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Canada Travel news and opinion

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    On any given day, we come across dozens of gorgeous homes. Because we see so many, our bar is set pretty high when it comes to truly spectacular properties. Today, that bar was met ... and surpassed. Five times.

    That's because we were introduced to the website Love Home Swap, which offers a house exchange (and sometimes vacation rental) service for well-heeled homeowners. While browsing, we came across the following homes, which are so incredibly luxe that we're questioning our life decisions. Why the hell did we go into the liberal arts? Why didn't we marry into tech money? Why aren't we living part-time in Amsterdam? Why don't we have any Parisian friends? How can we 'Freaky Friday' ourselves into the lives of these homeowners?

    Take a look through the slideshow below and you'll see what we mean. (The Williamsburg property is especially envy-inducing.)

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    VANCOUVER - The British Columbia-based tour company that operated a bus that crashed on a wintry Oregon highway nearly a year ago, killing nine people and injuring dozens more, is facing yet another lawsuit from a group of survivors and the estates of two dead passengers.

    The bus, operated by Mi Joo Tour and Travel, crashed on a highway near Pendleton, Ore., on Dec. 30, 2012. The accident has since prompted numerous lawsuits and investigations.

    The latest lawsuit was filed earlier this week in an Oregon court by 10 survivors and the estates of two people killed in the crash. They are seeking damages that could total more than US$700 million.

    A 22-page statement of claim, which has not been tested in court, repeats previous allegations that the bus driver was speeding, was not driving safely for the conditions, and was working without adequate sleep.

    Mi Joo was negligent "in requiring defendant Haeng Kyu Hwang (the bus driver) to drive for excessive periods of time throughout the tour, such that he was fatigued and likely to exercise poor judgment," the document says.

    The document also alleges the company failed to properly equip the bus for winter driving conditions and did not properly train or supervise the driver.

    The lawsuit also names the Oregon state government and its Transportation Department, alleging the highway was unsafe and wasn't properly cleared of snow.

    The company's lawyer, Mark Scheer, has previously insisted the driver had enough rest and instead blamed the crash on black ice.

    On Friday, Scheer declined to address the allegations in the latest lawsuit, deferring instead to his previous statements.

    Scheer suggested the lawsuit, which was filed a week before the one-year anniversary of the crash, was a publicity stunt.

    "We're disappointed in the timing of the lawsuit, as it seems very unfortunate to have filed this on the eve of the one-year anniversary of this very unfortunate accident," he said in an interview.

    Scheer said the company had hoped to avoid a lawsuit, but he declined to comment about whether the victims had been offered any kind of settlement. Regardless, he said the company still maintains it was not at fault.

    A spokesperson for Oregon's Transportation Department could not be reached for comment.

    The bus departed from Vancouver shortly before Christmas last year on a tour through Oregon and the southwestern United States.

    On the morning of the crash, the tour left Boise, Idaho, on what was supposed to be the final leg of the trip, according to the lawsuit. There were 47 passengers on board, most of them South Korean.

    The accident happened on Interstate 84 along a section known as Deadman's Pass. The driver lost control of the bus, which left the highway and plunged about 60 metres down a steep embankment.

    Nine passengers were killed and more than three dozen people were injured.

    The following day, the U.S. Department of Transportation pulled Mi Joo Tour and Travel's authority to operate in the United States.

    Less than two weeks later, the B.C. government suspended Mi Joo's operations after a safety audit found the company kept inadequate records and failed to properly monitor how long its drivers were behind the wheel.

    The crash has triggered at least three other lawsuits against the company, one in British Columbia and two in Washington state.

    Many of the allegations in those lawsuits focus on the length of time the driver had worked without rest, as well as accusations the driver was travelling too fast and ignored warnings about poor road conditions.

    The company has yet to formally respond to the B.C. lawsuit, but filed a statement of defence in one of the American cases, denying any wrongdoing.

    None of the allegations in any of the lawsuits have been proven in court.

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    An estimated 10,000 humpback whales are returning to the shallow, warm waters of Hawaii right now, and with them comes the coolest volunteer opportunity in the country.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) recruits roughly 2,000 volunteers each year to help with the Ocean Count, a three day initiative on four different Hawaii islands to monitor whale activity and provide important humpback population information.

    Volunteers go to one of 60 lookout locations -- some as luxurious as the Four Seasons Resort on the Big Island and others as under the radar as the very cool Spitting Caves on Oahu -- and spend four hours watching the water.

    Sound boring?

    It isn't. NOAA chooses three days in peak whale season (January-March) and volunteers are kept so busy that their results are reported every 15 minutes. Last February, volunteers at the Sharks Cove lookout point on Oahu spotted 13 whales between 8:30am and 8:45am; they spotted 61 whales total in their four hours.

    Volunteers are asked to distinguish between adult and calf whales and to record what types of behavior they witness, which means learning the distinction between breaching, tail slaps, blows, and pec slaps, among others.

    Humpback whale populations are still relatively unknown and so the census -- while not scientific -- provides a relative approximation of humpback whale numbers and distribution patterns throughout the Hawaiian islands while also helping to raise awareness of the species.

    The whales flock to Hawaii's waters every winter to breed, calf and nurse their young, and then return to the cooler waters of Alaska in the summers.

    Register here.

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    HALIFAX - The Maritime provinces were dealt a wintry wallop Friday as a blizzard bore down on the region all day, forcing the cancellation of flights, interrupting public transit and closing roads, government offices, universities and businesses.

    Whiteouts prompted police to urge the public to stay off the roads as plow operators undertook the frustrating task of clearing snow, only to have wind-whipped drifts quickly build back up.

    "It's a doozy," said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. "A lot of Halifax just didn't open up this morning."

    James Rogers, a federal civil servant, arrived at work in the city only to be told to go back home.

    He said the nasty weather wasn't surprising given the time of year, but he urged drivers to pay more attention after he had a close call.

    "I nearly got hit by a driver going down a one-way street incorrectly," said Rogers, bundled up in a fur-lined, hooded parka. "It's a little hard for people with hoods to see what's going on around them. I got lucky."

    Bus service in Halifax was suspended for the day, and in Toronto, that city's public transit service said the extreme cold forced it to pull about 50 streetcars from the roads during their morning and afternoon rush hours. That represents roughly a quarter of its fleet of 195 for its peak hours of service, the Toronto Transit Commission said.

    The storm that swept into Atlantic Canada hit Nova Scotia particularly hard, where retail outlets including liquor stores in Halifax, the Annapolis Valley and the South Shore were closed early.

    Numerous flight delays and cancellations were reported in Halifax, Charlottetown and Moncton, N.B. Post-secondary schools including Dalhousie University, St. Mary's University and l'Universite du Moncton were shut down.

    There were reports of local flooding along Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast near Liverpool, N.S., because of higher-than-normal water levels and heavy, pounding surf.

    Environment Canada meteorologist Paula Sutherland said the cold temperatures were to blame for creating extremely light, fluffy snow — the kind that is easily whipped up by strong winds.

    "The hardest hit areas appear to be along the Atlantic coast," she said, adding that the range of visibility rarely rose above two kilometres along the coast.

    By early afternoon, 22 centimetres of snow had piled up at the Halifax airport. Higher amounts were expected along the coast and in the Annapolis Valley, with smaller amounts anticipated in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Wind chills ranging from -25 C to -40 C were expected throughout the Maritimes.

    The coldest wind chill was felt in Labrador, where the wind chill factor dipped to - 47 C at Happy Valley-Goose Bay early Friday. A blizzard warning was also in effect for parts of Labrador, where up to 40 centimetres of snow was expected by Saturday morning.

    The blizzard was expected to pass southeast of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula overnight Friday, dumping 15 to 35 centimetres of snow over southeastern parts of the island.

    That province was already grappling with rolling blackouts implemented Thursday evening by Newfoundland Power as it tried to cope with increased demand because of bitterly cold temperatures. Those planned outages were to continue Saturday, the utility company said.

    The storm has been blamed for at least 13 deaths in the northeastern United States. The heaviest snow fell north of Boston, where almost 60 centimetres had piled up by the time the storm moved out on Friday.

    U.S. officials from the upper Midwest to New England were preparing for another frigid blast over the next few days.

    In southern Ontario, which endured a bitter cold snap for much of the week, Environment Canada was warning that heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures could be expected by late Sunday and into Monday.

    The snow could change to freezing rain by the time it reaches Eastern Ontario early Monday.

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    Lion's Head, a picture-perfect mountaintop in South Africa, is one of those places that just makes your mouth drop.

    The rocky playground is perched over 2,000 feet above Cape Town's coastline, but the ascent up the mountain is relatively easy. We've seen some pretty precarious Instagram spots before, but none quite as scary -- or scenic -- as this.

    It takes about an hour and a half of hiking to get to the top of Lion's Head, with a small section of chains to get you through the craggier rock faces.

    Once you summit, the opportunities to look like a stud on social media are endless. The photos on Foursquare are pretty wild, indeed.






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    If resting your head in an unconventional hotel has found its way to your 2014 bucket list, get ready to cross one off already.

    You'll just need to book a trip to Russia and no, not for the Olympics.

