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Staying off the beaten path shows travelers the real sites

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By Penny Fletcher


Anghor Wat in Cambodia is a 1,500-year-old religious site held to be holy by people of that country.
SOUTH COUNTY - Most of the time, Michael Flanagan draws up his own itinerary and chooses not to travel with a group.

Michael told me he isn’t just interested in seeing what the tour guides offer, he likes to go behind the scenes and get the real flavor of the places he visits, and that’s pretty much everywhere in the world.

His 54-page passport doesn’t have a place that isn’t stamped, and he’s well into the pages of a new one. Several places are just stamped “CHARLIE” where he’s gone into sectors Americans don’t usually travel and come back through the American “Checkpoint Charlie,” a phrase that’s been used to mean “you’re back in the free world again” since the split of Germany following World War II.

Now, having visited every state and all seven continents, he’s available to give group talks about different places, and even a little one-on-one advice after his talks.

The dual resident of Sarasota and California was in Apollo Beach recently to explore south Hillsborough County. I caught up with him at Circles Restaurant; because he says he likes to be around the water, whether it’s in Puerto Rico, Europe, the American West or one of the world’s oceans or seas.

He’s motorcycled across the Cape of Good Hope and sat at the feet of Sphinx and he says his favorite continent is Africa because there’s such variety and so many exciting things to do there.

The scariest place he’s visited, he says, is North Korea, and the most beautiful place is the island of Santorini, (which means Saint Theresa) in the southern Aegean Sea, south of Greece.

“Everything in Santorini is white, the buildings, the sand, everything, including all the archeology, and is set against the beauty of the sea,” he told me.

His favorite cities are Hong Kong and New York.

“They won’t let me into Mecca because I’m not Muslim or places the Mormons consider holy in Salt Lake (City, Utah) and I haven’t been to the South Pole,” he told me. “Other than that, I’ve tried to see everything I possibly can. Time and tides wait for no man. We all have the same amount of time. It’s what we choose to do with it that counts.”

Often, he has traveled with his mother, who he describes as 81-going-on-51 but she is a seasoned traveler on her own.

“Like mother, like son I guess,” he said.


Michael motorcycled across the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point on the African continent, so he could get away from the places tour guides showed and see the “real deal.”
After growing up in Cambridge, Mass., in a large Irish Catholic family, he studied Liberal Arts at Boston University. The now 57-year-old went back to school in 1974 to get a graduate degree and after that taught school for one year.

“It wasn’t for me,” he said. “So I went back again and got an MBA in Finance.”

That set him traveling for companies like General Electric and Citibank that sent him all over the world. He also attended the U.S. Language Institute and lived in London while working as a bond trader for Citibank. By then he’d been bitten by the travel bug and began taking side trips of all kinds.

“I’d had a passion to see the world since a little kid in Catholic school when one day the nuns were describing Tierra del Fuego as the island of fire. I remember thinking- Wow! An island of fire. I want to see that someday.”

A few years ago, after he had already been to every continent, he was on a tour in China and a tour guide there began talking about U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Sites. “I didn’t know what they were,” he told me. “I had been traveling all my life, and I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked him.”

As it turned out, Michael had already seen many World Heritage Sites, and didn’t know it, and you may have too.

A World Heritage Site is a place (either man-made or natural) that has been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a place of “universal significance to mankind.”

The designations (and the organization) began in 1974, and there are now 972 such sites, but the organization adds more every November, so by the time you read this, there may be 1,000. Some right here in the United States are the Grand Canyon; Yosemite National Park; the Florida Everglades; Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia, “Monticello”; the Great Smoky Mountains and California’s Redwood National Park, among others. Anyone who wants to find out more about World Heritage Sites can visit http://whc.unesco.org.


The Great Wall of China is the longest structure in the world and stretches a distance comparable to that between Boston, Mass. And Phoenix, Ariz. Yet the tour guides there explain that it didn’t stop the invasions of Genghis Khan, which was the original purpose for its being built.
Michael has visited Moscow’s famous Red Square and the Kremlin complex; given reverence to the world’s holy places, including Jerusalem’s Western Wall; and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro all the way to its 6,400-foot-peak, which, he said, turned out to be a glacier.

He says he really likes places with historic Spanish cultures, like Havana and Cuba, and if not for the poverty and governments, would also recommend Haiti and Liberia.

The most solemn moment he remembers happened on the Island of Goree in Sengegal, when he stood by the auction block that was the last place in their African homeland newly-captured slaves stood before being forcefully taken to other lands.

“Nobody speaks there,” he said. “It is a place of solemn remembrance.”

“There are happy places, where everyone is laughing, and then there are solemn places. You can feel the difference in them,” he said.

He’s run marathons in many countries, although now he just runs for fun.

His heart attack in Nevada made the front page of the Las Vegas Sun on Christmas Eve in 2005 as a “hometown hero story” about the pilot for United Airlines, Guy Manning, who had saved his life.

“One minute I’m thinking I’m in fabulous shape and the next minute there’s an elephant sitting on my chest, said Michael. “I heard a voice asking me how I was, and I said ‘I’m fine’ even though by then I was bending over double.”

Manning whisked him to the hospital anyway, and saved his life.

Michael Flanagan in front of Moscow’s Red Square which separates the Kremlin, citadel and residence of the President, from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod.
Again healthy and traveling, Michael is currently available to come to South County and talk to groups. He may be reached by emailing michael.flanagan@qmail.com.

When we ended our conversation about travel, he said, “You know, Dorothy was right,” and just looked at me, so I figured his statement was really some kind of rhetorical question.

Having been quite a few places myself, I thought I knew the answer.

“There’s no place like home,” I said.

“That’s it all right,” he answered. “No matter how much I love to travel, there’s no place like home.”




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