theflashpacker.com

backpacking… upgraded

Archive for the ‘Accommodation’


Aerotrekking: Skimming Along the Next Frontier

They’re called trikes, or kite-planes, or ultralights, or open air sport flying machines, and if you were a desert rattlesnake, you’d probably have felt a nanosecond of shade, then a breath of hot wind as one streaked by only a few feet above you. And then you’d have thought: Ah, would that I were no longer earthbound and could zip around in such a sweet machine! You’d be a super smart, self-aware, and envious rattlesnake.

A trike can fly up to 14,000 feet high, but the real thrill of flying one, according to pilots, is skimming along the ground, maneuvering with the contours of the earth at speeds up to 115 miles per hour. As the Sky Gypsies’ website puts it, “At 1,000 feet you are an observer. At 10 feet you are part of the landscape.” However, the aerotrekking experience, like those of all adventure sports, bears an inherent potential for danger. That’s part of the exhilaration.

The Sky Gypsies are a merry band of well-to-do aerotrekking pioneers (aeroneers?) that buzz around the American Southwest, circuiting a network of airfields and hangars bankrolled primarily by John McAfee, of antivirus fame. After cashing out of the software empire he built, McAfee deepened his Scrooge McDuck-like vault/swimming pool with prudent investments in instant messaging technology, and now he’s poured a fraction of his massive fortune into the infrastructure of the burgeoning sport.

The Sky Gypsies’ base of operation is located in Rodeo, New Mexico, and in addition to a runway and a hangar, it boasts refurbished 1940′s Airstream trailers for lodging, an internet café, and a 35-seat movie theater. The base is part of a system of hangars and runways that forms a 900-mile circuit around New Mexico and Arizona. The trikes only have a range of about 300 miles, so the pilots trace sinuous paths across the southwestern landscape, alighting here and there like pollinating bees to refuel and relax.

Flight instruction isn’t cheap at $150-200 per hour, and a minimum of 15 hours of instruction (plus passing exams) is required to earn a license, so you’re looking at a substantial investment to be able to fly one on your own. To own one requires deeper pockets still; the aircraft retail for between $16,500 and $120,000, depending on the features. Or if you’re invited to join the Sky Gypsies and pilot their trikes, membership costs up to $270,000. In other words, along the spectrum of expensive hobbies, aerotrekking lies somewhere between golf and space travel.

If you’re not ready to sacrifice your children’s college fund for some aerial excitement, you might still like to visit the Sky Gypsies’ camp for $45 a night. And while you’re there, you might as well take a lesson. You might just get hooked. Check out the following video with soaring rock music accompaniment.

Share on Facebook

Havana Ball: American travel to Cuba

Since 1982 the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba. For those of you keeping score, the embargo anticipated the movie Red Dawn by two full years, and it has outlasted the Soviet/Cuban alliance by nearly two decades. While it doesn’t explicitly forbid Americans from traveling there (because the Supreme Court says that’s a violation of Americans’ Constitutional rights), it does prohibit economic transactions with Cuban businesses, either within Cuba or from American soil. So it’s kind of a de facto travel restriction as well.

But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of American tourists from making like the rest of the world and paying a visit to our tiny island neighbor. (Nor has it stopped scores of fashionable Americans from buying and wearing Ché Guevara memorabilia without knowing why…). And no, you don’t have to brave the Pirates of the Caribbean on an improvised raft of questionable seaworthiness to get there. Most Americans reach Cuba by direct flight from Cancún, Nassau, Vancouver, Toronto, or even a handful of European cities.

There are a few travel agencies that specialize in bringing American citizens to Cuba. One of the most highly respected and recommended is Cuba Travel US (… Marazul is another), an agency run by an American family with more than thirty years of experience in arranging Cuban excursions. Operating under the belief that freedom of travel is a fundamental American right, they’ll book your flight, accommodations, and car rental, and offer advice on making the most of your illicit visit. Their website contains a number of helpful travel tips, including the following:

- Use your passport only for entering and departing from Cuba. Ask the Cubans not to stamp your passport. As a matter of fact, Cuba has made it against their laws for a Cuban customs or Immigration officer to stamp an American’s passport.

- We recommend that you use your birth certificate and drivers license or picture ID to enter Mexico, Nassau, Canada or for re-entering the United States. That may change but probably not before 2009, if ever.

