About Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of http://www.briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She posts over on https://plus.google.com/103115118174711820529/posts as well.

Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at http://www.ottsworld.com.com.


Latest Posts by Sherry Ott

4 Alaskan Towns For Your Bucket List

April 22, 2016 by  

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Talkeetna hiking

Hiking in remote areas of Denali National Park via Talkeetna

Alaska is vast, yet few people ever see more than a few tiny sections of it. Most people stick to the well worn tourists trails which center around the cruising industry; they see such a small part of Alaska and say that they’ve ‘been there’- but honestly they haven’t.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say if you haven’t ventured into remote Alaska, then you haven’t ‘been to’ Alaska.

I set out to see and experience Alaska off the tourist trail by focusing on the remote corners of the vast state and it’s small communities for my trip. After all, I like to find out where people go, and then turn around and go the opposite way – that’s where the real fun in travel happens.I understand not everyone will have 3 weeks like I did to explore the state. In fact, most people will only have a few extra days to see more of Alaska before/after their cruise itinerary.

How do you choose where to go in Alaska if you have limited time and a vast landscape?

The good news is each little community I went to had a distinctly different personality, so why not choose where to go in Alaska based on your personality?

Nome Alaska

Personality: For people who like to buy lottery tickets and enjoy a bit of danger.

Nome Alaska

One of the 3 roads that lead nowhere

Nome Alaska

Nome town square

Nome Alaska

Train to Nowhere

Nome Alaska

Main Street Nome

It’s simple, it’s gritty, and its backbone is gold. Nome is the type of town where you can safely leave your keys in your ignition in the parking lot, but if you say the wrong thing in a saloon, you may get beat up. It’s a working town with people who do physical work for a living – much like the farming towns in the Midwest, but not as picturesque. Nome had a hard edge, and that holds some weird allure to me. It’s sort of like the seedy side of old Las Vegas that I love so much.

Every morning I went to the Polar Cub Café for breakfast and I was the only woman patron there. I sat at the table and eavesdropped on all of the conversations around me, and they were all about gold. This town was built on gold mining, and it’s still the focus today.

I spent my days driving with Richard Beneville of Nome Discovery Tours out on one of the three roads that lead to nowhere. Really, they just stop; Nome is not connected to the rest of the state by road. You can only fly in, or in the winter of course you can travel by dog sled or snow mobile.

Richard, an old Broadway actor, is the most entertaining character in town. We drove the roads around the tundra viewing birds, muskoxen, abandoned railroads, hot springs, and roadhouse bars along the Iditarod. In the evening I went to the Board of Trade Saloon, once named one of the most dangerous bars in the world. Its motto is “Headquarters for the Sin City”. There you could do shots of whatever you wanted, play pool, throw a few games of corn hole, and watch the locals roll in…and sometimes crawl in. It was open until 2 or 3 AM…I honestly lost track and had one of the most fun bar nights of my life there.

Talkeetna Alaska Population 876

Personality: For the outdoor adventure seeker and those who like heights.

Talkeetna hiking

Hiking in remote areas of Denali National Park

Talkeetna flightseeing

Flightseeing is a ‘must’ in Talkeetna

Talkeetna Alaska Mayor Stubbs

The home of Mayor Stubbs – who was never in his office.

This is a town of drinkers with a climbing problem. Talkeetna is where all the Mt. Denali summits/expeditions begin. Set at the foot of Denali National Park, Talkeetna isn’t exactly remote, but it is small. Out of all of the towns I visited, it’s probably the most touristed thanks to it’s connection to the Alaska Railroad You can train there or drive there; but no matter how you get there you’ll want to make sure you fly while you are in Talkeetna.

If you aren’t one of those adventurous climbers, then you’ll want to get to the peaks by one of the many flightseeing options in Talkeetna. I flew from Talkeetna to Moraine Lake, located between Backside Glacier and the Ruth Glacier within the vast roadless area of Denali National Park. The area is only accessible by float-plane and a super place to spend a few hours hiking. Plus, if the weather cooperates, you’ll get to see Mt. Denali up close and personal from the air.

After your flight or hike, go check out the town restaurants and night life, you’ll surely run into some characters. After all, the Mayor of Takeetna is a cat…who never seemed to be in his office every time I stopped by. And yes, Mayor Stubbs has a Facebook page.

Finish the night with a drink at Fariview Inn Bar. I think I lost a few years of my life there – it’s sort of like an Alaskan frat house, but filled with all of the seasonal workers from the area and loads of fun.

McCarthy Alaska Population 28

Personality: For people who love the wild west, and don’t really want to be found.

McCarthy Alaska

Ross Glacier in Wrangel St. Elias National Park near McCarthy with my St. Elias Alpine Guide

McCarthy Alaska

Kennicott Mines – no longer in operation

McCarthy Alaska

Ma Johnson’s hotel on Main Street McCarthy

In 1900 copper was discovered in the area around McCarthy and soon a mining business was created by Kennecott Mining Company. Because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in the mining ‘company’ town of Kennecott, the town of McCarthy grew a few miles away as an area to provide those in-demand services not available in the company town; namely drinking, gambling, and prostitution. McCarthy was modeled after the wild western towns and still has that same personality today.

The town ‘main street’ was gravel and riddled with pot holes. The town housed a hotel (an old boarding house and brothel), small grocery story, and a saloon. These establishments were surrounded by very basic cabins, two restaurants, plus a pizza truck across the river which seemed a bit odd – yet for McCarthy it also seemed normal. A shuttle runs around the town taking you back and forth between abandoned Kennicott mines and McCarthy.

It’s a simple town, but don’t think that mean there’s nothing to do there. McCarthy is surrounded by the US’s largest national park, Wrangel St. Elias. There you have a wealth of hiking trails, peaks, river rafting, and glaciers at your disposal to play on. You can hire a St. Elias Alpine Guide and you’ll find all of the nooks and crannies of the park and the glaciers.

