5 Reasons The Galapagos Are On Everyone’s Bucket List

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/May 15 2020/ All Blog Posts , Rants & Raves , Resources , Travel News , Travel Tips /1 Comments

Galapagos Highlights: Why are the Galapagos on everyone’s bucket list?  Comprised of 19 islands, 42 islets, and 256 rocks spanning a 20,000 square mile area on the equator, the Galapagos Islands have been an Ecuadorian National Park since 1959. Also a Marine Reserve (second only to the Great Barrier Reef) since 1986.

Here’s the perfect combination for anyone planning to fill out their bucket list by visiting the Galapagos: Travel and sightsee on Ecuador’s diverse and enchanting mainland. Then fly to the Galapagos and board a luxury yacht for a tour of the magnificent islands. And that’s exactly what we did!

Following our excellent Ecuador land experiences (See “Tour Ecuador & Then Head For The Galapagos Islands), we flew to Guayaquil (Ecuador’s biggest city). Then, from Guayaquil we took a pleasant ninety-minute flight to the mystical Galapagos Islands.

First stop was at Galapagos National Park’s point of entry on Baltra Island. Then going through “customs”….

After officially entering the Galapagos, we met the staff of our luxury yacht, Isabela II. From there, we took a short shuttle bus ride (that is to say, the bus ride, not the shuttle bus itself) to the dock where our yacht was anchored across the water…

On the short ride, we were given a quick safety lesson for getting from the yacht to dry land and vice versa. This was something we would do a lot in the coming days as we visited different islands. 

From the shuttle bus, we boarded a waiting Zodiac inflatable vessel for a quick trip to the anchored yacht (photo below).

The Galapagos Islands in general:

Because of their location 600 miles west of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands experience unusual Pacific Ocean currents. Those currents bring unique climate and nutrients to the birds and animals that have adapted to fit these conditions.

With no natural land enemies, the animals and birds of these volcanic islands are unfazed by people. Thus, the main responsibility of visitors is to not disturb their natural behavior. 

And, although the islands were quite dry when we visited in November, we were told they’d soon be green and tropical with upcoming wet-season rains.

The good news is that the Galapagos are favorable year-round because different species mate and birth throughout the year…

Every cruise has a different itinerary and takes its guests to different islands. And each Island has a different terrain, content, and flavor.

In addition to the port at Baltra, there is much to see and do on all of the islands in this archipelago. North Seymour Island, Fernandina, Port Ayora and Santa Cruz offered up their own unique terrain, history and wildlife to us.   

When we stepped ashore on North Seymour Island the first afternoon, numerous sea lions waddled through our group. Once we stepped away from the beach, there was other wildlife to be found.

Iguanas, large and small, hunkered down in the warm sand to absorb the sun’s waning heat.

Crimson-throated frigate birds roosted amorously in their nearby rookery.

On some islands, the going was rough on trails that were almost entirely composed of medium-sized rocks and boulders. (Walking sticks were helpful for those who had them).  

Water spouted up from the sea through holes between the rocks.

Blue-footed boobies socialized…

A Nazca Booby looked stately and elegant…

A young albatross tried out its wings. 

On Isabela Island, an inland brackish lake provided food and sustenance for flamingos.

On many of the islands, marine iguanas piled up together for warmth (as well as doing some “snot rocketing”, i.e. sneezing the seawater out of their systems).

Everywhere we went, innumerable sea lions, including newborns with placentas still attached, waddled on the sand and absorbed sun-warmth.

Sting-ray

We waded with sting rays… sea kayaked (where we saw the only penguin species that lives in tropical waters)… viewed fish and sea life from the yacht’s glass bottom boat… kayaked and snorkeled to get close to some sea animals… and, on the yacht at night, we star-gazed from the yacht’s upper deck…

Our tour culminated on busy Santa Cruz Island, with a walk among the giant land tortoises for which the Galapagos are known.

Also, on Santa Cruz Island you can see the remnants of ancient volcanoes. We walked through hollow lava tubes that remain from the volcanic activity.  

Before leaving Santa Cruz Island, be sure to visit and tour the Darwin Research Station. You’ll learn, among other things, about the island’s recycling activities…

Our “floating hotel” on this Avalon Waterways tour featured every amenity you would expect on a fine cruise. That included excellent, air-conditioned accommodations, gourmet cuisine, and top-drawer service…

The entire staff — captain, crew, and onboard naturalists — possessed an impressive range of knowledge and experience. We received marvelous presentations and highly informative lectures about the fauna and flora of the Galapagos…

Quality sit-down meals, buffets, and snacks…

Every staff member was unfailingly polite, congenial, unobtrusive, and totally committed to the guests’ comfort.

At the end of our Galapagos stay, we flew back to Quito for an overnight before connecting to flights home…

Afterglow

Avalon Waterways crafted a perfect combination of sightseeing and ample time to experience and contemplate this magical area: Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

I know I wasn’t the only guest sorry to leave this extraordinary adventure.

I’d go back on a moment’s notice, bucket list or not!

A version of this story appeared in TravelAgeWest.

Editor’s notes:

This trip was made at the invitation of Ecuador Tourism, Metropolitan Tourism, Avalon Waterways and other entities within the country, which had no influence whatsoever on any viewpoint or reporting.

(Photos for this story courtesy of Avalon Waterways, Metropolitan Tourism, Skip Kaltenheuser, and the author).

P.S. If you can’t get enough of the Galapagos, I urge you to view this excellent video and narrative prepared and produced by Fred and Peggy Heiman:

5 Highlights Of Ecuador & The Amazon To Check Out Before (or After) You Visit The Galapagos

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/May 15 2020/ All Blog Posts , Rants & Raves , Resources , Travel News , Travel Tips /0 Comments
Ecuador Andes (Courtesy photo)

The perfect combination for anyone planning to visit the Galapagos is to experience highlights of Ecuador’s diverse and enchanting mainland, then fly to the Galapagos Islands and board a luxury yacht for a tour of the magnificent islands.

First, here are some pleasant sounds of Ecuador to enjoy as you read the post…
Turn the sound on/off and adjust the volume to your liking… especially when you come to the other videos and music, below…

1. QUITO

For starters, a pleasant four-hour flight from Atlanta, Georgia  brought us from the United States to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. 

