Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Autumn: how do I love thee...?

... let me count the ways.

I've often mentioned that September and October are my favorite months of the year. Fall is definitely my favourite season. But why is that? 

Fall paddling along the Rideau.

As October comes to a close, here are some of the reasons for loving this season, from an outdoors/travel perspective.

1. I love the fall colours. Granted, we don't get them in B.C. like I did growing up back east in Ontario or going to university in New Brunswick, but we get a bit of colour. 

Of course, if you want to experience those colours, that's a great reason to visit a place like Lanark County, Ontario and enjoy some of the wonderful experiences just waiting for you - and while you're enjoying them, you can take in the fall beauty.

2. Usually until the last week or so, the days are still warm, but not too warm - and the nights are wonderfully cool.

3. It's cool enough to use the fireplaces in any building in which you're ensconced.

4. It's still warm enough to go canoeing or kayaking comfortably. (Mind you, is it ever too cold? I once did a three-day canoe trip in north central Saskatchewan in October, with bits of snow falling the first day!)

Paddling into the fall.

5. While it's still warm, all the bugs are gone, for the most part.

6. Kids are back in school, so it's not as busy at recreational areas like parks, pools, lakes, etc., at least not during the week.

7. There are no goofy holidays that have emotional meanings attached to them (Christmas, Easter), causing family around the country to pressure you to "spend quality time" with them, even if it costs an arm and a leg to fly there.

8. Although it's warm, it's probably cool enough to justify "adding a nip" of something to your coffee or hot chocolate to give it extra warmth.

Trumpeter swans winging their way south.
9. It's an amazing time of the year for watching migrations of wild birds. Some spectacular displays of birds like snow geese are there for the watching.

The best place to see these flights of fowl is at a nearby bird sanctuary, like George C. Reifel in Ladner, B.C. or Cape Tourmente, near Quebec City. 

Check your area, you're sure to find not too far away.

10. Did I mention the colours?

What are some of your favourite reasons to love travel and the outdoors in the fall?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

National wildlife refuges offer cool travel experiences

Egrets are just one of the bird species found in Merritt Island.
One of the main reasons I travel is to see wildlife close up, to see wild animals in their native habitat.

I've been more than fortunate in my lifetime, that I've seen so many different wild animals in so many different countries: lions and gorillas in Africa, crocodiles and capybaras in South America, orangutans and gibbons in Borneo, to name but a few.

While there are still several on my list of "want-to's" (kangaroos and koalas in Oz, komodos in Indonesia to name but a few), I certainly feel extremely grateful that I've seen what I have.

Some of my best experiences have come right here in North America. And that's what the focus of this piece will be: wildlife at home. More specifically, wildlife found in the National Wildlife Refuges of the U.S., because it is National Wildlife Refuge Week.

NWR's are not the same as national parks, although some exist as part of a national park. In the U.S., National Parks are located in unique natural places and developed to serve a large number of visitors. Facilities for cars and walking are given priority.  

National wildlife refuges, on the other hand, come in all sizes, from tiny to enormous. On average there are more than 10 refuges per state (with 560 nationally). Their primary function is to help conserve wildlife, fish and plant resources and their habitats.

When I started looking at the number of parks I've visited in the U.S., compared with wildlife refuges, I was surprised. I've been to five NWR's but only a pair of NP's - and in one of those parks, I spent much of my time in the NWR.

Anyway, here, without further ado, are some thumbnail sketches of the refuges I've visited.

Merritt Island NWR. Located near Titusville, Florida, this place is a bird-watcher's paradise. I spotted my first roseate spoonbills here. It was also here I saw some of my first wild American alligators. Along with the wildlife there, the refuge is very unique, in that it sits in the shadow of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Florida Panther NWR. Just a short drive from Naples, Florida, this spot is set aside to try to conserve the highly-endangered Florida panther (the animal, not the NHL team!). The Florida panther is an endangered subspecies of Puma concolor, and is the only breeding population east of the Mississippi River. While hiking through the refuge, I didn't spy any panthers, just some deer and woodpeckers.
A woodpecker in the Key Deer NWR.

National Key Deer NWR. Located in the lower Florida Keys, it consists of about 9,200 acres of land comprised of pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests. It's home to the tiny Key deer - the only place in the world they're found. Didn't see any during my tramp around the Jack C. Watson wildlife trail, but again saw a red-bellied woodpecker. 

Ten Thousand Islands NWR. Situated in Everglades National Park, this area is not typically what you might envision when someone says "everglades." 

It sits right on the Gulf of Mexico, and the islands are mainly mangrove islands. While paddling on a four day day kayak trip there, I managed to see dolphins, turtles, manatees, raccoons, and numerous types of birds, including a cardinal, two ospreys, herons, and several egrets.

Okefenokee NWR. Just north of the Florida panhandle in southern Georgia, I spent three days canoeing and camping in this wonderful reserve with Okefenokee Adventures, the go-to adventure tour operator for the area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.

Alligators: one of the apex predators in the Okefenokee.

We saw several alligators, some deer, a few snakes, and numerous birds - including a sandhill crane, green heron and some egrets. A wonderful place for a naturalist to hang out, it's only accessible by canoe.

These are just a few of the NWR's around the USA, so if you get a chance this week, check out one of the refuges in your neck of the woods. Some refuges offer activities to mark the week, or you can just go on your own and enjoy nature. Because as Henry David Thoreau remarked, "We need the tonic of wildness..."

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Favourite travel flicks (that don't involve Christmas)

If you have an urge to travel, but for whatever reason, you can't the next best option may be to watch a movie about travel. Or at least one that will take you on a journey of some kind.

Last December, I penned a post about some of my favourite Christmas movies, and they all involved some element of travel.