Neil, the owner of the saloon and Ma Johnson’s hotel actually refers to a ‘downtown’ when he talks about McCarthy. I look around at the dirt road and chuckle; I guess it’s all about perspective. He describes McCarthy as what Talkeetna used to be like before they built the road there. When I asked him about living in the town year around he replied, “You have to love yourself if you are going to live alone in Alaska in the winter.”

Because it’s surrounded by a huge, remote national park, it’s not easy to get to McCarthy. You’ll have to fly in or take a long arduous drive on one of the two gravel roads in the park which are hardly maintained. I suggest the flight, it was the best flightseeing I’ve ever done!

Coldfoot Alaska Population 10

Personality: For people who love big rigs, engineering, and hunting.

Coldfoot Alaska

Drive the Dalton highway high into the Brooks Range

coldfoot alaska

The township of Coldfoot – basically a truck stop.

Coldfoot alaska

Autumn on the Tundra

Coldfoot is simply a trucker ‘town’/stop on the Dalton Highway at mile marker 175, and it’s the only one you’ll find north of the Arctic Circle. You can get to Coldfoot by car, van, or flight. I actually took a van tour up to Coldfoot, and then flew back to Fairbanks – only 260 miles to the South.

The Coldfoot camp lodging is basic, but the surrounding landscapes are spectacular around this town. Spend a day driving further up the Dalton Highway to the Atigun Pass and take a walk on the High Arctic Tundra. Then spend your evening at the 24 hour truck stop soaking up, it’s bottomless free coffee, the unique atmosphere, strike up a conversation with a pipeline worker, and if you are really brave, check out the Trucker Corner.

Pick one, or all four of these small towns to explore. If you get to any of these towns, don’t expect to see crowds of tourists or any cruise ships. However you should expect to really experience the people and landscapes of Alaska. These towns were my favorite part of my trip and I’d love to go back and spend more time in all of them.

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of Alaska Tourism on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

 

 

Natural Alaskan Beauty in the Heart of the Arctic Tundra

April 20, 2016 by  

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nome alaska tundra trees

Field of Fireweed near the springs.

Sit still under a tree branch and just listen. Listen. You’ll hear rustling, every so slightly. Your hair blows across your face and tickles your cheeks. You look up into the branches and see a leaf come tumbling down towards you like a feather. Trees are magical.

Sitting under trees and listening to the leaves blow in the wind is something we seldom take time to do any longer. However what if there were no trees, no possibility of ever sitting under a tree and watching the branches sway, and listening to the leaves flap against one another? We’d suddenly long for them. Welcome to the Nome Alaska, an Arctic landscape with no trees.

A Tree Oasis Near Nome

However there’s a hidden oasis if you care to go for an adventure on one of the three roads to nowhere that lead out of Nome; Pilgrim Hot Springs is an area where tundra trees grow in abundance. You may think you are seeing a tree mirage as you pull up on the bumpy road to the springs, but you aren’t. It’s real. And it comes with a very real history.

tundra treesThis is the typical tundra landscape, ground brush, but no trees

Tundra TreesThe tree oases at Pilgrim Hot Springs near Nome

Pilgrim Hot Springs is a subarctic oasis full of tundra trees and bubbling hot springs. From a distance you see pine trees and balsam poplar trees swaying in the wind. There are old farm buildings, some rusted out equipment, and steam is rising from the lush landscape. It’s a strange scene that you don’t expect to see in the Arctic tundra. However, as you start to walk around the springs, you realize that the buildings you saw in the distance are actually abandoned and run down up close. The area has been abandoned for years, and has been left to be taken over by the trees.

An Epidemic in Nome

In 1919 a Catholic mission was built at the Pilgrim Hot Springs outside of Nome. The area was in the throws of the 1918 Spanish flu which had killed millions of people worldwide. It spread to the Seward Peninsula when a passenger carried the virus to Nome on the last steamship of the season. The flu soon spread inland, where Natives with no resistance to the virus had no chance. All the people in the village of York died, as did 72 of 80 in Brevig Mission. All together, more than 1,200 died on the peninsula. Via Alaska Dispatch News

The Catholic Diocese of Nome had acquired the Pilgrim Springs homestead in 1917 and decided to use the land as an orphanage and mission to house the many children who survived the epidemic, but their families didn’t. A number of buildings were constructed with luxuries like flush toilets and hot water heating thanks to the nearby hot springs. The children lived in dorms, and there was a church and living quarters for the 20 priests, nuns, brothers and others.

Over the years, the flu orphans became adults and the orphanage closed in 1941. And that’s exactly how you’ll see if today – frozen in 1941; abandoned, derelict, and surrounded by tundra trees.

Abandoned Pilgrim Hot Springs Photography

Bring your camera because this is a fascinating place to capture. It’s colorful, eerie, historical, remote, and my favorite – abandoned.

Tundra trees Nome AlaskaThe landscape around Pilgrim Hot Springs was completely different

Nome Alaska Pilgrim Hot SpringsAbandoned church Pilgrim Hot Springs

Pilgrim Hot Springs Nome AlaskaA rusted tricycle sits in the field.

Abandoned Parish Home

Pilgrim hot springs cemetery
PIlgrim hot springs nome alaska
tundra trees
abandoned nome alaska

Visit and Photograph Pilgrim Hot Springs

Hire Richard from Nome Discovery Tours
Call: (907) 304-1453 or (907) 443-2814

For more on Alaska, check out my Things to do in Alaska post.

Richard will drive you out to this remote area (aprox 1.5 hours outside of Nome) on rough terrain. He’ll give you the history and entertain you all day. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the abandoned buildings and take photos.

Remember to take mosquito repellent and cover up thoroughly …with trees come those HUGE Alaska Mosquitos

Cruise Your Way Through the Sea of Cortez

April 16, 2016 by  

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I looked up at the twinkling Milky Way and soaked it all in. I was on a remote beach surrounded by limestone cliffs and a glowing bon fire. Waves gently crashed on shore providing a rhythm to my thoughts. The smell of mesquite wafted through the air as I contemplated my tiny little life engulfed in the giant Milky Way.

