Dreaming of My 2014 Travels: France

Tips for traveling through France, from the travel guru, Rick Steves: When touring France, it’s important to get a balance between Paris and the countryside. Awesome, dominating, endlessly romantic, and thrilling as Paris may be, you can’t just go to Paris and say you’ve seen France. In my mind, Burgundy is “profound France” and offers a delightful rural balance to the urban energy of Paris. But in the end, Paris always charms. This clip shows why I’m excited to be returning and why, on our Best of Europe tour, Paris is the finale. If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Dreaming of My 2014 Travels: Switzerland

Drive from the Italian Riviera to the Swiss Alps with Rick Steves: “From palm trees to snowballs”–perhaps the most thrilling juxtaposition of sights you can enjoy in a day of touring in Europe–is our nickname for driving from the Italian Riviera (Cinque Terre) to the heart of the Swiss Alps–the Berner Oberland. To have the most wonderful mix of cow culture and alpine thrills, we have long stayed in my favorite little alpine village…tiny Gimmelwald, a humble peasant hamlet where nearly everyone has the same last name.  Check out this video clip taken high upon “scalps of the Alps,” and you’ll see why I get excited just thinking about my upcoming trip to Switzerland. If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Travel Minute — Which Airlines Require Fewer Miles For Award Tickets?

This commentary originally aired Jan 29, 2014 If you have miles in multiple airline frequent flyer accounts, or if you carry a credit card that allows you Frequent flyer miles 2to trade points for flights on several different airlines, be sure to shop around before you cash in. Not every airline offers tickets for the same amount of miles. Want a round trip, business class ticket from the US to Europe?  It’ll cost you 125,000 miles after June 1st on Delta but only 100,000 on US Airways before the end of March. Want a round trip, coach ticket to Australia or New Zealand?  It’ll be 100,000 miles on Delta after June 1st, but only 75,000 on American. Those are big differences.  Now, at any point, those airlines requiring fewer miles could change their award structure and match competitors.  But they usually give you a few month’s notice before doing so, and you can book into the future at the lower rate if you beat the deadline for any changes. You’ll find different rates on almost all routes, but you must comparison shop.  And don’t forget to look at other airlines in the same alliance as the one you have miles on.  Scott Grimmer of MileValue.com has put together a handy comparison chart of the award levels of four major airlines.  Here’s a link to it.      

Travel Minute — Making Flying With Kids Fun With Your Airborne Nanny

Need help with the kids when you're jet-setting around? Rudy Maxa shares a new solution: Oscar Wilde once said there are two ways to fly: first class or with kids.  But a start-up web site called Kids in airportNannyInTheClouds.com wants to lend a helping hand to parents. You know the tune.  You’re a single parent with a rambunctious child in tow while trying to clear security and juggling boarding passes, a car seat, and carry-on luggage.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a bit of help? Meet NannyInTheClouds.  It’s a website that matches parents with child-friendly fellow travelers willing to earn a little money by lending you a hand at the airport and even on your flight. Before you get too excited, remember there are more than 30,000 commercial flights each day in the US, and this website is young.  So when you type in your flight and date, you may not be lucky enough to find someone on your same flight who’d like to be a temporary nanny.  But if you like kids and wouldn’t mind making, say, $100 or so on a cross-country flight by assisting a parent with kids, register at NannyInTheClouds.  Parents, you’ll be able to talk to or meet with your nanny before a flight. 

The 13 Greatest Adventures for 2013 by Richard Bangs

The 13 Greatest Adventures for 2013
All photos “compliments of AdventureLink”
-Richard Bangs

Though the odds have been bucked (there are bold travelers; and old travelers; but no old bold travelers), I’ve been reconnoitering the backs of beyond since the exordium of modern adventure travel, and have written about quite a few. I would imagine I could swing my Bic with the best of them. Nonetheless, I am daunted by AdventureLink, which boasts the world’s largest database of adventure travel trips and outfitters.

So, I combed through this dangerous catalogue, and picked out what I think will be the best adventures for 2013 (and I have personally tested them all, and reported about each on Huffington Post):

13) Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia)

It hosts the highest mountain in SE Asia, Mt. Kinabalu; the largest concentration of wild orangutans in the world; the greatest rainforests on the planet; some of the deepest caves; and of course the ambitious Dayaks, always looking to get a head.

My Huffpo report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/escape-to-borneo-photos_b_1698375.html

12) Costa Rica

It has been called the Happiest Place on Earth, and is infused with a spirit called Pura Vida. It pours with the best rafting in Central America, has the best eco-lodges, more zip-lines than anyplace else on earth, great surfing, and some of the finest primary rainforest left.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/costa-rica-and-the-quest-_b_958616.html

11) Ireland

Yes, it has the best beer in the world, and the oldest scotch distillery, the first Irish Coffee, but it also offers up some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe, great hiking and mountain biking, and in Belfast, the new stunning museum, Titanic Belfast (at the bar next door you can order a gin & Titonic)


My Huffpo Reports: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/the-savage-craic-of-western-ireland_b_1194616.html

And: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/northern-ireland-travel-richard-bangs_b_1582295.html

10) Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the Tibet of Africa, with an average elevation of 8,000’, and some of the highest peaks in the continent. It also is the source of the Blue Nile, running through The Grand Canyon of Africa, and the Omo River in the south, along which some of the most intact tribal cultures in the world survive…for now. It is the only country in Africa never to be colonized, and so the cultures run deep and untainted. The Queen of Sheba ruled in the north. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly hidden here. Good luck…


My Huffpo report (with Peter Guber): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-guber/african-water-rights-in-d_b_633678.html

9) Bosnia

Sometimes good things come out of war. Bosnia possesses what the rest of Europe has lost, as the country’s natural resources were not exploited during the conflicts. The result: the cleanest water and air in Europe; the greatest untouched forests; and the most wildlife. The best way to experience is the three rivers trip, which purls through the best the Balkans have to offer.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richardbangs/post_1068_b_766474.html

8) Zambia

Zambia is Zamazing. Not only does it have the largest game park in Africa (Kafue), walking safaris in the park with the most wildlife (South Luangwa), but it hosts the largest falling sheet of water in Africa, Victoria Falls, and the wildest rafting in the continent, down the Zambezi (I confess, I made the first descent). And it has the best place to get unplugged: The Kafue River Camp.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/zambia-africa-on-foot-and_b_1079683.html

7) Rogue River

I’ve run most of the wild and scenic rivers in North America, and my favorite is the Rogue. It has thrilling rapids, stunning alpine scenery, crisp, clear water, beautiful white sand camping beaches, and a waterslide to which Six Flags can only aspire. And my only credit on IMDb is as a stuntman on the Rogue for a made-for-TV movie, Killing at Hell’s Gate.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/killing-at-hells-gate-the-rogue_b_1738360.html

6) Zanskar River, Ladakh, India

Ladakh, also known as Little Tibet, is a kingdom at the top of the world, in the throne room of the mountain gods, somewhere between mystery and imagination. The Zanskar, a river deeper and more stunning than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, cracks the Himalayas like an egg. It is Shangri-La manifested, a wild river of Buddhist temples, monasteries, ibex, and snow leopards.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/the-thin-line-between-lif_b_1890329.html

5) Guangdong, China

What a discovery for me. Just a few hours north of Hong Kong or Macau the belly of the earth has bulged, wrenched and kinked in Danxia Mountain Park. There are spirits clad in emerald forest and red stone. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the nearly 70,000 acres of the park are nature’s great sculpture garden. This otherworldly landscape, looking more like the contours of the moon than an earthbound park, is enveloped by a warm, humid climate, which helps conserve great stretches of sub-tropical forest. Within this sanctuary more than 400 rare or threatened plant and animal species thrive in evergreen protection. And nearby are spectacular caverns, and a mighty gorge called Guangdong’s Grand Canyon. At nearly a thousand feet deep and nine miles long, this is a gaping call to adventure. The canyon’s diadem of glory is the Chengtou Waterfall, which fonts from a high ravine like an unleashed dragon.


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/quest-for-harmony-on-the-pearl-delta_b_1274776.html

4) Nicaragua

Unthinkable not long ago to vacation in Nicaragua, but now, fully bathed in peace, and blessed with preternatural beauty, it is a beginning blip on the adventure travelers’ radar. Lago de Nicaragua, a lake too vast to see across, second largest in all the tropics, where 25 years ago guerrillas skulked among the broad-leafed trees of the 365 volcanic islands, is now garlanded with eco-lodges, kayakers, and volcano seekers. Some of the best surfing in the world is on the Pacific Coast. Once a hot spot, now a hot spot of a pleasanter sort.


My Huffpo report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/post_1190_b_777174.html#s171155

3) Egypt

There really has never been a better time to visit Egypt. I was there a month ago with my five-year-old-son, and was delighted by the lack of tourist crowds, and the overabundance of hospitality and service. Tourism, like the Nile, is lifeblood to Egypt, but visitors have stayed away with the news of internal political jockeying, and so the country is moving smartly to bring them back with a wide welcome mat. The Library of Alexandria is a favorite, and the whole of the North Coast, all the way to the Libyan border, is opening up new resorts and activities. I plan to return this winter. Now is the time for Egypt!


