Monthly Archives: November 2015

Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again)

On the wall of my office is a large world map, covering the majority of the available wall-space above my desk. I used to have one twice the size before I sold my home with the purpose of literally downsizing. In each case, the maps was/is liberally dotted with color-coded pins detailing the places I’ve been – a badge of honor within the travel community; a lame attempt at looking cool to everyone else. While the act of pinning my map on the safe return from a voyage abroad is a great source of joy (See my blog post: Happiness is Pinning a Giant, Oversized Map), the greater joy comes from reflecting on which experiences were had on that particular spot, and the memories each pin represents.

With so many unpinned places on my map, I’m always quite reluctant to use my precious time and resources to go back to places I’ve already been. But experience has shown that there are some places that are most certainly more than worth it. Below I’ve compiled a list of five of my greatest travel experiences (in no particular order) and the wondrous places where you too can have those same experiences for yourself.

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

This region in Central Anatolia is right out of another planet. With cities carved out of the soft volcanic rock and the giggle-inducing shapes of the so-called “fairy chimneys” it’s hard to believe you’re still on earth and not in a galaxy far, far away (See my blog post: The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia). The best and most-awesomest way to take in this surreal landscape is by hot air balloon, which will allow you to alternately soar far above and skim the surface of this otherworldly wonderland. If it weren’t for parking and three-point turns, I’d say hot air balloon is the nicest way to travel, period.

Zip-lining in Jodhpur, India

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Zip Lining Mehrangarh Fort

I’m a fan of zip-lining in general, having done so numerous times; mostly in jungle settings. The only gripe I have about these “canopy tours” is that often there’s little to see other than branches and tree trunks as you hum along a cable to the next platform. It’s still an awesome experience, but in the city of Jodhpur, India, you can have the same zip-lining excitement with an entirely different backdrop – in this case the mammoth Mehrangarh Fort with the ethereal ‘Blue City’ lying at its feet (See my blog post: A Hyper-Inspirational Shade of the Color Blue). Starting and ending from the fort’s massive stone ramparts, participants will soar over and around an artificial lake and stare out at the boxy monochrome houses right out of an Escher drawing. So if you like your adventure with a side of scenery, this is the place to do it.

Cheetah Encounter in Livingstone, Zambia

Zimcon 1246As an animal lover, some of my greatest travel experiences quite understandably revolve around animal encounters (See my blog posts: Game On! A Rundown of What to Expect on a Safari Game Drive, and The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game). Of all these encounters, the most thrilling most far was the Cheetah Encounter excursion I had in Livingstone, Zambia (See more on the blog post: When a Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not to Laugh). Having the chance to pet, walk and get licked by these gorgeous giant felines was a thrill that still hasn’t worn off. Located near incomparable Victoria Falls, these spotted kitties almost made me forget about that ‘other’ attraction in town.

Shark Diving in Bora Bora, French Polynesia

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Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Continuing the animal encounter theme, the only thing I like more than seeing animals is seeing animals underwater. I’ve done a few shark feeding dives where a ribbon of meat is lowered down an anchor line to the sharks waiting below, and each time it was both thrilling and a tiny bit terrifying. What made the experience in Bora Bora so memorable was the appearance of a trio of 8-10 foot Lemon Sharks who nonchalantly snapped up a morsel of floating food just inches above my head. Being in the open water with creatures longer and fatter than I am is a humbling and exhilarating experience; so much so that it trumps my enthusiastic octopus encounter (See my blog post: To the Octopus I Chanced Upon One Early Winter’s Eve) for Best Undersea Experience.

Hanging Out in Brazil’s Costa Verde

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The idyllic harbor of Abraao, Ilha Grande, Brazil

I know hanging out doesn’t sound all that exciting, but if you’ve been to Brazil’s Costa Verde I’m sure you can understand. Whether it was a night out on the town in Rio de Janeiro (See the blog post: In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery), a stroll through the rain forest on idyllic pedestrian-only Ilha Grande (See the Post: A Love Letter to the Island I Met a Year Ago), or an evening’s exploration of the cobblestone streets of supremely charming Parati (See the post: Parati, Brazil – The Whole Package), doing something or nothing was an amazing experience either way. In a perfect world, this is where I’d want to live. I would also have less grays and a six-pack but that’s a story for another time.

