An Experience in the Polar Bear Capitol of the World

by Ashley Castle, AFAR Ambassador

I arrived to Manitoba, Canada, for my polar bear expedition with Tauck, and within my first thirty minutes at the Inn at the Forks in Winnipeg, I knew that I was not only in another country: I had entered another world.  Words like Inuit, mushing, ptarmigan, grouse, dainty and Inukshuk were mingled into my conversation with a young woman named Dene who welcomed me from Travel Manitoba, and I tried to decipher with context clues what these words actually meant.

Our group hopped a chartered flight the next morning to Churchill, the polar bear capitol of the world.  Churchill is accessible only by plane or train, but plane is definitely the way to go: it’s a forty hour train ride from Winnipeg, due to environment factors and land conditions.  We arrived to the warm Lazy Bear Lodge, our outpost over the next few days as we explored this remote Canadian town and searched for its most famous inhabitants.

 

The Lazy Bear Lodge

The Lazy Bear Lodge

I felt very far from New York City

I felt very far from New York City

The culture of Churchill is a microcosm of Manitoba, as its year-round inhabitants have had to become resourceful and inventive in order to live here with its harsh weather conditions.

There is an open-car-door policy in this town: everyone is required to leave the doors of their cars unlocked, in the case that a resident is walking around and gets approached by a bear.  Colin, our local guide for the trip, as well as Dale, our Tauck guide and also a Canadian, explained the protocol to us: “If you’re walking around and you see a polar bear, just jump into the closest vehicle and start honking the horn to scare it off– or at least, to notify people close by of the situation.”  This was definitely a different kind of street awareness from what I deal with in New York City.

 A majestic polar bear, spotted on our Tauck expedition.

A majestic polar bear, spotted on our Tauck expedition.

In this place, polar bears are equally feared and respected.  All Churchillians, as they fondly call themselves, know that the bears ruled this land way before they ever got here, and every effort is made to keep humans and bears living in harmony with one another.  There is a polar bear alert team that stands watch on the town’s borders in the effort to minimize any bear-to-human contact.  If that contact cannot be diverted and a bear engages in behaviors like coming in to town, attempting to break into homes or if it does anything that could potentially threaten the safety of Churchill’s residents, it is deemed a “bad bear” and put into “bear jail.”  Formally known as the Polar Bear Holding Facility (but called bear jail by all of the locals), this is a holding facility for up to eight “inmates” who are detained and then released out on to the Bay as soon as the ice forms.  The polar bear is the only bear that will actually stalk people and is extremely stealthy; people have learned to adapt, but a great reverence for nature is at the forefront of life in Churchill.

The Polar Bear Holding Facility.  Humans cannot enter, as the goal is to keep the bears from becoming desensitized to human interaction.

The Polar Bear Holding Facility. Humans cannot enter, as the goal is to keep the bears from becoming desensitized to human interaction.

The people here have all adjusted to a different way of life: the shipping season is incredibly short, as summer just lasts for a few months.  A ship isn’t insured if it is in these arctic waters past October 31st, so in Churchill, Christmas in July really does exist.  If you have ordered something at any point in the year and are waiting for it to come via ship (as most heavy items do for the sake of cost), it comes in July.  Everyone in the town goes down to the docks and there is a huge celebration– that t.v. or snowmobile you ordered six months ago, has finally arrived.

Life in Churchill at Dave Daley’s Wapusk Adventures, where you can discover the culture of dogsledding and experience it for yourself.

Life in Churchill at Dave Daley’s Wapusk Adventures, where you can discover the culture of dogsledding and experience it for yourself.

Tauck seeks to make every experience incredibly special, with unique and customized glimpses into a place and its culture.  One evening, we went to meet a Maite woman in her seventies named Myrtle, who uses storytelling to conserve her culture.  She has built a museum in Churchill full of personal and familial belongings, a museum that she has gifted to the city with the hopes that it will carry on the the legacy of her life and her people, long after she is gone.

Learning from Myrtle, a native Maite storyteller.

Learning from Myrtle, a native Maite storyteller.

We gather around as Myrtle tells stories of her childhood, of styling her hair with bear grease and of what it was like growing up as a trapper’s daughter.  “Nobody wants a skinny woman,” she says.  “The worst thing about a skinny woman is she wasn’t that cuddly.  The men went for the biggest, hottest woman they could find to keep them warm in the winter.”

She continued on and had us all laughing and wide-eyed about her life here, and how it could be so incredibly different from our own– and even from the lives of people in her same country.  Anything or anyone below Churchill is referred to as the “south” or as “southerners,” and  rightfully so: only true people of the north have been able to adapt and carve out a life here over the past several thousand years.

Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures.

Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures.

We returned back to the Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe, and I ordered a bison steak, mashed potatoes and some steaming hot tomato soup.  I figured I needed to put a little more meat on my bones– to keep me warm, and because skinny women don’t belong in these parts.  With a full belly and a happy heart that evening, I drifted off to sleep.

The delicious food served at the Lazy Bear Cafe.

The delicious food served at the Lazy Bear Cafe.

For highlights from Ashley Castle’s tour through Manitoba, please click here.

Ashley Castle is a writer and blogger with a focus on experiential, transformational travel. She traveled to Manitoba to engage with locals – and local wildlife – with USTOA Active Member Tauck in November and captured her experiences here on the USTOA blog as well as AFAR.com,  and her own Facebook , Twitter and Instagram accounts.

