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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Halloween travels

Halloween is not a holiday as commonly associated with travel as, say, Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, it can be a great excuse for a weekend getaway or day trip, especially for someone like me who loves Halloween.

Today, I received an email newsletter from Omni Hotels, which included a link to some "spooky stories" from some of their "haunted destinations." Like most ghost stories associated with hotels, these stories more likely originated from a marketing copywriter behind a desk than from an apparition behind the veil. Nevertheless, such stories are a great way to get into the Halloween spirit, especially if your travel plans include a visit to a place reputed to be haunted.

And even if your Halloween plans don't include travel to anywhere further than your living room or a friend's Halloween party, sneak a peek at the clever cocktails concocted by Omni: the Red Widow, Bond's Eye and Red Eye. Spooky sipping!

Spooky Stories

Halloween Cocktails

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel

Picture a Ferris wheel. Now imagine that each carriage is an enclosed room, not simply a seat. Inside, each carriage is furnished with a dining table, chairs and fancy table settings. Wrap-around windows provide the view one would expect from a Ferris wheel.

Sound like a fantasy? It's not—such a thing exists, and it's possibly the most romantic way to have dinner in Vienna, Austria. Think engagement, milestone anniversary, that kind of thing.

I haven't been on the Wiener Riesenrad (aka "The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel"). I haven't even been to Austria. But I fell in love with the idea of this unique restaurant the first time I heard about it from Cassie's brother and sister-in-law. They were lucky enough to spend an evening having dinner in one of the luxury carriages.

So I'll add the Wiener Riesenrad to my list of things to see. Anyone else got a unique or weird place that I should see?


Monday, August 18, 2008

Cemeteries: Millions of untold stories

I love cemeteries. Always have. Whenever I come upon them, I want to stop, stroll around, look at the names of those who have lived, loved and passed on. Especially here in the Northeast where, more often than not, the cemetery turns out to be old or even historic.

Last October, the Tour de Bronx bike ride took us through Woodlawn Cemetery. The list of eternal residents is a Who's Who of bygone New York society and culture: J.C. Penney, Joseph Pulitzer, Irving Berlin, Frank Woolworth and Celia Cruz, to name a few. Like mansions for the dead, giant mausoleums display in death the wealth that many of the interred must have enjoyed in life.

On my first trip from LaGuardia Airport into Brooklyn, I got my first look at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. There, the horizon of the cemetery blends into the Manhattan skyline, making the distant skyscrapers look like just more headstones and monuments.

Last winter, I rode solo down the Ocean Parkway bike path, a route through Brooklyn that ends at the Coney Island boardwalk (and which is the country's oldest bike path). Along the way, I stopped at Washington Cemetery, a Jewish graveyard full of poignant headstones etched with likenesses of the deceased.

Before moving out of Virginia, I spent a day in Harper's Ferry, a historic town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. On the hill overlooking the town, I found an old graveyard with markers old enough that the dates had long since been weathered away.

And just last week, while watching "House Hunters International" (one of our favorite shows), I found a cemetery I want to visit in the future: Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perhaps best known for being the last resting place of Eva Peron, the place looks like a city within a city, with narrow alleyways that invite exploration.

Why do cemeteries fascinate me so? Most people probably find my interest morbid. But that's not it. When I walk past the headstones and gaze at the names and dates, I think about the stories that each one represents. A life lived, whether short or long; love, whether unrequited or consummated; dreams realized or unfulfilled; hardship endured or fruits of labor enjoyed; loved ones left behind.

Put simply, when I walk through a cemetery, I feel the millions of untold stories swirling all around me. I read the scant clues provided by the names, dates and brief epitaphs and let my imagination fill in the rest. For me, ironically, there is no place more full of life than a cemetery.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Monday, August 11, 2008

My weird travels

Monday is a day I sometimes write about "weird travel." Today, I thought I'd reminisce about some of the stranger places and things I've seen in my travels.

In London, there was "The Gherkin," an odd modern building that earned its nickname from the resemblance of its shape to a pickle. To my eyes, it looked more like something else that I won't mention here.

I've already written about the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, a series of alcoves decorated with the bones of countless Capuchin monks. It was like the Catacombs of Paris in terms of weirdness, but with much more macabre creativity.

