a park unlike any other

Minutes from downtown, San Diego’s Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, amazing gardens and a bunch of other cultural and recreational attractions, including the world-famous San Diego Zoo. If that sounds like it might be a bit cramped, don’t worry: at 1,200 acres it is the nation’s largest urban park and handily ranks as one of the best green spaces in the world.  Much of the stunning Spanish Renaissance architecture and landscaping is the legacy of two great expositions that were crucial in creating the park as it stands today: the 1915 Panama California Exposition which heralded the opening of the Panama Canal and the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition held to boost the local economy during the depression. Many of the park’s cultural attractions lie along El Prado, a wide boulevard which cuts through the center, including The Old Globe, the Museum of Man, the Timken Museum of Art, and the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, Spreckels Organ. Gardens in the park range from the formal plantings of the Alcazar Garden, to a Desert Garden of some 1,300 succulents from around the world; from the tropical oasis of Palm Canyon, to the fragrant Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. There’s even an 18-hole golf course, a velodrome, archery ranges, and the Navy Medical Center, all within its generous boundaries.

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an urban retreat

No ordinary park, Parque del Buen Retiro is a 350-acre expanse of green that was once the private preserve of the Spanish kings and queens.  What they left behind, aside from some stunning gardens and topiary, is a legacy of architectural showpieces in the heart of Madrid:  the boating pond is watched over by the colonnade of the Monumento de Alfonso XII on one side, while the Palacio de Cristal, an imposing glass palace modeled on London’s Crystal Palace, lies hidden among the trees on the other. In the northeastern corner of the park are the 13th Century Romanesque ruins of a hermitage, while the southwestern corner is home to the poignant Bosque de los Ausentes, an olive and cypress memorial to the victims of the March, 2004 train bombings.  Near Rosaleda, the formal expanse of rose gardens, is the reason I ventured into the park in the first place: the fountain of The Fallen Angel, El Angel Caido. Surrounded by a phalanx of water-spouting serpents it must be one of the only – if not the only statue – dedicated to Lucifer.

 

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pena palace

Consort to Portugal’s Queen Maria II – and cousin of Bavaria’s “mad” King Ludwig – Don Fernando II built Palacio Pena in the 19th century atop a ruined monastery perched on the summit of the highest hill in Sintra. Overlooking a vast expanse of countryside, the view – on a clear day – extends all the way south to Lisbon.  Influenced by the romantic and eclectic tendencies of the time, the Don oversaw the creation of a revivalist palace incorporating artistic styles from antiquity to the Renaissance, while entwining art of the Far East with Arab-style domes and minarets.  In short, he built himself the ultimate over-the-top fantasy castle; a worthy rival to Neuchswastein. Almost as dramatic as the castle are the surrounding gardens; a remarkable project of landscape transformation Lord Byron likened to “a wonderful Eden.” Initially barren at the time, the hill was turned into a 200-acre arboretum of historic gardens, grottoes, fountains, and lakes, imbued with the same Romantic taste for the exotic so evident in the palace.  It’s all terribly dramatic and hauntingly beautiful; a testament to the Romantic ideal of man’s supremacy over nature. Pena has spoiled me, I think.  It’s what I always imagined a fairytale castle should be.  And more.

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a monastic moment

From my balcony at Penha Longa I can see orange trees in the foreground and the lone figure of Michael, the Archangel, atop a cupola. Yet it’s not some distant church, I discover; it’s the Monastery of St. Jerome on the grounds of the hotel. The history of Penha Longa and the Monastery is inextricably linked with the history of Portugal.  Founded by Friar Vasco Martins in 1355, the historic structure was built in 1390 when King Joāo sponsored the purchase of the site for the burgeoning order of Hieronymite – or hermit – monks. The small monastery thrived, increasing its domain thanks to the grace and favor of various Kings and Princes who often stayed for long periods, preferring the cooler micro-climate of Sintra to the heat of Lisbon. In the 16th century, King Manuel built a small palace next to the Monastery as a weekend getaway for the royal family.  The Manueline style, a late-Portuguese Gothic which we’ll see a lot more of once we get to Lisbon, can still be seen in the buildings that survived the great earthquake of 1755: the Sacristy and the main entrance to the Convent, and in both the arched ceilings and twin portals of the Palace. In 1584, the Monastery played historic host to the first European visit by a Japanese delegation. (Two tiles, recently unearthed on the property, depict the visit and can be seen in the hotel’s lobby.) With the expulsion of all religious orders from Portugal in 1834, however, the compound’s days as a functioning monastery ended. The property was abandoned and left to its fate, before being purchased at auction by Viscount Olivais, Count of Penha Longa.  It passed through a shifting series of private hands until it became part of a newly built hotel in the 1990’s. Now it’s one of the more unique highlights available to guests at Ritz-Carlton’s Penha Longa property. (I mean, come on, how many hotels come with their own monastery?) The soaring spaces house majestic conference and banqueting facilities, acres of rejuvenated palace gardens with fountains, reflecting pools, and dovecotes make for inquisitive strolling, and in the former royal palace you can still get the king’s treatment at the luxurious Six Senses Spa.

