Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Summer Deals? They're Out There, Especially on the Water

There's no guarantee that cruises/rafting tours will sell out, even in high summer season. Here are two excellent deals that recently came across my desk.

-A traditional "gulet" (traditional wooden yacht) cruise along the so-called "Turquoise Coast" of Turkey. The August 6 sailing has been discounted by nearly $20 percent, to just $100/day per person ($800 for the eight-night sailing). For complete information, click here.

-White Water Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Closer to home is this terrific deal from the experts at Arizona River Rafters. For the August 21, 28 and September 10 sessions (each one is 5 nights long), the company will be dropping the price of this adventure by over $750 per person. The new price, for the first two outings, will be a reasonable $1595; the last sailing is $1795. That price includes guided hikes in the canyon, tents, food, the services of expert guides and evening entertainment (usually games). A wonderful opportunity for adventurous families. Click here for full details.

Monday, July 30, 2012

More Flexibility in Hotel Bookings

For a long-time the unspoken contract between consumers and most travel websites that peddled hotel rooms has been: lock in your booking with us in advance, and we'll give you a significant discount.

It was a way for Orbitz, Booking.com, Travelocity and their kin to wrest business away from the hotels directly. Why else would any traveler give up the right to cancel their reservation at the last-minute, should their travel plans change, or should they find a better deal?

Well, mighty Expedia has decided to shift the paradigm. With its new "Traveler Preference Program", vacationers will be able to make a reservation well in advance, but pay only when they check-in at the hotel (at the desk). The new website Skift, which is aimed at readers in the travel industry, broke the news this week. So far, these types of reservations will only be available at Hilton, La Quinta, Marriott and Barcelo Hotels through Expedia.

So why should us non-travel industry insiders care? Because it give us another tool with which to game the system. Now we can make a reservation  well in advance through Expedia (hopefully at a savings, though you never know until you research) and then play the field, looking for last-minute deals or bidding blindly on Priceline.

Of course, the new program will only be really useful if more hotels sign on. We'll have to watch and see.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Freebie Friday: 50 Shades of Porn, Free Over the Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is adding audio books to its already abundant seat back entertainment options. Does that mean that flight time will become more intellectually stimulating? Has the airline commissioned James Earl Jones to read aloud Thucydides "The Peloponnsian Wars" or Vanessa Redgrave to narrate "War and Peace"? 

Um, no, that's not the type of stimulation Virgin is going for.

Instead, Sir Richard's staff has garnered itself a headline by picking the titillating best-seller "50 Shades of Gray".  "We want to give our female passengers the chance to enjoy the book in an intimate way, away from prying eyes, " explained Fay Burgin, head of PR, in a recent press release.


At least this means that people will be able to experience this trashy novel without having to spend their hard-earned money on it. Or they could just watch "John Carter".

Its a race to the bottom, ain't it Virgin?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thinking of Becoming a Travel Writer?

Head to Corte Madera, California in three weeks.

That's not meant to be a cryptic answer. Book Passage, a terrific independent bookstore in Corte Madera hosts the finest travel writers conference in the US each year, and I hear there are still spaces open for the upcoming one, which will take place from August 9-12.

What makes it so worthwhile? The caliber of the people involved. Each year, organizer Don George, invites the big names in travel writing and photography to participate. And they not only give lectures, but they work one-on-one with students. Best of all: the conference is a great career launchpad. Many former participants have gotten jobs from the many editors (and agents) who attend.

I'll be teaching a course on "Service Writing" this year, with my esteemed colleague Chris Gray Faust. The faculty also includes:

-Spud Hilton (Travel Editor, San Francisco Chronicle)
-Andrew McCarthy (Award winning travel writer and movie start)
-Susan Orlean (Staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the book "The Orchid Thief")
-Robert Reid (Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor)
-Peter Greenberg (Travel Editor, CBS News)
-Phil Cousineau (Public TV host and author of "The Art of Pilgrimage)
-Julia Cosgrove (Editor-in-Chief, Afar Magazine)
-Andrew Evans (National Geographic's "Digital Nomad")

For complete information, click on the link above or take a look at this article Gadling.com did on the conference. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Another Awesome Ireland Deal, This Time for Summer!

I know, I know. This blog has been shanghaied, so to speak, by Ireland recently. But the deals keep coming, and this one, being for temperate early September, is a particularly stellar offering.

