Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday travel photo

"Bait ball" in Bonaire, Dutch Antilles (with a "Good luck!" to my in-laws, who are starting their scuba certification course this weekend)

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Monday, October 6, 2008

My photography in La Jolla

A few weeks ago, a large map was unveiled at Kellogg Park, the public space at La Jolla Shores in San Diego. Made of lithocrete (a mixture of concrete and recycled glass), the map covers some 2,300 square feet of ground, and depicts the La Jolla Underwater Preserve as a way to bring the undersea world to beachgoers who might not realize what lies under the waves.

Accompanying the map is a wall of photos showing the various marine creatures that live in the nearby waters. This fish ID board identifies everything from sheephead and señorita to lobster and octopus. The creators of the lithocrete map solicited the local dive community for images to place on this wall, and as luck would have it, they selected my photo of a white sea bass. I'm not a professional photographer, and this particular photo was hardly my best work, but apparently few images of this shy fish exist. I got this particular shot a couple of years ago, while diving La Jolla's kelp forests on a visit to San Diego. This fish kept following me around, keeping its distance but apparently curious. I snapped a photo unaware of what kind of fish it was—and having no idea the photo would eventually end up on an art installation at nearby La Jolla Shores!

So next time you travel to La Jolla Shores, whether you're a local going for a day at the beach or a tourist visiting San Diego, be sure to stop by Kellogg Park and check out the map and fish ID board. And see if you can find my name!

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Underwater pumpkin carving

Cassie and I met two years ago at Dutch Springs, a flooded quarry in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that is now a scuba diving park. Our respective dive clubs—from D.C. and NYC—organized a joint camp & dive event, and she and I both went for the whole weekend. Cassie was a new diver at the time, so the founder of her dive club suggested she buddy up with me for the weekend. The rest is history....

This weekend, two years after that first meeting, we returned to Dutch Springs for their annual "Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest." Pumpkins are buoyant, so I didn't know how difficult it'd be to carve one 30 feet below the surface. But it turned out to be much like carving one topside, once I put a 5-pound weight inside.

Below are all of the participating pumpkins—all of which were carved underwater. Mine is second from left on the bottom row (I got overly enthusiastic with my dive agency's logo).


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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fishy Curacao

The house reef at All West Apartments, where we stayed in Curacao, has seen some impressive visitors in the past year or so—if we are to believe what we were told. Pods of dolphin, a passing manta ray, even a random whale shark! So on each dive we made, not just on the house reef but everywhere, we kept glancing away from the reef, out into the blue, in the hopes we might see something big.

Ultimately, we didn't spot anything bigger than a really fat barracuda. But we still saw plenty. As this picture shows, Curacao was plenty fishy.


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Friday, September 26, 2008

Playa Lagun: A wonderful little dive

One thing Curacao has over nearby Bonaire—the so-called "Diver's Paradise"—is lovely little beaches like Playa Lagun, pictured below. We pulled our pickup truck up to the sand here, strapped on our tanks, and wandered into the clear water. Though we enjoyed a nice dive on the reef, out beyond the mouth of the narrow bay, it was within the bay itself (in snorkeling depths) that we saw the most interesting sea life: a group of squid on the swim out, and a green sea turtle and large barracuda on our return.

On the cliff overlooking Playa Lagun sat a cute little complex of residences, Bahia Apartments (the composite photo below was shot from their deck). Like All West Apartments, where we stayed, it seemed to serve mostly divers. We might have to check that place out if (when?) we return to Curacao.

(Click for full-size photo)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Underwater photography with a point 'n' shoot

As expected, Curacao provided a wealth of fantastic photo opportunities both above and below the surface. And like other dive trips, this one gave me the chance to further hone my underwater photography skills.

I think I'm approaching the limitations of what my point 'n' shoot camera and housing can do, but with practice and patience, it's possible to get decent macro shots with a point 'n' shoot camera using the built-in flash. Still, might be time to finally take the plunge and get a digital SLR with real strobes.

Here, a shortstripe goby hides out inside a tube sponge.


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Sunday, August 3, 2008

We're diving "All West" in Curacao

A couple of months ago, I complained in this blog post about not having any scuba diving trips planned for the rest of the year. At that time, I posted some diving specials, including a "Buddy Weeks" offer in Curacao.

