Category Archives: travel

Top Dogs

Our dog, Scarlett, has a small repertoire of tricks — certainly enough to impress visitors and to qualify her as the best trained dog in our neighborhood.

But when it comes to training dogs, I’ve never seen anything like what I saw in Scotland.

At a Leault Farm, just off the road between Edinburgh and Inverness, shepherd Neil Ross trots out a gang of border collies who move sheep exactly where he wants them in a vast field. But what makes this truly amazing is that he controls individual dogs on command.

With a combination of words and whistles, one dog will jump up and race hundreds of yards away and loop around the sheep. Then, on command, the dog will drive the sheep where Ross wants them. With more shouts and whistles he’ll send a different dog out on another route — then another and another.

It’s uncanny.

After the herding, you see how sheep are sheared – you can give it a try, if you like. The dogs wander around and socialize with the visitors; they’re calm and friendly – which is unusual for intense working dogs.

Aside from the beat up Range Rover, it could have been a hundred years ago. The lush green fields, the sheep, the dogs. A visit to this farm gives you a peek at a way of life that’s endangered on every side.

Neil Ross was born in the house on the farm, and he told us his kids are taught at home, far from “the nonsense they learn in school about the environment and politics.” That turned a few heads, but I can’t say I blame him.

NOTE: If your interested in rural life in the UK, I recommend A Shepehrd’s Life by James Rebanks. It’s a beautifully written book.

A Wee Story

All around Scotland, ancient people left clues about their existence, but there’s still great mystery surrounding the way they lived — and died.

The Corrimony Cairn is deep in the countryside down a narrow road in the Highlands, and while it may not be as grand as a place like Stonehenge, you feel a strange force viewing this 4,000 year old burial chamber.

Our tour guide pointed to the standing stones that circled the main structure. “Some people believe that if you hug those stones, they bring long life.”

Long life? Ok, why not. It was a wet day, but really: are you going to visit the cairn and not hug a rock?

The next day we were off in another small bus and on our rainy way to the Isle of Skye. We stopped at a lovely spot along the way with a stone bridge over a winding creek. It all stood below a dramatic cluster of mountains, and even on a misty day it was stunning.

Our guide, Chris, pointed down to the river. “It’s said, that if you put your face in the water for six seconds, it will bring you eternal beauty.”

I was the only taker. It was extremely cold water.

Chris teased me a bit along the way about my facial, and how I’d been magically transformed. I remarked that it must be very distracting to see me in the rear view mirror.

It wasn’t until later that I wondered what else these drivers get tourists to do — and how much of it is malarkey. But who am I to complain, now that I am blessed with long life and eternal beauty?

All Aboard the Albany Gondola

“If there were a museum of stupid ideas, the Albany gondola  would deserve its own wing.”

That’s what a friend of mine had to say about  the proposal to build an aerial tram to carry people from the Rensselaer train station to downtown Albany.

He’s clearly being short-sighted, for who hasn’t craved a better way to get across the river from the train station? Driving is so — old-fashioned, and most people would rather swim across the Hudson than get into one of the filthy cabs that prey on arriving Amtrak passengers.

The gondola would have stations at the new convention center and the Empire State Plaza, but what if that’s not your destination? Well, people going to other places, like the Albany Hilton, could just walk over from the gondola and drag their suitcase behind them — or get a cab when they get off the gondola, of course.

What about some other transportation options?

  • Rickshaws could work. Naturally, you would need all-weather rickshaws for the winter, but rickshaws are inherently fun and eco-friendly.
  • We might bring back the Aqua Duck boats. Imagine how thrilling it would to leave the train station and then plunge into the river — or drive across the river in the winter, if the river ever freezes again.
  • Or perhaps a moving walkway in a climate controlled tube? A tubeway, if you will. This would be like a giant Habitrail that would stretch up from Rensselaer and arc across the river.

At any rate, I would suggest that they add additional downtown stops into the plan to make the gondola more convenient. They might even have a stop at the museum of stupid ideas.

True South

We visited North Carolina last week to see my son graduate from Marine infantry training. He is now qualified as a machine gunner, which means I can probably trust him with the lawnmower.

It’s always interesting to go down south; here are a couple of observations from the trip:

Shark Week

One of the things I enjoyed on Emerald Isle was going for an early morning swim after my run. By early, I mean before 6am, so it was still relatively dark. It was a great way to start the day — and fortunately I enjoyed it before the beginning of shark week on Discovery. Did you know that sharks love to feed at dawn. Neither did I.

