By Bruce Northam




Due to COVID-19, NYC basketball court rims have been removed at locations where repeated attempts at social distancing have not been successful.

Global Cancer-Fighting Brain Trust Captain—Dr. Waxman—Rocks Wall Street

Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real

Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation raises $6 million for liberation from cancer.

The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation hosted its 22nd annual benefit dinner and auction featuring Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real (Lukas is the son of Willie Nelson and an independent musical force who’s band is also Neil Young’s backing band). Approximately $6 million was raised to support cancer research while the country-rock quintet raised the roof at Cipriani Wall Street. Cipriani Wall Street is a towering triumph of Greek revival architecture and one heck of a place to enjoy a fantastic band—and a great cause, the ultimate red carpet for cancer survivors. It’s all about finding cancer before it finds you.

The foundation presented awards to event honorees Kobi Halperin, Valery Joseph, and Marc Taub. The main focus of this annual event is supporting cutting-edge cancer research—Dr. Samuel Waxman handily redefining the concept of Collaborating for a Cure by traveling the country and the world to expand his global brain trust. Entertainment aside, the energy in this epic auditorium bustling with some of New York’s most influential finance and medical heavy-hitters was not about being seen, but more about supporting a visionary cancer specialist and founder and CEO of Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation. Waxman, a disarming dream-come-true maker, who while mixing affably with everyone, also introduced me to some of his patients who have overcome the odds to beat cancer and continue to thrive.

Q. (for Waxman) “What’s the latest breaking news in cancer?”

A. (Waxman) “Cancer is a disease of aging. The longer you live, the better chance you have of getting it. We have to change that and secure the next generation by understanding why.”

Waxman’s vision: Imagine a world in which cancer can be treated without disrupting life, can be cured, or can even be prevented. Known affectionately by New Yorkers as “The Waxman,” the yearly gala is considered to be among the top fundraising events in New York City. Waxman’s laboratory is at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The fundraiser’s brainchild is Long Island native Michael Nierenberg, a philanthropist who is Chairman of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.Nierenberg, a CW Post graduate, investment guru, and classic rocker also had his fingerprint on the event’s soundtrack before the live performance. Nierenberg noted that annual gala continues to “Further consolidate the live auction by raising money in advance—and keeping the event fun.”

Once again, CBS News anchor Chris Wragge was the Master of Ceremony while auction donations and bids were received via texts and raised hands. The live auction, led by ever-humorous Hugh Hildesley, Executive Vice President of Sotheby’s Auction House, offered guests the opportunity to bid on many dandy items including a puppy (winning bid of $10,000).

The event was attended by Waxman Foundation board members and 1,200 corporate executives and their guests. The money raised will support the Foundation’s research efforts to produce a cure for cancer by reprogramming cancer cells and to deliver tailored, minimally toxic treatments to patients. The scientists funded have made significant breakthroughs in cancer research, including identifying pathways to deliver novel therapies to treat cancer.

Check out the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation—and Collaborating for A Cure.

The prior year’s musical guest was Dawes. Past celebrity supporters have included The Avett Brothers, Roger Daltry, John Fogerty, Ziggy Marley, Train, the Warren Haynes Band, Kid Rock, Chevy Chase, Steely Dan, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, and Counting Crows.


Roman artifact (foot in sandal) in Tunisia

Your originality is your greatest legacy.

As a teenager, I had the privilege of living across the hall from my grandmother, Edith, until she passed away at 101 years of age. We attribute her radiant longevity to three factors: cottage cheese with pears, a daily Bufferin aspirin, and a shot of bargain Scotch before bedtime.

A loyal ally, she didn’t report my playing hooky from school, or the high school parties I threw while my parents were away at our cabin in the Adirondacks. At such parties—my living room transformed into a classic rock-blaring suburban hippie den—my British-raised grandmother would make 11pm bathrobed appearances in our den-adjoined kitchen to fetch and sip that medicinal shot of Scotch. We’d then give her a rousing ovation, as if she were on stage. She then shuffle back to her bedroom, giggling all the way.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

North Africa

Palm strike to forehead: when in Rome, dress on your own. Real style shouldn’t give a damn.While creating North African episodes of American Detour, I featured athletic sandals in a video. Soon after, the sandal theme ran away with itself—becoming a time to ponder masculinity and the art of footwear.

