Goodbye Virtual Tourist

vtFebruary 27 will be a sad day on t’interwebs. It’s the day we lose a top travel website, Virtual Tourist, and that makes me sad. In the old days, it was a great place to find tips from real people, the good and the bad about the majority of locations around the world when you were researching a trip. You could post your own reviews and photos. You could connect with other travelers and make friends. It was about more than just hotel and restaurant reviews. It was about all the things that make a trip great. You could find tips about things that were off the beaten track, packing tips, sports tips, tourist traps, someone’s favourite things, general tips, travelogues, and forums for questions about thousands of locations as well as a technical help forum for the site itself.

People organized huge VT get togethers in fun locations. Dozens of VT members would travel and meet up for a weekend of food, drink and they all had the love of travel in common. While I never went to a “meet”, I did meet one lovely man from VT in person. He had come to Halifax several times on business and we usually tried to have a meal together and a visit when he was in town. My partner and I met up with him and his wife in the Netherlands for a lovely day out, as well. That’s the beauty of making all these connections, you often have someone with whom you can touch base if you’re on the road.

Then VT was sold to Trip Advisor. Little by little it changed. Many changes were for the good, mind you. Better photo quality, the opportunity to save your reviews in draft form until you wanted to finish them, creating itineraries. But content from TA was creeping in as well including TA hotel reviews. Some upgrades in the look and feel and functionality of the site seemed to make things more complicated instead of easier, at least for me. But the VT staff did a great job trying to be more things to more people and they were always helpful and friendly.

Trip Advisor was changing, too. It was originally about hotels and restaurants, the place you’d go to find out where you should go and where to avoid. It became a bit of a beast, though, with people posting vindictive reviews on purpose, business rivals posting lies, exaggerations. It became a victim of it’s own success. And it became about more than just hotels and restaurants. Now you can review tourist attractions, other things to do like sports and shopping. It is emulating what VT had already been doing for years and doing well. Maybe Virtual Tourist was also a victim of it’s own success. The little engine that could, if you will.

The writing was on the wall.

I guess TA didn’t want to own two sites that did the same things and since TA seems to be the site that rose to the top, it gets to stay while this lovely site and community of travelers has to go. I’ll be spending the next few weeks saving my VT content and deleting it as I get through the pages. This content represents years of work and traveling, I need to keep those memories! Maybe I will post my VT tips from my travels here on occasion, or at least the tips that haven’t become out of date.

I shall miss VT. I shall miss the wonderful help and knowledgable travelers on this site and I shall miss reading about all the journeys, seeing the photos and being envious of the great trips everyone is planning! February 27 will be the end of an era. I have posted reviews on Trip Advisor but it’s not a personal experience like Virtual Tourist is/was.

Quirky Travel Related Bits and Pieces

Reindeer-on-the-rocksI was perusing a summation of 100 things that you didn’t know, something the BBC news published online, and a few links jumped out at me that could be travel related (some at a stretch, admittedly).

New York City always had a reputation for having a few neighbourhoods that were rather scary for non-residents but in recent years, most areas of the city have been “gentrifying” a lot of formerly low-income areas into chic neighbourhoods that are attracting up and coming businesses, galleries, restaurants and visitors. Oh, and all with higher rents. It’s getting more and more difficult to find an affordable place to live in the Big Apple if you are not making buckets of money but there are still three places left you might try. They are Carnasie and Bay Ridge, both in Brooklyn and South Shore, Staten Island. You can read more about that here.

