Above: Usually, the kayaks and zodiacs from Safari Endeavour reached empty beaches. Baja California Sur, Mexico – About to board an open boat for a whale-watching trip, a well-traveled businesswoman says she is a little disappointed in our weeklong voyage through the Sea of Cortes: She […]
STOCKHOLM — What reflects the sunlight more sharply in this handsome city: the painted facades of centuries-old buildings, the waters wrapping around the 14 islands that comprise Stockholm, or the blonde hair of most residents? Or maybe the light is just a facet of the […]
The Antarctic Peninsula — Exactly 22 hours after leaving Ushuaia, Argentina, which calls itself ”the end of the world”, the expedition ship Fram reached the Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica — the real end of the world.
The captain’s P.A. announcement interrupted the lecture on that frozen continent’s ecology, but the passengers cheered the news.
We were little more than halfway to our first trip ashore. That meant we might be facing another night and day like the first one — grabbing for corridor handrails or the backs of chairs to brace against the exaggerated rolling of the ship in what can be the planet’s most hostile 600 miles of sea.
But our progress also meant we were that much closer to a continent so massive that if you put the United States on top of Antarctica, there would be more than a million and a half square miles uncovered. Meanwhile, the U.S. would be sitting on ice more than a mile and a half thick.
We’d be landing in early summer — when the temperature would climb to freezing only one of our four days there.
We could barely wait.
Our patience was tested the next morning while still approaching: The ship motored into a mini-blizzard whose tiny snowflakes turned to sleet so thick the Fram seemed fogbound. The deck became slippery with snow.
But once the ship passed the storm and reached the islands off the Peninsula, the 122 passengers understood what Dorothy felt as she opened the farmhouse door:
We found ourselves under a brilliant blue sky in a majestic land, its horizons defined by mountains and perennial winter.
All around us were huge granite peaks whose jagged outlines were softened by thick coats of snowdrift. Icebergs glistened pearly white or an eerie neon turquoise, or both. Irregular clangs and chungs sounded throughout the 373-foot-long ship as its hull plowed through drift ice, remnants of building-sized icebergs still within view.
We could see penguins leaping above the surface of the clear sea for fractions of a second before darting ahead, underwater.
The eight-day voyage had become an expedition. And on expeditions there are often surprises.
“All stated times and activities are changeable due to weather conditions, or other circumstances out of our control,” the daily agenda reminded passengers.
That’s why the captain slowed the Fram in order to trail three fin whales, on Day Three. And that’s why the much-awaited scenic cruise in the eight-passenger landing boats was cancelled both on the night of Day Five and the following morning. As we swarmed the three observation decks to stare at a monster slab of ice a mile or so in front of the bow, the captain explained over the P.A.:
”Well, this is what happens when a 500-meter-wide iceberg enters a 550-meter-wide channel. We cannot send in the little boats because they must always be near the big ship.
”We will turn and go the long way to the other end of the Lemaire Channel. And tomorrow, we will see if the iceberg has taken a holiday somewhere else.”
But the next morning the iceberg had not moved on, thus canceling one of two scheduled landings on Day Six, a day that dawned as bleak as our collective mood became.
On expeditions, however, surprises happen.
So, the layers of gray clouds suddenly blew away to reveal another sunny day. Said the assistant expedition leader, Ina Schau Johansen:
“If we get a third day like this, then don’t ever come back here, because we will never get it this good again.’’
She wasn’t joking. On the voyage preceding ours, those passengers had had only two hours of sunlight during their four days of landings.
But on this, our sunny third day, in place of the cancelled small-boat cruise of the 7-mile-long Lemaire Channel, everyone could get a sightseeing trip in the craft among icebergs large and small.
A favorite image: a single Gentoo penguin on a sizable but flat-topped ‘berg floating near the Fram. Although we had already viewed, photographed and video’ed thousands of the little critters in our previous landings, just one Gentoo at sea was special.
When two boats had stopped for photos, then left, this penguin had wandered in their direction and dove into the water. Was it trying to follow the boats? Not likely: Penguins are seabirds, meaning they come to land only to breed, so this one most likely had just been resting while looking for a meal.
C’mon in, the water’s freezing
Layering clothes for the eight landings was a challenge:
Weather conditions changed rapidly, from landing to landing. Too many layers, combined with an uphill climb, could make your eyeglasses fog over and the layers closest to the skin get soaked with sweat from excess body heat. Too few layers and the strong wind could easily cut through the Teflon-coated nylon parka each passenger was given.
