Ever since December of 2004, the mention of Phuket, Thailand inevitably conjures images of the devastating tsunami that snuffed out the lives of over 200 thousand people in Southeast Asia. While the magnitude of that event cannot be understated, it does, however tarnish a little secret I found out firsthand: The place would be an excellent stand-in for Paradise.
My own visit occurred a year and a half before the tragedy, when the name Phuket would draw more looks of confusion than sympathy. Pronounced Poo-get (as opposed to its more humorous phonetic pronunciation) this faraway resort island encapsulates everything a tropical destination should be. With a rugged jungle-clad interior and sleepy fishing villages on one side, it seemed at first glance to be just another rural outpost. But on approaching the western shore, it became readily apparent that the party was already in high gear and there was a virtual buffet of all sorts of activities.
Most of the action takes place along the three main beaches: Kata, Karon, and bustling Patong.
Hotels range from luxurious spa resorts to tiny seaside hostels, though excellent accommodations can be had from around just $30 a night. The beaches are powder soft, and the few dollars to rent a chair and umbrella are a wise investment. Most of the restaurants are run by European ex-pats, which means that the food is authentic and you’ll always be able to catch your favorite football match in any one of the numerous bars and pubs. The tourists are almost exclusively from Europe—particularly Scandinavia, and to be honest, the only time I saw another American was when I looked in the mirror. This never posed a problem, and the abundant use of English made my stay all the more enjoyable.
A big advantage of Phuket is that it is an excellent base of operations for the fascinating attractions that surround it. Divers will love the soft corals and big fish to be found around the lovely Similan Islands, or the intriguing near-vertical Phi Phi Islands made famous as the film location for the movie The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Nearby is world-renowned Phang-Nga Bay, with its towering karsts and turquoise waters made famous by James Bond himself. And to the north is Khao Sok National Park, a lush rain forest setting offering jungle cruises and the chance to take it all in on the back of an elephant—one of Thailand’s most beloved symbols.
Sure, to get there takes at least one full day of air travel, and technically, if you go any further you’ll start to come back, but all that effort will pale in comparison to the paradise you will find. In my opinion, Phuket is the best all-around tropical destination I have ever visited in terms of value, scenery, and things to do. Maybe the Europeans were right not to let us on this magnificent secret after all. The last thing paradise needs is a crowd.
It seems that everybody and their grandmother has either cruised, or wants to cruise the scenic coastline of Alaska. Each summer a growing armada of cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of passengers—many of which are in fact people’s grandmothers—into various ports of call along the southeastern arm of the 49th state. That fact alone may scare off potential travelers who come to Alaska to commune with nature and escape the crowds. Well, fear not. With a landmass greater than California, Texas, and Montana combined, getting away from the crowds—grandmothers and all—is not so hard if you know what to expect going in.
The vast majority of Alaska’s northbound visitors begin their journey from either Seattle or Vancouver, where they are herded onboard their waiting ships. After a muster drill and the first buffet, most ships start by winding their way through the Inside Passage, making their first port of call on the town of Ketchikan. The proud residents of this hillside settlement have dubbed themselves “Alaska’s First City” a reference to the fact that this is usually the first piece of Alaskan soil that visitors set foot on. Personally, I think this is just because there’s no one else around to contest it. Nearby is the Misty Fjords National Monument—a dramatic inlet of pristine wilderness. Getting there involves either a boat or a seaplane, and the high price tag of such an excursion ensures that you won’t be contending with the masses for this up-close view of nature untouched.
For those who don’t mind the aforementioned masses, guests will have fun browsing through historic Creek Street—a collection of vintage buildings propped up on stilts where souvenir shops have replaced brothels as the primary source of income. Shopping for souvenirs here is both easy and reasonably priced, and if you miss out on doing it in one port, don’t be alarmed. I’m convinced that all the stores pack up their goods and move to the next port overnight. Which now brings us to Juneau, the state capital. You could meander about town, but one of the star attractions is just a short bus ride away at the Mendenhall Glacier, situated at the source of the Mendenhall River, which is nestled in the—you guessed it—Mendenhall Valley.