It comes from GoToday.com and will only be available for departure on August 30 (from JFK at the lead price of $1099; other gateways available for an additional add-on). The package is delightfully comprehensive including round-trip airfare, lodgings, a rental car and all taxes. And the lodgings are done in such a way that the vacationer can make their own itinerary. They'll be given a set of vouchers to use at whatever Irish Country Hotels hotels in Ireland they wish. Irish Country is a chain of 25 lovely properties in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They tend to hug the coastline and as of this writing, there are no properties in Dublin itself, nearby County Wicklow or the very center of the Emerald Isle. Guests make their own advance reservations at the hotels of their choice.

At $125 per person, per day, the deal is well night unbeatable. Even if you hadn't been considering an Irish vacation this year, well...maybe its time to reconsider.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Feel Like You're Being Taken for a Ride? You Must Be On An Airplane

Regular readers to this blog know that I have a love-hate relationship with the airlines. Yesterday was love. Today......

My gripe? In an industry that's highly subsidized by the US government (which spends millions of dollars each year on airport maintenance, safety checks and other regulatory tasks), should the airlines be allowed to impose fee after fee after fee, burdening the tax-paying traveler with expenses for items that were included for the last, what, 30 years? And how transparent should they be about what they're charging consumers? Finally how often should the airlines be allowed to change the rules on the consumers?

I ask these questions for three reasons:

1) A study by Ideaworks in partnership with Amadeus reports that the 50 top airlines in the world earned a record amount of money this year in so-called ancillary fees. Those are the added costs that are often sprung on consumers late in the travel process (such as luggage fees, fees to choose your seat, etc.). How much did the airlines make? A staggering $22.6 billion, a figure that's up 66% in just the last two years. United, Delta, Qantas and American earned the most with these fees, and with their frequent flyer programs. For more on this topic, click here.

2) Speaking of frequent flyer miles, that's where "changing the rules" comes in. American Airlines has notified its members that those miles earned before July 1, 1989--when the miles were deemed "no expiration"--will expire after all. Unless the customers holding these miles earn some more. The move won't affect that many people, but it's backhanded nonetheless. These frequent flyer programs are so rigged, there's little that those who are affected can do to protect their miles without playing the airlines' games. Here's a complete article on this topic.

3) The final entry in today's Hall of Shame of a blog? Fuel surcharges that aren't pegged to fuel costs after all. According to the Los Angeles Times, these surcharges have increased twice as fast as fuel prices in the past year. In fact, a number of flights added higher fuel surcharges in 2009, when the cost of a barrel of oil was high, and then never brought the surcharges down, even after oil prices dropped. On some international flights, the fuel surcharge represents 50% of the entire ticket price, and can add as much as $370 onto the final price tag.

 What's there to do beyond complaining to one another. That's a good question. Recently Ray LaHood stated that the Department of Transportation has no ability to regulate, whatsoever, the amounts airlines are charging the public; and how they come up with these fees. In order for the DOT to regulate, the laws will have to be changed. So perhaps its time for us to be contacting our congresspeople.

And I have to say that our representatives do listen when the public yells loudly enough. My Congressman, Jerrold Nadler, will be introducing a bill this month to end one of the most short-sighted of the airline's money making schemes: the expansion of premium seats. The effect of this move has made it impossible for families with young children to sit together without paying exorbitant extra fees. Since this new tactic is dividing families, quite literally, its a safety issue and should be regulated. Let's hope Nadler's bill gains some traction.

To write your Senators on any of these issues, click here. For your congressperson's address, click here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

New Routes, Veteran's Perks, Discount Fares: A Round-Up of Airfare News

All good news today on the airline front. Let's get started!

Free Flights for WWII Veterans to the Monuments of DC
A big "hooah!" for Southwest Airlines which has pledged to work with the Honor Flight Network, an organization that helps bring veterans to the nation's capital to see its monuments. Through 2015, the airline will donate $1.2 million worth of flights to World War II veterans. For more on that, click here.The Honor Flight Network has given more than 8,000 veterans free trips to DC since 2005, when the organization was founded.

Island Hopping in Hawaii Gets More Affordable
Over the past year, Hawaiian Airlines has increased its numbers of inter-island flight by 13% and its planning on doing even more of them. With increasing numbers of flyers, happily, comes decreasing costs and the airline is claiming that the fares may drop by as much as 25% in some cases (though the recent discounts seem more in the 10% range). Hawaiian TV station KHON2 posted this article on the new fares and itineraries.

