Tag Archives: Toronto

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.27.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

IMG_1605

DANCING THROUGH CUSTOMS
One of the fringe benefits of writing a travel blog is that you can make some great friends doing great work. One such friend of mine is Renee King, who publishes A View to a Thrill.

In her most recent installment, she gives us the 4-1-1 on of the US government’s trusted traveler programs that can seriously speed you through the Customs process upon your return to the United States. It’s called “Global Entry” and here’s what Renee had to say about it:

“Originally created to target frequent international travelers, the U.S. Global Entry program has been a virtual god-send for travelers who want a fast and secure way of skipping the lines altogether when re-entering the United States.”

To pick up all the details on “Global Entry,” check out Renee’s article here. And then bookmark it. You’ll want to keep this one handy.

Anyone who doesn’t “get” the importance of this program has never walked/stumbled/staggered off a jumbo jet with about 300 other exhausted souls after a transoceanic flight lasting 12 hours or longer, only to queue up in a Customs line…with the passengers of two, three or four other jumbo jets, all doing the same thing you are.

I have. I don’t recommend it.

If such a trip is a one-in-a-lifetime deal for you, then you may not need this program, especially when it costs $100. You’ll also have to make an appointment to be interviewed, electronically fingerprinted and see if you qualify for the program — and frankly, not everyone will.

But when you walk off that plane in a jet-lagged fog and breeze by all those folks suffering in line, you’ll swear it was the best time and money you ever spent on travel.

And if you make more than, say, three or four globe-girdling flights per year, you need this.

To apply for the Global Entry program, start here.

ALL ABOARD…THE NIGHT TRAIN
If it’s true that, in the words of the old Amtrak commercial, “there’s something about a train, then there’s something even more captivating about an overnight “sleeper” train.

Watching the sun set from the privacy of your own compartment, then bedding down for the night with a window full of stars and awaking the next morning in a different city — or a different country — is unforgettable.

It’s also practical. A sleeper train combines transportation and lodging in one. Instead of losing a day traveling between points, you arrive at your destination early the next morning.

It’s not cheap, but a private compartment often includes all your on-board meals, as well as other perks unavailable to Coach passengers, all of which makes the sleeper experience worth considering.

London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper has considered it at length, and compiled a slideshow of what they consider to be the top ten overnight sleeper train runs in Europe, including one between Europe (London) and Africa (Marrakech, Morocco).

Paris-Barcelona? Paris-Berlin? London-Penzance? Yeah, I could happily do any of those.

-0-

AFRICAN FASHION MADE EASY
Not many folks on this side of the Atlantic are aware of it, but Africa has developed quite the fashion scene. We’re talking high-end threads for men and women from high-profile designers from the length and breadth of the Mother Continent.

Until a few years ago, your best shot at checking out this vibrant and growing fashion world was to fly to one or more of perhaps seven African cities:

  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Nairobi, Kenya
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Dakar, Senegal
  • Luanda, Angola

And if you want to get a feel for the sources of inspiration that drive these African fashions, that still might be the best idea.

However, you do have alternatives. Lots of them, in fact.

New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas both annually hosts African Fashion Weeks. But if you feel like giving your fashion trip some international flavor — with a bit less expense and a lot less flight time — there’s the Black Fashion Week in Paris and the Africa Fashion Week London, now in its third year.

-0-

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from Business Insider via Yahoo
A Germany-based air safety monitoring group lists the world’s ten most dangerous airlines over the last 30 years. Read with some large grains of salt.

from eTurbo News
An Indonesian airline adopts new Sukhoi Superjet 100 airliners from Russia. The reason: They can operate from the country’s short runways.

from NBC News
Southwest Airlines is betting that you’ll be willing to pay $40 extra to board their planes early. Would you?

from eTurbo News
Ethiopian Airlines cuts flights from Addis Ababa to Europe.

LAND

from Travel Weekly
A heavy late-December snowfall has the skiing looking good at America’s ski resorts.

from The Telegraph (London UK)
What do you get when you take an Amtrak train between Toronto and New York? A 12-hour rail cruise through US history and some of North America’s most gorgeous scenery.

from Forbes via Yahoo
Can you measure a country’s happiness? The Legatum Institute of London says it can, and it’s produced a list of the world’s ten happiest nations. And no, the United States is nowhere in the top ten.

from Time
Has snowboarding lost its mojo?

SEA
from Cruise Industry News
More evidence of the cruise industry’s growing tilt toward Asia: Princess Cruises to homeport a second cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in Japan.

from Cruise Critic
For those of you dying to escape the frigid winter, there are six cruise ships sailing in warm waters that nearly always have cabins offered at a discount.

from Cruise Industry News
The upscale cruise line Silversea plans to offer shorter (and thus cheaper) cruises in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

from Cruise Industry News
As cruises go, this one’s the ultimate icebreaker. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is planning an August cruise of the Northwest Passage fron Greenland to Alaska on one of its expedition ships, the Hanseatic. You don’t often see the words “expedition” and “5-star” in the same sentence.

-0-

AFRICA
from Reuters
You might want to hold off on that Cairo vacation a little longer. Things are getting hectic — and deadly — again in Egypt.

from al Jazeera
Museum in Mali trying to protect some of the country’s historic artifacts from the threat of destruction by radical Muslim insurgents.

from eTurbo News
British Airways pulls out of Tanzania, and Emirates is the first airline to step into the void.

from The Telegraph (London UK)
Tourism officials in Egypt report that foreign visits are up, but not as much as expected.

from eTurbo News
Ethiopia turning to China, India and Russia as potential new tourism markets.

AMERICAS
from the Huffington Post
George Hobica says Albuquerque NM has been overshadowed by Santa Fe, but it deserves a closer look. Especially if you’re a fan of beer, road trips and under-the-radar cool.

from Travel Weekly
Want a shot at some warm winter weather and a whiff of that new hotel smell? Start saving your coins and circle Dec. 2014 on your calendar. That’s the the 1,000-room $1 billion Baha Mar casino resort is set to open its doors.

from the Chicago Tribune
If you’re a baseball junkie, a visit to Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field is something close to a religious pilgrimage. Now, the Sheraton hotel chain is planning to put up a boutique hotel directly across the street from the old ballpark. Think they’ll pt bleachers on the roof?

from Reuters via NBCNews
More flights and a weaker dollar have combined to create record-setting tourism in Hawaii.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from BootsnAll
Southeast Asia is a great destination for rail travel.

from China Daily
The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku (or if you’re Chinese, Diaoyu) Islands is throwing cold water on tourism between the two countries.

from SFGate.com
Walking in the path of samurai. Scenic medieval walkways in Japan.

from The Guardian (London UK)
What would you see on a 40-mile walk across a city of 30 million souls? Marcel Theroux gives us his answers from his trek across Tokyo, the first of a series of walks across the largest cities on Earth.