The glacier, valley, river, et al are the essence of what people come to Alaska to see. You can hike, tromp, stroll, and mosey until your heart’s content, all while taking in the gorgeous alpine scenery made famous in movies, documentaries, and cruise brochures everywhere. By the time your stay here is over, you will have some great additions to your photo album to go along with the burning sensation in your calves.
The next stop on the itinerary for most is the frontier-style town of Skagway. Once again the charms of villainy and prostitution are softened and packaged for the masses, and you could spend the whole day revisiting the shops you missed back in Ketchikan. For those wanting more of a natural connection, I highly recommend a trip into the nearby Yukon, easily accessible via an overpriced train ride brimming with grandmothers or a cheap rental car.
Getting to the Yukon in a rental car is remarkably simple with some stunning scenery along the way. Entry into Canada requires a passport and a drive through the aptly named White Pass. From there it is a short ride through British Columbia to the majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities lingering just behind the giant Yukon sign, welcoming you to an even more northwestern territory than the adjacent Northwest Territories.
Once you’ve got your land-based activities done, most ships pull into Glacier Bay National Park for scenic cruising of its namesake glaciers. Again, the natural splendor is sure to delight even the most jaded traveler, and it’s great to get a sense of the tremendous scale when other ships pass these cascading mountains of ice looking like sleek, white rubber duckies in comparison.
While some ships turn around at this point, a sizeable fleet will make the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska and file their way into Prince William Sound and stunning College Fjord. This waterway of ice floes and the telltale ripples of otters is home to an amazing array of glaciers, some nineteen in all, each bearing the name of an Ivy League school. Whether this has drawn the ire of less-prestigiously named glaciers in the area remains to be seen, but the overall effect is quite impressive. At the very least the whales, bears and bald eagles seem to like it.
It is at this point that guests must disembark at either Seward or Whittier for the trip to Anchorage or an excursion into the larger interior playground of Alaska. I’ll cover that in another article but for those considering a cruise, the following is some practical information you’ll find helpful, amusing or both.
Many people have accused Alaskan residents of being a bit quirky, to which I reply, “A bit?” Alaska has the distinction of being the only state where men outnumber women, leading to a clever saying devised by Alaskan women to describe their prospects: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” If you have trouble remembering it, don’t worry—you can always pick up a t-shirt emblazoned with the saying at one of the souvenir shops that follow you around. If at some point it feels like you’ve strayed into a lost episode of Northern Exposure, just embrace it as part of the cultural experience.
Another factor to consider are the costs involved. Prices are definitely higher than you’ll find in the lower 48. Put it this way: At one point I saw signs touting a $1.50 store—a near 50% increase over the 99 cents stores back home. Food and transportation costs too are higher than average. If it makes you feel any better, you can revel in the fact that by the time you pay off your credit card bill those same merchants will either be buried under snow, enveloped in darkness, and/or withstanding a 5000 below wind-chill.
Armed with this precursory information, should you venture to the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state in the union, you should be able to keep the crowds at bay and enjoy your time taking in the majesty of what is otherwise a very un-crowded place. And if there are still a little too many other people around as you heed the call of nature, at least you can shop your disappointment away in a souvenir shop—there’s sure to be one right around the corner. Just be sure and say hello to my grandmother while you’re there.
The whole package. Depending on the context that can mean a lot of different things. In terms of travel destinations, most would define a place with the whole package as being convenient to get to, offering lots of attractions for a variety of tastes, having abundant lodging & dining options, and featuring a sense of place with lots of charm. A couple of places like that come to mind: Ponza, Italy; Phuket, Thailand; Queenstown, New Zealand. But today I’m going to write about the one I visited most recently, and most recently reminded me that not only does the complete package exist, but it’s worth looking for. In this case, I found it in the charming town of Parati, Brazil.