The world over, men and women have their respective roles, as do married and single men. Like most bachelors, I have nearly full control of my wardrobe. When I’m in a country boasting ruins from the Roman Empire (and there are dozens), they seem a fit locale to highlight the crucial wardrobe component of footwear. Slaves to fashion perceive the donning of utilitarian Velcro-strapped sandals as a catastrophic style no-no. Yet, in virtually all surviving outposts of the Empire, every male statue features a Herculean God wearing simple sandals—sandalias, flat-footed Roman shoes tied around the ankle with thin leather strips that omit gender distinction. Why aren’t they cool anymore?

Footwear, like zip codes, now influences with whom you mingle. High-heeled ladies, who won’t give a double-take to any fellow sporting open-toed shoes, tend to flirt with slick shiny-shoed guys. When did contemporary men and women lose sight of the shoes that made and shaped history? Fierce Romans conquered the world in sandals, maybe even with black socks.

What do modern Roman guys think about this? Wait, all they want to do is flirt with flashily dressed American chicks. We’ve got to get back to basics—or create sandalias with laces that go boot-high. Versatile footwear should also be sexy in a world where people in flip-flops can still rock it. Perhaps I’ve taken the footwear metaphor too far in search of a means of helping people blindly crisscross the fashion finish line. If only those sandal-wearing Roman big-shot statues could speak…

“It never troubles the wolf how many the sheep may be.” —Virgil, 70-19 B.C.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“Don’t age. Mature.” —A New Caledonian antique buff’s advice…after picking me up hitching, but actually swindling me into an hour of yard work.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Manila, Philippines

A photographer sets up a tripod on a roadside in a dingy, untouristed neighborhood outside Manila, the Philippine city of 17 million. He aims to freeze-frame the charm of an old rusting bicycle that’s leaning against a blue stucco wall flocked by birds-of-paradise. Dozens of elementary students on recess crowd around to watch him vary compositions shot with different lenses from different angles. Halfway through the shoot, one wholly engrossed little boy couldn’t resist asking why he was taking so many photographs of the weathered bike, “when there are so many new ones around the corner?”

(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

Tunisia: filming American Detour with Lawrence Whiteside

Los Angeles Grub Grand Slam

A veteran travel writer’s take on where the LA diner is transported…

Plan Check — Santa Monica

Plan Check (Santa Monica) is a new-American comfort food haunt made even tastier by its open-air social-atorium that’s chock-full of LA’s best characters, from bushy-bearded dudes wearing ski caps to those opting for designer t-shirts/store-ripped jeans/flip-flops. Everyone let’s their hair down at this upscale-casual industrial hangout where the soundtrack is human laughter. Debuting with the dynamite crab dip (masago, charred tomato, nori, toast) creates a leadoff moan, while the stuffed mushroom (roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, roasted garlic steak sauce) adds only silence. The craft beer (hello santa monica brew works Witbier) inspires system-wide comfort, too. The nine-seat bar slings signature cocktails including Plan Check Penicillin (el silencio mezcal, ginger, lemon, agave, fennel, and a “buzz button” that makes your tongue tingle) and the creamy El Pomelo Rose (more el silencio mezcal, pamplemousse rose liqueur, campari, agave, lime, egg white, edible bouquet). The mixology mastery here—happy hour made easy—adds digits to the sidewalk-strolling would-be models. Wait, entrees too? Make room for the Lobster Pot Pie (curried lobster bisque, beets, green beans, corn, carrots, potatoes) because you’re going to be here for a while. ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

