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15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

7 Fun Facts About the Milan Cathedral

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

Somehow the Milan Duomo was even more beautiful in the rain

If there’s one thing you absolutely have to include on a trip to Milan, Italy, it’s the massive Milan Cathedral. (Unless, of course, your tastes lean a bit more to the macabre, in which case, I recommend spending an afternoon wandering the impressive artistic grounds of the Cimitero Monumentale — see the photos here.)

Locally, the cathedral is known as the Duomo, which confused me since there’s no visible dome like the one in Florence. Its white exterior features delicate carvings so fine you could almost imagine they were made of lace. Despite its size, it feels a bit dainty — odd for a church in the Gothic style.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven: the rooftop, where you can look out at the bustling city beyond.

Holy moley! Here are 7 stunning facts about this breathtaking cathedral:

Delicate spires topped with religious figures are part of the elaborately decorated Duomo

1. The Duomo is big. Like really, really big.

In fact, it’s the second-largest Catholic church in the world, behind only Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome — which was built after the Duomo. Milan’s cathedral takes up an entire city block.

A carving of David slaying the giant Goliath. Somebody send that boy to juvie!

2. It boasts more statues than any other building in the world.

That’s what the tourist literature tells you, at least. And it’s hard to argue: The entirety of the façade is covered with carved architectural elements portraying flowers, fruits and fantastical beasts, including delightfully grotesque gargoyles. There are plenty of saints sprinkled throughout as well. Sources disagree on the exact number, but it seems to be over 3,300 statues total, including about 100 gargoyles and 135 spires.

Milan’s most popular attraction, the cathedral, took over six hundred years to be built

How can this Christian take a nap with all those wolves baying?

The best part of the Milan Cathedral is its expansive rooftop

3. It has the best views in the city.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven. You can go up to the rooftop (accessible by stairs and an elevator) and look out at the bustling city beyond, as well as get closer views of the needle-like spires, each topped with a religious figure.

The terraza atop the Milan Duomo is a popular (and absolutely stunning) hangout spot

There’s one main area of the roof, the terraza, and, indeed, I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to go up there. Businessmen in suits, young kids playing games and canoodling couples filled the space. Imagine having a rooftop like this as one of your regular lunch spots.

Wally wandered around to the back of the roof and found a quiet spot to read in the sun

I noticed a side walkway and set off on an exploration. The path wound its way around the roof, underneath the arches of flying buttresses. The crowd thinned out, until it was just me and the odd visitor. I found a secluded nook, got out my book and read for an hour or so in the sun, atop one of the largest churches in the world, utterly delighted.

4. One of the statues has gained fame and is part of a local legend.

The symbol of the city and patroness of the Milanese people, the gilded Madonnina (the Little Madonna), stands atop the main spire of the cathedral. The tallest of all of the many statues on the cathedral, the open-armed Madonna rises 354 feet high. Built in 1774, tradition holds that it must be the tallest man-made object in Milan. So, when a modern building surpassed this height, a replica of la Madonnina was placed atop it.

During World War II, the Madonnina was covered with a cloth for five years to avoid providing an easy target for fighter-bombers.

The Duomo is gorgeous at night as well

5. The construction of the Duomo took over six centuries.

Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo, supported in the endeavor by the Lord of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, began building the cathedral in 1386. At least 78 different architects from around Europe were invited to work on the structure, and construction dragged on. By 1418, they had decided it was time to consecrate the cathedral, even though only the nave was actually finished at the time.

For the next two centuries, construction continued, but politics, lack of funding and local frustration with a massive, seemingly endless project smack-dab in the middle of the city kept causing delays.

Napoleon helped finally wrap up construction of the Duomo’s façade — so he could be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral

6. Napoleon played an important role in the Duomo’s construction.

How did the façade finally get finished? This was accomplished by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, in the early 1800s, after he had conquered the city. He wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the Duomo and wanted the exterior completed beforehand. A generous (if vain) guy, he offered to pay all expenses — after a talk with the French treasurer. Seven years later, the façade was completed, and the ceremony took place as the diminutive leader wanted. This explains why there’s a statue of Napoleon atop one of the many spires.

