Author Archives: Masada Siegel


Destination Wedding Story in Toronto Star March 2013

Wedding Travel: Say I do with a destination wedding in Arizona, Hawaii or Europe
Planning on a romantic destination wedding? Try saying your vows in Scottsdale, Hawaii, or Scotland. Or try a cruise wedding.

The decision to have a romantic but casual beach wedding will set the stage for all the wedding decisions to come, from the dress to the decor.

By: Masada Siegel Special to the Star, Published on Fri Mar 15 2013
Planning a wedding is one of the most stressful events in a woman’s life. It is challenging to organize the big day in your own city, let alone plan a destination wedding. However, if your dream is to get married outside in November or plan an intimate event just for close friends and family, there are a myriad of options and ways to turn your dreams into reality without completely losing your mind.
Where you decide to say “I do” will determine every aspect of your special day from the dress to the decor. So the first decision is the location. Does the desert with its golden sunsets appeal to you, or are you more of a beach person? What about a romantic city? Places to consider for an outdoor winter wedding would be Arizona, Hawaii and the Caribbean. If old-school charm is a desire, perhaps Florence, Italy. For a fairy tale come true, a château in France or Scotland might be the perfect place. And for those who want an extended party, getting married on a cruise is an option.

Outdoor Spring Wedding
Scottsdale, Ariz., has an average of more than 300 days of sunshine yearly, so the odds are in your favour for a picture-perfect day. Getting married at sunset on a golf course with purple mountains glowing in the background is a spectacular way to walk down the aisle.
The Hyatt at Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale offers fantastic views, delicious food and helpful staff. The resort has outdoor pools, hot tubs, waterfalls and a man-made beach. Scottsdale also offers wedding guests plenty of activities. They can hike nearby Camelback Mountain, shop at Scottsdale Fashion Square and take in native American culture at the Heard Museum.
Art Lovers
Florence is an over-the-top romantic city. There are endless museums as well as spectacular backdrops for photos. It is a unique city because it hosts stunning and historic locations for many religions. For instance, a Catholic wedding can be celebrated in one of the Renaissance churches, while a Jewish wedding can be held at the Great Synagogue of Florence, which was built in a Moorish style and is one of the most beautiful in Europe.
The Lungarno Hotel Collection has a wedding team that can arrange all the details, from the religious to the reception. They can also help with photography, floral design, music, accommodations, wedding party and a gala dinner.
Princess Bride
For the bride looking to create an elegant wedding, the Château de Challain located in the Loire Valley region in France will wow the imagination. It is the venue of choice for any bride wishing to live out a fairy tale, as it appears to be straight out of a storybook.
The château can be rented out to host a wedding and also provides fabulous accommodations; wedding guests can continue to feel like royalty while sleeping in an ornate canopy bed in a tower. Wedding ceremonies at the château often conclude with fireworks. châ
For an intimate affair, Balfour Castle located on Shapinsay, one of the Orkney Islands, is just a short distance from the north-east coast of the Scottish mainland. It’s a dreamy choice, with its own, tiny chapel and receptions held in the elegant dining room and conservatory. Castle accommodations include a bridal suite and rooms for another six couples.

Beach Bum

Hawaii might be one of the easiest places to plan a destination wedding. Many hotels have entire staffs devoted to planning weddings. The packages are all-inclusive and the resorts provide detailed websites with photos of venues and menu choices.
Couples can tie the knot by waterfalls, the ocean and in coconut groves at the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, which is nestled on 12 oceanfront hectares on the Kohala Coast of the Island of Hawaii. Another option is the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua in Maui. They offer wedding packages for intimate ceremonies of two to four people all the way up to 500 people.

Adults Only

The Caribbean offers endless beaches, tantalizing choices for fine dining, luxurious spas, golf courses and plenty of water sports. An ideal place to say “I do” is at the adults-only Royal Suites Turquesa by Palladium in Punta Cana Dominican Republic.
The resort offers a variety of wedding packages with options to personalize them. Also they have a free wedding website where family and friends can make a contribution to the wedding day itself or for the couple to enjoy their honeymoon with tours or upgrades.

Bridesmaids and Mermaids

Getting married at sea is fabulously romantic and a way to keep the party going for a few days. Holland America offers a plethora of options ranging from a marriage ceremony on board, on an exotic Caribbean island beach or on top of a majestic Alaskan glacier.
Packages include a personalized ceremony, flowers, a cake and wedding certificate. However, co-ordinators will customize the couple’s special day according to their wishes. It’s an ideal way to extend the party and celebrate with families as well as the bridal party.
Masada Siegel is a freelance writer based in Arizona.

Getting the “Royal” Treatment

Getting the royal treatment

Italy, Slovenia and Croatia by cruise ship offers wondrous sights.

Masada Siegel, Special to, Wednesday, August 9, 2011

Venice is one of those dreamy cities filled with blue-green canals, quaint bridges, magnificent art and outdoor cafés. Every sense is seduced, from the scent of freshly baked pizza, to the sight of people gently floating by on boats, ships and gondolas.

