Thursday, May 29, 2014

By Land or by Sea...The North Coast of Norway

Norway is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world.  That's a simple fact.  There are a dozen cruise lines that will guide you in and out of fjords, look at glaciers and waterfalls, show you the old time fishing villages, and in general show you a really good time.  Problem is, I don't like to do the normal thing.  Therefore, I decided to talk about a couple of different routes to take with exploring the coast of Norway.

Let's be honest, in today's world of modern and amazing engineering, you can drive it.  The Atlantic Highway goes all along the coast of Norway, in and out of fjords, to and from little archipelagos like the Lofoten Islands, and over some amazing bridges.  This method does give you ultimate freedom to go where you want when you want.  The road does go to most of the places that the cruises go.  The only problem with that is that you have to figure out where you're going.  I like that kind of thing, but a lot of people do not.


I'm not going to lie.  This is listed as one of the top ten beautiful drives in the world.  Here's the thing.  I love a good drive.  I really do.  It's just that in a place like Norway, I want to watch the scenery.  I want to see everything.  I don't want to watch the road.  So, driving Norway's Atlantic Coast?  This is for the return visitor.  This is for the person who saw everything on the first trip.  Once you've looked at some of the world's most amazing scenery, you will be ready to experience the drive.  It will be spectacular.  I promise.  Just make sure you've rented with unlimited miles and insurance.  Watch out for the weather, because it can sneak up on you and be terrifying.  That being said, have a wonderful time if you take the road.  If you've never been there, try a cruise.

First timers for the coast of Norway, I have a cruise for you.  Hurtigruten.  These guys have been around for about 120 years.  That alone is amazing.  The Norwegians refer to these guys as the mail boat.  That's right, they also deliver freight and the mail all up and down the coast.  They run from Bergen, that historic town that everyone on Earth has heard of to Kirkenes in the north inside of the Arctic Circle and nearly to the Russian border.  They are the locals and that is why I would recommend this as one of the few cruises in the world truly worth taking.  This is called the world's most beautiful voyage, and they aren't joking.

Bergen is the start and/or finish port for the cruise.  Bergen is one of the better known coastal towns in Norway, having gone from fishing hub to tourist town over the years.  This little berg has all the shopping, eating, and lodging that you will want before and after your trip.


Trollstigen is another stop on this cruise.  True, if you take the road you can simply drive the Troll's Road, but the Hurtigruten Cruise sends you out in a tour bus so that you don't have to do the driving.  You can take your time to marvel at one of the greatest roads in the world.  It goes up and down, through, and across fjords to give you one of the most amazing drives in your life.  There are many hairpin curves on this road and at the top there is normally snow, no matter what the season.

You'll never forget a trip on the Trollstigen Road.

Svartisen Glacier is another stop along the way.  If you're into travel and you like these northern latitudes and glaciers, then you've probably seen a photo or a video of this place.  It's one of Norway's largest glaciers and it's a very popular stop for all the cruise lines.  It's sometimes referred to as the black glacier, because the snow has so much sediment in it that it does look black from certain angles.  I think that it takes a lot of imagination to really see it as black, but whatever.


Trondheim is another interesting stop on the trip.  Along with all those wonderful old fishing village style buildings in red and yellow, Trondheim has the Nidaros Cathedral.  This is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe and well worth a stop.  It has flying buttresses, copper roofs, painted glass and the whole nine yards.  It's a gorgeous cathedral.

The mail boat goes to the Lofoten Islands as well.  This small archipelago is one of the most scenic spots along the coast with 1000 meter high mountains just popping up out of the ocean, and tiny fishing villages all along the way.  This is the part of Norway that you most often see on calendars and puzzles.


Svolvaer is the largest town in these parts, and one of the most scenic.  This is a great spot to take off on a fishing excursion.  But, if that's not your thing, you can just poke around town and check out all the great stuff and great places to eat.


Tromso is the heritage part of the tour.  Here you will find all the museums about Nordic life.  You will also find the largest excavated settlement of the Vikings.  They even have the remains of some of the Viking royalty from days gone by.  They have a long boat and a lot of other things.  Tromso is one of the main stops on all the cruises.


Hammerfest is the northernmost city in the world, period.  This place is a huge fishing and industrial city sticking out there in the North Atlantic and Barents Sea.  They are also coming into play as the oil companies move farther and farther north.  They are a boom town that seems to just keep on booming.