EUROPE
from ABC News via Yahoo
Welcome to County Kerry in southwest Ireland, where drunk driving is legal. And no, that’s not a typo.

from eTurbo News
Ukraine’s largest airline, AeroSvit, goes belly up, stranding hundreds of passengers in the process.

from The Guardian (London UK)
It wasn’t that long ago that the term “luxury hostel” might have been the ultimate oxymoron in travel especially in Europe. It’s fair to say that things have changed. A lot. SLIDESHOW

OT: Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

Today, IBIT strays somewhat from the topic of travel to mark the passing of an American jazz legend.

We lost Dave Brubeck today, and for anyone who grew up with a love and respect for jazz, the loss is immense.

If you’re of my generation and come out of New Orleans, jazz almost seems to be coded into your DNA. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and so many others.

You may even have jazz notes hanging like musical fruit from your own family tree, as I do.

But as a kid, I didn’t really connect with jazz on a gut level until I heard “Take Five” for the first time in 1962 — courtesy of an AM radio station in San Francisco.

I heard it while clutching a cheap plastic transistor radio the size of a small shoe, with “made in Japan” in raised letters on the bottom and a small, tinny-sounding speaker not fit for “elevator music.” The alternative was to plug in the somewhat uncomfortable oversized earphone, which in those days went into only one ear.

For me, none of that mattered. “Take Five” was the song that turned “cool” from a state of mind into a sound. More than that, it was the signal that my musical tastes were no longer those of a child — even though I still was one.

Most artists want to be known and respected for their body of work, not just one piece of it. In Brubeck’s case, though, it’s probably unavoidable, for “Take Five” is not just his song. It’s his signature.

I grew up thinking this was strictly an American thing, that we were the only ones who loved jazz. How wrong I was.

Black American musicians first exposed the rest of the world to jazz in Europe, just before and especially during World War 1, when Parisians listened to the Army bands of America’s racially segregated black units, a pattern repeated in Europe and occupied Japan after World War 2.

Which is one big reason why today, you can find a jazz club in the capital city of every major nation on Earth.

Another reason was the Cold War.

Back then, both sides tried to use culture as a weapon of sorts. When the Soviet Union was trotting out classical orchestras and the Bolshoi Ballet on worldwide tours as cultural proof of its superiority, Washington countered with the likes of Ellington, Armstrong, Basie…and Dave Brubeck.

Fast-forward to 1976. Tokyo, Japan. I’m sitting in a second-floor nightclub wedged into a small office building in the Ginza, drinking Kirin beers from a glass boot…and listening to young Japanese musicians playing American jazz.

Including Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Soon after, I learned that there were countries all over the world with jazz radio stations — and even more, hosting their own jazz festival lasting days.

Montreal and Toronto, Canada. Paris and Nice, France. Copenhagen. Vienna. Montreux, Switzerland. Havana. Jakarta, Indonesia. Macedonia, Moldova, Algeria and Azerbaijan.

Jazz. For days.

Regular IBIT readers know I’m not big on traveling the world to experience American culture. My skin crawls at the sight of a McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee or all over the Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

For music, however, I make an exception.

I delight at listening to black African choirs put their own interpretations on black American gospel music. I truly enjoy listening to hip-hop and rhythm ‘n blues via London or Marseilles or Salvador in Brazil’s Bahia state.

Above all, I love hearing everybody’s spin on jazz.

Dave Brubeck was one of the geniuses who brought this uniquely American creation to the world, and the world has never let go of it, or him. Play this cut on the streets of almost any big city, anywhere, and someone will stop to listen. Not just because they like it, but because they know it.

David Warren Brubeck would have been 92 years old tomorrow. His music will live on a lot longer than that.

The good stuff never dies.

the IBIT Travel Digest 12.2.12

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

Catalina sunset

Sunset off Catalina Island | ©IBIT/G. Gross

ALL ABOARD — WORLDWIDE
If you love rail travel — or just loathe air travel — The Guardian newspaper in London has one of the best resources for planning a fantastic rail vacation.

It’s created its own Web page dedicated to great rail journeys around the world.

Stories about terrific train trips on almost every continent, planning advice, suggestions from readers, photo galleries, it’s all there.

One such trip that’s definitely on my list is aboard The Canadian, a train that travels across virtually the breadth of Canada, from Toronto in the east to Vancouver on the Pacific coast.

It’s not a high-speed train, but given the beauty of the land, including the Rocky Mountains, you won’t want to go that fast, anyway.

Even if you don’t actually use it to plan a train trip, you’ll probably learn some interesting things from it.

For example, thanks to the English Channel tunnel, it’s now possible to travel not merely from London to Moscow, but from London all the way across Europe, Russia and Siberia to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean — crossing ten time zones and nearly 8,000 miles — without ever stepping onto an airplane.

Not that you’d actually want to, but you could.

-0-

STRETCHING OUT ON AMERICAN
There’s a truism in the fashion world that says if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. That may be the case among the airlines, as well.

About a decade ago, I joined my first airline mileage program. The airline of choice was American. The reason? Back then, American touting the fact that it was removing seats from its aircraft to create more legroom between rows. When you stand 6’3,” you pay attention to things like that.

Sure enough, a few years later, the airline decided it needed the money, so it put all those seats back into all those planes. Bummer.

Fast-forward to November 2012. An email from American Airlines pops up in my inbox:

“Good things do come to those who wait.

Earlier this year, we mentioned that extra legroom in the Main Cabin was coming. We’re happy to tell you that Main Cabin Extra seats have arrived. You’ll enjoy the following benefits when you purchase a Main Cabin Extra seat:

• Extra space to stretch out
• Group 1 boarding to settle in early
• Seats near the front of the plane so you can get on and off the plane faster”

Legroom is back. Cue the Kool and the Gang music. “Ce-le-brate good times, come on!”

Well, not entirely. There are a couple of differences this time around.

A decade ago, the extra legroom was spread through the entire cabin. This time, it’s being limited to the Main Cabin Extra section at the front of a selected group of new jets.

The other difference is one you’ve probably come to expect by now. If you want a seat in Main Cabin Extra, and you don’t have elite status with American, you’ll have to pay for it, anywhere from $8 to $118 per flight, according to American’s Web site.

On the other hand, you won’t be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars extra for a First or Business Class seat.

