Monday, February 29, 2016

Canada's Arctic; a curious winter destination.

Canada’s High Arctic may not be on everybody’s winter travel list, but they really do offer an extraordinary glimpse into another world, and a rich culture that has been evolving slowly but surely for millennia in this unusual climate.

In many ways, the Arctic shows best in the winter; at least, when there is some sunshine. Twenty-four hours of darkness can be a downer for visitors, but by mid-February the sun is rising, and the crisp, bright winter days, although short, are quite delightful.

The winter is simply another time of year to the Inuit, it is a time for iglus, ice, dog teams and wider hunting grounds. It is a time for traditional pursuits and discussion, a time for creating the tools that will be required for the short summertime season where their food is accessible from the water.

True, activities are limited, but with a number of communities now starting to develop some community-based tourism products, this will change. For now, a comprehensive and fulfilling to a northern community should start with an email or phone call to the local EDO (Economic Development Officer), Hamlet Office and the Territorial tourism organisation, Nunavut Tourism.

Icebergs and aviation - staples of Canada's Northlands 

It should be possible to plan a visit that would include meeting locals who will be most willing to explain elements of their heritage and language, and set up a chance to go out for a day or a half-day trip by dog team of skidoo to explore the local scenery.

Vessels waiting for Spring
I loved the trip; the opportunity to get to Cambridge Bay, a hub community for the hamlets of the Kitikmeot region was a treat. The community of thirteen hundred hardy souls lies on the south coast of Victoria Island, some thirty miles off Canada’s north coast, and acts as a vibrant centre for the economic and political life of the region.

I was there with a colleague to facilitate a workshop in tourism development, and was quite engrossed by some of the ideas that were offered.

One participant, Bobby Klegenberg of Haokak Outfitting was fascinating. An Inuk man with a passion for teaching the youth in the community the traditional ways, offered a fine example. “I teach people to make a traditional spear”, he said, “and then take them fishing; finally, we cook and eat the fish that we catch.” This is a perfect idea, and a really good example of a short product that would be of great interest to visitors. I asked if he had already done this, and he told us that this was a program that he ran for young offenders.

Cambridge Bay on a late February morning
“So,” I said, “for me to be able to do this, I would have to break a few windows, go to court and be sentenced to spend a morning with you learning about traditional fishing? Couldn’t I just give you $100?”

That tourists’ interests appeared to be aligned with those of the young offender was a fascinating insight for us all. Tourism is all about learning, and so, of course, is the emphasis of a correctional system.

There are many ideas; having dinner with a local family and learning about country food and the language and culture of their people: spending a few hours being introduced to the Inuktitut language and the syllabic writing: taking a walking tour of the community with a local guide who can explain the community’s social structure. There are many, simple products that can, as a community, be evolved into fascinating insights for visitors.

The key connecting cities of Yellowknife and Iqaluit are excellent balances to the remote hamlets, and an ideal visit to the north would incorporate a few days in each. The hamlet’s facilities, accommodation and food, are basic but comfortable enough. The major hubs, in contrast, will let tourists visit more comprehensive museums and interpretive displays, and enjoy some creative local meals.

 The Territorial Assembly in Yellowknife  

Overflying Auyuittuq Park
On the Baffin Coast, the community of Qikiqtarjuaq lies at the north end of the Auyuittuq National Park, and this gorgeous community offers visitors the sense of a compact and self-reliant, traditional community and a brand new visitor centre. Simply flying from Iqaluit is a treat, on a good day, as the aircraft flies low for the thirty-minute hope between Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq offering a staggering view of this remote and extraordinary park. 

There is a strong sense of hosting visitors there, and the community is coming together to create a broadly-based offering of products to engage visitors. The surroundings are quite stunning, the local guides engaging and the sense of adventure and exploration complete.

The Bay in Qikiqtarjuaq with its captive icebergs

The bay, that dominates the village, is host to some "captive icebergs"; Qik, as the hamlet is known locally, lies on the Davis Strait, the major iceberg highway that carries the glacial behemoths south to The Atlantic from their calving grounds in Greenland and North Baffin. From time to time, a glacier becomes caught in the bay, and once in, it cannot escape. For decades, as they slowly melt, the bergs form an integral part of the landscape, and in the winter offer visitors a fantastic opportunity to head out by sled and clamber over these iconic arctic giants.

To explore and learn; the two major components in my kind of tourism are both here. As tourism develops, and it will be a slow and deliberate process, travellers who venture north can be sure of a warm and fascinating welcome to this Baffin outpost.

I usually head south at this time of year, but the past couple of weeks in the High Arctic have been among the most fascinating I have ever been fortunate to experience, and I can’t wait to return to the small communities in the coldest part of the world. 

And yes, in the winter!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Georgia's Soviet Legacy: A Tour

The Soviet Legacy Tour

Sixty-five years of occupation by the Soviet Union has left an indelible impact on Georgia. A fantasy economic system, archaic infrastructure and deeply peculiar and repressive social systems are now being erased, but their legacy lives on.