I've shared some of my favourite travel books in the past; now here are some of my favourite "travel" movies. They're not travelogues or documentaries about travel; they're fictional action movies that involve a fairly prominent degree of travel.

You may notice none of them involve paddling trips or anything to do with parrots; that's because I plan to blog about those more specific types of travel experiences in the movies in some future posts.

So they are - some of my favourite travel movies.

Any Indiana Jones movie. These movies may have inspired many to launch a career in archaeology (although if they did not heed Indy's words, "We do not follow maps to buried treasure - and 'X' never, ever marks the spot," they might be disappointed). Not many movie series involve more travel than this franchise. Indy's in South America, Nepal, Egypt, China, India, Italy, Austria, Germany, and even the fictional country of the Republic of Hatay (filmed in Jordan). Plus they always feature those cool "map route" video views.

Across the Pacific

You really can't beat the series for travel.

Any James Bond movie. Right on the heels of the Indy Jones flicks (some would say just ahead of) are the adventures of British spy 007.

That's a long list of places 007 has visited...
There's no doubt he gets around...the first Bond movie I ever watched featured him in China and Japan (You Only Live Twice).

The next time I saw him, he was in Venice (like Indy in that city, he's in the company of a ravishing blonde), then Brazil - then outer space! He's also been to India, Thailand, Cuba, the USA, Korea, Iceland, Montenegro, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

He's travelled by air, by boat, by space ship, by car (with that famous Aston Martin) and by train. He really gets around, that James...

Murder on the Orient Express. One of Bond's best-known scenes is the fight with SPECTRE assassin Red Grant while on the Orient Express in From Russia with Love. It's much more violent than the murder committed in the 1974 movie based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel, but like FRWL, it starts out in Turkey and heads east toward Paris. It's not only a great whodunit, it involves travel on one of history's most luxurious trains.

High Road to China. A 1983 adventure flick set in the 1920s, starring Tom Selleck - the man who almost became Indy Jones ahead of Harrison Ford (think about that). But his contract with the Magnum P.I. television series would not allow it.

Selleck plays a pilot hired to fly from Istanbul (how do all these movies seem to start in Istanbul?) to China to find her missing father. It's a real fun flick to watch.

King Solomon's Mines. Based on the book by H. Rider Haggard, there are several versions of this movie, but my favourite is the 1950 release starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. Again, the main female lead hires the main male lead to help her find a missing person, this time a husband and along the way through unexplored Africa of the 19th century, they find the famous diamond mines.

There's no word on whether Kerr's character arrives in Kenya via Turkey. But you never know...

Watch out for the rhinos!

Alaska. Starring a young Thora Birch and Dirk Benedict (Faceman from "The A Team" television series), this is a family adventure movie about two kids looking for their bush pilot father who's crashed somewhere in the remote Alaskan wilderness. They kayak and hike their way through the wilds to find him, stopping an evil poacher (played, appropriately, by Charlton Heston) and saving a polar bear cub along the way.

How the West was Won. Based on the Louis L'Amour novel of the same time, this star-studded flick - featuring the likes of James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Karl Malden, and George Peppard to name but a few - chronicles the spread of American settlers from the eastern seaboard westward across the plains to the mountains on the Pacific coast. They travel by canal ferry, canoe, river raft, wagon train, paddlewheeler, horseback, and locomotive across the land and across the screen.

To the Ends of the Earth. A film noir movie from 1948, it follows the travels of US narcotics agent Michael Barrows (played by Dick Powell) from San Francisco to Shanghai, from Shanghai to Egypt, from Egypt to the Caribbean as he tracks a gang of murderous drug lords. Really well done, and it has a very surprising twist at the end. (He never makes it to Turkey, though!)

Around the World in 80 Days. I've seen two versions of this movie based on the book by Jules Verne and enjoyed them both immensely, one with David Niven starring as Phileas Fogg, the other with Pierce Brosnan playing the main character. They travel around the world from London and back, by balloon, steamer, and rail, racing against the clock to win a bet. Great fun.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The original Hemingway story takes place only in Africa, but in the movie with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, and Ava Gardner, it has the main character - writer Harry Street - also showing up in Spain and Italy as part of the back story, told through the device of flashback. Good stuff, a pretty decent adaptation of the short story.

Ava Gardner is one of the lovely ladies in this film.

So...those are some of my favourite travel movies - what are yours?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

There are souvenirs - and there are SOUVENIRS

Memories are made of this...
Everyone likes to take home reminders, mementos of their travels abroad. For years, souvenirs have
been part of the travel experience. Aside from photos, they provide the best physical reminders of journeys.

Like everything else in life, this has its good points and bad points.

The best mementos often consist of something you cannot get at home, something produced by a local craftsman, something unique and special that calls back a specific memory of a trip.

The worst consist of the kitschy plastic mass-produced commercial souvenirs purchased often in airport gift shops, often before boarding a plane to leave and return home.

In no way is this meant to criticize anyone who purchases the latter on a trip. Hell, I have more than a few souvenir ball caps and beer mugs myself, from many of the places I've visited.

But I also have plenty of authentic pieces of art, crafts, and other reminders of my journeys. And while I enjoy sporting a cap that proclaims, "I've gone kayaking in the Cayman Islands," most of my favourite souvenirs are these hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind pieces of work.

Of course, those do the most good for local people, particularly in Third World Countries, and that's the best reason for spending at least a good portion of your souvenir budget on those types of souvenirs.

Lately, I've been favouring experiences over objects, trying to keep the clutter in my house down. However, I still will purchase special gifts from time to time when I travel abroad.

Here are some of my favourite items from past trips, in no particular order (I'm limiting each destination to just one souvenir - otherwise I could take up the entire list with objects from Africa.)

