Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Actually is in Ha Long Bay?

Ha Long Bay.  In recent years we've all heard of it, but what do we really know about it?  I know that I saw it on Top Gear, the original version.  I know that it's off of the east coast of Vietnam.  I know about it's characteristic rocks rising out of the water.  What I wanted to know was what do you do there?
Here's what I found out.  First off, it's a World Heritage Site.  There are around 3,000 islands in the bay.  The easiest way to visit it is to take a cruise that could be as short as a day or as long as two weeks out of Halong City.

The cruise ships are exotic looking, somewhat of a junk, only extremely modernized.  If you take a multi day cruise, you will have a cabin on board that is just like a hotel room.  All the modern amenities are there.  It may look like a junk, but it's a small cruise ship.
For starters about what is in the bay, there are four pretty well known floating villages: Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, Cống Tàu, and Vong Vieng.  Ba Hang is the one that most people believe was visited by the Top Gear guys in their Vietnam special where they rode across Vietnam on motorcycles and scooters, then turned them amphibious to get to a bar in the middle of Ha Long Bay.

Cua Van is the biggest of the villages, and is home to the first ever cultural center for the group of villages.  This is a great place to learn about their way of life.  Remember, these people are born, live, work, go to school, get married, raise families, and die on the water.  It is a unique way of life, so if you're looking for a stop at McDonald's, this is not for you.  If you truly like to travel and learn about other cultures, this is for you.

Now, CatBa and Monkey Islands are the home to the famous Monkey Island resort.  The resort is world class.  CatBa is the only island in the bay with a town built on it.  The town has many resorts and hotels.  It's set up well for tourists, with activities and beaches.  Monkey Island is pretty much a side trip.  You can stay on the island with the resort.  You can also just catch a boat for an afternoon and visit.  There are around 20 monkeys who live on the island.  You get to see them in their natural habitat.  Remember, they are wild.  Don't try to get too friendly with those locals.
One of the most beautiful things in Ha Long Bay that doesn't necessarily stick out at you are the grottoes.  The islands being rock protrusions in and of themselves are riddled with caves.  Some are more famous than others like Thien Cung Grotto or the Heavenly Grotto, and Trinh Nu Grotto or the Virgin Grotto.  There are dozens of the grottoes around the bay though and a lot of them are easily accessible, beautiful, and an adventure for all.  Some of them are colorfully lighted so that the experience is enhanced and the pictures are second to none.
So, if you want to visit somewhere that you've seen on TV a bit lately, this is one of those things. The best time to visit is in the cooler months from November to April.  It gets hot and wet in the summer there.  The best way to travel is with one of the cruise company's that will take you on a guided trip.  There are 3,000 islands out there.  Even if you have a super yacht of your own doesn't mean that you would be able to find your way around.  Let the professionals take you.  They know what they're doing.
So, visit a floating village, see some monkeys, take a cruise, and explore some amazing caves.  Don't forget your camera, because if you do, you will regret it.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Carnaval Time!

Carnaval time is here.  This is that season when parades happen with music and partying, and people dress up in costume and dance in the streets.  It's that time when there are formal balls to attend, and beer as far as the eye can see.  It's that time when women wear very little clothing and are given beads for it.  Ash Wednesday is coming on February 13th this year.  It's a little earlier than usual, so right now is time to prepare.  It's time to throw caution to the wind before the time comes to give up meat or whatever else you may also give up for Lent.  It's the time when you have to be more church conscious than normal.  It's the high holy season.  Celebrate now, before it's too late.

In Rio De Janeiro they're celebrating the largest and most elaborate Carnaval in the world.  The party here takes over the city with millions of people joining in the celebration.  There are parades, costume contests, balls, and music lasting for two weeks.  But, what if you can't or don't wish to attend the biggest Carnaval in the world?

The Carnaval Venice, the oldest in the world that is still going on.

In Venice, you will find some far more traditional costumes than in the South American countries.  They stick with tradition in Venice, and the drama masks are fabulous.
Another great Carnival is in Panama.  I know, surprising, but true.  They have all the partying and parades that the others do.

 But there are various versions of Carnival all over the place.  The Philippines celebrates theirs directly after Epiphany.  Same celebrations, just a little different time.
The fact is, where there are Catholics, there is Carnival.
In the southern regions of the Netherlands there is Carnival.
All over Brazil there is Carnaval.
In Canada, it's Caribana.  It's still celebrated the same way however.
Portugal has their Carnival in the countryside near Porto.
Spain has their best celebrations in the Canary Islands.
Trinidad and Tobago hosts Carnaval in the Caribbean with one of the better known festivals.
Uruguay has the longest lasting Carnival, running for 40 days up until Shrove Tuesday on February 12th this year.
France has Mardi Gras, and the best locale is in Nice.  That's what the locals say.
So, Carnaval is everywhere, but in some places it's Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday in French.  But there is one Mardi Gras that is more noted than any other and that is Mardi Gras New Orleans.

