Travel Books that Take You Places

Robin Esrock's favourite travel books

Until the vaccines win the race against the virus, we’re not going to be travelling like we could.  But we can travel in our imaginations, and certainly through the pages of some of my favourite all-time travel books. Although isn’t every book a “travel book?”   Transporting us to places near and far, across dimensions in time and space?   I confess my library is not nearly the wealth of knowledge it should be, but hopefully this will inspire just the start of your journey into the world of travel literature. 

Travel Books to Make You Laugh

Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch

Anyone who has ever clutched a Lonely Planet will wet themselves visiting the fictitious eastern European country of Molvania.  This Spinal Tap for guidebooks looks at hotels (“what it lacks in charm it makes up in concrete”), towns (“Vajana is a small city divided into quarters, of which there are three”), food  (“this thick liquor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve swallowed fabric conditioner”) and activities.   A follow up guidebook,Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring roasts a Southeast Asian country in similar fashion, as does San Sombrero which skewers Latin America .   Hilarious.

Our Dumb World – The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth / The Daily Show Presents: Earth
Every country in the world gets punished in this gut-busting atlas and compendium that crunches stereotypes with typical Onion and Daily Show wit.  Politically incorrect at its best, we learn and laugh at the world, including the “Countries you thought were in Africa”, Czech Republic (Where People Go to Say They’ve Been), and Canada, which in the Onion Atlas is titled: “For the United States, See Pages 9-22.”  Sharp, ruthless, and essential humour with a global twist.


Travel Books to Understand a New World

A Fine Balance – By Rohinton Mistry
Midnight’s Children – By Salman Rushdie
Shantaram – By Gregory David Roberts

India is such an immense place, bursting with stories and sagas that define the human condition. There is a vast cannon of fantastic Indian literature, but my three favourite books are these above, drowning in characters that tunnel into your mind and heart. All epic in scope, by the time you put down these pages you will have transported your senses into the sub-continent, taste its spice on your tongue, smell the stenches in your nostrils. It’s not always fun, and the novels often take tragic twists that bring tears to the eyes, but the reward is the hope and unlikely beauty that manages to stay alive, on the pages, and in India itself.

Travel Books for the Adventurous

Dark Summit – By Nick Heil,
For everyone who enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and there’s a lot of you), the true-life drama atop Mount Everest continues in this excellent read, recounting the eventful 2006 season in which more lives were tragically lost. Heil paints a stark mountain that seduces characters from around the world – seeking adventure, but receiving more than they bargained for. As more climbers continue to challenge Everest every year, gripping books like this bring us along for the journey, thankfully removed from the frostbite, avalanches, and dirty mountain politics.

The Beach – By Alex Garland
There’s a reason this book spawned a hit movie with Leonardo di Caprio. An English backpacker (Americanized for the movie) gets swept up in the search for the last untouched paradise island, a backpacker utopia, hidden from the masses. As we follow Richard’s adventure into love and life, things begin to unravel into a Lords-of-the-Flies-like mess, complete with psycho leaders, armed drug runners, hungry sharks and jealous boyfriends. Inspired by the islands in the Philippines, it has the fun edge of a thriller, while tapping into our desire to leave the beaten path, and go wherever the adventure leads us. Alex Garland has moved on and is now an accomplished film director, behind the thought-provoking sci-fi hits Ex Machina, Sunshine and Annihilation.

Full Moon over Noah’s Ark – By Rick Antonson
I live in a neighbourhood that’s inspired by explorers (with names like Cartier, Champlain, Explorers Walk, Compass Point etc). Across the road from me lived Rick Antonson, formerly the CEO of Tourism Vancouver, but these days a very well travelled and accomplished travel writer. Rick’s a fine and affable literary guide to take you on a journey to Timbuktu, Route 66, or in his latest book, Mount Ararat and beyond. Sadly, Rick moved out the neighbourhood a few years ago, but I’ll diligently hold his beer until he returns.

 

Travel Books to Inspire Knowledge

A Short History of Nearly Everything – By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most popular and beloved travel writers today, and you can’t really go wrong picking up any of his books. He’s also a terrific linguistics teacher (see his Mother Tongue), and a wonderful science teacher in this all-encompassing love letter to knowledge. Trust a travel writer to make learning about biology, geography, astronomy and other sciences accessible, engaging, and full of quirky characters. This book was a deserved hit years ago, but if you still haven’t read it, it’s well worth doing so.

Magicians of the Gods / The Sign and the Seal – By Graham Hancock
If there’s any one writer I have to credit with making me want to learn about the world, it’s this modern day academic Indiana Jones. A former writer for the Economist, Hancock has always been held in skeptic esteem for his bestselling theories about ancient civilizations (Magicians of the Gods / Fingerprints of the Gods), and the search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant (Sign and the Seal). Reading about his adventures, following his interviews and thorough research, it fired me up to want to visit South America and Ethiopia. Many historians scoff at Hancock’s theories of an “alternative history”, but he has inspired millions to learn more, challenge conventional wisdom, and book tickets to exotic destinations to find out more for ourselves. Myself very much included.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
A monster non-fiction hit, an Israeli professor unpacks the history of humanity with a striking clarity of thought, explaining big history and bigger concepts in a clear, concise and jarringly direct fashion (all the more remarkable since Harari is writing in his second language). If aliens land in the distant future and find this book buried in the ashes of what was once our civilization, it will likely explain everything. His follow up books, Homo Deux and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are excellent reads too.