Cruising is gaining popularity every year as people take off on behemoth ships through seas and rivers with thousands of people, activities, and calories. There’s a rigid itinerary and little room for your own personal exploration. And I want absolutely nothing to do with that type of cruising.

There’s a new option to cruising where less is more. Small ship cruising is a chance to go where other ships can’t, and a chance to remain flexible.

If Un-Cruise were a car, it would have the bumper sticker “We Brake for Whales”. And the best part is that there is no rigid itinerary when you are small enough to maneuver into shallow waters and don’t have a port schedule to stick to. Jeremy, our expedition leader on the ship, described the cruise as being “rigidly flexible’ since so many activities and even routes in the Sea of Cortez depend on the weather and winds.

Sunrise Sea of cortez
Un-cruise Adventures ship

What are Un-Cruise Adventures?

I had only taken an expedition cruise up to this point, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect on an adventure cruise, but at the very least you should expect some adventurous activities – right?! Since we had beautiful warm weather in the Sea of Cortez in February, this meant we had many water options.

A typical day on the ship went something like this – wake up to a beautiful sunrise and do some yoga on the deck. After breakfast head off on a skiff (small motorized raft boat) to do an organized activity such as a guided hike, snorkeling, burro ride, whale watching, kayaking, or stand up paddle boarding. After lunch head to another spot and anchor in a turquoise bay, take a skiff ashore and enjoy a beach party complete with open bar. Un-Cruise staff would bring out the kayaks, SUPs, and snorkel gear and you could go on your own to explore. Or you could just sit on the beach, read a book and have a margarita.

You could be as active and adventurous as you wanted with activities like these.

Hiking

Mother Nature was on our side the week I cruised the Sea of Cortez. The Captain said that we rarely have calm enough winds to stop at Isla Coronados – a volcanic island with a crescent shaped white sand beach. We started early in the morning on the volcano crater hike covering 1000 feet in elevation and not a single tree offering shade. Like most hikes it started out easy, but then we started up the steep, jagged rocks, which took every bit of concentration that my brain had that early in the morning. Finally the rocks gave way to the steepest section yet made of scree – which was like trying to climb a pile of sand. Needless to say, this hike (4 miles round trip) was challenging. But of course the view at the top of the crater was worth it.

Un-cruise adventures hikes 3 (1)

I did an easier hike later in the week, but what it lacked in technical difficulty, it made up for in temperature difficulty. We walked across the salt flats at Isla San Francisco, and I felt the water evaporating out of me just like the salt pools. This was an easy hike more about the flora and landscape rather than exerting yourself. And we also had some time to dig around under the rocks to see what sea critters we could find.

hiking sea of cortex salt flats 1

Snorkeling

With mild water temperature around 65 degrees, I appreciated the wetsuit that Un-Cruise furnished. They also outfit you in all the snorkel equipment you need so that you can go check out these crystal clear waters full of colorful fish, eels, urchins, and sea lions. At Los Islotes we had a chance to snorkel with baby sea lions. I opted to stay above water so that I could get wildlife photography shots of the Blue Boobies, however my friend Kristin of Travel Past 50, dawned her snorkel gear, camera, and frolicked with the sea lions!

Snorkel Sea Lions, Los Islotes, Laura Sea of Cortez from Kristin

Snorkel Sea Lions, Los Islotes, photo Kristin Henning

Kayaking

The water was so clear that we could see the fish, clams, and eels right from our kayak! Kristin and I spent one morning on a substantial paddle around Aqua Verdes. The secluded bay was full of great rock formations and birds. Once again we were blessed with calm weather so we were able to kayak all the way out to Solitary Rock, which tons of birds use as a sanctuary safe from predators. And they also use the rock as their toilet. This was one case where guano made the rock more photogenic!

We also did some casual kayaking just to get out and explore an island near Los Islotes. It was fun to see the crabs scurry as we came close. But the best part was when one of our guides drove the skiff out to meet us and gave us a beer. Happy hour kayaking in the Sea of Cortez = perfection.

DCIM100GOPRO
DCIM100GOPRO
kayak sea of cortez (1)
Agua Verde, Sea of Cortez from Kristin
kayak sea of cortez (2)

Burro Riding

Four legs are better than two in this desert environment. The Romeros live and ranch in Baja Sur. They brought their entire family and their 14 burros to Aqua Verdes to offer rides to people who were interested in exploring inland. I admired the beautiful leather saddle design as I hoisted my leg over my burro and into the stirrup. I watched intently as they looped up their ropes and got ready to take us out on a serious trail ride. Only a few of them knew English, but they told us stories of ranching and trying to make a living in a very harsh environment. It was a fascinating ride through the desert and arroyos (dry creeks). At one point we even came across what appeared to be an oasis with palm trees and green plants which looked completely out of place in the orange, dusty desert!

Un-cruise adventures 6
Un-cruise adventures 5
Un-cruise adventures 7
Un-cruise adventures 9
Un-cruise adventures 8

Marine Safari – Gray Whales

As we exited our vans that had transported us to Magdalena Bay, our guide from Desert and Sea Adventures, Angel talked about the boat we’d be going out on for whale-watching. It was then that I heard it for the first time “if you pet a whale…” Angel said and kept talking about the proper protocol for whale interaction. However my brain had stopped on the first part of the sentence; did he say “pet a whale?” I thought in astonishment. Yes, he did. At Magdalena Bay the whales approach you so closely that you can pet them.

Gray Whale Migration mexico

Gray Whale Migration!

Free Adventurous Time

With ample free time each day, we could pick and choose other adventures we wanted to do. From beach combing, to kayaking, to SUP, it was pretty easy to stay active every day. You could even swim off the boat in the right conditions!

Un-cruise Adventures Safari endeaver

In addition to all of these adventures, the ship also offered free massages to every passenger, an open bar, and wonderful food.

As I laid on my beach blanket staring at the Milky Way at our private beach bon fire party, my eyes locked in on a satellite moving across the sky. I followed its path as it passed stars and planets. It always amazes me the speed at which they move. It was then that I decided I liked this thing called Un-Cruise adventures; it’s just my speed.