 

Touring Manitoba with Tauck

by Ashley Castle, AFAR Ambassador

I had never heard of Churchill, Canada.  I must have somehow glossed over my northern neighbor’s most central province in my junior high World Geography class, as well as on the wall-sized map that hangs over my camel colored sofa in my New York City apartment.  Although I had only been to Canada once, to its capital city of Toronto, the turquoise waters of Banff and Lake Louise, the modern and much talked-about hub of Vancouver, B.C. and the slopes of Whistler all ranked high on my “to travel to” list.  But Manitoba?  Any idea of this place was as unfamiliar to me as Tajikistan– even more so, as I had previously heard of Tajikistan.

The town of Churchill)

The town of Churchill)

Churchill, a town that claims 923 residents, but from what locals say only actually has about 600-700, is the polar bear capital of the world and is located in northern Manitoba.  It hugs the Hudson Bay and is a place where the First Nation people of Canada, the Inuit, Cree and Maite, have been for thousands of years.  They were a nomadic people for centuries, living off the land and hunting moose and caribou, and had found a way to make it in winter’s harsh conditions.  Yet, they never settled in this particular area that is now deemed Churchill, because they knew it wasn’t their land: it was the land of the Western Bay polar bear, who comes to this area every year in the months of October and November and waits for the sea ice to form on the Hudson Bay, in anticipation of their yearly migration northward to hunt for ring seals.  Canada established the town of Churchill right on the Bay, which served as an integral port for the fur trade of the early 17th century, as well as a military base during World War II and beyond.

On board my inaugural Tauck expedition, our group landed in Churchill and headed to the Lazy Bear Lodge, a cozy log cabin hand-built, owned and cheerfully operated by Wally Daudrich, his wife and his five children.  I stepped inside the Lazy Bear, and it felt like Christmas and coming home.  Filled with twinkling lights, candles and warm, crackling fires, the Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe was our picturesque launching point for the week.

The Lazy Bear Lodge Exterior.

The Lazy Bear Lodge Exterior.

Inside the comfortable Lazy Bear Café.

Inside the comfortable Lazy Bear Café.

The following morning, I bundled up in what must have been seven layers of clothing and headed out to the old school bus to meet our guide, Colin.  A true outdoorsman, from a small town in Saskatchewan and only in Churchill seasonally for the polar bears in October-November and the beluga whales in the summer, he is who you would hope to have at the helm of your polar bear expedition.  Colin teaches arctic survival courses and donned only a t-shirt with the face of a voracious and stoic polar bear on its front and back, with a light jacket.  We were ready to go.

Headed out on our first day in search of the bears.

Headed out on our first day in search of the bears.

After a briefing on polar bears and how to stay alive if we happened to be cruising around Churchill on foot– which, at 38 degrees below Fahrenheit with the windchill factor, I found that to be a highly unlikely personal scenario– we set off along the Hudson Bay until we reached our crawler.  These Lazy Bear Lodge crawlers are specially built to navigate the arctic tundra terrain: massive, slick, snow-covered boulders, ice patches and brisk icy streams.  It looked like a mobile home on monster truck snow tires, perched high enough in the air to keep its inhabitants warm, dry, and from becoming a hungry polar bear’s lunch.

Every person or couple had their own window seat, and our Tauck guide, Dale, handed out binoculars and prepped us all with the realization that we may, or may not, see polar bears.  Tauck has recently partnered with the BBC to create some incredible content– footage, Dale reminds us, that takes wildlife photographers months to collect.  Her message was essentially this: although it is inspiring to know what these polar bears look like in such close proximity, this may not be your personal experience.  Right.  But of course, I was hoping to get face-to-face with a bear.  Everyone was.  It was the dream we all had when we booked this once-in-a-lifetime trip, and it was why we were all sitting bundled so tightly in these below freezing temps, looking like five-year-old children who had been over dressed by their mothers to go outside and build a snowman.

Dale, our upbeat and fearless Tauck expedition leader.

Dale, our upbeat and fearless Tauck expedition leader.

Within the first five minutes, we spot our first bear.  It’s lounging leisurely on some rocks in the far distance.  To the naked eye, it looks like a yellowish blob; the bears have been land-bound since the ice melted around June, which means that they’re not the pure white color they will be after they take a swim.  It also means they haven’t eaten in four months and are incredibly hungry.  If I had my last meal four months ago, I’d be hanging out on the banks of the Hudson Bay and waiting for the ice to form, too.  I looked down at my black ski pants and coat– might a bear mistake me for a land seal?  I hoped not.

Our first bear sighting.

Our first bear sighting.

The bear stretches, and through my binoculars I can see that it gives a big, unamused yawn, stands up and goes behind some rocks, out of our sight.  It apparently was not in the mood to be seen.  But, we had spotted our first bear, albeit from a distance, within the first 30 minutes of the day.  Things were looking up.

We continued on our trek, and Colin, our local guide, as well as Dale, also a native Canadian, educate us about the bears, their habits, and about this land.  I am so fascinated by how much I didn’t know about a place that is relatively, all things considered, close to where I call home.

Everyone braced for a bear sighting.

Everyone braced for a bear sighting.

The morning passes quickly and we all wait in anticipation to see our next bear.  After all, we now know that they’re out there.  We sit on the edge of our crawler seats, gazing out the windows to see some tone-on-tone movement of the off-white bears against the glittering white snow.  It’s lunchtime, and something about the cold seems to make you extra hungry.   Hearty sandwiches and chili come to our rescue, and we all take a slight break to relish in our hot meal.  My attention is completely and temporarily diverted and is focused solely on my steaming chili, when someone yells out, “bear!!!”  In an effort to not spill my lunch, I scramble to the window and see this majestic creature walking towards us, intentionally and stealthily.  I think he smelled the chili, too.  I discarded my lunch like last year’s fashion and quickly grabbed my camera.  He continued towards us and within minutes, was only feet away.

The bear behind the crawler in front of us, headed our way .

The bear behind the crawler in front of us, headed our way.

