Category Archives: Ecotourism

NYT Travel Show: How to Be a Responsible Traveler… and Why

Safari in the tiger reserve of Kanha National Park in central India – tour companies, guides and visitors are tightly regulated. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Overtourism is a growing concern and not just for residents of popular places being overrun and rendered unaffordable and uninhabitable by onslaughts of tourists, possibly assisted by the mad dashes to the next “hot” place, prompted by social media “influencers” and “user generated” posts (‘Look at what a wonderful place I’m in, you should come!”). Governments and municipalities who otherwise relish the jobs created and economic benefits of tourism, are increasingly concerned about the literal destruction of the very thing that so attracts travelers – effectively killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Some destinations are being mindful – Venice is even contemplating charging admission to day-trippers and there are now gates in place that can close off the city to anyone who isn’t a resident or hotel guest at night. Coral reefs are being killed off by snorkelers wearing popular sunscreens with oxybenzone (a travel company, Aqua-Aston Hospitality, won an HSMAI Adrian Award for Leadership in Corporate Social Responsibility for its “Reef Safe” Campaign raising awareness, including giving out 70,000 samples of appropriate sunscreen and ultimately got the state of Hawaii to ban the damaging chemical).

Places like the Galapagos and Macchu Picchu limit the number of people; the National Park Service has a lottery system for permits rafting in the Grand Canyon and people wait years for their number to come up.

Rafting and camping in Grand Canyon National Park are limited by number of permits issued and space © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

People can love a place to death, or just be so selfish and insensitive not to care – look at what happened the Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown, with vandals and marauders destroying trees that take 1000 years to grow, and will take 200 to 300 years to restore the park.

It’s a dual-edged sword, though: tourism, done right, helps sustain the very environment, culture and heritage by providing economic sustenance, so indigenous people can continue to live and work in their native lands, so there is money for maintenance and upkeep of monuments, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. Ironically, some game preserves justify selling hunting permits to sustain the animals. And often, travelers are not in a position to know whether the elephants or camels they ride are “gentle” because they have been conditioned with cruel means.

“I’m shocked how people (Americans) don’t care – until problem is right on them,” an irate Mark Lakin, Co-Founder, Epic Road, said at the New York Times Travel Show panel, ”Sustainable and Socially Conscious Travel: Tips, Advice and Travel Experiences.”

“Think about what drew you to a place – sustainability is defined as preservation of that asset – whatever it is that you want to see, you want your kids to see, you are choosing to make that asset live. I’m surprised more aren’t concerned about travel.” 

“Travel is not a right, travel is a privilege – if you are among those people privileged to travel, you have obligation to preserve [what it is you are traveling to see],” said Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel. “Are you going to exploit or empower? We practice ecotourism – responsible travel to natural places – eco doesn’t stand for economy, which is exploitive, it stands for ecology.

Visitors are up at dawn to participate with indigenous people in the Sacred Maya Journey, on the Playa del Carmen, in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Responsible travelers make an effort to get to know local people and learn about their customs and heritage © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Our purpose for being is to teach people how to travel more responsibly, sustainably to preserve not just the natural but the cultural – languages, music, dance – all the things that make a cultural destination unique. If we are not preserving, they won’t survive. The reason this is important is that if we don’t spend money responsibly when we travel, we risk losing all the things that make the places special.”

“There are two terms fairly loosely used: responsible travel and sustainable travel,” said James Currie, Wilderness Safaris Brand Ambassador. “Responsible travel has now become a word that you have to embrace sustainability to be responsible – yes can travel with a sustainable outfitter – someone who is taking care of the environment, who builds lodges in a sustainable way, but it is up to us travelers to act responsibly – to respect local cultures, communities, distances you go to see animals.

“I genuinely believe that responsible travel is a better form of travel, and once people experience it, you won’t want to travel any other way.”

New York Times travel and lifestyle writer, Shivani Vora discusses socially conscious and sustainable travel with experts Mark Lakin, Co-Founder, Epic Road; Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel; and James Currie, Wilderness Safaris Brand Ambassador © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New York Times travel and lifestyle writer, Shivani Vora, who moderated the panel, Sustainable and Socially Conscious Travel: Tips, Advice and Travel Experiences, at the New York times Travel Show, raised the issue that “so many of us stay in hotels, what does it mean to choose a sustainable hotel?

“There is such a thing as greenwashing – towels, hire locals – that actually saves money,” said Currie. “True sustainability goes so much further. When considering a sustainable hotel in fragile environments (like safari lodges), consider: Is that hotel built in a sustainable manner? Where we operate in the wilderness areas of Africa, you can literally pick our lodges up and there will be little sign of ever having been– there is no concrete foundation, everything is on elevated boardwalks, canvas-style tents, yet you still don’t sacrifice luxury. What are those hotels on the ground doing to have sustainable effect – animals, conservation, local communities? What are you doing for local communities, how are they benefiting from  the tourism dollars going to the hotel, what conservation projects are they supporting? We’ve been operating 35 years – 35 ears of “traveling with purpose” – we pioneered ecotourism in Africa before the word existed. 

“We use life changing journeys to help preserve and restore the wild places of Africa. Wilderness safaris connect with nature, make a difference. We were the first with passion, courage to pioneer sustainable ecotourism as we know it today. We adopted the African schema as a logo, a symbol of pristine and fragile eco systems. We were the first to reintroduce previously extinct species (rhino), to do ground-breaking reforestation in Rwanda habitat for gorillas.

“For us, it’s not just about big game on the savannah – thanks to 35 years of experience, we are able to offer guests authentic, intimate wildlife encounters – 2 million hectares of pristine wilderness areas in seven countries, 40 camps and lodges that epitomize our ideal.

While visiting temples in Cambodia, sketching with local children © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Conservation is also about people. “Our journeys change lives” not just those of guests, but of the staff and thousands of people who live in these communities.”

Among the programs that Wilderness Safaris offers is Youth of Africa, an eco-mentor program, where young people access and can appreciate their heritage and become the conservation leaders of the future. “We change lives now and into the future; our journeys change lives. We make a political impact.”

 “Don’t be afraid to ask the important questions when you travel in Africa,” Currie said. “If they don’t have something tangible in writing, a really good environmental policy, you are booking the wrong hotel or operator.

Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel advised, “Certification programs to look for – some are more efficient than others – LEED building certification (if the hotel was built in sustainable fashion, but not if operated sustainable, or community initiatives). The epitome is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (gstcouncil.org), which devises criteria by which tour operators and hotels are judged. But you have to pay to play and small mom and pop operators may not be able to afford certification. Another is Earthcheck (earthcheck.org) which has patented software and systems that have set a benchmark for sustainability reporting for the travel and tourism industry and is used 70 countries. Another is Green Globe and Rainforest Alliance.

“But it boils down to reviewing blogs, authoritative sites like New York Times, what people say. Look for active engagements with the community. 

“We work with international expeditions, leading tours to Peruvian Amazon for years – go to local schools in Iquitos where have conservation education program for kids, who train to become guides and trackers; go to river villages to see water treatment plants they created for villages, sidewalks so don’t have to watch for poisonous snakes – use money from tourism for schools, infrastructure.”

In Kenya, Gamewatchers Safaris & Camps have a connection to Masai. The company pioneered Masai conservancies, just outside Masai Mara where there is more wildlife because the animals are more protected. The local communities own the land which Gamewatchers lease, 90% of the employees are from the Masai and the company pays out $500,000, divided among 1000 local Masai families that own the property. So, look where money goes to community.

“Why it should matter to you is not just benevolence,” said Lakin. “In the Maldives people love those romantic over-water bungalows built on coral reefs. But if you use heavy machinery to build them, you kill the reef. Why should you care? Because when you dive off from your bungalow to the reef, it’s dead.

“The person who comes and serves breakfast. If the wilderness lodge has gone out of its way to build a school to educate that waiter’s child, he  will be happy to have the job, and it will be reflected in how he treats the guest.

Off Season Adventures not only times its safaris in Tanzania and Zanzibar in the off-season when there are fewer people, it is less expensive and less stressful for villagers and wildlife, but also allocates 5% of tour price to support local community; this year, supporting the Kakoi Water Project to provide a year-round source of water for the 1000 people of the Kakoi Village and surrounding villages, and brings its guests to see it.

“Stop seeking ‘ecotourism’ for ecotourism. You are all curious nomads, seeking out the next great adventure. If you  want adventure to be great, think about how every person, place and thing was treated and hopefully the label of ‘ecotourism’ will go away and it will just be about good business practice.”

Even hotels in urban destinations can reflect sustainable practices and responsible tourism.

“Consider not just how the building was built, but what extra things the hotel does for the local community, visitor experience,” Love said. “Does it have its own rooftop garden where they grow produce used in the restaurant? Does it have a rainwater catchment system so they are not using public water, or a gray water recycling system to irrigate, efficient lighting. Does it make the lowest impact it can make?”

The easiest telltale says Lakin, “Do the plastic test: if you walk into the room and you only see plastic; how many little bottles, pens, cups? “

“Whether a hotel is in Africa or a city, there are tangible examples of what a difference we can make, Currie says. “We had plastic bottles at our lodges until 2012, when we started a five-year plan to reduce plastic in lodges. In five years, we reduced plastic waste by 88%. We also put in reverse osmosis and recycle wastewater for vegetable gardens.

The amount of electricity using solar can save is 5000 carbon tons, equivalent to 600 flights between London and Johannesburg. Ask hotels what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach, Florida, was Florida’s first LEED Silver certified hotel; even the pool was designed to be purified without chlorine. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

“If you travel and see a company not managing sustainably, speak up. As consumers, you have power,” says Love. “We spoke up in the Amazon, where operators were using plastic water bottles which they had to have shipped in and then deal with it afterward. We said, Why not just put a water filter system on the boat, give guests a water bottle with your logo that they can fill up, then you don’t have to deal with shipping. You can make these changes.” 

“Sustainability is a ripple effect,” says Currie. “It starts with the traveler making a difference, which makes a difference for the hotel, which has immense power with suppliers. At Wilderness Safaris, we noticed that a lot of food that was coming in cellophane-wrapped. We put pressure on suppliers to stop wrapping the food in plastic.

But even companies that want to be sustainable, may not know all things they need to do – companies that offer animal interactions, like elephant rides in Thailand, camel rides in Egypt, posing with a tiger, swimming with dolphins or encountering sharks in a dive cage.

Love points to companies that offer a chance to ride an elephant. “We had to educate them that this is not truly sustainable – if you want to use these words and avoid greenwashing – dedicate yourself to educating yourself. Consumers should educate – at website, stories about cases.

“I swam with dolphins before the documentary, ‘The Cove’ came out. No one knew in 2007 about dolphins in captivity – swimming with dolphins was considered ecotourism. The same with riding an elephant and walking with lions. Elephants which are trained to pose for photos or give rides, are put through an extremely brutal training process, designed to break the animal’s spirit and make it a slave to human overseers. If you wouldn’t want something done to a human why would you allow it to be done to one of most precious and beautiful animals in the world?

“Educating yourself about what is behind these things- people see Tiger Temple in Thailand where you can pose with a tiger (which may be shut down). But it has been proven that the tiger has been drugged, that’s why it’s so placid – but people don’t know. If you are touching an animal, posing with selfie, riding an animal that’s not meant to be ridden, probably there is some hurtful process to condition the animal. People don’t know. But if what you are doing is changing the natural behavior of the animal, don’t do it.

Aqua-Aston Hospitality won HSMAI’s Leader in Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its “Reef Safe” Campaign that turned the tide against coral bleaching in Hawaii caused by a chemical in many sunscreens with both a consumer awareness campaign (including giving out 70,000 samples of appropriate sunscreen) and achieving a state ban on the use of sunscreens with the damaging chemical © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even snorkelers can be unwitting killers of the coral, by wearing sunscreen containing  oxybenzone, which is toxic to the living coral.

 “If on safari, game rangers or guides too close to wildlife that puts you at risk, but if something happens, the animal would be shot,” Currie says. “Guides must respect a comfortable distance, and keep park vehicles so they always have an escape route. If you see the guide getting  too close, say something. It’s about your safety but the animal’s safety also. At Ngorongoro Crater there are off road tracks all over because of irresponsible guides.

“The vast majority of animal interactions are not acceptable,” says Lakin. “One of the quickest ways to figure if interacting with captive animal is acceptable, is whether the animal is being bred.

In contrast, you can support organizations that rescue orphans and reintroduce them to the wild.

Lakin points to the David Shelbrick Wildlife Trust, which rescues orphan elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers. They have developed a synthetic milk formula that mimics elephant milk. They may spend 5-7 years rearing the baby elephant before reintroducing them into a herd, but allows visitors, who make a donation, to visit the baby elephants. Elephants have lived on earth for over 55 million years, but in just the last 100, we have lost 92% of elephants to habitat loss and poaching.” 

Epic Road supports the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DWST) which rescues, rehabilitates and reintroduces the orphaned elephants, providing travelers who symbolically “adopt” an elephant with a $50 donation, an opportunity to have a private visit.

“The experience is just better when it is responsible,” Lakin says.

Micato Safaris received HSMAI’s Leader in Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its “AmericaShare” Campaign, where a portion of guest fees goes to subsidize a child’s education, and promoting wildlife conservation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Wherever you go, try to engage with local community, food, culture, history, art, dance, everything that makes unique – don’t just be an observer but a participant – learn the language, learn to cook a dish, sing a song. In the Peruvian Amazon, we taught kids to do the hokey-pokey, in middle of Amazon! You will feel feelings you won’t get from all-inclusive resort, or a cruise. Just engage and be part of the world, embrace the world, that’s what makes travel real, connect across boundaries, understand we are all more alike than dissimilar. 

Overtourism – literally loving cherished places to death – is another problem inadvertently raised by ecotourists who believe they are supporting and sustaining environments and cultures. But there are ways to mitigate the adverse impact: time the visit to the off-season and less popular times when a destination is not being overrun. Even better, seek out alternatives.

The Taj Mahal is over-touristed, but a Responsible Traveler can choose to visit in less trafficked times. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“You might find joy in finding the 2, 3rd or 10th version of that place and not being with so many people,” says Lakin. “That’s not to say Taj Mahal or Victoria Falls are not spectacular but there is something to be said for visiting less trafficked.”

“There is no problem with going to Machu Picchu, which is doing things to limit tourists,” says Love. “But traveler should research and go in off season or shoulder. Machu Picchu is great but there is a whole sacred valley with amazing ancient ruins just as cool. Don’t neglect to see other things – in Czech Republic, Prague was crazy, way too many tourists, but every place outside Prague was great. You don’t want to contribute to mass tourism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit, just avoid peak times.”

