Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Travelling The Silly Season

The travel industry operates, as do many industries, on it own cycle, only barely related to the seasons changing outside our windows. For us, the summer is long gone, the Fall is over, and our winter planning in its final stages. Our thoughts turn to next summer, and to the development of new programs.

In some ways, travel is like every other business. We try to imagine what our clientele might want to do next year, seek out the components and “manufacture” a program to suit this idea. If we are correct and a lot of folks buy we do well, and if we miss the mark, of course, we do not do so well.

At this point, I am looking to further develop some European programs that will offer independent travellers a basic framework. We will design and offer itineraries that allow travellers to wander through Europe on slightly structured journeys, with the security of nightly accommodation but not the rigidity of a conventional tour program.

There are several up and coming regions that are interesting. North Americans are always a year or two after Europeans, so in a way it is easy to see what is on sale in the UK and then tweak it for our market a couple of years later!

This year we are seeing strong interest in The Caucuses, with travel to Georgia and Armenia in particular showing spectacular growth. I can also see a growing interest in the Balkans, and while Croatia has long led the field of tourist destinations in the region, there is a surge of interest in Montenegro.

This small country, tucked in between Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo is absolutely stunningly beautiful. From the high hiking routes in the heart of the country to the villages strung out along the Adriatic coast, Montenegro offers the exploratory tourist a glimpse of the pre-pasteurised past in a gorgeous and friendly environment.

I am looking at a program that starts in the capital, Podgorica, and heads to the coast before continuing south to Albania, and then to Italy, crossing the Adriatic by ferry. Once in Italy, one can simply head toward Rome to come home, or take the local trains to hug the southern coast as one meanders around the heel and sole of the country to Messina.

A trip that I am contemplating for myself this winter would then take me across Sicily and by ferry to Sardinia, Corsica and back to the French mainland at Toulon. Islands have always fascinated me, as have these sorts of overland journeys, and this rout, from Podgorica in Montenegro to Toulon in France would be a fine way to pass a few weeks!

The south of France is always popular, and we are sensing the growth of guided, outdoor programs in the Pyrenees. We have recently started working with two terrific companies, on the western Pyrenees offering superb guided hikes, staying in the chain of mountain refuges that dot the mountains, and in the Eastern Pyrenees another fine company whose programs combine the culinary and wine delights of the Languedoc with hiking and exploring the ancient Cather Castles. A terrific combination!

There are other regions too; northwest Spain, long neglected by many tourists is becoming popular, and I am heading there in April to travel by local train along the north coast. I have a feeling that it will be like riding to Toronto on the Metro, these are not long-distance railways, but the scenery, overnight stops and the privilege of catching a flake of a remote and fascinating culture.

We will see! Watch the website for these and other signature journeys, and spare a thought for poor me, sitting in my office, daydreaming and creating these programs rather than getting out and playing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Arctic Circle

I am, it has to be said, fortunate in the amount that I am able to travel, and the extraordinary variation in destinations that I am able to visit.

In the past twelve months, I have been all over Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, to Azerbaijan, Thailand, France (of course), the UK, Georgia and Australia, and now to Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle.

For reasons that remain fuzzy, I purchased a hotel in Churchill last year, and my daughter and a friend have been managing it with great competence and enthusiasm this year. A week or so ago, I went up for a few days to see how all was getting on, and to reacquaint myself with several of our long-time suppliers and partners in Churchill.

It is a lovely place; nestled on the shores of Hudson Bay, it makes its living form a panoply of activities including tourism. The summer is astonishing; the colour of the tundra, access to a eighteenth century British fort, the thousands of Beluga whales in the river and the opportunity to enjoy the bright days with some fascinating folks.

So up I went, and had a terrific time. I even went on the best tour program that I have ever been on; it is a one-hour ride in a 1942 Turbo Beaver aircraft, overflying the Prince of Wales Fort, the belugas in the river and then, some fifteen miles from town, Cape Churchill with at least twenty, healthy-looking polar bears. The flight is brilliant, and to be recommended.

Having gone north, we decided to continue, and flew another 600 miles to Repulse Bay, a small Inuit community that straddles the Arctic Circle. Here, we knew that we were far, far north; even in early August the sun never really dimmed, and the community was alive with the signs of hunting and summer activity.

Repulse Bay is home to a huge population of Narwhal, in addition to Bowhead and Killer Whales; Belugas venture this far north, and the seal population is massive as well. It did make me smile to wonder, if it were possible to briefly drain the bay, just how many sea mammals would be lying on the bottom. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans do know this, of course, and estimate the local population of Narwhal to be in the region of 30,000, and they allow the community to take 72 for their own consumption. We went out simply to watch, and the sight of three narwhal leaping from the water with their long, ivory tusks flashing in the sunshine is truly extraordinary.

We visited an old Thule settlement, saw a myriad of tundra flowers, and everywhere we wandered in the village we were stopped by folks saying Hi, and wanting to know where we came from. Repulse Bay is a lovely place, and perhaps the most welcoming northern settlement that I have visited in a long time. They are obviously friendly to each other as well, as the evidential hickies were everywhere. I had, perhaps naively, thought that love-bites, as we knew them in London in the seventies, had disappeared as a teenage fashion accessory and social statement some decades ago.

It is different in the north. Folks drive ATVs and some trucks, clothing is different with many of the very many babies carried in highly practical shoulder pockets in coats. Freight is different; I was a touch surprised to see a shipment of Narwhal blubber being air-freighted south to Rankin Inlet to satisfy someone’s epicurean yearnings. Inbound goods seemed dominated by potato chips and soda cans. I was utterly flabbergasted to read that annually, the population of about 40,000 folks in Nunavut import 10,000,000 cans of soda. Yes, ten million cans of soda, each costing an eye-watering $3.69 in the local co-op. This, of course, represents an average of 250 cans per man, woman and child each year, and goes a long way to explain the almost complete absence of teeth.

It is an odd diet; on the one hand, the majority of their protein is hunted and as fresh a meat-supply as one could want; narwhales, seals, caribou and fish with the occasional fifty-two ton Bowhead whale to split among the community; their starch seems to come from potato chips and it all washed down with coke and ginger ale. We also saw some packets of frozen fish in the store’s refrigerator, which did seem a touch odd!

It is a destination, too , for those interested in Inuit carving. I love the delicate work, carved from the fluid coloured stone of the region, and have collected some fine pieces over the years. Repulse Bay had a lovely collection for sale, and wanting no more than to do my bit for the local economy, I did buy a couple.

All in all I loved Repulse, and am looking forward to coming back in the winter on our new snowmobile safari; we will travel with Inuit guides between Repulse Bay and the community of Kugaaruk, some 150 miles north, in the true High Arctic.

In the meantime, it is back in Winnipeg and next to Avon Minnesota to see one of my favourite musicians next week, Ray Bonneville!