The Silk Road – By Peter Frankopan
I read a lot of history, and that’s another post altogether. The Silk Road makes it onto this list because it explains how geo-politics plays the long game, putting our current and brief time on Earth in a bigger context. Trade is being re-organized and powers are waxing and waning. China’s incredibly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is going to re-score the soundtrack of our planet. But it all has its routes on an ancient trade route that led to the birth and explosion of civilization as we know it. A terrific read.

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
If you’ve yet to come across Mary Roach, you’re in for a treat. Writing first person with a breezy wit and insatiable curiosity (something I can truly appreciate), Mary has tackled some fascinating topics with her various books, including Bonk (sex), Stiff (human cadavers), Grunt (war) and Spook (the afterlife). Packing for Mars unpacks the nuts and bolts reality of space travel, which isn’t nearly as Star Trek as you imagine, and wilder than you’d think. Mary interviews experts and characters, digs deep into space poo and practicalities, and should be required reading for anyone with their head in the stars.

 

Travel Books to Escape

Jitterbug Perfume / Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – By Tom Robbins
Put me on a long hot journey into some wild, parched land. Give me some water, a charged iPod, and a beaten Tom Robbins paperback, and you’ve rocked the Esrock.  With his unique approach to language, sharp wit, profound wisdom, and devotion to not taking things too seriously, Robbins is one of my favourite writers. His books usually follow a similar template: a brave (usually sexy) soul heads into the world to discover about life, the universe and anything, with aid from thinly disguised gurus, gods, and in some cases, inanimate objects. Creativity bursts from his pages, the turns of phrase stop you in your literal tracks. Wherever I find myself, reading and re-reading a Robbins novels inspires me to read more, write more, and most importantly, live more.

100 Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera – By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maybe it’s cliché to throw in these classics of South American magic realism, and if I had space I’d certainly add some Paulo Coelho and more Salman Rushdie. I’d pop in Kerouac’s On the Road for its impact on road trips, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and include some gifted modern travel writers like Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Tim Moore, and Colin Angus. Robert Kaplan, Glenn Dixon, Jules Verne, hell, throw in Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries while we’re there. And where on this list is space for two of my biggest travel writing influences, Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’ Rourke?

Writing any book is no easy task. I salute the efforts of anyone who strives to write about exciting new worlds, and to all those that choose to read their hard-spun efforts.
And since we’re on the topic, I should also suggest my favourite all time, most inspiring, life-changing travel books. I include them here without any bias whatsoever. Maybe a little.

Statues and Circus in Riga

Eight hundred thousand people live in the Latvian capital of Riga, and just about all of them dress like rock stars. Besides the stylish leather boots and new-wave haircuts, it’s as if someone poured a bucket of blonde paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheekbones, and used only the tallest canvas for the portrait of a typical Latvian. If the locals look good, the buildings do too. Riga is the capital of Art Nouveau, the 18th century art and architecture movement that aspired to break rules. Although much was damaged during World War II, today the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere. I’ve never been a massive building nut, so my expectations were less than stellar when I heard that legendary Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein’s dad built one of the most ambitious Art Nouveau buildings ever. Until I saw it.

What possesses a Victorian-era aristocrat to design a building with such unusual vision, laden with science-fiction motifs amongst archways and sculptures time-warped in from the future?   What made him sculpt the large heads of a King and Queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the building as if it were merely a chess piece? And who, in their right mind, would pony up the cash for this grand, far-fetched creative endeavour? I’m awed by the modern architectural thought behind Dubai’s developments, but they don’t compete with the sheer wackiness on display in Riga. On Albert Street, admiring the attention to detail caused my neck to ache, staring at the sphinxes, naked muses, or even faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Albert Street would be a perfect set for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman – at the same time, without changing any of the facades. As it stands, many of these buildings are mere apartment blocks, with “For Rent” sales displayed outside. Some are crumbling with time; some are magnificently restored (including the Irish, French and Russian Embassies). Building-watching provides a good morning out, only slightly eclipsed by that other passion of mine – people watching.

A great place for that was at one of the world’s oldest running circuses.   For well over a century, the Riga Circus has been housed in a somewhat decrepit old building permeated with a century of laughter, acrobatics, and animal tricks.   It’s not very politically correct to talk about the circus these days, but I believe there are bad people and there are good people, and there are bad circuses and there are good circuses, the latter treating what few animals they still employ with utmost love and respect in a mutually beneficial relationship. The only way I could find out if Riga Circus fits into this category was to go and see it.