- Be sure to take some humanitarian foods or medicines and give them to the Cuban people you meet or to the Cuban Red Cross representative (usually the nurse at the hotel where you stay). US law (Helms Burton Act) says in Section 1705 (b) and (c) that if you donate humanitarian food or medicines that there are “no restrictions” on travel. Document the giving of those gifts with a photograph if possible.

If it sounds a bit sketchy, that’s because it has to be. Recreational travel to Cuba does not please the American government; just ask travelocity. And though it’s rare, “the man” has been known to levy fines against individual citizens making unauthorized trips to Cuba. Nonetheless, Cuba Travel US alone claims to have assisted more than 23,000 Americans in getting there, with a few travelers fined and nary a one jailed or prosecuted.

With Fidel Castro having ceded power to his brother Raul earlier this year, the icy Cuban-American relations may be in for a thaw. If and when that happens, I’m sure Americans will start making long overdue trips to the south by the cruise-full. Until then, follow your heart and travel smart!

Share on Facebook

Great hotel find in Scottsdale, Arizona

Frequent Flashpacker Nicole sent this great find to me – the Scottsdale Mondarian Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Not only is this place sleek and alluring in a way I didn’t know American Hotels outside of NYC or LA could be, it’s a great deal! Nicole found daily rates of $135 for weekends in June. 

                          

I’ve never considered going to Scottsdale, so I had to check out Trip Advisor for things to do out there (the only things I associate Scottsdale with are golf and spas). 

Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright‘s winter retreat and studio is in Scottdsale.  Number 6 on trip advisor’s popularity list is the Buffalo Museum of America.  Complete with diorama.  Well, there’s always Phoenix right next store…

 

In all seriousness, though, the shopping and eating in Scottsdale get rave reviews.  Combine that with an affordable and stylish place to stay, this could make a great weekend getaway that’s focused on relaxing and reconnecting. 

Share on Facebook

When in Japan…

In a recent NYT piece on traveling on the cheap in Kyoto, a site was mentioned that should be bookmarked for any flashpackers planning a visit to Japan: http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com.

Japan is unique in many ways, not least because it’s done the rich-country emerging out of a completely non-European lineage. You don’t realize how rare a sight this until you spend some time at the intersection of Japan’s speed-train modernity and omnipresent ancient histories and traditions.

One of my favorite parts of traveling in Japan is staying in the ryokans, traditional guest houses that have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. Domestic tourism is big in Japan, so ryokans are used extensively by Japanese and most have a refreshingly non-touristy feel. Their existence and continued sustenance really has nothing to do with you.

You’re not going to get all the amenities to which you might be accustomed staying in a ryokan. A private bathroom isn’t a given, for instance; neither is central heating or A/C (though you’ll likely have some kind of portable heater for your room). Ryokan owners are dedicated to maintaining the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese guest house, and heavy infrastructure that doesn’t contribute to this end isn’t a priority.

What you do get is a chance to experience the unique elements of Japanese domestic living. Particularly if you won’t have a chance to stay in a Japanese home (which I recommend if at all possible), a visit to a ryokan is a must. From the tatami reed mat flooring in the bedrooms with the futon cushions for sleeping, to the low tables at which meals are taken, to the shoji sliding paper doors, staying in a ryokan provides a wonderful peek into Japan’s rich and meditative architectural and aesthetic traditions.

The website is useful because it’s entirely in English, offers phone support with English speakers (a not-to-be-underestimated benefit when planning travel in Japan), and provides an extensive directory of ryokans, not only by region and prefecture, but also by price range. Traveling in Japan is not easy on the wallet and it’s helpful to have a by-price resource. The website also points you to ryokans linked to onsens, but more about onsens in the next post…

Share on Facebook

Looking for a last-minute hotel?

Surf on over to Map Channels Hotel Directory. It may not have the sexiest name, but MCHD is good at what it does: scouring the planet to find you a place to stay. It scans a database of more than 100,000 hotels around the world for availability, price, and guest ratings, and uses Google maps to show you exactly where eligible hotels are located.

You search by city and arrival date. Say you’re headed to Prague, Czech Republic, for the night of June 15th, 2008. My search for that date turned up 281 hotels in Prague ranging from less than US$3 to more than US$600 per night. If you need a bit more information than price and location alone, check ‘Detailed’ to get the list of hotels with descriptions and photos.

