Friday, October 30, 2015

Mosi-oa-Tunya...The Smoke That Thunders

As my birthday strikes again, I look to my bucket list and find the most amazing of all items for me, personally to place on it.  Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders.  Victoria Falls.  This giant waterfalls spans a mile along the Zambezi Gorge and is 360 feet high.  There are higher waterfalls in the world, but this baby is the biggest all around monster of them all with spray that you can see up to 50 kilometers away; hence the name "The Smoke That Thunders."  It sits on the borders of Zimbabwe and Zambia on the Zambezi River which is one of the longest and mightiest rivers in all of Africa.

There are many things that make me think of this spot this time of year.  It is heading into the rainy season in that area, but there's still time to go before the spray gets so bad you can't see as much as you would like.  One of the reasons is the timing.  In the year I was born, 1964, Zambia became an independent nation.  When they gained their independence from Britain, the first thing that they did was change the names of everything from British names to African names.  Everything except Livingstone and Victoria Falls.  The falls, for the rest of us, were discovered by Scottish Explorer, Dr. David Livingstone during the reign of Queen Victoria.  It was already named by the people who lived there, but the name stuck both for the falls and the border town.  Today, the area is one of Africa's largest tourist destinations.

I love waterfalls, and one of these days, I fully intend to take Charley Boorman's motorcycle ride across southern Africa which goes from Capetown to Victoria Falls or Victoria Falls to Capetown, depending on which way you take the trip.  But, no matter how you get there, these are probably the most impressive waterfalls in the world, and anyone who loves waterfalls should make this your pilgrimage at some point in life.  Over the years I have become a noted expert in waterfalls of the Northeast; giving advice to hikers and photographers everywhere on which ones to see, where they are and how to shoot them.  I've been to several notable waterfalls around the world, but this one I've missed.  At the point that I'm heading down that slope of old age, I hope that I can find a way to go soon.

What can I say about visiting Victoria Falls?  You would be amazed.  I know I was.  This is the premiere destination in Africa.  It's shared by two countries.  It's on over 100 different tours.  There are nearly 100 activities around the falls.  I can't count how many hotels there are.  You can do just about anything on the border around the falls.  You can go as primitive as a walk and as fancy as a casino.  Whatever you wish to do seems to be available there.  It's like Fantasy Island in the heart of Africa.

I'll hit the high points, starting with flying over the falls.  That's a must do for any great waterfall.  Some of them, like Angel Falls in Venezuela you have to fly by in order to see the whole thing.  Gullfoss in Iceland you can only rely on seeing from the edge, because of the weather.  Deitfoss is the same way.  Niagara has flyovers, but it also has the Skylon Tower and the SkyWheel.  Iquazu has flyovers which are pretty necessary.  But, Victoria Falls has something else.  Microlight Flights over the falls.  These things are barely airplanes and in the United States you can build one in your backyard and fly it without a license.  This is the exciting way to fly over the falls with nothing getting in the way of your view of the falls.  It's also the inexpensive way to do it at almost half the price of the helicopter.  Should you be afraid?  No.  These guys are experts and do this all the time, even if you only do it once in a lifetime.

Necessity says that there will be bridges.  This is a border crossing and people have to be able to make their way from one land to another.  There are two bridges accessible to everyone; Knife Edge Bridge which is open to pedestrians gives a great view of the gorge and the falls.  The other is Victoria Falls Bridge which is the official border between the two countries and home of one of the craziest activities anywhere; the Bungee Jump.  That's right, you can jump right off the bridge.  They charge you for the trip.  The amazing thing is that it's not the only place you can go jumping off of things in the gorge. There is also the giant swing, and the abseil place.  If you are looking for a thrill, one of these should take care of that.

There are also many ways to enjoy the river.  You can canoe and kayak along the tame parts.  You can take a river cruise, including dinner cruises with spectacular sunsets.  There are thousands of hiking trails.  There are even places where you can walk right out onto the top of the falls and swim in the water there.  Just remember, this place is two national parks, Victoria Falls Park on the Zimbabwe side and Mosi-oa-Tunya Park on the Zambia side.  This means that the area is full of wildlife, and it's all that wildlife that you long to see if you go to Africa.  Boats and kayaks are a great way to get a look at the amazing creatures that live there.

If you aren't all about the outdoors, but want to see this fabulous place, remember that Livingstone is close by in Zambia and has all the creature comforts that you might like.  There are shopping spots, tons of hotels and resorts, casinos, restaurants and more.  So, if you are traveling with the family and not everyone shares your enthusiasm for amazing waterfalls and gorges, there should be something for everyone in town.