A highlight was meeting Aleksandrs Slaugotnis, a legendary Russian clown who has been wearing face paint for 37 years. He was trained by Oleg Popov, which in Clown World is the equivalent of saying you were trained by Michelangelo. Watching Aleksandrs apply his smile and red makeup to his nose (“I don’t need a clown’s nose, my face is funny enough,” he tells me) was a special, privileged glimpse into the mysterious shadow world of the circus. A man in full Arabian prince regalia walks past, together with a breathtaking blonde woman in a matching pink outfit. The King and Queen of the Carnival are a regal sight to behold.

Soon enough, the ringmaster announces the performance, and a sizeable crowd has gathered, mostly local kids with their parents. Together we laugh and yell and ooh and aah, eat peanut crepes and stare at mammoth hairy camels. Despite the age of the circus, the dogs, llamas, camels and monkeys glow with health and enthusiasm, and the two-hour show is awash in laughs and thrills. Aleksandrs is particularly a hit, as deft with slapstick as he is on a tightrope. High-pitched blonde kids scream in approval. It’s as Aleksandrs says: “People will always need clowns, and people will always need the circus.”

Robin’s famous Gonzo jump in Riga

The World’s Bucket List Casinos

Let’s face it, casinos have passed their Golden Age. There was a time when tuxedos and cocktails and dressing up for entertainment carried a lot more glitz and glam than the modern, corporate, and slick operations in place today, carefully designed to part both high and low rollers from their cash. Between the pokies and slots, flashy lights, loud noises, mazes of machines, and game tables prowled by pros looking for easy marks, it’s no wonder online gaming has become so popular. Still, there are some casinos that transcend their purpose and become destinations, full of history and opulence, and still popular on many a bucket list.

Here is our Global Bucket List of some of the greatest casino destinations from around the world.

Casino de Monte-Carlo

Casino de Monte-Carlo is the sort of casino you assume only exists in novels and films. It is almost like a palace in both its beauty and size. One of the older functioning casinos in the world, it is one of the true highlights of Monte-Carlo, which happens to be a city full of opulent gems. It’s a rather exclusive environment when you get down to the actual games, and it’s one of not too many casinos in the world where you’re still expected to dress like a movie star – but it’s worth the trouble of visiting if only to wander around the gaming floors.

Marina Bay Sands

If you’re looking for a casino that will simply take your breath away when you look at it – and which is every bit as fun as it looks – there’s the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It’s getting some great publicity lately as one of the top sights in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been used as a major film set before. While it’s a massive casino and hotel with all kinds of attractions, its signature is the rooftop bar, which features an infinity pool overlooking the entire city.

The Bellagio

We’d still give Casino de Monte-Carlo the award for the world’s most classic casino, but the Bellagio is certainly on the list, and is one of the most famous establishments on the planet to boot. Famous for decades and further immortalized in 2001’s Ocean’s 11 remake, it’s everything people love about a more vintage version of Vegas. It’s not one of the newer casinos in town, but it’s still known for luxurious accommodations and one of the best poker rooms anywhere. Plus, the fountains in front of the hotel are a legend unto themselves.

Casino de Montréal

Canada doesn’t get quite as much attention for its casinos as some places around the world, and even in America it may be better known for its online activity. Americans cross the border to take advantage of online games and different bookmaker sites that allow for sports betting.  Canada has some great in-person casinos, and Casino de Montréal tops the list. It’s a gigantic casino complex with several floors’ worth of gaming, and a place that would be right at home in a casino Mecca like Las Vegas or Macau.

Casino Baden-Baden

Baden-Baden, Germany was once known as the summer residence of Europe, in large part because this very casino was only open during the summer months, and would attract visitors from around the continent. It’s almost a little bit like Casino de Monte-Carlo in its old-world charms and extravagance, though it’s slightly more understated from the outside. If you’re interested in the history of casinos, it should most certainly make your bucket list.

Venetian Macau

Truthfully you could just about take your pick of casinos in Macau, because as mentioned regarding Casino de Montréal, Macau has joined Las Vegas as the world’s other true casino Mecca. There are several extravagant resorts in the area, many of them sister venues to Las Vegas establishments. But the Venetian Macau is probably the most incredible of them – an absolutely sprawling casino complex that, like the Venetian in Vegas, imitates the city of Venice.

Atlantis Paradise Island

Some find Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas to be a little bit too gimmicky, but there’s something to be said for a casino that doubles as a fun filled resort. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, such that in addition to having all the gaming options you could possibly hope for, it prides itself on a massive beachside waterpark. Sure it’s very clearly a tourist trap, but Atlantis is also pure fun, and it’s arguably the most impressive casino you can find on a tropical island.