BOA — Santa Monica

BOA Steakhouse (Santa Monica) is not your grandfather’s stogie-scented hangout, yet. While waiting for the steak to blow you away, beware of the unstoppable three-tier Chilled Seafood Platter (you name it, it looms) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces and a seared tuna ceviche offering as the tower’s cone. The 17-page drink list is not short on revealing there’s something for everyone here; also a Wine Spectator award-winning list (hats off to The Prisoner, a Napa Valley Zinfandel-Cabernet). The modern-day cuisine also reverses trend with prime Omaha beef options including a “40 Day” Dry Aged New York Strip and Center Cut Filet Mignon (the choice for savants leaning toward weller-done). Other selections include Certified Organic Beef and Premium American Wagyu, all served with a choice of rubs and house-made sauces, including BOA’s own J-1 sauce. Traditional steakhouse sides like the tableside-made Classic Caesar Salad and Mac-n-Cheese help to weigh down your to-go bag. If you’re able to look away from what’s happening on your table, take in the colorful ambience, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, and outdoor or indoor options to behold the ocean across the street—everyone else is! Gluten-free diners warmly accommodated. And oh yeah, grandpa’s drink is waiting in the form of an El Olvido (patron silver, pineapple, poblano chile, Mexican honey, smoke-infused bitters). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Sushi Roku –Santa Monica

Sushi Roku (Santa Monica) brings the high-end LA sushi experience back down-to-earth (since debuting in Hollywood in 1997). With a dash of contemporary California cool (jalapeños, olive oil, on so on), fresh fish handpicked from the world’s pristine waters are melded with an artistry achievable only by a seasoned sushi chef. The Yellowtail Diced Chiles (yes, spicy) and the Albacore Sashimi (ponzu, crispy onions) immediately showcase this innovative twist on Japanese tradition. The signature rolls dazzle, enter the Katana (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, tuna, yellowtail) while the mainstays like the Softshell Crab roll won’t disappoint. Digging deeper into the menu, the freshwater eel (unagi) broke new ground for my palate. Circling back to the cold appetizer menu to sample the Fluke Kumquat Sashimi (yuzu vinaigrette) and Blue Crab Tartare (with uni & caviar) made time and place stand still—until the hot waitress returned. Exotic but casual, 100 seats share four setting options, that include an open-air patio, a 20-seat cocktail bar, and a 10-seat sushi bar. Either way, you’re within easy reach of a specialty cocktail like their Skinny Bulldog (bulldog gin, veev acai spirit, cucumber, lime, agave, sea salt). I was not embarrassed to raise my hand for a second miso soup. Ps, the name Sushi Roku is via the Japanese slang word for “rock,” implying “rock and roll sushi.” * The three restaurants above enjoy ocean-breeze locales near the same waterfront intersection (Ocean Ave @ Santa Monica Blvd). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille

Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille experience is a morphing of crisp décor, wine excellence, and fantastical starters like their Crescenza Cheese & Serrano Ham Tartine (pickled onions, arugula, raisin-pecan bread). The words Napa and Valley together ups any ante, and this inspiring space does not fail LA. The multi-room indoor/outdoor space can comfortably seat 370 diners. The long and handsome 20-seat bar is as inviting as any table in this sweet-sixteen-year-old institution that just got a $2 million facelift—which means new menu and new vibe mingling with its old-style neighborhood charm. Brick-oven flatbreads include the Roasted Vegetable (brussels sprouts, heirloom carrots, cauliflower, garlic, basil) and the Seasonal Harvest salad takes no prisoners (roasted kabocha squash, green dragon apple, glazed walnuts, mixed greens, maple-olive dressing). You can up your degree in wine to in-the-know here—the leather-bound wine guide for servers includes tasting notes highlighting the nose and palate of every choice on the list (borrow one). Their cozy wine cellar seats eight guests. Along with a curated selection of international wines, this grill also proudly showcases its private selection from the Tavistock Reserve Collection. While you’re at it, pair something with their sensational Cast Iron-Seared Sea Scallops (sweet corn purée, charred hearts of palm, ginger-citrus vinaigrette). Seeking a walk on the wild side? Their designer cocktail, the Spaghetti Western (lime, Giffard orgeat almond syrup, Solerno, Milagro Tequila Reposado) has your name on it. Need to keep it simple at lunch? The Grilled Wagyu Cheeseburger (Monterey cheddar, caramelized onions, brioche bun) is misdiagnosed as simply a cheeseburger.