But Antarctica challenged us with more than icy conditions. On most of the landings, every step on the snow could mean sinking to your knee. This despite the fact that the expedition team of naturalists, geologists, ornithologists and biologists were dispatched to a landing site before the passengers, to mark safe places to walk.
Because Antarctica wildlife is protected against harm, passengers were repeatedly told to keep at least five meters (almost 16 feet) away from the penguins and their ”highways” — the narrow paths they created as they waddled between nest and sea, to eat.
Penguins won’t nest directly on snow, lest that cold prevent their eggs from hatching. Instead, the mature birds will even climb steep hills to find bare rock on which to create their nests.
The construction materials are pebbles and small rocks the male carries, one at a time, in his beak. The guy with the coolest rock nest gets the girl. After she lays an egg, they take turns sitting on it, while the other penguin goes to the sea to feed.
The nesting penguin must guard the egg from the attacks of a chicken-sized bird named the skua. If they get the chance, skuas will peck at and break the egg, slurping up the contents. The penguins have no defense other than to continually stay atop the egg.
Once the chicks hatch, usually starting in January, the skuas will try to kill and chew on them – a scene the Fram passengers did not witness but which was clear in the BBC’s Frozen Planet series, which was looping on our cabin TVs.
Something they don’t mention in those wildlife documentaries is that cute as penguins are, their rookeries, or nesting colonies, stink. Nope, no other word for the smell.
The penguins’ chief food is tiny creature named krill. But penguins only partially digest the krill and then poop where ever they happen to be.
During breeding and chick-rearing times, the penguins spend most of their time in the rookeries. That ammonia/rotten-fish smell is another instance when Antarctica will take your breath away.
But deep snow to trudge, hills to climb, the stench — I even got dive-bombed by a skua being chased by another — are just annoyances compared to the excitement of being near the rookeries.
Just watching the penguins waddle along from side to side, or slide on their bellies down hills, or hop over some impediment bring smiles from everyone.
Embarrassed, but honored
Originally, I didn’t think our time ashore would be so rewarding. On the first landing, the 32-mph wind dropped the wind-chill to minus 28, or 60 degrees below freezing. Dense clouds hid the sun.
On the days when the weather and landscape was most challenging, or when we plowed through 30-foot waves, I would feel embarrassed to step into either of the Fram’s elevators.
In each was a five-foot-tall headshot of one or the other of Norway’s most famed polar explorers, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen (names are cq). Each had sailed on wooden ships named the Fram – Norwegian for “forward.’’
In the photographs, each man looked out with weather-worn faces and hard eyes. I felt they were challenging me for daring to come to Antarctica in so much comfort.
Those men, and other European and American explorers of more than a century earlier, came in too-fragile sailing ships, wearing animal skins over woolen clothes, without my ship’s redundant engines, and satellite links, without at least three hot entrees at every meal, without hot showers.
Those explorers were more than just courageous and hearty souls – they were risking their lives. And many of them lost that gamble.
So, finally, I felt privileged to have barely sampled what they had chosen to endure for months on Antarctica. Its magnificence does that to you.
Freelance writer Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the Tampa Bay (formerly St. Petersburg) Times. His new e-book is End Bag, available at Amazon, Smashwords, Sony and other sites.
BALDWIN CITY, Kansas — Fireflies beckon to each other in the darkness accentuated by the trees and the rural countryside. But rough-spoken men break the fairy-tale cheer with threats that reek of hatred — hatred of each other and what the others stand for. These men are […]
The signs claim this 200-acre swath of serenity is in the unremarkable community of Delray Beach. But, in truth, the Morikami Museum does a marvelous job of re-creating a slice of Japan. True, it’s an idealized view: The Morikami (pronounced MOOR-ee-CAH-me) and its adjacent gardens […]
PARIS, Ark. — Two-lane roads snake up, down and around hills and mountains of Arkansas. They lead to more than 50 state parks and countless recreation areas and boat-launch ramps.
Along these roads, you traverse cattle pastures, forests and villages so small you wonder how they got incorporated. For example, there’s St. Joe, population 85.
The rolling hills are dotted by occasional trailer homes with an array of kids’ toys out front, by tidy farmhouses. Those with tumble-down wooden barns hint of both history and ultimately misfortune.
