Whale Watching in Baja California

I had to share this article I came across in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph: “Baja California: Mexico’s playground for whales.”

Whale Watching in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

I had the opportunity to go whale watching last year while on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and although I wouldn’t say I need the experience on a regular basis like writer Mark Carwardine, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. Standing out there on the water, the wind and the sea spray in our faces, my husband and I watched a small pod of humpback whales play and frolic in the cobalt waters of the Sea of Cortez and gasped in wonder.

Whale Watching in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

It was the moment I realized we needed a new camera, one with a faster shutter speed that could possibly catch the blink-and-you-missed it jumps and dives and twists of the magnificent creatures. Or, breaching, as Carwardine calls it:

Their pièce de résistance is breaching – leaping out of the water – and they seem to do this a lot off the southern tip of Baja. Flying through the air, arching their backs and waving their enormous flippers about, they hit the water with a thundering splash, as if someone has dropped a submarine from a great height, before disappearing from sight beneath the surface.”

Whale breaching. (I think.)

I spent  a lot of time cursing and later, as I reviewed my hundreds of photos, realized I only had a handful of shots with actual humpback whales in them. I did manage to catch breaching and playing on video a few times, though:

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The Streets of Florence

I was going through the pictures on my phone this weekend…you know, deleting the ones that I couldn’t figure out why I took to begin with…and came across these:

The streets in Florence are super-narrow and parking is almost nonexistent:

Parking in Florence

I guess that’s why they drive cars like this ONE-passenger car, which looks as though it may actually be some sort of electric rickshaw. If anyone has any idea, let me know. (And personally, I’d be afraid to drive at all!)

The smallest car I've ever seen.

That’s all for now. Ciao!

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This sounds cool. Literally!

Danielle Klebanow's Blog

I went to the Icebar, by Icehotel with my friend Thomas in Copenhagen the otherday.  I have to say, it is probably the coolest place I’ve ever been to.  You walk in and the whole bar is made of ice.  They dress you in a warm parka and give you an iceshot with a drink of your choice.  I can definitely cross that off my bucketlist.  Please enjoy the photos🙂

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The End of the World…According to the Mayans

It’s coming in less than 11 months…if you believe the 2012 movie and a lot of conspiracy theorists and Mayan enthusiasts, and apparently a lot of people do. Come Dec. 21, 2012, we’ll all be finished. Gone. Done. Finito.

Chichen Itza, one of the more famous Mayan sites in Mexico and one of the new seven wonders of the world.

In fact, apocalypse hype is becoming a whole microtourism industry, according to Fox News‘ Blane Bachelor in “Cashing in on the ‘end of the world’ tourism.” You’ll be able to watch a re-enactment of an ancient Mayan ball game that ended…badly…for the winner in Mexico’s Rivera Maya, and join the Mayan Marriage of Many in Belize. Or, you could just spend the at the Mayan site of Caracol to see the winter solstice and greet doomsday.

Relief on Chichen Itza's Great Ballcourt. The game's winner was usually sacrificed to the gods.

Did I mention that I don’t believe the world will end in approximately 321 days? Most historians and archaeologists will tell you that Dec. 21, 2012 simply marks the end of one calendar and the beginning of another. It basically resets. The Mayans may even have seen it as a time for great celebration.

Excavations at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Archaeologists have found no evidence that the end of the world will come Dec. 21, 2012.

I have, however, been to one of the major Mayan sites: Chichen Itza, which has been named one of the new wonders of the world…with good reason. My girlfriend Sarah and I were on a girl’s trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, about a year and a half ago and signed up for a tour, not realizing that the ruins weren’t actually around the corner from our resort. They were more like a three, three-and-a-half hour bus ride through the jungle away.

It was so worth it, though.

Don’t get me wrong, the site is heavily commercialized, with gift shops and many local Mexican Indians (who are actually descendants of the Mayans, according to our tour guide) hawking trinkets and souvenirs among the ruins. It’s also in the jungle and there are bugs. Lots of bugs.

Yours truly standing in front of the Kukulkan Pyramid's famous serpent at Chichen Itza. During the spring and fall equinoxes, shifting light makes the serpent appear to move.

Still, there’s something about it, a quiet hush despite the crowd of hundreds of tourists. The Kukulkan Pyramid is massive up close, making it seem as though you are in the presence of giants, of the gods.