We wandered through streets lined with glassware, masks and bakeries. In every direction, a new secret path to take, each appearing more enchanting than the one previous. It was a challenge to decide where to let our feet take us.

Somewhere, on one of the twisty roads leading to another small bridge, a gondolier was singing in the distance. My friend Kathy, who had joined me on this adventure, smiled and said, “Do you realize we are in Venice, Italy? Should we go find that cappuccino I’ve been dreaming about?”

This was Italy at its finest, the cool, crisp air blew against my face, and the lapping waters of the canals sounded like music. But the best was yet to come – a floating palace awaited us. No need to roll my large suitcase onto water taxis or over canals.

Royal Caribbean cruise line is all about the “royal” treatment. Our stateroom welcome included a bouquet of red roses and a heaping platter of fruit. Every day, we were surprised with overflowing plates of chocolate and cheese, not to mention a menagerie of creatures, like elephants and bats, which had been created out of towels to greet us upon returning from off-ship adventures.

The ship, Voyager of the Seas, accommodates more than 3,000 passengers, and the choice of on-board activities is endless, including ice-skating and rock climbing. Fancy eateries abound, and there’s even a Johnny Rockets restaurant. The stops included Kuper in Slovenia, Dubrovnik in Croatia, and Bari, Ravenna and Venice in Italy, and the ship provided myriad choices for excursions, while more independent travelers could tour on their own or hire a guide.

The first evening, we set off accompanied by a spectacular sunset while cruising down the enormous Giudecca Canal. According to many, Giudecca means “the Jewry.” Hundreds of people gathered on the top deck of the ship to see the splendors of St. Marks Square and the city of Venice as we silently sailed into the night.

Our next day started early in Slovenia, and began with a downpour. Regardless of wet feet, Kathy and I ventured into Kuper and found a quaint café off the main square, where we proceeded to escape the rain, indulge in coffee and enjoy the free wireless Internet.

The sun started to peek out just as our private tour guide, Alen, picked us up and whisked us through the spectacular Slovenian countryside. The Soca River was unbelievably aqua-blue and we were astounded by a huge waterfall flowing out of a mountain of sheer rock.

Slovenia, a country of two million people, is so pristine, it seemed to be a Hollywood set. The views were breathtaking, and Alen’s driving at breakneck speeds, about 200 kilometres an hour, left me breathless.

We drove through the windy roads of the Slovenian Alps, snow on the ground in areas, and the steep mountains, which were littered with flocks of sheep. One feisty fellow made a beeline straight for us. He seemed to have a hankering for cameras and kept nudging me to take his photo.

Lunch was at Milka, a restaurant in Kranjska Gora, overlooking a white snow-capped mountain and a sparkling blue lake surrounded by green grass dotted with flowers. The delicious food and warm atmosphere of the restaurant contributed to the magic of the day.

Grinning, Kathy said, “Slovenia is just as beautiful as Switzerland; this must be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”

Our day concluded with a stop at scenic Lake Bled and a drive through the Italian port city of Trieste, just across the border from Kuper in Slovenia.

The evenings on the ship added to the adventure and included Broadway-style shows in a theatre that holds hundreds of people. Then there are the endless meal choices and bars and there are bands playing in seemingly every corner.  The attention to detail was exceptional; it was hard not to grin at the smile-inducing sculptures fashioned out of various melons and fruit.

The next few stops were in Italy, and one of the excursions possible from Ravenna was a trip to Florence. It’s a bus and train ride away, but well worth the effort.

The Italian Jewish community dates back to 161 BCE, when Jason Ben-Eleazar and Eupolemus Ben-Johanan came as Judah Maccabee’s envoys. Jewish merchants, doctors and bankers started settling in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

The Great Synagogue of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, was designed in a Moorish style; the design is a mix of traditions of the Islamic and Italian worlds. Every inch of the synagogue is decorated with mosaic and marble, and the internal walls are painted with intricate designs. It successfully survived the Second World War, though there were attempts to destroy it. For a time, the Nazis used the synagogue as a warehouse and as a stable, and bayonet marks are still visible on the doors of the holy ark. Before the fascists fled Florence, they mined the synagogue with explosives. Fortunately, the partisans were able to defuse most of the bombs. One gallery fell, but was replaced.

A wonderful way to experience the synagogue today is to attend services. As well, the second floor hosts the Jewish Museum of Florence, whose exhibits include Torah scrolls, ketubot and a variety of silver Judaica.

Leaving Italy, the adventures continued in Dubrovnik. While the beach is the ultimate Dubrovnik destination, with its clear-blue waters, another piece of Jewish history is just steps away. In the rebuilt old city of Dubrovnik is Europe’s second-oldest synagogue.