A Postcard from Phnom Penh

It had to be the AK-47.   Sure, the M16 looked kinda slick, and who hasn’t thought about firing off an old fashioned Tommy gun?   But the AK-47 is the weapon of the revolutionary, the tool of liberation, bloodshed, freedom, and all the misery that comes with it.     Plus, it only cost 100AED to fire off a magazine, whereas a rocket launcher would have set me back 800AED!    I put on the camouflage jacket and followed a young guy into a dark, narrow room.   A target was stapled about 30 feet away.    I put on my tight orange ear guards, took a seat at a table, too busy feeling the cold weapon in my hands to listen to the advice on how to shoot the damn thing.  Loaded, cocked, point, aim and fire.   The shooting range, located outside Phnom Penh, had a menu with pump action shot guns, hand grenades, RPG’s, Coca-Cola and Fanta (sorry, no pictures allowed).    Ten minutes away was the site of one of the worst massacres in modern history.   Cambodia, it appears, is heavy on the contrasts.

Torn between the forces of communist Vietnam and US-backed Thailand, Cambodia’s modern history is literally a minefield.      At the heart of one the worst genocides in history lay Pol Pot, a ruthless dictator who built an army of brainwashed kids committed to returning the country to the Stone Age.   Genocide, famine, civil war – Cambodia in the 1970’s became synonymous with everything wrong with humanity.   Scarred by the past, it has come a long way.

Riding on the back of a “moto taxi”, I saw children playing on the dusty streets of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Smiling and waving, the motorbike zipped past shacks located next to brand new furniture stores, alongside street vendors selling fruit and vegetables late into the night.   My guesthouse was located along the Beong Kak Lake, its deck built onto the lake itself, complete with hammocks, pool table, DVD library, music, and fresh cooked, excellent food.   I paid less than $10 a night, but the sunsets over the lake were priceless.

There are not many must-dos for the traveller in Phnom Penh.   Its main temple, with its famous Silver Pagoda, is beautiful, but most visitors come through Bangkok, and having seen the Thai capital’s magnificent Grand Palace, the Silver Pagoda feels like a lesser, if still stunning imitation. Guesthouses and tour operators sell packages consisting of one full day with a guide and a tuk-tuk that includes a popular if somewhat distasteful shooting range, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, and two of the most disturbing attractions for a traveller anywhere; the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng.

Ruling for four, bloody years, the Khmer Rouge outlawed money and religion, closed schools, disrobed monks, destroyed temples, took over all farms and businesses, and created an army of brainwashed children.  Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated and became a ghost town, while refugees flooded to the borders.  Intellectuals, politicians, teachers, students, doctors and professionals were rounded up and butchered.   Reliving the horrors of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields is not easy. Most of my group was reduced to tears, staring at row after row of skulls, innocent victims who had been bludgeoned to death with bamboo sticks to save bullets.   Whereas the Nazis had managed to destroy much of their evidence before the allies liberated the camps, the Khmer Rouge were caught off-guard by a liberating Vietnamese army.   The thousands of mugshots of young, innocent victims are on display at Tuol Sleng, a high school that was converted into a hell for 20,000 people. Only seven people walked out alive.

It estimated that two million people lost their lives in the four years of Pol Pot. After the horrors of the World War II, the world promised it would never happen again, and yet it did.   I was staring at a cabinet piled with 8000 bludgeoned skulls to prove it.    That it took place just three decades ago meant anyone over forty in Cambodia today was either a victim, or a perpetrator, and so it was surprising to find how friendly Cambodians were.   Locals are warm and generous to a steadily increasing flow of tourists, and despite legendary corruption, there is much hope for Cambodia’s future.   Phnom Penh might be considered by many to be a poorer version of Bangkok, but the legacy of its tragic history, coupled with its beauty and bizarre activities, will fascinate those looking to learn from the world in which they travel.

Wined and Dined in the Douro

Portugal’s Douro Valley offers discerning bucket listers more than just fine wines. Explore ancient vineyards on misty terraces, stroll through historic towns, dine like royalty and stay in hotels ranging from modern fortresses to 17th century villas. I’ve long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France or Spain. Portuguese wines offer great value, and so is the country itself. Below are some images from my visit to tick this one off The Great Global Bucket List:

View from the town
of Amarante.
And yes, the place does look EXACTLY like a postcard.
The manicured garden at the stunning and historic Hotel Casa da Insua. The swans came to say hello.
Autumn Grapes: The leaves change colour with the season, but the grapes stay ripe and juicy.
Walking amongst the organic grapes at Solar de Merufe
98 Points! 16 glasses in one wine tasting sitting at Paço dos Cunhas de Santar
Cobblestone glory:
A cold fall night through the narrow streets on the way to Paço dos Cunhas de Santa.
Billionaire Playboy Ken Hegan approaches the light under a canopy of vines.
Terraces in the Doura Valley. Because of their design and age, all the grapes in the region are hand picked.
Two hours off the red-eye from Toronto to Lisbon, lunch is served in the dining room at Quinta de Azevedo in the Vinho Verde region.
Soft sheep cheese, fresh fruit, great wine, and get a load of the weird faces in the vase here at Quinta da Fata
Quinta do Noval makes some of the finest port money can buy. And like many other producers in the region, all their grapes are crushed by foot in rooms much like this.
I spent Halloween night with the old world elegance of Hotel Casa da Insua, complete with its spooky old chapel.
I can not get the Six Senses Douro Valley out of my head. A stylish modern wing is attached to a more traditional hotel overlooking the Douro. I remember concrete and low lit decor, fantastic artwork, stylish rooms, a magical fountain indoor pool and subtle fragrance seeping from the tunnel like hallways. It’s been called one of the best hotels in the world, and certainly left that impression on me.

