The Maui Trick: Island-Style Adventure

From my vantage point on the flanks of the West Maui Mountains above the Ka’anapali beach resorts area, I am suddenly  convinced I can see spouting humpback whales and pirouetting spinner dolphins.

Of course, that’s impossible—I am many miles from the sea, and this kind of illusion is  pretty common in Maui. It’s what makes this place a reliable trickster of sorts.

Since I have been here before I recognize the deceit as quickly as it ensnares me. Fact is I am standing about 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean on steps leading to a wooden platform some 500 feet above a scrub- and tree-studded arroyo strapped into a seat harness—the kind you wear for rappelling or climbing. My eyes fix wearily on a galvanized aircraft cable stretched 400 feet across a deep gully in front of me.  I look over at my kid and my gut knits itself into a knot.

But then, out of the blue, my typically shy 12-year-old, who always seems more cautious than adventurous, surprises me by volunteering to go first on stage one of eight progressively longer cable runs that straddle the valleys of Mount Kahalawai; the last one a span of 1,100 feet.
Our guide, B.J., of Ka’anapali Skyline Eco-Adventure, delivers a rapid-fire spiel that includes a crack about his name followed with a funny but serious safety drill. His delivery is so wildly snarky and hilarious that it distracts me from my kid who’s now being clipped into the speed trolley that will carry him across the tops of several trees and a yawning abyss.
Before sending him off, B.J. quips: “Sam, I have some advice for you. Listen carefully: never date girls with tattoos, and, please, don’t ever get one yourself: “You wouldn’t put a bumper sticker on a Ferrari, would you?”

My son cracks up, and I break into a mile-wide smile as I watch my baby boy sail away.

For the time being, I have forgotten my worries and am reveling in the pure joy of the moment.

One by one the rest of the group launches as I wait my turn taking in the 360 degree views. Rolling clouds break across the horizon, and I see clearly why Maui is also known as the “Valley Isle.”

Two former shield volcanoes connected by an isthmus dominate the landscape, overlapping at their feet to form a large rambling valley.

The lush green, oft cloud-shrouded West Maui Mountains extend some 5,788 feet skyward, and extend like a paw from the rest of the island. Crowned by distinctly eroded peaks sliced with steep gullies, the mountains slope toward a rocky surf-slammed shoreline punctuated with sandy beaches ranging from long and curved to small and gem-like.

Haleakala, the younger and more massive volcano to the east, rises to more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Its’ bulbous upper flank is dotted with volcanic rock and scrub before makes its way gradually toward sporadically lush agricultural fields and long arching sandy beaches.

Together these distinctly different mountains encompass five major geographical areas: the cozy-clutch beaches of Napili and Kapalua Bays; the action-oriented Ka’anapali just north of Lahaina and its overdosed shopping; bustling Kihei; the more serene areas of Wailea-Makena; and, finally, at the island’s southern terminus, the wild and rugged Ahihi Kina’u Natural Area Reserve and La Perouse Bay.

Like beaches in Oregon, all Maui beaches are freely open to public access. While Maui is well known and coveted for these beaches and the adjacent ocean-based activities, it’s really the whole of the thing—the varied terrain, plant life, fish, fauna, geology, and climate variations—that attract adventure travelers and outdoors enthusiasts from across the globe.

Let the Adventure Begin
We started our trip in Kahalui, where most flights land, hitting Whole Foods to stock up on groceries. We booked vacation condos for our week-long visit and planned to cook most meals rather than dine out as a cost-cutting strategy. Each of the distinct accommodations we selected are ideally furnished and perfectly located for active travelers.

The first place we stayed, Napili Kai Resort, is located in a quiet coastal area in West Maui; the second, Ka’anapali Alii, in the Ka’anapali Beach area; and the third, Makena Surf, is at the far end of Wailea in the south. All are within 45 minutes of the airport in Kahului. We decided to divvy up our stay with different locales, so we could experience each of these distinct areas; and they all offer exceptional discounts for seven days stays.

Each of these condos feature sliding glass doors that seamlessly roll open to expansive ocean views and a quintessential island soundtrack: birds singing, surf surging and geckos chirping.They also have washing machines and dryers, along with gourmet kitchens stocked with every tool you need to prepare meals for two to eight people, and all but the first of them could have easily accommodated as many sleeping. You’ll find many other conveniences of home, from iPod docking stations and flat screen televisions to games and books, and beach toys, snorkels, fins, and beach chairs. For travelers looking for a true home away from home for a week or two, any of these would do superbly.

Both Napili Kai and Makena Surf, by virtue of their locations, provide quick access to crowd-free exploring—whether for a bike ride down roads with low traffic counts or beachfront snorkeling where plenty of coral, fish, and sea turtles are regularly on the viewing menu.

The wide arching beach at Napili Kai is fronted by a stunning oceanside, open-air restaurant, the Sea Horse. At night, tiki torches illuminate the sprawling property’s narrow pathways and palm trees, while the surf rolls in and purges out, creating a synchronized symphony of light and sound.

But Ka’anapali Alii also offers something special—an incredible state-of-the art fitness facility. This is no cramped hotel-style gym but one with premium cardio and circuit training equipment, free weights and a yoga studio, sweetened with palm-tree fringed views of the mountains. Occupying its own separate space in a separate building in the condo tower complex is an incredibly well-designed, beautifully appointed, soothing spa, Kaanapali Alii’s spa is headed by a highly skilled Mauian massage therapist with a deep holistic background and uncanny resemblance to the actress Sarah Jessica Parker. After a day of rigorous play, she magically worked my knotted muscles free and released the residual tension I had managed to drag across the ocean with me.

Afterward, I stumbled to the shower like a drunken sailor before heading back to the condo, where I melted onto the lanai lounge chair and didn’t budge for the rest of the evening.

The Overrated Road to Hana
One of the first things people will urge you to do when you mention an impending visit to Maui is the quintessential excursion to Hana. It involves driving your rental car (don’t even think about biking this, really, don’t) to the other side of Maui. If you plan to do this solely as a travel activity, I’d think twice about whether the drive is worth the gas, time and nausea. For one thing, much of the road is a blur of green—yes, jungle green—but green nonetheless. You have to make determined pull-offs and sometimes five- to 10-minute or more drives to see the ocean or some waterfalls. If you enjoy mild nausea and cars careening past you around tight corners, however, go for it. It’s a beautiful drive. But think twice before trying to do this in a day. If you’re going to go, do make the effort to stay at least a night in Hana. Then it’s worth it.

Adventure Time

But really who wants to sit in a car all day when you’re on Maui. Nearly every month, there’s a race or event focused on outdoors pursuits. Plan ahead and book accordingly if you want to participate in any organized events. Things book up fast. In January, the Maui oceanfront is the site of several running events, including the island’s eponymous full and half marathon, as well as 5k, 10k and 15k fun runs and races. In February, there’s the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Half Marathon. In March, The Iao Valley to the Sea Half Marathon, 10k and 5K. April brings the Maui Stage Races, including criterium and time trials. Each September, several other well-known running events are rolled out, including the Hana Relay races, and the Maui Marathon and Half Marathon. In October, there’s the Maui Makani Classic, a major windsurfing competition.

Beyond organized events, the options for land and sea excursions are numerous. The key is to look for a top-notch adventure-devoted outfitter, not just someone who caters to tourists. If you’ll only visit for a week or less, your time is valuable; you’ll want an expert to guide you.

For paddling (sightseeing, snorkeling, photo safari or fishing adventures), the outfitter Maui Kayaks is unparalleled. Their experience and attention is comprehensive; they stage, provision and transport all necessary equipment, snorkel gear, refreshments, snacks and meals to your chosen adventure launch site. Experienced kayakers can do this independently with rented equipment and a safety briefing. But be advised that it cannot only be challenging, but often hazardous launching from much of Maui’s shoreline. If this is your first trip to the island, it’ll be more than worthwhile to seek out Maui Kayak’s expertise. Their in-depth knowledge of marine life (where the green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and humpbacks can be found), the geography, water conditions, and local culture is in total: priceless.

