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

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday travel photo

Sunset in Westpunt, Curacao, Dutch Antilles

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bulls Island Campground: review of campsites

Last year, I published a review of specific campsites at a campground in the Catskills, noting that selecting a specific site when making reservations is like taking a shot in the dark. My review included detailed notes on each site to help future visitors make their choice.

When we visited Bulls Island Campground along the Delaware River last weekend, I intended to take notes about each site, so that I could publish a similar review. As it turned out, however, the sites very distinctly fell into two categories: "good" and "great." More specifically, one group of sites are found within a mostly open area that offers little privacy between sites; while the other group are very private (and many sit right on the water).

Refer to the campground map at this link. Then draw an imaginary line vertically between sites 1/2/3 and sites 40/42/43/44. All of the sites to the left of that line are in a mostly open area that offers plenty of shade and beautiful tree cover, but little privacy (as pictured at right). The sites to the right of that line all offer much more privacy and seclusion. Sites 63-69 are the most premium locations, all right on the Delaware River (though sites 56-62 are situated similarly adjacent to the D & R Canal).

In short, there's really not a bad site in this campground. Some are great, but all are good. And this is reflected in the campground's popularity. They require a two-night minimum reservation on weekends, and are booked up well in advance. Tip: Call early on a Saturday morning; if they have availability, you can book for one weekend night (which is what we did).

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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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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Iceland

Earlier this week, I met a friend for drinks. He'd just come home from a work assignment to Iceland, so his trip took up a good part of the conversation. Before he spoke, I knew little about the country; by the time he finished describing his trip, it had become a must-visit.

I've heard the old saw about how the country was named "Iceland" by explorers wanting to scare off settlers by suggesting the place was nothing but ice (and steering them to icy "Greenland" with reverse logic). So I wasn't surprised to hear my friend's descriptions of the mild climate and beautiful landscape. But what did surprise me was hearing how free and easy it is to explore.

Though I haven't done enough research to check facts yet, he said that most of the country's land is not owned by individuals; even farmers lease the land they work. As a result, anyone can camp virtually anywhere without a permit. Living in a bureaucratic and regulation-heavy country where camping is concerned, I perked up when I heard this. To be able to just wander the countryside and pitch a tent wherever the fancy strikes me... that's a heady prospect, when one considers the natural beauty to be found there. Especially in light of my new backpacking hobby.

Granted, this is all just starry-eyed fantasy at this point, but the discussion was certainly enough to get me thinking seriously about trekking midway across the pond. And Iceland Air offers a $399 round-trip fare this winter. Yes, it sounds crazy to contemplate a winter trip to a place with the word "ice" in its name, but if my friend's account is to be believed, even winters are not as cold as the name suggests. We'll see....

(Read a photographer's account of his camping trip & photo safari; I'm including this link mostly for my own future reference, when I plan my own similar trip.)

See more Iceland photos

Photo credit: Paolo Ardiani


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Catskills backpack: Trying out a new hobby

I've enjoyed camping as long as I can remember, even if there have been periods in my life when I haven't done much of it. Growing up, I often slept under the stars with friends in the state park behind my house. When I moved back to San Diego in 2003, I got involved with an adventure club and took frequent camping trips to destinations in southern California and Mexico. More recently, I met my wife when we pitched (separate) tents at Dutch Springs, a scuba diving park in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Despite my love of camping and the outdoors, however, my backpacking experience is almost nil. I did an overnighter to Kennedy Meadows in the Sierra Nevada with some friends in college, and hiked into Havasu Canyon with another friend in 2001, but those are the only times I've ever camped with nothing but what I carry on my back. The rest has all been car camping—which is more convenient, but also more limiting.

Car camping on the East Coast has seemed more limiting than it was out west, where (in my experience, at least) there is more wild public land where one can drive and camp anywhere (as opposed to designated campgrounds). Lately, my enthusiasm for camping has been tempered somewhat by the anticipation of loud music and partying unfortunately common in some campgrounds—which has made the prospect of backpacking more appealing. Living with limited square footage in New York, dealing with only what you can fit into a backpack—instead of a large pile of gear—also has its merits.

For me, the final push was seeing what I missed when my wife spent a week backpacking in western Colorado last month. After looking at her photos, it didn't take long before I became the proud owner of my very own new Osprey Aether 70 backpack.

Last weekend, we set out on my first "real" expedition (since the two trips described above were impromptu affairs, and the "backpacking" part of it was a means, not an end in itself). To ease me into the new hobby, we chose a seemingly easy trail loop in the northern Catskills, planning to summit Hunter and West Kill Mountains on a three-day/two-night trip.

The first half went according to plan; Spruceton Trail, which led to Hunter's summit, was wide and grassy, with only one steep section. But for the heavy pack on my back, it almost felt like a walk in the park. On the mountaintop, we shot some photos from the fire tower and enjoyed the wide views of the surrounding mountains. On the other side of the slope, we descended and picked out a lovely camp site in the midst of a pine forest. Not a soul around us; and despite our precautions hanging our food out of reach, not a bear in the vicinity either. For a newbie like me, though, it was still a tough day, and I barely had the energy to crawl into my sleeping bag at 8:00.