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(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)


“A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” —Thomas Jefferson


Now that childhood seems to be officially over, only occasionally do I dare people to do things. Not the case with my eldest brother, Basil, who routinely challenges me to perform illegal tricks for his amusement. I routinely caved into his cons until I turned, well, about 35.


Our family summered in New York’s Adirondack mountains annually starting in 1967 after my father bought 16 acres of remote hillside land there for $800 from a farmer who needed that amount to buy an oil burner. That was back when achieving the American Dream was doable, even affordable.


As seasonal Adirondackians, July Fourth is my father’s favorite holiday. Although he’s still mad about being persecuted as a Walden-carrying Communist during the 1950’s McCarthy era, he remains a loyal transcendentalist. His favorite Americans, after Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, include Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Our family beheld the annual fireworks show on a hillside overlooking touristy Lake George, N.Y. Throughout the crackling airborne display, my otherwise publicly measured dad would loudly thank our founding fathers for all to hear. It embarrassed his three boys, but his glowing pride let us know this was important.


After my father’s 1972 patriotic public declaration, “Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!” my brother Basil challenged me, a fourth-grader, and brother Bryan to summit the lakeside A-frame roof of a nearby fast food restaurant. With Basil and hundreds of people watching from the fort’s hillside, Bryan and I galloped up one side and over the other side of a roof that we soon realized was made from soda-can-thin aluminum-bubble shingles that crushed audibly under the weight of our steps. For everyone crammed on the hillside, we became the show.


The audience lounging on the hillside applauded our crunchy roof summit. The ovation surged when, once back on the ground, we sprinted into the crowd hoping to disappear. Feeling safe, we then strolled calmly away from the scene of the crime until the restaurant owner grabbed me from behind, spun me on my heel, and screamed “You’re coming with me.” As he dragged me back toward his damaged snack shack, the still attentive crowd booed my capture. Basil yelled out at the top of his lungs, “Boo…Run!” (Family, old friends, and a few cousins occasionally still call me Boo.) I twisted out of the man’s grip and bolted. The onlookers, thankfully not including my parents, gave me a howling standing ovation as I sprinted toward freedom. And so the lessons on eluding authority continued. Once I caught my breath, far in the distance I heard someone yell, “Thank you, Benjamin Franklin!”

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)


(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

Put the currency blues on the run.

Hitchhiking across Australia—bound for AC/DC concert

Hitchhiking across Australia—bound for AC/DC concert

Before email and cell phones, letter writing was still vital, as many long-term backpackers could rarely afford to call home. Such isolation made Australian hospitality even more welcome, especially after a year in Asia without a turkey hero.


In the late 1980s, after a year-long Southeast Asian tour, a college friend and I hitchhiked 1,000 miles up Australia’s east coast to attend an AC/DC rock concert. Somewhere near Bundaberg, rides were in short supply. Our money evaporated, and we forgot that the buck is an endangered species that can’t be eaten. We stood by the road, yearning to overcome poverty’s limitations.


Across the baked intersection, a quintessential Outback man twice our age was hitching in the other direction and smoking a homemade cigarette that would get him tossed out of most U.S. establishments.


“How’s it goin’, mates?” he quizzed from across the pocked pavement, his voice rising above a soundtrack merging crickets with distant chainsaws.


“We ran out of money,” groaned my friend Pete.


The grinning Aussie rambler, a talent-at-large, notched up his tattered wide-brim hat and, unknowingly narrating timeless mythology, replied, “No worries guys, I started out with nothing and still have most of it left.”


A mirage no doubt belonging in the gallery of sainted survivors, he had a primitive affluence that reminded us that you can rise from the pits to the Ritz, in your head.


After scaring away our purse-onalities, he added, “Don’t spend time; enjoy it.”


There are a million options in the enterprise of starting from scratch.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“They’d raise the rent, and I couldn’t raise the money.” —Mozambique musician


“Beware of loan wolves.” —Emirati businesswoman observing an unfinished, rusting skyscraper skeleton in her neighborhood.