The Dubrovnik synagogue was built in 1652 in the Italian Baroque style. The sanctuary is divided by three arches and is decorated with ornate fabrics dotted with gold. The chandelier is particularly striking. The synagogue suffered severe damage to its roof during the Yugoslav shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991, but was eventually repaired. In the early 2000s, the first floor was converted into a museum chronicling the local Jewish community and honoring members of the community killed during the Holocaust.

When you leave the synagogue, be sure to catch a glance at the brick wall outside, as it says, in Hebrew, “Bless you when you leave.”

The cruise ship itself was dreamy; I especially enjoyed my balcony, reading and writing, staring at the endless blue of the water, and the one day we had on board the ship was relaxing. I ventured to a yoga class at the day spa and attended the ice-skating extravaganza, featuring Canadian, Russian and American skaters. Tears welled up as I watched this visual masterpiece. I was so impressed, I saw it twice the same day!

Early the next morning, as the sun sparkled on Venice, the ship glided by the new levee system being built to protect Venice from its rising waters. The day started with a Royal Caribbean excursion to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and a glass factory on the island of Murano, home to the exquisite Murano glass and a famous gondola ride.

Later in the day, we boarded a bus – a waterbus – to Venice’s Jewish Quarter, which was once the ghetto. We toured the Jewish museum and explored the stunning synagogues, many of which are from the Renaissance era. Each one is built to the style and taste of the community that built it, but a general Venetian influence is apparent. The famous architect Baldassarre Longhena, who designed many churches, restored the Spanish synagogue, for example, which is spectacular.

The community has erected a memorial to victims of the Holocaust, and art galleries filled with unique pieces of Judaica, such as dreidels and mezuzot made of Murano glass, and a kosher restaurant are open for business.

As I wandered back toward the ship, I bought a pink mask. There was going to be a masquerade ball for the last night of the cruise. The sun had started to set and a golden glow danced over Venice’s waters. While the adventure was over, the party was just beginning.

Masada Siegel can be reached at



Masada Siegel, Special to, Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Tags: International News

Masada Siegel in Petra

Venice, Calif. — Zar, one of my best friends, stared at me, wondering if I had been hiding under a rock and not heard the news for weeks. He said: “Absolutely not, you are not going, and certainly not solo.”

I responded cheekily while Matt and Kathy stared at me over brunch at Rose Café in Venice, Calif.: “Yes, I know about the Arab Spring, but it is summer. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry I’ll check to make sure there’s no revolution before my trip.”

Years earlier, my friend Justin showed me pictures of a place so majestic, so magnificent, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. It took me a few years to finally get back to the region, and when I finally arrived to Eilat, Israel, the night before my adventure, I became ill. Instead of seeing an ancient city hidden for centuries – Petra, Jordan – I visited the emergency room. I was determined that this time nothing was going to interfere with my dream, not even a revolution.

Masada, Israel

This summer, I was in Israel, and the travel gods were taunting me yet again. I was at my favourite place on the planet, my namesake, Masada, and I was stuck with the most unpleasant group of tourists. (The two oldest members, in their 70s, were the menschen of the group.) Not only were most of them grumpy and unpleasant, but a few were downright mean.

Sometimes miserable situations can actually lead to positive ones. At least that is what my mom has told me numerous times. Although when in the midst of a situation where you happily consider pushing nasty people off a mountain, it’s hard to imagine.

I kept to myself, took photos and tried to absorb the positive energy of the mountain while avoiding the negativity emanating from some members of the group. The desert light bounced off the blue Dead Sea. The mountain was stark but stunning.

On the overlook where you could see Herod’s palaces, I noticed two blond women. They offered to take my photograph. I accepted and chatted briefly with Janet and Jen and snapped a few photos for them, too.

On the cable-car platform down the mountain we met again. Jen lives in Israel, as her husband works for the U.S. State Department and Janet was visiting her. Somehow our conversation veered to another magical, historical place, the place of my dreams, Petra, Jordan. I mentioned I was going later in the week, and Janet said she was interested in joining me on the adventure. We exchanged cards and promised to be in touch.

Border crossing

Janet and I met on the plane in Sde Dov, a small regional airport in Tel Aviv. She was the last one on the plane. Janet apparently told security: “I am travelling with Masada who I met at Masada and we are going to Petra.” Needless to say, they most likely thought she had lost her marbles and proceeded to thoroughly investigate her!

We arrived at Eilat, and our tour company, Eco Tours, whisked us away straight to the border. Janet grinned. She’s a relaxed traveller and had no idea what I planned. She had called the tour company and said: “Book me on whatever Masada is doing.”

The Israeli tour company Eco Tours is known as one of the best. The company customizes tours in Israel, Jordan Sinai and Egypt. In Jordan, it works with a counterpart that is also well organized and helpful.

After leaving passport control on the Israeli side, we started to walk to the Jordanian side. Janet said: “Do you see all barbedwire fences? There are minefields on both sides of the crossing. This is so odd. I feel like I am in a movie.”

Jordanian soldiers with automatic machine guns checked our passports and a man name “Light” met us at the border and helped us with the formalities of entering Jordan.

