Dale Says

January 6, 2009

Cycling the Otago Rail Trail

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 7:22 pm

Cycling the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand takes two-three days.  Adventure South adds an extra day of cycling before the Rail Trail as a warm-up, and a day after along the Pacific Coast. 

The first day is a warm-up on the way to the Rail Trail: a 15-mile ride along a beautiful canal, on a flat and nearly-deserted paved road.  It’s a chance to test your bikes (and your legs) and to enjoy the background of lakes, green hills, and snow-capped Alps.  If you’re really fortunate you’ll have views of majestic Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.      Rides the next three days are on the Rail Trail, following the former railroad line past farms, rivers, small towns, and green rolling hills.  These rides are long, but relatively easy, on hard-packed dirt and gravel trails.  The total riding each day is 27 miles, 29 miles, and 37 miles, which you can break into smaller segments by alternating between cycling and riding in the bus.    

There are optional cycling rides for those who want extra riding —  to particularly interesting places, such as through the village of Ophir, a major center during the gold mining days, and down a forest trail along the beautiful Chultha River near Clyde.

The last day of cycling is an optional 15-mile cruise along the coast following cliffs and farms and in sight of the Pacific Ocean, into the rustic town of Oamaru.  This thriving coastal town is filled with history, good shopping, and excellent coffee shops and cafes. 

December 17, 2008

Cycling New Zealand’s Otago Central Rail Trail

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 6:08 pm

Are you looking for an international cycling adventure that is exhilarating yet realistic?  New Zealand’s Otago Central Rail Trail may be the answer.  This one-week tour is invigorating and unique – yet has relatively easy cycling, familiar language and culture, and enough creature comforts to make virtually anyone feel at ease.  It’s a good choice for couples, families, and anyone looking for excitement, good food, and beautiful scenery. 

New Zealand:  Safe, Clean, and Friendly 

New Zealand is a good vacation choice with a secure infrastructure, common language, similar customs and food, and familiar monetary system.  It’s also a clean, safe, and friendly country that welcomes tourists (especially Americans!).  And now, due to a favorable exchange rate, New Zealand is relatively inexpensive.   

It’s a long way to New Zealand, but easier with non-stop flights from the U.S.  Several airlines (e.g., Air New Zealand, Qantas, American, United, U.S. Airways, Lufthansa, Mexicana, Air Canada, British Airways) fly to New Zealand from San Francisco or Los Angeles, with flights of around 14 hours.  Overnight flights make the trip easier, since you fly (and sleep) during normal sleep time, and help you adjust once you get there.   

The closest airports to the Rail Trail are Christchurch and Queensland, and you will likely have to go through either Auckland or Sydney to get to one of those cities.  We flew United Airlines from San Francisco to Sydney, then Air New Zealand from Sydney to Christchurch.   

Otago Central Rail Trail:  A Good Cycling Choice     

The Otago Central Rail Trail is a good choice for beginners and more experienced cyclists.  It offers relatively easy cycling, an interesting historic perspective, the experience of riding a rail trail, and incredible views of charming country.   

The tour follows the path of the Otago Central Railroad, which linked Dunedin to the Otago gold mining area.  After the railroad closed in 1993, it was transformed into the Otago Central Rail Trail.  The train tracks were removed, a suitable gravel surface was put down, and all 68 bridges on the route were re-decked and equipped with handrails.  The Rail Trail officially opened to cyclists and walkers in February, 2000. 

Daily rides on the Rail Trail range from 15 – 37 miles, with optional rides for those who want to do more, and a comfortable van for those who want to do less.  The terrain is relatively flat, and everyone in decent cycling shape should be able to handle it. 

Adventure South:  A Well-Organized and Equipped Tour Company 

Our tour was fully-supported by Adventure South, which has been in the business since 1992.  They supplied a guide, support van, bike trailer, bikes, accommodation, and two meals per day.  Our equipment consisted of hybrid bikes with handlebar and rear bags, helmets, cyclometers, and water bottles.  It was very good (among the best we’ve had) and completely appropriate for the conditions.  

Louise Shillits, our guide, is experienced, capable, helpful, and friendly.  She has a great sense of timing and she kept us moving at a steady, comfortable pace throughout the trip.  Louise is well suited for her job, and she treated us with a wonderful mix of patience and respect.  She is hard-working (doing it all – from hoisting our bikes on and off the trailer to pointing out the flora and fauna and steering us to the best sights, restaurants and night spots.  One of her most delightful attributes (and there are many) is a knowledge of where the best coffee can be found along the route (we stopped at all of them). 

Louise is a strong cyclist and she rode with us whenever she could, taking turns riding with each of us, carrying the conversation, and pointing out highlights.  Although she did innumerable large and small things for us that week perhaps the best was helping us fight a headwind the last day, when she drove the support van to the end of the trail, cycled out and rode back to the finish line with each of us, encouraging us along the way.  For that, she has our eternal gratitude!

December 16, 2008

Savory Pies, Fine Wines, and Ginger Beer

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 6:08 pm

While not widely recognized for its cuisine, New Zealand has very good food – especially for cyclists.  Our meals were generally hardy which we appreciated after cycling 4-5 hours each day.  They were also tasty and healthy, with excellent meats and seafood and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Breakfasts were included in our accommodations and generally included hot and cold cereal, breads, fruit, juice, and coffee or tea.  There was plenty and it was all good.  A special treat was Marmite, which is a thick, earthy spread for toast that is particular to New Zealand and can only be fully appreciated by the locals.  

New Zealand is known for its savory pies, which are single-portion sized entrees with top and bottom crusts filled with combinations of vegetables and/or meats.  We began to look forward to them each day as we pedaled along the rail trail and planned and debated which type of pie we would order. 

