Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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It all started with a tweet. I shared a fellow travel blogger’s story about stargazing in Florida on Twitter and Amanda at St. Mawes Retreats replied:

Tweet from St.. Mawes Retreats

I didn’t know anything about St. Mawes Retreats, but Cornwall was a part of the world I had been itching to visit. A year earlier I’d spent time in Dorset, where I went hunting for Ammonite fossils on the Jurrasic coast in Lyme Regis and hiked the South West Coast Path between Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. It was a place of unexpectedly stunning beauty, with soaring white chalk cliffs swathed in thick green grass, and turquoise coves framed by heaved-up, twisted rock formations that provide evidence of the tortured geologic history of the area. Each time I mentioned the gorgeous Devon scenery to a Brit, I was told, ‘If you think Devon was pretty, you must visit Cornwall.’ I replied on Twitter and we began chatting back and forth.

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I’ve never been a “bucket list” kind of traveler. At the very least, the idea of checking places off some tally before I die seems crude; at worst it seems an irreverent measure of one’s worldliness. And yet, I must confess to having one item on what I prefer to call my “travel wish list.” I am dying to see the Northern Lights.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried. For an entire year, at the tender age of 19, I scanned the skies nightly from my unheated log cabin, deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. One winter night, during the decade I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, auroral activity was predicted to be strong enough that the Northern Lights would be visible that far south. I sat up all night on the rear deck of my house, which was surrounded by 12 acres of maritime forest,  shivering violently inside a thick down comforter. No lights appeared that night either.

Last winter, Norway Tourism invited me to visit Norway, offering an itinerary that almost surely guaranteed seeing the coveted Aurora Borealis. Alas, I could not accept because I had spent the previous 90 days in France and Spain, and regulations demanded that I leave Europe, as Americans can only be in any of the 27 countries that comprise the ‘Schengen zone’ – a border-free area that includes 23 European Union member states – for 90 out of every 180 days.

Our group in front of Hurtigruten's MS Richard With during a stop in Hammerfest

Our group in front of Hurtigruten’s MS Richard With during a stop in Hammerfest

I had just about given up when I received an invitation from Hurtigruten to sail around the northern tip of Norway aboard one of their working ships. I weighed the offer carefully. I am not a good sailor; rough seas always defeat me, and sailing above the Arctic Circle sounded like an adventure for someone with better sea legs. On the other hand, I had managed heavy seas during an eight-day sail around the Galapagos Islands. How much worse could the Arctic Ocean be? In the end, my yearning to see the Northern Lights won out, especially since we would be sailing in remote seas where there would be no light pollution. Read More

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I heard them long before I saw them. The Huskies were barking and whining excitedly at the approach of our van, knowing that a van meant people, and people meant they would soon be doing what they love most – pulling a dogsled. Our guide had warned that the dogs would raise a ruckus, but assured us that most were friendly and loved attention. “If you hold out your hand and a dog backs away, just leave that one alone.”

I clambered out of the van, donned a black burglar face mask as protection against the cold, and headed into the fray. Squat wooden dog houses sprouted from the snow in neat rows, each duplex housing two Huskies. Between the rows, two-passenger sleds were loading up and heading out on the heels of those arriving. The din grew louder each time a sled appeared, with dogs yipping and straining at their chains, hoping it would be their turn.

Dogs chomp at the bit to be hooked to a sled

Dogs chomp at the bit to be hooked to a sled

It was hard to tear myself away from a particular blue-eyed, white-ruffed Husky who nuzzled me as I scratched his neck, but my sled awaited. The driver, known as a musher, helped me into the slightly elevated rear seat. Once I was settled, my tour-mate, Marianne, straddled the sled and lowered herself to the bottom, snugging up against me. At a word from the musher we were off! We flew out of the yard and through a clump of trees, building up to a remarkable speed. Our sled raced down a small hill, hitting hard enough at the bottom that I bounced up in the air, hitting Marianne in the head with my camera as I came back down. Read More

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I had been looking forward to my tour to the North Cape. Normally not a fan of cold weather, I was willing to endure Norway’s extreme conditions, if only to be able to say that I had stood on the northernmost tip of Europe. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A couple of hours prior to departure the public address system on the MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combine passenger voyages with delivery of  mail and supplies to the remote northern regions of the country, delivered the bad news. “We regret to inform you that our North Cape tour has been cancelled due to inclement weather conditions.”