1. Wooden drum from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It's pictured above with a table from Malawi and a wine goblet from Tanzania. This was a really tough call, we traded for/purchased so many cool items in Africa, all created by individual artisans. They're scattered throughout our living room. As I mentioned in a post last month, half the fun - and all the memories! - of these souvenirs resulted from the bartering process.
Nothing like a good sacrifice to spruce up the kitchen!

2. Mayan wall carving. Obtained this one at a market in the city of San Ignacio, Belize, located right next to the Guatemalan border. I think it was actually someone from Guatemala selling it, but it looked really cool, and always serves as a reminder of my very first international trip, and a week spent in the Maya Mountains.

3.  Woven bag. This one was purchased partly out of necessity.

It's colourful and handy - I picked it up in a market in Ollantaytambo, Peru. And thanks to the work of my guide Liliana Bayona, who rapidly talked the seller down in Spanish during some rapid bargaining, I paid much less for it than they wanted me to, initially.

(Sadly, there's no picture of this - the mice got to it during an infestation a few years ago.)

Iban hornbill bowl.
4. Hornbill bowl. I picked up this carving at an Iban village in Malaysian Borneo. Because in a blog entitled "Parrots, Paddling and Ponderings," you have to expect I would include at least one bird item in my list, don't you? I was lucky to get the only one, as some of the rest of my group also liked it.

5. Huaorani blowgun. This is an actual blowgun used by this tribe in the Amazon rain forests of Ecuador (which offers much more than just the Galapagos, I might add).

We paddled with some of them in kayaks down the Rio Shiripuno for five days, spending one day in their village. Great experience.

The Huaorani blowgun: don't leave the village without it.
What are some of your favourite travel souvenirs?

While you're pondering that, you can listen to "Souvenirs" by John Prine.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Learning what it is I do - in Swahili

People in Africa really are as curious about us as we are, them.
Travelling in Africa taught me many things, and sometimes the lessons had to be repeated more than once for me to learn them.

The people there seem to have a real curiosity about others, a real desire to interact and learn about people from other places. 

I saw this on several occasions during a month-and-a-half, seven-country overland tour through East and Central Africa, but the most shining example I saw of this took place on the road in Tanzania between the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park.

During our travels there, the main highway through the country was a dirt road; the only paved roads we encountered during our entire journey from one end of the country to the other was in the larger cities. We spent many of our nights bush-camping, either on the side of a rural road or in a schoolyard (with permission). 

Roadside or schoolyard, it made no difference. The minute we pulled up and began setting up camp for the night, local people would appear, almost as if they’d been invisible and decided at that point to show themselves to us.

Most of the time, the people would just would watch and smile. Occasionally they would whisper to each other, laughing quietly from time to time. I can only imagine what they were thinking about these strange visitors from another place who obviously were very well off – but who chose to cook on open fires and sleep on the ground in pup tents.

Every now and then, one or two would reach out to us – or sometimes we’d reach out to them – and a connection would be made. 

In most of these attempts at connection, we often found their English to be limited - but it was still usually better than our “phrasebook Swahili.” If I wanted to say anything other than a hello, ask for beer or thank someone, I had to look it up.

As it turned out, I found out how to say something in Swahili I never expected to learn – but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

We always had plenty of interaction whenever we stopped to look at souvenirs produced by local craftsmen, and it was always lively, interesting, and entertaining - especially when clothes like hats, sneakers, and colorful T-shirts entered into the mix and became more valuable than currency, which they often did.

It is the nature of merchants to be gregarious, particularly in the bartering culture we encountered so many times during our travels through Africa. They truly enjoyed the interaction, the give-and-take, as much as making an actual sale. It was a social event. And I’m sure they often felt they got the better deal – just like we did.

On one particular day, we were driving along the road after leaving the Crater and saw several road-side stands that offered African carvings, shields and spears, drums, masks – everything that said “Africa.” The lorry we travelled in pulled over and out we poured, 20 of us from North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, ready to do business in the African bush.

The craftsmen had some wonderful merchandise, and the biggest difficulty was not finding something we liked, but rather limiting ourselves to a reasonable amount of goods. After all, we did have to transport this back to North America at the end of our trip. We already had accumulated quite a collection during our travels through Central Africa and Tanzania, so we had to try to exercise a bit of restraint.

No restraint? you end up with lots of Africa art in your home.

Myself, and my long-time travelling companion the Divine Ms. K, I found ourselves caught up in several negotiations for several different pieces. She is just as good a negotiator as I am, and once she set her eyes on a pair of Masai figures carved out of ebony wood, she was not leaving until she had them

But she had no intention of overpaying, either.

Once the man she was negotiating with realized this, once he figured out this might take a while, he motioned to someone, and a short, hand-carved wooden stool appeared by Ann’s side. He set it down, smiled broadly and said to her, “Here, this is for you – please, sit,” as he patted the well-worn top of the stool.

Sit she did, and then the bartering got really serious.

It was at that point that Russell, our tour leader, came over and said, “Some of the others want to go back down the road a couple of miles to another group of souvenir stands we passed. But it looks like you’re going to be a while.”

I looked at the negotiation, grinned and said, “Looks that way.”

“Do you feel comfortable being left here on your own for a while so we can backtrack down the road to the other stands? We won’t be more than 30 minutes, then we’ll pick you up on the way back to continue on our way to Tarangire.”

To be honest, I didn’t feel that comfortable. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, although there looked to be a few buildings across and down the road a bit, within walking distance. But Ann was having a great time and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport; however, I couldn’t keep the group there, either.

So I nodded, and said “Sure. See you in a bit.”

I had to fight down a bit of nervousness as I watched the lorry pull away, leaving the two of us alone at a roadside craft stand in the middle of the bush in Tanzania.

