Easter Island: If these statues could talk
By Reid Bramblett
Generation after generation carved the giant stone figures, thought to have represented ancestor spirits.
The Rapa Nui civilization flourished for more than a millennium, then abruptly collapsed, leaving Easter Island strewn with hundreds of enormous stone statues called moai. As to how and why the moai were built and moved, or even how people came to the island in the first place, there are at least as many theories as questions.
The probable explanation
Rapa Nui—which is the native name for the island, its inhabitants, and their language—was most likely settled sometime after A.D. 400 by Polynesians with very impressive canoeing skills. They toiled for centuries to prop up moai around the island, apparently with the belief that the statues watched over villages in some way.
In 1722, when Dutch explorers stumbled across the island on Easter Sunday (hence the name), they found a seemingly peaceful populace. By the time Captain Cook arrived in 1774, the people had been decimated by a civil war. The sharp decline apparently occurred amid a flurry of moai construction; there are hundreds of unfinished heads, as well as dozens of fully carved statues abandoned in fields.
Intended to stand atop cut-stone altars, the moai average 13 feet high and weigh nearly 14 tons each. They were carved at quarries and then moved—probably by being placed on sleds and either rolled on logs or dragged on skids lubricated with taro and palm oil. Of the 288 figures that completed the journey, nearly all were toppled during the civil war, though since the 1950s various preservation groups have stood 35 of them back up.
The most impressive Moai sites
The stone figures are located all over the island, but some spots are more significant than others. At Nau Nau, near the island's prettiest beach, each of the seven moai sports a pukao—a red, hat-like topknot—and the altar is surrounded by grazing horses. At Tongariki, 15 moai stand in a row right by the sea. Tahai, just outside the main town, has a trio of altars, with restored stone huts, and a worthwhile anthropological museum, known as MAPSE (011-56/322-551-020, museorapanui.cl, $2). There's also one moai that—in a breathtaking lapse of judgment—was spruced up with ceremonial red-and-white eyes for a French magazine's 1978 photo shoot.
Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater where the moai were created, is arguably more stunning than any of the altars: Nearly 400 figures remain half-carved in the cliffs, and dozens more lie facedown or sprout from the grassy mountainside like an army frozen in the march to the coast.
There's more than Moai
At Orongo, a village of the so-called birdman cult has been reconstructed. The cult, which arose after the civil war, consisted of a dozen clans that each picked a hero for an annual competition. Participants swam through shark-filled waters to retrieve an egg from a sooty tern's nest; the first one back won kingship for his chief.
Easter Island is 2,300 miles west of Chile proper, and is reached via a five-hour flight from Santiago (lanchile.com from $635). Exploring solo is feasible, considering that the island is 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, with few roads and one town (Hanga Roa), and hotels rent cars for $60 a day. Spend at least three days. Hotel Orongo is in town and has a fine restaurant (011-56/322-100-572, hotelorongo.com $78).
Mardi Gras: Still America's best party
By Jon Donley
In today's New Orleans, reveling with abandon is not only good for the soul, it's good for the city.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fact that Mardi Gras was celebrated at all last year came as a surprise to many people—but not to spirited, defiant New Orleanians. Throughout history, the city has endured terrible hardships, including plagues and war. Not even one of America's worst natural disasters could spoil the fun.
Watching the parades
Around 60 parades are held during Carnival season, each one hosted by a private organization, or "krewe." Most parades take place in the final 10 days leading up to Fat Tuesday, "Mardi Gras" in French. The big day always falls in late February or early March, on the eve of Lent. Minor parade schedule changes are common; go to mardigras.com for the latest info.
Warning: Do not flash body parts in the hopes of encouraging float riders to throw beads, stuffed animals, or other treats. Police zealously crack down on risqué behavior along parade routes. (The exception is the French Quarter. While flashing is still illegal there, it rarely draws even a verbal warning from cops.) A poster saying your hometown LOVES NOLA should do the trick in getting the attention of the folks throwing beads.
There are a few must-see parades. Endymion is a large parade with the most "throws," as well as Mardi Gras's longest float, the blocks-long Captain Eddie's S.S. Endymion (Saturday before Fat Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.). At Bacchus, a major celebrity serves as monarch—this year, it was James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini (Sunday before Fat Tuesday, 5:15 p.m.). Orpheus is a music-based parade founded by Harry Connick Jr. One of the signature floats is Leviathan, a smoke-breathing dragon lit with fiber optics (Monday before Fat Tuesday, 5:45 p.m.). The most prized of all throws are the painted coconuts at Zulu, a century-old African-American celebration that began as a parody of elite white krewes (Fat Tuesday, 8 a.m.). Named for the King of Carnival, Rex includes the reading of the official Carnival proclamation and floats like Boeuf Gras, a huge white bull surrounded by chefs (Fat Tuesday, 10 a.m.).
There are also smaller parades worth seeking out. Muses is an all-female affair at which participants toss pumps and teddy bear beads (Thursday before Fat Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.). At Barkus, thousands of dogs march in themed costumes, preceded and followed by a free family-oriented party in Louis Armstrong Park (second Sunday before Fat Tuesday, 2 p.m.). Krewe du Vieux is an over-the-top spectacle with satirical, often raunchy floats; genitalia and sex are common themes (third Saturday before Fat Tuesday, 7 p.m.).
It's legal to stroll the streets of New Orleans while drinking alcohol, and bars often have sidewalk-service windows. Glass containers aren't allowed outside, however; if you want to leave a bar with your drink, request a plastic "go-cup." The Hurricane, New Orleans's signature drink, packs a wallop with four shots of high-octane rum. Bars charge about $6, though prices go as high as $11 for a 32-ounce concoction in a souvenir jug. Side-street grocery and convenience stores sell liquor, beer, and other beverages. Some Mardi Gras vets carry small coolers or jugs as they wander the Quarter.
