Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yellowstone's Other Attractions

The late-summer opening of a new visitors' center at the Old Faithful geyser has drawn new attention to Yellowstone National Park, the first national park and one that owes its existence partly to the wonder that is Old Faithful.
There are, however, many other natural wonders at Yellowstone, most of them related to the geothermal activity that bubbles barely beneath the park's surface.
One of these is Morning Glory Pool, above, a hot spring in the park's Upper Geyser Basin. Its color comes from bacteria in the water. It sometimes erupts as a geyser, but that's very rare.
There's more hot -- or at least warm -- water at the Firehole River Swimming Area, an old-fashioned swimming hole heated by hot springs and geysers. There's a deep warm pool surrounded by tall cliffs. There is a current, but it's not strong enough to put average swimmers at risk, and there are spots with no current at all.
Mammoth Hot Springs are another natural wonder: a tall series of natural terraces covered with calcium deposits.
These don't scratch the surface of the things to see and experience at Yellowstone.
If you're early enough or lucky enough, you can stay in one of the park's lodges. If you're forced to stay outside the park, you'll find a lot of motels in West Yellowstone, Mont.
My family and I have stayed at Chico Hot Springs resort, north of Yellowstone. It has an excellent restaurant and a range of spa services.
Before you visit Yellowstone itself, visit it online by clicking here.
The Other Park in the Neighborhood
Don't forget that another wonderful national park is just to the south, Grand Teton National Park. Jackson, Wyoming, is a good base for exploring Grand Teton. For lodging suggestions there, click here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ecuador: Quito, Capital of the Andes

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is one of the most exotic cities in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish and Catholic influence here is countered by robust numbers of people descended from the ancient Incas and other native groups. The country's many unique traditions turn any visit into a cultural exploration. If you're there in December, look for the años viejos (stuffed dummies that stand upright). They're often accompanied by a live person, posing as the dummy's wife, who solicits money. The dummies are burned on the last day of the year for luck, a custom practiced throughout the country. That turns the wife into a "widow," one of whom is seen in the Ecuador item in the column on the right side of this blog.

Quito is 9,350 feet above sea level and squeezes about 1.4 million people into the long and narrow valley that is the city. Although it is less than 20 miles south of the Equator, the altitude means its climate is like an eternal spring: cool evenings, warm during the day but usually not hot.
Ecuador was part of the Inca empire for only a short period before the Spanish came. The Centro Histórico is the city's colonial center; it was built over the ashes of what was the capital of the northern half of the Inca empire until the Incas burned it to the ground rather than surrender to the conquistadors. The colonial district is home to the Church of San Francisco, shown here.

You will want to explore the colonial district's churches and markets, but the better restaurants, shopping and hotels are in the tourist-friendly Mariscal district. This is where you're most likely to encounter shop clerks who speak some English. My family and I stayed at Mansion del Angel (, a boutique hotel in La Mariscal with great shopping and good restaurants nearby.

The budget-minded traveler can find discounts at hostels, tour agencies and more by joining South American Explorers, which maintains a clubhouse in Quito. It offers a range of services and advice for travelers in Ecuador and elsewhere in South America. Membership is $60 U.S. a year. Visit its web site by clicking on

If Quito seems too daunting to tackle on your own, you might want to hire a guide. You can be put in touch with a local guide at, which gives you photos, bios and contact info to let you choose from a number of potential guides. Guides can and will take you to places not in Fodor's, will explain local customs and quirks, and will help you get the most from the time you spend there. One caveat: don't let a guide direct you to expensive restaurants unless there's one you particularly want to try. Guides often choose restaurants based on fees they receive from the restaurants.

For a quick look at a lot of basic information on Quito, click on

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Many Reasons to Visit Prague

Prague, which 15 or 20 years ago was notorious as a low-cost destination for rowdy British football clubs on beer-drinking safaris, has come into its own as a center for music, art and architecture.

It's also becoming a popular destination for winter travelers. Click on the title of this posting for information about its famous Christmas markets.

I know of no other city in the world that has as many public performances of classical music as Prague. The larger venues are the Rudolfinum, Municipal House's Smetana Hall and the Congress Centre Prague. Keep an eye out for flyers and postings in the Old Town that promote solo and small-group performances, many of them in beautiful old churches. For something truly special, treat yourself to opera at the jewel-box Estates Theatre (, where Mozart himself conducted the 1787 premiere of "Don Giovanni."

