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    • The Illusionist (DVD) / DVD / 9 Readings / 0 Ratings
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      02.06.2008 08:26

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      29.05.2008 20:08
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      visit, particularly if you have kids

      It wasn't my idea to go to Lapland. Trust me, there are a hundred places I'd rather have been to. It was my grandmother's idea; she had been left some money by a relative, and Lapland was a place she had visited as a child. Realising my little brother would only believe in Father Christmas for another year or so, she and my grandfather decided to take us all to Lapland. This was all about five years ago, but I saw something about it on the telly recently that reminded me about it, so I thought I'd write it up so all you lot know.

      Lapland is the kind of place you know all about when you're a little kid, and then once you hit adolescence you forget all about it. If someone reminds you of it, you know that it's "Santa's home", but you've no real idea of where it actually is, or even if it actually exists. Well, Lapland is a large area covering most of northern Scandinavia, but mainly Finland. Clever folks, realising there's a fortune to be made by making it accessible to souvenir-buying westerners, have set up a few travel companies operating package holidays to the area. It is possible to go there non-package, but this is not recommendable due to the practicalities; it's far safer (and probably cheaper in the end) if you want to do all the activities to go with a good package company.

      We went with an operator called Canterbury Travel. Their website is www.santa-holidays.com, and this reveals a lot into the way the company operates - although it caters for all tastes, budgets and requirements, it is really geared at the family market. We went on the "Intermezzo" trip which is about four days long, and completely inclusive. We flew out from Stanstead with Monarch Airlines, who were good enough considering they're a charter company, no where near the likes of BA, but easily bearable on the relatively short (2hr45min) flight. We landed at Kittila Airport, which is the smallest airport I've been to in my life. Once we'd landed, we had to get out of the plane and walk to the terminal. It is so cold, it was invigorating at first but once the below-freezing air hits your lungs you'll probably start coughing.

      You go through customs quickly and easily, and then once you've collected your luggage you go out to find your coach. There were about 350 people on this tour, and so to make it bearable there were seven coaches, each with about 50 people in. Each coach has a driver and a young Finn who speaks excellent English and acts as your guide while you're there - you stay in the same coach throughout your time there which enables you to get familiar with your other coach members, maybe even make a few friends. It's about an hour's drive from the airport to the resort of Luosto. Luosto is a holiday resort used pretty much with a large hotel and ski resort. Nearby there is a restaurant/small hotel/collection of log cabins that is completely taken over by our tour. Your coach drives into a large warehouse-like building and it is here where you collect your snowsuit.

      Snowsuits are all-in-one bodysuits which are terrifically insulating and help to keep you comfortably warm despite the external temperature. They have a huge variety of sizes to suit everyone, from a two-year old to a seven-foot giant. You also get your snowshoes which are very strong, very insulating and very waterproof. They tell you to get a good one to two sizes larger than your normal footwear, to account for all the extra layers of socks. However, gloves and hats are not provided, and so you should bring good-quality (in other words expensive) waterproof ski gloves and headwear. The suits and shoes though are yours to keep and look after until the end of the tour.

      It's about five in the evening once you've got back to your coach with your various snow garments so your coach drops you off at either the hotel, if you've got a room there, or at your log cabin. I stayed in a log cabin and it was great. There are three bedrooms and six beds, a TV, basic cooking utensils, microwave, toilet facilities, four sleds, shower and sauna. Yes, the Finns like their saunas; they recommend you to spend half an hour in one and then jump outside and roll around naked in the snow. I, personally, did not try this, but our Finnish guide assured me that it is great fun. Whatever you say. Anyway, once we'd settled in, we walked over to the restaurant to have our evening meal. This is the bummer. You have to spend ten minutes getting into your snowsuits, then the five-minute walk (that turns into 15 minute walk when you factor in the knee-deep snow and the sleds), and then you have to take your snowsuit off in the restaurant, only to put it back on again for the walk back. The snow suits were completely necessary and the best solution anyone could've come up with for mass insulation, but this was all too much work when all you wanted was a meal. It was worst at breakfast time, because you had to have done all this, eaten and be ready to be picked up by the coach at 10 o'clock local time, even though they're two hours ahead and so only 8am! Oh well.

      The food itself was of a very high quality. They were all buffets, hot and cold; a children's bar serving things like chips and beans, more adult cuisine, local specialities and a salad bar. Hot and cold desserts were also offered, and you got one drink included per person per meal, and every extra one would be a small amount on the overall bill. The result is that you ate delicious food until you were full, every meal, and everyone was happy. Being a package tour this was all included in the price, which is another plus-point.