Evening meals generally offered a variety of appetizers and entrees with excellent lamb, beef, venison, fresh seafood, vegetables, and salads.  Our meals were fresh, nicely-presented, inexpensive, and the servings were ample.   

Central Otago is one of the world’s southern most popular wine producing regions. The summers are hot and dry and the winters crisp and snowy and some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir wines are produced in this region.  New Zealand wines are plentiful, inexpensive, and good; among our favorite varieties were Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.    

An excellent alternative to wine is New Zealand’s wide selection of ginger beers.  These refreshing non-alcoholic drinks have a nice zing that perked me us, and I found myself ordering them at afternoon rest stops and dinners.

December 15, 2008

Learning to Appreciate the Sport of Curling

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Travel — Dale @ 4:29 pm

In the small town of Naseby, New Zealand we developed an appreciation for the sport of curling. Prior to this, curling had been one of those sports (like fencing and water aerobics) we saw only on TV during the Olympics. And while we assumed that participants were skilled at what they did, we had little understanding why grown-ups would chase a chunk of stone down the ice with brooms.

Naseby, as it turns out, has the only dedicated indoor curling rink in the Southern Hemisphere and by a fortunate coincidence the Pacific Curling Championships were taking place while we were there. So off we went to watch this peculiar sport. We saw Olympic-level men’s and women’s teams competing from Australia, China, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand, watching from a spectator’s gallery above the ice. We happened to sit behind the Australian women’s team, who were watching their male counterparts and waiting for their turn to compete later that night. The ladies patiently explained the sport to us.

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Curling is a team sport with similarities to shuffle board and bowling, played on a rectangular sheet of ice by two teams of four players each. Teams take turns sliding heavy, polished granite stones down the ice toward the target (called the house). A game consists of ten “ends” (an end is similar to a baseball inning). During an end each team delivers eight stones – two per player. The object is to get the stone as close to the center of the circles as possible. Two sweepers with brooms accompany each rock and help direct them to a desired resting place by smoothing the ice in front of them.

As the Australian ladies instructed, “it’s all about the last throws.” Early throws are designed to set up obstacles in front of the target, or to knock those obstacles away. The last throws for each team are aimed at the target and decide who gets the points (only the closest one or two score). The team with the most points at the conclusion of ten ends is the winner.

Most curlers have other full time jobs, and some have to pay their own way to regional matches like the one we saw. Most of the Australian women players are also mothers, and they talked about the difficulty of leaving their families behind as they compete. But it seems to be in their blood, as they have been curling for most of their lives.

Curling is an interesting and graceful sport. The next time we see curling on TV during the Olympics, we won’t dismiss it so lightly. We now know it has a world-wide following and requires a great deal of dedication and skill. And we have now added it to the list of sports we respect.

August 27, 2008

A Sense of Holland

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 10:18 am

Note:  This article was published by GoNomad.com in April, 2009.

Want to see one of the world’s most spectacular sights? Go to Holland in the spring and feast your eyes on miles and miles of tulips.

The best way to see Holland? This author argues it’s from the seat of a bicycle.

Making Tulip Angels

Tulips have enchanted people for centuries. The Dutch economy nearly collapsed in the 7th century when, during a period of intense speculation, or “tulipmania,” rare tulip bulbs sold for as much as a year’s wages – then dropped to practically no value overnight. Anna Pavod, who studies and writes about tulips, refers to them as “the sexiest, the most capricious, the most various, subtle, powerful and intriguing flower that has ever grown on earth.”

We noticed them first from the windows of the bus as we rode to the start of our bicycle tour. Fields of tulips: red, yellow, orange, and pink; perfectly lined in rows, and stretching on kilometer after kilometer. Signs at the end of the rows listed their names: Rembrandt, Parrot, Triumph, Double Late – it went on and on, with each as beautiful as the next. There were huge piles of purple and red tulip bulbs lying at the edge of the flat, green fields. The bus driver patiently explained it to us:

“They’re tulip blossoms. The growers cut them to divert energy to the bulbs. The bulbs are the valuable part.”

So we sat and stared at what must have been millions of tulip heads, waiting to be turned into compost. We thought how precious they would be back home and wondered if they were used for anything.

“Some of the growers tried feeding them to their pigs,” the driver said. “But pigs don’t seem to care for them.”

We didn’t know then how much we would connect with those piles of blossoms, each in our own way. We walked in tulip piles, and threw handfuls of tulips in the air. A couple of us even made “tulip angels” by lying on our backs and waving our arms and legs. Our Christmas cards that year included a photo of us in a pile of red tulip blossoms, holding a stem in our mouths, like flamenco dancers.

Make Room for Water

The Dutch have always had a love/hate affair with the sea. They rely on it for agriculture and transportation, but they have also fought for centuries against floods, which have wreaked havoc on the land. They think of water as an adversary, to be collected, contained, and sent as quickly as possible back to the sea. Over time, they have worked out a covenant, which they call “ruimte voor water” – make room for water.

By the 19th century, the Dutch had built 1,900 windmills, and there are still more than 1,000 of the giant concrete and wooden structures, though few are functional today. The largest collection (19 windmills) is at the village of Kinderdijk, which was a ferry ride and a half day’s bicycle ride to the coast through light, but insistent wind and rain.

Only six of us made it all the way, and the rest opted out or turned back part way there. The six survivors included Joanne, a spunky woman in her 70s who with her husband, Ted, was a veteran of more than 20 bicycle tours.