    High atop Russia's Mount Elbrus is the newly opened LEAPrus 3912. This unique hotel opened in September of 2013 and has the bragging rights to being the world's highest-placed eco-hotel. Resting on the southern side of Mount Elbrus, LEAPrus 3912 sits at 3,912 meters in altitude, which not-so-coincidentally is what gave it its name.

    The Italian architectural firm LEAPfactory are the masterminds behind this masterpiece and designed the space to be as energy-efficient as possible. It offers 46 beds for guests, a living area, a restaurant and kitchen, and views that simply can't be beat.

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  • 01/03/14--04:25: Metrocards Around The World
  • Keeping mementos from your travels is a tradition of sorts. Some people keep grains of sand, others buy trinkets, some save shot glasses.

    We've already told you what we think of these ideas. One of our favorite suggestions is to collect "flat things," all the better to save in a journal post-trip.

    Metrocards -- smart cards, transit cards, whatever you chose to call them -- fit this description nicely. They serve as an easy reminder of your time spent away from home.

    Take a walk down memory lane and check out these photos of transit cards from around the world.

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    Several years ago, my husband and I took our three children to Pompeii -- the ruined and partially buried Roman city near Naples, Italy. As one of the most spectacular sights one can see in a lifetime, I was sure my children would be forever affected by their firsthand encounter with the history of this special place, destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. but rediscovered in 1738.

    As I looked upon the children, my chest puffed out with the pride of a parent trying desperately hard to show her children the world. But then my suddenly very bored 6-year-old son turned to me and said: "Mommy, I wonder if anyone has ever made an M&M as big as a cookie. Could we try sometime? I really want some M&Ms." What? How could he be talking about candy? Doesn't he realize where he is?

    I was reminded of that story this past week when my husband and I took those same three children -- now aged 13, 15 and 18 -- to Mexico. We snorkeled in cenotes, toured Chichen Itza, and climbed the ruins at Coba. And yet the number one question that came up again and again was: "Do you think this place will have Wi-Fi?" Huh? How could they possibly care about "being connected" when they were touring incredible natural wonders and witnessing an ancient culture that's still very much alive?

    Well, they did -- at least at first.

    It's unbelievable to me how something that was a rare perk only a few years back is now considered as indispensable as a napkin or toilet when traveling in any part of the world.

    At our first hotel, we did indeed have Wi-Fi -- and I'm guessing my kids' collective sigh of relief was heard as far away as Brazil. But at our second hotel -- actually a condo -- we did not. And guess what happened? Absolutely, positively nothing. Did the world come to an end because we couldn't read about Kanye West's most quotable moments of 2013? Uh, no. Was there an uproar? Well, yes, but it was a short-lived one.

    As the vacation went on, and they navigated this unfamiliar terrain together, my three teenagers actually re-discovered the art of having fun without the Internet. (I should mention that we never had TV during our trip.) One son re-read "The Catcher in the Rye"; another learned how to use my husband's GoPro.

    One evening all three had a contest to see who could build the tallest tower out of playing cards, an endeavor that requires an abundance of patience (and the simple ability to create an upside-down "V" with two cards about two inches apart). Sure, the structures were precariously balanced, but they also provided a real sense of accomplishment, especially for my daughter when she managed to outshine her stunned brothers with a five-story structure.

    Most nights, we also played poker by betting with toothpicks. We enjoyed raucous rounds of B.S. -- a simple bluffing game also known as Cheat, Bullshit and Bologna Sandwich among other names. And, when everyone else was taking an especially long time getting dressed, a few of us also played solitaire.

    After eliminating the temptation of technology, I almost immediately noticed a shift. For once, nothing was competing for my kids' attention. I spent a lovely afternoon lounging on the beach with my daughter, talking about nothing but her friend group. You can't imagine the amount of discourse that results from asking a 13-year-old girl to reveal which of her friends is the funniest, the kindest, the most polite -- and so on.

    Being completely disconnected allowed all of us to be fully engaged in what was going on around us -- and with each other. As I've said before, the interminable chatter created by all the email, the tweets and the Facebook postings of daily life has become like a car alarm that won't go off. Without all the pressure to surf, "like" and Snapchat, we felt much more relaxed, our attention spans extended.

    If you ever get the chance, visit the cenotes -- or sinkholes in the Earth's surface -- that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. Tour archaeological sites like Coba and Tulum, as well as the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Circle the main plaza in colonial towns like Valladolid. And take a long break from technology. It will be one of the best things your family's ever done.


    mexico trip


    Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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    New apps to color the road from point A to point B (and one to keep you alive should point C be passed-out drunk in a ditch.)


    Photo by: Ethan Hein

    Whether you count digital sheep to sleep or spend nights scrolling through on-demand sex dates, over a million apps exist to make your life easier (or at least more interesting.) But which ones are worthy of your precious finger-play? Our hands are still clean, but we did some hardcore digging to bring you our top travel apps of 2013.



    The nomadic globetrotter's best friend, WeHostels will put a roof over your head almost anywhere in the world at any time. Your future hotel and hostel bookings are just a few taps away and plenty of pictures make the scrolling experience pleasurable. Partied too hard and don't even know where you are? The "Here & Tonight" section will hook you up with the best available rooms and rates nearby. WeHostels will even show you who's already checked in, so you can spritz some Binaca on that dragon breath before arrival. (free)



    Because nobody should have to do math ever, Kurrency is a clean and quick app that calculates exchange rates between practically every currency on the planet, and it even works without internet connection by remembering old rates. Getting slapped with a price tag of 1,250 Sh for a coconut cake in Somalia might scare you, but Kurrency's right there to remind you that that's only about a buck. (free)



    Liftopia has sort of achieved bible status for ski and snowboard bums. Its daily, multi-day and season pass deals will get you blazing down the slopes for super cheap, and constantly updated weather conditions report new snowfall, overall depth and the mountain statuses on open trails and lifts. Whether you plan to blast down the double black diamonds on your own-some, or want to hold hands with the snow-slow chick from last night on the bunny hills, Liftopia empowers you with trails maps of worldwide mountain ranges so you can effectively survey the surrounding terrain. (free)

    Just Landed


    Parents always bugging you to pass along your flight info? Managed to bribe someone into picking you up at the airport? Just Landed makes their life a whole lot easier. Once they type in the flight number, your plane's status, anticipated arrival (with real-time updates) and terminal number all pop up. It'll even judge distance and factor traffic into a countdown to remind their lazy asses when to leave. ($1.99)



    You'll never get lost or bored in a new city again. CityMaps2Go offers thousands of downloadable maps for every major city around the world-all available for offline interacting. You'll need an internet connection to download each map, but after that you're free and clear from data dependence and have the whole city (including descriptions on top tourist spots, food/drink destinations, hotels, hospitals and more) in the palm of your hand. CityMaps2Go may not be as clever (or modest) as OTP; but they'll do for now. ($2.99)



    Planning a road trip? Roadtrippers is the tool you need to make the most out of this experience of a lifetime. Underneath its hood, a beastly engine calculates miles, time and total gas cost for your trip after you input A and B points. Then the fun starts. Go wild tapping in new points of interest into your itinerary and watch as your time and routes change. Follow the dozens of included cross-country cultural tours (like eating all the best sandwiches in a region or visiting its best haunted houses), add in accommodations, shopping stops and watch as your trip time triples and your road trip's itinerary turns from transit into travel. (free)



    The major fault of most translator apps is that they're too damn formal. Respect is great, but bustin' out the grandparent conjugation on your prospective new hook-up just reeks of dumb tourist. TripLingo's "slangslider" will get you sounding like a local with four different translation types: formal, casual, slang and crazy. There are flashcards and word banks to help teach you the language's most used words and phrases, and culture cubes (like safety, food, and business etiquette) will get you up to speed with the unofficial laws of the land-all available offline. (free/upgrades available)

    Help Call


    Drank too much and got mugged on your way back to the hostel? Broke both legs playing parkour pro in an abandoned suburb? When bad shit goes down, Help Call will get you connected to a rescue team. Four options (each occupying a corner of your screen) let you place one-tap calls to a pre-loaded contact or to police, ambulance and firefighters in over 100 countries. Your phone's GPS will auto-on itself just by opening the app so that the closest services can be contacted, and -- just in case your fingers aren't free or all broken -- a shake-to-call mode will get you saved fast. Just hide it somewhere safe so you're not butt-dialing the 5-0 every Friday night. ($2.99)

    Travel List


    For the packing perfectionist, Travel List is a sleek way to keep track of your stuff. Create trips, plan for events within them and then start packing your shit! Pick items from their categorized lists (like snow sports, camping, makeup or gadgets) or add your own (like sex, drugs and lucky travel charms), then just check off the items as you toss them in your backpack. You'll never leave anything behind again-an optional alert will make sure of it by sounding an alarm if you leave the house without checking off every item in the trip list, like a nagging mom in app form. Seriously though, don't forget your friggin' toothbrush. ($1.99)

    Apps have come a long way since the days of PhoneSaber duels and Doodle Jump. Today's apps can seriously help ease the struggles that come with world travel. While we're all for smart traveling, try and remember to put your phone in your pocket and tilt your head back up every once in a while-you don't want to miss what's in front of you.