Un-Cruise the Sea of Cortez and Come Early/Stay Late in San Jose Del Cabo

Fly into San Jose Del Cabo International Airport (SJD) a few days early, skip the resorts and see the historic Art town of San Jose Del Cabo!

Where to stay before or after your adventure cruise in Can Jose Del Cabo

Casa Natalia – a cute boutique hotel (don’t even bother with the gigantic all inclusive resorts that have no soul), that is cozily designed with open patios, a waterfall pool, a lovely staff. Located in the center of old town and the art district!

Since you’ll be burning calories doing all of those adventures, be sure to book a night at the newest farm to table restaurant creation in Los Cabos. Located outside of the city on a dusty little back road is an oasis of organic hip called ACRE. The restaurant, cocktail bar, event space and surrounding farms is the first phase. Twelve tree-houses(!) will be added to the palm forest shortly. ACRE grows all of the ingredients used in its restaurant and honors all animals and vegetables by using every part.
Kristin and I had dinner there the night before our Un-Cruise departure and it was a complete eating experience. Each dish full of complex flavors was beautifully displayed. And the cocktails made by their onsite mixologist, Dani Tatarin, were like a little science creations in a martini glass instead of a beaker. The indoor/outdoor eating experience is a great start to your adventure cruise.
ACRE Website

Acre Restaurant San jose del cabo 3
Acre Restaurant San jose del cabo 4
Acre Restaurant San jose del cabo 1

 

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of Un-Cruise Adventures on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

Spectacular Views From the Alaska Railroad

April 14, 2016 by  

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Everyone crowded into the train station like sardines. “Alllllllll Aboarrrd!” The conductor shouts. It rings through my head taking me back for a second to Model Ts chugging around, horse carriages pulling up to the station in a flurry of dust and activity while men in trousers, loose shirts, and hats lift trunks off of the carriage. Black coal smoke rises into the air, as the train is about to take off. I’m surrounded by steam engines, hard sided luggage, big trunks, and so many people.

I’m jostled around out of my daydream and back to the present, as a woman with a latte pushes into me. Next, the person in front of me stops to take a picture with his smartphone as I swerve out of the way at the last minute. And soon the crowd pours out of the Anchorage station and onto the tracks. The times have changed, but I believe that the level of excitement and anticipation is the same as decades ago.

There’s something exciting about boarding a train; the bustle, the sounds, the goodbyes, and the anticipation of what is to come. I clutch my camera as I step up onto the train excited to see the Alaskan landscape from a different perspective – a slow rolling one.

Alaska Railroad photography

My Secret Train Love

I have a secret love of trains. I actually owe trains and the railroad a great deal when it comes to the life I’m living now. My first job out of college was at Union Pacific Railroad in their Accounting Department. It was at UPRR where I learned how to be successful in corporate America, I learned about computers, which led to my career switch into IT. I learned about budgets, life in cubes, and I received my MBA thanks to UPRR.

But most importantly – I learned how to operate a train when I worked at Union Pacific. Yes, that’s right, I was a licensed train engineer. As a management employee I was required to get my train engineer and conductor license just in case the Union went on strike and they needed to put management to work to keep the railroad running.

But I left my UPRR hard hat in my storage unit along with my steel toed boots, and instead just had a camera with me for this trip. I wouldn’t be operating the train (or we’d all be in real trouble), I would be photographing the train and surrounding landscapes.

The Alaska Railroad is One of a Kind

Owned by the state and not connected via rail to any other North American railway, the Alaska Railroad is unique. It operates 4 routes along 470 miles of track carrying both freight and passengers. Plus, it operates the last known flag-stop service in the US on their Hurricane Turn Line. Rather than making scheduled station stops, the Hurricane Turn Line passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane can wave a white cloth anywhere along the route and the train will stop to pick them up. This is a crucial offering to locals living in the remote backcountry of Alaska; their lifeline in a way. I didn’t take this route while I was in Alaska – but it’s on my list to return and flag it down…literally.

Alaska Railroad Travel

Alaska Railroad Service

As I walked up the stairs to the 2nd level to find my reserved seat, my car’s bartender greeted me. Yes, I had a railroad car bartender; I knew this was going to be a great day. I was traveling on Gold Star Class, and I wasn’t really sure what that meant – but apparently it meant that you had an open bar – and brunch.

If you are going to ride the Alaskan Railroad, then try to splurge on the Gold Star Class. Normally I’m not a proponent of 1st class travel, but I’m making an exception for this – because it’s a train. The Gold Star Class cars were windowed dome cars, which gave you the best possible view. I imagined it was sort of like flying in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.

The entire time we had a ‘guide’ who provided commentary and history throughout the ride. They even gave you ample notice of the scenic spots upcoming for photos.

In addition, the Gold Star cars also had an outdoor ‘balcony’ on the back of the car where you could take photos unobstructed by glass. Even more than the unlimited booze and food, the outdoor space for photography was my favorite feature of the Gold Star Class.

Gold Star Class Alaska Railroad

Surrounded by windows.

Alaska railroad Gold Star Class
Alaska railroad Gold Star Class
Alaska railroad Gold Star Class
Alaska railroad Gold Star Class
Alaska railroad Gold Star Class

Landscape Photography via the Alaska Railroad

As we pulled out of the Anchorage Railroad Station, the whistle blows and the commuting scene out my large window gives way to pink sky that makes the mud flats outside of anchorage glimmer in the low morning light. This Coastal Classic route, from Anchorage to Seward, is often called ‘the most scenic route’ as it passes through fjords, glaciers, mountains, and tunnels. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time outside on the ‘balcony’ shooting photos between drinks and brunch.

Then again, the day I road the Denali Star route, from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, Mt. Denali decided to grace us with it’s presence, which apparently is pretty rare. The views of Denali National Park and it’s mountains, rivers, and bridges are also stunning.

