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Archive for the ‘Theme travel’


Flashpacking as art?

[With technology progressing so quickly and relentlessly, it's difficult to keep up with each new device/synergy/application/mashup. I'm still getting over the fact that my cell phone has an alarm clock AND a tip calculator in it...]

On the heels of advances like digital cameras that can geotag the locations where photos were taken, and in the heels (literally) of the latest generation of satellite-trackable athletic gear, GPS technology is now edging forward the boundaries of self-expression as well. But before we get into that, flashpackers, let’s catch up a bit.

In the past couple of years, digicam producers have been constantly innovative. It seems like every week, new models are released that up the industry standards for megapixels, zoom, video capture, auto-adjustment, even adorability. One of the more flashpacker-relevant advances is the fusion of digital cameras with global positioning systems. The first devices began to appear a couple years ago; accessories like the Sony GPS-CS1 could sync up with digicams to geotag (or identify GPS coordinates of) locations where photos were taken. The newest generation of cameras includes built-in GPS for geotagging on the fly: the GE E1050 and the upcoming Altek camera.

Moving into the athletic realm, Nike and Apple recently teamed up to give you the Nike + ipod. The Nike ‘+’ shoes have a tiny slot carved out in the heel of the left one, beneath the insert, into which you slide a sensor that communicates wirelessly with your ipod. As you run satellites relay information to the ipod, which displays your pace, distance, and calories burned, all the while continuously tickling your auditory nerve with your chosen workout jams. Pretty amazing.

Out-hustled but not outdone, Adidas has joined forces with a Japanese mobile service provider to counter with the GPS Run, an armband with a pouch that cradles your cell phone, whose function is analogous to the ipod in the above description, except that the phone is GPS-enabled. Strapped to your arm as you scurry about, the phone receives real-time information not only on your pace and distance, but also on your route. Assuming your phone also has mp3 playback, it’s a slight step up from the Nike + ipod, albeit one that’s currently only available in Japan.

OK, so we’ve covered digital cameras with built-in GPS and athletic equipment that communicates with satellites as you move around; where does the titularly promised ‘art’ come in? Here.

“Position art” is a concept created for Nokia’s N82 cellphone marketing campaign — I’m not shilling for Nokia, here, I just think it’s an interesting idea — and its occasionally hilarious, eccentric, self-styled genius mascot, Stavros.

Mating modern mapping technology with the human yens to explore and to create, position art turns human beings into paintbrushes, our movements into brush strokes, the planet into a canvas.

Here are some other examples of position art, some more rudimentary than others. But hey, as with all art, my ‘rudimentary’ might be your ‘devastatingly brilliant’.

To find out how to create position art using an N82, check out this blog.

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Fun in Norway: more ways than one

(continued from last post…)

In researching yesterday’s post, I came across several excellent sites offering adventure trips in Norway. These were a couple of my favorites: Arctic Pathfinder and Sami Adventure (here’s the English version).

Arctic Pathfinder arranges a wide variety of trips — this is the full list — and judging from the website alone, they seem to be the better organized of the two. Here is a sampling of the trips they organize:

  • On August 1, 2008, there will be total solar eclipse visible in nearby northern Greenland. A few days before the event they’ll fly you to Greenland, where you’ll camp out in the wilderness and take an arctic survival course before heading to the eclipse-viewing camp at Cape Morris Jessup. Here you’ll share camp duties with other participants, including a shift on night-watch to guard against prowling polar bears! If you’re not that into the possibility of being devoured — and where’s your sense of adventure?! — they offer some less perilous trips for your consideration, such as…
  • Ever dreamt of spending a handful of subzero Norwegian nights pushing thousands of reindeer across a blank, icy landscape, taking part in a millennia-old tradition with indigenous Laplanders, the Sami people? Of course you have, and you can arrange exactly that here.
  • A stay at a Sami summer camp. Spend a few nights in a lavvu (also lavvo) and learn the ropes (literally) of reindeer herding, followed by a three-day trekking expedition through the national park. Don’t forget your liggeunderlag.