Quito, Ecuador at night (Courtesy Photo)

Quito is at once cosmopolitan and cultured, with significant history, magnificent churches and museums, fine food and entertainment, and really pleasant people…

As of 2019, about 1,978,376 people lived in Quito (the second largest city in Ecuador after Guayaquil). The Historic Center in Quito is one of the largest, least-changed and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas.

World Cultural Heritage Site.
Quito was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978, the first city to be honored in such a way. (Wikipedia). 

Mittad del mundo / Center of The World  

You can literally put one foot in each hemisphere (North and South of the Equator) at the same time, at the “Middle of the World” in/near Quito. I say “in or near” as there was a question of where they put the attraction vs. the exact point on the compass where it might officially be, so they’ve worked on establishing the accurate location… 

2. IMBABURA PROVINCE 

The Imbabura Province offers a magical landscape of snow-covered mountains, lakes and farmlands.

Driving through the Imbabura Province on the way to the Otavalo Market (about two hours north of Quito), offered opportunities to stop at large, colorful plantations (haciendas/guest houses), replete with music, flowers, showing of plantation assets, and fine dining:

3. OTAVALO MARKET

At Otavalo we observed the very handsome Otavalo people in their colorful attire… shopping in their own native market for… everything… i.e. vegetables, flowers, staples, meat, poultry, cockroaches (a local treat?), household items, etc.  

One-man-band: 

I can still hear the delightful one-man-band guy rhythmically clanging up and down the aisles at the Otavalo Market… see photos and video, below…

Just outside of the food and vegetable market was the open market known for its weavings, alpaca hangings and other local crafts, “manned” by more handsome women, knitting their crafts as they waited near their booths. I still enjoy wearing the charming little black and silver necklace I bought there.    

Following our visit to the market, we were invited into the home shop of local weavers, who actually craft those familiar carpets and hangings… and happily demonstrated their weaving and color-blending techniques.

4. THE CHIVA EXPRESS

There’s nothing like a thrilling ride through the Andean countryside riding on top of a bus-like train (or is it a train-like bus)? 

The Chiva Express, with chairs firmly fastened to the top — and equipped with seatbelts — make it possible for travelers to ride safely on top and watch the Ecuadorian world (including snow-capped Mount Cotopaxi) go by… See photos and video, below.

5. RAINFOREST EXPERIENCE ​

A half-hour plane flight from Quito brought us to the Amazon rainforest frontier town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana (called El Coca by the locals).

Getting to Sacha Lodge…

At El Coca, we boarded long boats that took us on a two-hour journey on the Napo River, where we disembarked not far from the Sacha Lodge. From there, we had to hike a short way on a boardwalk through the forest until we reached one side of Lake Pilchicocha. From there, long, narrow boats took us to the other side of the lake, to Sacha Lodge, our home for the next few days…

Sacha Lodge is home to myriad fascinating jungle experiences involving, of course, animals (e.g. monkeys, kinkajous, jaguars, ocelot, agouti, you-name-it), insects, birds, fish… and anything jungle you can think of…

PS In case you didn’t already know (but probably suspected), the Amazon jungle is wet and humid and sticky about 100 percent of the time. Rain is almost always imminent, there’s nearly-permanent sucking mud on the trails, thorns everywhere, including on tree trunks (I found out the hard way), and tons of small, medium-sized and large mammals, birds, and insects everywhere you go.   

The lodge provided boots and ponchos to help cope with the ubiquitous rain and mud. It’s impossible for things to “dry” by themselves in the wet natural environment, so the lodge’s laundry service to help keep things clean and dry was a most welcome service! 

Our rooms also boasted a small “dry box” in the cupboard where you could put your electronic devices to protect them from the humidity. (Then there was the instance where I left some paper-wrapped cough drops on the bed, and when I returned later in the day, they had self-disintegrated into a sticky mess, thanks to the humidity, I guess).  

Activities when we were at the Lodge: 

 

***A night tour into the rainforest to see what’s going on in the forest at night:

With headlamps and sharp eyes of our guides, we spotted Insects, a kinkajou crawling through the trees above, snakes, and other creatures of the night.

***The Rainforest Canopy 

A daytime hike to Sacha Lodge’s canopy-view towers, climbing the 300 steps up to the bridges to glimpse what was going on ABOVE the forest canopy…

***Parrots & Piranhas: 

Some of our party made an excursion to see parrots at a salt lick some miles down the river…

***Fishing for piranhas and swimming in the lake near the lodge… 

First, you should know that the piranhas were small and non-threatening. However, piranhas are very hard to catch because they clean the bait in an instant – and, boy their teeth are sharp! 

PS Sorry to destroy the scary myth, but the idea that piranhas are monsters who eat humans is greatly overrated — there is no known case of this happening…

***Waterway Tour, Monkeys & All: 

While the guys made a long outing to the parrot salt lick, I was treated to my own special excursion down a narrow water passage in the midst of the rainforest, not far from the lodge.  

As Antonio, my guide, paddled down the waterway, monkeys clattered through the trees above, chattering noisily and raining down loose branches on our heads.

The jungle concealed every turn in the overgrown passage, and it felt mysterious and quiet, we didn’t go far…

As we explored, I chatted with Antonio about his life and hopes and dreams (thanks to my high school Spanish classes and the small dictionary I had brought with me in case I’d need it).  What a wonderful, special experience this was for me. 

There was much, much more to our time on the Ecuador mainland…

Following our excellent Ecuador land experiences, we flew to Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil. We walked on Guayaquil’s magnificent, long promenade along the sea, and visited the city’s labyrinthine indoor market, filled with hundreds of vendors. 

Then, from Guayaquil, we took a pleasant ninety-minute flight to the mystical Galapagos Islands…

Be sure to see related story: Why The Galapagos Islands Are #1 On Everyone’s Bucket List

A version of this story appeared in TravelAgeWest. 

Photo credits to Metropolitan Tourism, Ecuador Tourism, Seth at Sacha Lodge, and the author. 

The author was a guest of Ecuador Tourism, Metropolitan Tourism, Avalon Waterways, and other entities mentioned in the story, which had no influence whatsoever on any viewpoint or reporting.

