Monday, July 27, 2015

Here's Some Stuff to See and Do...Weird Stuff

We've all seen and done some strange things in the name of entertainment and seeing the world.  Ever so often, like after I've written 200 posts for a travel blog, I like to mention some outstanding ones.  I've talked about my share of unusual things like seeing a crashed plane in Greenville, Maine, and we in the north east love our mountain parks with the mountain coasters and the Alpine slides.  I've traversed Trummelbach Falls in Switzerland and gone to James Bond World on the top of the Schilthorn.  I've sat on the Berlin Wall, hiked in Iceland, gone to visit the Native Americans at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and many others.  Today, I've made a list of some of the best and the most unusual things around.

One of the things that I love is surreal places, and America's southwest has a bunch of them.  Most of the surreal things involve rocks.  Goblin Valley State Park in central Utah is one of those overlooked places.  It doesn't get near the traffic that it's famous cousins Arches, Monument Valley and so on get.  Goblin Valley is listed as one of the most surreal landscapes in the world, and with good reason.  This is a great spot for photographers, hikers and anyone who just wants to see something really different.

Page, Arizona sits on Lake Powell and is close to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  It's on the Navajo Nation Reservation and is home to one of the world's best known slot canyons, Antelope Canyon.  The Navajo have several tours that will take you for a tour of the canyon, and let you see some more surreal landscapes in the twisted, narrow, colorful rock formations that make up the canyon.  Erosion can make some beautiful things, and Antelope Canyon was definitely blessed by erosion.

Surreal landscapes abound with the rocky moon like landscape of Iceland, the giant sculptures of Easter Island, the ferrie chimneys of Cappadoccia, and the Door to Hell which is located in the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan.  This giant burning crater was the result of a Soviet gas exploration accident back in the 1970's and has fascinated people ever since.  The Darvaza Gas Crater however, is not just one crater, although the biggest one is the attraction.  There are other smaller craters in the area too.  It looks as though it will be burning for a long time, so take the time to come and see this one.

I love the idea of going to Gibraltar to play with the monkeys.  I've said that a million times, but in Yamanouchi's Jigokudani Valley the snow monkeys spend their time in the volcanic pools and the tourists love to stop by and take their pictures.  The valley is volcanic, as the name Jigokudani lets on, so there are many interesting sites, but the monkeys are the main attraction.

Surreal doesn't stop on the surface though.  You can spend your surreal time looking at ice caves in Iceland, glow worm caves in New Zealand, or at Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky.  That's right, they used to have an enormous mine and now the have an active wonderland.  They have zip lines, tram tours, adventure quest courses, bike trails, and you can even take a lovely Christmas lighted drive through it in season.  The caverns are so large that you can easily drive a car or even run a train through it.  it's the first of it's kind and it's an amazing way to reuse an old mine.

It is summertime however, and it's time to get outdoors and try something a little crazy.  Sun City is probably the best known, and at times most infamous luxury resort in the world, and it's sitting in the center of South Africa.  It is also home to one of the largest waterslides in the world.  Valley of the Waves has a waterslide that drops 98 feet straight down with an area engulfing the size of an average park.  It only holds one ride though, and it's the biggest and the best.

If giant tall ones don't do it for you, Costa Rica has it all.  In America, we call this sucker an Alpine Slide.  In Costa Rica, they made it into a waterslide and you can try it at Buena Vista Lodge and Adventure.  This cement wonder goes 420 meters down a mountain, and it's so rough that you have to wear a rubber tube and rubber pants in order to ride it.  It does sit on the ground, unlike most waterslides and it goes through the rainforest.  It's one of a kind, folks, so you have to come to Costa Rica to try this.

Speaking of one of a kind experiences, here's one that I would love to try, but haven't yet.  I love the idea of Zero Gravity and Zero G will do it for you.  They operate in many locations around the United States and they have the specially equipped planes to take you up and run you up and down the heavens while you fly around inside like a real astronaut.  It will cost you about $5,000, but you'll love every minute of it.

But, when all is said and done, here's my pick.  I disagree with the experts on what would be the best adventure.  I loved playing with the heavy equipment in Las Vegas and all, but here's one that I'd never even thought of and it comes from Great Britain.  It's called Armourgeddon and it's in Leicester.  It's paintball with tanks.  It doesn't get cooler than that.  You can play for as low as 99 Pounds for 2 hours.  They let you drive tanks and shoot stuff out of them.  It may only be paintballs, but it's still an amazing experience.  I haven't done this, but I will.  I haven't heard of anything else like it.  It's my number one pick for amazing things to try this summer.

So, whether you take your first hike in the summer on snow or you go screaming down a mountain on a waterslide, do something different and fun this summer.  I've just given you a lot of ideas.  Go out, experience life.  I will be traveling next week, so I won't be writing.  It will be an amazing road trip, so I will have a lot to write about when we get back.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pez and Thimbles!

