Gadgets: The Cotton Carrier

The Cotton Carrier camera harness for single camera. Photo from cottoncarrier.com.

The problem with photography as a hobby is that the more “into” it you get, the more and heavier the equipment you have to shlepp around. You may start with a modest little point-and-shoot weighing a few ounces, but before you know it, you’re staggering down the trail with multiple camera bodies dangling from your neck, extra lenses the size of oil drums stashed in your pockets, and a tripod crushing one shoulder. Of course, all that weight in the front is balanced out by your 50-lb photo backpack and you can use your monopod as a walking pole to keep you upright.

I am, therefore, always keen to check out gear that promises increased efficiency, accessibility, and/or ergonomics.

A couple of months ago, I began shopping for a camera harness, a rig that is designed to carry a camera (or cameras) close to your body with comfort and security. The idea is to take the weight off your neck and distribute it more evenly around your torso while ensuring that the camera does not swing around awkwardly, damaging you, it, or anything else. Knowing that during an upcoming trip I would be doing a lot of climbing in and out of small, tippy boats, as well as some challenging (by my standards) hiking, I thought the harness might be just the ticket.

After some research, I settled on the Cotton Carrier CCS G3. I was about to order it from a US online photo-specialty supplier, when I realized that the manufacturer is located in my own city. This meant I could avoid paying duty and the exchange rate while supporting a local business. Bonus!

On opening the box, first impressions were good. The materials are sturdy and of high quality. I had the straps fitted to my body in a few moments. Attaching the special mount (hub) to my lens mount took a bit of thought, but wasn’t difficult. As I used the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the screw, I wryly calculated how long it would take me to lose that vital tool.* Small objects tend to go missing easily in the flurry of highly-focused activity around a good bird sighting in the field.

I followed the diagram to slide in and lock the camera/lens in place, snapped on the safety tether (which is your final line of defense in case the camera somehow comes loose from the harness), and clipped the lens strap across my long, 300 mm lens so it wouldn’t jiggle from side to side, and voila, I was ready to hit the trail.

On that test hike, I found wearing the harness and camera took a bit of getting used to: I’m pretty soft and having the straps over my shoulders was tiring. The weight of the heavy lens right on my diaphragm made me uncomfortably conscious of my breathing. As it began to rain, I smugly pulled out the supplied rain cover, only to discover that it isn’t long enough for a camera + 300 mm lens. Gnashing of teeth. I wondered if I would actually use this gadget enough to make it worth the investment.

Happily, I had the opportunity to put the harness to a more definitive test on a month-long photo trip to Ecuador.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the harness. It was easy off and on with one snap buckle (although you do have to lift it over your head if you only release one buckle). I really liked the twist-and-lock attachment; secure even when I was clambering in those aforementioned small canoes, yet allowing quick access to my camera. I did carry a plastic bag in case of rain (and boy, did it rain!)

Using it when sight-seeing in the city felt a bit pretentious but there was no way anyone could snatch my camera when it was locked in place.

I worried about transferring the camera onto my monopod. You can do this without removing the Cotton Carrier “hub” but I wasn’t sure how secure it would be, as the screw that anchors the whole assembly is quite short. However, I didn’t have any problems with my 300 mm. A larger lens might be an issue.

During this trip, I used my heavy rig so much that I actually developed repetitive stress and numbness in my right thumb, so I was very glad to be able to relieve that strain by carrying the camera on the carrier rather than in my hand. That alone was worth the price.

The harness in use, showing the safety tether. Note how the camera hangs downward when locked into the harness, keeping it close to your body.

Most importantly, I had the gratifying experience of receiving assessing looks and some queries from other photogs at the birding lodges where we stayed. Considering that most of them nonchalantly toted lenses three times the size of mine (yes, size does matter), I desperately needed some edge in the cool gear department.

My single-camera harness retails on the Cotton website for $153 Cdn. For those who want to access a second camera or binoculars, Cotton carries a harness for you, too.

*As it turned out, about six weeks. However, it’s not hard to replace. Maybe carry a spare, just to be safe.

Got gadgets for photography or travel? Share your favourite in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

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!

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.

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.

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen Part 2

Sunset from aboard the MV Reggae Queen.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the boat’s name, the Reggae Queen. Being the naïve person that I am, I merely thought, Oh, reggae music. How nice! The connection between reggae and smoking slipped my mind completely. I should not have been, but was, surprised to see that the guide was a chain-smoker and six of the 15 passengers smoked as well. The dining area was frequently filled with smoke. Thank goodness it was open air or it would have been intolerable.

They didn’t smoke during meals, but as soon as they finished eating, they would all light up, so we would flee. As a result, we missed some of the social chitchat and the guide’s information. The passengers quickly sorted into two unspoken camps: puffers and non-puffers. The puffers mainly stayed on the dining deck and the non-smokers hung out on the top (sun) deck. There was no animosity, we were all very friendly, but since the guide was in the other camp, we did miss out on some stuff.