There are many different kinds of hotels around the falls.  There are modern hotels, rustic lodges, riverside wonders and more.  Here's the thing.  This is not your garden variety family trip unless maybe you're a Trump.  This is a bucket list wonder of the world trip and it won't be cheap.  That being said, I can safely say that if I ever get to take this amazing trip, I'm going to stay at the original.  The Victoria Falls Hotel on the Zimbabwe side.  This place was built in 1904 and was the preferred lodging for the colonial British who visited.  It just sounds like an old world place that would just add to the adventure of visiting the area.  Just a thought for anyone thinking about this amazing trip.

Now, we've mentioned any number of adventures for this area, so what am I calling the Adventure for Anyone?  Well, there are two.  The first one is the only one of it's kind that I've ever heard of.  Lion Encounters is an organization that raises lion cubs in captivity but conditions them and eventually releases them into the wild.  They have places on both sides of the river and here's what they do with tourists.  You get to take a walk with lions.  I'm not kidding, just go strolling along with no confinements on either yours or the lions part.  You will walk with guides just in case there is a problem, but this is your one chance to get up close and personal with lions and get a sense of their personality and really get a look at them.  You are not allowed to touch them, but you get to take a walk with a totally wild animal in the wild.  It's a rare opportunity and should not be missed.

But, that's not all.  There's another activity that I've never heard of anywhere else.  You can cage dive with crocodiles.  They take you down in what's become known as a shark cage.  They give you long poles that you put meat on and you can feed the crocodiles through the cage.  It's a one of a kind experience, and I hope I get to do it someday.

So, for me, it's a bucket list like no other.  It's the biggest waterfalls in the world, and to me that's a pilgrimage site.  You can hike it, kayak it, cruise it, fly over it, and swim in it.  You can take a trip in a microlight, walk with lions, swim with crocodiles, bungee jump, swing on a giant swing and so much more.  I don't care for touristy places much, but this is one of those  magical places that needs to be visited.  This is the big one.  This is the Disney of waterfalls.  This is the Fantasy Island for waterfall hunters.  This is the one thing that you'll never ever forget and it's all just waiting in Africa.  Victoria Falls was "discovered" over 100 years ago and is the crown jewel of a continent.  Mosi-oa-Tunya is the most powerful of them all.  That's worth a visit.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Halloween is Upon Us

As we get ready to celebrate Halloween for another year, I ask myself some questions.  What's popular in costumes?  Where did the holiday come from?  Where do they celebrate this holiday?  There are a lot of things that most people don't know about Halloween and there are a lot of things that are so trendy that they get on our nerves.  What can one say about Halloween?

Halloween is believed to have originated with the Celts of Ireland and was originally called Samhain.  This is the night before the day of the dead which is still celebrated in many Catholic countries such as Mexico.  However, over time the holiday has become less about the dead walking the Earth and more about the fantastic costumes, haunted houses, horror movies, parties, parades, and of course the candy.  I suppose it should be considered a bad thing when tradition turns to merchandising, but all in all, I like to have fun.  That has become the biggest part of Halloween and I don't see it as a bad thing.  I have been ambushed by religious folks while taking my son trick or treating, and while I do respect the right to religious freedom, I wish that people would take note of the change in the holiday as well.  I say let's all lighten up and have some fun and call it a holiday.

That being said, what's popular with the costumes this year?

Star Wars is back this year with a new film and a whole boat load of merchandising just in time for Halloween.  Now, here's the thing with that.  We've all been dressing as these characters for years, so maybe it's time to move along just like I think it's time for the movies to do.  Be careful not to fall into this trap.  You might run into a lot of these at parties and out trick or treating.

Superheroes are also wildly popular this year, and maybe even more so to the girls.  The guys have moved on to zombies and Star Wars and the girls are suddenly trending into that superhero category.  Watch out for duplicates.

Homemade is the best people.  If you want to be original, make it yourself.  It's great for a group of family or friends, and it will win some great prizes at parties.  It's also a great way to put down the technology and do something together as a family.

Couples costumes are great, because it's a creative night out.  We adults have given up the trick or treating, but we still love to have fun.  Halloween parties are some of the best parties of the year, so look around and see what looks like fun.  Couples costumes can't miss.  Whether it be Adam and Eve or something Disney, the latest zombie idea, food, or Homer and Marge; it's a lot of fun.

