Many of the world's most beautiful and fascinating sites are at risk from development, environmental factors and human presence. Author Holly Hughes and host Kelly Regan discuss some of these places and how they were selected for the new book, Frommer's 500 Places to See Before They Disappear.
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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommers Travel Guide. I'll be your host today. And my guest is Holly Hughes, who is the author of our new book, "500 Places to See Before They Disappear, " which is on sale now. The book celebrates what Holly calls the world's most fragile wonders. That is, places to be visited soon, before they're irrevocably altered, changed or destroyed by ecological change, manmade threats, economical conditions or even historical trends. Holly's here today to talk about this exciting and eclectic mix of destinations on the list.
So Holly, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Holly Hughes: It's my pleasure.
Kelly: You write in your introduction that at the beginning of this process you thought that writing the book would be a depressing exercise, talking about all these places that might not be around in several years, or a generation. Yet you emerged from the entire process feeling a lot more hopeful about the places you wrote about in the book than when you first began. Why is that?
Holly: Well, this is a travel book, so early on we made the decision that, for example, rather than send people to a coral reef on the verge of dying, we should identify the ten coral reefs in the world that are still wonderfully healthy. So that when people go there, they understand why coral reefs need to be preserved, and maybe help raise hope that we can reverse the process for some of the ones that are sick. Rather than go to a forest where there are no longer black bears, we go one great national park that has reintroduced the black bear population, and they're thriving.
Kelly: Right, right.
Holly: So we began to look to places where the last of their species, one of a kind, kinds of destinations suddenly begin to be very hopeful. What had happened in almost all of those cases were the case of either a government that had made a conscious decision to preserve something, or some grass-roots organization, whether it's an environmental watchdog organization or just a bunch of concerned local citizens, who said, you know, we love this piece of earth and we're going to save it.
Kelly: Yeah. And that's a good point, because one of the things that I've been grappling with is, as we kind of think about this theme, kind of organizing your travel ideas around this kind of a theme. How do you balance the fact that many of the places you recommend in the book, like Pompeii in Italy, or maybe Angkor Wat in Cambodia have been damaged by the increased number of visitors and the resulting tourist infrastructure that rises up around them. So is there a way to visit places like these responsibly that doesn't actively contribute to the detriment of the place.
Holly: Yes. And I think it's very important to include suggestions about...if they say stay on the path, stay on the path.
Kelly: Yeah. Right.
Holly: Here's a list of local tour operators who do do it responsibly. It's important, also, when you're picking your local lodging to help pump money into the local tourist infrastructure.
Holly: For instance, at Easter Island, it's recently has been the fashion for people to do fly-overs of Easter Island. So you can see the tumbled heads below you on the ground, but not stay on the island and not give any money to the people in the community who desperately depend on tourism.
Holly: And to think of ways to go there. Instead of taking your own car, maybe you're on a train, maybe you're on a bus. You know, reduce the carbon footprint. So as often as possible I tried to put in those suggestions. Maybe to go earlier in the day, which is better for... There's hordes of people trampling through the Alhambra in the morning, it's always the same. Don't go at the same time of day that everybody else does, not only because you can't see well, but also because it's better for the stones not to have so many people trampling on them at once.
Kelly: Right. It's kind of a win-win, You get a better experience. It's interesting you bring up the Alhambra, because when I went, I actually took a tip from our "Spain for Dummies" author, who said go at night. People don't know that you can go in the evening. As the sun is setting, it gives you a completely different experience of the Alhambra that you're not going to get when you're surrounded with crowds. And it actually was beautiful, because I was in these grand rooms with these very intricate mosaics, and I was sitting in a chair staring at them, and I was the only person in the room. And it was quiet, and kind of flood-lit. It was a really magical experience I wouldn't have had, had I been with about 2, 000 of my closest traveling friends.
Kelly: Yeah, it's good for the place and it's good for you, as well...
Kelly: ...I think is the plan.
Holly: Yeah. I think of it, the phrase has begun to seep into my vocabulary. Intentional tourism, which means you think about why you've come here. What is it you really want to accomplish with this trip? And if it means you have to spend to cut one item off of your item off your itinerary in order to spend an extra night someplace and see it right...
Holly: ... it yields so much more.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. As you said, intentional, or thoughtful. Kind of thoughtful trip planning. Mindful of the place that you're going to, and mindful of your own experience, as well.
