Thursday, February 27, 2014

Here's a Unique Idea for Winter...Alberta!

Amazing isn't it?  The sheer idea that up in Canada they have more space than they know what to do with, and most of the population gravitates toward the American border area because it's warmer and easier.  It's just a fact.  Now, out in Alberta, they have a town called Edmonton that's a great place to spend some time if you love rodeos, or zoos, or having a great hub to work from, but what about spending some time in this area in the winter?  Sounds silly, but they have something that you can't find in too many places around the western hemisphere.  They have the West Edmonton Mall.  This place is not just somewhere to go shopping.  This place is a luxury resort that you can enjoy even when the cold of winter is so bad that you don't want to run from building to car in the weather.

The shops at this mall are top of the list.  They have all the Abercrombie and Fitch and Tiffany's and the Disney Store that you can handle, but it's the other things that they have that you won't even believe.  Now, just for a small disclaimer here, if you've been to the Mall of America in Minneapolis/St. Paul, you've probably had an amazing mall experience, so you may find the rest of this boring.  But, if not, stay tuned.

The ice palace is something that I would expect to see in a Canadian mall.  It makes sense, and it's beautiful with it's domed skylight effects.  It's really cool.  But, if that was all that this mall had to offer, I wouldn't be writing about it.

Let's start small.  This mall has a ship docked in it called the Santa Maria.  You've probably heard of it if you've ever had to study Columbus and his first trip to America.  This replica is right there in the mall and you can wander around on it.  You can also book it for special events.  People have gotten married in this boat docked right in the West Edmonton Mall.  Pretty unique, but not the only thing going on here.

They also have a water park.  They have a giant wave pool--one of the largest indoor ones in North America--and water slides, and a beach.  It's amazing.  There's 17 water attractions in all.  It has natural sunlight and snack bars and everything to keep a family busy for days.

If you don't like the idea of spending your time in a water park in the dead of winter, although I can't imagine, then maybe you would like to try Galaxyland, the indoor amusement park.  The park has 24 fun rides, including some roller coasters.  It also is home to the largest triple loop indoor roller coaster in the west.

Next on the exciting agenda is the sea lion show at the aquarium.  This place has all kinds of water creatures for your family's entertainment.  You can play with penguins and watch sharks and sea turtles.  It's right in the bottom of the mall.

Time to eat and shop?  Come on down to Bourbon Street.  It's a Vegas style New Orleans type of spot.  You can get all kinds of cajun food and have a really good old fashioned time just like they do down south in the States.


Europa Boulevard is another place where you can spend some quality shopping and dining time with inside streets designed to look like a European city.

There's also Chinatown for Asian flair where the restaurants are plentiful and there's even an Asian supermarket.

There's glow in the dark mini golf and bowling at Ed's Rec Room.  They even have bowling leagues there.

There's an adventure course where you can climb around on rope courses.  There's also a rock climbing wall.

There's so much to do.  There are theaters, both regular and IMAX.  There's a shooting gallery in this mall.  There's a skateboard park.  There's Caesar's Bingo Parlor for the gamblers in the group.  There are health clubs and day spas as well.  There are night clubs.  There are all kinds of different shops.  They even have hotels, so you don't even have to leave at night.  Right on the premises is Fantasyland, a theme roomed hotel, designed to complete the adventure of a northern indoor adventure.

You really can't imagine what one of these super malls is like unless you've been to one.  There are wedding chapels and build a bear shops in there.  You can have a photo taken at the Antique Photo Parlour.  There's anything and everything you could imagine, and it's all under one roof for your enjoyment.  It's one of the most unique ways in the world to escape the weather.  It's in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  This place is cold, but inside it's better than a cruise ship.  They have passes just like an amusement park that get you into all of the attractions for days on end.  You'll never be bored.  You'll never be hungry.  You won't have to worry about finding a place to buy souvenirs.  This place has it all.  It even has a beach.  There is no real way to beat that.

So, if you're looking for a place to get away, a place that takes you to a fantasy world where you don't have to remember what you're supposed to do when you get  home, this is it.  It's the world's best all encompassing resort.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Queen Mary...It's Haunted!

