There’s virtual tours of some of the best travel destinations in the world, including Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.(Courtesy photo)

There’s virtual tours of some of the best travel destinations in the world, including Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.(Courtesy photo)

Travel: Armchair journeys during the pandemic

From the Great Wall of China to Mars, it’s easy to get your travel fix virtually

Travel: Armchair journeys during the pandemic

Being “grounded” during one’s teenage years for an infraction, however insignificant the “crime” and however short the duration, was, to use the vernacular, a total bummer. This was especially so if the grounding occurred during the blissful summer months.

Getting grounded however an adult, say, during a global pandemic, while necessary to flatten the curve, is especially difficult for those who love to travel. Very often travel addicts – and you know who you are – start planning onward trips the minute bags are unpacked from one trip and dirty clothes are loaded into the washing machine.

While we may be able to start traveling domestically in early summer, and perhaps internationally in the fourth quarter of this year or in early 2021, the updates are changing daily and it’s difficult to make plans. Though currently, most airlines are generously allowing fee free modifications to reservations made during these uncertain times.

If however you are not quite ready to make summer travel plans, need some ideas to help formulate a plan or just need a quick escape from the lockdown, here are some links that can help.

For nature lovers and adventurer seekers

If you are a nature lover, you can tour five of the world’s most incredible National Parks with National Park Service guides. With several virtual options, I started off descending into an icy crevasse at Kenai Fjords in Alaska. Although Alaska in general and Kenai in particular are stunningly beautiful, the only rappelling into ice I would ever actually do would certainly involve a glass, some vodka and several olives, but this was nice diversion. I do however enjoy snorkeling and had some fun without getting wet in the third largest coral reef in the world at the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys.

Exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites has always been a great passion of mine and Heritage on the Edge is an experience using 3D maps. Some featured sites are threatened by climate change and thus a collateral benefit of these virtual tours is that these showcases digitally preserve them. The experience provides some history, heritage and conservation efforts for these important landmarks.

The National Marine Sanctuaries offering virtual dives allows viewers to explore American Samoa. While traversing coral reefs and admiring majestic turtles, colorful clown fish and royal blue starfish, I forgot about the pandemic momentarily and promptly put American Samoa on my near future bucket list. There are also virtual tours to Ontario’s Thunder Bay, Massachusetts’ Stellwagen Bank and others.

Calling all animal lovers

I am not a fan of zoos, instead preferring to see animals in their natural habitat. That said, the Baboon Cam and Ape Camat the San Diego Zoo made me giggle. As they lollygagged about – much like many of us waiting for the lockdown to be over ­– these primates reminded me of just how much shared DNA exists. The Flamingo Cam at the Houston Zoo had an excellent angle offering up a unique vantage point of these graceful, pink birds.

For a cuteness crash course, the Atlanta Zoo even features a PandaCam showcasing the goofiness of these mammals. There are also educational activities and at-home lessons for kids on nature, science and conservation. For an underwater voyage, the Georgia Aquarium has a marvelous Beluga Cam and an Indo-Pacific Cam displaying a plethora of colorful fish and corals. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s close-up Shark Cam set to soothing, mesmerizing music nearly induced a meditative state. At the New England Aquarium viewers can follow marine mammal trainers for a close-up view of their work along with activities to engage children.

Travel to your kitchen

For many of us, myself included, the kitchen has provided some delicious distraction. If cooking with thoughts of swaying palms and turquoise waters floats your boat, you can take a trip to the Pacific Ocean Island of Guam, a U.S. territory since 1950. Besides Guam’s natural beauty, it has a unique Chamorro culture, indigenous island heritage and cuisine.

Nearby there are 15 islands comprising the Northern Mariana Islands the most popular of which is Saipan that shares Guam’s Chamorro culinary traditions. A signature dish is Tiao Kelaguen, a ceviche cousin, that is often “cooked” with chicken. Here is a tutorial and recipe to bring Chamorro cuisine to your kitchen.

The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.(Courtesy photo)

The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.(Courtesy photo)

For Art Enthusiasts

How about a night at the museum without Ben Stiller’s antics? There are over 2,500 museums and galleries that bring home some of the world’s priceless art, day or night.

New York City’s Guggenheim has several online exhibits including contemporary collections, Latin American, South Asian and Southeast Asian art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers art history sections, resources for educators and access to online publications.

At London’s National Gallery you can get your fix of Monet’s dreamy works or dive into the Italian Renaissance. What I liked about this one was the ability to take a “Street View” which gave a more realistic sense of place while viewing. Given its sheer size and collection, the Louvre can often be intimidating. However, its website’s virtual tours are in bite-sized pieces and thus far less overwhelming.

While traveling in the world, I always make it a point to take street art walking tours with locals. Thus the Google Arts Project: Street Art was particularly enjoyable as it reminded me how much one can learn about contemporary local culture by those creatives who express themselves using this medium. I especially liked “Artist Stories” on mustached French artist Kashink’s colorful work and the passion behind German artist Claudia Walde’s creations, pseudonym MadC.

If you don’t know where to begin, here is a link to Google’s top 10 virtual museums. You can “travel” to the magnificent Beaux-Arts train station that houses Paris’ Musée D’Orsay. Or you can head to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, one of Germany’s largest. If you need an Asia fix, click on Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and view their global collection.

Want to really get away? NASA and Google offer a 3-D replica of the mars surface via the Curiosity Rover. (Courtesy photo)

Want to really get away? NASA and Google offer a 3-D replica of the mars surface via the Curiosity Rover. (Courtesy photo)

Exploring the world and onward

If you have never been to Paris or don’t like long lines, you can visit the Eiffel Tower and take in the view here with relative ease. What a pity that a virtual visit to a Parisian bistro or café can’t replicate the wonder of those experiences. For some luck ‘o the Irish, you can stroll at Blarney Castle. This allows armchair travelers to walk through parts of the castle interior and exterior grounds. Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher are also lovely and may be suitably enhanced with a wee bit of Irish Whiskey.

The Great Wall of China is indeed a sight to behold. However, in numerous visits to the Middle Kingdom never have I seen such blue skies as in this aspirational virtual tour.

If you seek something truly otherworldly, you can take a 352-million-mile trip to Mars. While heading to the red planet is not yet possible for Joe or Jane Traveler, NASA, field center Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google offer a tour of a 3D replica of the Martian surface as recorded by the Curiosity Rover. For the geeks among us there are also interesting details about the Rover’s antennae, robotic arm and cameras.

Once this pandemic is behind us, I will continue to advocate responsible, sustainable travel. There is nothing I believe that better provides us with the tools to be good world citizens and guardians than experiencing the world’s wonders and understanding that there is far more that unites the world’s inhabitants, than divides us. Until that day comes when we can once again explore our incredible planet, we will simply have to satisfy ourselves with sweatpants sightseeing, jammie junkets and virtual voyages. Happy traveling.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at


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