Monday, December 5, 2011

Thorshavn, Faroe Islands

Suffice it to say that the Faroe Islands, wonderful in the summer and fall, have a charm throughout the winter, even when the weather may be at its more dramatic, and the days draw short. By December, the sun will rise above the horizon at about nine o’clock, and dip back down before half past three; and this burst of sunshine visible only at sea level, as behind the mountains, the sun will penetrate only briefly as it reaches its peak.

But despite this drawback, the islands are cosy, welcoming and endlessly fascinating.
In the course of a couple of days, it is possible to drive to most of the northern islands, connected as they are by an intricate system of tunnels and bridges. While the difference between the islands might appear academic at first glance, it is their very distinctions that make the country such a pleasure to explore.

The fourteen or so islands lie roughly northwest to south east, and rise to over 3,000’ although only a mile or so wide. The land plunges down into the sea, to unfathomable depths before rising up a few hundred yards further to create another magnificent, rocky and spectacular island. Nestled along the shoreline are the ancient communities clinging to the land, their past and future firmly determined by the sea. The islands are indeed ancient, and their language reminiscent to Old Norse. It is a language that nearly died in the late 1800s, and it is said that only the interest of Danish lexicographers sent to the islands to record the remaining fragments of language, spurred the islanders to a linguistic revival. Now the Faroese language, spoken by a maximum of 70,000 folks, is indeed thriving. 140 bookes were published in 2010/11 in the language, and its own literature is rich and growing.
The culture of the islands is strong, and obvious everywhere. Communities are proud and welcoming, the traditional Faroese sweaters and jackets are worn regularly and their old foods are common. Possibly too common for many as the appearance of puffins, dried salt-cod, whale blubber and mutton head-cheese on otherwise conventional buffets can be a surprise.

Having tried a piece of the cured whale blubber (which I had incorrectly identified as cod) and decided that it was not a flavour that I was likely to acquire, I was admonished for eating it incorrectly. Advised that the correct and delicious way to enjoy this delicacy was to compose a trifecta of dried salt-cod, speck (the harmless name they give to whale blubber) topped with a boiled potato. This combination was the only way to enjoy these delicacies, and as the Faroese did it this way, so should we all.
Popping it into my mouth and chewing was the gustatory equivalent of a right hook. There is a very good reason that the delicacy has not spread, and while the alarm on my face may have registered my true feelings, I managed to chew and swallow it, and rapidly poured a shot of local fire-water in to douse the experience.

This proved to be an error, as I had not realised quite how strongly the aquavit was flavoured with aniseed, and the ensemble thus created was memorable.
Fond memories, though, as it has to be said that the rest of the feast was wonderful, and the experience only went to reinforce how closely this wonderful country has kept its culture.

To drive through the islands is to gasp at the endless perfect scenery, to wonder at the picturesque communities, to marvel at the engineering that has built the infrastructure to keep the community together yet living in their traditional villages; it is a country of ever-changing weather, cloud formations that inspire and light that seems to make the country smile.
It is, perhaps, one of the most difficult countries in the world to imagine carving out a living among the high and craggy islands way out in the North Sea, but the Faroese do, and do with a smile that reflects their pride in maintaining their culture and pride.

For a visitor, the Faroe Islands offer peace and excitement, they foster tranquillity and curiosity, and thay always leave one eager to return.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Faroe Islands once more

I have to start by saying that I am not given to hyperbole. Understatement may not be my strongest suit, but I try to stay pretty close to the truth, and having said this, I need to explain a lifelong love of The Faroe Islands.

In about 1968 or 1969 National Geographic magazine published an article about The Faroes; I was mesmerised. As a pre-pubescent boy, National Geographic, as it landed on the doorstep was a must, as from time to time, naked female breasts, still a mystery and wonder to me, were displayed. This month, however, it was about remote communities, whale hunts, air-dried lamb, remarkable landscapes and the ancient turf-roof houses of Torshavn, the islands’ capital city. From that moment on, I was captivated by the islands, and, in fact, still am.