Here's one that I'd not heard about, even in my vast experience, until I was watching "The Big Bang Theory" a while back.  The Queen Mary, one of the most famous transatlantic cruise ships ever, lives in Long Beach, California.  I missed it.  I admit it.

The Queen Mary was supposed to be the Queen Victoria, but King George misunderstood the situation and thought that the ship was being named after his wife, not thinking that they would name it after his amazingly beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria.  And so it was to be that the ship would be forever called the Queen Mary.  She was put into use in 1936 and made all kinds of speed records on her journeys.  It wasn't until 1967 that she was decommissioned and taken to her permanent home in Long Beach, California.


The legend continues beyond the legends who sailed with this majestic ship like Bob Hope and Clark Gable, along with the entire British Royal Family.  She's haunted.  That's right, haunted.  For decades the guests and staff aboard the ship have told tales about seeing guests swimming in the pool even though it's empty.  There are tales of spirits wandering the ship that may have passed in a crash or in the boiler room, or during WWII.  There are several tours that you can book that take you around the ship and give you the best paranormal experience possible.  Is it a tourist trap?  Yes, but it's a lot of fun anyway.

But regardless of whether or not the ship is haunted, it's an amazing place.  Long Beach has turned it into a hotel and kept a lot of it's charm in tact.  The staterooms are all one of a kind and gorgeous just like they were in the 1930's.  When you stay aboard this ship you may not have a true paranormal experience, but you will have some fabulous food at one of the restaurants and bars, and you will have a beautiful room to sleep in.  It's a great experience, and I think that anyone who loves ships and boats will love this.


Now that I've told you my main topic for Long Beach, let me tell you some more.  This town is Mecca for seafaring boat lovers.  First, this is the hopping off point where you catch the ferry to Catalina Island.  If you want to read more about Catalina, I wrote about that one back in November, 2012.

Secondly, this is the home of the only battleship on the west coast, the Iowa.  In LA Harbor, not far from Long Beach, sits the Battleship Iowa.  The ship has now turned museum like others that you may find around the country such as, the Intrepid in New York or all of the ships at Battleship Cove in Massachusetts.  It's a great way to bring to life the history of maritime battle for your kids.

Still loving that water theme?  Next, hop on over to Naples Island and take a ride in a gondola.  Gondola Getaways will be very happy to keep you on the water with a romantic ride that reminds you of Venice or the Venetian in Las Vegas, depending on your travel history.  These guys do it all.  They do more than just romantic rides for two.  They have pizza parties and even do weddings in their gondolas.


But don't stop there.  Take a cruise from the harbor in Long Beach.  The Grand Romance Riverboat does dinner cruises and murder mystery cruises.  This is a beautiful old riverboat replica that gives you that feel of being on the Mississippi and back in time.  Murder Mystery Cruises are a lot of fun too.

Maybe you'd prefer a more modern style boat for your cruise from Long Beach Harbor.  You can always take a dinner and dancing cruise with Spirit Cruises.

You can also catch a Harbor Breeze Cruise and go deep sea fishing, diving or whale watching.


Are you a huge fan of the water?  Well, in Long Beach you could always check out the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden.  Mr. Miller's widow, Lorraine hired Edward Lovell to build these gardens on a 1.3 acre plot in her husband's memory.  The gardens are stunning and this is a really great one, because not only is it open almost every day of the year, but it's free.  That's right, it's a free one.  That does not happen very often in travel.

Let's not forget though, that Long Beach is named for beach and the beaches in this area are beautiful, so don't forget to take that sunset walk at least, even if you're like me and you're not beach people.  Even if you never want to wear a bikini in your life, you should take the time to enjoy a sunset along this coast.  You'll never forget it.

But, while you're in the area let's not forget how fond Californians are of their amusement parks.  From Santa Cruz to Knott's Berry Farm to Disneyland, there are plenty of places to get your thrills.  I just don't talk about that stuff much because I like the more offbeat ideas.

