Monthly Archives: April 2011

In Ontario’s North Woods

Ever heard of Kapuskasing?  Neither had I until I went there and did something really dumb.

Kapuskasing, about as far north as you can go in the eastern part of Ontario and still be on a paved road, is a really remote industrial town of about 8,500 with plenty of surprises.   For one, it can snow during the summer.

After Ruth and I went to a log-rolling competition, we ate at Le Kaprice, a gourmet French restaurant that would not be out of place in Paris.  I asked the owner, whose favorite travel destination was Cuba, about his clientele and he told me that executives from local mills kept him going.

One of those mills, the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company that’s now part of Tembec, has been providing all of the New York Times’ paper since 1928.

During World War II, Kapuskasing was the scene of an internment camp for 1,300 Germans, Austrians, and Turks.  Turks?

James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar, is from here.

See what I meant about surprising?

The next morning, Ruth and I were still talking about Le Kaprice as we packed the trunk of our car.  The only thing left in the room was the small suitcase containing my camera, toiletries, virtually everything I had with me that wasn’t clothing.  I went back for it then walked to the office to check out and say goodbye to the extremely friendly staff.

After a lovely chat with Lynn about life here in far-north Canada, I left.  During that day we drove about 300 miles to Red Rock.

While unloading the trunk, I realized that I had left my bag by the reception desk way back in Kapuskasing.

If you leave a bag in Chicago and fly to, say, Detroit, it’s probably not a big problem to get it to you.  But Kapuskasing is another story.

Lynn did her best to reconnect me with my bag, but I took two days.  She had to make special arrangements, and I had to wait for it in Thunder Bay.  Since we had done all of the tourist attractions of interest there, both of them, on the way to Kapuskasing, there was nothing to do but wait.  Fortunately, our Comfort Inn was near a Chapters bookstore and a Walmart.  We got to know both really well before that Greyhound bus pulled in and my veteran Travelpro and I were joyfully reunited.

I still use it, but it’s chained to my left leg, just in case.


Nome, Alaska

During a travel talk recently, I listed my five favorite cities and received nods of understanding on the first four and blank stares on the fifth–Nome, Alaska. So, here’s why.

Nome’s grab-your-lapels distinctive because it’s 102 miles from the Arctic Circle and 161 miles from Russia.  Nome, home to 4,500 hardy souls and end-of-roaders, is, among many other things, a bird watchers’ Garden of Eden.   From Memorial Day to July 1, that is.  That’s when rare species that winter in Asia can be seen in abundance.  These are birds that are spotted nowhere else in North America.  Erasable boards in Nome for this brief time record sightings of such rarities as the Rufous-necked Stint and the Bristle-thighed Curlew.

We rented a tough-as-tundra Bronco from Stampede Car Rental and set out to explore 300 glorious miles of mostly gravel but well maintained road.  One took us to Council, a summer retreat for Alaskans with a river between the end of the road and the town.  Area people like Council because it’s a place for them to actually see trees.  There are few of those in Nome, mostly beyond scraggly Siberian larches and struggling cottonwoods.  The road to Council wound through mountains like no others I have seen.  The only problem was, when we stopped to take in the eerie landscape, mosquitos the size of hummingbirds simultaneously decided it was time for lunch.

The second road took us to Teller, a native village about 70 miles north of Nome and the place where Roald Amundsen concluded the first over-the-pole flight in 1926.  We didn’t overtake or even see a single vehicle either going to Teller or coming back to Nome.

The third road had lake and mountain vistas and terminated in Kougarok near Pilgrim Hot Springs, a once popular place that’s on the National Register of Historic Places but unfortunately has been closed to the public since 2009.

We were in Nome in early July and the most surreal experience I had (among many) was waking up from a strange dream at 3:30 am because my subconscious heard voices.  Due to curtains, it was completely dark in the room, but I looked out the window to find it was like twilight, that time just after the sun disappears over the horizon, and a clutch of natives with children was strolling down the street.  I wondered if they stayed awake all summer and hibernated, like the grizzlies up in the Kigluaik Mountains, in the winter.

Maybe I’ll go the Iditarod next March and find out.  They’ll use the Northern Route in 2012 for this famous race that ends in Nome and commemorates the arrive of lifesaving serum in 1925’s diphtheria epidemic.

The locals say, “There’s no place like Nome.”   They say it with irony, but I say it with awe.


Moloka’i, Hawaii’s Overlooked Island

Shaped like a comfortable, beat up loafer, Molokai is the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands and the least developed.  The hula was invented here.  More than half of the residents claim native blood.

Visitors will definitely need a car to explore its 38 mile length and ten-mile width, but they can see every attraction on half a tank of gas.

The western half of Molokai looks like central Wyoming but kind of scuffed from the many enterprises that have been tried but failed here–cattle, honey, pineapples.

Three volcanos, all now extinct, shaped Molokai.   Along the Island’s north shore are the tallest sea cliffs in the world caused by upthrust and volcanic activity.   One volcano spilled lava into the ocean and made the loafer’s tongue stick out.  The result is a round, isolated peninsula.  The Kingdom of Hawaii created a leper colony here in 1865.  People diagnosed with what is now called Hansen’s Disease were taken to Molokai by boat and literally dropped overboard.  Father Damien, born Joseph De Veuster, worked here until he died of the now treatable disease after 16 years of making life better for the inhabitants.