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

Tour operators and cruiselines are still offering programs to Cuba. Abercrombie & Kent is offering a people-to-people program with A&K USA Chairman Phil Otterson, featuring 7 nights aboard boutique sailing yacht ‘Le Ponant’.

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

After President Obama threw down barriers for Americans to travel to Cuba, the island nation saw a surge in tourism – US airlines launched new flights, cruiselines set up calls, and hotel companies were looking to build. Then the Trump Administration reversed the Obama policy, creating confusion about Americans’ ability to travel, which even travel professionals say they are having a hard time deciphering.

“Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel,” a spokesman for the US Department of State said.

“Travel to Cuba is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Anyone located in the United States, regardless of citizenship and nationality, must comply with these regulations. Individuals seeking to travel to Cuba are not required to obtain licenses from OFAC if their travel is covered by a general license. If travel is not covered by a general license, you must seek OFAC authorization in the form of a specific license. Travelers who fail to comply with regulations may face penalties and criminal prosecution.” See the Department of Treasury webpage; also OFAC’s FAQl:
https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf

The Department of State also has a travel advisory on Cuba at its travel.state.gov site. “Reconsider travel to Cuba due to health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees.”

The change in policy specifically impacts independent travelers’ ability to visit under a broad People to People policy without joining some kind of licensed group – which those who have been advocating for opening travel to Cuba for decades say is not a surmountable problem.

Meanwhile, cruise lines like Norwegian are still coming in and even benefiting from the restrictions. “All of our ships are covered under People to People provisions,” Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said at the New York Times Travel Show industry panel. “The fact we are still going, added capacity, tells the story that this is fantastic way to visit, There is still pent-up demand. We have doubled capacity –we have the two largest ships that can sail into Havana harbor. We are excited about it. We have to get the word out that Americans can still go to Cuba.”

But USA-Cuba travel professionals argue that the Trump policy is only a blip that can easily be overcome by anyone who is interested in visiting.

“Yes You Can Still Go to Cuba!” 

John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, fields questions from interested travelers at the Cuba-US People to People Partnership booth at the New York Times Travel Show. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Despite Trump’s hard-line speech to shut down relations with Cuba last June in Miami, Americans can still travel to Cuba.

“All types of purposeful travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain legal,” stated John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (www.ffrd.org).

Travel with groups and on cruises are unaffected by the policy.

“Even hotel restrictions have a legal work-around,” he maintains.

Independent travel by individuals, families and friends is also largely unchanged but now falls under the re-written license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People to People.”

The withdrawal of 60 percent of US diplomats in October was connected to a still unexplained medical problem that affected only US and Canadian diplomats. “It is totally unknown what happened and who is responsible, but the goal of cooling relations succeeded.” On the other hand, Canada did not withdraw its diplomats.

“There has not been a single confirmed case of similar health symptoms from the 4 million visitors to Cuba last year, including 650,000 Americans. No other country has issued any kind of health advisory.

Indeed, the International Tourism Fair in Madrid recently judged Cuba “Safest Destination in the World.”

The State Department, under internal rules, issued a Travel Warning because with the reduced staff, it could not provide the normal level of citizen services.

‘Yes We Came’ poster. President Obama pulled down the barriers for Americans to travel to Cuba;  © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Those who want to travel to Cuba on their own can. Here are tips:

Book a ticket nonstop on JetBlue from JFK or United from Newark (about $300).

Select “Support for the Cuban People” as the type of travel you are undertaking.

Use AirBnB to reserve a room or an apartment (known as casa particular) from a private owner.

You can dine in a private restaurant (paladar).

You can buy handicrafts and other items from self-employed shop keepers (cuenta propistas). (The Trump Administration was hysterical about Americans traveling to Cuba because tourism dollars, they say, support the military state and maintain the Communist regime.)

You can hire a guide privately, such as Enrique Nunez, an art historian, singer-songwriter, artistic director and ‘lecturer on wheels” who drives you around in an old Soviet Lada (“The Car of the Cuban Survivor”; iroko011@gmail.com.)

As much as possible, use private taxis, which are also available for travel between cities.

“Whatever you do, wherever you go, be intentional and responsible that your goal is ‘a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people…and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba’.” (What that means is up to you.)

Keep a journal or list of your “meaningful interactions” for five years.

Some two dozen travel entities were at the New York Times Travel Show with services related to Cuba travel, including Cuba/US People to People Partnership, Fund for Reconciliation & Development; Cuban Guru, LLC; Intrepid Travel; Access Trips Culinary Tours; Celestyal Cruises; New York Times Journeys; REI Adventures; Norwegian Cruise Line/Crown Cruise Vacations; International Expeditions; Intrepid Travel; Diving Unlimited International; smarTours; Dream Yacht Charter; Wild Frontiers; African Ventures.

Natural Habitat Adventures offers licensed tours to Cuba (photo supplied by NatHab.com)

McAuliff advises that the best, most economical group tour for Americans to get an overview of Cuba is on a fully inclusive one week cruise offered by Celestyal. Now in its fifth year, the cruise departs from Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, and visits three ports in distinctive regions: Santiago, Havana and Cienfuegos. (Passengers boarding in Havana have the option of creating their own program before or after the cruise.)

“A unique feature is that more than 60 Cubans are with you for the whole voyage including lecturers from the University of Havana, musicians, dancers, animators, chefs, waiters, and room attendants.”

FFRD is circulating a petition to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs thomas Shannon, Donald Trump, House members and Senators:

“We urge the State Department to immediately rescind its politically motivated Travel Warning on Cuba and suspension of issuing US visitor and migrant visas in Havana.

“The freedom of independent and group travel to Cuba by all US citizens must also be protected by regulation and by law.”

To sign: http://tinyurl.com/travelwarningcuba.

For more information, visit Fund for Reconciliation and Development, 917-859-9025, director@ffrd.org, www.ffrd.org. See current US government regulations at tinyurl.com/regsnov2017.

See also:

State Department Implements New Travel Advisory System, New Info Hub for US Travelers

New York Times Travel Show: American Travelers Resilient In Face of Crises

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Dolphin Quest Affords Memorable Way to Experience Bermuda

David and Laini with Caliban, the dolphin, at Dolphin Quest Bermuda (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

By David Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bermuda is a magical place where the beaches have pink sand and the aquamarine water is so clear, you can see amazing marine life and feed fish Cheerios. But one of the most magical experiences of all is Dolphin Quest.

The experience starts off with our own training – shaping our own behaviors in order to properly interact with the dolphin. We join three others for a 30-minute Dolphin Dip – one of several different interactive encounters that are available. Lottie, the cheery dolphin trainer, tells us so much about how the dolphins learn and how they respond to specific calls. She demonstrates some incredible tricks (behaviors) by teaching the five of us how to signal to the dolphins ourselves.

Dolphin Quest organizes small-group encounters with dolphins in their habitat within The Keep at the Naval Dockyard in Bermuda (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

When we are in the large pool, Lottie calls me out to the middle of the lagoon and tells me to bring my hands together with palms facing up on the surface of the water. She blows a whistle and Caliban swims up to me and puts her snout on my hands, seeming to smile up at me with that broad dolphin mouth. Then she tells me to show her my cheek and he kisses me on the cheek!

Now it’s Dave’s turn to come out. Lottie tells him to put his hand out to the side. Then Caliban swims up and takes his hand. They practically dance! Then Caliban swims past us, inviting us to stroke her tummy for positive reinforcement. We get to feed her a small fish after each behavior which she seems to really enjoy.

Dancing with the Dolphin: David joins hand to Caliban’s fin (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Lottie has each of us engage different behaviors with the four dolphins we get to meet, which are all also perfect photo opps. A professional photographer is on hand shooting photos the whole time and capturing so many amazing moments.

The digital and physical copies of the photographs are available for sale through an online portal. They’re pricey, but they capture priceless moments! There is free seating poolside so if anyone in your party is not in the water with you, they have the opportunity to capture their own photos, too.

The photographer is also extremely knowledgeable about the dolphins. He tells us about the 5- star health care they have and that the average lifespan is roughly double for the dolphins in their facility compared to dolphins in the wild. They also have a larger, more natural enclosed swimming area just outside the walls of the maritime museum, though we can’t see it ourselves because it is being cleaned.

It’s $219 for the 30-minute “Dolphin Dip” — pricey, but one of the cooler experiences we’ve had. It’s an amazing gift for someone you want to indulge and celebrate! Family/friends can watch from the sidelines where they can also enjoy seeing the dolphins up-close without paying the premium of being actually in the water with them.

A portion of the proceeds goes towards continued animal research. So far, Dolphin Quest programs in Hawaii, Oahu and Bermuda have contributed more than $3 million in funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe. University research studies have generated hundreds of published scientific works that are helping researchers find solutions to the threats dolphins and whales face in the wild. These studies also help the marine mammal community better care for dolphins in human care.

But there is something more: Dolphin Quest gives people a rare experience to interact and engage with dolphins, deepening our empathy for marine mammals and raising awareness about conservation programs.

“With our dolphins, we touch the hearts and minds of our guests in a fun and inspirational way, sharing how each of us can play a vital role in protecting our precious ocean ecosystem,” Dolphin Quest says.

Dolphin Quest affords experiences that make lifelong ambassadors on behalf of protecting and conserving marine mammals (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Our time with the dolphins is not like a performance. We are reminded that dolphins are wild animals; they clearly only engage with us as they like, and seem to genuinely enjoy the intellectual stimulation.

It is an incomparable experience to interact with another species, and especially so with an intelligent marine mammal.

In addition to contributing millions of dollars toward research and conservation programs, Dolphin Quest also contributes essential medical and training support to wild marine mammals in distress through the marine mammal stranding networks in Hawaii and Bermuda. Its team members also hand raise newly hatched endangered sea turtles, releasing them back into the wild when they are large enough through the “Turtle Ambassador Program”.

Dolphin Quest also organizes beach and stream cleanups, recycling efforts, and other environmental stewardship initiatives.

We get to feed Bailey a small fish after each behavior which she seems to really enjoy (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Indeed, Dolphin Quest’s humane stewardship of the marine animals living in its care is recognized: Dolphin Quest is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, with all three of its locations certified by the American Humane Conservation program.

After the Dolphin Dip (or any of the Dolphin Quest programs), you are given free admission to the Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Bermuda, where you can explore the 200-year-old fort and experience educational maritime and cultural exhibits including: the Commissioner’s House, Shipwreck Island, The Warwick Project, Bermuda’s Defense Heritage and The Hall of History 1000-square-foot mural painted by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, plus an onsite Playground and Playhouse for children.

New Programs in Expanded Ocean Habitat

Dolphin Quest Bermuda has expanded its large ocean water dolphin lagoon inside the walls of the National Museum of Bermuda to include an outer Ocean Habitat. Accessed by a tunnel passageway, this supplemental sea sanctuary provides Dolphin Quest’s dolphins and guests another enriching natural environment to explore.

Accessed by a tunnel passageway, the new expanded Ocean Habitat provides Dolphin Quest’s dolphins and guests another enriching natural environment to explore (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

The outer Ocean Habitat utilizes an environmentally friendly sea pen structure. Its natural underwater terrain and sea life mirrors the shallow bays and estuaries where the coastal ecotype of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are found in the wild.

“While our dolphins are thriving in their ocean water lagoon within the walls of the museum, it is so fun to be able to introduce them to another area for them to play, socialize and inspire people to care about and protect dolphins in the wild”, says Lauren McWilliams, Supervisor of Marine Animals at Dolphin Quest Bermuda.

Dolphin Quest has introduced guided water scooter ride with the dolphins in the new Ocean Habitat (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Founded by two marine mammal veterinarians in 1980s, Dolphin Quest continues to be on the leading edge of advocacy, conservation and research. Back then, Dr. Jay Sweeney and Dr. Rae Stone sought to create an alternative to oceanariums and “dolphin shows.” They set out to create pristine and enriching natural dolphin habitats where visitors could enjoy inspiring and educational dolphin encounters that, in turn, funded wild dolphin conservation.

Since opening their first location at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii in1988, Dolphin Quest has become recognized as a leader in establishing large natural habitats for the animals, creating successful dolphin breeding programs and developing innovative interactive dolphin programs that combine fun and learning for the animals and the people, and promoting environmental stewardship.

They opened their first Dolphin Quest in Bermuda in 1996 at the Southampton Princess Hotel, but it was damaged in Hurricane Gert in 1999. The staff battled high winds and rough water to move the animals to a protected area on the most southwestern side of the island, into an area known as The Keep within the Royal Naval Dockyard. This offered a large, protective ocean-water lagoon within a historic fort, with a connected outer habitat that would be safe from hurricanes and weather events. This became Dolphin Quest’s home on Bermuda. 

New innovative and inspiring interactive programs are now available in the Ocean Habitat: “Dive with Dolphins” helmet dive, the “Sea Quest” guided water scooter ride with the dolphins and the “Exclusive Sea Quest” which is a private experience.

Dolphin Quest Programs Year-Round

A variety of programs are offered year-round. The website offers excellent information and an easy-to-follow breakdown of the various programs available by season and by age-appropriateness. Programs include:

Ultimate Adventure, an hour-long program (45 minutes in the water with dolphins), the longest time available, appropriate for ages 6+, available May-October.

SeaQuest, a scooter program, April-October, for ages 8+, 45 minutes

Dolphin Encounter, available November through April, let’s you create your own dolphin experience (30 min., $175).

Underwater Exploration (20 minutes with dolphins, for ages 8+, $100 (maximum 3 people):  You explore dolphins’ natural ocean habitat with underwater scooters and snorkeling; you have the opportunity to interact with dolphins in deeper waters, guided by marine mammal specialists (water scooters and masks provided; you must be a proficient swimmer; no more than 3 people and the trainer). After the program, the  marine mammal specialists are available to discuss dolphins’ care and wellness, animal training, conservation; and you get free full day admission to the National Museum of Bermuda. Winter programs (November- May) provide free wetsuits and booties; and a winter hot tub special (December 15-April 30, limited spaces available).

Swimming with dolphins. Dolphin Quest offers programs year-round at their habitat located within The Keep at the Naval Dockyard (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Marine Conservation Tour is a two-hour behind-the-scenes program that finishes with a five-minute dolphin touch, but it focuses on training programs, learning about animal care, visiting the medical lab, and watching the dolphins interact and socialize with each other (November-April, $79)

Trainer for a Day, a five-hour program with 60 minutes with the dolphins where you are side-by-side with trainers and dolphins and participate in dolphin health exams, dolphin training sessions, dolphin play time and dolphin programs for guests (lunch included). There is time in the water with the dolphins as well as interacting from the docks. (Wet suit and booties provided, November-May).