    Written By: Chris Platis

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    Family members of a Canadian mother of three who Jamaican police believe was murdered continue to seek answers as to who would have killed someone they describe as "caring" and "so full of life."

    Shirley Lewis-McFarlane of Aurora, Ont., was found dead in the bedroom of her St. Ann rental home on Dec. 30, 2013, the Jamaica Observer reports. A neighbour of Lewis-McFarlane made the discovery and St. Ann police say the 53-year-old Canadian suffered severe bruising to her face. An official cause of death has yet to be revealed.

    Seems like there was some blunt force applied to her face that might be the cause of her death, however a post-mortem will be conducted which will determine the cause of her death,” said St. Ann Superintendent of Police Yvonne Martin Daley in an interview with the Toronto Star.

    Family members add that multiple bones in her legs and arm were broken.

    Lewis-McFarlane regularly travelled between Jamaica and Canada, but settled permanently on the Caribbean island in November according to her 27-year-old son Shawn Gavigan. While getting set up, Lewis-McFarlane was staying by Discovery Bay in St. Ann’s Parish.

    The area, located on Jamaica's northern coast, is the country's largest parish -- the equivalent of a province or state. The parish is a popular destination for tourists due to its natural beauty and its history as the birthplace of notable reggae singers, such as Bob Marley.

    In 2001, Lewis-McFarlane married her second husband, a Jamaican citizen, according to the Toronto Sun.

    Her 29-year-old daughter Amanda Gavigan said Lewis-McFarlane was more than just a mother to her and her siblings.

    “She was so full of life and tried to help anyone in need,” Gavigan told the Sun. "My friends always called her their second mother. She loved all her kids, and would brag about us all the time, saying she is so lucky. But really mom we’re the lucky ones.”

    “Not only did I lose my mom, I lost my best friend in such a malicious way. It still doesn’t seem real, but it is and I’m counting on justice to be served.”

    Friends and family have set up a Facebook group, Support For Friends And Family Of Shirley Lewis-McFarlane, as a place for people to leave their condolences.

    Shirley was a wonderful, caring mother of 3 children; Jasmine, Amanda, and Shawn. She was taken way too early while in Jamaica. She was discovered on Dec 30, 2013 in a home she was staying in while visiting the country. This was a shock to all of us, especially her close friends and family.

    "Shirley you were such an amazing woman. Always smiling and laughing and loved to joke around. I was looking forwards [sic] to visiting you in Jamaica. I'm so sorry this has happened to you. So going to miss your beautiful voice and your beautiful face. Xoxoxoxo" wrote Stephanie Jensen on the wall.

    Back at home, Canada's department of Foreign Affairs say they're aware of the situation.

    "Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the Canadian Citizen who passed away in Jamaica. Canadian officials are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and are providing consular assistance to the family,” wrote Mathieu Roy, spokesperson with the department, in an email to the Huffington Post Canada

    As for the police in St. Ann, they're now reaching out to the public for help.

    "We are appealing to the public to give whatever help you can give to help solve this case," Daley told the Jamaica Gleaner. "We are asking residents not to panic, the police are treating this case with utmost priority."

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  • 01/03/14--07:43: The Gratuity Gulf
  • I have a friend with a dark and dreadful secret. I should stress this is a real chum, not one of those "friends" the male species has a penchant for asking embarrassing questions on behalf of. ("Should it be that red?," "Is it normal for there to be blood?," "How much fat is too much fat?" -- I've yet to master the perfect steak). Honest.

    As far as secrets go, it makes coming out to your parents as a cross-dresser, your friends as a naturist, or your girlfriend as a bird-watcher seem like a march of pride in the park. If I was forced to choose between confessing so fiendishly sordid a secret or passing kidney stones the size of rubies and as rough as diamonds, I'd have my trousers unzipped and around my ankles in the blink of an eye. It's a habit to be whispered in ushered tones, susurrated with utmost caution. Outwith those furtive modes of broadcast, it should be accompanied with a public service warning: Viewer discretion advised.

    So, if you suffer from a nervous disposition or are reading this with an elderly relative, a Dowager Duchess, or a character from a Jane Austen novel, be sure to have a strong smelling salt to hand.

    I have a friend who doesn't tip.

    Now, I know what you're thinking: Never? Yes, never. Never, ever? Never, ever. Taxi cabs? Not a penny. Surely in restaurants? Nope. Even if the service is great? Not even then. What about those cheery, soulful chaps in nightclub bathrooms? Get outta here! But what about the spray? The lay? Not in a month of Sundays.

    Tipping divides countries and cultures. In Japan, leaving a tip on the table after a meal is generally considered the etiquette equivalent of breaking wind in a crowded lift and then getting off on the second floor. Meanwhile, in Albania, you'd cause more offence scraping the change from the maître d's hand than you would eating your Bakllasarëm cross-dressed as Mother Teresa. Probably.

    This Berlin wall of tipping exists within the West, too. In the UK, the average restaurant-goer leaves a tip half the size of their U.S.-foodie equivalent. So, why are Brits half as grateful (or demanding) as Americans when it comes to service?

    One flavorsome ingredient in the mix is the price of eating out itself. Gastronomical adventure is generally cheaper in the U.S. than the UK, with the average repast in New York being around 20 percent cheaper than in London. Punters not only get more steak for their cents, but have more left in their pockets after the event to generously assign to staff. However, tips from the poorest in both countries don't differ wildly from the average, nor do they increase directly with take-home pay. Not only that, but Brits and Americans generally spend around the same amount eating out each year, suggesting discount dining doesn't fully explain the Atlantic gratuity gulf.

    Then there's the wages. The U.S. minimum stands at $7.25 per hour, compared to the UK's $10.31, but even then restaurateurs can pay less so long as the remainder is made up in tips. Around 51 percent of those working in U.S. hospitality are paid at, or lower than, the minimum wage. Some states allow restaurants to pay as little as $2.13 an hour -- the median hourly rate in the UK is $10.64. With such inconceivably trifling wages (oh, look, bit of a pun there), tipping in America isn't just polite, it's essential if those serving the food you are eating are able to afford themselves the same luxury.

    But, the tipping culture goes deeper than mere economics. Stereotypically, Americans may be more gluttonous than Brits, but typically you'll find they're more gourmand too. Go to any American city, feast in any of its restaurants, and you'll see it: You'll feel it.

    Restaurants anywhere are about more than the aggregate of their menu; the food more than the sum of its ingredients. They're about experiencing a connection between one culture and the next; one country and another. They're the culinary embodiment of Kipling's enjoinment: "And what should they know of England who only England know?" A meal in a restaurant is a three-course holiday, and the sheer variety of cultural cuisines represented in even the most "American" of U..S towns and cities stands as a testament to an outward looking country and an international people (regardless of European sneering).

    Service is integral to this story of food. If you're tasting a country you've never been to before, or sampling the flavors of a culture for the very first time, service is the one constant that should never change. Unfortunately, it's all too often the one variable that goes tragically wrong. And it's difficult to love (or hate) a country, culture or cuisine if you're too busy despising the staff.

    Opinion on the matter is divided, but in my experience American restaurants just, well, get this. Not only that, but Americans demand it. It takes only two weeks (or a short Christmas vacation) in the UK to realise that it just doesn't and Brits simply don't. And I think that's worth 20 percent alone.

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    The first tourists in Florida arrived by boat -- Juan Ponce de Leon and his crew, 500 years ago -- and it's still the best way to see the Sunshine State.

    From a boat, you can reach special places where there are no roads and glimpse views you can't see any other way. Some of the boats themselves are one-of-a-kind attractions.

    And, there's no shortage of waterways to explore -- Florida has 1,800 miles of coastline and 12,000 miles of rivers and streams.

    While some visitors will rent kayaks, motor boats, houseboats or sailboats on a Florida vacation, the easiest and least expensive way to go is on a boat tour, and there are hundreds to choose from.

    Here are 10 favorites that illustrate the variety of cruises available around the state:

    1. Cruise through Tarpon Springs to a dazzling island

    As early as 1890, Greeks came to Tarpon Springs to dive for sponges. The sponges are long gone, but the Greek heritage lives on. One of the best things to do from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is take a boat tour that offers several delights: You tour the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history; you gaze on the Gulf waters and spot dolphins, you get a short stop on Anclote Key, a pristine white-sand barrier island reachable only by boat. Anclote Key is a state park with an 1887 lighthouse. The tours give visitors a half hour to enjoy Anclote's perfect sandy beaches (you'll wish you could stay) and do not include visiting the lighthouse. There are two boat companies that operate cruises to Anclote from the Sponge Docks: SunLine Cruises (adults $10; children $10) and Sponge-O-Rama (adults $18.95; children $9.95)

    2. Celebrity spotting off Miami Beach

    Entertainers, celebrity athletes and other Miami millionaires pay big money for waterfront views from exclusive addresses. But those same waterfront views mean that, from a boat, you have an equally good view of palatial estates. Boat tours leaving from Miami's festive Bayside Marketplace cruise by Fisher, Hibiscus and Star Islands, home to Sean Combs, Gloria Estefan, Rosie O'Donnell and Shaquille O'Neal, among others. Visitors also get an up-close view of the Port of Miami and its giant cruise ships plus a postcard-like look at the Miami skyline. The 90-minute Island Queen cruise is $24 for adults on a 140-passenger double-decker boat.

    3. Hop on/hop off a water taxi

    One of the best ways to get out on the water in the picturesque Halifax River and Ponce Inlet in New Smyrna Beach is by water taxi on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This isn't a formal tour; instead, the water taxi allows for a customized do-it-yourself tour. The water taxi costs $15 for adults and $10 for children for use all day. It follows a two-hour-and-15-minute route with five stops. You can get on and off for meals or sightseeing, including the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, the Marine Science Center, plus many waterfront restaurants, shops and galleries. You can bring your own food or drinks (no glass bottles) and enjoy a picnic while you watch for dolphins and see the New Smyrna area from the water. Click on the hyperlink more about the New Smyrna Water Taxi Express. Miami, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale are also served by an extensive water taxi system. An all-day pass is $20. There are 10 stops in Fort Lauderdale, taking you to all the key visitor spots. Find the details here.

    4. Discover the "Wild Man of the Loxahatchee"

    This boat tour takes you to a fascinating destination you can't reach by land. Located inside Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, the narrated tour on the Loxahatchee Queen II takes you down the jungle-y Loxahatchee River, which is worth the trip by itself. The highlight, though, is a visit to the home of Trapper Nelson, one of those fabulous characters who helped make Florida funky in the state's early days. Nelson started out living off the land as a trapper and fur trader in the 1930s, but soon turned himself and his home into one of the area's first tourist attractions, "Trapper's Zoo and Jungle Gardens." No public roads lead to Trapper Nelson's site. The cost to ride on the 25-passenger Loxahatchee Queen II is $20 for adults, $12.25 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6. Trips leave at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Call (561) 746-1466 for more information.

    5. See sunset from the water in Key West

    Key West has turned the daily sunset into a celebration and seeing the sun go down from a boat cruising offshore is a classic Key West memory. There are many from which to choose: Some are "all you can drink" party boats with DJs and dancing. The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover schooner with its jaunty red sails is $35 and is BYOB. A historic option is Florida's official flagship, the Schooner Western Union. The $59 sunset cruise includes champagne, beer, wine or soft drinks. The Western Union is a 130-foot tall ship built in Key West in 1939 to tend the Western Union cable lines. The schooner trip lets you enjoy the view of Key West and nearby islands under golden end-of-day light. You can compare sunset cruise options during a scenic stroll through the Historic Key West Seaport. Watch for promotions and discounts. Many other Florida port cities offer sunset cruises too, so explore options near where you're staying.

    6. Manatees and more on St. Johns

    One of the highpoints of a winter visit to Florida is a chance to see an endangered manatee in the wild. One of the best spots to do that is Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. When the weather is cold, the clear spring can attract hundreds of manatees. The St. Johns River Cruise leaves from the park and it specializes in helping you spot wildlife -- not just manatees, but also alligators, bald eagles, osprey, herons, egrets, sandhill cranes, limpkin, ibis, purple gallinules and more. The two-hour cruise winds through shallow areas of the unspoiled river and even when wildlife is scarce, the guide offers lots of history and information about the area. Tickets are $22 for adults, $16 for children. There are three trips a day in winter (two in the off-season.)

    7. Be like Bogie on the African Queen

    You can't do this anywhere else: The African Queen boat, the actual steamboat used in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, has been beautifully restored to take visitors on Key Largo cruises. Cruises are pricey - best for true fans yearning to sit exactly where Hepburn and Bogart did -- but intimate. The boat is licensed to hold six passengers at a time. The 90-minute canal cruise is $49 and leaves at 10am, noon, 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is a two-hour canal cruise that includes a three-course dinner at the Pilot House Restaurant and Marina. The dinner cruise is $89. Find out more about African Queen Canal Cruises.

    8. Make like Tarzan and explore "The Black Lagoon"

    One of the largest springs in the world and the deepest in Florida, Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee has a rich history. There are mastodon bones in the bottom of the river and archeological sites along its shores, and it was also the setting for several early Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, as well as for the cult classic film "Creature from the Black Lagoon." The guide on the boat tour in Edward Ball Wakulla Spring State Park tells tales of the mysterious spring (its source has never been located) while pointing out wildlife, which is plentiful. Ancient bald cypress trees line the river. The boat tour is a three-mile loop that takes 45 minutes to an hour and costs $8 for adults and $5 for children. The water rarely achieves the aquamarine clarity it once had, but when it does -- usually in late winter or early spring -- Wakulla Springs brings out the glass bottom boat for tours. Here's where you'll find information on the park and the boat tours.

    9. Find serenity in Central Florida's Winter Park

    Long before Mickey Mouse came to Orlando, folks were enjoying "jungle cruises" in Orlando. The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours started taking visitors through the lakes and canals of the Winter Park chain in 1938. On the tour, you see lushly landscaped lakefront estates and ride through narrow canals. You'll see boaters, wading birds and the occasional alligator. Tour guides offer lots of stories about local history and the people who lived in the mansions, plus a few corny jokes. The 18-passenger, open-air pontoon boats provide a friendly, intimate tour. Be sure to bring hats and sunscreen. Tours leave hourly and accept cash only -- $12 adults; $6 children. Here are details on boat tours.

    10. Zip through the Everglades on an airboat

    The loud, flat-bottomed airboats that ride over water and swamp are unlike any other boat ride you'll take. Invented by Alexander Graham Bell, airboats first came to Florida in the 1920s, and have been a classic tourist experience ever since. Airboat tours take you into roadless areas to see wildlife, but a big part of the experience is the wind, noise and thrilling speed. There are no airboat roads in Everglades National Park, but there are plenty of options throughout South and Central Florida. With so many airboat tours out there, you should consult tourist offices near where you are staying for suggestions. Two long-time airboat operators are Cooperstown Airboats (in business since 1945) on the Tamiami Trail near the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park and AirBoat Rides at Midway (operating since the 1930s) east of Orlando in Christmas. Rates range from $20 to $40 for adults.

    A few more ideas: A list of 10 boat tours doesn't begin to cover all the possibilities, so here are a few more ideas:

    Glass-bottom boat tours let you see coral reefs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo without getting wet.
    The oldest glass-bottom boat tour in Florida is at Silver Spring in Ocala. Once a private attraction, the spring and the boat tour are about to absorbed into Silver River State Park. Silver Spring was one of Florida's original attractions.
    Wildlife boat tours are popular at Everglades National Park, both at the Everglades City entrance and at the Flamingo marina.
    The Jungle Queen Riverboat cruise in Fort Lauderdale has been showing visitors the sites along the New River for more than 50 years.
    Similarly historic, the Victory III has been cruising St. Augustine since 1949.

    -- By Bonnie Gross for VISIT FLORIDA

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    Earning miles in the air is very straight forward. Get on the plane and earn one frequent flyer mile for every mile flown in the air. Although elite flyers may earn a mileage bonus for every mile flown, there are much better ways to earn miles on the ground.

    2014-01-02-travelhacking.JPG We talked to long-time travel hacker, blogger and author of "The Art of Travel Hacking," Clint Johnston, to mine a list of easy ways travelers can increase their mileage. We learned that the fastest way to earning miles doesn't require you to board a plane. All you need to do is take advantage of the miles that are already being offered to you by the airlines from various programs. This is what travel hackers do every year to take free flights around the world.

    Travel hacking is the art of accumulating as many miles as you can to redeem for free flights and hotels. Here are 10 travel hacks to earn as many miles as possible every year:

    1. Sign Up for a Co-Branded Credit Card

    Apply for a co-branded airline credit card that has a large sign up bonus. These cards will earn you 30,000 miles or more once you meet the minimum spending requirements. Most cards do not have annual fees the first year, and you can choose to cancel the card before the fee is due, or keep it if you find the benefits valuable to you as a traveler.

    2. Sign Up for a Points Credit Card

    Points cards also have large sign up bonuses and they offer more flexibility. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card comes with a 40,000 point bonus, and this can be redeemed on many different airlines. The benefit of a card like this is the points are more flexible than miles, but both types of cards offer a jumpstart to earning more miles.

    3. Shop through Online Portals

    Every major airline has a shopping portal where you can earn miles for items you buy online. To earn miles, simply login with your frequent flyer account on the portal, find your favorite retailer and you will be redirected to the site. By starting your shopping at the portal, you will earn miles for every dollar spent. If you already planned to buy something online, you might as well earn miles in return.

    4. Earn Miles Sleeping at Hotels

    Hotel loyalty programs are great, and there are great hotel credit cards with large sign up bonuses worth multiple nights in a hotel. However, if you would prefer to earn miles every night you book a hotel, you should use Rocketmiles. By booking hotels through their site, you earn thousands of miles for every night spent in a hotel. Over the course of a year this can really add up and even earn you enough miles to book a free flight.

    5. Earn Miles with Dining Programs

    Every major airline has a dining program where you can earn miles for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants. Simply register a credit card or debit card with the airline dining program of your choosing, and go out to dinner to earn miles. Once you swipe the card, the miles will automatically post to your frequent flyer account. This program is nice because it will earn you more miles than simply using your travel credit card alone. Some restaurants offer multiple miles per dollar, and even bonus miles.

    6. Airline Promotions

    Airlines are offering new promotions all the time. For example, in the past there have been Netflix promotions offering thousands of miles for signing up. Airline shopping portals frequently offer bonus miles around holidays and throughout the year. Stay up to date on promotions and never miss out on a mile.

    7. Newsletters

    Airlines, such as Delta, will have promotions displayed on their site that you can search for and find. However, newsletter offer a simple alternative and new deals will be delivered to your inbox when they are available. Airline newsletters are one of the best ways to stay up to date on the latest promotions and partnerships.

    8. Car Rentals

    Airlines have partnerships with many companies, and this even includes renting cars. You can earn frequent flyer miles every time you rent with these partnering companies. For example, Delta allows you to earn up to 3,400 miles by renting from Hertz. If you plan to rent from Hertz anyway, this might be a good option for you.

    9. Debit Cards

    If you would prefer to not sign up for another credit card, then a debit card is a great solution. There are not many left, but Delta and Suntrust Bank still offer a debit card for travelers. You will earn a few thousand miles sign up bonus on your first purchase and miles for everything you buy on the card after that.

    10. Mileage Transfers

    Generally, it's unadvisable to transfer miles unless they are offering a 100 percent bonus on the miles. Even then it isn't cheap to transfer miles between accounts, but it is still possible to get a lot of value from this method, although it will cost you money. Sometimes you have to spend a little to save a little. If you come out saving money in the end, it is a good deal and a great way to save money on your next flight.

    Chris is the President and Co-Founder of, a service that helps travelers get out of the "Middle Seat" by providing in-depth flight info and alerts when Awards and Upgrades are available. For more info on mastering the art of travel hacking, check out Clint's book and start flying for free.

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    There was a twisty stick in the middle of my lane. It was after sunset and I couldn't see well, but as I passed the stick I realised it was alive! Tom was riding behind me, and the stick, not happy with my passing so close, reared up and went for Tom's leg.

    Luckily it missed, and Phil saw the whole thing so could report Tom's near brush with death.

    Tom. Before his near fatal brush with the snake.

    We never like to be riding after dark, but we'd had so much fun at the botanical garden that we ended up on the road to Puerto Misahualli at dusk. By the time we made it to the Banana Lodge, it was very dark.

    We hadn't booked, but the Banana Lodge had a whole cabin with 4 beds just waiting for us.

    That evening we hung out in hammocks around a campfire. Then the storm started! Rain bucketing down and lightning so bright it became like day for a second or two.


    This picture of the flooded path to our cabin was taken in the dead of night, but perfectly timed with a flash of lightning.

    The next day the rain had stopped and we prepared for our two day trek into the Amazon jungle.

    The lodge provided us with rubber boots (they even had giant ones that fit Phil) and our guides, Enrique and Ermundo were there when we woke up.

    All booted up and ready for adventure

    After breakfast we jumped into the back of a pick up truck for the ride to the starting place. Then we all jumped out again and got in the cab of the truck. Apparently it's okay for the locals to ride in the back, but gringos have to ride inside.

    Unloading from the truck, ready for adventure.

    Enrique gives us the low down on what to expect, in Spanish only. I become the trek translator.

    Within the first five minutes we had to take off our boots and pants and wade through a river. Yay Adventure!

    Wading through the river was an exciting start to our six hour jungle trek. The first part was through secondary jungle, meaning that the original jungle had been cleared for agriculture at one point, and then allowed to regrow. Enrique told us (while hacking away with his machete) that in the secondary forest a path could completely grow over in less than a month. In the primary forest, paths would stay forever, because the trees had grown big enough to stop the sunlight from coming through.

    Bugs and trees and birds - oh my!!

    I love recycling. This is how we carried eggs with us on our trek. Newspaper and a recycled water bottle with a slit cut in it.

    The jungle is a truly fascinating place. Every tree, plant and animal has surprises in store. Enrique was excellent at showing us the jungle's secrets.

    One of my favourites, which we had learnt the previous day at the botanical garden, was about the cinnamon tree. What we are all used to eating is the bark of the tree, but the leaves also taste amazing.

    The leaves of the cinnamon tree are delicious!

    Enrique was extremely willing to share his experience. Several times he stopped made animal calls to see if he could attract some wildlife. Unfortunately the area we were in was too close to civilisation, and most of the wildlife had been hunted.

    This is Enrique imitating a toucan.


    Lunch was cheese and jam sandwiches


    The intrepid adventurers with a very big tree

    Which way now?

    It's been so long I can't remember what these were, but they still look cool.

    Eventually we came upon a house in the jungle. This was our new home for the evening.

    Our Amazon home beside the river

    Closer up picture of the house on stilts

    The house is home to a family with approximately six children, one of whom was away that afternoon having a baby. She and the baby came home later that evening.

    The house has one open air room (where we slept), with a small kitchen area around the corner, and two enclosed bedrooms. No bathroom or running water of any kind.

    There were, however, a lot of chickens. One of the daughters decided that it was her job to entertain us with them and proceeded to do so for at least an hour.

    First she brought us some chicks to play with.

    Three little chicks all in a row

    Kelly with a fluffy chick

    When we tired of the chicks, she upgraded to the bigger birds.

    Her grand finale was when I asked for one of the cockerel's tail feathers. He was hard to catch because he kept running away, but the clever girl lured him in with corn and then jumped on him. Feathers flew everywhere!! Unfortunately she didn't get one of my coveted tail feathers, but I didn't have the heart to ask her to jump on him again.

    Her brothers picked fruit from the trees for us with a handy fruit picking stick.

    The fruit looked like giant bean pods, and had a white, sweet flesh around the beans inside.

    At about this time, the father, who is also a shaman, appeared out of the jungle with a big leaf in his hand, which he gave to his daughter.

    Hungry? Grubs presented on a leaf platter

    The others managed to eat these... I couldn't bring myself to do it.

    Apparently it was now time for a snack. Fire roasted grubs. The girl was really sweet showing us how to bite a hole in the side so it wouldn't explode while cooking. She roasted one for Kelly, which Kelly gallantly ate, but I simply couldn't bring myself to eat one.

    The kids teach Phil how to perfectly roast a grub

    Tom and his tasty treat

    Phil eating a roasted and salted grub

    Phil, Tom and Kelly got pulled into playing games with the kids for ages.

    One of the benefits of being hosted by a shaman was that he offered to perform an ayahuasca ceremony for us that evening. Ayahuasca is a medicine made from trees and leaves from the jungle. It is known to have hallucinogenic effects, and is reputed to help cleanse one of any problems or worries one may be having.

    We accepted his kind offer, and so while all of this other fun and grubs was going on, he spent the rest of the day preparing the ayahuasca.

    The best shamen have yellow trousers, gum boots and a machete. Fact.

    Our shaman at work, while his son and Phil build the fire

    The ayahuasca boiling on an open flame - for hours.

    We didn't eat any dinner that evening because you are not meant to eat before an ayahuasca ceremony. It is almost guaranteed that you will vomit (part of the cleansing process) during the ceremony and it is best to not have too much in your stomach.

    As the sun was going down, we were called outside to the fire, which they had built surrounded by benches. We sat and chatted for a while. It was under a clear, star filled sky that the shaman decided it was time to take our medicine.

    The wood and leaves that had been boiling all day had been reduced down to an inch or two of concentrated brown liquid in the bottom of the pot.

    It was served to us in half a carved coconut shell, with beads tied around the edge. We drank the strong, unpleasant tasting liquid, some of it dripping through the holes onto our shirts, and then quickly rinsed our mouths out with perfumed water that we were instructed not to swallow.

    An amount of time later (Phil thinks it was only half an hour, I feel like it was at least an hour) the shaman asked if we'd like some more. There had been almost no talking in this time and Kelly was shocked that Tom, Phil and I said yes. Apparently she had been seeing pictures in the sky since almost immediately after she drank the medicine. Kelly was also the only one of us who vomited after the first dose.

    Almost immediately after I had put the coconut shell down after the second, foul-tasting dose I started to feel high. It was so soon afterwards that I immediately thought perhaps I shouldn't have taken the second dose. It wasn't much longer before I had to visit some nearby trees and was glad that we hadn't eaten much all day.

    Walking was difficult, a lot like being drunk. At one point I went into the house to put on a sweater and it felt like an enormous challenge to get up the few steps and figure out how to open the door.

    Enrique asked if I would like to take a shower to clean myself. I though this was a strange request, but Phil jumped at the chance. He told Phil to sit on a piece of wood on the ground. It turned out to be trouble with translation, he was asking if we wanted to be spiritually cleansed by the shaman, not to physically take a shower.

    The shaman had a bundle of leaves that he shook relentlessly over Phil's head for a while, and then he started whistling.

    The sound that is like a train, that's the leaves shaking. After the whistling he started singing a song to the same tune. This continued for a very long time, that song is welded into my soul. I found out much later in Peru that every shaman has his own song, which he creates as part of his shamanic training.

    Next the shaman started smoking some sort of tobacco and variously blowing it onto Phil's head and sucking the bad spirits out. (This is my interpretation, the shaman did not explain to us what he was doing.) This cleansing ceremony took a very long time, and when the shaman was finished with Phil, he repeated the whole process with each of the four of us, and also his daughter who had just had a baby earlier that day.