Every so often there will be a long driveway from the blacktop up to a magnificent, multistory estate. Some of these are owned by ranchers who have cashed in, while others are retirement manses for wealthy northerners. “Money from Chicago,” you hear the locals comment.
It’s only a two-hour drive through this scenery west from Little Rock to the state park system’s handsome lodge atop Mount Magazine, Arkansas’ highest point at 2,753 feet.
Opened in 2006, the 60-room, 13-cabin lodge is all rustic timbers and earth tones, with a patio behind the lodge lined with rockers to take in the view of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake below.
While the lodge has a restaurant offering continental takes on local food and an indoor pool, this is a destination for people who enjoy the outdoors. The park has roughly 14 miles of trails and enough observation points that “You can see about a quarter of Arkansas and even a big hill over in Oklahoma, about 50 miles west,” notes Don Simons.
The slightly built Simons has been at Mount Magazine for about 11 of his nearly 30 years as a state parks interpreter. In that job, he leads visitors on trail hikes, but a walk with him actually is a combination botany-entomology-wildlife-history lesson.
“Most of the mountain’s slopes are covered by virgin timber,” he says, leading me up an easy slope, “because the sides were too steep to easily cut the trees. The tops were logged, and settlers were here after the Civil War, farming.
“Most stayed until the Depression, and finally the government bought out the rest” to create the park,explains Simons, who is a nationally Certified Heritage Interpreter.
Simons interrupts our walk every few yards to identify some living thing. A former president of the state Audubon Society, he cocks his head to listen, then names the birds he hears: “Squeaky wheel . . . Pee-wee . . . red-eyed vireo. (Later, at the visitors center’s indoor observation room, he points through the large windows at the American goldfinch, indigo bunting and various hummingbirds at the feeders.)
Along the path, Simons uses his decal-decorated walking stick to point out plants such as the fly poison, ginseng, wild yam, paw paw and sassafras. “Down in Louisiana, where I came from, they grind the sassafras leaves for file gumbo.”
Butterflies became the specialty he shares with his wife, Lori Spencer. She has a master’s degree in entomology and has published she a book on butterflies. She and Simons have identified more than 85 species of butterflies within Mount Magazine State Park.
But Simons says that most of what he knows of nature is from “years of self-teaching, getting on the trails, then learning what it is that I see.”
He admits he was never driven by education when he was young. “I had no ambition out of high school. I got a full-time job at McDonalds – I was one of those geeks,” he says, a smile breaking through his brown beard.
“I drove up to Arkansas (from his Louisiana home) and in a park I saw a ranger handling snakes, and I thought that was cool. So I went to college and got a degree in wildlife management. I learned to handle bison and bighorn sheep, because my teacher was from Utah and that’s what he knew.”
The smile grows larger.
Having reached the summit of Mount Magazine, Simons stops to talk about the bill he and his wife had introduced in the legislature to have the Diana fritillary named the Arkansas state butterfly.
Almost on cue, a great spangled fritillary lands on me – “He wants to lap up the sodium in your sweat,” explains Simons – before it moves to the ranger’s hand.
Simons and his wife live a couple hundred yards from the multimillion-dollar lodge, which he sees as a mixed blessing, because it is expected to draw a half-million visitors annually to this park.
“It’ll bring the kind of people . . . who want to enjoy the beauty of nature,” he says. By their coming, “I know the peace and quiet I enjoy will be lessened.
“But I know where all the neat, secret places are, and I can go there.”
If you go
The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park offers four room types, plus 13 cabins that have fireplaces and kitchens. There are four pricing seasons.
For more, go to www.mountmagazinestatepark.com or call (877) 665-6343.
For more on all of Arkansas’ state parks, go to www.arkan sasstateparks.com.
Juneau, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past couple of years has been pretty straightforward: Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there this summer will […]
VENICE — Oversized, languorous figures in the richest of colors and reaching toward Heaven are splashed across the ceilings and walls of the Doge’s Palace in this beguiling city. What space is not covered with Renaissance masterpieces is gilded, or it erupts in sculpted plaster flourishes.
It was good, a few centuries ago, to be a resident of the rich city-state of Venice.
Good, indeed, as long as you were behaving in a manner approved by the all-powerful figures who controlled commoners, kept a suspicious eye on each other and even had their watchdogs matching strides with the head of state, the appointed-for-life doge (pronounced DOHzh).