Train Photography Tips:

  • Avoid shooting through glass if possible. OR – put your lens flat against it.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Wear dark colors to avoid the glare.
  • Since the landscape is moving quickly by you, make sure that you shutter speed is as fast as you can make it – 1/2000 if possible.
  • Take the Gold Star Class to get the best access to photography
Alaska railroad Coastal ClassicDawn light leaving Anchorage

Alaska railroad Denali Star
Alaska Railroad photography
Alaska railroad Coastal Classic
Alaska railroad Coastal Classic
Alaska railroad Coastal Classic

I think train travel is the best meditation there is. But the best part is…it’s a train. You gently rock back and forth, hear the whistle blow, let your mind daydream, and get to watch some of the most beautiful scenery in the US pass by your window.

Alaska Railroad Schedule & Information

Daily service mid May to mid September for the Denali Star and Coastal Classic Routes

Winter routes from Fairbanks to Anchorage are limited:

Weekend Service September 19, 2015 – May 8, 2016
Northbound: Saturdays
Southbound: Sundays

Do you love trains?  What’s your dream destination to see by train?  Share in the comments below!
Disclosure: I was a guest of Alaska Tourism on this trip however all opinions here are my own.

Travel One of the Most Isolated & Dangerous Roads in the World

April 9, 2016 by  

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driving the Dalton Highway

Every time I looked to my right, it was there. It looked like a giant snake winding through the beautiful landscape, as if I were in a sci-fi film. It was strange to have the it constantly in your sight – like a monkey on your back. Always there, always reminding you that it is the reason why people are here in this part of the world. Oil.

I was traveling up the Dalton Highway following the Alaskan pipeline from Fairbanks to Coldfoot Alaska and slightly beyond. The highway was built as a supply road to support the construction of the pipeline in 1974. It’s a 414 mile road (the majority of it dirt) beginning at the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks and ending at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean. And it’s still used primarily in conjunction with the pipeline today for maintenance crews, shipping…and little bit of…tourism.

Known as one of the most isolated and dangerous roads in the world, of course I had to experience it.

Every time I looked to my right it was there. It looked like a giant snake winding through the beautiful landscape, as if I were in a sci-fi film. It was strange to have the it constantly in your sight – like a monkey on your back. Always there, always reminding you that it is the reason why people are here in this part of the world. Oil.

I was traveling up the Dalton Highway following the Alaskan pipeline from Fairbanks to Coldfoot Alaska and slightly beyond. The highway was built as a supply road to support the construction of the pipeline in 1974. It’s a 414 mile road (the majority of it dirt) beginning at the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks and ending at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean. And it’s still used primarily in conjunction with the pipeline today for maintenance crews, shipping…and little bit of…tourism.

Known as one of the most isolated and dangerous roads in the world, of course I had to experience it.

Touring the Dalton Highway

There are a few ways you can drive the Dalton Highway as a tourist. You can rent a car – but this is not your typical car or road, so it is quite expensive and most rental companies will not allow you to drive it. You can also take a shuttle in a no frills type of ride.

However, I decided upon the Northern Alaska Tour Company who offers various tours up the highway. The tour is simply a long day’s drive with a guide and narration about the geography of the area, life above the arctic, and the history of the pipeline.

She was an all-American blonde with blue eyes, studying nursing; our young guide and Fairbanks native, Hannah, drove our van filled with 6 people up the highway while telling us non-stop stories.  The stories weren’t simply about the highway, but she also shared touching Norman Rockwell-ish stories of her childhood growing up in Alaska hunting and fishing so we could get a real feel for the area.   We stopped numerous places along the highway for photos, food, closer views of the pipeline, to walk on the tundra, and more stories.

When we arrived at the Arctic Circle where there was a sign and little picnic area to mark the crossing. Hannah carried out a big rug and suddenly unrolls a red carpet in front of the ‘Welcome to the Arctic Circle’ sign. The red carpet even had a stitched dotted line running through it.  She carefully placed it on the ground with the dotted line in alignment with the middle of the sign. We all did our personalized walk across the Arctic circle; some did cartwheels, some somersaults, and some just walked. And then we all celebrated with chocolate cake! I can guarantee you that the simple shuttle ride doesn’t do this!

Even though Hannah seemed rather innocent and young, she handled the CB radio like a pro, talking to the truckers, calling out corners and hills as you are supposed to do to warn other trucks on the highway as part of typical Dalton Highway etiquette. Truckers on the Dalton Highway have given their own names to it’s various features such as: The Taps, The Shelf, The Bluffs, Oil Spill hill, Beaver Slide, Two and a Half Mile, Roller Coaster, and Oh Shit Corner. The Dalton Highway has recently been made famous by the TV show Ice Road Truckers, which I had never seen before, but had heard plenty about. Luckily I was on the road in August, and there was no ice yet…but it was on the way soon.

There are only 3 towns along the route; Coldfoot, Wiseman, and Deadhorse. Our original tour went as far as Coldfoot camp and then the next day I went a little further. We went past Wiseman with a different guide to the highest point on the highway in the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass (4700 ft). The day we drove up the pass it actually snowed on us in August. And this section of the Dalton Highway was by far the most scenic as we drove through the Brooks Range.

Of course, the whole time I was taking photos. My Brooks Range guide, Cammie, explained that Autumn moves fast in this part of the world, it only lasts about 2 weeks. And luckily we were there during it!

Dalton Highway Photos

Dalton Highway Travel

Alaska Pipeline Dalton Highway

The pipeline

Dalton Highway Tour

Coming and going on the Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway tundra

The autumn colors in the high tundra

Dalton Highway pipeline

The pipeline still following the road…

Arctic landscape

The boreal trees dot the landscape of the tundra

Dalton Highway Cold Foot

The road past Cold Foot Camp

Dalton Highway

The road leading up to the highest point on the Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway Atigun Pass

Snow on Atigun Pass!

Alaskan pipeline Dalton Highway

Get a close up view of the pipeline

Dalton Highway Brooks Range

Brooks Range

Autumn in the Arctic

Fall colors move fast in the Arctic

Dalton Highway

The highway belongs to the truckers.