Mardi Gras New Orleans starts in mid January and runs up to Fat Tuesday.  They have lots of gold, green and purple.  They have some of the old Venetian style costumes and some of the South American style.  they have parades, parties, formal balls, and streets full of people celebrating.  This is the French meets America in the land of the Creoles.  This is the party that draws millions of people each and every year.
Now, remember one thing about visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  If you haven't planned way in advance, beware.  On top of Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans on February 3rd.  The town is booked.  If you feel that you really have to go with little notice, take a phone loaded with hotel numbers.  If there is a cancellation, you may get a place to stay.  Flights during this time will be scarce and expensive.  Hotels, if you can get a room will be expensive.  It's the nature of the beast.  Also remember that at midnight starting Ash Wednesday, it's over.  It stops dead at midnight.
So, whether you want to go to the biggest Carnaval, the longest, the oldest or Mardi Gras the parties are mostly in full swing right now.  Get out now, before it's too late.  Carnaval only comes once a year.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

More of Winter at The Ice Hotel!

Somewhere in the land of the Aurora Borealis in the Laplands of Sweden where the Sami people live, there's a little something that you may not expect to see.

The ice hotel above the Arctic Circle in the Lapland of Sweden has been around for over twenty years--well in the winter.  In the beginning, it was quite a journey to get there.  Nowadays, you can fly with Scandinavian Airlines and practically land right on it's doorstep.
This is a once in a lifetime chance to do something unbelievable.  You can stay the night in a hotel made entirely of ice.  You can also eat, drink and get married there if you like.

The rooms are beautiful and filled with furs to keep you warm at night.  There are designer rooms every year.  This year, I hear that there is a Tron room.  Sounds pretty cool.
But, in reality, should you fly all the way out to the land of the Sami People just to freeze your butt off and say that you've stayed at the original Ice Hotel?  No.
There are plenty of activities for the traveler out there.  First off, you can go and visit the Sami People in their world.  They'll show you how they live and cook you a meal.  It's a great case of culture shock and a great way to learn about ancient peoples from other parts of the world.  Make sure that if you do it, you aren't a little freaked out by reindeer, because the Sami People are reindeer herders.
You can also go dog sledding, horseback riding, snow machine riding, snow shoeing, and skiing.  At every turn in the wilderness, you might see a reindeer or a moose.  It is remote and there are wild animals out there, so be careful.
If you shiver at the idea of staying the night in the Ice Hotel, there are other hotels in the area where you can be warm and enjoy all the modern conveniences that you've come to expect from a great vacation.

Oh yeah, did I mention ice driving?  There are instructors that will teach you how to drive a Mini Cooper on ice and drive it on an ice track.  That's pretty cool for you car enthusiasts.  This is a truly unique experience.  That means you should really do it.
So, if you've ever wondered what it's like up north in the winter, come to Sweden and see the best of it.  Winter runs from December through April here, so you have plenty of time.

And if you get tired of sled dogs, Mini Coopers, and drinking your drink out of a cup made of ice, just remember to look for the amazing Northern Lights.


Break up the Winter With a Festival!

We've all suffered from a little winter depression.  January and February leave some people where they live completely in the dark.  What can you do?  You can go to the Caribbean on a cruise for a while, but inevitably you have to go home sometime.  I too, live in the northern regions, where the sun comes up late and sets early.  Every day is a crap shoot as to whether or not you can get out of the driveway to go to work.  Depression is unproductive, I say, and apparently so do millions of other around the world.
Their solution to winter blues?  Have a festival!

This one is up the road from me in St. Albans, VT.  It's still quite cold in April in Vermont, but that's when the sap runs sweet and the maple syrup is plentiful.  You can sample many different varieties of the sweet stuff. They have contests for the best syrup, they have a festival, they have a whole weekend of fiddle music.  It's a lot of fun.
Now, if you don't want to wait until April for your cheering up in Vermont, you can always take a weekend and head to the Trapp Family Lodge.  That's right, the same Trapp family that inspired the Sound of Music.
The lodge looks like it belongs in the Alps.  It's not far from Stowe, where the skiing is fine.  They have yoga classes, indoor swimming, and their own microbrewery, just for starters.  You can also learn how to make maple syrup, go for a sleigh ride, go cross country skiing, or just relax and go to one of the several restaurants.  It's relaxing, beautiful, and makes you not feel so bad about it being winter outside.