The next day, we continued our descent into Diamond Notch, the valley between the two peaks we planned to bag. At the bottom, the sound of rushing water lured us to Diamond Notch Falls (also known as Buttermilk Falls), a cascade under which I gladly showered, despite the cold water temperature. Here, we faced a dilemma. We could continue on with our plan, following Devil's Path Trail up West Kill Mountain, ending back at the road the next day—which would also mean a three-mile walk back to the car on the road. Or we could hike a short distance south on the offshoot Diamond Notch Trail, make an early camp, and then have a short and easy hike back to the car north on the same trail the next day. Cassie left the decision to me, since it was my birthday weekend, and I opted to stick with the plan and go for the greater challenge.

We soon learned that Devil's Path was aptly named.

If Spruceton Trail was an easy stroll, this was the opposite. Devil's Path was one of the steeper trails we'd ever hiked, and the backpacks made it that much tougher. And it kept going up. And up. And up. I kept looking at the map, trying to match the contour lines with the steepness of the trail to see when we'd get a break, but the ascent continued. And then the Devil stole my soul. Or at least my sole. My boots had many miles on them before this trip, and Devil's Path proved too much for my left one. Walking up the trail, the sole caught on a rock and pulled almost all the way off. I looked down in disbelief, and then looked at Cassie. Was that the end of our hike? Should we turn around? No. She urged me to secure it with duct tape and rope, which I did—and we were on our way again.

We finally made it to the summit, weary and sore. After enjoying the most gorgeous view of the entire trip from Buck Ridge Lookout, we faced the next challenge: where to camp for the night. Regulations prohibited us from camping above 3,500 feet or within 150 feet of the trail. The original plan was to descend westward from West Kill's 3,880-foot peak and find a suitable site below the 3,500-foot mark, filling up at a water source along the way (indicated on the map). But we soon discovered this was a good plan on paper only.

First, the "spring" shown on the map—which was also the last water source on our route—turned out to be little more than a trickle, and even that was nearly inaccessible amongst thick bushes. Second, the terrain was so uneven and the forest so thick that we could find no suitable site to pitch a tent—above or below 3,500 feet, within or beyond 150 feet of the trail. As the afternoon wore on and daylight started to wane, our bushwacking in search of a site grew more desperate. Finally, just as we started debating whether we could push all the way through to the road before it grew pitch-dark, we happened upon a secluded grove of ferns with a small patch of grass, where we pitched the tent underneath a fir tree. At that point, beggars couldn't be choosers, and we would have settled on just about anything; but the site turned out to be quite lovely.

We had no luck with water, however, so we were forced to ration what little we had left. That meant no side dish to go with our pasta primavera, and no evening powdered "cocktail" of Crystal Light pink lemonade (Cassie) or Blue Frost Gatorade (me). It also meant no coffee for me the next morning—my birthday morning, no less—which was the worst part. But we had enough water left over to get us through the last few miles of hiking the next day, which was all that mattered. Once again, I spent my last strength crawling into the tent before it was even fully dark out.

Devil's Path was as steep on the descent as it was going up, so by the time we got to the relatively level final mile in Mink Hollow, we were ready to reach the finish line. That last mile, though, was for me the prettiest scenery of the entire weekend (and not just because the trail was mostly flat). Tall, leafy trees rose high above a bubbling stream filled with moss-covered rocks. An enchanting setting that belied the brutal miles preceding it, and which I can't adequately describe.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, despite of—or perhaps even because of—the unexpected challenges. Cassie cautioned me against buying too much backpacking gear before the trip, in case I didn't end up enjoying it. But if the weekend was a test, I passed—and now I have a new hobby.

See all the photos from the trip

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Europe's Christmas markets - $499 Danube cruise

For countless years, I've wanted to spend part of the holiday season touring the many Christmas markets in Europe. Some of the most popular ones are to be found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but it's a common tradition in many parts of the continent. There's something about the Old World setting for an Old World tradition that makes a magical season seem even more magical.

I can't even recall when I first heard about Europe's Christmas markets, nor when this whimsical idea first formed in my mind. I believe I saw a travel program that showcased the markets (probably Rick Steves), and that's all it took to set my imagination alight. Someday, I hope to make this fantasy of mine a reality.

If this idea appeals to you as well, and you're casting about for cheap holiday travel ideas, check out this special deal (which is what brought this to mind months before Christmas): five nights cruising the Danube, including 14 meals, with shore excursions to Christmas markets in Vienna, Passau and Regensburg, all for $499. Find all the details here.

[Disclosure: I am not affiliated with this travel operator in any way, and I have not vetted the offer, so do your own research. On the surface, it seems like a great deal.]

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday travel photo

American Falls at Niagara Falls

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Southwest's baby steps: "optional" fees

Southwest Airlines has so far made a name for itself staying out of the airline industry's Year of the Fees. Last year, I wrote about their marketing campaign in which they bragged about not charging fees to check baggage. That's still the case, even as they lose millions—and other airlines bring in millions with baggage fees.

But now they're taking baby steps into Fee Land, offering an optional $10 fee to get a priority spot in the boarding queue. For those of you who haven't flown Southwest, they do not assign seats; it's first-come, first-served. So your position in the boarding queue is critical if you don't want to sit in a middle seat.

The more people who take advantage of this new option, the fewer aisle and window seats will be available to those who don't. I predict the tipping point will be reached quickly, and the $10 fee will become all but standard. I also predict this is the beginning of Southwest's journey toward charging the same fees as all the other guys.

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