As we grew near the windmills emerged through the mist like an army of gigantic electric fans. We were impressed with their magnitude and as we rode closer with the size of the blades. One windmills was open to the public, so we went in. We climbed the steps to the keeper’s quarters, at the midpoint of the blades, and were in a single small room that had a small wooden bed, a washbasin, and one small, arched window. We looked out over the canal where our windmill stood with its companions like lonely sentries, guarding the polder.

As a blade passed our window, its shadow blocked the light. We felt the power of its movement, gathering force as it sped downward, then pulled back up by centrifugal force and the strength of its hub. We weren’t prepared for the whooshing sound that followed, and stood in silence for a moment in awe.

Keukenhof Gardens

In the 15th century, Dutch countess Jacoba van Beiren gathered flowers and herbs for cooking in the woods of her estate south of Amsterdam. She called her gardens “keukenhof,” which translates to “kitchen garden.”

In 1949, the estate was turned into the Keukenhof Gardens, an 80-acre showcase of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other flowering bulbs that flourish in the rich coastal soil near the town of Lisse. The gardens iclude an incredible six million flowering bulbs, along with floral exhibits, art shows, and world-renowned auctions of tulip bulbs.

Our cycling tour included a ride to Keukenhof Gardens. the famous bulb gardens we had heard so mch about, and we were determined to get there. We had made our way through a long, tiring day, in which we were rained on and pedaled for hours into a cold wind.

We rounded another bend and the wind was still blowing strong, so we reached deeper to keep from turning back. But around this bend the wind blew us a wonderful perfume. Fields of purple hyacinth surrounded us; their bell-shaped buds in bloom.

The fragrance was everywhere.

We stepped off our bikes and inhaled the elixir. We forget our freezing hands and aching muscles — this made it all worthwhile.

Now we could ride on.

At Keukenof, we were enthralled by the colors, made even more vibrant on this gray, cloudy day. There were tulip bulbs of every kind and they stood as armies of splendidly cloaked soldiers with their brightly colored headdresses a perfect symphony of color.

About the author

Dale Fehringer lives and writes in San Francisco. He and his wife, Patty, have bicycled in Argentina, Austria, Chile, Croatia, Holland, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Loire Valley (France), the Napa wine country, New Zealand, Portugal, Sicily, Slovakia, and Vermont. They consider the bicycle an ideal vehicle for seeing new places and will continue to ride as long as their legs hold out.

July 20, 2008

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Travel — Dale @ 11:12 am

Note:  This article was published in  InTravel Magazine in November, 2008.

http://intravelmag.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=350&Itemid=10077&limit=1&limitstart=0

Ana just might be the hardest-working tour guide in Europe. During the week she led our cycling tour around Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands she rode with us, entertained us, educated us, and watched over us – from breakfast until we were safely tucked in bed at night. Because of her efforts, we were transformed from a group of strangers into a cohesive group of friends … and in some respects into her temporary family.

An attractive, strongly-built woman in her mid-30s, Ana has athlete written all over her. Shoulder-length highlighted brown hair and an angular jaw frame her determined brown eyes and slightly freckled checks. Large, square sunglasses perch on top of her head and a first aid pack is strapped to her waist … just in case. She’s tough and capable of taking care of herself – and of a group of cyclists who don’t know the language or their way around. Ana loves being outdoors, and in addition to being a tour guide she is also a lifeguard and ski patrol; all activities that put her in charge – and in a position to help others. She enjoys being around people, perhaps because she doesn’t have much family. She lost both parents while she was young and now lives with her brother in the family home they grew up in. She seems to miss her parents, and gets misty-eyed when talking about her mother.

This was Ana’s first time to lead this tour and we could tell she was nervous. She spent a lot of time reviewing the itinerary and checking our position and got very concerned if any of us were separated from the group. She generally rode in the lead, scouting the course, but she also cycled and visited with each tour member. She was assisted by Kristo, who had not been on the ride before, and Boris, who drove the support van and bike trailer. (Boris, we later found out, is missing his toes, due to frostbite suffered during a mountain climb). But Ana was clearly in charge.

Meeting the Group
You never know what you are getting into when you sign up for a group bicycle tour and we were a little anxious as we waited at the Split airport to meet our fellow cyclists. There were four in our party (middle-age Americans) and we were joined by two other Americans, four Irish, and six Brits. Everyone had previous cycling experience and all were good riders. Ana greeted each of us with a smile and warm handshake and checked us off her list. Eleven … twelve … thirteen … wait a minute, there were supposed to be 16! Where are the rest?

Croatia and the Dalmatian Islands
Croatia is located in Central Europe, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It’s roughly the shape of an upside down horseshoe and is surrounded by other former Yugoslavian states including Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The fair weather, natural beauty, and gentile people have made Croatia a vacation destination for decades and Europeans have long traveled there to sail, enjoy the great beaches, and swim in the Adriatic Sea. In the 1990s, Croatia was involved in a civil war which devastated the country and curtailed tourism. Now, the war is history, the country has been restored, and Croatia is once again a remarkable country to visit.

The people of Croatia are generous and gracious hosts and they make visitors feel welcome. We felt comfortable and safe everywhere we went and we were greeted by friendly and helpful people throughout the country. The Croatian language is difficult and we had problems mastering even simple phrases, but the locals speak enough English to understand your needs, and they went out of their way to help us.

Getting to Croatia isn’t direct, but it’s relatively easy. It’s basically two flights from the U.S., with connections to Split and Dubrovnik through London, Dublin, Vienna, and other major European gateways. We flew San Francisco to Dublin to Split.

Split: A Great City for Tourists
Our cycling tour started in the historic city of Split, circled three Dalmatian islands (Hvar, Korcula, and Mljet), and wound up in the ancient port city of Dubrovnik.