This unique tour program aims to introduce visitors to some of the more obvious of these legacies; bizarre cable cars, crumbling factories, Soviet-era health resorts and more. It is a fascinating glimpse into the near past, and a reflection of an economic and political system that leaves many scratching their heads. Join us to look back at this fascinating period of 20th century history.

September 23:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to the Hotel Citrus. Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 23rd, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

September 24: Following breakfast we will explore the historic part of Tbilisi; we will walk in the old part of the town visiting the bath house area, Narikala castle and Maidan Square. Later we will visit the Tbilisi Metro for a ride towards Soviet part of Georgian capital where we will visit buildings built in late 1960’s and 70 ‘s as massive residential blocks. After lunch we will head to the National Museum of History which includes an exhibition of Soviet Occupation dedicated to the victims of Soviet regime. Dinner will be at the Funicular restaurant built in 1930’s

Souvenirs at the Museum
September 25:  This morning we will drive to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The centerpiece of the town is the Stalin Museum; here you will see the house where he was born, the train carriage he used during the WWII and the massive museum building where a variety of memorabilia are kept. 

After the museum continue trip towards Chiatura, an industrial town in west Georgia. Important due to heavy manganese production, Chiatura has been heavily industrialized. The fascinating cable car system has not been touched since 1954. Brave ones in the group will be able to enjoy a ride in one of the metal cable cars.  We will continue towards Kutaisi and stay overnight at the restored soviet naval officers’ spa at Tskaltubo.

The Cable Cars of Chiatura
September 26: After breakfast we will tour the Tskaltubo resort. Founded in 1925 the town was one of the very first resorts built in the Soviet era. Numerous hotels and sanatoriums were built during first half of the 20th century, and they became one of the most popular elements of Soviet Health Tourism among all levels of Soviet society. Some of the buildings have been abandoned after 1990’s but they still have amazing charm. We will visit couple of these former sanatoriums before returning to Tskaltubo for our overnight stop.

September 27: In the morning we will head towards South Georgia; after short drive and couple of stops, we will arrive in Borjomi, another famous resort. Borjomi is a charming town that sits on the green slopes of Lesser Caucasus, with 65 % of its territory covered by forest. The main attraction of the town is its thermal waters. Ancestors of present Georgians knew the positive qualities of these springs and used it for medicinal purposes. The waters became popular for Russian Empire in late 19th century, and the government began building palaces, parks, public gardens and hotels to accommodate incoming tourists and patients. Renowned figures such as Anton Chekhov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky as well as members of the royal Russian family were among the common visitors of the springs. We will be able to taste these waters and enjoy a stroll in the garden. We will stay overnight here at the Borjomi Palace Hotel.

 Borjomi; the park and some old children's "attractions"!

Iago and Marina
September 28:  This morning we will drive back towards Tbilisi. Along the road visit Uplistsikhe, a spectacular ancient cave town dating from the first half of the 1st millennium BC. The famous “Fortress of God” is first mentioned in the chronicles of the 1st century A.D. Carved into the rocky plateau you will find huge echoing halls, long meandering corridor-streets, chambers for pagan worship, water supply system, secret tunnel, market and the remains of Georgia’s oldest theatre, complete with auditorium, stage and orchestra pit. Later drive to village Chardakhi where you will meet the local vintner Iago Bitarishvili. We will visit the cellar, taste his rare Chinuri wines and enjoy a delicious lunch cooked by the family.  After short drive we are back in Tbilisi. 

September 29: We will spend whole day in Tbilisi today, and visit the Car Museum, with a small but fascinating collection of old Soviet cars. Lunch will be at a local restaurant and later we will visit the flea market, where many old and fascinating items of the Soviet period are sold by a myriad of street vendors. In the evening we will enjoy a farewell dinner at a the Azarpesha restaurant, and enjoy Georgia’s unique polyphonic singing.

September 30: Departure from Tbilisi.

The Price: US$ 1,945 per person (Single supplement: US$ 395)

The price includes:
  • Four nights in Tbilisi at the Hotel Citrus 
  • Two nights in Tskaltubo 
  • One night in Borjomi at the Borjomi Palace 
  • All transportation and transfers
  • Daily breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • One folkloric evening in Tbilisi
  • Fully escorted by Tamara Natenadze and MaxGlobetrotter 
  • All applicable taxes

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of eighteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at:

The Classic Georgian Tour: Food, Wine and Culture

The Classic Georgia: Food Wine and Culture

Well, this time I am going to use my blog to announce two unique tour programs that will be offered by the Tbilisi-based travel company Living Roots and escorted by MaxGlobetrotter! Needless to say, I am very excited by the opportunity to work with Living Roots once again, and to return to Georgia in September.

We will be offering two programs: our Classic Georgia: Food, Wine and Culture, and a brand new tour, "Georgia's Soviet Legacy". Each will be quite fascinating, and will dig deep into the life, history and culture of Georgia. As regular followers of my blog will know, I am passionate about Georgia, and love working with the folks at Living Roots to offer a unique perspective on this unique country. Our tours will be limited to eighteen people, nine couples; early booking is essential.