My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/quest-for-the-lord-of-the_b_816883.html

2) North Korea

North Korea has been closed to Americans for 60 years, but the doors have opened a crack. I led a group to the Hermit Kingdom last fall, and it was like dropping into the Rabbit Hole, an alternative reality unlike any other place on the planet. It is 80% mountainous, and is strikingly beautiful, with parks similar to Yosemite and Zion, and Pyongyang, the capital, offers up the world’s best preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture, and a chance to bow beneath the most amazing Ozymandias statuary.


Mountain Travel Sobek is also offering two departures in 2013: http://www.mtsobek.com/trip/north-korea-adventure

My Huffpo Report (which received more comments than any other piece I’ve written): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/north-korea-and-the-hassl_b_1948471.html

1)    The Best of South America (Iguazu, Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Galapagos)

If there is a geography of wonder, it is South America, and it is now possible to stitch together the four greatest wonders of the continent, including Iguazu (on the border of Brazil and Argentina), the waterfalls that make Niagara pale; Easter Island (Chile), where the origin mysteries still stir with giant statues that stare into an unknown past; Machu Picchu (Peru), the mystical hidden citadel high in the Andes; and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), the great living museum of wildlife diversity.


My Huffpo report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/a-quest-for-wonder-iguacu_b_2002685.html

Buena suerte! And I hope to see you in South America!

Music Lovers and Europhiles… This Waltz Is for You

Get a glimpse of Rick Steves new public television special: I am so happy that our newest production, “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey,” is debuting all across the USA on public television. This hour-long special flies us musically to seven different countries in Europe. It celebrates how, in the late 19th century, music partnered with freedom-lovers; Romanticism and Nationalism were on the same team. For me this was a fun opportunity to partner with my local volunteer community orchestra here in Edmonds. I happily huddled with its wonderful conductor and came up with a concert plan, hosted the concert (three times in order to film it thoroughly), and then let my brilliant TV production team (Producer Simon Griffith and Editor Steve Cammarano) expertly cut gorgeous video clips to the music. As the musical tour guide, the challenge for me was to say more while saying less. The joy was to let the gorgeous images simply play with music from that country–rather than having my script explain everything. With this first entry, we start in Austria. Then, over the next two weeks here on Facebook, we’ll share six more concert clips featuring six different, proud nations–ending with our big, fat Beethoven finale. I hope you enjoy this. Share this with your Facebook friends who enjoy weaving travel and classical music together. (BTW, the entire “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey” special is airing across the USA on public television this season. If it’s not showing on your station, it is available to them for free. Give them a ring with a request, and it’s likely that you’ll have it on the air. If you can’t wait, the DVD and CD of the concert are now in our Travel Store on the Web.) Now, I’d like this waltz with you. If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Skills for Researching Guidebooks

Rick Steves' tips on how to research for his guidebooks, could also help you on your travels: 02-23-13 FB Rick Laptop We are just about the only guidebook publisher who still endeavors to visit–in person–every sight in our top-selling titles every year. (And even our lowest-selling titles get a personal visit every other year.) That’s a lot of territory to cover, and we have a team of talented and hardworking researchers who are preparing to set out on their annual research rounds. While I still enjoy the work and wish I could do it all myself, it’s just far too much for me to cover in the 60 to 80 days I dedicate to guidebook research each year. Each spring, we meet with our researchers to review our strategy and share advice on smart researching. Here are just a few of the tips that came up this year: Tourist Information To identify English-speaking locals, look for young people who are well-educated and/or work in tourism. The TI clerk may freeze up when they realize you’re a “journalist”; therefore, just ask questions as a confused tourist as long as you can. Many tourist information offices (TIs) are now privatized–and have become ad agencies in disguise. Use them, but be savvy. Recognize when TIs are pushing their own pay phone numbers (when a toll-free alternative may still be available) or talking up hotels and tour companies that buy their favor. Be skeptical of gimmicky sights, restaurants, and activities that advertise in the TI magazines–in many places, a TI seal of approval means only that that outfit gave them money. TI scorn is likely just a blacklisting of small businesses that refuse to buy into their game. Hotels and Restaurants When visiting hotels and restaurants, to be sure you have the correct contact details, write your research notes on the establishment’s business card. Cross your 7s–European-style–so you don’t mistake them later for sloppy 1s. Look for decals on doors of hotels and restaurants to see which guidebooks and organizations recommend them. If it’s in all the guidebooks, that’s a negative. At a hotel, pretend you intend to sleep there, and ask for only one night. That way, you’ll be considered as “undesirable” as possible, so you’ll be offered the worst-scenario price and see their hardest-to-sell room. Don’t worry about the quality of beds–the days of saggy beds are past. And if we cover something in one listing, it needs to be consistent and specific in all the others. Walk different routes to maximize your learning about neighborhoods where we recommend hotels.  Also be sure to walk through these neighborhoods late at night to gauge possible lowlife and noise problems. We won’t necessarily delete a place with these problems, but we need to be candid and warn people who might find this a problem. Don’t let hoteliers edit our listings. If they are above a porn shop and don’t want us to mention it, ignore their request. The listing is not a paid ad. They are lucky to be in the book at all. Museums List when the museum actually closes, not when they shut the ticket window. If researching during the off-season, be sure to ask about peak-season hours. Combo-tickets are generally a scheme designed to let mediocre sights that few people will pay to visit enjoy the coattails of sights that everyone will see at any price. The disadvantage of combo-tickets: They cost more. The advantage: You can buy your ticket at the unpopular sight and walk directly into the popular sight without waiting in line (examples: Correr Museum for the Doge’s Palace in Venice; Palatine Hill for the Colosseum in Rome). Nothing temporary is worth knowing about for your guidebook research. Don’t be distracted by something that won’t be there anymore by the time the book is published. Be a cultural lint brush. Live the book. Stay on top of your research. Try your hardest not start the next town until all your notes from the last town are carefully typed up. Remember: The quality and thoroughness of the work you do will impact thousands of travelers next year, and will make for more happy travels than you can imagine.

8 Hot Destinations for Bicycle Travel in 2013

Grannies on Safari recommended this blog by Mary Jo Manzanares. See the hottest destinations to travel by bike this year:

Hop on your bike and set off to see the world on two wheels! If that sounds like a great vacation adventure, consider this year’s eight hot destinations for bicycle travel which includes emerging destinations and already popular locales with something new to offer.


Situated on Africa’s southwestern coast, Namibia is considered by many to be Africa’s best-kept safari secret thanks to its extensive wildlife such as desert elephants, black rhinos, zebras, and cheetahs. Bike safaris are the least intrusive option and bring travelers closest to nature and to many tribal communities. Cyclists encounter rugged mountains, the world’s oldest desert, the largest canyon in Africa, wild rivers, a nearly thousand-mile coastline, and vast national parks. The country’s strong tourism infrastructure has long supported conservation efforts — and made for safe traveling.

Loire Valley, France

Bike touring is surging in the already popular cycling destination of the Loire Valley thanks to the new “Loire a Velo” bike route. The 500-mile route (which will eventually extend via the Eurovelo route 1,500 miles to Budapest) is well-marked, much of it on dedicated bike paths and quiet back roads. The high concentration of towns means plenty of hotels and restaurants — and most have rail stations should riders wish to shorten a day’s riding.

Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapas is emerging as Mexico’s adventure destination. The country’s southernmost state (it borders Guatemala), it is remote and well off the beaten path. Cyclists ride through vast tropical rainforest to explore lagoons, canyons, mountains and waterfalls including the 3,000-foot-high Sumidero Falls. Along the way, they encounter ancient Mayan ruins, thatched-roof villages rich with living Maya culture, and 17th-century colonial towns. The people of Chiapas are renowned for their smiles and hospitality — and for their delicious Mayan and Mexican cuisine.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany

European cycle tourists have already discovered Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, once part of former East Germany. More than 1,000 miles of coastline harbor 19th-century Baltic resorts, sandy beaches, charming fishing villages and medieval Hanseatic cities and towns. The inland landscape is dominated by a network of rivers and lakes and nearly 2,000 castles, national parks and estates, all connected by an extensive network of well-marked, asphalt, dedicated bike paths.


This once cut-off destination is now ripe for travel and perfect for cyclists who love adventure. Traveling around Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, travelers soon become aware of the immense legacy of a proud and powerful former kingdom that dates back 1,000 years or more. As adventurers cycle among the ancient temples, they will see firsthand the diversity of its people, culture, and topography that all make Burma one of Asia’s most fascinating and beautiful countries.