What else to say about the tour leader? One online review read: “R who runs the trip is…a great character.”  A “character” is a good way to put it. You either enjoy his style and think he’s a barrel of laughs or you find him brusque and annoying. Let’s look at a couple of other online comments.

“The snorkeling tour…was very disappointed [sic]….We believe that in this island the only one that enjoy were Mr R and those who spent the time drinking with him. Instead of making the guests happy, he spent his time drinking and smoking a lot of reggae style.”

Another customer complained:

“The German owner smoked and drank beer the whole day long (even started before breakfast and smoked at the same time the guests were having breakfast).”

Our most generous interpretation of his behaviour was that he has probably been doing this tour too long and is simply burnt out. He didn’t seem to care much whether we had a good time or not and he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to ensure that we did.

When we all had to cram ourselves into a small zodiac, he literally screamed at people to move, even though we were already packed in like sardines and the boat was madly tossing about on the waves. As we climbed into the zodiac, instead of telling us the safest way to get down, he waited until after several people slipped and nearly injured themselves before yelling at us not to do it “that way.”

The Thai crew, on the other hand, were very solicitous and helped everyone on and off the boats as much as they could, and we passengers helped each other as necessary. R never once bothered to help anyone (as far as I saw).

Although there was a white board on the ship for him to leave notes on each day’s schedule, he didn’t bother doing this, so we never knew when to show up for lunch or dinner.

Brahminy kite off Koh Bon island.

This was all in contrast to a couple of other guides that we had in Thailand and Cambodia, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and couldn’t have been more polite and helpful. We aren’t looking to have someone hold our hands, but we expect clear information, courtesy, and concern for safety.

Having some mobility issues (I have a total knee replacement with some limits on range of motion and my other knee is also not 100%), I inquired prior to booking about the ladder for climbing out of the water onto the boat after snorkeling. I have encountered many boat ladders that are impossible for me, as they are too short or angle away, requiring the skills of a rappelling rockclimber to scale. The person who answered my inquiry sent me photos and a description of the boat ladder which reassured me. In fact, I had no trouble with that ladder. However, she did not mention that half the time we would not be using that ladder, but would be climbing from the water into a small zodiac instead, one with a very different kind of ladder. In the end, I was able to manage—awkwardly and with help—but it would have been nice to know in advance.

Transferring between the boat and the zodiac was another challenge. Two vessels leaping and plunging in the waves on separate schedules x slippery decks on both sides + two shaky knees = disaster waiting to happen. Again, I have to thank the Thai crew for their steady hands always ready to aid. I got the definite feeling these young men viewed me with the respect they would give to their infirm and slightly dotty grannie.

Our final run to the harbor was fairly short, disembarkation was quick, and we were all loaded into various vehicles for transfer to our next destinations. I think we had the longest journey and we were at our hotel in time for dinner.

In summary, there were a lot of great things about this trip, but those who book should go into it with their eyes open. This not a mini cruise ship. You can expect hard beds, rough and ready conditions, and lots of smoke. Don’t expect clear information or much concern for your comfort. You must take things as they come, stay on top of what’s going on so you don’t miss out (i.e., don’t relax and expect to be taken care of), and adapt to the conditions on board, especially the moods of the guide. If you have any mobility challenges, be doubly cautious about booking.

Have you done any small-boat cruises? Share your experience in a comment.

 

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen

The MV Reggae Queen. Image source: http://andamansnorkeldiscovery.com/

Three days and nights cruising the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand. A dream come true, right? Fun snorkeling, lovely laid-back times resting, reading, chatting on the sundeck, living in my swimsuit, not setting foot on land for the duration. The weather was perfect. I managed to dodge seasickness (I get motion sickness pretty easily). Saw masses of amazing fish and coral, a couple of turtles, and one shark. Visited uninhabited spots far off the coast where our little group of 15 was often alone. Watched the sun rise each morning over the ocean. Marveled at schools of small flying fish skipping across the water as we slipped through the calm water.

That is the side of Andaman Snorkel Discovery that makes it into the brochure and onto the website. Our experience was not exactly what you see in postcards, however.

We were picked up at our hotel in Khao Lak around 1:00 pm  and had a drive of several hours to the departure point, picking up other passengers along the way.

The first challenge was getting aboard. As we waited on the dock, I eyed the boat beside us. There was no gangway. Boarding required half-leaping from the side of the wharf over an open gap of water of several feet onto the boat’s thin metal railing, teetering precariously, then stepping to a life ring hanging on the side of the boat, and from there onto a ladder. I went first, and with the help of several crew, I managed, but it was a close thing and I noticed several of the other passengers looking askance at the proposed route.

Standard cabin.