“The funny thing about money is that if everyone threw in their two cents about it, there’d be 15 billion cents.” —overheard in Israel’s Negev Desert



Recalibrating fashionably late in a place where nudity neutralizes class lines.

Dani Tribesman from Irian Jaya's Baliem Valley masters the Frisbee

Dani Tribesman from Irian Jaya’s Baliem Valley masters the Frisbee

Sledding to the Poles, summiting Everest, rowing across an ocean…it’s all been done before. However, in an age when earthbound pioneer glory is virtually unattainable, I slid into a premiere—playing naked Frisbee with Stone Age natives. Someone had to do it.


Simplicity died when fashion was born. What is it about modern culture that feels the need to impose a foreign language, a way of life, and a religion on a people that live in communion deep in an impenetrable forest? The well-intended but often genocidal influence of outsiders continue as Irian Jayan highland tribes, guilty only of nudity, succumb to an alien oppression. One force driving this Aboriginal extermination is that frontiersman psychology.


Irian Jaya makes up half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. This Melanesian holdout is Indonesia’s least populated territory, and nothing like Bali. Torrential rivers plunge from the peaks into gorges and lush lowland rainforests before flowing out toward the coastal plains. Even today, representatives of tribes unknown to the outside world periodically emerge from the forests. In 1990, a previously unidentified group surfaced. Ambassadors of the tribe, evidently shocked by what they saw, immediately disappeared again.


Accessible only by air or after a month of hacking through a steamy jungle with a machete, the Baliem Valley was my launch point for a month-long trek into the region’s highlands, requiring a blend of valley walking, high-endurance climbing, and cliff scaling. The rugged terrain isolates intimate Dani tribe villages, which are segmented by stone fences and surrounded by sweet-potato vine gardens, canals, and steep, terraced mountainsides.


The walking routes are the natives’ prolific trade trail system. Occasionally, I pull over to let trios of bow-and-arrow toting hunters pass. Mud abounds. You haven’t officially trekked until you’ve had a boot sucked off by a foot of mud—never a concern for the barefoot Dani. In fact, the dark-skinned Afro-resembling Melanesian Aborigines still wear only penis gourds, an early model jock strap made from petrified yellow squash shells that are fitted over their genitalia and fastened skyward by thin strings tied around the waist. The old-style way to rock it.


Ruuf, my Dani guide for the first leg of my trek, led me, calm, wise, and barefoot, leaping nimbly from slippery log to log. When I lost him, I tracked his mud prints. A long, grass-mesh billum bag slung around his forehead and draped across his back contained sweet potatoes, compressed tobacco, leaves for rolling cigarettes, and a small bag of salt. His primordial briefcase also toted a palm-leaf mat doubling as a rain poncho. Upon his head, it resembled a nun’s habit.


Unsuspected downpours are common and one monsoon shower was especially enlightening. Betrayed by flooded boots and soaked by sweat inside my raingear, I caught Ruuf smiling under his temporal teepee with not even a drop of water on his petrified squash. Pausing there in the downpour, I contemplated my departure from the essential laws of human survival. Darwinian perfection gazing at a mail-order misfit; a defeated poster child of Western survival gear. I was seduced into surrendering to my innermost nomadic calling—the contents of my backpack later becoming gifts. Luxuries are often not only hindrances but also dispensable.


En route, we encountered 20 local men resting on a bluff overlooking a terraced valley and the thundering Baliem River. The shoeless posse was hauling supplies to their village 30 miles away. Suddenly, they broke into a three-part harmony a cappella, an ancestral call to unite and energize the group. Their simple spirit-lifting chant reminded me of the feeling you get when a bird or other animals hop over and sits by you in the forest—date and time momentarily wait. Sublime.