 

Petting Whales in Magdalena Bay in the Sea

April 6, 2016 by  

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Ahab isn’t the only person who gets to look a whale eye to eye. Head to Magdalena Bay where you can have a close encounter with a Gray Whale – so close you can pet it. If there is such a thing as being too close to a whale while whale watching, this might have been it.

The Gray Whale migration covers 10,000 miles from feeding grounds in Alaska’s Bering Sea to mating/nursing grounds in Mexico. It’s the longest trek of any mammal. And for some unknown reason, when they arrive in Mexico’s Magdalena Bay, they are in a good mood. Maybe it’s the sex, or the joy of being a new mother – who knows; but they are in such a great mood that they like to interact with you.

Gray Whale spyhopping

In Magdalena Bay, Gray Whales Approach You

There are regulations around approaching the whales in the bay keeping boats at a distance (300 feet), however it’s difficult to know what to do when the whales approach you. Apparently the whales have no rules to follow.

We were greeted by new moms and their babies as they spyhopped (when a whale pokes their head above surface to get a better view), swam underneath our boat rubbing up against it, and simply popping their head out of the water at the side of the boat and allowing people to pet them. I was absolutely astonished at this behavior.

“I think it’s the whales way of saying, we forgive you,” our guide explained. She practically had tears in her eyes as she talked. “We’ve hunted them for so long and treated them poorly, this is their forgiveness.” She felt this was the mother’s way of teaching their young what a boat and humans were; showing them the world in a way.

It’s no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund supports Gray Whale research in the area.

 “Intensive whaling has drastically reduced the population, yet those in the Baja California region have an unusual tendency to approach whale-watching boats and allow holidaymakers to touch them and scratch their tongues,” said the World Wildlife Fund.

The calm, warm waters are a safe place for young whales to be free from predators, like killer whales. Locals actually refer to the gray whales as “friendly ones” since thy have the tendency to approach whale-watching boats.

If petting a whale in the wild is on your bucket list, then head to Baja Mexico and Magdalena Bay. It was one of the most spectacular animal encounters I’ve ever experienced.

See the ‘Friendly Ones’ During the Gray Whale Migration in Mexico

gray whale migration mexico

The whale paparazzi

Pet a Gray Whale Magdalena Bay

A family affair

Gray Whale Migration viewing

Gray Whale Watching Mexico

Look a whale in the eye…this one was swimming right up to our boat!

Gray Whale migration mexico

Say cheese!

Pet a Gray Whale in the wild

Everyone needs a little love …even whales.

And if you love whales, don’t miss the Blue Whale Festival Loreto Mexico 2nd week in February.

Gray Whale Migration Map

 

How Many German Products & Cultural Factoids Do You Know?

April 5, 2016 by  

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Lace Making Wooden bobbins

There’s something about this Made in Germany road trip that feels cathartic. It’s stirring so many memories of my childhood and my trips to my grandparent’s homes. At times it feels like I’m getting the missing pieces to a puzzle I started 40+ years ago about my upbringing and family.

Little things jarred memories – like the brass candle holder with paper skirt found on a table at a restaurant in Triberg. We had something similar on our dinging room table in my childhood home. The strawberry preserves I had in Bad Nauheim reminded me immediately of my Grandma Ott’s strawberry sauce she canned to put on ice cream. The taste was the same. I started to wonder if I was just imagining it. Was this my brain running wild with memories? And then there was the wooden cabbage slicer hanging at the Black Forest museum which was exactly like the one my dad used in our basement when he spent the day making sauerkraut; a day I hated as it made the whole house smell.

Our family heritage and how we grow up shapes us, it becomes a tightly knit piece of our DNA. And that’s what this Made in Germany road trip did for me. It made me take a look at that DNA and accept its existence in a way.

Even though this was a road trip to discover Made in Germany items, it also helped me realize that, in a way, I was made in Germany too; my ancestry started there.

You can follow the Made in Germany path I took with the map below. I’ve listed the places I’ve stayed (in green) and where I stopped to (in many cases) get hands-on demonstrations of the products made in Germany (in Red). The driving route takes you through the middle of the country – a part of Germany that is often ignored – and that’s a big mistake – because it was my favorite part of this trip. Discovering Thuringia Germany was a highlight for me; a state that is seldom seen by international tourists, so much so that there was little English spoken there. Here’s my Made in Germany stops!

Start with the Birth of an Automobile at the Mercedes Plant

What better place to start a Germany road trip than the automotive capital of Germany? Every four people who live in Stuttgart are in automotive industry. Not only do you have a Mercedes Automobile Museum, and Porsche museum and track, but you can also tour the Mercedes plant that is the size of a small city. I stood there on the factory floor watching robots that looked like Star Wars work the assembly line; it was astonishing. Even the forklifts ran themselves. And it gave me a whole new love and respect for engineering and tech geeks as they really are the scientists of today’s modern age.
More Info: Things to do in Stuttgart for the Automotive Nut

Make a Black Forest Cake

How to Make Black Forest Cake

It was originally called farmers cake because it was made of ingredients one could easily get from the farm. Chef Josef makes 25 Black Forest Cakes a day…it’s the real deal. He uses 1.5 liters of cream for the filling in each three layer cake, but adds no sugar. He also makes his own schnapps which he referred to as ‘cherry water’. I actually found this original German version much less sweet than what it’s morphed into in America. My Grandma Ott used to love cherries, a box of chocolate covered cherries was one of her most prized possessions. As I took a bite of the Black Forest Cake it reminded me of those chocolate candies in a slightly different form – delicious and not so rich. And it doesn’t hurt if you wash it down with extra ‘cherry water’!

Head to Landgasthof Zur Lilie in the Black Forest town of Triberg to see Chef Josef make one of his 25 daily Black Forest Cakes!

How to Make Black Forest Cake
How to Make Black Forest Cake
How to Make Black Forest Cake
How to Make Black Forest Cake
How to Make Black Forest Cake

Learn How Cuckoo Clocks are Made By Hand Today

I remember my childhood home’s cuckoo clock that my dad was always tinkering with. It always left me wondering why he didn’t just get a cool digital clock that was all the rage in the 80’s. My grandparent’s farmhouse also had a cuckoo clock, it was always there, in the background keeping us in sync and moving us along through the day. I never really understood what the fascination was with cuckoo clocks until I walked into the Hubert Herr cuckoo clock factory in the Black Forest town of Triberg Germany.