Czech Republic

Excellent cycling routes are a surprising, positive byproduct of Communist rule, which mandated that every town be connected by highways. These third-rate highways have since been replaced by more modern roads, and the old roadways now form a low-traffic network of bicycle routes — many of them now dubbed greenways. This makes it easy to traverse beautiful countryside (much of it in protected national parks) en route to medieval castles, remote villages, Baroque towns and a vast collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


From the beaches of Gokarna and the backwaters of Kerala to the misty northern mountains of the Himalayas and sun-kissed deserts of Rajasthan, bike tours on the subcontinent offer a true glimpse into the real India. Most tour dates run December through March, making these trips to India the perfect destination for winter-weary cyclists. Summer tour dates are also popular for the Himalaya tours.

Italy’s “Boot Heel”

Apulia, Basilicata and Salento, the three regions that comprise the heel in Italy’s boot, draw cyclists who want to experience an authentic Italy. Local traditions and culture have changed little over the centuries. Riders explore quiet country lanes lined with stones through groves of gnarled olive trees and past ancient farmhouses or along beaches and bluffs along the azure Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Another bonus: the region features flatter terrain than the more popular cycling region of Tuscany.

This list of hot cycling destination was compiled by BikeToursDirect, a central resource for bicycle tours worldwide, representing nearly 100 local bicycle tour companies that offer 400 tours in 70 countries.

Read more.

Thoughtful Consumption in Our Travels

Rick Steves shares some tips on how to be a thoughtful traveler when visiting a country undergoing financial hardship: When a country or region is in turmoil, people ask me, “Are there deals to be had for travelers there?” Not that I’m any kind of saint, but when I travel to places in crisis, it’s not to take advantage of their hardship —  but to learn from their reality and to contribute to their economy through tourism. When I do travel to a place that’s going through hard times, I know I’ll be spending substantial money there — and I try to spend it in a way that helps the locals. Visiting Greece from a cruise ship is easy and fun, but your serious money (accommodations, dinner, and tour guiding) sets sail with you. I remember how, immediately after the fall of the USSR, the Baltic States had lots of “joint venture” businesses — such as fancy hotels that were mostly owned by Germans and Swedes. These slick bits of Stockholm were being planted in Vilnius in hopes of big profits down the road for foreign investors. I always felt better staying in a humbler hotel with local roots. This April, I’ll be navigating the complex touristic waters of Israel and the West Bank. I asked an Israeli tourism official if he cared that I’d also be featuring the West Bank in my work. He basically said, “We’re happy if you can send Israel and the people in the Palestinian Territories some tourism. It’s really important for our economies. And if it is good for the West Bank’s economic health, then it’s good for Israel, too.” By promoting tourism in the West Bank, I hope to play some small role in helping the struggling local economy…and, in a small way, promoting peace at the same time. Where would I travel in Europe this year with that ethic in mind? For one thing, I’d be careful not to let hysterical “if it bleeds, it leads” news coverage skew my assessment of where it’s safe to travel. I would also not let the possibility of strikes or demonstrations keep me away from a country that’s facing challenges. Travelers are like skiers: Some like the smooth, predictable slopes. Others find those a little boring, and prefer a few moguls here and a trail through the forest there. The key to enjoying moguls is to bend your knees. And, if you’re venturing into the forest, you better have the necessary information. Likewise, the key to enjoying Europe, from Portugal to Rhodes, is to be flexible and to have the right information. As Europe continues to face trying times, I’m not expecting prices to go way down. But the relief-per-dollar my business brings to these places will be way up. That’s why, on my next trip, I’ll be visiting these countries: Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Happy — and thoughtful — travels!

Wine Adventures in Austria’s Burgenland – Travelscope

Posted on January 30, 2013 By Julie

Just 45 minutes from Vienna, the jewel of the Burgenland is Lake Neusiedler, which is on the border between Austria and Hungary.image

The lake shore is dotted with towns that are so picturesque they don’t seem real.  Purbach is our choice for a quaint town in the region and the Nikolauszeche, a small 6 room bed and breakfast offers local charm.  Purbach is what you’d expect in the Austrian countryside; spotless streets, whitewashed houses that survived Turkish raids, one main street with a few shops.  Waking at 6 AM, not necessarily by choice but because the church bells ring at 6 AM each day, makes an excellent excuse to join the early morning patronage to the local bakery, along with dozens of the locals, most riding on bicycle to buy the daily fresh loaf of bread.  In an act of selfless investigative journalism, we were required to sample as many fresh pastries as possible and every form of coffee available.  Our analysis – pastries and coffee just taste better in Europe.

What makes this region unique are the local vineyards.  Wine making is a family tradition with generations working side by side.  Each village has several wine taverns or heurigans.  These are family establishments that are only open when they have their own wine available.  To let the villagers know they are open and the wine is flowing a bush is hung above the doorway – literally – they hang a bush.  Most of these heurigans serve light meals with the wine and many have play areas for children.  If the heurigan is large enough to have employees, they’ll be dressed in the traditional dirndl – which adds to the experience.  Villagers spend their evenings with family and friends, sampling the local wine and sharing conversation.  The wine is surprisingly good, if not excellent, but sadly, most of the vintners make only enough for the local community so it’s not possible to purchase these “boutique” wines in the US.

What makes this wine so good?  Our research project led us to the vines.  As with any scientific research project our methodology required numerous sampling experiments to formulate a valid opinion.  Investigative journalism is a tough job, especially when it entails tasting dozens of wines in the private cellars of some of the most celebrated Austrian wine makers.  But we were up to the task and in the course of our research, discovered their secret.  Biodynamic agriculture.  This is a philosophy first promoted by Rudolf Steiner, a nineteenth century Austrian scientist.  This organic method of farming promotes a balanced relationship between living organisms and the interrelationship of soil, plants and climate, responding to the rhythms and activities of the larger cosmos.  And he wasn’t from California!  We witnessed (and tasted) its implementation and the results in several vineyards, purely for research of course.

The first time we came across biodynamics in action we thought that perhaps the wine maker had started tasting his wine a little too early in the day and a little too often.  image

This happened when we found a young wine maker, supervised by his 70 year old father, swirling cow manure in a large wooden vat in rhythm to a very loud rendition of the Blue Danube.  One eccentric wine maker and you think it’s a fluke.  But after several more wine makers demonstrated the cow manure that had been buried for 6 months in a cow horn, dug up and then stirred into a water mixture by the wine maker himself – no substitute to do the actual work because the winemaker must impart his own spirit into the substance – we knew this was more than a fluke.  The manure mixture is used as organic fertilizer and applied to the soil during certain fazes of the moon.

We tasted the stinging thistle tea that is brewed to use as an organic pesticide – and found it quite good.

We witnessed vines that are spaced at double the distance of traditional vineyards to allow room for the soil to breath – with the ground in between either left natural or planted in a complementing crop such as mustard.  We found vines that aren’t pruned or manipulated but left natural and bushy.

Needing a rest from our research, along with some coffee, we stopped in the nearby town of Rust, home to several storks that nest on top of chimneys.  image

Maybe this is where the old story of storks dropping babies down chimneys originated?  Either way, home owners and storks live in harmony with specially designed platforms so the nests don’t block the chimney’s opening.  The best vantage point is from the steeple of the church.  We were lucky enough to catch the only woman with a key to the belfry—a ninety-plus year old parishioner that still rides her bicycle to mind the church every day.  She happily let us up the belfry steps to catch the amazing view.  Dozens of storks fly from chimney to chimney as if visiting each other.

After the stork diversion it was back to the research project and perhaps the most unique biodynamic cellar yet, Meinklang.  Winemaker Angela Michlits led us into her modern cellar, her two year old daughter on her hip, to taste wine from the eggs.  Yes, eggs.  Meinklang boasts three large concrete egg-shaped vessels used for aging her reserve wine. The concrete allows the wine to breath and the shape promotes a natural upward current during the fermenting.  image

The “egg” wine was actually pretty good!  She then led us to her vineyards where she dug up a few of the cow horns and attempted to have Joseph actually taste the decomposed cow manure.  He didn’t oblige.

Combine this passion with the winemaker’s talent and the result is superb.  The magic that is taking place in the Burgenland is real.  The wines are special.  Maybe there’s more to the biodynamic process than we first thought.  Burgenland wines certainly rival the best French and California producers.  Wine is sunshine and magic – and we found both in the Burgenland.