If you are planning on a trip to Norway, do be aware that recent television trends are for “slow” events, including a knitting marathon. Now they’re looking at televising a reindeer migration. You might want to watch out for that if you’re a fan of nature or, you might want to watch out for that to avoid that particular day. Having said that, after a long day sightseeing, it might be just the thing you need to relax and fall asleep. The migration takes weeks but even the broadcasters recognize that’s a bit much and would restrict the televised event to about a week. More about that here

There are a lot of destinations in the world where hordes of mosquitos might have a negative effect on your enjoyment of the great outdoors, depending on the time of year that you visit. Here’s an idea for a great repellant that will be kinder to your skin than the usual DEET filled solutions. After testing a variety of natural alternate solutions, Victoria’s Secret’s perfume called Bombshell was found to be very good at keeping the little critters away for more than 2 hours. The drawback is that it has to be fairly highly concentrated and the perfume is not cheap. But if you use it, it might be worth a try! More details on the experiments herel

Anybody that travels for business knows about all the paperwork they need to do for travel expenses and reimbursments. Here’s one of the more unusual claims. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was reimbursed $33.31 for a “business trip” to the moon in 1969. Yes, *that* trip to the moon. Aldrin has published the claim form though it isn’t specified what he was reimbursed for, though likely some sort of transportation expense transferring between airports en route between Texas and Cape Kennedy. He also published a customs declaration form that all three astronauts had to sign on re-entry and arrival in Honolulu airport!

It’s not out of the realms of possibility that you might have to do the same. Apparently, a company called Space Adventures plans to send tourists to a private visit to the moon starting some time after 2018. You won’t get to land on the surface but you’ll do a turn around it and the trip will include a visit to the International Space Station to acclimatize yourself to being in space. They have already taken a few people up into space and there are other companies that plan to do the same including Virgin Galactic. It will cost you, though, so start saving now!

If you’re a football fan (soccer for North Americans), this might be just the ticket. There’s a new hotel in Salford, UK overlooking the Old Trafford football stadium. Most fans will know that’s the home of Manchester United. The 133 room hotel is owned by a group of former United players. It’s filled with memorabilia and there’s even a football pitch on the roof where they also have pre-match barbeques. The views over the city are amazing and there’s easy transport nearby into Manchester city centre. Obviously, it’s convenient if you’re going to be attending one of the games but I would expect it would book up pretty quickly far in advance of those. It’s called, what else? Hotel Football. Here’s the kicker (see what I did there?), the rooms, normally costing about £95 for a double, nearly triple the cost for the game days to £250.

And finally, if you are a gay man, it looks like some of the best places you might want to live or visit are the Scandinavian countries, with Iceland being ranked as the best one. Canada is ranked number 6, I just thought I’d mention that since it’s my country! Uganda and the Sudan are ranked at the bottom of the scale. The Planetromeo.com survey is based on 115,000 men all over the world and the website has quite a few interesting statistics and results.

One website you’ll want to save

MapHappy

It’s not often I’ll blog about a specific website but every now and then I come across one that’s really good and has a lot of useful information for travelers.

map happy is a travel website that’s full of interesting and useful information. It seems to be run by three women (there are three mentioned on the “About” page) but they have a lot of contributors. The site is one where you can spend a lot of time getting lost while browsing the many interesting and informative articles. It’s all good information, tips and tricks, gadgets, and general tech geekery. They aren’t selling anything, either. Also, I think it’s American based so some of the tips are geared towards Americans traveling but for the most part, anyone will find a lot of useful and interesting reading there.

The range of the topics is quite broad, varying from practical advice on passports, public transportation, hotels, rental cars to the mundane but entirely useful like how long a travel sized shampoo bottle might last you, how to say basic numbers in a half dozen or so languages, or how to get Amazon packages delivered while traveling.

You can create a login but that’s really only necessary if you’re going to want to comment on articles. You can read and browse all through the site for free. Note, I don’t work for them and I don’t write for them, and I gain nothing by plugging them, either. I have just spent about an hour happily clicking from one article to another when I should be doing other stuff!

12 Cities in 12 Months

I recently read a great blog post from the Travelettes called 12 Cities in 12 Months. The post was inspired by a German book about a woman that won some money in a lottery and spent a year living in different places, one per month. In her case, she was a writer and could continue to do her job from remote locations so she didn’t have to use a lot of her winnings. It was just the push she needed to get out the door.