 

National Museum of Bermuda

The fortuitous collaboration between Dolphin Quest and the National Museum of Bermuda greatly enhances the visitor experience, as well, because you are not only given this rare experience to interact with marine mammals, but also become immersed in Bermuda’s rich heritage.

The Keep of the Dockyard is a six-acre historic fort that was designed to serve the naval fleet at anchor in Grassy Bay. It was once one of the most strategic military installations in the world and was heavily protected with a moated entrance, cannons, shell guns, and other weapons.

The Naval Dockyard contains the National Museum of Bermuda as well as Dolphin Quest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was designed so munitions and provisions could be moved by boat between the large Keep pond and the vessels in the harbor. The grounds and many buildings of the Keep are now home to the National Museum of Bermuda’s exhibits and serve as home base for its highly-regarded maritime research, restoration, and preservation efforts.

“The fort provides probably the world’s most secure home for our dolphins, and we are enjoying exploring the many possibilities for expanding our dolphin programs within this historic context,” Dolphin Quest notes.

It is contained within a 16-acre National Museum of Bermuda with eight exhibit buildings and the most extensive historical collection in Bermuda, including the hilltop commissioner’s house. You can walk along the ramparts.

In 2016, the dolphin’s habitat was expanded to include The Ocean Habitat, a large sanctuary that extends beyond the museum walls and allows the dolphins to swim out into the ocean waters via a connecting tunnel from inside the lagoon. The entire sanctuary is one of the largest and most natural dolphin habitats in the world. Dolphin encounters in this area allow guests to interact with dolphins while riding underwater scooters and they can also explore the Bermuda reefs and bountiful marine life.

Dolphin Quest is contained within The Keep of the Naval Dockyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

After American independence from Britain, Bermuda was identified as a strategic location for a naval base and dockyard. Construction on the dockyard began in 1809, which involved massive land reclamations and quarrying, first by slaves and then by thousands of British convicts. In its heyday, the dockyard provided facilities for the Royal Navy’s fleet.

The Keep was the citadel of the Dockyard, built to guard the naval base against land or sea attack and as an arsenal. The massive bastions and ramparts were designed by the Royal Engineers and are reinforced at intervals by casemated gun emplacements. Casemates were built in the late 1830’s to house troops manning the Dockyard fortifications. After Dockyard closed in 1951 it became Bermuda’s maximum-security prison from 1963-1994.

It is currently undergoing extensive restoration by the Museum and volunteers.

Walking the ramparts of the Naval Dockyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Museum’s scope has expanded to encompass more than maritime history and today it is a vital custodian of Bermuda’s heritage. It is also a champion for the preservation of Bermuda’s underwater and land-based cultural heritage through collecting, exhibitions, restoration, conservation, research, publication, education, public outreach, and archaeology.

The National Museum of Bermuda’s scope has expanded to encompass more than maritime history and today it is a vital custodian of Bermuda’s heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The National Museum of Bermuda is open daily except Christmas Day (Dolphin Quest is still open); admission fees are $15/adult, $12/seniors; under 16 free; admission fee is waived for Dolphin Quest participants.

“Dolphin Quest is committed to protecting our planet and inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards by providing inspirational interactive experiences, educational programs and contributing funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe.

“With resort partners in Bermuda, Hawaii, and Oahu, Dolphin Quest inspires tens of thousands of guests each year to care about and help protect dolphins in the wild.” 

Dolphin Quest Bermuda. National Museum of Bermuda. 15 The Keep. Sandys, Bermuda MA 01. Tel: 441.234.4464 (local); call 800-248-3316 from US. https://dolphinquest.com/dolphin-quest-bermuda/.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

A Day in The Gunks: Out of the Gym, Ascending New Heights of Rock Climbing

A Day in The Gunks with High Xposure guide Bobby Ferrari: Laini tackles Pitch 1 of her first multi-pitch climb, Triple Bulges (photo by David Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate)

By David Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

As we discovered, climbing in a gym is very different from climbing a real mountain face. One of the best places in the world to learn how to climb is practically in our own backyard: the Shawgunk Mountains, affectionately nicknamed “The Gunks,” is just six miles from New Paltz and offers some of the best rock climbing in the East.

The Mohonk Preserve, New York State’s largest private, nonprofit nature preserve with over 8,000 acres, owns this section of the Shawgunk Mountains and charges a $20 day-use fee for climbers (a season pass is available, also). Of the 200,000 visitors that the Preserve welcomes in a year, 80,000 are climbers who have more than 1,000 climbing routes – five linear miles of cliff face – to venture out on, with near access to parking and sanitary facilities.

In the early 1950s, there may have been 50 climbers on a busy day in The Gunks.  By the 1990s, that number grew to 500-800. Today, The Gunks have become a world-class climbing area, offering some of the best climbing in the eastern United States. What is more, The Gunks offer particularly friendly terrain for people (like us) who have never climbed real rock faces before. The vertical cliffs and their overhangs create a wide variety of high-quality climbs of varying levels of difficulty. The distinctive, stark, white cliffs of the Gunks are as tough as they look – with sharp angles testing your skill and with quartz pebbles and deep fissures providing multiple holds.

It’s also an ideal place to climb safety, with some of the best-trained, vertical rescue teams in the northeastern United States. Indeed, guide companies have to be registered with Mohonk Preserve. In collaboration with climbing guides and groups, the Preserve regularly hosts climbing clinics.

And so, for our first climbing venture, we went out with with Bobby Ferrari of High Xposure Adventures ($350 for two for a full day program, 9 am to 4:30 pm). The conditions were ideal: bright sun and cool temperatures for a summer’s day.

High Xposure was founded in 1974, and has been guiding rock and ice climbing trips in the Gunks and Catskills Mountans for more than 40 years. Its accreditation with American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) dates back to 1986, when the accreditation program was established.

High Xposure works with climbers of all abilities and experience – from total beginners, introducing them to outdoor rock climbing, to avid climbers visiting the Gunks from other regions and interested in climbing the Gunks classic routes. The company also organizes group climbing trips – corporate outings, family retreats, adventure groups. “We have extensive experience working with kids – during school breaks, we guide rock climbing outings for summer camps and boy scout groups.

High Xposure offers a wide range of climbing programs – rock climbing techniques, rope management and anchors, multi-pitch, and lead climbing.

It was an ideal program for us to make the transition from climbing in a gym to climbing the real thing.

The list of registered guide companies includes:

Alpine Endeavors  (845) 658-3094, alpineendeavors.com

Alpine Logic (207) 949-1736, alpine-logic.com

Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS)  (800) 310-4504, emsclimb.com

High Xposure Adventures  (800) 777-CLIMB, high-xposure.com

Mountain Skills  (845) 853-5450, mountainskills.biz

Ragged Mountain Guides (203) 228-2311, raggedmountainguides.com

Vertical Gains (845) 926-2502, verticalgains.com

Vitti Mountain Guides (845) 901-3687, vittimtguides.com

Mohonk Preserve is also popular for bouldering, with acres of boulders that offer hundreds of problems – from basic to advanced; climbers come from all over the country to try out the new problems put up almost every day.

This is a year-round destination with ice climbing. The best active time of year, and when the guide companies are most active is from April through November.

Rock Climbing Guidebooks: The Climbers Guide to the Shawangunks: The Trapps (revised 2nd ed. ©2016) by Dick Williams is available for purchase at the Nature Shop  in the Visitor Center for $34.99. Ivan Greene and Marc Russo, Bouldering in the Shawangunks, Jefe Publication

Download Gunks Apps Rock Climbing Guide to Your Mobile Device: Bring a digital guidebook with you on any mobile device. Gunks Apps climbing giudebooks are now available for purchase for Trapps RoutesNears RoutesTrapps Bouldering, and Nears Bouldering

Check out these sources for climbing and bouldering suggestions: www.gunksapps.com

Bobby Ferrari of High Xposure Adventures teaches us how to simul-rappel down Snooky’s Return

Mohonk Preserve

Mohonk Preserve is one of the few private, nonprofit (NGO) climbing areas in the United States and is financially supported by members and visitors. It is open to the public 365 days a year. (You can join online now, or you can buy a day pass or membership at a trailhead or at the Visitor Center.)

Here is more helpful info from the Preserve’s website:

Be aware that you climb at your own risk on the Preserve, which isn’t responsible for the condition of the cliffs, climbing protection, climber behavior, or training or supervising climbs. For your safety, read the Preserve’s Climbing Policy.

Help protect the resource. Prevent damage to the cliffs and to the fragile life found here:

         Use only established trails and carriage roads.

         Use the yellow-blazed climber approach trails in the Trapps.

         Avoid damaging lichen and vegetation growing on the cliff and treat the rock gently: tree cutting, rock trundling, hold chopping, and bolting or gluing of holds are prohibited.

         Minimize chalk use and brush off heavily chalked holds.

         Leave only rock-colored slings at rappel stations.

Parking is extremely limited on weekends and holidays. During peak seasons, parking lots fill early. Ease traffic congestion by carpooling or coming at off-peak times.

Dogs must be attended and leashed at all times. To avoid having your dog disturb others, don’t leave your dog tied-up at the base of a climb. If you leave your dog unattended, it will be removed by an animal control officer.

Keep the trails at the base clear so others can pass by.

Camping is available at the Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground on Rte. 299. For more information, click here (mohonkpreserve.org/camping).

For other hotel and lodging information, see the Area Guide (mohonkpreserve.org/area-guide).

Becoming a member helps keep the cliffs open to climbers and provides ongoing support for the preserve’s climbing management program – recognized as a model by the UIAA  (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation).

You can also:

  • Volunteer for trail maintenance and other projects that ensure climber access.
  • Become involved with the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition – a local climbing advocacy group.
  • Donate to the Thom Scheuer Memorial Fund for Land Stewardship, which helps build and maintain climber facilities, including trailheads, parking areas, and sanitary facilities. To contribute, contact the Development Department at (845) 255-0919 ext. 1240.

For more information visit www.mohonkpreserve.org/climb, 845-255-0919.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Muir Woods is San Francisco’s Cathedral to Mother Nature

Walking through Muir Woods National Monument you feel so small © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is quite amazing to me that just 35 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco, the fabulous urbanized city with some of the tallest structures man has devised, are the Muir Woods, with some of the tallest and most ancient trees Mother Nature has produced.

The peace, the serenity, the sheer awe and majesty envelopes you from the first steps into the national forest.

There are many tour companies that make it easy for tourists to visit, as well as various means to get you there on your own (but if you use Uber, you have to be aware that there is no cell service there).

I took Extranomical Tours’s Muir Woods Expedition which offers an excellent program, well organized, and that gives you some extra added treats: a stop in scenic Sausalito and another stop for a “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge (in fact, an unusual vantage point that most tourists would never have), as well as an animated, well informed guide (Jake on the tour I took), who points out the sights, relates San Francisco’s history and gives good historical and naturalist background to prime you for your visit to Muir Woods National Monument.

The Extranomical tour to Muir Woods begins with a pick-up at convenient locations – I was picked up at the Hyatt Regency Embacadero, in a smart van (flooding has wiped out part of Highway 1, so you have to take a small, winding road up to the entrance which the big buses they normally use can’t take).

Jake, a filmmaker originally, is our guide and gives pleasant commentary on the drive that orients us well when we arrive.

Muir Woods National Monument offers a serene retreat so close to San Francisco © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Muir Woods is a national monument, established on January 9, 1908 by President Roosevelt using his powers under the Antiquities Act, to protect an old-growth coast redwood forest from destruction.

Jake explains us how these woods were saved from lumbering and development by William Kent and his family. Redwood Creek contained one of the Bay Area’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood, Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, bought 611 acres for $45,000 in 1905. To protect the redwoods the Kents donated 295 of the land to the Federal Government and, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument. Roosevelt suggested naming the area after Kent, but Kent wanted it named for the pioneering conservationist John Muir responsible for saving Yosemite as America’s first national park.

Since Muir Woods is a national monument, Jake can’t escort us through and we pay our $10 fee to enter. But he has oriented us well and tells us the best way to explore in the two hours we have here.

Walking through Muir Woods, you find yourself constantly craning your neck upwards, just as if entering a cathedral © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Two hours proves sufficient to get the highlights of Muir Woods and hike the most popular trails (there are numerous hiking trails, some of which hadn’t opened yet for the season). The main trail is paved, flat, and can accommodate wheelchairs. This trail puts you at the base of these mammoth trees so you can the full appreciation of just how massive they are (and how small you are). You find yourself constantly craning your neck to see to the top.

And when you walk in, you do feel like you are entering a cathedral – that craning of the neck to see the treetops making an arch over the narrow path, as if looking up at the high arching roof of a Gothic cathedral like Notre Dame.

Indeed, perhaps because it is so close to San Francisco and offers such a contrast to a congested urban area, Muir Woods is very much a “cathedral” – there is even a Cathedral Grove, with a sign that says “Shhh… Quiet Refuge.”

You hear birds, the gurgling of the Redwoods Creek that flows through.

You feel small, a speck in time and space.

You feel grateful to man who saved these woods.

You are overwhelmed by the sense of awe and majesty, from your first steps through the wooden threshold.

Walk among Redwood trees as old as 800 years in Muir Woods National Monument © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trees, as if elders, range in age from 400 to 800 years – that means they were already well on in years when Columbus first discovered the New World – their height up to 250 feet.

These aren’t as thick as the famous Giant Sequoias which are further inland; but these coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Even more remarkable because they grow from a tiny seed that bursts from a small pine cone that is heated by fire.

In the light gaps beneath the redwood trees are red alders, California big leaf maples, tanoaks, and Douglas fir. The forest floor is covered in redwood sorrel, ferns, fungi, duff, and debris. Wildlife includes the endangered coho salmon fingerlings that live in the lovely creek that flows through, Pacific wren, woodpeckers, owls, deer, chipmunks, skunks, river otters, and squirrels.

You walk among old growth coast redwoods, nurtured in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and by the fog.

I cross the fourth bridge over the Redwood Creek and take the Hill Top trail back -a narrow dirt path at a higher elevation – which gives a different perspective.

The Visitor Center at the Muir Woods entrance has exhibits and a vast selection of literature and information on Muir Woods. A cafe and gift shop is also located near the park entrance.

Walking back along the Hill Top trail gives a different perspective of the Muir Woods © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are other ways to get to the Muir Woods on your own such as using a bus service (though it is temporarily out while they repair Highway 1; and if you use Uber or ride-share, you need to pre-arrange a pick-up because there is no cell service).  Coming on your own, you can organize your visit to miss the busiest crowds during midday (best to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm). The park opens every day at 8 am and closes at 8 pm (after March 18).