One must-see for art lovers is the Museum Kampa (, which has the glass "bridge to nowhere" shown above. It's the life's work of one woman who, in exile after World War II, managed to assemble a staggering collection of 20th century Czech art. She brought it all with her when she returned to Prague after the fall of communism. The museum is conveniently located at the western end of the Karluv Most (the Charles Bridge), which is where the hurdy gurdy man seen below is performing. Any guidebook will direct you to the other major museums, all of which are worth seeing. The art gallery scene seems to be in perpetual flux, with interesting avant-garde places opening, moving and closing at a frenetic pace. Of course, there are a lot of galleries that aim at the tourist market.

Architecture aficionados are likely to be familiar with Frank Gehry's Dancing House, also known as the Fred and Ginger building, shown at the top of this posting. It's a pleasant but long walk from the Old Town area (Stare Mesto), which is where most tourists are likely to spend most of their time. There's a lot to see in the old quarter where ancient buildings have been added to and modified over centuries, creating layers of architectural styles.
Not particularly important in terms of architecture, Prague Castle dominates the skyline on the western side of the Vltava River. The walk down from the castle gives the bird's-eye view that's shown in the photo second from the top of this posting.

As for beer, the Czech Republic is famously known as the birthplace of pilsner, a pale lager. It's said that 98 percent of the beer consumed in the country is pale lager. Czechs simply don't drink the darker brews that many American drinkers think of as "serious" beer. The most popular brands, Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, are widely available in Prague -- usually a restaurant will serve only one brand of beer -- but artisanal Bohemian brews are hard to find in the city. To sample the work of well-regarded small breweries, like Chodovar, Jihlava and Pivovar Primator (and there are many, many others), you have to rent a car and venture out into the countryside. But with everything else Prague has to offer, it's not a great hardship to stay in town and drink draft pilsners.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tilghman Island, Maryland

This is where I live, a small (population less than 1,000) island in Chesapeake Bay called Tilghman Island. Or Tilghman's Island. Or just Tilghman.
It's at the southern tip of the Bay Hundred peninsula in Talbot County.
Some people (not me) refer to Talbot County as the Hamptons of the Chesapeake.
You can reach Tilghman in about two hours from either Washington or Baltimore.

Once here, you can eat crabs in warm weather and oysters in cold weather. You can fish. You can kayak. You can sail aboard the Rebecca T. Ruark, a 124-year-old skipjack ( You can book passage on the Sharps Island, a former Swiftboat, for a tour of Chesapeake lighthouses ( You can keep an eye out for great blue herons, osprey, bald eagles, red fox, deer and wild turkeys. You can study painting with Walt Bartman of Glen Echo National Park; he has a studio here for workshops, usually in the warmer months. Check his web site to see if any are scheduled. Or you can sit beside Knapps Narrows (which separates the island from the mainland) and watch boats go back and forth. And watch the nation's busiest drawbridge go up and down.
The Tilghman Watermen's Museum ( can help you understand the island's history as a fishing, crabbing and oystering center. Phillips Wharf Environmental Center ( can help you understand today's threats to the health of the Chesapeake and to the watermen's way of life.

Two websites will help you find lodging, boat excursions and more: and
Click on the title of this posting for an article about the drawbridge.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Pyrenees Mountains, by Foot or Car

Whether you're cross-country hiking or driving a rented car, you'll find many small towns and villages in the Pyrenees, the amazingly vertical mountains that form a natural border between Spain and France. One high-altitude village is Santa Engracia, in Catalonia near the larger town of Tremp. There you'll find Casa Guilla, shown here, a farmhouse inn that dates back at least 1,000 years. Visit it online at and be sure to click on pictures of the house and the locality. It'll give you some idea of how truly marvelous the Pyrenees are. The drive to this former stronghold atop a mountain is almost as memorable as the inn itself; at one point you're on a narrow gravel road with sheer drops on each side.
Once you arrive, you'll be greeted by Richard and Sandra Loder, the British ex-pats who have owned the place since the 1980s. There are never more than eight guests, so there's no crowd at the very good breakfasts and dinners that are included with the rooms. For lunch, you might drive up to Andorra, a tiny landlocked country hidden in a valley, where you should try to get off the main and unpleasant highway as quickly as you can. Or you can stroll among the inviting shops in the ancient Catalan town of La Seu d'Urgell, where shaded balconies and overhanging galleries give the narrow streets a feeling of mystery.
If you want some help organizing a walking vacation, start with Vriendenkring Amitié Européenne, a nonprofit Belgian association that promotes hiking in the Pyrenees Mountains. Click on the title of this posting to visit the group's website.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Water Water Everywhere, But ...

