Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oahu: My Favorite Walking Spots

Sure visitors flock to Oahu for its golden crescents of sand and it's surf-centered sports. But whenever I'm on the island, I don my walking or hiking shoes to explore some of my favorite parks and gardens.

I didn't run into anyone at Ka'ena Point, the western most point of Oahu that's accessible only by foot or mountain bike. This wind-swept expanse of dunes and tiny beaches is an albatross nesting site where, on my several visited, I spied monk seals, dolphins, whales, and green sea turtles.

Not far from Diamond Head, the Koko Crater Botanical Garden is lush with sweet-smelling plumeria trees. In this 200-acre arid garden that's set in two craters, I again was one of only few visitors. This time I was mesmerized by the towering crater walls.

At Makapuu Point, I walked a road to the lighthouse that hugs a lava cliff where I had panoramic views of the Koko Crater and Molokai. I even spotted some whales in the open ocean as I took the unofficial cliff trail to the bottom.

It's easy to spend the whole day in Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens, which is blessed with 400 verdant acres laden with heliconia and other sweet-smelling blossoms and other plants from around the world. I strolled the more than half dozen different trails that wander through a landscape rimmed with sheer-walled cliffs and the ocean beyond. This garden couldn't be a more perfect place to lay out the beach blanket and chill.

I knew it was impossible to walk the entire 700+ acres of the leafy Senator Fong's Plantation Gardens. Luckily, they provide a narrated tram tour as well as guided nature walks through a small portion of this green space. Here, I learned how kukio nut trees are used to make hair conditions; ti leaves are considered good luck; mango is related to poison ivy; queen ginger can grow to 10 feet tall and a rose apple smells like a rose and tastes like an apricot.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Prowling Guatemala's Pyramids

Tikal may be one of the grandest of the ancient Mayan sites but I still wasn't prepared for the sense of magic that radiates from this once thriving urban center that was wrapped up with mathematical and astronomical genius as well as plenty of warfare, royal politics and ritualistic ceremonies and sacrifice. Even the most jaded tourist can't help feeling a sense of mystery and majesty as you gaze on striking limestone pyramids rising out of the middle of a dense jungle.

I did Tikal as a day trip from Guatemala City. Sounds a bit crazy schedule-wise because I had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch the 6:30 a.m. flight aboard a 32-seat turbo prop to Santa Elena. It's only a 45-minute flight, but it still left a 40-mile drive to the park entrance. And I also knew that given thatyou have to do at least 7 miles of walking to see all of the major temples and excavations in the park, it was going to be a very long day. If I had to do it over again, I would definitely stay overnight at the Jungle Lodge probably the nicest of the three accommodations in Tikal National Park. That way you could be on the trails until dusk and then return as soon as the park opens in the morning. The chances of plenty of bird and other animal sightings are far likelier at those times of the day. Also, there will be less tourist traffic, though when I visited recently, I often felt that I had the trails all to myself.

Probably the most surprising aspect of my visit to Tikal was the array of botanical findings. Along the dirt paths that network the more than 200 square mile site, my guide pointed out the sapodilla tree where gum is derived. (The bark contains chicle, a gummy substance.) A variety of palms tower over our heads as do massive mahogany trees. Roots, especially the buttress kind that are like the old men of the forest, and vines are just about everywhere. I scratched the bark of a copal tree and sniffed a pungent scent. No wonder the Mayans used the wood to make incense. Then I crushed the leaves of the clover tree and was overpowered by the dramatic fragrance. But it's the Ceiba tree -- a specimen that's hundreds of years old stands prominently not far from the beginning of my walk -- that the Mayans have most revered. It's Guatemala's national tree and it's was considered to be a holy botanical, one that was at the center of the Mayan universe.

The air was thick with heat and moisture as I wandered the now slick paths thanks to a constant drizzle. Everything in Tikal is slippery on a good day and it becomes almost like an ice rink when there's a touch of precipitation. (But it's this precipitation that allowed the Mayans to survive here for the land is devoid of any water source. And the industrious Mayan builders constructed reservoirs and an elaborate canal system to catch and transport water to where they needed it.) Even my super sticky shoes weren't working here and I had to struggle to remain upright when I prowled around the stone ruins of the Grand Palace. Climbing along the steps and walking through a stone tunnel and through ruins of doorways, my guide pointed out a flat stone that may have been a bed and another that could have been a throne. On one side of the landscape a skinny string of a trail meanders into the woods. I'm told it's the tracks of ant colonies. (Later I crossed the trail of a caravan of fire ants that are renowned for their skin-burning stings.)