Funny how things work out. Since then, we have booked that very offer, and will find ourselves in Curacao in September to (hopefully) witness the coral spawning. We're staying at All West Apartments on the "all west" side of the island—which is the quieter side and has all the best dive sites. And the "Buddy Weeks" offer turned out to be even better than advertised, pretty much impossible to turn down.

We found it very hard to choose between the bare-bones bargain All West Apartments and the luxurious eco-lodge Kura Hulanda, both in Westpunt. We wanted to spoil ourselves, but we also wanted to save money. I want to acknowledge the friendliness of Bea and Andreas at All West, who put up with countless emailed questions and helped two indecisive people come to a decision. It may seem odd to compliment the staff of a lodging establishment before we even stay there, but based on the limitless patience of Bea and Andreas, I know we're going to have a fantastic time.

Here's what our view will be as of September 13 (I've already printed this photo and posted it above my computer at work):


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Monday, July 28, 2008

Renovated: Wyndham Nassau Resort

The first group scuba diving trip that I made with my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, was to Nassau in the Bahamas, where we stayed at the Wyndham Nassau on Cable Beach and dived with Stuart Cove's. [See photos and shark diving videos.]

The dive operation at Stuart Cove's has a bit of a reputation for driving "cattle boats," but my overall impression was quite favorable. I found the operation to be well organized, the boats and facilities to be in great shape, and the staff to be helpful. Then again, our large group (31 people) was a herd of cattle in itself, so maybe it didn't seem like a cattle boat because we all knew each other.

My impression of the Wyndham, however, was altogether different. This place looked like it had been a fantastic resort—30 years ago. Paint was peeling off everywhere, the hot tub was hot on only one of the four days we were there, the decor was all 1970s pastels, many fixtures didn't work, and more. My favorite example was the window shade in our room: a piece of plywood.

However, I just read that the Wyndham finished a top-to-bottom refurbishment in January. They completely renovated 304 of their rooms (including flat screen TVs and refrigerators), they refinished the exterior, they overhauled the whole pool area... in short, they seem to have fixed most of the major issues.

Add together these renovations, my favorable opinion of Stuart Cove's and an outstanding special as low as $415 per person for a 3-night/2-diving-day package, and you've got a recipe for an excellent long weekend of scuba diving.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Delta adds nonstop service to Bonaire

This news might be of limited general interest, as it applies mainly to Northeast-based scuba divers. But since many of my readers are Northeast-based scuba divers, I thought it worth reporting.

Starting December 20, Delta will add nonstop service every Saturday between New York's JFK airport and Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles—one of the best diving destinations in the Caribbean.

Better still, the flight schedule seems to have been set with scuba divers in mind:

Departs JFK at 10:35 a.m., arrives Bonaire at 4:25 p.m.
Departs Bonaire at 5:15 p.m., arrives JFK 9:05 p.m.
(Flight time 4:50 each way)

This schedule provides for arrival at a decent hour when traveling to Bonaire, and a reasonably late departure when leaving Bonaire (which allows for extra diving on the second-to-last day).

With all of the flight cutbacks in recent news, I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to report this new service. It probably goes without saying, however, that it's subject to change.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday travel photo

Hawksbill turble, Cozumel, Mexico

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Tree house at Lodge Kura Hulanda in Curacao

Cassie and I have made plans to spend a week scuba diving in Curacao this September. We're both very excited, and while we've booked our plane tickets, we have yet to decide where to stay.

The west side of the island seems most compatible with our personalities and the style with which we want to spend the week: off the beaten path, quiet, laid back. We narrowed down our options to two choices: All West Apartments, which offers a low budget, no frills vacation; and Lodge Kura Hulanda, a more luxurious resort.

Save money or live it up? A tough decision... but then we learned that Kura Hulanda also has a budget-conscious "Tree House," a rustic, $100/night accommodation that appealed to our sense of adventure and our wallets. How cool would it be to live like the Swiss Family Robinson for a week?

The answer: we didn't know. We combed the entire World Wide Web, but could not find a single photograph of the Tree House. So when it came to putting down our money, we were reluctant to book the Tree House for a week sight-unseen.

Enter Scubaboard, an online message board for scuba divers. We hooked up with "ffixer," a diver who happened to be spending a week at Kura Hulanda. He was gracious enough to shoot some photos of the arboreal accommodation and email them to us. Because these might be the only photographs of the Tree House known to exist online, I felt a duty (with ffixer's permission) to post them here.