This will be the fourth time that we have offered this program, and we look forward to introducing you to the fascinating and surprising country of Georgia this September. Recognised by National Geographic as one of the tours that one must take in a lifetime, we are pretty proud of the itinerary.

Our groups are small and our aim is to take you away from the major tourist destinations to meet and experience the unique culture of this wonderful country located in the heart of The Caucasus. 

September 10:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to our accommodation confirmed for three nights at the Citrus Hotel. Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 10th, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

Vino Underground
September 11:  There will be an optional walking tour at 10.00 am for those who are up and ready that will explore the quirky center of Old Tbilisi; we will see the city from each side of the River and have an introduction to the remarkable stories of the early days of this strategically important town. Lunch will be at 1.00 pm, and later in the afternoon we shall wander over to the iconic wine bar, Vino Underground for our first introduction to the glories of Georgian wine.

September 12:  The morning will be free to rest and adjust to the time zone, or explore the surrounding areas on your own. In the afternoon we will head out to Tbilisi to explore the Old Capital of Mtskheta and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. This cathedral, founded in 1010, is one of the most sacred places in the country and is a fine introduction to the importance of the Georgian Orthodox church in the Georgian soul.

September 13:  Today we will leave the capital behind and head west. First to the unremarkable town of Gori, made famous only because of its native son, Stalin. We shall visit the extraordinary, and rather chilling museum to his life before continuing over the Likhi mountains to Kutaisi and finally to Tskutalbo, our overnight stop. This resort was built in the 1970s as a resort exclusively for high-ranking Soviet Naval offices, and is makes a delightful and unique place to stay.

September 14:  Today we climb the mountains. After a coffee stop in Zugdidi, we will drive up the Svaneti Valley to Mestia. This region is special, even by Georgian standards! The communities that populate this valley are distinct and historically fiercely independent. We will see some dramatic scenery, gorgeous mountains and villages that have been here since the dawn of time. Finally, we will reach Mestia, the regional capital and now a center for hiking, skiing and a variety of other mountain-based activities.

September 15:  Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is extremely remote and life here is redolent of the middle ages. It has a collection of dramatic medieval towers, and lying as it does at 2,300m, it is the highest populated community in Europe. We will have time to explore the village in some detail, and if the weather is clear, have a dramatic view of Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkhara which towers some 5,100m over the landscape.
Ushguli - High in the Great Caucasus

September 16:  Today we head back down the mountain to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, and an important provincial capital. It is blessed with a two UNESCO sites, and we will visit one, the Gelati Monastery, built in the early 1100s by King David. It is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also an important center of learning for centuries, and one of the first schools in the region.

September 17:  Today is a “Driving Day”; we shall start the morning in the local market before driving east. We will stop for lunch at Iago’s Winery, a charming family wine producer in the Kartli region. Iago’s wine is remarkable, and his was the first winery in the country to receive a bio-certificate for his vineyard and production. Skirting Tbilisi, we will enjoy the three-hour drive toward the Azeri border, and our next stop, this time for three nights, at Sighnaghi,

September 18:  There are many opportunities for sightseeing in this quirky town; we will spend time in the morning exploring the town itself before driving a few kilometers away to visit the 9th century monastery of Bodbe. It now functions as a nunnery, and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia.
Following a short rest, we will have our dinner, a traditional Georgian Supra, at PheasantsTears. This restaurant and winery is one of the most vibrant in the country, and an exciting place to meet some of the finest Georgian wine, cuisine and be introduced to the unique polyphonic music.

September 19:  We will spend today exploring the region of Kakheti; we will see the main town of Telavi, and later visit the unusual and quite remarkable winery of Alaverdi. Here, wine has been made by the monks continuously since the year 1011, and they have got it right! We will enjoy a tasting here before returning to our hotel in Sighnaghi for our final evening in the Georgian countryside. Dinner will be at a local restaurant.

September 20:  We will drive back to Tbilisi today and have time in the afternoon for some independent sightseeing before our farewell dinner at Azarpesha, a unique cultural restaurant in the center of Tbilisi’s Old City.

September 21:  Your departure from Georgia. Once again your flight may have an early departure time, but your room will be available to rest in prior to your airport transfer. Please note that for those joining our Soviet Legacy tour, this will begin on September 23, giving you a day to relax and enjoy Tbilisi on your own. 

The Price:           US$ 2,940 per person (single supplement: $650)

This includes:             
  • Airport transfers
  • 4 nights in Tbilisi at the Hotel Citrus
  • 3 nights in Sighnaghi at the Hotel Kabadoni
  • 1 night in Tskaltubo
  • 2 nights in Mestia and the Hotel Tetnuldi
  • 1 night at the Hotel Begrati in Kutaisi
  • Daily breakfast, lunch and 10 dinners
  • Five wine tastings and two folkloric performances
  • All entrance fees and excursions as detailed on the itinerary
  • Transportation by coach throughout, with 4WD vehicles for the day excursion to Ushguli
  • Fully escorted by Tamara Natenadze and “MaxGlobetrotter”

The price excludes the following:  
  • Items not specifically mentioned in the itinerary
  • Items of a personal nature

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of eighteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at:

The Alaverdi Monastery