What’s New in Great Britain in 2013

Traveling to England this year? Check out the new skyscraper in London, the new Olympic park and more. Rick Steves shares what's new in the old Kingdom: As we’re about the only travel guidebook publisher that endeavors to visit every place in person every year when we update our annual editions, we catch lots of important little changes from year to year. We collect these in a series of articles for our travelers. This week, we’re sharing all the latest in Italy, France, Britain and Germany. I hope these country-specific travel news flashes are of help in turning your travel dreams into smooth, efficient and affordable reality. Up today: Great Britain. Great Britain will likely be taking a deep breath (and perhaps a sigh of relief) this year as it recovers from a busy summer, when it hosted both the Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. Despite the flurry of investment that swept Britain in the lead-up to the Olympics, austerity measures have taken their toll on Britain’s tourist information services. I’ve long been disappointed in Britain’s inability to see that tourist information is an investment in an important industry that brings in business. Rather, Britain views tourist-info offices as businesses in their own right, having to scramble to stay afloat like the countless attractions they’re supposedly designed to serve. As a result, tourist offices across the country are either closing or morphing into shops peddling tourist activities, information, and knickknacks for a profit. The biggest hit is in London, where the Britain and London Visitors Centre near Piccadilly Circus has closed. Now the only publicly funded (and therefore impartial) tourist office is the City of London Information Centre, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even with these issues, London remains a dynamic destination. One of the biggest changes is to its skyline, which now boasts Europe’s tallest building, designed by Renzo Piano, the co-architect of Paris’ Pompidou Center. Rocketing 1,020 feet above the south end of London Bridge, the Shard (www.the-shard.com) shimmers in the sun and glows like the city’s nightlight after dark. The tip houses a 15-story stack of observation platforms enclosed in glass which opened to the public in February. Visitors hoping to capture some of the Olympic afterglow can soon visit the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The northern part, opening this summer, will feature footpaths, playgrounds, and picnic-friendly greens. The southern half, highlighted by the twisty red Orbit, is slated to open in spring of 2014. Visitors will also be able to swim in the pool where Michael Phelps won his 18th gold medal, as construction is underway to open up the Aquatics Centre for public leisure (pronounced LEH-zhoor in Britain). Travelers interested in royalty will delight in the newly refurbished Kensington Palace, (www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace) which now hosts a worthwhile series of exhibits on its most notable past residents, including William and Mary, and the Hanovers (the “Georges”). The highlight is the exhibit on Queen Victoria, who was born and raised in this palace. The wizarding world is abuzz over the opening of the “Making of Harry Potter” studio tour in Leavesden, a 20-minute train ride from London. The attraction lets Potter-philes see the actual sets and props used in the films, along with exhibits about how the special effects were created. Visitors must book a time slot in advance–and in 2013, it’s smart to do so as far ahead as possible (www.wbstudiotour.co.uk). In Bath, a 90-minute train ride west of London, visitors to the Roman and Medieval Bath can now avoid lines–worst on Saturdays and any day in summer–by buying advance tickets online (www.romanbaths.co.uk). Near Bath, visitors can explore Avebury Manor and Garden, the subject of The Manor Reborn, a four-hour BBC documentary on the refurbishment of the 500-year-old estate by a team of historians and craftspeople. Nine rooms decorated in five different styles show the progression of design trends from Tudor to Queen Anne to early 20th-century. A limited number of timed tickets are sold each day. Along England’s southern coast, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard complex will soon welcome a new museum displaying the 16th-century warship Mary Rose (Henry VIII’s favorite ship) and numerous Tudor-era items found inside the wreck. In the charming city of York, in northeast England, the noble Kit Kat, Aero bars, and Chocolate Oranges are now featured in a fun attraction dubbed “Chocolate: York’s Sweet Story” (all three confections were famously born in York). Visits start with a film and guided tour before flowing into a virtual chocolate factory. Renovations continue at the stately York Minster. While the Great East Window remains behind scaffolding, several examples of the window’s stained glass can be viewed up close in the Orb, a space-age-looking vessel located inside the Minster. Two relatively new museums in Liverpool and Glasgow celebrate the heritage of these proud and scrappy port cities. The Museum of Liverpool is packed with interactive displays covering everything from the city’s music and sports background to housing and health issues. Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel sports high-tech displays, a re-creation of a 20th-century street, and plenty of recollecting Glaswegian seniors. Its vast collection includes stagecoaches, locomotives, the world’s oldest bicycle, and the Glenlee, one of Glasgow’s five remaining tall ships (docked outside the museum). After a momentous year, 2013 should mark a return to normalcy in Great Britain. For many residents and travelers, that’s a welcome change.

What’s New in Italy for 2013

As we’re about the only travel guidebook publisher that endeavors to visit every place in person every year when we update our annual editions, we catch lots of important little changes from year to year. We collect these in a series of articles for our travelers. In the next week, we’ll share all the latest in Italy, France, Germany, and Britain. I hope these country-specific travel news flashes are of help in turning your travel dreams into smooth, efficient and affordable reality. First up: Italy. Italy has more of Europe’s cultural heritage than any other country — and the Italians are doing a fine job of sharing it with their visitors. Here is the latest, gleaned from my guidebook research for 2013: Rome has made visiting the Vatican Museum easier. You can often buy same-day, skip-the-line tickets from the tourist-information office in St. Peter’s Square; it’ll cost the same price you’d pay if you had reserved online (€15 ticket plus €4 reservation fee). Massive crowds line up to see Florence’s cathedral — the Duomo — which is free to enter. Here’s how to skip the line: If you’re already planning to visit the cathedral-related sights — the Duomo Museum, Baptistery, and Campanile — that require a combo-ticket to see, buy your ticket first at the less-crowded museum. You can use it to enter through the cathedral’s exit, bypassing the lines at the front door. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing a massive, years-long renovation that bodes well for travelers. Although a few rooms are off-limits, many more rooms have been opened to the public, such as the Caravaggio Rooms and the new “Foreign Painters Section,” featuring mostly Dutch/Flemish painters (including Rembrandt) with some Spanish and French artists. Also in Florence, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance-era Baptistery doors — featuring the original 10 bronze panels from the “Gates of Paradise” (1425-1452) — have been newly restored and are now back on display at the Duomo Museum. From April through September, Florence’s best late-hours sightseeing is at the Palazzo Vecchio, the fortified palace where the Medicis ruled. The sight generally stays open until midnight. Also, the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower has reopened to visitors, providing a great cityscape view. Florence’s Galileo Science Museum, which was recently renovated, has rearranged and dramatically updated its exhibits. Engaging video screens (in English) have been added to many rooms to help illustrate inventions and scientific principles. In Venice, the Accademia, which is known for its great collection of Venetian Renaissance art, is open but still in a constant state of disarray, with a major expansion and renovation dragging on for years. The locations of paintings isn’t yet set. The upside is that crowds have died down, so there’s no longer a need to reserve a ticket in advance. To make the most of cruising Venice’s Grand Canal on a public vaporetto (water bus), catch the boat at Piazzale Roma (just before the crowded train-station stop), where you’ll have your choice of seats. A few boats have seats in the bow with great views; make a beeline for these. Formerly presented every other year, the Venice Biennale — a world-class, contemporary fair — is now an annual event. It alternates between visual art in odd years and architecture in even years. The exhibition spreads over the Arsenale and Giardini park, and usually runs from June through November. In Naples, it’s no longer necessary to make an appointment to see the Archaeological Museum’s Secret Room, with its assortment of erotic frescoes, well-hung pottery, and perky statues that once decorated bedrooms and brothels at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Cinque Terre, Italy’s picturesque Riviera, is back to normal after two of its towns were badly damaged in a flood in the fall of 2011. The towns and nearly all the trails of the region are once again ready for prime time. A handy (but pricey) new parking garage has opened at nearby La Spezia’s train station, making it easier and safer for day-trippers to leave their cars and hop the train to the Cinque Terre. In fashion-forward Milan, travelers can now visit the high-end concept store called Excelsior in the Galleria del Corso, which feels more like a design museum than a retail store. A conveyor belt carries shoppers from level to colorful level to the beat of pulsing music, passing electronic art installations on the way. Even if you can’t afford the $1,000 shirts, you might enjoy the basement food hall with its good food at reasonable prices. To generate funds during a time of economic uncertainty, more and more cities — such as Venice, Florence, Padua, and Rome — are levying a tax on hotel rooms. Tourists must pay the tax in cash at checkout. It varies from €1 to €5 per person, per night, and is based on how many stars the hotel has under the government rating system. While the Italian economy remains unpredictable, you’re guaranteed to have a memorable trip in 2013. The Italian zest for life is as timeless as its ancient monuments. Go with an eye open to both the Italy of the past and the Italy of the present.

Antarctica: Entry 2

Part two of Lidia's visit to Antarctica: There is a surprising amount of human life in this isolated part of the world. We’ve come a long way since the first explorers; now there are anywhere between one and five thousand researchers living in Antarctica at any given time (more in the summer, of course). The Palmer Station is an enormous US research facility. Staff from the Station (which is run by The National Science Foundation) came aboard the ship and gave us a presentation of their work. They conduct a lot of long term studies on the climate including using a remote controlled vehicle to monitor sea temperature and salinity through the water column. After getting to know some of the researchers and staff, I’m beginning to understand how they get by: just like we do–with lots of good food and music! In fact, one of the Palmer Station’s chefs hails from Kansas City! Truly a small world. Stay tuned for another post.

Is Airport Security Killing Us?

