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Travel With Marilyn

Insight into Guatemalan Coffee Production

Marilyn JonesI am not a coffee drinker, so I was just going along for the ride with my fellow Bella Guatemala Travel tour group as we left Antigua for Café Azoteca Coffee Estate, in business since 1883. Our coffee museum guide began our tour by explaining coffee production worldwide before telling us about the history and traditions here.

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Azotea farm was purchased by doña Dominga Mont and her son-in-law, don Marcelo Orive. Together they began the cultivation of coffee. We passed exhibits and dioramas that illustrated the history of coffee harvesting in Guatemala and explained the growing and processing of the bean.

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“The coffee plant is grown under a dense canopy of shade trees,” he explained.  “At harvest time, our workers hand-pick only the ripe red beans. The beans are then wet milled, sun dried, and dry milled. Processed beans are hand-selected to assure quality and uniformity.”

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Outside, we walked along a wide dirt road into an area where the beans were being grown. He showed us the red, ripe beans and explained that the farm uses an organic pest control system as well as composting for fertilizer. “We are very environmentally friendly.”

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Azotea, which is a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, is staffed by 65 workers during the high season and hosts 3,000 visitors a month.

We walked through a beautiful garden with colorful flowers of every description; many I had never seen before.

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We then headed for the coffee shop. Many on the tour sampled the coffee and purchased bags of the fragrant beans. After we had time to look around the store, our Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace, invited us to yet another museum — Casa K'ojom Mayan Music Museum.

Here we learned the history of Guatemalan musical instruments, with numerous instruments and dioramas adding to the understanding of this history. A short film was shown as well, bringing what we had learned to life with spectacular sound and color.

The gift shop was a wonderful collection of traditional souvenirs along with handcrafted items including instruments made by local artisans at very reasonable prices.

I can easily recommend the tour, museums, and gift shops to everyone visiting Antigua, whether you drink coffee or not!

Sometimes It's Good to Take a Break

Marilyn JonesIt’s a three-hour drive from my home in Henderson, Texas to the north side of Houston where I had a meeting on a Friday afternoon. I knew I could drive back home on the same day, but I decided to spend the night at The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center instead. I wasn’t disappointed with my decision.

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The Woodlands (the city) is located about 15 minutes north of Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, just off I-45. It started as suburban development and bedroom community in the early 1970s, but soon attracted corporations. Today the population is more than 100,000.

The mastermind behind the community was American businessman George P. Mitchell. With the closest hotel located almost 45 minutes away, Mitchell’s first order of business was to build a local hotel where he could host investors and corporate partners. Here they could experience firsthand Mitchell’s concept of living and working in a natural environment. The Woodlands Inn opened down the street from the community’s first neighborhood, in the Village of Grogan’s Mill, in 1974.

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For anyone looking for a weekend getaway, The Woodlands offers some 200 specialty and family restaurants and upscale shopping. There is—according to the city website—“7,790 acres of green space, 130 neighborhood parks, 205 miles of hike and bike trails, 200-acre Lake Woodlands, golf, tennis [and] kayaking.” 

As impressive as the city is, so is the resort. When I arrived, I was more than pleased with its serene setting. s-TW5

In addition to beautiful rooms and public space, the resort has two 18-hole golf courses, a full-service spa, an amazing outdoor pool area including a lazy river, and a tennis center.

Although there are three restaurants, and an outdoor café during warmer months, I chose to eat from room service because I don’t care to eat in restaurants alone. On Friday I ordered lunch and dinner, and breakfast on Saturday. In all cases the food was excellent and arrived quickly. Room service menu items are a sampling of what is offered at the restaurants, so I am confident in saying that the restaurants are excellent as well.

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With free Wi-Fi and the beautiful view out my patio door of the resort’s natural setting, I was quite content to hang around the room and get some work done. It was unseasonably warm, so I took several breaks to roam the grounds and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

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Sometimes you just have to take a break from your own surroundings and enjoy beautiful accommodations, wonderful meals you wouldn’t necessarily make for yourself at home, and reflect on the beauty of nature.


If you go:

The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center is located at 2301 North Millbend Drive, The Woodlands. Room rates start at $169. For more information or special promotions, call (800) 433-2624.

Remembering the Taj Mahal

Marilyn JonesTravel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.
– Francis Bacon

Memory... is the diary that we all carry about with us.
– Oscar Wilde

As a travel writer and photographer, all too often I get home, edit my photos, write any print assignment articles, post the photos on social media, and write blog posts before heading to my next adventure, forgetting to look back once in a while. Recently though, I started taking time to look at photo files to relive the joy of discovering yet another amazing place.