Self-confessed water rookies but “hardcore” adventurer travelers, Amanda and Jake Cooke from Phoenix, call Maui Kayaks “awesome at getting you up to speed, fast.” Both reported feeling happily “wiped out” after their 4-hour snorkeling excursion.

Michole Jensen, an experienced kayak fly angler, who blogs at, enjoyed several hours of successful catch and release fishing from one of Maui Kayaks’ Hobiecats, guided by one of their ace fishing guides.

Ziplining, however, was a new sport for me. Several companies offer this guided adventure on Maui. I studied online reviews, cost-versus-itinerary schedule and group size, as well as the weather forecast. I also considered accreditation (from dependable groups like the Better Business Bureau, American Trade Travel Association and Ecotourism Society), as well as input form the Maui Visitor’s Bureau, and, finally, went with Skyline Eco-Adventures after learning about their membership in 1% For The Planet,” a group of businesses committed to giving a percentage of their sales back to environmental preservation. They were everything I hoped for, including entertaining and informative, and did a great job with safety drills and providing mid-morning nourishment on our half-day adventure.

For a high sea adventure, I booked with Terlani Sailing Charters, a decision driven by copious amounts of research on Maui boats and crews. Since I was traveling with a child in tow, I considered their state-of-the-art catamarans a big plus. Comfort and safety are critical concerns that are often overlooked by tourists when booking tours. I am more interested in calculated risks, so I did my research. The 35- by 65-foot cats are capable of accommodating 100-plus passengers, but they max out their tours at 49 guests. Additionally, their cats are equipped with decent heads (restrooms), fresh water showers, and outdoor and indoor seating (including tables under a covered salon and bar). They conveniently launch from Ka’anapali’s Dig Me beach, just off the mile-long, palm-tree studded boardwalk that fronts a dozen or more resorts along this beautiful sandy oceanfront. Trilogy,  Maui’s oldest family owned and operated sailing company also offers state-of-the-art catamarans and tours, and is another top-rated tour transporter/provider. More recently, they started sailing right off Makena Beach, which is certainly the best option for anyone staying in the Wailea-Makena area who wants to go out to Molokini to snorkel.

The Terlani sailed about an hour north to a Honolua Bay before dropping anchor. We snorkeled for an hour in a pretty rough surf, and then submerged with SNUBA lines 20 feet or more to the calmer sea floor where the fish view was much better. Not only was there no surge to deal with underwater, but we also saw a sea turtle—described by my son as being as big as a VW Beetle—serving as a feeding station for a colorful array of fish.

Back on board the cat, and absolutely famished after spending several hours in the water (never underestimate how hungry you can get when playing in water), we dove into a fabulous BBQ and deli-style buffet. Then we sat back and relaxed on our return sail to Ka’anapali, escorted by a spirited pod of Spinner dolphins.

Play Eat Sleep Repeat
You know you’ve made the transition from your workaday life to real travel when you can relinquish  your routines, but just as we quickly settle into another set of them—starting the day early and then playing (insert nearly any fun activity here) until we can barely stand up and following that with nights doing nothing more than kicking back. When I travel, I also like to try to stay on Pacific Time, which means very early mornings and fairly early to bed. This is one of the best ways to easily transition back into reality after I’ve take trips involving a time warp into other time zones.

Typically, we would awake around 4:30 for coffee and protein smoothies before heading out by foot or rented bikes, and more rarely, the rented car. One day, we enjoyed 20 fast and furious cycling miles along the Piilani Highway, the central coast beltline road, with little traffic to impede us. Another day, we drove up to the Upper Waiakoa (aka “You’ll be Sorry”) Trail, a challenging ride that encompasses smooth to seriously steep terrain, with stretches through pine forest, tread-devouring lava rock, and dicey sand and scree.

We did not, however, do the quintessential sunrise downhill bike bomb off Haleakala, as it seemed too touristy, although many active travelers swear by the experience.
Instead, we trekked around the super rocky and choppy La Perouse Bay to the Hopaili Trail. The bay is next to the Ahihi Kinau Nature Reserve, an area that encompasses 2,000 acres of land (mostly lava flow) and submerged areas. Large pods of Spinner dolphins frequent the bay, using it as a resting area and nursery. Reserve managers surely considered this (and undetonated ordinances, and the fact that overuse has seriously impacted the reserve) in their decision to close the reserve through July 2012 to allow the fragile eco system to recover. (Update: parts of it have been re-opened, particularly if you go with a guide).

If there’s one adventure that can’t be missed on Maui—and pretty much the raison d’etre for traveling to the island state in the first place—it’s the snorkeling (although if you’re a diver you could argue that). You can book a catamaran boat tour out to the crowded waters of Molokini Crater (where as many as 2,000 people at a time snorkel the small caldera-shaped atoll’s natural aquarium).

If you feel compelled to do this, consider booking with outfitters that use fast-moving boats (like Seafire and Blue Water Rafting, both out of Kihei Boat Harbor). They’ll get you to the best snorkel sites quickly before the crowds arrive. They can also change course on a dime should visibility or crowds becomes an issue, something the bigger boats can’t do.
The crater, many argue, offers the best scuba diving on Maui. Depths reach more than 100 feet, in some places 300. If you’re a diver with your heart set on diving, sign up with a dive boat operator out of the Kihei Boat Harbor. They make the trip in 15 minutes rather than the 45- to 60-minute sail out of Ma’alaea Harbor.

Next to Molokini, few snorkel or scuba spots possess the diversity of fish and marine life found at Nahuna Point, also known as Five Graves, Five Caves.

It’s possible to swim to Nahuna Point from Makena Surf or Makena Landing, which is partly why we chose a condo in this area. But keep in mind, it’s only a viable option when the water is calm. The other option is to a quarter mile walk from the Makena Landing Beach Park public access lot off Makena Road to a residential area on the right where you navigate around a tiny rather grim-looking private graveyard, which is nearly as creepy as the sketchy entry into the narrows of the small cove.
Uneven and slippery, there are a lot of large rocks in the shallows of the cove. As soon as we were in the water, we had to kick it into high gear as the surf surged quite hard, flushing us back in and out with it.

Once in the cove, we followed a sea turtle out along the coral-rich lava shelf. All around us we saw eel, octopus, and a variety reef fish like the indigo dart, butterfly, puffer and triggerfish, dragon wrasse, Moorish idols, and, more rarely, the frogfish.

The first of the five caves is just beneath this stretch of reef. At the end of the reef as it heads out to sea, turn right and head over the top of another reef before turning west southwest back into another small bay to the other four caves. Divers often see white tip sharks resting in these caves.

They’ve dubbed the third one the “bubble cave” because it contains an air chamber, and if you dive into it with only a snorkel, you can stand up and catch your breath inside. Visibility in this area varies wildly depending on conditions; if the surf is big, diving and snorkelling here can both be difficult endeavors. And by mid-morning big boats start arriving to drop off loads of tourist snorkelers, although only a few in-the-know, ever really venture in as far as the caves.

At the End of the Day
After a day of adventuring, we’d roll open the lanai doors and take in the unfettered view of the ocean and its companion soundtrack—the rhythmic crescendo of the surf crashing on the beach a few yards off.

On our final night in Maui, I watched with a touch of resignation as the night began to unfold, the sky subtly shifting from blue to orange to red to purple, and finally inky black.

And then there it was again, that Maui trick: As the moon rose steadily into view and began spilling its light, it looked very much like someone carrying a lantern across a vast infinity pool.
That final night, I drifted to sleep on a lounger on the lanai, dreaming of Sam sailing across the sea from the mainland to Maui on an endless zipline with me in fast pursuit.