Split is a great city for tourists; it’s historic, compact, and easy to navigate on foot. Of special interest, the outdoor fish market features dozens of locals selling seafood, each calling out the benefits of their sardines or octopus versus that of their neighbors. The Split night life is active with several reasonably-priced restaurants and bars.

After dinner, we climbed on a ferry for a 1½ hour ride to the island of Hvar. Aboard the ferry Ana resolved the issue of the three missing group members. She found out that Peter, from the U.K., had mistakenly gone to the London airport with his daughter’s passport instead of his own, and he missed his flight and would join us the next day. Two women from Ireland hadn’t appeared in the Split Airport, or at dinner, but when we boarded the ferry, there they were. Ana chided them for not meeting the group at the airport, but they assured her they were never lost – they knew where they were the whole time, and here they were. Ana was perturbed, but also relieved that two more of her charges were in the fold.

When we arrived at Hvar, Ana escorted us onto the bus, then into a hotel in the seaside town of Jelsa, our home for the next two days.

Circling Hvar
Hvar is a good place to start a bike tour; it’s historic (having been populated at least since the 4th century BC), has a mild climate and good beaches, and an abundance of lavender, vineyards, and wildflowers.

We woke the first morning to sunshine and birds singing outside our hotel room. We dressed and headed down for breakfast and there was Ana, dressed in a bright bicycle jersey and sipping tea from a giant cup. She greeted us with a cheery smile and enthusiastic “Good Morning!” Her instructions were to meet in the hotel lobby at 8:30 AM to start the tour. Not wanting to be the last to show up, we were in the lobby in our cycling gear at 8:20 – a little sleepy, slightly nervous, and ready to ride. As we waited, Peter arrived, waving his passport in the air. Ana greeted him and he quickly stored his luggage, changed into his cycling clothes, and joined us.

We were off – through the city to the coast and along winding country roads toward Hvar Town and Stari Grad. We enjoyed views of the sea and surrounding islands, and noted mounds of rocks, in rows, lining the hills from top to bottom. Over the years, generations of Hvar residents moved those rocks by hand to clear the land for crops and now rows of lavender and grape vines grow between the mounds.

Hvar is also known as “Lavender Island” because the graceful plants grow in profusion throughout. Vendors sell it in packages, soaps, and oils and we bought some from a stand in Stari Grad; that night the pleasant, comforting scent filled our room.

We had an excellent thin-crust cheese pizza for lunch in the plaza at Hvar Town, and then rode north to Stari Grad and east to Jelsa.

Dinner that night was in the village of Jelsa. We sat at an outside table, ate local seafood, and challenged Ana to call us by name. She did well, correctly identifying 14 of the 16 of us. She seemed pleased with herself, and shrugged off her two misses.

On to Korcula
We were getting used to seeing Ana at breakfast in the morning with her giant cup of tea and cheery smile. She seemed genuinely glad to see us and eager to get on with the day’s ride.

The second day was cloudy and cool – just right for cycling – and we rode through the walled city of Jelsa, enjoying sweeping views of the surrounding bays, blooming wildflowers on the roadsides and hills, and gardens of peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes.

The morning ride was easy, but after lunch the weather turned misty and cloudy and the route was mostly uphill. I rode with Ana, straining to keep up while we talked about our lives and anticipated the “brow” of the hill and a downhill coast.

At Sucuraj we took a ferry to Dubrovnik and another to Korcula, our home for the next three nights. On the ferry we drank beer, told stories, and listened to Ana and Boris sing traditional Croatian songs. We didn’t understand the words, but the harmony was nice and the bittersweet meaning of the lyrics was clear.

The views of Korcula as we approached on the ferry were amazing – a 600-year-old city surrounded by ancient stone walls as durable as it had been for hundreds of years.

Fresh Mussels on Mljet
Our tour schedule indicated a day off in Korcula, but Ana offered us a side trip to Mljet as an alternative. We took her up on it and she arranged for a local boat to take us (and our bicycles) to the island.

In ancient times, the small island of Mljet (pronounced Mee-yet) was the holiday resort of Rome’s wealthy. They built holiday villas there, and it’s easy to see why, as the tree-covered hills and salt water lakes present a calming beauty. Today, it is accessible by charter boat from Korcula, Split, and Dubrovnik.

After breakfast we put our bicycles on top of the boat and headed across the bay for the 2½ hour ride to Mljet. We docked near the small fishing village of Pomena, and then cycled around two salt water lakes. The waters are incredibly clear with pools of azure and swirls of teal.

Lunch at a small seaside café in Pomena consisted of mussels pulled directly out of the bay then cooked for us. They were amazingly fresh and delicious! After lunch, we reloaded our bikes on the boat and sailed back to Korcula.

Marco Polo’s Home Town
Korcula is one of the longest islands in the Adriatic Sea and we spent two days exploring it on our bicycles. The island is hilly and covered with forests of pine, cypress, and oak. It has been populated since prehistoric times, and has been occupied by Romans, Byzantines, and Venetians, among others. Our ride started in Vela Luka, passed Prizba, Brna, and Smokvica, and then headed to the scenic village of Pupnat where we had a fabulous lunch at a small café which consisted of huge platters of antipasto and three desserts – a chocolate cake, flan, and deep-fried local pastry.

After lunch we got back on our bikes and rode to the town of Korcula, where we shopped and explored. This ancient walled city is the home of Marco Polo, and the house he was born in is being turned into a museum. Walking through the narrow streets and passageways feels like passing through history, and you can sense the presence of centuries of townspeople, soldiers, and royalty.

One of Ana’s “ducklings” was missing at dinner (he decided to go out on his own) and Ana was so concerned that she waited for him for nearly an hour, then walked all over town until she found him at an outdoor cafe. She scolded him (for not letting her know) and she was still upset about it at dinner.