One time, in Agra, India, I arrived late afternoon at the beautiful Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel. I knew that every room offered perfect sight of the Taj Mahal, and I was anxious for the view.

From my balcony, in the distance, framed by lush foliage, I could see the symbol of love that is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That moment is forever etched in my memory.

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The next day, my friend Norma and I were transported to the gates by an electric vehicle. After passing through security, our guide began to tell us the love story behind the monument: The ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna River was commissioned in 1632 for 827 million dollars (2015 equivalent) by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to house his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

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Almost immediately, we saw the Tal Mahal gleaming in the morning sunlight. People jockeyed for position to get just the right photo of the iconic site before heading closer.

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We wandered through the gardens taking more photos before going inside with hundreds of Indian residents to view the final resting place of the emperor and his beloved wife. Hundreds of barefoot people crowded into the small, dark space to get a glimpse of the two caskets. When a guard blew a whistle, everyone shuffled out and a new group pushed its way in.

We admired the inlaid, semiprecious stones and took in the view of the river before walking back to the entrance for one last gaze at the iconic scene.

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It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience filled with perfect memories to reflect on.

Exploring Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano National Park

Marilyn JonesWhen our tour group arrives, we are immediately surrounded by horses and their owners, each speaking rapid Spanish asking us if we want to ride to the top of the mountain overlooking Pacaya Volcano.

Our Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace, have already arranged for our horses, so we politely make our way past the eager salesmen and their beautiful horses to the Pacaya Volcano National Park headquarters building. Here, we learn that Pacaya is one of the country’s 36 volcanoes, and one of three currently active. Pacaya is actually the most active volcano in Guatemala.

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The park was established to monitor and protect the 8,373-foot volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1965. Most eruptions are small, but a 2010 eruption caused the La Aurora National Airport to shut down, and villages near the volcano were evacuated.

Soon we are paired with horses, and their owners gently encourage them up the steep path. The horses use rocks and tree roots as steps as they pick their way up the slippery incline. We stop halfway up for a beautiful view of the valley before heading once again toward the top.

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Although we could ride the horses back down after taking in the scenic beauty from our vantage point at the top of the mountain, we decide to walk down; not the easiest feat as cinders roll underfoot. It turns out that our cautious decent is worth every step. We can see where the volcano’s lava has reached as we look out over acres of blacked earth.

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We trek past wildflowers miraculously growing up through the cinders, and a tiny makeshift shack where jewelry made from the cinders and ash are sold. The jewelry is made by Guatemalan artists in local communities to be sold in the park.

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The experience is dramatic; the views are beautiful. Our journey down is long and arduous, adding to the drama of our surroundings.

A Look at Guatemala’s Rich Maya History

Marilyn JonesFrom the top of a Maya pyramid, the view of the jungle and other pyramids was something I had imagined other adventure travelers witnessing, not me. But I was here with the help of encouraging guides and a man-made staircase alongside the ancient structure. It was from this vantage point that George Lucas filmed scenes for his first Star Wars movie in 1977.

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I sat for a long time taking in the magic of the moment. Magic is actually a perfect word for Guatemala, the Maya Culture and Tikal National Park located almost 200 miles north of Guatemala City. Visiting the ruins of the ancient city was one of many Maya discoveries I made with Bella Guatemala Travel, a California-based tour company specializing in Guatemala culture, history, and natural beauty.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of pre-Columbian Maya civilizations. Dating to 4th century BC, the city dominated much of the Maya region. Population estimates vary from 10,000 to as high as 90,000.

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The causes of the Maya empire's collapse remain a mystery; wars, famine, overpopulation, and resource depletion have all been blamed. Tikal, according to historians and archeologists, began to suffer from deforestation, erosion, and a decline in population. The site was completely abandoned by the end of the 10th century, and the rainforest claimed the ruins for nearly a thousand years.

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Exploring Tikal

From the parking area, we walked along a narrow dirt road cutting through the jungle. My Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, an archeologist, and Emilio Faillace, a naturalist, helped everyone in the tour group understand the jungle and the Maya ruins all around us.

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When the jungle opened up, Gonzalez and Faillace pointed out palaces, temples, and ball courts — some are covered with vegetation, and others have been restored. Still others are hidden by trees and would be impossible to identify without the help of our expert guides.

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The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) are located on opposite sides of the Great Palace, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces, and ball courts.

Temple I rises 165 feet above the jungle floor. There are nine tiers corresponding to the nine levels of the Maya underworld. Archeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacau inside. Festooned with jade ornaments, the skeleton was also surrounded by offerings of pottery, alabaster, and pearls.

Temple II is almost as tall as Temple I and just as impressive.

Other temples include Temple III or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest; Temple V, a mortuary pyramid of an unidentified ruler; and Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions.