Fishing For Barra With The Crocs & Some Aboriginal Dreaming In Australia’s Northern Territory

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/May 14 2020/ Rants & Raves , Travel Tips /0 Comments

Crocodiles!? Why’d it have to be crocodiles??? I KNOW this is what Indiana Jones would have said… as numerous salties swam around our boat as we fished for Barramundi in the Northern Territory of Australia, on the Mary River… 

The Northern Territory of Australia, sometimes lost in the cachet of other Australia destinations, is flush with unique historical, cultural, and adventure opportunities to rival ANY AREA OF ANY COUNTRY of the world!

My goals for a recent visit to Darwin and the Northern Territory were simple:

  • Catch lots of fish in the area's rivers and ocean waters.
  • Learn more about the Aboriginal people who inhabit the area in abundant numbers.
  • Steer clear of the deadly snakes, spiders, and sea creatures for which Australia is known.
  • Avoid making too many blood donations to the mozzies (mosquitoes).

I must say, mates, the tally was positive on all counts… but the fishing provided a highly exciting twist:

Crocodiles. MANY saltwater crocodiles. Swimming around our boat and waiting on the nearby shore THE WHOLE TIME we fished on the Mary River southeast of Darwin. (More about that in a minute).

Arriving in Darwin

On a May night, Fall in Australia, following a pleasant four-hour Qantas flight from Sydney, I landed in Darwin.

As I stepped off the air-conditioned plane, my glasses immediately fogged over in the 100 per cent humidity!

Darwin, a modern city with wide ethnic diversity and a population approaching 160,000, boasts pleasant office buildings, nice homes, lovely shops, open air markets, and varied eateries and kiosks. Also fine accommodations, restaurants and night life. And, of course, abundant nature right out the door…

Almost the proverbial “stone’s throw” from New Guinea and Indonesia across the Timor Sea, Darwin has served as gateway (and protector) to this part of the world for a long time.

With the finest and deepest harbor in Australia, Darwin’s harbor-bottom, unfortunately, is strewn with the hulks of sunken ships and memories of Japanese bombing raids… legacies of the heroic role that Northern Australia played in World War II. A positive outcome of all of this, if there is one, is that Darwin today still boasts outstanding airports and support facilities.

Arnhem Land in the northeastern corner of the Northern Territory (around 500 km / 310 mi from Darwin) is one of the “cradles” of Aboriginal civilization, holding in her bosom many secrets of the Aboriginals’ 50,000 year existence.      

Fishing for Barra on The Mary River

As part of this “dream” trip, Northern Territory Tourism set me up to fish for barramundi on the Mary River about three hours from Darwin, near Kakadu National Park… I had no idea at the time that crocodiles were going to play a prominent part in this scenario…

 

Our base camp for this fishing experience was the Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge.

Memories of the Lodge and surroundings include: 

  • Numerous wallabies hopping around the area;
  • The hosts instructing us to stay on the paved walks and not to walk in the grass (because of snakes);
  • A mention that there had been a brown snake (second most venomous snake in the world) in the kitchen the other day;
  • The welcome mosquito netting around my bed in our cabin. (I'll get back to the dreaded “mozzies” later in the story);
  • Performance by the “Gulpu Wilderness Dancers” (more about that later, too)…

The next morning, as we were driving to the nearby boat-launching site at Shady Camp, an eagle flying overhead dropped a Brown Snake onto the road in front of our Jeep. 

We got out to get a closer look — from a safe distance — as the snake skittered across the dirt in front of us and quickly disappeared into the roadside brush.

Our fishing target that day were barramundi – the legendary fish that has sustained the Aboriginal people since time immemorial. Barramundi are still one of Australia’s "fishing Nirvanas". (Remember, at that point I still had no idea that “salties” i.e. saltwater crocodiles, would be our constant companions for the day’s fishing experience).

Barramundi means “big scales” in the Aboriginal language, and this fish, which can grow to almost two meters and over sixty pounds makes delicious eating. 

To make a long story short, Paul launched the boat and pulled away from the boat landing to head for the fishing grounds on the river. 

On the way, Paul saw a man leaning over the motor at the stern of his boat, trying to fix a tangled line. Paul stopped to remind the man that salties, the ever-present ambush predator, might grab him if he wasn’t careful. 

The fishing style that day was casting – and the fishing was good.

As we reeled our fish to the boat, the movement of the “salties” — ancient reptiles, ambush predators — in their mottled black, brown, and yellowish-tinged hides — was daunting.

The salties swam around the boat incessantly, in hopes of grabbing the fish — the net with a fish in it — or, I suppose, the arm (or more) of an unwary angler..

The largest “saltie” we saw that day was about 15 feet long — 4 to 5 meters or so! And there were lots of them!  (The photos were taken from the boat, and the salties were all around, so you can get an idea of how close they were).

 

 

The crocodiles were everywhere.  

Meanwhile, back at “Fishing With The Crocs,” I was lucky to catch a “barra” weighing over 23 pounds, and a meter-plus in length. 

Paul said that was “pretty good.”

 

To give you a better idea of the fish’s sparkly exterior, see photo, below, of Paul holding the barramundi.

Getting back to solid ground after fishing:

By the time we headed back to the boat ramp at mid-afternoon, the tide had gone out and the water had become too shallow for our boat to get all the way to the landing.

So Paul asked us to take off our shoes and socks and wade ashore through the sucking, gray muck. (I prayed I wouldn’t step on a cone snail or similar disaster…)

The next challenge was that the boat launch’s dirt ramp was still scorching hot from the day’s sun’s heat, so I had to hop from one bare foot to the other — like a gecko — until I could get to cooler ground!

Thus ended the fishing on the Mary River, but there were lots more activities and fishing in store for a visit to the Northern Territory of Australia..

Other Adventures in Australia’s Northern Territory

Rockhole Wetlands Cruise

The next day I was further enthralled by a cruise of the unspoiled wetlands of the Mary River at a reserve called Rockhole

Departing Rockhole daily, the two-hour cruise floats along the waterways winding through the permanent wetlands to view the plantlife and birdlife, plus potential sightings of the water buffaloes and saltwater crocodiles that dwell in that area. 