Mohammad, our driver, was waiting in a black Mercedes. We drove past Aqaba, past a new hospital being built, an army training facility and then through countless kilometres of desolate desert until we arrived to Petra. On the way, our driver pointed out a mountain named Jabal Harun. It’s 1350 metres high and on the top is a white domed mosque. Built in the 14th century, it is believed that Moses’ brother Aaron is buried there.

Petra, Jordan

Petra, a mythical city, was unknown to the western world until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the ancient city carved into the red rocks. The city was established around the sixth century as the capital city of the Nabataeans, a tribe that turned the city into an important link on the historic spice route extending from India to Syria to East Africa.

It’s easy to see why Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The magic of generations past seems to whisper to visitors as they walk through the entrance to the city, or the siq. It’s a narrow gorge, more than one kilometre in length and surrounded on both sides by soaring, 80-metre-high cliffs.  There is also a sophisticated water conduits system that runs through the siq, and ancient works of art decorate the tall, majestic narrow passageways.

Walking through the narrow passageways, I felt like an ancient explorer. I was mesmerized by the phenomenal colours and formations. At the end you see the first glimpse of the breathtaking Al-Khazneh, known as the Treasury.

The Treasury, carved out of the reddish-pink rock, is a massive façade 30 metres wide and 43 metres high. It was carved in the early first century, and was used as the tomb of an important Nabataean king.

Petra was conquered and re-conquered by many different groups, each one leaving different marks. For instance, in 106 CE, the city was incorporated into the Roman Empire. The Roman influence is evident through many aspects, but especially through the broken Roman columns found on one of the boulevards called the Colonnaded Street. There is also a mosaic at the Petra Church, from the Byzantine time, made of stone and glass cubes and featuring Greco-Roman designs.

There was even a Jewish/Israel connection. In the entrance of Petra, there is the Obelisk Tomb, which originates from the four obelisk-shaped steles crowning the monument. They are believed to represent the souls of the dead. Interestingly, the obelisks are called “nefesh,” a Hebrew word that means the soul and breath of life of a person, their essence.

While the history of Petra is mysterious still today, papyri discovered in the caves of the Judean Desert reveal that Petra had a senate and archives, and that it was visited by the Jewish inhabitants of the province.

Janet and I wandered for hours, into caves, atop hills, and into rooms that were once tombs brilliant with colours. We braved the 800-step climb through the afternoon heat of 40 C to see the “Deir,” also know as the “Monastery,” another magnificent sculpture built into the rocks, at the top of a mountain. The views seemed endless, and the architecture unbelievable. It was easy to imagine the busy merchants and the hustle and bustle of a city teeming with people. While now a place primarily for tourists, its energy makes history come alive.

Petra was more magical than I imagined. It took years of perseverance, luck and timing. Even the misfortune of illness and terrible travel companions all led up to meeting a great person, Janet, to join me on my adventure.

As we left Petra while the sun was setting, glowing over the reddish pink buildings, we stopped and watched the colours change. Janet turned to me and said: “Wow, what an adventure. Meeting you was a gift.”

I grinned and replied: “And thank you. This unlikely adventure, totally random meeting, made this trip even better then I could imagine! I love it. Sometimes dreams really do come true in the most unusual of ways!”

Denali National Park- Alaska on Yahoo

Alaska is filled with beauty- but you have to plan well if you want to see Denali National Park as the rules are changing on how many and how people are allowed to see the park…. Click on the link below…..

Yahoo News- On Camera Story- Denali National Park, Alaska

Life is Full of Surprises!!!

Life is full of surprises
By MASADA SIEGEL, Special to
Monday, 18 April 2011
Whoosh was the sound as the bat hit the baseball, which was rapidly headed in my direction. The crowd watching spring training baseball jumped to their feet, hands reaching toward the heavens.

Room at the Four Seasons at $16,000 a night

It was a storybook spring day, with the bluest of Arizona skies. We sat on a hill in the green grass, surrounded by the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms, while the trees gently swayed with the breeze.

Chris turned toward me and asked, “Where do your stories come from?”

Laughing, I said, “You see that ball. Half of my stories come out of left field. Life is full of surprises.”

His blue eyes twinkling, he playfully touched my baseball hat and said, “Tell me a story.”

Giggling, I leaned back in the cool grass and said, “A few weeks earlier, I was in Italy, on my annual Roman holiday to see good friends Elena, Ramy and Sergio. Yes, sightseeing, shopping and simply enjoying life was on the to-do list.

Florence, a magical city, was calling, so while I was bleary eyed and jet lagged, I hopped on the train and watched the cityscape turn into the rolling hills dotted with flowers.

The broad avenues were lined with shops showing the latest fashions. It was mesmerizing peering into windows filled with leather purses, sparking jewelry and glamorous clothing. The streets twisted and turned into cobblestone alleys. Everywhere you looked, from the displays in windows to the statues, was filled with phenomenal artwork.

