Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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In October of 2011, readers of Outside Magazine overwhelmingly voted Chattanooga, Tennessee their ultimate dream town. The following year, the New York Times ranked the city #25 in The 45 Places to Go in 2012, a list that included such notable tourist destinations as London, Jordan, and Antarctica. However, Chattanooga’s current status as top tourist destination and darling of the outdoor lifestyle crowd was not always so. In 1969, Walter Cronkite declared it the “Dirtiest City in America” on his evening broadcast.

Cronkite’s statement was a wake up call for Chattanooga, which had long enjoyed prosperity as one of the top industrial and manufacturing cities in America. The Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau was quickly established, but just as the smog began to clear the recession of the 1970′s and 80′s dealt a second blow. In the face of severe job layoffs, deteriorating infrastructure and social tensions, the Chamber of Commerce and Chattanooga Planning Commission created Chattanooga Venture, a non-profit organization tasked with bringing together citizens to clean up their city on all fronts. The organization held a series of public forums where residents were asked to dream about the way they wanted their city to be.

Chattanooga's Riverfront, with Tennessee Aquarium and seven fountains at the base of The Passage, America’s largest public art project celebrating Cherokee history and commemorating the Trail of Tears

Chattanooga’s Riverfront, with Tennessee Aquarium and seven fountains at the base of The Passage, America’s largest public art project celebrating Cherokee history and commemorating the Trail of Tears

More than 1,000 residents participated in the four-month process, which resulted in the adoption of 40 goals for the city to achieve by the year 2000, including the revitalization of Chattanooga’s derelict downtown; creation of a distribution and transportation center to capitalize on the city’s prime location at the intersection of Interstates 75, 59 and 24; and solving problems with air, water and noise pollution. Today, many of those goals have been accomplished. The city and county have developed five miles of greenway which begins along the downtown Riverwalk and winds through several parks and the historic Bluff View Art District. Riverwalk is a world class tourist destination, offering the acclaimed Tennessee Aquarium and Tennessee Riverpark, where visitors can take rides on authentic paddle wheel steamboats. Read More

I must confess that I find most museums tedious. The exceptions tend to be small, quirky museums like the East Martello Museum in Key West, which is home to Robert the Doll, said to be the source for the Chucky series of horror films, or those dedicated to culture, such as the Rafael Coronel Museo de Mascaras Mexicana (Mexican Mask Museum) in Zacatecas, Mexico. I will also happily fritter away an entire day in any art museum, thus when I found out the the Hunter Museum of American Art was just steps away from where I would be staying in Chattanooga, I made a beeline for it on my very first day.

Outdoor sculpture in front of the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Outdoor sculpture in front of the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Even before I entered, the Hunter changed my conception of a typical stuffy museum. The facility is comprised of three buildings that have been incorporated into the museum over more than 100 years. The original, a red brick Colonial revival style mansion, complete with classic white columns encircling a covered portico, contains the museum’s collection of early American art. Built in 1904 for a local insurance broker, the mansion was eventually sold in 1920 to the widow of Benjamin F. Thomas, whose husband had been one of the founders of the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling company. Her nephew, George Thomas Hunter, inherited the mansion upon her death. The younger Hunter had by that time become chairman of the board of the bottling company and is best known for creation of the Benwood Foundation, a private charitable trust that is still in existence today. George Hunter never married, thus when he died in 1951 his charitable foundation agreed to donate the house to the Chattanooga Art Association for use as an art museum. Read More

Most of my travel is done independently. I research the places I visit and make all my own arrangements for transportation, accommodations and sightseeing. Once in a while, however, I’m offered the opportunity to take a tour, where I travel with a group and stick to a set itinerary. I have always recognized the benefits of these trips, especially for those who are uncomfortable with solo travel, but I usually turn these offers down because I fear I will be dragged around to one tourist trap after another or have to endure the “cattle herding” that often defines packaged tours.

A few months back Tauck invited me to try one of their Tauck Events. I read up on the company, which bills itself as “the 88-year-old leader in premium quality guided travel” and browsed their events on offer. One in particular, the Tauck Jazz Event, piqued my interest. Not only did it include five days of exclusive events and access to experts in the field of jazz that would be impossible for me to arrange, the event was also curated by Ken Burns, the filmmaker responsible for the PBS documentary Jazz. I eagerly accepted their offer.