How did they build it? I wondered. How did they align it so perfectly with the spring and fall equinoxes that the serpent on its corner seems to move two days a year? How did they design the adjacent Great Ballcourt so a whisper could be heard 500 feet away?

The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza. You can hear whispers from 500 feet away.

Perhaps it was because I went knowing all about the 2012 prophecy, and subconsciously bought into it, but I left expecting something to happen. It was as though Chichen Itza was just sitting there, waiting for something, something big.

Mysterious doughnut on the Great Ball Court. The winner of the little-understood ball game was usually sacrificed to the gods.

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Making Customs Easy. Easier?

My suitcase was ruined while returning from a 2011 trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It was fine at customs, but the insanely long line meant my husband and I missed our flight and had to spend the night in Houston. TSA wouldn’t return our bags and instead destroyed mine.

I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post this morning: Going through Customs: How to make reentering the U.S. a lot more pleasant. It’s long (four pages) but a good read for anyone about to travel internationally, full of useful and slightly ridiculous information.

I mean, if you’re trying to smuggle something, a clear plastic bag is probably not the way to go about it. And reading about some of the food people have tried to bring into the U.S. kind of turned my stomach.

However, my husband and I didn’t even think to declare the pasta we bought in Italy last summer and, sure enough, that was the suitcase that didn’t show up on the turnstile at BWI. It arrived in the middle of the night, pasta intact.

I also probably wouldn’t have known that if I buy a snakeskin purse or shoes, I have to declare my purchase as wildlife. (Not that I can afford real snakeskin at the moment….)  Certain types of snakeskin (and fur) are OK, as long as you declare it and as long as the animal who was the original owner isn’t on the Endangered Species List.

In addition, I learned that I should leave my walrus-tusk ivory-bead necklace at home if I travel internationally. It’s an antique, bought by my great-uncle for my great-grandmother while he was stationed in Alaska with the Coast Guard, apparently that doesn’t matter. Customs could still confiscate it. I actually have no idea whether walrus ivory is banned (African elephant ivory is, but warthog and hippo ivory are OK, apparently.), but I don’t think I want to risk it. Oh well, it’s not like I wear it that often anyway.

And a word to the wise: Working dogs at customs have sensitive noses. Journalist Andrea Sachs reports that one of the beagles at Dulles smelled the banana she’d eaten in the car. Similarly, an old apple almost got my friend and I in trouble in Cancun. She had had an apple in her bag (which she had eaten) and one of the Mexican working dogs came right over and sat down next to her.

All in all, I’ve been quite lucky going through customs. Except for the lines. The lines are bad. I’ve missed multiple connection flights thanks to the lines at customs.

Note to U.S. Customs and Borders Protection: You should really do something about the lines.

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Vacationing Alone

Yours truly, alone on an excursion to the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

Have you ever done this? Traveled alone? I have not, but I saw a recent story on it from the Times of India, and it got me thinking.

I almost went on vacation by myself once. Two summers after graduating college, when I was young and single and cool, I was planning a short vacation (really a long-weekend) in Montreal. None of my friends was particularly interested in going, so I thought, why not go by myself? Alas, an unexpected and rather severe illness ruined my plans and I never went. (Come to think of it, I still haven’t made it to Montreal, which is weird because I used to live in Maine and I’ve been to Quebec City. Hmmm….)

In the years since, I’ve gotten married, and at this point in my life, traveling alone on a non-work trip doesn’t make sense. (I have, however, traveled without my husband for a girls’ trip to Mexico.)

I think solitary vacations have a lot of potential, though. After all, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do to make another person happy. Like fishing. I always have to go fishing with my husband when we’re on vacation and I hate it. Watching paint dry would be more fun.

I have broken off alone, however, and come to think of it, one of my favorite days on my recent Florence trip was the day I spent wandering the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens and the markets alone. My husband was arriving the next day, and I knew he would have been miserable…almost as miserable as I am fishing.

The only thing about travelling alone that would concern me (other than safety, which is a whole separate issue), would be eating alone in restaurants. I hate to eat alone.

What about you?

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A Maryland Wine Adventure

Yesterday, my husband, John, and I did one of our favorite things: We headed to a local winery.

I had a Groupon for a holiday wine tasting at Linganore Winecellars, in Mt. Airy, Md., the state’s largest winery, and I thought it would be a fun way to kick off my birthday (today).