Click here for more information on visiting Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Bucket List Journeys for the Soul

It has been said that the first tourists in the world were pilgrims, religious folk making their way through exotic deserts and across foreign shores on a holy journey. They didn’t have digital cameras or blogs, but their journeys were as much about the soul as about discovering new cultures, cuisines and adventure. Today, there are just as many spiritual destinations for us to discover, whatever faith we choose to follow.

Buddhist Temple, South Korea.

Buddhism

Buddhism is a path, a way of life that tunes its followers towards the road to nirvana. Lets start by heading over to South Korea for an authentic Temple Stay in a Buddhist monastery, developed to introduce foreigners to the concepts of Zen Buddhism. Here you’ll don grey robes, eat strictly vegetarian meals, learn about meditation and the worthiness of chores in a relaxed, tranquil environment. Thailand (and many other countries) offers 10-day Buddhist meditation retreats, where silence and reflection is revered. Tibetan Buddhism has its centre nowadays in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Here you can take Buddhist classes (in various languages), and meditate in the crowded presence of the Dalai Lama. Incredible temples devoted to the Buddha abound throughout Southeast Asia, and consider climbing the magnificent Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where legend states you can find the footprint of the Buddha himself.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Christianity

Biblical Tourism is booming in North America, as Christians of various denominations book tours to discover Biblical sites in Israel and beyond. For an alternative, consider the11th century rock churches of Ethiopia’s Lalibela, built to mirror Jerusalem. Israel is ground zero for Biblical tourism, as busloads of foreigners visit sites like Bethlehem, the Red Sea, and the Sea of Galilee. Amongst old ruins and beautiful landmarks, you can hear the echoes of Jesus and his followers. Turkey, known as the “other holy land”, is rich with Biblical history, especially in the east. Here you can find villages like Harran, mentioned in the Bible, regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. Christians also make annual pilgrimages to the resting places or shrines of saints, such as the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa, India, the Marian centres of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or churches like Lourdes in France.

Jama Masjid, India

Islam

Foreigners are denied entry into Mecca, site of the holy pilgrimage, or hajj, mentioned as one of the cornerstones of Islamic faith. Muslims undertaking the journey describe it as unforgettable and transcendent, and millions undertake the hajj each year. Following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed has always drawn followers of the faith, through countries like Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Travellers of any faith are overwhelmed by the majesty and grandeur of the great mosques in Istanbul – the 16th century Blue Mosque, the Suleyman Mosque, and the basis of them all, the 6th century Hagia Sofia (originally a church of Eastern Orthodoxy). Ancient mosques, holy sites and pilgrimages can also be found throughout Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. Jerusalem, a holy city to all three monotheistic faiths, has many important destinations for Muslims, such the magnificent Dome of the Rock.

Kataragama Festival, Sri Lanka

Hinduism

Hindu festivals, as befits the religion itself, are renowned to be colourful, vibrant, and thrillingly jovial. A blend of worship, celebration, spectacle and processions, festivals like Diwali, Esala or Durga have been delighting travellers and Hindus alike for millennia. Along the banks of the holy Ganges in India, ashrams sound bells in Rishikesh to signal the puja, a ceremony of worship, bursting with dancing and music. In Sri Lanka, I bore witness to a stunning spectacle at the annual Esala festival in Kataragama, where men demonstrated their faith by dragging loads behind them with hooks in their back, or piercing parts of the body in vows of devotion. Today, many westerners depart on yoga retreats throughout India, a chance to grow both mind and body. Ashrams, under the guidance of gurus and masters, are full of foreigners seeking answers to the burning questions of life.

Jerusalem, Israel

Judaism

Jews around the world are emotionally tied to the Holy Land of Israel, their spiritual and political home. The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, all that remains of the grand Temple from Biblical times, sweeps most visitors away with the raw emotion on display. Walking the city streets of Haifa, Tiberius or Jerusalem reconnects modern Jews to their ancient legacy. Climbing Masada in the desert symbolizes the eternal struggle and courage of Jewish ancestors. In eastern Turkey, visitors to Sanilurfa can visit Biblical sites like the cave where Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic religions, was born. In Prague, the Old New Synagogue dates back to the 11th century, and Jewish visitors to the mostly decimated Jewish Quarters of post World War Europe – Krakow, Budapest, Vilnius and others – are both fascinated, and horrified, by the not-too distant past.

Confucianism, Bahai, Jainism, Zoroastrianism – whatever your faith, visiting historical roots, festivals and holy centres offers incredible rewards for the modern traveller. And for all the unfortunate tragedies of history demonstrating otherwise, it will always be worth noting that every prophet, teacher and religious path urges us to treat one another as we would treat ourselves.

