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New York Christmas: best trees, windows, shopping and shows

The Rockfeller Center tree is the largest Christmas tree in New York City

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in the heart of New York City

Ah, Christmas in the Big Apple…nowhere does it better. Elaborately decorated trees; ornate department store windows that look like they are right out of a movie set; carolers at every corner; roasted chestnuts from street vendors. And of course, the best place to go Christmas shopping and see the best shows. If you’re lucky, there might even be a dusting of snow for a carriage ride through wintry Central Park.

After living in New York for 12 years, ten of them with little kids in tow, I have the lowdown on the best ways to soak up the Christmas cheer.  Here is my must-do list.

 New York’s Best Christmas Trees

* The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is the crown jewel of New York’s Christmas trees. In fact the 25-meter Norway spruce is crowned with a three-meter Swarovski-crystal star in addition to its 30-000 energy-efficient LED lights...

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Alain Ducasse’s classic Provencale Inn: La Bastide de Moustiers

La Bastide de Moustiers MFP

The terrace of La Bastide de Moustiers

It is a tradition in Provence that landlords who plant three cypress trees near the entrance to their properties welcome visitors for a drink, a meal and a bed.  French chef Alain Ducasse has a small army of these pencil-thin emblems of Provence lining the driveway to La Bastide de Moustiers.  They are a fitting symbol for this classic Provencale Inn which is a labor of love by the founder of a multi-starred restaurant empire spanning three continents.

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Insider tips on exploring the Komodo Islands

Three Komodo dragons up close

Three Komodo dragons sunbake at the waterhole. Each is three-meters-long with prehistoric claws, beady eyes and scaly skin, which looks like woven metal armor. It feels like I’ve done a Dr Who and dropped into a dinosaur convention. Our diminutive guide is armed with nothing but a pronged stick.

One heaves itself up and lurches towards me, so close I can hear its guttural hiss. A foot-long pink forked tongue darts in and out of its mouth. Meanwhile, saliva is drooling from the other two. Even DreamWorks couldn’t have come up with scarier looking creatures. Suddenly, my walk in the Komodo Islands National Park doesn’t feel like…well…a walk in the park anymore.

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Six of the Best Shopping Boutiques in Seminyak Bali

Pura Vida is an ethical clothing line produced in Bali

Bali’s classy shopping district of Seminyak is the place to buy handmade clothes at reasonable prices. It is not about bargain basement shopping but about a classy shopping experience and an excellent quality to price ratio.

All these shops cluster on Jalan Laksmana, Jalan Raya Seminyak and Jalan Pettinget.

Bias...

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How to Find the Perfect Aloha Hawaiian Shirt

VINTAGE ALOHAThere is nothing like a perfectly draped, classically patterned Aloha shirt to put you in an Hawaiian state of mind.

David Bailey has been collecting and selling vintage Hawaiian shirts since 1980 and he now has the world’s largest collection of 15,000 Aloha shirts at his Bailey’s Antiques Store in a pink stucco building tucked away in suburban Honolulu well away from the overpriced tourist strip in Waikiki.

It is well worth making the effort to get here both for a trip down memory lane and to get some real gems in any price range.  You’ll also discover just how Aloha shirts first became popular and what makes them so appealing.

History

For centuries there were no shirts in Hawaii, much less brightly colored Aloha shirts. The original Polynesian Hawaiians wore tapa or bark cloth with simple geometric designs for special occasions. Then the missionaries introduced solid colored work shirts for men and long shapeless dresses called muumuus for women.

The modern Aloha shirt was de...

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Japan’s Hidden Secret: Tourist free Kanazawa or “Little Kyoto”

Kanazawa mfp

Japan’s Hidden Secret: Kanazawa

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The Japanese describe Kanazawa, located by the Sea of Japan in Western Honshu, as “little Kyoto” because it offers an artisanal tradition akin to Kyoto’s as well as beautifully preserved traditional neighborhoods. Put more accurately, while Kyoto is the much older Japanese Imperial capital, Kanazawa is the best-preserved Edo (or Shogun-era) city in the country. As an added bonus, it is a City of Crafts and Folk Art and forms part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. It offers many of Kyoto’s charms without its tourist hordes.  In short, it is a gem that has largely been under the radar for most Western tourists.