Nordkapp--the North Cape.  You can't miss it.  If you're this close, you must stop.  It's a quest kind of a thing, like going to any other extreme cape on the planet.  There is a monument there that you must take your picture with.  It's just something that travelers do.  It can't be helped.  However, don't be expecting nice weather.  The odds are against it, just like all the other extreme capes.  That's why they are extreme.

Kirkenes is the last stop in the north on this trip.  This town is amazing.  They've been through a lot of wars.  Everyone has tried to wreak havoc on this place.  Why?  Well, that's the adventure for anyone that's at the end of the rainbow of this trip.  You didn't really think it was just the cruise, did you?  Kirkenes sits very close to the border with Russia.  You didn't even think about that one, did you?  That's right.  Way up there in the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn't set in the summer, there is an international border with mighty Russia.

There is a special excursion that the Hurtigruten Cruise will send you on to go and visit the border.  You have a guide, and you will see a lot of other northern sights along the way, but it's unique.  Most of us never get to Russia, much less see the border from Norway.  It's a great experience and you'll only get it outside of Kirkenes, Norway.

Hurtigruten Cruises provides a lot of things that you don't get on the regular cruise, like King Neptune's Arctic Baptismal.  That's a show that the cruises are famous for that you can't see anywhere else.  The mail boats also go through some of the most narrow straits and fjords along the coast.  Other cruise ships can't get in there.  They also go to some places that you absolutely cannot get to by car.  I don't normally go for a cruise, but this one is different.  They've been around for over 100 years.  They are the mail service, so they go no matter what.


The other thing that most people worry about when I mention alternative ship travel is the accommodations.  Trust me, the ships have multiple levels of luxurious accommodations.  They have restaurants, great cabins, and some of them even have a glass elevator.  Some of them have pools and spas.  You can observe from fabulous indoor locations if the weather isn't to your liking or you can go outside with the hearty souls like me.  There are activities and everything.  It's wonderful.  You won't regret it.

So, it's summertime.  Come and see the endless days, the beautiful scenery of Lofoten, Islands of the Gods, check out a fjord, soak up some history, and have a great time on a cruise the way the locals go.  It's a great trip.  It's the one and only time that you will take a guided tour to the border between Norway and Russia.  It's the only time that you'll get to visit the north cape and take a picture of the globe that stands at N71 degrees 10 feet 21 inches.  It's an adventure that you'll never forget.  It's an adventure that just begs for a thousand pictures.  It's a great adventure for anyone.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It's The Father of all Safari Adventures...Selous in Tanzania

Africa has historically been a European wonderland of adventure.  We in America look at a beautiful picture of a beach and think that we're probably looking at Hawaii or California, maybe Florida.  It's how we look at it.  So, is it any wonder that most people don't wander around gasping at the idea of taking a massive long set of flights to get to a place like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania?  We're Americans, and it's easier to go somewhere else.  Sometimes I think that we're just too attached to our televisions and computers or we work too much to think about going so far to go to the beach.  So, why would you go to a place like Tanzania?


Tanzania is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth.  Some of the oldest remains of humans and other creatures have been dug up here.  It's been lorded over by many groups including the Germans and the British.  Tanzanite is a popular gemstone from the 90's that comes from this tantalizing country.  Dar es Salaam is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It's modern with subways, taxis and buses.  It even has a water park.  Amongst all the beach goers along the shore, are an enormous collection of ex patriots from all over the world.  The suburban peninsula, Msasani is full of them, along with the fancy houses that they buy.

Dar es Salaam was originally a tiny fishing village called Mzizima back in pre colonial times, but it was eventually swallowed up the the sprawling city that we now see.  It has a thriving port, an international airport and is currently the capital of the country.  But, it is just another city in a country where Americans have to pay an extra $100 for a visa just to be there.  It is just another city where it's probably a little iffy as to whether or not tourists should go out at night.  It is a strange place where some of the beaches are divided between the Africans and the Indians.  Why would this be an adventure for anyone?  Maybe the question should be why wouldn't it be, but I mentioned Dar because it's a starting point for one of the world's great adventures.

The Selous Game Reserve is one of those places that you really need to fly to.  Dar is where you catch the little bush planes that can take you there.  The Selous is one of the largest game reserves in the world.  It's also one of the oldest protected wildlife areas in Africa having been a protected area since the 1870's.  The reserve is larger than Switzerland, and is largely untouched by man to this day.

