Calidris Compares: A Tale of Two Cities

London’s Tower Bridge. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’m not really a city girl. I prefer natural spaces, quiet, and fresh air over crowds of people, noise, and bustle. But given that cities are hubs of transport, culture, and history, passing through them is nearly inevitable. Two cities that are always worth a stopover are The Big Apple and The Big Smoke. So how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

London New York
Shopping London wins on quaint, curious, and antique. Prices are prohibitively high on most things. New York wins on sheer quantity, diversity, and affordability.
Song Streets of London, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner New York, New York, On the Town

 

Transit The Underground: Even well-dressed, apparently well-to-do Londoners take The Tube. The subway: Not so much.
Longest-running show The Mousetrap The Phantom of the Opera
Cabbies World famous for rigorous training & vast knowledge of the city. World famous for attitude and language.
Monarch’s residence Buckingham Palace Trump Tower
Live theatre Wow. Helen Mirren live on stage; what more do I need to say? Wow. Dustin Hoffman live on stage; what more do I need to say?
Local lingo #1 Rubbing: Something you experience in an ancient churchyard and which involves a granite headstone, a sheet of paper, and a stick of charcoal. Rubbing: Something you experience in an aging massage parlour and which involves a pillow, a sheet over the table, and a scantily clad person.
Policing Bobbies: Authority without guns. NYPD: Not so much.
Street signs Not so much. Clear & logical.
Local colour Pearly kings & queens dressed in button-encrusted duds. Times Square guy dressed in a diaper and cowboy hat.
Attitude Tourist opens a map and looks around. Local stops to ask if he can help. Tourist approaches information desk in giant department store and asks: “Excuse me, is there a restroom?” Local responds: “Why?”
Urban wildlife Pigeons & rats Pigeons & rats
Local lingo #2 Rubber: Something you use to erase mistakes. Rubber: Something you use to prevent mistakes.
Woman with a crown Queen Bess II Lady Liberty
Museums London all the way since three of the top museums in London—V&A, National Gallery, Museum of Natural History, all world-class—are all free. The Met suggested admission donation is $25, MoMa and the Guggenheim are a flat $25 each. Come on, NY, get with the program: museums need to be accessible and FREE.
Fine dining Forget it; you can’t afford it. Forget it; you can’t get in.

New York, from atop the Empire State Building. Photo by Marian Buechert.

NY or London: Do you have a favourite? Why? Let me know in a comment.

Tintern Abbey

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
—Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
William Wordsworth, 1798

Perhaps it is the sign of a weak mind to be so influenced by a few lines of poetry written over 200 years ago that I felt I must see for myself what inspired Wordsworth. If so, then I am certainly guilty, for once I knew we would be in Wales, Tintern Abbey was on my list. I have gazed at photos of the site over the years, and the combination of the skeletal yet still-soaring stonework and the picturesque setting added to the feeling that this was a place I had to see someday.

I do love old cathedrals and churches, even though my interest is purely secular. A cathedral may have been intended as a tribute to God’s majesty, but to me, it is a symbol of humanity’s spirit, perseverance, ingenuity, and artistry.

All photos by Marian Buechert.

I planned our visit for an evening and the following morning, staying nearby in one of those pleasant inns that the Brits seem to specialize in. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the magic evening light, and although we couldn’t enter the abbey (it had closed for the day) we had the exterior of the site to explore by ourselves. It was intriguing to imagine the area buzzing with activity as it would have been during the abbey’s heyday.

As the shadows lengthened, we strolled across the nearby bridge and along a walking path that followed the river to where we could view the abbey from farther away. Without modern buildings or roads to ruin the illusion, the ruins probably looked much like they did when Wordsworth composed his lines.

In the morning, we revisited the site, poking around the interior this time. “Inside,” what was once flagstone floors is now a smooth carpet of manicured greenery across which the shadows of the pillars and arches etch patterns. With grass beneath your feet, stone rising around you, and the ceiling of blue sky, you feel as if you’re in a temple to nature.

Through the site, I wandered lonely as a cloud, when all at once I heard a single voice raised in song. I followed my ears around a corner and beheld a young woman, standing alone in the centre of the abbey’s great open nave, singing a beautiful melody in a language I didn’t understand. Along with everyone else on the site, I stood transfixed until she finished, when she immediately moved off and became just another visitor again.