Non-Stops in the Pipeline Between Chicago and Berlin
And they're from upstart airline Air Berlin which will start service on March 23, 2013. Posted one-way, non-stop fares start at $818 which is the least expensive spring fares one can find for this route from other carriers. But there's a big difference: none of those other airlines fly non-stop between these two cities. For more, click on the link above.

Eurofly's Name Change to Meridiana
Somehow I missed this one (sorry!). But last year, Eurofly, the airline that had been offering low-priced, direct flights from the US to Italy each summer, changed its name to that of its parent company, Meridiana (apparently the planes still are painted "Eurofly" though). For most of the summer of 2012 (June 15-Sept 28) Meridiana offered competitively-priced, direct flights from New York's JFK to both Naples and Palermo. Alas, the lowest cost seats are gone for this year (they came in at about $900 round-trip, not a bad price for Italy, particularly Sicily), but they are sure to return next summer. Insider tip: Unlike other airlines, Meridiana doesn't charge extra for bookings made over the phone. In fact, they hold back some discounts for phone bookings so be sure to call the number of the website as well as plug in your dates to the online engine.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Olympic Fallout: Low Visitor Numbers Spawn Terrific Deals on Lodgings

Counter-intuitive but not unexpected: the Olympics seem to have killed travel to the UK this summer. A number of sources have been reporting that hotel prices are 30% below what they were last year.  Go to any hotel booking site and you'll find terrific deals on hotels in all price categories.

For real budgeteers, I'm posting this latest offering from super-cheap (but just fine) chain Travelodge.  It will be discounting London rooms to just 26.50 GBP per night from July 26-September 9, with rooms throughout the UK going for as little as 19GBP for those who book 21 days ahead. Traveling sooner? Then 29GBP is the still-low-for-the-British-Isles price you'll pay to book a stay 7 days from now.

As always, these sales are limited in scope, with the earliest bookers getting the best prices. And the best properties, which can vary greatly in upkeep, particularly in London. On a recent trip there, I stayed at two Travelodges, one of which was quite nice,  the other bordering on the seedy.

A final word: unlike other Brit lodgings, the prices above are per room, and they hold even for the rooms with pull-out couches that can accommodate up to four people (great news for traveling families).

Here's a link to this particular sale.

(Note: British Airways is currently running a sale that combines two free hotel nights with airfare from the US for travel between late July and September. However, the prices I'm finding when I plug in dates are so high, that I can't give it a whole-hearted recommendation. I'm mentioning it, since I'm making that statement based on just four searches. Perhaps you'll have better luck than I in picking the right dates to make that promo work.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

China and Ireland, Back Again In the Discounting Spotlight

Just when I thought I could turn my attention to other areas of the world, the two perennial stars in the race to the bottom (of the price scale, that is) set off more fireworks. In the form of terrific, new offers, that is.

Ireland Including Everything But the Guinness for $899
Sceptre Tours enjoys playing peek-a-boo with consumers. It posts a terrific deal, lets it sit for a week, withdraws it and then amazes again two weeks later. With this offer, would-be travelers must act before July 27 to get the deal (or wait another few weeks in the hope there's another).

Let's break it down. The $899 in the headline covers a LOT, including rental car for a week (manual only at this price), 6 nights hotels in 4 truly lovely locations, airfare from the New York area (other gateways available for an additional cost), all taxes and fuel surcharges. As I said, everything but your pub tab. For $99 extra, Sceptre will throw in massive daily breakfasts, as well as admission to a number of sights you may want to see (Blarney Castle and the Cliffs of Moher among them). Its also possible to extend the vacation by a few days, again for a few more shekels.

The $899 price covers travel from November 1 through February 28, and as with all packages is per person, double occupancy. March and October prices are just $100 more. Click on the link at top for more information.

$999 Once Again for Beijing and Shanghai
Earlier in the week, I told you about China Spree's offer. Well, SmarTours one-upped it. Instead of offering 7 nights in these two fab cities for the price above, it gives the travel 8! That's five nights in Beijing and three in Shanghai. As with the ChinaSpree offer, the price covers airfare from the US and in country, ground transportation and breakfasts.