All of these trips are on the expensive side — the cheapest of them costs about $2,500 per person — but hey, for Americans the whole world is heading to the expensive side.

If you’d prefer to tailor a trip for yourself, check out Sami Adventure, which offers reindeer herding, snowmobiling, hunting in the autumn, fishing in the summer, a wintertime three-night stay in a lavvo to see the Northern Lights, whatever you want to do. You can even take part in the World Championships of reindeer roping. The original Norwegian-language website is only partially translated into English, so I had my friend Google work on it: “This is the tours that provide memories for life and hair on the chest for real karfolk.” So there you go.

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Flashpacking to the Utmost, the Outmost, the Cosmos

The story about Google-co-founder Sergey Brin’s upcoming space voyage dropped yesterday, and it got me thinking about the possibility for future flashpackers to venture where few men and women have gone before.

Here’s where the space-travel trade stands today: an outfit called Space Adventures in Virginia, USA, is the only company offering pay-your-own-way private seats on a Soyuz shuttle to the International Space Station. There you can stay for a week to 16 days, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes or so. Are there any ill effects on a person’s health from being in zero gravity, you ask? Well, according to wikipedia, nearly half of space-goers experience “space adaptation syndrome” (SAS), which sounds kind of like seasickness, except that when you disgorge on a boat, you don’t give chase in slow-mo with a plastic bag. SAS never lasts more than three days.

As with any travel package, you can customize the particulars of your space mission; a penny-penching cosmo-tourist can skate by on as little as $30 million. This, of course, only covers your share of the Tang, a robe with your name ironed on it (and wear something under it!), and several tons of rocket fuel. I made all that up. If you want the deluxe experience, complete with a spacewalk (suit provided), the price can rocket up to $55 million.

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting parts of training in the run-up to launch is a course on survival skills in the Russian wilderness. I imagine it as a cross between the boar-spearing realism of Rambo: First Blood and the “Eye of the Tiger” workout scenes in Rocky IV. To check out some videos documenting the training and voyage of one of the first private shuttle passengers, Charles Simonyi, head over here.

OK, so leaving the realm of earth’s gravity might be a bit pricey for you and me, but you can trick yourself into believing you’re hurtling through space, albeit for only 30 seconds at a time, for a more down-to-earth $3,950. Zero G, which was actually bought out by Space Adventures three months ago, offers zero-gravity flights on G-FORCE ONE®, a moderately souped-up Boeing 727-200 — the standard version of which you have probably flown commercially at some point — capable of flying in (and pulling out of) “parabolic arcs”. Over the course of a 90-minute flight, the plane will make 15 such arcs, giving passengers the sensation of zero gravity for periods of about half a minute each time.

If it’s not the weightlessness of orbit but rather the organ-reshaping hypergravity of shuttle takeoff you’re craving, you can also book a slot in the world’s largest centrifuge in Star City, Russia. For a mere (pun anyone?) $10 grand, you can endure a truly excruciating simulation of a rocket launch.

I can only imagine that as technology progresses, the availability of space travel to ordinary people will expand and the price will come down. Given that the starting price is $30 million, however, it’ll probably never be as cheap as public transit. Even so, it’s pretty cool that a tiny fraction of us can now leave the pull of the earth behind as we please. For now I’ll just have to settle for being seasick.

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Virginia wine country – a travel bargain perfect for flashpackers

Lest you think we here at The Flashpacker live in a bubble, we have indeed noticed that this isn’t the most awesome year to take that dream adventure vacation. The dollar was weak to begin with, making Europe barely a possibility. With the economy now in a downturn and few airfare bargains to be found, an international trip anywhere may be out of reach for a lot of frequent flashpackers. Where to now?

I made a fantastic discovery this weekend of just how affordable Virginia wine country is and I have a few ideas about how to make it a little more enticing….

This weekend we visited Barboursville Vineyards (picture left), not too far from Charlottesville. I was amazed to discover that Virgina has eight wine “trails”, with many vineyards on each trail. The region we were visiting, for example, was the Monticello Wine Trail, which includes over 20 vineyards. I had a hard time finding a complete listing of the different trails on one website, so here they are:

The Blue Ridge Wine Way – See the Blue Ridge skyline drive as you vineyard-hop! (10 wineries and vineyards)

Loudoun’s Wine Trail – In Northern VA, still close to the mountains but not far from DC, 14 participating wineries

The Monticello Wine Trail - 21 wineries in the vicinity of Charlottesville and near historically important presidential sites, etc.

The Bedford Wine Trail, Wine Trail of Botetourt County, Heart of Virginia Wine Trail and the Shenandoah Valley Wine trail also have several wineries and vineyards each

What struck me as fantastic about about the wineries was that the tastings were cheap ($4 for 16-20 wines on our visit!) and tours are often free. While you’re not going to see the scale of operations you’d come across in better established regions (or, perhaps, the most polished presentation for tastings), you can really afford to hone your pallet and get to know this region intimately (something you’d pay a pretty penny for elsewhere).

So, all this is nice, but does it really take the place of my shelved Bhutan trekking trip? Well, it might not rank high on the exotic to-see list, but you can turn it into just the kind of relaxing, chic, and affordable vacation you need right now. Here are my tips to make it extra special.

1) Learn something — Whether your new to wine or think you know a thing or two, there’s always more to learn and someone to teach you (and haven’t you been meaning to learn how to pronounce Gewurtztraminer anyway?). A book is great, but why not download some podcasts for the drive as well? There’s Winecast for true podcast style and Wine for Newbies for a podcast format intro to wine course with over 70 lessons for free! Pick and choose for the wines you’ll be tasting along the way.

2) Eat well — Many of the wineries and local towns have some truly amazing restaurants with wine pairings (of course). Another element Virginia can truly boast about is the farms selling directly to restaurants as well. Even with the fancy eats, you’ll save money because meals are considerably less than what you’d be paying in a big cities and probably less than eating at a McD’s in Europe. Do take time to plan where to eat (some of these restaurants take weeks to get a reservation). I didn’t get a chance to eat at a vineyard, but the prix fixe menu at Oxo in Charlottesville was a good deal with fantastically inventive cuisine (spicy shrimp risotto with cheddar, seaweed, and a sweet nori syrup was insanely tasty!).

3) Splurge on just one night of luxury accommodations — The downside to VA wine country? A lot of frumpy B&B’s. There are some gorgeous and intimate inn’s, but they are pricier. We stayed at the Clifton Inn for one evening of indulgence and opted for a Best Western the other nights. Since we were out late eating and driving and sightseeing during the day, it worked great to go budget most days and save a little luxury and relaxation for the end.

4) Ride in style — I got this idea from my friend’s wedding: rent a sporty roadster instead of a regular rental! Weekend rates for this cutey is just $180, only a little more than you’d pay for a regular rental! Just make sure to take your Grace Kelly head scarf…

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El Caminito del Rey: ¡Cuidado, muchachos!

In honor of the upcoming fourth installment of the Indiana Jones movie franchise — only 6 days left, people! — I thought I’d highlight one of the Indiana Jones-est places in the world: el Caminito del Rey (sometimes called el Camino del Rey, it means “the King’s Pathway”). Located in El Chorro, near Málaga, Spain, the Caminito was constructed between 1901 and 1905 to shuttle workers across the gorge between the Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo Falls. It’s a three-foot wide concrete pathway clinging to the rock face, 700 feet above the ground!

As with most century-old, poorly maintained structures, the Caminito has fallen into serious, and extremely dangerous, disrepair. Only a small portion of the walkway’s hand rails are still intact, and vast sections of the concrete floor have crumbled into the gorge.

In recent years several visitors have fallen to their deaths while attempting to traverse the path, which can only be accomplished in places by sidestepping on the steel beam and holding onto a wire for support (see the lunatic in the picture at left). It also helps to wear a fedora and have a whip handy.

But even these might not be sufficient to get you by the security guards now posted at its entrance; though the Caminito was officially closed to visitors in 1992, the government has only recently gotten serious about deterring casual crossers. However, it is not uncommon for more determined adventurers to climb the rock face to access the walkway, bypassing security. If you’d prefer a more laid-back experience, you can stay the night at a nearby farmhouse and take a 7-kilometer, guided hike along around the gorge and up to the entrance. No harnesses, carabiners, or crampons are required.

Two years ago the government of Andalusía allotted €7 million to restore the pathway, so if you’re willing to wait a bit — I couldn’t find a timeline for the renovations — you can take your (much improved) chances following the path yourself. In the meantime, if you’d rather risk death vicariously, here’s video of a crossing of the Caminito. Thanks to my Dad for the tip!

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Go to Hell? Been there, done that, bought the shirt…

More than just Israel’s birthday, May 15 is also the day of the year that delivered Hungarian astronomer and Jesuit priest Maximilian Höll to the world, in 1720.

In a move that would come to inspire countless comic book writers and professional wrestlers, Maximilian decided to change his last name from Höll to Hell. I don’t know why he chose the altered surname, other than the threat of an afterlife of eternal damnation sounding a lot more concrete when Max Hell was your priest.

Maximilian, the astronomer, was put through hell during his lifetime. After returning from a scientific expedition in Norway where he observed the transit of Venus in 1769, Hell was accused of falsifying his data, the cardinal sin for a scientist, and his reputation and career were ruined. In fact his data were as accurate as could be, but he was only vindicated a century later, long after his death.

Hell is also known for his pioneering work treating medical ailments like rheumatism with magnets. (The magnets didn’t actually work, but his ideas nonetheless inspired a young Franz Mesmer to formulate his own theory about the healing powers of cosmic fluids in the body. Mesmer’s technique has helped thousands of people to conquer their addictions and to believe they are chickens, among other useful applications. It’s called “mesmerism,” or hypnotism.)

Anyway, as a tribute to Hell, I’ve compiled a brief menu of sinister-sounding destinations for my fellow flashpackers to explore. To wit…

The Devil’s Swimming Pool – Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Near the edge of the highest waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls, is a natural pool ideal for aquatic acrophiles. From Wikipedia: “When the river flow is at a safe level, usually during the months of September and December, people can swim as close as possible to the edge of the falls within the pool without continuing over the edge and falling into the gorge….” Timing, as they say, is everything.

Devils’ Island – French Guiana

It doesn’t look like much in photos, but the tiny island was one of the most notoriously brutal prisons in the world. During its 100 years of operation, very few of the 80,000 prisoners to have called the island home managed to escape. One of the island’s prisoner-inhabitants, Henri Charrière, wrote about his numerous escape attempts (including a final, successful one) in Papillon, which was made into a feature film starring Steve McQueen in 1973. The prison closed for good in 1952; there is now a resort on nearby Isle Royale.

Devil’s Tower — Wyoming, USA

The first American national monument (as declared by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906), Devil’s Tower juts 1,267 feet into the air above the Belle Fourche River in Wyoming. It has become a climbing mecca, with about 4,000 visitors per year scaling its sheer, grooved walls to reach the mile-high summit. Bewitching to more than just alpinists, it might be more readily recognized as the model for the pile of mashed potatoes Richard Dreyfuss obsessively carves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Hell — Michigan, USA

The town that launched a thousand ironic tee shirts, Hell is blessed (or cursed?) with infinite pun possibilities. The town hosts an annual, 10-mile “Run through Hell” and a hearse-and-ambulance show called “Last Rides.” Stop by during the winter and chortle giddily as Hell freezes over. Incidentally, Paradise, Michigan, is only 300 miles from Hell.

“The Door to Hell” — The Burning Crater of Darvaza, Turkmenistan

Geologists had no idea what they were getting into when they went drilling for natural gas in the Kara-Kum Desert in Turkmenistan in 1971. They tapped into an underground cavity filled with the stuff, opening up the 60-meter wide crater at left, which swallowed the drilling rig whole. In order to prevent the escaping poisonous gas to damage the surrounding area, they ignited it and the crater has been aflame ever since.

Hell Crater – The Moon

OK, so this one’s a bit of a reach, but the 6,600-foot deep Hell Crater is named for our birthday boy, so I decided to include it. Plus, with Richard Branson pushing Virgin Atlantic’s routes farther and farther into our solar system, it’s only a matter of time before we can all go straight to Hell and plant a flag for ourselves.

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Attention: One-uppers, here’s your travel itinerary…

Ah, the wonders of Google Earth! Not only can you set the planet a-spinning as fast as you can move your mouse, or watch the sunset across the earth’s face as the Man in the Moon sees it, but you can also plot your next extreme vacation in a few clicks. In fact someone’s already done a lot of the work for you.

In a Google Earth Community forum a user is compiling a list of the world’s superlative places: hottest, driest, tallest, most likely to secede. Kidding about the last one. The exact locations, with descriptions and interesting facts, are then highlighted on Google Earth (see the tiny green triangles on the map above). So if you’ve got a Guinness Book-fixation or are just extreme-ly curious, it’s all mapped out for the going.

Added bonus: The next time someone tells you about their epic, life-threatening ascent of Mount Everest, you can say “Wow. One of the world’s tallest mountains. Pretty impressive.” They’ll doubtless reply, “Everest is the tallest, not one of the tallest. I nearly died.” And you can retort, “Sure, from sea level it is. But the world’s tallest mountain is actually Mauna Kea on Hawaii. 33,472 feet [most of it underwater -- you should leave this part out]. I drove up to the top, ate a Go-gurt, then drove back down to my hotel, where I enjoyed a refreshing nap.” Got ‘em! Incidentally, travel one-upping is not the best way to make friends.

As the list seems to be the product of one person’s work, it’s not a comprehensive one; if you know of others that aren’t yet listed, suggest them.

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Passport stamps you probably don’t have…

Molossian President Kevin BaughSure, they may not be recognized by the United Nations, but they’re countries, too, gosh darn it! They’re micronations, and what they lack in official status, they make up for with self-declared sovereignty and chutzpah aplenty.

Pictured at left is His Excellency Kevin Baugh, President of the Republic of Molossia, a 6.3-acre micronation located a few miles outside of Reno, Nevada.

Like all nations, micro and macro alike, Molossia has endured pangs of growth. Originally established in 1977 as the Grand Republic of Vuldstein (and located in Oregon), Molossia has endured upheaval in more than name alone. Prior to denouncing the brief Communist regime (under Premier Kevin Baugh) ten years ago in favor of a democratic republic, Molossia had been a monarchy for two decades.

The Republic boasts a navy consisting of a raft and two kayaks (all inflatable), a robust Air and Space Exploration program (pictured at left), its own system of weights and measurements, and the Valora, a currency whose exchange rate is pegged to the price of a tube of Pillsbury cookie dough (one tube = 3 Valora).

Visitors should take a moment to explore the idyllic park named in honor of Joshua Abraham Norton, a 19th-century American who squandered a massive fortune investing in Peruvian rice and was forced into exile. Don’t recognize the name? Well, perhaps you know him better by his post-exile name: Emperor Norton I. Though his name has been elided (sadly) by nearly all textbooks on American history, Norton declared himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859. He’s sort of the forefather of the micronation movement.

Below: Two tourists caught in a moment of reverence at the Tower of the Winds, a national symbol of Molossia.

If you’re planning a flashpacking expedition to Molossia, make sure to email ahead of time. If you’re given permission to visit, you’re legally allowed to stay for two weeks without a visa, but it should take less than an hour to do a proper country tour. Be prepared for a border inspection; should your travel gear include catfish or incandescent lightbulbs, which are outlawed in Molossia, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave them at the gate. Also, Molossian Standard Time is decreed to be exactly 41 minutes behind Mountain Standard Time (though their website appears to be 20 minutes fast, so go figure…), so be prepared for some havoc on your body’s natural clock.

Be the first flashpacker on your block to have a passport adorned with the national stamp of Molossia. Or Sealand (at left), or Lovely, or Redonda, for that matter. The list of micronations is long and ever-growing, and many of them are covered in greater detail in Lonely Planet’s Micronations. Check ‘em out, or better yet, start one of your own!

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Under (and over) the sea

It would be appropriate to mention Jules Verne here, but I never read 20,000 leagues. I’ve also never been to Dubai, but it seems that the closest we’ll get to the 20,000 leagues is probably being built in Dubai.

I mean, where else would you build an underwater hotel the size of Hyde Park?

Interestingly, the architect seems to see this as much more than a gimmick: “”We want to create the first ever faculty for marine architecture because I believe that the future lies in the sea, including the future of city planning. I am certain that one day a whole city will be built in the sea. Our aim is to lay the first mosaic by colonizing the sea.”

Well, if you want to be a colonist, you’re going to have to wait until 2009 and fork over some cash, as rumored daily rates are $5,000!

Or how about the Poseidon retreat in Fiji - opening in 2009 to the tune of $15,000 – $30,000 per couple per week (with only two days underwater). But then Hotel Club Blog reported that you could get rooms for $1,500 a night. I could almost see spending that for the experience, but I think I’ll wait a few years and see if the price starts to come down…

Istanbul is actually looking to build a Poseidon resort in 2010 as well…

Less breathtaking (but half the cost and already available) is the Huvafen Fushi Resort in the Maldives. Only 2 rooms are underwater (as opposed to the entire resort) and they run about $800 a night. It’s also got an in-room espresso machine — score!

If above sea level is more your thing, but you want to stay in one place (as opposed to the more typical cruise ship experience) The Maya will open in 2010 and float somewhere south of Cancun in the Caribbean.

Coming down to earth a little more, spend just the evening underwater and have dinner at the Hilton’s Conrad Maldives Resort, which is still pricey, but probably doable (and the food looks amazing!)

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More thoughts on affordable safaris

More for our readers looking for affordable safaris…

This month Travel + Leisure’s website features a slideshow of affordable safaris (that you may or may not be able to afford). One of their recommendations, though not a safari they’ve highlighted, is something we did – fly into Johannesburg, rent a car, and drive to Kruger National Park. We then camped the rest of the time. I’m pretty sure it’s probably the cheapest safari option out there.

In my last post I mentioned Sky Auction. A few others are:

Try the late-breaking offers and last minute deals at Africa Travel Guide. They had a 28-day hippo expedition to Lake Malawi for $1,894. Another fantastic deal they had was $1,432 per person for 21 days that covered Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar! Not only do you do wildlife tours, you also get rafting, canoeing, photography, etc., and the expedition hits up the best spots (Ngorongoro, Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls).

Another site I like is TourVacationstogo.com (you have to register, but it’s worth it) – I found several 10-day safaris that tour Nambia and Zambia for $625-$895 for 10 days! They also have “The Big 5” tours in Kenya and Tanzania for $1,395 if you’re looking for the quintessential safari experience. They had other deals that I through were really good as well, like a 15-day safari plus trekking trip that takes you through Kenya and Tanzania for only $1000. Most of these prices are quoted without airfare, but you can call the tour operator and see what kind of airfare deal they can get you, which might end up saving quite a bit.

If you really want to go super-budget, the absolute best option is to do an Overland Adventure with African Trails. Basically they convert an enormous truck into a bus that carries about 30 people. You set up your own tent, take turns cooking, etc.

For our four flashpacking friends considering a safari and trip to Zanzibar, this would definitely be the best budget option — the Nairobi to Zanzibar trip for 10 days for about $800 US per person (which covers about 2 meals a day). You visit the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, which are the most famous and breathtaking parks. Then you get to end your trip in Zanzibar!

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