It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm and sunny day, and after a nice, quiet drive of about 45 minutes into the rolling hills of almost-Western Maryland (and a lot of help from our GPS) we arrived at a large, reddish-brown building. It sort of resembled a barn, but with lots of windows and a statue out front. (According to the winery website, it is in fact a 19th-century barn.)

The 19th-century barn that houses Linganore Winecellars in Mt. Airy, Md.

Did we “want to join the tour?” the girl at the welcome desk asked. It had just left and we had time to catch up. Also, it was free.

“Sure,” we shrugged and made our way through a room of giant, stainless steel vats of wine.

Most of the technical details of how they grow grapes and harvest and produce wine went over my head, kind of like high school chemistry. But some of the numbers stood out. Linganore grows seven to nine varieties of grapes and uses other, locally grown grapes and fruit to create more than 25 wines. It produces about 600,000 bottles a year. First, however, the grape and fruit spends 12 to 18 months in 5,600- and 500-gallon stainless-steel tanks. A 5,600-gallon tank holds about 30 tons of grapes, and produces around 28,000 bottles.

5,600-gallon wine stainless-steel wine barrels that hold the equivalent of about 28,000 bottles of wine.

Then came the fun part: the tasting. I regularly buy a few of Linganore’s varieties (Terrapin White, Mountain White and Skipjack) at our local wine store, so I knew the wine would be good. I have to confess, though, that as much as I like drinking wine, I can’t speak that intelligently about it. I can tell if a wine is sweet or dry and whether it would go with steak or chicken, but unless it’s flavored with something like raspberry or chocolate, I can’t identify all the notes and undertones.

Tasting yummy wine at Linganore Winecellars.

John, however, fancies himself quite the connoisseur and jokes (sort of) about the wine.

“That could be my dinner,” he exclaimed after tasting the Chambourcin, a rich and full-bodied red according to the tasting sheet and his favorite of the day. “It’s like being in an oak barrel and saying I like being in here.”

My favorite was  the Mountain Pink, which according to Linganore, is semi-sweet blush that tastes “like just-pickled grapes.” I wouldn’t know. I just know that it was delicious. We went home with a bottle of each, as well as the Bacioni, a Chianti-style red, to go with our ravioli dinner.

Lots of wine.

I was also a big fan of the local Maryland cheeses Linganore paired with each wine. Especially the chive and garlic cheese from Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, Md. If I wasn’t on a diet, I would have bought a whole block. Yum.

More later. Cheers!

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Vicariously Exploring Malta

Awhile back (OK, like six months ago), one of my favorite websites, Slate.com, ran a series on the tiny island of Malta, and I found it fascinating. I just reread it. I love, love, love reading about little, out of the way, history-filled places I will probably never visit.

Valletta, seen from Senglea, Malta, by Myriam Thyes on Wikimedia Commons.

(Slate’s Well-Traveled column often covers what can only be called obscure countries. They recently posted another series about tiny European countries like Andorra and San Marino. Who’s even heard of San Marino? Certainly not me…well, at least until I read that series.)

A tiny island – only slightly larger than Martha’s Vineyard, according to Slate – at the center of the Mediterranean, Malta has an ancient, bloody and religious history, complete with a series of megalithic temples that predate the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge. The Bible’s Acts of the Apostles even claims that Saint Paul was actually shipwrecked on the island, whereas Malta’s smaller, sister island, Gozo, claims to be the island on which Odysseus was waylaid by Calypso. The island is also home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, with another seven sites under consideration.

Ħaġar Qim, one of the ancient, megalithic temples on Malta, by jkb on Wikimedia Commons.

Civilizations and countries from the Phoenicians to the British to the French under Napoleon to Nazi Germany fought for control of the strategically important island for millennia, and Malta finally gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. Knights of the Order of St. John also famously and fiercely defended Malta against the Turks in 1565.

The dramatic story is worth quoting from the second installment of the series:

“Some 500 knights, together with about 5,000 mercenaries and native Maltese, would have to defend the island from 22,000 Turks. It didn’t look good. The ensuing siege was bitter, even by 16th-century standards. The Turks decapitated and crucified captured knights; the knights retaliated by decapitating Turks and firing their skulls from their cannons. But thanks to the savvy leadership of the septuagenarian knight Jean Parisot de la Vallette —and thanks to some very good luck—the knights managed to keep the Turks from scoring a decisive victory. With the rough seas of winter bearing down on them, the Turkish fleet returned to Istanbul empty-handed. Christendom had been saved.”