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

7. The Duomo’s construction is responsible for the navigli, the city’s canal system.

The cathedral’s edifice is made of Candoglia marble from Lake Maggiore to the north of Milan. To transport it from the quarries, canals were constructed, some of which remain to this day. In fact, the Navigli District is quite a hotspot, known for its restaurants and art galleries. –Wally
 

The Strange History of Valentine’s Day

From Lupercalia, where young men whipped eager women in the streets of ancient Rome, to St. Valentine’s secret weddings.

Valentine's Day wasn't always about cupids and hearts — or even love

Valentine’s Day is much more than just conversation hearts, boxes of chocolates, flowers and cards. There are some downright outlandish origins to this holiday.

After the flagellation ceremony, men would draw women’s names from an urn — and that would be their sexual partner for the year

Valentine’s Day dates back to a couple of Roman festivals.

The Romans celebrated two ritual festivals that formed the foundation for the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day. Februalia was a purification rite, which occurred on February 14 and gave the month of February its name. It was later combined with Lupercalia, which took place on February 15.

Valentine’s Day as we know it began with an unusual Roman fertility rite

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of slain animals cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

This someecard points out just how strange Lupercalia was

Lupercalia involved some bizarre practices, including beating women with animal pelts.

For this affair, young Roman men would congregate in the Lupercal, the sacred cave in the mountains where Romulus and Remus, the twins who suckled the she-wolf Lupa, were supposedly reared. Romulus would later found Rome and sacrifice Remus, but that’s another story.

The Luperci, the Brotherhood of the Wolf, would sacrifice a dog for purity and a goat for fertility.

Ancient Romans believed being whipped by blood-soaked animal skins would help you get knocked up

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of the slain animals that had been cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

 

Saint Valentine has become the patron saint of love

Valentine was also the patron saint of epileptics

Saint Valentine performed secret marriages when the institution was outlawed.

In this painting by David Teniers III, Valentine receives a rosary from the Virgin Mary

During the 3rd century CE, Roman Emperor Claudius II, wanting to increase the size and strength of his military empire, saw marriage as an obstacle. He believed that men were unwilling to fight due to their strong attachment to their wives and families. In an effort to circumvent this, he forbade all future marriages and engagements.

Whether Valentine was a bishop or priest has been lost to history, but he began performing clandestine ceremonies. He was soon discovered and imprisoned for his betrayal.

His legend is associated with having sent a note to his jailer’s daughter on the eve of his execution, signed, “From Your Valentine.” No historical evidence exists to back the authenticity of this myth, though.

Valentine was beheaded, died a martyr and in death was elevated to the patron saint of love.

The skull of Saint Valentine resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy

Pope Gelasius I used an ingenious sleight of hand, merging the pagan Lupercalia with the feast of Saint Valentine into a single holiday celebrated on February 14.

 

The Cadbury boys found a way to extract a delicious byproduct of cocoa — what we know know and love as chocolate

Cadbury created the first chocolate candies — and the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.

One of the first heart-shaped box of chocolates

In 1882, John Cadbury, an English proprietor and founder of the Cadbury candy empire, opened a tea and coffee shop in Bournville, Birmingham, England. His shop also sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared using a mortar and pestle. This was a luxury item even among the upper class. The resulting beverage was coarse and grainy but popular.

A vintage ad for Cadbury chocolate

Cadbury’s sons Richard and George visited the Van Houten factory in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which specialized in the manufacture of cocoa powder. The brothers integrated this method into their manufacturing facility. The process allowed them to extract pure cocoa butter from pressing cocoa beans and adding sugar, reducing its bitter taste. Cadbury used this byproduct to produce several varieties of “eating chocolates.”

The retail division of the business was passed on to Richard in 1861, who recognized a great marketing opportunity and revolutionized sales by packaging Cadbury chocolates in the world’s first heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day. The box could be kept and used to store mementos after the chocolates had been eaten.