As I continue my travels this summer around my home state of Connecticut, I am finding a lot of wonderfully weird things to see and do.  Recently, my son and I took off to go on a cruise which I will talk about in a bit.  It was still raining, because Connecticut is pretty wet during the warmer months.  At any rate, we saw a sign that said we were coming up on the Pez Visitor Center in Orange.  Pez was created overseas in Vienna, Austria in 1927 as a breath mint.  Eventually, after one thing led to another, Pez was relocated to Orange in 1974.  Today, you can take a tour of the main factory floor and see Pez in action, and you can visit a charming visitor center that's set up for all of us tourists.

If, for some reason, you think that you might miss the Pez Factory, with the signs they provide, I can assure you, it's virtually impossible to miss.  Pez Boulevard was created for visitors and others to find the iconic factory.

I was surprised how much fun I had as an adult at the Pez Visitor Center.  You walk into a very colorful environment with way more than I thought to look at.  You have the history of Pez, all kinds of collections of dispensers, antique Pez memorabalia, the factory, and some other interesting things.  We took part in a game to find the Presidents.  Pez makes dispensers with American Presidents on them.  Not all presidents have been represented yet, but the rest are coming.  In the meantime, they had a game going on where they had hidden presidential dispensers around the visitor center and they each had part of a message by them.  If you found them all, filled in the message on your game card, and had it correct;  you won a prize.  It was fun, but I never found Thomas Jefferson.  He was hidden well.  You can have parties there on the second floor.  They even have the chopper that Orange County Choppers of American Chopper made.  They have all the holiday dispensers, NASCAR, sports, movie themes, etc. of dispenser.  It's quite a place, even though it's a place that I never would have thought about.

My favorite parts were as follows:  They have games for the kids and adults, they give you an adorable entrance ticket that doubles as a souvenir, the five dollar ticket price allows for four dollars toward merchandise in the shop, and I got to see a woman working on Minions.  I love these little guys, and there were so many that I was overwhelmed.  It was cool.  So, check it out.  If you think that maybe you're a little too adult for a stop off the road like this, try it.  You might just be surprised.

Now, on to part two.  As I said, we were going on a cruise, and that cruise was of the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek, CT.  Stony Creek is actually part of Branford that sits on a lovely cove or harbor or bay or whatever you want to call it.  Now, I've lived in Connecticut for over 20 years, and I didn't know about this one.  There are over 100 islands in that bay or whatever and 23 of them are inhabited.  They are called the Thimble Islands.

This is an area that loves their boats, and there's no questioning why.  The islands do have a ferry service per se, but if you want to get to a house on one of the islands, you'd better have a boat or a friend with one.  The islands exist because of glaciers that came through New England eons ago and dropped a bunch of pink granite off the shore.  Eons later, rich people decided to build fancy summer homes on them to get away from it all.  At one point, the pirate Captain Kidd spent some time hiding there, and people say that he left some treasure behind as well.  No one has ever found it, but in similar venues in the area some treasure of Captain Kidd's has been found.  People still take a look around now and again just to see if they find anything.

The Sea Mist and it's smaller cousin are the boats that will take you around on a guided tour of the islands.  The cost is only $12 for adults and the tour lasts about an hour.  On the weekends, the tours do go all the way out to the end of the islands where you can see seals on the seal tour.  It costs a little bit more, but you get to be out for longer and you get to see seals.  It's a deal.

There's all kinds of places to see in the Thimble Islands.  There are private homes of all sizes, there are some islands that have interconnecting bridges.  There are houses on stilts, and houses of the extremely rich.  There are old houses and new houses.  One island has 23 houses on it.  It's like a whole town out there.  You would be surprised at all the places and things you see.

The Stewart B. McKinney Natural Wildlife Refuge is on one of the islands.

The Mother In Law House comes with the story of the two newlyweds who were followed to the house by one of the mothers on their wedding night.  The couple left her stranded there and took off to be alone.  There are great stories all over the area about any number of things.

One lovely island was reportedly home to a lovely couple that bought it for a couple of million dollars, turned it into a beautiful home and sold it for $23 million.  They even have palm trees on this island that somehow survive the weather.

There's the $285,000 gazebo.  Turns out the chap that bought that island thought that he would build a home on it, only to discover that it wasn't big enough or high enough or something like that.  So, now it holds a gazebo and is for sale.  It sounds tempting, but remember, you can't build a house on it.

There's a little bit of everything out there from new to old and large to small.  There are all kinds of stories and Captain David's crew will tell all of them to you.  We did find out that the waters can be a little shallow though.  We did run up on some shallows and get stuck on a rock.  It was no worry however, because a couple of local fellows stopped by and pulled us off the rock.  It was actually entertaining, and we got our cruise for half price.  It was a good deal.

Once back on land, we were hungry, and there's not much in Stony Creek.  It's a really quiet seaside burg.  We stopped at Thimbleberry's and had a little lunch.  It was charming and you could eat outside by the water if you felt like it.  The food was good and the prices were reasonable.