We next checked out our cabin, which was clean and in good repair. It consisted of bunk beds: one wooden shelf built into the wall at chest height, the other “bed” directly on the floor underneath. The beds are reasonably long (says my six-foot companion) and wide (says wide me), but the mattresses are thin (2-inch), mainly useless. There are fans and the windows open to allow in cool breezes from the sea. The only good part about sleeping in the cabin was laying with my face next to the open window, just a short distance from the open water, watching the waves moving gently below and (craning my neck) the stars above. There is air-con in the cabins, but we didn’t use it, as we preferred the fresh air circulating.

Size-wise, the cabins are just big enough to stand next to the bed. Two people inside would have trouble getting changed at the same time. From my bunk, I could easily reach out and touch the wall on the far side of the cabin. The cabin has some useful hooks for hanging stuff out of the way and one small shelf built into a corner, but no ladder or steps for accessing the top bunk. I suppose that taller, younger, and/or spryer folk might use their arms to haul themselves up through sheer strength. I resorted to standing my small suitcase on end and, while my companion did his best to hold it steady, I clambered precariously up, and hurled myself desperately across the bunk like a salmon migrating up a rocky stream. Another passenger admitted to me that she had found an ingenious solution: she put her back to the bunk, braced her feet against the opposing wall, and “walked” up the wall. I did try this, but couldn’t quite get the knack of it.

We actually spent quite a lot of time sleeping on the top deck at night under the stars, as it was cooler, there were few biting bugs, and the bean bag “chairs” could be molded into more comfortable beds. Lying up there with the boat gently rocking, watching the full moon rise over Koh Bon island was magical.

There are four toilets (heads) on board, which seemed to be fine for 15 passengers. While not up to the standard of a decent hotel, the heads are about as good as one can expect on a small boat; I actually expected worse. The heads double as showers; however, I never used them as such, preferring to simply rinse down with fresh water on the aft deck after snorkeling and taking my frequent plunges into the salt sea and a generally piratical lifestyle as a convenient excuse not to shower.

One of the online reviews complained that the food was monotonous, but, really, it was standard Thai fare, with rice plus various veg, fish, and meat dishes that changed each day. It was not gourmet, but it was decent, hearty food and there was plenty of it. I considered it a miracle that the cook produced such meals from the miniscule galley.

More next week.

 

Calidris Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Compares: Artisanal Ice Creams

Two hot summer days.  Two gourmet ice cream outlets.

 

Travel—even around town—can be tiring on a hot day, so it’s always good to know where to find a refreshing ice cream cone.

Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it: slurping down back-to-back desserts of frozen ambrosia in order to uncover the real story. Bravely, I threw myself into this challenge on behalf of you, my faithful reader.

A gentle reminder that on a baking-hot day, the line-ups for ice cream anywhere can be daunting, and at artisanal outlets, even more so. Mentally prepare yourself to be patient. Only you can decide whether it’s worth waiting for.

Earnest Ice Cream

Outlet: Branch & Butter, Bowen Island ferry terminal

The hype: “Our goal [is] to create ice cream that expresses our passion for flavour and a business that embodies our values.”

Single scoop cone: $5 plus tax

Flavour: Whiskey hazelnut. Excellent taste of whiskey & hazelnut, with lots of chunks of crunchy (not stale) hazelnut.

As I peered into the glass counter to choose my flavour, I noticed that all of the ice creams were runny and half-melted. When I ordered a cone, the servers looked unhappy and recommended a cup instead, as the ice cream was too soft to put into cones. A bit of a disappointment, but what the heck, go with the flow (in this case, the flow of dripping ice cream), I say.

Sadly, the single scoop was not only half-melted, but it was tiny. Since they weren’t giving me a cone AND the product was substandard, I thought they might be a bit more generous with the portion. Nope.

I don’t know if the skimpy scoop should be blamed on the outlet, the ice cream company, or the servers, but it wasn’t an error, as my companion received an identical small puddle of semi-liquid product. She summed up the experience: “We should have gone to the OTHER ice cream place.”

Rocky Point Ice Cream

Outlet: Rocky Point Park kiosk, Port Moody

The hype: “At Rocky Point Ice Cream we hand craft ice cream in small batches ‘with love’ using as many local ingredients as possible.”

Single scoop cone: $3.75 (double scoop, $1 more)

Flavour: Salted caramel. Delightful combination of sweet and salty. Really good.

Waffle cone was fresh and crunchy.

Single scoop was generous—far larger than the Earnest scoop. Plus the mere $1 extra for a double made it hard to resist trying two flavours. So I didn’t. The chocolate peanut butter flavour was also delicious.

Oh, and both flavours were the perfect temperature.

Rocky Point wins this comparison hands down, but to be fair and confirm the results, I should probably repeat the experiment. As soon as possible.

Earnest Ice Cream and Rocky Point Ice Cream are made and sold in the Vancouver, BC, area.

Do you have a favourite local ice cream or gelato? Make your opinion known in a comment.