Ruuf and I shared many bowls of rice. We nibbled small fingerfulls, caveman-like, and peered about the forest. I heard birdcalls, Ruuf heard food. I showed him a photo of a girlfriend. Mixing pantomime with intonation, I attempted to inquire, “Have you ever seen the sea? He shook his head no. “What is your favorite food?” He pointed toward sweet potatoes. “What do you dream about?” He glanced down at the photo of the blonde woman and grinned wide. Archetypal humor.


People are usually more complex than what initial impressions may convey. Frequently, one of the first questions upon meeting someone is “What do you do?” for “what you do” is often misconstrued as who you are. How would Ruuf answer this question? We’ll never know. The man for all seasons and I parted with a prehistoric handshake, lasting a minute, graduating to a mutual bicepshake, adjourning with condoning nods. I headed for a nap in a village dwelling, and he ran off, in the buff and into his boondocks.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


Indonesian officials have failed in getting all of the inhabitants of this wild east to support “Operation Penis Gourd,” which is designed to get them out of their traditional getup and into Western clothing. When these seniors pass on, this sartorial tradition and much of their old way of living will be history. Wave goodbye to the Stone Age and hello to naked shame.


It’s difficult to process the rugged, simple beauty of these formerly fierce headhunters and cannibals who discarded stone axes for steel in the mid-1900s. Clock time remains irrelevant here. The small, wiry women do most of the chores, such as raising the children, pigs, and sweet potatoes. They often lug up to 80 pounds of potatoes, and a baby, for miles up and down steep mountain trails. Women work the fields while the men generally walk around, chat, pose for photos, and smoke cigarettes. Intrepid prototypes indeed. The men also tend the squash-to-be-gourds, which they manipulate to grow according to the shape of the manhood sheath they fancy. I tried on a few gourds in various villages, which eventually led me to a new level of embarrassment.


Living in tidy, wood-thatched, grass-domed huts called honays, men and women sleep and pass time in separate two-story huts. I was permitted to sleep, and reflect, in honays after receiving consent from a village chief. Certain bungalows are the privilege of men who’ve established themselves as warriors. A tad rustic, if you focus on the fleas and mice, these alpha-male sanctuaries are fertile pastures for the imagination—superstitiously invested shrunken animal heads, spears, weaponry, and charms hang from the roofs.


The Dani converse in soft tones, if they speak at all. Illuminated by a well-tended fire, we sat in a circle, puffing clove cigarettes, noshing on warm sweet potatoes, enveloped in smoke. Imitating the dudes, I inhaled the clove deeply and achieved a serene cannabis euphoria. Knee-deep in nomadic caché, I accepted the silence as meditation, in a corner of the world where safety pins were once fair trade for a shrunken human head. Meanwhile, the reigning thought in my mind during the interlude was Einstein’s prophesy about not being sure about the outcome of a third world war, but asserting that the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones. Surely, these vanguards would endure, in spite of pressure to get online with the global economy.


I spent the next morning in church, a wooden cabin with a corrugated tin roof, packed with quasi-clad worshipers. Women and girls sat on the left side, men and boys sat on the right. A lonely dead-battery clock loomed above a makeshift wood box altar, behind it the rambling missionary preacher was the only other person wearing clothes. Seated beside me was a man wearing only a chunky beige gourd, a band of greasy chicken feathers on his head, and a clove cigarette stored in his earlobe piercing. Patiently waiting to interact with the preacher, he inserted a quarter-moon-shaped pig bone into his pierced nasal septum. Although lost on me, their discussion enraptured everyone else. The women sat quietly with net-like billum bags slung around their heads, bulging with provisions and babies. An unsympathetic gatekeeper declined to let people leave before the service concluded.


During prayer, all eyes were closed and heads lowered. Interestingly, they cover both eyes with one hand during prayers in fear of going blind. First came the peek-a-boo glances at the peculiar albino, then the restrained library chuckling. When the service ended, the women passed me to exit the church, their handshakes missing digits. I learned that the older women cut off one or several finger joints as part of a cremation ceremony when someone in their immediate family passes on. Some women I met were missing most of their fingers. Severing a corner of the earlobe is the corresponding practice for men.


