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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday travel photo

Yet another Friday travel photo, because I have been so lax in updating this travel blog. I'll try to revive it in 2010... in the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Looking back on Monument Valley in Utah

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cross-country in pictures

The following photos are not the best in terms of quality, but they demonstrate our 3,085-mile route across these United States of America from New York to California. I wish we'd had a more relaxed pace by which to explore the sights along the way, but two cats onboard and a new job awaiting did not allow for much lingering.


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Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday travel photo

Offshore Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Leaf peeping in Harriman State Park

With recent trips to the Catskills and the Delaware River, we have definitely taken advantage of some of the natural beauty around New York City. But one destination we had not yet explored together was Harriman State Park. Located only about an hour outside the city, it always seemed too close for a real getaway. But last weekend, wanting to fit in one last backpacking trip before the weather got too cold, and also hoping to see some fall foliage, we decided to kill two birds with one stone by doing a quick overnighter.

It's prime time for leaf-peeping, but it seemed many people were scared off by the tail end of a rain storm that passed through the previous night. We had no trouble finding a parking spot right at the trailhead, so we quickly strapped on our packs and started making tracks. By no means did we have the trail to ourselves, however. Even with the less-than-ideal weather, we crossed paths with many day-hikers. Perhaps they too had studied the weather forecast, which called for clearing skies.

Regardless of the lack of solitude, we were not disappointed. The park may be close to the city, but it was as scenic and woodsy as anywhere in the Catskills. The Pine Meadow and Kakiat Trails followed a creek between two mountains all the way to our destination, Pine Meadow Lake. After biting off more than we could chew on our recent Devil's Path backpack (which we learned, after the fact, is one of the toughest hikes in the Northeast), we were more than happy to amble along the gentle inclines of these trails. Much sooner than expected, we reached the lake.

Perhaps best of all was our primo campsite on the shore of Pine Meadow Lake. Harriman State Park rules prohibit camping anywhere other than in designated shelters (or within 300 feet of said shelters if they're occupied), but as we circumnavigated the lake, we passed site after gorgeous site where blackened fire rings and other evidence made it obvious that illicit camping was common (though, if you go, beware: hiking back to the car the next day, we spoke with a hiker who got ticketed on a past trip).

After our shorter-than-expected hike, we had plenty of time for leaf peeping. Though we saw plenty of stunning fall colors, our best guess put peak foliage about a week off (so try to get up there this weekend if possible).

On the south shore of the lake, we came across Conklin Cemetery, a small family plot where most of the markers were so weathered and broken that they simply looked like jagged rocks sticking out of the ground. Ironically, the oldest grave had the newest headstone; Ezekial Conklin served in the Revolutionary War.

As weekend escapes go, this one met all expectations. We enjoyed one last backpacking trip to close out the season; we saw our share of fall foliage; and as the sun went down, we were reminded that fall colors could be found in more than just the leaves.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday travel photo

I visited San Diego last weekend, and Saturday was a gorgeous day for a hike at Torrey Pines State Reserve. The clarity of the water made me wish I'd brought my dive gear.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday travel photo

Sunset in Westpunt, Curacao, Dutch Antilles

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday travel photo

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

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Catskills backpack: Trying out a new hobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See all the photos from the trip

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday travel photo

American Falls at Niagara Falls

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday travel photo

Taking my then-new Xterra off-road for the first time in Fish Creek, Anza-Borrego State Park, east of San Diego. [Full gallery]

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honeymoon in St. Lucia

Last June 20, I married my beautiful wife and travel companion. We are both adventurous, but after months of wedding planning, we wanted nothing more strenuous than relaxing in a hammock and cooling off in a pool. We got exactly that by spending a week in a private villa on the West Indies island of St. Lucia, though we couldn't go the entire stay without a little adventure (as you'll see, we hiked to the top of the Petit Piton). There's nothing so cliche as a "honeymoon in paradise," but we happily lived the stereotype!

View photo album

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fantasizing off the beaten path

When it comes to Caribbean vacations, places like St. Thomas, Jamaica and the Bahamas have little appeal for me (even though my last visit to the region was to Grand Bahama). I prefer to venture off the beaten path, away from the glitz and homogeneity of tourist areas, to get a more genuine feel for a place and its people.

That part of me that sometimes thinks about ditching the rat race and moving to the Caribbean (some days pure fantasy, other days not) also thinks about places not already overrun and well-known to guidebooks. A place that's not yet "discovered" offers more opportunity in terms of low real estate prices and little competition for starting a business (such as a B&B, a dive shop, a bar/restaurant, a tour operation, and so on).