So, it's the Thimble Islands in Stony Creek, which is Branford.  It's the Pez Factory and Visitor Center which is not only orange but is in Orange.  Two amazing little discoveries right off of I-95 that I'd never investigated.  I'm glad I did.  And you should two.  It's a great way to spend an easy afternoon.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

There's No Place Like Nome...Alaska

I could be almost any small town in the north on a shore with a harbor, but it's not just anywhere; it's Nome, Alaska.  This is one of those wonderful places that allows you to get away from it all, and we all know how much I love that.  This tiny burg was founded in 1901 officially anyway, by a Swedish guy and his companions.  The town was almost immediately overrun by an enormous gold rush, not that it was any surprise that happened back in the days of the Alaska Gold Rush. 

Throughout most of its history, Nome has had a population of a few thousand, but in the beginning of the 20th century, there were several times that many people.  In 1925, Nome, Alaska became famous because of the strangest thing...a Diphtheria epidemic that had literally been caused by the influx of miners into a territory of native locals who had never encountered the disease.  That was when the famous dog teams ran the medication across Alaska to help save the people of Nome.  Balto, the sled dog, became a real time hero throughout the country and world.  There is a statue of the famous dog right in Central Park in New York City.  The medicine arrived, the populace survived and not much changed in Nome after that.  Of course, in 1973 they started a sled dog race to commemorate the importance of sled dog teams in the town's history, and they created the world's most famous sled dog race...The Iditarod.   Every year in March, this little village is the finish line for the roughly 1100 mile race and all the crowds and media that go with that.

But, the rest of the year, Nome is a fairly isolated village on the shores of the Bering Sea, not far from Russia.  The only way to travel to Nome is by air.  There are no connecting highways that run further than to the local villages.  There are no ferries that run in the area.  Occasionally these days there are cruise ships that pass by once in a while in the summer on a Northwest Passage Cruise, but for the most part, the village is pretty isolated.

Nome is a quiet little town, with three main tribes of Native Alaskans in the area.  The locals go about their business of working, raising their families and taking care of their homes.  There are over 700 children in the local school system on average.  There are all services in town from fire to medical, to police, and schools.  There are hotels, campgrounds, shops, restaurants, and a visitor center for the people who manage to stop by from out of town.  You can fly to Nome, rent a car, stay in a hotel and see what life is like in this wonderful little town.

You can go to the pub, play bingo, listen to local bands, and relax.  You can see the sun stay pretty much up all night in the summer since the town is so close to the Arctic Circle.  You can visit some of the tribes and learn about their culture.  Are you excited yet?

You can go to college in Nome.  That's something that you wouldn't expect.

The weather that rarely gets out of the 50 degree area even in the summer is a great climate for animals such as the Musk Ox and reindeer.  You will also run across a plethora of rare birds that only live in this area.

Nome has it's own way of life, and you can come and see what it's like.  All right, are you bored yet?  Well, that little gold rush that I mentioned?  It's still going on.  There are companies that will take you to the beach to pan for gold.  The beaches are littered with gold in the icy northern village, and you can take home some for yourself.  You can also charter a boat with a guide who will show you how to dredge for gold just off shore.  This is one of the few places in the world that this is done right on the coast.  In places there is equipment left right on the beach for use by the tourists.  You can make a pretty penny while on vacation.  That's not a bad deal.  This place is so well known for it's gold dredging that the Discovery Channel makes a reality show about it.

The gold is real, and if you want, you can turn it in for cash right in town.  My guess is that, like me, you'll want to keep it as a memoir.  It's a great conversation piece for when you get back home and see all your friends.  So, get your gear and come up to Nome and go panning, mining, and dredging for gold.

But that's not all.  Nome offers a tour like none other for Americans.  You can fly on a charter tour to Provideniya, Russia.  This is a town on the Eastern coast of Russia that is just as isolated as Nome.  Maybe even more so.  It's not a big tourist attraction type place.  While in Nome you can get rich, in Provideniya, you're there for the culture.  And you will get your money's worth.

The locals there have traditions that are very close to the native people's of western Alaska.  The similarities are amazing until you realize that these peoples only live hundreds of miles apart.  That's not far, and lends to the theory of a land bridge that it's believed once existed between the two land masses.

Provideniya is a colorful city that will put you in mind of the Soviet Era with it's block style buildings that now resonate in technicolor.  I recommend taking the trip to the other side of the strait just to see what life is like.  It's fun to compare the similarities and differences between the two towns.  Just make sure you see a travel specialist of some kind before you go.  Specific travel visas are required when going to Russia.

Nome, Alaska is an isolated village that still has found itself at the center of American news and culture.  It's on the edge of existence where it is, although the town helps out in ship emergencies, rescuing people from sinking vessels.  Icebreakers are not uncommon in the area, just like gold mining dredges used to be.  You can only see dredges in the open air museum now, but the icebreakers are still around.  Life in Nome is unusual in that they have managed to maintain a normal community in such harsh conditions.  They have a sports center, a swimming pool, local sports leagues, and festivals at the park.  It's something that you have to experience to appreciate it.

Nome is a great place to get away, get your head on straight, and get away from it all.  You get to be part of a community there.  This is a way of life that has almost gone by the wayside in the lower 48.  These people survive with the help of their families, friends, and neighbors.  It's a wonderful thing to get a sampling of.  So, take a little time and see how this tiny corner of the world lives.  Come and visit the amazing people of Nome, Alaska and Provideniya, Russia.