 

Victorians began the tradition of sending valentines — some of which were downright cruel.

Do you remember making a mailbox to hold your cards and exchanging valentines with your classmates in elementary school, or perhaps receiving a pink or red carnation in high school? I did accrue a fair amount of cards through my formative years, though I do remember wishing I would get a carnation from a secret admirer.

Valentines pre-date Hallmark and were the preferred token to celebrate romantic love by the prudish 19th century Victorians in England. The first mass-market cards were introduced then, and the penny post made it possible to send them easily and inexpensively.

Plus, you could send notes anonymously, something the Victorians prized. This allowed them not only to exchange serious or humorous cards but downright mean-spirited ones as well, aptly called vinegar valentines.

“Senders would use the anonymity of the card to comment on the inappropriate behavior of a couple or the distasteful political views of a feminist friend,” Slate writes. “Women seemed to be the targets of many of the surviving examples, but balding men, pretentious artists and poets, and smelly fat guys made appearances as well.”

So the next time you send a valentine to a loved one, think about how whipped women, a beheaded saint and mean, anonymous cards are all part of this holiday. –Duke

The Whimsical, Feminist Street Art of Sara Fratini

Under the adorable mural by Sara Fratini, Duke and Wally enjoy coffee in the courtyard café of La Casa Invisible in Málaga, Spain

A Q&A with the artist who created the mural at La Casa Invisible in Málaga that kept making us smile.

 

When our friend Jo took Wally and I to the courtyard café of the La Casa Invisible cultural center, we knew it was a magical place from the moment our eyes fell upon the whimsical mural by the Venezuelan artist Sara Fratini.

Sara was invited to create the mural thanks to a project organized by La Guarimba International Film Festival in collaboration with Amnesty International and the University of Málaga.

I started drawing the curvy, rosy-cheeked girl when I realized that I wasn’t happy with the way society treated women. She is radiant, happy and doesn’t care about what society expects from her.
— Sara Fratini

I was so taken with Sara’s playful style, I decided to look her up online and email her some questions. Here are her responses. –Duke

 

What’s your connection to Madrid?

I lived in Madrid for six years and studied fine arts there. Currently, I live in the town of Amantea located in the Calabria region of southern Italy, where I’m one of the organizers of La Garimba International Film Festival, but Madrid will always be in my heart.

 

In what other cities have you done murals?

I have done murals in Madrid, Málaga, Amantea and San Vito dei Normanni, Italy.

 

Who are your favorite artists?

I like a lot of different artists. At the moment. I’m obsessed with Rubens. And after seeing the exhibition of Bosch at the Prado Museum, I’m equally obsessed with him. I already admired his work, but after seeing his paintings, I feel that I could spend hours looking and discovering new characters and demons.

I also love Ludwig Kirchner and a lot of German expressionists.

 

Many of your pieces feature a rosy-cheeked girl. Is she modeled after anyone?

No. I started drawing the curvy, rosy-cheeked girl when I realized that I wasn’t happy with the way society treated women. So she is my response to societal pressures. She is radiant, happy and doesn’t care about what society expects from her.

 

What’s the most interesting story you’ve had creating a mural?

I recently created a mural in the Asylum Seeker Center in the town where I live. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I drew on two big walls, and some of the refugees helped me. The mural was part of a project organized by La Guarimba called Cinema Ambulante.

We currently have more than 80 refugees living in a camp, and our goal is to help them integrate into the local community.

 

What’s your creation process?

I usually wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and put myself to work. I take a look at my notebook and begin working on a specific idea.

 

What inspires you?

Everything. What happens to me during the day, what I think or feel and, of course, music.

 

Monumental Cemetery, Milan: A Sculpture Slideshow

One of my favorite things to do in Milan, Italy was wander through this graveyard and its statues that rival Père Lachaise in Paris.

I love cemeteries. They're some of my favorite places to spend a quiet afternoon. And this particular cemetery was like being in a sculpture park. 

It was my last day in Milan, Italy, and I came upon the Monumental Cemetery by accident.

If you’re someone who thinks cemeteries are depressing, think again.