Tonight, I am in Gjogv; an utterly remarkable village in a picturesque valley to the north of the island of Eysturoy.  The hotel I am staying in, the Gjaargardur Guest House, is wonderful; perfectly appointed, friendly beyond need and absolutely lovely; the evening is perfect.
Snow dusts the mountains that converge here, and while the village is cosy and secure tonight, it was built in the days that cosy and secure were the only elements of life that counted as the village’s economy relied on men heading out to the wild North Atlantic to fish; perhaps they still should be, and Gjogv still is, and although its population has declined from about 80 to about 40, it still has the air of prosperity and a continuum that will attract folks back to it yet

I am here, in the islands, with our Chicago-based publicist with whom we have worked closely for fifteen years or more. It is my belief, and I  have to be honest, my commercial hope, that the Faroes will be the next “big” destination, and to this end, we are here for four days to enjoy ourselves; and astonish ourselves.
The islands are small, and with a community of only 50,000 one does not expect to find a symphony orchestra; yet here one is, and tonight its director, Paul Jakup Thomsen, spent an hour talking about the culture of the islands. That over 5,000 people regularly watch the symphony, yes, 10% of the population, is exceptional; that their number includes several European prize winners is remarkable, and that their repertoire includes among an orchestra’s standard, Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Symphony and David Shaffer’s Sandpaper Symphony is astonishing; astonishing, perhaps only without an awareness of these islands.

It is an island where culture means much, and is displayed every day. When Paul asked his class of ten or so young women to sing us a song, they immediately did so; it was a lullaby, and judging from their snickers and grins, the lyrics may not have been entirely appropriate to sing to a 55 year old man, but the thought was there. And not only that, they sang beautifully and spontaneously, used to communal singing for many reasons, odd or conventional.

Lying half way between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are inhospitable, gorgeous, stubborn and probably my favourite place in the world. Their livelihood comes from fishing, as well as a pretty eclectic mixture of businesses ranging from clothing design, computer software and tourism to the general support businesses that any community needs. They are unutterably gorgeous, noted by National Geographic as the most desirable tourist destination in the world. For those interested in scenery, hiking, birdlife, history, culture and finding the elusive “peace and quiet” so often sold by tourist destinations, the Faroes should be on the list.

So here we are. Surprised by a blizzard that howled through last night, and dusted the islands with white, we will wander from the north to the south and the east to the western extreme (the island of Nolsoy) and wonder about this rather unusual land for the next three days.
I am not sure why the National Geographic article so attracted me, but now, on my fifth visit to these islands, I know why I want to come back.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Queen Mary; Deck 1

Here’s a funny thing.

The medical centre on this ship is on Deck 1, the lowest platform of the vessel. It is a funny deck, being home to pallets of vegetables, bits of engine, mysterious boxes with funny labels, rooms named after “Kensington”, “Chelsea”, “Belgravia” and “Knightsbridge” - some of London’s most salubrious suburbs and the medical centre.

I know this only because I was exercising. Yes, I know. However, as part of my regime I spent some fifteen minutes on a treadmill, not normally a dangerous pastime. Excruciatingly boring, yes, but not inherently death-defying.

However, on board a ship that lurches gently in unpredictable parabolas, one finds one’s feet searching for land, and in extremis, finding one’s ankle tendons being left far behind, flapping in the proverbial wind. Hence my trip to the medical centre.

Now, what is really odd about it is that the elevator (or” lift” as it is called on this splendidly British ship) only goes to a couple of points Deck 1, neither accessible to the medical centre. No, to get medical help, one has to go to Deck 2 and walk down two flights of stairs. I hobbled down, clutching the railing in a somewhat melodramatic manner to emphasise my plight, wondering how someone with a serious injury would be able to access the doctor. Would they slide down? Are there special “buckets” in which the wounded are propelled to Deck 1? A system of weights and pulleys? Enquiring minds need to know.

However, the doctor was very good, the ankle duly bound and now a wheelchair to look forward to at the airports en route home. At least the immigration queue will be short.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Queen Mary 2; sailing across The Atlantic

Buffets on board ships are terrific places to observe eccentricity at play, and the Queen Mary is no exception.

