Friday, September 14, 2012

Snapshot: Scandinavia, Part I; Helsinki to St. Petersburg

Since Vikings pillaged Northern Europe in the eighth century, scribes have gushed about the majesty of the region south of the Arctic Circle. Having finally experienced it for myself this summer, I now understand why Scandinavia's wild landscapes, dramatic fjords, Medieval towns and urban style have inspired awe through the ages.

Throw in fresh fish from the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, English-speaking locals and myriad transportation options, and this epic expanse of glaciers, forests, lakes and volcanoes became a seductive siren call for me.
View from the Flam Railway: sheer walls of stone drip into fjord-side villages

After hosting 50+ couchsurfers from around the globe over nine months, I yearned to became a traveler again, to exit my comfort zone, invite uncertainty in and head for cities with unfamiliar currencies, cultures and cuisines. Sure, I'd enjoyed Swedish smorgasbord before―even dined at legendary Gustav Anders when it was a rare culinary jewel in South Coast Plaza Village. But I'd never sampled reindeer meat (yup, they eat Rudolph in Scandinavia), rare gravlax, Swedish-style herring and cinnamon buns served warm from the oven by a native Swede.
When a craving for reindeer meatballs hits, head for Helsinki Harbor.

I'd never handled rubles, much less experienced officious Russian bureaucracy first-hand or heard of neighboring Tallinn―a Medieval gem that's both a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most rockin' little village in Eastern Europe. I never dreamed Norwegian forests and fjords could be more magnificent than picture postcards depict until I witnessed them on a Norway in a Nutshell adventure.

First stop: Helsinki
Couchsurfer Johannes invited me to stay with him in his central Helsinki apartment. I showed him how to set sugar soaked in Absinthe on fire and eat it over ice cream. He showed me how to feel comfortable in a clothing-optional Finnish sauna ;-).

In harborside Helsinki, I found a design-conscious town studded with Art Nouveau buildings, glass shopping malls and green spaces filled with skateboarders. Although not actually geographically part of Scandinavia, it's clear this is a Nordic country; the waterside harbor is filled with merchants selling fur wraps, wool mittens and souvenirs that remind you this can be a COLD country.
Helsinki's Kauppatori Market, offering everything from Finnish fare and trinkets to seasonal produce
Temppeliauko Church, hewn from solid stone
After dining on reindeer meatballs and seasonal berries in waterside Kauppatori, I walked along upscale Etel√§esplanadi to legendary Finnish design shops, e.g. Marimekko; Tuomiokirkko, the neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral that rules Senate Square; and Temppeliauko Kirkko, Helsinki's copper-clad church built into solid stone that resonates with acoustic splendor.

Russian Romp 
St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage

St. Petersburg's Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
An overnight ferry, aka Finnish-Russian Party Boat, took me to St. Petersburg, land of the tsars, where gilded palaces filled with treasures (and tourists) sit beside groovy bars and American fast-food joints.

Much of what's left of the former empire is split between the Russian Museum in Mikhailovsky Palace and Hermitage, headquartered in the Winter Palace, a lime sherbet-colored Baroque structure that sits regally on Palace Square, guarded by the stately column commemorating Alexander I's 1812 victory over Napoleon.

Lacking ample time on my Visa-free visit to explore collections inside Russia's famed 18th- + 19th-century landmarks, I used what I had to stroll down famed Nevsky Prospekt, across the Moyka River, past the enormous Catherine the Great statue and Aleksandrinksy Theatre, where Chekhov's The Seagull premiered in 1896.
Western tastes have come to town.

I visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed dazzler where Aleander II was assassinated in 1881. Then it was back to the boat for another bad karaoke party and overnight trip back to Helsinki. From the harbor, I caught another ferry heading directly to tiny Tallinn, where folks party all weekend. Stay tuned!
Nevsky Prospekt, Russia's most famous street
See the next chapters in my Scandinavian sojourn at Snapshot Scandinavia, Part II: Tallinn to Stockholm
and Not-to-Believe Norway.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rainbow Nation Ramble: South Africa by Bike

Once a declining dock area, Cape Town's
Victory and Alfred Waterfront
is now a tourist mecca.
You can count on Doug Lofland and Bike Beyond Boundaries to deliver culturally enriching, thoughtfully-planned cycling tours that put you smack dab in the middle of a foreign culture. Our May 2011 adventure encompassed two new itineraries in "The Rainbow Nation," a land with 11 official languages that's been called "the whole world in one country."