Napili Kai Beach Resort Online at; by phone
1-800-367-5030, direct (808) 669-6271, by email This intimate 10-acre resort provides one of most authentic traditional Hawaiian ambiances I have encounter on Maui. Perched above a stunning crescent sand beach with no building higher than two stories, and surrounded by alternative manicured  and lush wild grounds, it is also one of the only beach resorts I’ve visited that stands behind the “value-plus” pitch.  You won’t pay separately for a long laundry list of typical extras like parking, kids activities, hula and lei making classes, nightly live music, fitness studio, putting greens, snorkel gear and kids eat free. So although the accommodations can look spendy to families, when you add these things in, you’ll save money here.

Swimming beach at Napili Kai

View out the Lanai at Napili Kai

Livingroom of Napili Kai condo

Napili Kai kitchen view

 Kaanapali Alii Oceanfront Residences: Online at kaanapalialii-px.rtrk.comby phone 866-627-7023. Definitely a luxury property, but with a family or group, you will definitely save money at this pampering property, especially if you take advantage of the incredible outdoors BBQ area or the fully stocked gourmet kitchens.

Kaanapali condo living area

Gourmet kitchen at Kaanapali Alii

Kaanapali Alii condo dining area

Makena Surf Condos: Online (including live chat) at; by phone 866-384-1366 and direct at 808-891-6200. Truly the ultimate escape, these Destination Resort condos make perfect sense for adventurous groups looking for a Five-Star basecamp.

View from livingroom hallway to the lanai

Makena Surf Resort Condos and Beach


•Ziplining. Ka’anapali Skyline Eco-Adventures—online at; by phone Ph. 808.878.8400; by

Cyling the northern coast of Maui

• Cycling. Rent Specialized road or mountain bikes at Island Biker Maui— online at; by phone at 808-877-7744; by email


Snorkeling Maui style

Sail/Snorkel/Snuba: Teralani Sailing Charters—online at; by phone at 808-661-7245.

• Snorkel: Seafire—online at; by phone 808-879-2201.
Scuba: Mike Severns Diving—online at; by phone 808-879-6596.

• Kayaking: Maui Kayaks—Online at; by phone 808-874-4000.




Whole Foods Market: 70 E Kaahumanu Ave # B Kahului. Despite the “whole paycheck” reputation, there are some bargains to be found here, particular the salad bar and hot prepared foods, and wine department.
Leilanis in Whalers Village (; 808-661-4495). Directly adjacent to the surf along the Ka’anapali beach front, this is the go-to place for fresh fish and seafood (like to die-for sesame encrusted fresh Hawaiian ahi with lilikoi balsamic glaze and wasabi cream), a terrific selection of island fresh salads and pupus (ahi with wasabi and pickled ginger), and oceanfront views that will turn you into a table squatter. Prices are no higher than fine dining on the mainland.
Hula Grill Kaanapali (; 808-667-6636), also on the beach at Ka’anapali, this very popular open-air dining spot has a laid back but always crowded vibe. The 3-course meal chef’s tasting menu is the way to go. This is also a great place to sip a beer and groove to live music.

Sea House Restaurant at Napili Kai Beach Resort This gorgeous open-air restaurant and bar, located right above one of Maui’s prettiest oceanfront resort beaches, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. The Sea House’s casual yet elegant ambiance and quintessential Maui setting make dining at sunset from the special three-course menu one of the most romantic dining experienes on Maui. The daily dinner menu includes an outrageously fine  Seafood Chowder, housecrafted from supremely fresh local fish, clams, shrimp, vegetables, and is surely one of the island’s best versions of this filling soup. A baby spinach salad mixed with Gorgonzola, candied macadamia nuts and crisp Molokai sweet potato strings, and dressed with papaya seed dressing and finished with sliced fresh papaya is as delicious to eat as it is to look at. Best of all, the menu includes enough variety of seafood, meat, vegetarian and gluten-free options to keep everyone happy. And for those of who really do keep track of these things, the menu is certified to be ecologically responsible through sustainable fishing practices. Their membership in Seafood Watch means the chef and staff are committed to protecting the oceans. One other thing, the wine, beer and cocktails are no more expensive then you’ll find in most big city in the U.S., and include a small but nicely chosen selection of vintages, brews and creative libations. Enjoy Happy Hour on the terrace from 2pm until 5pm; Hawaiian entertainment is featured from 7pm until 9pm most nights.

Honokowai Farmers Market located at 3636 Lower Honoapi’ilani Road near Lahaina. This tiny natural food store is open daily, inside the building, while the farmer’s market is held outside in the parking lot on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This is a good place to pick up some homemade guacamole (or the fixings for it: avocados, basil, onions and cilantro), and fresh island fruit like papaya, pineapple, apple bananas, mango, guava and passion fruit (nicely, you won’t find imported fruit from China). They also have a wide range of baked goods and vegan foods. Good place to pick up lunch to go as well.


Leave a comment

Filed under ACTIVITIES/PLAY, EAT/DRINK, SLEEP, Uncategorized

Whistler Sabbatical Project

The WHO and WHERE: Located in the Coast Mountains  75 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Whistler is Canada’s premier year-round leisure and meeting destination. Consistently rated the top ski resort in North America, Whistler was the Host Mountain Resort of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

The resort offers an extensive range of accommodations including 24 hotels as well as townhomes, condos, B&Bs and chalets. Whistler also boasts more than 100 restaurants and bars, 200 retail shops, 25 spas and countless activity options from world-renowned skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking and golf, to hiking, rock climbing, and watersports. The Resort Municipality of Whistler is home to a diverse community of more than 10,000 permanent residents.

THE WHAT: Tourism Whistler has launched the most exciting contest in the history of the resort, with an ultimate prize package that cannot be purchased: an invitation to experience the Whistler dream.

Launching this week is the Whistler Sabbatical Project: One month in Whistler. Expenses paid. Airfare, accommodation, lift passes, ski/ snowboard equipment, plus a series of extraordinary experiences.

Who wouldn’t want to spend a month at North America’s premier ski destination? It might seem like a no-brainer but Tourism Whistler recognizes that, for most people, there are many obstacles that make it impossible to un-plug from day-to-day life for an entire month. The Whistler Sabbatical Project aims to remove those barriers, by providing the grand prize winner with a four-week Whistler experience plus a salary (to a maximum of $4,200 CDN) to help offset the expenses of taking a month off work.

THE WHEN: Each Tuesday for the next 15 weeks, the Whistler Sabbatical Project will showcase unique and exciting Whistler experiences online – and ask the question: Would you do it? How contestants respond will set the stage for building an itinerary of adventure in Whistler that includes some activities you’d expect from this mountain town, while others you’ve never dreamed possible. From slicing the tops off magnums of champagne with a sabre (in a 20,000 bottle wine cellar) and access to a world-class spa facility to on-mountain adventures that are bucket-list worthy – this collection of Whistler experiences will create a lifetime of bragging rights.

“We’re encouraging people to go to the site every week, think about the question and answer whether or not they’d do that particular activity,” explained Kirsten Homeniuk, Tourism Whistler’s Senior Manager of Marketing Services. “Share the link with your friends, post it on Facebook, Tweet it … dare people to enter the contest,” she said.

The contest entry for the Whistler Sabbatical Project is available at

Visitors to the microsite get a special glimpse of each experience through Tourism Whistler’s 45 second videos. “These vignettes not only highlight elements of the Whistler Sabbatical,” adds Homeniuk, “they showcase many of the activities that help define what makes the resort such an amazing place to visit.”

In addition to the Whistler Sabbatical Project, contestants can enter to win each of the highlighted experiences as a weekly prize via Facebook at For this week’s prize, the winner receives a $600 (CDN) Whistler Blackcomb gift card towards new ski boots and a tab at the Garibaldi Lift Co. Bar & Grill.

The Whistler Sabbatical Project and the weekly prize contests are open to residents in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Contest rules and conditions apply. Weekly prize winners will be drawn randomly. The Whistler Sabbatical Project contest closes January 31, 2012 with 10 randomly-selected finalists drawn between February 1-10, 2012 and the grand-prize winner notified on February 13, 2012. The Whistler Sabbatical prize must be redeemed between March 1 – April 30, 2012.