So, if you've toyed with the idea of coming to Southern Cali, but haven't decided if it's your thing or not, because you don't take to the beach that well, think it over.  There's so much to do in this area that it's almost ridiculous to think that you could do it all.  I would leave out the amusement parks, but that's just me.

I would much prefer taking advantage of the Aquarium of the Pacific over riding another roller coaster.  Don't get me wrong, I love roller coasters.  I grew up with Cedar Point, so it's ingrained in my soul, but when I travel I like to do something new and amazing.  That's why I don't concentrate on amusement parks.

That's exactly why I'll be that annoying person who will go to a place that has some of the most famous parks in the world, and I'll talk about something grand and amazing like the Queen Mary.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Here's Some Things That I Have Learned Along the Way About Good Trip Making

We've all been there.  It's the first time that you're trying to plan a trip out of the country.  You haven't ever been anywhere, except around the USA, and you want to try and broaden your horizons.  It's scary, and you don't want to pick a location that you've always wanted to see and then get there and have a terrible time.  I mean, you may not be a foreign language expert, and you may have trouble communicating with the locals.  You don't have the money to hire a personal guide.  What should you do?  You don't know if you can take your cell phone with you, you don't know if you'll be able to plug in your stuff, you're not sure if you've gotten the best deal.  There are a lot of questions that need a lot of answers for your first real trip abroad.

So, you have to ask yourself some questions.  First, are you going to your dream destination?  Is this the one place that you've always wanted to see?  If you aren't sure, maybe you should look around a little bit before deciding.  There are problems associated with the trips that have been dreamed about since childhood.  The number one problem with that idea is political problems.  Always check the Department of State for any warnings before booking a trip abroad.  I also always register my travel information on their website, just in case.  I'm not looking for trouble, but it has found me from time to time and it's a good idea to do the right thing and register before you leave.

There are other things to check.  The first is the news.  You might want to skip the channels on your television and go to a news feed on your computer, phone, or tablet.  You can check out what's going on in the country you intend to visit and see if it's a good time.  If not, I highly recommend that you either put off your trip or choose a new location.  I've been writing about locations all over the world for years, and I can tell you that there is always something equally impressive and sometimes more so than your original idea and simply by looking you may find a new favorite spot.  Last year, I was going to go to southern Spain, but the political climate in Morocco--a side trip I wanted to take--was not good.  I chose Switzerland instead.  It turned out that the economic climate in Spain, which I already knew was bad, was worse than I had ever imagined, so I was glad that we didn't go.  Also, the spot in Switzerland was one of the most wonderful places I have ever been.  Don't be married to an idea.  Be flexible enough to make a great trip happen.


Don't be afraid to leave the cities.  There are thousands of wonderful cities to visit around the world, but the countryside and the small towns and villages are great.  Go ahead and rent that car, skip the trains and see the countryside for yourself.  It's liberating.  You learn more about the locals and the local customs by visiting the small spots.  Most cars have satellite navigation as an option.  The big cities are just like our big cities for the most part.  Some of them are prettier and older but they are fast moving and you never get to see how the locals live there.  In the small towns you get to know the people faster and you find out more about real life.

So, do they speak English?  You might be surprised.  Look, no one wants to hire a guide or an interpreter if they don't need to.  That takes the independence and the wonder of it all out of the trip.  This amazing adventure just became something that you can't do yourself.  I hate that feeling.  The first time I went to Russia it was the Soviet Union and I was clueless.  I had a guide and he was nice.  He was also a bodyguard sent by the government and probably some kind of KGB guy.  Needless to say, I didn't know whether he was helping me or watching me.  I didn't like it and that could be why to this day I'm not fond of interpreter situations.  But you may be surprised how many countries speak a lot of English.  There are more than the obvious ones like Australia and Britain.
Here's a list that I found:

Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada
Dominica, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Gibraltar,Grenada, Guyana, India, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu
Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, Zimbabwe

There are also resort areas around the world like Sun City, everything in Jamaica, Switzerland, and so on that speak English.  There are also countries like Finland, and Iceland where English is not referred to as an official language but is spoken by nearly everyone.  Check out your area of desired travel and see who speaks what.  If they don't speak much English, they may speak some other language that you speak.