Roatan, an island off the north coast of Honduras, would be paradise for Cassie and me, but it has moved far beyond the "discovery" phase. It's well known to scuba divers and cruise ships, and real estate prices have already shot up in the five years since my first visit.

Two places that have been on the list for consideration (or, mostly, for fantasizing) are Bocas del Toro in Panama, and Nicaragua's Corn Islands. Cassie became acquainted with the former by way of a friend, whose mother lives there. I learned about the latter through a friend who always takes vacations to places I've never heard of. Both locations seem ideal: gorgeous settings lying underneath the radar, yet poised for discovery.

Alas, we may already be too late. My most recent issue of Sport Diver magazine profiled Bocas in depth, and the New York Times just published an online photo gallery of the Corn Islands. The current state of the economy may slow the discovery of these places by the tourist masses, but I fear the secret is already out. Maybe it's time for my fantasizing to venture even further off the beaten path....

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why we travel

The New York Times Travel section features a photo essay called "Why We Travel." The piece profiles 13 travelers who answer the question in their own words, and the 13 answers are as diverse as the people offering them.

While I enjoyed the words and pictures, the photo essay made me ask myself the same question. Why do I travel? I had to think about it for a little while, because my enjoyment of traveling is such a subconscious, intuitive thing. But pressed for an answer, I'd have to say it's the moments. Those special moments when you find something unexpected, experience something unplanned, do something spontaneous. You may spend a fantastic week someplace faraway, but chances are you'll return home with one magical moment (or maybe several) emblazoned on your memory for the rest of your life.

I love the adventure that comes with traveling to new places, but it's really those moments that I'll remember and relive for the rest of my life that keep me traveling.

Why do you travel?

This looks like a run-of-the-mill snack bar in Curacao, but it represents the successful culmination of an epic search, guided only by the vaguest of directions from a local who recommended the place. The delicious lumpia that rewarded our perseverance made this one of those "moments" from that trip.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where I'd rather be: Via Krupp on Capri

Again I find myself looking out at a gray and gloomy Sunday. Spring is limping along here in New York, having a hard time escaping the grip of a dying winter. So naturally my mind wanders again to dreams of warm and sunny climes far away in distance and time. I find myself thousands of miles and eight years from here, on the Italian island of Capri.

I came to Capri in 2001, an unplanned escape from a planned visit to Naples. Little did I know I was traveling to a place that remains to this day my favorite spot on the planet. Dramatic cliffs rise from turquoise waters, and hidden alleyways lead to tranquil piazzas. And limoncello... this is where I first tasted—and fell in love with—the drink that I have ever since called "sunshine in a bottle."

With clear skies and hot weather, the clear blue water called loudly to me. Near the villa where I was staying, a footpath called Via Krupp led down to the sea on the back side of the island by way of a series of switchbacks. I wasted no time, and set out to take a dip in the Mediterranean for the first time in my life.

On a tip from my hotel's proprietor, I hopped over the locked gate and made my way down. (The path only reopened last year, after being "officially" closed for 30 years due to falling rocks and other safety issues.) Besides being a fun way to get down to the water's edge, the path presented fantastic views all the way down that heightened the anticipation of jumping into the azure waters. At the bottom, I clambered over the rocks and staked out a spot for the afternoon, where I took this shot (but not before jumping in):

Isle of Capri, Italy
[Take a virtual walk down Via Krupp with this slide show.]

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Check-ins of the future

I've had some interesting hotel check-in experiences. At the W Times Square in New York City, the lobby was not on the ground floor. Instead, I boarded an elevator just inside the ground-floor entrance, went to the seventh floor, and stepped out into a nightclub lounge. Tucked away off in a corner, I eventually found the front desk and checked in.

At the Omni Hotel in San Diego, I had barely stepped into the lobby when a waiting clerk greeted me and asked my name. Before I even reached the front desk, the clerk handed me a key and guided me to a nearby elevator. No lengthy credit card verification or reservation confirmation; just "welcome" and "here's your key."

While those check-in experiences impressed me, I would sure like to try checking in at an Andaz, Hyatt's answer to Starwood's hip W brand. At Andaz, you don't walk up to a check-in counter; you take a seat in a comfortable chair, and they come to you, checking you in via a handheld computer.

Of course, I look forward to the day when embedded chips in my luggage and wallet enable the following check-in scenario: I get out of the taxi and drop my bags at the entrance, where they'll be scanned and automatically routed to my room. As I walk through the entrance, a scanner reads the chip in my wallet and checks me in. I stroll to the elevator, where a scanner detects my chip, displays my room number on a screen, and takes me to my floor. When I reach my room, I wave my wallet against a card reader to open the door. Now that's a fancy check-in.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Philly Beer Week: Just a taste

Philly Beer Week ended yesterday. Called the largest beer event in the country, the 10-day festival featured hundreds of individual events at dozens of venues around Philadelphia: tastings of hard-to-find or special brews, presentations by brewers, multi-course dinners with beer pairings, and much more. In recent years, I've developed a connoisseur-like taste for fine craft beers and ales, so I used the event as an excuse to take a weekend trip from NYC to Philly.