I arrived at my palazzo. Yes, I have a vivid imagination, but no, I was staying in a place fit for a princess, with rooms ranging up to $16,000 (US) a night.

Lobby at the Four Seasons [Masada Siegel photos]

The Four Seasons in Florence was once home to the Medici family, specifically Cardinale Alessandro dei Medici, archbishop of Florence, who soon became Pope Leo XI. Walking in the hotel was like wandering around inside a painting.

A short walk from the hotel was the kosher restaurant, Ruth’s. I had been there two years earlier. In my exhausted state, I wanted to sit down and enjoy a meal, as I often eat on the run.

Alas, I walked into the restaurant, but every table was packed.

The manager, Simcha Jelinek, kindly told me to come back in 10 minutes. Wandering around outside, I asked an Italian woman for directions. She did not quite understand, but an American woman walked over and said, “Hi, I speak English. Can I help you?”

Ana, who was originally Brazilian, had lived in San Francisco, was recently divorced and was doing her own version of the book Eat, Pray, Love. Intrigued, I invited her to lunch. She told me about her adventures, and when she asked me what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a journalist – I write.”

As we were leaving, at the entrance, I stopped, dumbfounded and blurted out, “Oh my God, that’s my story.”

“What?” Ana said.

It was the fourth time I walked by the restaurant entrance, and just then I noticed that a story I wrote, 48 hours in Florence, which was published in the Jerusalem Post, was posted under the restaurant’s sign.

At that moment, Simcha was walking out, and Ana said to him, “Do you know – she’s the author of this story.”

He was so excited. He hugged me and kissed my check and said, “What a wonderful story – I gave it to the synagogue and to the other restaurants you wrote about in the neighbourhood.”

Frankly, I was stunned, never before having seen my story posted in a restaurant, no less in Florence, Italy. What made it even more special is that it was under the name of the restaurant, “Ruth’s,” which happens to be my mom’s name.

Chris started to laugh, “Wow, the most interesting things happen to you. You have great stories.”

I shook my head, “I didn’t chose to write, writing chose me. I just like stories, reading them, writing them, experiencing them.”

That reminded me of a recent conversation with actor and comedian Larry Miller, who is passionate about acting, writing and telling stories on stage.

Miller has appeared in more than 50 films and hundreds of television shows. One of the memorable moments early in his career was his role in Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.

He explained the importance of storytelling in Jewish culture. He said, “It’s because Judaism believes there is power in words. I believe with all my heart that Judaism is a word-oriented culture. It’s all about the words, sentences, inflections. It is so deeply ingrained in our people, it’s perfect.

“The Torah even stresses how important each word is. The concept of storytelling is as deeply Jewish as the commentary of the Torah.”

He grinned and continued,“ Everything I am – it’s like it’s tied up in a DNA strand, the concept of me being a storyteller without being Jewish is just impossible.”

Miller said that he doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that Judaism has such a rich history and places such value in communicating ethics and humour through storytelling, citing examples from the Torah,.

I nodded. It made sense. Judaism is a culture wrapped up in constant learning, and, most often, it is through stories that morals and meanings are conveyed.

Everyone’s words and actions reverberate around the planet, spinning like a baseball in motion, however, most of us never realize the results of what we do, for the bad and the good. Call it a coincidence, or a bit of divine intervention – either way, it makes one stop and take notice (OK, maybe after the fourth time of walking by my story).

So perhaps the lesson I learned in Florence was we don’t always need the power of a bat to hit a home run and change people’s lives, just the power of the pen.

Masada Siegel can be reached at

Sparkling White


Sparkling white

01/20/2011 22:47 By MASADA SIEGEL

Take a moment to notice, appreciate and enjoy. If you do, your own inner light will glow, and you might make the world a brighter place.

Lake Louise, Canada.
Photo by: Courtesy

The snow sparkled as it whizzed past my face and the light of little diamonds danced over the slopes. As I skied down the mountain, the wind pushed the corners of my lips into a huge smile. The air tasted as pure and sweet as glacier water. At any moment, I expected a Hollywood director to walk out of the trees and yell, “Cut!”

I skied over to the stands to watch the fastest women downhill skiers in the world whiz down the slippery slopes. I was in Lake Louise, Canada, watching the Women’s World Cup ski races.

As they raced down the mountain at breakneck speeds toward the cheering fans, I couldn’t help but think about the talent, hard work, dedication and determination it takes to be an elite skier. But it also got me thinking about the greatness in all of us, the untold beauty we hide in our hearts and the magical abilities we bury deep within.

I don’t know if it is life hammering people down, bad experiences or growing up, but many people tend to lose their magic, their optimism and get stuck in downward spirals of unhappiness.

But happiness is within. Israeli author and professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught a class on positive psychology at Harvard, explained that one of the ways to be happy is to “express gratitude whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people and food to nature and a smile.”

The great outdoors is filled with many adventures, so besides skiing I decided to go dog sledding in Lake Louise. While the weather was 10 degrees below zero Celsius, I braved the elements and went for a ride.