The difference, however, is made up for by the lack of tours on the Smartours offer (they're all optional and will cost extra). As well, ChinaSpree throws in three lunches.

Still, if you just want a good deal for China (one that comes in at about what the airfare alone would cost), this is a nifty option. Again, you'll want to click on the embedded link for more info (including the exact dates of the offer, which are scattered from November through March).  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

China When It's Chilly But Cheap

Shanghai and Beijing are the eastern equivalent of Paris and London for today's traveler. By which I mean that this pair is so important, in terms of their history, architecture, cultural institutions and financial clout, they are an essential visit for well-rounded westerners.

Which is why I was so pleased to read about miracle worker China Spree's most recent lollapalooza of a deal to China. For just $999 it will whisk passengers from San Francisco ($100 more from New York) to China, ensconce them in deluxe hotels in both cities, cover all in-country transportation (including flights between the two cities) and throw in massive, buffet breakfasts, 3 lunches and key sightseeing tours to the iconic sights of each city (including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Shanghai's Bund, among others).

The package is a winter one, with departures beginning in November.

Airfare add-ons are available from a number of cities; you get these prices if you agree to pay cash, rather than use your credit card. For complete details, go to China Spree's website.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Another Super Affordable Irish Winter Getaway

Its the Scots, not the Irish who have the reputation for thrift. But Ireland's financial crisis, and the travel deals it has spawned, may change that. Ireland now is THE destination for frugal travelers, as I've stated in this blog ad nauseum (especially when discussing recent deals from Brian Moore International Tours and Sceptre Tours).

Now, Gate 1 Travel has entered the discounting fray, with a terrific sale that drops the cost of a four night holiday in Dublin to just $599.

Why is that such a good deal? Because the price, is lower than the cost of airfare alone, yet includes flights (from the NYC area at the lowest rates; other cities available for a reasonable additional cost), fuel surcharges and airline taxes, a comfy and centrally located Dublin hotel and breakfast daily. Not that you'll likely need them, but Gate 1 also has some well-priced day trips to Northern Ireland and County Wicklow for folks who take this offer. (I should think with just four days, most folks will simply tour Dublin, which has more than enough to see and do in that amount of time, including the lovely government buildings as I've pictured).

The sale price holds for several departures in January and February; for other months, expect an uptick of between $80 and $200. To get this rate, you must book no later than July 23, using the code DLDVV50. Here's a link to the booking page.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Savings at the Gas Tank

It's the heart of road trip season.

As a public service, I'm going to point you to a  highly useful article on picking the right gas station. It was originally published by ABC News, based on an interview with the Patrick DeHaan of GasBuddy.com.

Click over. The tips included could save you a enough money, on a long trip, to treat yourself to a nice meal.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Seward, The Final Chapter: Glacier Trekking

I can't leave the topic of Seward, or Alaska, without talking about glacier trekking. (And then, I'll get off the topic of Alaska--pinkie swear! This blog has been shanghaid by one destination for far too long!).

Frank acknowledgement: I'd never been close to a glacier before I headed to Alaska. Yes, I'm a world traveler, but somehow I'd never come in shouting distance before (or wait, can that cause an avalanche. No, wrong type of white, cold stuff). This, despite visits to Argentina, Switzerland, Norway and other countries that proudly harbor these moving, massive chunks of ice. (I'm usually a city gal, what can I say?). 

A crevasse
I'd assumed that they'd be somewhat like an overgrown ice skating rink; glassy, smooth, a bit dull. Kind of like what I imagine Kim Kardashian's' personality to be like (I'm not a viewer of her show, have only seen her, well, everywhere).

But just as the Grand Canyon has far more interest than a big whole in the ground, so Godwin Glacier (the one I trekked) turned out to be a full blown, icy miracle. At certain points it looked like a New York City sidewalk, several days after a snowstorm, it was that gritty and untidy, from the silt its churned up. But step a few feet further, and you'll find yourself gazing into a crevasse that opens up like a bright blue portal into heaven (it would have blown Dante's mind, something that angelically blue leading down in the icy depths).

And because of Alaska's unusually heavy snows this past winter, my glacier (yes, I've claimed ownership) had a powerful, 500-foot waterfall gushing from its back. It was taller than most waterfalls in the "Lower 48" yet had no name. It was simply a "pop up" gusher, a fluke, a thing of intense beauty that will likely only be there for a short time. Suffice it to say, I feel privileged to have been sprayed by the thing.