But if three of your fellow citizens were willing to give secret testimony about your morals or activities, you would see a part of the Doge’s Palace that Venetians and visitors learned to dread. The decorations were far less grand, though one room had a unique feature: a rope hanging from the ceiling.
Unlike those who lived for centuries near the Palace’s secret rooms, today’s visitors can leave when they want to.
The “Secret Itinerary of the Doge’s Palace” is a 75-minute guided tour that starts in the sun-splashed courtyard but moves quickly through back stairways into the darkest places, not merely of the palace but of the mind and heart.
Your guide begins innocently enough: She says you will learn about the “administration of justice” from the early 1300s until 1797, when splendid Venice fell to Napoleon’s ambition.
The Palace of the Doge held offices of the bureaucracy, the courts and the doge’s residence. The Palace presents to the throngs in the Piazza of St. Mark’s an almost delicate, lacelike facade of arches and tracery that belies the iron grip the presiding merchant/nobles had.
As the tour moves away from a second-story loggia, or arcade, the guide capsules the intricate overlap of departments and councils created by Venice’s governance by suspicious aristocrats.
Much of the ultimate decisionmaking was held by the Council of 10, so powerful that it dictated the political and moral behavior for the citizens.
Council members decreed, for instance, that no one could even meet with a foreigner without first seeking permission. Then, debriefings were held after such meetings.
As moral watchdogs, the city’s judges and bureaucratic rulers decreed how much jewelry was too much and also decided that the one-upsmanship in lavishly decorating the nobles’ gondolas would stop: Henceforth, gondolas would be painted a simple black. They still are.
Climbing four stories of back stairways, the Palace tour participants step on treads worn from seven centuries of use.
One of the tour stops is in the Secret Archives, an airy, wood-paneled room. Here, scribes copied reports from the government’s spies, from the willing citizenry and from those persons who had not volunteered information the rulers considered pertinent.
Crime and punishment
Another room on the Secret Itinerary is not much bigger than the bedroom of a modern house but is two stories tall.
On two walls, doors have been cut in the wood, with a metal grate in each door at about eye level. These are the doors to the cells for suspects. At one end of the room is a table on a raised platform and behind it, chairs for the inquisitors, for this is the Torture Interrogation Room.
There is no chair for the suspect facing the inquisitors. Instead, hands tied behind his back, the suspect stood facing the inquisitors. Through his arms would be passed a rope, which had been fed through a hook on a beam overhead.
First the prisoner was raised off the floor by pulling on the rope. Then the inquisitors would put a question to him, and the suspect would be lowered, to answer. If there was no answer, the rope would be yanked again and the prisoner raised up.
Another question, another release of the rope and a pause for an answer. If need be, there would be another yank on the rope. And another . . .
This was simply the trial, not the punishment. Those who were found guilty of repeatedly stealing would have their right hand cut off. Those who lied had their noses cut off. Those who blasphemed had their tongue cut out.
Not every guilty party was mutilated. There were jail cells for the lesser offenders. And that is where perhaps the most famous Venetian of all, Giacomo Casanova, was sent.
After spying on him for eight months, the government did not charge Casanova with what was to gain him fame: his romantic conquests of the married and unmarried (he is said to have had more than 140 lovers).
Instead, Casanova was imprisoned for cheating at cards and for speaking against the church. He was sentenced to five years in an attic cell.
A plan, of sorts
One day when Casanova was taking his exercise in the palace attic under its lead roof, he found a metal tool, which he was to hide in an armchair a patron had provided. He began calculating an escape.
And on the night of Oct. 31, 1756, Casanova made his move to join the merrymakers out that Halloween night.
He and another inmate went up, through the roof of his cell. But while they were able to get down into hallways from the attic, they found themselves locked inside the sprawling palace.
So the two simply waited near the main door for the guard to unlock it the next morning. They bolted past him, ran through St. Mark’s Square, grabbed a boat and rowed to the mainland. Casanova was not to return for 18 years.
If you go
Tour prices for adults start at about $25. To book, go to www.tickitaly.com/tickets/itineraries-tickets.php. Specify the English-language tour.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Acclaimed anthropologist Jane Goodall was a consultant as Walt Disney World Resort was building its fourth and largest theme park, Animal Kingdom. When the media previewed the park before its April 1998 opening, I asked Dr. Goodall what she thought […]