-0-

AFRICAN VISA
If I had a dollar for every unsolicited credit card application that turned up in my mailbox in the last five years (and went straight to the shredder), I could probably fly someplace nice… in Business Class. But here’s one Visa card I wouldn’t mind having.

It’s called the KQ Msafiri Visa credit card. It’s result of a joint venture between Barclay’s Bank of Kenya and Kenya Airways.

Not only do your purchases with the card earn miles toward free Kenya Airways flights, but you also get priority check-in and boarding, and up to $56,500 in travel insurance, free.

Cool. But what I’d really love to see would be for outfits like Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines or Arik Air to partner up with some American banks — preferably some black-owned American banks — to create a credit card whose purchases would build miles toward travel to Africa.

That’s one credit card application I wouldn’t shred.

-0-

AND FINALLY…
This last item sounds like a punchline, or maybe something from the satirical news Web site, The Onion…but it’s neither.

Starting this weekend on selected international flights, Japan Air Lines will be serving its passengers in-flight meals featuring…Kentucky Fried Chicken.

That’s right, JAL is hooking up with KFC. According to the JAL press release, it’s to be called “Air Kentucky.”

Greasy fried chicken at 35,000 feet? Neither I nor my bowels know quite what to make of this. Believe it or not, however, it does make a certain amount of sense, although perhaps not for the reason you’d expect.

It would be logical to presume that JAL is doing this to placate those Western passengers whose faces turn unnatural colors at the very thought of eating sushi. But you would be mistaken.

According to the press release, “KFC is widely popular in Japan, particularly during the Christmas season.” And according to CNN, it ties in with a JAL gimmick of partnering with restaurtant chains popular in Japan, such as “MOS Burgers, Yoshinoya beef bowls and Edosei pork buns.”

And there you have it. Pass me the sushi, please.

-0-

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from Smarter Travel
A holiday gift from your friends at ST, the ten airlines that give you the best legroom in Coach — or as I like to call it, Sardine Class. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
Flying to the Caribbean from anywhere in the world? No problem, mon. Flying among the Caribbean islands on regional airlines? Big problem, mon.

from Travel Weekly
Delta to begin flying between Seattle and Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, which is closer to the city than its other airport, Narita. But Seattle’s gain will be Detroit’s loss.

LAND
from Smarter Travel
The ST crew highlights the cold-and-flu season by pointing out the 10 Germiest Places You Encounter While Traveling. Their title, not mine. Never mind that, just take their advice and stay healthy going into the New Year. SLIDESHOW

from CNN
First, the bad news. Hotels are now going the way of the airlines and hitting their guests with hidden “resort fees.” The good news? The feds have taken notice.

from Smarter Travel
Five off-season travel destinations that are really cool, and not just because it’s winter. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
Ridership isn’t the only thing growing at Amtrak. Look for a larger number of Amtrak Vacations packages in 2013.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
Houston has had a gleaming new cruise ship terminal since 2009, but no cruise ships ever made port calls there. Starting next November, that will change.

from Travel Weekly
More life preservers, better tie-downs for heavy equipment aboard ship and standardized procedures for bridge officers are among the safety changes being proposed within the cruise ship industry as a result of the Costa Concordia disaster.

from CNN
How do you “undiscover” an island?

-0-

AFRICA
from Travel Weekly
British travelers recently declared Cape Town, South Africa to be their favorite city in the world — and it looks as if Europe’s international airlines are getting the message.

from the South African Government News Agency via allAfrica.com
A cultural, historical and anti-poverty industrial center dedicated to the memory of anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko opens in South Africa. The Steve Biko Heritage Centre is expected to become a major tourist attraction.

from The Star (Kenya) va allAfrica.com
With foreign tourism starting to dry up, mainly over security fears as Kenyan forces tangle with Al Qaeda-aligned terrorists from neighboring Somalia, the government tries to boost domestic tourism to compensate.

AMERICAS
from CNN
The ravages of Superstorm Sandy are not preventing holiday visitors from pouring into New York City.

from CNN
Take a look at Detroit through the eyes of its mayor, former NBA superstar Dave Bing.

from SFGate.com
Up in the Napa Valley, you can find restaurants that design menus around the finest local wines. Not down in Monterey. This beautiful seaside-scenic town, a two-hour drive south from San Francisco, has gone nuts over local craft beers — so much so that several local restos now feature entire dinners built around local brews.

from the Los Angeles Times
Memories of the California gold rush live on in Yreka.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from China Daily
Have you ever seen any of those ancient Chinese paintings depicting incredibly beautiful landscapes, towering bullet-shaped limestone mountains that couldn’t possibly be real? Well, they’re real, all right, and Guilin is the place that inspired a lot of those paintings.

Travel Weekly
With cruise sales leveling off here and sailing over their own “fiscal cliff” in Europe, the cruise lines are turning to Asia to pick up the slack. Singapore has already built a new ocean terminal large enough to dock the world’s biggest liners, and more are coming.

from CNNgo
Paris? New York? San Francisco? Madrid? You can all sit down. The Michelin Guide to the world’s great restaurants has crowned the gourmet capital of the world — and it’s Tokyo…still.

from Travel Weekly
Canada’s Four Seasons becomes the latest luxury hotel chain to plant its flag in China with a new 313-room luxury tower in Beijing.

EUROPE
from The New Yorker
Paris, that gastronomic capital of haute cuisine, is going ga-ga over its newest craze. Brace yourself: It’s American hamburgers. We’re not talking Mickey D’s, either.

from Cisco
The next time you find yourself in one of those classic London cabs, whip out your smartphone or your iPad and see if its wifi is working. Cyberspace is coming to the hackney carriage.

from Reuters
It’s no big deal anymore to find a Muslim mosque in Paris. A gay-friendly Muslim mosque in Paris? That’s a very big deal.

Edited by P.A.Rice

AIRLINES: Same as it ever was

Boeing 747 | Photo courtesy of Singapore Airlines

Travel+Leisure magazine readers make their annual choice of the world’s top 20 airlines. Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern airlines dominate the top spots. European carriers fill out the rest. US airlines? Barely there.

There are certain things in life you can always count on. Water will be wet. The sun will rise in the East. And Asian airlines will be deemed the best in the world by those who fly.

I know Singapore Airlines only by its reputation, but that reputation is solid enough to make Caesar’s wife look like Paris Hilton.

The latest evidence comes courtesy of Travel+Leisure magazine, which annually asks its readers to name their favorite 20 airlines worldwide, based on cabin comfort, food, in-flight service, customer service, and value.

This year’s winner, for the 17th year in a row: Singapore Airlines.

The nation and people of Singapore are teased and mocked somewhat as allegedly being rigid, emotionless and anal-retentive to the max. But when some of the world’s most experienced and discerning travelers name your airline the best in the world for 17 years running, you clearly are doing something right.