MCHD can be a wonderfully convenient tool, depending on where you’re going and what type of accommodation you’re seeking. The database is geared mainly toward North American and European destinations. Only four African and two South American countries are searchable, so if you’re traveling off the grid (read: in a lot of second- or third-world countries), MCHD will leave you wanting. Also, all the searches I tried only returned hotels. So if you’d prefer the communal vibe of a hostel or are looking for an out-of-the-way lodge or B&B, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

I’d imagine that with time the database will grow to be more inclusive, and MCHD will be an even more powerful instrument for flashpackers. Thanks to Mike Elgan at Computerworld for the tip!

Share on Facebook

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!)

Share on Facebook

Two Hotels in NYC under $200

Another reader request – we’ve got a flashpacker headed to NYC and I’m here to make sure you get the best hotel value.

Here’s my two recs:

1. Hotel QT – Right in Times Square, Tablet Hotels lists the style as “cutting edge” and the atmosphere “happening”…. “expect young arts and media types, up and coming musicians, and anyone else with Mercer style and a Holiday Inn budget.” Yep, that’s us! I think… Hold on a minute while I look up mercer style…

Anyway, Hotel QT comes in right under $200 but has rooms that sleep up to four, bunkbed-style. Hey, at least it’s a stylish too-close-for-comfort option…

2. 60 Thompson – Alright, this hotel loses major cool points for taking itself too seriously. Like, way-over-the-top too seriously. From their “Manifesto:”  “Who are our guests? bohemian chic meets art house wise meets quiet radical elegance…good looking revolutionaries.” Despite that hooey you can still find some excellent deals on rooms, and it is nice place to stay in SoHo. Note: most rooms are more than $200, but under $200 is findable – keep your eyes peeled.

Share on Facebook

Rating the “Best of” Hotel Lists… Now FPA (FlashPacker Approved)

I just read Travel + Leisure’s 500 Best Hotels list. Wow, bore me snore me much…

Why bother to make a list of Mandarin-Sofitel-Raffles-blah-blah-blah? They’re expensive and the brands are recognized around the world, so why would we need a travel magazine to tell us to go there?

I’ve at least been in the lobbies of a lot of these hotels and I can say without a doubt that I would have missed out on even a whiff of the “real” had I stayed there. Stay at the Four Seasons instead of The Cocker in Buenos Aires? Stay in the Raffles instead of The Pavilion in Phnom Penh? Really, why bother to travel all that way – I’m sure there’s a Ritz closer by.

So, to beat the boring blah blahs, I’m making a list and I’d love you all to contribute. The best of the ‘best of’ lists…

On the hot list for 2007...Oman!1. Condé Nast’s Hot List – Hotels, restaurants and nightspots! You can plan your flashpacking with just this site. Some incredibly pricey hotels but also some real steals. Even the pricey ones still have character and are fun to look at even if you can’t touch. (This list clued me into the Cocker, which Ben and I can’t shut up about, but it was that good…) If you want to avoid temptation, quickly click on the “under $200 a night” link and you’ll never know what you couldn’t afford…

2. Tablet10 Lists – I’m only ranking them lower than Condé Nast because there’s less volume on the “best value” list. Again, lots of stuff out of my reach but not a Mandarin to be had!

3. Hot Hotel Reviews - OK, it’s more of a publication, but it pretty much reads like a super-long list. It’s got some of the most whacked-out options of anyone. I can’t resist, I love this kind of stuff. I can’t wait to post some of the hotels on here… I mean, they actually found a place at which I’d be stoked about staying in Azerbaijan…

4. Lonely Planet Bluelist – The bluelists on the Lonely Planet site are lists that travelers contribute, so they cover everything one can imagine (best places for a mugging, best curry sausage in Berlin, etc). You can try putting in key words like “best hotels in __” and pull up some very, very interesting stuff.

OK, those are my favorites. Your turn…

Share on Facebook

Time Magazine: Hospitality Exchange Is Low-Cost, High-Yield Travel

“‘What used to be a fringe hobby for a few travelers is becoming a mainstream phenomenon,’ says Daniel Hoffer, co-founder of Couch Surfing….

But hospitality exchange isn’t just about saving a couple of bucks. Users, who vary in age, say it also gives them a more authentic, outside-the-guidebook experience. ‘It distinguishes a tourist from a traveler,’ says Harold Goldstein of Hospitality Exchange. ‘Instead of just sightseeing, you participate in the daily life of locals.’” — Time Magazine

***

SERVAS – An NGO whose objective is to create an international network of open-minded people and “foster new insight, knowledge and tolerance of others,” SERVAS matches eligible travelers with volunteer hosts all over the world. Hosts provide accommodation for travelers for at least two nights and are encouraged to engage their guests in conversation and have meals with them. Prospective hosts and travelers are approved only after an interview (because it’s harder to hide crazy in a face-to-face meeting).