After dinner, she calmed down enough to entertain us by singing a romantic local song. It was a softer side of Ana that we hadn’t seen before, and I thought I saw a hint of tears in her eyes as she sang.

Korcula to Ston
The ride from Korcula to Ston consisted of three parts – a quiet morning jaunt on narrow gravel roads, a ferry ride to the Peljesac peninsula, and an optional afternoon ride to Ston on a hilly paved road. At one point that morning, a few riders went ahead of the main group and took a wrong turn. Ana chased them down and brought them back. She was panting when she rejoined the group, but she didn’t complain; she had all of her charges back in the fold.

Half of the group did the afternoon ride, which was 12 miles, mostly uphill. It was tough, and Ana rode with us, straining against the hills and cursing the wind. As we rounded the last curve and coasted downhill into the ancient walled city of Ston we cheered and gave each other high fives. It had been a tough ride, and we were proud we finished it.

Ston is a unique city. More than three miles of stone walls, built prior to 1000 AD, surround the old town. The walls are in amazingly good shape despite being bombed in 1991 and hit by an earthquake in 1996, and are one of the largest man-made structures on earth. After lunch in Ston, Boris loaded our bikes onto the trailer and drove us to Dubrovnik.

The Old Town of Dubrovnik
Fortunately, we had been forewarned about the throngs of tourists in Dubrovnik or we might have been disappointed in this otherwise beautiful and hospitable city. It’s a popular tourist destination, renowned for its monuments, beautiful and generally-intact walls, and welcoming atmosphere. During the day, cruise ships anchor in the harbor and discharge thousands of tourists, who mob the streets and gift shops. But at night, it’s a different and much quieter place, and walking the ancient streets feels like walking through history.

We found a café outside the walls (and away from the tourists) and sat, enjoyed a peaceful drink, and admired the views of the city and the sea.

Saying Goodbye
It had been a wonderful week in Croatia and we were sorry it was coming to an end. Our group had gotten along amazingly well and the tour guides had been helpful, entertaining, and educational.

Ana saw each of us off, and seemed genuinely sorry to see us go. It had been a long and demanding week for her, but I think she had grown as attached to us as we had to her. And in many ways, we had been her family for the week. She gave us warm farewell hugs and whispered something special to each of us as she said goodbye. We miss her friendship and guidance, and I think she misses us, too.

About the author:

Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer, editor, and documentary video producer. Dale is a regular columnist for Competitive Intelligence Magazine and his articles have appeared in a wide range of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Italian Tribune, inTravel Magazine, WomenOf.com, American Legion Magazine, Road & Travel, and Western RV News and Recreation. He can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email at dalefehringer@hotmail.com.

July 1, 2008

Rafting on the Colorado River

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 10:12 am

For seven amazing days in June 2008 we rafted on the Colorado River in Arizona. This trip through Marble Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Lake Meade left an indelible impression and has given us a greater appreciation of our world and lives.

It was not a comfortable journey. We were restricted in what we could take and we slept on the sand, peed in the river, and pooped in a can. The days were long, the nights short, and the weather so hot that a drenching of ice-cold water from the many rapids actually felt good. But the views made up for the inconveniences. Day after day we floated through majestic canyons, hiked to beautiful waterfalls, and lived in union with nature in one of the most unique places on earth.

We were fortunate to share this experience with a group of friends who loved it as much as did we – people who pitched in to help make it a shared journey of discovery. We were also lucky to have guides who love the river and who shared with us the history and lore of the land and of those who came here before us.

This was an amazing and wondrous trip for many reasons and it has held our focus since we returned. I’m proud of us for braving the elements, casting aside frills, and spending a week of our lives with the earth. And I’m pleased to have shared a week with a group of old and new-found friends. There is now a permanent bond between us that is rare and wonderful. We loved our guides! Their passion for their work and their love of the river made a lasting impact on us. Most of all, I cherish the opportunity to have gone below the surface of the earth and back a million years to view a slice of the world we live on.

Life can be complicated and times are a mess. But for seven days in June, on the Colorado River, life was reduced to its bare essentials – no more complicated than being with friends and living with the world.

January 20, 2008

Cycling Chile’s Lake District

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 1:11 pm

If you could, would you be 28 years old again?

That question, among others, occupied our time while we cycled through Chile’s Lake District last November. We were on a seven-day guided bicycle tour of southern Chile’s lakes and volcanoes, enjoying a spring-time glimpse of one of the most beautiful places on earth, accompanied by a 28-year-old guide.

So we cycled past blue mountain lakes and snow-capped volcanoes and debated the pros and cons of being 28 again.

The merits were easy: more energy, fewer aches and pains, and a chance to avoid the mistakes we had made in our growing-up years.

There would be drawbacks, too; like having to repeat all those years of tedious jobs, tight finances, and temperamental kids.

Then we introduced a condition: we could go back to being 28, knowing what we know now. Well, that made it easy; that meant we could re-do those wonderful years without repeating the blunders we had made along the way.

A Beautiful Part of the World

Chile may not be at the top of your travel list. It wasn’t high on mine, but my wife was there a couple of years ago and she found it a wonderful place to explore. So we booked a guided bike tour of the Lake District in November of 2007.

Chile is a narrow strip of land that runs a very long way along the western edge of South America, from the Pacific Ocean to the summit of the Andes Mountains.

The Lake District is two-thirds of the way down Chile’s coast, about 400 miles south of Santiago. This picturesque segment of Chile includes coastal cities, ancient forests, mountain lakes, and magnificent snow-capped volcanoes. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and a great place to explore on bicycles. The scenery reminded us of Switzerland, New Zealand, and the Oregon coast.