Selous is home to one of the largest populations of elephants, even though to this day they are fighting off poachers.  They also have huge numbers of all the big game that people love to come to Africa to see like giraffes, lions, hippos, rhinos and so on.  They have one of the few populations of black rhinos in the world.  They have hundreds of species of birds.  They have water buffalo, zebra, all kinds of antelopes and gazelles.  It's amazing all of the animals that live there.

What's the difference at Selous?  With all the hubbub about Kruger National Park and most of Botswana, why would I choose to recommend a game reserve that hasn't been on TV in forty years?  Because it's the off the beaten path choice.  It was there first.  The founder of the park, Frederick Selous is buried right in the park.  He loved the area and helped to protect the wildlife there.  In this park, the animals are comfortable.  They haven't been overly exposed to humans in over 100 years.  There are some small settlements that pre existed the park and are still there.  They have special permission to hunt the animals for subsistence much like the Inuits with whale hunting.  But, other than that, and poachers which are still a problem with the elephants, there is not hunting in the area and the animals are largely not afraid of the humans that come to take films and pictures of them.

Home base for any safari in Selous is along the river.  This is where the various camps are.  Most of them are luxury camping in the grand old style of the British safari visitors of times of old.  The Rufiji River is the largest in Tanzania, and the camp that bears it's name is a wonderful base camp for going on safari.  From the Rufiji River Camp and many others, you can go on a boat safari, driving safari, or walking safari.  There are many choices, and they are all guided.  The people who run the camps, the tours that come in, and the safaris are experienced folks that will show you a plethora of exotic animals and a generally great time.

The professionals who take you on safari will get you up close and personal with the wildlife.  They know what they're doing.


The accommodations in the Selous are spectacular and vary upon taste.  You may stay in a tent like bungalow, or a building.  Some places have pools and lodges.  Some of them are more rugged and blend in with the surroundings.  There are several options, so choose the one that fits your style.  I won't lie, this will not be an inexpensive trip.  There are some vacation places on the web like Kensington Tours, and Vantage that may give you an upfront price for a trip like this, but most places will want to speak with you to customize a tour and, therefore, they won't just list prices.  Everything is specialized when you do something like this so there may be no two prices alike amongst customers.  They take into account lots of things that make them all very special and all very different in pricing.


If you want to do something special, this is it.  This is an adventure in its truest form.  If you want to see the largest Baobab Tree in all of Africa, if you want to see giraffe, hippos, birds and everything else in its most honest and real habitat, this is the place and the way to do it.  We all need to do something once in a lifetime, and this is one of those bucket list things.  You only live once.  This should be a piece of it.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paris But a Little Different...After Dark

Notre Dame, The Eiffel Tower, The Arch de Triomphe.  These are all things that we are used to hearing about when we discuss Paris, France.  I don't blame you.  I saw all those places and I agree that they are some of the most spectacular places that I've ever seen, despite the disposition of the average Parisian that you meet on the street.  I loved the lighted boat tours.  I could have spent a lifetime in the Louvre.  Paris is one of the most celebrated cities in the world.  Why wouldn't I write about this outstanding place?

Well, no offense to the average traveler and their lovely trip to Paris, but once you've seen the regular stuff, you've seen it.  So, moving on to a new way to see Paris.  From the dark side.  Let's start with Place de la Concorde.  What's so special here?  Well, this is where the French Revolution reached it's zenith and Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed.  This is where it all really began for Napoleon.  Long gone are the Bastille and the Tueleries, but the legends live on.  This square is still the largest square in town, and that says something.  For history buffs there are about 20 tours you can take in this area to learn more about the most notorious time in French history.  It's right at the Louvre too, so you're right by some of the greatest art in history.

Versailles is amazing, and it certainly helps us understand what could bring on a revolution.  The opulence, the gilding of everything, the gluttony, the indulgence, and so on.  I don't blame the average person for getting sick and tired of the whole thing.  Today Versailles is one of those places that you visit just to see it for yourself.  Once again, there are great historical tours of Versailles that will help you learn a lot more about the history of France.  They will teach you the story of the royalty that once called it home from their rise to their demise.

History is fabulous, and creepy history is better.  Take a walk on the wild side in Paris and discover a couple of things that make this a great place to go on an adventure for anyone.  Our first truly unusual stop is the catacombs.  That's right, underneath the city are an extensive tract of old tunnels or catacombs that used to be part of an old mine.  In the 1780's or so, dead folks were becoming a problem in the city of lights.  There were so many cemeteries where improper burials had taken place that the city was becoming contaminated from the ground up.  The water was contaminated and everything.  So, since the mines under the city were no longer in use, they decided to move the deceased underground.  This took a few years, and there were thousands, if not millions of bones to be moved.

