The musician Sting launched a tradition of concerts raising money and awareness for South America’s rain forests. Borneo, a wild and wonderful Malaysian island, has stepped up to the plate with its version of celebrating music in their tropical setting.
The Rainforest Music Festival (RMF) is a weekend concert (June 20-22) featuring musicians from around the world with a common theme of tribal and traditional music. Every continent is represented, but there is a focus on regional Southeast Asian island culture with performances by the indigenous musicians of Borneo. Their instruments go well beyond standard guitars and into the exotic. The indigenous Iban tribe, for example, plays an ensemble of an engkerumong (similar to a xylophone), a tawak (bass), a bendai (snare), and a set of ketebungs (single-sided drums).
In addition to the concerts and performances at night, the RMF also has workshops during the day that dive into the cultural aspects of the music. Think dance lessons, theory lectures, instrument education, and fire-drum demos. Local food vendors serving up Malaysian specialties will also be a big part of the fanfare.
The festival takes place about 40-minutes outside of Kuching in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. The exact location is the Damai Peninsular, home of Gunung Santubong National Park. You can hike your way up Mt. Santubong as a side adventure, or visit the Sarawak Cultural Village to soak up the local history.
Tickets are still available if you’re looking for a last-minute idea for some frequent flyer miles, but otherwise, keep it in mind for next summer as it’s a yearly event. Visit http://rwmf.net/.
Fogo de Chão—a Brazilian Steakhouse
I love being in situations where it’s nearly impossible to make a culinary mistake. In most restaurants, you order, and then your entrée is parked upon your table and that pretty much defines your experience. At Fogo de Chão, the circulating waiters swing by your table to slice your preference of 16 different cuts of prime fire-roasted meats. It’s all about revolving options at your own pace.
Behind the scenes, the knife-wielding waiters—gauchos—who roam the restaurant are also grilling the individual skewers of your meat. You turn the meat service on and off by flipping the coaster on your table. When you’ve had enough filet mignon, prime sirloin, sausage, or chicken parked on your plate via your personal tongs, the gourmet salad bar (30+ items) is available to satisfy any other cravings. Fogo de Chão also has an enormous selection of wine, including its own signature label.
Fogo de Chão’s Midtown location, 53rd street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, doesn’t conjure up intimate images of leisure, and there’s nothing about its nondescript façade to lure you in. But, inside, 30-foot ceilings and sweeping staircases create a modern museum atmosphere—then add the fabulous aromas. Adding to the ambiance is the friendly staff, many who are Brazilian. The staff to customer ratio is unheard of in most other city restaurants. This is the company’s 22nd opening in the U.S., and a true escape from hurried Midtown Manhattan.
This Brazilian steakhouse experience means no commitments—or regrets. Visit fogodechao.com or call 212 969 9980.
A country whose history is discovered in its songs
Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013
Estonia lacks military might and has always been surrounded by much larger countries with intimidating armies. Russia, Germany, and Sweden all vied for its control, creating a tug of war that lasted centuries. Inspired by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia symbolically overcame its latest suppressor, the U.S.S.R., when country-wide choir jam-bands launched their Singing Revolution. Here, choirs outrank sports as a national pastime—some attracting as many as 30,000 singers. Song festival fairgrounds, with their signature bandshell arches, are everywhere.
After 50 years of Soviet repression, in August, 1989, two million Baltic citizens, including people from neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, created an unbroken 350-mile human chain linking the countries in their call for freedom. The likeminded people held hands, and changed their destiny. Estonia, where medieval meets modern, sang themselves free. Their keynote battle-charge song, “My Fatherland is My Love,” has since become their unofficial national anthem.
While in Estonia, I asked several street-strolling locals to sing for me, and true to form, they obliged. One woman sang the entire unofficial anthem as we stood on an empty street. The Baltic Singing Revolution made me wonder, what would the U.S. choose if it needed a new anthem to sing its way out of a real jam? “Won’t Back Down,” “Born in the USA,” “American Woman,” “Highway to Hell,” “Don’t Stop Believin’?”
Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, a humble survivor for all seasons. Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept.
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“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka
Bohemian National Hall, April 26-27, 2014
Unlike the other generic trade show-like travel conferences, the more intimate New York Travel Festival goes beyond brochures and vendor booths and brings you face-to-face with the industry’s movers and shakers. The NY “TravFest” hosts panels, interactive discussions, and hands-on workshops dealing with hot-button travel topics and trends that will inspire and enhance your travel planning. This show is about making direct access to travel industry experts easy.
Held in Manhattan’s charming Bohemian National Hall, the festival for tech-savvy, immersive travelers starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 26. It continues on Sunday, April 27 at Hostelling International – New York.
Standard consumer tickets cost $45 in advance or $60 at the door. This ticket grants full-weekend (Saturday and Sunday) access to: * Talks and panels from top names in the travel industry, including presentations by writers, editors and photographers from AFAR, the Major Media Partner of NY TravFest 2014.
* Fantrotter.com founder Mike Coletta will be hosting Travel 2.0 @ #NYTF, a full-day session which will explore current travel innovation trends, and offer opportunities to discover new and up-and-coming tech travel companies.
* Festival-only discounts from select sponsors.
* In-venue giveaways, including gift certificates of up to $300 from ClothingArts.com, who make the awesome pickpocket-proof travel pants.
* Mezcal and food pairings at the Mexico bar.
Sunday, April 27 is designed around inspiration for people new to travel. Lee Abbamonte–the youngest American to visit every country in the world–is the Sunday afternoon keynote. Later, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip is the headline speaker for the Matador Network Speaker Series in a session entitled Transformation in Travel. Poon Tip will discuss lessons from his experiences as an entrepreneur and sustainable-travel advocate, as well as his new book, Looptail.
Tickets for Sunday, April 27, are available for $12 in advance $15 at the door. All ticket holders receive discounts on NYC tours offered before, during and after the festival by a selection of New York City–based tour companies in partnership with the NY TravFest.
* More details on http://nytravfest.com.
*For NY TravFest tickets, visit http://bitly.com/NYTF2014.
* For a complete schedule, see http://nytravfest.com/2014-full-schedule/.
* For news and updates about the NY TravFest, go to http://nytravfest.com/2014.
An Interview with Luke Maguire Armstrong—The Nomad’s Nomad
Rarely does a written story make me laugh out loud, but “The Day I Did Not Meet Kenya’s Prime Minister” did just that. So, I emailed the author. A few months later, I met Luke Maguire Armstrong, a guy who, in the midst of hitchhiking from Chile to Alaska, got happily stuck in Guatemala for four years. Since then, we meet whenever he breezes through New York City.
I wrote about life on the road while traveling pretty much constantly for 20 years until mellowing into “home life,” which now means taking 10 disconnected trips a year—with each trip now having predetermined return dates. Those vagabond years defined me and make me a tough customer when it comes to enjoying a travel tale. I know a lot of travel writers, but only one who is truly, almost constantly still out there. As opposed to the long-weekend warriors attempting to take over travel writing via minute-by-minute blogging, Luke Maguire Armstrong lives on the road and patiently crafts tales that stand the test of time. The author of How We Are Human supports himself by writing, playing music, and spearheading ongoing humanitarian efforts in Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, and New York. Recently, we sat down for a chat in Bushwick, Brooklyn, while he paused between a stint in Iceland, where he started the band “Loki and the Fashion Bandits” and a return to one of his first loves, Guatemala.
Q. At what point in your life did you know it was time to hit the road and not look back?
When it seemed my plan was falling apart. A year ago this month, I arrived from Nairobi to New York City after three months in Kenya covering the 2013 elections as a freelance journalist and working pro-bono to put two children orphaned by AIDs in school. I returned to NYC worse than broke. My trip to Kenya, that was supposed to earn me an income, left me $5,000 in credit card debt. I had fifty bucks cash in my pocket and a friend’s couch to sleep on for a week or so.
That marked my one-year anniversary of trying to make the mobile writer lifestyle work. I paced that small Brooklyn apartment and looked at my guitar. She looked back as if to say, “Don’t look at me, this is the life you made for yourself.” I swore silently and made a decision to cut off my lifeboats. I decided then that if I made $100 a month doing what I loved, then that was what I lived off. If I wanted to have a life more glamorous than a homeless person’s, I was going to have to work harder and smarter. I spent my last $50 on business cards, opened my laptop, started writing, and stopped looking back.
Q. Most people might have thrown the towel in well before that point, what caused you to stick it out so long?
I needed that gun to my head—that Yoda on my shoulder telling me, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When failure is not an option, your success is measured by degree. Also, “coming of age” in the expatriate scene of Antigua, Guatemala, made a nomadic life seem like a logical next step.
Q. What prior experiences led you to that small Brooklyn apartment?
While finishing my last semester of college as an exchange student in Chile in 2007, I read the book Into The Wild, took the wrong message from it, procured a $7,000 student loan, ditched my return ticket home, and started to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska. My family has a rich history making rash decisions abroad that affects the course of everyone’s lives—my parents met in the Marshal Islands as Peace Corps volunteers and decided to get married after a few weeks of dating. Near that time, my dad was thrown out of The Peace Corps for building a radio station instead of a tomato garden.
My plans on the road were to volunteer along the way and begin earning a living as a writer before my student loan ran out. I met an Irish travel writer at a campfire on a beach on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and he told me, “Do what you want to do in life. There will be always someone who will pay you for it.” We’ve all heard some variation of this, but at the time I was 22 and it was my first time. It was an exciting notion. I listened to the lapping of waves and thought about my peers. It seemed like most of them put off doing what they really wanted to do to some future date. I never really bought into that model as viable for life and have always been happier for it.
Q. How did you end up making a four-year stopover in Guatemala?
Book-length story short, I thought my writing would support my humanitarian habit, but for four years my humanitarian work supported my writing habit.
Many thought taking out that $7,000 student loan to travel was a dumb plan, but in the end it led to a career that paid off that loan and most of my others. For four years, I worked in Antigua, Guatemala, as the program director for the charity Nuestros Ahijados. My 11th day volunteering at the project, the director quit and the executive director and founder somehow thought giving me, a 22-year-old, the position was a good idea. I administered 12 programs, fund-raised to meet the budgetary gaps that most NGOs suffered in 2008, and managed a staff of 50 employees and 500 annual volunteers. The project provided education and health resources for people to break out of poverty and had a program to rescue victims of human trafficking. It was a wonderful job where every day felt impactful, and I can’t imagine living life today without the many lessons I learned from that opportunity. In 2010, Christiane Amanpour came to Guatemala to interview me about a malnourished infant centered I had opened and ran for Nuestros Ahijados.
Q. Because you’ve worked with traveling women victimized by crimes in places like Central America, I imagine you would be the right guy explain the rules of the road to my daughter in a few years. What is your core advice to women traveling in distant lands?
Aside from warning them to stay away from my friend Andres, I would say women travelers by the unique nature of the dangers they face are far ballsier than their male counterparts traveling the same road. Be smart ladies, and trust your instincts. No, be smarter than smart. Be a femme fatale traveling Jedi warrior woman who is always one step ahead of anyone that would harm you. You don’t need to actively distrust strangers—most people are good. But never trust anyone you’ve just met 100-percent. People who want to hurt you or take things from you use your trust as their camouflage.