Feeding a giraffe in the Vancouver Zoo, 2003

Feeding a giraffe in the Vancouver Zoo, 2003

The writer of the Travelettes post, Annika, wrote about her choices and there are a few of hers that I might pick too, including  Venice, Barcelona and she also chose Nairobi. While I wouldn’t have really thought about anywhere in Africa, the lure of the Giraffe Manor is too much to resist! (Though, I *have* actually fed a giraffe, in the Vancouver Zoo!)

So which 12 cities would I like to live in for a month? That would take some thinking. I would probably take into consideration location as it relates to where else I could visit easily from that city so I could take in more of the area.  I should also pick one or two more exotic locations, places I might not normally choose for a vacation but which might be interesting even if there’s a culture shock! This is a “money is no object” journey and I would likely want an apartment or apartment-hotel for convenience in each location.

Here’s a list after some consideration: Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Bangkok, Japan (maybe not Tokyo, perhaps Kyoto), Shanghai, Aukland, Sydney, New York, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen or a city in Sweden, maybe Gothenburg, Nairobi

Why not London? Yep, my favourite city (so far). Not London because it is exactly that, my favourite city. There wouldn’t be a culture shock. While there are plenty of parts of London I haven’t seen, I’m still familiar enough with it that it wouldn’t have that fresh, new feeling of exploring a new city’s vibe. I’ve been to some of the others in the past, for short visits, enough to know I’d like to spend more time there.

Without a daily job, though, I guess you are basically a tourist in each city for a month. I’d spend my days with my camera, writing about what I’d seen and done, what I liked and didn’t like. I’d try to document my own view of the culture and surroundings.

passport_leafParis: I’ve been there and it’s a wonderful city. I think that I would love to live there for a month, experiencing the vibe of the city and soaking in the history and culture. I speak a little French, not a lot,  so it would help improve that, I think.

Barcelona: I’ve never been to Spain but I know a number of people that have been to Barcelona and all are wowed by the city, the architecture and the people. That’s good enough for me!

Florence: Another city full of history and art, Florence impressed me when I visited as part of a bus tour of Italy. I immediately liked the look and feel of it and wished we could have stayed longer. I had learned a little Italian before the tour so I would want to pick that up again, maybe take some Italian cooking lessons, too.

Bangkok: I used to be fascinated by Singapore. I traded postcards with a woman there for awhile and I loved the views I saw. I think, though, to live in that area, I’d want something a bit more exotic. Thailand seems just the ticket. And.. Thai food is awesome!

I thought perhaps somewhere in Japan would be very interesting but Tokyo just seems way too large and unwieldy so my choice here is Kyoto, the historic capital of Japan. I think there would be more of a deep-rooted historic feel to the city, even though it’s still a very large one.

I used to really want to visit Hong Kong. I think I still would but I don’t know as I’d want to live there for a month. Shanghai seems more historic, more Chinese if you will. And I could visit Hong Kong from there, anyway!

The Maori culture would be fascinating to discover

I’d love to spend a month either in Australia or New Zealand, too. Sydney is a good central point for a lot of Australia on the east and south which would not be too far by plane for a few days visits. New Zealand would be a beautiful country as well, with both having fascinating native culture with the Aborigines and Maori respectively.  Aukland would be a good base here.  I guess I’ll have to have a month in each!

If I’m going to try to touch all of the continents, I’ll have to have a month in Africa. I would probably go with Nairobi here because the lure of that Giraffe Manor is irresistable. I don’t know much about Nairobi so that might be a good thing. It would be a completely new experience. Many of the other cities, even ones I haven’t visited before, would still be new, but only a few would be so radically different from my Canadian home. Nairobi, Bangkok and Shanghai would tick that box.

Buenos Aires would be the city in South America. I hear it’s fairly sophisticated and has a lot of culture. The added bonus here is the availability of cruises to Antarctica, the final frontier so to speak.