Muir Woods is open 365 days of the year, though hours vary with the season.

Muir Woods National Monument,1 Muir Woods Rd. Mill Valley, CA 94941, 415-388-2595. 

Extranomical Tours has a small luxury van © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The advantage of the Extranomical Tour is certainly the convenience of the pick up, plus the enhanced experience of a brief stop at Sausalito and (on our trip) the Presidio for jake’s “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Jake gives us a narration about the history of San Francisco and points out attractions on our way (like the tunnel, recently renamed for comedian Robin Williams, which is painted with a rainbow).

A ‘unique’ view of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Extranomical Tours also includes a visit to Muir Woods National Monument in other tour offerings, such as one and two-day trips to Wine Country; and a trip that combines Muir Woods with Sausalito and Alcatraz.

Extranomical Tours, 866-231-3752, 415-357-0700,  www.extranomical.com, contact@extranomical.com. Facebook (www.facebook.com/extranomical), Twitter (www.twitter.com/extranomical) 

For more help planning contact San Francisco Travel. 415-391‑2000, www.sftravel.com.

See also:

San Francisco Throwing Year-Long 50th Anniversary Celebration of Summer of Love – Be Prepared to Be Blasted into the Past

San Francisco Goes All Out With Special Events, Exhibitions Marking 50th Anniversary of Summer of Love

Biking is Great Way to Tour San Francisco’s Must-See Attractions

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

NYT Travel Show: Greenberg Tells Intrepid Travelers to Exploit ‘Brave New World of Travel’

Biking in Albania.Go beyond your bucket list, Greenberg says. Pick a place and go there. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to travel expert Peter Greenberg, that dreaded four-letter word “fear” could actually work out to the benefit of Americans who want to explore the globe..

That, in combination with a strong dollar against just about every other currency, means that Americans have a buyers market in a “brave new world of travel” characterized by “disruption.”

Travel expert Peter Greenberg gives tips on navigating the “Brave New World of Travel” at the 2017 New York Times Travel Show © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Americans who travel abroad, though, tend to be open minded, able to adapt to different situations, and open to adventure and the unknown.

As it turns out, only 37% of Americans have passports (and, Greenberg notes, only 42% of members of Congress and Senate – a revealing aspect at why some have such an insular, provincial view, or who hold so ardently to the myth of American Exceptionalism. It’s easy to imagine America to be exceptional when you don’t actually see anything else first hand.)

“How can you make global policy if you have never left Kansas?,” Greenberg, a best selling author and TV travel commentator, asks the standing-room crowd  attending his seminar, “The Brave New World of Travel,” at the 2017 New York Times Travel Show  at the Javits Center in New York.

The Travel Show took place just as Trump’s Muslim/Travel ban was causing havoc and bringing out thousands of protesters at international airports across the country, an anathema to the people attending the show who clearly valued international travel as a bridge between peoples, cultures and politics.

The “disruption” that is at the heart of the “Brave New World of Travel,” is that there are more international airlines, creating more competition, more services, and keeping fares from rising, more competition among hotels and cruiselines. Even the uncertainty (insecurity) around global affairs creates a buyers’ market for intrepid travelers who see more reward than risk.

Since 2006, he says, there have been 75 new routes from such carriers as Turkish Airlines. Condor Airlines used to be a charter carrier, now is a scheduled carrier. Norwegian Airlines has really rocked the market with low fares.

It’s a buyers market in the hotel industry also, though it is harder to see why, with mergers and acquisitions like Marriott & Starwood giving a single entity even more control of the marketplace. It could be because after making their deals to sell inventory through online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, now the hotel companies are trying to incentivize customers to book direct. “Why click around? They will give free WiFi and a donut.”

A boom in building new cruise ships – there are 56 cruise lines – has resulted in excess capacity. Last year, there were 18 new river cruise ships, and this year 10 new cruise ships.

How can you benefit? Greenberg says don’t book the newest ships (they aren’t discounting their fares); rather, “book the 2-3-4 year old ships that are just as good but have excess capacity.” Norwegian for example has fares as low as $65/night. “You can’t wake up in Brooklyn for that.”

Norwegian’s Breakaway in Bermuda. Greenberg advises that because of the onslaught of newer ships, look to cruiseships just 2-4 years old for better pricing. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Now you know you can go, the question is how do you go.” When he asks people to raise their hands if they make their reservations online and most people in the room do, he comes back, “You’re all losers,” with a smile.

“You’re operating on myth that all inventory is online. But only 52% of inventory is online because that all the inventory that travel providers want to make available online.

“I know why you book online –because you can do it at 3 am and you don’t have to talk to anyone. You’re very happy to hit a key and book. But now you have disenfranchised yourself with 40% of inventory.”

He derides the “lost art of conversation,” and says, “it’s okay to research online, but don’t book online.”

He notes (what Pauline Frommer had observed in an earlier seminar also), that when you search for an airline fare, and happen to wait and return an hour later, you will find the fare has increased, perhaps $100 more.

That’s because the computer remembers you, appreciates a supply/demand market and can pitch you a higher fare. “Clean up your cookies or use somebody else’s computer.”

“When you have a conversation with an airline rep or a cruise rep, you may think it is about getting the best rate – losers! –It’s not about the rate, it’s about the value. The internet does nothing creativity, thinks literally, it can’t answer the questions you should ask.

“You might get a good rate online, but when you have a conversation directly with a hotel, you can ask for the hotel to throw in free WiFi, get rid of dreaded resort free, get the kids to stay free, eat free.

With a cruiseline, “it’s not about the cost of cabin, it’s about onboard credits, which excursion should or should not take.” [In this respect, you are much better off booking through a travel agent, who can usually get free upgrades, free drinks, perhaps even a shore excursion thrown in.]

Where do You Want to Go?

“Where do you want to go?” he asks. “This is where you get into trouble – how many have bucket list? He asks, and a few people raise their hands. “Loser,” is his retort.

“Everyone wants Paris, Hawaii. There are 196 countries in the world. Pick one. There are only four I wouldn’t go to (my metric is ‘Who is in control.’ – There are four countries where nobody is in control.)

He says he wouldn’t say no to going to North Korea (I know who is in control), Iran [which is actually become a hot destination for Americans, up until Trump’s election and the travel ban]. I would even go to Northern Iraq, because it is under control of Kurds, every airline goes there and is safe.” [Which might have been true before the Trump travel ban which Iraq retaliated against in kind.]’

“‘Fear’ is a four-letter word. Don’t be motivated, don’t be driven. How many read US State Department travel advisories – you should read them but when people hear there is an advisory, they don’t go.”

The State Department’s travel advisory for Turkey advises travelers that Turkish  drivers pass on the left and on the right. “Have they been on Southern State Parkway?” he jokes. “I was in Turkey 48 hours after the New Year’s Eve nightclub shooting. I did not feel threatened or afraid.

“The best time to go anywhere is after natural disaster, civil disturbance, terrorism.”

[Indeed, six countries have travel advisories against the United States because of the epidemic of gun violence.”

“Tourism creates jobs – these destinations that have been hurt by natural or manmade disasters are desperate to have you there. And who wants to stand on line? Go to a place that is happy to have you, a great deal, an amazing experience. And it sends a statement that we will not be beaten by that.

He notes that 707 Americans have been killed in acts of civil unrest of the past 28 years. “Put that in perspective: every week in this country 800 citizens are killed or injured in accidents in their bathtubs. People worry about shark attacks –after 1 person is attacked. More are killed in auto accidents abroad; the second greatest cause of death is by selfies – people fall off cliffs, are hit by trains – 100 people are killed by selfies. Put the numbers in perspective.”

“All these passport holders, you love to travel. Now you’ve got to use them – you are in the drivers seat – the most beneficial position.

The New York Times Travel Show cultural performances introduce intrepid travelers to destinations to explore © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“It’s not seasonal – there will be deals all year long because economies are taking longer to recover – Italy, France, Turkey – you can go anywhere – Brazil, Argentina. Then, there are the deals airlines are doing with stopovers, hotels, tours.

“Now think of what’s on your bucket list, burn it and figure a place where you can have great experience.”

Beating the Airlines at Their Own Frequent Flyer Game 

Airlines have radically changed their Frequent Flyer programs. “If you didn’t pay a lot [for a fare] you don’t get much [in points]. It’s not just hard to earn miles but hard to redeem them.”

In fact, Greenberg notes that there are some 23 trillion unredeemed miles outstanding.

“Airlines, he notes, are free to constantly change rules for using frequent flyer miles to their advantage because there is no regulation by attorney general. They are protected by deregulation and can change the rules any time, which means every day, they have outstanding miles as a liability but they don’t want to displace revenue passengers.

“There is no such thing as a free ticket anymore; every plane is full.”

But miles are great to use to “figure a place you’ve never been, never wanted to go, and go there. Pick 330 days out and go.”

Still, you may just want to go to Hawaii and Paris and use your unredeemed miles to get there.

Greenberg proposes a rather adventurous way to beat the restrictions that make it almost impossible to use frequent flyer points,

“Let’s say you want to go to Hawaii a week from today and have enough miles based on eligibility– The carrier indicates you can’t have the fare at 12,000 points, but you can at 50,000 (extortion).

“You call up the airline to redeem miles. ‘When in my lifetime will  there be a seat?’ The airline tells you after Thanksgiving. ‘I’ll take it.’

“Then pick an arbitrary day. But now you have a ticket that has the flight and the cities just not the date you want. So you hang up and call the regular reservations number. You  tell them you want to purchase six seats on that flight. You just want to know there are 6 seats on the flight.

So you send your bags ahead by Fed Ex, he says.

“You know there are seats – every day you call, you  pick the first flight of the day – go down on the day want to fly, NY-Hawaii – 5 am with ticket – fly standby, no bags. If there is a seat on the plane, they will let you on. Or if that is full, the next or the next (there are many flights during the day).

“If you ask if you can fly standby with a Frequent Flyer ticket,  they will say no, but the counter agent will say yes.”

[I find myself thinking this is all well and good and wonderfully adventurous, but how would this work for the return flight?]

“The rule is – don’t hoard miles. There is no upside.” On the other hand, you are a full if you redeem your miles for a magazine subscription.

“54% of all miles earned is earned on the ground – that means that to get 25,000 – you spent $14,000, not counting the 11,000 miles you paid for when you flew.” If the magazine subscription wants 2500 miles, you spent $1200 to accumulate those miles, or for 6500 points, Delta will give you a $40 box of Godiva chocolates, but you spent $3800, or $190 each bite.”

“Don’t succumb to those offers. Instead, think 333 days out and beat the airlines at their own game playing by their rules.”

At the New York Times Travel Show, travelers eager to learn about new destinations © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

With the US dollar so strong, it isn’t just that the dollar has more purchasing power abroad, but that travel to the US becomes more expensive for people to come here. That means that it will be harder for airlines to fill their seats coming here.

(Of course, this, combined with the travel ban means that US inbound travel, a key export that contributes to a favorable trade balance and supports millions of US jobs and economic activity, will also be depressed, perhaps for Americans to fill the vacuum with domestic travel.)

“In a world of disruption, you get to disrupt. You have the knowledge. You can always go to Paris or Hawaii, but the world is open and [destinations] are ready.”

See also: 

Pauline Frommer at NYT Travel Show: How to Get Best Value for Your Travel Dollar in 2017

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Four Friends and a Babymoon in Morro Bay on California’s Highway 1

 

Four friends and a Babymoon in Morro Bay, on California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

By Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Maya Kessel, Andrew Kessel

We are four friends, two couples, from different cities, who get together as often as we can, although not as often as we’d like, to go on adventures. With the first baby expected in our group, we thought we’d take one last adventure before the greatest adventure of all. Hence, our first “babymoon.”

Our adventure takes place in Morro Bay and along California’s Highway 1, a gorgeous Pacific coastal road that embraces the mood of dreamers and wanderers who tend to find themselves there. Before this trip some of us hadn’t even heard of a babymoon or Morro Bay (except in the recent movie “Finding Dory”). In thinking about winter holiday destinations, Zika prevented us from considering many Southern spots while a ski trip for a 6-month pregnant woman was similarly a bad choice.

Instead, we set our sights on the Central Coast of California, easily accessible from Los Angeles airport while still providing a great escape from the wintrier East Coast. We did not know what to expect. What we discovered was an amazing combination of outdoor sports and nature, wine, gastronomic delights featuring some of the best seafood we’ve ever had, and so much more, all nestled in beautiful California coastal towns.Highway 1 is famous for its windy roads beside perilous cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The 101-mile-long Highway 1 Discovery Route is  situated between San Francisco and L.A. attracts 3 to 4 million visitors a year. Along the route you will find such popular attractions as the Hearst Castle, the Elephant Seal Rookery, dozens of wine vineyards (11 just in the 40 minute drive from Rock to Castle), oyster farms, and charming coastal towns. This region is remarkably diverse, yet it’s a compact area, ideal to satisfy the wanderlust of our expectant mother who is otherwise more inclined to climb a mountain than sit back and stare at it.

View from Hearst Castle (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

Some highlights of our adventure includes a visit to Hearst Castle (http://hearstcastle.org/), a personal guided tour along the Morro Bay Estuary with Central Coast Kayaks (www.centralcoastkayaks.com) watching the sunset with Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas (http://www.elephantseal.org/) just at the start of their birthing season in late December, a winery tour and tasting at Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards (http://kelseywine.com/), Pedego Electric biking (http://www.pedegoelectricbikes.com/dealers/avila-beach/) in Avila Beach, and relaxing in our private mineral springs hot tub on the balcony of the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (https://www.sycamoresprings.com/).

Our home base for the first 3 days is Morro Bay, a picturesque and friendly fishing town on the bay that is home to a state and national estuary and bird sanctuary. Once a remote fishing village, Morro Bay is still a busy harbor with an active commercial fishing fleet. Most impressive is how Morro Bay as a community is leading the way in sustainable small fleet fishing practices nationwide, helping support this thriving fishing community. Sustainability and respect for the environment is a theme that carried through our adventure.

View of Morro Bay from our suite at 456 Embarcadero Inn and Suites (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

Food & Wine

This is a bountiful wine region and our first stop on our adventure in Morro Bay is the Chateau Margene, one of 10 wineries located along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, for wine tasting. They have two different wine flights to try and the tasting fee is waived if you buy 2 bottles. We loved learning about the Mooney Family and the production of each of the wines we tried. This boutique, micro-winery produces only 3,000 cases a year of luxury award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, as well as Pinot Noir. Owner Michael Mooney co-founded the Cab Collective out of Paso Robles highlighting the many award-winning Cabernets found in the region that rival Napa. One definite perk is that it’s open late and right in the center of town (the only winery nearby open past 5), making it a great spot to hit up just before dinner. If wine isn’t your thing they also have superb infused olive oils and local vinegar samples. (Chateau Margene, 845 Embarcadero, 805-225-1235, www.chateaumargene.com).