Burial places were made.  Mausoleums were fashioned.  The bones of loved ones were turned into artwork on the walls of the catacombs themselves.  It was one of the creepiest places ever created.  Following the creation of this place underneath the city, they buried some people for a while.  Not many, but some.  Then in the early 1800's something strange happened.


The elite became fascinated with the place, and they started to visit it.  That was the beginning of it becoming a subterranean tourist attraction.  During WWII the catacombs were used as part of the resistance as well.  Finally in the mid 2000's the tunnels were majorly renovated to make them safe for visitors and today the catacombs are on the official list of museums in Paris.  You can't visit the entire catacomb system, but you can take a tour of a good sized section of them.  Remember to book it in advance, because the  number of visitors is strictly limited at any given time.  Also check ahead, because although it is rare, the catacombs are sometimes closed for national holidays.

The adventure continues with another truly fascinating place to visit in a city that you thought you knew all about.  The most famous cemetery in Paris and maybe all of France is Pere Lachaise Cemetery.  As a matter of fact, it's the most visited cemetery in the world.  Why?  Well, there are some amazing structures here, from mausoleums to fabulous headstones.  The way that they manage to fit everyone in it is amazing.  But, the biggest draw is that there are some truly famous people there.  The painter Delecroix is laid to rest there, along with writer Oscar Wilde, the composer Frederic Chopin, and even the French playwright Moliere.  There are a list of over 150 notable people buried in the cemetery and they are from all over the world.

But, in the ironic age that we live in, the cemetery's most famous resident is Jim Morrison.  That's right, the singer from The Doors.  His grave is the most visited in the whole place, and it can be a little weird.  If you come to the cemetery in the evening, you will still see his faithful followers gathered by his grave.  And they can be some really unusual people.  It's quite a sight to see, and I highly recommend it.  The cemetery is not officially open at night, but the followers of Jim Morrison don't seem to care much about the rules.

So, if you've seen it all in Paris, come and visit Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.  Sign up for one of the many ghost tours around town that will teach you about some of the seedier history of the city of lights. Come and see the catacombs where a specific problem was solved and it created a fascination for the rich and poor alike.  There are always many unusual things to see in any city in addition to the ones that we all know and love.


So, when you've seen all the stuff that you can see on the lighted boats and regular tours, try something different.  Go out at night.  See the world from an entirely different perspective.  Take a look at the dark side of Paris.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

There's No Place Like Provincetown!

Provincetown, Massachusetts is a beautiful place to spend time.  I know, you've heard all about the gay community, and think that it's just for gay people.  I've heard that for years, and every time I head out that way people ask me if I'm secretly gay and all that stuff.  People are weird.

Provincetown was originally visited by Pilgrims.  They actually landed there briefly before continuing on to Plimouth.  For centuries, it's been a fishing village.  Trust me, they have great lobster.

What Provincetown really is, is a community for free spirits.  There's not just gay people.  There are all kinds of people there, and if you were to ask them about being gay, a lot of them would just laugh at you.  Provincetown is full of artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, business people, marine biologists, spiritual people, and everything else that you can imagine.  It's a very diverse place, it's a friendly place, and for those of us who live in uptight places like Connecticut, it's a great place to get away from it all and relax.

Are there gay people in P-Town?  Yes, so if you're a bigot don't go there.  It's your loss really.  I've been to the tip of Cape Cod many times, and it's one of my favorite places on Earth.  I love the shopping, the eating, the people, and the atmosphere.  There's no place else quite like it.

I have to admit that on this one, I'm plugging the little hotel we stayed in, The Cape Colony Inn.  This is an old style hotel with hospitality and real keys for the doors.  The folks who run this place are some of the friendliest I've ever encountered.  We really had a good time there.  They have volleyball, shuffleboard, ping pong, barbecues to use, a pool, and a great breakfast where you can make your own waffles.  I only stay here.  Remember that.

One thing that you are obligated to try and do when in Provincetown is to take a cruise to whale watch.  Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is right off the coast of Cape Cod, and that makes Provincetown one of the best places in the world to see whales.  That's a tough one to turn down, right?

The Dolphin Fleet Whalewatch has been running for something like thirty years.  Anyway, they've been at it so long that they guarantee that you will see a whale, or they will give you a free ticket for another try.  They're a knowledgeable and friendly bunch too.  The Dolphin IX is a comfortable boat for the excursion and it makes for a pleasant trip.  Like most excursions in P-Town, you can catch them right at MacMillan Pier.