Let’s start with that first prerequisite: being convenient to get to. I know, convenient is a relative term and Parati (pronounced: Pah-rah-CHEE’) is not exactly on the beaten track. In fact it was its inaccessibility up until the 1960’s that preserved this colonial gem & kept it worthy of being rediscovered. There is frequent daily (almost hourly) service on comfortable, clean, and thankfully well-air-conditioned buses from Rio de Janeiro’s Rodoviaria, lasting four to five hours depending on road construction. Yes, 4-5 hours on a bus sounds like a long time, but that includes food & restroom breaks with stunning scenery along the Costa Verde thrown in for free. Once there, Parati is a great base of operations for the entire region, and you’ll forget your bus ride after the first caiparinha.
On the subject of transportation, one of the greatest features of Parati is its compact, walkable nature. I personally stayed at the very edge of town and it was at most a half hour walk along the well-groomed (& lighted) Parati River promenade to the historic center. With most lodging options closer in it means nothing is too far to walk, and many outlying lodgings offer complimentary bicycles to guests.
Moving on to the subject of attractions, Parati is a great place to do everything or nothing and enjoy yourself while doing (or not doing) it. Situated on a lovely harbor, each morning an entire armada of wooden schooners venture out to a multitude of jungle-covered islets with secluded beaches and snorkeling opportunities in emerald green waters.
Costing between $20-$30 a person for a full day of exploring, this is a must-see of any visit, and the views alone of returning to the dock with the sun setting behind the town and surrounding mountains make it more than worth the price. If it’s the beach you’re after, most locals head 15 minutes or so south of town to Trindade Beach, the first in a succession of lovely beaches stretching right down into nearby Sao Paolo State. (My favorite was Ubatuba—not so much for the town itself but because it was so much fun to say out loud. Try it: ooba-tooba. Fun, right?). In the nearby mountains clad in the Mata Atlantica rain forest, hiking enthusiasts can walk the Caminho de Ouro (Golden Trail—the original purpose for the founding of Parati) or if walking isn’t your thing, you can take a horse ride to one of many local waterfalls & get a sense of life in the countryside. And for connoisseurs of liquors, spirits and the like, no visit would be complete without a stop at a local cachasa (pronounced: kah-SHAH’-sah) distillery, where they make the sugar-based liquor that is the chief ingredient in the caipirinha—Brazil’s national drink. (Think a high-octane mojito without the mint.)
When it comes to lodging options—particularly away from the major cities with their chain hotels—most people opt to stay at a locally-owned pousada, which is basically a cross between a bed & breakfast and a boutique hotel. Oftentimes these are converted old mansions, such as the ones in the historic center, while others in the more peaceful outskirts can be found on ordinary side streets. While prices and services vary, usually a stay includes breakfast and the local expertise of the pousada owner. For my part, I was thoroughly pleased with my stay at the unassuming yet eclectic Pousada Guarana www.pousadaguarana.com.br where hosts David & Jimena struck a perfect balance between value, comfort, and hospitality. I recommend them wholeheartedly.
When it comes to food, there are many ex-pats in town, the advantage of which being the opportunity to have authentic ‘foreign’ fare. Whether it be Thai, Middle Eastern, or the ubiquitous pizzerias, good eats are easy to find.
Lastly, there’s the ethereal quality of having a sense of place—that charm or personality that distinguishes it from everywhere else. Strolling through the roughly-hewn cobblestone streets of the historic center, it’s hard to imagine anywhere like it outside of Disney World.
With whitewashed houses in multi-colored trim in a simple grid around churches and a plethora of one-of-a-kind shops featuring the works of local artists, the charm factor is off the scale.
At night the restaurants will set up tables outside, street vendors and performers are out in full force, and the festive atmosphere will satisfy the soul of both romantics and adventurers. Few places I’ve been can match this ambience, and if it seems hard to picture that’s because the sense of contentment and well-being don’t translate easily to words. Like many other things in life, it has to be experienced to be understood.
I can go on and on about Parati but I’ll stop for now. Suffice to say, it is the whole package for anyone who can appreciate that a little extra effort in travel—as in life—can & will bring rich dividends for those who won’t settle for less.