Do your research. What does the guidebook say about safety? What do expats know? What do other travelers say? What do the locals know? What does your embassy say? All of these sources should be looked into, because each provides an important piece to the puzzle of how safe a place is and what you should do to avoid the dangers. If the streets aren’t safe at night, get yourself a reliable cabby who doesn’t drink on the job. If that doesn’t fit into your budget, give your pops Bruce a pouty face and remind him how much he loves you, and I bet he’ll grab your taxi bill. He would have just spent it on beer anyway. Speaking of beer, don’t leave your drink unattended, and don’t accept a drink that you did not watch the bartender make.
I’m not sure if it’s my guitar or the crazy person playing it (see Luke perform here), but the short answer is yes. Playing the guitar is a great way to meet people and gain access to places. Most of the stories stemming from this fact are long. One short story that comes to mind is when my guitar led me to an underground gambling ring of chicken bus drivers in the lakeside village of San Pedro, Guatemala. My guitar and I were both drunk. The rest of my friends had gone to bed at a reasonable time. My late-night guitar playing by the lake led to a man named Juan approaching me and inviting me to this underground gambling ring he knew of on the outskirts of town.
It looked like a tough crowd and a rough game. I made a point of losing $20 to keep them from pulling out the guns I could see bulging from their belts and just taking what they wanted. It could have gone even more loco, because one of them asked me if I would be his “frog”—the guy on the bus that collects the money and shouts out the destinations. He was drunk and about to drive to Xela, Guatemala. It was 5am. He said he could get me back by noon. This was a very tempting offer. I did not have a phone with me to inform my friends at the hotel why I would have failed to materialize in the morning, so I declined. I took a few more shots of the fire water the bus driver insisted I try and called it a night just as the dawn ticked up on the horizon.
Q. What’s next for you? You say you’re committed to the path you’re on now, but what specifically is that path?
It’s a winding one, and there are always surprises on it. I plan to continue to write and continually take that craft to a new level. I am finishing a non-fiction book about my four years living in Guatemala and courting various publishers for my completed novel How One Guitar Will Save The World.
Humanitarian-wise, I am going to continue to fundraise and deploy that capital with charities that I have vetted as being sustainable and making tangible differences. My music has recently taken on a life of its own, and I have an LP coming out soon called “Luke Maguire Armstrong: Eaten By a Horse.” Oh, and we can’t forget women. I hope to run into some of them. Specifically, I hope to meet one as crazy as I am, who will let me buy a puppy to “nip at our heels.”
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Luke Maguire Armstrong is a frequent contributor to Perceptive Travel, an award-winning site with the best travel stories from wandering book authors. His current project, Travel Bloggers Without Borders, is an effort to raise $10,000 to take 55 children off the streets in Guatemala and place them in school.
Bermuda is a quintessentially British island of palms. It was there in 1999 that an eccentric self-styled Bermudian traffic supervisor taught me something about crafting a singular life mission.
Located far enough off the coast of North Carolina to forego NASCAR fanaticism but close enough to New York to attract weekend warriors, the breezy 21-mile fishhook island showcases pink sand beaches separated by limestone cliff-rimmed coves—and wealth. Churches and colorful stone and cedar architecture distinguish the rolling landscape, while convoys of white-collar tourist duos live out biker-couple fantasies, on mopeds.
Bermuda is more than a refined, secure haven for wealthy folks hiding money from governments and living off the interest. When I visited, local celebs included a Guinness Book of World Records kite flyer, Ms. Universe 1976, and Johnny Barnes—a then 70ish, retired school bus driver who dedicated his life to transferring smiles to everyone transiting around the island’s busiest traffic roundabout. Every day from 5:00 to 10:00 a.m. Barnes performed by waving, smiling, gesturing, and preaching love to all passersby. The island dedicated a life-sized bronze statue in his honor just down the road from his roundabout. So, soon after passing the real Johnny Barnes you encounter the iron version: Johnny frozen in his traffic-greeting glory, bestowing an evangelical salute, smiling, with arms extended above his head. He apparently loves everything and doesn’t keep it a secret.
When I asked him how to stay married forever, he replied with a grin of sin, “Keep puttin’ honey on it, to keep it sweet, or you’ll be in trouble.” Barnes has been blissfully married since 1951.
Here, in the midst of semi-tropical nowhere, an island never visited by war or fast-food franchises, the oldest British colony remains a fresh-air paradise for visitors, insurance corporations, undeclared riches, heroic moped pilots in training, and one chipper, immortalized bus driver.
(Ps, Johnny is now 90—and still waving happiness to the world.)
When the ego speaks, the truth winks—and then ducks for cover.
The Best Place to Heal in the World?
Baltimore is a legendary brick empire that redefines urban renewal. After sliding from a manufacturing stronghold into a depression of near irrelevance, the port cities’ grand factory landscape has been reinvented into an industrial-chic hotspot. Being from this storied metropolis means being somehow connected to the water—whether it be intrepid boating, prying open seafood, or wearing nautical-inspired clothing even in winter. Locals also don’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Baltimore. A relaxed gap between north and south, the hometown of Frank Zappa and John Waters has a history as remarkable as Boston’s, and a future that won’t quit.
Downtown Baltimore’s U-shape frames a harbor that’s a showcase for colonial and modern architecture, likeable tourist attractions, including one of the most beloved aquariums in the world, and classic people watching. Water taxis ply these waters, quickly delivering passengers to various neighborhoods, all with their own trademark charm. Baltimore’s resurgence from a once grim industrial city into trendy factory ritziness reminds me of the similarly amazing metropolitan turnaround achieved in Manchester, England.
Baltimore has also always been a great place to heal. Johns Hopkins is rated as one of the best hospitals in the world, and the University of Maryland’s Trauma Center isn’t far behind. Because of these cutting-edge institutions, a significant number of international patients, and their families, visit here long term and dig in for a cure. But illness is certainly not the only reason to schedule a visit. A few suggestions…
*Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum is the official national museum for self-taught, intuitive artistry. Three renovated buildings that are themselves works of art showcase masterpieces created by artists—ranging from the homeless to neurosurgeons—who were never taught not what to do in the making of their art. Many spent decades of intense devotion to create just one work they saw as a fulfillment of a spiritual mission or personal devotion. If you crave a bit of the untamed and wild, visit avam.org.
*Wit & Wisdom, a harbor-side ultra-modern American tavern on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, has an open-air wood-fired kitchen and a hand-pulley operated grill designed by Thomas Jefferson. Its specialty is comfort food with a contemporary Eastern Seaboard twist. The upscale, roomy space—no two diners will ever bang elbows—has high ceilings and flawless service. The staff, including your waiter, gets a ‘cheat’ for each customer sharing their profile, preferences, and tendencies revealed during earlier visits. Even without a cheat-sheet, you won’t have to beg for refills of any of their hand-crafted cocktails. witandwisdombaltimore.com
*Another impressively spacious dining spot is Pazo (Galician for ‘grand house’) in Harbor East. This renovated 19th-century iron-works factory has a 65-foot ceiling, its original hulking-wood crossbeams, and huge booths that resemble two posh high-back couches facing each other. This liberating environment—rustic but plush—was once open at one end to accept backed-in freight trains that hauled out bullets and other munitions. The candlelit-style wrought-iron chandeliers and wraparound balcony adds to the wide-open but warm atmosphere. And, oh yeah, prepare for the most indulgent Euro-Mediterranean food and wine in town. pazorestaurant.com
*Aldo’s in Little Italy is fine dining without the pomp or attitude. Calm, professional servers ply an old-school parlor setting. Chef Aldo Vitale, originally a cabinet maker, spun his handiness into building the lavishly appointed dining rooms—and crafts classic southern Italian dishes. This sets the bar for Maryland’s Italian cuisine. aldositaly.com
*Baltimore’s Four Season Hotel’s (fourseasons.com/Baltimore) international ambiance is partially kindled by relatives of patients being treated at Johns Hopkins; seems Arab royalty puts this hospital high on its list. There are also guests from every corner of the world mixing with rooted East Coasters. The swankest digs in town, every detail—from the harbor view from your bed to a beguiling staff-to-guest ratio—make luxury seem natural. The hotel also has an incredible spa, whose world-class masseuses leave you wet-noodle limp. The Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore houses the largest hotel art collection in the city. Check it out here here
*Baltimore Soundstage (baltimoresoundstage.com) is a classic mid-sized downtown music venue attracting nationally touring acts; another example of a defunct factory that now rocks, literally. Right next door, PowerPlant Live! also rocks live entertainment at five bars, Rams Head Live!, and a summertime outdoor concert series.
*I usually avoid what can be deemed as tourist traps, but was presently surprised at Baltimore’s harbor-side Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I now appreciate founder Robert Ripley (1890-1949) as a world-traveling pioneer (201 countries) and ‘amateur’ anthropologist. A groundbreaking travel writer on a par with Mark Twain, his museums celebrate (way) out of the ordinary oddities, trivia, unsung heroes, and touchable interactive displays—a tribute to his dedication to collecting mind-bending news and show-and-tells from every edge of the globe. ripleys.com/baltimore
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*For more information, visit baltimore.org.
*Amtrak lands near the heart of downtown Baltimore, which is easily accessible along the northeast corridor. Once there, your feet, or inexpensive ferries (or the free Charm City Circulator) can take you pretty much everywhere. Take advantage of a special 30-percent off companion fare discount from Amtrak to save on traveling here. baltimore.org/amtrak
Ps, National Bohemian Beer, colloquially “Natty Boh,” was first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. This Bohemian-style beer’s slogan has long been “From the Land of Pleasant Living,” a tribute to the Chesapeake Bay. Ninety percent of National Bohemian sales are still in Baltimore, where it’s not uncommon to find cans served in many bars for $2. National’s president once also owned the Baltimore Orioles, making Natty Boh the “official” brew served at the ballpark in the 1960s—similar to Schaefer Beer proudly sponsoring the New York Mets in the 1970s.
Annual travel industry trade show—in Malaysia for 2014—unifies Southeast Asian tourism.
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resonates the European Union’s regional solidarity for reciprocal benefits. Held in member nation Malaysia, the 33rd annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) will take place January 16-23. In developmental terms, Southeast Asia’s 10-country amalgam of incredibly diverse cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN member states range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politically, members include the democratic Philippines (largely Christian), Indonesia (world’s largest Muslim population), and, until recently, military-ruled Myanmar. Host country Malaysia has long understood the value of tourism.
This year’s conference in Kuching (Borneo) is themed, Advancing Tourism Together. Multi-ethnic and multicultural Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on earth that harbor the majority of the Earth’s species, including 250 endemic reptiles.
ATF 2014 will stand on the shoulders of ATF 2013, which was hosted in Vientiane, Laos, and brought together 1,580 delegates, including 10 Tourism Ministers, travel industry buyers (470 from 60 countries), nearly 1,000 sellers (500 exhibition booths from 360 companies and properties), and media (145 from 35 countries) to focus on the significant developments and aspirations of this booming region. A mine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers ranged from tourism experts to winners of the Green Recognition Awards, a supporter of rainforest tree-replanting programs.
ASEAN Tourism Forum news…
BRUNEI, the last Malay Kingdom, celebrates options to golf, play polo, dive, or kick back in a plush resort. This tiny country is a gateway to remarkable Borneo.
CAMBODIA’s symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism. It now partners with Thailand for a single visa option.