This polar bear was just a few feet from us, looking up at us as we looked back at him.

This polar bear was just a few feet from us, looking up at us as we looked back at him.

The crawler has a back porch kind-of feature, with a metal grate beneath your feet and a surrounding wall that is tall enough to keep the bears from being able to jump on in and have your for their meal, with a side of chili.  I ran outside as he headed towards the back, and we all grew still with the bear right below us.  His breathing was heavy and I could hear his low growl.  I squatted down and came within inches of his face.  We were eye-to-eye, and in that moment I had to remember who I was dealing with.  This polar bear didn’t want a Coca Cola, no matter how lovable he looked.  He came out from under the grate and rose up on hind legs, placing his paws on the ledge.  We all gasped and took a step back.  We were so close, that I could see the details of his claws and the light shining through the ice on his fur.  After a few heavy breaths, he lowered back down, and once he concluded he wasn’t getting chili or Tauck guests for lunch, he lumbered away and crossed a frozen lake, the arctic sun guiding his way.

We all squealed like school kids.  We had literally gotten to come head-to-head with a polar bear in his natural environment, and that’s what this journey was all about: creating an experience that would serve as a vivid memory etched in all of our hearts, for the rest of our lives.

For highlights from Ashley Castle’s tour through Manitoba, please click here.

Ashley Castle is a writer and blogger with a focus on experiential, transformational travel. She traveled to Manitoba to engage with locals – and local wildlife – with USTOA Active Member Tauck in November and captured her experiences here on the USTOA blog as well as AFAR.com,  and her own Facebook , Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Explore Taiwan Like a Local

Travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro picked Taiwan for her first trip to Asia. The island nation has so much to offer; from the energy of the big city to the serenity of postcard-worthy beaches. Explore Taiwan alongside Ferro as she tours its vibrant landscape, culture, history and food with USTOA member Ritz Tours.

Ready to explore more? Watch the videos below to experience the incredible culture, landscape and food of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Culture

Tropical Countryside

Taiwan’s Cultural Food

Ritual Ceremony

Taiwan’s Street Markets

Cycling Croatia

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

As I slowly crawl up another incline on my bicycle I check my mirror to see a pack of septuagenarians inching closer and closer. In an instant, the ringing of passing bells mutes the sound of my bike chain. One-by-one the group passes me, most of whom have roughly 40 years on me, and I’m the one out of breath! I could justify my sluggish performance on my recent spike in olive oil and truffle consumption on a recent tour of Istria and Split, but no one likes excuses. Inspired by the cycling of others in my group, I take a deep breath, gear-up and spin my legs a little faster. Not long after, I reach the peak feeling satisfied by the sweeping views of the Adriatic Sea and by my ability to keep on pushing. I’m in Croatia, on the island of Brac, on a cycling tour with USTOA tour operator and member, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations which will take me through the islands of Brac and Hvar in the Croatian region of Dalmatia.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

The tour started in the town of Split, where I was to meet up with the rest of the tour group before we all ferried to the island of Brac. Upon meeting the group and guides I was growing increasingly more excited. I had never been on an “active” tour before, so meeting everyone and hearing their enthusiasm for cycling, and other cycling trips they had taken in the past was very motivational. With all the continued introductions and chatter the ferry trip went by rather quickly and soon we were at our first destination on Brac, the village of Postira. Postira is a quiet village meant for R&R, and the only thing more eye-catching than the boat filled harbor was the dramatic mountain filled landscapes. One of our guides, Lada, walked us into the village and familiarized us with some of the necessary landmarks before leading us to our hotel.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

After checking in, the group met for a safety and bike fitting session before a short warm-ride to give us a taste of the island. I’m very glad that there aren’t many cars driving on the island of Brac because the sight of farmers harvesting their wine grapes made focusing on the road extremely difficult. Everyone returned from the warm-up ride, and while the group readied themselves for the welcoming dinner that evening, our two guides worked out any kinks people had with their bicycle configurations. Later, the group strolled along the harbor as the sun light waned in the distance. We were led to a family-run restaurant, with smells of garlic and savory spices wafting out, and were greeted with chilled shots of small-batch brandies. Inside we sat down by candle light, the dining hall buzzed with sounds of laughter and conversation. That was until the hostess brought out the main courses, three types of peka cooked proteins. Peka is a method of cooking popular in Dalmatia in which a protein is stewed in a vessel similar to a Dutch oven (just shallower) with sauce, various spices and vegetables. The dish is covered with a metal lid and then fire embers are placed on top. I selected the octopus peka and when I took my first bite I was amazed by the texture as it was akin to the texture of chicken.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

I woke up the next morning ready for a day full of cycling. We began at a slow pace through winding pastoral roads that led us by fields of fig and olive trees. We were headed to the town of Pucisca with an arduous climb in our way. Just as I thought about motioning for the VBT van to give me a lift, I caught a glimpse of the patchwork white and terracotta buildings of Pucisca. Suddenly, the lactic acid burn in my muscles was an afterthought. Pucisca is a gorgeous seaside village that wraps around the teal Adriatic Sea. Pucisca’s most unique attraction is its stonecutter’s school, where the main material worked on is limestone which the island is famous for. The quality of limestone from Brac Island is actually so good that it was exported to the United States to be used in parts of the White House in Washington, D.C. The stonecutting school looked exactly like the images I had conjured up in my head: huge chunks of stone everywhere, piles of rock shavings and T-squares. What was most impressive to me is that the students use all manually powered tools like they would have centuries ago.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

