Thursday, March 31, 2011

Visiting Reindeer in Finland

The only time most of us ever talk about reindeer is around Christmas time. But for the indigenous Sámi people in Northern Lapland, Finland, the reindeer are most important creatures for everything from food to transportation to clothing. So important that the Sámi have some 100 different words referring to reindeer.

On my recent trip to Northern Lapland, Finland

, I had the opportunity to visit the Inari Reindeer Farm, a family-owned operation that's been in business for 29 years. Interestingly, Jani is the son of the original owner and his previous job as a camera man and a marketing specialist, didn't seem a background that would serve him well to run this reindeer business.

But he is native Sámi. In fact, his father and mother are from two different tribes and he was of the generation that almost lost their language -- because speaking the Sámi language (each tribe has a different language) -- was forbidden. Luckily, he learned the language when he was a teen and he eventually and happily returned to his roots.

A visit to this farm is a welcome learning experience for the entire family. Here, you can take a leisurely one- to three- reindeer sleigh ride through the forest, or opt for a safari where you overnight in a hut. You can learn to lasso a reindeer -- a useful skill should your animal wander into your neighbor's herd, or even have a reindeer gently pull you while astride cross country skis.

Set on the property are several wooden teepee-like structures, referred to as kota, where you'll be able to sip coffee or tea from the birch cup (a kuksa) and nibble on biscuits beside a roaring fire -- the Sámi always have a fire burning

in the center of their kota because fire represent life to them -- as you listen to indigenous songs (joiks). (I will post a video of one of these next week.)

Jani, wearing his colorful native dress including leggings and shoes made of reindeer hide with a handmade birch burl cup dangling from his waist, introduced himself to us and explained that when we feed the reindeer, we needed to watch out for the antlers. (Stick your head too close while you're admiring these creatures and you'll accidentally get poked in the eye!)

Jani is a wealth of information as he gave us the run down on reindeer facts as well as factoids about the Sámi people. Here's some of what I found out:

* They get the reindeer used to the sled when they're a year old. But some 30% don't or won't learn how to pull a sled.

* Once the reindeer are five years old, they can pull visitors around the forested property.

* They eat lichen all winter and, in the summer, they forage among some 200 different plants in the forest, but they also munch on grass and hay.

* Both male and female reindeer have antlers and they both shed they every year, though at different times of the year.

* The female weighs about 110 kg while the male can weigh 160 kg.

* Eagles prey on the babies, but the adults have predators too, including bears, linx and wolverines.

* The reindeer can pull three times their weight.

* The reindeer are trained to pull the sleigh at a leisurely 5 km/hour so the visitors can enjoy nature.

* Every Sámi carries four things with them, especially when they travel in the forests: salt (for fish they might catch), a cup, matches, and a knife. The knives are all hand made with the handle constructed of antler and birch, the sheath of reindeer hide, and the blade of carbon steel.

* The drum used to accompany the songs is also made of birch along with a skin of reindeer leather. The stick is of antler bone.
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Iceland's Curious & Creative Cuisine

I always approach travel with a sense of curiosity and that applies to the local food. When I visit Iceland, one of my very favorite countries for its pristine landscapes, sense of adventure around almost every corner, wealth of geologic variety, and one of the most charming capital cities around, I’m always searching for authentic food. There’s no lack of it in Iceland, which has plenty in the way of culinary delicacies at upscale restaurants such as the Fish Market that serves blueberry cured filet of lamb or the Fish Company, which offers an international menu that includes blackened langoustines with truggle gnocchi.

But then there are those odd assortment of creature body parts that make up traditional Icelandic cuisine. Cod cheeks -- you probably didn’t know codish have cheeks? -- pickled ram's balls and the hardly tasty, fermented shark meat. Yes, I’ve eaten all of these items, some inadvertently. I recently wrote about Iceland’s curious cuisine for AAA’s Home & Away magazine (make sure you input this zip code, 73106, to access the article) where you’ll find out which restaurant has boiled sheep head on the menu, and why I ended up accidentally consuming fermented shark meat -- though I vowed never to eat it.
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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trekking Through Maui

When I visit any of the Hawaiian islands, I rarely spend much time on palm-fringed beaches. Instead, I either lace up my hiking boots and hit the trails or I escape to any of dozens of parks and gardens. These are some of my favorite walks and hikes on Maui.  Because I gravitate to accommodations that have an aura of low-key authenticity, one of my fave accommodations is the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. It's right on the beach, and has some authentic cultural performances as well.

Most people who visit the volcano, Haleakala, do so either by gazing out of their car windows, or from a bicycle seat as they cruise at high speed downhill from the summit. Instead, I tackle some of the many trails that crisscross this landscape with lava cones, lush fern life and ash-laden surfaces. The Sliding Sands Trail, aptly named, given its surface coated with ash and cinder, seems to head into the clouds as you have misty views of the gaping crater. On the Kaloa Point Trail, you'll have staggering views of the Maui coastline.

Once you've reached the crater floor, you're confronted with a barren-scape as you cross rough lava fields. But even here there are portions dappled with shrubs, and wildflower- and fern-spotted meadows. Other botanical species include native Hawaiian blueberries and the red-flowering ohia trees. Not far from the Holua cabins is a long, dark lava tube that you can crawl through – definitely not for the extremely claustrophobic -- but worth checking out.

If I didn't sign up for a trek with Hike Maui, I might very well have ended up with the masses that crowd the ever popular Seven Sacred Pools. Instead, my group hiked in the early morning through a dark bamboo forest to some desolate pools. On the way, we found mango trees, guava orchards, petite waterfalls and swimmable pools without meeting more than a handful of people. The trail was plenty slippery but worth it for the many snacking opportunities: Our guide had us sample tropical almonds, pineapple guava, thimble berries, nectar from yellow ginger and mountain apples. After just two miles, Waimoku Falls cascades more than 400 feet and the tropical amphitheater makes for a perfect secluded picnic where the only sound is the pounding waters.
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