Later that week, when Captain Tommy Eliassen invited our small group of travel writers to visit the bridge, I learned that he shared our disappointment. We took turns sitting in his captain’s chair and marveling over the tiny joystick that maneuvered the big ship into snug ports of call while firing off a barrage of questions. Asked if he ever became concerned about sailing through Arctic storms like the one we had experienced on our second night at sea, he shook his head without hesitation.

“This ship is rated to sail through a force ten hurricane. Of course, we wouldn’t do that; there is no reason to make our passengers so uncomfortable. My biggest stress is when we have to cancel activities like your trip to the Cape, but it was out of our hands.”

The MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten's fleet of ships that combines delivery of supplies to remote Norwegian towns with passenger voyages, docks at Honningsvag in the far north of Norway

The MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combines delivery of supplies to remote towns with passenger voyages, docks at Honningsvag in the far north of Norway

Eliassen explained that the snow plow drivers who keep the roads clear in this remote area had made the final decision. Over the previous two days, roaring 50 mile per hour winds had created whiteout conditions and swept high drifts across the road. These famous drivers are known for their fearlessness and tenacity during storms; their orders to close roads are inviolable. (To watch a documentary about the lives of these snow plow operators, click here. Although it is in Norwegian, the images are self-explanatory and show how tour buses to the North Cape often have to follow closely behind one of these giant plows). Read More

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A few weeks ago, in celebration of my seven year anniversary of blogging, I joined with a couple dozen other travel bloggers to raise funds for Save Elephant Foundation. The organization provides for the care of 38 elephants at Elephant Nature Park, who have been so badly injured or abused that they cannot survive in the wild, however its facilities are maxed out and they are desperately in need of funding in order to care for more animals. Flight Network stepped up and offered to donate a $2,000 flight voucher for airfare to Thailand and soon we were running a raffle that provided readers with one chance to win the trip for each $2 donated.

Even the elephants are celebrating the great news that we raised $7,500 to benefit Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park!

Even the elephants are celebrating the great news that we raised $7,500 to benefit Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park!

Last week, as the end of the contest approached, we were all very excited that we had exceeded our goal, raising $5,450 for this worthwhile effort. I got some even more exciting news; Read More

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Seven years ago today I strapped on a backpack and boarded a plane for a six-month round-the-world trip. I was exhausted from months of planning, but bursting with excitement that I was finally headed out to see the world. I was also terrified. Though I had traveled considerably in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, my overseas experience was limited to a few Caribbean jaunts, one trip to Thailand, and another to Spain. This time I would visit 15 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Oceana. At age 54, all alone, I set out with a laptop and a camera, determined to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer.

This was not a new dream for me. My passion for photography began at age 11, when my uncle gave me an old Leica camera. Not long afterward, someone gifted my father with a subscription to National Geographic. He never threw a single issue away; they mushroomed into teetering stacks in our front hall, where I sat cross-legged on the floor after school, devouring every word and imagining myself in the exotic places so vividly displayed in photos.

Barbara Weibel 2007

Me, at Los Angeles International Airport on March 13, 2007, awaiting my flight to Saigon for the beginning of my round-the-world trip. Though I’d recovered from my Lyme disease, I looked absolutely horrible. Today, even though I’ve let my hair go to it’s natural silver color, I look ten years younger than I did back then, which is what happiness can do for a person.

But life had other plans for me. As a 17-year old college dropout, I was desperate to leave my parents’ home. Faced with the necessity of earning a living, I accepted the first job offered to me, selling advertising at the Chicago Sun-Times. It paid well and started me on a long climb up the corporate ladder that would eventually lead to management positions in sales, marketing, real estate, and public relations. Though I enjoyed great success in my career, I was miserably unhappy and after more than three decades of corporate politics and stress, my health began to deteriorate. My bones ached from the inside out and my knees and hips screamed in protest whenever I climbed steps. Most frightening, I developed dyslexia and short term memory loss. Doctors were unable to find any specific cause, yet I grew weaker and more exhausted with every passing month. Read More