Insufficient Data…Sort of

To date I’ve visited 65 countries/territories across all seven continents. That said, according to the handy app Been (#beenapp) I’ve only covered 26% of total world countries (29% of Europe, 18% of Asia, 52% of North America/Caribbean, 42% of South America, 10% of Oceania and 100% of Antarctica). This means that however many pins might adorn my map, there’s still the majority to go. Knowing as I do that each future pin represents an as yet unrealized experience, the above list is subject to change and the activities mentioned are by no means an exhaustive compilation of all that awaits. The fun is going out and finding those experiences that will last a lifetime. That, and pinning it on my giant map.

How About You?

Do you have a Top-Five worthy travel experience that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and share your story to inspire the rest of us

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , ,

(Insert Your Name Here)’s Day Off in Chicago

Cloud Gate - often referred to as The Bean is a great place to visit (and in my imagination a great place to live: Casa Fazool)

Cloud Gate – often referred to as The Bean is a great place to visit (and in my imagination a great place to live: Casa Fazool)

In the mid-1980’s it seemed like all the best things were coming out of Chicago. The Bears. Deep dish pizza. And of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It seems like it had been almost as long since I toured the Windy City – I had passed through a number of times without having the chance to explore it. Then finally on a long weekend, some friends took us downtown and I remembered why it was also a great place for US to take a day off.

The downtown, with its impressive vertical skyline stands proudly against the chilly shores of Lake Michigan. There are numerous world-class universities, museums and other culturally-enhancing destinations that beg to be visited, but this was my day off, and I wanted to have some fun. So the first stop was naturally Millennium Park, and its star attraction The Bean.

Get reflective at The Bean

Get reflective at The Bean

Technically called the Cloud Gate, what everyone refers to as The Bean is an curvaceous sculpture of reflective metal that’s shaped like, well, a bean. From its paved plaza setting you can take distorted pictures of yourself and/or the surrounding skyline in its fun-house like reflections. For a real mind-twisting trip, stand in the center and look up for a kaleidoscope-worthy scene. Though I had seen pictures of it before, I was struck at how much bigger it was than I thought – somewhere around the size of a smallish two-bedroom house. I couldn’t help thinking that if it WAS a house, how cool it would be to live there. I even came up with a name that pays homage to my Neapolitan heritage: Casa Fazool.

Once we were done taking our pictures, we explored the rest of the park with its winding walkways, rock climbing wall and outdoor theater all the way to Grant Park and the massive Buckingham Fountain. From here you can admire its rococo design or look out at the lake and nearby Navy Pier. For me it was time to take a rest, so that I’d have energy for the rest of the day off.

Scenes from the Chicago River

Scenes from the Chicago River

Just a few blocks inland is famous Michigan Avenue, also known as the Magnificent Mile. This upscale section boasts lots of shops and restaurants and classic city scenes worthy of Manhattan. It is also in this general vicinity where you can stop in at Garrett’s Popcorn for some of their truly addictive offerings. If you’re looking for more than a snack, there’s always the kitschy but fun restaurant called Portillos, where you can enjoy a classic Chicago-style beef sandwich in a Prohibition-era Chicago neighborhood decor.

From there it was a pleasant stroll over to Oak Beach, passing the classic bridges over the Chicago River made famous in movies in nearly every decade. The beach, while not very large, is a pleasant place to stare out at the water and unwind from a hectic day off. Bear in mind that this entire itinerary was undertaken on foot. With an extensive mass transit system, Chicago can be easily navigated by its elevated trains, or by car if you don’t mind the traffic congestion. And if you have access to a vintage red Ferrari, I highly recommend picking one up. It is so choice.

Go wild for architecture in Downtown Chicago

Go wild for architecture in Downtown Chicago

Yes, I know I’ve only scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in Chicago. After all, a city this large is a lot more than just some buildings and a bean. But I’m saving that for my next visit, which I’m sure will coincide with another day off. Anyone up to touring with me? Anyone? Anyone?

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Crater of Diamonds State Park – a.k.a. the Arkansas State Lottery

The abandoned mine at Crater of Diamonds state park

The abandoned mine at Crater of Diamonds state park

I’ve personally never played the lottery despite growing up on enticing slogans such as “All you need is a dollar and a dream” or “Hey, you never know”. Not only do I have a moral aversion toward gambling, but even if I didn’t, the astronomical odds against winning the jackpot always made the attempt seem pointless. Nestled in the hilly backwoods of southwestern Arkansas is a one-of-a-kind North American location where your odds – while not guaranteed – offer a much better chance of a payoff; namely, in the form of a publicly accessible diamond mine which is aptly named Crater of Diamonds State Park. Found just outside of the tiny town of Murfreesboro, visitors come from around the country to this unique enclave where diamonds are consistently unearthed from a plowed 37.5 acre section of what is considered the world’s largest diamond-bearing (long -extinct) volcanic crater. The best part? Anything you find, you keep.