Smokes

There’s always been a tiny part of me that still craves a cigarette — and this was never stronger that when I saw that you can get a pack of Marlboros in North Carolina for only $4.50. It’s unfair that New Yorkers pay twice that amount for a pack of cigarettes. Is the cost really a deterrent to smoking? I’m not convinced. The smoking rate in North Carolina is less than three percent higher than in the Empire State.

All Y’all

The people down there are noticeably friendlier and more polite. Even the little children at Waffle House address the waitress with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”  It may not be genuine, just a case of people who have learned better manners, but I’ll take it.

Ireland

One of my favorite memories of visiting Ireland was visiting the ruins of Rahinnane Castle in Ventry, up in the hills outside Dingle.

To access the castle, you pay 5 Euros to park at a nearby farm and walk out across a field dotted with sheep. A boy from the farm came with us and brought along a few border collie pups — who in short order started herding the sheep — herding them directly at us!

I managed to retain my composure — even while a herd of sheep raced directly at me — and shoot this video:

It was one of the highlights of a trip filled with strange, poignant and unforgettable experiences. Yes, that’s my wife in the background saying, “Oh, sh*t… watch out!”

Foto Friday

Wolfe Island, Ontario

Hamburger Paprikash

Australians are a lot like Americans, right? That’s what I thought until I read about them trying to block the Golden Arches from going up in the town of Tecoma, a suburb of Melbourne. Recently, town residents brought their beef (Ha!) to McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. Americans would never try to stop a McDonald’s from being built.

And this brought to mind my most shameful travel experience.

So, what could be so awful it haunts me to this day? Desecrating a holy site? Insulting the locals? Paying peasants to carry me around on their shoulders? No. I ate at the Budapest McDonald’s.

Yes, there we were on a once in a lifetime trip to one of the world’s greatest cities, and like the stereotypical American tourists, we go to Mickey D’s.

Granted, we were in a huge hurry and very hungry (no pun intended) — and if we didn’t eat fast we’d miss our scenic boat tour on the Danube. You want to miss that?!

But if only we’d been a bit more patient we could probably have found a loaf of bread and some cheese, and maybe a sausage — then we’d imagine that we were eating like locals and not like the Amerikai. And we’d have a wonderful story to tell about our amazingly authentic experience.

Instead, we gulped down our food and did what every American does overseas when feeling uncomfortable: we pretended to be Canadians.

View from the Top

Drive “nord” from Montreal on Autoroute 15 and it won’t take long for you to be in  ski country.

It seems like every little village has a ski area, mostly modest old-fashioned places with a handful of lifts. Look closely and you’ll spot some former ski areas; you can  still see where the trails were cut from the forest and the rusty old lift equipment.  I’m sure a lot of people have looked up those hills and thought about reopening one of those places — and then did a tiny bit of math in their head.

Anyway, keep driving and you’ll get to the gargantuan Mont Treblant, now more
town than ski resort. This behemoth is probably what put some of those smaller
places out of business, and is now not just a place to ski, but a year-round destination. We  found ourselves there on a hazy summer day recently, and took the gondola up to the  top.

Here’s a picture of what it looked like from up there:

Wow! Look at that view of the... chairs.

Wow! Look at that view of the… chairs.

Impressive, huh? By the way, it cost us $16 each to take in that amazing view of the clouds. Indeed, I have rarely ever had such an amazing view of clouds. At lease we didn’t walk up. I wanted to yell down at hikers as we descended, “Turn back! You can’t see anything!”

No big deal. We had several wonderful days exploring the little towns in the Laurentians and eating great food. And everyone was very tolerant of our English.

Foto Friday

nuts

Nuts ~ Reghin, Transylvania

Where do you keep your nuts? In the attic, of course. Everyone I met in Romania would put up food like these walnuts for the winter: apples, potatoes, and jars of canned produce were in everyone’s house. And then there was the homemade hootch, of course.

But the most interesting food item we saw was a bag full of chicken feet. They were sitting on a shelf in the cool cellar and, frankly, they took us by surprise. After touring the basement we went upstairs and dug into a terrific lunch prepared by my wife’s cousin — a lunch that started with a bowl of steaming chicken soup. We don’t commonly do it here, but in much of the world you don’t throw away something that makes a delicious stock. Like chicken feet.