Rick Steves talks airport security: I’ve been through a lot of airports lately, and I have to say, when people joke about TSA meaning “thousands standing around,” it has a ring of truth. In November, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that we spend about $8 billion a year on scanning machines, all that time-consuming checking, and employing those people who stand between us and our departure gate. And that cost doesn’t even consider the valuable time wasted by travelers who need to allot extra time to cover surprise delays at airport security. Sure, we need to spend some money and time on security. But does anyone in government have the nerve to raise their hand and ask, “Could we lighten up here a bit?” or even “Aren’t we going a bit overboard there?” Bloomberg Businessweek reports that entire years go by (such as 2011) when TSA doesn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airplane. And then there’s s this staggering statistic: “In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 annual deaths worldwide, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq — the same number…that occur in bathtubs in the US each year.” Following 9/11, there was, understandably, a push to strengthen our airport security measures. But these efforts may be costing us even more lives. According to Cornell University researchers cited in Bloomberg Businessweek, after 9/11, frightened travelers switching from flights to drives resulted in over 200 more traffic fatalities every month. In the long term, due to security hassles, about 5 percent fewer people fly than used to, resulting in even more road fatalities. In other words, far more people have died on the road as an indirect result of 9/11 than actually died on 9/11. Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the risk of terrorism and finally put it in a rational perspective. Many will say, “If TSA and all the security saves just one life, it will be worth it.” The way I see it, wasting money wastes lives. Intimidating people into driving instead of flying wastes lives. A nation can reach a point where its passion for showboat security designed to make people feel safe actually kills them. Security is good, but a cost-benefit awareness is simply smart. What do you think?

Antarctica: Entry 1

Lidia explores Antarctica. Read all about her experience. Entry one of two. For those of you who don’t get my monthly e-newsletter (sign up on my homepage), I started this new year off with an exhilarating trip to a uniquely beautiful part of the world: Antarctica. The first thing that shocked me about Antarctica was how truly wild it is. This is not a human world; wandering albatross with eleven-foot wingspans, Adelie penguins, and orcas rule here. I watched a mother humpback whale and her calf feed on krill, and witnessed the cycle of life as a leopard seal made a meal of a Gentoo penguin. I was surprised to find that the animals weren’t afraid of us–they knew as well as we did that this is their place. “Small” is one word to describe how I felt as we sailed through icy waters at sunset. Ice formations of varied textures, shapes, and shades of blue changed completely from one angle to another, and the snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego visible on the horizon were at once beautiful and ominous. As the voyage went on, the reality of just how dependent I was on my tour guides for survival in this beautiful but extreme climate became ever more apparent. Immersed in this simultaneously urgent and tranquil world, I found kind of spirituality unique to those places that are relatively untouched by our modern world. Stay tuned! Look out for more stories and photos from my trip soon. Lidia

Haiti or Egypt? The Answer Is Yes.

Rick Steves talks about choosing his travel destinations for the coming year. Today I’m struggling with a decision: Do I go to Egypt this spring, or put it off? Venturing there to learn and scout for a TV show won’t really help my business directly. I could spend the time being much more conventionally productive in Europe — and there’s plenty that needs doing there. But I want to connect with the Arab Spring and walk through all the dust that rises in the streets when people earn change and progress. On the other hand, I don’t want to be reckless. In an ADD moment, I browsed over to my niece’s blog (which I link to on our website because I find her such an inspiration and want to share her experiences). Nicolina was recently in Cuba, then Haiti. Her report, recounting the fear, exhilaration, and ultimately relief she experienced landing in the poorest country in our hemisphere, reminded me of the last time I landed in Cairo. Within two days, she was surrounded by children in the vast slum of Cité Soleil. She wrote this:
These kids own less than any children I have ever met. One of the boys was playing with part of a ripped power cord as a toy, a girl was playing with a rubberband. I marvel at their joy within the confines of their poverty. Even before they knew we were going to paint they were full of happiness. These children possess something special. When I first moved to NY from Seattle I worked as a nanny for a wealthy family on 5th avenue. They had three boys ages 13, 11, and 7, who I would pick up from school in the afternoon and watch until around 9 p.m., and then put to bed. Their mother would come from who-knows-where each night after they were sleeping. Their father worked overtime as an investment banker and had his own babysitter for them on the weekends. They had been raised by nannies. These kids had all the toys a child could dream of. They had a small basketball court on the second level of their penthouse suite. They had a mini toy castle to play in, a micro-corvette to in which to cruise around the huge apartment, and all of the latest technology and video games. They fought with each other bitterly and treated their mother and me with utter disrespect. Some days I would pick them up from school and the oldest boy just wouldn’t speak. He refused to talk with anyone for any reason. Not me, not his teachers, or even his brothers. He was mute with pain. If he absolutely had to say something he would go as far as to write it down on a piece of paper. I would take him to his therapist who told me he’d been that way for years. What’s better? To have all the things in the world, but no love? Or to have nothing, not even enough food or fresh water but to have love, parents who are there, the emotional support of community and many friends? It’s easy to see who’s happier. Finally the palettes are full with color and I ask my little friends in Haiti, “Are you ready to paint?!” in French, and they all shout “Ouiiiiii!!!!” We pass out the paint and they go for it, attacking the panels with gusto. After they finish I notice right away a different kind of style in their work. There always is. In Japan many kids painted manga and pop-culture icons, in Mexico most of the children painted elements of nature, in NYC the hearts tended to include a lot of material things like phones, money and clothes.
After reading of Nicolina’s rich experience, earned by getting out of her comfort zone, I decide: “Yes, I’m going to Egypt.” Thanks, Nicki! She’s in Brazil now and finished reporting on Haiti. Click on over and travel for just a few minutes with abandon…as my niece, the globetrotting street artist, shares her adventure.

Italian Friends Stressed Out in Anticipation of a Flood of Rick Steves Travelers

A flurry of impending Rick Steves' travelers stress out Italians: Yesterday we closed down the office at Rick Steves’ Europe to gather our staff together — all 80 of us. This annual meeting ensures that we’re all working in sync, and that our staff knows what my vision is for the coming year. After my “state of the company” address, each department shares what’s new for them. The day was both long and exhilarating. Our marketing team has had a particularly busy year, and to share all their accomplishments, they played a video of an Italian family on the receiving end of all the travelers we’re sending them. While subtitles are necessary if you don’t speak Italian, this fun report from Rich and Rhonda in our marketing department illustrates the impact our passion for making sure our travelers have a rich cultural experience is having on Europeans. As I like to be unguarded and candid here on my Facebook page, I thought I’d give you this insider’s glimpse at what’s new with us and our impact on Europe. The Italian folks we eavesdrop on here are girding for more American visitors than ever as they frantically discuss our new 100-show DVD anthology, our new tour catalog, the new website we are constructing, the joy of being able to stream our lectures online, and the new “unguided” option our My Way tours offer. We broke from our annual huddle with each of us determined to help as many Americans as possible enjoy maximum travel thrills per mile, minute, and dollar in 2013… even if it might overwhelm our Italian friends. Happy travels and buon viaggio! If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

On the River at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok

Posted on December 15, 2012 By Joseph


The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok continues the 136-year-old tradition of service from its location on the Chao Phraya River in the Thailand’s capital. Besides offering an excellent location, it also specializes in luxury accommodations and spa pampering. We find Joseph speaking with general manager Amanda Hyndman on the hotel’s outside riverside terrace on this latest Travelscope pod cast. For more on the hotel visit the hotel’s website. Happy Traveling!

Listen Now or subscribe using your favorite aggregator On the River at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok

Rick Steves Community of Travelers Raises $65,000 for Bread for the World.

To the 650 people who donated $100 apiece to Bread for the World to help fund their work in protecting hungry and homeless people from the budget cuts our government needs to make: Thank you very much! This money will help very much in their important work. For a little more insight into the situation from a caring and faith perspective, this article by Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine is interesting. Also, Jim visited our studio last year for an interview on my radio program. Of course, when you need to get elected, you talk about the struggles of the middle class. But many people on our planet are struggling just to have the struggles of the middle class. We just gave many of them a bit of a Christmas present.