So, now you've picked a spot where you can talk to the locals and not end up in the newspaper back home because you got caught up in an international incident.  Good.  Now you need to make reservations.  There are many websites, and I mean many, where you can book your vacation.  I start there.  Sometimes I look at packages, but they normally don't apply to me.  I want to do my own thing, and you might too.  Start with the package sites and efficiency sites like Expedia and Kayak.  Then double check the rates with the airlines and hotels that you are looking at from those sites.  Sometimes the best price is the package site.  Sometimes you can do better directly with that airline or property.


How do you decide what to do?  Well, I love to look at the website for travel in the country or countries that I am going to visit.  That country's national website is a good option as well.  That's a start.  There are travel gurus like Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain out there to help with their tips.  There's the Travel Channel and websites from television channels that promote travel.  There's a dozen or so travel magazines from Conde' Nast to National Geographic and all the local magazines for various areas.  There are great guidebooks and the websites that represent them.  There are a thousand different ways to research your trip and figure out what to do when you get there or along the way.  Do not over plan.  Leave yourself some breathing time.  If you over plan, you will be so busy following your itinerary that you will not be able to enjoy the experience.  Take time to take lots of pictures and video and enjoy your time in your dream destination.

In the end, it doesn't matter what you do or where you go, as long as you enjoy it.  What does matter is the little things.  You will most likely in this day and age have modern devices with you.  You will have a camera, a cell phone, an Ipod, and maybe even a computer or video camera.  You will need to plug in things and charge things and use things.  This can be a problem.  Cell phones head the list.  American cell phones for the most part don't work in other countries.  You should look into either buying a cheap cell phone to use while in that country or buy an international phone off the internet.  Another problem is plugging things in.  You should look into buying adapters for the country you are intending to visit.  There are several different devices that you can buy.  You can even buy an adapter that will work almost anywhere.  Make sure that you read the instructions completely and make sure that you have all the switches on your adapter in the right place.  There are many adapters that you have to choose the voltage that you are switching that outlet too, otherwise it will just plug in and use the same voltage.  The result for us Americans is that the voltage may melt our curling irons.  Also, for your cell phones and Ipod and many other things that you will want to charge, take a car charger and use it in your rental.  I'm not joking.  It's safer than trying to navigate adapters and outlets, and the car charger is pretty much universal.  It works almost any where in almost any car.


So, if you want to get away there are a million places to go.  Choose wisely, pack wisely, research it, check a lot of prices before you book, and take time to enjoy your trip.  You may be the kind of traveler that only gets to take a great vacation once or twice, so you need to make sure that it's unforgettable for all the right reasons.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Where on Earth is Rurrenabaque?

I think that after spending enough of my life visiting all the usual places, that the out of the ordinary just stands up and screams at me.  I've always been curious about South America, but I've heard virtually nothing about most of it.  I've heard all about Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Lima, and so forth;  I wanted to find something else.  I wanted to find a real adventure.  I wanted to find something that not everyone did, but anyone could do.  I wanted to find an adventure for anyone.

I give you, the adventurer in search of a location, an explorer that is sick of the tamed world, or someone who just wants something different and has seen one too many Indiana Jones movies, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia.  It's not La Paz.  It's different from that.  Rurrenabaque is one of those places that the Spaniards showed up in looking for the lost city of gold and the locals just thought they were nuts.  The locals held to their ways and resisted becoming part of the Spanish Catholic Invasion for decades.  The town was officially incorporated in 1844.


Rurrenabaque has been many things over the years.  Originally, the overseaers were interested in it because they had Quinine which was useful for headaches.  After that, they were a big locale for rubber, and then timber.  Now, they have gotten into the tourism and ecotourism business.  And business is booming.  The birthplace of the Amazon in the foothills of the Andes Mountains is a great location for tourists.  They can't get enough of it.  And all 8,000 or so residents of the town are happy to have them.  For you, this means a friendly spot in the world to do some pretty amazing things.