Unleashed from the constraints of conventional food-pairing, buffet-grazers are free to tickle their taste buds as they fancy. One sees chicken curry sploshed on a plate alongside pizza and little pickled fish, roast beef garnished with macaroni cheese and any number of wonderfully personal combinations. It does make one question how the more common and pedestrian combinations, so beloved of the processed-food industry came into being; certainly not from the observation of folks in a buffet line when free to choose the combination that most appeals.

Eccentricity is actually in pretty short order here; at first glance it is a fairly homogeneous crowd, particularly at dinner where 80% of the men aboard wear evening dress. However, there are glimpses of individuality; a novelty bow-tie or two, a cummerbund discreetly sporting the crest of a secret society, or perhaps a football team. There are those who choose to dress like an old photographic negative, exchanging black suits for white, and white shirts for black; even the odd cuff-links, indicating a wearer with personality, and of course, one or two gentlemen discreetly sporting medals.

The medals are interesting and food for speculation. Are they indeed war heroes or wearing some bauble of Soviet-era industrial success picked up in a Moldovan market place? One hardly dares to ask.

Our 2,491 passengers are apparantly drawn from twenty-nine countries, including, a touch mysteriously, six Maltese; Brits far outnumber the rest, with 1,488 in their number, compared with singletons from Estonia, Hong Kong, Romania, Singapore and Swaziland. Does the Estonian make up a party of four with the three identified Finns? One never knows, but days at sea sharpen one’s curiosity.

The passengers are a mixed bunch too, with a myriad of reasons to be ploughing across the North Atlantic in November. There are many who simply “don’t fly”, and for whom the QM2 is the only way to regularly get to America for business, to see family or to simply sightsee. There are those here to celebrate anniversaries or, by the disconsolate looks of some couples at the bars, to try and repair relationships. There are those who are on board, it seems, to play bridge endlessly, some dance for hours and some simply read.

It is a great attraction of this ship that so many tastes are catered to. There are no assertively smiley folks trying to make you have more fun than you might want, and the shopping is limited. It is not a circus, more a country-house hotel than an all-inclusive, and a very pleasant way to while away a week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Europe - November 2011

It is difficult to be in Europe for a couple of weeks and not realise that they are in the middle of an economic and political crises of stupendous proportions. That is, if one reads and believes the newspapers; real life, if there is such a thing, seems to be a little different.

It is not that times are harder than before; they appear to be so. Primark, London’s major discount store that sells goods faster than China can make them now, seems, by observation of shopping bags in Oxford Street, to be doing a very robust business. So do the rather more chic bags emanating from Aspreys, the more discreet tailors of Jermyn Street and London’s finer milliners.

It is something else that is missing, and it is difficult to put one’s finger on it with any precision.

Conversation is often of frightening times; of disappearing savings, of increased prices, of riots and even the spectacle of “economic collapse”. What exactly the world would look like in the event of any of these apocalypses, however, is unknown and terribly speculative. Does it mean a grinding decade or two of no growth, grumpy unions and increasingly pointed barbs at the older folks who have, quite understandably, got most of the wealth? Obtained wealth, it must be added, through dint of hard work, saving before spending and the absence of credit when they were in their twenties.

Now we have the spectacle of a United Kingdom that requires both increased savings and growing spending to stave off the crises.

But what, exactly is the crises? Rampant riots, bank accounts that implode, worthless pieces of paper held by Financial Institutions? Are we talking about thinking more about the price of the food that we buy, or having a go at the neighbour’s dog?

And lest Brits be too cheery about not being in the Eurozone, which they are not and probably fortunately for both the UK and the Eurozone, the economy appears to be tottering close to collapse triggered by rampant lending to an obviously uncreditworthy Greece and the legendary escapades of Italy’s Lotharian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Really, you could not have made this stuff up.