I would have loved to do what she did and express my reverence with music, but I feared that it would be seen as mockery, so I remained silent. But inside, my heart was singing.

Are there historic sites that inspire reverence in you? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Australia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.”

My first, and still favorite, Bryson. Literally laughed out loud reading this. His descriptions of the many and varied ways that Australia can kill you are priceless. “I was particularly attracted to all those things that might hurt me, which in an Australian context is practically everything. It really is the most extraordinarily lethal country.” All three of us traveling together read this book and we all loved it.

5 knots Highly recommended

A Fringe of Leaves

Patrick White

First sentence: “After the carriage drew away from the Circular Wharf Mr Stafford Merivale tapped the back of his wife’s hand and remarked that they had done their duty.”

Author Patrick White had already claimed the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature (“for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature”) when this novel was published in 1976, but it’s generally regarded as one of his masterpieces.

Based loosely on the story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the eastern coast of Australia in 1836 and taken in (or taken prisoner, depending on whose version of the story you read) by Aboriginal people. Not an easy read, but compelling in a strange way. The heroine is strongly painted and White’s writing is intriguing.

4 knots Recommended

I couldn’t imagine two books more different than these. Hey, it’s a long flight to Australia. Why not read both; I can guarantee at least there won’t be any overlap!

Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery

One of the beauties at the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery. Photo by Marian Buechert.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t enchanted by hummingbirds. With their tiny size, iridescent colours, and seemingly supersonic speed, they delight everyone from toddlers to hoary ancient birdwatchers.

Where I live, we get two—occasionally three—species. At the gallery and hummingbird garden located across from the entrance to the Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, visitors can indulge in a dozen species that regularly feed there.

This is a place to revel in the sheer quantity and easy accessibility of hummers on view. They zip by, flashing shining hues of green, gold, blue, bronze, red, purple, and turquoise, so intent on their meal that they pay little mind to the hulking humans gawking at them. If you stand in their usual flight path, they will impatiently whiz by within an inch of your ear. If you position yourself beside a feeder and hold your hands over the perches, the birds will land on your fingers and proceed with their meal.

Violet sabrewing. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The largest hummingbird in Costa Rica (and the largest found outside South America), the violet sabrewing, is a common sight. At 15 cm (5.9 in) long, it dwarfs many of the other species such as the coppery-headed emerald, which is a diminutive 7.6 cm (3 in) in size. Yet size is no indicator of temperament, and the sabrewing is less combative than some of its relatives. The mountain violetear (formerly called the green violet-ear), for example, aggressively warns off others by flaring its purple ear feathers, something impossible to see without a camera to capture the action.

Mountain violetear showing his fancy ear-muffs. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I’m a wimpy birder, and it doesn’t get much easier than this: sitting in the shade on a comfy bench surrounded by multiple feeders that attract scores of bright and active birds, with the bonus of a café steps away where you can buy a cold drink or ice cream whenever the sweat beads on your upper lip. Oh yeah, this is the life. Pura vida, indeed.

When we visited four years ago, the garden was free, with donations gratefully accepted and an unspoken obligation to buy something from the café or gift shop. After poking around on the Web a bit, I see that they seem to be charging $5 admission fee now. Regardless, it is worth the money. We spent several hours watching the various feeders and trying to count the number of species present. And taking photos, of course. Lots and lots of photos.

Are you a hummingbird lover? Let me know in a comment?

Male purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Female purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The hummers at Monteverde are acclimatized to the close presence of humans.

Female green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Mountain violetear. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Male green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

In Search of Folk Music: Cape Breton

A three-fiddler concert in The Barn. Image source: Tourism Nova Scotia www.novascotia.com

So you attend a traditional music concert in the heart of Cape Breton. It’s three fiddlers. First, Fiddler A plays a solo set. Then Fiddler B. Then Fiddler C. Next, A and B play a set together, then A and C, and finally B and C. Then—you guessed it—they all play a set together. What you have here is a two-hour concert of nothing but fiddle tunes. Vocals? Nada. Other instruments to break the fiddling monopoly? Nary a one. This makes some people happy as a Bluenoser in a dinghy full of cod. Others, not so much.