I overcame some of my nervousness by turning to watch the negotiations for the figures. It had continued unabated during my chat with Russell, and it had drawn quite a crowd by this point. Everyone was enjoying this entertaining new spectator sport: “Memsahib Ann” vs. “Trader Kwanza” in a five-round, no-holds barred, bartering spectacular.

(My occupation was showing. Again, more on that in a bit.)

“Someone should sell tickets for this,” I thought to myself.

Eventually they reached an agreement, both smiling, both figuring they had got the best of the other – but not by too much. Helpers moved to wrap and package the figures she’d purchased along with the items I’d already acquired in the “preliminary bartering bout.” They thanked us, as other merchants tried to persuade us to look at their wares. However, at this point, we were done. Besides, we only had so many arms to carry all this stuff.

This South Africa market is a bit more upscale than the ones we found in Tanzania.

Now – where was that lorry?

Two or three young men of high school age had been watching the proceedings and enjoying the show. They saw that we looked a bit lost at this point, a bit uncertain about what to do next, since there weren’t any bus stops or roadside pullouts where we could sit and wait for the group’s return.
“We would very much like to buy you a Coke,” one of them said in Swahili-accented English. “We can go into that place over there,” he pointed across the road to one of the buildings. “You can sit and wait for your friends and have something cold to drink.”

Of course, ever the paranoiac, my internal alarm bells went off immediately. I was hesitant, a bit leery of accepting the invitation. Could this be one of those cases where we became a news story about two overly trusting white tourists being mugged in Africa?

I tried to hedge my bet, saying, “Well, I don’t know if we have time, the lorry might be back any minute…I don’t want them to drive by without stopping, they might forget about us if we’re not there by the road…”

Ann, of course, had no such qualms.

“We’ll be fine, they won’t leave without us,” she chimed in, still flush and elated from her trading frenzy. “We can probably see the road from the confectionary and run out if it looks like they’re passing us by.”

“Well, I don’t know…”

But as the conversation continued, we continued to drift down the road and then across it, with our new companions. I didn’t want to insult them if they were genuine, but I didn’t want to put us at risk, either – or tip my hand that I thought they were up to something, if they were.

“C’mon, I’m thirsty, I could use a Coke,” she said.

So off we went. Myself, a bit reluctantly.

“Well, at least I don’t have all my camera gear with me,” I thought. “That makes me a less desirable target.”

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. Like the vast majority of people we met in small communities along the way all through Tanzania and Malawi, they just wanted to be friendly, to share their culture, and learn about us and ours.

They insisted on paying for the Cokes, refused to take anything from us.

It did come with a price, though.


They peppered us with questions.

“Where are you from, the United States?”

“No, we’re from Canada, it’s above the U.S. if you look on a map or globe of the world.”

“Where do you live in Canada?”

“We’re from British Columbia.”

“Is that near Colorado?”

And on the conversations went as we sipped our drinks. Suddenly, it wasn’t so important for the lorry to return so quickly.

The most curious and talkative one of the group, the one who offered to buy us drinks originally, asked me what I did for a living. At the time I was a sports writer, and I explained to him what it was that my job involved.

“Would you like to know how to say that in Swahili?” he said.

Of course I did.

He said it, once, then twice, as I tried to repeat it. We all laughed at that. He then wrote it out for me: “Michezo mwandishi.”

Better check that phrase book, again...
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t find that in any phrase book.

We chatted a bit more, then before we knew it, the lorry had come back and was slowing down just past the souvenir stands where they’d left us to look for bargains elsewhere.

It turned out, we got the best bargain of all, and it wasn’t something you could wrap up in paper and ship home.

We said good-bye to our new friends and climbed aboard to head off down the road to more adventures.

Aside from learning how to say my occupation in Swahili, I took much away from that encounter.

All throughout our journey, we met people who had a hunger for knowledge – knowledge about the world outside of their own, a thirst for learning about other people, a craving to connect. That was never more evident than that particular meeting, where a young man - whose family probably made less in a year than I did in a month - insisted he treat me, a visitor, to a cold drink in the local confectionary.

And despite having so little material wealth, they all seemed to be so happy and so friendly and so eager to connect.

That human connection is so vital to our well-being - whether it’s connecting with someone in Africa, or just making a connection with your neighbor down the street.

It also taught me that the secret to happiness is not how much you have or how much you can buy or barter for, but how you relate to others, the richness that comes from sharing…sharing a Coke, sharing a joke, sharing language, sharing experiences.

At times throughout the years since, I’ve struggled to remember that, to maintain it. Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail. But when I’m in one of those downer funks, sometimes it helps me to think back to those young men in Africa, and how happy they were just to buy a treat for a visitor that they knew they would probably never see again.
Sometimes that helps lift me out of it. And I think how no price could ever really be put on that invaluable Coke I sipped in rural Africa so many years ago.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brewery, distillery tours have come a long way, baby

"Brewery Tour!" Almost as good as "Road Trip!"  (Or better).
Back in my university days, the words "brewery tour!" were like a magic phrase that, translated
loosely into student-ese, meant "free drunk!"

Essentially, that's what they were, at least when I attended the University of New Brunswick.

Part of the reason for that in that particular province was the result of a total ban on any kind of advertising on TV, radio, or print media for any kind of alcohol. So the breweries had to come up with some different schemes to promote and market their products.

For university students, it was great. It meant we got a lot of free stuff - posters, hats, mugs, etc. with beer logos on them. The Schooner Van could always be seen at campus events. Not all the beer was free, but I do recall getting some great deals.
We also got to go on brewery tours.