The writer, who is never actually named, went on to say that Malta is a bit…tacky, I suppose would be the best word, but the photos of the capital, Valletta, that run with the series reveal a charming, slightly tired Medieval and ancient city.

Mikiel Anton Vassalli Street in Valletta, Malta, by Maximilian Bühn on Wikimedia Commons.

If I remember correctly, Malta was also the place where Queen Elizabeth II spent some of the happiest years of her life when Prince Phillip was stationed there for the British Navy.

I looked up the airfare and, surprisingly, it doesn’t cost much more than what I paid to go to Florence last year.  Still, I don’t have an extra $1,543.40 lying around at the moment so I won’t be going any time soon. And it’s not as though I don’t already have enough cities and countries on my bucket list.

Gozo, Ta'Cenc cliffs on Malta, by Myriam Thyes on Wikimedia Commons.

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Follow-up to When a Vacation Disappoints

Florence's church of San Lorenzo.

I don’t have many followers (Yet. A girl can always dream!), so when I hear from one, I get excited and I sit up and take notice.

One of my lovely readers, who has her own blog about Italy, mentioned that she never visits Florence during the high season in response to yesterday’s post. I think she’s on to something.

When people asked me how my trip was, that was basically what I said, that I would never, ever go back in the summer, but that I would try the fall or spring. I think that would automatically make it better for any number of reasons:

1. It would be cooler.

2. If it was cooler, the garbage and the dog poop would probably be less obnoxious.

3. Fewer mosquitos. (I had 30 gigantic and painful welts covering my body at once thanks to those little buggers and I had to take Benadryl to stop the itching.)

4. It would be cooler.

5. Smaller crowds.

6. Less trash on the streets thanks to the smaller crowds.

7. It would be cooler.

8. Also, smaller crowds would mean shorter lines to get into main attractions like the Duomo and the Uffizi.

9. I read amazing things about the Tuscan wine and olive harvests in Marlena de Blasi’s A Thousand Days in Tuscany (which I highly recommend, by the way) and I’d love to see them for myself.

10. It would be cooler.

A friend just got back from spending the holidays in Rome, and she said it was wonderful, so I think that might make a huge difference.

I guess I’ll just have to jet off to Italy again sometime soon. If only. If only….

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Doing Nothing…And Not Feeling Guilty

Sunrise on Myrtle Beach, S.C. Our weekend there was like this: peaceful and refreshing.

Did you know that the first definition of the word vacation is a respite? (According to Merriam-Webster, anyway.)

It’s something that I often have to remind myself, because I’m the type of traveller who tries to cram 101 activities into a day when I’m on a trip somewhere. After all, I’ve paid hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a flight or I’ve driven hours and hours to get there. And then there’s the cost of a hotel…and the knowledge that I may not get a chance to come back any time soon. If ever. So I’d better make it worth it, right?

I also grew up with a military father who created minute-by-minute itineraries for trips, however, so it may be in my blood. It always seems like there’s one more castle or cathedral left to see, one more museum to explore, one more beach activity to try. I can sleep when I get home, after all, and the podiatrist can fix my aching, swollen feet if I happen to injure them from walking too much. (Don’t laugh: It’s happened twice.)

My husband, however, is the opposite. To him, a vacation is much less about culture and exploration and far more about relaxation and good food. (And fishing.) He feels the same way about weekends.

I’m starting to see his point, though. While I’m still not going to waste my (our) money to go to Europe and then sit around doing nothing at cafes all day, every day, I think building a relaxation day or two into a trip is a good idea, a way to refresh and re-energize oneself for even more castles and cathedrals.

And an occasional weekend trip with no agenda, no itinerary, without even tentative plans, can be sheer bliss. We did this, actually, for one of my favorite vacations. We drove down to Myrtle Beach from D.C. last President’s Day weekend, and did nothing for two full days but walk on the boardwalk, watch movies, stare at the ocean, fish (John), read (me) and write (again, me). Our room had a kitchen, so we even brought our own food for breakfast and dinner. For lunch, we walked to the tiny seafood restaurant on a pier behind our hotel.

It was a perfect weekend.

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