And that’s not the only consistency revealed in this latest T+L airline survey. Of the top ten spots, six are held by airlines from Asia or the Pacific region:

  • Singapore Airlines
  • Air New Zealand
  • Korean Air (South Korea)
  • Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
  • Asiana (South Korea)
  • Thai International Airways (Thailand)

Two of the remaining four spots go to Middle Eastern airlines — Emirates and Qatar. The last two positions are held by a European airline, Virgin Atlantic, and its US spinoff, Virgin America.

(NOTE: T+L counts Virgin America as a US airline. IBIT does not.)

The rest of the list looks like this — Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Japan, Tahiti, Switzerland, Israel and Finland.

The one and only true US carrier (for my money, anyway) to crack this list — JetBlue, in 16th place.

I’ve flown a handful of these airlines myself — Cathay Pacific, Japan Air Lines, Air Tahiti Nui — and I can tell you they have their spots in T+L’s top 20 on merit. Likewise, I know a lot of folks who have flown JetBlue and swear by it, so I suspect their place in the top 20 is legit.

The question that always comes to my mind is, why is the rest of the US airline industry utterly unable to join the company of the world’s elite airlines?

Because the most surprising thing about the T+L list is that it’s no surprise at all. Virtually every credible survey taken of the world’s air travelers for the last two decades yields pretty much the same results, year after year after year.

The Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern airlines dominate. The European airlines represent. US-based airlines will show up somewhere toward the middle of the pack at best, depending on the survey’s format.

When it comes to naming the world’s best, America’s airlines barely show up at all.

This is not an aberration. This is not a fluke. Flukes don’t last 20 years. The question is, why?

The clue lies in the categories on which T+L readers based their ratings — cabin comfort, food, in-flight service, customer service, and value.

In all these areas, there is a common thread among the top airlines. They go above and beyond the call for their passengers, both in the air and on the ground. They may not always be the cheapest seats in the sky, but you know you’re always getting your money’s worth, and then some.

I stil have vivid memories of trying to get out of a hopelessly overcrowded Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris one cloudy fall morning.

Six different jumbo jets from six different airlines, including Air Tahiti Nui, had been scheduled to take off from the same terminal at more or less the same time. That meant funneling close to 2,000 passengers simultaneously through exactly three security gates.

The lines of people checking in and then trying to get through security barely moved, backed up so badly that they merged into one another. Some people spent a half-hour or more before realizing they were in the wrong line. Airlines were announcing imminent departures. French airport security was totally indifferent.

The businessman in from of me was trying to get back to Toronto. Air Canada literally had left him at the gate the day before under these same circumstances. Now, he was back for Round Two, fearing he was about to be left again.

All the while this nightmare was in progress, a check-in clerk from Air Tahiti Nui was running — and I do mean running — up and down the different lines, shouting at the top of her lungs:

“If you are flying on Air Tahiti Nui, do not worry! We will not leave without you!”

By now, Im wondering if I can get back to my hotel in time to reclaim my old room.

That Air Tahiti Nui flight pushed back from the gate an hour late, but it left Paris with every one of its passengers. I was among the last six to board.

How many US-based airlines do you think would have gone that far for its last six passengers — and Coach passengers, at that?

Yeah, right.

By and large, US airlines are not horrible. They’re just not great, either. Worse, they seem to be okay with their middling status, as long as they can show a profit.

Being mediocre is not a crime. Being content with it is, or it should be.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so galling were it not for the fact that this is the country that not only invented the airplane, but invented the airline business itself.

What would it take for America’s airlines to raise their game in the eyes of the world’s travelers? Any ideas?

the IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST 11.18.12

Sahara Desert caravan

The Sahara Desert. Think you could survive here? | ©Simone Matteo Giuseppe Manzoni — Dreamstime.com

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

THE WORLD’S DRY PLACES
This edition of the IBIT Travel Digest is dedicated to my editor, P.A. Rice, whose name you’ll often see at the bottom of my blog posts. In addition to being a fine writer in her own right and a good friend of many years, she loves — I mean LOVES! — the desert.

Having been born in Louisiana and spent most of my life in coastal California, I’ve never been a desert person. Too much sand, too little shade, too many things that stick or bite you.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s usually hotter than all Hell? Unless, of course, it’s freezing cold.

But when she’s in the desert, she sees — or more accurately, feels — something different. Something profound. Something wondrous. And if you try looking at it through her eyes, you may start to see the desert in the same way.

It’s a land that makes you accept it on its own terms. But if you can do that, it will treat you to breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, night skies overflowing with stars and enough solitude to let you have meaningful conversations with your own soul.

I’ve seen sunlight and clouds combine over the Imperial Valley of California in ways that that I’ve seen nowhere else on Earth.

And as evidenced by this story in the London newspaper, The Guardian, she’s not alone in her appreciation of the world’s driest places.

The article lists incredible deserts all over the world — and tours to let you explore them. Deserts in Arizona, North Africa, Mongolia, and countries you may not even think of in terms of deserts.

Like Spain.

Don’t worry…it’s a DRY heat.

-0-

LOW-FARE AIR TO AFRICA
easyJet is Britain’s largest airline and one of the principal low-fare airlines in Europe. It’s orange-and-white Airbus A319s and A320s are a common slight all over the continent.

Now, according to The Guardian, easyJet’s Greek founder is bringing the low-fare airline concept to the Mother Continent.

Fastjet has taken off, literally, in Tanzania.

The implications of this are huge. Africa is one of the largest and most populous of all the world’s continents — and also by far the one most under-served by the world’s airlines.

If Fastjet succeeds, spreads and inspires the rise of competitors, it could revolutionize African air travel.

Stay tuned.

-0-

HIGH-STYLE HIGHWAY STOPS
If it’s been awhile since you took a cross-country road trip — and at today’s gasoline prices, who could blame you? — you will be forgiven if you go slack-jawed when you see what’s happening to highway rest stops these days.

I got my own inkling of that a couple of weeks ago on Interstate 5 in Southern California, heading back to San Diego.

There’s long been a rest stop overlooking the coast within the boundaries of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, but I hadn’t stopped there in years. Small, nondescript, nothing special.

My, how things have changed. Two buildings are now three. Multiple large, clean restrooms, snack and soft-drink vending machines that actually work. And I didn’t check, but it might even have wifi now.

But as you’ll see in this Washington Post travel story, that’s nothing.

America’s rest stops are going upscale, so much so that some are on the verge of becoming destinations themselves. Check it out.