As I was crossing a street, I saw the collonaded archway entrance at the end of the block. I didn't know what it was. But I was irresistably drawn to it. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered it was one of the most impressive cemeteries I had ever seen. 

I wandered the lanes for a couple of hours, marveling at the sculptures, snapping away at with my camera. 

Here are 30-some of my favorite pictures. (As you can tell, I had a hard time narrowing these down. They're all just so amazing.)

 

Drop Dead Gorgeous

The cemetery, known locally as the Cimitero Monumentale, was constructed from 1863 to 1866.

Someone decided to consolidate all the small graveyards that were spread throughout the city of Milan into two large cemeteries. The "common" people got the Cimitero Maggiore, while the rich got the Monumental Cemetery, which, when it comes down to it, it actually a beautiful outdoor museum. 

Spread over 62 acres, the cemetery has three distinct sections: one for Catholics, one for non-Catholic Christians and one for Jews.

Fun fact: One of the mausoleums has an elaborate sculpture depicting the Last Supper. This is the final resting place of the Campari family, who brought us those potent red bitters of the same name.

If you're someone who thinks cemeteries are depressing, think again. The Monumental Cemetery in Milan is just the place to have a change of heart. It's, well, heavenly. –Wally

 

Top 6 Wellness Tourism Trips

Hiking and biking the Dolomites along the Italian and Austrian border

Hiking and biking the Dolomites along the Italian and Austrian border

Yoga on the Mexican beach, hikes to Machu Picchu, Pilates in Morocco — the best health tourism adventures.

 

You know the type. Their Facebook page is full of beautiful photos of fabulous trips. You’re simultaneously insanely jealous and giddy with excitement at the opportunity to live vicariously through your friend’s adventures.

Well, that’s Nancy.

I leave with a feeling of renewal and that I can take on all of my biggest dreams.

As I battled my jealousy of and happiness for her, I noticed a trend among Nancy’s trips: They all had some sort of wellness angle. She’d be doing yoga on a beach in Mexico or hiking across Europe or doing Pilates in Morocco.

I decided to get her take on wellness travel. Here are her top trips and advice. Namaste. –Wally

 

What draws you to wellness travel?

I cannot just sit on a beach. I always feel like I need to “earn the day.”

I love combining culture, physical activity, regional food and wine, like-minded people, spirituality and mindfulness into one trip. 

 

What trends have you seen in wellness travel lately?

Adding volunteerism to the experience. For example, in Marrakech, Morocco, we delivered school supplies to a local school and spent some time in the classroom. 

 

Most surprising thing you’ve discovered on a trip?

In Tulum, Mexico, I got a massage from a Mayan healer. These healers can pick up on energy in your body. He told me that the sciatic nerve area can represent “stalled advancement” and that I was experiencing this right now. He basically summed up a few key areas of my life at the time.

This experience motivated me to go after a new career opportunity at my company, which I successfully landed.

 

Nancy’s Top Wellness Travel Destinations 

Amansala in Tulum, Mexico offers runs along the beach and candlelit yoga

Amansala in Tulum, Mexico offers runs along the beach and candlelit yoga

1. Amansala Bikini Bootcamp, Tulum, Mexico

I go to Amansala every year for the last week of the year as a way to undo all of the debauchery from the holidays and to kick-start the New Year.

The setting is boho chic huts and palapas [open-sided shelters with thatched palm roofs] on a white sand beach with Caribbean blue water.

One of her favorite annual traditions: Nancy does yoga at sunset on New Year's Eve

One of her favorite annual traditions: Nancy does yoga at sunset on New Year's Eve

Guests have the option to make the week as active or as chill as they would like. Most choose active due to the wide variety of activities and high-caliber instructors.

The daily routine at Amansala includes morning beach walks or runs, yoga with beach views, cardio class (kickboxing, circuit training, etc.), dance class and/or sunset candlelit yoga.

Experiences such as cultural excursions, massages, a Mayan clay renewal ritual and tarot card readings are all offered at Amansala. You can also sweat out all of your toxins/sins at their Temezcal (Mayan sweat lodge) ceremony, led by an elder Mayan healer.