Shortly before I moved to the East Coast, I visited a small bar in the small Baja California town of La Bufadora, where I drank a shot of homemade tequila scooped out of a jar containing a dead and fermenting rattlesnake.

I can't write about some of the strangest things I saw in Pattaya Beach, Thailand, but one thing that was weird for its anachronism was the popularity of the game Connect Four. Here was a hedonistic playground of alcohol and women, yet one of the most popular bar activities was this Milton-Bradley game.

Diving in Bonaire, I saw hundreds of pelagic tunicates floating in the water column, some solo, some strung together like a long necklace. I don't know quite how to describe them... they were transparent sack-like creatures with the texture and appearance of hard plastic. When I shined my light on them on a night dive, they burst forth with rainbow colors, like the aliens in the movie The Abyss.

At Sea World in San Diego, I worked as a diver. While I wasn't traveling at the time, the park is a popular tourist destination, and the episode ranks as one of the weirdest things I've seen in my life—so it deserves mention here. To put it bluntly, I witnessed a 2,000-pound walrus masturbating. Enough said.

In Pompeii, a fresco on the front porch of a rich man's home seems vulgar by today's standards, but in the days of Imperial Rome, the painting symbolized wealth.

While racking my brain to dredge up enough memories to write this blog posting, it occurred to me that, while I've seen some amazing things and scenic places, perhaps I haven't experienced as many weird travels as I should. This list should have been a lot longer.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The weird turned pro

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Thus wrote "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson, whose life and work have long served as inspiration to my equally gonzo friend Rick McKinney. I've long since accepted (and look forward to) the fact that the going will get weird anytime I hang out with Rick.

Last weekend in Maine was no exception. Before we even left New York, Rick informed me that we would be spending part of our time filming a wacky, Monty Python-esque video. Sure enough, in between zooming around Moose Pond and relaxing with a batch of Painkillers, Rick and his cousin Justin planned scenes and created new characters (with occasional brainstorming from me).

Before the weekend was over, Justin's camera had shot footage of Rick as a little girl in a dress, me as an apocalyptic preacher, Justin as an expert on bathroom literature, and much more weirdness. I'm simultaneously excited and worried about the video ("Bloganetics") eventually finding its way to YouTube.

Cassie was quite the good sport to put up with this surfeit of strangeness, especially considering the zeal with which I embraced it (though Rick had to play the role of the woman rummaging through the ferns for mud, originally written for Cassie). I'm sure the gorgeous scenery and aquatic playground at our disposal helped keep her in good spirits.

Though the camera captured silliness here and there, we did spend most of our time enjoying that scenic beauty. Moose Pond lies close to the New Hampshire border, near the White Mountains and Kancamagus Highway. Shawnee Peak rises above the lake, providing a beautiful backdrop (and a bounty of blueberry bushes to those willing to hike to its crown). And while we weren't the only ones on the water, the somewhat remote location kept the lake from being overrun with weekenders.

Maine's Lakes Region
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The weekend ended all too soon, and we had to face the seven-hour drive back to New York City—and the work week ahead of us. But the waters of Moose Pond and the professional weirdness of Rick McKinney recharged our batteries and left us with some fun memories (some of which you can see by clicking through the photo album to the left).

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

World's first sandcastle hotel

Would you like to book a stay at a seaside hotel? Want to hear the sound of waves washing up on the beach as you sleep? Want to pay only 20 bucks for an ocean-view room?

Then head to southwest Britain, where you can book a night in the world's first-ever sandcastle hotel. The room lacks a bathroom, a door, even a roof (though the latter means you've got a fantastic view of the stars from your bed). But it's probably one of the only hotels where the housekeeping staff cleans up with a shovel.

We've been contemplating a wintertime visit to Quebec to stay in the famous Ice Hotel, but I'm thinking the Sandcastle Hotel might be a bit more comfortable—and equally novel!


Monday, July 21, 2008

When not to hit the beach in Mumbai

By one of those completely random happenstances so common while searching Google, I came across the image seen below while seeking out completely unrelated information. Though it didn't help me find what I was looking for, I now know not to visit Mumbai (or at least hit the beach) during Ganesh Festival.



Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tree houses in Curacao

While doing research for a possible trip to Curacao, I found out that Kura Hulanda, an eco-friendly lodge on the quieter, more remote west side of the island, just opened a new "Tree House Mansion."

For about $1,000 per night, you and yours can live like the Swiss Family Robinson. A wooden spiral staircase leads up to the 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom suite, which features an open-air living room, Balinese bridal bed and flat screen TV. The decor is furnished with a wide variety of tribal artifacts collected by the resort's owner.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite like living like the Swiss Family Robinson.

The resort also features a more rustic, $100/night Tree House, a little-known accommodation that is apparently available "on request only." The Tree House (note the absence of the word "Mansion") consists of a wooden platform reachable by a ladder and trap door with a full-size safari tent equipped with a king-size bed and electricity (for lights, a fridge and TV). I've already called ahead, and this budget Tree House is available during the dates we're considering. Hmmmm......


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fortress of Solitude: Mexico's Crystal Cave of Giants

I've been in a real-life "Bat Cave." I've sat in the captain's chair on the set of "Star Trek: Voyager." I've even walked amongst hills where Iron Man would later escape from terrorists. But I've never been inside Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Turns out such a place does exist outside of movies and comic books. In a mine in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, miners discovered in 2000 what could be the world's largest crystals. Giant columns of selenite (gypsum) grow as long as 50 feet, conjuring visions of the Man of Steel's hideout.

For now, the 1,000-foot-deep "Crystal Cave of Giants" is off-limits to the general public. But perhaps one day these amazing crystal behemoths will be accessible to everyday adventurers seeking a crystal connection to Krypton.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

A high-rise water park

Leave it to someone in New York to find a way to create a water park in a high rise in the middle of Queens. Inspa World may lack crazy water slides and a wave pool, but it still offers plenty to satisfy the water lover. Indoor hot tubs, steam rooms and saunas let you slough off your life's worries and stress. A relaxation lounge offers beverages, private televisions and foot massages. Best of all, rooftop pools feature aqua-jets, waterfalls, mineral baths, massage tubs and even a sluice for those wishing for a water slide.

Stay tuned to this blog for a first-hand report in the near future!



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hot Springs National Park

Being a native Californian who enjoys camping, hiking and the great outdoors, I've always associated hot springs with natural settings. In California, hot springs are generally the destination for a camping trip, because they're located in scenic, and usually remote, settings.

So when I relocated to the East Coast in 2005, I was excited to stop at Hot Springs National Park when I drove through Arkansas. I chose spontaneity as my sightseeing style on that trip, so I didn't do any advance research. I simply looked at the mileage for the next day's driving, and then checked out the map for points of interest in the general vicinity of where I'd end the day's drive.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Hot Springs National Park is located in as natural a setting as New York's Central Park. Hot Springs is a town, albeit a charming one, and the eponymous springs have all been capped. The hot water is diverted to historic bathhouses, which drew visitors from around the world in their heyday. You could probably call it the "most urban" National Park.

Nevertheless, I found it interesting enough to while away the afternoon, despite my mistaken expectations. The spa featured gorgeous stained glass, and the vintage gymnasium was quaint. But two-thirds into my 3,000-mile drive, I would have preferred to experience the hot springs more directly.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Seligman's Snow Cap: Historic humor on Route 66

Route 66 holds a place in American culture nearly as revered as that of another, more mythical road, the one made of yellow bricks. And one of the most beloved stops along Route 66 is the Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona. In this monument of kitsch, a straw is not a straw, a bottle of mustard holds more than just a condiment, and you'd better not ask for a napkin.

I visited the Snow Cap with my family back in 1998, on our way from San Diego to Lake Powell. Pulling off I-40 and onto the business loop—old Route 66—we passed by the Roadkill Cafe and stopped at the Snow Cap. We had no trouble finding it; the old Chevy painted in garish colors, the sign announcing that they sold "Dead Chicken"... the place hardly blended in. When we saw the sign that said "Sorry, We're Open," we knew we were in for a treat.