-0-

AND FINALLY…
And as long as we’re toying with the idea of hitting the road again, the financial magazine Kiplinger offers up this list of its 10 cheapest American cities for a good vacation.

The first thing you’ll notice about this list is that only two of its top 10 cities are anywhere west of the Mississippi River. One of them is Phoenix, AZ.

Desert. It figures.

But that’s not as amazing as the city that appears at the top of the Kiplinger list, the Number 1 destination for a cheap American vacation.

Drum roll, please…Riverside, CA.

When I first saw this, my initial reaction was “really?” Then I recalled my several drives through Riverside with my family enroute to and from family visits in Texas and Louisiana, not to mention my stops there on the train.

After thinking it all over, my reconsidered thought was…REALLY???

If you think you can make a compelling case that the Kiplinger folks are right, drop me a comment here on the blog or send an email to greg@imblacknitravel.com. I’m willing to be persuaded.

Just be prepared to work at it.

-0-

And now, here’s the Digest:

AIR
from Travel Weekly
American Airlines adds service to Europe, Asia and Latin America from its hubs in Dallas and Chicago. The flights themselves don’t begin til next year, but you can start booking them now.

from the Huffington Post
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about the skies of the beholder? Would you fly in airplanes as ugly as these? SLIDESHOW

from CNN
The A350-AXWB is the lightweight, long-range airline that Airbus intends to compete with Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner. Will it catch on with the world’s airlines…and more importantly, their passengers?

LAND
from The Daily Beast
Where to find some of the world’s tastiest cheap eats. No surprise, most of them are in Asia.

from AARP
Airline etiquette — how to deal with rude passengers in-flight.

from USA Today
Is a steady regimen of business travel hazardous to your health?

SEA
from USA Today
NCL joins rival Carnival in selling all-you-can-drink packages aboard its cruise ships.

-0-

AFRICA
from allAfrica.com
British travelers vote their favorite city in the world. New York? Toronto? Paris? Surprise…it’s Capetown, South Africa.

from the Daily Observer (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
For foreign tourists, visiting the Gambia often means getting bum-rushed by “bumsters.” Mostly, they’re just a nuisance, but they can be a BIG nuisance.

from allAfrica.com
An unlikely alliance of US environmentalists, herdsmen from Somalia and financiers from China is joining forces in Kenya to save the rarest antelope in Africa. The hirola is closer to extinction than giant pandas, mountain gorillas or rhinos…and cannot survive in zoos.

from CNN
How to survive in the Sahara with the world’s original desert survival experts, the Tuareg.

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
Atlantic City refuses to bow down to Superstorm Sandy.

from Travel Weekly
And speaking of Sandy, resorts in the Caribbean are still reeling from its impact, these days in the form of widespread cancellations from US travelers. Good time to swoop in and negotiate a bargain, perhaps?

from the New York Times
Seth Kugel loves São Paulo. He wants you to love it, too. WARNING: You may have to work at it.

from the Washington Post
Have a thing for ghost towns? Then check out a pair of abandoned mining towns in Chile. SLIDESHOW

from the Huffington Post
For all the gloom-and-doom talk in the mainstream media about the demise of American manufacturing, there are a lot of local factories still making their own products — and making money doing it. Some of them will let you come in and watch. SLIDESHOW

ASIA/PACIFIC
from The Guardian (London UK)
Want to see where The Hobbit lives…at least on film? Head for New Zealand. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” hits theaters next month. Check out the incredibly beautiful land where it was shot.

from CNN
The Hello Kitty restaurant in Beijing. The pink ambiance will make you smile. The food will not.

EUROPE
from Travel Weekly
Greece is pining for more US tourists.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Some of the lesser known but no less worthy attractions of St. Petersburg, Russia.

from the New York Times
The Prague that hides in plain sight.

from the Washington Post
Here in the States, writers joke about tree-hugging hippies who think they can sing their way to revolution and freeom. In the scenic Baltic republic of Estonia, the people there actually did.

TRAINS: Bring back the North American Rail Pass

old train station

© Josefhanus | Dreamstime.com

A month-long pass for rail travel between the United States and Canada? It seemed like a great idea. So why did Amtrak decide to kill it?

Anyone who’s even explored the possibility of traveling in Europe has probably heard of the Eurailpass, which lets you travel between a certain number of European countries in a month, or allows you a certain number of train travel days per month.

It’s a great, economical way to see Europe, with the comfort and convenience of train travel as a bonus. And as an absolute fan of rail travel, I sure wish we had something like that here in North America.

So it came as a somewhat unpleasant surprise to learn that, until relatively recently, we did. It was a cooperative venture between our Amtrak and Via Rail of Canada. For one set fee of $423, you could travel for 30 days in both countries.

It was called the North American Rail Pass and it was a great idea. Until 2008, when Amtrak unilaterally discontinued it.

You can get a USA Rail Pass good for 15, 30 or 45 days of rail travel, or a California Rail Pass good for 21 days up and down the state, but those obviously are good only in the United States.

Likewise, you can get a Canrailpass from Via Rail good for coast-to-coast travel across Canada, but only Canada.

The idea of a rail pass that allows travel between the two neighboring North American giants, with all their beautiful scenery and great cities? Gone. Dead.

It wasn’t Via Rail’s idea to kill it off. Amtrak did that. I just don’t know why.

To make it easier for U.S. and Canadian rail passengers to travel between the two countries by train made so much sense for both sides.

Canadians could do a lovely little loop from Toronto south through Chicago and Memphis to New Orleans, then back north via Atlanta and Washington DC aboard the Amtrak Crescent before crossing back into Canada and hitting Quebec City and Montreal on the return.

Americans, meanwhile, could head north from Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight up to Vancouver, BC, where they could head east across the Rockies and the great plains, then past the Great Lakes to Toronto before heading south to New Orleans, only this time swinging west aboard the Sunset Limited back to LAX.

So far, I haven’t found anything that gives a clear explanation for why Amtrak decided to do away with this. What was Amtrak afraid of?

If it wants to emphasize USA Rail Passes, fine, but why not offer both? Rail travelers who wished to confine themselves to the US or Canada would simply buy one of the national rail passes in either of those countries, while travelers who wanted to ride the trains on both sides of the border would still be able to do so for a great price. Everybody wins.

Or they did…until four years ago.

Especially in this era when so many people find air travel to be such a miserable experience, wouldn’t it make sense for Amtrak to seize on every opportunity it can find to encourage travel by train, even if it meant sharing some of the proceeds with its northern neighbor?

If I ever find out what Amtrak’s rationale was behind killing the North American Rail Pass, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Meanwhile, we fans of rail travel can hope that sanity one day returns — and brings back the North American Rail Pass along with it.