Among the myriad bush plants we saw was the magnificent Lotus Lily, that still serves to provide food, medicines, and utensils to the Aboriginal people.

The Lotus Lily still serves to provide food, medicines,
and utensils to the Aboriginal people.

Thousands of birds found in the area include herons, brolgas, egrets, jabaroos, and ducks, as well as “flying foxes” (fruit bats) that hang from the trees when at rest. Often, the fruit bats drop off of the tree from which they hang, into the maw of a croc waiting in the water below.  

At the end of the day, Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge grilled and fried the barramundi for everyone to sample:

(Alas, we had kept it out of the water too long to release it)

Aboriginal Program & Dancers

Then followed the delight of sitting around a crackling fire with newfound Aboriginal friends, the “Gulpu Wilderness Dancers,” who happily shared stories and information (Dreamtime?) about the mystical spirits that inhabit the earth.

The Aboriginal group taught us the “mozzie” dance, and gave those who wished an opportunity to blow on the didgeridoo. 

One of the “performers,” Kevin Guruwiwi, became my friend in very short order:

When my camera flash didn’t go off, Kevin was the one who leaned over, and said, wryly: “I guess the spirits didn’t want you to take that picture.”

When I asked Kevin what to do about the mosquitoes (“mozzies”), he told me:

“First, go and find a termite mound… and then… burn it… in order to keep the mozzies away…”

More important, I learned that Kevin was a native artist. I met him the next day and he told me about Aboriginal life and art, including the role of the rainbow serpent, the goanna, the king monitor, and other Aboriginal tales and customs… and we agreed that he would make some drawings for me…

My visit with Aboriginal artist Kevin G.
My picture of Goannas by Kevin G.
My pic of King Monitor by Kevin G.
This is my treasure, painting of a Barramundi that Kevin made especially for me.

 I LOVE the intricacies and implications of this Aboriginal “skeleton” painting of a barramundi and lotus lilies that Kevin made for me. (Note the role that the lotus lily plays in Aboriginal life; as well as the fish bones themselves — an important source of “calchum” (calcium), according to Kevin. 

Kevin also told me how he gathers the raw materials (like ochre) to make the “paint”.

The most important messages that Kevin (and Aboriginals around the world) convey in one way or another is: 

“To use and appreciate nature to the fullest…” and,

“We don’t own the land… The land owns us.”

 

Visits to other wilderness lodges and fishing opportunities in The Northern Territory of Australia:

Other adventures we had in the Northern Territory included two different fly-ins to outposts reachable only by air or water from Darwin: 

The Cape Don Experience and Lighthouse on the Cobourg Peninsula; and Seven Spirit Lodge in Seven Spirit Bay — areas literally in the wilderness, but with modern and luxurious accommodations and activities.

Photos of Cape Don, 7 Spirit Bay and Fishing Experiences

Fly-in to Cape Don
Fishing at Cape Don
Giant Trevally, fishing at Cape Don
Seven Spirit Bay International Airport

Summary:

Everywhere we went, we saw constant evidence of the incredible diversity, balance and pristine quality of nature when left to its own designs…

The colors, the fragrances, the sights and sounds, the moods, the emotional and physical challenges and rewards, the people that this untouched area of Australia offers… outpace any adjectives.

Other adventures you can enjoy when you’re in The Northern Territory include camping, hiking, jeeping, cruising, visiting petroglyphs, Aboriginal community presentations and visits, seeking and eating a bit of bush tucker, and much, much more…

*When we were in Darwin, we stayed at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.

PS Except for the evening at Shady Camp, the mosquitoes weren’t a problem. This is partially due to the fact that I wore my excellent ExOfficio BuzzOff® clothing and accessories most of the time –- because of BuzzOff’s high sun protective factor, coolness, anti-insect properties, and because they’re lightweight, quick-drying, and stylish, to boot.*

As with all my travel adventures, I eagerly await the opportunity to get back to the “Top of Down Under” — Northern Territory of Australia — and gain further insight and joy from the experiences and people and things (and fish) unique to this area.
 

*This story originally appeared in Chicago Daily Suburban Newspapers, among others.
*This trip was made at the invitation of Australia Tourism, the Northern Territory of Australia and Qantas airlines and had no influence whatsoever on the tone or observations of the story.
*As a fishing and outdoor adventure specialist, ExOfficio BuzzOff products are my “go to” products of choice. I have no agreement with this company that I would mention them, which had no influence whatsoever on the tone or observations of the story.

Is Anchorage, Alaska, The World’s Busiest Airport?

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/May 06 2020/ All Blog Posts , Featured , Resources /0 Comments

Sooner or later, you — or someone you know — is going to visit Alaska for a vacation adventure. 

In most cases, your destination (or exit point) will be Anchorage.

Where is Anchorage Located? 

Anchorage is cradled by the Chugach Mountains on one side and embraced by The Cook Inlet on the other. And she is home to nearly 292,000 people (40% of Alaska’s population).

Anchorage is easily accessible. Moreover, she offers plenty for anyone to do for weeks and weeks without ever leaving town.

But Anchorage also serves as a gateway to everything else you can do in Alaska…

The World’s Busiest Airport?

In normal times… Anchorage (ANC) is usually the fifth busiest cargo airport in the world. Also the second busiest cargo airport in the United States. (Memphis, Tennessee, home of FedEx, is first busiest cargo airport). 

A May, 2020 article in Forbes (You Won’t Believe Where The World’s Busiest Airport Is Right Now) noted: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, “the world’s busiest airport (at the moment) is no longer in Atlanta or New York City or London… or LAX, Dubai, or Hong Kong…

“Rather,” it continued, “the newest bustling airport hub is in… Anchorage, Alaska.”

Actually, Anchorage (ANC) achieved the status of number one because of cargo operations.

But, apart from cargo operations, let’s look at how most travelers get to Anchorage under “normal” circumstances: 

More Facts About The Airport: 

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) serves over 5 million passengers annually on approximately 45 domestic and international air carriers.

The airport is also the world’s largest and busiest floatplane base!

—————–

Sample Flight times to or from Anchorage:

Seattle: 3 hours.

Salt Lake City: 5 hours.