Black, white and brown barking dogs with bright blue eyes greeted me, but as soon as we started to move, their focus shifted and we smoothly glided over the pristine white snow. The air smelled fresh, and the green trees were blanketed with snow. I could hear the majestic quiet of the wind, and the blue-tinted winter wonderland seemed straight out of the pages of a novel.

So it came as no surprise to me that in a Gallup World Poll of 155 nations, Canada, Israel, Australia and Switzerland all rank as the eighth happiest countries.

I have been lucky enough to spend time in all of them, so the high ranking seems appropriate. All four are filled with natural beauty; three out of four have beaches good for surfing, snorkeling and frolicking in the waves. They all have picturesque mountains from Ayers Rock in Australia to Masada in Israel. (OK, so I am biased about loving my namesake.) The chocolate and skiing in Canada and Switzerland are both alluring and addicting.

Always one to try to surround myself with images of brilliance and people of good character, I spent time dreamily staring out my window at the famous Fairmont Hotel in Lake Louise. My mind got lost in the grandeur of the glacier and the frozen lake where I skated earlier in the day. I saw the clouds roll away from the mountains and the rays of sunlight shimmer on the treetops. It was like watching the brush strokes of an artist in action.

Touched by the ultimate work of art, I wondered why nature’s beauty evokes strong responses, often bringing people to tears.

My conclusion: Nature is real, honest and straightforward.

Nature is not afraid, nor does it hide imperfections.

It is admired for its raw beauty, not criticized.

Nature rages and expresses itself with angry storms, and cries with torrential rainfalls. Nature blows off steam with tornadoes, hurricanes and volcanoes.

It got me to thinking, if people would shake their fears, share their hearts and be themselves, chances are they would sparkle and radiate light just like the snow reflects the sunshine.

Every day, in every place, nature’s gifts are evident: Whether in the pure white snow, spectacular sunsets, wide open fields, glorious mountains and endless oceans or simply in a flowerpot on your windowsill.

So while it’s easy to see the diamonds sparkle in the light of Lake Louise, there is beauty surrounding you too. Take a moment to notice, appreciate and enjoy. If you do, your own inner light will glow, and you might make the world a brighter place.

Skiing in St. Moritz, Switzerland

The Jerusalem Post

Going full circle at full tilt

01/20/2011 20:17 By MASADA SIEGEL

A trip to St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps to trace the past hurtles the writer into an exhilarating present.

A visit to St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps.
Photo by: Courtesy

The four laughing people in the black-and-white photo sitting on a wooden sled in the snowy Alps of St. Moritz intrigued me.

The picture was dated 1931, and at that time St. Moritz was the playground of the wealthy and famous. Two of the people in the photo, who regularly vacationed in Switzerland, are my German grandparents, whom I never had the opportunity to meet.

This photo inspired me to travel thousands of miles last year to see if I could spiritually connect with my smiling grandparents. If I could never meet them, then at least I could spend time in places they seemed to have enjoyed so much.

The journey on the train from Zurich is filled with green trees delicately laced with snow, majestic mountains appearing at every turn, and houses dotting the hillsides. The train twists and turns up mountain passes until you find yourself breathless – not from the journey but from the view.

St. Moritz boasts a myriad of activities for the adrenaline lover to the foodie and shopper. While it boasts a long ski season, perhaps the best time to be there is February, which is part of the high season and filled with exciting events to keep you entertained.

The skiing is second to none. One of the oldest winter vacation spots in the world, it was host to the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1948. There are four mountain areas to choose from, depending on your ability and desires. The slopes are immaculately groomed, but there are also areas that are left untouched. So if you are looking to tear it up and race down the flagpoles or if you are just looking to play in some terrific powder, St. Moritz is certainly a hot spot. Also on select Fridays there is night skiing, as one of the mountains is lit up and people can ski while under the stars.

St. Moritz, which has more than 300 sunny days a year, also has one of the most entertaining horse racing events on the planet, called the White Turf, in the first three weeks in February. It is a mix of Whistler meets the Hamptons with old European sophistication mixed in with Russian oil tycoons. It is a challenge to know where to look first – at the horses racing on the snow pulling the jockey skiers behind them or at the fur-clad fashionistas.

The first White Turf race took place in 1907. The tradition continues, only becoming bigger, more sophisticated and definitely worthy of a bet. The lowest amount you can bet is four francs. I know from personal experience that people do win, as both the horses I chose won.

While St. Moritz is pricey, there are stores that will dazzle the average shopper. There are name brands like Chanel, Burberry, Bogner, Emilio Pucci, as well as local stores that sell stunning ski gear from Timberland boots to fur coats.

For the athletic and adventurous, a must-try is kite surfing on a frozen lake. It’s similar to kite boarding, as you harness the wind while wearing skis or a snowboard and glide over the snow and ice, as opposed to doing it over water.