If relaxing is not what you think will make you happy during the winter months, then come to Alaska, and the World Ice Sculpting Championships in Fairbanks.  This is winter art at it's absolute finest.  It goes on for a few weeks, starting the last week in February.  Sculptors come from all over the world to enter this contest.  They have a festival in Mid March to celebrate the sculptures.  They light them up for display and have many activities to make it a great time.

 Need a little more adrenaline?  Come out to Aspen for the X Games.  This event hits Aspen, Colorado in mid January and runs for a little over two weeks.  This is where you'll see the world's top winter athletes competing in some of the most exciting sports.  Sean White has competed in the half pipe here, and many others.  So, pack up your parka and come out for all the fun.

Then there's my favorite tiny town of Greenville, Maine.  I mentioned in an earlier entry that there was once a plane crash there.  A B52 Bomber crashed there decades ago and the wreckage is still of much interest to visitors.  The crash happened in the dead of winter, which in Maine in the hills is really the dead of winter.  Every year, the locals put on their Bunny Boots and have a memorial snow machine ride up to the site of the wreck to remember those who didn't make it.  Now, being that these are hearty Mainers, they also have some relief from the weather in the area throughout the winter.  They have an ice fishing derby in late January, they have the 100 mile and 30 mile Wilderness Sled Dog Race for avid snow machiners,  and they have a chocolate festival in mid February.  If that's not enough interest for you, just stop by on Sunday afternoons and watch the car races on the lake.
As far as other activities go for those who want to fight winter on it's own turf, there is a winter festival in Banff, Canada that has all the usual suspects, plus a fair dose of northern lights.  That's a little something to top off the ice sculptures, snowshoeing, skiing, and snow machining.
Harbin, China touts itself to have the biggest snow and ice festival in the world, and runs through the entire month of January.
Brainard, Minnesota holds the world's largest charitable ice fishing competition in mid January, thousands of fishermen hit the ice for this one.  The best catch here is that there's a prize for 23rd place.

And then there's Quebec City in Quebec, Canada.  These guys I'm pretty sure have the biggest blow out of all.  They have it all.  They have parades, they have extreme sports, they have canoe races in the St. Lawrence Seaway, they have life size table soccer games,  they have dances, balls, and everything that you can imagine.

They even have a mascot called Bonhomme.  It's the biggest blow out for winter fun that I know of, and it's in one of the coldest cities that I know of.
The people of Quebec City and the thousands of people who come from all over the world don't care how cold it is.  They cut loose and stand strong against the cold and dark.  So, maybe the answer to what to do with all that darkness is to have a couple of parades and race home made sleds down an ice run in the middle of town.  Could be, I don't know.
So, if you find yourself feeling a little down about winter, look around and find a way to enjoy it.  Spring will come all too soon, and the craziness of winter fun will go away until next year.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Take a Chevy Bel Air for a Cruise in Cuba

Welcome to Cuba, and for the first time in decades, we Americans can go.  The travel restrictions on visiting Cuba have been relaxed for the time being here in the U.S. and that means that it's time for an adventure.  Communist countries are normally a wide diversion from the rest of the world.  They lie somewhere between third world countries and modern developed countries.  They have modern conveniences that are allowed by the government, and they could have more, but they don't.  It's that simple.  Sometimes they seem so lost in time that they are at third world levels, but they aren't.  That's all part of what makes them so interesting.

In Cuba, the rise of the Communists meant that the Capitalists here in the U.S. and several other countries around the world were going to try and convince them to throw away their Communist beliefs and join our club.  The way that we do these things is by embargoes, sanctions and boycotts.  It's the political way in the civilized world.  Whatever.  So, the Cubans had a hard time importing cars for 50 years or so.

Now, if you like classic cars,  Havana is your Mecca.  The Cubans are very proud of their cars.  The family car is a member of the family like a dog or cat.  Cubans have spent decades keeping these old cars going, because new cars were never an option.  The result?  There's a city full of amazing old cars.

Now, restrictions are easing.  This is one of those activities that I advise not waiting to do.  Sooner or later, these cars will fade away.  But for now, you can catch a ride with one of the owners of these amazing cars right on the streets of the city.  It's almost like hailing a cab.  There is no formal way to get to ride in one, so wave at one on the street and ask for a ride.  Cubans are some of the most friendly strangers on Earth.
Now, it would be rude to only mention one thing to do in Cuba, although it is the most unique and why it's on this blog.  But, there are a lot of other things that are fun to do while in the Havana area.  One of those things is to make sure you are there over a Saturday night so that you can experience the nightlife.  For starters, the Cuban National Folklore Group gives basic Rumba lessons on the patio outside their dance studio every Saturday afternoon.  Then, you can use your new found experience all night long in clubs around the city.