The Powerful Ones, notably the EU commissioners and Angela Merkel, the wannabe powerful ones, Nicolas Sarkozy and the IMF line up to wag their fingers at Greece and Italy. The Greek Bailout (which appears to me to be more of a bailout to the reckless banks who lent them all the money)will cost the diligent burghers of Bavaria and Prussia a great deal of money, The Italian Job, unfolding as I write this, will cost a whole lot more; and meanwhile, the voters are getting grumpy. It seems to be commonly agreed that a plebiscite of any kind would be unkind to the vision of European Togetherness; as soon as the Greeks decided to hold one, it only took a few days before the idea was firmly squashed and the prime minister disrobed.

God forbid that democracy comes to Europe, and that the voters are invited to actually make a decision.

In the meantime, bankers get enormous bonuses, senior civil servants getting salaries in excess of £150,000 are firing those making less than £15,000; offshore capital is piling up faster than leaves in the autumnal wind and folks are getting disillusioned and angry. With something, although exactly what is not quite certain.

It is my belief that the laissez faire model of capitalism is in its dying throes. Capitalism is, of course, only a form of Darwinism practiced among companies. As many regulations and ways of conducting commerce were thrown away in the 1980s, greed became rampant, and companies, as they should in the Darwinian world, simply became bigger. Financial institutions became evermore skilled and vacuuming up cash from the economy, and now, it appears, that “they” have indeed won. They have all of the money, and nobody, absolutely nobody has any idea how to get it back into circulation.

We read of company coffers stuffed with cash; of cash balances in the offshore centres bulging with some of the smaller islands sinking under the weight of the cash. And what are we to do? We will happily congratulate them at their brilliance at winning all of the toys; we will even give them bonuses for having reached the pinnacle of some challenge or other.

We have not “lost” money, as if blasted off into outer space. No, we have allowed a smaller and smaller number of corporate titanics to hoard all of the wealth, and placed absolutely no obligation on them to put it back to work.

That is the problem.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Faroe Islands; 0.2% of Faroese are Polish

Just when you think that you have these islands sussed, a headline such as this will appear, and abb another quirk into the fabric that these naugha-Viking islands weave.

The Faroe Islands are a touch odd; it is their very eccentricity that attracts and it is their sometimes quirky approach to life that mesmerises. Life is a blend of new; of course the islands boast contemporary communications, cutting-edge design and a wide selection of modern wines, but at the same time, one sees people dressed in traditional Faroese clothing; one sees fishing villages that still launch their boats in ways that are clearly evolutionary developments from the ancient days and not revolutionary.

Don’t get me wrong, these are no backward people. Their livelihoods depend on fishing (and the generosity and (one has to believe the wilful blindness) of the Danish taxpayers; and in each endeavour, they are quite resourceful and successful.

The Faroe Islands are not a part of the EU. They keep outside, as does Iceland, principally because of their fishing industry. They believe that opening their fishing grounds to the unprincipled plunderers of the southern fleets will cost them far more in both the long and short-terms than staying outside will do. And, I think that they have a point. The fishing industry protects the evolution of an ancient life-style, admittedly aided considerably by Danish largesse, but nonetheless, it is evident from the number of full laden semis that boarded the ferry I am on in Torshavn that their Viking sea-based heritage is alive and well.

I was in the islands for business. There is annually a trade show for those whose travel businesses work heavily with operators in The Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, and this year it was in Torshavn. Next year it will be in Reykjavik, and after that it will be Greenland’s turn to host the event. Rather sadly, they have, for their last couple of turns, held it in Copenhagen, which has always struck me as an odd nod to their colonial past. We live in hope, though, of 2013 being back in their wonderful, northern home.

It is a great event; a chance for new tour operators, guest houses, bus routes, restaurants, hotels and other vital components of the travel business to show off their new products; in turn, there are about eighty-five buyers from around the world (in addition to my participation, there were buyers from Australia, China, Japan and Russia in addition to their more traditional European markets) looking for new products to sell.

And we found a lot. There are some fabulous community groups in South Greenland offering new programs, a new combination coach program in Iceland that will offer independent travellers another choice in touring there, and some new air-routes around the region offering us wide new opportunities to design some terrific products for the 2012 season. Watch the website!