Here's an idea.  Be the bad guy.  We all love pirates, who have become heroes and vampires, which have become sexy and superheroes; but the bad guy is a lot of fun.  The Joker never really goes out of fashion and neither does Freddy Kruger or the Scream Guy.  It's the one time of year that it can be good to be bad so enjoy it.  So pull out that Jack the Ripper costume or dress up as a werewolf and have a ball.

Halloween is about fun and creativity, so have a great time whether it's by you dressing as an animal or dressing your animal as something else.  Pet costumes have become all the rage and dogs and cats are stepping out dressed as all kinds of crazy things.

Do you have a thing about clowns?  A lot of people do, so if you want to scare them, there are a ton of clown options from Harley Quinn to Pennywise and beyond.  Zombies, mummies, vampires, and other ghouls never go out of fashion either.

Let's put it this way, if you're sitting at home handing out candy dress up for it.  If you're taking your kids out dress up for it.  If you have to work that day dress up for it.  Enjoy this return to childhood that you only get to have once a year.

But, where can you go to enjoy this holiday other than America?  That was a question that I'd never asked until this year.  Here's the answer.  There are 14 countries that practice the holiday of Halloween.  Of Course we do in the US and Canada.  Halloween is also celebrated in Ireland where it started, England, Austria, Sweden, Germany, China, Czech Republic, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, Latin America and Spain.  So, if you happen to take off around the holiday and are in one of those countries you're in the right place.

In America Halloween comes right at harvest time which gives us the Jack O Lantern.  This custom has also spread far and wide with festivals and contests surrounding the carving of pumpkins.  If you get a chance, check out one of the contests.  They make some amazing Jack O Lanterns that are more art than pumpkin by the time they are done.

It's not too late.  Many websites have quick delivery and will have your costume of choice to you by the big day.  Also, Spirit Halloween has probably popped up somewhere near you, and they have all kinds of crazy costumes.  It's not too late to make it.  You just have to get on the ball.

So, check your history books, make or buy a fabulous costume, make sure there aren't a million costumes like yours, buy some candy, go out and get some candy, carve a pumpkin, go to a party and have a great time.  Halloween gets a bad rep in the religious community as a heathen or pagan ritual, but we really all just want to dress up funny and eat candy.  Don't take it too seriously, because these days most of the kids have no idea what it used to be about.  Take some time to spend with the family, have a really good time with your partner and enjoy the once a year return to childhood that is Halloween.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Another Venice of the Far East?

Years back I talked about a lovely town called Wuzhen in China that was supposedly called the Venice of the East.  Well, here's one that is called the Venice of the Far East.  Is that a distinction?  I don't know, but I do love these places.  Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas along the Yangtze River in the Northwestern corner of the Yunnan Province is a village built on river tributaries and canals called Lijiang.  Home to the Nakhi or Naxi people, the town has been around for centuries, going back to the times of Kubla Khan and beyond.  The royalty that left it's mark on the town were the Mu's and several parts of the city are just lost in time.

Lijiang is not in the middle of nowhere.  There is an international airport and a huge train station there.  The city today is modern and there are luxury resorts and spas for all the jet setters.  This is not one of those places where you have to go and live like a local to visit.  You can live like the spoiled American that you are and still get to see what life was like in the old days.

As a matter of fact, I think that now might be a good time to visit.  Modern ways are making their way into the old town area of Lijiang, and it may end up ruining the atmosphere of this area.  So, don't waste any time getting here to see it.  The Yunnan Province is a very popular tourist area and Kunming with it's International Village and Stone Forest as well as Tiger Leaping Gorge are close by.  The new train that goes to Tibet stops in Lijiang as well, bringing even more tourists to the area.  It's getting busy, people, so don't wait on this one.

Why should you visit?  I would think to learn about the history and the people.  The Musuo and the Nakhi people have been here for centuries.  Up until more modern times, the Mu Family were the local royalty in this area until the country began to be expanded and it all became one China.  Kubla Khan stationed troops there once to defend them against invaders.  Their identity has been shaped by many influences including most of the ancient emperors, Mongols, and Buddhism.  It's a fascinating area for cultural influences.  You can actually learn so much in a short span of time that it's input overload.

But architecturally, these people are masters at handling life on water.  There are hundreds of bridges in this old village with dozens of canals and a few rivers.  There are walkways, cafes, and even waterwheels along the way.  The term Venice of the Far East does seem to fit the old town there. The architecture is ancient and what one would expect to see in China according to the ridiculous things we learn in America.  There are temples and pagodas, and Dragon Pool Park which is one of the prettiest parks anywhere.  You can see the locals performing traditional dance, you can see them making their handicrafts.  You can just relax, maybe go to a temple or a royal home.  What will happen is that you will feel like you've stepped back in time about 800 years or so.

Day or night, the views are amazing.  There are local old world hotels to stay in within the old village.  There are also huge modern resort hotels in the area.  There is a ski resort to go to as well, and the hiking is second to none.  There are a million things to do, or not if you'd rather just kick back and absorb the world around you.

But why would I call this an Adventure for Anyone?  Well, I'd have to say it's for the the people, the history, the food, the architecture, the out of the way feel of it all, and of course, the view.  So, don't miss this one.  With the chains moving in and the trains stopping by, I don't think that it will stay the way it is forever.  I think that it will get invaded by modern life, and that will be a shame.  So, get off your sofa, and head to Lijian, China, the Venice of the Far East before it starts to look like a wet Hollywood Boulevard.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What About Other Halloweens?

Halloween is coming so it's time to have one of those seasonal discussions.  Every year I've put things in here that people go to and do around the United States for this fun holiday.  Well, with the airfare going down, you might want to leave the country to celebrate Halloween.  This year I have some ideas of other places to go.  There are tons, and the links will be after, but here are some that really got me thinking.

1.  A Seance at the London Dungeon.  Get your ghoulies on here with a high ranking medium from the area as you get together and call up all kinds of spirits in one of the cities spookiest locations.

2.  Scare Kingdom Scream Park in Blackburn, UK.  This is something like the haunted graveyards that we all love so much in America with lots of maze like paths and actors to jump out and scare you all the way through sets and backdrops designed to make you creeped out and scared.

3.  Fear Fest and the National Diving and Activity Center in Tidenham, UK.  This converted quarry gets converted even more to scare the crap out of you at Halloween.  Once again, it is a haunted house/graveyard/quarry situation with actors, special effects, and great sets.

There are a ton of ideas for Halloween in the UK.  It seems as thought they love it just as much as we do, so think about hopping the pond for some of that this year.

4.  Bring the kiddies, because American Disney isn't the only Disney that does Halloween.  Euro Disney or Disneyland Paris has Halloween events going on all October long.  It's a lot of family friendly fun, so if you have small kids who love Disney and you need a break from Orlando, hop a flight for about the same price this season and go.

5.  Fete des Sorcieres in Chalindrey, France is a festival all it's own.  Specifically designed as a historical event, it takes you back to Celtic and Druid traditions from the times of Stonehenge and things like that.  The town is medieval looking with ancient buildings and is the perfect backdrop for something historically Halloween.

The parks are at it in places like Europa Park in Hamburg, Germany and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark.  There are rides, music, haunted tours, food and a whole lot of fun throughout the Halloween season.

Iceland is home to some great parties like Gaukurinn's Iceland Halloween Party with DJ Mobus.  It's a huge party/club event and it is a costume party.  So dress for the occasion people if you decide to party under the Northern Lights in Iceland.  Don't be surprised if the party goes out into the streets in this country, because it's a little different than the stuff you're used to here.

Now, here's one that I really didn't think about and it's close to home.  Canada loves Halloween.  They have stuff all across the country.  They don't do it up too big in the northern areas but if you want to go to Edmonton, Regina, Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver you're covered.  You have Screamfest in Calgary, Haunted Fort in Battleford Saskatchewan, Ghost Train in Vancouver British Columbia, Haunted mazes and graveyards and so much more.  There are Halloween events all over Canada that are great and a lot of fun.

We'll give you some don'ts.  Don't bother with Russia on this one.  There Halloween people are at war with the Orthodox Church and it's just too much of a hassle.  Avoid highly religious spots like the Middle East and several parts of Central America.  It's not that you can't enjoy some of these places.  It's just that if you are looking for places that really enjoy a holiday like Halloween, those aren't on that particular list.

So, Halloween only comes once a year.  You should enjoy it.  If you're looking for something new, the list of links that I will leave below should give you plenty of fun ideas.  I just thought that I would give you some idea of other countries that love Halloween almost as much as we do here in the United States.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I Love Columbus Day Weekend!

Okay, so we all know that Columbus didn't discover America.  We all know that everyone and his dog knew that it was there and no one wanted to go.  We know that there were people here before him.  We all know that he studied their logs and charts before he left.  My theory after all the things that I know about that trip is that he thought that the planet was smaller and that he didn't know how far south the continent extended.  Aside from that, I agree with the people who are blowing up the internet with Indigenous People's Day, and the signs that say that Columbus would have remained lost at sea if it wasn't for the natives rescuing him.  I get it.  But, all of that nonsense is not why I love Columbus Day Weekend.  I love it because it's the final hurrah for the season before the weather gets crappy and there's nothing fun to do if you don't ski in New England until spring.  I love it because there are a lot of events going on that weekend, and the leaves are peaking and the weather tends to be really good.  Add the part where the kids have a long weekend too, and you have a chance to have a lot of fun.  So, no matter whether you want a little more outdoor adventure, an air show, a garlic festival, or some pre Halloween fun at a haunted graveyard.  In addition to those lovely leaves, we have a lot to do out here.

First off, I did it!  I got to ride in a vintage biplane at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York.  I was over there a few weeks ago, as you may recall, and the wind was so strong that the weekly airshow and all the biplane rides were cancelled.  So, I had to go back and see the whole show and ride in the plane.  It was great.  They make you wear the old style helmet and goggles for the ride.  They put you into the Standard D25 Biplane and take you up for about 15 minutes.  You'd be surprised how much fun you can have on such a short ride.  They take you along the Hudson River, over the town and they do a few stunts to give you a thrill.  It's a lot of fun to do.

The other great thing is the air show.  I don't know about the rest of you, but I love planes and I really love old planes.  These guys put on a show that goes on for a couple of hours every weekend all summer long.  They fly ten to twelve planes of various styles and ages.  They had an old time fashion show.  They had a parade of antique cars.  They had skits and stunts and contests and all kinds of stuff.  It was a lot of fun, and ultimately we learned a lot about the vintage planes from the show's announcer who grew up around that very field which has been there since 1958, and knows all about all the planes.  They even had a WWI tank that worked.  It was great family fun, and the people at the Aerodrome allow volunteers to participate in the fashion show and car parade, so you can get involved and have a great time.

Stop number two on my busy weekend was the Bethlehem Garlic and Harvest Festival in Bethlehem, Connecticut.  I went there expecting a small farmer's market type event themed in garlic.  What I found was a full sized fair with rides, live music, and a whole lot of garlic related things.  It was a beautiful day and the fairgrounds were swamped with people who wanted to get out and celebrate.

Garlic was not the only food at the festival either.  We tried a plethora of fried stuff that I'd never tried before and it was pretty good.  We also sampled a ton of sauces, jams, seasonings, dips and other stuff that was there for the buying.  For anyone who loves to cook, this is a great festival for you.

Stop number three for me was Lake Compounce.  Now, anyone who knows me knows that I love amusement parks, and I dearly love our local one, Lake Compounce.  I've talked about this place many times.  It is the oldest continually operating theme park in the country and these days it's open during several seasons.  This is the 15th year of the Haunted Graveyard, making them a pioneer in this area as well, and they have done it up right.  Most of the rides in the park are open each weekend to keep people entertained as they wait their turn to go through the graveyard.  Now, this probably isn't for small children.  I'll tell you that.  This year was the first time that I ever went through it, and I was glad that I waited until my son was older to go.  There are a lot of strobe lights and a lot of ghoulies in that graveyard.  It takes about 45 minutes to go through the entire thing.  I loved it, and my son did too.  The actors were great, the sets were great, and even an old woman like me was surprised a couple of times.  It was well worth the money and I would happily do it all again.  There are also other entertainments in the park, like the zombies who come out and dance amongst the tombstones to Michael Jackson's Thriller and the ghoulies who are running around the park and jumping out of the bushes at you.  It's all about Halloween and it's a lot of fun.  But, just remember that a lot of amusement parks have them, so check your local area.

Stop number four was Rosendale, New York to walk on an old railroad trestle.  Along the Walkill Rail Trail in Rosendale is the Rosendale Trestle.  This amazing place crosses a gorge along Rondout Creek and overlooks a main portion of the town.  Once we found it, it didn't take long to see all the views and walk the bridge.  But, once again we were in the Hudson Valley so it was quite a drive over there and we took advantage of the Northeast's best activity.  Leaf Peeping.  New England and the Northeast offer probably more tours to go and look at leaves than anywhere on Earth.  Our leaves are gorgeous and we love to look at them too.  So we spent pretty much an entire day doing just that.  And after that, we had to go back home and go back to work and school and whatever.  It's over, and I'm sad.  It will be months before we do a whole lot here in New England.  But, whether it's the fork in the road, the planes, the ghoulies, the rides, the bridges, or just the leaves; Columbus Day Weekend in New England and the Northeast is something that is to be savored just like the garlic at the festival.