Holly: To get out of the car, and I am not talking about strenuous 20-mile hikes, but to get out of the car and walk into the woods a little bit away from the little nature loop that's right by the entrance.
Holly: You see so much more of the wildlife.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. It's interesting that you mention the wildlife, because sprinkled throughout the book are a lot of destinations that are threatened for some or another environmental reasons. But most of the discussion that you make in the book for these kinds of destinations is about the impact that it's having on the wildlife. Area wildlife or endangered species. Are there a few destinations you can highlight where there is a chance to see animals that might be in need of preservation or protection?
Holly: A perfect paradigm for this is out in Oregon, the Willow Creek Preserve. It was beginning to be endangered, it was surrounded. Development was starting to come out and some parcels of land had been taken for agriculture, and it's been reclaimed. This particular flower, this lupine was growing there, and begin to spread more. And a butterfly that everyone thought was extinct came back.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Holly: Because that's the only flower in the world that that particular blue butterfly lives on.
Kelly: Wow. That's really incredible.
Holly: And so now it is the one place in the world that this butterfly lives, because it's the one place where that flower lives. And you know, it's this crazy, against all odds in Darwinian Evolution that would have become that specialized. But thank God the Willow Creek Preserve brought that one back.
Kelly: And another example of what you were saying at the beginning about how you can make a difference. That's a very tangible kind of cause and effect relationship.
Holly: Yeah, I think as America was being settled, it was only natural that people would see these great, sweeping prairies and think, wow, how much corn can we grow there. A lot of this land was taken for farmland. That was great in it's time. But the prairies began to die.
Holly: And that broke, there was no continuous corridor which made it difficult for the wildlife pass through, because they [over talk] two-acre parcels.
Kelly: Right. It's migratory.
Holly: And as people now have been acquiring the bits of land and figuring out how to make the prairie come back,it's been very exciting. They've realized, suddenly, that fires are good things. They clear off trees so that the undergrowth species can flourish. Similarly everybody's, oh, there's a swamp. Let's drain it. We can put up houses on it. And that was fine at one time, but we took out too much swamp. And there are now wonderful places around the country where they're allowing the land to get boggy again, because there are some species that absolutely need swampland and bogs and sand dunes to live.
Kelly: To thrive. Yeah, yeah. What I love so much about this book, as I loved about the previous book you write for us, "500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, " is how thoughtfully you organize and present the destinations in the book. One example is you have a section in the book called "10 Places Where the Sky is Still Dark at Night." And I was surprised to hear you referencing light pollution as a threat, because it's not something that I ever really thought about before. Of course, it's kind of edging into this kind of manmade change territory. Can you give some examples of some places where experiencing dark skies are still possible?
And just for people, it's really about star-gazing, right? It's about being able to see the sky.
Holly: Yeah. It's an incredible experience. That one in particular...I should back up and say the way that method of organization came up in my "500 Places to Take the Kids Before They Grow Up, " book was because no one's going to go to all 500 places. But if you have kids who are interested in a certain thing, then that kind of gives you a vertical organization. I have a son who's interested in battlefields. And there are many places in the book we might never go, but we were going to go hit all those battlefields. So it allows you to organize in terms of interest.
Now, my husband is an amateur astronomer. And as I was beginning to work on this book, we were looking for a weekend house. And one of his big requirements was dark sky.
Kelly: Oh, yeah.
Holly: And we were going from town to town and having to stay overnight to see how dark it would get.
Kelly: To assess how dark the sky is, right?
Holly: And we actually found a community in which there had been local legislation to have down lighting fixtures and everything, so there wouldn't be any light pollution at night. And that's where we bought a house. But then, as I was working on this, I kept saying we have to go down to Cherry Hill Park in Pennsylvania. How dark is the sky down there? So it seems like a weird thing, but he has all these people that he's met through these astronomy circles who...It's almost like a Star Trek Convention. Guys talking about, oh, you've really got to get to so and so, the skies there are incredible.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Holly: And to those people, these 10 destinations, that's your life list.
Kelly: Yeah. And they're all over the world. You've mentioned places in Hawaii and Idaho and Pennsylvania, but even in New South Wales, and Australia, and England and Saskatchewan. There are lots of different places. There are meteor showers you can look at, the Northern Lights. And even just being able to, as your son is an astronomy buff, to be able to see what's up there.
Holly: Yeah. We did, when we were out in Hawaii, we did make an effort to get up to see the night skies there, and it was an extraordinary thing. And we really do have to get down to the southern hemisphere, because it's entirely different constellations.
Kelly: Yeah, completely different. We've been talking about these ecologically oriented destinations on the list, but you also mention in the book that, though the book was originally conceived as a handbook for eco-tourists, it soon became clear that you weren't able to separate the natural and the manmade attractions. At the beginning I called this list very eclectic, and I think one of the many wonderful things about the book is how you write so movingly about not just endangered habitats in sort of more eco-oriented destinations, such as the Amazon or the Everglades or something like that, but about the quirkier kind of cultural and historic institutions that are being phased out or passed over during the march of time.
I'm thinking of places like Coney Island in Brooklyn, the Doo-wap Motels on the Jersey Shore, the Wigwam motels that kind of stretch across the US, and even, one of my favorite experiences from growing up, the drive-in movie theatre. Do you think that these places have a chance of survival, even as it feels like popular culture has kind of abandoned them and moved on?
Holly: Well, I felt like...I have a good example of this. It's Southern California. I have cousins who life in Anaheim. I remember being there more years ago than I want to admit, and how it all looked so space-agey and great. We were out there recently trying to find, still, some of those great googie architecture coffee shops and bowling alleys. Some of them have been mowed down for these kind of box-like, one Denny's after another.
Holly: Not that there's anything wrong with Dennys. But we began to be driving around and looking for these crazy, googie architecture things, and they're still there. Every once in a while you'd find one that had clearly just been buffed up. And there's an active group of historic preservationists out there who were trying to preserve this. You talk to you kids, and they think that something put up in the '50s or the early '60s is historic. And that's a very good perspective to keep, because there was some great, exciting design happening back then, the same way that we look, now, at the gorgeous movie palaces from the '20s.
Kelly: Right, exactly, which, again, is another, apart from the drive-in movie theatres, these kind of grand movie palaces have really been kind of supplanted by the multiplex. Let's have one place where you can se 20 movies in one location, as opposed to going and having it be sort of an event.
Holly: Sometimes you go to a concert at a great little small-town, or maybe a suburban town or something, but something that may have started life as a vaudeville theatre, then it was a movie house, and now it's a concert hall, but they kept the details. You've still got these crazy frescos on the ceiling, and wonderful plasterwork. Thank God for those. I always stick a little extra money into the box to help preserve those places. And talk up the concerts there at those places. Kelly, Yeah, exactly.
Holly: Because you want them to survive. It is some local organization of people who are very committed to taking care of what's in their backyard.
Kelly: Exactly. And I think one of the, and that kind of brings me to another question, or another comment, which is I was delighted to find out some of the places you featured in the book as kind of at-risk places, the very fact of you highlighting them in the book has galvanized support for their preservation. Can you give us a few examples of where drawing attention to the plight of a particular place has actually helped the cause?
Holly: Well, I don't think I can take credit for all of them. But I looked in the paper the other day, and there have been a couple things that have happened recently. Down in the Everglades, which I consider one of the most crucial sites for staving off the threat, because it's such a unique ecosystem.
Holly: The government has been going back and forth. The Florida government really does want to do something about this. It's just the next question. But they just did a big deal with US Sugar to take back, to buy back a lot of the acreage which they're going to return to the river of grass.
Kelly: Oh, that's great.
Holly: But then I read a few days later in the paper that, well, until they're ready to do what they need to do technologically to restore it, they're going to let US Sugar still farm on it. [laughter]
Holly: But it's a move in the right direction. But then a few days after that I saw that the Clackamas River, this big basin throughout Oregon and California that we write about as one of the wetlands there, the Pacific Flyways, it's a huge migratory bird. They have finally reached an agreement to dismantle the dams that were robbing the wetlands of their water.
Kelly: Oh, that's great.
Holly: I just find that...I was sitting at the breakfast table cheering because the river was saved. And I know it was local people who had been putting pressure on it. The pressure that they were putting on it was what rose it to my attention.
Kelly: Right, right.
Holly: But it's been turned around.
Kelly: And that kind of, just giving it a little more attention kind of reinforces that.