The microsite for the Whistler Sabbatical Project is featured on the website – which has just been redesigned to coincide with the launch of the winter season and Tourism Whistler’s winter marketing campaign. Featuring stunning imagery, additional content and enhanced functionality, the website is a leading destination marketing organization site and the source for Whistler information and reservations.

Book by November 15 and save up to 36 per cent on winter stay and ski packages that include lodging and lift tickets. Early season packages including five nights’ accommodation and a four-day lift ticket start at $443 CDN per person. Plus, kids stay, ski, rent & shuttle for free. The Book Early and Save promotion promises the lowest rates of the season and the

Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are scheduled to open November 24. Last winter was the resort’s second snowiest on record, with Whistler and Blackcomb mountains accumulating more than 51 feet of powder. This year, meteorologists are calling for another La Nina weather pattern which means cooler temperatures and consistent heavy precipitation. With opening day only five weeks away, and snow already accumulating on the mountain tops, Whistler is buzzing with pre-winter anticipation. To view the alpine webcams visit or visit 

Leave a comment

Filed under ACTIVITIES/PLAY, Spark of the Week

The Subject is: Restaurants and a Monty Python Acid Trip

While I sort out the mess with my web hosting company that has been charging me to redirect my url to wordpress, and thus far continues to delay my more in depth postings, I wanted to offer something here to chew on. The subject is restaurants. When I was vetting the BEST lists for my book Best Places Northwest, 17th ed, two things really started to bug me: The CELEBRITY chef and horribly overdone restaurant websites.

No one should have to wait two minutes for a page to load no matter what it is being offered. So without getting into the touchy politics of the restaurant biz (see I am going to avoid giving you my two bits on celebrity chefs) and coming off as sounding negative, you’ll find a repost here of the Food Channel’s Trendwire commentary on restaurant websites, which they actually attribute back to Slate in order to get their own two bits in on the issue  (hey, isn’t this how news is made nowadays?).

There’s no doubt in my mind that restaurant websites are hugely relevant to travelers. Thankfully, you can log on and read more before investing your entire arm and a leg to the cause of dinner.  But that reminds me, I do have a complaint about this posting: In the closing note we get this: “going forward.” That has become such a hackneyed cliche, I am sure my former journalism professor, Jim Patton, would have nailed a big fat F on the otherwise enlightening piece.

Of course, I “look forward” to your comments upon my return from the island of Maui where I am headed tomorrow in search of the mainland visitors’ quintessential island attractions as well as the endurance athlete’s real Maui Wowie.


Why Do So Many Restaurant Websites Stink?

The chatter about restaurant websites heated up late this summer when Slate magazine slammed the hospitality industry for what it called “overdone” sites. The article by Farhad Manjoo had a subtitle that was none too subtle. It asked, “Why are restaurant websites so horrifically bad?

Why indeed? Well, the consensus seems to be that restaurant websites try to be too sexy, too over-the-top, when most site visitors mainly want to have a look at the menu, check on the hours, and figure out how to get to the place.

Slate’s Manjoo pokes fun at the website for Hubert Keller’s San Francisco restaurant, Fleur de Lys, which features a nearly full-screen animation of his autograph, along with snappy photos of the chef, and links to Keller’s other eateries and his PBS TV show. Then there’s the autoplaying music—ambient techno-smooth jazz—that kicks in. Eventually, after sitting through way too much “loading…,” you’re able to find the menu.

The article also cites other offending sites, including New York’s Buddakan (like an Inception trailer) and Houston’s Cavatore”> Cavatore, described as looking like it was created by designers on a Monty Python acid trip. Manjoo even pans the websites for such highly regarded establishments as Napa Valley’s Chez Panisse, and Chicago’s esteemed Alinea.

Far too many restaurants, especially the higher-end establishments, try to entertain the website visitor with flash graphics, music, and ego-driven chef biographies.

And far too often, the websites are simply inaccurate. Omnivore blogger Cliff Bostock writes about his visit to Atlanta’s Wisteria. When he arrived, the valet told Bostock he had three and a half minutes to get in the door before the place closed. The restaurant had failed to note on its website that the place would close at 9 p.m. that night, rather than at website-listed 10 p.m. In another blog, he asks, “Why do so many restaurants not include their (damn) hours of operation” in the first place? That’s annoying to say the least. He calls out two Atlanta-area restaurants that had absolutely no mention of the places’ hours.

Part of the blame probably goes to the web designers. They make more money when they create a website with a lot of bells and whistles. And, hey, it’s always a good bet to stroke a chef’s ego with a great head shot portrait that zooms or tumbles into view over a jazzy guitar solo. But most savvy web designers know that all that flash animation and autoplay music became passé, oh, about 1999.

(editor’s note: here’s a consensus on what most travelers and diners want from a restaurant web site)


Specials and happy hour info. Including social promotions such as Foursquare, Groupon and Twitter specials.

Address with a link to Google maps

Online reservation that actually works (instead of one where I make a reservation online, show up, and the hostess gives me a blank, confused stare when I tell her my name).

Hours of operation, parking and contact info

The writer follows that up with an amusing graphic depicting “What I get instead” featuring an image of people laughing while eating, along with callouts complaining that the menu is only downloadable as a 90 megabyte PDF file…that you can’t copy and paste anything because it’s in flash…that the site includes a letter from the founder that no one wants to read…etc.

Attempting to answer its own question as to why so many restaurant websites “suck,” Slate’s Manjoo writes, “Restaurant sites are the product of restaurant culture. These nightmarish websites were spawned by restaurateurs who mistakenly believe they can control the online world the same way they lord over a restaurant.”

The writer does, finally, acknowledge a few of the better restaurant websites, saluting the steakhouse chain Morton’s for its mobile site that uses your GPS location to get you information on the restaurant closest to you, and Jimmy , a rooftop bar at the James Hotel in New York’s Soho area. After viewing this clean, minimalist site featuring great photography, I’ve decided to put Jimmy at the top of my list of places to visit on my next trip to Gotham.

Going forward, the simple answer for restaurateurs seems to be…keep it simple. Make your site user-friendly. Make sure all the pertinent information is there, and please go easy on the fancy stuff. As it is with your culinary creations, sometimes less is more.

Leave a comment

Filed under EAT/DRINK

Things You Should Know About Volunteer Vacations

With the temps and humidity in the high 90s, sweat collided with dirt on my face and rolled down it in rivulets, creating grotesque streaks. My hair matted to my head under my hat, and my shirt stuck to my chest, armpits and back like shrink-wrap. My hands ached from hours of gripping a shovel handle as I turned up rocks deeply imbedded in the terrain, mile after mile.

But I could not have been happier as I was doing my part as a volunteer trail builder for a conservation organization for two weeks. It was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done, not only because it was for a good cause and would be extremely helpful for not just recreational hikers, but it would also benefit the people who lived in the area and relied on the trail system to travel with ease from one village to another.

I have also stayed at farm-stays in Europe, paying to work on organic farms, hoeing weeds, picking beans, apples and even grapes. I always considered these to be labors of joy. Often at the end of very long days, we would sit around a big communal table and dig into the food we had just harvested and toast the hardworking farm owner.

Today, many travelers are choosing volunteer vacations over traditional vacations. People have occasionally asked me what I think about it and how I chose a particular opportunity. I’d say volunteering while you travel gives you a chance to both travel—sometimes in very remote areas—while taking part in a worthwhile project, like helping to lift people out of poverty, assist in a health or rescue effort, or even assist in the preservation of endangered animals or ecosystems through wildlife conservation programs.

Of course, part of volunteer vacations are also about having fun, but I don’t think that should be the only driver. The reasons you could/should do this are many: to share or hone a specific skill, to practice a language or to learn about a country or culture, or simply to share your good fortune with others less fortunate. Just make sure you’re very clear with yourself about why you want to get involved and what you hope to gain. As for how I chose a volunteer travel opportunity…honestly, sometimes, I just stumbled on a particularly one (word of mouth from one traveler to another or saw a sign); others I very consciously sought out. I would say how much time you should devote to making this decision depends on where you plan to go. I will urge this: so-called Third World or “developing” countries require an extra level of caution and consciousness.

