On the map, they’re just little blips. You might not even notice them at first. But when you do, curiosity takes over. Look at those tiny outposts sticking out by themselves in the midst of a much larger country. How did they get there? Why aren’t they just part of the larger country? Well, as you may have guessed, there are some interesting stories behind the creation of microstates. Here are a few unique ones particularly worth a visit.
On the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded on three sides by France, Monaco has an interesting history. Near the site of an ancient Greek colony, the city-state was given by the Holy Roman Empire to the Republic of Genoa. In 1297, Francesco Grimaldi, head of an ousted Genoese family, captured Monaco. At times it fell under the possession Aragon, France, Sardinia and the Axis Powers of World War II. Through it all, the Grimaldi family has been there, and their opening of a casino in the 1860s and subsequent abolition of income tax turned Monaco into the playground for the rich and famous. The casino remains a big attraction, as do the annual Monaco Grand Prix Formula One car race and the yacht-filled harbor.
Just barely an island, Singapore lies off the southern tip of Malaysia but has been an independent republic since 1965 after bouncing between the influence of various empires, being colonized by the British, captured by the Japanese in World War II, falling back under British control and briefing becoming part of Malaysia. Singapore has always been a trading center at the crossroads of East and West. It remains a powerhouse economy with a high standard of living and quite a bit of diversity among its population of nearly 6 million. Though, as anyone who remembers the caning controversy involving American teenage Michael Fay knows, law and order are a big deal to the local authorities.
Hong Kong & Macao
Strategically located at the mouth of the Pearl River Estuary, both cities are today part of China. But their status as special administrative regions lends insight into their histories. Hong Kong was part of Imperial China before being colonized by the British in the 1840s. After a brutal Japanese occupation, the trading power became an industrial and financial center following World War II and was officially transferred to Chinese sovereignty but maintains a great deal of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” policy.
Similarly, Macao was under Portuguese control for more than 400 years before being handed over to China yet retains its own legal and monetary systems. Macao is the most densely populated area in the world with 650,000 people living in less than 12 square miles and is the world’s gambling capital.
Vatican City & San Marino
For more than a thousand years, the popes were in control of a large swath of central Italy known as the Papal States. With the Unification of Italy, the pope lost these territories, and Rome itself became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. For a few decades after that, the status of the pope was an open question until it was settled by the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which established the independent state of Vatican City. It is today the smallest state in the world at about 110 acres and 1,000 residents and yet welcomes more than 5 million visitors per year.
A 24-square-mile enclave surrounded by Italy, San Marino may well be the oldest sovereign state still in existence, dating to the year 301. Located atop Monte Titano in the Apennine range, San Marino is certainly picturesque, but it’s the charm of its citizens that has kept it independent all these years. Regent Antonio Onofri managed to earn the respect of Napoleon, who promised not annex the republic. Later, thanks to San Marino’s offering of asylum to people persecuted for supporting Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi honored the republic’s wish to not become a part of Italy.
You’ve undoubtedly heard talk of building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. While the effectiveness of a wall is debatable in the context of the 21st century, the topic calls to mind some famous walls built throughout human history. One of the best things about travel is it gives us the chance to reflect on where we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Though the walls listed below are no longer used for their original purposes, they still hold great significance as symbols of heritage and a past that should not be forgotten. They remind us that boundaries divide, while travel unites.
While it’s not really true that you can see the Great Wall from space (at least with the naked eye), it is an impressive feat of engineering and the extant portions of it span more than 13,000 miles. Erected over the course of several centuries, most of the current wall dates from the Ming Dynasty of the 14th-17th centuries. It served as a border defense and a way to control immigration and emigration but also to regulate trade along the Silk Road. As with anything that has stood for so long, it has been many things to many people, and it’s definitely worth visiting.Hadrian’s Wall
The Roman emperor Hadrian spent his reign traveling around the empire, and the construction of a wall on the island of Great Britain was a result of Hadrian’s policy of consolidation. It marked a physical limit to the Roman empire as well as a reminder to those north of the wall how formidable Rome’s power was. Today, Hadrian’s Wall is a great place to take a walking tour to get a glimpse of what life was like for soldiers stationed far from home in the unfamiliar territory of what is now Northern England. Among the more interesting archaeological finds have been a pair of boxing gloves and letters requesting more beer to pacify bored and rowdy troops.
Serving as a physical and philosophical boundary from 1961-1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, isolating it as an enclave of Western ideals in the midst of East Germany and cut off from East Berlin. The wall is one of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War and the ideological divide that marked the second half of the 20th century. It is almost impossible to describe the psychological effect the wall had on Berliners. The East Side Gallery remains as a 4,300-foot mural capturing the feelings of euphoria and hope that came with the fall of the wall.