INDONESIA’s claim that it offers the ultimate in diversity remains legitimate. Despite a few setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing. Wonderful Indonesia is succeeding at selling its brand beyond Bali.
Simply beautiful LAOS continues promoting itself as the jewel of the Mekong with a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. Major infrastructure development will soon change the face of this hospitable country. tourismlaos.org.
MALAYSIA welcomed 23 million visitors in 2009, a one million increase from 2008. That growth model continues to accelerate. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign showcases the best of its mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR, closed tight for decades, now has visa on arrival and is accepting foreign investment. Suddenly, every aspect of tourism is evolving, and it can be difficult to secure accommodations.
Many of The PHILIPPINES’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.
SINGAPORE’S Formula One Racing Week, once featuring ZZ Top, will continue to headline international music acts. Hosting this race has been extended until 2017. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine.
THAILAND is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors.
VIETNAM’s French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. It continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. Russia is its fastest growing market.
Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (lanith.com), said, “The grouping of destinations under the ASEAN flag is a highly effective way of bringing together Southeast Asia’s unique tourism options. In the realm of human capacity development, ASEAN plays an important role in identifying common standards for education and training. Not only does this enable smaller countries such as Laos to benefit from its more developed neighbors, but it also affords greater workforce mobility, which in the coming years will be a challenge as markets become more integrated and liberalized through the ASEAN Economic Community.”
Bernie Rosenbloom, a Southeast Asia tourism and hospitality communications consultant, was pleased that “Laos finally silenced critics who did not believe the country could successfully host an event of this size. It also served as a showcase for Vientiane’s fast-growing infrastructure, including more upscale accommodations, a new convention center, a rejuvenated tourist area, better roads, and expanding air links—all of which brighten the city’s light on the Asia Pacific’s MICE radar screen.”
Exemplifying that spirit, ASEAN Ministers of Tourism continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in different locations in the region. “This forum is always an ideal venue for tourism managers and policy makers to exchange issues of common interest,” explained Brad Olsen, a California-based author and travel expert. “ATF is more than just another trade show, because it goes to great lengths to infuse culture—including music, dancing, and fashion shows—into the daily events.” Conference delegates were also entertained each night by an array of cultural song and dance performances.
ATF’s “Hand In Hand, Conquering Our Future” campaign also created a united tourism image. ASEAN’s concern for the environment continues to uplift its hotel industry standard in the form of the ASEAN Green Hotel Recognition Awards presented to ASEAN properties with outstanding efforts in environmental conservation. Criteria for these hotels includes environmental-friendliness and energy conservation measures based on 11 major criteria, including environmental policy and actions for hotel operations, solid waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency, and air quality management.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the organization, which has existed for more than 40 years. But until December 2008, it had no written constitution. The new charter set a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
Professor Bosengkham Vongdara, the Lao Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, said, “This was an exciting time for the Laotian tourism industry, and we were honored to host ATF 2013. Since we last hosted ATF nine years ago, Laos has grown in infrastructure and facilities. Through ATF, we did our best to contribute to strengthen and build an ASEAN community by 2015.” Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will create an ideal single destination.
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The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
An Interview with Robert Young Pelton
An author of seven books, as well as an extreme journalist, documentary filmmaker, show host, and raconteur, Pelton focuses on reporting conflict and interviewing military, insurgent, and political figures in war zones. His career and reputation are built on a history of entering forbidden, deadly, and otherwise no-go environments—and stirring the pot. There is no denying that Pelton is also one of the ballsiest of travel writers, sharing practical and survival information for people who work and travel in high-risk zones. He’s no stranger to humor, either.
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Q. What do hot places, while figuratively on fire, like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Liberia, Mogadishu, Iraq, and Uganda (where Pelton survived an assassination attempt) have in common?
A. They are usually unrecovered from a previous political cataclysm that might have occurred a decade or more earlier. Many of these places are so fragile that less than a dozen armed men can plunge the region into chaos.
Q. What five things should any traveler never forget to pack?
A. A passport, money, comfortable pants, Mr DP stickers and hot sauce—makes lousy food palatable, even the worst refugee camp food and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
Q. What made you want to track down African fugitive Joseph Kony, and what do you think your chances are of finding him?
A. I have spent twenty years tracking down rebel leaders, wanted men, Jihadis and other people who didn’t want to be found. My chances are good simply because my singular goal is to locate Kony. Many of the other large programs have tangential goals and limited resources.
Q. Where is the most beautiful war or conflict zone you’ve visited?
A. Bougainville. A small island north of the Solomons where there is a smoking volcano, white beaches and beautiful people. I remember sitting on the top of the mountain, helping the late rebel leader Francis Ona try to write the national anthem. It was hard to find anything that rhymed with “Mekamui” or the holy land as they called their island. Bougainville is now open for tourists, by the way.
Q. In the heavens and hells on our globe, is there a human trait that remains constant?
A. People are curious. Ultimately they want affirmation. And they have held their fire when they see a 6’ 4” white man bound across their front lines.
Q. Can you recommend three destinations—once no-go zones—to visit that are now safe for ordinary travelers?
A. The country of Georgia has the creative and architectural aura of 1920s Paris with spectacular mountains and international intrigue thrown in. Sierra Leone in West Africa has amazing jungles in the north…and even Somaliland. Afghanistan (Bamiyan Valley) and Iraq (Kurdistan) have beautiful and safe places to explore.
Q. In order to gain access, you’ve spent an unusual amount of time living with, traveling with and documenting some of the world’s best known rebel, Jihadi, and insurgent groups in dozens of countries. From a traveling perspective, which group was the most and least entertaining?
A. The most interesting were the Chechen rebels during the 1999 war. Mostly for their bravery and unusual fighting tactics. My least favorite were the FARC rebels in Colombia who seemed to view Marxism as a way to get rich—and have sexy female bodyguards.
Q. When you were kidnapped in Colombia’s Darien Gap by AUC death squads, was your first thought: Fight, flight, or, my daughters are going to kill me?
A. My first thought was to ensure the safety of the two people who were with me. The second was that my wife is going to be pissed.
Q. I enjoyed your Men’s Journal article, “How to Stage a Coup”: You’ve met, interviewed, fought or worked with many intriguing and polarizing world figures, such as Steve Jobs, pirates, mercenaries, prisoners and high-profile killers and fugitives. What makes famous and infamous people tick?
A. Famous people are driven by a need to prove something. It’s probably something buried in their youth. Steve Jobs was an adopted kid who had to prove authority figures wrong. A very angry, unhappy man until he realized that he was one of those authority figures. Rebels are very similar on the intellectual level. I can’t tell you how many tedious, pretentious conversations I have had about revolution, Jihad, and Marxism in jungles with the overeducated and angry sons of affluent people. Whether it’s John Walker Lindh or Erik Prince, they view themselves as being above the rules of survival. It’s the same narcissist profile that the CIA and al Qaeda seeks out.
Q. What is DPx Gear?
A. I have had many people ask why I don’t make “survival gear,” so finally in 2008, I designed a survival knife called the “Hostile Environment Survival Tool” and we have never looked back. I used to be a product designer and marketing specialist, so I suppose it was inevitable. The key is: I develop our products in combat zones and design for a very narrow group of special operations, expedition, and hard use professionals.
Q. What’s next, and why?
A. Well, finding Kony is going to suck up some of my time, including a book and a film on the project. General Dostum has asked for help in getting elected in Afghanistan, and I have a new graphic novel out called Roll Hard about a month I spent in Iraq with an ill-fated Blackwater crew. I just launched a new knife design called the DPx HEAT, and I have my first fictional book calledRaven (about a boy who gets lost in the Pacific Northwest and learns to survive). …And, I’m rewriting The World’s Most Dangerous Places. So, never a dull moment.
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*Pelton’s comment on the title of this story: I don’t know that I am a vigilante since I am working within legal framework on the hunt for Kony.
A Steel Bridge Songfest in Wisconsin’s Vacationland?
Published: Monday, November 25, 2013
I’m sitting on a main street barstool enjoying the regional counterculture, wedged between a long-haired musician, an organic farmer, and a baseball cap-wearing Korean War veteran. “What brings you here?” the elder vet asks. “I’m here to save the old draw-bridge,” I answer.
“This is still a working waterfront, sir,” the vet notes, adding, “We all do our part.” Obviously the joint’s Sturgeon General, he went back to his beer and I heard the sound of rock and roll that was thumping across town. Strolling toward Door County’s Steel Bridge Songfest, a crusade against callous demolition, the local organic farmer caught up with me and testified, “All food is organic until otherwise tainted—so when it remains organic that shouldn’t be big news. Inorganic foods should simply be labeled as Not Organic.” Pure Wisconsin, here I come.
Wisconsin’s geographic left-thumb is a peninsula in Lake Michigan called Door County. This pastoral vacationland—so close but so far from Milwaukee—is home to 11 historic lighthouses, the state’s trending edge for leisure, fine dining and scenery options, Green Bay Packer lore, a music festival that’s hell-bent on saving a big old bridge…and people who are actually curious when they ask, “How are you today?”
Door County’s hub, Sturgeon Bay, has a long history of boatbuilding, including being an unrivaled shipbuilding powerhouse during WWII. Named by freshwater boaters who called one if its narrow channels “death’s door,” the region still boasts two active shipyards, but is also a haven for cuisine, swank accommodation, water sports, and a taking a break from the rat race. The namesake bottom-feeding sturgeon fish may have been scared away by the building of a transit canal, but Wisconsin’s caring tastemakers are holding steady. Sturgeon Bay’s peaceful main street purrs archetypal Americana, with iconic bargain items peddled by storytellers and brews wrought by wisecrackers.
The sensibility of moving forward by honoring the way things used to be done started here in 2005, thanks to assistance from the National Trust For Historic Preservation and funds raised through the Songfest. As a result, Sturgeon Bay’s Michigan Street Bridge has been protected as a national treasure, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Her 82nd birthday was celebrated in the summer of 2013. The bridge got a long awaited rehab, including an all-new coat of paint in 2011. Since the bridge is now officially “saved,” the Songfest maintains the enduring mission to honor it as a symbol of preservation and creativity thriving together—literally. Not only is the bridge a community builder drawing greater beauty and vitality to its surroundings, it’s also a time to dance in the streets.
The Songfest’s main stage, charmingly, is perched above the parking lot of an early 1950s retro hotel—one that has as many as three recording studios. The bands performing at the Holiday Music Motel (holidaymusicmotel.com) are a musical spin-the-bottle ranging from death metal to Navajo-inspired drum-and-bass to boy bands to North Florida Swamp Blues. It gets better. A frequent festival headliner is Jackson Brown. All this in a small town?
To keep the party moving along, interim bands also perform from a balcony on the second floor of the motel. This four-day outdoor and indoor fest, where several bars and other venues thrive as music venues, seems like an unlikely music destination…but it makes festival-going easy. When the sun sets, bars in town feature motivated bands that rock into the night.