And to have seen ice worms. And the undulations of the ice. And the castle of the ice princess. (OK, that last one was just to see if you were still paying attention).

I had this extraordinary adventure with the help of Exit Glacier Guides, a company begun by two young fellows who fell in love with ice trekking and decided to share the experience with others. They're still the only licensed guides in the area, but competition wouldn't likely cause them to raise their game, as they do a darn good job. Safety is first, their staff is personable and enthusiastic, and the supply, with the cost of the trek, the best darn GORP you'll likely ever try.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Seward Part Two: Adventures!

As I posted yesterday, the Sea Life Center and Exit Glacier are the sights many folks come to Seward to see. But the adventures on can have here! Well, they're just as alluring.

Take kayaking in Resurrection Bay. Now that's a pip of a good time, and we didn't even do it in the way, we'd originally planned.  Because the cheaper tours at Miller's Landing were sold out, we ended up hitting the waters with Sunny Cove Kayaking (lucky thing we did as Miller's Landing cancelled its trips that afternoon due to wind conditions, whereas we went out and were just fine!). It was a delightful three-hours of paddling through the waves and up to seals, who played peek-a-boo with us in the surf, seemingly unalaramed by our presence. During the course of the tour, we also landed briefly to hike through a "pickled forest"-- trees that were killed when the 1964 tsunami brought sea water over their roots. Oddly, the salt had the effect of preserving the trees and they're expected to stand for 200-years or so.

Next up: mushing! We headed to the winner of the 2012 Iditarod, place Mike Seavey's Ididaride, to immerse ourselves in everything dog racing.

During the presentation, we learned all about the grueling course of the race, how both mushers and dogs train for it, and the equipment used. Here, my 9-year-old daughter holds an actual trainer's boot that's nearly as big as she is.

Lectures were followed by a 20-minute dog sled ride (on a sled with wheels) through the boreal forest. The dogs were so excited, they would constantly leap up in place when the sled stopped, signalling the trainer they were ready to be on their way. They seemed like a happy, well cared for crew.

But the highlight, of course, was getting to cuddle the new puppies. This one, a female, is nicknamed Badger for the markings on her face. What her eventual name will be is anybody's guess. Visitors get to suggest names on cards as they exit. (I'm hoping they pick Brando, Beelzebub or Trixie!).

I'll continue with the final Seward adventure tomorrow, as this post is getting a wee bit long.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Sights of Seward (Part 1)

Seward, in the distance, seen from a helicopter
Seward is an unlovely city. Devastated by a tsunami in 1964, which destroyed much of the old town, today it's a collection of squat, modern houses that look as hastily built as they likely were. And because Seward is home to both the state's only maximum security prison, and a number of important fisheries, its not a place that has to spruce up for tourists. It can show its plain jane face and be just fine; it has other industries to support its citizens.

That doesn't mean it isn't worth visiting. The smart visitor uses its extraordinary museum cum aquarium (The Alaska Sea Life Center) as a primer for understanding the area's marine life and lifestyle; and then gets out into nature to enjoy the real thing.

But don't skip the Sea Life Center. It's one of those rare museums that educates painlessly. With the use of interactive exhibits, visitors discover just how important the Bering Sea (viewable from the museum snapshot-worthy terrace) is, to both the world economy (60% of the fish consumed in the US comes from it); and its overall ecology. The lifecycle of the salmon is brought to vivid life, thanks in part to a tankful of the critters. And on the aquarium side of the spectrum are a delightful touch tank (who knew anemones would be as silky as mink?) as well as large areas housing seas, sea otters, sea lions, adorable puffins and more. Its really quite well done, and will delight grandson and grandma alike.

Tourists at the face of Exit Glacier

The other "marquee" attraction in Seward is Exit Glacier. Alas, its "exiting" much faster than it used to, and is thus a moving testimony on the power of global climate change. As one approaches its face (both in the car, and then later on the hiking trail), signs appear, listing dates that show where the glacier was in the 1920's, the 1940's and so on. Its retreated briskly in just the last 10 years. Bring a sweater; the air grows chillier the closer you get to the huge, mottled, downhill swoosh of ice. It glows eerily blue, as that's the only color of the spectrum that doesn't escape from the ice when light hits it.
One of the many lovely views from the hike up to Exit Glacier

More on Seward tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Russian Alaska

If Sarah Palin, when asked about her experience in international affairs, had talked about her state’s Russians, rather than the view she had of Russia from her backyard, she might have gained a bit more credibility. This is, after all, a state that’s been influenced more than any other by that foreign power. Russia once owned Alaska, the Russian Orthodox Church still plays a crucial role in the lives of many residents, and emigrees from our neighbor across the Bering Strait continue to stream in.  