I took a lesson at the kite surf school in Silvaplana. My instructor showed me the basics, from how to unfold the kite without getting it tangled up to how to control it so you glide across the pristine frozen lake.

It’s similar to surfing. Once you understand the elements, you will be thrilled in ways you never imagined. It takes time to learn. I fell on my face in the snow a few times, but the fun I had was well worth the effort.

For the truly adventurous who like a taste of adrenaline, there is the Olympic Bob Run. It opened in 1904 and is the oldest bobsled track in the world, as well as the only natural ice track anywhere. The Olympic Bob Run St. Moritz-Celerina got its name after hosting the two Winter Olympics.

I decided to try it out and found myself riding next to to Reto Götschi, the 1994 Swiss Olympic silver medalist. The track is 1,612 meters, and the website boasts speed of 135 kilometers an hour, taking about 75 seconds to complete the course. That said, when an Olympic silver medalist was running the show, we completed the course in 49 seconds.

Needless to say, helmet on, I found myself racing on the track feeling the maximal centrifugal force of 5G, which is intense to say the least. It was one of the most meaningful things I did in St. Moritz.

Moments after the run, I looked at the photo of the four of us, all smiling before we were about to start traveling at breakneck speed. It brought everything back full circle, with a modern twist. The Bob Run did exist when my grandparents were in St. Moritz. While I have a sneaking suspicion they did not go for a ride, perhaps they had seen the track. And in their wildest imaginations, I doubt they would have dreamt that their granddaughter would be flying through time and space, on a sled no less, and smiling at a camera in St. Moritz.

Captivating Cape Town

December 1, 2010 Wednesday 2 Tevet 3871 18:27 IST

The Jerusalem Post


Photo by: masada siegel
Captivating Cape Town
The South African city offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities amidst a myriad of breathtaking vistas.

Cape Town is the second largest city in South Africa, and to sum it up in the words of the locals, it is simply stunning. The tight-knit Jewish community in South Africa dates back to the 15th century with the early explorers and directors from the Dutch East India Company. However, the first congregation in South Africa was founded in Cape Town in November 1841.

The scenic backdrop of Cape Town is Table Mountain; it has a perfect view of all the areas of the city. If you face north from the top of the mountain, you will find the city center, where the docks are filled with ships. On the west side there is a magnificent mountain range known as the Twelve Apostles. It borders a beautiful beach called Camps Bay, which is filled with bustling bars and restaurants.

On the south side, the mountains are filled with historic vineyards and the gorgeous, must-see Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Beyond the gardens and the Constantia suburbs is False Bay, which curves toward Cape Point. As you tour the mountain, over on the east side you can see Cape Town’s international airport.

Cape Town is a city filled with outdoor activities. There are adventures waiting to be had, such as windsurfing around Table Bay or jumping off Lion’s Head and paragliding close to Clifton. There are a myriad paths for mountain biking and hiking all over the city, whether it be Kirstenbosch, one of the most magnificent botanical gardens in the world, or anywhere on the huge stretches of beach.

The Jewish community is extremely welcoming, and the people I met had a wonderful sense of humor. Late one Friday afternoon, I knocked on the door of a store in Camps Bay because I wanted to buy the beach towel hanging in the window.

The shop owner, who was just closing, smiled, unlocked the door and let me in. While I was paying, he noticed my name, told me he had been to Masada, and with a wicked grin asked me, “Shouldn’t you be going to synagogue?” I smiled and agreed with him. As we got talking, I found out he was close friends with my father’s first cousin, who had died more than 10 years ago. Talk about Jewish geography.

I stayed in the Sea Point area of the city, and it felt like a mini-Israel. On Shabbat, lots of families were walking back and forth from shul. There are a few kosher restaurants to try, and even more synagogues.

While staying in Cape Town, besides enjoying the city, there are a few day trips to areas that are breathtaking. These can be taken with a tour, or you can drive yourself if you feel confident driving on what for many visitors is the other side of the road. The first is South Africa’s world-famous Cape Wine Lands around Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek.

The enormous mountains are filled with valleys full of vines. There are dozens of wineries where you can go wine tasting, have lunch or simply enjoy the beautiful scenery.

One winery called Spier is lovely but extremely touristy. It has a beautiful outdoor garden filled with couches where one can relax and have lunch. Women come around and, if you want, they will paint your face with traditional African symbols. I had a fallen star painted on me, symbolic of the word “lady.” Spier also has a gift shop filled with interesting African items, as well as a cheetah sanctuary where, for a nominal fee, you can pet the animals.

There are many wineries to see. While I would recommend Spier, definitely continue because the landscape changes and becomes more beautiful as you drive along toward all three cities.

Another day trip is to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. The winding roads are filled with glorious views of green mountains with steep drops into the blue ocean. This is where sailors rounded Africa en route to India. It’s not the southernmost point, which is at Cape Agulhas, but it is certainly worth a visit because of the stunning scenery.