The first time I went on one of these my freshman year, it was organized by the social committee of our UNB residence, MacKenzie House, back then a men's dorm (now I guess it's co-ed). We signed up, piled into a bus and drove from Fredericton to Saint John, the location of the Moosehead Brewery.

I was a bit surprised. We didn't actually tour the facility; they took us into a hospitality room, showed us a 20 minute film about making beer while drinking it and eating an endless supply of peanuts. The drinking continued for another two hours, then we got back aboard the bus in various states of inebriation and drove back to the campus.

Who wants a Kichesippi Natural Blonde with lunch?
I didn't go on another one until I toured the Granville Island Brewery during a visit to Vancouver in 1988. This really was more of a tour. Guides took us through the facility, and at the end, we got to sample a few of their brews in small glasses. I think I still have the logo beer mug from that trip - but unlike the ones at university, I had to pay for this one.

As I began travel-writing, I found myself on more and more of these: a visit to Columbia Brewery (makers of Kootenay Mountain Ale and Kokanee Lager) in Creston; the Alexander Keith's Brewery in Halifax (where I enjoyed beer pairings during a three-course meal); Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto; Ottawa's own Kichesippi Beer Company; and, most recently a tour of Big Spruce Brewing in Cape Breton.

The last one is a fairly new company, and it's a craft beer, made in small batches at one site. Like the others mentioned above, an actual tour does take place, one where you go behind the scenes at the facility, see how it's made, find out details about its young history, and learn about possible plans for future endeavours.
Getting ready to sample a bit of Big Spruce beer.

I'd actually sampled their brews throughout the first week of my fortnight's visit to the island, and it was nice to finally see the place where they were brewed (and sample a few more, as well!)

Let's head for some whisky at Glenora Distillery.
Less than a week later, I was sampling a different kind of product: single malt whisky, at the Glenora Inn & Distillery on Cape Breton. I'd never been to a distillery before. It was a nice visit, we stayed overnight at the inn that's part of the facility, and enjoyed some of their whisky-enhanced meals during supper.

The next day, we were sipping single malt during a tour of the facility, learning about their battle with Scotland over the right to call their product Glen Breton (not Scotch - and Glenora won), and about the nuances of enjoying a single malt with or without water.

By the way, Glenora is not only the first single-malt whisky distillery in Canada, it's the first in North America.

Flash forward a few more weeks and I'm on the opposite coast, enjoying a similar experience at Shelter Point in Vancouver Island's Comox Valley. This distillery is the second single malt producer in Canada, and in fact, it's so new, their first offering of whisky has only been available since the late spring, now.

Time to sip some Shelter Point whisky.
They also distill vodka at the facility - plain and in several flavours.

Yes, I'm really starting to enjoy the pleasures of single malt whiskey.

As for comparing the two...

I'm not copping out, but the fact is, my palate is not refined enough to really determine the difference between one single malt and another (especially when separated by two weeks between tastings.)

I'd drink either in a pinch. Or even if I was not in a pinch.

Needless to say, these tours are certainly different from the ones I experienced during my UNB days. Probably just as well. While there is a certain amount of tolerance for young 20-something drunks staggering around full of beer on campus, I don't know that a group of drunk travel or food-and-drink writers would be as acceptable.

Besides, we have to have somewhat clear heads to shoot photos/videos and write stories.

Now (and even though it's Irish whisky) - hand me that bottle of Writers' Tears.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Island magic never seems to disappoint

How much fruit can an orangutan eat?
So I'm headed off to Vancouver Island for a short
two-day trip today (Thursday) in the Comox area. I hope to see some seals, whales, maybe a dolphin or two, and definitely some sea-going birds (no sea parrots - a.k.a., puffins - on this trip though!) with Vancouver Island Marine Tours and Adventures.

It's certainly not my first trip to the island, and certainly won't be my last.

Thinking about it got me thinking about all the incredible island destinations I've visited. Of course, I just got back from one last week, and I'm wondering why it took me so long to visit Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotia hospitality always seems to shine, and that trip was no exception.

While I've been to many of the "must-do" islands, I've also been to some less renowned islands. But it doesn't seem to matter which category of island I'm on, as they always seem to produce a magical trip with memorable experiences.

So, without further ado, here's my Top List of Island Experiences I've enjoyed through the years, in no particular order.

1. Borneo: hanging out with primates. During a trip to the Malaysian part of the island, I visited not one, but two orangutan sanctuaries, facilities set up to act as a halfway house for re-introducing captive primates back to the wild.

Then I also saw not one, but two completely wild orangutans while cruising up and down the Kinabatangan River on wildlife safaris. While on the island, I also had the chance to see proboscis monkeys along that river as well as at Bako National Park.

2. Hawaii: swimming with sharks, diving with dolphins. In a two week trip to Hawaii, I was able to climb into the shark tank at the Maui Ocean Center and scuba dive with sharks, rays, and some other fish for about an hour. Really cool experience.

Then a week later on the Big Island, I went on an excursion out onto the Pacific Ocean and snorkeled with a pod of wild spinner dolphins. Equally cool.

Let's go hang out with the sharks.

3. Belize: cay-hopping and snorkeling. While this is not an island country, there are plenty of cays along its coast, and my first international trip of any kind (outside of Canada or the USA) involved a five-day paddle out to the barrier reef, camping on various cays along the way. It was also my first time kayaking (I'd been only a canoeist prior to that) and my first time snorkeling. Still one of my best snorkeling experiences anywhere.

Spotted this happy-looking parrot on the Mastic Trail.
4. Cayman Islands: parrot-spotting in the rainforests. There is plenty to do in the water in the Caymans, but also plenty of cool stuff to do on land, especially if you like birds. I got to see a flock of Grand Cayman parrots on the main island's Mastic Trail, then saw a few mated pairs of the very rare Cayman Brac parrots in the forests of the island those birds are named after.