On our last day on Brac, the group’s hard work was rewarded with a trip to the famous Zlatni Rat, or Golden Horn beach in Bol, on the southern coast of Brac. The weather was perfect, as it was sunny but not hot, and despite the water being a little chilly it seemed to remedy everyone’s cycling aches and pains. What makes the beaches on this island unique is that instead of sand, the beach is a mixture of varying sizes of pebbles. I found the best way to enjoy them was to lay down on the smaller ones near the water’s edge and the rocks provided an acupressure release of sorts. This, in combination with the lapping waves, almost lulled me asleep until I heard someone murmur the magic word…cappuccino. After a relaxing light lunch in Bol we all boarded a small chartered ferry for our second stop of the biking tour, the island of Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

We arrived in Hvar Town (the island’s capital), where our hotel was located, in late afternoon. The cafes lining the harbor were starting to fill up with patrons and the smells of coffee brewing and wine aerating began to fill the air. At sunset everyone met in our hotel’s courtyard so that we could all walk together to an intimate cooking lesson at a nearby chef’s home. Chef Ante Vucetic, our host, was incredible. When we arrived, he invited us into his garden for a small tour—tasting this plant and smelling that fruit along the way. We passed several jars of small-batch, flavored brandy on our way back to the dining area where there were some of those brandies chilled and waiting for us. Our dining table was in view of Ante’s outdoor kitchen and as he explained his cooking philosophy he also explained what he would be preparing for us: a starter of a tomato based stew-like dish called salsa (pronounced shalsha), and a delicious grilled tuna steak rubbed with olive and spices accompanied by some lightly mashed potatoes and buttered green peas. The flavors were nice and simple, but the quality of the ingredients really made these dishes shine. On top of these dishes I use a liberal amount of some of the best salt I have ever had, which Ante had gathered from rocks lining the sea…impeccable flavor. The meal was one of my most memorable highlights and Ante made our evening incredibly special.

The tour of Croatia was coming to an end, but I still had one more day of cycling ahead of me. The main destination for the day was the Stari Grad, a quiet village on the northern side of Hvar. But before that, the planned route would have the group cycling around the town of Brusje. Despite the intense sun, the sea breeze traveling over the island kept everyone cool. The terrain looked a little different on this part of the island, as it resembled arid desert and was less wooded— apparently perfect for growing lavender. As I made my way up the last portion of the hill I spotted the rest of the group on the side of the road interacting with a woman selling lavender products. Some were buying cycling jerseys decorated with lavender and some smelled the different essential oils on display. The group pressed on toward Stari Grad, a tranquil destination that is very small and easy to navigate on foot. I spent my time wandering the cobblestone back alleys and peaking my head into boutiques and artisan shops. I stopped at one of the many small bakeries and had a lunch which consisted of a jam filled pastry and milk, and if I wouldn’t have had to bike back home I can assure you I would have had another round.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

That evening everyone met near the Hvar Town harbor for a farewell dinner and as we sat dining on fresh seafood and delicious Croatian wine we listened to the sounds of the peaceful Adriatic. I had been biking for roughly a week straight but I didn’t feel sore at all, I was actually thinking about how I would miss my bicycle, and the daily route reviews with our guides. Being with a group of people all driven to complete a physical challenge was something I missed. The comradery I felt on this trip was incredible and it will be a feeling that I carry with me for some time to come.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.

In Croatia: Harder the Climb, the Sweeter the View

by Kelley Ferro

I consider myself an “active” person so when I joined up with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations “active” bike tour in the Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands, I thought it’d be no sweat. But to my surprise, there was a bit of sweat…in the best way possible. We grinded our gears up steady inclines and we flew down cliffs, but all the while, we were gliding by lavender scented hills and the glittering Adriatic. Uphill or downhill, what remained constant was the feeling of being so alive and present each moment in this country.

The View from the top of the hill in Brac!

The View from the top of the hill in Brac!

I have to admit, when I travel, it’s usually go-go-go the entire time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually breathe in and be completely present in the moment as I always have to think about the next stop, shoot, line etc. However, on this particular trip, I traded a car for a bike, and my mind was forced to focus only on the immediate. Pushing those pedals and cresting that hill (or if you are like me, trying to take a photo and bike at the same time) took up pretty much all of my brainpower and in doing so, allowed me to immerse in Croatia in a new day.

The rolling, drop-dead gorgeous rolling hills of Istria provided the perfect terrain for a warm-up ride.  Our energetic guide Marco, led us on natural mountain trails, with a backdrop so stunning, we all had to make frequent stops for photo opportunities. The Istrian topography was ideally suited for the pace of bike travel: gently sloping green hills with bike paths between villages evenly spaced so you can have breakfast in one and lunch in the other. And believe me, you will want to too, as these Istrian villages off world-class food– fragrant truffles, wild meats, the sweetest honeys, rich olive oil and local Istrian wines.

Pre- Truffle Hunting Breakfast at Karlic Truffle

Pre- Truffle Hunting Breakfast at Karlic Truffle

But this sweet first day of biking and eating in Istria, was just the introduction of active adventure. Before we knew it we were onto the next stop and we had touched down in Split: Croatia’s vivacious and historic portside town. From a bustling waterside promenade and well preserved castle, to twisting streets full of busy cafes, restaurants & shops, Split had energy and a dose of sophistication bursting from its historic buildings.

Riva: Split’s bustling waterfront promenade

Riva: Split’s bustling waterfront promenade

Naturally, we were on the search for the best ways to film the city so up we went. Marjan Hill is a park popular for running, concerts, weddings and of course, sweeping views of Split, where the mountains meet the sea. The steps up continued and I found myself wishing I were on a bike to get up to the top faster. But on we charged and we were rewarded with hitting the peak at magic hour, when Split was bathed in rosy, dewy light of the setting sun.

Sunset in Split

Sunset in Split

But there were more mountains to climb, and the island of Brač beckoned. We met our fellow bikers, the rest of the intrepid crew that signed up for our VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations tour, and we set sail via ferry for the first island.