Below, Dr. Matthias Hammer, executive director of non-profit wildlife conservation volunteer organization Biosphere Expeditions, offers his top 10 tips on how to choose the right volunteer vacation. I am sharing it here at play east sleep repeat not only because I believe that volunteer vacations are an extremely rewarding means of travel, but traveling this way can also change lives—yours and the people/communities/organizations benefitting from it. But whether you call it voluntravelism or voluntourism, it isn’t without some controversy, particularly in the last couple of years. Some experts believe that this type of travel mostly benefits the volunteer.

Some things to consider: Are the projects sustainable (what happens after you leave?) and are you displacing local labor? That last point is probably the most critical, and one that actually isn’t addressed by Dr. Hammer. The money you pay to participate, say volunteering to help build desks for a classroom in Indian, might have actually been better spent on hiring teachers. To learn more about deciphering those criteria visit:

Dr. Hammers 10 Tips on Choosing a Volunteer Vacation

1. Make sure it is a well-established organization with a proven track record of making a real difference in the projects it has become involved with—has it won any awards for its work?

2. If for example the project is about wildlife conservation, make sure that the program is run on verifiable scientific grounds. While you give your time as an interested traveler who wants to make a difference, you need to have peace of mind that the project you are helping with is being run by a qualified scientist.

3. Ask where your money goes. To truly make a difference, it is best if as much money and resources as possible go to help the local environment in the country the project is in. Reputable organizations will always publish information about how funds are distributed to the public.

4. Make sure that the organization keeps you up to date on how your volunteer project is progressing. Even though you may have only been there for one or two weeks, many volunteer programs run for many years. Make sure that you will be sent regular reports to see what is happening with the program.

5. Many volunteer vacations will take place in remote parts of the world where you may have close encounters with potentially dangerous wild animals. Make sure the organization that you are volunteering with has an excellent safety record and takes the whole issue seriously.

6. Do some background research on your expedition leader and make sure that they are qualified. To some extent you may be putting your life in their hands, so you need to be sure they have all the necessary qualifications.

7. Determine what new skills you will learn on your volunteer vacation and how you will be taught these skills. One of the biggest bonuses of a volunteer program may be learning something new in an exciting environment and you want to make sure that the people who are teaching you are well qualified.

8. Make sure that you have clear goals about what you hope to accomplish out of the whole experience and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek the views of travelers who have gone before you. Reputable organizations will always offer to put you in touch with previous travellers – if they don’t, beware.

9. Find out who your work-stay companions will be. You may be virtually living “next door” to each other for some time, so you need to be comfortable with the type of people you are likely to be with. The organization should be able to tell you about the kind of people who typically attends their projects. Facebook, blog pages, and social media outlets can be invaluable information gathering tools for volunteer vacations.

10. Determine if it will be fun. Although most volunteer vacations have a serious purpose, you should have fun considering that you are spending your valuable vacation time “giving back”.

For more tips, advice, and information about volunteer vacations and volunteer wildlife conservation programs visit the Biosphere Expeditions website at or contact Stephanie Moreland at

Leave a comment


A Week in Paris for under $1,200 Including Airfare And 5 Nights Stay

The Deal: The Paris City Vacation  includes round-trip airfare to Paris and 5 nights’ hotel accommodation,  click to book

The raison d’être: Whether you have been to the City of Light many times before or this is your first foray, a per day rate of approximately $133 simply cannot be beat. The Montmartre neighborhood, where travelers will stay is one of the city’s most popular spots and is often the setting for many films. Artists Dalí, Monet, Picasso, and van Gogh found inspiration here and it is also home to one of the city’s most popular sights, the white-domed Basilica of the of the Sacre Coeur.

The Paris City Vacation Package includes:

5 Nights* at Art Hotel Congres in Paris;

Roundtrip airfare from New York (JFK) to Paris

Basic air/hotel package prices $799 from New York and $849 from Boston and Chicago for travel December 7, 2011 to February 29, 2012.  Use your award travel miles to get to JFK or visit or to find add-on flights for West Coast or Midwest departures. All rates are per person based on double occupancy and blackout dates apply.  Booking available from November 1, 2011 to March 31, 2012 at slightly higher rates.  Rates are based on select mid-week departures and exclude government taxes/fees/facility charges up to $220 per person and the September 11th Security Fee of $2.50 for US departures.


            Upgrade to 4-Star Rochester Hotel Champs Elysees: Upgrade your stay to Rochester Hotel Champs Elysees with breakfast included from $249 per person and stay in one of the most popular areas in Europe!

Extend your stay from $99 per person, per night: Stay 6 or 7 nights for only $99 per person, per night.

*A 4-night option is also available at discounted rates.

For more information on the Paris City Vacation, call 1-800-221-0924 or visit

Leave a comment

Filed under HOT DEALS

Brews N’ Views at Salty’s on the Columbia

Who: Salty’s on the Columbia

What:  BREWS N’ VIEWS party. Sip and savor while soaking in the sights of the mighty Columbia River. Enjoy beer samples from 10+ local breweries, including Alameda, Widmer, HUB, and Bridgeport. Chat with the breweries about the process, passion and perfection of a good brew. Feast on appetizers that pair perfectly with beer. Bleu cheese gougères, salmon cakes, beer cheese fondue, sausage stuffed cherry tomatoes, salmon with apricot reduction, beer marshmallows, and more. Tickets are $29.00 per person (must be 21 and older to attend), reservations highly recommended.

When:  Thursday, Oct 27, 2011, from 6pm-9pm.

Where: Salty’s on the Columbia River, Portland, Oregon

Notes: This is a reception-style event, seating is limited. Call 503.288.4444 for reservations.


Leave a comment


Polartec Challenge Grants Available for 2012 Expeditions

Over the past 20 years, Polartec has supported hundreds of expeditions around the world through the Polartec® Challenge, an international grant program encouraging outdoor adventure. The Lawrence, Mass. company makes that awesomely soft microfiber fabric your favorite fleece half-zip is made of, as well as other performance insulation fabrics used by a wide variety of cycling, climbing, hiking, camping and other sports apparel manufacturers. They’re also well known for funding adventure athletes and explorers. Surf here or read below for more information.

The Polartec® Challenge Grant seeks to assist frugal, low impact teams who respect the local culture and environment and serve as role models to outdoor enthusiasts worldwide. Applications are evaluated on the basis of vision, commitment, educational and cultural value. (One note: this is not the appropriate venue for projects that involve competition or fund raising).

Some of the latest Polartec Challenge Grant recipients include Kate Harris and Melissa Yule who are exploring environmental conservation while cycling from Europe to Asia, and Jon Turk and Erik Boomer who recently completed the first circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island—regarded by many as one of the last great Arctic expeditions.

To apply, visit The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2011.

Leave a comment

Filed under HOT DEALS

Travel Dreams: Seize the Day (Snag a Funding Grant)

I sometimes travel in my dreams. Like the average dream, they can be bizarre: I’m crawling hands and knees along a street in Northern Ireland in the dark to get a closer look at the colors painted on the curbs (so I know I’m in the republican neighborhood where I’m staying), or I’m bodysurfing through a mashpit of Moroccan men while trying to buy a ticket for a train out of Fez.

Other times, the dreams are more serene: I’m harvesting vegetables on an organic farm stay just outside the Abruzzi National Park in Italy, photographing statues in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria or having coffee with an old friend in San Francisco. All of these are versions of real travel experiences I’ve enjoyed, but I still find myself analyzing them, and wondering why I keep re-playing them in my dream state.

What I find even stranger, is that the older I get, the more I have such dreams. Perhaps it’s because I feel the years flying by and I have always felt the pace of my life slows down when I travel. I also like to travel independently, which though it complicates things sometimes, also slows things down. I can’t think of a better antidote for the monotony of the familiar routines that clutter my life than to get away and be faced with what feels like a strange new pace, no matter where I am.

Ironically, technology has made it harder to really get away. Wifi clouds and smart phones have made travel to many developing places feel less remote. Modern infrastructure has changed things too, as have politics and the risks that come with crossing dodgy borders. Paved roads, helicopter pads and boutique hotels are now common in places that were once only accessible to the intrepid independent traveler, and the few remaining undeveloped places in the world are now largely inaccessible to all but the best-funded adventurer. The more remote a place, the more money you need to get there and be there.

On the other hand, technology and modernization have eased travel for people with physical disabilities, families with children, or anyone with a fulltime job and limited vacation time. Tech and modern conveniences, like helicopter airlifts, have also made travel safer, though I’d venture that safety sometimes takes the adventure out of travel.

Some years ago, I cycled from Oslo to Bergen, Norway, and never saw another traveler, other than my cycling partner, along the remote areas of the route we traversed, particularly across the Hardanger Glacier. Today, the route is well-trodden, often inundated by tour groups on foot or bike. The same can be said about some of the places I rode in Ireland, and even Scotland. There were moments in both places where I realized that had my bike broken down or had I fallen and hurt myself, I would have had to rely on fate to get me through. Today, technology, one way or another, would likely save my ass.

I have travel dreams in waking life, too. I still imagine myself pulling off one more year-long journey under my own power—cycling, backpacking or paddling, or all three.  I just hope I can sustain this way of being.

At a gathering recently, I was talking to a friend’s husband about daring-do people and some of the older ones we know who inspire us. I lamented the fact that the body seems to age faster than the mind, and wondered aloud if it’s even a good idea for the two to ever catch up with each other.

“Life,” Richard said, “is a one-way trip. There’s no getting around it.”

I heard no resignation in his voice; just total acceptance and even a bit of detachment. I had the feeling he was OK with this mind-body arrangement, but I also felt like he was also making a pretty profound statement about accepting this journey called life for what it is.

If I understood that the way he meant it, I think he is right. Regardless of age, time is still pulling us forward toward an inevitable deadline. The magic of travel, when you fully embrace it, and don’t try to rush through it, or over-think it (oh, man do I have work waiting for me when I get home) is that it does slow it down to a more doable natural pace. Slowing down makes living in the present and staying open a lot easier, which in turn makes for, in my opinion, a more creative, interesting and fulfilling life.

Richard told me about a recent birthday party he had attended for his wife’s vivacious 102-year-old aunt. On reflection, he attributed much of her longevity to her organizational skills coupled with an uncanny fearlessness. The always healthy centenarian ordered donut holes rather than a cake for her party. Due to the large number of celebrants attending, and with the popularity and high price of fancy donuts these days, she felt she couldn’t afford to buy whole donuts for everyone. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her from sharing something she loves, something I would call one of her “quintessentialities,” (my term for qualities in each of us that are essential and yet unique). She wasn’t going to “settle” for cake when she could give her guests a taste of what she loves.

Now, there’s someone, I thought, driving her own train, crossing the bridge from “not enough” to a place of fulfillment; someone who keeps moving forward but enjoying every stop along the way. Someone living in the present.

This seems like an apt metaphor for travel too, not getting stuck in one place, staying open to something working out differently. It also got me to thinking about what happens when only the young and the rich have the desire and resources to travel. Adventure should not be a deliberate luxury afforded only a few. Without travel, people never see beyond their own window; the world view gets very tiny, from the inside and out. Considering the economic costs of war, I ponder the cost of not traveling. Is it peace?

Being open, present and ready to roll when the opportunity presents itself is essential part of the equation. I have a friend, Janet, who has built her entire life around traveling. She’s not a millionaire. Instead, she consciously chose and created a profession that ensures her enough time and money to spend at least half of each year exploring new places, and returning to favorites like Baja, Mexico, India and Thailand. She’s cycled through South Africa and across Nepal. I can’t think of many places  she hasn’t been, maybe Japan. It doesn’t matter, it’s not the destination for her, it’s the experience of meeting new people, tasting new foods, and learning new things, like Poi in Goa.

My friends Ram and Reina didn’t let having a family keep them locked in their work cubicles. They took sabbaticals, pulled Gyan and Jeev out of grade school and spent six months traveling around the world by various means of transport, including buses and trains. In addition to blogging about their journey, the boys each wrote and eventually published a book.

My friends Joe and Beth, took their tribe (three young sons—one not quite a year old) on a bicycle trip across Canada. Joe, an author, also known as the Metal Cowboy, previously traveled by bike across the U.S. with two of those boys as well.

None of these people are wealthy. They have just made travel a priority in their lives and went for it, often just winging it as they went along: open and present.

It’s not always necessary or desirable to travel with an itinerary or know with certainty where you will sleep each night. When we are ruled by the unconscious desire to know exactly where we are going, it’s hard to appreciate the journey. It also makes it much harder to get up and go. I am not saying we should always be in transit, dragging our burdens along some undefined track never knowing where we will end up; I’ve learned that when I lived like that fulfillment was always just out of reach. Which is why the alternative to travel might well be depression, which I tend to think of as anger with no place to go.

And I know for sure this that the remedy for the wild arrows of grief that find us all at one time or another isn’t found in protecting ourselves from life. On the contrary, the cure might better be described as pain put into motion, which sometimes means simply taking a trip. I learned this following the death of my 17-year-old niece, an experience that had plenty of potential to paralyze me. A couple of months before she died, I had unwittingly booked a flight to New Zealand for a month-long adventure. As the departure date closed in on me, I knew I had to go if I wanted to keep on living.

As I stood on the top of a building in Auckland, tenuously tethered to an adventure travel outfitter’s unknown rigging, I realized there was no other option but to give myself over to the possibility that I might live. And so, I moved toward the edge and began springing down the front of that building, forward, toward the crowd gathered below for what felt like an hour but was actually only about 15 minutes.

Far and wide, that was one of the finest lessons of my travel life: living is not about protecting ourselves from life as much as it is about strengthening our lives so we can let a more of it in.

Do you have a big adventure in you but are still fretting or doubting?  Read on. This opportunity, should you get it, promises to relieve you of all excuses by essentially funding your dream. If you go for it, and I am hoping that one of you will, let me know how it works out. I am a true believe in the abundance principle, that there’s enough to go around for everyone. The more we share, the more we get back, even if it’s vicarious, because vicarious is catchy, and those who merely dream of travel are often inspired by those who actually do.

Seize the opportunity!

Polartec Challenge Grants Available for 2012 Expeditions

Over the past 20 years, Polartec has supported hundreds of expeditions around the world through the Polartec® Challenge, an international grant program encouraging outdoor adventure. The Lawrence, Mass. company makes that awesomely soft microfiber fabric your favorite fleece half-zip is made of, as well as other performance insulation fabrics used by a wide variety of cycling, climbing, hiking, camping and other sports apparel manufacturers. They’re also well known for funding adventure athletes and explorers. Surf here or read below for more information.

The Polartec® Challenge Grant seeks to assist frugal, low impact teams who respect the local culture and environment and serve as role models to outdoor enthusiasts worldwide. Applications are evaluated on the basis of vision, commitment, educational and cultural value. (One note: this is not the appropriate venue for projects that involve competition or fund raising).

Some of the latest Polartec Challenge Grant recipients include Kate Harris and Melissa Yule who are exploring environmental conservation while cycling from Europe to Asia, and Jon Turk and Erik Boomer who recently completed the first circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island—regarded by many as one of the last great Arctic expeditions.

To apply, visit The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2011.

1 Comment


Adventures in Beerlandia: British Pubs, Oktoberfest and Northwest Beer Festivals

I first met my English friends Bo and Helen Barcan on a ship sailing from Bergen, Norway to New Castle upon Tyne, Scotland. Cyclists, themselves, they knew what it was like to go more than a few days without a bath, and promptly and graciously offered up the shower in their compartment since the only water available in my compartment, in peasant class, was potentially ocean spray, and we’d have to encounter some pretty wild weather and rough seas for that to happen.

