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Travel Advice

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Headed to French Polynesia? Skip the Island of Tahiti

I’ve been thinking a lot about the South Pacific this week. Perhaps it’s the frost on the windshield of the car this morning forcing me to deal with Father Winter or flee to the tropics. Similar to Africa, the South Pacific is one of those places that get under your skin, coaxing you to return as often as possible. Unlike the majority of the Caribbean isles, which can only boast a white strip of sand, the South Pacific isles are jaw-dropping jagged peaks that rise straight up from the ocean, carpeted in emerald green overripe foliage. For me, this is paradise. 

 
After my inaugural trip to the region in 1990, I would make the South Pacific my area of expertise, returning as often as possible. This is especially true of the French Polynesia isles, a mere two hour flight past Hawaii. Perhaps, I was fed too much Fletcher Christian as a boy and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Captain Bligh. Or maybe it was the languorous women Gauguin painted after entertaining them in his supposed House of Debauchery. 
 
All I know is that when I first arrived on the island of Tahiti and its bustling city of Papeete, I would have been happy to be back in Boston scraping the ice off my sidewalk. There were traffic jams, pollution-spewing cars, far too many uptight Frenchmen, and tuna sandwiches at $20 a pop. If Fletcher Christian saw present-day Tahiti, he might have continued his voyage with Bligh. Their major site, The Gauguin Museum, had no original works by the artist (another ironic twist is that Gauguin’s masterpiece, Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going? (1897-98), is right down the road from me in Boston). Across the way, the Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens, a collection of tropical plants from around the world founded by a former MIT physics professor, was not in the least bit memorable. I wanted to get lost in the lushness of nature, not take a walk through some manicured garden. 
 
Then my wife and I made the wise move to head to Raitea. For me, authenticity in travel often goes hand-in-hand with a solid connection to the people of that community. Within 15 minutes of paddling on a winding river that snaked through the island, we came upon a group of kids diving off a tree swing into the water. They were so excited to see us that they insisted on showing us the small thatched huts they lived in, sat us down on a mat, and served us fresh papaya from the fields behind them. 
 
On another trip, a 16-day cruise aboard the freighter ship Aranui brought us the Marquesas. 750 miles north of Tahiti, the Marquesas are the most remote islands in the world, farthest from any continent. Immense green mountains pierce the clouds overhead on many of the twelve islands, retaining the savage beauty that inspired Gauguin to live and be buried on Hiva Oa. A young 22-year-old sailor named Herman Melville was so enraptured with the island of Nuka Hiva that he chose to jump ship and live with cannibals rather than continue his voyage. You can read about it in his first book, Typee. One of the most stunning natural sites I’ve ever seen was the Bay of Virgins on the island of Fatu Hiva. Towering, storm-worn basalt rises from the ocean’s depth forming a v-shaped buttress that’s illuminated by the sun. In the distance, serrated ridges and impassable gorges stand as a monument to the centuries of volcanic fires that formed this fantastic landscape. 
 
When I returned from my trip to the Marquesas, I met a couple who spent their entire honeymoon solely on the island of Tahiti. It made me want to cry. It reminds me of a backpacking trip I took to Newfoundland, where we went off the trail less than 100 yards to look straight down at a magnificent fjord. Our guide knew it was there, but unfortunately none of the other hikers did and kept on walking. My hope for creating our travel agency, ActiveTravels.com, is to steer travelers in the right direction so they don’t spend their entire time in French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/05/13 at 11:00 AM
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Monday, December 02, 2013

Honesty Leads to the Best Travel Writing

Pressured by travel editors to write flowery prose about a destination so that publications can secure those necessary advertising dollars, most travel writing is a bore. Even worse are travel writers who pen stories in return for a free press trip. Their writing is often indistinguishable from a publicist’s press release. Take it from a travel expert. Rarely have I ever encountered a perfect trip, where the travel, accommodations, and destinations are all stellar during the same jaunt. There is always some adventure you’re thrust into willingly or not, some bizarre local you meet that helps define the place, and a slew of mishaps. Place those anecdotes into the article and you have a great read, not unlike the writings of Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux. 
 