Next stop, dinner at Windows on the Water, a fine dining restaurant that has a gorgeous panoramic view of the bay and a friendly atmosphere. They also have a lively bar area, live music many nights, and regular weekly specials including $5 martini Mondays, $.75 oyster Tuesdays (elsewhere around town we hear that Tuesdays are the big crab night), and Sliders & Beer Wednesdays and $1 Taco & Tequila Thursdays. Windows, like a few of the other restaurants we visited, emphasizes the season-driven approach to continually changing menus.

They take pride in their sustainably raised livestock and seafood and locally sourced produce, so you can feel good about how your dinner was caught and prepared while savoring in the delicious freshness of the food. Their wine flights highlight local vineyards and an extensive wine list showcases the expertise of their in-house sommelier, Chris Battles.

There is something on this menu for everyone. Starters and salads range from $10-20 and are small, but packed with flavor. Entrees are between $25-39 and fairly large. Our waitress Elizabeth recommends the local halibut and pork loins. Windows is famous for its local sand dabs (a lighter white fish maybe similar to a flounder, but sweeter), so popular, that it is sadly sold out by the time we arrive. Their bread and own garlic and herbs olive oil and vinegar dip is so good, it is hard not to fill up on it before dinner. We enjoy the very crispy, full-of-sprouts crab cakes with a fresh arugula salad pre-entree. For dessert we taste the three homemade ice cream scoops, which, like the rest of the menu, rotate with the season (in the past they’ve had lucky charms and peanut butter chocolate ice cream). We enjoy a vanilla, toasted coconut, and egg nog ice cream perfect for the season. One of the best vanilla ice creams we’ve ever tried. (Windows on the Water, 699 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-0677,  www.windowsmb.com).

View of Morro Bay from our suite at 456 Embarcadero Inn and Suites (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

We head to our accommodations, 456 Embarcadero Inn and Suites, wonderfully well located in the central part of town, with spectacular views of the coast and the great Morro Rock,  so we can just  park  our car and leave it for the duration of their of our stay in  Morro Bay. The front desk staff goes above and beyond. They even offer us blankets for our whale watching tour. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and even feature a gas fireplace. The inn offers 33 boutique guestrooms, each with a panoramic view of the bay and the iconic rock from a private deck. Showers come with dispensers, which are appreciated over the typical wasteful bottles of shampoo and soap provided at most hotels. The hot tub is a welcomed, very modern styled amenity, snuck away in a nook on the second floor. Breakfast comes complimentary and is a nice filling way to start the day. The inn is family-owned and operated and pet-friendly.

(456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites, 456 Embarcadero Blvd., Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-2700, www.embarcaderoinn.com).

Whale Watching

Early the next morning we set off for the whale watching adventure with Sub Sea Tour Whale Watching. The staff is professional, courteous, and very friendly. The small boat carries about 20 of us for the 3-hour trip. We sail passed the iconic Morro Rock for a great photo op and stop by the half-mile beacon mark on our way out as well where seals tend to gather.

The famous Morro Rock, now a State Historic Landmark, is the most distinctive and recognizable landmark of Morro Bay. The 576-foot tall mass of volcanic rock rises above the Pacific Ocean, separating the inviting sands of Morro Strand State Beach from the blue waters of Morro Bay Harbor.

While the seas were a bit choppy the lighting was perfect for spotting whales as our guide shared interesting facts about the area and its wildlife. In fact, mid to late December marks the beginning of the great migration of the Gray Whale. Unlike New England and other places famous for whale watching, December whale watching in Central California is very doable. Seeing wildlife, including whales on a tour is always somewhat of a gamble  (they report sightings on 90% of their trips). Unfortunately, we are in the 10% and don’t get a whale sighting.  Be sure to dress in layers since it can get chilly (and windy!) out at sea.

Blue Sky Bistro, Morro Bay Suites (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

After whale watching, we have lunch just a few feet away at Blue Sky Bistro. We sample a variety of items on the menu including the lobster bisque, clam chowder, Mahi Mahi sandwich, California burgers, and Sailor Benedict eggs. Blue Sky is picturesque, affordable, filling, and the service is friendly.

Hearst Castle

Next up is the famous castle on the hill about 40 minutes north of Morro Bay: Hearst Castle. The 40,000 acres of ranchland was originally purchased by George Hearst for family retreats. Newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst inherited the land in 1919, by that time having grown to more than 250,000 acres. He dreamed of building a retreat for friends and a place to house his immense art collection. He hired the first woman architect in California, Julia Morgan, and together they built “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill) into what is now the 165-room Hearst Castle. To tour the castle and its surrounding property, you must buy tickets in advance, as they often sell out. A bus with an audio introduction leads visitors up the gorgeous winding road to the top of the “Enchanted Hill”. The views from the top of the hill alone are worth the trip.

Hearst Castle (photo by Dave E. Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate)

We take the Grand Room Tour, where the knowledgeable docent leads us around the property and through the Assembly Room, the Refectory, Billiard Room, and Theater, getting a sense of what it would have been like for guests who visited W.H. Hearst. Sitting at 200-year old Italian wood tables amidst sterling silver candles and scepters from Ireland, and medieval hand-painted silk banners from Siena, Italy overhead, diners would use paper napkins, Heinz Ketchup bottles and yellow mustard, as the media mogul believed a casual atmosphere would make his guests (often celebrities and politicians) more likely to open up and share stories.

In the Hearst dining room, the odd juxtaposition of sterling silver candles and scepters from Ireland, medieval hand-painted silk banners from Siena, Italy, while guests would dine with paper napkins, Heinz Ketchup bottles and yellow mustard (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

Beginning building his San Simeon retreat in the 1920s, Hearst was able to capitalize on the many European collectors desperate to sell after WWI had left much of the region in shambles. Every surface of the rooms is decorated with pieces from his collection (about 25,000 artifacts). Not one to follow advice of art dealers or others, his collection represents his own eclectic taste, which encompassed everything from 15th Century BC Egyptian statues, 16th Century Spanish and 18th Century Italian ceilings, 6th Century BC Greek terracotta pottery, Renaissance paintings, Flemish tapestries, 15th Century Gothic fireplaces, 15th century religious painting, and much more. For most of the 20th century, the estate even had the world’s largest private zoo, with guests driving up alongside bison, elk, zebras, llamas, kangaroos, camels, sambar deer from India, African and Asian antelope and other exotic animals.

With Hearst’s public opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Union strikes and boycotts of his properties, the financial strength of his empire began to suffer. Even amidst the declined circulation of his major publications, Hearst continued his outlandish purchases of expensive art and antiques. Ultimately Hearst went into millions of dollars of debt (when a million dollars really meant something), had to sell his exotic animals to the Los Angeles Zoo, stopped construction on his estate, leaving parts of the exterior unfinished, sold off much of his art collection and had to pay rent to live in his San Simeon castle.

The breathtaking pool at Hearst Castle. Hearst himself went into debt and had to pay rent to live there (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

Just up the coast from Hearst Castle is a famous breeding ground for elephant seals. You can’t call this a hidden gem as it is a well-known attraction but everyone is able to get great views of the playful seals doing their thing. We have a first-hand look at young males sparring for dominance while others sleep undisturbed, groan loudly, flip sand onto their backs or cuddle. Watching these enormous surprisingly cute creatures play, it’s easy for us to forget to look out at the beautiful pacific sunset behind them.

Elephant seals on Piedras Blancas at sunset (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar is recommended to us by the captain of our whale watching tour as the place to go to really treat yourself, “especially if you want incredibly fresh seafood”. The Galley has a wall of windows overlooking the Bay, warm, modern decor, intimate tables and cozy booths for larger groups. Highlighting their belief in serving only the finest and freshest, their specialty is their “Naked Fish”, with a trio of light sauces served on the side. We share a series of dishes: a perfect Caesar salad with Spanish anchovies, Ceviche, the Original Galley Clam Chowder (their same secret recipe since 1966), Pan Seared Scallops, Blackened Pacific Rockfish (Naked), and a New Zealand Rack of Lamb with Kalamata olive tapenade. The portions are well sized and even the appetizers are ample enough to share. The Blackened Pacific Rockfish was cooked so perfectly it seems to melt in your mouth, and indeed, is so flavorful there is no need for the delicious sauces offered on the side. We top off our meal with their Grand Marnier Creme Bruleé. With nice size portions, the freshest ingredients, distinctive flavors, and attentive service, we love every minute of our dining experience at The Galley. (The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, 899 Embarcadero Morro Bay, CA 93442)

Kayaking in the Morro Bay Estuary

Morro Bay Estuary (photo by Dave E. Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate)

After breakfast at The Embarcadero, we set out for our next great outdoor adventure kayaking in the Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve. We meet Craig, our guide from Central Coast Outdoors for the tour, who provides an intimate and comprehensive account of wildlife in the area as well as the relationship of the local people to it. The Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve and its 800-acre wetland are home to more than 250 species of land, sea, and shore birds, both migratory and resident, and dozens of endangered species. The great blue herons and the great and snowy egrets roost all year at the Heron and Cormorant Rookery located near the entrance of the Museum of Natural History. (The tours are complimentary but it is customary to tip your guide.)

The weather is perfect and the estuary waters are calm, unlike the open waters of the bay next to it. This is a perfect activity for our expectant mother, who reclines in comfort while getting some exercise in between guided stops and her husband at the back of the two-person kayak.

Kayaking in the Morro Bay Estuary, perfect activity for a babymoon (photo by Dave E. Leiberman/Travel Features Syndicate)

He takes us along the Estuary with stops to view the countless species of local birds spiraling around us. We spot dozens of bird species and lots of adorable harbor seals. If you’re a fan of these guys, this is one of the best ways to have a close encounter, as a few seal friends traveled alongside our kayak with their pups for a while (just be careful not to get too close so that you don’t disturb their natural habitat!). We learn that estuaries are an ideal natural breeding ground providing protection from larger predators, and we got to see this firsthand.

One of the most memorable sights is seeing the natural fireworks as the birds circle around, rapidly alternating between camouflaging into the background and suddenly reappearing as their white feathers turn towards you. Additionally, despite (or perhaps because of) its historically-dependent marine economy, Morro Bay has taken important steps, even leading-edge techniques that are considered a model, to protect their wildlife. The Limited Entry fleet targets ground fish using non-trawl gear (hook and line, trap, long line). They’ve taken measures to maintain clean waters so that agriculture and nearby homes do not cause any environmental degradation of these important waters.

Every tour is unique and Craig considers the weather conditions of the day, tidal patterns, rider abilities, and timing to piece together an ideal tour. Craig also leads bicycle, hiking, and other tours for Central Coast Kayaks.

(Central Coast Outdoors, #10 State Park Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-528-1080, www.centralcoastoutdoors.com.)

Central Coast Kayaks, Morro Bay (photo by Laini Miranda/Travel Features Syndicate)

After Kayaking, we have a wonderful lunch at Bayside Cafe, just opposite Central Coast’s dock. Originally started in 1986 by a Cal Poly grad as a walk-up cafe, it quickly became so popular that it had to expand to include a casual bay-side dining area with a large outdoor terrace. The restaurant is bustling with a line out the door from the time we enter to the time we leave. Not a bad place to wait for a table, as you can easily kill time hanging out on the benches, dock, or grassy areas along the water. Bayside has an extensive menu filled with local ingredients and both foodie and kid favorites alike. Some food highlights are their fresh salad with grilled catch-of-the-day, amazing thick calamari strips that are meatier than any calamari we’ve had, salmon tacos, and their ever popular fish & chips (definitely get the large!). To cap off our lunch we indulge in their huge serving of homemade mudpie. Hard to choose from their list of pie specialties, but if you like chocolate, this one is not to be missed! On top of the very friendly service, big portions, and awesome food, the vibe here is familial and relaxed, the view beautiful from any seat. This is the perfect lunch spot to rest and indulge while exploring Morro Bay.

(Bayside CaféIn the Morro Bay Marina across from Morro Bay State Park Campground, #10 State Park Rd, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-772-1465).

Morro Bay also has some distinctly interesting shops and attractions:

Junque Love (699 Embarcadero) specializes in an eclectic mix of vintage and repurposed goods, and represents the heart and soul of old coastal California, featuring artists from all over California that repurpose vintage items into new goods; (805-821-1154; www.facebook.com/Gatheringjunquelove/)

Morro Bay Skateboard Museum preserves the complete history of skateboarding,from the early 1930′s to present day, featuring more than 200 skateboards from all eras with rotating exhibits from extensive private collections (601 Embarcadero Road; 805-610-3565; www.mbskate.com).

The Estuary Nature Center located upstairs in the Marina Square Building at 601 Embarcadero is free and provides a place to experience the beauty of the estuary and learn about protecting habitats and wildlife (805-772-3834, www.mbnep.org/Learn/nature_center.html).

After our satisfying meal at Bayside Cafe, we hit the road and continue south on our adventure along the Highway 1 Discovery RouteFirst stop is the Kelsey See Canyon Winery.

For more information on planning a trip, contact Morro Bay Tourism, 695 Harbor Street, Morro Bay, CA 93442, 805-225-1570, www.morrobay.orgFor more information on Highway 1 Discovery Route, visit highway1discoveryroute.com.

Next: Four Friends and a Babymoon Travel California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Day into Night at the Pushkar Camel Fair & Festival of Brahma, India

Negotiating at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The “Jungle Book” Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure chapter of our Royal Expeditions trip to India ends, but a new story begins when we leave our hotel in New Delhi, again in the darkness before dawn, to take a six-hour train journey to Pushkar in Rajasthan for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. In many ways, this immersion into a centuries-old tradition transports us into the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 book even more tangibly than the game drives into the jungles of Mowgli and Shere Khan. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too? and Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

 

The Pushkar Horse and Camel Fair and Festival of Brahma takes place over a 10-day period in October/November every year, timed to take place during one of Rajasthan’s holiest festivals; the exact date varies on the western calendar but always falls during the full moon of the Indian lunar calendar month of Kartik. Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. A place of pilgrimage, the camel and horse fair developed out of this massive annual gathering.

The fair is a kaleidoscope of color, a swirl of motion, a cacophony of sound, unexpected up-close encounters (as with a camel), the crush of crowds.