Sure enough, it became evident that "Dead Chicken" was not the only thing on the menu. They featured a special of Gags, a side of Jokes and a freshly baked loaf of Cornball Fun. When I ordered a small cup of coffee, I got a thimble-sized cup. When one of my nieces asked for a napkin, the server asked "New or used?" If you requested a straw, you were likely to get a handful of real straw.

Owner and founder Juan Delgadillo was the one behind the gags, including the mustard bottle that shot out a yellow string that looked just like the real thing. He opened the Snow Cap in 1953, and shortly thereafter began serving fun with the french fries. Though I read that Delgadillo passed away in 2004, his sons have kept his spirit alive, so don't miss this historic landmark of humor if you're visiting the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona or any of the many other sights in the vicinity.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Making contact with the Very Large Array

As I crossed the mountains of western New Mexico, I came over a rise and plunged into a wide valley. There, lined up like white tin soldiers, stood the 27 antennas of the Very Large Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. With each dish measuring over 80 feet in diameter and weighing 230 tons, the VLA presented a very impressive sight, even from miles away.

That's what I wrote back in 2003 after visiting the VLA, made famous in popular imagination by the Jodie Foster movie "Contact." After driving for miles upon miles through deserted landscape full of nothing but scrub brush and blue sky, the sight of the VLA's antennas seemed as out of place as a fleet of UFOs. The sight was more reminiscent of an installation by artist Christo than a scientific facility.

If you're driving between Phoenix and Albuquerque, you're more likely to take I-40 than the more rural Highway 60 (even though the latter is a more direct route, as the crow flies). Nevertheless, if you want a weird and random sight at the halfway point, then take that back way through the mountains—and keep your ears tuned for an alien reply from the heavens.


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Monday, April 21, 2008

Weird Rome: The Capuchin Crypt

When I spent a week in Rome back in 2001, I had a lot of time to myself to explore the Eternal City. I found priceless Caravaggios hidden away in unassuming chapels, I ate a panino on the steps of the Trevi Fountain, I even stayed in a hotel situated in a wing of a 15th century palazzo. But the most memorable sight—for its weirdness—was probably the Capuchin Crypt.

Beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Via Veneto, near Piazza Barberini), you'll find the mortal remains of over 4,000 Capuchin monks. They aren't neatly buried in a church cemetery; the bones are out in the open, on display for all to see.

But wait: this isn't like the Catacombs of Paris. You won't find simple piles of human bones here. No, you'll witness the most bizarre, macabre artwork you've ever seen in your life. Bones nailed to the walls and ceilings in intricate designs. Whole skeletons assembled into forbidding poses. Functioning light fixtures made of bones.

My guidebook made only the slightest of mention of this attraction, but having a morbid interest in such things, I made it a point to visit the crypt. I had low expectations, and suspected a tourist trap with a few bones scattered about. But the warped imagination on display turned out to be as impressive as the artistic genius splashed across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Make no bones about it: the Capuchin Crypt is a must-see for any visitor to Rome.

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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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Monday, April 7, 2008

Monday means weird and wacky travel

For many of us, Monday means back to work, a day on which we need an escape more than most days. So what better day to launch a new weekly feature that showcases the weird and the wacky side of travel? Each Monday, I'll find a person, place or thing guaranteed to make you say "Wow!", "No way!" or simply "Huh?"

And where do I start? A man who has walked around the Earth 17 times? A gadget that will shrink any suitcase down to carry-on size? (I wish.) No, we're setting off to explore Tropical Islands.

Okay, we're not actually going to the tropics, nor will we even find ourselves on an island. We don't even need sunscreen, because there's a roof over our heads. Welcome to Tropical Islands in Brand, Germany, an abomination that more rightly belongs in Dubai or Las Vegas.

About 40 miles south of Berlin, would you expect to find a rainforest with 30,000 trees? Authentic buildings from Bali, Borneo and Samoa? A sandy beach with a "tropical sea" where you can go snorkeling? Well, that's what you'll find, all packed inside the world's largest free-standing dome that could house both the Eiffel Tower (lying down) and the Statue of Liberty (standing up).

Until I saw pictures of the indoor ski slope in Dubai, I never would have imagined something like Tropical Islands could exist outside a science fiction novel. But then again, this is the 21st century. Soon, you won't even have to leave your house to "travel."