Rarely do I see a scathing review of a destination, so when I came across this little gem from a writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was thrilled. I was researching a trip to northern Sumatra for a client who wants to see the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park. Unfortunately, they have to fly in and out of Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia and the focus of this story. 
 
All week, I’ll be sharing with you some of my least favorite misadventures in print. Enjoy. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/02/13 at 11:00 AM
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Monday, August 26, 2013

Boston Primer for Incoming College Freshman and Parents

Many families are dropping their kids off this week at colleges across the US. If you happen to be hitting Boston, here’s a tip sheet I originally wrote for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.
 
In Harvard Square, the Charles Hotel (800-882-1818; http://www.charleshotel.com) is within easy walking distance to the campus. Upstairs, renowned Boston chef Jody Adams is working her magic at Rialto (617-661-5050; http://www.rialto-restaurant.com), while across the hallway at Henrietta’s Table (617-661-5005; http://www.henriettastable.com), Peter Davis is known for his love of local produce, cheese, fish, and microbrews. 
 
Closer to the M.I.T. campus, the boutique Kendall Hotel (866-566-1300; http://kendallhotel.com) was built within the shell of a former firehouse. Down Mass Ave, Miracle of Science (617-868-ATOM; http://miracleofscience.us) offers large burgers and tasty veggie skewers. Cornmeal fried oysters, pecan-studded catfish, and other tantalizing southern treats can be found within cozy confines of Hungry Mother (617-499-0090; http://www.hungrymothercambridge.com). 
 
Hyatt Place in Medford (781-395-8500; http://bostonmedford.place.hyatt.com) has discounted rates for families visiting Tufts. Tu Y Yo (617-623-5411; http://tuyyo2.com) serves authentic Mexican fare like chicken in a mole sauce in neighboring Somerville. 
 
A central hub for Boston University students is Kenmore Square. Stay at the Hotel Commonwealth (617-933-5000; http://www.hotelcommonwealth.com) and then head downstairs to dine at one of the best seafood restaurants in town, Island Creek Oyster Bar (617-532-5300; http://islandcreekoysterbar.com). BU students also like UBurger (617-536-0488; http://uburgerboston.com), with two locations nearby. 
 
Prospective Boston College students and their families can stay in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner at the Courtyard by Marriott (617-734-1393; http://www.marriott.com). There are a slew of restaurants in walking distance, including the deli, Zaftigs (617-975-0075; http://www.zaftigs.com), and Vietnamese food at Pho Lemongrass (617-731-8600; http://www.pholemongrass.com).  
 
Hotel Indigo (617-969-5300; http://www.newtonboutiquehotel.com) and the Sheraton Needham (781-444-1110; http://www.starwoodhotels.com), both off Route 128, are good places to stay if you’re visiting Brandeis, Wellesley, and Babson. Ming Tsai wows the suburban crowds with his pan-Asian fare at Blue Ginger (781-283-5790; http://ming.com/blueginger.htm) in Wellesley. Several blocks away, Café Mangal (781-235-5322; http://www.cafemangal.com) is known for their mega-sized salads. Within walking distance of the Sheraton Needham, Spiga (781-449-5600; http://spigaristorante.com) serves excellent pastas, thin pizzas, and other Italian fare. 
 
If you’re visiting other colleges in the Northeast this fall like Williams, Wesleyan, and Cornell, please consult the original article
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 08/26/13 at 12:00 PM
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Friday, October 05, 2012

Nova Scotia Week, Visiting Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park

One of my favorite reads this past summer, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard, detailed the assassination of President James Garfield. As with Millard’s first book, River of Doubt, a spellbinding account of Theodore Roosevelt’s deadly descent down a river in the Amazon, the finest characters in the books are not the presidents. Garfield has a buffoon of a doctor who does everything wrong according to modern day standards, like plunging his none-too-sterile hands into Garfield’s wound. Most striking however, was the work of Alexander Graham Bell in trying to save the president’s life. Already famous for his invention of the telephone, Graham Bell worked feverishly night and day to invent a device that could magnetically detect where the bullet was lodged in Garfield’s body. Millard’s conclusion was that the device did indeed work in the end, but Graham Bell was looking at the wrong side of Garfield’s body, thanks once again to that buffoon doctor. 