The Herr family knows a lot about time, as the Herr’s have been making cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest in Germany for 5 generations. There’s something magical about cuckoo clocks, they have survived the test of time for hundreds of years and are still in demand.

Bollenhut and the Lutheran Way

Where do I start with this one? I was raised Lutheran…and Germany is the epicenter for the Lutheran religion; it was ‘made there’. I was able to visit the Open Air Museum in the Black Forest to learn a bit more about how the Lutheran families got by farming and living off the land. Their big, traditional homes were part house, and part barn. The Lutherans worked the land and made many products as well as upheld many traditions – including the Bollenhut.

The Black Forest Bollenhut (hat) was a German Lutheran tradition. Young Lutheran girls wore these hats with dense, red, wool balls (weighing 4 lbs) after they were confirmed in the church (around 13 yrs old) to signify their availability to be married. Married women wore black versions of these hats. So you can consider the Bollenhut sort of like an online dating profile.

Black Forest Open Air Museum
Black Forest Open Air Museum
Black Forest Open Air Museum
Lutheran German Traditions Bollenhut 9
Black Forest Open Air Museum
bollenhat outfit
bollenhut hat

Glass Christmas Ornaments Began in Germany

German glass christmas ornament

Made in Germany …my mom kept the original box.

As I put ornaments on the tree this year at my parent’s home, my mom got out an old box that said Shiny Brite. I picked up the ancient box and on the side it read, “Made in Western Germany”. Christmas ornament’s origin are Thuringia Germany in the mid 1800’s. During Christmas people in Thuringia hung fruit and nuts on their trees for decoration as a ‘celebration of nature’. However, in the 1800’s money was tight and it was considered pretty wasteful to hang food that you could/should be eating on your tree. They needed a substitute. Since the village of Lauscha was the epicenter of glass making, thanks to it’s natural environment with an abundance of wood and sand (the two main ingredients for glass blowing), Hans Greiner decided to make glass versions of the fruit and nuts and hang that on the tree instead, leaving all the real food available to eat.

Lauscha is still the center for glass blowing in Germany and you can stop there to see glass in progress, and even blow your own!
More Information: How German Christmas Ornaments Went Viral

Gnomes Were Invented in Germany

My grandma used to have little plaster garden animals in her lawn, which I never understood. I thought they were tacky – apparently they were just German. Thuringia used to be a clay mining area and most people worked in the mines.  The first gnomes were created in 1880 as figurines of people working in mines (the hat is actually a traditional miner hat). People bought the gnomes locally for indoor decoration. Then after World War II, gardening became more necessary and the Gnomes moved outside for decoration.

The gnomes used to only grace the gardens of the wealthy or royalty, however; a terra-cotta workshop from Grafenroda Thuringia started mass producing the gnomes out of the abundance of clay from the region. Suddenly everyone could afford a garden gnome! For the gnome fanatics out there…you gotta visit this little quirky museum and learn about the four generations of gnome making. Meet the owners, walk through the museum and see the factory!

Gnome Museum Germany
Gnome Museum Germany
Gnome Museum Germany

Learn About the First German Bratwurst

Who hasn’t had a tailgate with bratwursts at some point in their life – that’s an American tradition! However the bratwurst is a true ‘made in Germany’ product, dating back to 1404. And if you want the best bratwurst in Germany, then you have to go to Thuringia to have their special version, which has different dimensions and flavors than it’s American counterparts. Experience the best of the wurst and stop at the Bratwurst museum in Holzhausen and meet Thomas. There you can make you own bratwurst from scratch, learn about it’s history, attend a musical about bratwurst and pet live pigs. It will change your view on bratwursts.
More Info: Germany Bratwurst Museum

Experience the Worldwide Design Movement in Bauhaus

We’ve all been exposed to Bauhaus design at some point in our lives. This modern, simple, sleek design still dominates our world today even though the school was founded back in 1906. Bauhaus is known as a design style and it’s also the name of the university in Weimar Germany where it all started with Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential currents in modern design, Modernist architecture and art, design and architectural education. You can do a walking tour at the university and see some of the original work rooms at the university. In addition you can see other work spaces and a Bauhaus museum in Weimar.

Bauhaus Design School
Bauhaus Design Museum
Bauhaus Design School
Bauhaus Design Museum
Bauhaus Design School
Bauhaus Design School
Bauhaus Design School

Learn How the Germans Invented the Skat Card Game

This is probably one of my strongest German memories growing up. My father taught us all how to play Sheepshead (Schafkopf), we had friends from Germany over every New Year’s Eve and played. Skat – is just a more complicated version of Sheepshead, and it is Germany’s most beloved card game. It was created in the town of Altenburg in Thuringia, and now Altenburg is the card capital of Germany! From museums to card walking trails, to card shops, and lucky card fountains  – you’ll get your card fix there. And if you stop in at Hotel am Roßplan, you may even get to join in on a hand of Skat!

Lace Making Artistry

Lace making came to Saxony Germany through trade people who traveled to the area. Annaberg was a town that was also dominated by mining. The wife of a mine owner, Barbara Uttmann started the lace making industry and school there. When mining started to decline the lace makers supplemented their dwindling mining income by providing lace for the fashion industry. I met experienced lace makers who showed me how they follow patterns with wooden bobbins and lightening quick hand movements. For the basic stitch I was taught, you only need 4 bobbins. However the pattern my instructor was working on had 68 bobbins to maneuver! Lace making classes still happen today in Annaberg, and you can see it and even get hands on at the Erzgebirgsmuseum.

Lace Making Wooden bobbins
Lace Making Wooden bobbins
Lace Making Wooden bobbins
Lace Making
Lace Making Wooden bobbins

 

 

 

Why Take a Cruise Down the Sea of Cortez?