    It was an incredible experience, one that I am struggling to put into words. I found myself extremely drawn in by the fire, I couldn't stop staring into it, and I saw many figures, shapes and images in it. At one point there was a mask with a burning eye that seemed to speak to me.

    His messages? To love everyone, to live in the moment , to stop worrying about what's going to happen next and to be less selfish, to take pleasure in helping and supporting others. These are reoccurring themes in my life over the many months that we've been on the road, and I was very open to hearing them again.

    It was late at night when we each individually decided to go to bed. Phil stayed up much later than the rest of us, he didn't really start to feel the effects of the medicine until after everyone else had gone to bed.

    An ayahuasca ceremony is a very individual experience, each of us had a very different journey that night, and there was very little communication between us during the ceremony.


    Our sleeping quarters for the night

    The next morning we awoke to the crowing of the roosters.

    After breakfast it rained, I don't mean a tiny sprinkling either.

    When it rains in the Amazon, it really rains!

    Once the rain had stopped, Enrique took us on another jungle adventure.

    An interesting Amazon resident

    Enrique chopped down a tree and hacked it to pieces just so we could taste fresh heart of palm. Delicious!

    After the rain, the paths were pretty slippy!

    Careful balance needed

    We returned to the house for lunch and to treat our bug bites.

    Our dad sent us a special hickey machine. It sucks the badness out of bug bites. Also works for scorpions and spiders, although we haven't tested that yet...

    After lunch we headed to the river.

    View of the river from the hammock

    Enrique swam across to get a canoe. Phil made his own:

    Phil built his own dug out canoe

    It even floated!

    Enrique's canoe was very unstable, so he took us across two at a time.

    Enrique ferries the boys across the river in a very unstable canoe

    On the other side of the river our guide showed us how to pan for gold. We only found a couple of tiny flecks!

    Enrique used to pan for gold every day!

    On the way back to the house to gather our belongings, Enrique used the jungle to transform Kelly and I into jungle queens. Palm leaves for crowns, flowers for noses, and natural facepaint from the pod of a tree (the same that Chris painted us with in the botanical garden in Tena).

    Magical Amazon Queens with wands and fruit found in the jungle

    Our last hike through the jungle took us to another river, further away from the one we'd been living beside.

    We were told to wait for a boat to come pick us up here. Seemed unlikely, but we waited.

    But it did show up! Driven by two young kids. Or maybe the locals just look really young?

    Speeding along the river

    We enjoyed the ride down the river. There were several fancy looking lodges along the shore, obviously catering to the tourist market who wanted a luxury jungle experience. We were all too soon out of the jungle and back in civilisation. This time we got to ride in the back of the truck, we'd obviously proven ourselves to be tough enough!

    That evening we headed into town for dinner. On the way Phil joined these kids for a dodgeball/flipping bottlecap game.

    Ready to leave the Banana Lodge the next morning.

    The rest of our family are keen geocachers. We got an email from our dad saying that there was one nearby us that had never been found before. He sent us the coordinates and asked us to go find it.

    On our way out of the jungle, finding the cache was our final challenge.

    In the end it was Tom who found it hidden in a tree stump in a field of corn.

    Tom and I with the cache

    Unfortunately the cache was not waterproof and the treasure inside (an US $2 note and a steel penny) were water damaged.

    Recording that the Ultimate Ride was the "first to find" this geocache

    Having had an unforgettable Amazonian adventure, it was time to climb out of the jungle and up to the top of a volcano.

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    In honor of The Last Frontier and its 55 years in these United States, here's an ode to the wintry wonderlands, the awesome wildlife, the unbelievable aurora borealis, and the hardy way of life. North to the future!











    alaska igloo





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    Canadian brother and sister Philip and Jayne Davidson are traveling on motorcycles from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. This is the latest entry in their travel blog. Read their adventure so far, and see where they are right now, here.

    In trying to catch up on the blog during this downtime while I heal, I find much must be omitted for space. I guess you will have to just go see it all for yourself!


    The hunt to catch up with Jayne continues, but not before we encounter wheelies, thefts, many escorts and of course the most amazing swingset in the world.

    On our arrival to Armenia, we met our CS host Luis, settled in quickly, then went out to join every other person in Colombia to watch their world cup qualifier against Chile.

    Down 3-0 at halftime, but after a goal in the second half the fans were back in it.


    After Colombias third goal, completing the incredible world cup qualifying comeback, I was fully enjoying the emotions of the rollercoaster... and my hug with this guy.


    The celebration for a tie game was incredible. Throwing flour on everyone is what the kids do here, and while we were able to dodge them for most of the evening, a drunken gang of hooligans brought us into their celebration just as we were headed home for the night. Nothing like a breaded beard.

    The next day was a party at the University where Luis worked. Drunken students dancing and lining up to take photos with me like my no-longer-breaded-beard was a porn star.


    Colombians know how to throw a good party!

    Once one started, the photo-op went on and on until we left for the parade. Great people!


    Right by the university, the Jeep Willys parade was passing by. Jeep Willys have been used for years in the coffee country, known for their low-gearing, durable everything and incredible payload capacity. The parade showcased all these fine attributes and more.

    One of the 100s of Willy´s Jeeps in the parade. This one gave me a mini woven basket!


    Hello Willys, nice to overload you.


    Part of the move-the-whole-house-in-one-load contingent. All have a picture of Jesus on the front...



    ...but only one had a live squirrel on the back!


    The Plantain section. Someone snuck that new model jeep in somehow.


    It´s not a true parade without a jeep pulling a stripper pole.


    Kelly and Luis with my favorite: Wheely Willys!!

    The wheelie Willys wheely were wonderful! Check the clip below to see them in action!

    Luis and Ariana took us out in the evening to nearby Circasia for some coffee, snacks and then Tejo! Tejo is the national sport of Colombia, and Jayne played a couple rounds too in Salento.

    For some time afterwards I took a lot of grief from Kelly for not causing any explosions, even more grief after we met up with Jayne again. Fair enough. I was a lesser player at Tejo... but then I read Jayne´s post and see the photos. We weren´t on even close to a level playing field!!

    Regulation sized Tejo. Tiny triangles. Big Clay pit...

    ...thrown from far away. Kelly did well exploding more than one! "un punto para mi!"
    (this is playing from the midway line too!)

    Not that I´m bitter or anything... stupid Tejo.

    It was a blast anyways, as is any sport where you MUST be drinking to be allowed to play.

    We had a really great time with Luis and his family.

    Luis´ Mom hops aboard Jugs for a trial. She´s not tiny at all, Jugs is just enormous.

    Luis even came to join Kelly and I when I met up with my Pen-pal Kerry. I had been emailing since virtually introduced by Roger and Sasha. Both having motorcycles, we were of course fast friends.


    Drinking boxed wine in the Calarca square with Kelly, Adriana, Kerry and Luis. Kelly is a spilly pourer.


    Luis: "Just park it in the living room".

    Post Armenia, we debated a day in Salento since everyone loved it so, but with Jayne still well ahead of us, and long days on the bike causing Kelly knee pain, we skipped Salento and head straight for Cali. Luis escorted us out of town through some nice back roads before saying goodbye.

    I just can´t let go.

    Also met the "Pulsar" moto club from Cali out for a ride on the same country roads.

    Easy road to Cali. We followed Jayne´s footsteps and stayed at the same El Viajero hostel, looking forward to the highly touted Yoga and Salsa lessons. Sadly when we arrived we found that both were canceled for the next day. Ugh.

    We were able to meet up with Fernando, a fellow KLR rider who came to meet us and guided us on a short ride through Cali at night. He told us his story of escaping death after a robbery of the pharmacy he works in left him filled with 5 bullets. I suppose some of the warnings of danger in Colombia do get substantiated at times, as in every country. Fernando offered for us to stay at his place the next night. We sadly had to turn down his offer in our bid to try to catch up to Jayne while avoiding long days on the road.

    Death defying Fernando, his lady and Kelly out for a walk.

    KLR riders... at night

    From Cali down to Popayan, aka Papa John´s, a town that Kelly talks more about in her post. Leaving Cali I asked some moto police for directions out of town.

    Rather than give directions, they gave us a police escort!


    Once in Popayan, there was no parking at the hostel, so I dropped off Kelly and found a parking lot. There I took advantage of the space to drain the last of my gas (see motorcycle minute below). I checked-in with our spot tracker and set it down beside me out from the overhang covering the bikes so it could see satelites better.

    See the sky, from beside the bike of that thief guy.

    After some help from the lot owner to dump the last dregs of my gas (which he happily put in his bike regardless), I looked back to see a motorbike in the place where my Spot had been. I had seen the bike pull in. I did not see him when he pocketed my Spot. I asked the lot owner if he had moved it. He had not. We checked that his son hadn´t started playing with it. Nope.

    Alright then. Now my bad temper exploded.

    As calmly as I could (not very), I explained exactly what the spot tracker is, looks like, why it is useless to anyone else, and how I will uh, well, murder the guy when I see him... I miiiight have lost my mind.