San Francisco: 5 hours.

Los Angeles: 5 hours.

Chicago: 5.5 hours.

New York City: 8 hours

Seoul: 8.5 hours.

Zurich: 9.5 hours.

Getting to the airport by land:

You can drive to Anchorage from anywhere on the continent, any time of the year. 

The Alaska Highway, linking Alaska with Canada and the contiguous United States, is fully paved and offers services all year long.

Sample Distances to Anchorage By Land:

Seattle: 2,435 road miles.

Los Angeles: 3,712 road miles.

New York City: 4,649 road miles.

Miami: 5,434 road miles.

By Sea:

Several cruise lines offer excursions May through September along the famous inside passage, docking in Anchorage or nearby Seward.

The Alaska Marine Highway, the State’s ferry system, runs year-round, calling on Whittier, Seward and Homer, which are also connected to Anchorage by road and rail.

How To Flyfish From A Floaty Chair On A Small Lake In Anchorage

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/May 05 2020/ All Blog Posts , Travel News /0 Comments
Photo courtesy of Stephen Ausherman

This is about how a little dog, Jacques Cousteau, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon flyfished from a floaty chair in Anchorage, Alaska. It goes like this:  

The Fly Guy is pulling me around the water on a leash, and I’m thinking, ‘What am I, a little dog?’

(But the truth is I’m greatly enjoying my first shot at fly-fishing from one of those floaty chairs… on a small lake in Anchorage… on an early summer day).

As you know, I specialize in fishing wherever I go (and writing about it), so when I found myself with four days in Anchorage, I hooked up with a guide specializing in lakes and streams within an hour’s drive of town to fish from “floating chairs”…

The thought of being on the water in a floaty chair bothered me a bit, but… like those people who hold up handmade cardboard signs at highway entrances:  

"I will do anything for fishing!" (Smily face here).

My guide, Ron, picked me up at the Anchorage Marriott right on schedule and we drove a few miles from city-center to an exquisite, small lake called Little Campbell.

This part of Anchorage, like most of Anchorage when you get away from the major, bustling business areas is wildeerness incarnate… Few, if any, people around, and absolutely no houses in sight. (And, yep, that’s a small bear in the photo, below, enjoying Little Campbell Lake as we arrived).

Small bear enjoying Little Campbell Lake in Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is unlike any other major city:

In Anchorage, “getting away from it all” is constantly around you!!! You can walk a short way from city-center… or just hop in a pickup -- drive a couple of miles (or less)… and ‘snap, crackle, and pop,’ you’re in nature’s bosom.

People who just pass through Anchorage on the way to somewhere else are probably missing the boat. From breweries like the Anchorage, Turnagain, and Revolution Brewing Companies to the Oomingmak - Original Alaska Qiviut Handknits Store, plus fine dining and shopping, or entertainment, enjoying all of Anchorage’s offerings could be one of the world’s best-kept secrets.

Of course, many people do flight-see or fish-trip out of Anchorage to places with glaciers, grizzlies and grayling…

You can also fish practically right out the door of several Anchorage businesses, and they furnish fishing poles to boot!
**********
Cradled by the Chugach Mountains on one side and embraced by The Cook Inlet on the other, Anchorage is home to nearly 292,000 people (40% of Alaska’s population).

Anchorage boasts everything you could possibly want in a city: Cosmopolitan. Socially conscious. Temperate. Numerous museums, cultural attractions, events, and activities. And much more.

With tons of parks, paths, trails, and walkways, with the great outdoors at its door… Anchorage is easily accessible, and offers plenty for anyone to do for weeks and weeks without ever leaving town.

Meanwhile, back at Little Campbell Lake…

Martin, from California, and Stephen, from New Mexico, join us. (They haven’t ever fly-fished either).

We assemble by the lake and they hand us neoprene waders…

…That’s when I recall Chancellor Bismarck’s well-known observation:

“Two things you don’t ever want to see made are sausage and war.”

I feel certain that “Seeing ME stuffed into neoprene waders” will rank  third on this list of things that you wouldn’t want to see!

I stall putting on the gear, because:

  1. The day is beginning to get quite warm.
  2. I know I’ll be claustrophobic if I’m encased in neoprene.
  3. I’m worried that I’ll have to go to the bathroom the minute I put on the waders.
  4. I’m afraid I’ll sink straight to the bottom if I slip into the water.


(Ron said, before we go out on the water, we’re going to practice from shore, so I’m ecstatic that I waited to put on the gear)…

We step to the water’s edge, which has a nice gravel shoreline. Ron gives us a quick lesson in fly casting, and we try to get the hang of it.

Uhhh… it ‘ain’t’ easy!

First, I try the ‘overhead snap’ (my term) straight line cast. My line wiggles and drops limply into the water at my feet.

Then I try to ‘walk the dog,’ where you ‘skip’ the line across the water in little ‘hops.’ (The dog doesn’t hop for me!).

Hmmm… a champion I’m not, but, it’s a new experience, the guys are congenial and supportive, and, hey, they’re having the same problems that I am!

So Ron becomes my ‘personal trainer’ — and takes me under his wing. Literally…

He puts his big arms around me to help me throw out the line.
He holds my arm to help me find the right moment to flick the line forward.

He stands and coaches us as we try again and again to get our lines to arch out onto the water.

Ron takes me under his wing, literally!
Finally, it’s ‘show time!’ Or ‘trout time,’ as the case may be.

I can stall no longer.

Ron and his brother help me wiggle into the chest-high waders. Then come a pair of special shoes; next, a self-inflating life vest; and after that, a pair of flippers.

“What? Now I’m Jacques Cousteau???"

Martin and Stephen also pull on their waders.

Martin and Stephen pull on their waders.

In the water, our floating thrones await.

Ron tells us to back into the water to avoid tripping over the front of the flippers.

OK, so now I’m ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’ — in reverse?!

They help me climb aboard my floating seat and assure me that I’ll be fine.

It’s just like sitting in an easy chair in your living room, with little pockets on the arms to put important things like keys, money and cameras.

Our poles rest across the arms, with our legs a danglin’ down, flippers and all.

And away we go.