5. Cape Breton Island: puffin tour. There is much more to do on Cape Breton than eating lobster (although it is scrumptious!) One of the main highlights of my tour there was being able to see puffins on Bird Island, with Donelda's Puffin Tours. There were plenty of other birds to see there, as well, but seeing puffins really made my trip.

6. Canary Islands: seeing the rarest of all parrots. During attendance at the 2006 Loro Parque International Parrot Convention, I had the opportunity to tour the private aviary and saw several pairs of Spix's macaws. Up until recently, they were extinct in the wild, and Loro Parque is working to make sure they don't disappear completely. For those unfamiliar, this the species that inspired the Disney movie, Rio.

7. Quadra Island: canoeing the ocean. A small island off the east coast of Vancouver Island near Campbell River, I've visited this island twice. During my visits, I had a chance to canoe in and around Heriot Bay, spotting eagles on the island where we lunched and plenty of seals on the rocks nearby. Oh, and plenty of jellyfish (the kind you want to avoid) floating around on the ocean.

Sunset in the Ten Thousand Islands.
8. Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida: kayaking in the 'Glades. This series of mangrove islands on the southwest Florida coast are not what most people picture when they think of the Everglades. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, it was more like cay-hopping in Belize, than swamp paddling (which I've also done.) What did we see? What didn't we see, would be more appropriate. We saw ospreys battling overhead, dolphins swimming under our kayaks, sea turtles, egrets, herons, raccoons. Great trip.

9. Vancouver Island: falconer for a day. One of my favourite experiences on Vancouver Island was spent learning about falconry with Pacific Northwest Raptors. And it was all hands-on, working with the birds, experience. We got to walk with them, then fly them, just a wonderful way to spend a day.

10. Joe Island, Joe Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario: canoeing. Another of the "lesser-known" islands (unless you happen to be a regular park paddler) it marked either the start or finish of many a multi-day canoe trip in the park. It created many fond memories that I still treasure - including the time we awoke to find a raccoon unzipping our tent door because it smelled food inside the tent! Glad it wasn't a bear...

Of course, there are some honourable mentions that didn't quite crack the Top 10:
  • Spirit Island in Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Canada (you can't actually camp there or even land on the island, but it's an inconic Canadian image)
  • Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick (kayaking and hiking adventures)
  • numerous other unnamed islands in Algonquin Provincial Park
So...what are some of YOUR favourite island experiences? Please let us know in the comments.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Lobster here, lobster there - a tasty crustacean everywhere

My first whole lobster this trip - served up on the beach.
No doubt those friends and followers who regularly see my posts on my Facebook pages (personal and business) and Twitter are aware of all the lobster I consumed during my two-week stay on  Cape Breton Island the past few weeks.

I believe I ate more lobster during my two weeks there than I had the previous two years. Or maybe even the previous two decades.

And I never enjoyed it more.

I also learned a lot about lobster, too - how to tell males from females, the optimum weight for a tender and tasty crustacean, how to get a lobster to do lobster yoga ("downward facing crustacean" is the best pose), and numerous other interesting tidbits about lobster.

I learned, too, that you can serve it in just about any form, and it will be good: lobster eggs benedict, lobster sauce on halibut, lobster poutine, lobster mac'n'cheese - it's all good.

Funny, I was never really a huge lobster lover. Oh, I'd had it on several occasions and it was good. But for some reason, this time around it just tasted better, in all its renderings.

The first time I had it was in 1979, at a spray camp/airfield in New Brunswick while working for Forest Protection Limited. Once a year, every summer, the company would fly in fresh lobster for the pilots, crews and others stationed there. My work partner Joe kept raving about how good it would be, explaining how the claws were the best part, especially dipped in melted butter.

Well, it was good - but obviously it didn't make a huge impression on me. Later that fall, while broadcasting a football game between the University of Prince Edward Island and the UNB Red Bombers in Charlottetown back to Fredericton on CHSR, I didn't order it for supper that night after the game, even though our meals were completely covered. My dad, a huge seafood fan, couldn't believe it when I told him during our weekly phone calls between Toronto and Fredericton.

After that, I didn't eat it for many years, and when I did, it never seemed to set off taste-gasms in my mouth. (I guess that's because I always seemed to eat it at a Red Lobster in Calgary. Good, but not great.)

That started to change in 2008.

That was the year the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia hosted the annual TMAC conference. The awards dinner that year was a lobster-fest, complete with plastic lobster bibs. Well, that year I threw myself into the festivities with abandon. I ate at least two, maybe three crustaceans. I also remember turning the bib around so it hung down my back like a cape, and declared myself to be "Lobster-Man!" Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!) the photos taken that night cannot be found.

I had finally started to appreciate lobster, it seemed.
The lobster at Doaktown, NB was really fresh.

I enjoyed it again thanks to TMAC during a pre-conference tour in 2012, at O'Donnell's Cottages (since changed to Storeytown Cottages), in Doaktown, NB.

It was the first day of the lobster season, and the catch was as fresh as an inebriated Grade 10 at his first senior prom.

 And that brings us to June, 2016. (It seems I'm destined to only enjoy good lobster every four years...)

It began with the first day of our pre-tours. We were treated to an incredible breakfast of lobster-benedict at the Hearthstone Inn in Sydney. Quite the way to start a tour.

Later that night at the Keltic Lodge in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I enjoyed a meal of halibut (my favourite fish) served with a lobster ravioli that did cause taste-gasms.

And it just kept getting better.

The next night, we were treated to a lobster boil on the beach, courtesy of Parks Canada and some of the local staff. There, our tour leader - kayaker and paddling musician extraordinaire Angelo Spinazzola - taught us how to really chow down on the treasured crustaceans.

We were not only taught lobster biology, we were serenaded by fiddler-chef Scott Aucoin. 

While the lobster cooked, the chef fiddled...

But believe it or not, we had still only just begun...

We really hit the jackpot the second night of the conference proper, (thanks again, in large part to Parks Canada) with a lobster dinner set inside the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Cooked to perfection, served up (to those of us who aren't oenophiles) with ample portions of Fortress Rum and plenty of other good food. (It topped off a perfect day for me, as I'd spent the morning watching sea parrots - a.k.a. puffins - during a three-hour tour. The lobster feast made an A-grade day into an A+ day.)

But wait - there's more...
Lobster kicks poutine up a notch or three.
There was great chowder with lobster in it at the Red Shoe Pub ... ditto at the Castle Rock Country Inn, the final night of our tour.

The real test came after a three-hour whale-watching excursion when we went to the Rusty Anchor

I was waffling between two different dishes that included lobster. Luckily, I managed to convince another writer to order lobster mac-and-cheese, while I ordered lobster poutine - and we switched halfway through so we got some of each.

Mac'n'cheese, already good, gets better with lobster.

Could ordinary dishes like these use lobster and be as good as the other renderings already enjoyed?

Yep. There were multiple taste-gasms, that night. Just picture Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally" - except she's eating lobster instead of deli cold cuts.

So, after all this, I can only assume there must be something special about Nova Scotia lobster - especially Cape Breton lobster, since it seems to taste better than any I've ever eaten anywhere else. It could also be the company, or maybe it's the freshness ... but I think there's also a little bit of Cape Breton magic there, as well.

That magic, that special warmth that seems to be everywhere on the island, that alone is good enough to lure me back there again, some day.

Plus I want a whole lobster poutine to myself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Solitude among the woods and waters of Nova Scotia

Morning mist on Mersey River.

There it was again. We had no idea what was making the noise 30 metres from our campsite, and we were not entirely certain we wanted to find out.

"It's probably a bear hunting for frogs," I said, hunkering down deeper in my sleeping bag.

"Bears don't eat frogs!" my companion replied from deep in her own sleeping bag.

"Do too!"

"Do not! Might be a moose, though."

"This isn't moose habitat! It's probably a bear … "

As it turned out, we were both right - sort of.  Later research revealed that black bears do indeed eat frogs. However, it was not a hungry bear on the prowl for the delicacy of frogs' legs. It turned out to be a bird - probably an osprey - diving for fish in Channel Lake's waters.

Channel Lake is part of a chain of waterways in the northwest corner of Kejimkujik National Park. Located in south-central NovaScotia, "Keji" is the only national park in the Maritimes completely surrounded by land, although there is a seaside adjunct apart from the park's main body. 

This 403-square kilometre island of wilderness is home to more than 100 species of birds; mammals such as deer, porcupine, moose - and yes, bear; and a variety of tree species, including oak, maple, hemlock, spruce and pine.
Sunset on Channel Lake

One of the best ways to experience the park is by canoe, on routes north or south of the large lake that gives the park its name. We paddled north of Kejimkujik for five days - partially following the route paddled by Albert Bigelow Paine in his book, The Tent Dwellers - through Big Dam Lake, Frozen Ocean Lake and Channel Lake before paddling back onto the main lake.

Because we paddled the park in early August - peak holiday season - we were surprised that three days passed without sight of another human. 

The first people we did see were two park rangers, performing routine backcountry campsite maintenance.

That's not to say we were lonely. 
Prickly Porky on the move
Porcupines, barred owls, deer and chipmunks visited our campsites. 

Paddling down the quiet waters of Still Brook, LittleRiver and West River, we encountered herons, a painted turtle, frogs, a mother loon and her baby, and a merganser family.

The unexpected solitude was a true gift. 

On our last night on the big lake, a lone loon swam past our Moose Island campsite, wailing her trademark cry, as if to say,"Farewell!" from the wilderness, eliciting a prayer of thanks from my own mouth.

(This story was originally published in the Summer 2001 edition of Ski Canada's Outdoor Guide.)

Post script: There's much more to the park than canoeing. It's also a national historic site, as this video shows.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Music one aspect of travel easy to pack home

The Doghouse Skiffle (jug) Band performs in Borneo.
One element of travel that is almost certain to be a part of any journey is the exposure to new and different kinds of music.

If you are in a foreign country, it's pretty much guaranteed that you will hear music different what you normally hear played at home (although that is changing these days, as our societies become more integrated and increasingly multi-cultural).

However, that can often be the case with domestic travel in North America, as well. The kind of traditional, local music you'll hear in Newfoundland or Saskatchewan will be decidedly different than that of what you may hear in New Mexico or Alabama.

Sometimes, though, you may be surprised at what you hear, abroad.

While we always associate a country's or a region's music with its culture, we may not always hear what we expect - and it can be a bit jarring, at times, albeit in a good way.

For example, a few years ago, I attended the Rainforest Music Festival in Borneo, Malaysia. The festival brings together musicians from all over the world. And while there are some local musicians that play there, it is actually quite a cornucopia of musical styles.

There was a jug band from Great Britain; an acapella singing group from Africa; and a bluegrass band from Oregon.

As I was listening to the latter play, I found it a bit jarring to the senses, almost surreal...I mean, here I was in a jungle in Borneo, listening to Foggy Mountain Breakdown, watching a large number of young Asian people bopping to music from half-a-world away as if they listened to it every day. Not exactly the image I pictured in my mind when I thought about what I might see when I was planning the trip.

I had seen some very good traditional Malaysian dance performances in Kuala Lumpur, a few nights before, so when you combine that with the festival`s musical fare and the music we enjoyed at a traditional Dyak village a few days later, it was certainly a well-rounded trip, musically speaking.