It was springtime in Chile, so we were treated to green pastures, blooming flowers, and new life. At one point we rode past newborn twin calves, and we sat on our bikes and watched them get on their legs for the first time.

Why Chile?

There are many reasons to consider a bicycle tour cycle in the lake District of Chile:

 Chile has its act together. It is safe, has a stable, democratic government , a strong, growing economy, and a well-developed tourism industry.

 Because Chile is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from the U.S., which means you can have a second spring, or summer. Weather is typically mild in Chile’s Lake District.

 Chile is relatively easy to get to and reasonably priced, especially compared with Western Europe.

 Because it’s pretty much due south, you cross few time zones, which means little or no jet lag. There are numerous flights to Chile from a variety of U.S airports; including Miami, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

 Chile’s Lake District has incredibly beautiful snow-capped volcanoes and picturesque lakes.

 Chile is unspoiled and un-crowded, especially outside the major cities. North America’s fall and winter are great times to go, as the weather is good and Chile’s tourist season has yet to begin.

 There are clean, reasonably-priced hotels, an abundance of good food, and great wine, at prices that are a bargain compared to the U.S. and Europe.

 The people of Chile are warm and friendly and seem to like North Americans.

Cycling in Chile’s Lake District

Our seven-day cycling tour was organized by Amity Tours, a small family-owned tour company in Temuco, Chile (www.amitytours.cl). It included a week in two of Chile’s 11 regions (similar to U.S. states) and ranged from Temuco to Puerto Montt. Our tour guides accompanied us, arranging our meals and lodging, and helping with the luggage and lingo.

Allejandro, the tour company owner, drove the van and arranged our daily routes so we saw the best views of Chile’s stunning lakes, waterfalls, and snow-capped volcanoes. Each day seemed more gorgeous than the day before.

Ernesto, our cycling guide, rode with us and served as escort, naturalist, and motivator. He is a competitive (former country champion) mountain bike racer, who is now studying to be an adventure tour guide. He’s 28, handsome, and built like a Tour De France rider. I admit that I was intimidated by him at first; after all he’s young and talented, has legs of steel, and unlimited energy.

Ernesto literally rode circles around us for a week; rotating among us, checking to see how we were doing, and offering encouragement. After we finished our daily 4-5 hour cycling tour, Ernesto would ride his mountain bike around a lake, or up a mountain, while we soaked in a hot tub or relaxed in our rooms.

Lakes, Volcanoes, and New Life

We started our tour in Temuco, a mid-sized city an hour’s flight south of Santiago. After a night of orientation, we drove toward the Andes and through Las Raíces, the longest tunnel in Chile. At the end of the tunnel, we could see three spectacular volcanoes – Lliama, Lonquimay, and Tolhuaca – which we kept in sight as we cycled along the Lonquimay River. That afternoon we stood high in the Andes, at the Chile/Argentina border, and ate warm pine nuts from ancient Araucana trees.

The next day we drove on the Pan American Highway to the lakeside town of Pucón, and then cycled to Curarrehue, a small village near the Argentina border, where we visited a museum and learned about the Mapuches, the area’s indigenous people. In the afternoon, we cycled along beautiful Lake Villarrica, and our guides pointed out native birds and trees while we enjoyed views of the stunning Villarrica and Lanin volcanoes. Villarrica is an active volcano, and we could see smoke rising from its peak. That night our cozy hotel had lovely gardens and sweeping views of the lake and volcanoes.

“People of the Earth”

The Mapuches – “people of the earth” -, whom the Spaniards called “Araucanos”, were intimidating warriors and the most numerous indigenous group. They made the conquest of Chile so long and difficult. The Mapuches demonstrated a surprising ability to copy the Spaniards’ battle tactics and appropriate their weapons. They also obtained Spanish horses and used them to create a new breed, sturdy and strong, of short stride and lively disposition.

The Mapuches, the most populist indigenous people in Chile, continue to defend their land and lifestyle. The government has insisted on dialogue in each instance where they have sought to promote their aspirations. Of the more than 2.200 indigenous communities living in the south (there are about one million Mapuches in Chile today), only around 50 are still in a state of conflict and continue to resort to violence. One of Chile’s greatest challenges is to reconcile historical demands with the requirements and strategies of national development.

Source: www.chileangovernment.cl

Each day brought new beauty, and on the third day we rode along the shores of two spectacular lakes then cycled around Villarrica volcano, past beach towns and green rolling hills, and through protected native forests. At one point we could see five magnificent volcanoes in the distance. We spent that night in the Natural Reserve of Huilo Huilo, in a very special inn, the Magic Mountain hotel .

Our day of “rest” turned out to be very active, with hiking, a canopy tour of the forest, and a long soak in a wooden-log hot tub.

The next day we cycled over rolling hills with the beautiful beaches of Lake Puyehue on one side, green pastures on the other, and the snow-capped Andes looming in the distance. Near the end of the day we garnered up a burst of energy to ride up the final hill to the fantastic Termas de Puyehue Hotel where we enjoyed thermal baths, a wonderful local buffet dinner, and dreamed of the sights we had seen.

Our last day of cycling took us to the shores of beautiful Lake Llanquihue and the perfect cone of Osorno Volcano. The snow-capped volcano appeared to rise directly out of the lake, and offered wonderful views most of the day. We passed through the charming village of Ensenada, and then rode on to the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park and the dramatic Petrohué Falls . We spent the night in the charming German-style city of Puerto Varas, where we had an emotional farewell dinner.

High Praise from Ernesto

I mentioned earlier that our bike guide, Ernesto, was a 28-year-old mountain bike champion, and that we were somewhat intimidated by his cycling ability. But the more we got to know him, the more comfortable we became.