The Tropicana Nightclub is probably the most famous nightclub in all of Cuba.  The shows are huge, loud, and colorful.  The drinks are large.  The dancing is great and the atmosphere is something that you would gladly go to Cuba for with everything that you've come to expect in Caribbean style.

At the edge of the city is the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña built in the 1700's and a great attractions to take the kids to see.  There is also the El Castillo de los Tres Reyes built in the 1600's.  There is a lot of history in Havana.  There's the Revolutionary Square where Fidel Castro took control of the government over 50 years ago.

There are a lot of things to do in Havana, and a lot of things to see in Cuba.  You can even go to the Palmar Farm and see how they do things on the farm in Cuba.  They do have cock fights there, so be careful what you sign on for.

There are many things to keep you fascinated in Cuba.  The old towns like Trinidad, the new cities like Havana.  There are great diving spots and a national aquarium for those who don't want to go diving for themselves.
But the cars are unique.  It's like a step back in time in a perfectly modern city.  It's something that you don't get to see or experience riding in in most places around the world unless you spend thousands buying a classic car and a lot of time attending shows and cruise nights.  It's the way to go to an exotic country that has just opened up for American tourists and do something that you wouldn't  ordinarily do.  Now isn't that why we all travel in the first place?

So, catch an old car in Havana.  They have the ones that have been worked on to death,
and the ones that look like they've just come off the dealer's floors.  It's a great adventure, a great way to see the sights, and a great way to meet the locals.   Do it soon, before the cars get retired and the ambiance fades away.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Things You Will Find in Gibraltar!

Gibraltar...what can one say about traveling here?  There are so many things to say about this tiny city state, that I don't know where to start.
The Rock of Gibraltar is a landmark known around the world.  The tiny country has used that rock as a fortress as recently as World War II.  It's a British territory which governs itself and takes periodic referendums which reinforce the people's wishes.  The Spanish have aspirations of ruling the tiny country, but the Gibraltarians have no interest in this.
But, why would I encourage someone to visit there on a vacation?  What's the draw that makes this a unique destination?

Barbary Macaque Monkeys, or Gibraltar Monkeys are one of the main attractions in a country that spans only 2.6 square miles.  These guys have been living here for over 1000 years.  There are about 250 monkeys living in Gibraltar, and they live in five different groups in various locations around the Rock of Gibraltar.  They are somewhat tame, and they love to visit with the tourists when they're in the mood.
As always, remember, they are not pets.  They will do what they wish, so be careful when encountering them.  But, don't shy away either.  These guys are the number one thing to see in the country.
The Rock of Gibraltar is one of the most fascinating places to see in all of Europe.  There are many sections of the Rock to explore.  You can see monkeys in a lot of the locations around the Rock.

There's the Apes Den, which is self explanatory.  There are caves all over the Rock.
There is an old fort that was used to defend the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and the Iberian Peninsula.  There are parts of the fort inside the Rock as well.

There's St. Michael's Cave which is a wonder all on it's own.
There are many things to see on and inside the Rock of Gibraltar, but everywhere you go, you may run into the monkeys.  It's their home, and they love it there.  Make sure you respect that, but take advantage of the unique situation that exists around that Rock.  You may never have another chance to have this type of encounter with wild monkeys.  They are unique and living in a unique situation.  It's the greatest thing ever to just walk up and feed them or shake hands with them.  It's amazing.

Remember, the city of Gibraltar is an old British territory.  The buildings are British.  There are British Guards at the government buildings.  There are British pubs throughout the city and the official language of the country is English.  They even have British phone booths.  It's a taste of Britain at the crossroads of two continents.

And here's another attraction for you.  The airport here is exceptional.  It's one of the ten most dangerous airports in the world.  The planes here cross the road where the cars drive and the pedestrians walk.  It's the only setup like it.  The road actually crosses the runway.  Throw in some outstanding cross winds from the sea and the Rock, and you have an amazingly dangerous place to come and go at.  The price is normally ridiculous too, so my best advice is to fly into Lisbon or Seville and drive the rest of the way.

Gibraltar is also one of the busiest port cities in all of Europe, so the harbor is always busy.  Here's the thing.  The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow body of water that separates Europe from Africa.  If you get on the local ferry for about an hour, you will wind up in Morocco.  This is a great day trip to take while in the country.  It gives you that little side trip to another continent.  Make sure you check out the political map before going to Morocco, however, things have been in unrest over there lately.
So, swing by Gibraltar.  It's a little country of 30,000 people that has some surprises to offer.  It's location, it's independence and unwillingness to be changed into a Spanish territory, it's ports, it's people from over 10 nationalities, and it's giant rock are all worth coming to see.

And don't forget the monkeys.  It will be the one thing that you will never forget about Gibraltar.