Let’s just say that Cape Breton and fiddle music are pretty much an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and smiling down benignly at the young whipper-snappers like guitars and songs with words. I asked a weathered-looking local if everyone on Cape Breton plays fiddle. After a moment’s serious thought—as if he was mentally toting up how many people he knew who didn’t bow the strings—he said, “Pretty much.”

The world’s largest fiddle, Sydney, NS.

My first clue that Cape Breton takes its fiddling seriously should have been the world’s largest fiddle that looms up 60 feet in the middle of Sydney. My second hint could have been my visit to the Celtic Music Centre in Judique, I was keen to take in the free noon-time “Celtic music” performance over a bite to eat. I settled in at a table and was treated to a half hour of…fiddle music.

Really good fiddle music, I hasten to add, because the calibre of playing is astonishing, which I guess is due in part to the fact that island babies seem to tuck fiddles under their chins about the same time they tuck thumbs in their mouths. When they start to walk, they add step-dancing to their skill set, which leads to an entire population that can play complex tunes while dancing around, tapping out rhythms with their feet. By the time a Cape Bretoner hits his or her teens, the bar has been raised so high that even the slouches by local standards are top-class by any other measure.

In addition, every fiddler on the island is related in some degree to a world-famous performer such as Natalie McMaster or Ashley MacIsaac, which means they are genetically programmed to make those strings sing.

Back to the three fiddlers: the best part of the evening for me was after the concert ended and they cleared the chairs away to make a dance floor. By now, it’s about 10:00 pm in The Barn (okay, it’s a barn purpose-built for shows—but it feels like a real barn—at the Normaway Inn in Margaree) on a bright, clear autumn night with a big moon outside. Those same three talented fiddlers sit down with a piano player and start playing for the ceilidh. Wow. Now those fiddle tunes start to make sense as they drive the dancing along with irresistible rhythms.

Despite all this wonderful instrumental music, being kind of a vocals person, what I really wanted to hear was songs, so two nights later, I headed off to the Doryman Pub in Cheticamp. The weather had turned to pissing rain and I arrived at the pub soaked from a hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Hot food & drink served up with Le Groupe Lelievre was just what I needed to warm up and dry off. Playing a range of traditional and popular music in both French and English with strong harmonies and excellent backing, Le Groupe had couples out on the dance floor and audience members singing along. They even threw in a few instrumental tunes. The party atmosphere easily drew in locals and tourists alike. And I was relieved to see that the band included a variety of instruments with not one fiddle in sight.

Still, I’d be willing to bet that they all play fiddle as well.

Have you visited Cape Breton? I’d love to hear about the music you enjoyed there or on another trip.

Knot Spots: Princess Cruise Bait & Switch?

The promo.

Spotted: In a promo email

I’m on the email list for special deals from Princess Cruises. Yes, call me a cockeyed optimist, but aside from the allure of actually getting a “special deal,” I consider it my duty to keep on top of travel stuff like this on behalf of you, my faithful readers.

A few days ago, I received a message titled “Our thanks to you: exclusive Canadian fares.” Hmmm…well, at least the prices were expressed in Canadian dollars. Among the featured deals was this one:

The bait.

Okay, I thought, I’ll bite. $779 Cdn isn’t bad. I clicked. But instead of getting more info on this deal, I linked through to this:

The switch.

Whoa. Even for a princess, that’s a hefty price for 7 days of unlimited buffet food. For over $30,000, I must be buying the bludy glacier, eh? The odd part is that the name of cruise, itinerary, name of ship, and sailing date are all exactly the same. Only the price is different.

I subsequently tried the link several more times to make sure the first one wasn’t some kind of glitch, but no, I got the same result each time.

I sent Princess a message pointing out the problem like an über-responsible consumer would do. No acknowledgement, no response, no thank-you note from them.

So…was it the old bait and switch? Do they really think that discount-seeking cheapskates like me are potential purchasers of a $27,869 (plus a mere $7,000 in “additional fees”) cruise? Or was it just an idiotic error that they are too embarrassed to admit? Only Her Highness knows for sure.

Note: When I tried the link several days later, it was fixed. So someone somewhere said “Oops!”