Having now seen the rustic Robinsonian retreat, we are now leaning toward the hard-to-turn-down offer that All West made to us. Nevertheless, we will probably spend at least one night in the Tree House. A day in the depths and a night in the branches? Sounds like an adventure to me.

The Tree House

Trapdoor to Tree House platform

Private terrace outside the safari tent

Safari tent on the Tree House platform

Elegant furnishings inside the safari tent

Outdoor shower and privy

The "yard" outside and around the Tree House

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

San Diego diving recommendations

A member of my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, solicited questions about scuba diving in San Diego on the club's message board. Being an avid scuba diver and a San Diego native, I didn't hesitate to offer my recommendations. Since my comments could be useful for others interested in San Diego diving, I thought I'd repost them here.

Boat Diving
Generally, there are three areas where dive operators do day trips: Wreck Alley, Point Loma Kelp Beds and Los Coronados. Wreck Alley is a short, 15-minute ride from Mission Bay, where the dive op I've always used in the past (Dive Connections) is located. In Wreck Alley, you'll find the Yukon, a very large Canadian destroyer, as well as several other fun wrecks, including the strawberry anemone-covered Ruby E.

The Point Loma Kelp Beds are an area I am disappointed to admit I've never dived, though I've criss-crossed over the lush and thick beds countless times on boats topside. I've done warm and cold water diving, everything from the fish-filled waters of Bonaire to the murky depths of the Northeast, and my favorite diving hands-down is kelp forest diving. Anyone who went on our Channel Islands trip last fall will describe the kelp forests with glassy-eyed wonder.

If you do only one boat dive in San Diego, Los Coronados is the must-do. You're almost guaranteed to share the water with tens of sea lions, who will buzz you and maybe even take a love nibble on your snorkel. They're very playful, and will keep you company through most of the dive (till they get bored, anyway). Here's a trip report from my first trip out there.

Shore Diving
On thing that San Diego—and SoCal in general—has in abundance is good shore diving. In San Diego, most shore divers find their way to La Jolla. The entire bay around La Jolla is a protected underwater preserve, and there's plenty to see. If you enter in or around La Jolla Cove, the underwater topography consists of reefs covered in eel grass, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore (and the ubiquitous garibaldi). And you can also explore kelp forests (keep your eyes open for giant sea bass) and some shallow caves.

La Jolla Shores, where most Open Water checkout dives are done, is all sandy bottom, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to see. You'll find countless sting rays (and the occasional halibut) on the bottom, and during summertime, you'll see hundreds of leopard sharks and guitarfish in the shallows. There are also vast beds of sand dollars, and you can explore the rim of (and descend partly into, but watch your depth) La Jolla Canyon, an offshoot of Scripps Canyon, both of which go down several thousand feet. Near the rim, you're likely to see bat rays (watch for clouds of silt, as they burrow into the sand looking for food).

Beyond San Diego
If you have the time and inclination, board a boat out of Long Beach (the Sundiver is a good one I've been on several times) and take a day trip out to Catalina. The visibility and marine life offshore will be much better than what you'll see inshore. Or, if you want to stick to shore, there are some great dive spots in Orange County (Shaw's Cove is one of my favorites).

If you're a scuba diver with other San Diego diving suggestions, please post a comment!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday travel photo

Sea anemones in Roatan
Bay Islands, Honduras, Central America

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Monday, June 16, 2008

My review of local Northeast diving

This past weekend, I decided to give Northeast scuba diving another try. The local diving here has a reputation for being only for the hardcore diver: cold water, murky visibility, deep dives, challenging shipwrecks, occasional currents, sometimes choppy topside conditions.

I'd tried local diving once before, doing a night dive on the wreck of the Stolt Dagali last summer from the dive boat Jeanne II. That experience was almost enough to swear me off Northeast diving, but not because of the diving itself. The seas were flat, the water bearable, the visibility not too bad. The dive operation, however, barely amounted to a "dive taxi"—the only service they provided was a ride to the dive site. Anything else (even drinking water), you're on your own.

I thought it fair to give local diving another try, especially during the day. A spot opened up on the dive boat Garloo last week, so I jumped aboard with some friends from my dive club. I have to say, the diving largely lived up to its reputation: at depth, the water temperature sank to 45 degrees, and visibility barely reached 10 feet. Finding our way around the wreck of the USS San Diego at 90 feet was indeed challenging.