One more in Europe, heading north now. I was thinking of Scotland but as it’s more familiar, I would probably go with Northern Europe. Copenhagen or Gothenburg since it has a friendlier feel than Stockholm. I don’t know why I feel that way but it is also closer to Copenhagen which would definitely be interchangeable. It was a difficult decision to choose. I really like Copenhagen but thought I’d pick somewhere I hadn’t been. Gothenburg it is.

42nd Street at night

42nd Street at night

Rounding off the list, back in North America, I thought I’d choose New York City.  I initially considered San Francisco but it’s too hilly! New York has everything you’d want for a month and then some and it’s close to quite a lot of interesting cities for weekend breaks, like Boston, Washington and Philadelphia.

I dropped a city in Scotland and one in Ireland that had made the first cut because they were too “safe”, if you know what I mean. I thought, if this is something I ever get to do, why pick locations that are familiar or at least that are well inside the comfort zone? If I went that route, I could spend the whole year in various cities around Europe including some of the ones in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. You gotta be adventurous!

So there you go. A fantasy year spending a month in 12 different cities. The next time I make this list, they’ll probably change!

Visit Canada’s Ocean Playground

I live in a small province on the east coast of Canada called Nova Scotia, and it’s a lovely place to live. Clean air, lots of nature, friendly folk, miles and miles of beaches and coastline, fresh seafood, a city with lots to do and a province filled with culture, good food, wine and good times.  The motto of the province of Nova Scotia is “Canada’s Ocean Playground” and it certainly is that.

I read a blog post today from someone that came to Nova Scotia and bicycled around our lovely corner of Canada on her own recently. She made 45 observations about the province based on her experience. I thought it was a great take on how visitors see us.

45 Random Observations About Nova Scotia

I love that she noticed that there’s a lot of colour here. People paint their shops, houses and signs with bright colours in many places, both in the city and in the rural areas, especially the rural areas, I find.  Hmmm butter tarts, a local favourite! With or without pecans and/or raisins, they’re sort of like butterscotch pie in a little shell. Lots and lots of lighthouses. Peggy’s Cove might be the “jewel in the crown” so to speak, but you’ll see plenty of them if you take the coastal routes.

Here’s a few of my own photos from around the province

Scarecrows

Where else would you find a field of scarecrows on the side of the road? Cape Breton Island near Cheticamp

Blomidon lookoff 038

A look at those famous low tides, from Cape Blomidon in the Annapolis Valley

BlueRocksbuoys

A craft shop near Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia

ChesterWindjammersChowder

I’ll challenge the blogger’s claim for seafood choweder. This from the Windjammer Restaurant near Chester.

LahaveZwickersWoodWork 025

This is one of the places that makes those brightly coloured Adirondack chairs. Zwicker’s in Lahave

Lupins 057

Lupins do indeed grow wild here, I love the purples and pinks of them. Late June and early July are the best time for them

ScarecrowFestRRElvRayTinaDiana

Cape Breton doesn’t have a monopoly on scarecrows. There’s a scarecrow festival in Mahone Bay on the south shore of the province in the autumn.

 

Traveler 50 — Smart Cities

Halifax’s new central library under construction

There’s an interesting take on 50 cities world wide that National Geographic Traveler sees as up and coming or which have smart reasons to visit. I was chuffed to little mint balls to find my own home city, Halifax, on the list because of our new central library being built. It’s due to open later this fall and the new building, in my eyes, is beautiful! It resembles a stack of books, too! I can hardly wait for it to open to see the inside.  I’ve been photographing the construction over the past few years which you can see here. I’ll add to that when I get some interior shots later this year after it’s open to the public.

23 Halifax, 
Nova Scotia: population 375,000: One coastal Canadian city is betting on books. A $57.6 million central library will act as hub to 14 branches—an investment in words and indoorsy charms in a town with a famously outdoorsy outlook.

Other samples are Vancouver, Canada’s quest to be a green city, New York’s development of the High Line park, Rio de Janiero’s new science and high tech museum, a sidewalk in Calais, France that can generate power, and the rejuvenation of Melbourne, Australia.