      So what did we actually do? After breakfast we'd all pile into our coaches and go off somewhere. There would only be one coach at each 'attraction' at a time, which was great as it made sure that nothing was too busy. So what were these 'attractions'? A husky or reindeer farm for example, that allowed you to go on husky/reindeer rides. Huskies are much smaller than you'd imagine, but incredibly strong. I preferred reindeer rides though, because they were not as bumpy or fast as husky rides. Speed may seem to make no odds, but when it's -15C, any wind in your face would be enough to freeze your nose off, so the slow, peaceful amblings of the reindeer was much more preferable. There was no actual wind there which was a godsend for obvious reasons.

      Other attractions included snowmobiling which is awesome fun but makes your hands numb, no matter what gloves you are wearing. Ice fishing is where you go onto a frozen lake, make a hole in it and sink your line in. It is unsurprisingly boring, though if you like fishing you may enjoy it. We went for a traditional Lappish blessing, which is where a Lappish native talks in some odd language for you in a teepees (sp?), before smearing your forehead with a dab of red dye; this symbolises you becoming "one of the reindeer in his flock" or something, but was interesting and enjoyable in its own way. Sledging was also a popular excursion, and there were many sleds provided, and slopes suitable for everyone - even my wheelchair-bound grandmother took part. You may think that Lapland is no place for a wheelchair, but she found it surprisingly easy to get around.

      There was also a warm teepee with hot berry juice and a fire to warm your feet at every stop, and lunch was served 'on location', and we were so exhausted and hungry after a morning's activities that we'd have eaten anything, but I am pretty sure these meals were just as good as ones in the restaurant. In the evenings, there were optional extra-coast excursions, such as yet more reindeer and husky rides, as well as wolf-howling and trips into the forest to find the best spot to see the Northern Lights, aurora borealis, which are beautiful if you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them. On the last morning before you leave, you have a 'free period' - time to spend as you choose. Discount rates on skiing lessons meant that was where I was headed, and it was great fun and surprisingly cheap. Ice skating, sledging, ice fishing and trips to the local town were other opportunities, or you could just loll around the resort.

      On the way back to the airport, we stopped at the largest town in the area as an opportunity to buy some souvenirs and have a meal. Then we were on our way to the airport. We were expecting a short delay, I mean it is a charter airline, but we were left waiting for over two hours in a tiny airport with hardly any facilities whatsoever. All this was because a Finnair plane had landed and, because it is their national airline, gets priority treatment. As the captain of our own flight said over the PA, "I'm sorry for the delay; it was caused by this airport's inability to handle more than one flight at a time". Oh dear.

      It is undeniable; Lapland is a beautiful, magical place. It is cold, yes - while we were there a record cold temperature was recorded, -40 Degrees C, which even the Finns were amazed by! However, past about -20, you don't really notice the temperature change; it only registers as being "very, very cold". Anyway, as I said this was a freak temperature for even the interior of the Arctic Circle, so it probably won't be that cold wherever you go. The snow is unlike anywhere else; powder-like in its texture, and there's a new batch every night. It does not 'snow' like it does here, you'll only be able to actually see the snow coming down at night if you look at a street light or the moon, and you'll see millions of glittering white dust-like particles floating down to earth. That's the snow! The range of activities on offer caters for everyone and ensures to bring out the big kid lurking deep down in anyone.

      No matter what your initial expectations on Lapland are, you are guaranteed to enjoy yourself. Prices for such package holidays may seem steep at first, but factor in all the 'once-in-a-lifetime-experiences', and the high level of facilities, and the pure fact that you do not have to worry about anything because it is all taken care of, it really is good value for money. I would urge you to consider it if you're thinking of taking a short winter break or family holida

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        21.05.2008 20:30
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        Go there.

        I'm writing about a place I discovered on holiday in 2003, just north of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. It is an incredibly special place and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. If any of you are travelling in this part of the world or know anyone else who is, let them know about it - you won't regret it. It's called Algonquin Park.

        The land that is now Algonquin Park was first found by loggers in the mid-1800s, searching through Ontario's vast forests, ever in need of the elusive White Pine that was needed so desperately by the growing population and, ultimately, the economy of the British Empire. These loggers, living in remote villages, felled the great pines and, at the arrival of spring, drove them down the swollen tributaries to the Ottawa River. The park itself was established as one of North America's first national parks in 1893, primarily to protect the local wildlife but also to protect the area from logging.