This vividly green island seemed to be built for biking–wide shoulders hugging mountain roads, idyllic small towns and roadside beaches so beautiful I frequently had to screech to a halt. With the charming seaside town of Postira as our biking off point, we crisscrossed Brač, taking in mountain top vistas, and cobbled town streets and just the raw, glorious countryside.

Pučišća from the top

Pučišća from the top

Biking everywhere was exactly what made this trip so special. Each experience was that much more enhanced because our blood was pumping and we were physically working to get ourselves there. It’s true that the harder the climb, the sweeter the view.

For me, no moment epitomized that feeling more than my bike ride up to Škrip, a small, mountain top town on Brač.

Stunning Pučišća

Stunning Pučišća

Škrip was the bonus part of the first day’s ride. We biked a steep but jaw-droppingly picturesque route to and from the charming seaside town of Pučišća. The best part was getting to see Pučišća from above as you rode in — it is stunning from all vantage points. Upon our return, after a wholesome lunch and a very interesting tour of a marble carving school, we had the choice to bike an extra leg, the most challenging part we’d ever encounter on the trip.  The leaders of our group were fit and experienced, and they told us in no uncertain terms that this was going to be tough, but it was completely optional. I chose to bike it.

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Lunch & Marble Carving School Tour in Pučišća

Something about the fresh air, the Mediterranean sun and the free feeling of focusing solely on pedaling, inspired me to tackle that last leg. It was hot, the air was dry but I was loving the burn as I pushed the road bike up the hill to Škrip. Though I did wonder if this hill would ever end; the farms, the waving locals and the views of distant islands gave me all the energy I needed to continue up. I saw the roadside sign for Škrip and the road magically leveled out. I had made it! With a euphoric feeling of victory, I sped along the ‘piece of cake’ road through a town of no more than three small buildings, ending in a church square with dappled with trees. I parked my bike, knowing the rest of the group would be there shortly and began to explore around as I regained my breath.

Luta waiting for us in Škrip

Luta waiting for us in Škrip

A little, elderly lady jumped up and hobbled towards me. She and I had a few moments of hand-motions and a muddled mix of Croatia, English words, we finally settled on basic Italian were able to communicate. Her name was Luta, and she was waiting here to show the VBT group the homemade wine and olive oil that she produces at her home. I translated her story to the group–she & generations before her have been making wine and olive oil in Škrip for the past 100 years. She nodded, pushing small plastic cups of wine and olive oil into our hands to taste. She made it all by hand with little frills or help, and her face lit up as we told her how delicious they were.

Selfie with Luta

Selfie with Luta

The handful of our group that had decided to push on and crest the hill to Škrip got the chance to meet the wonderful Luta and spend time in her home. Not only was this the best surprise at the end of a hill, but knowing that we had gone the extra mile on bike made this experience even more blissful. Being completely present made me love those few uphill rides the most because nothing beats the feeling of reaching the top.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

Touring Croatia: Istria & Split

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Afternoon light in the Istrian countryside

Afternoon light in the Istrian countryside

As I sat inspecting my mosquito bites and mud-soiled shoes near the trailhead, I heard pandemonium from deep inside the dense Croatian forest: a mixture of laughter, amazement, and dog yelps. I knew right then exactly what was going on – a truffle had been found, and by the sound of it, it was a big one. My colleagues and I are in the Croatian region of Istria scavenging for truffles with our guide from the Karlic Estate, and despite the rising welts on my forearms and neck I am close to euphoric. I could equate it to the truffle extravaganza I had at breakfast that morning, but the far more likely reason is my trip in Croatia up to this moment has been full of culinary delights and incredible scenery.

Istria is a place of understated beauty: rolling hills broken up by patches of olive groves and vineyards, peak after peak of picturesque villages, and the occasional glimpse of the sea. My Istrian journey began in one of these villages, Motovun. This medieval village’s history precedes the 1st century with ties to ancient Roman inhabitants. However, in the 14th century Motovun was governed by Venetians who fortified the city with huge stone walls, which are still intact today.  But, as gorgeous as the architecture is, the true highlight for me in Motovun was a private performance of the town’s klapa group. Klapa is a traditional a cappella singing style practiced throughout the Dalmatia region of Croatia, in which songs typically express themes of love, wine, the land, or the sea. The klapa performance I attended took place in Motovun’s Church of St. Stephen where the all-male singing group’s perfectly pitched voices bounced beautifully off of the painted frescoes on the cathedral ceiling.

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

Klapa Motovun performing in Motovun’s Parish Church of St. Stephen

The following day my colleagues and I set off with our guide from Istria Tourism, Marko. The plan was to arrive at the Karlic Estate to sample some fine truffles and learn a bit about the truffle industry. After absorbing a few facts concerning both white and black truffles our host, Radmilla Karlic, whipped up some delicious recipes that she thought showcased truffles best. The first dish consisted of slices of baguette and a cream cheese-like spread, topped with a slice of gorgeous black truffle. Our second dish was one that Radmilla particularly recommended as she noted how well the flavor of the truffles would be pronounced: scrambled eggs with mild parmesan cheese, and of course, a generous amount of shaved truffles on top. The meal was incredible, and afterward, we were served some strong Turkish coffee while we perused the Karlic gift shop where the mouthwatering products ranged from truffle flavored butter to freshly made pork sausages laced with truffles. Had I known that leaving the shop and going into the woods to hunt for truffles would have led to the aforementioned mosquito fiasco I probably would have stayed put, opting for rounds of crisp white wine and truffle laden snacks!