    Fortunately for all involved, before I even had the chance to start dismantling the thiefs bike piece by piece (for ransom/murder parts), the lot owner ran down the street and minutes later came running back. Spot in hand. He knew where the thief worked apparently. Homicide averted. I didn´t even have to cut off his finger.

    Otherwise Popayan was a calm place, with friendly people, where again kind folks led us out of town rather than just giving directions!

    Kind gent named Lorenzo and his daughter lead us to the highway out of town!


    Pasto. Oh Pasto. Pasto is as dreary as Jayne says. We spent our night in a cheap sex hotel for just 15,000 for the night!

    Note the tiled walls for easy cleaning.

    After heading to watch a movie to escape the cold miserable night, I left Colombia with a bang... Unfortunately that bang was from the explosion of vomit and diarrhea coming from my body. I guess restaurant "Mister Pollo" isn't such a gentleman after all. Regardless, I will miss Colombia and look forward to my return visit!


    Stunning wide open landscapes welcome you to Ecuador. Plus cheap gas!


    Entering Ecuador was about as easy as Jayne describes it. I did have some problems getting gas.

    As I started to fill my tank at the first station, and a man came running over uttering that I wasn't allowed with my foreign plates. I paid the 0.78$ for the gas, at 1.48$/gallon: enough to tide me over for awhile.


    As recomended by Jayne, Kelly and I stopped for a night in Otavalo.


    "Ecuaaador...Equaaator...Ecuaaador... I never imagined it would be cold!" says Kelly, looking at the fantastic view.


    Kelly loooooved the market.


    ... but she haaaaated this toque, without which has now left my ears cold.

    From Otavalo it´s a short ride through much contruction to Quito. Not long into the ride I spotted "The most amazing swingset in the world". It is. No lie. Being so magical, it took a moment to register that what I had seen was indeed real. But then it sunk in and I pulled a U-turn so Kelly and I could go play.

    The holy grail of swings

    Kelly and I had a couple swings to ourselves before a gaggle of kids swarmed to take advantage of my pushing-them-back-up abilities. I left exhausted. It was awesome! (In Ecuador and want to play? Map link!)


    Great kids! The kneeling twin is the same one who wouldn´t swing on the swings. Twins, yet sooooo different. Like many twins I suppose.


    Once in Quito, still buzzing from the great swing session, it was time for a catch up, now reunited with my sister!


    Just minutes after arriving and getting the bike parked, we were welcomed with HAIL! Glad to have missed out on riding in that!


    Motorcycle Minute:

    With all the sputtering since starting the ride up to Bogota, and with it resolving each time I draing my carb, I was of the mind I must be dealing with bad gas. Fortunatley, I also was starting to notice a light oil leak, so I pulled the tank off at Luis place to investigate.

    Pulled the tank to find a leak and... wait why is my spark plug wobbling like that?

    Pulling the spark lead, the plug wobbled!! It was very loose, I´m surprised the bike even ran at all. Plug tightened, I also checked the valve cover bolts for tightness since that was where the oil leak stemmed. Without a torque wrench I was hesitant to tighten too much. The valve cover bolts are pretty specific. Regardless, glad to have found the loose spark plug! Bad gas? Now doubtfull.

    Regardless I dumped the remnants of the tank in Popayan just to be sure. Had made it 400km on a tank even with the extra load of Kelly and her gear, well impressed!

    Footpeg: Leaving Cali I found a moto shop with a new passenger footpeg for Kelly. The right peg was slanted and we figured that may be contribuiting to her knee pain. It was. One 6,000 peso (3$) footpeg later her knee pain was gone!

    The shop only had one footpeg, luckily it was for the right side! Old one is notably worn out.


    and I´ll leave you with this:

    Nothing to do with motos, I just like the spanish Pun. (p.s. It´s a bakery)

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    The phrase "digital detox" was added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online in August 2013 along with, interestingly enough, the term FOMO, or the fear of missing out, often brought on by posts to social media.

    It seems that the former is an ideal cure for the latter: a digital detox from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the other stimuli that surround us constantly is a perfect way to shake that fear of missing out--and put that energy toward something personally worthwhile.

    "Unplugging gives our brains a chance to slow down. Our blood pressure goes down. It gives us a chance to think for ourselves," says Levi Felix, California-based cofounder of The Digital Detox, which leads device-free retreats. "When you're not looking at a screen, sharing something, considering what everyone else is doing in the moment, you get to be who you are."

    Hotels from Chile to Canada to the Caribbean now offer similar getaways that encourage travelers to unplug. Often devices are banned, and days are filled with meditation, yoga, nature, and communal activities.

    Whether these packages are examples of bandwagon thinking or a true reflection of travelers' yearning to break their habits is still unclear. But Felix is optimistic. "Hey, if you're staying in a hotel or somewhere where there's less cell phone use and they're promoting massage and yoga, that's an awesome shift in culture," he says. "When you successfully unplug, you'll have more awareness about yourself; you'll be more in touch."

    --Matt Haber

    See the Best Places to Unplug

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    TORONTO, ONTARIO -- The word is sesquicentennial and Canadians and visitors to the country are going to hear lots about it, and a few will even learn how to properly pronounce it.

    In 2017, the nation marks its 150th birthday. The celebratory mood spikes this Canada Day, when the sesquicentenary of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference turns the Prince Edward Island capital into a summer party zone that will be on the itinerary of thousands of travellers.

    Thanks to the festive atmosphere, Charlottetown tops the list of the 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada in 2014. The list is selected by's team of travel experts that includes acclaimed writers, editors, and photographers. A map featuring Pinterest Place Pins has been created to highlight each destination.

    "Our content creators felt Charlottetown was a clear number one because of the celebratory mood that promises to uplift the city all year," says Rod Charles, Director of Communications. "It is the most festive spot in Canada in 2014 and domestic and international travellers from around the world will be treated to a series of celebrations that are not likely to be repeated. That's what our list is about -- determining the hot spots and unique experiences for the next 12 months and spotlighting them so our global audience knows where and when to book their trip."

    The list is in its third year and has emerged as a great forecaster and influencer of Canadian travel. For 2013, Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia was the No. 1 destination and it saw a 37 per cent increase in visitation from its 2012 levels. In 2012, Calgary topped the list and witnessed record numbers of travellers, many of whom arrived for the 100th Calgary Stampede.

    Voters named destinations for their significance in 2014, including notable anniversaries, events and festivals.

    Some entries were also recognized for their unheralded or emerging tourism infrastructure -- such as No. 3 Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador -- and their uniqueness as a travel offering. Following Charlottetown was another provincial capital, Quebec City, which also played a pivotal role in the building blocks that led to the nation's constitution.

    British Columbia leads all provinces with five entries, including No. 7 Vancouver, which will host the 30th annual TED Conference in March -- marking the first time the event that attracts global luminaries will be held outside of California.

    Also of note is the inclusion of Winnipeg, which ranks fifth, thanks in large part to the $351-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights that is scheduled to open on September 20.

    "All across Canada sensational new attractions, restaurants and hotels are arriving, re-shaping the nation's tourism landscape before our eyes," says Charles. "As Canada builds towards its 150th birthday, will continue to create all original, high-quality and innovative content that chronicles the best new tourism experiences in the country, as well as hidden gems, top restaurants and timeless favourites."

    To read the story and see the entire list on, click here.

    The top 5 winners from 2013...

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    By the Staff of

    First-World cities with every modern convenience, beachfront hideaways, medieval towns, tropical islands, temperate mountain valleys... You can choose your favorite climate, your preferred lifestyle...the place you feel most at home...because the world's best retirement havens have it all... and for pennies on the dollar, too.

    In this, our annual Global Retirement Index 2014, we profile the best destinations for good-value living around the world today.


    Panama is the best place in the world to retire according to's 2014 annual Global Retirement Index. Photo courtesy of

    We consider not only a wealth of statistics, but -- critically -- more than three decades of expertise and current insights from our network of correspondents.

    Our experts -- expats themselves -- live in the places we rank and scout all over their adopted countries on your behalf.

    Each year we ask them to respond to a long list of questions designed to get their fresh views on old places, and expert opinions on new ones. All the countries at the top of our Index were in close contention for the number one spot. But our winner -- Panama -- snags first place by a hair. Along with the world's best range of retiree benefits, Panama has introduced new visas, which make it easier to gain residence there, and made major advances in infrastructure.

    This means it simply out scores last year's winner, Ecuador. Because of Spain's economic crisis you'll find more attractive opportunities there than ever to embrace an affordable life in the Old World, lifting that country into fifth place in our Index this year.

    But whatever you see on our leader board, just remember, we measure here only the very best havens. So the country last on our list -- newcomer to the Index Cambodia -- is still one of the best in the world.

    In each of these destinations, you'll find thousands of folks who have already found their dream retirements. You can too, and this 2014 Retirement Index is designed to get you started. It covers all the bases, revealing a wealth of choice when it comes to a comfortable life overseas... Let's look at what the top three retirement havens in the world have to offer you...

    Panama--Convenient, Easy and Affordable

    Panama's allure lies in a rare combination of value and variety. Plenty of places in the world offer one or the other. But how many offer both?