Cruising Alaska: Tide Pooling in a Salty Parfait of Sea Life

As we enjoyed breakfast aboard our American Safari Cruise, our guide reminded us that with the beautiful full moon we enjoyed last night came a very low tide this morning. And in 15 minutes, the first skiff would head out for some tide pooling in Port Houghton. The little boy in me jumped into action, as I once loved nothing more than to lose myself in the wonders of a bay drained of water and entirely exposed at low tide. Every tide pool was both crisp and slimy, a salty wonderland. Every rock was some crunchy creature’s castle.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Landing with a dozen cruisers, our guide oriented us. I figured I’d wander off on my own. But he gave meaning to each discovery in a way I had never appreciated. He wielded a guidebook to the sea life (Audubon Society Nature Guide: Pacific Coast) like I would employ a guidebook to the Renaissance. Empty clamshells had a neat hole hammered by the beak of an oystercatcher. Chitons, considered one of the oldest life forms, clung to rocks as if part of the rocks themselves. An array of barnacles adapted to their environment so obviously that they inspired Charles Darwin to pursue his notion of evolution. Standing alone in my mighty rubber boots, I just listened to the crunching, squirting, wilting, and tilting of the fertile compost pile of life all around me. With each step, I killed things… while convincing myself that they were heartless things that would kill me if they could. Eagles soared overhead. Our guide said something about “obligate siblicide” among gulls, who had to kill their brothers and sisters to survive. I wondered, “Why? With this buffet of free and fresh seafood exposed with the falling tide twice a day, isn’t life pretty easy?” After the ebbing tide reached its lowest point, it began its steady march back in. Watching a limpet go from high and dry to underwater a matter of minutes, I pondered the flexible toughness of these creatures — under the sun for half their lives, and then under the cold sea for the other…first the prey of grazing birds, then the prey of scary-looking crustaceans. And surveying all this life — from that which the low tide never quite reached, to tide pools abundant with fanciful creatures; from the yellow lichen blanketing high rocks nourished only by sea spray, to birds overhead — I saw strata. It was a parfait of sea life. Our ship’s dining room — 10 tables for the 60 of us, with the crinkled surface of the sea at about table level just outside the big windows on either side — was a place of conviviality, for feasting on seafood while still marveling at the majesty of Alaska. Sitting down for dinner, we left Port Houghton and were heading up Frederick Sound to Stephens Passage. Just before dessert, our captain suddenly slowed way down and turned 90 degrees starboard. On one side, the sun was dipping behind glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. On the other side, a big full moon was rising over glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. After five days, I thought I had experienced all that a cruise through Southeast Alaska could offer: breaching whales, calving glaciers, bears dragging salmon out of waterfalls, kayaking among harbor seals in desolate inlets, and hikes through temperate rainforests. Now, with this meal, bookended by the sun and the moon, I thought, probably not. Southeast Alaska goes on and on.

Cruising Alaska Video: Piggyback Ride over an Alaskan-Sized Puddle

The beauty of my recent Alaska trip with American Safari Cruises was that there was no contact with civilization on land. The closest thing we got to civilization was hiking down a desolate logging trail through a peaceful forest. I parked my rubber boots at the shore and slipped on my normal hiking shoes, not realizing we’d encounter giant puddles. Thankfully my guide went above and beyond the call of duty by carrying me piggyback across four such puddles during our memorable-for-many-reasons hike…while my travel partner, Trish Feaster, filmed it (over the giggles of my fellow hikers). If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Travel Minute — To Die in Bali

Rudy Maxa shares a rather shocking travel statistic along with advice on how to stay safe while traveling:   Here’s a shocking statistic: One Australian tourist dies in Bali every nine days.  I KNOW—I took a double take when I saw this story, too.  But maybe there are lessons here we all can learn from this. Bali is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Australians, but still that’s a quite a number.  The cause of the deaths often involves alcohol, drugs, and fights in nightclubs.  Oh, and accidents on rented motorbikes So there’s the lesson we can learn from visitors to that lovely, Indonesian island.  Don’t rent a motorbike unless you’re an expert rider and avoid confrontations in nightclubs.  Now, this is good advice for anyone, anywhere.  Take it from a guy—that would be me—who spun out on some gravel while on a rented motorbike in a deserted part of countryside in northern Thailand.  I still have the scar on my left arm to prove it.  Fortunately I’ve managed to avoid bar fights in what I guess is my rather boring life. So no matter where you are, whether at home or traveling, it’s generally good advice to stay relatively sober, avoid drugs and leave a nightclub before midnight.  As another friend of mine likes to say, “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.”     

A Revealing Peek at a Skinny-Man Shower in Venice

Rick Steves shares an intimate view of the inside of his Venice hotel room and shower with viewers:   Forgive me for not dressing up for this, but while showering early one morning, the spirit moved me to share a peek at life as a tourist in Venice — and to show how the demand for private bathrooms in once-spacious elegant rooms has resulted in rooms that are less spacious and elegant, but more convenient. If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Happy Birthday Mister President

In honor of one of my personal heroes and in celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on April 13th, I’d like to share a very brief visual tour of when I went to Monticello recently. We filmed an entire episode there for my show P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table but I’d just like to remember back right now some of grounds and gardens with some imagery from my visit.

The Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Home

Josephs’ Coat (Amaranthus tricolor) found along the Winding Walk on Monticello's West Lawn.

The Pavilion with its double-sash windows, Chinese railing, and pyramidal roof in the Vegetable Garden that Jefferson frequently used as a quiet retreat where he could read in the evenings.

The remarkable Vegetable Garden Terrace Wall as viewed from the South Orchard.

Here I am in the Northwest Vineyard with Gabriele Rausse, one of the founders of the modern Virginia grape industry. Gabriele oversees the production of wine at Monticello as well as the care of the restored vineyards, which continue to serve as experimental gardens of unusual varieties of grapes.

This is Monticello Grove on the northwest side of Monticello Mountain and a spectacular sunset on an amazing trip that checked off another item from my bucket list.

Travel Minute — Following Your Dream

Ever dreamt of just picking up and moving to the place of your dreams - giving up your work, proximity to your family and familiar environment to start all over? Rudy Maxa shares an inspiring story of a man who did just that: How many of us have dreamt about living somewhere else?  I certainly have.  Here’s the story of one man who actually acted on his fantasy. Jimmy Strong Heart is a Native American and Vietnam Vet.  He grew up in Montana but as an adult held a vision of a green, mist-shrouded land.  Then he went to an Irish fair in Milwaukee and he saw a video of Ireland. That’s the place, he realized.  So he quit his job, packed up his bags, and flew to Shannon in western Ireland.  He realized he’d found the land of his dreams.  He moved to DubIlin, met a woman at a drumming circle and married.  He got sent back to the US once, but he persevered and finally got permission to reside legally in Ireland.  Today he and his wife live in Donegal, across the country from Dublin in the more wild, rugged west.  Plenty of green and mist there The moral of Jimmy Strong Heart’s story is that you can travel or even move somewhere else.  It takes a lot of courage and maybe a little luck.  But maybe a chance encounter in some place like Milwaukee could change your life.  

Samantha Brown and Rick Steves: Wishing You Happy Travels

One of the joys of my work is to go to travel shows and meet other travel writers and travel TV hosts. I go to travel shows in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other cities where the sponsors try to book whatever well-known travel celebrities they can. These days, there aren’t many who can bring out a crowd. But Samantha Brown sure can. While she’s taking a break from her work at the Travel Channel, there’s a rumor that she’ll be back on in the future…so stay tuned. She is every bit as delightful in person as she is on TV.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Travel Minute — London & the Olympics

Are you thinking about going to London this summer for the Olympics? Read some tips from Rudy Maxa before planning your trip: On July 27th, the ceremony to open the London summer Olympics begins.  They’ll run through the 12th of August, and then the Paralympic Games go from August 29th through September 9th.  Should you go? I recently priced a round-trip ticket between Chicago and London for the day before the opening ceremonies, returning a week later. Non-stops were running around sixteen-hundred dollars.  Not outrageous for summer, but nothing special, either.  One-stops were about $200 less Hotels have boosted prices as is to be expected, but there are still rooms available.  I applaud London’s Radisson Edwardian Hotels for announcing their Olympic pricing ahead of time and promising to stick with it.  Downtown rooms were in the $500 to $800 range, not much more than regular, four-star hotel prices in London even when there isn’t anything major going on. The cheapest is the Radisson Edwardian at Heathrow that offered a double room for $350 a night, including taxes.  That’s a relative bargain, as long as you’re willing to take the tube 40 minutes into town. But consider also renting an apartment.  Or staying in a student dorm room.  Here are some links you may find helpful: www.airbnb.com: Rent a room in a home or an apartment. www.visitbritain.us: Search for lodging for “budget & student” and you’ll get results that mix hotels and campus housing. www.university-rooms.com: A broker for short-term stays in colleges and universities around the world. Specific university dorms in London:  

Washboard Wonders

I think I’ll wrap up my Road Trip USA series with this fun little video clip of a great band I bumped into on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. How can you not love street music like this? And check out the washboard talent! I had to buy their CD, and it didn’t come in a jewel box but rather wrapped in newspaper. By the way, thanks for traveling with me across this fun, friendly, and full-of-wonder country of ours. I’m sure I’ll do it again sometime soon. But now…it’s back to Europe. I’m flying to Portugal at end of next week. Stay tuned.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Travel Tuesdays: How I spent my 72 driving hours

Watch what Rick Steves did while driving across the U.S.A.: During our road trip, I generally did the limo thing, sitting in the back with my writing gear during the 72 hours our panel said we actually drove. The time passed so fast. My hours were spent editing the new 31st edition of “Europe Through the Back Door,” writing this blog, doing interviews on the phone, and enjoying the view. We brought a Frisbee and only managed to toss it around once. That was in Iowa. If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