Had I the extra vacation time, I would have enjoyed spending the whole week in Philadelphia, as some of the best events took place on weekdays. I managed to sample quite a bit during the short visit, but I left feeling as if I'd taken but a couple of sips of what the entire event had to offer.

Some highlights of the visit:

Victory Beer Brunch:We enjoyed a hearty meal at Marathon Cafe themed around the malty offerings of Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing Company. Starting with a "Bloody Victory" (a Bloody Mary made with Victory Prima Pils instead of vodka), I then had Golden Waffles (made with Victory Golden Monkey) and Prima Potatoes (fried up with Victory Prima Pils and crusted with gruyere cheese—absolutely delicious!).

Oskar Blues. My current favorite beer—introduced to me by Cassie—is Dale's Pale Ale, made by Oskar Blues out of Lyons, Colorado. At one of the weekend's events, we not only got to try two different Oskar Blues brews aged in whiskey barrels (Ten Fidy, an Imperial Stout, and Old Chub, a Scottish strong ale), we also had the opportunity to hang out and chat with Marty Jones, cofounder of the brewery.

Standard Tap. Though there wasn't an event happening when we visited Standard Tap, a bar in the funky Northern Liberties neighborhood, we stopped in for a beer—and instantly fell in love with the place. Situated in a restored historic building, the watering hole features several distinct bar areas and many cozy alcoves. It was reminiscent of a comfy British pub, and made us lament the absence of such a place in our own neighborhood.

I've spent much of this past week sampling more tasty craft beers in the comfort of my own home, trying to recapture that brief flash of beer magic we experienced in Philly. Fortunately, the popularity of craft beers is growing, so it's becoming more and more easy to find that magic no further than your nearest beer store.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Long weekend in London

With all the economic uncertainty and a wedding to plan for later this year, we had not made any big travel plans. But when Cassie's brother Mike and sister-in-law Michele announced that they were moving back to the United States in March, we took advantage of an extra day off on President's Day—as well as lower-than-typical air fares—to visit London one last time before they move.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quoted again by Fodors

Fodors likes me. Or at least likes what I have to say. I've been quoted again, this time in the 2009 edition of their Washington, D.C. guidebook. On the intro page to the "Side Trips" chapter, you'll find my recommendation to rent a bike and ride the Mt. Vernon Trail to the home of George Washington (again quoted as "RaymondLuxuryYacht," my handle in the Fodors travel forums).

Now that I think about it, I can't believe I've never written in this blog about the Mt. Vernon Trail, or even posted a Friday Travel Photo from that gorgeous bike trail. It was my favorite thing to do when I lived there, and I'd call it a must-do if you visit our nation's capital. Seeing the National Mall, the Potomac and Mt. Vernon are all common sights to see for most visitors, so why not rent a bike and see them all from the saddle? You can ride along the Mall, stopping to see some of the monuments; cross over Memorial Bridge (which crosses the Potomac between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery); and cruise alongside the river for about 10 miles to Washington's historic plantation home. Along the way, you'll travel through lush green tunnels of trees on a smooth and well-marked bike trail.

In fact, why not pick up a Fodors guidebook now and plan your trip to D.C.? While you're there, maybe you can talk some sense into our leaders, so they'll get our economy back on track.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Quoted in Fodors Paris 2009

I just learned that I was quoted in one of the "Word of Mouth" sidebars in the 2009 edition of the Fodor's Paris travel guide. My quote concerned the Catacombs, a place of darkness that is ironically one of my favorite places in the City of Light. The quote, attributed by Fodors to "RaymondLuxuryYacht" (my handle, with apologies to Monty Python), doesn't offer much info, so I'm not sure what prompted them to select it. By all means, go out and buy a copy of the guide, especially if you have plans to visit Paris, but I also invite you to read my more in-depth impressions (pardon the pun) of the Paris Catacombs.

On an unrelated note, I've put this time away from blogging to good use, and just succeeded in meeting the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I still have to slog through more pages to finish the first draft, but I achieved the necessary word count to be called a "winner" of the "contest."

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hurricane Omar brushes Dutch Antilles

Last week, a late-season hurricane named Omar swept through the Caribbean. The election-frenzied American media barely gave it a passing mention, and I didn't pay any attention myself.

