Travel Smarts

TRAVEL SMARTS

June 12, 2005

`Eye' Strain

London's giant observation wheel may face cloudy future

When it first went up, the London Eye, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris more than a century ago, was considered by some to be an eyesore, a blot on the skyline, an engineering monstrosity.

But like the Eiffel Tower, the Eye - a gigantic observation wheel on the banks of the Thames - has become a symbol of the city and one of its most popular tourist attractions.

The Eye opened Dec. 31, 1999, the eve of the new millennium. Last year, 3.7 million passengers rode it, rising 443 feet into the air for grand views of London.

But soon it may have to go.

It sits on prime real estate - across the river from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The landlord, a quasi-governmental trust called South Bank Center, has been reported by the BBC to be demanding a rent increase of 1,500 percent.

SBC wants to increase the annual rent from about $120,000 to more than $1.8 million. And SBC has told the Eye, the BBC reported, that if the new amount were not paid by July 1, the Eye would have to go.

All this has politicians and the public up in arms. But the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair hasn't commented.

But many Britons have.

"I think it should stay, really," said Stuart Ray, 25 a pharmacist from Cambridge. "It gives a good view of London."

And some like not only the view from the Eye, but also the view of it.

The observation wheel - the operators say technically it is not a Ferris wheel - takes riders in 32 enclosed capsules for one glacial revolution only. The trip takes half an hour.

On a clear day, riders can see for 25 miles. And the wheel gives the unusual perspective of looking down at Big Ben rather than up. On other days, the wheel offers not-so-splendid views 2 or 3 yards into the London Fog.

It is operated by a three-party consortium that includes British Airways ("Welcome to our flight today," a mechanical voice intones as the capsule starts to move.) The other partners are Tussauds Group, of Madame Tussauds wax museum, and Marks Barfields Architects, which designed the wheel.

A ride on the Eye costs 12.5 pounds, or almost $23. Last year's 3.7 million passengers works out to 46.2 million pounds - nearly $85 million.

For more information, visit the Web site www.london eye.com.

Hawaii volcano park unveils new exhibits

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has revamped its visitors center to give the public a better overview of the park's environmental, historical and cultural features.

Located near the park entrance, the center is typically the first stop for the 2.6 million people who visit Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii's most popular tourist attraction, each year.

One of the center's primary purposes has always been to provide the lava flow updates. New exhibits at the center, which reopened in April, explain ecological and environmental features of Hawaii.

Visitors learn that, before the Polynesians arrived, new forms of plant life came to Hawaii at the rate of one every 30,000 years, often from birds blown off-course by hurricanes; that because there were no natural predators, successive generations of plants lost their thorns or other defense mechanisms; and that mosquitoes first arrived in 1826 in the water casks of a British whaling ship.

Throughout the planning for the new center, a dozen Hawaiian elders met regularly with park officials to ensure that indigenous culture was accurately presented. A portrait of volcano goddess Pele hangs near the entrance.

For more information about the park, visit the Web site www.nps.gov/havo/index.htm.

Teenagers on the move

More American teenagers are traveling overseas these days, according to the Gallup Youth Survey. The poll, conducted this year, found that 27 percent of the 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed have gone overseas, compared with 16 percent in a similar 1986 poll.

Attention, hardy hikers

America's hardest day hikes, from Backpacker magazine:

1. Timberline Trail, Ore.

2. Pemi Loop, White Mountains, N.H.

3. Great Range Traverse, Adirondacks, N.Y.

4. Windom Peak, Colo.

5. Cactus to Clouds Trail, Calif.

6. Great Smoky Mountains End-to-End, Tenn./N.C.

7. Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, Ariz.

8. Enchantment Lakes Traverse, Wash.

9. Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon Loop, Wyo.

10. Bigelow Range Traverse, Maine. - From wire reports

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