Atlanta: Naked Dogs and Peach Trees

Atlanta is clearly the Manhattan of the South. It’s CNN slick, Coca-Cola fueled and funded…and thriving. While famous for its peach trees, I’d give it points for lack of creativity as 52 streets have “Peach Tree” in their names. Locals claim that the towering Westin Peachtree Plaza is the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. I love Atlanta’s impressive skyline. It’s “topper happy” with its flashy skyscrapers sporting attention-grabbing tops (especially fun to see when enthusiastically floodlit at night). Enjoying the view, I thought of Shanghai’s skyline and how a Bedouin who suddenly strikes it rich decorates his new Mercedes like a camel. And, speaking of Bedouins, Atlanta’s venerable Fox Theater is an acid trip of faux Moorish and Egyptian design. Its nearly 5,000 seats gather under a big, fake Bedouin canopy as part of the ceiling glitters with stars. The opulent theater, opened just two months after the stock market crash in 1929, was created by the then-powerful Shriners. They designed it with exactly as many seats as their 1929 membership in Atlanta. The theater still sports its original furniture, has its own conservation department, and is like a museum. It hosts Broadway plays all year long. Across the street is the also venerable Georgian Terrace Hotel. This is where I learned why they call Atlanta the “Phoenix City.” While it was burned in the Civil War–and burned several times since–it keeps rebuilding. As it’s shown little interest in keeping its historic buildings, for generations now nearly everything in town has been torn down and rebuilt. The Fox Theater, the Georgian Terrace, and an old apartment building across the street were destined for the wrecking ball when a gang of conservation-minded locals finally mobilized to save the three major buildings in Atlanta that dated from before World War II–and had any significant history. (On the other hand, Savannah, with its “pirate architecture,” had the good fortune to be spared by General Sherman, who gave the town to President Lincoln as a Civil War Christmas present. Its historic district is beautifully preserved.) At the Fox they’re still smarting from the fact that “Gone with the Wind” opened at another theater across town. And they’re still all abuzz about the world premier reception with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh at the Georgian Terrace. I love dropping by a classic diner or hamburger joint in a new town. Here in Atlanta, it’s got to be The Varsity. It’s a huge and thriving place with a staff that famously asks, “What’ll ya have?” and serves up their signature “Naked Dog” and “Frosted Orange.”

We all agree: There's nothing like a Frosted Orange at Atlanta's Varsity drive-in.

Driving south from Atlanta, I was struck by how humble small-town Georgia is. Stopping by a place called the Salt Lick (which was offering free samples of their beef jerky and boiled peanuts–mushy but spicy), we were told there’s not another restaurant for 15 miles, so we ate there. Bringing me my plate of fried green tomatoes, our waiter said, “Anything 10 miles off the interstate is a ghost town unless it’s military.” The interstate is to small-town commerce in the 21st century what the railroad was in the 19th century. While perhaps dangerous, it’s still fun to make general observations and imagine what it’s like to live here. A rural Georgian road trip features very good roads dotted by gas stations, farms, liquor stores, churches, fast-food joints, BBQ shacks, billboards promoting predatory lawyers and joining the Marines, Coca-Cola everywhere, and more churches.

People line up for free Cokes in Macon, Ga.

Stopping by Macon, a major town on the road to Tallahassee, we enjoyed a hot and muggy stroll. While the metabolism of the town center felt deadly, there were lots of people converging on the main drag. We asked someone with a Styrofoam plate filled with potato salad and fried chicken what’s going on. They said, “It’s the Cherry Blossom Festival. Where you been?” Volunteers at folding tables were handing out lunches to people who didn’t know exactly why but were happy to stand in the long line. A woman in a red trailer was rhythmically passing out plastic bottles of Coke, and across the way a long line of people waited for free pink ice cream–the color of the festival.

There was free, pink ice cream in Macon, Ga., thanks to the local cherry blossom festival.

Crossing the border into Florida, we noticed an immediate change in the economy. Tallahassee and its county felt like a fragrant, garden country club in comparison–lush vegetation, crisp and prosperous neighborhoods, elegant old homes, and a thousand people jamming a theater in anticipation of the final talk of my tour.

Crossing the border into Florida with my driver Matt Yglesias.

Travel Minute — The Truth About First Class

Airlines won’t reveal how many people sitting in first class seats actually paid a first class fare.  But it’s an educated guess that less than one out of every ten people do so.

The difference between a coach ticket and a first class one is huge.  A coach, cross-country flight can cost as little as $350; a first-class round-trip fare can easily be ten times that.  Traditionally, selling those sky-high tickets can make the difference between a profitable flight for an airline and a money-losing one.

So who are those free-loaders in the front of the plane? 

Generally, they’re frequent flyers who receive automatic upgrades. 

This helps explain why no one is carving roast beef seat side to be placed on fancy porcelain plates and why the Champagne is generally sparkling wine and the tablecloths aren’t made of fine linen.  Today, first class passengers want WiFi and power outlets their computer plugs fit in without an adaptor. 

So next time you pass through first class on the way to coach, don’t  envy those passengers too much—think how much flying they had to do to earn those upgrades.


Travel Minute — Traveling Around the World for $17,000 a Year

Travel writer Nora Dunn has spent the last two years traveling around the world.  And she spends less than $17,000 a year.  We could all learn from her.

First of all, she fits her possessions in one bag that’s just a bit larger than a carry-on bag and a backpack that carries her laptop and electronic gear.  She takes a lot of trains.  She looks for deals.  And she rarely pays for a hotel room.

Last year, for example, her total lodging costs came to $173—for two nights at the Stockholm Hilton.  So where did she sleep the other 360-plus nights?  She babysat homes or apartments, often using Caretaker.org to find gigs.  She used websites like CouchSurfing.com, HospitalityClub.org, and GlobalFreeloaders.com to find folks willing to accommodate a traveler at no charge for a night or two or three

She crewed on sailboats—there are web sites for that, too.  And she used miles racked up with her credit card to help offset the cost of the occasional airline flight.

And, of course, you don’t have to take off a year to take advantage of Nora’s lessons.  

Here’s a link to her original article, and you may read more of her writings at her web site



Day 5: Colorado’s Arid, Red-Rock Majesty

My bedroom view: Pike's Peak over looking Kissing Camels

I’ve been a mile high for the last couple of days, hyperventilating on Colorado’s mountain views and arid, red-rock majesty. With the sternness of the vast Great Plains ready to sweep us away, my attention seemed determined to appreciate the Rocky Mountain grandeur that caused those first pioneers to fall to their knees.

Driving across Colorado, we had two stops for lectures: Grand Junction and Colorado Springs.

Grand Junction — our smallest stop yet, with just 58,000 people — is the biggest city between Salt Lake City and Denver.  Apart from a world of outdoor activities nearby, Grand Junction’s charm is limited to its delightful Main Street. I strolled the entire length of Main Street — which seemed positioned to frame dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks beyond — from my hotel to the theater for my talk. It’s the first big, wide, old-time main street I’ve encountered that traded traffic capacity for people fun. Sixty years ago, they interrupted traffic flow by adding parks, gazebos, and people zones — quite progressive for that time. Losing half its functional width and forcing single lanes of traffic to zigzag slowly through town, it’s as if town fathers wanted to be sure all would enjoy the modern and entertaining public art — like the popular Chrome Buffalo, made of old car bumpers — planted every few steps. Walking through town, I got a sense of what’s happening and who’s coming…according to the signs, it’s just me and Los Lonely Boys.

Grand Junction is a springboard for good country living: vineyards, thrilling rivers, red-rock canyons, and fossilized dinosaurs. It’s the gateway to the Colorado National Monument, a mighty canyon cut into the world’s largest flattop mountain, the Grand Mesa. The town was named for the junction where the Grand River (today’s Colorado River) flowed into the Gunnison River. The Grand was later renamed the Colorado River (perhaps to avoid confusion with the similarly named Rio Grande on the border of USA and Mexico). The Grand Canyon is named not for its size, but for the original name of the river that cut it.

The scenic drive into the Colorado National Monument, through piñon trees and cottonwoods, stirs butterflies and drops jaws with little shoulder and devastating drops. I fantasized about how easy it would be to film an engrossing TV show on this area.

This is Colorado’s wine country — a fact I was repeatedly reminded of by the friendly vintner who kept filling my glass while I did an extended Q&A at the pre-lecture VIP reception. And it is good wine. As I’d hoped, visiting smaller towns like Grand Junction reminds me how our country is filled with wonderful people.

After all the intense people action that came with our biggest crowd yet, I enjoyed a lonely walk home after my talk. Strolling back down the cold and desolate Main Street, while feeling a prairie wind like I’ve never felt before cutting through town at each cross street, I played a little soccer with a tumbleweed.

Driving farther into Colorado, we were a bit frustrated that the tiny but appealing museums along the way are open only April through September. At Glenwood Springs, we started hiking up to the grave of Doc Holliday, but were stopped by snow. Still, with a big, steamy outdoor pool powered by its namesake hot springs and busy with people, this town was a delight. Inviting streets were lined by crusty old taverns, hip boutiques and bakeries, and ski resort-type gift shops.

