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Philadelphia goes big-time, Sea World shifts direction: The View from AFAR

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Independence Hall drew UNESCO's attention and World Heritage City status to Philadelphia.

Photo by larry robinson

Independence Hall drew UNESCO's attention and World Heritage City status to Philadelphia.

Plus, new trek options and a look into wind avalanches in Greenland

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The City of Brotherly Love took the international spotlight this week when it became the first U.S. city to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. Of course there were other headlines from the world of travel, too, and we’ve summarized a number of them for you here. We’ve also linked to some articles that exemplify the very best travel writing of the past week. As always, if you have any questions about what you read in this column, tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

Philly gets UNESCO status

Philadelphia might play second fiddle to other East Coast cities such as New York and Boston, but the Pennsylvania metropolis grabbed headlines this week when it became the first U.S. city to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. The designation was awarded at the conclusion of the XIII World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities in Arequipa, Peru. After the announcement, Mayor Michael Nutter was quoted as saying,As a World Heritage City, Philadelphia is being officially recognized on the global stage for its wealth of contributions to the world as the epicenter of American democracy and for its enduring commitment to preserving the unique historical and cultural assets in our diverse community.” Philadelphia’s case to become a World Heritage City revolved around Independence Hall, where America’s Founding Fathers penned the Declaration of Independence. The United States Constitution was also written and signed in the City of Brotherly Love. City officials hope the latest accolade will expand international attention beyond Philly's association with Rocky and provide a new growth engine to drive tourism and commerce.

Sea World to nix Orca shows

Future visits to Sea World in San Diego will be noticeably different, as the embattled animal park announced this week it will end its famous “Shamu” killer whale shows, which have existed in one form or another since the 1960s. In place of these trick-filled performances, the park soon will roll out a new, toned-down orca show that focuses on education and conservation. The move comes after months—years, really—of criticism from laypeople and animal rights activists over the treatment of captive animals. Many of the cruelties of captivity were brought to light by the 2013 film Blackfish. Predictably, activists decried the recent announcement as insufficient; they want nothing less than the full release of all captive whales. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing is for sure: More education and awareness about the animals can only be good.

More AMNH to love by 2020

One of the most popular museums on the East Coast soon will evolve in new and exciting ways. New York City's American Museum of Natural History, which draws some 5 million visitors each year, this week unveiled plans for a massive expansion and redesign—a $329 million effort that will subsume three existing buildings and add 218,000 square feet of space. Architect Jeanne Gang will redesign the entire museum, shaping it into an uber-modern structure with interior galleries that resemble caverns. According to an article in The New York Times, the design will be subject to public approval, but the museum has yet to present the plans to neighborhood groups. If the process goes smoothly, the new facility could be open to the public by 2020.

New resorts; a Bond package in India

Hotel lovers, take note: One new resort is open for business, another is ready to open soon, and a third has unveiled a fun package to celebrate the new James Bond film. The Playa Largo Resort & Spa, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, will open in Key Largo in the first half of 2016, making it the first new resort on the tiny island in 20 years. It will have 167 rooms, a waterfront pool, a white-sand beach, and two tennis courts, but the standout feature might be the nature trail built specifically to give guests intimate access to local bird and butterfly species. The somewhat larger Four Seasons Casablanca opened this week. The 186-room seafront property cascades down toward the Atlantic with design elements inspired by the ocean. Located in the Anfa neighborhood, it’s the second Four Seasons resort in Morocco. Room rates start at $322. Finally, in conjunction with the worldwide release of Spectre, the newest James Bond film, the Taj Lake Palace, in Udaipur, India, recently rolled out a “Be the Bond” package that includes two nights of accommodations, a special martini upon check-in, a boat cruise on Lake Pichola, and a champagne dinner on property. Many places lay claim to Bond; in this case, the imposing marble structure was a backdrop for one of the scenes in Octopussy. Rates start at $2,119.

New trips, excursions

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Two different outfitters this week announced new international excursions that will make wanderlusters looking for more pages in their passports. Asia Transpacific Journeys unveiled a camping experience at Banteay Chhmar, a 12th-century temple complex near Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. The two-day trip includes an overnight in a tent, a guided tour of the site, and a fancy al fresco dinner served just steps from the ruins, priced from $1,425 per person. Quark Expeditions rolled out its roster of trips for the 2016–2017 season, which includes three new itineraries in the Falkland and Galapagos islands aboard the small exploration boat Hans Hansson. There’s also an Arctic circumnavigation on board an ice-breaker; if passengers spring for all four legs of this trip, they will be at sea for a total of about 75 days. Pricing varies, but some bookings made before January 15, 2016, may qualify for a 25 percent early-bird discount.

Air New Zealand comes to Houston

Nonstop flights on Air New Zealand between Auckland, New Zealand, and Houston start next month (December 15, to be exact), making George Bush Intercontinental Airport the airline’s first U.S. route expansion in 11 years. Houston also will become the carrier’s fifth North American gateway, joining San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Vancouver, B.C. The flights between Houston and Auckland are among the longest in the world—an average of 14 hours one-way. Still, they pale in comparison to the 19-hour flights between Los Angeles or New York and Singapore, flights that Singapore Airlines is expected to resume by 2018, after a long hiatus.

Good Reads

History buffs will love Judith Freeman’s recent retrospective on Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, published on the Longreads blog. Over the course of 9,000 words (it’s actually an excerpt from a book) the author crafts a great look back on one of the most celebrated novelists and screenwriters of the last century. She also manages to paint a perfect period picture of L.A. in the early 20th Century—back when the City of Angels was a young metropolis and anything was possible.

In a sense, Grand Canyon rafting stories are like the Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing—all the greats have been there and done that. Still, every once in a while, one narrative stands out, such as Pete McBride’s recent essay about rafting the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River with his brother and extended family. The story, which appeared in National Geographic Traveler, mixes rousing adventure with family angst and just enough geological detail. The result? Utterly enjoyable.

“Bone-chilling” is both a figurative and literal descriptor for some of the scenes in Marilena Oltmanns’ November 10 Oceanus magazine article about on Greenland’s piteraqs (pronounced peter-racks). Sure, the piece skews into the territory of science writing, but it also offers an incredibly detailed look at the avalanche of winds (technically they’re called katabatic winds) commonly experienced in Tasiilaq, one of Greenland’s largest cities. Winter in the northern hemisphere is piteraq season in Greenland.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.