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unexpected orlando

Mention Orlando and one thing comes to mind – theme parks. And rightly so: Walt Disney World put this city on the map, and today the Magic Kingdom battles it out with EPCOT, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and three other major parks for the attentions of 64.5 million travelers who come in search of rides, games, and Mickey Mouse ears each year.

But there’s a whole other side to Orlando.  Just steps from the fireworks, the roller coasters, the crowds, an entirely different group of attractions awaits.  From eco-safaris and astronaut training to canal cruises and historic gardens, America’s number one family destination has a whole unexpected side just waiting to be explored.

A short drive from the major attractions, Winter Park will charm you with tree-shaded avenues and a window into the world of Florida’s past. Once a major citrus-growing region, it became a popular retreat for well-to-do Northerners in the early 20th century. One of the best ways to get a peek at the Winter Park lifestyle is on the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour, a local attraction for more than half a century that takes you past lakefront mansions and through the city’s historic canals. Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre botanical park with the largest camellia collection outside California. Highlights include a butterfly garden, tropical stream garden, bamboo and palm gardens and a formal rose garden. It also includes the Leu House Museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With nearly 50 museums, theatres, and galleries, the heartbeat of the arts district is the seven-mile “Cultural Corridor,” that stretches from downtown Orlando to Winter Park.  The strip includes the Orlando Museum of Art, the new CityArts Factory, which houses art studios and galleries like Keila Glassworks, where you can get hand-on instruction in the art of glassblowing and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, which features the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including an elaborate chapel interior.

Discover a habitat virtually unaltered by man in the wilderness of the Central Florida Everglades. Led by certified US Coast Guard Captains, Boggy Creek Airboat and Wildlife Safari Rides take you through the Florida wetlands in search of native wildlife.  Whisking across the water at speeds up to 45 mph, each ride offers a unique glimpse of eagles, osprey, snakes, turtles and alligators.  Florida Eco-Safaris at Forever Florida caters to all ages on its eco-safaris, guided horseback tours, and nature trails. They also offer the only zipline experience in the state:  a two and a half hour treetop adventure, reaching heights of 55 feet and speeds up to 25 mph through the Pine Flatwoods and wetlands.

With more than 2,000 lakes, springs and rivers, Orlando is an endless summer of outdoor fun for water lovers. For more adrenaline-pumping activities, you can get behind the wheel of a 600-horse-power Nextel Cup race car at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, skydive indoors in a high-energy vertical wind tunnel at SkyVenture Orlando, or lean to hang glide at Wallaby Ranch Hang Gliding Flight Park, the first full-time aerotow hang gliding flight park in the world. No experience is necessary. And for the ultimate rush, the Astronaut Training Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex prepares intergalactic explorers for the rigors of space flight with a range of interactive, anti-gravity activities – plus the chance to take the helm at Mission Control under the supervision of an actual NASA astronaut.

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sunny daze: princes street gardens

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powerscourt

gardens_img3Powerscourt in Enniskerry is one of Ireland’s most famous country houses and gardens.  Not far outside of Dublin city, it stands in the crooked shadow of Sugar Loaf and the rolling Wicklow Hills.

The beginning of the estate’s grand gardens were first laid out in the 1730’s by Daniel Robertson, an acolyte of the Italianate design that was becoming all the rage in France and Germany at the time.    Influenced by the terraces and formal features of Italian Renaissance villas, the design actually corrects the vagaries of the natural landscape by leading the eye with the aid of symmetrical plantings from the house, over the lake and out to the hills beyond.

valley_img2A hundred years later an enormous variety of trees were planted and the grounds were adorned with a collection of statuary, ironworks and decorative objects.  Further generations maintained and added to the gardens, creating a Walled Garden of elaborate gates and colorful rose beds; a Dolphin Pond, named for the creatures that adorn the central fountain; concentric paths lead you around the pagoda, bridges, and stone lanterns of the Japanese Garden; and Tower Valley, a woodland of rare North American conifers headed by a crenelated Pepper Pot Tower, which was built to commemorate a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1911.

Of all the gardens, however, none is more touching than the small pet cemetery.  It serves as a reminder that for all the extravagance on display this was first and foremost a family home for many generations.  Here are two of my favorites, if it can be considered appropriate to have a favorite tombstone.  (Click each to enlarge)

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