Frank G. sent a question by email:
Is the free water along the canals in Wales drinkable?
Technically, maybe. Advisable, no.
The water comes from outdoor spigots to which you attach your boat's rubber or plastic hose. Presumably, the water is from safe wells or municipal water systems, but Europeans drink bottled water for a reason. Actually, two reasons: often the water ISN'T safe due to arsenic, which often occurs naturally in well water, or other toxic substances such as lead from old pipe joints; and, public water often simply tastes bad, especially in big cities like London, Paris or Rome.
The water goes from the hose into a large tank on the boat -- and who knows how clean it is? On our canal boat vacation, we showered and washed dishes with the boat's water supply, but we drank bottled water.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Britain: 'Retiring' to a Canal Boat in Wales

Meet Beryl Ybarra, who lives full-time aboard her boat, the Anagram, on the canals of northern Wales and western England. The top photo shows how her boat's interior resembles a country cottage. The lower photo shows her Welsh border collie, Vicki, and the path that runs along the canal where I met Beryl in the summer of 2009. Slightly visible in the photo are her grandchildren -- Tom, 15; Caroline, 12; and George, 8 -- who were spending a couple of weeks aboard their grandmother's 55-foot-long, 7-foot-wide boat.
Beryl, 66, found herself at a crossroads a few years ago. Her husband, with whom she had operated a commercial art and framing business, died 11 years ago after a long illness. Two years after that, she was battling cancer, a battle that she won. She came out of the hospital and decided to do something different. She sold her home in Wales and bought a boat.
She said she spent the first three years just traveling, going as far as her hometown of Liverpool, but mostly staying in Wales, where she has lived since 1980. The Llangollen Canal (see item on canal boat vacations at bottom of blog for more on this canal) is her "home canal."
She can get her boat through the manually-operated locks by herself. "The most was 21 in one day," she recalled. There's an organization called "Tiller Girls" of single women who live aboard the narrowboats. They often travel together and help each other with the locks. Although Beryl said she isn't a formal member, "it gives a feeling of security."
"There's quite a community on the canals. That's Mike and Hazel on the blue boat," she said, pointing to a boat tied up near hers. "Mike works at a boat hire company. They each have a car and move them to wherever the boat is."
After three years of canal travel, she started working as a private nurse, mostly short-term home care. "I'd work three weeks, then be off four weeks," she said. For getting around on land, she has a van that's been converted into a motor home. It's parked at a marina when she's on the boat. Having just retired from nursing, Beryl was planning to return to the picture-framing business. She has bought a second boat, this one 30 feet long, that she will tow behind her boat. She'll use it as a studio work space. It will have an engine ("and a loo," she was quick to add) and she'll be able to use it independent of Anagram, her main boat.
So this isn't a real retirement. Who needs to retire from a life of floating at four miles an hour? (That's the top speed. Most boats actually go one or two miles an hour, but there's room on the canals to pass these slowpokes.)
How much do these boats cost? Prices for a new narrowboat can approach 100,000 U.S. dollars, but used ones can be found for a third of that. Here are two of many places that sell these boats: and
What are the expenses? Mainly, it's diesel fuel. But the engines are very small and use little fuel. Beryl said she usually goes only about six miles a week anyway. The boat hulls are made of very thick steel, so there's little maintenance other than paint. Water is free along the canals. Beryl's boat has solar panels, so she seldom has to use the engine to generate electricity. Heat in winter on her boat is provided by small stoves that burn something akin to charcoal but produce almost no ash. Some boats have radiator-heating that requires fuel.
Is Beryl happy with her lifestyle? "I wouldn't go back to a house -- no way," she said. "On boats we call them 'bricks.' I wouldn't go back to bricks."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When Cost Is a Major Factor in Deciding Where to Go

Click on the title of this posting to visit Tim Leffel's Cheapest Destinations Blog. He's a travel writer who has been around the world three times and written from five continents over the last 20 years or so. He's the author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations," currently in its third printing, as well as other travel books.