Further sealing our newfound friendship was their eagerness to prove to me that British food is a lot more than fish and chips (they too were vegetarians). When we parted ways at the ferry dock, I had their phone number and address securely penned in my address book, along with a standing invite to dinner if I ever made it to Bristol, in the south of England.

A month later, after cycling across Scotland along Hadrian’s Wall, ferrying across the Irish Sea, cycling around the perimeter of Ireland, sailing back across the Irish Sea, and, finally, cycling across Wales, I rolled up to the steps below the front door of their Westbury Park brownstone walk-up.

And thus began my British culinary and beer tour, which eventually launched me into the beer garden at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

In Scotland and Ireland, I temporarily became a piscatarian—a fish eating vegetarian—simply because I could not find enough nutritious veggie fuel to power my daily mileage of 60 to 75 miles. Fish and chip shops were everywhere, and I couldn’t resist the convenience of running in for a quick “take away” package of folded newspaper filled with greasy deep-fried cod and thin crispy potatoes.

I eagerly headed to Bo and Helen’s with hopes of putting an end to this artery-clogging habit.

In the days that followed, I was introduced to authentic Indian cuisine (for the first time in my so-called sheltered culinary life; it’s now my favorite ethnic food), home-prepared gourmet vegetarian meals and traditional English pub grub with some not so healthy vegetarian twists.

Chip Butty anyone? These little sandwiches consist of white bread, buttered and filled with piping hot chips and tomato sauce. In Ireland, I had already eaten way too much colcannon—boiled or steamed cabbage (or kale) mixed with mashed potatoes and cream. But that didn’t stop me from diving into a pile of the English version at a small pub in the English countryside. The Brits call it Bubble and Squeak (although,come to think of it, in Ireland, I had also heard people referring to this same dish as colcannon). In any case, if you’re not familiar with this British delicacy, it’s primarily sautéed cabbage or leftover vegetables, mixed with creamy mashed potatoes. The only way I could continue to eat this stuff nearly daily was to keep cycling (it’s amazing what you’ll eat when you’re famished).

The other thing I discovered in English pubs, something that is now widely commonplace in the U.S. (OK, this is aging me, but they weren’t widely used here at the time) were beer bar mats: the little card coasters advertising a brewery or brand. As a bike traveler, I found them to be ideal souvenirs due to their light weight, and, in fact, they soon became only the second thing I’ve ever collected in my life—apart from foreign postage stamps I horded as a kid. Over the years, I amassed a pile of both stamps and coasters from around the globe.

In the pubs, I also learned a thing or two about beer; enough to actually spark an interest that has stuck with me even today. In any case, I was gobsmacked to learn that beer, what the English call bitter, is served in pints at just under room temperature (ale, on the other hand, is beer made with hops and barley and is served at room temperature). The term for what we call beer in the U.S. is actually what Brits call lager. The beverage they actually call “beer” is dark ale served a bit below room temperature, not cold.

Got that?

I love the British lexicon, especially words like gobsmack (awesome, awed) blinkered (narrow-minded), bladdered (drunk), bugger (get off, shit, jerk, cheap), bollocks (no good), cheesed off (pissed off), shag (mutual sex), gormless (clueless) and “Bobs your uncle” (an expression I take to mean something like: “that’s it!”).  These were productive days, indeed, for a writer with a life-long fascination with words borne out of my father’s insistence that I use a dictionary to look up the words I was always asking about in the days of my youth, much like I continue to do these days with an internet browser.

After all the beer and food, it was time to push off for the Portsmouth-Cherbourg ferry and take a 14-day detour in France, before finally arriving in Munich, just in time for the mother of all beer drinking events, Oktoberfest.  An important part of Bavarian culture, more than 6 million people attend this massive beer fest every year—although only a small percentage are actually Bavarian; the rest mostly come from the U.S. and other western countries.

What began as a wedding celebration for the Bavarian crown prince Ludwig 1  to Princess Therese of Saxony on October 12, 1810, has morphed into the world’s largest “peoples’ fair.” Tradition prescribes that it runs during the 16 days up to and including the first Sunday in October.

Shortly after arriving in Munich, I visited the local visitor’s bureau, which quickly pointed out to me that with it being Oktoberfest season, and my having arrived without a hostel or hotel reservations, I only had one option remaining: Camping Thalkirken.

What a zoo. Imagine a pastoral, plebeian Burning Man camp flying the Teutonic flag rather than the freak flag.

Located in the Isar River Valley about a 15-minute bike ride from the city center, the 11-acre site holds 300 tents, 150 motorhomes and 100 dormobiles (campervans), and hundreds of partying campers during Oktoberfest, a place where the hardiest revellers sleep only a few wee hours before sunrise.

Camping Thalkirken is truly a crazy mini-city with every thing you need on site, including cooking facilities, a restaurant, and even a lounge (with televisions and table games). Less than 7-minutes from the tent sites, you’ll find a heated swimming pool and the Isar-Canal, frequently filled with an army of overly-intoxicated tubers. With tents spaced just a few feet apart, the only time the campground was even minutely quiet enough to catch some z’s was between 2am and 5am.

Just before sunrise, the entire campground would begin to fill with the hiss of igniting camp stoves, and the clatter of cooking and coffee pots as the revellers arose to make their way to Theresienwiese, located near Munich’s city center, to ensure their place at the front of the gate to, of course, be first in line for the beer tents.

Who the hell wants to drink beer at 8am? Apparently, from what I witnessed, a lot of Oktoberfestians.

So I don’t know what I was thinking, but I figured if the only way I was going to escape the lines and get into a beer tent without my own reservation, I too would have to head out at the crack of dawn. Also, seeing as it was the end of September and with daylight hours rather limited, I was bound and determined to stuff as much into one day as I could. (Note to self: that’s usually a mistake).

In the afternoon, I left my bike locked up at Oktoberfest and headed to Dachau by train.

Yep, that’s right: Dachua Concentration Camp, after a morning of beer sampling…yeah, real bright.

Dachau was a significant interment camp for a number of reasons. First used to imprison any German national who, for political, ideological, or racial reasons, was viewed as an adversary of the National Socialists, the SS later imprisoned Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals at the camp. In addition to serving as a model for all later concentration camps, it also was used as a training camp for the SS. For 12 years, more than 200,000 people from across Europe were taken to Dachau and its subsidiary camps; 41.500 of them were slaughtered or summarily shot.

The modern day memorial site includes the former prisoners’ camp, the intake area, baths, and the crematorium. On April 29 1945, American troops liberated the survivors. My father was one of those troops, which is why I had long felt obliged and compelled to visit.

Next to the baths and the execution furnaces, the most difficult part of visiting this wretched memorial comes toward the end of the tour at the International memorial: A sculpture designed by Nandor Glid, a Yugoslavian artist who spent time in a forced labor camp during the war, strikes at the heart. The sculpture, a mash up of fence posts, barbed wire and a human skeleton, commemorates the many who in desperation committed suicide by jumping into the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp. As you reach the end of the memorial, you come to a stout wall built with 36 stone blocks. Just in front of it sits a large square urn with the ashes of unknown concentration camp prisoners. The block wall holds the ironclad words: “Never Again,” written in Yiddish using Hebrew letters, and in French, English, German and Russian.

As I exited the camp that day, I felt like I had just experience the worst-best day of my life. It was the worst because it just killed me to think I lived in a world where something like this could happen. It was the best simply because I couldn’t think of an experience in my life that had ever moved me so deeply.

I headed back on the train to Munich with a mash up—like that sculpture—of emotions, feeling hollow and disheartened, depressed and empty; yet grateful and hopeful.

Back at Oktoberfest, I was no longer in the mood to deal with crowds or interested in beer sampling. Before I unlocked my bike and began the trek back to Camping Thalkirken, I grabbed a Radler—a half sprite and half beer beverage just inside the gate, and reflected on my day and just exactly what I had taken in.

As crazy and juxtaposed as these two experiences—Oktoberfest and Dachau—were, when considered side by side, I realized that this is exactly what I love about travel.