Ernesto absorbed everything we told him about U.S. culture and what other tour groups might like, and taught us about Chile’s flora and fauna. He showed us a grove of ancient Araucana trees, which are revered by the Mapuches, and told about colihue, bamboo that flowers once every nine years in such profusion that it’s accompanied by an outbreak of rodents, who feast on the blossoms.

So we grew fond of Ernesto and welcomed his cycling hints and encouragement. We learned to accept his youth and energy, and pushed to cycle harder.

And we realized that being 28 was good; as was being our age.

There are a lot of wonderful moments to savor from our week in Chile. One of my favorites came after Ernesto talked me up a long, steep hill to our hotel for the night then rode with me to the entrance and quietly told me he thought I was a “good rider.” Coming from Ernesto, that was very high praise.

November 26, 2007

High Praise from Ernesto

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 2:22 pm

We just got home from a terrific bicycle adventure in Chile’s Lake District, an inexpensive and beautiful alternative to Europe, which offers everything an adventure cyclist can ask for. Chile is relatively easy to get to (flights to Santiago then Tumuco via several U.S. airlines and airports) and only few time zones away.

The tour was organized to maximize the views of Chile’s stunning lakes, waterfalls, and snow-capped volcanoes, and each day seemed even more gorgeous than the one before. Rolling hills, crisp mornings, sunny afternoons, and friendly people who respect cyclists made this an exhilarating and affordable cycling destination. The tour guides (www.amitytours.cl) rode with us, arrange our meals and lodging, and helped with the language.

It was spring in Chile so we were treated to green pastures, flowers in bloom, and baby lambs and calves. At one point we rode past new-born twin calves, and we sat on our bikes and watched them get on their legs for the first time.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the trip turned out to be our bike guide. His name is Ernesto Araneda (a.k.a. “The Machine”). He’s a 28-year-old competitive (former country champion) mountain bike racer, who is studying to be an adventure travel tour guide. I admit I was intimidated by Ernesto at first; he’s half my age, has legs like the grandson on “Triplets of Belleview,” and he literally rode circles around us for a week. Each day, he rode back-and-forth between us, offering advice and information and patiently answering our questions. At the end of each day when we were worn out from 4-5 hours on the rolling hills (they call them “chorizos” after their shape), Ernesto would go off by himself and ride up a volcano, or around a nearby lake.

Ernesto wanted to practice his English (he learned most of it from watching cable TV), and he soaked up everything we told him about North American culture and what other tour groups might like. In return, he wound up teaching us a lot — about the history and culture of Chile, and the different kinds of plants and wildlife we rode past. He knows a lot about trees, and he showed us a grove of ancient araucana trees, which are revered by the indigenous Mapuches, and we ate the large pine nuts produced by the trees. And he told us about colihue, a type of bamboo that flowers every nine years in such profusion it’s often accompanied by an outbreak of rodents, who feast on the blossoms.

My best moment of the trip came after Ernesto had talked me up a long, steep hill to our hotel for the night — he rode with me to the entrance and quietly told me he thought I was a “very good rider.” Coming from Ernesto, that was high praise.

January 16, 2007

Cycle Sicily on Your Own

Filed under: Travel — Dale @ 5:14 pm

With the dollar’s recent decline versus the Euro, there are few travel values left in Western Europe. For adventure travelers willing to go on their own, a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily is still a bargain and a wonderful adventure.

Are you ready for a European bicycle tour, but don’t want to spend a fortune? If so, you might want to consider a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily.

Why Sicily?
Sicily offers a rare and wonderful combination of history, incredible views, warm hospitality and some of the best food on earth. And, if you are enterprising enough to go on your own, a self-guided bicycle tour of Sicily can be a rewarding and affordable adventure.

If you enjoy history
Over the past 2,000 years every major Western civilization visited and occupied Sicily. Those influences remain and are evident from a bicycle. Greek temples, Roman cities, Norman and Arabian churches the vestiges of previous cultures are well preserved and accessible.

Incredible views
A bicycle tour offers sweeping views of the Sicilian countryside, including hill towns and coastal villages, vineyards and olive orchards, medieval cities and mosaic cathedrals. Sicily is a land of many cultures and contrasts and the closer one gets the more it can be absorbed. A bicycle offers a front row seat.

People who appreciate you
Sicilians are naturally gracious, a tendency that extends to treatment of their guests, including American tourists. People in smaller towns are especially friendly and helpful. Few small town Sicilians are fluent in English, but they have little difficulty understanding and satisfying your needs. As we cycled through the towns and villages of Sicily, we were greeted by old men who sit on benches, share gossip and opinions and wave at the occasional bicyclists who glide by.

Fantastic food
The food is excellent throughout Sicily, and meals are works of art — occasions to be celebrated and enjoyed. And you can eat as much as you like, guilt-free, after a day on your bicycle. A typical evening meal consists of antipasti, then two main courses (the primi Piatti, which is typically pasta, and secundi Piatti, which can be seafood or shellfish on the coast; or beef, pork or chicken inland. This is followed by the insalata course, which is typically lettuce and whatever vegetables are the freshest, then dessert, which might be cannoli, Â Frutta di Martorana (almond marzipan pastries colored and shaped to resemble real fruit), or gelato (ice cream), which is plentiful and excellent.

An interesting option is to arrange a cooking class along the way, to learn some of the secrets behind Sicily’s wonderful food. We made risotto with Paolo, our host at a bed-and-breakfast in the hills near Countessa Entrellina. “Fresh ingredients are the secret,” he told us. “Fresh vegetables and herbs.” He showed us how to add and reduce broth until the pasta is just about done, then to shake the risotto as it cools. We all helped and preparing the meal was organized chaos, as it should be in Sicily, followed by a triumphant presentation another Sicilian work of art!