Bartering also enthuses the Dani. Safety pins remain a prevailing souvenir trade item. They have become their all-in-one toolbox: surgical implement, fishhook, necklace ornament, wood etcher, earring, and so on. Velcro also makes a splash. Purchasing six-foot-long hunting arrows was one task, getting them through airport security and onto eight different connecting U.S.-bound planes was another. I still use the custom-fit gourd I smuggled home as a prop in my keynote presentation.


In Walden, Thoreau speaks of a “realometer,” a raw, instinctive gauge to rate the wow-factor of our individual convictions. Here, my realometer stayed pinned to the max. Likewise, foreign visitors can astonish these natives. My icebreaker was also my contribution: a Frisbee. They were riveted by this simple aircraft, a pie-tin cum UFO. The flying saucer captured their imagination and made them belly laugh. Initially, I was concerned that by introducing this game, I was further adding to the ruination of a traditional way of life that deserved to be preserved. My first instinct went against introducing a non-neutral item into their culture, but unanimous child happiness cemented the verdict, and it isn’t difficult to replicate a disc using preexisting items—their circular rattan “place mats,” we discovered, also flew. At this time, there was still a standing back-flip in my public entertainment arsenal, and each village ranked it up there with making things fly.


While other tradition-defying forces impose religion and outlander value, I tossed my neon-blue flying disc into the last primeval frontier, and they rejoiced wildly over it. Upon entering a small village, I’d stroll into an open area, usually the courtyard in the midst of the hut complex, and spin the Sputnik so it hovered and descended gradually into the waiting huddle. Some ran to it, some ran from it and kept on running. It was perhaps the biggest single event to hit these villages since the first invader donated matches. Now that’s Ultimate Frisbee. The Papua natives, having developed for millennia in isolation, have many unique traits including a hunting talent for throwing and launching spears. Straightaway, many of the younger Frisbee throwers advanced from having never seen one to being able to wing it 200 feet—using unconventional gripping techniques, or launching it upside-down.


I played sort of nude, too. At first my gourd was a discomfiture; some of us wage a continuing struggle against fashion. The string tied around my waist failed to hold up the hardened vegetable case that kept fumbling downward, and it itched. I didn’t like sprinting barefoot across rocky fields, and I was paranoid about injuring my exposed nutsack. I concluded that some of them intentionally tossed the Frisbee astray, so I’d have to run for it. They laughed at that too.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


Clothing optional might be optimal. The Dani, former cannibals, seem like the most gentle and hospitable people on earth. Thoreau suggested that people are rich in proportion to the number of things they can afford to let alone. Too bad we can’t let this final pristine refuge be. In a surge of serendipity, a culture that doesn’t bother to keep track of its age adopted one harmless result of the times—flying plastic.


It will be some time before Frisbees rival the importance of pigs in this quiet corner of the world. Near the end of my sojourn back in time, I entered a village and pitched the flying disc into another curious horde. This village chief had difficulty catching, throwing, and comprehending it, as did some of the other elders. His discontent with the game grew when the disobedient aircraft drifted into the pigpen, spooking the priceless swine. The chief abruptly disappeared into the men’s honay.


As the sun was setting and the Frisbee fanfare was winding down, the chief reappeared. Strutting erect, bows and arrows slung across his back, he paused in the center of the village and drew an arrow. Focusing, he aimed skyward at the hovering disc. A second later the Frisbee’s heart was punctured. Crippled, it wobbled to earth. Justice. My realometer flared.  Game over—the chief retrieved the impaled UFO and retired into his hut.


The wind whistled through my gourd.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.” —Thoreau, Walden 1854



New York Comfort Food—with a Twist

Where you won’t see many diners ogling their phones

Swifty’s restaurant feels like an old-style Upper East Side private club, but with reasonable prices and a few designer-t-shirt hipsters spiced into the mix. Dinnertime, which seems to start at 7pm-sharp for sport-jacket-wearing retired men and their spouses, means Frank Sinatra might be crooning as the backdrop. There’s no shortage of chatter and cheer in this eatery namesaked after a dog who used to be the VIP at a now-closed nearby restaurant that took its reputation—and clientele—here. Enjoy clear-cut American cuisine with classic Euro options, ranging from Baked Meatloaf to Wild Bass with Chanterelles and Port Wine Sauce.