Traveler 50 — National Geographic.

Nearly done, just the insides to finish. There will be a cafe on that top bit sticking out.

Road Trip Advice from Wendy Perrin

Bridge to Anglsey, North Wales

Saw this blog post by Wendy Perrin who writes for one of the travel mags, Conde Nast Traveler, I think. Clearly she’s writing for Trip Advisor, too and in this post she’s writing about how to make a road trip a great experience.  With our upcoming road trip getting closer, I read it with interest.

Excellent advice here including:

Get off the highway/motorway/interstate and hit the country roads (Yep, I’ll go with that one. We use the main roads sometimes but like the smaller and slower routes to actually see the area. You never see much of interest from the highways)

Follow the signs to places you have never heard of or didn’t know were there. (We’ve done that and found some interesting museums or just views along the way)

Ask locals for recommendations, forget the guide books and apps. (Well, ok, I’d still use guidebooks because even they have little known attractions and sites but asking locals where to shop or eat is going to steer you in the right direction, for sure)

Find the kitsch, the unusual, the lesser known. (I like to buy tea towels for souvenirs, and can remember the places I’ve been when i use them. I also pin one up in the kitchen for a bit of artwork, and change it from time to time)

The blog post talks about the American Road Trip, but obviously, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. Read the full post through the link below.

How to Make Your Great American Road Trip Even Greater

Inspiring Travels from Women – the Travelettes

Ana, The Habitual Runaway, posted a link on Facebook to a blog article on five films that make you want to travel. Of course that caught my eye, since you all know I like to post “Traveling through the movies” type things. These are all new indie films that the writer saw in a couple of film festivals in Berlin and Glasgow. The blog is a collaboration of a group of young women that call themselves the Travelettes with a great tag line, “Backpacking in heels”.

It seems their main objective is on backpacking adventures but they have loads of other posts about their travels and they encourage contributions from the outside world as well. I’ve already found their huge list of posts on London and more than a dozen on Paris, particularly timely as we’re heading there soon. I think I shall be spending a lot of time over the weekend having a good look through their site and maybe making notes for future trips!

The Vikings are Coming

British Museum, London

Social media may have it’s skeptics and detractors but it has often come in handy for me. I’ve often seen links to really interesting things float by on my Twitter or Facebook feed, links to news, lifestyle, travel, books, movies, great websites and all kinds of other things.

When I joined Twitter, I followed a few Coronation Street actors. Well, I still do. One of them was also an artist and a man I would have liked to have a conversation with. He always seemed to have interesting things to say though he doesn’t seem to be tweeting much anymore. I own a portrait of one of the other Corrie actors that he did. It was part of an auction he did for charity. He also mentioned this very old library in Manchester that he’d visited. It’s in the city centre but it’s tucked away in a music school behind the cathedral and because he mentioned it, I made sure to go visit it the next time I went over.

Chetham’s Library Reading room, Chetham’s Library in Manchester. Apparently, Karl Marx worked at this very table.

I never would have known about this interesting place to visit had it not been for social media. The reason I’m bringing this up is that over this past weekend I saw a mention of a new exhibit coming up at the British Museum in London. It’s called Vikings: Life and Legend and it’s being put on in conjunction with the Danish National Museum (which we’ve been to!). Immediately I went looking for details and was gratified in discovering that it would be opening in March and ongoing while we are there at Easter.

I am lucky to have a man who really likes museums and galleries and I know he loves things like Vikings and ancient Romans, armour and weaponry. I would find this exhibit on Vikings really interesting, too. We both enjoyed the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in Denmark a few years ago and apparently they have sent one of the ships, or remains thereof, to be part of this show. We are also both fans of the tv series Vikings which begins it’s next season soon.