Air Greenland, Air Iceland, Icelandair, Atlantic Airways and the redoubtable Smyril Line all work closely with the travel trade, and their complex and interwoven route network opens up this area for exploration. There is accommodation to suite all budgets, and the friendly faces, welcoming smiles and marvellous stories of the Atlantic Islanders will all combine to make a perfect and memorable vacation.

Which brings me to Poles.

The current copy of Atlantic Airway’s flight magazine highlights a fascinating statistic. The Faroese population, according to this August organ, comprises 92.7% Faroese, 6% Danes, and 0.3% Greenlanders with only Norwegians and Poles getting a mention at 0.2% each before “other” who make up 0.6%.

Now, given that their population is about 48,000 people, this means that there are about 96 Poles; a small number to be sure, but measurable. Further evidence of this diaspora was to be seen at a dry-dock boatyard where the various boxes for differing selections of waste products were indicated in Faroese, English and Polish.

The Polo-Faroese migratory movement is not one of the world’s most studied, but it is a bit interesting.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wonderful Faroe Islands

Well, I have been here for twenty-four hours, and that added to the collective wisdom garnered on three previous visits, I feel, bestows expert status.

I can assert with little doubt that the weather in the Faroe Islands is not their strongest suit. Today, it was a touch gloomy at first, then overcast and later in the day, for a few minutes, scattered clouds. The clouds were subsequently gathered together and tethered above Torshavn, where they now sit.

However, I couldn’t have enjoyed the day more.

If one is in the slightest doubt where one is, upon awakening in a strange hotel room, one glance at the breakfast buffet and the pride of place accorded the pickled fish will narrow it to Scandinavia in a hurry; a second glance, marvelling at the size of the bowl, and the supplementary “foods of the sea” will confirm it as The Faroes. I happen to like pickled fish, and with the time zones on my taste-buds side, I plundered the buffet and headed out into the drizzle.

I do like rain, actually, and the light morning mist that covered Torshavn simply added to the warm and cosy feel of the town. Emphatically painted wooden buildings with turf roofs abound in the city centre; glancing in through the windows one can see the most contemporary offices and feel a sense of wonder at the Faroese ability to merge a thousand years of history and convention with today’s electronic convenience. It is a feeling that reappears frequently as one wanders through this remarkable island group.

I decided to go and visit the island of Nólsoy, conveniently located twenty minutes by ferry from the thumping heart of Torshavn. I sailed over, and watching the island appearing from the mist wondered where everyone was. The ferry was delivering about thirty folks there but otherwise, the town had the look of a Norse Potemkin village; deserted. I decided that the four-hour wait until the next ferry home would stretch even my imagination, so I simply stayed on board and headed back. The next attempt at self-amusement was a bus to the fishing town of Vestmanna some forty kilometres away.

It was a fine bus ride, passing through more of these perfect toy-villages until we arrived at the end of the line, and with a little over two hours to pass until the return bus, I wandered into the throbbing heart of the community.

The throb actually turned out to be a rather powerful pair of engines running inside a building close to the harbour, and with that mystery solved, I wandered on. It was quiet, I have to say, but rather lovely. The clouds had lifted, the drizzle abated and I simply looked around. Lovely houses, secure in the knowledge that the community had been there for a thousand years or more, and village elders kept (presumably) a continuing eye on who married whom. Houses were lovely, although it has to be said that some were a touch shabby; I liked that, as it indicated a sort of realism that is absent from perfection, and continued to wander. Past the harbour, in and around the local supermarket (heavy on yoghurts and Cadbury’s chocolate, leeks from Belgium and an unusually large selection of liquorices), gazed into the local clothing store (now, in the post-tourist season offering a 60% pricing advantage) and a rather drab looking dance hall. I suppose that most dance halls look sad in the middle of the afternoon, but there you go.

Then lunch and the most perfect fish and chips that I have ever encountered. And believe me, I have encountered a few in my time.

There couldn’t really have been time for my cod to realise what had happened to it between the moment that it lurched toward the bait, was hauled into the boat, deposited, still flapping, on the dock - a dock that has a number of notices that prohibit dogs from sniffing around, but oddly, not cats - being hustled into the kitchen and via a fryer onto my plate. Six hours at most is my guess, and it tasted thus.