ADDENDUM
I’ve reached out to Amtrak’s public affairs people to see if anyone will tell me why Amtrak chose to unilaterally do away with the North American Rail Pass. When I get an answer, IBIT will publish it.

Edited by P.A.Rice

CYCLING: On the freeway? Yes, you can!

© Richard J Thompson | Dreamstime.com

There are rare days, usually special events, when you and your bike can actually have a freeway all to yourselves. It’s a treat not to be missed.

Have you ever ridden your bike on the freeway? I’m not talking about riding on the asphalt shoulder while four or more lanes of car traffic are roaring by your left shoulder at 65 miles per hour and up, but actually on the lanes.

Would you like to?

Normally, of course, this is out of the question. States usually make it illegal for a bicycle to be anywhere on the freeway, even on the shoulders — with one notable exception.

In certain areas where there is no practical or convenient alternative for getting from Point A to Point B, a cyclist may be able to legally ride on the shoulder of the freeway between those two points.

Your state or county highway department can tell you which stretches of freeway are “bike legal” where you live. California has roughly 100 miles of freeway that are “bike legal,” and I’ve ridden some of them.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about you and your bike being legally and safely in the freeway lanes themselves, any or all of them, without a motor vehicle in sight.

Can you actually do that?

Yes, you can — this spring in Fresno, the unofficial capital of California’s Central Valley. That’s where the California Classic Weekend will be held on May 19–20.

That Saturday is devoted to cycling: a century ride, a metric century ride and a mini-metric ride. A century ride is just what the name implies — 100 miles. A metric century covers 100 kilometers or 62 miles, while the mini-metric ride is a 35-miler.

But here’s the kicker: Ten miles of the course are on California Freeway 168, which will be closed to vehicular traffic for the event.

It’s all yours, folks, for almost an entire day.

Sunday is for runners, a half-marathon and a 2-person relay, which allows pairs of runners to split the half-marathon into 6.5–mile legs.

For those who really want to test themselves, you can enter the Classic Ultimate Challenge — do the century ride on Saturday, then run the half-marathon the next day.

The whole thing is sponsored by Rabobank, a major bank/investments/agribusiness firm in the Netherlands. If its name sounds familiar to you, it might mean that you follow the Tour de France, because Rabobank sponsors a team every year in the cycling world’s premiere event.

But what jumps out at me is the chance to pull onto a California freeway with your bike and hammer your pedals for ten miles, without fear of either a citation or getting flattened by a long line of cars driven by crazed motorists.

It’s not uncommon for authorities to open a freshly constructed freeway to hikers and cyclists the day before opening it to traffic for the first time. But closing down an existing freeway for a day and turning it over to recreational cyclists?

Nothing common about that, I promise you.

While there are hundreds of “event” rides that take place each year across North America, only a handful give you the chance to ride on a freeway or expressway.

The Five Boro Bike Tour puts cyclists on the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City. The one time I did that ride back in the day, the road surface on the BQE was so awful, with so many ruts and huge potholes, that the biggest thrill you got from riding it was surviving it.

One hopes that things have improved since then.

In Canada, there’s a charity ride, the Heart & Stroke Ride for Heart, that lets cyclists onto the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto.

If you know of other cycling events, in California or anywhere else, where they do this sort of thing, leave a comment on this article or drop me an email at greg@imblacknitravel.com.

For me, the Central Valley has always been an area to pass through between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I never had much reason even to slow down en route and certainly had no reason to view it as a travel destination.

This little event just might be enough to change my thinking.

How about you?

CATHAY PACIFIC: A good airline gets better

© Maurie Hill | Dreamstime.com

After upgrading their Business Class section, one of Asia’s best airlines is turning its attention to the back of the airplane, all in response to competition from regional rivals.

According to the British airline rating site Skytrax, there are exactly seven airlines in the world worthy of a 5-star rating. One of them is Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, which flies throughout Asia and across the Pacific.

Having recently remodeled their Business Class cabins, they’re now turning their attention to the back of the airplane in a big way. And if you’re going to be on one of those 14- or 16-hour trans-Pacific aerial ordeals, that’s good news, indeed.

Especially when it comes from an airline whose reputation for cabin service is among the best in the world.

I flew this airline many years ago between Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok. That reputation was well-deserved then, and judging by their Skytrax rating, it still is.

NO COMFORT FOR OLD PLANES
CP’s plan for their economy seats is a two-parter. Part 1 is to create new cabins in Coach on their long-range Boeing 777ERs and Airbus A330s. That’s the good news.

The bad news? The Coach seats aboard their older planes, such as the Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s, won’t be upgraded.

This is why you need to pay as much attention to the airplane you’re flying on as the price of your ticket.

CP had tried this kind of Economy upgrade five years ago, replacing the traditional reclining Coach seats with hard-back seats that slid forward to recline, similar to the hard-back, lie-flat seats you find in many Business and First Class sections.

But they didn’t sit well with a lot of passengers, so it’s back to the future with old-school reclining seats in Sardine Class.

I had my own experience with hard-back, lie-flat seats early this year on British Airways between LAX and London Heathrow. Absolutely, positively, hands-down the most miserable two flights of my life.

STRETCHING OUT
The amount of legroom in the new Cathay Pacific economy seats — measured by what the airlines call “seat pitch” — will remain at 32 inches. That’s more or less standard industrywide, and for most passengers, it’s decent.

(I’m hoping they give those seats just a touch more hiproom as well, but I doubt it. That’s where the real misery is these days on long flights — and not just because I’m as wide-bodied as any jumbo jet.)

What will be different will be the amount of recline in each Coach seat. You’ll be able to lean back an extra two inches. The airline also is promising more personal storage space in Coach.

For those who have trouble sleeping in Coach on flights of any length, that extra two inches of recline should be good news. For those who like to use their laptops while the passenger in front of them sleeps, maybe not so much.

What can I say? In life, there are tradeoffs.

The other half of their plans involves creation of a new Premium Economy section on its long-haul flights. Wider seats, with a generous 38 inches of seat pitch.

Anyone shorter than, say, Yao Ming should be able to stretch out in grand style.

WHAT, NO XBOX?
Add in a touch-screen video monitor for entertainment, wi-fi Internet access and outlets for Apple digital devices, along with CP’s usually glittering cabin service, and you may be reluctant to get off the airplane.

Naturally, you’ll be paying extra for the comforts of Premium Economy. How much extra, the airline didn’t say in their announcement yesterday.

This is all due to take effect starting next March — first on flights to/from Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver and New York. The rest of their long-haul routes,including Los Angeles and San Francisco, will follow.