The Maedas ruled the remote Kaga region (of which Kanazawa is the center) during the Shogun era, when power emanated from the Edo Castle (today’s Tokyo). Rather than challenge the Shogunate in war, the Maedas poured their efforts into cultural pursuits and channeled their vast wealth from local gold mines into arts and crafts, many of which are still nationally renowned. The name “Kanazawa” means “marsh of gold” and the castle town was famous early on for Kaga gold-leaf, inlaid work and calligraphy. Indeed, the gold leaf that covers Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion was produced in Kanazawa.

Being the richest domain outside the Shogunate, Kanazawa’s population swelled with samurai retainers, artisans, merchants and, of course, geisha courtesans. Since the town was located along a remote sheltered coast across the mountains from Tokyo, it was protected from being ravaged both in the feudal wars as well as during World War II, where it was spared from US bombing. As a result its samurai and geisha districts are remarkably intact.

Here is the lowdown on its six...

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Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to a Luxury Eco Lodge

Costa Rica's Pacuare River is one of the world's most beautiful rafting rivers

Rafting Costa Rica’s Pacuare River to stay at the eco-sensitive Pacuare Lodge is a perfect experience for those of you who like to combine your serious adventures with luxurious landings.

Costa Rica is a gutsy little Central American democracy that has capitalized on its ecological riches. A quarter of its landmass  is classified as national park or biosphere reserve, and its many eco lodges help showcase the country’s natural beauty.

Costa Rica’s all purpose saying: This is living…cool! pure life!

“Pura Vida!” shouts our barrel-chested guide Luis Achoy after we bounce through a set of boiling rapids on the Pacuare River. We all raise our paddles high above the churning, café-latte-colored water and echo his cheer with the best exclamation ever invented, “Pura Vida!” a Costa Rican all-purpose phrase that means “this is living…cool…pure life.”

We have certainly found Pura Vida and it’s not just the adrenalin rush...

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Photo Friday: Three-Michelin-star Michel Bras’ famous flower and vegetable dish

michel bras ff

The three-Michelin-starred Michel Bras restaurant in the small village of Laguoile in the heart of Central France is renowned for its contemporary interpretation of the Gargouillou, the traditional Aubrac dish of ham, potatoes and vegetables.

I photographed this dish recently during a revelatory meal there.

“We have a very simple principle of respecting raw materials and following the seasons,” said Sebastien Bras, son of the founder Michel Bras, who recently retired. “We particularly rely on vegetables and plants using all sorts of flowers, herbs and seeds in our creations.”

The restaurant sources more than 230 cultivated vegetables, herbs and flowers in addition to foraging for hundreds more…wild thyme, fennel and flowers with names like queen of the fields, melilot and liveche… in the hills and valleys around Aubrac.

“Our technique is always used to accentuate the taste of the raw material, never the reverse,” Sebastian explained...

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The World’s Best Rock Art at Max Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris

Mount Borradaile guards remarkable indigenous rock art

Mount Borradaile is a sacred site in Australia’s Aboriginal Arnhemland overlooking a tropical Garden of Eden

East of Kakadu National Park across the crocodile-infested East Alligator River my family and I go deep into Aboriginal Arnhem Land in search of some of the world’s best rock art plus a tropical Garden of Eden teeming with birds, fish and exotic reptiles. We are visiting Max Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris at Mount Borradaile, a comfortable collection of tree-shaded cabins encircling an airy dining room with deck and swimming pool.  It is the only tourist operation in Australia located on a sacred Aboriginal site.

Mount...

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Ten Top Tips to Save on International Car Rental

save money on car rental

How to get the best car rental deals

TOP TEN TIPS FOR INTERNATIONAL CAR RENTAL

Renting a car when you’re travelling internationally can give you the freedom of going where you want when you want but it can be a little more complicated than at home. Here are some tips to make it easier

1. BOOK AND PAY BEFORE YOU GO. It is best to book and pay for your car rentals before leaving Australia especially for Europe or, at the very least, book on line before renting in North America. Lock in your rate in Australian dollars and also avoid overseas transaction fees on your credit card. Don’t just turn up at a car rental desk and expect either to get a good rate or in fact any car at all no matter how much you are willing to pay, especially during July/August high season.

2. TYPE OF CAR: Don’t waste time choosing specific cars as you will only be guaranteed a similar model. In the US, the cars are automatic and generally larger than in Australia...

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