Good wine
In addition to great food, Sicilian wines are plentiful, inexpensive, and surprisingly good. The mild Mediterranean climate produces fine grapes, and centuries of practice result in excellent, smooth wines. Sicily’s vintage wines are among the world’s best, and the island’s traditional wines and spirits are famous far beyond its shores. Throughout our ride, local wines were pleasant, full-bodied, and affordable (typically under US$5 per bottle). Sicily also has a wide assortment of excellent dessert wines (including the well-known Marsala wine), and a number of regional liqueurs.

A great value
Sicily is still affordable. With the fall in value of the US dollar versus the euro, there are few reasonably priced vacation destinations left in Western Europe; fortunately, Sicily is still one. Sicily has not yet been “found” by bargain-hunting Americans, and prices are still reasonable. If you can go in the fall, it’s less crowded and even more of a bargain

Our hotel and some restaurants had been arranged by a tour company ahead of time, but we generally saw the bills. Very acceptable rooms in small hotels and B&Bs ran from US$40-80 per night; a full dinner with wine was around US$20 per person.

Should you consider a self-guided tour? The term “self-guided” doesn’t mean you have to bring your own bicycle, and you don’t have to take your gear with you each day. It basically means no guide and no group. It is more flexible, because you can go when it fits your schedule, and can be less expensive (note: check prices with tour companies), because the tour company doesn’t have to accompany you. Tour companies can make arrangements for lodging, meals, and they can furnish bicycles, pannier bags, route directions and maps. And arrangements can be made to have your luggage transported from hotel to hotel each day. All you have to do is follow directions and enjoy the sights.

Self-guided tours could be a viable option if you have your own group (two or more), and at least one of you is good at reading maps and finding your way around new places.

A self-guided tour is probably not the best option if you are traveling by yourself, or if you want the company of others during your ride. There are several bicycle tour companies that operate guided and self-guided tours of Sicily. (See Resource section.)

We chose the self-guided option for schedule and pricing advantages, but left the details and transportation of our luggage up to a tour company. Following the maps and finding our way around each day was part of the adventure, and the sense of accomplishment at the each of the day was gratifying.

When to Go
Fall is a great time to explore Sicily. The weather is warm but generally not hot, summer vacationers are gone, and prices are lower. October is harvest time, with grapes early in the month and olives later. Both are a wonderful sight (and smell) from the saddle of your bicycle. As we rode through the olive orchards in Southern Sicily, we saw families picking olives from olive trees near their homes that are hundreds of years old. We visited a small olive press, where the olives were mashed into a light green pulp, and a thin, steady stream of liquid gold ran into a barrel at the end. A pure, earthy smell hung in the air.

Study the route maps
Sicily is a pretty hilly island, and it’s best to carefully review route descriptions before making a final selection. There are wide variations in terrain in different parts of the island, and it’s best to choose a route that matches your abilities and interests.

A very rewarding experience
There is a sense of solidity in Sicily. This is a land where centuries-old traditions are comforting and satisfying and an important part of life. Family and friends are treasures, and food and meals are part of life to be shared and enjoyed. A bicycle tour in Sicily is not for the weak of body or spirit, but the payoff is worth it. If you are adventurous and can get in decent “hill” bicycling shape, it can be a very rewarding experience.

About the author:
Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer and editor who lives in San Francisco, California. He travels the world riding his bicycle and occasionally writes about his experiences. He can be reached at dalefehringer@hotmail.com

Resources

Several tour companies, including those listed below, organize guided and/or self-guided bicycle tours of Sicily. Hiking tours are also possible (guided or self-guided), and several tour companies offer coach or personally designed tours.

Info on Sicily

www.bestofsicily.com

www.insicily.com>

www.lonelyplanet.com

Tours, Bicycle Tours, Other Info

Alo Italy www.aloitaly.com

Andiamo Adventourswww.andiamoadventours.com

Bed & Breakfast Sicily (www.bed-and-breakfast-sicily.it)

BicyclingWorld.com (www.bicyclingworld.com)

Bike Riders (www.bikeriderstours.com)

Bike Tours Direct (www.biketoursdirect.com)

Biketravel.net (www.biketravel.net)

Ciclismo Classico (www.ciclismoclassico.com)

Cobblestone Tours (www.cobblestonetours.com)

Delicious Italy (www.deliciousitaly.com)

Dolcevitabiketours.com (www.dolcevitabiketours.com)

ExperiencePlus (www.experienceplus.com)

Exodus (http://www.exodus.co.uk)

Flavors of Sicily (www.flavorsofsicily.com)

Info Hub (www.infohub.com)

In Sicily Travel Consultant (www.insicily.com)

International Bicycle Tours, Inc. (www.internationalbicycletours.com)

Irish Cycling Safaris (www.cyclingsafaris.com)

Italian Cooking Vacations (www.cookitaly.com)

Italian Food Forever (www.italianfoodforever.com)

Italy Tour Travel (www.italytourtravel.com)

MacQueen’s Island Tours (www.macqueens.com)

Nichols Expeditions (www.nicholexpeditions.com)

Pedal & Sea Adventures (www.pedalandseaadventures.com)

Research & Escort in Sicily (www.papiro.net)

Siciclando (www.siciclando.com)

Sicily Food Online (www.sicilyfoodonline.it)

Sicilytravel.net (www.sicilytravel.net)

Sicilytrip (www.sicilytrip.com)

SicilyWeb (www.sicilyweb.com)

Travel Innovations (www.travel-innovations.com)

VBT (www.vbt.com)

Wines of Sicily (www.winesofsicily.info)

World Ventures (www.world-ventures.com)

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