(NOTE: When it comes to flying to Asia from the West Coast, San Francisco often is somewhat cheaper than LAX, and Vancouver may be cheaper, even substantially cheaper, than both of them. That combination can create some intriguing vacation opportunities).

RAISING THE BAR
Cathay Pacific is facing heavy economic pressure from Singapore Airlines and China Southern. Both are flying the double-deck Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet, which carry more passengers per plane than anything else flying.

Cathay Pacific’s way of fighting back, as explained by CEO John Slosar, is “providing a superior experience in all classes of travel.”

If you’re accustomed — or perhaps more aptly, resigned — to the way US-based airlines treat their passengers, you may find that statement more than a little eye-opening.

Facing increasing competition from rivals, airlines in this country typically respond by cutting back on the number of available seats, or reducing seat pitch to cram in a few extra seats, or raising ticket prices — or charge for services that had always been free in the past.

How many would try to meet the challenge of competition by offering all their passengers — not just the high rollers in First or Business Class — a better flying experience?

Am I the only one who thinks our airlines could learn a lot from these guys?

CUBA: The rules

Beach scene, Cuba

If you’re thinking about visiting Cuba now that Delta is launching charter flights there this fall, you have to qualify under the bogus requirements of the US trade embargo. You’ll find them here.

The recent announcement by Delta Air Lines that they’re starting up charter flights to Cuba this fall has got a lot of folks interested and excited — and why not?

Much as I’d love to make a stopover in Toronto or Cancun, to be able to travel directly to Havana without having detour through Canada or Mexico or somewhere else is a wonderful thing.

However, you still have to dance with Washington’s outdated, obsolete and generically nonsensical trade embargo against Cuba, which was designed in part to discourage Americans from visiting the island — and especially from spending money there.

Anyone else in the world can simply book their passage to Havana and go. If you’re an American, you have to be “licensed,” either as an individual or part of a group.

Yes, that’s the term they actually use, “licensed.” Doesn’t that just make you feel special?

Over the years, the rules have been loosened, re-tightened, and most recently under the Obama administration, loosened again. For now, however, this bureaucratic nuisance remains in place. The best and surest way to navigate a path around these rules is to know exactly what they are.

You’ll find them spelled out on this Cuba travel page from the State Department.

To be licensed to visit Cuba, you have to apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is part of the Treasury Department.

If navigating the bureacratic maze of federal regulations is your idea of a good time, you could do it on your own, but I don’t recommend that. The better way to go, I think, would be to work through US-based travel outfits that specialize in legal travel to Cuba.

Look for companies that are licensed by the Treasury Department and have a good track record of getting Americans smoothly to Cuba and back. Often, they may offer their own package tours to Cuba that include airfare and lodging.

The downside: They often will require you to be part of a group.

One such outfit is Marazul, the agency through which Delta will shortly be operating its Cuba charter flights.

Others include:

As always, do your homework and check out these outfits thoroughly before you commit yourself or your money.

The day will come when Americans no longer have to bother with this absurdity. Until then, these are the dance steps we have to follow to legally visit a fascinating and beautiful country with whom we are not at war.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
Delta’s new connection: Charter flights to Cuba

OUT THERE: A global family –UPDATE

Heather Greenwood Davis — and family — are off on a journey around the world. Not vacationing.Not traveling, Living. Day One is today.

Last fall, IBIT introduced you to this travel-loving Toronto sister, her husband, Ishmael and young sons, Cameron and Ethan.

We also told you about their plans to spend the next year traveling around the world.

Well, today is launch day — and they’re off!

You can follow their globe-spanning adventures on Heather’s Web site, Globetrotting Mama, and subscribe on her site for updates on their journey — and I highly recommend that you do!

Family schedule permitting, We’ll be checking in with the family periodically for exclusive insights on what is certain to be a life-changing year for this young black family.

So pack your virtual bags and get ready to vicariously get Out There with this intrepid family of travelers!

RELATED ARTICLES
OUT THERE: A global family

the SUNDAY TRAVEL DIGEST

A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

Kufurstendamm

Kufurstendamm, Berlin | ©Greg Gross

ROAD TRIPS
Does it sound strange to celebrate a street? That’s what they’re doing all this summer in Berlin, where they’re commemorating the 125th anniversary of Kurfürstendamm.

If you can’t get your English tongue around Kurfürstendamm, just say “Ku’damm” instead. Any Berliner will instantly know what you mean.

The idea of holding a summer-long street party for a street sounds ridiculous — until you see the street. Here’s the tip-off: its dimensions were modeled after the Champs Élysees in Paris.

The Ku’damm is a field of dreams for foodies, shopaholics, and the cutting-edge creative classes. It boasts one of the finest old-school departments store in Europe, if not the world, in the KaDeWe.

Back during the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was still up, the West Germans didn’t really need to bombard their East German counterparts with a whole lot of clumsily contrived propaganda. Even from the other side of the Wall, East Berliners knew of — and dreamed of — the Ku’damm.

Don’t think a street could be a weapon in psychological warfare? Look at the sterile, austere life on the eastern side of the Wall and then look at the Ku’damm. The contrast was no accident.

-0-

When it comes to travel, almost any excuse will do, and food is as good a reason as any. America offers plenty of reasons to get your tastebuds on and hit the road.

But that road can take you some places you might not expect.

The folks at Budget Travel, for instance, have their own road foodie list of America’s best regions, and the usual suspects are not on it. Pittsburgh? New Mexico? Akers, LA?

Yes, yes and yes. Check out their views in this slideshow, and then start planning your foodie road trip.

After you stop salivating, of course.

-0-

Speaking of road trips, there are few places in the road better than Northern California for treating you to a movable feast for the eyes and the palate.

Back in prehistoric times, when gasoline was 35 cents a gallon, I used to cruise up and down the Northern California coast — Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz, Marin County, Santa Rosa, Big Sur, redwood country.

Those gas prices are gone forever, but the beauty of Northern California is still there and still custom-made for a rolling vacation.

Budget Travel has found a package on the Gate 1 Travel site combining air, rental car and seven nights of hotel stays for $789.

If you’re in a position to skip the air part of the package, it’s cheaper still — $549.

Measured in terms of dollars-per-day, it’s almost as good a bargain as — or even better than — a cruise vacation.

Of course, the basic cost can go up depending on which type of vehicle you choose to rent, but it still looks like a pretty good deal — especially when you take into account the amount of wear and tear you’re not putting on your own wheels.