Many bars have balconies over Bourbon Street. Expect to pay $5 to $20 to perch on one, with time limits at the lower prices.
Families can—and do—attend Mardi Gras. One of the parade-watching areas where kids are plentiful and bawdy behavior is frowned upon is a wide grassy area on St. Charles Avenue, under oak trees in the upper Garden District. Views of the night parades, with their lighted floats, are beautifully framed by the huge arching trees.
Where to stay
Hotels on or near Canal Street are within easy reach of popular parade routes and the French Quarter. Try the Doubletree Hotel New Orleans (300 Canal, 504/581-1300, from $259) or, for a room on a quiet courtyard, the Dauphine Orleans (415 Dauphine, 504/586-1800, from $259). Book at least three months in advance, earlier if you hope to snag a balcony.
The Hermitage: Art world royalty
By David LaHuta
It's a king among museums—which makes sense, considering Russian royals called it home for 150 years.
With nearly 3 million works of art, the five gold-encrusted buildings that constitute the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are overwhelming, to say the least. A common piece of advice is to visit over several days. Even so, prioritizing is essential.
Start at the baroque, block-long Winter Palace, the oldest of the buildings, commissioned in 1754. The imperial family's former living quarters, located upstairs from the white-marble Jordan Staircase, are the museum's most historic rooms. In the Small Dining Room, members of the Provisional Government were arrested in 1917 by the Bolsheviks; a mantel clock reads 2:10, the supposed time when power was transferred. The imperial throne and 332 portraits of Russian and Napoleonic war leaders are nearby.
The Winter Palace is also where you'll find terrific artwork, including "The Dance", Henri Matisse's 1909 masterpiece of five nude figures cavorting in a circle, on the second floor in the Impressionist and Postimpressionist collection. A ground-floor hall showcases the discoveries from fifth century B.C. tombs, including wood carvings and the world's oldest carpet, which is faded but still gorgeous, and adorned with deer and griffins.
You can't go wrong wandering the other buildings, but there are a few things to keep an eye out for. The 19-ton Kolyvan Vase, in the New Hermitage, was carved in Siberia and dragged over ice beds to St. Petersburg by 153 horses and nearly 1,000 men. The New Hermitage is also home to the world's largest collection of Rembrandt's paintings (there are 23), on the first floor. The Small Hermitage's architectural dazzler is the Pavilion Room, notable for its white-marble columns, 28 crystal chandeliers, and banks of windows.
Membership in the U.K.'s Friends of the Hermitage costs $148 and not only gains you standard entry for a year—you can also tour the open storage facility, with the imperial carriages and other pieces that most visitors never lay eyes on (011-44/207-845-4635, hermitagefriends.org).
Buying a package vs. going it alone
Booking on your own is possible, though acquiring the $100 visa is complicated; paying $75 for a tour operator to do it is probably worth the expense. Eastern Tours includes flights from New York City, four nights' hotel, and a tour of St. Petersburg and the Hermitage from $999 through mid-April (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com). Taxes and visas add $550 more. Admission to the Hermitage costs $13, and an extra $4 or $11 allows you to snap photos or use a video camera, respectively. To skip the admission lines, book at hermitagemuseum.org. You'll be e-mailed a voucher, which you should print out and bring with you to exchange for a ticket.
Mexico aflutter: The amazing migration
By Jen Uscher
Millions of butterflies create quite a scene—and an exquisite sound that's best described as a thousand little sighs.
As the day heats up at Mexico's 217-square-mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, the insects fly to cool off. Scales fall from their wings, and black and orange glitter fills the air.
Within the reserve, four butterfly sanctuaries are open to the public: El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, in the state of Michoacan, and La Mesa and Cerro Pelon's El Capulin, in the neighboring state of Mexico. The monarchs start arriving in mid-November and stay through mid-March, before returning to their summertime homes, as far as 3,000 miles away, in the eastern U.S. and Canada. The butterflies nest above 10,000 feet, and visitors usually must walk a mile or two to reach them, so it's best to hike slowly, drink plenty of water, and bring warm clothing in case of bad weather.
The city of Morelia, served by nonstop flights from Mexico City, Houston, and Los Angeles, is the best launching point for visitors. Ten-hour guided trips from MMG Tours leave Morelia on most mornings and head to El Rosario or Sierra Chincua (011-52/443-340-4632, mmg.com.mx, $50). Rocamar Tours' two-night package includes guides, transportation, lodging in Morelia and at the foot of the mountains in Zitacuaro, and a visit to El Capulin and either El Rosario or Sierra Chincua (866/762-2627, rocamar.com.mx, $370 per person double).
A more in-depth tour, G.A.P Adventures' nine-night Mexico Monarch Butterfly Trail package—with transportation from Mexico City, visits to sanctuaries, horseback riding, and other adventures—will be offered in early 2008 (800/708-7761, gapadventures.com, from $795).
Going it alone
There are no sanctuary Web sites or reliable phone numbers, but the World Wildlife Fund posts information about services—horseback riding, cabin rentals—at the sanctuaries, as well as detailed driving directions, at wwf.org.mx. Park admission ($2-$5) includes a tour guide who probably won't be fluent in English.
Researchers attach plastic ID tags to some butterflies' wings. If you see one, report the tag number and location to monarchwatch.org.
For social butterflies
Angangueo, a colonial town 45 minutes by car from El Rosario, makes an ideal base for independent sightseers (Hotel Don Bruno, 011-52/715-156-0026, from $70). The town hosts dance and craft shows during the month-long Monarch Festival every February.