Help Exchange — If you’ve ever daydreamt about being an itinerant worker, migrating from farm to farm and earning a warm meal and a soft bed by the toil of your hands, then helpx.net can help you achieve your daydreams. A wide range of hosts employ travelers, from organic farms and ranches to hostels and even sailboats. Travelers receive free accommodation and meals in exchange for an average of four hours a day of labor. The website suggests that travelers make arrangements with hosts prior to arrival; apparently hosts are not fond of strangers who show up on their doorstep with a hobo sack, a six-day beard, and a pitchfork, and demand three months’ accommodation. Now they tell me.

CouchSurfing – The most trafficked of all the hospitality networks (the promise of free lodging is pretty alluring, after all), CouchSurfing’s aims run along the same general lines as the others’: connecting people from around the world to promote cultural understanding and tolerance among and through them. It’s an idea that seems to have caught on — there are now more than 475,000 registered users crisscrossing the globe and finding the open doors of generous strangers wherever they go. You might be thinking, “that’s a charming idea and all, but how can it be safe?” Well, CouchSurfing has a couple of measures in place to assuage that uncertainty. First, there is a verification system to make sure that all potential users are who they say they are, and second, members can vouch for users (hosts and travelers) that are trustworthy. It’s not exactly an NSA background check, but it’s something…

Share on Facebook

The Soft Cell: Spending the Night in a Prison Hotel

Inspired by WebUrbanist [by way of mental floss]:

The Fully Rehabilitated Inmate Experience (Luxury) There are a Lloyd Hotel 5-star suitesurprisingly large number of refurbished prisons now serving as luxury hotels around the world. Amsterdam’s Lloyd Hotel comprises 117 marvelously restyled rooms, each with free high-speed internet and a full menu of satellite TV channels, which the facility’s previous occupants must now resent immeasurably. And while you Jailhotel Löwengrabendon’t need to bribe anyone to get out of the Lloyd, you’ll have to pay a pretty hefty ransom to get into it; the most austere of their accommodations costs nearly US$150 per night, and the rate climbs to more than $700 for the ginormous suites (like the one in the photo above). Another luxurious incarceration option: the Malmaison Hotel in Oxford, England. And pictured here at left is the Falling Waters Suite at the Jailhotel Löwengraben in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Minimum-Security Inmate Experience (Backpackers) Deemed one of Hostel Celica cell 117the ‘Hippest Hostels in the World’ by Lonely Planet, the Hostel Celica in Ljubljana, Slovenia, features an art gallery and 20 prison-cell rooms renovated handsomely by local artists. And with cell beds starting at about US$28 per night, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to be hip.

At The Jail in Mt. Gambier, South Australia, backpackers The Jail Mt. Gambier cell/dormcan play volleyball in the stone courtyard where prisoners used to recreate, take part in evening musical jam sessions, or retire to the metal-framed beds in their cells. But that’s about it. That peculiar, bare jailhouse charm seems to have been preserved in full, although the owners did some minor reclamations of the interior. Dorm beds start at about US$18 per night.

Maximum-Security Inmate Experience (?) Tired of the cloying comforts ofKarosta cell/dorm luxury travel? For the traveler who sleeps more soundly after the harrowing infliction of mental and emotional trauma, try spending a night at the Karosta Prison Hotel in Liepaja, Latvia. This 100-year old detention facility was most recently operated by the KGB, who used the grounds to carry out psychological torture on their captives. Other than the fact that guests can now leave the facility of their own volition, there little to distinguish the current Karosta experience from the earlier one. Guests are welcomed by armed guards in KGB uniform, photographed and issued identification papers, subjected to physical examination, and deterred from attempting an escape by threat of actual gunfire. And that’s just in the 15-minute introduction!

Karosta Prison conciergePictured at left is the Karosta concierge/warden, who seems to be receiving a security briefing from Popeye (though it’s difficult to identify him with his forearms sleeved). A night’s stay at the Karosta Prison will set you back 8 Lati (about US$18), unless you are eligible for the 5 Lati special: “There is a special offer to schoolchildren — an opportunity to spend a night in prison cells on bunks and mattresses.” Please, not the schoolchildren! Check the hotel’s highly entertaining website or this Guardian feature for more information.

Share on Facebook