All my senses were on active duty in Tikal. As soon as I entered the thick jungle, I sniffed a combination of vegetation and wet earth. I was surrounded by an utter silence that was pierced on numerous occasions by bird sounds. Green parrots, parakeets and toucans are only a small sampling of the creatures that fly through the trees. I listened carefully and heard rustling in the upper story of the foliage. Howler monkeys and then spider monkeys were dangling from high branches. Ahead, I spotted what looked like a guinea pig. It turned out to be an agouti that was regularly on the Mayan menu. Then I saw a very cute raccoon-like creature. It was a coati that I was told not to approach because they have very sharp teeth and claws.

Among the many steep-sided temples, for me the most dramatic was Temple IV, the highest in the national park, rising some 220 feet above sea level. After climbing the steep set of stairs, I found myself far above the jungle canopy with panoramic views toward the Mayan Mountains. The only thing piercing the jungle are the other pyramids. But acrophobes should beware that Tempe V might be a struggle. The stairs are really like a very steep ladder rising up the side of the temple. (There's no climbing up the original stone steps. But at their base I found a contemporary stone altar that is used by Mayan shamans to perform various rituals during the year.) Temples I and II that face each other are Tikal's iconic image. You can't climb I but II is open via another wooden stairway on the side. And, of course, you've got great views of the entire acropolis from that vantage point.

Another interesting feature of the park are the multitude of stelae or stone pillars bedecked with hieroglyphs. They are almost like ancient newspapers telling the story of a king and the daily events during his reign. Aside from temples and stelae, there are countless other archaeological
findings worth exploring, including the ruins of a what was a sauna that may have been used for ritual purification as well as a ball court that, rather than a simple sport, were a sacred ritual practice.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

My Favorite Unusual Walking Trails

Hiking and walking are two of my favorite activities when I'm traveling. It's a way to get intimate with the landscape. And though I have a particular fondness for trails that snake through densely forested landscapes, I've also found more than a handful of trails that either snake through unusual lands (such as Turkey's Cappadocia region that's dotted with monoliths that are so curious they resemble images from a Salvator Dali painting) or they don't represent what one typically thinks of as a gravel, dirt or sandy hiking path. (Croatia's Plitvce Lakes National Park with its myriad boardwalks that wander through a land dripping with waterfalls comes to mind here.)

try to walk or hike at least one path in almost every country I visit. Recently, I wrote a feature round-up article for the travel network Boots n'All where I've picked out some of my favorite and unusual trails in the world. They range from the black lava-lined vineyards on Pico Island in the Azores to the serpentine Great Wall of China. Some of the trails I chose, such as the one that runs atop the battlement walls in Dubrovnik, are easy to negotiate on your own. Others, such as along the dry stream beds (or wadis) in the Negev Desert in Israel, are best tackled with a guide because it's easy to lose your way. I've picked out tour companies and guide services that will enhance your journey by pointing out historically interesting and botanically relevant features.
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Monday, January 4, 2010

Journeying on the Panama Canal

I've always loved living history museums as a way to have a learning experience while feeling like you've stepped into another time. That's what I felt recently while transiting the Panama Canal. Panama City is pretty much synonymous with the Canal and, because I always try to look for the undiscovered on my journeys, I have to say that visiting the Canal was not top on my list. (It wasn't even on my top 10.) But spending most of the day on the Canal and watching its operation while transiting on a small 120-foot cruiser, the Pacific Queen run by Panama Marine Adventures , completely changed my mind.
In fact, unlike cruise ships which claim you'll have a birds' eye view of Canal operations, that turns out to not be the case -- the cruise ships are just too big for anyone to see the full operation like I did. Our boat was small enough so that you could easily walk from from bow to stern to see the locks opening and closing, lines being tossed and caught, and waters churning all about once we're locked up. The entire operation is captivating, particularly since this engineering feat that's been in operation since the early 1900s, involves so many steps and yet works like a synchronized dance in a fashion. Here's a first-hand account of passing through the first two locks as we transited from the Pacific to the Atlantic. (An entire transit from Pacific to Atlantic can take eight to ten hours.)

Shortly after leaving the port on the south end of the Amador Causeway, a motor boat parallels our path, allowing a pilot to jump aboard (while we're cruising) and present our transit paper. (No one goes through the Canal without their papers.)

Atop Flamenco Island I spot a radar station which monitors all traffic entering the Canal. Massive cargo ships, some carrying thousands of containers, can be seen around us. They are waiting their turn to enter the Canal.

We travel under the Bridge of the Americas that's part of the Pan American Highway. An old ferry terminal with its wooden pilings and breakwater is visible on one side. On the other are cranes and other equipment that are involved in the expansion of the Canal. (It's supposed to be completed in 2014.)

Curiously, two men in a small boat row up to the ship ahead of us. This quaint practice that's been ongoing since the Canal went into operation in the early 1900s allows the transfer of heavy electrical lines that will connect each ship to motorized mules. These miniature train cars side atop the Canal walls and are key in aligning each boat within the center of the Canal. (We're so small that we don't need them but the container ships can use eight of them.) Once they throw the lines, the men, wearing life preservers and rain gear, position their row boat against the lock wall.

Then we approach the first lock, Miraflores, which, like all the locks, are like giant escalators, bringing each boat from sea level up 85 feet to Lake Gatun and then down again to sea level. Miraflores is a double-step lock, which means the boat is raised up in two stages. The second lock, Pedro Miguel, raises the ship in a single step.

I stood or sat in the blazing sun the entire time, rather than going down below, because I didn't want to miss any of the steps in this operation. When I wasn't watching the ships all about, I was captivated by the dense jungle that carpeted the land on either side of the Canal.

The action at the locks is some of the most interesting in the journey. Ahead we see birds circling basically because they're looking for the fish that are shocked as a result of the salt mixing with the fresh water that comes from Lake Gatun. (Our guide calls it instant sushi.) Once we're positioned in the lock -- and we share it with another small boat -- the giant iron gates slowly and simultaneously close in a "v" shape. (With the tip of the "v" facing upstream. The water churns around us as fresh water from Lake Gatun enters culverts in the lock to raise our level. (No pumps are used; it's all gravity powered.) But the filling of the lock is quite subtle. In fact, I barely realize we're rising. While we wait for the lock to fill, there's time to notice a series of numbers painted on the lock walls. These show the distance from the last lock and to the next. Our guide also informs us that the Canal walls are thick concrete -- nothing like this massive had been constructed of concrete at that time -- and they're some 55 feet thick at the locks.

Curiosities abound in and along the Canal. A red antennae on the right provides the feed for the live video cam. Yes, it's possible to see the Canal goings on any time of the night or day. (Ships do transit the Canal at night and lights are provided for their safety. Interestingly, the lights are directed not down the middle of the Canal but along the Canal walls so that ships don't stray too close.)
Only when the water is equalized do we move out of the lock, down the Canal and on to the second lock, Pedro Miguel, and then Lake Gatun. The narrowest part of the Canal that's about nine miles deep -- referred to as the Gaillard Cut -- penetrates the Continental Divide. This was also the most difficult to excavate, having to be sliced through solid rock. Above our heads is the Centennial Bridge, a main thoroughfare during rush hour to get to Panama City. I notice that the huge container ships are accompanied by diminuitive tug boats. It turns out that they are part of the Panama Canal Authority.

Our trip ends in the port at Gamboa where a giant crane stands. I'm told that this German crane dates from World War II -- part of the spoils of war -- and is used to remove the heavy lock gates for repairs.
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Sunday, January 3, 2010

About Me

I'm an independent journalist who has written for most of the major travel publications, from National Geographic Traveler to Conde Nast Traveler. Whether it's providing the best packing tips, discussing how to stay healthy on the road or trekking through the interior of Corsica to find the best trails, I have an eye for what I term "hidden treasures." Food, design, art and architecture are also subjects that I explore on my travels.

I've been writing and consulting for more than 20 years and what I'll bring you is my inquisitive nature and my ability to probe for the hidden details that truly reveal a place and its people. As a former investigative journalist -- in the consumer health arena -- I promise you that wherever I travel, I'll unearth the locale's hidden treasures.
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Contact Me

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