8 Ancient Cities to Visit Today

Sanilurfa
Sanilurfa

Urfa, Turkey

Once known as Sanilurfa, this city in eastern Turkey is steeped in history. From a patio restaurant, gaze upon the Citadel, a complex that makes mincemeat out of European historical centres. From one vantage point, you can see a 13-century mosque, a 6th-century church, a 2nd-century ruin, a 1st-century castle wall, and the cave where Abraham, founder of all three monotheistic religions, is said to be born. It’s still possible to enter the cave, where you can reverently drink from the fountain that inspired his legendary longevity. Thousands of years of history, crammed into the city’s natural amphitheater.

Xian
Xian

Xi’an, China

For millennia, Xi’an was the seat of China’s powerful ruling dynasties. Today, the bustling city of over 8 million people is a launch pad for tourists to see the Terracotta Warriors, but the city has its plenty to see. A 13km long fortress wall dating back to the 14th century rings the old city. Hire a bike or take a stroll to the various exhibits along the way, brought to life by historical re-enactors. It is a world away from the chaos and traffic of Beijing and Shanghai.

Dwarka
Dwarka

Dwarka, India

Located in the state of Gujarat, Dwarka is one of the seven most ancient cities in India. It is one of the holiest places in Hinduism, as it all that remains of the dwelling place of Lord Krishna. The city is home to famous shrines and temples, including the 5-storied, 16th-century Jagatmandir temple. Most sites can be visited in a day, including Bet Dwarka, where Krishna was said to live.

Rome
Rome

Rome, Italy

There was a time when all roads led to Rome. The mighty Roman Empire, stretching across Europe, Asia and North Africa, was the centre of power, art, fashion, science and commerce. Modern Rome still courts such a description, albeit for the smaller nation of Italy. On the other hand, there’s ancient history wherever you look. Besides the Coliseum, there’s the Trevi Fountain (throw a coin over your shoulder for luck), Piazza Navona, and of course, the Vatican. It’s not hard to imagine togas, centurions, and chariots, although in the heat of high-season summer, you’ll be just as happy to imagine an ice cream and air conditioning!

Jerusalem
Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel

It’s hard to believe that modern Jerusalem is the Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, a holy place for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. So much history has passed through the city it can be intoxicating (sometimes literally, as in the case of the Messiah Complex). Old Town Jerusalem, circled by ancient walls and thick gates, is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, markets, sounds and smells. Jews gather at the Western Wall and Tomb of King David, Muslims at the Dome of the Rock, Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Byzantium Church on the hill where Jesus was said to have been crucified. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s a powerful display of emotions, in a city that has captured our imaginations for millennia.

Rhodes
Rhodes

Rhodes, Greece

A Greek island in the Aegean Sea, Rhodes has been inhabited since 4000BC, but its major claim to fame is when the Romans developed the city into a leading centre of art and science over 2000 years ago. To celebrate a victory over the Cypriots, they also constructed the tallest statue of its time, the Colossus of Rhodes, which stood over 30m tall and was one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It stood for less than 60 years before an earthquake destroyed it, but you can still visit Rhodes today (population 80,000), and stroll amongst the Citadel, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Visit old medieval castles, and take in stunning island views.

Kandy
Kandy

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s second largest city was the seat of kings for around four centuries, up until the early 19th century, when the last ruling dynasty recognized the British as conquerors. It is particularly scenic, located on plateau between hills of tea plantations and tropical jungle, and a vital Buddhist centre. Every August, it holds the country’s most celebrated festival, Perahera, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch parades and make pilgrimages to the beautiful Temple of the Tooth, which contains a tooth of Buddha. With its historical and religious significance, Kandy is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stone Town
Stone Town

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Although the capital of Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, was only settled 1000 years ago, walking the streets of Stone Town gives the distinct impression that its history stretches back further. With Moorish, Indian, and African influences, narrow alleys snake between blackened stone houses, leading to bustling street markets. Facing the ocean is the grand House of Wonders, built by the Sultanate of Oman, which ruled Zanzibar for centuries as the centre of its spice and slave trade. Watch dhows sail at sunset, visit a spice farm, or taste the delights at the open-air markets.

4 Asian Buildings on the Global Bucket List

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The Petronas Towers, Malaysia
A Symbol of the Future

In the 1990’s, Malaysia roared as one for the loudest of the Asian tiger economies. To reflect this, the Petronas Towers were built in downtown Kuala Lumpur – 88-storey twins that towered over the capital’s skyline. Although an economic downturn soon impacted its allure and occupancy, these former tallest buildings in the world remain an incredible sight to behold. With their metallic shells and dramatic spires, the towers seem futuristic and otherworldly. No matter what angle you view them from within the city, it feels like you’ve just stepped into a scene from Blade Runner.