Private concert by Donald Harrison for Tauck Jazz Event

Private concert by Donald Harrison for Tauck Jazz Event

As the date of the event grew nearer, I began receiving literature about the event. A few things immediately caught my attention. Accommodations would be at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, a posh, historic hotel in the French Quarter. Although the event could accommodate up to 210 guests, the entire group would be together only for the major musical performances. The rest of the time we would separate into breakout groups of no more than 35, each of which would be on separate sightseeing tracks from other groups, ensuring that we would not be tripping over one another. Read More

Wishes are powerful things. Last year, I wished that I could experience more live music as I travel around the world, learning about other cultures. Like photography and writing, music has the ability to transport me, but traveling perpetually makes it difficult to plan for live performances when I barely know where I’ll be next month. The wish fairy must have heard me, because the following week I received an email from Tauck, inviting me to attend a Tauck Event of my choice. These theme-driven one-of-a-kind tours focus on cultural, historical, nature or sports. I could have chosen to experience the 139th Running of the Kentucky Derby as a VIP in reserved seating at Churchill Downs or rung in the New Year on their Celebration of Roses Event, complete with grandstand seating for the Tournament of Roses Parade®. But one option stood out among the rest, the Tauck Jazz Event, which promised to explore the past, present and future of jazz in New Orleans, the city that gave it birth. Even better, this particular event was being curated by legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who spent years researching the history of jazz in preparation for his ten-part documentary series for PBS, entitled simply, “Jazz.”

Legendary documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, curator of the Tauck Jazz Event in New Orleans

Legendary documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, curator of the Tauck Jazz Event in New Orleans

I had always assumed that jazz was birthed in the early 1900′s, when Louis Armstrong was blowing his trumpet and singing scat in the smoky, dark clubs of New Orleans. The true roots of American jazz, however, hail back to the 19th century, to a time when almost every town in the U.S. had a brass band – some more than one. For decades these brass ensembles performed at every public event, ranging from a Fourth of July picnic to a political rally until, in the mid-20th century their popularity had all but died out. But they had planted a seed. Read More

Like a proud peacock, the Big Chief strutted around the courtyard, showing off his hand-beaded and sequined costume. Carefully balancing his neon-orange feathered headdress, he strode purposefully toward the Big Chief from a competing tribe. Just inches apart, they stopped in their tracks. Arms crossed over their broad chests, they glared at one another.

Chief number one looked his challenger up and down.”You pretty, but I prettier!” he said, quickly following it with the traditional demand to bow down and pay respect: “Humba!

Chief number two closed the gap, pressing his crossed forearms against his opponent’s. “I the pretty one. Me no humba; YOU humba!

Big Chief and Queen costumes at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

Big Chief and Queen costumes at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

Had this been the late 19th century, fisticuffs would likely have ensued. In those days the secret society known a the Mardi Gras Indians used the annual celebration as an excuse to settle scores. Over the past century, the violent affair has evolved into an occasion for good-natured competition between the tribes, who now meet each March during the Mardi Gras parade and festivities. The posturing between Big Chiefs makes for great entertainment but most onlookers are unaware that this interaction Read More

Like most visitors to Barcelona, Spain, Sagrada Familia Basilica was on my must see list, so I was surprised when an employee of the hotel where I was staying told me not to bother going inside. “Tickets are very expensive and there’s not much to see,” he said. If I hadn’t been convinced by his advice, the block-long line of people waiting to buy tickets sealed my decision; seeing the outside was sufficient. Two months later I returned to Barcelona during the off-season. The long lines were gone and I simply couldn’t resist the lure of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View from the center of Sagrada Familia's  Latin Cross floor plan, looking toward the apse

View from the center of Sagrada Familia’s Latin Cross floor plan, looking toward the apse

At the passion facade I paused to examine the twin bronze doors that display snippets of verse from the New Testament, noting the differing heights of the raised letters, as if the artist wanted some words to stand out more than others. Blinking in the dim light, I made my way to the center of the nave and stood at the intersection of the Latin Cross floor plan. Soft light streamed through stained glass windows that wrapped the nave, bathing everything in rich shades of purple, green, gold, and pink. I craned my neck, tracing massive tree-trunk columns to the vaulted ceiling, where a canopy of stone leaves spread, as if protecting parishioners from the elements. A tingle ran up my spine as I soaked in the atmosphere of serenity and prayer. It felt as if I was looking at the church through the eyes of Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalán architect responsible for the structure we see today. Read More