The Getty Center

If you think Los Angeles symbolizes everything kitschy and facile, and serves only as hub for the cult of 15 minutes of fame, you haven’t visited the Getty Center. Who would have thought La-La Land could boast a world-class museum that impresses in so many ways?

First, there’s the gorgeous location, perched on a hill, overlooking LA one way and out toward the hills of Santa Monica the other way. One is so tempted to say it literally rises above the surrounding city, but I wouldn’t stoop to such a cliché.

Second, there’s the architecture and design. They’ve created an inspiring, welcoming space to relax outdoors in the courtyard, intriguing nooks and crannies between the buildings that frame the surrounding landscape, and galleries to rival any that I’ve seen.

Portrait study, 1818, Theodore Gericault

Third, there are wonderful tours to help you navigate and better appreciate the art. After many expeditions to many museums around the world, I know that it’s all too easy to get exhausted, lost, and numbed, stumbling around like a zombie, wanting to see everything and not seeing anything properly. You can get away with doing this for a quick visit, but if you’re there for the day, you need to find a way of focusing your attention and budgeting your energy. Tours are a great way to do this: someone else chooses the pieces to view, plots out the best course to navigate the galleries, and spoon-feeds you useful information. On our recent visit to the Getty, we did the Highlights of the Collection Tour, plus the Curator’s Tour of the special exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe.” This title might lead you to think the exhibition was a real yawner and pass it by; however, with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance of the person who actually envisioned and put together the exhibition, it came alive as we gained real insight into commemorative paintings.

Last but not least, there is the art itself, representing a wide spectrum from paintings of all periods to sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, photography, and decorative arts. The paintings of masters such as van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne, and Fragonard are all included in the Getty collection. I wandered from gallery to gallery finding familiar works that I remembered from books and discovering new pieces that I will never forget.

The tapestry rooms literally took my breath away; I’ve seen tapestries on exhibit before, but never in rooms that are designed to emulate those in which the tapestries originally would have been hung and admired.

I was equally enraptured by a special exhibition titled “Illuminating Women in the Medieval World,” which explored how women’s roles in the Middle Ages are documented in the precisely detailed illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. The brilliant colours and shimmering gold leaf bring the Medieval world to life.

Peering in at a display of Sevres porcelain took me back to my university days and a research paper on Madame de Pompadour’s patronage of the ceramics manufacturer. It gave me a quiet little thrill to actually see some of the Sevres pieces from that period.

 

When your mind is saturated with great art and your feet are sore, take time to rest and refresh in the courtyard next to the water feature, where you can sip a cool drink and admire the architecture.

After a full day at the museum, I still had not seen the garden or the villa, and there were many unexplored galleries calling me back for future visits.

The icing on Mr. Getty’s cake is that his museum is free, such a rarity for anything in the U.S. (Thank you, J.P.) They do charge a parking fee, but that’s it. Which allows you to spend your money instead at one of the cafes or at the gift shop. Another perk is that you are allowed to photograph most of the art, so Snapchat away and share your favourites with all your “friends” who think you’re visiting the City of Angels for shallow pursuits like Rodeo Drive shopping and bus tours of celebrity homes:

Jeanne Kefer, 1885, Fernand Khnopff

“Adored this little girl i spotted at the Getty! Dont u just heart culture?! ”

Do you have a beloved museum or gallery? Have you visited the Getty? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Knot Spots: September 29, 2017

In the category of What Will They Think of Next, how about carry-on luggage that carries you? When I spotted the ad for this, I thought it was a joke. But no, there’s a real website touting what appears to be a real product, complete with endorsements from cool, hip-looking folks who, in the slick promo photos, are doing their best to ignore the fact that no matter how cool and hip they are, they look completely silly sitting on a little suitcase.

In the online manual under Key Safety Points, I see this caution: “Do not modify the Modobag.” But how long before speed freaks and the compulsively competitive begin tweaking the factory model so they can reach the security line-up asap? On the page titled Riding Etiquette, there’s this: “When riding with other Modobag riders…do not ride side-by-side.” Yeah, right. How are owners going to test the mettle of their dragsters if they don’t race side by side? One can just imagine the rush-hour traffic jams and inevitable collisions. Soon, these will come equipped with airbags and, more importantly, horns.

Can’t wait to spot one of these in real life.

 

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.