So imagine my surprise to learn tonight that the storm brushed Curacao, the island in the Dutch Antilles where I proposed to Cassie last month. I quickly emailed Sunshine, a friend we made down there, who described destructive waves, flooded homes and widespread damages (though fortunately no loss of life).

Back in August, when flooding wreaked havoc on Havasu Falls in Arizona, I posted a before & after set of photos. Sunshine sent me links to pictures of Omar's fury, and I found one that showed waves pounding Playa Lagun. Check out the before & after pics below. I shot the first one during our visit; the second was taken last week. It's no tsunami, but keep in mind that Curacao is supposedly outside the hurricane belt, and the seas are flat 360 days a year.

I'm glad the people are okay. I hope the coral fared as well.


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Monday, October 20, 2008

Road Trip: Buffalo, New York

This blog focuses on travel, not sports, so it offers no clue (with one exception) that I'm a die-hard San Diego Chargers football fan. I'm no crazy sports freak—football is the only sport I follow—but I've been a Chargers fan my whole life.

Last weekend, I traveled with several other Chargers fans from New York City to Buffalo to see the Chargers face down the Buffalo Bills. If you judged the trip solely based on the outcome of the game, then it was a failure—the Chargers lost.

Buffalo Road Trip
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But to the contrary, we had a fantastic time despite the game's outcome. With fall colors peaking along our route, it was the best weekend of the year to make the drive. We arrived in Buffalo with enough time to visit Niagara Falls. And the internet enabled us to coordinate with a legion of other Chargers fans—even John McCain made an appearance—so we spent yesterday morning tailgating with 50 other fellow fans.

If I had a larger travel budget, I'd be on a plane for London, where the Chargers play their next game.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday travel photo

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday travel photo

St. Willibrordus Church and cemetery in Curacao

Photo by Cassie Craig

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Underwater pumpkin carving

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

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

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


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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No pain

Do I really need to describe this photo and what it represents? Cocktail hour at sunset on Curacao? Painkillers, the fruity cocktail equivalent of ambrosia? Our own private deck overlooking the Caribbean Sea, less than 10 degrees north of the Equator? Kicking up our feet after a day of swimming with eagle rays, sea horses, sea turtles, barracudas (not the Alaskan kind) and many other sea creatures? Shall I continue? I think not....


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Monday, September 29, 2008

Eine kleine nachtmusik in Curacao

Moonlight and a little music can be magical on any night, but when it's your first evening on a tropical island, and the music emanates from a cute church right across the street from where you're staying, you feel like you've entered a fairy tale.

I couldn't put my camera away on that first day, even when the sun had long since set. When I peeked out the front door to investigate all the activity outside, I found this lovely little scene of Saturday evening church service.


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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fishy Curacao

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

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


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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Diamonds and Tree Houses

The following story is presented by reader request.

Back in July, when we were still planning our recent week-long vacation in Curacao, I blogged about our decision-making about where to stay. My posting included pictures of the Tree House at Lodge Kura Hulanda that we were considering. Ultimately, we decided to stay at low-budget All West Apartments for most of the week, and then spend our last night in the Tree House.

The Tree House turned out to be exactly what we'd hoped for and expected, a perfect blend of romance and adventure. While not strictly a "tree house" in the sense of being built in a tree, the Tree House did sit amongst trees: a wooden platform on stilts holding a safari tent, with a wooden roof over the structure. Inside the tent, luxury furnishings belied the rustic accommodations. The platform outside the tent (reached by a ladder) offered a table and chairs where we could sit and watch the parrots, hummingbirds and iguanas all around us.

A brief but heavy rainstorm (the only one all week) delayed our check-in at Kura Hulanda, so we hurried off to the pool as soon as we got settled in the Tree House. I conveniently "forgot" to bring my book, which gave me an excuse to run back to the Tree House while Cassie lounged poolside. I quickly inflated about 30 white balloons, nearly passing out several times despite good breath control from scuba diving. I also stopped by the bar and arranged to have champagne delivered to the Tree House.

Returning back to the pool area, I relaxed with Cassie like everything was business as usual, enjoying a fruity cocktail and cooling off in the pool. As the sun headed west into late afternoon, we grabbed our snorkeling gear for one last exploration of Curacao's reefs. We weren't disappointed, encountering a school of about 30 squid, the most we've ever seen at one time.

Back on land, we toweled off and climbed back up into the trees. The balloons and champagne surprised Cassie, but not nearly as much as the question I proceeded to ask her. She answered "Yes," so the cork came out of the champagne bottle. As the sun set on our final day in Curacao, parrots serenaded us and the sun's last rays sparkled on Cassie's new jewelry. We ended the trip with a beginning!