A canon of this festival is that you’ll hear only all original music. What started as a grassroots group called “the SOBs” (Save Our Bridge) 14 years ago, organized to save the historic bridge from a scheduled wrecking ball and later became Citizens for Our Bridge (CFOB), a non-profit to build public appreciation for the historic structure. The week-long celebration is now held every June in and around The Holiday Music Motel. Hundreds of songwriters and musicians from around the world, including Jackson Browne, Jane Wiedlin (Go-Go’s), local hero pat mAcdonald (Songfest creator, author of “The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Gotta Wear Shades”) and others have come to this community, written their songs, and donated their efforts. A seven-disc collection of original songs (Steel Bridge Songs, Vols.1-9) serves double-duty as a testament and a celebration.
For anyone tuned into the 1970s, you couldn’t help enjoying Jackson Browne’s musical soul taking over FM rock from coast-to-coast. Closing the festival, Browne fused his patient storytelling with a few of his telling hits to rouse the crowd, and assure us all that cozy Sturgeon Bay’s legacy of nurturing original music is moving forward, one song at a time.
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*The 2014 Steel Bridge Song Fest is June 12-15, 2014. For performance schedules and other arts-oriented information visit sbsf5.com.
*For more information on “exploring the door” visit doorcounty.com.
*steelbridgeradio.com is a locally based internet radio station broadcasting original, collaboratively written music, live concerts, and exclusive interviews with artists, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The content of this innovative creation focuses on the collective music written and recorded during songwriting retreats and festivals held at the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay. Steel Bridge Radio not only plays the music from the compilation CD’s from the previous nine years of recordings, but also delves deep into the hundreds of archived tracks that have, until now, remained silent.
Ps, this is Miller High Life country: “Miller is made from corn; Bud is made from rice.” —more factoids from tavern-chatting baseball cap-wearing war vet.
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Door County Suggestions:
Dine at Parador!, a renovated lumber baron’s house, built in 1877 in Egg Harbor, serving tapas, sangria, and fine Spanish wines. paradorwisconsin.com
The Inn at Cedar Crossing is a crafted-from-scratch restaurant and nine-room B&B. The 1884 building has been a drug store, tailor shop, soda fountain paired with a shoe store, clothing store, and dentist’s office. Today, discerning tourists chat about its presence on facebook.innatcedarcrossing.com
The Door County Coffee & Tea Company doubles as a restaurant in a country store atmosphere.doorcountycoffee.com
Stay at the sprawling Landmark Resort, located atop a bluff with panoramic water views,thelandmarkresort.com
Visit the Door County Maritime Museum, which also has an active boatbuilding shop, where these guys are not posers on display, dcmm.org
Ps, You’ll likely fly in and out of Green Bay. During a private stadium tour, I was baptized by the Lambeau Field sprinklers—hailed as an American rite-of-passage. This American church, a really big one, is a haloed stadium that’s been sold out since the 1960’s. This tallest structure in Green Bay has the highest grossing pro-shop in pro sports and is the only professional sports franchise that has stockholders. Out for a stroll nearby, I saw the sun set behind the radiant stadium. Back-lit and illuminated at dusk, I felt the awe surrounding the shrine here in Packer-Land, and took another slice of Wisconsin with me to savor back in New York City, where a speeding cab would soon challenge me to cross an intersection. Visit greenbay.com.
A Mother and Son Return to Ireland for a Walk Down Memory Lane—and the Road Not Taken
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
The first gift I gave my mom was a dandelion bouquet. When she turned 80, I brought her to Ireland. It was a gift with a hidden agenda. Born Johanna O’Sullivan, she was one of seven raised by Irish-born immigrants in New York City and later Long Island. There, she was groomed for the convent. With her bags packed for the holy life, she balked and chose a career that eventually led her to Manhattan and to date a Hollywood rogue, Steve McQueen. Mom didn’t know it, but part of our Irish quest was discovering what might have been if she had taken the oath.
We began our journey with family in County Limerick. Our Irish kin own a hilly cattle farm in Loughill, near the village of Athea, where my grandparents met as kids. With a walk down memory lane, we celebrated my mom’s dedication to keeping in touch the old school way, via letters. Our cousins’ songlike brogues made it real.
After bidding them farewell, our search for Ireland’s convent lifestyle took an unconventional turn with stays in two five-star castles. The first was County Mayo’s fantastical Ashford Castle, dating back to 1228. It has since evolved into a country estate and an 83-room hotel. Greeted by the gatekeeper and self-proclaimed fountain of knowledge, we drove along the curving driveway through a golf course that foretold of the storybook majesty as the one-lane bridge introduced the lakeside castle. Coining a phrase that would be lost on most nuns, mom exclaimed, “Luxe of the Irish.” An intimidating bastion with soaring turrets, this palace features a celebrity photo hall of fame that’s a who’s who of former guests. Ronald Reagan’s picture triggered mom’s buried annoyance because, as she pointed out, “He removed the solar panels installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter.”
It didn’t take long for us to feel at home in the lavish surroundings—breakfast underneath Waterford Crystal chandeliers, soaks in a spa hot tub, and a concierge quoting Yeats. It was a far cry from the spartan life mom would have led as a nun. We quickly fell into a routine that involved long walks on her new knee and reminders to tuck in my shirt. At Ashford Castle, tradition calls from every corner. A nightly singer and piano player perform in the midst of the palatial but living-room-cozy drawing room while an outdoor fountain contributes to the soundtrack. Later back in our suite, mom attempting medieval humor, teased, “Where did thee go in eighth grade when you hijacked that golf cart in the middle of the night?”
Paying penance for being a naughty teen, I entertained mom on a boat cruise, introduced her to on-campus falcons and horses, ate fruit scones in the sunny drawing room, and wandered a few of the 300 acres of gardens designed by the former-owning Guinness family. A stroll on an undulating path led us to the picturesque village of Cong, where we toured the ruins of a seventh century Augustine Abbey. Nearby, inside a monk’s fishing house—a stone hut built over a river with a casting hole in the floor—mom mused on marriage, “Your dad bought ice fishing gear and returned it after a frozen night on a lake.”
Through the Highland Barrens; Nun on the Run
Rolling across County Galway and sometimes harrowing, narrow roads made slicing between trucks and stone walls a test of nerves. Otherwise, the rolling green scenery, classical music on the radio, and mom as co-pilot was bulletproof leisure. Passing into Connemarra’s highland barrens—from woodsy green to stark mountains—we never exceeded 20mph and only saw three other vehicles in an hour. Although gorgeous stone churches are at the heart of most villages, Irish convents are rapidly closing, foretelling a fading way of life. It’s hard to find a nun in Ireland these days, but we were determined.
Our wish was granted by an unscheduled stop at Kylemore Abby, a legendary convent and boarding school. We encountered one nun in seven days, and she was stealthily driving along the abbey’s utility road in a beat-up minivan. Before she could get away, I knocked on her car window, and she emerged wearing a habit and knee-high Wellington boots. She and mom chatted about Catholic school teachers and outfits. Fast friends—so close yet so far—they held hands for a moment before saying goodbye. Right then it hit me, if mom had donned the habit, my dad would never been able to use his line, “You have great legs,” when they first met on Long Beach, New York in 1949.
On the Castle Trail
Out of the barrens and back into the woods, the grand entrance to Ballynahinch Castle crosses a one-lane stone bridge, and into another era. This sprawling landmark doubles as an art gallery, with old local photos and paintings lining a mile of walls. Defining quietude, enchanting riverside trails pass lakes, cross pedestrian bridges, and antique cottages. It’s Ireland’s Vermont. Rounded mountains loom over this lush river valley that’s a fly-fishing heaven for the fisherman we met on hikes, who were going after wild Atlantic salmon and brown trout. For some, this is the royal fishing lodge.
Built by one of the 14 original tribes of Galway who reigned during the 13th to 19th centuries, it has been a hotel for 65 years. The slow-roasted serenity followed us inside: peat fires warm the lobby and an old-style pub serves roast woodcock. Mom delivers an old book from the library along with a hand-pulled brew—a trusted formula in this benign beacon for poets, writers, and painters.
After reading The Irish Times and The Irish Independent cover to cover, mom looked up and asked, “Time for a hike?” En route, on a bridge over the untroubled Owenmore River, we met Noell, one of the castle’s historians. After his Gaelic-infused lecture on clan and tribe infighting, we continued our riverside hike, holding hands for safety like I did with my daughter before “kindergarten cool” set in. Hand holding, throughout our lives, says everything without words.
Back in our riverside suite, I watch mom sleep peacefully and feel at peace myself. It occurs to me that I’ve seldom seen her in dreamland and how much she must have enjoyed watching her toddlers sleep. The next morning she awoke first. When I opened my eyes, she asked, “Could it be possible that my watch is going slower here?”
Live music, camping, the next generation of the Grateful Dead movement, and a Karma Wash…in Bridgeport, CT?
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
Gathering of the VibesWhen Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, he left behind millions of devoted fans—many who zigzagged across the country for decades, following the band and inspiring an inventive concert-area campout lifestyle. Since Jerry’s passing, that countercultural tribe has been dedicated to “gathering that vibe,” an annual four-day world-class music, arts, and camping festival tradition that has found a home in Bridgeport, CT. This July 19-22, headliners include former Dead frontman Bob Weir with Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis, Phil Lesh & Friends, and dozens of other jam-oriented bands performing on side-by-side stages, allowing bands to play successively without interruption. Other organic, emerging bands jam on adjacent stages.
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Ken Hays, Vibes founder, also started Terrapin Tapes, a Grateful Dead recording superstore. I caught up with the well-traveled Connecticut native to chat about concert-going fans dancing in Long Island Sound, and carrying on an epic American legacy that rocks beyond peace, love, and understanding.
Vibes founder, Ken Hays* What do most people not know about this music festival?
“There’s a heightened sense of community—and that it’s truly kid-friendly. In 2011, we had 2,000 kids under 15. We provide a teen center and the Vibes School of Rock Teen Stage, where emerging talent performs in front of thousands of people. Sunday (July 22) is family day; those under 15 come free.”
* How did the Grateful Dead move a generation, and those who followed?
“Different set lists each night created distinctly different shows, every time. They took chances on stage and inspired one another, which motivated a new (jam band) art form. They encouraged free recordings of their concerts, and changed the music business.”
* What do you like about Bridgeport’s Seaside Park?
It’s a spectacular setting 50 miles from New York City, 370 acres of waterfront beauty and a mile and a half of beach. Where else can you see people dancing in Long Island Sound? It’s a great transit hub with convenient train and bus connections, plus direct ferry service from Long Island.”
* What makes Vibes different from other music festivals?
“Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia was equally inspired by rock, bluegrass, blues, and jazz. We’ve carried on that tradition of diversity with everything from gospel choirs to James Brown, who, by the way, was great to work with. I called him Jim, but contractually he preferred being called Mr. Brown.”
* Peace, love, and entertainment aside, what is Vibes’ core message?
“Come take a break from the insanity that our world is going through—in a land of contagious smiles.”
* Anything else you care to share?
“Gathering of the Vibes keeps the Deadhead community torch lit. Even for the many who never even saw them, it’s communal kinship for 20,000 people, per day.”
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The seventeenth Gathering of the Vibes once again rocks Bridgeport’s Long Island Sound-hugging 370-acre Seaside Park with shaded groves, manicured fields, and more than a mile of beachfront. Vibes balances showcases for local artists (Deep Banana Blackout) and renowned national touring acts like Primus and The Avett Brothers. Sixties icon Wavy Gravy is the enduring Master of Ceremonies. Think Woodstock, if it had 43 years to reinvent itself. Modern groovy, diversified.