April 1, 2016 by  

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Ahh yes, Baja’s Sea of Cortez – why wouldn’t you want to cruise down it? Frankly, the first 3 days of the cruise I was on I kept thinking Why the Sea of Cortez? What’s so special about it? Why should people come here as opposed to all the other great places in the world?” Sure – this burnt-orange landscape without trees and clouds is stark and stunning, and the turquoise waters are practically begging you to jump in, but why go to the Sea of Cortez?

I’m a bad traveler – mainly because I’m pretty hard to please. After spending nearly a decade constantly traveling, I’ve seen a hell of a lot. And it all starts to look and feel the same. I have a serious “Been there, done that” attitude that I wish I could get rid of – but I also have about 10 pounds I’d like to get rid of and that isn’t going to happen either. For the last 2 years I’ve really been focused on exploration travel. I want to find places that are off the beaten track, that aren’t in people’s vocabulary yet, or that may be near another popular destination but is overlooked.

sea of cortez landscapes

This is why I was mulling over this question constantly – “Why go to the Sea of Cortez?” What’s special about it? I realize people choose travel destinations for many different reasons, they aren’t all travel snobs like me; each person has something different that turns them on about travel. Here were a few answers I came up with after spending 7 days cruising through the Sea of Cortez on an Uncruise Small Ship.

Sea of Cortez landscape

The Animals

I listened to our guides over use the word endemic constantly and was getting slightly turned off by it. I kept hearing the quote “The aquarium of the world”; words uttered by the great explorer Jacques Cousteau. Yes, yes, there area many endemic plants, birds, and marine life in the Sea of Cortez, and for many people that feeds their travel cravings. Biologically speaking, the Sea of Cortez is the richest body of water on our entire planet – rare sea life flock here for the abundance of food in the waters. This diverse sea supports more than 900 varieties of fish and more than 2,000 species of marine invertebrates.

sea of cortez safari endeverA Humpback Whale escort in front of our ship

sea of cortez animalsA baby sea lion takes a nap

Sea of Cortez animals 3
Sea of Cortez animals (3)
Sea of Cortez animals 6
Sea of Cortez animals (1)
Sea of Cortez animals 2
Sea of Cortez animals 1
Sea of Cortez animals 5

Because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yes – the Sea of Cortez and it’s islands were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site  in 2005.  And to some people those 6 capital letters are enough to make them get out their passport and travel to a destination!  UNESCO status doesn’t come easily and should tell you how unique this environment is.

“The site is one of striking natural beauty in a dramatic setting formed by rugged islands with high cliffs and sandy beaches, which contrast with the brilliant reflection from the desert and the surrounding turquoise waters. It is home to 695 vascular plant species, more than in any marine and insular property on the World Heritage List.”

Go for the Landscapes

Imagine if Arizona had ocean access – and you have the Baja Landscapes on the Sea of Cortez.  The treeless inland was a rough, rugged, hot environment, but it had a desert beauty like no other.  The flowers and cacti that survive this land were remarkable and had adapted to the environment.  The islands in the Sea of Cortez also satisfy the landscape lovers with rockier terrains with white sand beaches, salt flats, and volcano craters.

Salt Flats on Isla San Francisco

Sea of Cortez landscape 14
Sea of Cortez landscape 10
Sea of Cortez landscape 13
Sea of Cortez landscape 9
Sea of Cortez landscape 6
Sea of Cortez landscape 2
Sea of Cortez landscape 4
Sea of Cortez landscape 1

Go Because Steinbeck Went

If you are a literary type, then you’ll want to go to the Sea of Cortez because Steinbeck went of course. In 1940 author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts, sailed through the Sea of Cortez documenting their findings. They had planned a specimen-collecting expedition, which also provided them with a chance to relax. Steinbeck escaped the controversy mounting around The Grapes of Wrath and it allowed Ricketts, suffering as a result of the breakup of his long-term relationship was glad to get away too. After their voyage they co-authored The Log from the Sea of Cortez , a detailed study of hundreds of tideland species, spiced with a few philosophical digressions.

Go Because you Need a Winter Escape

Tired of the blustery, cold winter and longing for sunny warm days and white sand?  For those people who are looking for a winter escape filled with turquoise waters that is more unique than where all of your friends go (i.e. Cancun, Caribbean, Bahamas, Aruba), then Sea of Cortez is the answer. This place is empty, its best spots are hidden, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Plus – they have a good international airport at Can Jose Del Cabo with airlines running winter deals all the time.

And for those of you who are looking for an all inclusive winter vacation where you don’t have to do anything – you can even travel through the Sea of Cortez with the perks of all inclusive by doing a small ship cruise on Uncruise’s Safari Endeavor.  Only 80 total passengers and everything is included, drinks, activities, and food – yet you move around and actually see different parts of the area as opposed to staying in one place.

And the Best Reason – Go Because it’s Remote

We cruised into Aqua Verde at sunrise and I saw the 2 sailboats  anchored around the green bay famed by the stark landscape and suddenly it became clear to me why I came to the Sea of Cortez; it’s hard to get there. You’ll only find a few roads that lead into the Sea of Cortez remote beaches and Baja Sur; most of them are dirt.  Going by boat is really the only way to see these areas.  Plus, there was little to no cell reception the whole trip.  I had found MY ‘exploration travel’ sweet spot – remoteness.  I like feeling like a modern day explorer, seeking out remote pockets of the world to try to satisfy people like me who love to be different.  That was reason enough for me to go to the Sea of Cortez.

Sea of CortezOne sailboat looks dwarfed by the mountains.

Sea of CortezPlaya Bonanza

sea of cortez map

Sea of Cortez map

How to Get to the Sea of Cortez

  • Fly into Los Cabas regional aripot (SJD) and add traditional beach bum to your itinerary
  • Fly into Loreto (LTO) or La Paz (LAP) to dive right into the remoteness
  • Cruise the islands with Uncruise Small Ship Adventures
  • For the more Adventurous – drive a car down the Mexico Federal Highway 1 from San Diego to Los Cabos.  This would be a great road trip full of local culture, beaches, wildlife, hiking, and local food!

 

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