Iconic Table Mountain shelters
Cape Town's Company's Garden.

On both, we experienced dramatic coastlines, vibrant cities, cultural diversity, abundant wildlife and sensational braais (BBQs) starring grilled delicacies cooked over open flames.

Cape Town Caper
Stunning Chapman's Peak Drive
links Hout Bay with Noordoek.

Jackass (African) Penguins
at Boulders Beach
Our two-wheeled escapade took us up Chapman's Peak Drive, a coastal stretch rivaling Big Sur for scenery and hair-pin curves. Watching for foraging baboons, we rode to a Jackass (African) Penguin colony at Boulders Beach, past multi-million-rand mansions of Leo de Caprio, David Beckham, George Clooney and other Hollywood A-listers (plus a handful of "buppies," South Africa's newly moneyed black professionals) draped on Table Mountain hillsides. In nearby Imizamo Yethu Township, children's smiles begged the question: Is having less really having more?

Robben Island Prison, where
Nelson Mandela spent 18 year
The depth of commitment to a free nation was evident at Robben Island, where a former inmate led us to cells where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) activists were incarcerated. We imbibed at Constantia Valley Winelands, oldest wine-making region in the Southern Hemisphere, and saw the diversity of South African flora at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and world's first botanic garden devoted to a country's indigenous flora.

Constantia Valley Winelands is the
Southern Hemisphere's oldest wine-making 
region, with vines planted in 1685.
Highlights: The serene Makuti Lodge in Hout Bay, Jikeleza Dance Project (where township kids learn self-expression, confidence and team spirit), fine reds at Groote Constantia

Best bargain: Long Street Backpackers in Cape Town, a great place to meet fellow travelers

Watch out for: Street beggers, pickpockets, credit card scammers

Riding with the Rhinos

Thatched rondawals at the Savannah
Wildlife Preserve feature electricity
and full baths.
A one-hour flight from the Mother City took us to Jo'burg, where Bobby Hartslief and his crew met us at Tambo Internat'l Airport for transport to the Savannah Wildlife Preserve in Parys, a 90-minute drive.

Clutching his hand, half-blind in the moonlit night, I followed Bobby to my thatched rondawal, a space roughly the size of a three-star American hotel room, with a queen-size bed and full bath, to begin my "glamping" (luxury camping) adventure. At dawn, I brewed tea and watched rhinos, zebras and kudus gather for a morning pow-wow at a watering hole ringed by Acacia trees.

Glamping, aka Luxury Camping

Rhinos "think" with olfactory
passages larger than their brain
If you're a nature-lover indifferent about self-sufficiency in the wild, glamping is for you. With no Boy Scout skills, I connected with Earth's creatures without sacrificing creature comforts, e.g., electricity, hot showers, cable TV (viewable in the main lodge) and WiFi.
Waking to the sun rising over the Vaal River and the birdsong of 300+ species, I roamed the preserve with other "pioneers" via bike, foot and jeep, encountering buffaloes, jackals, elands, nyalas, duikers and
Earth's fastest endangered cat, the cheetah.
25 mammal species roam
Savannah Wildlife Preserve

In addition to the guest retreat, Hartslief,
a charismatic South African whose career as a game conservationist follows one as a NASCAR driver, operates Savannah Cheetah Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Africa's indigenous wildlife and increasing the population of cheetahs in the wild. Every Bike Beyond Boundaries tour includes a donation.

Will her future extend
beyond Tumahole?
Tumahole Township

Wearing ANC T-shirts, we rode through Tumahole Township, outpost of blacks still living in mud shacks on unpaved streets. Having never welcomed American white folk to their community, school kids greet us with joy and curiosity. One grabs my sunnies and strikes a pose, Madonna-like; another strokes my fine Caucasion hairso different from his own dark fuzz. With no recollection of Apartheid, they have hope beyond the township.

2012 Cycling Safaris
Space still remains for February/March departures of Bike Beautiful Cape Town/Cape Winelands and South African Biking Safari/Savannah Game Preserve. To reserve your spot, call 719.471.0222 or 800.487.1136. Or email