In Deadhead mode, 20,000-plus enthusiasts, both campers and daily attendees, traveling from every point on the North American map, thrive within this multi-day spectacle that becomes its own universe. Last summer, this free-capitalism-with-flair environment included Pirates for Hire, a sign-carrying band of five bandana-headed outlaw guys with a knowing glint in their eyes able to right any wrong for a fee. Another sign—$1 Dank Heady Dryness—exemplifies a free market economy made easy. Everything from cocktails and healthy snacks to an expert massage is available in the campsite colonies.
Karma WashAnd don’t forget about the nifty Karma Wash, a human energy procession where all of your unproductive energy can be fanned away for free. Not exactly a family golf outing, the Vibe Tribe is sincerely bohemian, a no-tension festival where police sightings are rare, and the ones that are onsite are tapping a foot.
This four-day, high-energy, but zero-violence camping festival with tunes lets you set your clock anywhere on the dial, or just forget about it. All frames of mind and ages are welcome. This is an ideal redefinition of what music festivals should be—bands rocking concert-goers with homegrown grooves shaped by bona fide musical geniuses. These tunes are not manufactured.
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Jerry Garcia wasn’t jesting when he called the following-the-Dead phenom, “Your last chance to run away with the circus.” Prepare to dance. As the sun set on the 2008 Vibes gathering, veteran bluesman Taj Majal announced to the crowd, “The city of Bridgeport oughta get a medal for this!”
Visit gatheringofthevibes.com for the chart-busting lineup and information on the July 19-22 sleepover-optional party. Close to Bridgeport Amtrak station; easy access from Long Island via the Port Jefferson ferry. Magic Hat beer provides compostable corn cups for the event, and the GreenVibes Stage is partially powered by the sun. VIP tent available. Children 12 and under will be admitted free when accompanied by a parent.
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VIBES GIVING BACK: Since its inception, Gathering of the Vibes and its fans have made giving back a priority and support numerous social causes. In 2011, the Vibe Tribe donated 7,000 pounds of food to the community. In 2010, it raised $25,000 to help families of fallen Bridgeport fire fighters. The Vibe Tribe also donates to local Bridgeport charities, Connecticut Special Olympics, and many other not-for-profit organizations. The festival’s GreenVibes environmental initiatives range from an aggressive on-site recycling campaign to educating fans about current research, development, and progress being made in the field of alternative energy solutions.
I’ve met a thousand very wise lifetime travelers with unofficial PhD’s in globetrotting—and not one of them worked for the U.S. State Department. Who are these State Department folks making up most people’s minds about where it’s safe for Americans to travel? I’ve tackled this issue dozens of times in 25 years and still disagree that traveling in countries run by wicked governments, like Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Cuba are unsafe—or irresponsible because of the notion that money spent by vacationers only reinforces a dictatorship. Critical non-political solutions to the injustice plaguing many countries will be stalled until travelers go there and connect with their people and spend money. A recurring goal of travel journalism should be challenging and disproving erroneous State Department blanket travel warnings about the world’s no-go zones. I’ve made challenging such warnings a tradition because it’s wrong to let paranoid bureaucratic generalizations eliminate tourism cash injections where they’re needed most.
Theoretically forewarned, I made successive forays into Cuba, Zimbabwe, Kenya (immediately following the post-election violence), a remote Philippine mountain range, and several Arab nations, all of which proved visitor-friendly. In the midst of these ill-advised adventures, I was robbed by a vicious gun-pointing duo on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge pedestrian walkway. No municipal caveat for that? Despite severe State Department warnings against going to Syria, I went just before its (unfortunately not-yet-successful) Arab Spring, and its warm, friendly people made me feel welcome and safe. As usual, the media scoops the State Department and renders it redundant, letting us know that Syria is still a no-go.
Syria…happier timesZimbabwe’s constant flood of appalling reports about starvation, 75-percent unemployment, a cholera epidemic, an abandoned currency, and the silencing of dissidents and journalists cloak at least one reality—as I found out. Africa’s Adrenalineville, the Victoria Falls region, is still open for business. Rafting on class-five rapids, bungee jumping from the world’s second highest bridge, beholding epic Victoria Falls, and giving a full-grown lion a massage was only a taste. My amazing visit doubled as targeted charity, whether in the form of tipping guides and servers, supporting local businesses, or gifting locals with staple goods. The large tips I gave to nearly every guide, driver, animal caretaker, and hotel staffer I met—those workers fortunate to still have jobs—all delivered most of that money back to their families in the other troubled parts of the country. The NGOs—and the State Department—aren’t wired that way.
Zimbabwe’s Victoria FallsThe U.S. lifted Zimbabwe’s travel warning which had been in place since 2002, but its horrible government continues destroying the country. However, they are not attacking or kidnapping foreigners any more than might happen in the United States. And it looks like Myanmar is heading for a more favorable status as well, which is why it’s now difficult to find accommodations there. When I explored Myanmar in the late 90s and kayaked alongside their elusive sea gypsies, accommodations were abundant and safe, countrywide.
The poorest 40 percent of the world’s people share just five percent of the global income, while the wealthiest 10 percent benefit from 55 percent of it. Tourism, however small, can start redeveloping a fallen nation’s economy. When a country is politically ripped apart, only a shred of balanced news escapes. Zimbabwe’s troubles are not what typically troubles African nations: Border conflicts, in-country racial tensions, or attacks on innocent foreigners. As opposed to the corporate crime wave that consumed a chunk of America’s savings, Zimbabwe’s implosion seems to be a singular man-made crisis.
The only dilemma I encountered in Cuba, by the way, was self-made. I was detained for 24 hours after arriving unannounced on a friend’s boat traveling from the Florida Keys. A reminder: Even when visiting pals, it’s good to call ahead.
On a lighter note, one of my favorite parts of the world is the Philippine Cordillera, a largely inaccessible mountain region and another place I hiked into to challenge a U.S. State Department’s warning about traveling there. The crisis here is teenagers playing Mario Brothers with ill-gotten chicken-thievery booty. Modernity spelled trouble in these boondocks. A very recent drift into these far-flung communities was solar-powered DVDs—the first import to inspire a crime wave. For the first time in oral history, elementary school kids were caught stealing (chickens, mostly) to finance insidious DVD addictions. Various town meetings addressing this nefarious dilemma determined that the punishment should fit the crime. The penalty for busted kid-robbers was caring for the free-ranging chickens, night and day. And there they would be, sulking through the night, dreaming of their joysticks, silhouetted by a background that could pass for the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the end, these were the most notorious rapscallions in a rugged terrain thought to be worthy of a State Department warning.
Filipino farmhands watching the rice grow—acting as human scarecrows in Ifugao ProvinceI respect and appreciate our government’s efforts to keep us safe and perceive its blanket protection approach as similar to a doctor’s malpractice insurance. But I’m hoping that a more humanely informed State Department can better realize the severity of its statements. Don’t let the 24-hour news cycle, generic travel warnings, or your fear of the unknown limit your scope of the world. Heed what’s revealed by unlikely sages in far-flung places, and just down the road from you.
A Princess in Alaska
Some guys have all the luck. [Take one] Reclined upon a massage table in a dimly-lit spa, swabbed head-to-toe in seaweedy goop, then mummy-wrapped in a healing tinfoil sarcophagus. [Take two] Dribbling across a basketball court, lofting hook shots against a sweet marine breeze on the upper deck of a cruise ship that couldn’t squeeze into Yankee Stadium. [Take three] Wedding-style gourmet banquet shenanigans, again.
My luxury supertanker for the week, the Sea Princess, is touring the incomparable Alaskan Gulf and Inside Passage. The sailing week of a two-week land and sea tour that first railed and bused overland from Fairbanks to Seward, Alaska, then cruised to Vancouver. I inhabited a “state room” with a balcony, wherefore, while reclining in bed, a slight tilt of my pillow-propped head transformed my view from a Knicks playoff game to a promenade of glacially enchanted mountains gracefully gliding past my open sliding-glass door.
Hither to, I proclaimed that the cash tendered cruising could be budgeted for months of gallivanting through India or Indonesia, where daily beach massages, laundry service and grass-domed beach-hut sunset cocktails are within means. But this is a float through Alaska, with port visits in Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan—whose surprisingly mild climate parallels Boston’s, year-round. The port calls provide remarkable opportunities to whitewater raft, ride antique trains up steep mountainsides, helicopter or small plane flightsee over or onto glaciers, and tour village tavern life.
Although Helicopter flight seeing tours—many of which land upon remote glaciers—create environmental problems (i.e., noise and air pollution), it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for a one vacation per year family to visit wilderness. Every one of the helicopter and small plane pilots I flew with kept their distance to avoid startling wildlife. Land tours include whitewater rafting with authentic, down to earth guides on the Kenai River and late June “combat” salmon fishing, where the riverbank crowd resembles Times Square at lunchtime.
This was no hipster singles foray. How does a single, backpacker-indoctrinated, fortyish travel writer hit holiday stride on a cruise that’s bursting at the seams with fifty-plus twosomes savoring the vacation of a lifetime? A recovering Manhattanite accustomed to on-demand tomfoolery, I partook in the dazzling continuum of activities (one of them slightly illegal), befriended crew musicians, and binged on soup.
Legal activities include mingling in the disco, lounging in two piano bars, rapidly ingesting soft ice cream, shuffleboard, a shopping mall-sized movie theater, a jogging track around the ship’s perimeter, ping pong, on-deck pools and Jacuzzis, a blues music tavern, off-Broadway worthy musicals, nature lectures by US Park Service employees, and all night buffet snacking. Though I’m not sure if it was officially sanctioned by the ship, an amateur video camera convention was also underway. Throngs of crusiewear-clad men zooming, panning, and reeling their videocams about the vessel as if they were indispensable to their vision. Invariably, two filmmaker journeymen would discover one another, index the milestone, then pan away.
I unearthed the passenger-forbidden crew bar, a lawless zone where if you encounter barroom disquiet, your case will be judged under Liberian law. (Liberia is Africa’s floundering attempt at a slave repatriation country, and one of the most corrupt governments on earth). Registering cruise ships in Liberia is a bargain. The literally underwater crew bar is a smoke-fogged, window-free, steel-hulled, army baseish joint, workingman’s hangout where the musicians, cooks, beauticians, maids and Cartier peddlers mingle in thick smoke and 1950’s Wisconsin beer prices. The crew make up one-third of the 3,000 people on board and this is where they let their hair down. Only a percentage of the international crew are allowed above deck into the guest zone. The trick was pretending to be one of the ship entertainers. This really is a no-no so don’t try it unless you can find a crewmember to be your accomplice. Pardon the tangent, and please note that Sea Princess is now under British registry.
Sailing south, the Canadian highlight of the cruise was a detour into Glacier Bay National Park. Seafaring visits into the park are restricted. Upon sailing into the center of the bay, the ship began pirouetting within the glacier-calving amphitheater amid Empire State Building-shaped glaciers descend down rugged valleys and creep yards per year (this adds up between ice ages). Bus-sized pieces of the glacier’s bay-fronting faces broke off every couple of minutes and crashed into the rich blue water, creating mini tidal waves that rocked the ship. The ship spun slowly, taking in a full 360-degree panoramic mountain-scape and an endless sea of floating glacial debris, many doubling as sun decks for seal and otter families.
Although no newbie, the ship is a spectacle, an urban buoy. Sea Princess is 77,000‑tons, 14 stories tall and 856 feet long. She carries 1,950 passengers. The engines create a megawatt buzz that would come in handy if your city blacked out. When cruise ships of such tonnage pull into these small Alaskan coastal towns, it betokens linking a small economy to thousands of hemorrhaging wallets. The landfall buying blitz is bounty time for Stuffed Moose (Taiwan), wood-carved owls (local), Eskimo statuettes (Peru), gold rush jewelry (local) and soiled doves—the ghost of prostitutes who flocked to Skagway and other instantaneously assembled towns to accommo‘date’ nineteenth century gold seekers.
What ranks this Alaskan and Canadian cruise supreme is that nature always awaits: bald eagles as plentiful as Central Park pigeons, black bear and whales top the list. Outside Ketchikan on a tangential Misty Fjords wilderness cruise, I saw two black bears and ten eagles munching on a beached humpback. The presence of bears implies a regions’ wildness; this part of the world is one of their last holdouts. At any given moment you can step outside and take in the massive, river-like, mountain-flanked Inside Passage. The night owls gather at the stern for a chat while the early birds snooze down below.
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The first week of this itinerary is land-based and savors summer light until 11pm in surprisingly mild temperatures. One highlight was the Fairbanks-Denali, Midnight Sun Express train ride: big windows, glass ceilings and beer-aplenty while railing through a series of National Geographic glossies. Another jawdropper was bus touring into Denali National Park. The driver/guide may have been a Will Rodgers reincarnate. Weather permitting, we beheld 20,000’ Mt. McKinley, which actually has a statistical edge on Everest. What separates McKinley from other glacier and snow-capped mammoths on the planet is its 18,000 rise from a 2000’ plateau. Everest rises “only” 10,000’ from the Tibetan plateau.16 of the 20 highest mountains in the U.S. are in Alaska.
The Princess lodges in Fairbanks, Denali, McKinley and Kenai maintains the elegance of high-end Colorado ski resorts without the attitude. With ample time to wander and discover the backside of our land and sea-based stopovers, I accredited my Alaska native vs. new resident theorem: is that pierce-eyeing, brew-hounding rogue over there sporting a beard, baseball cap and flannel shirt with an “I own dis town” mentality a typical native, or is that an identity crisis escaped from the lower 48? Native Alaskans, many who shave and articulate clearly, find it amusing that a fair majority of the local frontiersmen squalling in the taverns tend to have immigrated from down under within the year. Sorry rookies; snarl on.
Skagway is a touristy “gold rush” town that still manages a Wild West flavor. A long walk and two games of pool later, my Skagway helicopter excursion landed on Chillkat and Fairabee glaciers, the stunning terrain surrounding the latter resembling California’s Yosemite terminus. In fact, Yosemite preservation champion, John Muir, came to Alaska to prove his theory that Yosemite was glacially carved (it was).
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Cruisers are stereotyped by backpackers, adventure travelers and other no-itinerary wanderers as soft and overfed, but the combination of relaxed simplicity and staggering natural beauty on tap is a worthy value for even budget conscious vacationers. Whether it be whales at play, screw-the-diet heaven, sipping cocktails in one of the two pools or six open-air jacuzzis, or shaking your bootie in the disco, this Love Boat is a doozy. I never cracked my book. This skeptic sailed home well fed and lofting a reinvented hook shot. Discovering a drifting city with constantly changing, epic scenery is an adventure. Montana’s Glacier National Park will soon be completely melted. There are accessible glaciers in Norway and Patagonia, though getting there is quite an undertaking.
Clanking down her gangplank for the last time, I trusted that one-in-a-hundred cruises couldn’t compete with the Alaskan Gulf and Inside Passage. If you’re not cringing every time you eyeball an ATM receipt, consider it. If the idea of an all-inclusive floating skyscraper-resort serving gourmet meals and 24-hour roof access to discover some of Northam America’s premiere scenery sounds indulging—go.
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* Everyone I met on the cruise was friendly, except my next door neighbor, a smarm from Boston and the repressor of all joy. He reprimanded me in the hall for talking too fast, twice, and I wasn’t even talking to him. So at every opportunity I hung a Do Not Disturb sign on his door. He complained that his room was only made up once that week.
* “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” –Tavern owner Grizzly Annie’s coined retort (bark) rethinking Alaska’s disproportionately high male population ratio.
* In bed, I glanced away from the passing cotillion of glacier-blessed mountains and back at the Knicks game to behold an obstacle between the bed and the TV—my stomach in full bloom. Then realized, under Liberian Law, it was dinnertime.
* Alaskans reflect on only three seasons: winter, breakup and road construction.
* The Exxon Valdez was repaired in Malta (was there, saw it), renamed the Mediterranean Sea River, and attempted a return to Prince William Sound. When the word got out this tanker had returned to the scene of the crime—still without a double hull—it sailed elsewhere.
Pink vs. Brown: A Meaty Issue
Why is requesting and consuming well-done red meat considered to be a felony by people who prefer it rare? No stranger to fine dining worldwide via travel journalism, I’m routinely alarmed by rare beef aficionados who never hesitate to glare contemptuously at well-done meat eaters as executable heathens. It seems as rude as someone approaching a stranger wearing pink and stating, without cause, “That color makes you look disgusting.” I’ve never met a browned beefeater who felt compelled to belittle fans of pink cow on a plate. Why is this transmission of cuisine contempt a one-way street? Is preferring beef that tiptoes toward bacon—instead of raw bloodied cannibal mode—a culinary crime? I’ve ingested underdone parasitic meat before and never want to court that gamble again. And oh yeah, I think it tastes better cooked.
So, I decided to do something about this state of animal protein affairs at a recent international hotel media lunch in New York City. I cordially sent back the gorgeous filet of prime beef poached in olive oil that was served for a tad of browning. As usual, someone at my table, a Martha Stewart Living radio personality, leered scornfully at me and announced, “Why ruin a perfect piece of meat? Anyone who wants well-done beef at my house is on their own.” Nice to meet you, too?
Roast challenger number 5,000 was the lucky winner of my bottled rant. My first instinct was to approach her later and point to her not-bad-looking shirt and inquire, “Seems like someone likes to buy clothes at K-Mart?” I’d hit my breaking point and wanted to enlighten the self-elected food lord about how it feels to be on the other end of an unprovoked judgment. Instead, when a microphone was passed around to the media to ask the celebrity chef questions, now amplified, I started, “The meal was incredible and that was a dazzling cut of meat.” Then, after a peripheral glint at the carnivore umpire, I continued, “When I sent mine back to the kitchen for a slight browning, someone at my table peered at me as if I should be beheaded. Is that proper behavior in a humane society?” Message sent, I got a laugh, and the chef mused about options for caramelizing filets.
I’m not inexperienced regarding food and not just because I’ve eaten pretty much every day of my life. I’ve gone without it for three days while in a Utah desert survival school, only to regurgitate the contents of my stomach after my first opportunity to consume—the liver of a sheep I’d just slaughtered and cooked on a fire started without matches. Liver and most organ meats are the only rations on my no-go list. But the only thing I don’t like about liver eaters is their breath. I’ve sipped malbecs infused with glacial ice in Antarctica while watching whales breach and spent days deep in the rice-terraced Northern Philippine mountains inside small huts with elders whose job is watching food grow 24-hours a day, so they can fend off thieving “rice-birds.” I’ve devoured gourmet moqueca in a five-star penthouse overlooking Rio, sampled open-fire cooked game in Zimbabwe, and had dinner delivered to my room—where the previous guest was the Queen—in an English countryside castle.
My new pal may live the Martha Stewart life, but I’ve lived too. Did I mention enjoying 10 different types of hummus in a friendly Syrian home, testing mofongo (mashed plantains seasoned with seafood, chicken, or beef) at a breezy seaside Puerto Rican food festival with three of the island’s top chefs, or sharing fries with Journey’s Filipino lead singer in Manila’s Hard Rock Café? Are you bored yet?—caviar at a private dinner in Russia’s Kremlin, hearty bean soup with a Bolivian family who grew the ingredients, Scottish delicacies in the manor owned by the family who invented Glenlivet, and sautéed char while floating near the North Pole in sight of polar bears.
When I ask most self-proclaimed foodies—the types most prone to insult brunette beef—if they’ve ever worked in a restaurant, the answer is almost always no. Starting at age 15, I spent 10 years working in reputable restaurants. That didn’t verse me in the truffle shuffle, but it taught me to discuss food with the pros, namely chefs. Since then, I’ve been contracted by several publications to review restaurants—not posing as a foodie, instead perceiving restaurants as travel destinations. If you don’t fit inside the box, climb on top of it and have a good look around. Or head south—I’ve enjoyed dining with peers in Argentina and Uruguay, pinnacles of fine beef, where fully cooked meat isn’t frowned upon, and often preferred.
I can draw another comparison to this insidious ilk of seesaw bullying—where the heavier kid stays amused by dangling the lighter kid, unaided in mid-air. My Dell laptop has been humming on bumpy roads for 10 years. I’ve never ogled someone pecking away at a Mac and consulted them starting with the word ew. Reverse this brand scenario and the condescension seesaw tilts only one way.
So, beware rare meat connoisseurs, next time you think about insulting someone who likes his or her meat cooked through, think about that pink outfit, your shirt, and your manners. While dining in an Andy Warhol-themed restaurant in Slovakia, a diplomat shared a time-tested Slovak maxim: “He who digs a hole for someone else will fall into it themselves.” Something else fell into that hole, and it surely wasn’t anything well-done.
No hard feelings Martha Stewart Living radio lady—I guess a steakhouse reunion is out of the question.
Bridging an international gap
Finland was the only European country I had not explored, but meeting trusty Finns in every corner of the planet fashioned a promising prologue. It turns out Europe’s northeast corner has many charms, including baffling landscapes, trendsetting design and witty straight shooters.
Capital cities are not always the best way to judge a country, but Helsinki is an incredible example of urban planning and human cooperation (man working well with man, with machine and with nature). And I found this matter-of-fact, harmonizing approach pervasive both in the locals’ dispositions and in their way of life. Loud and boisterous behavior is apparently off the menu, as everyone seems to have paid attention in kindergarten—here, even pedestrians stay in their lanes.
The Baltic Sea-side capital city is an architectural museum and a heartbeat for design trends shaped by Nordic modernism—muscular and tidy—and an absolutely pleasant place to put foot to sidewalk. Beautiful cobblestone streets and garden parks are shaded by massive trees. Few buildings predate 1920, mostly due to the reconstruction following World War II. Hotel Katajanokka, my temporary home, is a majestic redbrick prison converted into privileged accommodations and no doubt hosts the most soundproof room you can sleep in (I did say it was a prison). My “cell” sports swank throw pillows and vodka in the freezer. Jailbird, their dragon-free dungeon restaurant, serves pheasant and cold beetroot on barley risotto. Inventive, but straightforward.
Because Finland is such a young country, thus unencumbered by historical pressures, fresh ideas flow freely. Thanks mainly to American and British film, television and media, Finns speak nearly perfect English, making it easy to discuss principles and possibilities with a variety of clever characters. Travelers who believe “natives” are more than just props for family photos will have an easy time making friends.