Begun by the pre-Incan Killke culture but expanded and perfected by the Incas, Sacsayhuaman is a massive feat of masonry using huge stones carved to fit together without mortar. The construction required hundreds of workers and was so precisely done that the walls have survived devastating earthquakes in Cusco, Peru, which served as the Inca capital. Invading Spaniards tore down most of the citadel for use in constructing homes, so now almost all that remains are the stones too heavy to lift, an indelible symbol of a once-mighty empire.
Part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the wall is what remains after the destruction of the temple complex by the Romans in 70 C.E. The wall is the holiest place Jews are allowed to pray, as they are prohibited from the Holy of Holies, which is thought to be under the Muslim holy place the Dome of the Rock. The wall is also sacred to Christians and to those Muslims who consider the spot to be where Muhammad tied the horse Buraq before ascending to heaven. In short, the wall and Temple Mount are a physical manifestation of the religious conflict that has pervaded throughout the history of the Middle East and Jerusalem in particular.
After another round of snowmaggedon, it seems like the warm weather might never arrive. But you really need to get out of the house and stop freezing, maybe even see solid ground. Fortunately, with these island getaways just a few hours’ nonstop flight from the major airports on the East Coast, you can get yourself to the warmth without too much trouble.
Leave in the morning and by afternoon find yourself stretched out a long pink or white beach. Hit the links at one of the island’s many top-flight golf courses. Try your hand at sailing in the waters that were to last year’s America’s Cup races. Fish for all manner of species in the clear waters off the beach, over the reefs or out in the deep sea. Or just get an eyeful of the colorful aquatic life by diving or snorkeling around the more than 350 shipwrecks offshore.
Jump on a nonstop flight to Nassau and you’ll be soaking up the sun in no time. There you’ll find a treasure trove of nautical and colonial history best explored on a tour of the defensive forts that ring New Providence island and in the Pirates of Nassau museum. Kids of all ages will enjoy the wonders of Aquaventure, Dolphin Cay and marine habitat at Atlantis on Paradise Island. Those of legal age will equally enjoy the gaming at casinos and sportsbooks, as gambling is legal throughout the islands for nonresidents ages 18 and older.
Fly into Montego Bay in the north of the island, and you’re right in the middle of an array of great resorts. The northern coast of the island, especially the 120-mile stretch from Oracabessa in the east to Negril on the western tip, is a playground of white-sand beaches, lush forests and rushing rivers. Rafting on the White River or the Martha Brae is a must. Reggae music and the smell of jerk chicken and pork fill the air, while smooth Blue Mountain coffee gets you energized for another day of adventure.
Turks & Caicos
Having avoided major damages when Hurricanes Irma and Maria came through last fall, Providenciales and the Grace Bay area are still a top destination for beautiful beaches and turquoise waters. The Columbus National Marine Park off Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and the coral reef right there in Grace Bay are a few of the great dive spots home to all kinds of marine life. If you prefer to keep your head above water, Provo Ponies has morning and afternoon horseback rides along trails and across Long Bay Beach.
Jet into Punta Cana and you’ll find yourself just a few hours removed from home but in an oasis of all-inclusive resorts straddling the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. While the beaches are great for lounging, activities abound, from ATV rides to horseback riding to day trips to nearby Isla Saona. Work with your travel advisor to pick the resort that’s right for you and you’ll find a haven of relaxation, entertainment, and dining all within easy reach.
Chase away the winter blues in just one flight. Maybe it’ll warm up by the time you get home.
Spend any time in San Miguel de Allende, and you’ll quickly see why so many people expatriate there. Soon enough, you’ll want to move there too. By day or by night, the place is a work of art. Colonial charm emanates from the town center and spills onto green hillsides. At just over 6,000 feet of elevation and with an average temperature in the 60s Fahrenheit, walking into San Miguel feels like stepping into a dream. Fair warning, though, if you’re driving in — especially at night — navigating the narrow and sharply angled cobblestone streets can be more of a nightmare.
Stroll through town, however, and you’re awash in colorful buildings, colorful people, and friendly dogs. In such a picturesque place, it’s no wonder there is a thriving artistic community. The Mercado de Artesanias (Artisans’ Market) is the perfect venue to sample the work of talented craftspeople hawking paintings, serapes, and handmade jewelry.
In such a beautiful setting, it’s a welcome challenge to turn your day into its own work of art. There’s a certain craft to drawing the hours out lazily while savoring every moment, but the locals seem to have it down pat. The entire fortified town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so just wander around and you’re bound to run into such architectural marvels as the San Francisco Church, Church of the Immaculate Conception or Ignacio Allende House. And you can barely make it a block without hitting a gallery.