        The actual landscape of the park is too beautiful to describe. Mile after mile of great cliffs and gentle hills, all richly carpeted with the verdant pine and fir trees. Algonquin is probably most famous for its lakes, covering hundreds of square miles, all interlocking in an incredible waterway system. Algonquin has no towns, and only supports a handful of permanent homes, so there is no sign of industrialisation or habitation to scar this landscape.

        It is unsurprising therefore that Algonquin harbours many breeds and species of plants, fauna and animals. Indeed, this pocket of conservation has become Canada's most important resource for biological and environmental research. The deciduous trees of the south meeting with the coniferous forests of the north right inside the park's boundaries, combined with the rugged topography of the land has created incredibly varied habitats, as so it is unsurprising to find these complemented by many species of animals. 45 species of mammals including bears, moose and beavers, 262 species of birds including the famous Algonquin loon, 30 species of reptiles and amphibians, 50 species of fish, and approximately 7000 species of insects are known to occur within Algonquin's boundaries. In addition, there are well over 1000 species of plants and another 1000 plus species of fungi growing in the Park.

        With such an incredible natural space, Algonquin has unsurprisingly inspired much art. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, Canada's most famous group of artists all frequented the park, which is a common subject of their paintings, hung in the Canadian National Gallery and all over the world. Over 40 books have been written about it and there is even an Algonquin Symphony. Clearly, it is a beautiful and cherished place. And there are lots of ways to enjoy it too.

        Algonquin Park is a great place to go camping. Camping is all about being at one with nature and your surroundings, so where better but here? This is how I lived during my stay the first year, and it was incredible. There are also, however, many other forms of accommodation including cottages for hire and hotels. There are many official campsites with modern facilities, but we chose just to find an empty, secluded spot by a river, and boy, there are a lot of them! It was amazing; on our last morning I uncharacteristically woke up very early (camping does this to you) and gazed over the river. Then, cutting through the typical morning fog I saw a real beaver, stick in its mouth, babies swimming behind, crossing the river to what must have been their dam-home on the other side. It was quite extraordinary.

        Many people go hiking and mountain biking through the park, which is also highly recommended. In just a quarter of an hour maple forest, spruce bogs, rivers, beaver ponds, lakes, and cliffs will pass you by, all dramatically blending into each other, providing an amazing array of wildlife, too. Fishing is also highly popular, and very rewarding - the lakes and rivers are full of fish, and it is one of the most relaxing pastimes you can engage in. Unsurprisingly, wildlife spotting is also very popular, both by amateurs and professionals - if you are driving along an Algonquin road and you see a load of cars parked by the side of it, get out and walk to the side of the road, because I would bet my bottom dollar there is a moose wandering around nearby! If you are keen on seeing bears, you'll most likely find them lurking round in rubbish sites, scavenging for food. There aren't many of these actually in the park due to the lack of towns, but if you go to a nearby settlement there's probably a waste site there, which is your best bet for bears. I remember myself driving round for an hour looking for rubbish dumps with my family.

        Ontario Parks, the governing body of Algonquin, has several information huts around the park, and there you'll find information regarding Public Wolf Howls. This is where a guide will take you to a spot where wolves are known to be in the vicinity, before expertly teaching you how to howl just like a wolf. He himself will do a loud wolf howl in the hope that real wolves will howl back. These wolf howls are very popular and successful, and we really did hear a wolf reply to our guide's call. I'm sure it could be a magical moment at the dead of night in the Canadian wilderness, particularly if you have kids with you.

        What Algonquin Park is most famous for, however, is canoeing. There are 1500 kilometres of canoe routes along the rivers and the lakes of the park, and it is for this that the most people come to Algonquin. Tom Thomson, the artist I mentioned earlier, used to go out in his beautiful canoe with a fishing line trailing behind, and the just sketch the incredibly scenery. Canoe expeditions are extremely popular - these are where you pack up all necessary belongings into a rucksack and then go out into the park in your canoe. There are may different routes to take, but all will involve a portage - a land crossing, where you must lift your canoe onto your back and carry it. This may sound daunting, but it is surprisingly light, or at least not as heavy as you'd thought. I found after my trip that canoe is far preferable to any form of transport that I've previously encountered. A canoe will offer you perspectives that are not possible from any other vantage place, they are surprisingly fast, very easy to learn to use properly, and, probably most importantly, they create no noise except the delicate rippling of the glass-like water.

        From having such a reputation for canoeing, it is unsurprising that Algonquin is completely geared up to gear you up for a half-hour outing to a fortnight adventure. Most notable is probably Algonquin Outfitters on Canoe Lake in the heart of Algonquin, who, as well as being a fully-stocked outdoor pursuits specialist, also run many guided expeditions. I went on one of these with my family and it was superb. An hour and a half's canoe, a short portage, another half hour of canoeing, followed by a lunch break on a small cliff-faced island in the middle of a lake. For anyone daring enough, you could try jumping off the fifty-foot ledge into the brilliant blue warm water. I did, and it's a great, thrilling experience! Then a leisurely canoe back, stopping off at various points of interest, including the point at which out friend Tom Thomson mysteriously drowned at the beginning of the twentieth century. I would highly recommend a similar guided canoe trip; although pricey, they're well worth it - it is an experience you'll never forget. There are also other good outfitters, mainly in nearby towns outside the park. Other facilities include two museums, one of which is a fascinating outdoor chronicle of the legendry logging industry that came to found the park itself.

        Algonquin Park will forever be a very special place for me. I have never experienced natural beauty in such a pure, undiluted, untinged form. I really hope that someone reading this will, at some point in their lives, experience it for themselves as well. Unlike other, more famous North American National Parks like Yellowstone in Wyoming, USA, Algonquin is relatively obscure and there is much less tourism there - you could even say that it is 'off the beaten track', although it is quite well known to the locals. Like Long Island to New Yorkers, many wealthy Torontonians own holiday cottages in the area, but, being locals, there is none of the entourage that follows tourist trends. I would completely recommend you to go anytime of year; summer is most busy, and probably best for canoeing because the water is nice and warm in case you fall (or jump) in. Spring offers the best trout fishing in the whole of Ontario, as well as exquisite landscape colours which, although beautiful, are not as well known as their autumnal counterparts. Mile upon mile of orange and red trees, deep blue lakes and evergreen shores are worth the trip alone. Winter is also very popular - the guaranteed coating of snow opens up a world of winter sport opportunities, not least cross-country skiing. Along with autumn, there are also no biting insects, a point that is worth to consider, but not really a problem in the summer if you've packed good insect repellent.

        It may be quite a way away, but with places like Toronto, Montreal and the Niagara Falls within three hour's drive, it has a prime location - and something for everyone. If you want more information, the official website is "http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/", or you can just put it through a search engine.

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          13.05.2008 20:55
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          A must-see city

          The island city of New York is, with a population of around eight million, the largest city in the United States. It is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. It is one of the most beguiling places there is; life goes on at an incredible pace and one could even describe it as the epitome of everything that's wrong with America. However, spend a week here and the initial shock gives way to myth. The moment you see the twinkling lights of Manhattan's skyscrapers from your plane window, you realise that, no matter what your previous thoughts of the city, you really do have to be made of stone to not be moved by it all. Manhattan is the central island and the city's real core, and is where you would spend most of your time. It is fairly difficult to get lost in Manhattan; with the exception of the downtown area, all of the city's streets are laid out in a grid pattern; avenues run north-south, streets run east-west. If you ever get lost, find he nearest street intersection and read the avenue and the streets as you would a grid reference on a map.

          In 1609 Hendrik Hudson arrived at Manhattan before sailing up the river that now bears his name. Although this river did not turn out to be the Northwest Passage that he had been commissioned to discover, he did establish the Dutch colony, New Amsterdam, which would slowly evolve into New York City. In 1626 the Dutch bought the entire of Manhattan Island from some native Indians for what would now be about $25. It was fortified over the next century, with a large wall running it's course along present day Wall Street. By 1790 its population had reached 30,000. Trade was opened to the Midwest by the Erie Canal, and the first wave of large-scale immigration in the mid nineteenth century helped to rocket the population to 750,000. Before the end of that century the four outer boroughs had all been absorbed into one mega-city, and with this we have New York City in its present format.

          CITY GUIDE

          ELLIS ISLAND is where any immigrant to the United States from 1850 was processed, and is now home to the MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION. This is a fascinating excursion with lots of interesting exhibits, films and 'hands-on' experiences made all the more interesting to anyone whose ancestors themselves came through it, as you can trace their name through the computerised system. I did, and I found my great-grandfather's brother, who left Ireland at around the turn of the century. It may not be particularly suitable for small children, and it gets crowded at peak times, but otherwise it is definitely a worthwhile visit.

          Situated on nearby LBERTY ISLAND is the STATUE OF LIBERTY. A gift from the French, Liberty was engineered by Gustav Eiffel and sculpted by Frederic Bartholdi, and although it represents goodwill between the French and American nations, it's fair to add that Bartholdi originally intended the statue for Alexandria, Egypt. There is a small museum and, of course, gift shop and restaurant, but ever since 9/11 the statue's head has been closed to the public. It is still well worth the visit to the island, especially as Circle Line run ferries from Battery Park, Manhattan to Ellis Island, then to Liberty Island and back to Manhattan for $7 adults, half that for children, and the islands themselves have no admission charge. The queues for the boat can take hours at peak times however, so be wary.

          MANHATTAN

          And so, we a brought on to Manhattan itself. The southernmost part of the island is the only ones to have been habituated before the grid pattern of streets was created, so it is the only part of the island with irregular, winding streets like those you would find in London, and with actual street names rather than numbers. It's much harder to navigate down there, so thank heavens it's small. The tip of the island is the financial centre, home of WALL STREET, and site of the WORLD TRADE CENTRE. Ground Zero is still present in its majority, although a few buildings of the new WTC complex have already shot up. The Freedom Tower, as it is dubbed, is yet to be completed with foundation work still in progress.

          A touching museum on the East bank of ground zero commemorates the lives lost in the attacks of 2001, which is an absolute must-see if you pass through the area. It's excellent in its succinct and emotional portrayal of the events of 9/11, and I can guarantee you will be moved by your visit.

          Nearby is Wall Street and the NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE. Tours around the exchange are possible although I did not go on one. Nearby is the FEDERAL RESERVE BANK, a castle-like building and so for good reason; eighty feet below ground level is most of the 'free' world's gold supply; 11,000 tonnes of the stuff, and although tours were possible, the bank's been closed since 9/11 like the Statue of Liberty.

          On the east side of the island's tip is Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York's most famous and cherished landmarks, and a great place to go for a stroll. A tip; don't turn back to look at Manhattan until you've reached the midpoint of the bridge: the Financial District's giants clutter shoulder to shoulder through the spidery latticework, the East River pulses below and cars scream to and from Brooklyn. It's the best glimpse of a modern metropolis you can get, and not one to be missed. North from here lies CHINATOWN, LITTLE ITALY and the rest of the Lower East Side. With 100,000 residents, 7 Chinese newspapers, 12 Buddhist temples and over 150 restaurants, Chinatown is Manhattan's only truly thriving ethnic neighbourhood, and it's getting bigger and bigger. Nowhere else in town can you eat so much good food so cheaply, and just walking through its streets is a fascinating experience. To the west lies the small galleries and museums, too numerous to mention, of SOHO and GREENWICH VILLAGE.

          As we go further north up the island of Manhattan, the street pattern evolves into the regular 90 degree intersections and numbered street names, and by 34th Street and Fifth Avenue we have found not only a prime shopping area, but also New York's most famous landmark: the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. Heralding itself as the Eighth Wonder of the World, it stands 1472ft tall, its elegant stepped design masking how tall it actually is: only 100 feet shorter than the World Trade Centre was, masts not included. There are a few tourist-baits in it's base, such as 'virtual-flights', but these are expensive and mediocre, you'd be far better just spending your money on a trip to the top, although the view is actually bettered at the top of the Rockefeller centre. On a clear day you can see eighty miles, but due to the city's pollution it's more likely to be 10-20. Once you've back on ground level, head west and you'll come to MADISON SQUARE GARDENS, home of Knicks basketball and Rangers hockey teams. Even if you have no idea of the rules of the game, I would highly recommend trying to get tickets for either sport because its worth the money (which can be a lot) for the atmosphere alone.

          From here, head north on 7th Avenue; where it intersects both 42nd Street and Broadway is TIMES SQUARE, which is not really any geometrical shape, but closest to a triangle. The pulsating neon lights suggest that it is not only the heart of the Theatre District but also of the city. It has been cleaned up extensively over the last decade, and so provides a family-friendly scene with something for everyone. Once you've had enough of this purely materialistic den, head east along 42nd Street. This must be about the only street in the world to have a whole musical named after it, and it's true; you really can do anything on 42nd Street. By the time we're at Park (4th) Avenue, we are outside Grand Central Terminal; it's only a train station but is well worth a look inside, there are even guided tours if you're so inclined.

          Further east at Lexington Avenue is another of New York's historic monuments: the Chrysler Building. This is my favourite building in New York, with its silver-plated gargoyles and car motifs. The Chrysler Corporation moved out years ago, and the next owner let it deteriorate somewhat, but a new owner has pledged to keep it lovingly intact with an observation deck. On the edge of the island you'll find the familiar shape of the UNITED NATIONS building. Guided tours, although under funded and, well, boring, are available, but if you don't want to go in, just snap a few photographs by the flags, and that will be enough evidence of your visit.

          Northwest of here, at around 50th Street and 5th Avenue, is the ROCKEFELLER CENTRE. A complex of buildings succeeding more than any other in the city as being completely self-contained yet still in harmony with its surroundings. Offices, cafes, TV studio, theatre, underground concourses, shopping centre, ice rink and roof-top gardens all interwoven in one of the best pieces of urban planning on the planet. It also offers the best, unhindered view of Manhattan that the city has to offer, despite being smaller then the ESB. This is a must-go attraction; there's something for everyone. I recommend the NBC studio tour, which, although expensive, is fascinating - particularly when able to enter the sets of 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien'.

          Close by is the famous Central Park. Cliff-faced rocks, flowing hills, dark woods, meadow-like lawns and blue lakes, this is one true refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, and really the only place in Manhattan where you can get lost. The park, although having its own police precinct, is dangerous after dark, although much safer now than in previous years. 840 acres big, it is, well, huge, and you could spend a whole day in there and still not see it all. I would recommend hiring bikes or roller-skates to get around fastest, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to refuel. Don't dismiss this as just like any old city park; it's really worth a visit, especially in the summer where it is the coolest part of the city.

          Fifth Avenue spanning the middle part of the park is dubbed Museum Mile, and rightly so as at least nine museums and galleries are located there; highlights include the colossal METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, the GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, a homage to modern art contained in Frank Lloyd Wright's white helter-skelter bubble of a building, and the FRICK COLLECTION on 70th Street, one of the city's must-see attractions. Over on the west side of the park is the again colossal MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY and the LINCOLN CENTRE, home of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a host of other smaller companies, and I would recommend trying to get seats for anything playing while you're there.

          Above the park we are getting to the real summit of Manhattan, and with it, HARLEM. Harlem is America's most famous African-American neighbourhood, and although few visitors savour its attractions, it is worth a trip up there, although I would recommend a guided tour before you venture out on your own. Right up in the reaches of Manhattan, above 190th St., there is the CLOISTERS which is the medieval wing of the Metropolitan Museum. And with that, we have seen all of Manhattan's main attractions.

          FOOD

          New Yorkers have a reputation for liking their food, and looking at what's available in their home city this is not much of a surprise. There are over 15,000 eateries in New York, and due to the large immigrant population you will find restaurants that serve world cuisine in some cases better than it's found in its origin country. One thing I do recommend - try a genuine New York breakfast. Prepare to be grilled on how you want your eggs in a quick-fire question round, and once you figure out what you like, you'll probably have no need for lunch. There is, of course, the usual McDonald's/Burger King chains, serving the same thing as they do everywhere else in the world, but with such diversity, (comparative) value for money any sheer volume of food, you hopefully shouldn't have to resort to these.

          TRANSPORT

          The New York Subway is a tourist attraction in itself. Dirty, noisy, intimidating and initially incomprehensible, it is the fastest and most cost-effective manner in which to get around the city. 3.6 million people use it every day, and it is much safer than it used to be, something to be comforted by. Broadly speaking, routes run either uptown and downtown, following the great avenues, converging as the island itself does in the financial district before going on to the outer boroughs. Cross-town routes are very limited. Any subway journey costs a flat-fare of $2 return and there are no zoning charges like the London Underground. Buses are much simpler to use, and a cheap version of the sightseeing buses, ideal to help you get used to the city. They are again $2, and you can use a subway ticket to pay for them. The famous yellow taxis are also a (more expensive) possibility, although be sure that you get a real, licensed one rather than a 'gypsy cab', which are rarely yellow and tout for business primarily at tourist points. You should be comforted to know that the city is currently having a crackdown against such crime, so hopefully you won't see to many of these around.

          SHOPPING

          Being the consumer capital of the world, NYC is, of course, a great place to shop. Manhattan's premier shopping street is Fifth Avenue, which is home to exclusive, designer and department stores. Macy's, the largest shop in the world, is on 6th Avenue right next to the Empire State Building. Other famous New York shopping institutions include Bloomingdale's on Lexington and 59th St., the Rockefeller Centre and Tiffany's on 5th and 57th St. You will find many bargain-basement electrical stores around Times Square, but make sure whatever you buy will work back home. This is not even scratching the surface, and New York can cater for every possible taste, preference, creed and perversity - and in a lot of cases 24 hours a day, too. You will find what your looking for here. Always check comparative prices on the Internet before purchasing goods however, as there are hundreds of rip-off stores waiting to strip an eager tourist of their money.

          ACOMMODATION

          Accommodation in the city is a major cost. Most hotels will charge well over $100 a night, not to mention taxes tacked on to that. If you have a choice between staying with friends/family or in a hotel, you'd be silly to opt for the hotel. However, as ever, if you hunt around both while you're there and beforehand, on the net (e.g. laterooms.com), you should be able to get a decent double room for little over $50. For example, I got a double-double (4 beds) room in a 4* Holiday Inn (in August) for £80 a night - there was even a swimming pool on the roof, so it is possible to be accommodated comfortably for a reasonable amount, just look on the net. Failing this there are plenty of hostels around the city that offer beds as little as $15 (dormitory accommodation) or YMCA/YWCA double rooms from $50. Shop around, book ahead, you're likely to stumble open something to suit your needs and budget.

          CONCLUSION

          New York City is certainly my favourite city. Many American cities have very little character, and feel as if they were all built at the same time by the same people; a sad product of globalisation. New York has none of this - I don't think anyone can ever accuse the city of having no character. NYC is one of the places on this earth that everyone should visit at some point in their lifetime. There really is something for everyone - kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents alike. Although it is not 100% wheelchair-friendly, it is getting there, and doing much better than many other cities.

          It is, however, like London, one of the most expensive places to live in and visit in the world, certainly more so than any other place in the US, and you should budget this in when planning your visit. New Yorkers have a reputation for being unfriendly but I found this not to be the case at all. Often, quite on the contrary, people said hello on the street and offered to help with directions, which was lovely. Although we witnessed a lot of things while we were there, I don't think I saw a single mugging or break-in, and it really is a much safer place to visit than before. It instils a sense of togetherness and community upon you, which is remarkable for a city of its size and something i don't think I'll ever recognise of London. Even more of a reason to visit for yourself!

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          • More +
            06.05.2008 22:37
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            Overall, a great digital camera for the average user

            Digital photography is one of the most rapidly expanding areas of electronics today. It is unsurprising that as the technology matures, prices come down. However, in a subject like photography which seems to require so much expertise and understanding just to know how to use your camera to its full potential, picking out an overpriced product from a real bargain is all the more difficult. To help explain why, I would divide digital cameras up into three categories:

            'Fun' cameras that are very cheap, and so not much can be expected of them, in terms of image quality especially. Although it took a while for this market to grow to its full potential, now you can go into The Gadget Shop and buy a small digital camera for £20 or under. At this price, I doubt anyone would seriously expect a very good quality of picture; a resolution of around 640x480 is to be expected.

            'Professional' cameras. The price range on these babies can rocket into the thousands of pounds, so the only people who would be buying them are people who (a) know what they're talking about or (b) are rich enough for it to make no particular odds if they're ripped off. These have resolutions of upwards of eight mega (million) pixels.

            It's the group in-between these two that you have to be wary about buying into. As I said earlier, unless you are familiar with photographic terms, it's very much easier to be muddled between an overpriced 'group one' camera and an under priced 'group two' one. This halfway camp, with a price range of £200-£600, is the group that the Sony DSC-P7 falls into. People buying this sort of camera want good value for money. They don't want (or need) something that can take pictures you could sell to wildlife magazines; what they do want is something in a compact, stylish design that will take high-quality holiday and family snapshots, as well as being capable of handling the occasional more strenuous task.

            This camera fits these specifications superbly.
            The first thing that you notice is the price. Sony products have a reputation for being expensive, but with this is the knowledge of knowing that you're buying into a large, respected, quality company, with plenty of help for when things go wrong. If you look at other 7 megapixel cameras, you will see that the current price tag of £200 for this is one the expensive side, but by no means exceptionally so; on all accounts, this camera is good value for money.

            Framed in a silver body, from the moment you pick the DSC-P7 up you know that it's a quality product. The components are obviously held together tightly in the good-quality screws used and the real metal case, no plastic. The camera has reassuring substance, and has that 'comfortingly heavy' feel to it, I'm sure you know the one I mean. Although it can't compete in size with the tiny gadget like mini-cams, as far as 5+megapixel cameras go, it is quite compact - very easy to carry around and be on your person. As you can see from the picture above, it has a square body on one side that curves around the shape of the lens in a circular fashion on the other. Very stylish. It is ergonomically designed and places itself in your hands in a natural position - left index finger falling on the shutter button, around which is the mode dial. You twist this to choose one of the five modes;

            >Setup, in which you establish the basic settings of the camera such as date and time;
            >Playback, in which you review all your captured images and movies;
            >Movie/Clip Motion Mode/Multi Burst, where you shoot movies etc;
            >Scene Mode offers three different pre-set programs by which to take photos; and finally,
            >Auto Mode, where the camera automatically sets itself up for your shot, displaying information on the LCD screen.

            The camera is constructed in such a manner that, no matter what your hand size is, your left thumb can control all the functions on the back of the camera. Right in the top-left hand corner is the zoom in/out buttons, then there is a five-way keypad which as well as being the means by which you navigate the menus of the camera, acts as shortcuts to various popular functions. Below this are two small circular buttons, the LCD on/off switch and the menu button, which surprisingly will take you straight to the main menu. With the aid of a couple of well-thought out and implemented grip devices, it is entirely possible and easy to control all the camera's functions with just one hand.

            On the right side of the camera, which is the squared side, there is a little flap beneath which lie the battery and memory card slots. The Info-Lithium battery, although small in size, is very long lasting, up to about six hours, although if you have the screen on the battery time will be much less. The Memory Stick is Sony's very own media - which essentially means that it is very expensive. You'll want to buy a decent size stick, as the one that comes with is only 128MB, a respectable size but in reality you'll need a much bigger stick - 2GB of storage will cater hundreds of high-resolution snaps. These days you can pick up such a stick for the bargain price of £20, much cheaper than Sony's own brand.

            The images that the camera takes are, well, superb - incredibly high quality, much higher than I was expecting even at this price. There are five image sizes that you can take - the largest being 2048 x 1536 pixels, the smallest (VGA) 640x480. Obviously if every picture you take is going to be on the highest quality, you will need to invest in a very large memory stick. However, it is with this that one of the great advantages of digital photography comes to light - where you once in the past only took one picture, afraid of wasting expensive film, now you can take as many as you like, deleting unneeded ones at will, free of charge.

            The 5x optical zoom lens is excellent. It provides 2 apertures, f2.8 and f5.6 in wide angle, becoming f5.6 and f10 at the maximum telephoto position. This is combined with shutter speeds that range from 1/2000 to 1/30 second in Auto mode, and down to 2 seconds in the Twilight/Twilight Portrait modes. There are two forms of autofocus as well as the ability to manually focus the image.

            As well as standard photographs, the DSC P-7 allows you to make MPEG movies, with no length limit other than the memory. There are three image quality settings on this option. There is also Multi Burst, which allows you to capture a burst of 16 images at changeable intervals. Then there is a unique Sony feature: clip movies can be recorded at the Normal setting, which allows up to 10 frames; or Mobile which consists of 2 frames. Images are recorded in 256 colours and stored in a GIF format that is immediately usable in a web page, or a presentation. There is also the option to record sound with a movie or even still photo. The flash offers now commonplace features such as red eye reduction, and does its job very well. There is a plethora of other features that you would expect to find on a camera of this calibre, so I'm not going to list them here, other than to say that they all work rather well.

            The DSC P-7 has the benefit of a superb colour LCD screen that crams in a remarkable amount of detail. This is a selling point of the camera in its own right, and is really helpful to use as both a viewfinder and image review. Using it as a viewfinder usefully liberates you from having to hold the camera to your face, which can be particularly useful in certain instances. The menu interface is also very fluid and easy to get the hang of, but it is worth reading the manual first to avoid accidentally deleting half of your holiday shots, which, believe me, has happened before to great annoyance.

            Other than the camera itself, the other aspect to digital photography is the computer software supplied with it. Sony's bundled software is, although definitely adequate, not exceptional - good enough for basic editing but for serious stuff you need to go out and buy something like Photoshop. Alternatively, Google offer a great little image-editing program called Picassa, which is fully capable of the average users needs, a real doss to use and most importantly, free.

            Sony supplies Pixela Image Mixer, a software suite, composed of four sections each with its own interface. The program can be used to retrieve images from the camera when connected via USB; organize photos into albums; and do some rudimentary editing to both photos and movies. In addition, decorative frames and text can be added to photos. Installing Pixela isn't required for the installation of the USB driver. The driver is independent on the CD; USB drivers are provided for Windows 98, Windows 98SE, Windows ME, 2000, and XP. It is also fully compliant with Macintosh. With Windows XP the camera is recognized automatically. I'd recommend you to use the power charger while the camera is connected to your computer.

            In general, this is a superb digital camera. Although when it first came out it was very (too) expensive, you can now pick one up online for about £200, so this is no longer an issue. It has everything required of the group that it was primarily aimed at, and more besides. I can only find regrets with it if I do some serious nitpicking; no long exposure and no basic priority modes would be the only notable two. However, even without these functions it is a great piece of equipment whose positives far outweigh the negatives. If you are looking for a compact, stylish digital camera that can take good images, or maybe a replacement for your old film camera, then I seriously recommend the Sony DSC P7 to you. It will continue to impress both you and your friends.

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