History

I’m no gemologist, so I’m not going to even attempt to explain all the scientific explanations as to how and why this particular spot has diamonds and other places do not. Suffice to say it has to do with enormous pressures beneath the earth’s crust that are conducive to forming diamonds, and the outlet of said materials by means of volcanic activity that brought them to the surface. The first time diamonds were found on this otherwise unassuming tract of land was back in 1906. And after a parade of various mining interests coming and going, the land was eventually purchased by the state of Arkansas in 1972, ensuring public use and opportunity for anyone with the time, strength and stamina needed for amateur diamond mining.

The Park

While diamonds are the reason people come to Crater of Diamonds State Park, the park does offer other outdoor opportunities. There are campsites and walking trails as well as a water park for the kids (seasonal). There is also the large Diamond Discovery Center, which hosts restrooms, a gift shop and a number of exhibits pertaining to mining and the land’s history. This is also where you can see some informative videos and demonstrations on the various mining techniques, and then have the opportunity to rent the equipment to try it for yourself.

Working the mine at Crater of Diamonds state park

Working the mine at Crater of Diamonds state park

The Crater

At first glance the crater floor looks like nothing more than a plowed field dotted with occasional pockets of trees as well as an abandoned building over the original mine entrance. But somewhere in those ruts of crumbling dirt and rock are diamonds. And not just diamonds. The crater also yields precious stones such as garnet and amethyst as well as various minerals such as quartz and agate. The hard part, naturally, is finding them. Rain and wind erode the fields with regularity, washing away the soil which is periodically re-plowed, thereby allowing for greater opportunity to strike pay-dirt. My advice is to find a spot that doesn’t seem like it’s been recently disturbed and plant yourself in the dirt for a few hours of hopeful sifting. Scratch-off will take on a whole new meaning.

The Process

Basically there are two ways guests can mind for diamonds; the dry method or the wet one. The dry method is the easiest and least-messy of the two. With a small shovel you dump a few scoops of gravel into your sifting screen; you then shake said gravel through the screen; after which you peer with baited breath at whatever morsels remain in the hopes that one of them will be shiny. Most of the time you’ll have to swallow your disappointment then repeat the process for however many hours you feel like sitting in the dirt.

The wet method is a bit more convoluted and labor intensive. After scooping piles of soil into your screens and washing them down, the proper shaking and turning methodology will draw all the harder materials (such as diamonds, for example) to one spot, allowing you to examine for gems or other noteworthy stones. There are periodic washing stations located throughout the crater for those wishing to try their hand at this method. But wet or dry, you can count on a lot of playing in the dirt.

For the wet prospectors

For the wet prospectors

The Odds

The biggest question on my mind before ever setting out for Crater of Diamonds State Park, was ‘What are the chances I might find a diamond?’ While there’s no set rate of discovery (how could there be?) the park’s web site does have a chart of statistics that can give you a good idea. For example, statistics for the last full year (2014) have a paid admission of 144,445 guests finding a total of 585 diamonds. That would make a daily average of a little under two per day, and a ratio of one diamond found for every 246.9 guests that visit – and it always seems like it’s that one-tenth of a guy that finds it, doesn’t it? Those are better odds than the lottery, sure. But bear in mind that there are some devoted guests that show up with their own equipment and paraphernalia and spend multiple days in their search for the elusive gems, which no doubt increases their chances and skews the numbers. If it’s any consolation, keep in mind that there’s no set rhyme or reason as to where and when the diamonds are found, and you would have just as much a chance of finding a diamond as the guy with his own screens who’s using all his vacation time. On the flip side, so does the 12-year-old brat on a field trip that’s sitting right beside you in the mud.

The Verdict

After spending more than a few hours baking in the sun and crouching in the dirt, I came away with nothing more interesting than a few quartz fragments, which I thought might be valuable until I saw the giant fist-sized clusters available for sale in the gift shop for only $12. However, what I didn’t gain in precious stones, I did gain in experience and education. Thanks to an onsite expert desk, I was quickly shown the difference between valuable stones and the ones I brought in for evaluation. More than that, it was a new and interesting experience, which was worth the gamble in time and backache and something I can cross off of my life’s endeavors. What experience will you have if you visit here? It could be that you’ll find a diamond like a girl just two months earlier that found one as tall as a quarter that ranks as the 5th biggest found there of all time, or you might have the same experience that I did, walking away with some pretty (though worthless) rocks and a greater appreciation for the art of mining to go along with your sore back. But once again, as the old New York lottery slogan used to go: “Hey, you never know!”

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , ,

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