Camel cart, Pushkar Camel Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the greatest spectacles anywhere, in my mind the Pushkar Camel Fair is a combination of state fair, carnival and pilgrimage with a smidgeon of circus thrown in. There are snake charmers, musicians, dancing horses, magic show, ferris wheels. You can buy anything and everything – household items, decorative reins for camels and horses; street vendors selling drinks made from sugar cane, merchants selling every manner of goods from stalls and from blankets sprawled out on the road.

Traveling by Train

Our trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair starts with a fantastic six-hour train journey from New Delhi, enhancing the movie-quality of the experience.

We speed through the streets from the Sheraton Hotel, dark and amazingly vacant at 5 am compared to the chaotic snarl of traffic we navigated through when we arrived the evening before from Kanha National Park, flying from Jabalpur to New Delhi.

We pull in across from the train station and out of nowhere, fellows appear who will porter our luggage (on their heads) to the train. We follow briskly after – going through the airport-style security that we have come to expect at every hotel – and are immediately grateful for their help when we realize how we have to climb up stairs to a bridge that takes us to our track. We have time to wait – there are hundreds of people who have basically camped out on the platforms.

Our train departs just after 6 am. A porter comes through our first class car with newspapers, then tea and coffee, and then breakfast (the omelet was very good). Our Royal Expeditions guide creates a WiFi hotspot for us.

Our guide who will take us around the fair, Thurka Durga Singh, comes aboard and begins orienting us to what we will see at the fair. He is a regal looking gentleman, descended from the Warrior Class, who carries himself with grace and dignity. His voice is sonorous, and I soon discover, he is very much a poet and a storyteller, steeped in India’s traditions and culture.

Durga Singh © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, as he would describe himself, Durga “is a keen observer of history, culture, religion, current affairs, and is a bank of knowledge so vast that he has a point of view on anything under the sun. He is what one could call a modern traditionalist, actively seeking the use of modern technology and methods to support the principles of traditional living. The inquisitive can have endless conversations with him on a number of his projects like rain – water harvesting, biogas plant, solar heating and, even, healthy cooking.” It only takes a simple question for him to launch into an entrancing narration.

“Before trains, buses, cars, all citizens traveled by animals – camel, horse. From the 11th to the15th day of the waning moon, pilgrims would come by the thousands on horses and camels from near Delhi to have a holy day. A fair developed. If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar Camel Fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. (Indeed, Dugar had just come from guiding a horse-riding safari to the fair.)

A horse trade underway at the Pushkar Camel & Horse Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rural farmers still use camels and horses as work animals and the Pushkar fair is one of the biggest camel, horse and live-stock fairs possibly anywhere, attracting buyers and sellers from all over the country, as well as visitors from around the world. At the peak of the fair, there might be 11,000 camels and 400,000 people coming from far and wide, dressed in their traditional and regional clothes. For days before the fair and after, you can see herders driving their camels and horses along the highway.

Seller grabs his buyer by the hand to pull him into the tent where negotiations can happen away from prying eyes © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

”At the fair, everything is everybody’s business. Our sense of privacy is different. Eavesdropping is a custom of the fair. People standing around give their unsolicited opinion – ‘Good horse’.” (We actually find ourselves doing this exact thing). “Now the deal is getting serious. Now the seller and the buyer don’t want others giving opinion. They clasp hands to clinch deal. Now bystanders have even more curiosity. ‘What is it your business?’ ‘I just wanted to know.’”

An ancient tradition is that when the horse is sold, it is never given with reins “because that would declare he would never have that horse again. So the buyer puts his own reins on [you can see stands that sell decorative reins.] Then the seller has money and gives a little money back, to get the horse extra food, a parting gift to the horse.

“In the western mind, business is business, there is no sentiment [recall the expression: It’s business. Not personal.]. In the Eastern mind, it is etiquette to offer tea. A Westerner would feel obligated to buy, but not an Easterner.

Getting closeup view of camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair  © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He gives us a tutorial on the different types of camels and how they are still used as work animals and why the reputation of camels as being mean and spitting isn’t really fair. One kind “can go sunrise to sunset, 60 km and has more stamina than horse. It can go without water for weeks.  Camels live 26 years; 4-16 year olds work, 16-24 year olds still work but not as hard. Five minutes before it drops dead, it still doesn’t refuse work, then it drops dead.”

I ask how much a camel costs: a young camel, 2 ½ years old (they start training and work at three years old) might cost 14,000-15,000 Rupees ($205-$220); a grown, trained camel might cost 55,000-100,000 rupees ($735-$1500).

“The camel is God’s blessing to us. It browses, eats species that others don’t, like the thorny bush. He doesn’t compete for food, but he is plow, car, tractor.”

But things are changing, he says. Alas, “Young people don’t want to be stuck with an animal. They prefer a tractor…. It’s likely the Pushkar Camel Fair will disappear in 10 years.”

In India’s cash economy (they don’t use credit cards or checks), there may be 15 million rupees in cash at the fair, in bags, clothes. “There are no locks, no safes.” So men wear a vest that has a hidden pocket and put a shirt over that. “A man may have 1 million rupees and no one knows. He can’t be pick-pocketed.”

The state must collects its tax, but since there are no written records of transactions, the tax department charges a flat rate when people enter the fair.

A whirl of motion at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, is unusual, he says. We are there just as the Modi government without warning canceled the 500 and 1000 rupee bills in circulation that are the basis for an economy that still runs on cash.

“The Fair has gone into a difficult time. There are many unsold animals, owners sitting desolate. They spent money to buy the animals but have no money to bring them back. Many will leave the animals behind.”

We should also look out for the camel’s haircut. “They decorate their camel like fellows decorate their motorcycles. You wine and dine the barber – it can cost 2000-3000 rupees. The Barber used to make lovely design – a lotus flower – but the Barber has gotten quite old, he is about to go to heaven. He made peacock design; an Islamic barber makes a geometric pattern. Now you see a Sikh shearer from Punjab who works fast.”

Farmers used to collect the camel wool to make rugs, sacks; “Now nobody collects.” Well at least one group does, who we come upon in the market, Camel Charisma.

Acquiring a horse at the Pushkar fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He bemoans the disappearance, one by one, of traditions (“20 years ago, women would sing folk songs. No more: girls go to school now and don’t learn folk music”).

If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar camel fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. “Now pilgrims come in jeeps, buses – groups of pilgrims, in different dress.”

He paints pictures of what else we will see, and lo and behold, when we arrive at the fair later that afternoon, we see for ourselves exactly what he has foretold:

“When you go to cinema, you eat popcorn – well, for desert people, sugar cane is big – trucks and trucks of sugar cane come in from the neighboring state of Pradesh.” We see stalls (a little like cotton-candy machines) crushing sugar cane into a juice add lemon and ginger.

Traditional food at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We will see the “normal” food of the Indian countryside. “Who goes to the countryside? Hunters, nomads, pilgrims and animal trader and armies. They have to cook and eat in countryside. So they will collect dried cow droppings for cooking fuel (it’s free) [but you can actually buy cow dung patties on Amazon, I’m told] to prepare balls of wheat flour, served on a plate made of leaves.

“You light up a cow dung fire. When the fire dies down, you roast bread on the embers. It’s clean because after a half-hour of cooking, the cow dung is sterilized. Stores sell this round chat-patti fried wheat bread. It’s street food. The village pilgrims relish this food.”

The camel fair also involves a sprawling market (like a flea market), with all manner of goods for sale.

Interesting people at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He also alerts us that we can photograph regular people –they don’t take money – but there are also “professional” photo subjects – they dress like in various costumes and you are expected to pay 100-200 rupees to take a picture (kind of like the naked cowboy in Times Square).

He warns us that “skunks” spoil the visit for Indians and foreigners. They solicit money – “Mafia like” =saying they want to take you to the lake. Tell them ‘We have been to the lake.”

He says he will take us to the roof of a restaurant to see the lake and watch the rituals.

The beauty of the fair is its randomness, a kaleidoscope of colors, a swirl of activity, he says. “No guidebook will tell you this aspect.”

His narration has made the hours spent on the train fly by. Before we know it, we pull into Ajmir.

Ajmir, A Holy City

We arrive in Ajmir and once we are underway in our van for the half-hour ride to Pushkar, Durga has us join in reciting a Hindu blessing, since Ajmir is one of the holiest places for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha, which means “raining eyes” in Sanskrit.

One of India’s first cities, Ajmir was the Chahamana capital ruling all India until the defeat of Prithviraja lll in 1192 when the city came under Muslim rule. And when India was under British rule and divided into 526 Maharajah states, the Viceroy, the direct link to the British Crown, was based in Ajmir.

Religious ritual underway in Ajmir, holy to several major religions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ajmir also has one of the most important Sufi shrines, “next to Mecca and Medina, one of the holiest for Muslims.”

Moinuddin Chishti, an important Iman practicing the Sufi form of Islam, came to Ajmir from Iran, developing a large following, and gaining the respect of the residents of the city. Chishti promoted understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sufism is a Muslim movement which arose in the 8th-9th centuries, whose followers seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Sufis, Durga explains do not believe that nonbelievers are infidels (like the more extreme Wahabis). Every individual is God’s children. Music is an important part of worship, connecting worshippers to the divine. He has as much a following among Hindus as Muslims. Many Muslims live here.”

In some ways, it seems Ajmir is like Jerusalem in that it is the confluence of these different religions.

During our brief ride, Durga explains reincarnation, predestination and freewill (no mean feat), connecting reincarnation to Darwin. “Darwin talks of physical evolution, Einstein of the soul transfiguring. There is a zero balance account when you are born – that’s free will. Now you start creating your karma; that brings you back again and again. The aim of life is to go back to the Godhead, to break the cycle of birth and rebirth.” Reincarnation, rebirth and nirvana, he says, is not that much different than Christianity’s belief in resurrection and heaven. “There are many commonalities.”

Free will and destiny are not contradictory. “Destiny is that you find a note, then free will is what you do with it. You receive your past and create your future – that is the secret of happiness. In the East, there is no place for guilt” because actions have repercussions in future life.

As for why cows are sacred, it basically comes down to a very practical reason: people depend on the cow. “The cow was revered before it became holy.” We see cows with their horns that had been painted for the Diwali Festival.

Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We make our way slowly through a snarl of humanity, traffic cops doing their best to organize. Because of the traffic during the fair, we are led the long way around, traveling around the lake and over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain, separating Pushkar from Ajmer. We don’t mind at all because we get to see more of the city and landscape.

Coming into Pushkar, we bypass the entrance to the fair – it is wall-to-wall people, since it is toward the end of the fair now mostly pilgrims as opposed to camel and horse buyers – enroute to the Royal Tents, a luxurious tented camp set up by The Royal Jodhpur Camps specifically for the fair, where we stay.

Royal Jodhpur Camp provides luxurious accommodations at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Royal Jodhpur Camp is set up as a traditional “shikar” style camp: at a time when only royalty was allowed to hunt, these camps were set up to accommodate them. Ours consists of rows of elegant and luxurious twin bedded tents with verandahs with deck-chairs in front and attached bathrooms with running hot and cold water (even a shower), set out over an expansive sandy plain. There are electric lights, an electric heater, rugs on the ground. There is also a spacious Mughal-style dining tent and a recreation tent which serves as a lounge.  It is set on expansive private grounds surrounded by rolling mustard fields in flower and rocky hills, a walk or camel ride away from the fair.

It is the ultimate in glamping. We can tie a triangular flag to a rope outside the tent to signal if we want service (room service, hot water). We can order coffee delivered in the early morning.

We feel much as the royal entourage who would come on hunting expeditions and stay in these elaborate camps. The operative word is “royal.”

Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, The Royal Jodhpur Camps actually has a family connection to Royal Expeditions, the tour company that has organized our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure and this extension to the Pushkar Camel Fair, Jaipur and Agra. Royal Expeditions was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur related to a Princess who also served in Parliament and as India’s Minister of Culture, and the Royal Jodhpur Camps is her brother’s enterprise. It makes it all the more fantastic. And like our other accommodations – the Pench Tree Lodge and the Kanha Earth Lodge during our time doing wildlife safaris in the national parks – it enhances our Camel Fair experience.

We have a superb lunch in an enormous dining tent (complete with ceiling fan), before setting out for our visit to the fair.

Day into Night at Pushkar Camel Fair 

Durga has timed it so we arrive at the fair in the afternoon and will be here after dark, to get the full color and atmosphere.

Ferris Wheels light the night at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon we are caught up as we watch a transaction for a horse, just as Durga foretold we would during our train ride: “At the fair, everything is everybody’s business.” And just as he described, we watch a fellow eyeing a horse. And just as he described, soon we find ourselves chiming in as if it is our business, “Oh, that’s a fine-looking horse.” And just as Durga had described, moments later, the seller grabs the customer’s hand and pulls him inside the tent, where he most likely will be plied with tea so the negotiations can commence out of the gaze of prying eyes and gossipy critics.

The vast, bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Durga leads us through a vast market with just about every item you can imagine for sale: shoes, scarves, household items; saddles and decorative reins and leashes for the camels and horses.

We see albino horses for sale, which Durga says are used for weddings. He introduces me to Bakshu, a prominent horse breeder he knows from Gudrash, and Raika, a professional camel breeder.

We pass by a tent where there is magic show on our way to the market.

Worshippers jam into a temple on a hilltop above the market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He takes us to what is probably the most distinctive shops at the fair, Camel Charisma, where you can buy paper out of camel dung; scarfs form discarded camel hair (and silk), 2500 R ($36), fresh camel milk, camel milk soap and just about anything you can imagine from camel. We taste chai made of camel milk. He takes us to his favorite textile stall (I’m still kicking myself for not buying an embroidered wool wrap for $25).

He takes us passed temples, jam-packed with worshippers, to where we can go to a rooftop to look down on the holy lake and the religious rituals underway. We watch as the sun sets, the lights come on and a super moon rises over the Pushkar Lake.

Temple of Brahma, Pushkar Lake, © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. The Brahma Temple, which officially is dated from the 14th century but is believed to be 2000 years old, is set on the lake, and during the night, lights of changing colors come on. In the distance, on a hilltop, we can make out the Savitri Temple, dedicated to Brahma’s consort, Savitri, but to visit involves an hour long trek uphill.

Rituals at Pushkar Lake © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around the lake are numerous bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims take their holy dip in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar, as religious chanting and pealing bells resound. We get to peer down on these activities from our perch on the roof, watching people gather around open fires.

We make our way back through the market and the carnival, now lighted up and festive, with five giant ferris wheels looming over the fair. We pass a crowd watching a dancing horse.

When we return to the tented camp, where we have a marvelous dinner (with Sula champagne!).