Sampling brandies at the Karlic Estate

Sampling brandies at the Karlic Estate

Several hundred dollars’ worth of fungus

Several hundred dollars’ worth of fungus

A beautiful cross-section of a black truffle

A beautiful cross-section of a black truffle

The tour of Istria then led west to the seaside town of Novigrad, a small village that appeared to have more fishing nets than people. Arrangements were made for us to join local chef, Marina Gasi, in her restaurant Konoba Marina for a light lunch. Chef Gasi’s restaurant is unique in that she doesn’t have a menu, instead she prefers to cook dishes which inspire her day-to-day. Her inspiration usually hits her while walking through the Novigrad fish market, and what caught her eye on the day of our visit was sole. Chef Gasi prepared the sole sashimi style, laying the cuts atop a bed of purple grained rice that was then lightly seasoned with a very light citrus dressing. She stated that this type of dish is indicative of her cooking style as it really emphasis the freshness of the seafood.

We had all over-indulged, so our guide thought it would be a good idea to do a little mountain biking through the countryside around the village of Groznjan. We readied the bicycles and equipment then began our descent. A tunnel here, an olive grove there—there was so much beauty our guide had trouble keeping track of us as there were so many scenic bluffs from which to photograph. This ride was a good warm up for my legs considering I would be doing much more in the next few days throughout the Dalmatian Islands with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations. After our ride, Marko thought it would be a good idea to head to nearby Benvenuti Vineyards for a tour and some refreshments. We were greeted by Livio Benvenuti and his son Nikola who were very pleased to have us. We toured the vineyards, the storage cellars, and the tasting room. For me, watching the sun go down out in the Istrian countryside with a chilled Benvenuti white wine was the perfect way to say good bye to this agriculturally rich land.

The following morning we were up early for a short flight and drive that led to the charming coastal city of Split, a city with a healthy symbiosis of tradition and modernism. The main attraction of this city is undoubtedly Diocletian’s Palace built around 300 A.D. Now, when I say palace most will conjure up visions of UNESCO-run tourist sights which are roped off in certain areas and completely void of life once closing time hits, not Diocletian’s Palace. Here the tight labyrinth of stone alleys is crammed with cafes, restaurants, and bars all buzzing well into the early morning. In addition commercial buildings, the palace also contains apartments within its walls and in these 220 buildings there roughly 3,000 residents.

We met with our guide for the day, Dino, who gave us a tour of the palace grounds— something I highly recommend, as there were many aspects of the palace I would have overlooked had Dino not been able to provide the history. The whole palace is truly remarkable but my favorite area had to be the Basement Halls. There are vendors selling goods, and the cavernous basement is unreal. It is a little amazing to think of all the chaos ensuing over your head on those bustling lanes within the palace. After leaving the palace walls we walked down the Riva, a promenade lining part of the Split Harbor where everyone from fisherman in overalls to 20-somethings in stilettos has a few minutes on the catwalk. While an audience of cappuccino sipping café patrons take notes on the latest fashion dos’ and don’ts. We continued walking west past the Riva’s end towards Marjan, a hilly nature reserve with trails, scenic lookouts, and a historic chapel. Seeing Split from a bird’s eye view gave me a better idea of how busy the harbor and smaller surrounding islands were as boats of all sizes seemed to be in a constant ebb and flow between them.

That evening in my hotel room, within the palace walls, I sat listening to the noise below. I heard a handful of languages, a whole lot of laughter, and the occasional clinking of glasses. For me, these sounds are representative of my time spent in Croatia: a country whose identity has been molded by various cultures throughout history. Regardless of where you are in the country, the locals are inviting and eager to show you Croatia through their eyes.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Croatia, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.

Discover Australia’s Northern Territory

Watch as travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro explores Australia’s Northern Territory. Touring with USTOA Member Goway Travel gave Kelley access to local guides, unique wildlife and once in a lifetime experiences that make this region one of the most culturally rich in the world. Highlights of the trip include hiking through the vast Kings Canyon, visiting Uluru -Kata Tjuta National Park and sampling the local cuisine throughout.

More on how to tour Australia’s Northern Territory:

Northern Territory: On The Big Sky Life

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

I told Goway Travel and the Tourism Northern Territory crew that I am as brave as they come; I’m willing to stare two-pronged danger in the face, go toe-to-toe with crocodilian terrors, and dance with thorny mayhem – so long as it’s behind three inches of safety glass. That’s how I ended up at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, shoulder to shoulder with owner Rex Neindorf’s fantastic collection of slithering, slinking Outback wonders. Read the full post here.

Northern Territory: The Nature of Expectation

by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

Expectation has a way of bringing travel into perspective. But when expectation is paired with long-distance travel – in the case of my trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, a 14-hour jaunt book-ended by a pair of 4-hour flights – expectation also can shape the way you think about place and space. Read the full post here.

Northern Territory: A Land Before Time

by Kelley Ferro

Never have I been anywhere that has more “sky.” I know what you are going to say— “every place has the same amount of sky” but trust me, when you are standing in the desert of the Northern Territory, you might rethink that statement. Read the full post here.

Revealing the Beauty of Taiwan

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

It was the morning of my fifth day of an eight-day tour for USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours and the tour was set to leave Kaohsiung in southeastern Taiwan. I remember getting on the bus with mixed expectations: I was extremely satisfied with what I had seen of the coast line from Taipei to Kaohsiung, but the cynic in me didn’t expect to see much variety in the sights scheduled for Taiwan’s southern and eastern coasts. However, not too far into our drive that day, these notions were squashed with our arrival at the Kenting National Park.

There was a change in both the climate and the topography of the land outside. The highway we were on crept closer to the ocean, and we got our first glimpse of the picture-perfect turquoise waters of southern Taiwan. The dense forested mountains outside the bus transformed into porous, jagged rock leftover from volcanoes long ago. We were now in the tropical region of Taiwan, and the evidence was all around: the swaying palms, the whitewash of the beach, and the horizon melting under the sun in the distance.