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The Taj Mahal, India
A Symbol of Love

Completed in 1653, there is no greater architectural rose than the Taj Mahal. The beloved favourite wife of a Mughal emperor died at childbirth, and such was his grief that he commissioned 20,000 craftsmen to construct this timeless mausoleum, a feat accomplished in 22 years. My fellow travellers in India were debating whether a visit to the country would be complete without seeing it, so I decided to visit Agra on my last day and see for myself. The 18-hour odyssey it took me to get there and back, battling rip-offs and crowds, was intense, but the beauty of seeing the Taj glow in the sunset was unforgettable. In the end, the heartache and the beauty of my visit came to symbolize my month in India, and the Taj Mahal itself.

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Taipei 101, Taiwan
A Symbol of Power

Only 23 countries recognize the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, as an independent country. Taipei 101, with its 101 floors, stands proudly as a symbol of the “other China”, with a booming economy and steadfast democracy. Inspired by the flexibility of bamboo, the building sits in the skyline like a large tack in a corkboard. It is covered in symbols, from massive coins on the exterior for good fortune, to stylized dragon gargoyles for protection. Taipei 101 also has the world’s fastest elevators (60km an hour, you reach the 85th-floor observation deck in just 37 seconds), and four massive damper balls to stabilize the building from strong winds and earthquakes.

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The Burj El Arab, Dubai
A Symbol of Wealth

Much has been written about the explosion of Dubai as a boomtown, and without doubt its symbol is the Burj El Arab. Billed as “the world’s only 7-star hotel”, it’s actually a five star hotel that was conceptualized to become a showpiece for the Emirate, much as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Statue of Liberty to New York. Towering on reclaimed land, it is the world’s tallest hotel, and incredibly expensive too – rooms can set you back up to $10,000 a night. The Burj El Arab is also an engineering marvel, although with the construction boom in Dubai, one wonders if it will hold its mystique for much longer. Another Burj, still under construction in Dubai, is already the world’s new tallest building.

The World’s 11 Greatest Explorers

Several years ago I had the honour of being the Master of Ceremonies at the Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner in New York.  The Club, which is over a century old, has counted amongst its members adventurers like Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, Jane Goodall, and Theodore Roosevelt. After hobnobbing with astronauts and pre-eminent world adventurers, I felt compelled to learn about the eleven greatest explorers of all: 
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Marco Polo
A great explorer named Roald Amundsen once said: “adventure is just bad planning.”   In the days of Marco Polo, a 13th century teenager journeying into the unknown with his father and uncle, an adventure was all but guaranteed.  Polo returned to his native Venice 24 years after he set out, having travelled further into Asia than any European before him.  Polo’s stories inspired people with tales of exotic lands, strange civilizations, and curiosities like paper money, eyeglasses and spaghetti.  Although it is odd that he never wrote about The Great Wall of China, or tea, his writings inspired the imaginations of countless explorers to come, including Christopher Columbus.

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Magellan
Portugal gave the world many of its great explorers, such as Magellan, the first navigator to cross the Pacific, and lead an expedition that ultimately circumnavigated the globe. The Age of Discovery was not for the faint-hearted.  Some 232 sailors died on Magellan’s expedition, including Magellan himself, who was hacked to pieces by a tribe in the Philippines.  Although Portuguese, Magellan was funded by rival Spain in his quest to open new spice routes.  The expedition discovered the need for an international date line, and reported of unknown creatures like the penguin and llama.  While the great voyage did not reap the material benefits Spain had wished, it did establish the true scale of the planet.

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Captain Cook
During three great voyages in the late 18th century, Cook became the great discoverer of the Pacific Islands and beyond.  On his first voyage, his crew mapped New Zealand and became the first Europeans to see Australia’s east coast.  Surviving the rigors of sea and the malaria that claimed many of his crew, Cook returned home before embarking on his second voyage, crossing the Antarctic Circle, returning to New Zealand before discovering the islands of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, along with Easter and Norfolk Island.  Here is a man who clearly was immune to seasickness.  His final journey brought him to North America, where he sailed along the Alaska and the coast of what is now British Columbia.  Cook was the first European to discover Hawaii, and it here where he met his fate at the hands of hostile natives.  Considering the length of his adventure and the scale of his journey, it is remarkable that Cook survived as long as he did.   The Cook Islands, which he discovered in 1773 as the Hervey Islands, was renamed in his honour in the 1800’s.

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Richard Francis Burton
Before Richard Burton the actor, there was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great British explorer.  Here is a man who could communicate in 29 European, Asian and African languages, who brought the Karma Sutra to the scandalized Victorian era, and who got circumcised during his successful plan to experience the Hajj to Mecca.  During his African adventures, Somali warlords impaled his face with a spear, leaving an intimidating scar. He searched the source of the Nile, discovered Lake Victoria, and survived the politics and spats of the conservative Royal Geographical Society.  Devoted to eastern religions and breaking sexual taboos, many of his journals were ironically burned by his wife after his death, perhaps scandalized by what she had read.