Rurrenabaque is not a backward little village.  It is true that a lot of the buildings are traditional and have somewhat thatched roofs.  It's true that there are several unpaved roads.  It's true that there are some livestock wandering around.  That all just adds to the charm.  Now, if you need a Holiday Inn or a McDonald's you are in the wrong place.  If you want to try local culture and see what it's really all about in the countryside in Bolivia, you've come to the right place.  You get to see the local handicrafts, go to market day, try the local cuisine in the local restaurants and bars, listen to the flute music, watch the traditional dances, and maybe even celebrate a saints day or carnival.  It's unique and it's not what you would expect.  It's not some backwoods village and it's not Rio.  It's one of a kind and well worth a look.


First, you have to find a place to stay.  There are ecoresorts with thatched roof huts and fancy tents.  They are very popular and can be found in the more remote parts of the area.  They let you feel at one with the environment and they leave a very small footprint in the universe.  You can also stay on a ranch in the Pampas and see what that lifestyle is like.  Or, if you like, you can stay in a more traditional hotel in town.

How do you get there?  It's a little tricky.  You can fly from La Paz on a small plane and it takes about 45 minutes.  That's probably the easiest way.  Is it the best way?  It depends on how much of an adventure you're looking for.  You can also take an 18 to 20 hour bus ride.  Doesn't sound like much fun, but it would be immersing yourself in the culture.  You can also get with a group and charter a boat and come in from Guanay which takes 8 to 11 hours.  Guanay is also an eight hour bus ride from La Paz.  That's something to take into account.  But, no matter how you get there, the scenery is fabulous.  I would fly just to get a look at the rivers and the Andes, but that's just me.

Now, I mentioned ecoresorts.  There was a reason for that.  The ecoresorts are out in the boonies where you find the Pampas and Madidi National Park, and that is where the true adventure begins.  This is the end of the Andes and the beginning of the Amazon basin.  This is one of the richest wildlife, flora and Fauna regions in the world.  You can see all kinds of things out there.  Chalalan Ecolodge is in Madidi National Park and gives you a front row seat for it all.  There are all kinds of tours by land or by boat where you get to see some of the most amazing creatures you'll see in your life.

The Amazon River is home to the pink dolphin and they are all over the area around Rurrenabaque.  Folks who take these river tours see many of them.  You can also run across the Anaconda, which South America is famous for.  You'll get o see monkeys, alligators, sloths, and the giant rats that the South Americans fondly call the Capydara.  There are hundreds of exotic animals in the Pampas and in Madidi.  This is the adventure of a lifetime.  If you do go on the river for an expedition, they can last from hours to weeks.  It depends on how long of a tour you choose.


The Tacana People are the largest group of local indigenous people in this area.  They have lived here for centuries, and are taking the time these days to reclaim their ancient culture.  There are many centers where the locals are gathering and practicing their ancient handicrafts and music.  They take their woven crafts to market on the weekends and sell them to the tourists, and they perform with their flute music as well.  It's a great way to get the culture of the people.  This is their land.  This is the way that they lived until the Spaniards came along.  Now you get to see the Catholicism and the  ancient ways mix.  It's a unique and fascinating experience.  A trip to San Miguel del Bala just 30 minutes down the river from Rurrenabaque or Rurre as the locals call it is well worth it to see the traditional culture of the Tacana People.

Whatever your reason for wanting to get away, Rurrenabaque has it covered.  Be prepared to be outdoors.  Be prepared for a view.  The locals recommend that you visit between April and October because the weather is better.  Whether you're there because you've heard about the bullfighting, or you're there because you want to see the local waterfalls, or the wildlife, or the rainforest, or the local people, or the handicrafts, or the occasional Jaguar that wanders by in the jungle, this spot is something amazing.  It's hard to get to, and if you're only reason for coming is to try out the local hang gliding or zip lining, then you've missed the point.  It's special.  It's not your average vacation, and it's worth the time that it takes you to reach this remote location.

It's the beauty and the wonder and the people.  This is one of those locations that you don't visit for just a vacation.  This is one of those places that you visit to have a once in a lifetime adventure for anyone.