Kenting National Forest Recreation Area

Kenting National Park is gorgeous and has a very diverse ecology. Two of the areas I thoroughly enjoyed within the park were the Eluanbi Lighthouse and the Kenting National Forest Recreational Area. The lighthouse was beautiful, but what I really enjoyed were the elevated walking trails which ran alongside the rocky shore. The Forest Recreational Area is a sanctuary for multiple species of birds and butterflies, and the biodiversity of plant life attracts millions. One big contributor to the park’s popularity in recent years is Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s choice to use some of the park’s scenery for a couple scenes in the hit film The Life of Pi.

 

We left Kenting National Park and went north via Highway 11, the splendid stretch of highway which runs along the unspoiled coasts of eastern Taiwan. It’s sparsely populated out east and the abundant beauty really made me feel nostalgic for road trips, camping, or surfing trips on the USA’s west coast. Those interested in geology, or nature in general, will want to stop at Hsiao Yeliu, a coastal park with very unique and mysterious rock formations. Here, thousands of years of wind and salt water have created the earth’s breaching crust to smooth and contort in very odd ways. Walking out on the rocks is encouraged, and doing so will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a Salvador Dali landscape.
The bridge to Sansiantai

Another memorable stop we made not far from Hsiao Yeliu was the Platform of the Three Mortals (Sansiantai), where an arched bridge stretches out onto a small coral island. The three hulking rock masses on the island have links to Chinese mythology, but what I found more enjoyable was the unique bridge and a nearby beach comprised of varying size of round stones. One of the last scheduled stops on our west coast itinerary had to be altered due to typhoon flooding, and unfortunately our options at the famous Taroko Gorge were limited. Nevertheless, we made the most of the opportunity to take a small hike over a suspension bridge and up through a tunnel to visit the Eternal Spring Shine, which was built in dedication to 450 workers who lost their lives creating road tunnels through the mountainous park.

A suspension bridge near the Eternal Spring Shrine

On my last day in Taiwan I got the pleasure of visiting the former gold mining town of Jiufen, located in the extreme northeast. Jiufen Old Street is one of the main attractions, and is one raucous bazaar of a street. On both sides of the narrow lane there are cooks and salesman touting the nourishing properties of their vegetable dumplings or the potency of their green tea. After exiting the mayhem, my group rehabilitated at one of the local teahouses. We were served a light lunch which was followed by a tea ceremony, a tranquil end to my incredible journey.

Sampling green tea in Jiufen

As I was at the airport getting ready to leave I wondered why it had taken me so long to visit Taiwan. I came to the conclusion that it just kept getting pushed back on the list behind other destinations. To be honest though, it’s simply because I didn’t know enough about the island, ignorant to the diversity of attractions and activities. Of course now my opinion has changed drastically. I already want to go back and take part in some secluded hiking, or stay in some of the quaint surfer townships that scream relaxation. I want to dine on stinky tofu and freshly grilled octopus. It may be a small island, but it is a beautiful one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.

Taiwan: Hospitality Needs No Language

by Kelley Ferro

When thinking of a story to share about my experience with USTOA in Taiwan, my first trip ever to Asia, there’s so much I could say. I could tell you about the overwhelming smell of stinky tofu, (which I did try, on camera…), the flashing lights, sounds and energy of the Shilin Night Markets–my favorite spot in Taipei. Or I could tell you about the first time I bit into a dumpling meticulously crafted by the world renowned Din Tai Fung at Taipei 101. Or maybe I could talk about joining in the groups of men and women practicing Tai Chi at 5am in the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. There are so many stories to tell because the real, the in-your-face Taiwanese culture bombarded my senses in all the best ways. But the story I that I’m going to tell you is a very simple one. I’m going to tell you about eating lunch with Taiwanese family in the countryside.

Our last day of our Ritz Tours excursion throughout Taiwan was a Sunday. Hours before our flights back home, we were invited to have lunch with nationally known calligrapher and his family at his home about 30 minutes outside of Taipei. We cruised along the highways of the pristine capital city, which I had felt comfortable in since it was so reminiscent of New York City, onto smaller roads through smaller villages and finally bumping onto ruddy, dirt roads twisting and turning around farms and creeks. Our car came to a halt in front of large, angular white house next to a sprawling lotus pond.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

We were here. I had no idea where here was but I didn’t have much time to think before I was being bowed too and welcomed in broken English by our host, San. A stocky man, we followed him into the front room of his house with a low round table and about eight place settings. We were a group of four: my cameraman Justin, our driver, and our guide, Lily. Who else was coming to lunch?

As it turned out, San invited a crowd of family and friends to join us in what was going to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. One by one, we met San’s family: his younger son who spoke English well, his older son who worked at Eva Airlines, his uncle who didn’t say a word, his wife who had been cooking this feast for two days, and his best friend who lived down the street. Smiling and nodding, his wife excitedly told us in Mandarin to sit down and start eating. San raised his glass and welcomed us, and we all toasted with a resounding hymn of “Gan bey,” which I later learned meant bottoms up. And the multi-course, multi-hour meal had begun.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

I can’t even tell you what was in the feast spread before us, but I dove into plate after plate of meats, chicken, seafood rolls, whole fish, and lots of rice, chopsticks first. San told me that his wife was cooking in a traditional style of her ancestors in China–the flavors and spices were very traditional. I don’t think I could ever recreate any of it but, wow, was it delicious.  After, several toasts later, and a lotus pod dessert, San decided that he needed to up the entertainment.

image3b Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Without saying a word, he walked over to his keyboard and started singing a Taiwanese song–which his friend eagerly joined in. Being serenaded at luncheon feast in the middle of Taiwan’s countryside–I don’t think it could get any more local.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