Viking ship silhouette, Roskilde Viking ship museum, Roskilde, Denmark

Anyway, the upshot of it is, I didn’t even wait to consult him, I booked tickets straight away. The last time the British Museum had a big exhibit while we would be there was in 2008 for the Terra Cotta warriors from China. I waited too long and we couldn’t get tickets for the days and times that would work for us. I wasn’t taking that chance this time as it was again over Easter. The tickets are now booked and I sent him the link to the information the museum has online. When I spoke to him later, he was quite happy. We’re looking forward to the exhibit and I may even buy the exhibit book considering no photos will be allowed. These books are usually stunning in their content. I bought one from the Henry VIII exhibit that the British Library had a few years ago.

Isn’t the internet wonderful? Chances are that we would not get tickets if we show up on the day we arrive in London, and if there’s a chance, there would likely be long queues. We only have two days in London so would be limited in our dates so we probably would miss out if we couldn’t pre-book this far out. That’s what happened with the Terra Cotta exhibit. I did try to get tickets online but couldn’t and when we went to the musuem, all the tickets for the times we could get there were gone.  In some ways pre-booking does restrict you to dates and times but in other ways, you can skip the long lines, or not be disappointed by missing out.

This trip coming up looks to be quite a cultural one, with lots of museums and galleries. We’re planning on seeing Giverny and Monet’s house, also the Orangerie museum in Paris which has a lot of Monet’s Water lilies, and we’re going to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Other places on the list, and we will get to at least some of them, include the Musee Carnavalet, Sainte-Chapelle, possibly the Concergerie as well, and Les Invalides with the Army museum and Napoleon’s tomb. We’re also going to Rouen for a day as well. Monet painted the Cathedral there and it’s also where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Back to the original point of the post, social media. It’s not just all about following celebrities or news feeds. You can find something to match any interest you might have. If you don’t follow something specific, you may still see it shared or re-tweeted by someone else which is how I think I saw the Viking exhibit. I didn’t follow the British Museum (but I will now) on Twitter but I do follow the BBC History Magazine and I think that was the source of what I’d seen.

And while we’re on that subject, the British Museum shared this from the Guardian’s site, 10 Best Vikings from books, history, movies and even cartoons. Wonderful!

Canadian Passport-to-go

passport_leafI’ve been the owner of a Canadian Passport continually since the early 1990s. I would take it with me into the United States even before they insisted Canadians must have a passport to enter the U.S.A. Up until recently, we had to renew our passport every five years which always seemed ridiculous to me. Most other countries’ passports were good for 10 years and for an adult, that’s sufficient. I’ve always said I’d pay a little extra for a 10 year passport and now it seems I’ve finally got my wish!

My coworker is renewing hers this year and told me that we now have the option to renew for either five or ten years! The current passport fee is a stinging $120 (it was just under $100 last time I renewed, about 3 and a half years ago) but for only another $40, it’s good for ten years (plus the cost of the photo, of course, so you can add another $20 on top of that.). That’s great news and about bloody time, Canada!

Little by little, over the years, the Canadian government has started changing their requirements to make it simpler to get or renew a passport. You used to have to have a guarantor that could only be someone of a specified list of professions like doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, dentists, pharmacists, clergy, etc. who have known you for two or more years to certify that you are the person who is applying for the passport. Now, the guarantor just has to be a Canadian Citizen who has a valid passport or one that has expired less than a year, though the two year familiarity rule still holds.

The next change was not really for the better though it’s an understandable one. The technology is changing and many aiports now use retinal recognition so now, if you wear glasses, you must take them off for the photo or ensure that the frame doesn’t cover any part of your eye or eyebrow whatsoever. Easier just to take them off. Avoids glare as well. The part I really hate is that you can’t smile in the photo anymore. I really hate that. Passport photos are bad enough without being able to at least attempt to soften the “Prixoner in Cellblock B” look with a smile. I suppose, again, it’s to do with your eyes needing to be completely visible. Still sucks though.

My passport isn’t expired until, I think, next year so I will definitely be going for the ten year option.

Online forms to download here
Canadians should probably register here before they travel out of the country. Helps if they need to contact you in an emergency.
Here’s a general “dashboard” for links and resources for Canadian travellers.