Some soft, quiet music at a Bangkok Hotel.

You would think because Thailand is so close to Malaysia geograpically, Thai music might be the same. While you might some similarities, you'll also find difference, again, depending on what region you're in, as it varies within the country.

Let's get energetic with some mariachi music.
Some of my favourite world music is that of the Andes Mountains of South America. There is something about that sound, something that really draws me into a place of joy whenever I hear it.

I can never get enough of it, and anytime I arrived at an airport in Peru, there seemed to be a Peruvian band with guitar, pan pipes, drums and all the other instruments used to produce the unique Andean song.

Another form of music that is always fun is that of Mexican music.

Whether it comes from a 12-piece mariachi band in a posh Mexican hotel or a simple duo singing from café to café on the beach, it's almost always recognizable and definitely full of energy.

Part of that energy comes from the music itself; but part of it also comes from the fact that it really and encourages participation by the audience.

Shades of Remington Steele, Season 2, Episodes 1-2

Without a doubt though, the music that haunts me most, the sound that has the most mystical appeal for me is that of the Middle East. I have never been to the Middle East, and given some of the safety issues involved in traveling there, I may never visit there - although I sincerely hope that is not the case.

Of course, you don't need to travel there to experience some of their music and the dance that goes along with it. Any number of Middle Eastern restaurants in most major North American cities often present belly dancers for their patrons on weekends, restaurants like Vancouver's Afghan Horseman, Toronto's Anatolia or Calgary's Casbah Restaurant. Still, that's not the same as experiencing it in-country, since a memory of music from another country will often stir more emotions than a memory of music in a restaurant in your hometown.

That's because one of the wonderful things about music you hear when you travel is the fact that when you get back home and hear music from that culture or country again, it transports you right back to that place, it's like you're reliving your trip all over again.

You may end up buying a few CD's of the local music to take home. But whether you take those with you or just return with the memories, it makes for some pretty light extras to the baggage. And these days, with all the extra fees added to carry-ons and checked bags, that's a welcome addition to any traveller's take-homes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Fantasy and reality sometimes blend together in much of today's travel

Ready to quaff like Tyrion Lannister
The past few years, there's been a new sort of travel niche forming.

While "literary travel" has been around for quite some time - the practice of visiting real world places where literary events and stories have occurred - the 21st century has seen the rise of what, for lack of a better word, could be called "fantasy travel."

In past years, there were plenty of tours one could take to visit all the places in London where, for example, Sherlock Holmes used to practise the art and science of detection.

You can take a pre-scheduled, all-arranged tour, or just buy a book and use it as a guide, as there are several books that will offer readers a chance to follow in Holmes' footsteps.
This book helps you create your own Holmes tour.

On a wider scale, you can take similar tours with a King Arthur/Camelot theme. You can set them up with a tour company or even design your own, with stops at places like Glastonbury Tor, Tintagel, or Stonehenge, to name but a few.

I myself have done a "literary tour" of sorts, although it does not follow a fictional storyline, per se. A few years ago, I did my own "Papa Hemingway" tour around South Florida and the Keys, with stops that included The Everglades City Rod and Gun Club, Hemingway House, and Ernest's Cafe (now shut down, I understand) to name but a few. Even did a bit of deep-sea fishing.

I was following in the footsteps of the real-life author, though, not one of his books.

While there are many tours designed around visiting the haunts of historical or fictional figures, and plenty of books written to help guide would-be travellers around from place to place, ever since the start of the 21st century it seems people are interested in visiting not only real world places in imaginary stories, they want to go to the real-world locations of fictional places.

It all started with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

Once that first movie came out, tourism and travel interest in New Zealand exploded, with hordes of would-be elves, hobbits, and other fans of the movie descending upon that country located in the southern reaches of the planet to see the places where their beloved movies had actually been shot.

Lots of quaffing going on in these tours
It goes beyond just being in the locations; there are actually numerous tours set up for travellers to take, tours where they can even visit the old movies sets, even walk through Hobbiton.

Now that's taken an even bigger step forward since Game of Thrones hit the airwaves on HBO.

That series, now in it's sixth season, has spawned an incredible array of tours and activities all built around the fictional kingdom of Westeros. They are far too numerous to list them here; but there are bus tours and beer tours and trips to Ireland and Iceland, Croatia and Dubrovnik. The possibilities are as endless as Tyrion Lannister's taste for wine and wenches.

The closest I've ever come to experiencing anything like that was the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. But it's just a one-night activity, and if you're in a place like Toronto, it's right there.

On a bit different scale, there are all kinds of James Bond experiences to be had, as well. You can learn to drive like Bond, drink like Bond, there's even a seven-day world tour ultimate James Bond experience. Given the nature of the films, and their penchant for settings all over the world, this too is ripe with possibilities.

There's even a kayak tour in London where you can paddle into Q's secret workshop, for those who like a bit of outdoor adventure thrown into the mix. That's the kind of tour I'd be prone to enjoy. Go for a paddle, then quaff a few Vesper martinis.

Not your Johnny Depp type of pirates
Of course, on a lighter level, there are experiences ("rides") based on The Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Seen any pirates around, pal?
I've even been on a "pirate" experience myself, down in Mexico, during a trip to Puerto Vallarta.

(And yes,  I did meet a parrot in Mexico, while waiting at the dock - but it was not part of the pirate ship experience.) 

 That experience was not really related to the movie series at all, but probably benefited from it.

You don't need to go to Disney, though; you can create your own pirate experience in a number of ways and places.

With all these tours, all these options, this all this makes me wonder, is life imitating art...imitating fiction?

Or is fiction imitating life?

I think I'll stop now. I think I hear a Batman-tour calling my name...