Homer, for example, is home to a large community of  so-called “Old Believers”. A breakaway, fundamentalist sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, they moved to the US just about a decade-and-a-half ago, and to this region even more recently. A good explanation of their history, which includes migrations from Siberia to South American to Oregon and finally Alaska, can be found here.

I did not take the pictures of the “Old Believer” men and women I saw as it was clear they didn’t want to be photographed but learned about them from other locals I chatted with. An insular community, they speak Russian among themselves, marry in their teens, and have large families that are managed among traditional gender lines (the men work, many in the fishing and oil industry while the women take care of the kids). They are far from the simple lifestyles one usually associates with this type of sect, however. The women wear head coverings and long dresses, but the dresses are made of very shiny, garishly colored, patterned fabric. Imagine an Amish style dress of royal blue, with baby blue teddy bears all over it (yes, that’s one I saw) and you’ll get the pictures. Other parts of their lives are also far from old-fashioned: their rides are SUV’s and their homes are apparently also kitted out with all the modern conveniences.

The graveyard at the Ninilchik Russian Orthodox Church
But they do have restrictions on what they do. As I was returning to my campsite one night with supplies, a tow haired little boy, of about 4 years of age, came up to me and asked why I was carrying marshmallows. I told him it was to make ‘smores and at his puzzled look, explained what they were. He then said to me in the most solemn tone of voice imaginable. “I’m not allowed to eat chocolate. I’m Russian.” And then he sprinted away.

Apparently, there’s a restaurant in their community (right outside Homer) called “The Samovar” that serves excellent borscht. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try it.

I encountered the older Russian heritage farther back on the peninsula. As we were driving from Homer to Seward, I happened upon a sign for the Niniltchik Russian Orthodox Church, and veered off the road to investigate. Inside I met Paul (pictured), a “reader” whose job it is to sit here every day singing the scriptures.

A lovely, open man, he responded when I asked if he was a priest “No, you have to be married to be a priest. Hey, are you single?”

Paul is Klinket, divorced, and a father of seven. He served in the army as well as working as a long-distance truck driver for many years before becoming a reader. He spoke of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church with evident pride explaining how the missionaries who brought the faith here did so with respect for his ancestors and the other native Alaskans they converted. Early priests translated the bible into a number of different native Alaskan languages (and he then pulled out out several bibles as examples); and the tones he was sinking as a reader were also re-worked so that they echoed Native Alaskan music.

He allowed me to take these two pictures and then went back to his singing which was transfixing, and carried with it the echoes of the centuries. Do stop in to talk with him if you’re ever in that region of Alaska.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just a Wee Bit More From Homer

Homer is such an incredible beauty spot I had to add these two pictures. They were taken from the Homer Spit, which feels honky tonk on first glance, with its rows of t-shirt shops, fish and chips emporiums and guided tour operations. But wander just a minute off the road, as these two did, and you can be all alone in nature. You just have to face the right direction.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Freebie Friday: Stream Movies for Free While on the Road (or At Home)

(A brief change of pace from Alaska for "Freebie Friday")

Have WiFi? Its free movie time then, whether you're stuck at an airport between flights, in a motel with nothing much to do, or just sitting on your own couch. A site called Open Culture has put up a list of 500 movies that one can access for free on the internet. They range from forgotten classics like the 1946 version of Great Expectations to screwball comedies ("His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant) to surrealist masterpieces like Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's "La Age D'Or".

Click on the link above for a gander.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on Homer, Alaska

When traveling, I like to find out what the locals are proudest of. Its usually a good guide to where the heart of the place lies; and what you, the outsider, should be paying attention to. In Homer, beyond its fab live music scene, abundance of mystics and massage therapists, and great bakery (Two Sisters), everyone is kvelling over their new playground.