Nevertheless, I’m flailing around like a wounded duck, so here’s the greatest:

Ron hooks a little ‘leash’ to my floating chair so he can pull me around under control and safety. (I feel like I’m being ‘walked’ for my daily outing). Arf! Arf!  

After a few seconds on the water I forget all my worries.

It’s absolutely beautiful…

The scenery… The sun and blue sky… The quiet… The clean water… The light breeze… The eagles… The loons… The laughs and comments…

I’m loving it.

And we fish. And we see trout ripples. And we use scud flies that mimic freshwater shrimp. 

And we fish. And we laugh. And we take pictures. 

And we fish. And we ‘flipper’ to other areas of the lake. And we talk. And we try Thunder Creek flies that mimic minnows. 

And we fish…

We see lots of trout in the water, but only Martin manages to hook one. 

But many fishing days are like that.

Fish-catching is truly secondary to the whole experience.

As we began to kick-paddle back to the landing, a moose ambled from the edge of the woods to the shoreline. (And, although more than 2,000 moose are said to live in the Anchorage Bowl, we felt lucky to be part of this picture).

This outing was also special because Ron, ‘The Fly Guy,’ was like almost every Alaskan I’ve met: Independent, self-assured, approachable, pleasant, patient, great to be with… and very competent.

And, now that I’ve got the hang of it, I can’t wait to go fly-fishing again from a little floaty chair.

‘But, Chancellor,’ I think to myself, ‘What do you prefer not to see????

Sausage, war, or me putting on waders???

This Idaho Fish Complies with Covid-19 Regulations

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/Apr 30 2020/ Rants & Raves , Travel Tips /0 Comments

We liked the cleverness of this email we received from The Lodge at Palisades Creek. (This was before people started putting masks on everything — automobiles, storefronts, pets, etc. etc. etc.)

The Lodge at Palisades Creek sent out the following email (and photo) in early May 2020:   

“We are looking forward to welcoming our first guests of the 2020 season this weekend. Our staff and the fish are healthy and happy and we are taking every precaution to make sure that guests and staff stay that way…”

The Lodge at Palisades Creek is positioned along the banks of the South Fork of the Snake River in Irwin, Idaho, a short drive from either Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or, alternatively, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The Arctic Ocean at Ukpiagvik (Barrow), Alaska

We’ll Always Have… Ukpiagvik!

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/Apr 22 2020/ Travel Tips /0 Comments
The Arctic Ocean at Ukpiagvik (Barrow), Alaska
The Arctic Ocean at Ukpiagvik (Barrow), Alaska
 A visit to the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland. Native son says, “There’s no place like home!” 
Located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 500 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, Ukpiagvik, also known as Utqiagvik and formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland.

Our Story Begins:

I had invited my wonderful Israeli friends, Itzik G. and his son, Ram, to join me on a cruise-tour with Holland America. We were going to start out in Fairbanks for the land portion of the Tour. But it was Itzik’s brilliant idea that we visit Barrow before we began the main trip… a massively astute suggestion for which I’ll always be grateful.

A handful of package tours from Fairbanks and Anchorage on regular Alaska Airline flights will get you to Ukpiagvik / Barrow for your travel adventure – plus boasting rights to be in the northernmost part of North America.

If these packages are full (as they were when we made our plans), you can try and book your own flight, as we did from Fairbanks, and arrange for your own land tour, which is what we did…

Barrow / Ukpiagvik

Upon arrival to the “city” of Ukpiagvik, the Barrow visitor is immediately struck by the nearly-permanently-gray sky, muddy roads, and adequate-but-functional buildings.

The “modern” side of the community is the result of Government offices, North Slope oilfield operations, and tourism. 

Technically a desert…

Barrow is technically classified a desert (a difficult concept to digest), with snowfall ranging around 15 inches per year.

“Warm” means 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with winter temps dropping to 50 below zero Fahrenheit.

And, where 65 per cent of the town’s population is Native, subsistence living still plays a large part in many families.

Barrow Native Dance Club Cultural Presentation

When we landed in Barrow, I immediately contacted Will Saganna of Alaska Arctic Adventures as agreed.

Will rushed us to the Native Heritage Center to watch the Barrow Native Dance Club whose program was already in progress.

The performers were presenting cultural dances, songs and games.

To the beat of sealskin drums, several girls in native dresses and mukluks (and wearing fur gloves to keep away the spirits) demonstrated native activities such as scraping the sealskin, paddling a boat, and chopping wood…

This native presentation from YouTube will give you a small idea of the presentation we saw:

Following the performance, the presenters and hosts did a Salute to the American Flag followed by the Inupiat Blessing song.

Toys, whalebone markers and carvings made from baleen

Then the performers showed us toys and games made from animal parts — yoyos, catch-the-caribou-vertebra-on-the-sealbone-stick, and they also spun a piece of baleen on a rope to make a whirring sound.

I bought a carved baleen pendant from Inupiat artists Gilford and Flossie Mongoyak, that features a snowy owl, northern lights, an igloo, and a meat drying rack.
Carved pendant made out of Baleen

About Baleen

Baleen is a strong, yet flexible material made out of the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails (keratin). Baleen plates, like vertical blinds, hang from the whale's upper jaw. The baleen serve to help the whales filter out their prey from the sea water they draw into their mouths when feeding.

After the cultural presentation, Will drove us to Point Barrow – three miles past the spot where typical tour buses can go.

In our van, with specially-inflated tires, Will drove over the soft Arctic “sand”, until we were “there.”

After a brief time at Point Barrow (there’s not much to see), we each received a certificate:

Will then drove us back to “the city,” and showed us the outdoor display of a huge skull of a Bowhead Whale harvested in 1983, and pointed out other whale bones left along the beach.
Bowhead Whale Skull
Whale bones scattered on the beach

Will and whaling:

Will told us, as part of a team, he planned to go whaling in October… Four to five guys in a 20 to 24 foot boat… 60 to 70 miles out into the Arctic Ocean… In up to fourteen foot swells!!

Will told us that 22 whale strikes (controlled by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission) were allowed each season. He told us that the previous Spring, the Natives landed nine, but lost five whales, so you can see whom the odds favor….

Will told us about another integral part of Inupiat Native heritage: Snowy Owls.
(Remember, Barrow has returned to its former name, UKPIAGVIK, which means “The place where we hunt snow owls”).