The long lunch continued with more songs, more toasts and more chatter. As we all grew more comfortable with each other, I was able to communicate with his wife in spite of our limited mutual language. She eagerly showed me photos her daughter, which I deciphered studied fashion in Japan. We walked out and took a tour of their garden and admired their massive floating lotus pond–unlike anything I had ever seen. 

image5

San said that beer made him an even better calligrapher and he proved it by giving us a tutorial in calligraphy. I got a one-on-one lesson, which I was told was very rare. With just black ink on the tip of a long haired brush, San flicked his wrist effortlessly to create beautiful swoops and slashes of the characters. He was a poet, and he made up several poems on the spot. Calligraphy is part art, part storytelling and watching him create these fans and scrolls was captivating. He had an impressive background–he had studied calligraphy all his life and now had become one of the most preeminent calligraphers in Taiwan. He told his it takes at least 50 years to really hone the craft–I can believe it as my attempts looked like child’s handwriting next to his beautiful characters. He even showed us his pottery studio in garage, where he molded, carved and fired beautiful, and expensive, vases.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in Taiwan

Not only did San and his family open up their home to us, he opened up his life and shared his life story. Being able to be in his home and experience his family dynamic, hear their stories and be part of their Sunday taught me more about Taiwan and it’s people than any pretty view or impressive site ever could. These are the types of moments that really affect your perspective and this unbridled generosity was so humbling. They lined up as we left and waved us off, as we bumped down the road away from them. For a moment in time, we were a part of their family and I’ll carry a little bit of that experience with me forever. Hospitality needs no language.

Kelley Ferro Ritz Tours in TaiwanKelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer forTripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

Touring Taiwan’s West Coast

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Prior to heading to Taiwan I asked several friends of mine, most of which are well-traveled, what they thought of their time spent on this beautiful island and in most cases they all replied with the same thing: they wished they had seen more than just Taipei and its surrounding areas. They marveled at the Taipei 101 building, sampled some world famous dumplings from Din Tai Fung, and soaked up the history on display at Taipei’s finest museums…but that was all. They talked of how they could see the gorgeous coast and the mountainous terrain while flying in, but regretted not getting to see it up close. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love a good dumpling, but when I got my tour itinerary from USTOA tour operator member Ritz Tours that included phrases like “pristine lakes”, “secluded temples” and “misty mountains”, I was thrilled.

The west coast of Taiwan is scenic and full of lush, green mountains occasionally decorated with reflective rice fields or orchards bearing fruit. We made stops at several impressive religious sights: The Wenwu Temple – filled with devotees lighting incense and worshippers throwing buei (moon blocks) in order to ascertain the gods’ advice, Xuanzang Temple – which houses the remains of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk who’s journeys inspired the novel Journey To The West, and the massive Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery – which serves as the headquarters for the Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order with architecture that is a little extravagant but so beautiful you’ll be in awe for hours.

In stark contrast to the peace and serenity of the temples, the city of Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second largest) was a bustling hub of activity. We entered the city close to dusk, and after stops at the lovely Lotus Pond, which was surrounded by temples and pagodas, we followed the pulsating path of neon directly to the famous Liuhe Night Market.  Over 100 different food vendors at the Liuhe Night Market make it a great place to try one of Taiwan’s well-known street-eats like the famous (or infamous depending on the diner) stinky tofu that has an aroma sure to stop you midstride. On the less pungent end of the culinary spectrum you can find a plethora of fried meats or vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous pork-belly bao bun and if you’re looking for something sweet the mango-ice dessert is a must.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

 

As stimulating and exciting as the big, bright cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung are, the true highlight of the first leg of my Taiwanese tour was the tranquil Sun Moon Lake, located southeast of Taichung. As our bus headed deeper and deeper into the forest the temperature dropped, and soon the bus surrounded by a stagnant fog. The driver slowly crept around one final curve of the road and we saw our first glimpse of the lake. It was such a striking scene it prompted several tour members (myself included) to grab their cameras.

Sun Moon Lake Pagoda

We made several stops around the Sun Moon Lake area. The most overwhelming was the towering Tsen Pagoda. We reached the pagoda as a light drizzle started to come down; I entered the base of the pagoda and looked up through the hollow cavity and was mesmerized by two Escher –esque corkscrew staircases which led to the top. To make things even more surreal there was a huge bell that was occasionally struck, causing an echo throughout the entire structure. I made my way toward the top and popped my head out of a window to catch a fleeting glimpse of the mist lifting off of the lake. It was a beautiful sight that will leave an impression on my mind for a long time.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

When we boarded the bus again, our guide, Lenny, told us about our hotel, the award winning, Fleur de Chine Hotel. Lenny informed us of the natural hot springs, which you could enjoy in the hotel’s spa. Or, if you wanted a little more privacy Lenny told us that the hotel also gives guests the option to fill a smaller tub in their own room with the natural hot spring water. I opted to try both and even though the larger public spa was nice, my tub (which was surrounded by a wall of glass) combined with several cups of locally grown Oolong tea was enough enticement to make me want to lock myself in my room for a week straight. Nonetheless, everyone on the bus looked a little rejuvenated that next morning.

Touring Taiwan's West Coast

I thoroughly enjoyed the start of my tour of Taiwan. Ritz Tours did an incredible job scheduling an itinerary that showed me some of the most intriguing aspects of travel in Taiwan. This was only the west coast portion of the tour and it was off to an incredible start. I had been able to explore both cities and countryside alike, talk with locals to better understand Taiwan’s culture, and eaten my weight in pork belly bao buns…life was good.

For highlights of Colin Roohan’s tour through Taiwan, click here.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.