The colony can be visited today.   There are only 3 ways to access it–fly in, hike down a rough trail, or ride a mule down that same trail with 26 switchbacks and many breathtaking views.  Ruth and I did the last one and it was truly one of those 0nce-in-a-lifetime great experiences.

Kaunakakai, the only real town, resembles the set of a 1920s silent, western movie.  Like everything on Molokai, it’s humble and understated.  While here, drive out onto Molokai’s tiny wharf, which just happens to be the longest in Hawaii, and you’ll find only a few modest boats at its end.

King Kamehameha V, the last of his royal lineage, loved Molokai and vacationed here where he had a showy ten-acre coconut palm grove planted. The trees survive and you will too if you don’t stand under them.

The drive to Molokai’s east end passes native fish ponds, a 28 mile barrier reef, the only one in Hawaii, and a few tiny villages with very old missionary churches.  But suddenly the road narrows to one lane and shoots upward with many switchbacks ending with a lovely overlook.

If you ‘d like to learn more about Molokai, please let me know and I’ll write more about this overlooked place where you can have an authentic Hawaiian experience, eat Macadamia nuts just pulled from the tree, and ride a mule.


Nova Scotia to New York Nightmare

According to new rules affecting airlines, when they lose your bags, as in gone forever, the airline must refund the bag fee.  Sounds good.  One news article reporting this trumpeted, “passengers are big beneficiaries.”    But….

Last July Ruth and I flew Delta from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to New York City. We had to go to Detroit first, but that’s another story.  Anyway, what should have been a two-hour trip took most of the day.  Getting to Detroit was uneventful, but our flight to LaGuardia was cancelled, and the next one was delayed.  We got to New York a little after 7 pm.  After a long wait at the carousel, our luggage didn’t shown up.  Giant piles of luggage made the arrival area look like a forlorn warehouse.  Having no choice, we joined the long line of passengers snaking out the door of the lost luggage office.  After many baby steps, we were close enough to the front of the line to hear endless programmed apologies from airline employees.  We were told that our bags would arrive in one hour on the next flight.  Relax.  Go to your hotel and they’ll be delivered.  It sounded like a promise.

Due to a long, unmoving line for taxis, we waited for a shuttle for half an hour. It arrived.  Fifteen minutes later the shuttle had moved from one exit door to the next, maybe 20 feet.   Our bags supposedly would  be on the carousel just inside in perhaps 20 or 30 minutes.  We recalled what had happened in Lisbon earlier in the year (see blog), bolted the shuttle, and walked back to the Delta carousel to wait.  Of course our bags weren’t on the next flight.  Back in line, more promises, more sorries.   We took a taxi to our hotel.  Dinner at 10:30.

The next day our luggage still hadn’t arrived.  Think about a steamy New York July afternoon dressed in the clothes you had worn all the previous day.  We managed.

By that evening, I figured that our luggage was never going to show up.   We were soon on our way to The Adirondacks for a week, so we’d have to shop, but a new suitcase and fresh clothes, while a hassle, would be OK I reasoned irrationally.

Our suitcases appeared at 7:30 the next morning.

I have a better idea.  How about if the airlines are required to refund their hateful baggage fee if your suitcases don’t show up within an hour of your arrival at any destination.  When it comes to lost luggage, which is becoming far more common, it’s not just the inconvenience, it’s the aggravation, sometimes days of it.  No wonder people are developing this new attitude, “I’ll only fly when I absolutely have to.”  I hear this more and more often.


Showtime in Missouri

Which US travel destination annually attracts 8 million people to 52 theaters with seating for 60,000?

New York?  No way.  Broadway, the fabled live theater magnet of America, only has 40 venues, if you don’t count off-Broadway.

It’s Branson.

When I lived in Missouri, I didn’t make it to Branson.  But as soon as I lived more than 2,000 miles away from it, we were invited to a cousins’ reunion there. Of course, we went and had a great time.

Branson was nothing like I expected.  Far more overwhelming.  Way more fun. More than 400 restaurants.   Hotels and motels–more than 200.  Thirteen golf courses, 8 championship.  Three beautiful lakes with every type of water sport imaginable.  Every type of entertainment imaginable too–country, pop, swing, nostalgia Broadway, rock & roll, Beatles, gospel, comedy, magic, biblical, and on and on.  The object of each show apparently is to wow the audience.  The relatively new Landing, a $420,000,000 development, has 100 shops, a pair of Hiltons with convention facilities, and lakeside fountains that reminded me of a smaller-scale Bellagio.  Silver Dollar City.  Shepherd of the Hills.  Shopping centers.  And all of this mostly since 1967 when the Presley family, no relation to Elvis, built Branson’s first theater.

Hilly and spread out, the town is easy to get around in with color-coded maps available in lots of places.  Easy, that is, until you hit the Strip, or old Highway 76, an understandably congested attraction-access road.

People on the West Coast where I now live don’t know much about Branson and get kind of glassy-eyed when I talk about it.  The concept of anything worth doing in the middle of America, unless they have family there, escapes them.  But that attitude might change with better access.  Branson Airport, the only privately owned commercial service airport in the US, opened in 2009 just 10 miles south of The Strip.  Three airlines currently serve it–Branson Air Express, Frontier, and AirTran.  Go check it out.