Magical Maldives

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My friend Mollie has been vacationing in this Indian Ocean paradise of islands almost every year for the past 26 years.  She swoons when talking about her perfect holidays:  sensational snorkeling, gorgeous accommodations, fabulous food, pristine beaches.  What more could one want?

We had booked a trip to Sri Lanka last February (see previous posts, “Wonders of Sri Lanka” and “Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife”).  The Maldives were in the neighborhood, about an hour and 15 minutes flight time from Colombo.  We had to see this paradise for ourselves, so we added a week of Maldives R&R to our trip.

No doubt — the Maldives are magical.  Postcards cannot capture the beauty of beaches surrounded by shimmering sapphire waters.   Our resort was luxurious.  We had our own bungalow, our own piece of beach.  The food and resort staff all rate five stars.

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No crowds on Maldive beaches

Yet, we were not overwhelmed.  Unfortunately we did not have the best weather.  Too many cloudy, overcast days and rain.  When it rains in the Maldives, it teems. I had been eager to experience what is considered some of the best snorkeling in the world. I was disappointed.  I did see colorful, exotic fish and other creatures, but not the extravagant underwater wildlife I had expected. Mollie said we should have chosen a smaller island and resort, and I should have taken boat excursions to other places for better snorkeling…

The Maldives consist of more than 1,190 islands on a coral-formed archipelago.  Only about 190 of those islands are occupied by the country’s some 341,000 inhabitants.  The rest are virgin islands, or, like our Island, Horubadhoo, Baa Atoll, private islands developed for individual resorts – one resort per island.

Hasan Ibrahim, reservations manager at Royal Island Resort and Spa where we stayed, told me there are 114 of these private island resorts in the Maldives, with another 14 under construction.  On the main island, Malé, and on some of the other larger islands, there are guest houses offering far more reasonable accommodations than the pricey, private resorts.mblog.13a

Royal Island Resort and Spa has a capacity for about 300 guests, and a staff of 350 coming from at least 10 different countries, he said.  Most of the guests are Europeans.

“Since the tsunami (2004) everything has changed,” assistant manager Sharif said. “The winds, the waves, you can’t predict.  The rains are heavier now.’’ The inclement weather we experienced in March was abnormal. “This is supposed to be the dry season.”

He explained that El Nino in 2016 killed the coral, turning it brown.  “It will take eight years to come back.”  Although Royal Island did not suffer extensive damage from the tsunami, a rock wall, mainly underwater, was built around the island in 2008 to protect it from big waves and erosion.  I did venture outside the wall when snorkeling several times and spied different fish, but the sea was a bit rough and I feared venturing too far.  There were no other swimmers in sight. mblog.17a

I did fulfill one wish – to scuba dive again. I am certified, but have very few dives on my dive card.  I just wanted to prove that I could still dive, and thanks to a very patient and understanding diving instructor, Anne from Russia, I succeeded.

Bungalows at Royal Island are spread throughout a tropical forest, but all facing the beach.  The only sounds are the gentle slapping of waves on the white sands and bizarre shrieks from all manner of jungle fowl.  mblog.14a

In addition to diving and snorkeling, tennis, big game fishing, sailing, and canoeing are offered.  A posh spa offers a variety of treatments, massages etc.  We took beach walks around the island (800 meters in length and 220 meters wide), and rarely encountered another soul.

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We left the island paradise to visit an island where Maldivians live and work. These friendly women were happy to pose for photos in their shop.

If you seek solitude and tranquility, the Maldives is the place. We like both, but mixed with exploring and mingling with locals. We had our chance for the latter on a boat trip to a larger island where we followed our guide through a tiny fishing village — and shopped.  There were just a few souvenir shops, but each offered bargains and friendly, delightful shopkeepers who, not only gladly posed for pictures, but showered us with small presents after we made our purchases.

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Fun feeding session on outing to a nearby island

A bit of adventure awaited on the shark and ray feeding outing. The marine mammals are obviously accustomed to visitors and snatch food from your hands if you are brave enough to offer. I was intrigued.

The majority of Maldivians, Sunni Muslims, live in the capital city on the island of Malé where the main international airport is located.  Their religion prohibits drinking alcohol and eating pork, but the resorts are an exception to this ban.

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Village women were at work cracking almonds.

Ibrahim said managing Royal Island is“like running a cruise ship. We have to do everything ourselves… We produce our own water. All the food is imported.”  All the staff live on the island, he said.  “We are like a family.  We live and work like a family.”

The Royal Island family treated us and all the guests royally. We were amazed with the variety of tasty food.  The surroundings, both the beach and the jungle-like interior, are enchanting.  All is magical, but perhaps not the kind of magic that will lure us back for a repeat visit.

More photos follow.

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Chefs at resort prepared different ethnic specials every night.
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A beach brigade cleans and sweeps the sand very early every morning.
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The men fish.  The village women have other chores.
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Not camera shy, these Maldivians.
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Cats wait for leftovers from shark and ray feeding.  I made sure they got plenty.

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SEPTEMBER IN GERMANY

6,500-kilometers from our home in southern France to the top of Germany, back down to the bottom with many stops in between, then home through the French Alps.

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Lindenfels in the Odenwald, an old favorite.

We were happy to be back in Deutschland where we lived and worked for many, many years.  We saw old friends.  We made new friends. We visited old haunts and new places. And, we enjoyed culinary favorites – great beer and wurst.

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German pretzel, bratwurst and sauerkraut — the best!
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Too many days like this.

The down side:  weather (mainly gray) and traffic.  We moved to France for sunshine, and after a month of mainly depressing, grim weather, I think we made the right decision—despite sweltering last summer.  On those legendary autobahns with sections where there is no speed limit, we encountered too many “staus” (traffic jams).

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No speeding on this autobahn.

First stop: two towns in northern Germany from whence my ancestors hailed long ago:  Cloppenburg and Vechta.  We were not overwhelmed with either.  We could not even find a Gasthaus for a beer and bratwurst in Cloppenburg, only pizzerias and all manner of ethnic restaurants. Unfortunately this seems to be the trend throughout the country.

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Bremen’s historic market place, above, and the Town Hall, below, sparkling at night.

blog.bremenOn to Bremen which is overwhelming with its fairytale perfect Markt Platz.  We stopped in Bremerhaven to check out its famous Emigration Center and fascinating museum.  We used their computers for some ancestor research. One could spend hours, days, on this project.

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The 110-meter high glass façade of the Elbphilharmonie tops the brick block of an historic quayside warehouse.

We moved on to Hamburg which has grabbed headlines worldwide with its glittering new landmark, the Elbphilharmonie, an astonishing structure which has been in the works for more than 13 years, grossly surpassed cost estimates with a final price tag of $843 million, and has sold out the 2,150 seats for each performance in its Grand Hall for more than a year.

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Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city and largest port, is all about water. The open waters of the North Sea are 65 miles from the maritime city, but it’s water that imbues the city with a distinctive, enticing flair.  We took a harbor cruise, and a cruise on the city’s two lakes, the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Aussenalster. (Outer Alster).blog.nsea3

To experience the North Sea, we traveled on to the coastal resort, St. Peter Ording.  I had hoped we could bike along the dikes.  Rain.  Downpours. No biking for us. However, between the deluges we managed a few invigorating beach walks.  The North Sea winds make the Mistral seem like a gentle breeze.

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Wismar and Stralsund, two cities on the Baltic in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (part of the former East Germany), were next on our agenda.  Both are medieval treasures which were about to crumble before reunification.  They are now restored

Architectural treasures in Stralsund.

jewels.  “But, it is thanks to our (western German) money,” a friend in Stuttgart reminded me.   Wismar’s ancient churches are a marvel.  Stralsund has a wonderful new Ozeaneum musem, in addition to its antique structures.

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Wismar’s gabled facades are popular with filmmakers.

I will be writing articles for the magazine German Life on many of the places we visited, including an article, “Lodging in Noble Homes.”  These are homes still occupied by royalty, friendly nobles whom you can meet, even dine with.  We stayed at three such homes/castles, and had delightful times with the owners, all of whom encounter monumental expenses to keep their royal residences intact.  Income from tourists helps with expenses.

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Schloss Luehburg in northern Germany, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. After reunification, the castle which had been seized by the East German government, was purchased by a private owner. Below, Mrs. Calsow (von Bassewitz) bought back the home of her ancestors in 2010. More info: http://www.schloss-luehburg.de
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Luehburg Schloss owners Wolf Christian and Dorothee Calsow (Duchess von Bassewitz) with faithful friends. She gave up the title when she married.
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Schloss Ludwigseck near Bad Hersfeld in central Germany (Hessen), has been in the von Gilsa family since the 15th century. More info: http://www.schloss-ludwigseck.de
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Duchess Tanja and Duke Thilo von und zu Gilsa live in Schloss Ludwigseck with their four children, two castle dogs and cats.
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Schloss Hohenstadt, east of Stuttgart, has been in the von Adelmann family for almost 500 years.  More info:  http://www.GrafAdelmann.de
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American Duchess Anne von Adelmann gained her title when marrying Duke Reinhard. Here with their two  young daughters.  They also have two castle dogs.

More photos from Germany below:

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We had a tour of Stuttgart’s controversial, monumental building site: Stuttgart 21 which aims to put the city’s train tracks underground.
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Distant relatives in Stralsund?  Koester is my maiden name.  The owner was not impressed.
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Strandkorb (beach basket) offers refuge from those fierce North Sea winds.
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Hamburg’s city hall.
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Visiting old friends in Darmstadt.
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And old friends in Auerbach.
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Plenty of interesting photo opps on the North Sea

Coming soon, the Maldives and more on Germany’s noble families and castles. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared. 

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2017: The long hot summer

Too long. Too hot. It’s almost September (28 August), but the temperature on our balcony in the shade is 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees F). There have been far too many days with this sweltering heat, even reaching 38/100 a few times. We have learned to live like the locals, shutting all windows and shutters early in the morning. It is like living in a cave, but it does keep things a bit cooler.

I long for the coolness of the mountains…. Soon we will be off, not to the mountains, but north to Germany where far more pleasant temperatures await, alas some rain too. That’s Germany! We need that rain in Provence. No precipitation for weeks. The garden plants are sad, drooping, very thirsty. I am so sick of watering, but I must prevent my precious roses from perishing. My geraniums and petunias have given up – no more blossoms.  Grass — what grass? Nothing but a rock hard brown surface covered with the parched remains of what long ago was lush and green.  It’s strange. We are suffering from excessive heat and drought in Provence.  In  Houston they have Harvey and devastating floods.  Climate change is real.

Following are some photos of summer chez nous. We kept cool, sort of, at a mechoui (lamb roasted on a spit) picnic in nearby Cereste. That lamb was tasty. We had visitors, friends Regis and Britta from Germany with their friends Tobie and Allan from Tucson.  Tobie scoured the antiques shops, finding many treasures which Allan had to squeeze into the rental car trunk.  We are not sure how all that loot made it back to Tucson.Our only trip of the summer was to Paris to see our fabulous American dentist, Dr. Jane. We made time for a visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, an architectural wonder.  

summer4We had a cute, tiny Airbnb apartment in the Marais which offered this view (below) from the mini balcony.  This time we did not get locked in (see previous post, “Prisoners in an Airbnb Apartment,” 2016/11/13)I took a cooking course, The Art of Cooking like Chef, at the renowned Cordon Bleu. I failed to master carre de l’agneau  and ended up massacring a beautiful hunk of meat.  More on this sorry tale to appear soon in an article on http://www.travelsquire.com

My rack of lamb looked nothing like this. I failed Cooking like a Chef, but I loved the course anyway.

We were happy to lighten our load at a flea market in Reillanne, our town. It is therapeutic, and we need to part with much more. 

Friends David and Mollie did very well, with many takers for their bargains.

More visitors, Tom and Lisa from our Stuttgart days came with daughter Remy who is named after that town in Provence.  They now live in Middleburg, Va.

More Paris.  Dinner with Leonard and Claudine at an Israeli restaurant where the Shakshuka is excellent (see Shakshuka recipe under Recipes, Meat and Mains, column at right).

Bob bids farewell to Paris, quenching his thirst with a beer at Le Train Bleu while we wait to board our TGV back to Provence.

We had a celebration a few days ago to mark the end of this scorcher of a summer, but no end in sight.  We had fun nonetheless, and delicious food thanks to chefs Victor and Ishmael.

Today’s Taste is a different and tangy take on summer squash and/or zucchini.  Click on squash photo , upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.

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Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife

As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.

Sloth bear

Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.

Mongoose

“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.

No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.ff.41

I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.

Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.

White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.

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Serpent Eagle?

Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.

On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.

The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.

The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.

No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.

For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.

Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@yahoo.com and info@dsltours.com)  chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.

More photos of Sri Lanka follow.

Unique tree in Peradeniya Botanical Garden in Kandy.
No wonder they call them street dogs,  There are not as many of these homeless dogs in Sri Lanka as in neighboring India, but still too many, and sad.
Only five percent of Asian elephants have tusks. They can live to be 65 years old.

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Sri Lankan tea is famous worldwide. Tea, first planted by the British, thrives in the hill country.

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At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries.  Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.

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GERMANS ON THE ROAD

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German tour group at the Taj Mahal

Gerlinde trekked for 12 days in northern Myanmar, a region with no roads, only accessible by small plane and requiring special permission to visit. “It was the best trip ever, such an adventure, no tourists. We did not see a white face for five days,” she said.

Erich traveled by camel, through the Jordanian dessert for a week. He camped in a cave used for burials. “It was very romantic. Normal tourists don’t do this,” he said. He recalled other past adventures: Driving from Germany to Iran; being robbed, a knife at his neck, in eastern Turkey.


I wrote this article for the magazine German Life (www.germanlife.com) where it was recently published. As soon as I conquer a new operating system on my computer, I hope to post more on Sri Lanka.


Sepp has climbed mountains in Pakistan, India and Nepal. He and his wife Inge have been to Morocco, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, all European countries, and recently to India for the fourth time.

Annette returned to Rwanda for the fifth time to hike uphill through dense bamboo forests to observe mountain gorillas. “I am addicted,” she explained.

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Annette, far right, on her fifth trip to Rwanda, a trek to see mountain gorillas.

Many Germans, like those mentioned above, are passionate about travel. While the above adventures may not be among the pursuits of the average tourist, Germans are known, not just for their travel lust, but for seeking out exotic destinations and unique experiences…sometimes too unique

Ivy, a staff member at a safari lodge in Botswana, told a horrifying tale of a German couple who were driving through the game park in a rented car which broke down. The husband left his wife and set out on foot to find assistance. His wife stayed in the car and was rescued. He never returned…only his boots were found.

Most tourists visit the game parks with a group and guide, Ivy said, but “the Germans prefer self-drive.”

Comments on German travelers from a travel web site included this from someone who had worked at a resort hotel in Eilat, Israel: “From all the nations that would make our guests (and workers) it seems that the Germans were the most traveled people.”

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In the Myanmar jungle, Gerlinde encountered leeches.

Another comment: “I was recently in South Africa and let me tell you that I think I met more Germans than South Africans. They are everywhere!!” With six weeks of paid vacation per year, Germans have more time to travel than the average American. Travel they do, especially in winter to escape the oppressive, cold and dark days.

Norbert Fiebig, president of the Deutscher Reise Verband, sums it up on the organization web site: “Germans attach great importance to travelling. Most Germans are fascinated by relaxing holidays and discovering cultures and landscapes that are foreign to them.” Blogger Andrew Couch, who writes about Germany, finds “the quality of life idea of having vacation time is deeply a part of German working culture.”

Perhaps Germans are inspired by the country’s literary giant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) is a classic. Für Naturen wie die meine ist eine Reise unschätzbar: Sie belebt, berichtigt, belehrt und bildet, ” he wrote in a letter to Schiller in 1797. “For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops.”

Last year I accompanied a German tour group to northern India. Most of the group, like Sepp and Inge, had been to India numerous times, as well as many other countries. They especially like the friendly people in India, the culture, and “last but not least, the good food,” said traveler Rainer.

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German tourists in Dharamsala, India

Our Indian guide, Rajesh Mendiratta, has been leading German tour groups for 25 years. He started out in the tourist industry working in a hotel. German guests complained that the

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Tour guides Alok and Raj

guides did not speak good German, he recalled. He decided to learn the language, studied at the Goethe Institute in India and became a guide mainly for Germans.

The Germans are interested in learning about everything. They are very correct people. They are appreciative,” he said.

Most in our group knew Raj from previous trips. He has visited some of them in Germany. “They invite me in their homes. I value their friendship,” he said.

For the second portion of our trip, a younger Indian guide, Alok Tripathi, took over. Like many Indians he speaks English, but he decided to learn German and focus on German tourists because “there is too much competition with English.”

He agrees with Raj and has found that “Germans want to learn everything, the culture; traditions…Americans just want to shop.” Yet, Americans get a plus for tips. They are more generous, he said.

According to Raj, Germans rank as the number one nationality visiting India. “They saved us,” he said, referring to the slump in tourism 10 years ago when other nationalities, including the British who had been at the top, cut back on travel to India. Germans kept coming.

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Germans visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, where heads must be covered.

While Germans love India, it is not their favorite foreign destination. That distinction goes to Spain, followed by Greece and Italy. “Greece is currently having the strongest growth with booking plus of 41 percent compared to last summer,” said Susanne Stünckel, a spokesperson for TUI Deutschland, the largest leisure, travel and tourism company in the world.

Long-distance destinations such as the U.S., Mexico, South America, Canada, Indonesia and the Seychelles, are also “growing rapidly,” she said.  New York is the German favorite in the U.S., followed by Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

More Germans, like those previously mentioned, are venturing off the beaten track, Stünckel noted, “moving more and more into exotic destinations with increasing travel experience.”

One such place is Iran, which travel agent Bettina Rohleder in Karlsruhe termed “very popular.” Travelers, including Gerlinde who visited Iran with a guide,  find the country friendly and fascinating.

Yet Germany is considered the most popular overall destination of Germans who are happy with short travel distances, the close proximity of attractions, and being able to speak the same language.

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The Black Forest, above, is popular for “Wandern” (hiking), a favorite German pastime.

Hiking in Bavaria, swimming in the Baltic Sea, culture and history in Berlin – it’s the variety that people love,’’ said Karl Born, professor of tourism management at the Harz University of Applied Sciences in Saxony-Anhalt.

Hamburg is tops for culture this year with the recent opening of the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall acclaimed as one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. The glassy construction resembling a hoisted sail was designed by Herzon & de Meuron and is attracting visitors from around the world — not just Germany.

According to the German National Tourist Board (GNTB), culture is the number one drawing card (75%) for visits to the country, followed by the outdoors and countryside. Whatever the motivation, more and more international tourists are joining the Germans to experience the wonders of Deutschland. The nation’s tourism numbers have been up consistently for the past six to seven years.

Germany’s reputation as a stable, safe and affluent nation has boosted its status as an attractive travel destination in recent years, especially as tourists increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of international terrorists,” notes Deutsche Welle, the country’s international broadcaster.

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Germany’s number one attraction:  Neuschwanstein Castle

With 35 million international visitors in 2015, Germany placed eighth in world tourism rankings by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. France took top honors that year with 84.5 million visitors. Most foreign visitors to Germany come from the neighboring Netherlands, followed by Switzerland, with the U.S. in third place.

The top attraction in the country: Neuschwanstein Castle. Other favorites are the Berlin Wall,

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Wilma at the Taj Mahal.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg Castle, the Cologne Cathedral and the Romantic Road. Berlin is the most popular city, followed by Munich.

“Germany is full of attractions,” says my friend Wilma who lives in Darmstadt. “I like the Rhine. I like Bavaria and the mountains. I like the cities, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg. There are so many old and interesting things. Germany would be the best country for travel if it weren’t for the weather.”

Never mind the weather, Germany was number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Countries” index.

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