    When it comes to attractive retirement destinations, the list is short and Panama is at the top. It's the only country in Central America with a true First World city. But unlike most South American capitals, Panama City is only two-and a-half hours by plane from Miami. (And let's not forget that, unlike some places closer to the U.S. border, Panama is hurricane free).

    Nearly everything about Panama is convenient, particularly if you're coming from North America. The currency is the dollar, English is widely understood, and the international community is large and welcoming. The country also has welcoming immigration policies.

    Last year, two new residence programs made it easier than ever to move to Panama.

    Quite a feat, since Panama has always been accessible in that regard. The Pensionado or pensioner residence program--which helped put Panama on the map as a retirement destination in the first place--is the primary reason. For anyone with a government or corporate pension, residence is almost a given. That's regardless of age. The main requirement is simple: your pension must be at least $1,000 a month...and even that rule has its exception.

    Ecuador--Still Great Value


    Ecuador is the second best country to retire to in's 2014 annual Global Retirement Index. Photo courtesy of

    Coming second in the Index this year is Ecuador, which remains the perfect-weather, majestic-scenery, affordable place it has always been. The Ecuadorians are just as warm and welcoming and the opportunities for retirement are just as fertile. And Ecuador remains a top destination when it comes to affordability.

    Where else can you rent an upscale, fully furnished apartment in the heart of one of the world's largest World Heritage historic centers for just $400 a month? Or take a taxi across town for just $2 or $3?

    Most retired couples in Cuenca, the most popular destination for English-speaking retirees in Ecuador say they live there quite comfortably--all in--for $1,500 to $1,800 a month. And that typically includes rent. Two- and three-bedroom apartments can be rented for $300 to $600 and that often includes furnishings.

    You'll find Cuenca, a city of 350,000 to 500,000 (depending how widely you throw the net) in southern Ecuador, closer to the country's second international airport at Guayaquil than to Quito. Like Quito, the central historic area of Cuenca is also a World Heritage site and the iconic blue domes of its new cathedral and the red tiles of the ancient Spanish colonial buildings can be seen from the windows and terraces from many an expat residence.

    Another place where the scales tip decidedly in Ecuador's favor is in the climate category. In the country's Sierra region, you'll find daytime temperatures typically hover around 75 F, which means you'll find little need for either heat or air conditioning. (International Living editors Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher, who live in the mountains of Ecuador, say their typical utility expenses...for electricity, water and gas...are rarely more than $30 total.)

    Even along the coast, despite the equatorial location, daytime temperatures rarely reach 90 degrees, and you'll experience far less humidity than in many other tropical destinations.

    Like other top retirement destinations, Ecuador offers a good private health care system, especially in the three largest cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. And if you're over 65, you can avail of some nice retiree benefits, including a return of money spent on VAT (value-added tax) on your purchases refunded each month--up to about $250.

    Ecuador offers something for everyone, whether you're looking for sophisticated city living or the life of a gentleman farmer... And for a small country (about the size of the state of Colorado) it packs a big punch environmentally.

    And, as in Panama, Ecuador hasn't lagged in its infrastructure progress. This past February, the country's new $680-million airport opened just outside Quito. In the northern area of the country, a high-tech "City of Knowledge," called Yachay, is being built. Work continues at a steady pace to upgrade and widen the Pan-American Highway. The economy, too, is stable and growing--Ecuadorians themselves are enjoying better-than-ever lifestyles.

    So if you're on the fence, trying to decide between the top countries on our Global Retirement Index this year, you have a tough choice. Ecuador remains a top contender.

    Malaysia--Asia's Best Retirement Haven


    Malaysia comes in third place in's just released annual Global Retirement Index. Photo courtesy of

    Malaysia is the best place to retire in Asia right now, and there's no sign of that changing. A couple can live comfortably in a luxury ocean-view condo on $1,700 a month including rent. (We know of couples living more modestly on even less...try $1,000 a month, including rent.)

    The average temperature is 82 F all year round, and you'll find some of the best beaches in the world here. There are cool hill stations, mountain retreats from the time of the British Raj, islands to hop or explore by yacht, and heath care is second-to-none.

    Penang Island, in the north east and Kuala Lumpur, the country's capital in the south, are medical centers of excellence. The hospitals are top-notch and the physicians speak English, having been either trained or completed their postgraduate studies in the U.S. or UK--which makes the cost of health care all the more incredible. You can see a specialist without any need for an appointment for as little as $11. Just turn up. It's the same with dentists.

    Infrastructure here is First World and you'll have no problem finding high speed Internet or cable TV (Packages cost from $30 a month). If you choose to drive you'll find the roads are excellent. And when you move to Malaysia you can import a car--and your household goods--duty free.

    There is a program that allows non-Malaysians to stay in Malaysia on a social visit pass for 10 years. Called Malaysia my Second Home, it's automatically renewable for an additional 10 years when it expires. If you are retired, you need a fixed deposit of RM150,000 ($46,707), and you can draw down half that to buy a property, go back to school, or for medical purposes. On top of that you must show proof that you receive a pension from the government of RM10,000 ($3,114) per month. As a rule of thumb the older you are the easier and cheaper it is to join the program.

    If you choose to buy property Malaysia makes it easier for you as a foreigner than anywhere else in the region. You can buy freehold and there's no limit on the number of properties you can own either, just a minimum purchase price set by the local government (it's $163,500 in Penang).

    The country's diverse ethnic mix makes being a stranger here easy. Whether you live in bohemian Penang or Kuala Lumpur, the country's hip capital, you'll meet friendly locals who are happy to stop and chat and welcome you into their home. People are accepting, just ask the international mix of expats all on the same journey as you and happy to share.

    Many expats are members of organizations like the American Association of Malaysia and an active social life is easy to find. With good quality dining so cheap (you can have dinner for $3, a gin and tonic is $2) most people find themselves out at least a few times a week.

    If you want to keep busy and earn some money, starting your own business is an uncomplicated process. There are expats here running cafés, yoga studios, restaurants, and schools and making money through exporting optic fiber cabling.

    Malaysian's also have a lot of respect for older people; in fact it's an intrinsic part of their culture. A full-time, live-in maid costs just $400 a month, and single older expats hire maids with nursing abilities, who care for them in the comfort of their own home. Betty Cotton, who lived in San Francisco for many years does just that and wouldn't be without her live-in maid. "I moved to Malaysia by myself when I was 85 years old. I live in my own home, I have my own things around me, and if I need anything, anything at all, I have great neighbors who are just a phone call away. I wouldn't live anywhere else."

    For the full report on the World's top retirement havens and all the final scores, see here: "The World's Best Places to Retire in 2014" .

    Related Articles:
    The World's Best Retirement Havens in 2014
    Panama: The World's Best Retirement Haven in 2014
    Save Big on Benefits in the World's Best Retirement Havens 2014

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    Trying to make everyone happy is a daunting task, especially when it comes to family vacations. Pleasing everyone on home turf can make your heart race, but taking that challenge on the road and figuring out what will bring everyone maximum fun takes it all to another level.

    But a good family vacation should feel easy and fun and have all the elements to please any picky or unique vacationer, giving them exactly what they want in the end. Any vacation to the Magic Kingdom won’t ever really disappoint, so let this article be your guide to finding the perfect time for everyone in your family.


    Dad’s a fickle guy to please. He’s pretty serious about getting to where he is going. But once he’s there, he’s all about what’s for dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch. Or even yet-to-be-recognized meals, like “linner” and “dunch”. We’re not judging.

    The Disney Boardwalk alone won’t be able to contain the foodie deep down inside Dad’s grumbling belly. Dad will probably spend a lot of time at Epcot, sampling all the foods of the world because why not? He’ll annoyingly (but endearingly) Instagram all of the food he’s eating, making everyone stuck back at home little envious of his gastronomical tour.


    Let’s face it: Mom does a lot for everyone in the family. She probably planned this whole trip, and what did she get? It won’t be this lousy t-shirt that says, “All I got was this lousy t-shirt.” We can do better than that!

    Mom’s a classy lady who likes to relish in some quality Me Time so she can soak it all up at one (or all) of Disney’s spa and recreational centres. She’s kind of an expert at spa days. You can find her hanging out at the gym, working up a sweat like an Olympian, and then unwinding with a deep tissue massage.


    This guy is fearless; a natural explorer, soaking up all life has to offer. He’ll probably tackle a mean pirate without hesitation or Jedi mind-trick his enemies because the dark side is pretty terrible. It’s definitely a good thing there are both pirates AND Jedis at Disney for this adventurous scamp to learn from. The Magic Kingdom is the place to be for an adventurer. Mom and Dad are out eating and relaxing, but this action hero moves at a Lightning McQueen pace from one heroic event to another. Maybe he’ll even take down a Stormtrooper; who knows what kind of Indiana Jones-like trouble he’ll find himself in?


    Every girl has dreamed of thumbing through the books in the library in Beast’s castle; that place was huge, and Belle got it all to herself. So bet on your daughter tracking down Belle in the Magic Kingdom to talk books -- and probably everything else under the sun. The princesses in the Kingdom can indulge in her sisterly solidarity side; goofing around with Jasmine, Ariel, or Cinderella, gossiping, bonding, maybe getting a photo in or two. She’s going to selfie all over that park with her new friends and post them all to her blog. (#DisneyPrincess #DisneySide)

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