But in terms of service, the Garloo provided an entirely different experience. The cabin was comfortable, and the boat had bunks for sleeping onboard the night before (which is a great alternative to trying to get to the boat before the 6:00 a.m. departure). And the crew was fantastic, bringing your rig to you before the dive, helping you off and back onto the boat, trying to help in any way they could.

I'm still undecided on what I think of local Northeast diving. There is certainly a devoted community of local divers who rave about it, and there's a whole fleet of wrecks off the coasts of Long Island or New Jersey that you can dive on. But yes, it can be cold and murky, so go into it eyes wide open. And hitch a ride on the Garloo. The conditions might not be a sure thing, but at least you'll have a smooth ride and good service.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Some great summer scuba diving deals

Having done four big scuba diving trips last year, I find myself in the unhappy position of having no upcoming dive trips planned. We've been trying to put together a short trip to the Florida Keys or a reasonably close Caribbean destination, but haven't been able to plan anything that fits our budget, work commitments and vacation time.

I'm sure we'll eventually be able to make something happen, but in the meantime, here are a few really good deals that I've come across:

Little Cayman Fall Fanta-Sea
This package includes seven nights accommodation (and hotel taxes), six days of 2-tank diving, 3 meals a day, free nitrox and airport transfers. The $1,291 p.p./d.o. price tag is pretty good for expensive Cayman. [More info]

Exumas, Bahamas - "Dive Your Face Off"
Run by my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, this weeklong luxury liveaboard trip onboard the Aqua Cat takes you through the mostly uninhabited Exumas island chain in the Bahamas. The $2,095 price (no single supplement!) includes basically everything (even alcohol!) except air fare. [More info]

And if the preceding specials make you nervous because of hurricane season (buy travel insurance!), here's a deal I wish I could take advantage of, since Curacao lies outside the Caribbean hurricane belt:

Buddy Weeks - Curacao Summer Special
This package includes seven days (pay for six) in a studio apartment, six days of unlimited diving (pay for five), airport transfer, and best of all, your buddy pays half-price for diving when you pay full price! [More info]

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Diving in the "Quaribbean"

Formerly farmland, Dutch Springs began in 1933 as a limestone quarry for use in cement manufacturing. Shortly after mining started, water began to seep into the quarry, and pumping operations became necessary to keep the water out. When the cement company went out of business in the 1970s, the quarry—100 feet deep in some places—flooded and became a lake. In 1980, the property was purchased and converted into one of the nation's largest freshwater scuba diving parks.

But enough with the history lesson.

Last weekend, I joined my my New York City-based dive club, Oceanblue Divers, for the local diving season kick-off event at Dutch Springs (or, as some lovingly call it, the "Quaribbean"). A core group of us camped out and stayed the whole weekend, while most divers came for the day on Sunday. The latter missed most of the fun.

While the city baked under oppressive heat and humidity, we pitched our tents in the cool shade of a grove of trees, and cooled off in the quarry's cold water. In fact, the experience made me think of the trip to Spa Castle a couple of weeks back. There, Cassie and I moved back and forth from hot spas and saunas to iceboxes and cold-water pools. This weekend, we melted in 100-degree/100%-humidity air, then went diving in water that dropped to as low as 44 degrees in some spots. Talk about cooling off....

The diving is about as interesting as a quarry can offer—you can see the usual suspects like a sunken school bus and Cessna, as well as a Sikorsky helicopter suspended in the water column—but for me, it's the camping that adds color to Dutch Springs visits. This time, the colorful moments included Doris leaving her regulator at home... Peter channeling Bob Dylan around the campfire... Chuck channeling MacGyver to grind some coffee beans... Neil sharing s'mores and the stories behind them... Chris taking us behind the scenes of the Alaska Experiment... and last but not least, the staple for any Dutch Springs trip: Cassie's awesome crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

Some divers look down on Dutch Springs in disdain. If you consider a "Dutch Springs experience" strictly in terms of the diving—cold water, kooky wrecks, less-than-stellar visibility—I can understand why. But like any dive trip, camping excursion or any other type of recreational activity, it's the people that make it truly enjoyable. And, from this perspective, it was a great weekend.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Nemo33: Now that's a swimming pool

What is it about those wacky Europeans? Last Monday, I debuted a new weekly feature to showcase weird and wacky travel, and my first selection was "Tropical Islands," a gargantuan aquatic playground south of Berlin, by way of the Caribbean. This week, we go next door to Belgium, to another monolithic waterworld reminiscent of never-subtle Las Vegas.