Time moves slowly in San Miguel, so there’s nothing wrong with spending an afternoon sipping small-batch tequila with an expert from Casa Dragones, either in the eponymous casa when it’s available or in the new six-seat tasting room, “The Smallest Tequila Bar in the World.” Learn the history of the casa, which once housed the stables of the queen of Spain’s bodyguard and played a key role in the Mexican Revolution, and of the spirit, which was the brainchild of MTV founder Robert Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the first woman certified as a tequila master by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters. In 2013, Casa Dragones’ Joven earned a 96 score from Wine Enthusiast, the magazine’s highest mark for a tequila.
To put the finishing strokes on your masterpiece of a day, get to a rooftop in time to watch the sun dip the below the hills and the sky fills with stars as a cool breeze wafts in. The day fades to night, and suddenly, there you are in that dream again.
WHERE TO STAY:
Rosewood San Miguel de Allende: Set in the heart of this charming artists’ village, the 67-guestroom Rosewood San Miguel de Allende promises a stay fit for dignitaries. All visitors appreciate its fine Mexican craftsmanship. The rooms are decorated with stunning wood-beamed ceilings and a private balcony or terrace, and most have fireplaces. Taste innovative cuisine from 1826 restaurant’s open artisan kitchen, then whip up your own in on-site cooking classes. Relax poolside or at Sense, A Rosewood Spa, while the children are entertained with daily hands-on activities at the kids’ club.
Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada: A stay at Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada is not just a hotel visit, it’s a beneficial experience, leaving you with an understanding of this enchanting region. This boutique hotel and cooking school caters to the world’s most discriminating travelers with resplendent guestrooms and suites; 37 bedrooms are scattered throughout six mansions and the Casa del Parque. Each room is individually decorated with antiques, lush fabrics, and vibrant Talavera tiles. As expected, the restaurant is one of the country’s top dining establishments; you can also dine in the privacy of your room or on the romantic terrace.
The super blue blood moon has come and gone, and there won’t be another one for 20 years. But there are plenty of other natural phenomena you can see that occur often enough to plan a trip around.
A Tropical Permafrost Lake
Lake Waiau sits at about 13,000 feet of elevation near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii. It’s the only permafrost lake in the tropics, and though it shrank to about 2 percent of its previous size several years, it has made a comeback and can be reached by hike off the road to Mauna Kea’s summit. On the same island, you can also visit a Papakolea Beach, which features green sand thanks to a large supply of the mineral olivine. On clear days, you might also catch a glimpse of a green flash across the horizon just as the last rays of the sun go down, a special sight owing to the island’s latitude. Also on the Big Island, where Kilauea Volcano has been erupting continuously for 35 years, you can see thin strands of volcanic glass known as Pele’s hair, named after the goddess of fire.
Native to parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, and New Guinea, this multicolored tree is the only eucalyptus whose natural range extends into the Northern Hemisphere. The trees periodically shed bark, revealing a green inner bark, which changes color over time to blue, purple, orange and maroon. In their natural environments, which are rainy tropical forests, the trees can grow to be more than 200 feet tall. Though they have been imported to several U.S. states, rainbow eucalyptus are at their tallest and most colorful in their natural settings.
Go far enough north or south, and eventually, you’ll see brightly colored light particles dancing through Earth’s magnetic shield. The best time to see them, of course, is winter when the sky is dark most of the time. Closer to home, Alaska and northern Canada are great places to spot them, while Europe’s Nordic countries, especially Norway, Sweden, and Finland offer great vantage points. The southern version, Aurora Australis, is more difficult to spot because of the remoteness of Antarctica, but from New Zealand’s South Island, Tasmania and the island of South Georgia, the lights do make occasional appearances in the night sky.
Puerto Rico is home to three bioluminescent bays, which light up at night thanks to the presence of dinoflagellates in the water. There were fears that Hurricane Maria could have altered the shape of the bays enough to end the nightly show. Fortunately, that has not happened. The brightest of the three is Mosquito Bay off the island of Vieques, and all three are great for kayaking and are best seen during a new moon when the sky provides a dark backdrop.
Formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, the pillars of rock that form Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim stand as sentinels along the coast overlooking the North Channel. Legend has it the giant Finn MacCool built the causeway to cross over to Scotland and fight a rival giant. The tallest columns are almost 40 feet high and the cliffs are nearly 100 feet thick in spots. After a visit, head just a few miles down the road to the Bushmills Distillery, where you can have a whiskey tasting and tell your own tales of fighting giants.
By Damien Martin