Holly: Yeah. Every bit of publicity for these people's efforts has helped.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think that, one kind of final thought is that there are certainly destinations, both attractions and entire cities that you reference in the book that don't necessarily fall conveniently into one kind of a category. I think there are destinations on the list that are facing threats from multiple directions, whether that's environmental threats or manmade threats. Can you, and there's obviously a way in which it's very complicated. And you want to balance being realistic about what those threats are, with reasons to encourage people to continue to visit and to go. Can you give some examples of some of those destinations where it's a little complex and there are many different issues at work?
Holly: I think that a couple of them. Obviously, New Orleans, I would say that one of the things that really got me in the frame of mind to do this book was my reaction to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has always been one of my favorite cities. It's just such an incredible one-of-a-kind place. To sit there and watch these news reports as it was happening, my heart went out to it. I have some friends who live there. What they went through those months after Katrina was just the story of their lives and what was happening down there.
Kelly: Of course.
Holly: And then, as you're trying to pick that apart, what happened? Well, it was a storm. Coastal cities get hit by storms, OK. This happened. There was also government bungling of the way it would happen. Now, then you start getting into, well, why was the city vulnerable to flood? Weren't there levees? I don't consider... Unless I spent the rest of my life studying what really went on in New Orleans under Katrina, I don't think I could say for sure what was the cause of that. It was just...
Kelly: Sure. People will be debating it and they'll be studying it for years.
Holly: Exactly. And while you're debating it, you still need to go out and do stuff about it. It's a city that's still coming back. People really need to go visit it and spend some money down there. Because a lot of the things that visitors want to do are back up and running, and it's better than ever. But the city still needs an influx of money. Everyone should go visit New Orleans. A similar thing is Florence. This is another one of those kind of precipitating events...
Kelly: Oh, yeah.
Holly: As these, in 2002, when there were all these big floods in the rivers, Prague was really hit hard in 2002.
Holly: Other places, like [Inaudible name 22?10] and Whittenberg in East Germany. Well, the historic parts were, of course, where were developing cities in Europe built? They were built on rivers. And the oldest buildings are right by the rivers.
Kelly: Right on the river, exactly.
Holly: Well, you know, flooding is something that happens. And these are the older buildings, so they're a little bit more vulnerable to damage. But on top of that, it began to become apparent, that it was during the years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, there was massive deforestation of the lands along these river basins.
Holly: And that's why they became more vulnerable to flooding. Because there just weren't enough trees to hold back the banks. So again, what is this? Is this a natural thing, is it a political thing, is damage that we've done. There's a whole lot of things.
Kelly: There's a whole lot of factors at work that make it complex, but that still gives you compelling reasons to go now. And I think that's part of the guiding principle behind the book. It's to, some of these things might still be around in another generation, but the idea is that it's kind of pinpointing places that have a certain, I would say that have a certain precariousness about them. Or a certain fragility. And that it gives you, it kind of lights a little fire under you to get you thinking about where to travel.
Holly: I know that, years ago I went to Falling Water, this incredible Frank Lloyd Wright house out in western Pennsylvania.
Holly: Spent a little time, and I went to a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright stuff. He's an extraordinary architect. And so last summer after I finished writing this book, we took our kids there. And we went after this big restoration, because there was real danger of this house, which was daringly built right over a stream which kind of runs through the house.
Kelly: Right through the house, yeah.
Holly: And the engineers at the time said to Wright you can't do this. He goes, yes, I can do it. And there were some flaws in his engineering, and they spent a lot of money to do a really, really thoughtful reshoring. You can't tell. It hasn't changed the design at all, but it really is sturdy, and everything was just back in great shape as I went with my kids. And I said, this is what you can do. You can look at this, and say this is important. We've got to save this.
Holly: Another moment of hope.
Kelly: Right, right. And that's a great thought to end on, because that's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Holly Hughes who's the author of our new book, "Frommers 500 Places to See Before They Disappear," which is on sale now. Holly is also the author of our best-selling guide, "500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up." And also of the forth-coming book, "500 Places for Food and Wine Lovers," which comes out in April of 2009.
So Holly, we'll be sure to talk to you about that book soon, as well.
Holly: And I can't wait to talk about that.
Kelly: Yeah. Thanks so much for being here. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Holly: It was wonderful. Can I make one more pitch?
Holly: People should, if possible, if you have a great local, independent bookseller near you, that's another disappearing species. And if you can go buy your book there, that'd be great.
Kelly: Very well done. Yes, I concur. So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon. [music]
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