These days, medical marijuana dispensaries, with their happy pharmacy-style green crosses, are part of every Colorado townscape. Popping into Glenwood Springs’ biggest dispensary, we enjoyed a tour — surveying an amazing collection of strains filling an inviting wall full of jars — and interviewed its owner on the latest in the drug policy debates in his state. Colorado and Washington are the two states in the USA with initiatives on the ballot in 2012 to legalize, tax, and regulate pot.

Today, all we needed to get high was a car. The scenic highway topped 10,000 feet as we drove by the ski resorts of Vail and Breckenridge. While Vail looked as fancy-condo as I expected, inviting Breckenridge was a place I’d love to come back to for some skiing.

Next up was Alma, at an altitude of 10,578 feet — the highest incorporated town in the USA. Towns like Alma, two miles above sea level (twice as high as Denver), have a thin-air, old-saloon charm. Amid the crooked tin chimneys, weathered timbers, and faded paint jobs, Colorado flags flaps like Buddhist prayer flags in the Himalayas.

Crossing the Continental Divide, we came upon the South Platte River. It occurred to me: Toss a cork in here, and I could net it in New Orleans, where I’ll be meeting my daughter Jackie for a fun father/daughter weekend to celebrate the end of this 20-cities-in-20-days road trip.

We tumbled out of the Rockies at stately Colorado Springs. The state’s second city sits beneath Pikes Peak. Locals love to remind visitors that this is “America’s Mountain,” and from its summit, the “O beautiful for spacious skies” lyrics of “America the Beautiful” were inspired and written.

If you wagon-wheeled yourself across the great American plains and didn’t want to go uphill, you’d have to stop at Colorado Springs. Founded in 1871 by a Civil War general named William Jackson Palmer, its economy was based on mining, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and, more recently, the military. NORAD, the air-defense mountain citadel, is tucked safely into the high valleys above. Locals recall how, on 9/11, the skies overhead seemed like an Armageddon tic-tac-toe board, with all the scrambling jets airborne.

Palatial-by-pioneer-standards Victorian homes line wide streets, recalling the days when the local mining aristocracy defined Colorado Springs’ high society while caring for “the deserving poor.” Chic and dressy for a Wild West town, it still feels uniquely chic and dressy today. But not too dressy. At my evening lecture — in the amazing Neo-Romanesque Shove Chapel on the Colorado College campus, packed with a thousand travelers — my host reminded me, “’Formal’ in Colorado means to wear some clean jeans.”

Working for Rocky Mountain PBS and the local public radio station (Classical 88.7 KCME-FM), I was set up in one of the nicest hotels imaginable: the Garden of the Gods Club Lodge. It’s part of a 480-acre estate given to the community in perpetuity in return for the promise that alcohol would never be served, sold, or consumed on the property. My room overlooked towering red rocks that glow in the morning sun and reminded weary pioneers of “Kissing Camels.” Walking in my bathrobe past grazing deer and spunky rabbits to the outdoor pool, I started my last day in the mountains by taking a dip and gazing through the steam at the radiant-red camels kissing at the foot of the Rockies.

Luxuriating in that pool, I wondered how my sister Jan is doing — now four days into the Iditarod. Last night, a volunteer at a station on the 1,000-mile trail to Nome called me and said she’s on track. The dogs are happy, and so is she. (For the latest on Jan’s Iditarod adventure, be sure to visit her blog).

By noon, I said goodbye to Keith and our car at the Denver airport to fly to Houston for a talk at Rice University. (I’m giving the keynote talk at a drug policy convention there.) Keith is driving to Oklahoma City, where I’ll reconnect with him in two days to continue our road trip.

Six days into our trip, we leave the Rockies. We’ve traveled 1,600 miles from Seattle in our mighty GMC Yukon (32 hours of driving at an average of 50 mph, 121 gallons of fuel burned, paying about $3 for ethanol when available, otherwise about $3.40 for unleaded — for a total of about $400 and averaging 25 mpg).

Each evening so far, I’ve been given a nice basket of local goodies as a welcome. Boarding the plane, I enjoy the last of my favorite bit of swag so far: Enstrom’s Almond Toffee Petites in Milk Chocolate from Grand Junction (like Almond Roca from Tacoma). Letting the milk chocolate make way for a happy ending of tasty toffee, I look forward to Houston.

Day 2: Eastern Washington to Boise—Freakishly Friendly

Two days into this adventure, I’m already immersed in what promises to be a lifelong travel treasure. The “Inland Empire” of Eastern Washington and Idaho is corralled by mountains — the Cascades in the west, and the Rockies in the east. Monster mountains sprawl on the horizon as Highway 84 follows lonely train tracks across idyllic Western scenes. A glint of sun races along the shining brown rail, seeming to lead us — like the fake bunny at a greyhound track — through a brown wasteland across the northeast corner of Oregon and into the mountains of Idaho.

The color is thought-provoking. I sense that it has been, and will again be, green. But now, at the end of winter, plant life is the color of dirt and shows little promise of life. A dusty-beige 20th-century trailer park seems populated by ancestors of 19th-century pioneers who pulled their wagons into a circle. The only color is the flag — supersized for the setting. And, amid the browns and greys, that red, white, and blue really pops. Later, a giant pussy willow-gray cement factory provides a similar dreary visual context for the red, white, and blue of its big and furiously flying flag.  Immersed here, in what to this big-city guy from the coast feels like the heart of this great land, you become part of its grandness — engulfed in and embraced by the vastness of it all. The flag invigorates the scene. As it provides color to the setting, we provide life. Here, even more than on the coast, the flag represents you. You appreciate it.

Crossing the Snake River, we enter Idaho and stop at the tourist welcome center. A monument reminds me I’m driving the “Blue Star Memorial Highway: Dedicated to the Armed Forces who have defended America.” In the men’s room, a religious flier, propped on the sink as if waiting for me, asks the important question: “Where will you spend eternity?”

The road, cleaned by the local Mennonite Youth Group, is really clean, and we get to Boise before we know it. As I hoped to throughout this road trip, my host for the evening’s event (tonight it’s Megan from Idaho Public Television) picks me up at the hotel for a little personal tour of the town.

Boise is famously livable and, as a friend of Megan noted after settling here, “freakishly friendly.” Locals say “boy-see,” giving the town a touch of French and recalling the origin of the name, when French pioneers marveled at les bois — the woods. (You wouldn’t be particularly impressed by the trees today…but they were likely hallucinating on rotten meat.)

You can’t help but think Boise is a great place to raise a family. There are so many active things to do here, from skiing to river rafting. The city has a strong Mormon influence. In fact, locals nickname the place “Salt Lake City North.” A new law prohibits taking alcohol on the river, so anyone envisioning a floating raft party needs to sneak their booze in 7-Up bottles.

My afternoon in Boise was a delight. We didn’t know whether the people lounging on the stately steps under the capitol building dome were occupiers or just soaking up some rays. I enjoyed a peek at the Boise State stadium, with its famous blue turf. Idyllic as a Seurat painting, Boise’s parks were filled with scenes of children hula-hooping and families tossing around the football. While the edge of town — like any town these days — has fallen victim to “the saming of America,” old Boise comes with a parade of classic old weather-beaten signs advertising funky diners, hamburger joints, and motels bragging that rooms come with TVs. Low-key street corners with dueling cafés had front porches filled with Idahoans enjoying a warm afternoon — with a low-in-the-sky sun that seemed to promise spring was on its way. Here on the western edge of the time zone, there’s later light, which is much savored.

Then it was time to work. After hosting a pledge event on Idaho Public Television, I was taken to the iconic Egyptian Theater, where 700 people gathered. The station charged more than I thought was wise for admission ($30 to $50 each), but they called it right — they filled the place with supporters who understand the value of public television.

Tonight’s talk was the straight “Travel as a Political Act” talk, which I’m excited to bring into our country’s heartland. Standing on a venerable stage in a theater filled with leading citizens of a town like Boise and talking about empire (96% of humanity looks at America and sees one), terrorism (overrated), military spending (we, 4% of the planet, spend as much on our military as everyone else in the world combined), and so on, is exhilarating. From the stage I watch, measure, and feel the response. With stern, questioning faces looking at me as I weave my case, it’s a fascinating and thrilling challenge. As long as I acknowledge that Europeans are thankful for the valor and heroism of America when we freed them from the Nazi terror and stood up to and ultimately defeated the USSR, and I assert that I’d never want to run my business in Europe and that I’m thankful to be an entrepreneur in the USA, people seem happy to hear the European perspective I share. When approached reasonably and respectfully, people’s long-held perceptions are open to the crowbar of travel experience. I pulled out all the stops — talking for about two hours. Then, after a 15-minute break (to let Barnes & Noble sell a few books), I welcomed people to sit back down for an extended Q&A session and enjoyed half an hour of back-and-forth. I went home thinking, “Wow…these people are freakishly friendly.”

Photo Credit: Tim Tower