-0-


And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

AIR
from USA Today
File this one under I Should’ve Known: Amid all the talk of surprisingly low summer airfares, US airlines begin raising their baggage fees.

from Der Spiegel (Germany)
The families of those who perished two years ago aboard Air France Flight 447 aren’t convinced that the deadly crash was the result of pilot error. They want all Airbus A330s grounded.

from USA Today
Hopefully not coming soon to an airport near you: Rats On a Plane 2 — The Wrath of Qantas. The Australia-based airline grounds one of its Boeing 767s after five baby rats are found in the medical compartment. Sounds like Mama Rat knew what she was doing, doesn’t it?

from USA Today
New Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks he knows just the thing to improve massive and massively congested O’Hare International Airportslot machines.

LAND
Want to get high…I mean really high? In Toronto, you can now walk around the top of the CN Tower — 1,151 feet tall — on the outside. No handrail. No joke. No acrophobia.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
Sorry, San Diego. According to a survey, America’s best beach is in Sarasota, FL.

SEA
from USA Today
The Love Boat is going to make you sweat. Princess Cruise Line plans to offer Zumba classes at sea…for free.

from USA Today
CruiseOne, a kind of Travelocity for cruise lines, is offering free shore excursions if you book a cruise through them. Offer good til June 24.

-0-

AFRICA
from Stuff.co.nz (New Zealand)
Tunisia was the nation whose revolution led the “Arab awakening” still underway in North Africa and the Middle East. Now, they want the tourists to come back.

AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
from the San Francisco Chronicle
Cancun too cliché and overrun with tourists? Consider Puerto Morelos as a scenic, serene alternative, complete with a taste of the spa life.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from the New York Times
In Shanghai, which seems to be rapidly filling up with new high-rise buildings, a couple takes a shuttered old textile factory and turns it into a low-rise, multi-use community market, complete with a rooftop garden and multiple restaurants, with healthy lifestyles as its theme.

from Stuff.co.nz (New Zealand)
The joys and wonders of New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula.

EUROPE
from Der Spiegel International (Germany)
What do you do with a nuclear power plant that was never finished? If you’re Germany, you turn it over to a Dutch developer — who turns it into an amusement park.

from the New York Times
Between May and July, the Russian city of St. Petersburg shakes off its long, dark and grueling winter for days of celebration and culture under skies that seem almost to never darken. They call it White Nights.

from the New York Times
Tacos…in Paris? Oui, biensur!

The Greatest Trip I’ll Never Take

Silk Road caravan

©Jen Shuang Wong | Dreamstime.com

There are vacations and there are expeditions. This dream trip of mine, which follows in the footsteps of Marco Polo, falls somewhere in between.

One of the seemingly frustrating things about travels shows like the one last weekend in Los Angeles is that you wind up talking to a lot of interesting people about a lot of great trips that, in your heart of hearts, you know you’ll probably never take.

If you’re like me, though, that doesn’t bother you at all, because you can end up meeting some fascinating people that way and having some cool chats that crank up your imagination to the end of the dial.

I had one of those chats with a fellow named Pierre Odier, who was handing out information about an overland tour of the Silk Road.

It’s organized by a Canadian outfit called AAST, Asia Adventure and Study Tours, based in Toronto. They call it simply “Drive the Silk Road.”

Like the Ho Chi Minh Trail of the Vietnam war years, the Silk Road was not a single road, but a network of east-west routes that ran from China, through India, through the Hindu Kush past present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, then through present-day Iran and Syria to reach the Mediterranean — and from there, finally Europe.

Just reading all that makes my feet hurt.

Another east-west network started in the South China Sea, ran past Southeast Asia and through the Straits of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, then west into present-day Iran and Saudi Arabia before hooking a right into the Red Sea and up the Nile River for the final run into the Med, and Europe.

In its day, which began long before the time of Marco Polo, this was probably the most important trade route in the world, and it carried a lot more than just silk. Every form of precious metal moved along this route, along with things like glass and precious gems, rare plants and animals, medicines, foods and spices.

The spices alone were critical, since they spared future generations of Europeans from a lifetime of eating their own bland food.

It also brought eastern teachings such as Buddhism and the philosophy of Confucius to the West.

Between its land routes and its sea lanes, the Silk Road covered a sizable chunk of the surface of the Earth, perhaps upwards of 8,000 miles. In the days when sea-going vessels depended on the winds to fill their sails and the fastest way to get across grueling deserts and plains was a camel, you could spend sizable chunks of your life just traveling the road from end to end.

And that was without having to contend with bandit gangs and pirates along the way.

Even today, with four-wheel-drive Land Rovers having replaced the camels and the journey shortened to a tad over 5,000 miles, to make this run still takes 60 days.

That’s how long Pierre’s tour takes. Two months of mountain passes, vast plains and some of the greatest deserts on Earth, in a small caravan of Land Rovers.

This has got to be, without a doubt, the mother of all road trips.

It sounds like something straight out of National Geographic, but it’s not an expedition. You can’t really call it an expedition if you get to stay in guest houses and hotels, even if there is some camping along the way.

What’s more, this is not one of those land tours in which you get chauffeured everywhere by your guides — and don’t even bother calling “Shotgun!” Why? Because the travelers in this tour group help with the driving.

That’s right. You take your share of turns at the wheel.

Can you imagine the driver on one of those bus or van tours through Europe or the United States ushering you behind the wheel, handing you the keys and saying, “Here you go!”…?

That alone lifts a Silk Road tour well above the level of a mere vacation.

Apart from the cost, the length of this tour makes it unlikely I’d ever be able to do it. But this is the kind of journey that fires my imagination.

As I’m bouncing over a desert road, following the course shown on the GPS receiver, I can picture a caravan of traders making their way across that same trackless waste, with only the sun and the stars to guide them, with no idea of what, or who, is waiting for them.

Meanwhile, there are some pretty adventurous folks out there who read this blog, and for some of you, your eyes are already lighting up. I can tell!

Believe it or not, though, this is not their biggest caravan trip. AAST also puts on an adventure tour that runs the length of the African continent, from South Africa to Egypt. Nine countries, 72 days. They call it “Capetown to Cairo.”

Pierre leads that one. More on that, and him, later.

©Jen Shuang Wong | Dreamstime.com


IF YOU GO
AAST —
Asia Adventure and Study Tours — puts on this trip, which takes 60 days to cross from Istanbul to Beijing. They call it “Drive the Silk Road.”

ITINERARY: Six countries, — Turkey, iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China.

TIME: 60 days

LENGTH: 5,300 miles

COST: You have to ask.

CONTACT: AAST
1515 Bayview Avenue, Suite 200
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M4G 3B5
Telephone: 416-322-6508
Toll-free: 866-564-1226
Fax: 416-322-0541
Skype: drivethesilkroad