 
So when I heard that the small town of Baddeck on the shores of Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton was home to the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park, I was there when the doors opened in the morning. Graham Bell and his wife Mabel, a former student of his at Boston School for the Deaf, first built their summer home in Baddeck in 1886, a decade after he stated those first fateful words on the telephone to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” I really wasn’t expecting much, since this was Graham Bell’s summer home, the one that reminded him of his Scottish youth. Wrong! In 1955, Graham Bell’s two daughters donated thousands of original artifacts to the museum, including all of the models that consumed him during his lifetime. There’s a metal box he created to distill salt water into drinkable water, a bicycle that he hoped one could pedal on water, the first air conditioning blowers. He created only to satiate his curiosity, which only ceased when he died. And his experimentation was successful countless times. His invention of the gramophone improved Edison’s phonograph, the metal detector he used on Garfield was the precursor to X-rays. A hydrofoil he helped build later in life, called HD-4, reached a speed of 70 miles per hour on water, a record that wouldn’t be broken for another decade. 
 
Also on display is a portrait his wife made of Graham Bell when they were first dating. At least that’s what she told him. It’s actually a painting of an owl. She painted the bird not because it symbolized wisdom, but because Graham Bell stayed up all night obsessed with finding answers. Throw in his work with the deaf, especially giving voice to Helen Keller, and you realize why his compassion and intellect are still an inspiration. 
 
This has been a terrific week for me in Nova Scotia! I hope to return with the family some time soon. It’s an auspicious start to a big month of travel that will send me on a bike trip to Zion National Park next Sunday . I’ll try to keep you posted as much as possible, but please be patient. In the meantime, stay active!
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/05/12 at 10:00 AM
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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Nova Scotia Week, Finding the Heart of Cape Breton

Once on Cape Breton, most travelers make a beeline for the headlands of the National Park or the rugged coastline that drops precipitously into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But don’t make the mistake of missing the interior or what locals call the Highlands. Head to a sweet spot like Margaree River Valley and you’ll find a ring of rounded summits peering down on verdant pastures dotted with sheep, cattle, and sleek, dark French Canadian horses. You’ll also find the rolling waters of that legendary salmon fishing river, the Margaree, snaking though the spectacular scenery. This is the authentic Cape Breton, where you can spend a night at the classic Normaway Inn, have dinner from a chef who taught alongside Jacques Pepin at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute, and then be treated to a foot-stomping fiddler concert every night from June through October. Last night in the Normaway’s library, I was fortunate enough to listen to a father and daughter play fiddle and guitar, while on piano, was the hotel’s housekeeper, who’s toured with Natalie MacMaster and Waylon Jennings. Here, in the heart of Ceilidh “kay-lee” country, it’s a good bet that your waiter or bellhop has played to a packed crowd and can dance the two-step, either in a nearby barn or in a packed concert hall. Seeing this threesome play last night in an intimate setting, stomping my foot and clapping my hands to the fast-moving fiddle, is one of those authentic travel experiences that I’ll remember years from now, when those rugged cliffs of Cape Breton have faded into the sea. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/02/12 at 10:00 AM
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Legroom on Airlines is Shrinking

If you’re feeling a little snug in that airline seat lately, realize that airlines are reducing legroom in economy seating as another egregious way to boost profits. In a story in yesterday’s Boston Globe, it was reported that Southwest has recently reduced legroom to add one additional row of seats. Other airlines simply want you to have an uncomfortable flight so you’ll spend more money on their premium economy seats, with extra legroom. Spirit is the worst in the industry, with a mere 28 inches between rows. Contrast that to JetBlue, whose airlines are often in the 32-33 inch range. The industry standard is now 31 inches between rows, down from 32 inches a decade ago. It’s only going to get worse until the government passes a passenger’s bill of rights that includes minimum legroom. Otherwise, economy class passengers might be hanging from the ceiling like moths in a cocoon.

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 08/21/12 at 12:00 PM
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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hmong Women: Lessons in Sales, Sapa, Vietnam

Guest Blog and Photo by Frances F. Denny

  
Sapa, in the mountains of Northwest Vietnam, draws native Vietnamese and foreign travellers alike to its cool temperatures and pristine landscapes.  The many so-called “hill tribes” native to the region, like the H’mong and Red Zhao, have adapted to the surge of visitors like savvy capitalists. 
 
In their traditional garb of indigo-dyed hemp and neon embroidery, the H’mong women are striking in appearance. As you arrive in town, they quickly engage visitors in workable English.  "Where are you from?" and "How long you stay?"  They answer all of your questions with ease and humor. The attention and seeming authenticity of the conversation is flattering. However, as soon as they've established a rapport, the H’mong women begin unpacking the baskets strapped to their backs, and display hand-woven pillowcases, purses, and blankets. You might buy a trinket from one of the girls as they follow you around town, and the others will frown and say, "You promise to buy from me, too?" The items for sale are pretty, but ubiquitous.  Offloading as many of these items as possible to any customer is the goal. 
 
A trek into Sapa's valley of terraced rice paddies will inevitably be attended by three or four H’mong girls, hopping nimbly over mud puddles and stones, as visitors scramble and splosh.  The women chat about families, their work, their cuisine.  In a few hours, your guide will declare lunch, at which the point the baskets are opened and the wares arrayed again.  The implication is, "I trekked with you, now you buy from me."  
 
Once a visitor is marked, every departure from a hotel activates the sales force whose faces soon become familiar.  Every detail gleaned from earlier sales forays will be remembered by all: the visitor’s name and itinerary, the number of sisters in the family; the mother who might like a pair of silver earrings. Exactly what price their friend sold a belt an hour earlier will also be known. They frown and pout upon hearing, "No, thank you." A smile appears when they are asked if a purchase will end all the attention. This is the dance, too and the H’mong are expert hagglers. They know a potential buyer must be worn down; that guilt can drive a purchase as much as fatigue; that a tourist will pay 500,000 Dong for some peace. When the sale is done, the H’mong women tie a woven bracelet to their customer’s wrist, and the selling stops - though it is hard not to wonder if the gift is also marking you a sucker to the rest of the tribe.
 
The H’mong women would excel in any MBA program. They identify their customer, make a personal connection, offer something free - but of value (trekking guidance; cultural information) - for the chance to solicit, leveraging their ethnic authenticity with modern psychology.  It is a cold visitor who does not succumb to such marketing.  It's the price of admission to Sapa.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 08/20/12 at 12:00 PM
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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston

This weekend, I had the chance to see a wonderful rendition of the Tony Award-winning play, Red, at Boston Center for the Arts. Based on the life of abstract painter, Mark Rothko, I couldn’t help thinking of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, which I visited while doing a story for The Boston Globe on the art scene in the city. While many of Rothko’s earlier works displayed layers of vibrant colors such as the red in the title of the play, these later paintings were monochromatic where black and dark brown predominate. Rothko’s emotions tend to carry over to his canvases and these were painful to view. I remember the works vividly almost a decade after seeing them. Often in travel, we search for the stupendous landscapes and exotic wildlife, but it’s the misadventures or a poignant moment in an unusual chapel in Texas that we often remember with more clarity. Here’s what I originally wrote for The Boston Globe:
 
“My first stop was an octagonal-shaped yellow-brick building that looks like part of an elementary school from the 1950s. This is the Rothko Chapel. Prayer books from every religion line the wall of the entrance indicating that this place of sanctuary is non-denominational. Those familiar with Rothko’s vague rectangular color fields, painted with gently toned hues, will be shocked to see the 14 large canvases that encircle the somber room. Rothko suffered from serious depression, which is evident in these late acrylics, primarily black in color with light tinges of blue. He would end up committing suicide a year before the chapel opened in 1971. Any soul who feels the least bit anguished should take a seat on one of the four benches and stare into these monumental abstracts, knowing that someone else shares your pain.”