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Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent, is the temple I climbed for my spectacular view of the jungle. It is the tallest Tikal pyramid, standing 230 feet high. It was built in 740 AD by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son, Yik’in Chan Kawil, to honor his father.

Well maintained paths and open space made it easy to stroll through what was once a thriving commercial, political, and military center. We for stayed several hours, taking in the intrigue and beauty of the setting.

The spirits of the men and women who once worked and raised their families in Tikal live on in the thousands of Maya descendants living in Guatemala. Guatemala is truly an oasis of beauty and culture, and a welcoming respite for any traveler.

Discovering Art and History at Göttweig Abbey

Marilyn JonesOn a cold windswept day, I visited Göttweig Abbey with fellow Viking River Cruises passengers as part of the Danube Christmas Market Cruise. Founded in Austria as a monastery and dedicated in 1072 AD, its presence atop a hill overlooking the river was a dramatic scene as the tour bus approached.

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We gathered with our guide, and he began his narrative as soon as we exited the bus. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Göttweig became a famous seat of learning with strict monastic observances almost immediately. A school, library, and nunnery were established. The nunnery continued until 1557.

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As we walked our guide — a young man with excellent English and an enthusiastic way of communicating the abbey’s storied past — explained that today 42 monks live and work here as well as in nearby parishes. He told us that during the 15th and 16th centuries the abbey declined, and that in 1564 not a single monk was left. Michael Herrlich was appointed abbot and restored the monastery spiritually and financially; he rebuilt it after it had been almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1580. In 1718, the monastery again fell victim to fire and was rebuilt on an even grander scale.

The abbey is certainly a survivor.

The wind whipped around us as we stood in the center of a grand courtyard surrounded by buildings modestly yet beautifully decorated with carvings and other architectural accents as we learned more about the abbey’s history.

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We were invited into the abbey’s amazing chapel before being led into the Imperial Wing. Its center point is a grand fresco decorating the staircase that is considered a masterpiece of Baroque architecture in Austria. Executed by Paul Troger in 1739, it represents the Roman Empire.

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We climbed the staircase for a closer look at the fresco, as well as to tour four imperial apartments decorated with paintings by artists Martin Johann Schmidt and Andreas Altomonte.

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Our guide explained that during World War II, the Germans did not harm the abbey's interior but stole many of its valuable artworks. When the Russians stayed here, however, they destroyed much of the interior by using whatever they could find to build fires inside the buildings, causing great damage to the floors. Fortunately, many of the art pieces have been returned to the abbey, and the interior fully restored.

The abbey has a library of 130,000 books and manuscripts and a particularly important collection of religious engravings, besides valuable collections of coins, antiquities, musical manuscripts, and natural history, all of which survived World War II.

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Here our tour ended, and we were invited to enjoy the Christmas Market setup inside public rooms near the official gift shop. Local crafts and baked goods were for sale in the labyrinth of rooms. Friendly men and women chatted about their wares, making the experience even more festive.

The abbey, the guide, the Christmas market — it was another fantastic day with Viking River Cruises exploring the history and beauty of Austria.

This Jamaican Mansion is Hauntingly Beautiful

Marilyn JonesRose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, first came to my attention when I was going through my ghost-hunting television show phase several years ago. Both Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters International reported on the thought-to-be-haunted house. When I was selecting shore excursions while sailing on the Carnival Breeze, I decided to pay a visit to the plantation myself.

Of course, I didn’t have electronic equipment to try to contact the dead. What I did have was a great tour guide who minced no words when she spoke of Annie Palmer, the “white witch” reported to be the main spirit tormenting the living.

The sand-colored, Jamaican, Georgian-style mansion was built by Annie’s husband, John Palmer, in the 1770s at a cost of 30,000 British pounds. It’s an impressive sight with its symmetrically arched doors and tall windows located high on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

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Rose Hall was purchased in 1977 by Michele and John Rollins. The couple restored and refurbished the historic house and opened it as a museum featuring excellent guided tours to showcase Rose Hall's history and the beautiful, antique-filled house.

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From an ornate parlor and dining room to gracious bedrooms, the tour examines not only the life of Annie Palmer, but also that of wealthy plantation owners during the 18th century. Throughout the tour, information about Annie and the legends of how she murdered her three husbands and relished in watching her slaves brutally punished are woven with facts about the house and its furnishings.

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The tour ends in the lower floor, now a restaurant and bar, where guests are offered a drink — with or without run — before being let to Annie’s grave site, which ends the tour.

Whether you believe the legends of Annie Palmer or that her spirit sometimes makes itself known, a visit to Rose Hall is a must-see for anyone wondering about life on the island 300 years ago. To me, time travel is always fun and educational.