A large sign explains “The Inupiat settled here primarily to hunt the great bowhead whales. But their diet was supplemented by the harvest of Nature’s other gifts, including the snowy owl...”

Top place for birders!

Birders may know that Barrow is one of the top destinations in the world for the rare Ross’s gull, the Yellow-billed Loon, and the unusual King and Steller Eider Ducks.

Other “critters” of the land include White and Blue Foxes, wolves, and wolverines.

Ocean creatures include polar bears, seals, and walrus.

Fish include Arctic char, King Salmon, and Silver Salmon.

Barrow’s Restaurants

We had some hot food in one of the local restaurants, where food was good, portions were large, and prices were high.

Barrow, understandably, is expensive, as everything must be brought in by plane (or barge, when the ice is out).

The more Will talked that day, the more I “got” Barrow — particularly the native subsistence living that still includes whaling, fishing and hunting as everyday culture.

“Even with the conveniences of the 21st century, it is the gathering and sharing of our native foods that binds our families, friendships and spirits together…” said Will.

Ever looking to preserve nature and help each other, the watchword of Will’s people is: “Only catch what you need; give in abundance to those who need.”

Sound familiar? This phrase, or a variation, is the trope of most aboriginal people I’ve encountered across the world.

The People

The Inupiat people are quiet, warm, and very proud of their heritage.

We saw how families work together, and felt their love for their community as well as for The United States.

Finally, when I asked Will how Barrow compared to “the outside world,” he had visited, he told me:

It wasn’t like home,” said Will.

What do you mean?” I asked.

When I said ‘hi’ to people…” Will continued… “they seemed cold and suspicious.

Not like home,” Will concluded.

A version of this story appeared in Journal & Topics Chicago Suburban Newspaper.

How Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier Trek Brought Me To My Knees…

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/Apr 13 2020/ Travel Tips /0 Comments
Why was I on my knees on the Mendenhall Glacier??? Well, the glacier trek experience was awesome, but I tripped and fell while the guide was “helping” me go down a small incline — and I smashed to my knees. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When I had three days to experience the multiple offerings of Juneau, Alaska, one of my first acts was to hook up with an adventure outfitter to trek on the Mendenhall Glacier.

For this particular outing, they dress you in special gear and helicopter you out to the glacier for a unique, guided hike.

My new friend, Diane Pearson, then owner of Pearson’s Pond B & B in Juneau, and very active in the tourism community, had glacier trekked before, and joined me to provide moral support.

A guide from Above and Beyond Alaska LLC picked us up at Pearson’s Pond B & B right on schedule and drove us to a special airport in Juneau where NorthStar Helicopters & Trekking is located.

When we arrived, two couples were already there for this adventure.

And, since we’d all been asked for our clothing and shoe sizes in advance (a common procedure for Alaska outings), each person’s special gear was laid out on the floor waiting for us.

The guides told us to get rid of all our extra things and put on the special clothing…

… I reluctantly gave up my backpack, jacket, shoes, purse…

But my mind raced about what to keep — camera, film, i.d., money?

Money? Yeah, right! What did I think I was going to buy on a glacier anyway?!??

Then they helped us put on waterproof wind pants, special jackets, special boots, gaiters (the accessories that cover your ankles and legs to keep out snow and ice), and a harness, which fit around our waist and thighs.

Last, they handed us a pair of fleece gloves and a fanny pack containing a bottle of water and an energy bar.

Well, the harness was too tight around my chunky thighs, and I panicked a little, wondering how would I get out of all these special duds quickly if I had to?

A picture of Harry Houdini popped into my head — but there was no time to get an answer.

They loosened my harness and I felt a little better.

After a terse orientation about what to expect and what to do (and not do) near the helicopter and on the glacier, we followed-the-leader out to the waiting six-passenger, Eurocopter A-Star.

We carefully climbed into our assigned seats (planned so that the weight is equally distributed — another reason why they ask your weight for many Alaska flights).

We latched our seatbelts and pulled on our headsets so we could hear what Nik, our pilot, had to say, so we could ask questions, and speak to each other over the chopper’s noise.

When I asked Nik about his flying background and he told us he was a retired RAF (Royal Air Force) pilot, I knew we were in good hands. (He didn’t look old enough to have put in 26 years).

Nevertheless, I conjured a picture of Snoopy in natty red scarf, or perhaps ‘Flying Jack’. With figures like this, there’ll always be an England, I thought!

Nik guided the helicopter straight up off the pad as if he were piloting the smoothest and highest elevator I’ve ever been on.

Tally ho, old chap!

The fifteen-minute flight over the ice field was flawless and comfortable. Nik pointed out features of interest below as we made our way to the spot where our adventure would begin.

We landed right on the glacier, where Nancy, our guide, was waiting near a tent-like shelter.

It was raining like crazy (typical for September in Juneau, which is, after all, in an arboreal rainforest); but our jackets were waterproof, and it didn’t appear to affect what we were about to do.

Nancy and Nik quickly strapped crampons to our boots and offered helmets to those who wanted them.

Each crampon had 10 teeth, which they told us to stamp into the marbled surface.

Then they handed us each a pick-axe, showing us how to use it for walking, balance, and extra gripping, with the flat side forward, so we wouldn’t stab ourselves if we fell!

As we tried out our new toothed footwear, we noticed that the glacier was hilly, craggy, dippy, edgy, holey, wet, slippery — and beautiful!

Our bright red jackets made a fashion statement that would provide great photos, but I concluded the color is more for safety (easy to see), than for the pages of Vogue.

And we were off… sort of.

Walking, even on the flatter parts of the glacier, wasn’t easy. Going up and down hills was a bit more challenging.

I also recommend that glacier trekkers be in “reasonably” good shape and moderately well-coordinated to manage this soft adventure experience.

Once we began to pay more attention to our surroundings, we were struck by the glacier’s stark, powerful beauty. Brilliant blue and green hues permeated icy openings.

To the far sides of the glacier were gray mountains ribboned with blue and black streaks.

We trekked around.

Nancy took us to the edges of moulins (French for ‘mills’) — where melting water disappeared down holes into nether regions of the glacier.