Dancers, musicians at the Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We comment on how good the papadom is – a seasoned dough made with mung bean flour fried or cooked with dry heat. “In my grandmother’s day, they used to invite women for lunch, sing, everyone came with a rolling pin, they would sing and make the papadom and put it out in the sun to dry,” Durga says.

There is a fireeater, musicians and dancers to entertain us around a bonfire.

I return to the fair the next morning by myself. Durga has arranged for the driver to pick me up at 7 am. As we pull up, I watch as a hot air balloon rises over the fair. (Hot air ballooning is a relatively new adventure activity in India and the desert state of Rajasthan is the most popular place.)

The bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get to the fair and just wander around – I am one of a scant few Westerners at this point. It is amazing to me how busy it is even this early in the morning. There are only a few camels left for sale and I watch what looks like the end of a transaction.

Leaving the fair, I see pilgrims arriving in open-back trucks, and in trucks that have been outfitted with bunkbeds.

Durga has told us that it can take 10 days to travel from Agra with the camels, and that we will see people in their camel carts traveling along the highway, as we drive to our next destination, Jaipur. And we do!

Camels being led home along the highway from the Pushkar Camel Fair   © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In Jaipur, we learn more about this regal gentleman and his family, when we visit his boutique guesthouse, Dera Mandawa – his family’s century-old estate which, back in the day, accommodated dignitaries when they visited the Maharajah. The family lost their property and position when India nationalized such estates in the 1949, and families like his were forced to turn their estates and palaces into commercial enterprises or see them torn down. Instead of the path of a warrior as his ancestors would have taken, Durga has been involved in tourism for 35 years. (www.deramandawa.com) 

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

In the last moments of our last game drive, we see not one but two tigers – male and female – at Kanha National Park in central India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ in central India began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?)

It is approaching 5 pm, the final moments of our fifth and final game drive in six days of exploring India’s Pench and Kanha national parks, famous for tiger. So far, though we have seen amazing animals, birds, insects, the ultimate prize of a tiger sighting has eluded us. I have new appreciation for how elusive they are, particularly with the massive amount of forest territory and the fact they tend to be active before 8:30 am, then settle down in the jungle, coming out again in the evening in this season which is approaching winter.

I have also come to suspect they have also figured out the schedule for our safari vehicles which announce our coming with loud rumbling sounds.

The light is fading. This entire drive hastily arranged in Kanha by Royal Expeditions because none of us had spotted the tigers after the four scheduled game drives so far. Nara, our naturalist/guide from Taj Safaris, is laser-focused on finding a tiger for us. We have already gotten to see most of the animals for which these parks are famous – it has been thrilling to see them in such close proximity (I even got a brief sighting of a leopard!). But we have yet to catch even a glimpse of the star attraction: the tiger.

Langur mother and baby monkeys in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have seen and followed tracks left on the sandy road; listened to the “alarms” sent up by the black-faced langur monkeys (that look like wise men) that provide our guide and naturalist the best clues as to the location and movement of the tigers. The scene is quite fantastic, in fact, when one guide gives a scouting report to another, and we all tear off at great speed.

But we have yet to have the luck of being in exactly right place, right time to view.

We only have 2 hours this afternoon, so he races to get to the most likely territory known for tiger – it takes 20 minutes to travel there from the entrance gate even driving so fast, bumping on the rough road and holding on tightly to the railing in the open vehicle, the park is so vast. It is quite a thrill ride.

Kanha National Park is a bird-watchers delight © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Periodically, especially where the trails cross each other, he stops, turns off the engine, and just listens. Sometimes there is just complete (eerie) silence, but soon a fantastic cacophony jungle sounds come into focus. We hear various bird calls, which Nara identifies for us, and we find ourselves searching the trees and the sky, contenting ourselves with shooting photos of fantastic birds.

Nara and the park guide examine prints in the trail – and can tell how long ago they were made, whether a male (more rounded) or a female (more rectangular and pointed).

It is just after the rainy season, so the forest is thick, verdant and cool (actually cold in the morning); but in the intense summer heat and drought, the forest becomes dry and brown and the tigers come out to water holes (some made by the park) more predictably. So while the conditions are generally more pleasant this time of year for viewing, sightings are trickier.

Nara and the park guide who is assigned to us confer. We move on.

If we meet up with another jeep (there aren’t as many in this section of the park), they share intel, sometimes strategizing.

Whenever he stops, Nara explains his strategy for finding the tiger, based on its patterns, which is really insightful.

Other safari goers we chance to meet during our drives- particularly where we stop for breakfast – tell of their luck. A British woman makes us jealous when she shows photos she snapped off a tiny point-and-shoot camera of a mother tiger with her cub, while we are there armed with our superduper DSLRs and 300 and 400 mm lenses, with nothing to show.

Starting the game drive in Kanha National Park as the sun rises © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to see the tiger is either very early – moments after arriving in the park (when I chance to spot a leopard on a ridge), or late in the afternoon. The park doesn’t open before 6 am, so we head out from the lodge by 5:30 am (they send us off with hot coffee and tea and biscuits, plus a blanket and hot water bottle for the safari vehicle), and it can take 40 minutes waiting at the gate in the surprisingly cold air, before we are processed, assigned a guide and a zone in the park, and allowed to enter.

So we race to get to some spot that our naturalist and guide believe has a good likelihood for spotting tiger. Of course, along the way and throughout our tour, we see an amazing array of animals and the guide patiently waits for us to take our shots before moving on, imparting information about the various animals we see. The landscape is really beautiful, and in the morning and afternoon light, dramatic. You never know what you will spot or when, so it is constantly thrilling – you are literally hunting (with a camera).

Barasingha (swamp deer) were endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the first couple of game drives, we all were a lot more casual, so spent a lot of time with the langur monkeys, rhesus monkeys, the jackals, the wild dogs, the wild pigs, the spotted deer and the swamp deer, and the myriad birds, not to mention the insects and trees that prove quite fascinating. But as we realized our window of opportunity for seeing the tiger closing, we were a lot more single-minded in that pursuit, rushing passed scenes of animals we had already seen before.

The naturalist and guide who accompany us are earnest to the point of frantic to succeed for their tourists. “Until people see a tiger, they can’t relax or do other things,” he tells us.

So when they get a hint of a tiger, they race with unbelievable speed, even dashing in reverse (hold on!) despite how crude the road (more of a trail) to get to a spot. Sometimes so many vehicles converge in both directions no one can move (this is particularly the case on a day that school and scout groups have come out by the dozens) – but the driver manages somehow to maneuver with tremendous skill.

This happens repeatedly with no sightings (which is why you will typically organize 3-5 game drives during your visit).

But here we are, at 5 pm, when Nara picks up on the alarm sent up by the langur monkeys. He says a steady alarm means the tiger is moving; intermittent means the tiger has stopped.

It’s our last game drive, hastily arranged by our tour company, Royal Expeditions (no small feat since permits have to be applied for in advance), our last chance. We follow the ‘alarm’ sent up by the monkeys. When their calls are not continuous, Nara can tell that the tiger has stopped moving, and calculates that it is in the middle of the forested area.

Nara has to guess which direction the tiger will move. After about 10 minutes waiting and listening (while we happily shoot photos of birds gathering in trees above us), he picks up again and goes to the last best spot, in the direction of a meadow with tall grass that leads to the water.

Several vehicles are already parked there and in an instant, excitement:

“People lose their minds when they spot a tiger.” The naturalist tells us. The drivers, also.

A female tiger crosses the road just in front of our safari vehicle in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the tiger emerges from the forest and crosses the road, just a few feet from the vehicle ahead of us – but we aren’t in great position to see and I am thinking how ironic this is to finally be where the tiger is, but not to actually see it.

But Nara is not to be thwarted. He maneuvers our vehicle through this enormous crowd, going off the trail into the thicket, to get us into a good position.

Meanwhile, we are holding on in open vehicles, trying to snap shots before the tiger disappears again into the forest growth.

I snap, snap, snap – get a shot (I am thinking it isn’t great, but a shot nonetheless, but actually, afterward I see I got more than a few) –before the tiger disappears into the woods.

Nara moves the vehicle again and lo and behold, the tiger remerges from the wood, now crossing the road directly between our vehicle and another one, to a grassy area on her way to the water. Amazingly, a male tiger emerges and walks after her.

On the last game drive in Kanha National Park, in the last moments as the light fades, a tiger! © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the other vehicles have already headed out because it is literally closing time and the drivers are fined if they are late to the gate. But Nara stays. We get shot after shot as the light fades to dusk. I’m lucky, standing up on the highest perch, to get some shots of both tigers together.

I shoot frantically, not knowing how many moments I will have. I can’t even take the time to check if my setting is right. I’m going on instinct. I fight between needing fast exposure and high ISO to compensate for fading light, the darkness of the woods, and the tigers’ motion, and fear I might actually be overexposing.

Getting the shot of the tiger in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, we are the only vehicle still remaining. We watch as the female sits in the grass, looking back at the male as he approaches her. It is quite a scene.

Finally, Nara says we have to leave and he tears off at great speed to make it back in time, while we are giddy with our good fortune: We saw not one, but two tigers!

It’s an intense, thrilling feeling. I realize I have barely taken a breath.

The game drives have been fascinating. It is thrilling to not know what you will see, or when. Then momentary, serendipitous flashes.

Seeing the animals in their habitat, all sorts of questions and considerations come to mind.

And the landscapes are just beautiful.

Kanha’s Abundance of Animals

It is remarkable how this short distance away from Pench National Park where we spent the first three days of our “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure,” the ecology changes so much. The Kanha forest (“jungle is the Hindi word for forest) is much thicker, and because of the higher elevation, is much cooler. The Kanha National Park spans nearly 2000 sq km (only one-fifth open to tourists), and currently has an estimated 49 tigers.

Setting out in safari vehicle through the jungle of Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Instead of a teak forest like Pench, this forest is mainly sal – a wood that was used for railroad ties; three kinds of bamboo (bamboo gets flowers only once in its life, then dies), the saga tree (the tree, with bark that looks like crocodile hide, is worshiped by the people who harvest water from it to drink when necessary); and the Mahua tree (the flowers are made into a liquor which is a big money-maker for locals. “People only collect the flowers that have fallen from the tree, which drop after midnight, to make liquor. If animals eat the flowers, they also get drunk – that’s why you might see a drunk monkey.”

The first evening at the Kanha Earth Lodge, where we stay during our time here, there is a slide presentation by the naturalist about the animals in the park”

The male spotted deer (chital) has antlers to attract a female. “He will put grass into the antler to look more handsome.” (I actually saw one which had managed to find some blue plastic string for decoration).

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This park also has sambar (Asia’s largest deer, it depends on its sense of smell, but will foolishly go right up to a tiger to smell it); the Indian Muntjac (barking deer), which is only found in a bamboo forest. We even get to see all of these, including the Barasingha (swamp deer) which was endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left (it only gives birth to one baby a year, but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating).

There are also wild pig; gaur (like a big bull with horns), jackal (they can get drunk eating the Mahua flowers; dhole (wild dogs; only the alpha male and alpha female are allowed to mate); sloth bear.

There are more leopards than tigers, and unlike the tigers, are not endangered.

Leopards are sly, he tells us – they eat dogs, goats on periphery (that is, in the villages). They can climb trees so have more food options (monkeys) and hunt at night (which is why they are harder to spot during the day). “They call the leopard the ‘Ghost of the Jungle’ because one minute you see it and the next, disappears.”

Meanwhile tigers are more discriminating about mating – the male can mate with three females (depending upon food) and if the female he wants to mate with has cubs, he will kill the cubs in order to mate with her.

Sunlight filters through the branches in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are up before dawn for our first game drive in Kanha, which is supposed to be our last (we’ve had three in Pench National Park so far).  It is quite an experience to be at the park as the sun rises, and we head out on these dusty dirt roads with the red sun in our face, mist on the meadow, and later, as the sun filters through the trees.

We are so earnest to spot tiger, we tell our naturalist/guide not to bother with the breakfast gathering, but that we want to spend as much time as possible in our hunt to see the tiger.

He thinks there is a sighting and speeds off, frantically. There are five jeeps doing the same thing, one driving backwards at a furious pace.

Then we all stop still. Listen. A hand signal, and we all take off again.

A young cub crossed road, the guide announces. We missed it.

We hear an “alarm” from the langur monkeys and speed off again, bouncing, rocking,

No tiger. But we content ourselves with a sighting of White throated kingfisher  and a gathering of hard ground swamp deer found only in Kanha – a female and one young male (with just the beginning of antlers) and two babies (as adults, the males stay separate from the females).

Munna  ©2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave the park, we actually meet Munna, the park guide for whom the park’s famous tiger was named. “Munna” means “small child” and the fellow never liked the name very much. He had a limp, and the tiger was injured and had a limp, so they named the tiger “Munna” also. “After a tiger was named after him, he didn’t mind his name.”

On our way driving back up the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge, I spot the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – the bird I have been dying to photograph – and our guide pulls over. We become engaged in chasing after this bird, then another, then a staggering array of birds: a scarlet minuet (male), a black-hooded Oriole, a Lesser Golden-backed woodpecker – more birds in this small area than you might see in an aviary. He tells us it is a hunting flock.

While seeing leopards or tigers might be the brass ring, just being on this carousel is sheer delight – the number and variety of animals we see at close range, the birds, even the insects are fascinating.

Drongo © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Kanha National Park Kanha, one of the first tiger reserves established by India under Project Tiger (1973), is also one of India’s largest National Parks, encompassing nearly 2,000 sq. km of deciduous forest, grasslands, hills and gently meandering rivers and home to literally hundreds of species of animals and birds. Prior to this, the whole area was one enormous regal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve for high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows.  One vast plain where we see a herd of deer used to be a village of 500 people, who were relocated when they created the park.

Deer, Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This picturesque reserve presently boasts of having large tiger population, as it has the ideal habitat. The meadows (called maidans) are surrounded by thick forests that create ideal grazing spots for the hundreds of chital deer, barasingha and sambar deer, which means they are ideal hunting ground for tigers, leopards, jackal and wild dogs (all of which we get to see). Kanha offers the last remaining habitat of the hard ground barasingha (swamp deer), which was brought back from the brink of extinction (which we get to see). During our visit, we also get to see many of the other animals that live here: wild pig, Rhesus Macaque, Langur monkey (my favorite). I think I even got a glimpse of a gaur (Indian Bison) before it retreated into the woods.

Other animals that are here but we don’t get to see include sloth bear, striped hyena, muntjacs (barking deer), chousingha (four-horn antelope), jungle cat and mongoose.

This diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species. The Indian jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of domestic hens, is common here.

Crested Hawk Eagle © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For bird watchers and photographers, Kanha’s diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species, a mind-boggling number we actually get to see during our brief time: Green Footed Pigeon, Pygmy Woodpecker and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. Little Minivet, Scarlet Minivet and Long Tailed Minivet can be seen at Parsa Toala grasslands. Resident common raptors as the Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, White Eyed Buzzard, Shikra and Common Kestrel can be sighted hunting and nesting in tall trees.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances our safari experience. It is also an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each night, offers fascinating presentations by a naturalist about the wildlife and the national park, while serving appetizers.

The dining room reminds me of a castle, actually, with the stone and wood, vaulted ceiling, candelabra and local artwork.

Dinner by firelight at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One evening, dinner is served outside in a garden by firelight. The food –and presentation – is superb.

The service is impeccable, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage. The lodge supplies coffee and tea and bottled water in the rooms. When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets and even hot water bottles for us in the jeeps.

The room is actually an entire villa, with massive living spaces and has its own patio that faces out to the forest.

In the evening, with the turn-down service, they provide a hot water bottle, and we are told that our rooms are inspected for possible intruders which might have hidden away in dark places.

The lodge is located away from a very busy tourist area – you feel you are in the national park – but very close to villages and farms, so you feel very much a part of the local culture. At night, we hear drumming of a festival.

Kanha Earth Lodge is located among villages and farms that surround the national park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both ecolodges (only operated October to June) that we enjoyed are part of Pugdundee Safaris (www.pugdundeesafaris.com), which operates six ecolodges (Kings Lodge and Tree House Hideaway in Bandhavagarh; Denwa Backwater Escape in Satpura; Ken River Lodge, Panna; as well as Barahi Jungle Lodge in Chitwan, Nepal) as well as wildlife safaris, which means a kind of seamless quality.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Next: The Pushkar Camel Fair

 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

What luck: first morning, spotting a leopard at Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See: ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park)

Royal Expeditions new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure” is set in the land of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic tale of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. During the course of our six days at Pench National Park and Kanha National Park, in central India,  we see many of the characters that populated his story and the landscape (“jungle” is the Hindi word for forest) in which they thrived. And much to my amazement, I learn that there may be some truth to the fantastical adventure.

Over the course of our six days – three each at Pench and Kanha – we are scheduled for four game drives, and I soon realize why you need multiple chances if your goal is to spot a tiger: they are really hard to spot.

Safari vehicle sets off at sunrise into Pench National Park in pursuit of a tiger © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even without spotting a tiger, each game drive is its own adventure – the landscape of verdant, forest, the serendipitous encounters with animals not even a stone’s throw away, with nothing between you and them. And never knowing what you will encounter and when, or what’s beyond the next bend.

The “hunt” is thrilling: the way the guides track the tigers, looking for tiger tracks in the sandy trail, stopping where the trails cross to listen for “alarms” from the langur monkeys, or the signs of urgency from the herds of spotted deer (their tails go up when they are anxious). When the guides think they hear an alarm, they take off at fast speed, leaving us to bounce around and hold on to avoid being thrown out of the open vehicles.

Langur monkey sitting nonchalantly © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In all my years as a travel writer, this is my first wildlife safari, so the experience is completely new. I am told by my fellow travelers who have much more experience doing safaris in Africa (but never before in India), that there are certain similarities to the structure, the way you experience the animals, largely because of the topography, is very different.

The first thing that is surprising is how early we get up: 4:45 am for a 5:30 am departure, sending us off with hot coffee, tea and biscuits, in order to be lined up at the entrance to the park by the 6 am opening (we will have a full hot breakfast in the park at around 8:30 am, which is an experience itself). It is quite cold – we dress in layers and the Pench Treehouse Lodge gives us blankets (Kanha National Park, at a higher altitude, is actually colder and the Kanha Earth Lodge where we stay next gives us a hot water bottle along with a blanket).

Dramatic landscape in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We line up with perhaps 40 other safari vehicles, while our driver (who is also the lodge naturalist) brings our permit (we have to be registered in advance) and shows our passports . We are assigned a park guide and one of four zones where we can explore (only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public). Our vehicle comes from the lodge but when additional ones are needed, they hire locals who have their own safari vehicle.

Access to the parks is heavily restricted because they are already overrun with tourists – about 90% of them Indian people versus foreign tourists (and these are mostly British, with a smattering of Europeans and Americans).

Rhesus monkey, Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we enter, there is this incredible scene as we watch the orange globe of the sun slowly rising just in front of us and spreading its light through the moisture of the trees.

We are lucky on our first drive – my group gets to spot a leopard on a ridge poking out from bushes (the others in our group, in another vehicle, weren’t so lucky). The leopard is there for a few moments but I manage to get off some shots. Leopards are particularly hard to spot – they are called the “ghost” of the jungle – because they primarily hunt at night.

Breakfast served from the hood of a safari vehicle in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around 8:30 am, we gather at an appointed place for breakfast – a fantastic meal the lodge has sent along with sunny side-up eggs, pastries, coffee and tea, fresh fruits and juice – which we enjoy in an open area where we see the lake that separates the two national parks, and a vast open area where there is a herd of deer and an assortment of birds. (All the safari vehicles follow the same routine, stopping at around 8:30 am to provide breakfast for their guests.)

Continuing on, we spot a group of jackals – one has a bone in its mouth and makes displays of dominance.

We come to an area with langur monkeys (my favorite jungle inhabitant) – with black faces with defined, expressive features and silvery fur. One sits on a tree root, posing like an old wise man (Jack Benny also comes to mind). Later we find a group of langur monkeys together with a herd of spotted deer.

Langur monkeys and spotted deer are best of friends © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“They are best friends,” Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us. There is a symbiosis between them: the langur sends down leaves and fruit from the trees for the deer to eat and sends off alarms when a predator approaches, while the deer are easier prey than the langur.

Great wood spider. The female is immense and eats the male after mating © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive under a massive spider web with a giant wood spider (that’s its name, and for good reason– black and yellow stripes, perhaps 2-3 inches wide. Sagor tells us that the male is tiny by comparison and that the female eats the male after they mate (unless she has something better to eat). For once in my life, I am more fascinated than fearful seeing such a creature so close at hand.

Ghost Tree © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He points out the “ghost tree” – it is starkly white, standing apart from the other trees. This tree changes color with the seasons– white, red, green; it gets its name because especially in the moonlight, it looks like a ghost walking in jungle, its tree limbs looking like arms flailing about wildly; the wood is used to make toys and musical instruments and the gum is used  as a laxative and as a thickening agent. “People used to eat the roasted seeds when they were hungry,” he says. He points out the “crocodile tree” – Saga- with bark that resembles a crocodile’s hide. “The tribe here worships the tree; if there is no water, they harvest water from the Saga tree.”

We come upon a pack of wild dogs – actually a rare sight – devouring a deer carcass. It is amazing to watch their teamwork: a couple stand like sentries, facing out, while the others tear at the carcass, switching off. Watching the dogs, I wonder why we don’t see more bones around – I learn that the bones are degraded by bacteria and fungus, taking about a year before they are reduced to nothing.

There are 60,000 spotted deer in Pench – the largest concentration in India – in fact, too many, we are told. But they provide the food source for the tigers, leopards and other predators.

Pench offers amazing bird sightings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The profusion of birds is unbelievable: in the course of our visit, we see most of the “star attractions”: the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (my favorite, a blue-black bird with two hanging tails); the White-rumped Shama, the Gold-fronted leafbird, the Indian Roller, the streak-throated woodpecker, the Changeable Hawk-Eagle, the Coucal (big bird, brown and green, red eye), peacocks (they sleep in trees at night; the male loses its feathers during monsoon, then grows new ones), the white-eyed buzzard, the Indian Pond Heron (also called “magic bird” , it looks white when it flies); green parakeet; Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes); the Rufus tree pie (known as a tiger bird because has the same colors); and the Red Jungle fowl (the first chicken in the world) and the Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes).

Sagor says he has personally spotted over 100 species in Pench; there are over 200 in the region.

It is amazing to me what an eye Sagor, our guide, has – he spots two tiny Indian Scops owls the exact color of the knot-hole in a tree, and stops the vehicle. We can barely see it.

He tells us that Pench, which is named after a nearby river and was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1983, has about 43 tigers. That they are methodical (something that helps poachers): they are out until about 8:30 am, then sleep until evening in the winter. They only live about 13-14 years.

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public as Pench National Park, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states, where a number of endangered species are protected. The tiger is the dominant predator here, The other predators include leopard, dhol (Indian Wild Dog), wolf, hyena, jackal and jungle cat. The prey species include chital (spotted deer), sambar deer, muntjac, gaur, wild boar, langur monkey and rhesus macaques. There is a rich birdlife with over 300 recorded bird species, including parakeets, hornbills, kingfisher, barbets, minivets, orioles, wagtails, and a host of raptors; the crested serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle and white-eyed buzzard. (Amazingly, we see most of these during our visit).

The Real Jungle Book 

On the way into Pench National Park for our morning game drive, as we pass villages, Sagor Mahajan, the naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, tells us that though this is land is the setting for Kipling’s Jungle Book, Kipling never actually visited here –it was his father who spent time here and inspired his son with his stories. But then Sagor shocks me by saying that the story could have had a basis in fact, of an actual boy brought up by wolves.

“There are two stories about Kipling: in the first story, Rudyard Kipling’s father visited often, loved it, and would narrate stories to Rudyard – that’s how young Rudyard Kipling was inspired, but never visited,” he tells us as we rumble along the road.

“In the second story: two British guys roaming around a nearby village learned of a story about a young boy who was rescued, who had been brought up by wolf pack. He couldn’t speak human, walk like a human, nothing about him was like a human. The boy was actually found and rescued, but he died two or three years after. Both of them wrote separate books about it.” Kipling, he says, likely read the stories.

This is utterly fascinating – but surely, such a fantastical legend must be part of that village’s folklore, passed down from generation to generation?

I’m intrigued enough to do my own research, finding an article in the Times of India by a reporter who did trace the original stories and visited the village.

In his article, “Did Seoni have a Real Mowli?,” Sumeet Keswani writes:

While Kipling’s was a work of fiction, it’s said to have been inspired by Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens, which describes a wolf-boy captured near Seoni in 1831. Sleeman was a British soldier and administrator and is known for his work in suppressing thuggery. We found a mention of the wolf-boy named ‘Seeall’ in Mervyn Smith’s Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle, which describes his capture and behaviour in captivity. “I have reason to believe that he was the original of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli,” the author writes.

Mowgli is still a “pervasive theme” in the district – there are caricatures on bus stands, an annual Mowgli Mahotsav, Keswani finds, but is not, apparently, a folk story that is widely shared.

“The only clue is talk about a cave on the outskirts of Kanhiwada, a village that finds mention in the original tale,” Keswani reports. But in his investigation, he could not find any local people to give credence to it.

“In the book, Mowgli may have been the target of Shere Khan, but today the tigers of Pench are the ones in danger,” he writes.

Wild dogs devour a deer carcass © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While we don’t actually see any wolves, we do get to see a pack of wild dogs tearing apart the carcass of a deer, and over the course of our visits into the parks, see many of the animals that animated the Jungle Book characters. But after our three game drives in Pench, we have yet to see the tiger. But we still have our visit to Kanha National Park, where we go next.

Pench Tree Lodge 

My treehouse at Pench Tree Lodge provides the perfect ambiance and amenities for our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What makes the experience all the more special are the accommodations: Pench Tree Lodge (www.PenchTreeLodge) which only opened in 2016, is literally a tree house, built of all natural materials, but with stunning design, local and traditional art, and every comfort and amenity you could crave. There are just six of these tree house accommodations spread over 16 acres.

Chef Pankaj Fulera of the Pench Tree Lodge shows his versatility and art © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a gorgeous dining lodge and the restaurant is headed by sensational chef, Chef Pankaj Fulera who was runner-up for Best India Chef) who is equally adept at traditional Indian cuisine as a fusion Continental (cooking classes and a tour of the kitchen can be arranged). Every dish is served with stunning presentation. The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area.

One night, our dinner is served outside, under a tree that I have taken to think of as The Tree of Life. The atmosphere is breathtaking. We are there just as they are replanting the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies the kitchen.

Our tree houses have a balcony (mine has an enormous Mahua tree, the dropped leaves of which are turned into a liquor), and a stunning bathroom.

They both are absolutely perfect- luxurious, comfortable, sophisticated and gorgeously designed, but designed to blend perfectly with the environment, and support the local tribal people. They enhance the experience.

There is also a fantastic lap-size swimming pool (so much fun to swim and watch the green parakeets flying above).

Dinner served outside at Pench Tree Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pench Tree Lodge offers impeccable service, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage – cold when it is hot in the afternoon and hot when it is cold at night. You really get some of that vibe as if we were a royal hunting party (okay, we are out for photos, not trophies).

Our rooms are supplied with coffee, tea and bottled water (flashlights, too). When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets in the jeeps.

From my balcony, I can see how Pench Tree Lodge preserves the rustic, natural landscape © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Pench Tree Lodge, between dusk and dawn, we must call for someone to escort us to and from our tree house (the lodge is, after all, contiguous with the national park, and I think it also has to do with snakes) and each tree house has a device that emits a high-pitched sound that can’t be heard by humans, that deters rodents from entering. We are warned that at night we might hear the sound of monkeys jumping on the roof and when that happens, I am grateful for the warning.

The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area. (Cooking classes can be arranged).

One of the reasons Pench National Park is so popular with tourists is that it is the closest tiger park to a well-connected commercial airport in India -Nagpur is about 3 hours drive. Karmajhiri gate (where we stay at the Pench Tree Lodge) and Jamtara entrance gate of Park are at the furthest points, so get fewer visitors. More significantly, you really feel immersed in local life.

Apart from the wildlife, the Royal Expeditions “Jungle Book” tour also provides distinctive opportunity to experience rural life in India – the “soul of India” is in its villages, where 60% of the 1.2 billion people still live -and meet with local people who live in harmony with wildlife. Just how much in harmony? We see thatched, raised platform shelters so that the farmers sleep in their fields at night to guard against encroaching animals.

Women working in the fields in Pench © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our way back from our game drive in Pench, looking out over the fields being tended by farmers, Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us that the villagers here have lived here for generations – they are descended from people who migrated from South Africa in the 17th century.

I’m thinking how interesting that is, because of his description of the dragonflies we see,  Wandering Gliders, which, he says, migrate back to South Africa, taking four or five generations to complete the trek, the longest migration of any insect.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595. 

Next: Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park 

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures