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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Cruising the Marquesas Aboard the Aranui

When people find out that I’m a travel writer, they inevitably ask, “What’s your favorite trip?” It’s silly to distill the past two decades of work down to one locale so I try to evade the question. If they’re persistent, I’ll usually mention the Marquesas. In 1994, I took a 16-day cruise with my wife that ventured 750 miles north from Tahiti to the archipelago most distant from any continent. The only way to visit all six of the inhabited Marquesa islands was aboard the Aranui, an upscale freighter that offers air-conditioned cabins and three French meals daily. The ship’s main function, however, is to transport goods to the local residents. She comes bearing bricks and cement, pipes and tractors, fishing nets, medicines, and food, all the necessities for an isolated existence; and returns to Tahiti with copra, dried coconut meat that is processed into oil, soap, and cosmetics. 

Since there are very few adequate docks in the Marquesas, travelers go ashore in wooden whaleboats to meet the locals. Burly crew members guide passengers on and off these boats quicker than they can toss a sack of rice to each other. Obviously, this is no normal luxury cruise ship. There is no shuffleboard, no stage where entertainment continually bombards you throughout the day, and no dress code for meals.

In its place, you’ll visit the island Nuka Hiva, where a 22-year old sailor named Herman Melville jumped ship and wrote about his experience with cannibals in his first book, Typee. Paul Gauguin’s gravesite rests on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa. Sitting under a plumeria tree on a hillside over the bay, the stone is simply inscribed, “Paul Gauguin, 1903.” A three-hour cruise from Hiva Oa brought us to the verdant island of Fatu Hiva.  Here, you can take a ten mile hike into the stunning Bay of Virgins, the most majestic site of the voyage. Towering, storm-worn basalt rises from the ocean’s depth, forming a v-shaped buttress that’s illuminated by the sun’s yellow-green rays. In the distance, serrated ridges, cloud-piercing peaks and impassable gorges stand as a monument to the centuries of volcanic fires that formed this fantastic landscape. That sight is hard to forget.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/08/10 at 02:00 PM
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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Have Skype, Will Travel

This past month, I was home only three days, traveling to Kenya, Mexico, and Chicago. That’s a long time to be away from my family. My antidote for homesickness is a video call on Skype, where I can see and talk to my wife and children. The clarity of the call is exceptional, far superior to any international cell phone I’ve ever used. All you have to do is sign up at Skype, pay a nominal fee (it averages about 10 cents for a 10-minute call), and start adding all the significant people in your life as contacts. For travel writers and all other businesspeople who find themselves on the road a good chunk of the year, it’s the most essential tool to connect with your loved ones.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/07/10 at 02:00 PM
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Monday, December 06, 2010

Mexican Travel is Safe and on the Rise

The time between America’s Thanksgiving and Christmas is usually slow season for many resorts and travel destinations. For warm-weather locales, the big surge happens from late December through early April. So I was surprised to find that many of the resorts I was visiting on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula were filled to capacity with a mix of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and South Americans. Destination Weddings are still the big trend in travel, with daily nuptials being held as many as three times a day at some of the resorts I stayed at. American media loves to focus on crime in Mexico, but I found the Yucatan to be incredibly safe. The United Nations Climate Control Conference was being in held in Cancun while I was there, with many heads of state including the Mexican president, staying next door to me. So Federal Police were everywhere. Yet, even away from Cancun, making my south to Tulum, I never felt unsafe. That is, until I made my way to the swim-up bar at Iberostar Paraiso Maya and was surrounded by a group of drunken Saskatchewanians. That’s always dangerous.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/06/10 at 02:00 PM
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tulum, Mexico, No Longer a Sleepy Seaside Town

The southernmost town on the 80-mile strip of sand referred to as the Riviera Maya, Tulum has always been a perfect getaway from Cancun to see the Mayan ruins. Only well-traveled European backpackers would consider spending the night in one of the bungalows on the beach. Lately, however, a small sampling of all-inclusive resorts have opened in this sleepy seaside town. It's ideally suited for young American families on their first international trip. Children learn about the historical significance of the Mayans by touring the impressive ruins. Then they can snorkel at Xel-Ha and go for a dip in one of the natural swimming holes called cenotes. Plus, those same white pearly sands that cater to the Spring Break crowd in Cancun can be found on Riviera Maya in a more serene setting that families find attractive.

I’ll be headed to the Yucatan all next week and most likely won’t have the time to blog. I know I’ve been traveling quite a bit this past month and missed many a blog, but stay with me. I have great travel advice, film footage, and photos from Kenya that I’ll be sharing upon my return on December 6th.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! Make sure to work off that turkey by doing something active.  And, as always, thanks for checking in!

 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/24/10 at 02:00 PM
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It’s The People Who Make Africa So Special

Everyone seems to go to Africa on safari. And yes, after spending the past week finding lions poking their manes out of the bush, watching a leopard gnawing on a goat high up a tree, and seeing family after family of giraffes, elephants, and warthogs, I can attest to that exhilarating feeling of wild abandonment. But as cute as those animals are, you have very little connection. It’s the people who make Africa a special place, especially in Kenya. From the high-end safari owner who feels it’s her civic duty to provide a water well, schooling, library, and HIV prevention education to a large slum in Nairobi even though she already employs many Kenyans on her payroll. Or the Maasai villager on the Tanzanian border, who after performing a tribal dance in headgear and dress, asks me if I’m on Facebook. He’ll happily send me pictures of the lions, he notes. Or the insightful safari guide, who received his college education in the States after a California professor visited Kenya and was quickly enamored with his brilliance. I turned him on to the African dance tunes of Deep Forest. Or the General Manager of a resort in the shadows of Mount Kenya, who being from India, taught me a secret of dealing with travel dysentery. Always eat yoghurt the first day of visiting a country, especially in places like India or Mexico, known for their laundry list of stomach ailments. Most of all, there are those smiling faces of young children in Nairobi schools and the Maasai villages. The ones I love to pass out “heart” stickers to. These people are the reason I return to Africa. Sure, I love Simba and Pumba like the rest of us, but it’s to the Kenyan people that I say asante sana for a wonderful trip. Hope to see you again soon!


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/23/10 at 01:59 PM
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Monday, November 22, 2010

London’s Savoy is Finally Open Again

On the way back from Nairobi, I had a 12-hour overnight in London, just enough time to check out The Savoy. The grande dame reopened on 10/10/10 after a 3-year renovation, with Prince Charles on hand to do the ribbon cutting. Now under the helm of the Fairmont, they enhanced the Edwardian and Art Deco design so all that polished silver and lacquered onyx shines again. We had a casual dinner of tuna sandwiches in the Thames Foyer next to a large winter garden gazebo under a glass cupola. Across the room, a woman was belting out “All That Jazz” from the stage of the Beaufort Bar, the same spot where Gershwin first played “Rhapsody in Blue.” That night in the American Bar, the classic cocktail lounge that came to fame in the 30s, Jerry Hall was supposedly in the house near a photograph of a younger Jerry Hall shot by photographer Terry O’Neil. Conveniently located on the Strand in the heart of the Theater District, the Savoy is hopping once again, so stop by for dinner, drinks, or afternoon tea and you’ll probably be staying the night like Richard Harris often did. In fact, there’s now a suite named after him.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/22/10 at 02:00 PM
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Maasai Open Their Own Resort

The Maasai are best known for their mud huts. So it might come as a surprise that these tall warriors of southern Kenya have recently entered the hotel business. They have formed a joint partnership with a private safari company, Nairobi-based Art of Adventures, to open Shompole Game Reserve. Shompole is nestled on 35,000 acres of conservation land near the Nguruman Escarpment in southeastern Kenya. The resort only has six mega-sized guest rooms, which comes with private plunge pool and a sprawling lounge area. The main activity at Shompole is game drives, where guests travel through the bush in open-air Land Rovers accompanied by a Maasai tracker. The more adventurous can also go on game walks, sunset trips to Lake Natron to see the flamingos, or evening picnics in the bush.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/18/10 at 02:00 PM
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Friday, November 12, 2010