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Nelly Bly 
The domain of great explorers is not limited to men.  Think of Amelia Earhart, or Junko Tabei who became the first woman to climb Everest and all seven summits.  Gertrude Bell, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, and young Laura Dekker, who sailed the world solo at the tender age of 15.  In 1890, 26 year-old American journalist Nelly Bly set the world record for the fastest trip around the world.  Inspired by Jules Verne, she completed the journey from England, through Europe, Asia and onwards to North America in 72 days, travelling primarily by rail and steamboat.  Spare a thought for Canada’s own Aloha Wonderwell, once marvelled in the media as “the world’s most travelled girl.”   Her remarkable life, which includes being the first women to drive across India as well as Cape Town to the Nile, reads like a big budget Hollywood movie just waiting to happen.

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Vasco da Gama

We return to the Great Age of Discovery where Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed from Europe to Africa, before pointing his ships east into unchartered territories.   The surviving crew had already sailed 6000 miles of open ocean, more than anyone before them.  Now they made their way up the East Coast of Africa, encountering hostile sultans before crossing the Indian Ocean to land in India just 23 days later.  After a less than favourable welcome, unfavourable winds resulted in it taking 132 days for the return crossing, by which time half the crew were dead.  Although da Gama eventually returned to a hero’s welcome in Portugal, his subsequent actions were far from heroic.  Returning to India several years later, he became known for his brutality, massacring innocents along the way, mutilating prisoners, and failing to secure peaceful trade with the Indian sub-continent.

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Ibn Battuta
Why is it that kids play the tag game “Marco Polo” and not Ibn Battuta?   Here was a near contemporary who travelled more than 73,000 miles in an age of sailboats and mules, who explored most of the known Islamic world including North and West Africa, South and Eastern Europe, South, Central and Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East and China.  It took him 30 years to visit today’s equivalent of 44 countries, aided by large caravans of unfortunate slaves for trading along the way.    Ibn Battuta’s adventures were recounted from memory in a great tome called the Rihla, but scholars have since questioned some of his claims.  The book lay in obscurity before it was rediscovered and translated in the 19th century, firmly establishing Ibn Battuta as one of history’s greatest travellers.

 Wanderwell

Aloha Wanderwell
Someone call Angelina Jolie.  You’ve probably never heard of a young Canadian lass named Idris Hall, aka Aloha Wanderwell.  Still a teenager, she hopped into a Model T Ford and drove through 75 countries in the 1920’s.  They called her “The World’s Most Travelled Girl.”   An early filmmaker, Aloha captured her husband and two kids as they explored the world.  Did she have adventures?  Stranded in Brazil, she lived with and documented the Bororo people.  Trying to find fuel (never mind roads) in the 1920’s, she used crushed bananas and animal fat for fuel.   Her husband was mysteriously murdered.  Apparently, she cut her hair and fought for the French Foreign Legion. She flew a seaplane.  In Indochina, she had to shoot her way out of a gauntlet of angry elephants.  She died in obscurity, and you’ve probably never heard of her. Even with a name like Aloha Wanderwell.

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Sir Ranulph Fiennes
You’ll notice that everyone on this list is no doubt enjoying the great discovery of the afterlife.  All except Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who owns the moniker of being “the world’s greatest living explorer.”  Amongst his most notable accomplishments, Fiennes was first to reach both poles, cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean, hovercraft the Nile, cross the Antarctic unsupported, discover a lost city in Yemen, circumnavigate the world on its polar axis,  and run 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents – less than 4 months after a massive heart attack.  Clearly, the old boys would be proud that today’s stock are as hard core as ever, and what’s more, Fiennes has raised millions of dollars to fight cancer.   No slaves, no mutilations, just physical prowess and a true spirit of adventure.

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Jacque Cousteau
For all the great explorers who have explored our world on the ground and above the seas, one man stands out for his remarkable work underwater.  70% of the planet is covered in water, and Jacque Cousteau’s work to enable underwater exploration, conservation, and photography (so us landforms can see what before we could not) makes him an icon in the world of discovery.  Cousteau’s efforts resulted in modern breathing apparatus like the Aqua-Lung, while he was the first man to brave the ocean, and freshwater deeps.   Another great underwater explorer deserves mention here as well.  Dr Sylvia Earle has proved underwater is far from a man’s world:  The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence has led over 70 expeditions, broke numerous depth records, and logged lover 6500 hours underwater.

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Travel Writers
We know about many of these explorers because of the writings that have accompanied them through the ages.  Travel writers have not only experienced wild adventures, they’ve communicated them in a way that brings us all along for the ride.  Among the greats: Ryszard Kapuscinski, V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Mark Twain,  Ernest Hemingway, Eric Newby, Pico Iyer, and a few of my personal favourites, Bill Bryson, Robert D Kaplan and Jon Krakauer.   These and thousands of others have journeyed to last outposts, deep jungle and wild frontiers to bring us words and images of a brave new world.With a nod to Shackleton, Columbus, Scott, Lewis & Clarke, Fawcett, Hillary, Astronauts, Cosmonauts, and all those brave men and women who continue to push the boundaries of experience.  Hey look, apparently I’m among some of them too!