His blog is full of good advice for getting the most bang for your buck. Here's a sample:

We can debate forever about the differences between a traveler and a tourist, but sometimes it pays to step off the snob stool and just go for the best value possible, especially on a vacation. Unless you’re on a really tight shoestring budget, often you can get a stupendous deal by trolling where the tourists go to book their trips.

Case in point: my just-finished vacation in Puerto Vallarta with my family. I could have booked us into a crappy downtown hotel with barely functioning air conditioning and cramped quarters for around $75 a night for three, nothing included, with the nearby beach choices a few blocks away being lousy. Instead I went onto and scored four nights at an all-inclusive hotel on the Nuevo Vallarta beach for $82 a night all-in. For that amount we got all the booze we could drink, all the food we wanted to stuff ourselves with (three of us!), a nice room with a panoramic ocean view, Wi-Fi, and lots of activities. (The boogie boarding rocked.)

Yes it was cheesy and yes we felt like your average package tourists, but so what? My daughter had a blast, there was a never-ending Negra Modela tap going, and we ate pretty well without ever taking my wallet out of the room safe. I would definitely do it again.

Turkey: An Australian's Take on Istanbul

Istanbul is a magnet for people from all over the world. Its history, culture and geography make it the world's No. 1 crossroads -- physically, as the bridge between Europe and Asia; historically as Trojans, Greeks, Persians, Crusaders and others passed through; and culturally, as a place where mostly Christian Europe meets the Islamic Middle East. At right is my photo of the Galata Tower, built centuries ago by Italians.
Writer Jan Morris finds Istanbul enchanting. Here is an excerpt of an article Jan wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Nowhere in Europe is more suggestive than the rambling enclave that is the Topkapi Palace, where once the Ottoman sultans held court, where the harem gossiped and the executioners sharpened their blades and from whose gardens you can look out across the fateful waters of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. No refreshment break is more satisfying than a cup of thick coffee and a sweetmeat taken at a table beside the Golden Horn, frequented by seafarers since the days of Homer. You can imagine in these streets the imperial legionaries of Constantine himself, the janissaries of Islam, looting Christians from Venice on their way to the Crusades, merchants from all the nations setting up their stalls in its famous markets.

Read Jan's entire article by clicking on the title of this post.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mile High? Or Just a Little Tipsy?

Josh Noel writes in the Chicago Tribune about a brewery-to-brewery-to-brewery tour of Denver and Boulder, Colo. He's interested in the boutique and artisan breweries, pointing out that in one men's room, a Coors tap handle doubles as the flush on the urinal. Click on the title of this posting to read his entire article.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Spain: Hondarribia in Basque Country

The Basque region in Spain, at the western end of the border with France, probably strikes visitors as more "foreign" than other parts of the country. For one thing, the two languages there are Spanish and Basque, not Spanish and English. If you make the pilgrimage to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, you're in Basque Country, and you should see more of it than just Bilbao (which, besides the museum, has wonderful riverfront promenades, a sprawling, multi-level public market, and designer hotels).
Basque cuisine features a lot of seafood, but there are also cured meats and many lamb dishes. Vegetables, however, are often overcooked to the point that they resemble canned goods. Asparagus is on a lot of menus, and usually comes mushy and drowning in olive oil.
But there are places with amazing food.
Rent a car and drive to San Sebastián on the coast. With more Michelin stars per capita than any other city (including Paris), it's heaven for foodies. Arzak is probably the most famous of its celebrated restaurants.
Up the coast a bit and just across the Bidasoa River from France is Hondarribia, where pintxo bars and their tapas-like dishes are attracting international attention. Ingrid K. Williams discussed Hondarribia as a dining destination in the Aug. 1, 2010, New York Times. Here's a link: The town, also known as Fuenterrabia in Spanish, is home to one of Spain's most celebrated paradors, Parador El Emperador. Click on the title of this posting for a link to the parador, where you can stay in centuries-old chambers that look like movie sets. We stayed in a room that would have held a small airplane. One of the room's large windows is shown in the photo.