Mount Kenya Safari Club

If you wander into the bar at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, you will not see Ernest Hemingway telling tall tales from a day of big-game hunting. Nor will you have to fight pet leopards for a seat at the bar. But in the club’s heyday in the 1960s, these things were commonplace. Hollywood heartthrob William Holden (Bridge Over The River Kwai, Network) and his partners, oil billionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann, ran the place as the most elite private members’ club in the world. Membership was by invitation only and included Bing Crosby, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Steve McQueen, Conrad Hilton, Winston Churchill and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Holden, who fell in love with Kenya on hunting safaris in the 50s was known for his practical joking in the bar, such as snakes hidden in the bottom of a peanut tin. Yet there is more to this sybaritic retreat in northern Kenya than Hollywood magic dust left behind from years of raucous carousing. It is the sheer beauty of this stretch of land that sits at the base of Africa’s second-highest mountain, 17,057-foot Mount Kenya. Manicured lawns sweep down to a pool, past flower-filled ponds and then on to the slopes, where they climb for miles to the snow-dusted peak, known locally as Kirinyaga. The club is built directly on the equator, its line cutting straight through the main bar, following the curve of the national park before running into the seventh hole of the club’s small nine-hole golf course.

There will be no blogs the week of November 15th since I’ll still be in Africa. I’ll be back on November 22nd. Have a great week, filled with adventure!
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/12/10 at 02:00 PM
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Conservation Efforts in the Masai Mara

Mara is Swahili for “dotted hillside,” aptly named for the wealth of wildlife roaming the valley, especially during the fall when vast hordes of wildebeests are making their annual migration from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that this same wilderness area was rife with poachers aiming to bag their rhino, Maasai warriors spearing male lions as their gateway to manhood, villagers killing ostriches and impala for their meat, and mass tourism unchecked as 20 to 30 land rovers could often be found viewing that same lone leopard. Haji Ogle, who spent the bulk of his life working for the Kenya Wildlife Service battling poachers in the bush, still has his concerns.  He worries about mass tourism and would like the number of visitors to the park each day to be limited by a national government agency, not the local county council that runs the reserve now. Yet he insists that the Masai Mara be open to everyone, keeping the admission price at a reasonable 500 Kenya Schillings or $6.25 US for adult residents of the country.  Ogle is also uneasy about the growth of large wheat farms that are encroaching on the land from the east, yet he can’t help but remain optimistic. “Coming from where I was and where I am today, this is one of the enterprises that has been a success,” say Ogle.  “Kenyan conservation is now widespread.”
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/10/10 at 02:00 PM
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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

What’s Doing in Nairobi

First-time visitors to the Kenya have misconceptions that Nairobi will be some dusty backwater where narrow streets are filled with destitute people ready to pounce on your wallet.  Much of this stems from an outbreak of thievery that occurred in the late 90s, earning the city the nickname, “Nairobbery.” Today, especially now that the post-election violence of January 2007 is in the rear view mirror, Nairobi is a relatively safe and cosmopolitan hub of 3.5 million people in East Africa. The poor, who flood out of their shanties every morning to walk to nearby factories, merge with a growing middle and upper class, whose gated estates in the western suburbs of Karen and Langata have far more in common with Boca Raton than Bogota. Travelers are starting to realize that Nairobi is worthy of more than a one-night stopover on the way to safari. At the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, west of the city centre in Langata, baby elephants whose parents have been killed by poachers are raised by workers who actually sleep in their stalls to comfort the young. When they’re old enough, they’ll be brought back to the wild. The suburb of Karen was named after Out of Africa author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dineson. Visit the estate she lived in from 1913 to 1931, now home to the Karen Blixen Museum. The grounds, dotted with the prehistoric looking candelabra cacti, overlook the Ngong Hills, and are worth the price of admission alone.
 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/09/10 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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