What does ‘bistro’ mean to you? If desired descriptions include non-flashy, intimate, romantic, old-world-real, and house-made ice creams, then this place is for you. The lingering, clandestine 65+ high-society vibe is balanced by affable, mostly European waiters. It seems that at least one person at each table (your neighbors are not far away) is an expert storyteller (or filibusterer). Inside this neighborhood parlor with huge, slightly down-turned mirrors, vintage wallpaper, and talk of the Ivy League, you won’t see many diners ogling their phones. If you wear a cowboy hat here, you will be the first. Arrive early (6pm) and run the show. There will be no brawls.


Swifty’s, 1007 Lexington Avenue, NYC, 212.535.6000

Swifty’s Paella

Maya New York—A Suits and Boots Tequileria

Handcrafted Mexican artwork initiates the Maya dining experience that’s soon enhanced by acclaimed Chef Richard Sandoval’s daring culinary techniques—authentic but modernized Mexican where you can segue from Mexico City style corn on the cob to filet mignon presented with a cactus salad. This Upper East Side neighborhood hangout can be quite lively, but the veteran servers remain calm and poised. The homespun margaritas blended from a collection of 200 agave-based spirits pair beautifully with Maya’s traditional small-plated finger food and its other contemporary triumphs. There’s no ageism or posing here, even their huge bar defies this neighborhoods reputation for niche-only establishments.


At times, I mistook this upbeat chill zone for something you’d find in a hipster part of Madrid, but then the Bacon Guacamole showed up (infused with chicharron, pickled chile, and cotija cheese). And, any reminiscing about old-style Mexican grub stops with their Chipotle Camarones—tequila flambé shrimp, black bean purée, gouda huarache, and chipotle sauce with a frisée salad. Pace yourself and keep your post-dining plans flexible.


You can turn this culinary romp—ooh la-la, chile pasilla-rimmed Yucatan Margaritas steeped in agavales blanco and habañero blood orange—into a health kick by concluding with their chili-powder-spiced fruit plate. Investigate their Bottomless Brunch, Saturdays and Sundays 11:30am – 4:00pm. Visit Maya New York on 1191 First Ave (64th/65th), 212.585.1818.


Southeast Asian Countries Collectively Cultivate United Tourism Model

Annual travel industry trade show—in Malaysia for 2014—unifies Southeast Asian tourism.

Southeast Asia’s 10 countries are bonding…like Borneo Hornbills


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.

Borneo’s Mulu Caves

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.

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.

Sipadan, Malaysia

Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (, 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.”

Borneo orangutans advocating regional goodwill

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.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

For details about ATF 2014 in Kuching, Malaysia, visit For travel ideas in Malaysia, try

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.

Rock-climbing in Borneo

Gathering of the Vibes

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.”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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 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.

Don’t Judge A Country By Its State Department Warning

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.

Waking From a Cruise Coma

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 Mizuno MP-64 Irons 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 Titleist AP2 714 Irons 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 discount golf clubs 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 golf clubs 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 discount golf 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.

* * *

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).

* * *

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.

* * *

* 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.

Is Martha Stewart Judging?

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.

Finland Rising

Bridging an international gap

click any image to view slideshow

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,abercrombie outlet 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.”
Foot Notes
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:

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  and don’t miss

s 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.

s 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. 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. ’s handmade food sits well in a welcoming milieu.has epic asparagus soup and entrées fit for royalty. dishes out elegant old-style gourmet. The uses traditional Finnish ingredients that catch a buzz in both senses of the term.

Slovakia: Small Country, Big Outlook—Discover the New Heart of Europe

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

* 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.


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..

* 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.

* 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. 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.

* 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.

* 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.  Not far from the epic Spis Castle,

* 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.

* Private guide-extraordinaire, Eva Cubrikova, knows and loves every inch of this country. Email her

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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 World Travel & Tourism Coalition Raises its Hand


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…

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