In between all of this, you can relax on the gorgeous white sand beach. The three golden Labs, who are pets of the property, might join you or try to rally you for a game of “fetch the coconut.”

The food is also healthy and tasty — they even have their own cookbook. 

Amansala combines the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of wellness, which is why I go back every year. I leave with a feeling of renewal and that I can take on all of my biggest dreams. This special place attracts like-minded people, so I have met several friends with whom I am still in touch. 

 

Hiking through the Dolomites mountain range, which straddle Italy and Austria

Hiking through the Dolomites mountain range, which straddle Italy and Austria

2. Backroads Breakaway Walking & Hiking Tour, the Dolomites, Italy

On this tour, you hike every day (four to six hours) in the spectacular setting of the Dolomites mountain range in-between Italy and Austria.

There’s amazing Italian and Austrian food. You might have apple strudel and beer at lunch and then pasta and red wine at dinner.

Nancy and her local guide, with the Cinque Torri in the Dolomites as a backdrop

Nancy and her local guide, with the Cinque Torri in the Dolomites as a backdrop

We hiked from one resort to the next over a seven-day period. We would stop in at ski huts along the way to refuel.

It was the perfect combination of outdoor activity, breathtaking scenery, culture — Italy and Austria! — amazing food and awe-inspiring boutique hotels. 

 

The amazing pool at the Escape to Shape resort in Marrakech, Morocco

The amazing pool at the Escape to Shape resort in Marrakech, Morocco

3. Escape to Shape, Marrakech, Morocco

This yoga and Pilates retreat was hosted at our own private amazing villa in Marrakech, located outside of the medina. Lodging, meals, cultural excursions, and yoga, Pilates and circuit training classes were all included.

This was a great combination of physical activity (about two to three hours per day) and cultural immersion.

Nancy in her favorite store in Marrakech

Nancy in her favorite store in Marrakech

Escape to Shape provided a very safe, fun and invigorating way to experience Marrakech. Erica Gragg, the owner, has been doing this for years, and she curates the perfect trip. She knows Marrakech like the back of her hand and showed us all of the hidden jewels and hot spots. She would open a door in the medina that you did not even know was there, and inside you would find four floors of amazing treasures.

Shopping is a must in Marrakech, and Erica is the perfect sherpa/stylist. Our group came away with beautiful rugs, caftans and home accents that we never would have found without Erica’s expert eye and relationships.

The yoga and Pilates classes allowed us to indulge without guilt in all of the amazing Moroccan cuisine.  

 

4. Miraval Resort & Spa, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Their tagline is “Life in Balance.” Miraval offers hiking in the Sonoran Desert and Santa Catalina Mountains, a large variety of fitness classes, meditation, healthy, delicious food, mindfulness sessions, equine therapy and other outdoor adventure activities.

Their spa is beautiful. Relax by the pool during your downtime. 

I always come away feeling amazing after four to five days here. 

 

Snow Canyon State Park in Utah

Snow Canyon State Park in Utah

5. Red Mountain Resort, Ivins, Utah, USA

Red Mountain offers hiking in a gorgeous setting — literally in red rocks in Snow Canyon State Park, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

Hikes are guided, or you can go on your own — all different levels.

Nancy in Zion National Park, Utah

Nancy in Zion National Park, Utah

The setting is breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

Fitness classes and outdoor activities keep you physically active. There are also great opportunities for personal discovery and mindfulness: intuitive energy reading, guided imagery, etc., as well as artistic pursuits, such as photography and pottery classes.  

 

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

6. Mountain Travel Sobek Machu Picchu Inn-to-Inn Express Trek, Peru

This was a seven-day lodge-to-lodge trek to Machu Picchu through a variety of terrain, scenery and elevation. 

It was a great combination of scenic hiking, excellent Peruvian food and wine, cultural exposure and great lodging.

Nancy at the peak of Machu Picchu

Nancy at the peak of Machu Picchu