That might sound like a side issue, but it tells a bit about the place. You see, they tried to fund the playground through conventional means, approaching state and local officials. Upon being told there was no funding for the project, a group of local moms banded together. They not only raised all the money, they built it in just a week and a half. It’s a fanciful place, and its location is spectacular, set right on the edge of Karen Hornaday Park.

We got to know the park quite well, as that’s we camped in the park. Though this city park’s campgrounds are not as popular as those on the Homer spit, they’re much more civilized, to my mind, each a private little nook surrounded by trees and shrubbery. Camp on the Homer Spit and you’ll be within, well, spitting distance of your neighbors and exposed to the ferocious winds that blow over the bay. Locals told us that it wasn’t unusual to see tents floating in the bay, having been wrenched up out of the sands of the Spit campgrounds. 
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go our in the midday sun”--but citified children from Greenwich Village decide to swim in the Bering Sea!

Behind the nature center in Homer are paths through the crane-laden marshlands to Bishop’s Beach. The latter is a wonderful place for tide-pooling, but that gentle activity wasn’t enough excitement for my crazy kid. She managed to persuade two local girls she’d just met to run into the 35-degree water with her!

Luckily, the grandparents of the girls had a washer and dryer at their trailer home. We went back there so the now miserably cold kids could thaw out with hot showers, and we could dry all their clothes. 

Former residents of the Aleutian Islands, they told me stories about extreme fishing (the grandfather was an engineer for the "Deadliest Catch" fleets of that area) as we waited. We also discussed an episode in American history that I was totally unaware of:  the internment of the native Alaskans of the Aleution Islands during World War II. The government, at the time, had made the excuse that it was for their own safety, but the Aleutians  are still angry about what happened to them some 60 years on. It was also fascinating to see the inside of an Alaskan home (it was filled with Native Alaskan art).

Homer is the "Halibut Capitol of the World". Or so everyone here claims. On the Homer Spit, a number of local businesses thrive taking tourists out to make their catches. Other companies specialize in fileting the fish, and still others FedEx it to all parts of the globe. Yup, there's gold in them gills. Here’s a day’s catch at one of the fishing companies. 

And here’s a staffer at one of Homer’s fishing companies breaking down into filets a massive halibut caught by a tourist from Washington, DC. The recreational fisherman was particularly interested in this young man excavating the fish’s inner ear bone. Like a tree trunk, it has striations that allow one to tell how old the fish is.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Off to the Kenai Peninsula

I was hoping this series of photos would come out better. Alas, it was a gray day on the Turnagain Arm when I motored through from Anchorage. We stopped at this turn-off because a big crowd was gathered, watching beluga whales in the Sound. Alas, I couldn't catch any of their silvery backs or spouts on film (we saw one spout), but you'll have to trust me that they were there, and spectacular, as were the zebra-striped peaks of the mountains across the way.

About every 30 miles or so, there's a "Pan for Gold!" concession along the road on the Kenai Peninsula. Traveling with a 9-year-old means you stop for such hokey attractions, but I have to say, I'm glad we did. Yes, we paid $29 for a bucket of dirt that yielded about 25 microscopic specks of gold. But doing that took a good hour and a half, during which we learned about the history of gold mining in the area, the properties of gold (heavier than the rest of the silt) and the different ways prospectors went about getting the loot over the years. All in all, a very fun activity and highly recommended for those traveling with little ones.
Finally, we got to Homer. Here's the view from my nicely secluded (and near to the pit toilets) camp site. Though the photo doesn't show it, the mountains looked as if they were being lit by black light, their blue was that electric in color.  Homer is simply stunning and darn groovy too, with a real laid-back hippie vibe.

I'll post more on the Fifth!

Monday, July 2, 2012

True North: The First Installment on our Road Trip to Alaska

Every summer, Palmer, Alaska hosts the state fair. The locally-grown vegetables displayed there would gobsmack Paul Bunyan. Cabbage weighing 600 pounds! A one-ton pumpkin! Massive potatoes, monstrous heads of kale, obscenely hung carrots.

Alaskans explain the phenomena by citing the 19-hours of summer sunlight and glacier-silt enriched soils.

But as a first-time visitor, I'd have to say this is just one more example of the ginormous spirit of the state. Forget Texas! It looks puny in comparison.

We decided to take a road and train trip through the state. So for the next few days, I'll be posting pictures and commentary about our journey. Please tune in tomorrow to see the first photos.