The perfection of really fresh fish, cooked with skill is remarkable; it was simply sublime.

And so I returned on the bus to Torshavn marvelling at my fortune of being here, on a group of magical islands adrift in the North Atlantic Ocean.

I love the Faroe Islands.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Driving through northern Michigan

It has been five months since I have been to Europe, for me a record. After the mad wanderings of the past few years, it has been good to stay home for a while, although I certainly miss Esperaza.

During the summer I have had the opportunity to go on a couple of interesting, more local trips, into both the Arctic and the near US states. It was really a pleasure to explore some of our neighbour’s territory, and last week found us driving home from Toronto to Winnipeg.

The drive is good; from Toronto we headed to Sarnia and into Michigan before heading north and driving the length and breadth of this interesting state. It is, for those who have not been there or studied its geography, deceptively large, and peculiarly shaped.

We stopped on our first night in Gaylord, a village touted to emulate a small Alpine village. Apart from the obvious lack of Alps, the descriptions were misleading; oddly -gabled buildings astride a normal, gas-station and big-box infested highway would have been more accurate. The hotel was fine, and as pasteurised as one might expect a Hilton to be, although their air-conditioning sounded like rush-hour on an aircraft carrier. Food in town was harder to find, and although we rocked on up to the “Big Buck”, with predictably gargantuan servings of various American specialities, we left thirsty.

They brewed their own beer; actually an admirable pastime and I have to say they do it well. However, their wine making leaves a lot to be desired. Astringent, weedy and, one has to say, tasting as if it had been made in Central Michigan, it was on sale at an eye-watering $9.50 for 4½ ounces. Now even in metric units, this is a price that would normally be paid for some nectar of the gods, and not this backwater naughawine.

However, suitably fortified we headed north and crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. We did choose the one day of the year that pedestrian traffic in permitted on the bridge, and consequently thousands of folks took advantage of this regulatory relaxation, and wandered toward us. Watching the walkers, of absolutely every shape and size, did lead to some unkind comments and some small wagers as to some individual’s potential of completing the five-mile walk alive.

It did add an hour to our journey, however, and thus our run across the northern section of the state was a touch more hurried than we might have liked.

This is the land that the economy seems to have left behind. Once clear of Mackinaw, the next two hundred or so miles of highway was littered with “For Sale” signs. Fully two-thirds of the motels and RV parks were for sale, and in many cases, it appeared to be a forlorn hope.

Where are the tourists? We supposed that now, rather than driving and stopping when tired at a motel showing a “vacancy” sign, folks simply got on their iPads, Pods or Phones, and heading straight for a brand name, booked a Best Western, Days Inn or similar, rushing by the independents, unable to reach the brand-obsessed on-line traveller. Cars are also better today, and the daily distances we cover are longer, allowing travellers to congregate in one of a few thriving centres rather than spreading the wealth more evenly throughout the state.

It is a sad state of affairs, and the economy of the “UP” was clearly hurting.

We stopped in Fargo, ND as well, principally to look at a building that we might invest in, but also because of the small towns in the upper mid-west, Fargo really stands out.

Its downtown is attractive, full of life and small businesses. This, principally due to the investment made by a local family who sold their software company to Microsoft for $1.3 billion or so; and let me tell you, that sort of money goes a long way in a smallish town. Of particular note is the lovely Hotel Donaldson, a terrific spot and worth a detour of anyone’s trip. That does assume, of course, that one is anywhere in the vicinity to begin with, which given Fargo’s location, is improbable.

And so to Brussels.

The last time I was here I had arrived on a Capitol Airways flight from New York, and given that Capitol went bankrupt in the 1980s, this was some time ago. As I look out of the window, I see planes from seven airlines, only three of which existed on my last visit. How things change. I am not here for long, heading in a couple of hours to Copenhagen on one of these new airlines (Brussels Airlines). I shall have time to scoot into town there for a beer with an old friend before the final flight of the journey to the magical Faroe Islands.

And more of the Faroes tomorrow.

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!