Finland is also famous for lakes—nearly 200,000 of them—and vodka, with Finlandia leading the charge. Blind invitations from locals to dine or drink together are rare, but if you make the first move they’ll respond in kind. One of my guitar heroes, Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Jorma Kaukonen descends from this enchanting land of stoicism. Jorma is my conversation starter (the former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane man has an LI connection). Others handle the closers, often infused with patriotism and global economic strategies. In A21, a chic cocktail lounge overlooking a square boasting many statues of sword-wielding men on horseback, I ask a sharply dressed woman seated at a hewn-log bar about the half of her salary consumed by taxes. She smiles and replies, “Sounds like a solution searching for a problem.” Outsmarted, I play brain ping-pong with that riddle, drink another beer and then hop on a northbound flight to court nature.
Onward and Upward
Three hundred miles northwest of Helsinki, standing in a new patch of woods at a fork in the trail, I ask a passing hiker where the two paths lead. I tell him it doesn’t really matter where I end up. Leaning into his hiking poles, he demonstrates classic Finnish practicality by responding, “When you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.” I take his advice and move ahead.
A World Heritage Site is a highly coveted merit badge bestowed upon natural and cultural places by a branch of the UN. Their choices rarely disappoint, making them ideal targets for your wish-list javelin. Happily lost in Finland’s recently crowned Natural Site, the Kvarken Archipelago, I discover that a two-mile-thick glacier from the last ice age compressed the earth’s crust here for more than half a mile. Approximately 2,500 feet of earth has rebounded to repaint epic maritime scenery. This recovery of once compressed land is creating lush islands—with trees—that didn’t exist when local elders were kids. In only the last 50 years, formerly navigable waterways have become impassable and marinas are continuously relocating seaward to match the uplift.
Discussing the steadily rising terrain and winking with irony, a boat builder cracks, “Every year, it creates new bumps in the road.” That’s why they call it Terranova—the new land. The combination of newness of civilization and ethereal landscape makes for a traveler’s delight.
Björköby Island, population 400, is a microcosm that is more Swede than Finn—nearly everyone here speaks Swedish as their first language. A charming touch, the island seems to have an unwritten rule that everything is painted red. Houses, the towering Lutheran church and even the windmills beam bright crimson. Dozens of winding roads lead to endless photo ops with 20-plus hours of daylight for half the year. It’s a little like stepping into a dreamy movie.
The archipelago has a few islands with electricity-free homes owned by the sort of folks who don’t need to enroll in survival school to understand existing “off the grid.” The Björkö Wärdshus is a cozy inn (on the grid) with requisite sauna and in walking distance from the Kvarken’s central observation tower and loop trail. The inn doubles as a staging ground for year-round outdoor activities. My humble hosts, Pia and Göran, serve gourmet highlander stews, incredible forest-picked mushroom soup and hour-ago catch of the day. And yes, the building is red. While there, I join a writing group and its inspiration, Carita Nyström, author of The Maniac in the Garden, for a boat ride to offshore Valassaaret Island. It is a first for 72-year-old Nyström, who is fulfilling a lifelong dream. A hike across this mysterious, blossoming isle brings us to Valassaaret Lighthouse, a 19th-century marvel designed by Henry LePaute (an associate of Gustave Eiffel, of Parisian tower fame). The 100-foot black steel beacon was lit in 1886 and has been unmanned since 1964. Thanks to the rising land, it’s been rendered useless. Larger boats don’t pass this way anymore, but I’m glad we did. “Let’s be pen pals,” Carita tells/asks me. We are.
Ties That Bind
Being smart and good looking should never be a problem. Yet Finlanders, who excel in both accounts, had difficulty attaining their national identity. Their independence came in just 1917—late, compared to many of their neighbors—but they have had no trouble holding their own since then (repelling Russification twice in the last century). Nevertheless, they maintain a very neighborly, “live and let live” attitude. Along with Iceland and Greenland, many Finlanders consider themselves Nordic; not Scandinavian, which refers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Today, you can get any Finlander going by discussing their efficient version of socialism, which is partially funded by astronomical alcohol taxes. They like no-nonsense conversations and can be intimidating when needed. A sculpted guy with a deep voice sitting on a stool in a chic Helsinki tavern serving hand-pulled brew notes, “This is where once reigning Sweden recruited its fiercest soldiers for the front lines.”
When you visit the world’s tenth richest country, you’ll surely be recruited into a sauna—the one Finnish word we all know—which serves as church, business meeting, spa and social occasion. During one such heated happy hour, I sit across from a nude woman discussing road rules with a pal. “Here we all pay our share,” the Nordic beauty declares, adding, “Speeding tickets are issued according to salary. A rich Nokia executive was fined $200,000 for his lead foot.”
Finns enjoy nearly 100-percent literacy, perfect tap water and few litterbugs. Health and education services are free or low-cost. Means of production are not state owned here, meaning their private sector thrives (which also means people have a shot at upward mobility), still they call their socialistic model “Nordic welfare,” with an accent on the well. Perhaps indicative of their Nordic pedigree, Finland has always been wooden boat-building territory, a major industry. Fishing and snowmobiling, which they invented, are sworn hobbies. Less than five percent of residents are born abroad, thus Finland’s population of 5.3 million is relatively homogenous. But Finns do reach out, freely educating and offering opportunity to international refugees (Somalis, for instance).
Finland might seem like the far side of Europe, but our ties run deep. The United States enjoys Finland’s design savvy, as evidenced by the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the “tulip chairs” used on the Star Trek set, which were designed by Finnish-born American Eero Saarinen. He is just one of the many Finlanders who helped settle huge swaths of America, where mixed Finglishbecame an early American dialect. Finns “get” the USA, so return the favor. Back in Helsinki’s lavish prison-hotel sauna—beside a wine cellar—I discuss the vagaries of vanity with a tender, steely-eyed woman. As classical music and heat filled the space, she summarizes what might be their national philosophy: “We don’t get facelifts; we go for faith lifts.”
If you find yourself in this neck of the woods, chances are you’ll stumble upon some of these “travelers’ musts.” To give you a head start, be sure to point your feet in the direction of:
The Vaasa Choir Festival is a non-religious vocal jam session drawing talent from 30 countries. Hip singing groups overtake shopping malls, concert halls and bars in this humble outpost on Finland’s west coast.
The Kvarken landscape, sketched by the ice age, now has a park with a boggy loop trail and observation tower for beholding the succession of ribbed moraine ridges that have risen above sea level. This transboundary park is host to 5,600 islands, and counting. Stay at the Björkö Wärdshus, and don’t miss Vaasa’s Terranova Museum.
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a mid-18th century walled maritime fortress that, despite being a grand World Heritage Site, also has bars, restaurants and a permanent population of 800. An easy and picturesque ferry from downtown Helsinki will get you there.
Hotel Katajanokka is your authentic, posh lily pad while in Helsinki.
On the Menu
You can feel Finland’s history while eating food with handmade roots served in restaurants with funky looks, gourmet nooks or old books. Restaurant Juuri, 50 rootsy and cozy seats, serves moaning-good food: Cabbage leaves filled with crayfish and cottage cheese in melted dill butter (appetizer) and pike cake “Wallenberg” style (entrée) complemented by a five-page wine list on a chunky clipboard. Restaurant Grotesk’s handmade food sits well in a welcoming milieu.Salutorget has epic asparagus soup and entrées fit for royalty. Kosmos Restaurant dishes out elegant old-style gourmet. The A21 Cocktail Lounge uses traditional Finnish ingredients that catch a buzz in both senses of the term.
Slovakia inherited some of the best aspects of its five neighbors, enjoying Czech-style brewing, Polish diligence, Austrian architecture, Ukrainian good looks, and Hungarian stews. The one thing Slovakia can claim outright is the fact that it’s an undiscovered travel jewel. Culturally and geographical diverse, it’s simply a beautiful bargain.
Spis Castle’s security guardWant to experience classic Europe for a third of the price? Here’s your chance to discover what it was like in the 70s. Being the new heart of Europe is more than a motto. Politically, this was Eastern Europe, but with the massive Ukraine to the east now also being recognized as Eurozone, its true geographic center has shifted into the midst of Slovakia’s mountains.
The people here are rapidly waking up from the Communist hangover. Their creative juices are once again flowing, and they relate to the Western approach to enjoying life. Slovakia blends the best of romantic Europe—picturesque countryside, a charming capital city, ghostly castles, Renaissance churches, divine food and period-perfect museums—with the eastward-expanding European Union.
BratislavaSlovakia, often confused with the former Yugoslavian country Slovenia, is a little nation with a big spirit. My journey started in the often overlooked capital city, Bratislava, a Danube River-hugging spectacle with all the modern creature comforts—without a fat price tag or annoying crowds. The Danube touches four capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. I found Bratislava to be the most chilled out, as I didn’t hear one car horn or a person sounding like one. Conveniently located downriver from Budapest and upriver from Vienna, Bratislava is where a woman’s Slovak-to-English musings urged me to exercise my feet and my imagination, “You have to use your fantasia.” Her Slavic accent recalls Russia, however the evolving Europe salutes her free will. Unfortunately, many Danube River boat tourists often fail to appreciate the magic to be found along these cobble-stoned streets.
Eurovea’s restaurant rowAn hour train ride from Vienna, Bratislava looks at the foot of the fabled Carpathian Mountains, which range all the way down into Romania. In the sprawling Old Town, winding pedestrian walkways pass through city gates and ancient city-wall ruins. Looming regally above on a hilltop, the fifteenth century Bratislava Castle was once the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom. While many Americans deem a 1950’s Los Angeles diner a landmark, the residents of this colorful metropolis won’t soon forget the 1500s.
It’s not difficult to see every corner of this fertile land. Seventy percent of Slovakia is mountains, and I explored its high peaks region called the High Tatras. En route, it seems as if every tenth pinnacle has a fourteenth century medieval castle upon it, or at least the crumbling ruins of one. The eerie ruins kept me on the lookout for a reincarnated knight passing on horseback (while making a beer commercial). The big daddy of them all, Spis (spish) Castle is Central Europe’s largest medieval fortress compound.
Spis CastleFirst built in 1209, it was wrecked by 13th century Tatars, and rebuilt in the 15th century. Partially in ruins, it dominates the landscape from miles away and made me ponder phantoms, and life before remote controls. The sprawling Spis region, including the old-world village of Levoca, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site playground. St. Jacob’s Church showcases the world’s tallest Gothic alter and private museum-caliber paintings and sculptures. Gothic churches abound making memorable photography a cinch.
View from Spis CastleFor people more enchanted with the now, the nearby Slovakian Paradise National Park is a wilderness area that’s home to the Hornad Canyon-side hike, which involves a tricky traverse along horizontal ladders, bridges, snaking steps, chain handholds, and footbridges—mostly over a river. Along the numerous trail options, a few restaurants wait ready with sausage and a brew.
The more you see, the more that newly encountered people and places remind you of others met on your life’s journey. The tallest Tatras weave a North Carolina Smoky Mountain feel, as they often attract a cloudy halo.
High TatrasIn winter, this range takes on another vibe more reminiscent of the Alps. Strbske Pleso—pleso means mountain lake—is the highest mountain topping out at 8,710 feet. It’s accessible via train from Bratislava, and you can literally walk from the station to the Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia’s version of Yellowstone Lodge. Not a shabby commute.