When you start out on your whale watching journey, you pass the very tip of Cape Cod, with it's lighthouse and it's greeting committee.  It sometimes looks like the seals are smiling as you pass by.  Now, don't be disappointed if they're not there.  I was told that if you want a chance to see seals too, you should take the morning cruise, because by afternoon the seals have other things to do.

And, whales, whales, whales.  You do see whales off the tip of Cape Cod.  You may not see the giant tail fins of the Humpbacks however.  There are several kinds of whales that hang out off the shores of the cape, and the most common ones are not the Humpbacks.  We did not see one this time, but we saw three other kinds of whales, so we saw whales.  What we saw the most of were Fin Whales.  They were everywhere.

You will enjoy chasing the whales around to get photos.  It's a lot of fun.  Some cautions though.  Remember the sun block.  I didn't and regretted it.  It's also wise to wear a hat.  The sun on the open ocean is beautiful and quite dangerous, so be wary of it and go prepared.  Also, the water changes on the open sea, so you might want to invest in some motion sickness pills just in case.  Just because you've never been sea sick on a boat does not mean that you won't get sick on one in open water.

Once you've gone whale watching you have to check out the shopping, the eating, and the architecture.  Provincetown has great shopping.  The place is full of art galleries, gift shops, clothing, furniture, and anything else you can imagine.

I do mean anything.

There are some classic buildings in P-Town from old churches to the town hall to the library.  There are lots of older houses and truly unique buildings to see.  The narrow streets and secret passage like alleys all over town just add to it's mystique and ambiance.

The dining is another great part of a visit to Provincetown.  There are tons of great places to eat.  I always have a tough time deciding where to go.  I've literally never had bad food  there.  At night for the partiers, the bars get a little crazy and everyone has a great time.  Whether it be music, or drag queens, there is a great nightlife in P-Town.

One of the great things about Provincetown is their sense of humor.  You will see that they only take themselves so seriously.  This is all part of the great atmosphere that you feel while visiting the area.  They love to do things their way.  They don't like it to be regulated and overruled.  They enjoy life, and that's what makes it such a great tourist destination.

Don't forget to enjoy the beach.  If you want to see the dunes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, do yourself a favor and take a tour with Art's.  Art's Dune Tours is a great way to see them.  You need special permits and stuff to go, so it's way easier to go with them.  You can even do an evening clam bake dinner if you like.  But, if you just want to go to the beach, there are several.  I like Race Point, because it's on the outside on the Atlantic.  It's a great place to go for a sunset.

But, why is this place an adventure for anyone?  Well, it all has to do with Pilgrim Monument.  The tower is the tallest building anywhere in the general vicinity.  It towers 252 feet in the air and has been around since 1910 or so.  This thing can be seen from just about anywhere around.  It is the centerpiece and the single most famous spot in all of Provincetown.

Once a year, the locals take to the 116 steps and 60 ramps inside the Pilgrim Monument Tower and have themselves a race.  The Run to the Top is a fundraiser for the Fireman's Cancer Relief Fund, and it is something to see.  It takes place the first weekend in May, and you should come.  They have a great barbecue, silent auction, raffles, and of course the race.  They have a civilian race and a race that's just for the firefighters.  For $25 you can run, or you can just spend an afternoon, make a donation, see a great event, and meet some great people.

Here's how it works.  You really should come and see this.  They run through this archway.  There's a device inside it that starts their time when their number bib passes through it.  There is a similar device at the top that stops the time.  The racers line up and ever 20 seconds or so, one takes off into the tower.  It's amazing, but one of them actually ran up there in 1 minute 56 seconds this year.  These guys are tough.

But, God bless the firemen.  They run their race in full gear.  That's right, coats, pants, boots, and helmets.  They are a rare breed, the firemen, and it feels good to come out and support them.  There were firemen there from all up and down the cape and as far away as Providence, RI.  It was a great time and everyone had a lot of fun.

So, Provincetown?  Yes, please.  There's something so special about this place where you can be yourself, whether you're gay, artistic, a drag queen, a fisherman, a fireman, or just someone truly unique; you'll fit right in.  At the Whydah Pirate Museum you can even see the only real pirate treasure in the country.  And, after you spend some time chasing whales and sitting on the beach, once a year you can race up the tower. It is available for climbing the rest of the year as well. It's all there and it's a place where you don't have to worry about how you look, who you seem to be, or what you like to do.  Be yourself.  Visit Provincetown.