcanic hot spot sitting on a mid-oceanic ridge, a unique setting. The plate boundary between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates crosses Iceland from south to North and the spreading process can be directly measured and observed on land.

Iceland has the land area of Virginia and the population of Virginia Beach (about 260,000 people). The country has the highest literacy rate (100%) of any nation in the world. Its history has always been closely related to volcanoes and knowledge of many volcanic eruptions since the middle ages are preserved in accounts.

First settled by Vikings in the 9th century AD, Iceland established its own parliament in 930 and recorded its first historical volcanic eruption only a few years later. After a golden age of literature in the 12th and 13th centuries (when the sagas were written), natural history reporting reached a low around the 15th century. In the years 1707-09 a third of the population died from smallpox, and the 1783-84 Laki eruption killed a fifth of the remaining population by famine. Iceland gained sovereignty from Denmark in 1918 and complete independence in 1944.

Iceland is noted for subglacial and regional fissure eruptions related to the rifting process between the separating plates.

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