It’s not the same as a vacation where you mostly expect everything to be safe, easy and fun. Traveling is more about living in the present with all its inconsistency, risks and unknowns. In fact, the only constant when you’re living in the moment is change, which you must give yourself over to. To travel sanely, you have to stay open and present.

In retrospect, I think my rather rash uneducated decision to take on both of these uniquely German experiences on the same day was actually quite perfect. It definitely gave me an interesting perspective on Oktoberfest, which is another kind of human insanity in its on right, on its own scale.

Beyond the crowds—recent estimates put tbe number of annual visitors at 6.5 million—the volume of beer that flows inside the beer tents is staggering: some 7.1 million liters are consumed during the 16-day festival.

Another fascinating thing about Oktoberfest is that all the beer originates from breweries within Munich city limits. The goal is to get inside one of these breweries’ 14 beer tents and get your stein filled with one of six local beer brands.

The Armbrustschützenzelt (the “Crossbowman’s Tent,” named after a competition that’s been a part of Oktoberfest since 1895) is one of the bigger tents, with around 7,500 seats. Inside they serve beer that American beer aficionados are sure to recognize, Paulaner, a brewery established in the early 17th century in Munich, and named after Saint Francis of Paola, the founder of the Order of Minims.

The Löwenbräu-Festhalle—look for the tent/building featuring towers with lions sipping from beer steins on top—serves the also familiar Löwenbräu.

Bavarians and others who enjoy traditional (and authentic) Bavarian folk music head to the Augustiner tent, which pours the eponymous beer that some say is the best in Munich. Augustiner’s Oktoberfest and Edelstoff are the only beers at the festival that are still served from traditional wooden barrels.

Besides the beer, many also come to Oktoberfest to partake of the wide variety of traditional foods offered: hendl (chicken), ochsen (ox), steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), schweinebraten (roast pork), würstl (sausages), brezn (pretzels), knödel (potato or bread dumplings), reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), kasspatzn (cheese noodles), sauerkraut and blaukraut (fermented green and red cabbage), and always a few Bavarian dairy and meat delicacies including obatzda (a spiced cheese-butter spread) and weisswurst (a white sausage).

If there was one thing I owe to my Oktoberfest experience it is that it opened me up to the possibility of visiting an American beer festival. Had I not been to the largest in the world, I don’t think I would have been very interested in a beer gathering. I’m fairly discerning when it comes to partaking of a public party, but now I feel very lucky: two of my two favorite beer fests happen to be very close to home.

And the thing I’ve noticed is that most of the beer drinkers at these events aren’t there to tie one on. Some come to collect a beer mat or two to help remind them later which brew they loved best, in the same way serious wine tasters make notes when they find a new wine they enjoy. But most come simply to try something new and meet like-minded people.

In England, you toast Cheers! In Ireland, it’s Slainte! In German, Prost! And here in American, just about anything goes, including “Nice to meet you!”

Celebration of Beer Weekend at Skamania Lodge in Stephenson, Washington

10/08/2011 to 10/09/2011

Now in its third year, and well on its way to becoming a perennial favorite for Northwest beer lovers, Skamania Lodge’s Celebration of Beer fest offers a terrific opportunity to taste a perfectly sized selection of great Northwest beers from top craft brewers like Amnesia, Full Sail, Fish (awesome organic beer), Lompoc, Salmon Creek, Prodigal Son, Laht Neppur, Snipes Mountain, and Yakima Craft breweries, as well as one of my all time favorite ales: Walking Man.

Unlike wine, tasting and dumping isn’t the usual modus operandi. Use your tickets carefully. Try a small ounce or two, and when you find something that really turns you on, go ahead and use more tickets to get a full pour.

To really enjoy the full scope of this event, eat while you taste and book a room in advance so you don’t have to drive; Skamania Lodge offers an awesome packages that includes lodging, tickets for food and beer, two keepsake beer mugs, and the beer-centric Kegs and Eggs Buffet on Sunday. Tickets to the beer tasting are sold at the door: $20 for 20 tickets and a mug or $40 for 50 tickets and 2 mugs

On Saturday, from noon to-1pm, attend Beer School, led by Full Sail Brewery’s head brewer Jamie Emmerson, and learn what the elements are that makes beer taste so good.

From 1pm to 5pm, savor, sample and, vote for your favorite brew. After 3pm, brewers roll out their seasonal or unreleased beers for tasting.  From 5pm to 9pm enjoy an Oktoberfest Buffet in the Cascade Dining Room, featuring a special menu of beer themed foods prepared from beers from the tasting an with. $34.95 per person.

On Sunday, October 9, from 9am to 2pm., enjoy Skamania’s famous Sunday Brunch featuring all the traditional favorites, as well as a sampling of foods from across the Pacific Northwest. $28.95. Contact Information

Oregon Brewers Festival

July 26-29, 2012

If you love micro-brewed or craft beer, this is your festival. Always held the last full weekend in July, 2012 Marks the 25th anniversary of this iconic brewfest. The top craft beer festival in the U.S., it’s also one of the nation’s longest running. Some 80,000-beer lovers converge of this 4-day event, sampling 20 styles of award-winning craft beer poured by 80 craft breweries from across the country. The “Buzz Tent” offers another 50-plus rare and specialty beers. In addition to beer tasting, there is a line up of live music, as well as beer-related vendors, beer memorabilia displays, beer home-brewing demonstrations, and an assortment of food available.

Taps are opened at noon and shut-off at 9pm on Saturday; Sunday until 7 pm. Admission to the festival grounds is free, but if you want to taste beer, buy a souvenir mug for the current festival year ($6). Beer is purchased with wooden tokens, priced at a buck apiece. Patrons pay four tokens for a full mug of beer, or one token for a taste. Free handcrafted root beer is served in the Crater Lake Root Beer Garden for minors and designated drivers.

By the way, stay super safe and take the bus, a taxi or MAX Light Rail (located just one block west of the festival on SW Oak Street). The festival also offers free, on-site bicycle parking Contact Information



Celebration of Beer Weekend

Celebration of Beer Weekend at Skamania Lodge in Stephenson, Washington

10/08/2011 to 10/09/2011

Now in its third year, and well on its way to becoming a perennial favorite for Northwest beer lovers, Skamania Lodge’s Celebration of Beer fest offers a terrific opportunity to taste a perfectly sized selection of great Northwest beers from top craft brewers like Amnesia, Full Sail, Fish (awesome organic beer), Lompoc, Salmon Creek, Prodigal Son, Laht Neppur, Snipes Mountain, and Yakima Craft breweries, as well as one of my all time favorite ales: Walking Man.

Unlike wine, tasting and dumping isn’t the usual modus operandi. Use your tickets carefully. Try a small ounce or two, and when you find something that really turns you on, go ahead and use more tickets to get a full pour.

To really enjoy the full scope of this event, eat while you taste and book a room in advance so you don’t have to drive; Skamania Lodge offers an awesome packages that includes lodging, tickets for food and beer, two keepsake beer mugs, and the beer-centric Kegs and Eggs Buffet on Sunday. Tickets to the beer tasting are sold at the door: $20 for 20 tickets and a mug or $40 for 50 tickets and 2 mugs

On Saturday, from noon to 1pm, attend Beer School, led by Full Sail Brewery’s head brewer Jamie Emmerson, and learn what the elements are that makes beer taste so good.

From 1pm to 5pm, savor, sample and, vote for your favorite brew. After 3pm, brewers roll out their seasonal or unreleased beers for tasting.  From 5pm to 9pm enjoy an Oktoberfest Buffet in the Cascade Dining Room, featuring a special menu of beer themed foods prepared from beers from the tasting an with. $34.95 per person.

On Sunday, October 9, from 9am to 2pm., enjoy Skamania’s famous Sunday Brunch featuring all the traditional favorites, as well as a sampling of foods from across the Pacific Northwest. $28.95. Contact Information

Leave a comment

Filed under SLEEP