Grand Hotel KempinskiNearby, Lomnicky Peak (8,635 feet), the country’s second highest, can be summited by foot or cable car. On the summit I was rewarded with views of southern Poland and this factoid: Poland is the only country to elect a professional musician President. The stone building atop Lomnicky offers drinks at the country’s highest café, and for gutsy romantics, a cozy apartment where the overnight rate includes a private dinner service—a way better proposal spot than on a horse-drawn carriage ride. Your chance of meeting an American here is similar to an Americans’ chance of meeting a Slovakian today—a lucky strike either way. (Speaking of luck, the last man to visit the Moon had Slovak heritage.)
Because what goes up must also come down, I made my way to the flat lands, which are salted with 500-year-old manor houses now doubling as swank hotels.
Hotel Amade ChateauDuring the 50-year Soviet Regime, most of the historic manor houses or chateaus were converted into orphanages, schools, hospitals, and retirement homes, or left to fall into ruin. The transition from noble family mansions to Communist facilities took its toll. Because it was a Soviet satellite, many otherwise quaint, rural, medieval-flavored valley towns were overshadowed by huge hastily constructed factories adjoined to ugly communist block-style apartment buildings that don’t exactly blend in.
An old Slovakian saying states, “When soldiers come, grass never grows again,” but this patriotic land is proud anew, and a bargain unheard of in the rest of the European Union. It enjoys some of Europe’s best tap water, which also infuses the country’s delightful hand-crafted beers and wines. Slovakia does have a few sharp differences with its neighbors. Czechs are primarily atheists, while Slovaks remain deeply Roman Catholic. And, they’re in an ongoing dispute with Hungary about Danube River hydro dam diversions. But that’s nothing a traveler has to worry about. For visitors, it’s all dobre (doe-bray), a frequently spoken Slovakian term meaning good or ok. In truth, now that Prague is a busy crossroads of colliding tourists, Slovakia is where you can still feel the splendor of once-reigning Austria and Hungary—but more vitally, the atmosphere of reinvention.
With the Iron Curtain fallen and Moscow deemed irrelevant, the resurrected geographic center of Europe shares a time-tested Slovak maxim: “He who digs a hole for someone else will fall into it themselves.” Something else fell into that hole, and it surely wasn’t the unbroken Slovakian spirit. Cheers. The old chapel bells toll yet again.
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Bruce Northam’s THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS is a 125-country quest for unlikely sages.www.AmericanDetour.com.
* Visit www.slovakia.travel.
* Old Town Bratislava’s thirteenth century Hotel Arcadia, near equally-seasoned St. Martin’s Cathedral and arguably the country’s best hotel, is everything a five-star hotel should be, without gratuitous effort. www.arcadia-hotel.sk.
Hotel Arcadia* I’m not typically a fan of glitzy malls, but Bratislava’s Eurovea mega mall’s outdoor riverside area is a pedestrian paradise with overgrown beanbag couches scattered upon manicured lawns lining 15 welcoming high-value restaurant bargains. www.eurovea.com.
* Bratislava’s Flowers Restaurant is home to Slovakia’s top chef. The dazzling five-star open kitchen space has a towering glass ceiling and walls bejeweled with classic Andy Warhol paintings—his parents, Byzantine Catholics, emigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia.www.flowersrestaurant.sk.
* The Danubiana Art Museum is Slovakia’s MOMA on an island in the Danube River near Slovakia’s visible intersections with Austria and Hungary. Light plays with masterpieces inside and on the outdoor art sculpture park promenade. www.danubiana.sk. Nearby is a human-made whitewater kayakers’ paradise/theme park, Cunovo, fed by diverted river water.
Danubiana Art Museum* Hotel Amade Chateau, only 30 minutes outside Bratislava, is a romantic castle-hotel/spa and gourmet restaurant evoking the Versailles era of Louis XVI. The adjoined plush spa complex features a Turkish hammam sharing that ancient style of wellness. This classic, manicured manor house has 20 double bed rooms and 10 apartments. It’s one of the rare places in Slovakia serving afternoon tea—inside one its many noble rooms or beside one of their deluxe pools.www.hotelamade.sk.
* Kremnica is home to a castle (yup, another dazzler) and a famous mint (Mincovna) that’s been pounding out coins and medals since 1329 when it struck the first Old Hungarian groschen coins.www.mint.sk.
* Alpine-lakeside Grand Hotel Kempinski luxuriates in the High Tatras, with grand being the key declaration. It reminded me of a down-to-earth Swiss resort movie set. www.kempinski.com. Not far from the epic Spis Castle, www.spisskyhrad.sk.
* Red Stone Castle, one hour from Bratislava, is a mountain-top, moated fort built in the sixteenth century. The four canon-loaded bastions, some with bat soundtracks, were later used as wine presses and wine cellars. Today, the slate and red limestone masterpiece’s great halls host special events. The original structure at this location built in the 1230s, was demolished for new construction. www.hradcervenykamen.sk.
* Private guide-extraordinaire, Eva Cubrikova, knows and loves every inch of this country. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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* In 1925 a Slovakian invented the resonating Dobro guitar, which now sounds good in every language.
* The gypsy (who prefer to be called Roma) presence in Slovakia polarizes opinions like any racially tense situation in America. The Roma landed in Europe after leaving India in the tenth century. They’re a small fraction of Slovakia’s 5.5 million people, but the fastest growing population sector. The Roma contribute liberally to the arts, with a knack for music and poetry.
THE SOUND A BLOG MAKES ON VACATION 2010 BEIJING, CHINA
Staying faithful that the light at the end of the travel recession tunnel isn’t an oncoming high-speed train.
If you write about the cool side of travel long enough you’ll eventually bang into the engines of its business. Billed as the foremost gathering of travel and tourism leaders in the world and declared the “Super Bowl of travel” by CBS travel correspondent Peter Greenberg, the 10th Global Travel & Tourism Summit in Beijing, China generated long overdue awareness of the world’s largest industries—10% of the world’s GDP—and reminded me that on any journey, although the first thing we pack is ourselves, some bring golf shirts…or models.
True: the travel industry is the world’s biggest employer providing approximately 235 million jobs, employing one out of every 12 people directly or indirectly. Take that, oil, technology, and auto industries.
Internet travel guru and IAC Chairman/CEO Barry Diller, one of the three-day conferences most energized speakers, raved about Trip Advisor’s “absolutely faithful reporters” and “organized word of mouth.” Later, on stage in-the-round, Greenberg, celebrating his trademark wry bluntness clarifying that he “trusts citizen journalists like [he] trusts citizen surgeons.” In a one-on-one chat with Greenberg, I inquired about Trip Advisor’s citizen reporters and he granted them a thumbs-up, noting their hotel review abuse-detecting use of algorithms.
If a person’s character may be learned from the adjectives which they habitually use in conversation, the new global travel mood buzzword is mobile—land on peoples’ mobile devices or move out of the way. Of course, the power of blogging also resounds here. As an author (when non-famous people still made money writing books) and freelance writer who previously enjoyed fair pay, I’m one of many traditional travel journalists who have difficulty comprehending unpaid blogging as anything but a hobby. Travel writing has evolved into an army of volunteers who fail to notice that classic travel stories are not breaking news. Maybe it’s just a term hang-up, but blog sounds to me like a word describing the gurgle a large snake makes when vomiting a partially digested rat. We need a new term to describe this emerging and vital publishing form. Give diary-keeping the dignity it deserves by first doing a little crafting and polishing before sharing. Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau wrote journals that were publishable, and today’s writers in journal mode should hope to do the same.
Rant complete; I do comprehend that most of the general public has already voted with its collective mouse.
Skyscraper-showcasing Beijing was an apt place to host this conference—especially for me because when I first arrived there in 1987 bicycles and occasional buses were the only transport modes; now replaced by unrelenting auto traffic jams. One upside to this crimson smog-cloaked urban checkerboard is its vibrant expatriate community gatherings on rooftop bars.
China is the second largest travel market in the world, trailing only the US, which is losing market share annually. While the summit tackled issues including adapting to changing marketplaces, tapping emerging markets, digital convergence, evolving consumer demand, travel patterns and visa policies, Cathay Pacific CEO Anthony Tyler wondered aloud why airlines have to foot the bill for heightened security when that tab should be absorbed by general public safety funds.
I sidestepped into travel writing after a decade of backpacking around the world and never met a hardcore traveler wearing a golf shirt. Some of the travel company CEO types attending the forum wore golf shirts at the more casual events and this reminded me that although these guys get around, this is still a corporate endeavor for many of them.
I know other supposed travel writers who have evolved into PR-schmoozing convention hounds, but the landmark World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) annually brings together country ambassadors, travel industry veterans, CEOs, and sophisticated tourism researchers to evolve sustainability balanced with growth. Obligatory speeches at any conference can be a yawn, but not here. The summit also dolled out its Tourism for Tomorrow sustainable travel awards.
The Summit’s Center Stage
|While covering the surprisingly interesting forums I was sidetracked by one of WTTC’s founding members, Geoffrey Kent, who’s in a league with Richard Branson and photographer Peter Beard. A real traveler gone corporate—he owns top-notch expedition tour company Abercrombie & Kent—who is still spiritually on that motorcycle he rode from Kenya to Cape Town at 16 years-old. Born in 1942, his young-at-heart personality is balanced by the knowing glint in his eye. An old polo-playing pal of Prince Charles, Geoffrey remains active running five miles four times a week and with continued travels to the edge with his girlfriend, Brazilian model Otavia Jardim…I asked Otavia about the key to a couple traveling without a hitch. Otavia, who met Geoffrey years ago on a yacht in Portofino, Italy, insisted that roving couples should pack one bag together. Geoffrey then added “And be punctual!” breaking into a grin.|
Getting back to business, I asked Geoffrey how the WTTC started 20 years ago: “The World Travel & Tourism Council was established when a group of us, all CEOs, came to the realization that although Travel & Tourism is the largest service industry in the world — and the biggest provider of jobs — nobody knew it.” He added, “We needed research that would quantify the impact of tourism on national economies to raise awareness of its potential for creating wealth and employment.”
Geoffrey Kent and Otavia Jardim flanking Chinese tourism enthusiast
|The most exciting global tourism evolution, according to WTTC experts, has been the emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and their recognition of the important role that travel and tourism can play in developing their economies. China in particular has recognized travel and tourism as a strategic pillar of their national economy and has invested heavily in infrastructure that will generate long-term, sustainable returns, and increased employment opportunities.|
The most comical moment gracing the conference was when CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, hosting a panel discussion on the global re-ordering of tourism, said in her intro that after having just visited Taiwan she’d now visited 65 official countries. Making that claim in the heart of China, the motherland that despises any reference to Taiwan’s independence, resounded a dull thump that would be similar to trying to turn back the clock on women’s voting rights while appearing as a guest on The View. Ever gracious, Burnett did recover quickly. The show must go on.
BN with CNBC’s Erin Burnett
|In the end, we all started off life basically the same, and our choices have made us who we are at the moment. Travel industry people take enjoying life for granted, golf shirts or not. I like that.The most vital thing I learned at this prolific meeting of perennially vacationing minds is that, good luck willing, travel and tourism will continue to pull ahead as the most vital industry our world has—and that age really doesn’t matter.The magic of spending more on experiencing than having…|