She helped us leap over narrow crevasses. She led us up and down hills — none of it as easy as it sounds.

We were all getting better, but it wasn’t exactly a cake-walk.

I hoped my photos would capture the flavor of this awesome experience.

Meanwhile, Nancy, extremely competent and pleasant, helped each of us when we needed it.

As we descended a small, icy hill, she held my harness from behind to guide me. As I neared the bottom of the hill, she let go, saying, ‘Good job’ — about one second too soon…

At that moment, the picks of my crampons locked onto the ice while the rest of me continued forward.

I immediately crashed to my knees on the marbled surface. Ouch! The others helped me to my feet. Nothing broken (but my knees were red and achy for weeks).

I wondered how Sir Edmund Hillary or any mountain or ice climbers, for that matter, did what they did, which, I can only surmise, is thousands of times more difficult and dangerous.

There wasn’t more time to think about it, because it was getting late and the skies were closing in with more rain, mist, and fog.

Helicopters came in the rain to fly us off the glacier before the weather turned worse.

Two helicopters zoomed in to whisk us and the guides off of the glacier in a hurry. Things were getting ‘dicey’ for flying.

We clambered aboard, and, after a ten-minute flight straight back to the home base under the low ceiling, we landed gently in Juneau…

Afterglow

That evening, since everyone had other plans, I found myself alone with my thoughts at the warm and cozy Pizzeria Roma in the Wharf Shops in downtown Juneau…

I lingered over an exceptionally yummy meatball and marinara sandwich on crusty Italian bread — side salad of lettuce, red onion, artichokes, red pepper, black olives, and feta cheese — washed down by a refreshing Snapple drink called ‘Fire’, which contained ginseng and gingko biloba. Perfect!

As I basked in the restaurant’s warmth, and the chill of the day slowly left my bones… I smiled inwardly… smug and glowing about my special, new, fear-factor-accomplishment…

I had just trekked on a glacier!

On this trip, I was a guest of the Juneau Convention & Visitors BureauTravel Alaska, Above & Beyond Alaska, and Pearson’s Pond B&B.  None of this had any influence on the tone or content of the story

Northern-Pike-Oak-Island-Lodge

The Northern Pike That Didn’t Get Away!

By Naomi K. Cissy Shapiro/Mar 30 2020/ Travel Tips /0 Comments
Northern-Pike-Oak-Island-Lodge

 “I’m smiling in this photo. You don’t see the blood running down my arm. That’s because I caught this northern pike with my own two hands…  And pike, as you know, have VERY SHARP teeth!”

My story really begins a year before the photo, above, was taken:

We were at Oak Island Lodge, on the southwestern shore of Lake of the Woods near “The Northwest Angle” — at the Canada-Minnesota Border.  

Oak Island Lodge is part of well-known fishing destination, Sportsman’s Lodge, itself located at the southeast end of Lake of the Woods, where the Rainy River empties into the Lake near Baudette, Minnesota.  (Baudette, by the way, is called “The Walleye Capital of the World”).

In my opinion, going to Oak Island Lodge is a bit like going to heaven.

Sportsman-Oak-Island-Lodge
Sportsman’s Oak Island Lodge

If you drive, you can get to Oak Island from Sportsman’s Lodge by taking MN Hwy 313 around the south end of the Lake of the Woods near Warroad, MN, enter Canada, drive a bit, leave Canada, and you’ll find yourself at the Northern Angle of Minnesota.

More interesting, in the winter, is to travel, in a grinding snow bomber, ACROSS several miles of frozen ice of Rainy Lake – over snow ridges and all – and — we did it at night!

 

Sportsman’s Lodge and Oak Island Lodge take great care of their customers year-round, but in the winter, especially, they drop you off and pick  you up at your ice shack, keep the ice holes ready, provide bait and equipment as needed, and bring delicious lunches (the hamburgers are the best you’ve ever tasted), plus snacks and hot drinks to the door, as part of their impeccable customer service.  

HERE’S WHERE MY STORY BEGINS…

Year 1:

As publicist of record for several years for Sportsman’s Lodge, I had invited a team from In-Fisherman Magazine to come and enjoy some icefishing.

The In-Fisherman fisherguys and their cameraman were in an ice shack, fishing, photographing, and, I presume, laughing, scratching, and having a great time.

I was fishing, by myself, in a nearby ice shack – warm and cozy – but all by myself.

ice-shark-exterior

Inside the ice shacks, you may know, it’s heated and warm and cozy. Warm enough for you to take off your jacket and mittens, get comfortable, and wait for the fish to bite.

Ice holes are cut into the ice beneath the ice shack wooden platform and there are benches on which to sit and wait.

During my fishing in the shack, I hooked a large walleye. I could feel that it was pretty BIG and HEAVY.    

As I brought it up through the hole, I already felt exhilarated at the thought of showing it off. 

But… before I got the walleye completely out of the hole… it fell off my line… flipped around… and disappeared back down the hole into the water…

%^^&&**(()!@##$!

I watched helplessly.

“I will never let this happen again!” I promised myself.

Year 2:

The following year, I found myself in pretty-much the same situation:

Icefishing at Oak Island Lodge on Lake of the Woods, alone in my ice shack, while my media friends from In-Fisherman were located in a nearby ice shack.

My fishing line jiggled.

“Fish on,” I said out loud.

I reeled in my line, and a nice northern pike appeared in the ice hole.

As I was pulling it up through the ice hole… I couldn’t… believe… that… the northern started to fall off the line…

“I’m not going to let it happen again,” I said out loud.

I jumped down onto the ice at the sides of the hole, kneeled down, and grabbed the fish the only place I could possibly catch it – by the mouth!

“The fish didn’t get away this time!” I said out loud to no one in particular.

Northern-Pike-Oak-Island-Lodge

I proudly took the fish outside for photos in front of the snowbomber. 

I didn’t notice the blood on my hand and arm until after the photos were taken…

I had forgotten, temporarily, that northern pike have very sharp teeth…

Yep, northern pike have sharp teeth…

But it was one fish that didn’t get away!!!

 As publicist of record at that time, I wrote these stories as a guest of Sportsman’s Lodge and Oak Island Lodge.