On the way you will pass Muizenberg, a beach town that has long white sandy beaches and is where Agatha Christie went surfing 80 years ago. On this side of the peninsula, known as False Bay, the sea is warmer and some of the best whale-watching spots can be found.

This drive is dotted with little markets on the sides of the roads, filled with beautiful carvings. The vendors sell a variety of African goods, such as soapstone statues from Zimbabwe, which are gorgeous, as well as jewelry and wood items.

One of my favorite stops on this day trip was Boulders Beach. It is past Fish Hoek and south of Simon’s Town, historically an important naval base for the British and now the principal South African navy base. The well-preserved 18th-century streets are filled with shops and are architecturally pretty, but you can’t beat the penguin colony just south of town at Boulders Beach.

Boulders Beach has a nature reserve set aside for the penguins. For a small fee, you can get a wonderful view of them marching out of the ocean and hanging out. Nearby is a small beach, where the penguins were resting on the rocks and swimming alongside people in the water. I sat with the penguins for a bit and was so close to them I could touch them, truly a remarkable experience.

(From what I hear, they are often there.) Cape Town is a must-see city. To help you plan a trip there, here are a few helpful websites:;;;;

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dara torres story

May 1, 2009

Dara Torres stands alone as the first American woman to compete in five Olympic Games, so people tend to put her on a pedestal, but Torres is as down to earth as they come.  You might be surprised, but she views herself as a working mother, who collects dust, or tarnish- but in her case it is on gold medals.  She’s simply not interested in her past accomplishments; because she is too busy looking towards the future.

Torres started swimming when she was seven years old.  Competitive by nature, having four older brothers certainly did not hurt in the way of keeping her on her toes.  Early on she felt a connection to the water, and throughout her Olympic experiences, it kept calling her back.

In her Olympic career, she has won 12 medals, four gold, four silver, and four bronze.    “I’m still improving; I just go and never stop.  Twice I took a break from swimming; I felt I was done, really done.  I didn’t think I would be back, but I missed the pool.  Both times I came back to swimming.  I made the decision and had a goal; I wanted to make the Olympics.”

Torres swam in Jewish swim meets growing up and in 2005, Torres was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.  She has also spent time in Israel.  “I’ve been to Israel once, I love it.  My second husband asked me to marry him in Israel- and then we climbed Masada.”

Torres, who is unstoppable, was back in the pool three weeks after daughter Tessa was born, competing at a masters level swim meet.  At the time, she had no thoughts of swimming competitively; she just wanted to get back into the water.

A fierce competitor, Dara’s sense of fairness and good sportsmanship shines as brightly as any of her Olympic Medals.  During the Beijing Olympics, Torres had her big moment on hand where she was competing in the 50 meter individual freestyle race.  Selflessly, she stopped the race, so she could alert the judges that one of her competitors had a swimsuit malfunction and needed time to change into a new suit.

When asked why she halted the race when no one else made a move, Dara explained, “I didn’t think. I just did. She was in trouble and I was just trying to do the right thing.  I also want to compete against the best- it wouldn’t be right if she was not in the race, as she was ranked third in the world and I was ranked 5th.  It did not affect my swimming at all- if anything it kept my mind off being so nervous.”

Dara laughed, “It was a motherly instinct that came out of me.”  Motherly instinct or not, it was a shining example of a competitor who goes above and beyond and makes her country proud, not only by winning medals, but by the unlikely act of going the extra mile to help a competitor.

Her non-stop energy was evident in our interview, and Torres explained how sometimes her competitiveness spills over into her regular life. “I have always been competitive- so it’s nothing new- It just happens- it’s my nature- it’s in the genes.”

There is no doubt that winning Olympic medals at any age is spectacular, but forty-one year old Torres competed against people half her age and beat them.  Many see her accomplishments as truly inspirational.  While she does not view herself as a role model, she views the concept as positive. “Inspiring people, while it’s not my intention, but if comes with what I do and if it helps people to go for their dreams and not think they are too old- it’s an added bonus.”

When asked who Dara found inspirational to her, “My parents inspire me, but I also think inspiration comes from within.”

I’m a recreational swimmer myself who sometimes daydreams and writes stories in my head instead of focusing on my stroke, I wondered what went through Torres mind at practice and competitions, and was surprised by her answer.

“It could be what I need to buy at the grocery store.  In college it was my homework assignments or it could be a song I heard on the radio that goes over and over in my head.  At meets I have no idea; I never remember what I am thinking.  It’s only when my coach says I need to do things a certain way- then I focus on what I need to change.”

Torres who is training to go to the World Championships in Rome this July has no plans for yet another Olympic games, “I take it day by day.  I’m training for Worlds and don’t have a set challenge other than trying to be a good mother.  I look at my training as I am a working mother and am always trying to balance having a career and my home life.”

That said, Torres has quit the sport twice before and come back to unprecedented success, so with her upbeat, positive and aggressive attitude, nothing is out of the question, except maybe to dust off those gold, silver and bronze medals.

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