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/31/12 at 02:00 PM
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Scintillating St. Martin

On St. Martin, French and Dutch cultures merge to create one of the most cosmopolitan islands in the Caribbean. The two nationalities have been living in peaceful coexistence since 1648. After a breakfast of croissants and café au laits in Marigot, walk along the winding alleys behind the harbor and soon the seaside village starts to feel like a town on the French Riviera. Boutiques, restaurants, and small markets line the streets. On Rue de la Liberte, the latest French fashions can be found. A must stop for all foodies is the Gourmet Boutique on Rue de l’Anguille, to snack on Brie and Camembert cheeses, Godiva chocolates, fresh baguettes, and the tastiest jambon (ham).  
 
Blink and you might miss the fishing village of Grand Case at the northern tip of St. Martin. This is the St. Martin of yesteryear, where ramshackle houses intermingle with more than a dozen French seafood restaurants, many overlooking the bay. Ask for an ocean view table and watch the waves roll ashore as you’re served fresh lobster or red snapper Provencal under candlelight. Dutch Sint Maarten is where everyone goes to work off their French meals. The open-air dancefloor at Cheri’s Cafe is located in Maho Bay.  Next door is Casino Royale, one of the handful of casinos on this half of the island.  
 
The French Rivera flavor extends to the Orient Express resort, La Samanna. Walk out of your two-story whitewashed villa onto Baie Longue, home to some of the finest pearly white sands in the Caribbean. If you choose the right suite, you can sun bathe atop your terrace or around a private plunge pool. Perched on a hill overlooking the curve of the beach, the restaurant is known for its collection of over 10,000 bottles of wine. Also indulge in the new spa, nestled in a quiet courtyard of palms.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/11/11 at 02:00 PM
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Pull of Puerto Rico

In 1493, on Columbus’s second trip to the Caribbean, he came upon the island of Puerto Rico. Along with Cuba and the Dominican Republic, it quickly became a Spanish stronghold in the Caribbean. Not only is Spanish the official language, but Spain’s influence on Puerto Rico is still seen today in churches and other historic buildings that date back to the 15th century.

Start on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, founded in 1509 by Ponce de Leon.  You can still see glimpses of the blue stone, adoquine, brought over in ballasts by Spanish ships. Walk the towers and ramparts of Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, otherwise known as El Morro, a fort that was originally built in 1540. Then wander over to the Historic District, undoubtedly the best preserved neighborhood in the Caribbean. More than 400 Spanish-colonial buildings dating from the 17th century have been restored around the outdoor cafes and restaurants. For a taste of Spanish food in San Juan, stop at Picoteo at the Hotel El Convento. Tapas and paella, chockful of fresh, local seafood, are washed down with tasty and strong sangria.

If you have time, take a day trip into the mountains to visit San Germán, a smaller version of San Juan without the congestion. Founded in 1512, the town is the second oldest on the island and its historic zone houses a wonderful collection of buildings, spacious plazas, and monuments.  

Once you’ve had your fair share of the city, head 45 minutes from San Juan to the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort. The 672-room resort takes full advantage of its ocean locale, offering scuba diving, sea kayaking, sailing, tennis, a Greg Norman-designed golf course, a 3-mile jogging route, or just plain beach lounging. Don’t miss the opportunity to snorkel and sea kayak in nearby Bioluminescent Bay, which emits a neon blue color from the microorganisms found in the water.

 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/10/11 at 02:00 PM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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