Nemo33 is a "swimming pool," kind of like the White House is a "house." The facility, located just outside Brussels, is a playground for scuba divers who can't escape to open water. It features several platforms for training, as well as the eponymous 33-meter pit for deep dives.

Being a diver living in the Northeast, lacking what I'd call desirable diving close-at-hand (though I have friends who'd argue that), I have no trouble understanding what would drive otherwise reasonable adults to spend a day playing in a 100-foot-deep swimming pool. I myself have wasted more than one day diving in flooded quarries, where the water temperature peaked at 42 degrees and the visibility extended to a whopping 3 feet.

There's truth in the adage, "The worst day diving is better than the best day working." So when it comes to scuba diving in weird and wacky places, the Belgians don't corner the market. Though I have to admit they do it with a lot more style.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

33 of the best dive sites in the world

I recently came across an online collection of "33 of the best diving sites in the world." Of course, as most seasoned divers know, any list that claims to feature the "best" dive sites should be served with a grain of sea salt. Such claims are subjective, and the "best" dives are almost always made memorable by the marine life that you see—which is never the same from dive to dive. (Though I was gratified to see that Catalina Island made the list.)

Nevertheless, this list serves as a passport for the armchair diver to virtually travel to these 33 dive sites, so for that reason alone, it's definitely worth a visit. For any divers reading this blog, what site do you think should have been on this list?

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

SoCal, SoCool: California with Avra

Traveling and scuba diving are two of my favorite activities, and there could possibly be no hobbies more compatible with each other. It occurred to me to write a blog posting on this subject, but when casting about the web for inspiration, I came across a trip report written by fellow Oceanblue Divers member Avra Cohen about his recent trip to southern California.

The beautiful descriptions of his experiences exploring SoCal's kelp forests, deserts and beaches made me more homesick than just about anything else I've read or seen since moving to the East Coast in 2005. His accounts brought back vivid memories of my own times exploring the very same places. He "meticulously planned, for ten days, to go whichever way the wind blew," and the result is testament to the value of spontaneity in travel.

Avra's report is far better than anything I'm going to write today, so travel vicariously to California with him through this link.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cheap dive packages to Cozumel

For those like me who love to scuba dive, I wanted to share this awesome deal I found for dive travel to Cozumel, thanks to Sport Diver magazine. Both Hotel Cozumel and Fiesta Americana are offering some really inexpensive specials for 3-, 5- and 7-night stay-and-dive packages this summer and fall. You can find all the pricing here, but a sample 3-night/2-dive-day package at Hotel Cozumel (perfect for a long weekend getaway) during the summer is only $296 (p.p./d.o.). Upgrade to all-inclusive (all meals and alcohol) for only $353.

I'm not going to get in the habit of posting just any great deal I come across, but this one's so good that I'm probably going to take advantage of it myself. I stayed and dived at Hotel Cozumel last year, so I know it's a decent place to stay. My girlfriend Cassie did her first night dive right off the dock there, seeing such cool critters as a free-swimming octopus and eel, a school of squid, a wandering lobster and much more.

The only dive trip I've got planned for the rest of 2008 is a weekend in Dutch Springs (a quarry in Pennsylvania), so I'd better get busy planning something!


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A week in Roatan, Honduras

Last month, I returned to Honduras for a week of scuba diving in Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía). I didn't make it to the mainland, nor was I able to reunite with anyone from my Honduran "family" while I was there, but it's always nice to go back to a country I've often considered a second homeland. Cassie doesn't have the same connection I do to the country where I spent a year during my formative teenage years, but she still fell in love with the lush landscape and laid-back atmosphere (and the flavorful baleadas).

The diving was as spectacular as the last time I dived there, even though the dive operation we used was run by the Keystone Kops. And, by traveling with such a fun group from our dive club, our spirits were not dampened by lingering showers from the tail end of the rainy season. Cassie and I spent much of our first week back home surfing Roatán blogs and checking out vacation property listings.

I've updated my travel journaling site, Travels to Distant [strick]Lands, with a journal and pictures from the trip.


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