About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Plan of Attack

Okay, I've spent plenty of time and a lot of bandwidth drifting around with a variety of topics, and not really talking about the actual planning/execution of a trip. Time to change that. 

Doing it Right

Planning a trip – those meant for fun, of course – should be part of the game. Even if you choose to use a travel agent (which, if you have the budget, I highly recommend) you ought to be heavily involved in the process. In sports and business we’d call this “having skin in the game”.

Road Trip!!!
I’ve never been an advocate for what I’ll call the Follow-Along trip. You know the kind. Someone else decides the itinerary, someone else makes all the arrangements, someone else makes sure you get from point A to destination B and back again. And while I have genuinely enjoyed cruising as a form of vacation, cruising is a Follow-Along voyage. The cruise line determines the ports of call; the cruise line determines the off-ship adventures. I like to be a bit more spontaneous than that, even though I recognize and appreciate the value of such planned adventures.

The author, in Hell
(Disclaimer: I have taken a cruise precisely six times. Two of them are in the far distant memory of childhood so don't really count. Two of our four adult-aged voyages took place along Mexico’s West Coast, and one other in the Caribbean. If you've been reading the blog -- and one has to assume you wouldn't see this line if you weren't, well, reading the blog -- you've already read about number four, the recent Windstar adventure around the Italian boot last August. On the side trips we took for each of these cruises, we went to some fascinating places – the town of Copala in the Sierra Madre; Positano; the ruins of Tulum; and the town of Hell in the Cayman Islands. Genuinely enjoyed all of these trips, but were, in essence, along for the ride rather than in control of our own itinerary. Nothing like finding a wonderful place to explore, only to have to keep checking your watch to make sure you're not missing the bus.)

In the planning of your trip you have four major considerations: destination; time; transit; and budget. Everything else will fall under each of those categories. Sometimes these parts of the overall adventure can be as much fun as the trip itself. Sometimes.


Take an Umbrella

The "destination" might not be an actual destination at all. It may be a series of destinations, such as a cruise or self-planned "hopper" voyage, or the final place may not even be the focus -- maybe it's the transit to that place that's the central point. For example, driving across the country is not about arriving at the other end. It’s about the part in the middle, the areas you see as you progress from state to state and region to region. A drive, say, from New York to Los Angeles is not about Los Angeles, it’s about the towns and cities and landmarks in between. In the central US you will see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Gateway Arch, Zion Canyon, the Rockies and the Great Plains (though not in that particular order unless you’re lost). If you choose to dip further south and take route 40 across, you visit Virginia’s battlefields, Graceland and Nashville, Meteor Crater and (with a short side trip) the Grand Canyon.

So. Where are you going and why??? If the destination is the thing (going to Key West for a week), that’s where you ought to focus. If it’s the trip, then that is where the energy should go. Don’t sell yourself short and spend time on things that will mean little to you in the long-run. Make the trip memorable, and to do that you need to understand what it is you truly want to accomplish.

Explore the local culture and shopping

How much time do you have for the overall vacation? Do you really want to try to see the entirety of the middle United States if you’ve only got seven days? (It can be done, but you’ll look back and realize it was more like counting coop than actually seeing anything).

Likewise, don’t eat up your time in transit. If you want to see Australia but only have a single week for the trip, do you really want to spend nearly a quarter of that precious time on a plane? Be realistic. Unless the point of the visit is to “count coop” -- for example: I intend to visit Point Barrow, Alaska, some day. It will be a day up and a day back. I don’t anticipate more than a day or two in Point Barrow, but it’s the seeing of the Arctic Ocean I’m after not visiting the surrounding tundra. In this case, the destination is the purpose, but won’t require more than a day to take in. (I could be wrong -- I'll let you know if this  earns me a nasty-gram from the Pt Barrow Visitors Bureau...).


How are you going to get there – and is the conveyance part of the enjoyment? Is it a necessary evil? Do you intensely dislike airports but are headed for a small Caribbean island? There are compromises, but also common sense.

If your destination is New York City, for example, and you live close enough to drive there – but you know you won’t need a car once in the city, why would you pack everyone up into your Ford and spend the money on gasoline? If you’re lucky you may find parking for less than $100 a day somewhere near your hotel, and – if you’re lucky – getting into the city won’t be too difficult with the traffic patterns, and – if you’re lucky – you don’t get too lost in the one-way streets and racing taxicabs.

I’ve driven in New York -- and Paris and Washington, DC and London and Los Angeles, to name a few. "Behind the wheel" isn’t a good way to see Times Square. Trust me on this.

Take the train in or a plane. Likewise, don’t count on driving to Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Long Beach. You can’t get there with a car, so renting one from the airport just to park it at “Catalina Landing” is likewise not a good idea.

On the other hand, a car is essential to trips to the Grand Canyon or most of the other destinations you may be considering – while it would be ridiculous to plan on driving fromFlorida to Seattle if you’ve only got a week.


Look. I LOVE to splurge as much as the next guy. Okay. More than the next guy. Okay. A LOT more than the next guy, but that isn’t my point.
"Free" is good!

If you’re on a motel budget accept that reality and move on. There's nothing wrong with being prudent. Don’t put your house into foreclosure for a week at the Bellagio, when deals can be found at the Imperial Palace and Circus, Circus for a fraction of the cost. Don’t book expensive and time-consuming flights to Saint Martin when you can drive to Virginia Beach, South Padre or Laguna Beach in the same six-hours it would take to get to the islands. (And probably with a good deal less stress. Have you been to Miami International Airport??? There’s a reason they call it “MIA”)

Overdoing your budget might make for an extravagant vacation, but the stress of each swipe of the credit card – not to mention the months’ long process of paying it off – negates the very purpose of the trip. Understanding and accepting your budget will pay off (*ahem*, forgive the pun) in the long run. If you genuinely, truly, must splurge find an expensive restaurant on the waterfront somewhere and ask for patio seating. That is far more memorable than the extra bucks you might plunk down for that suite at the Venetian – and a much more relaxing way to count the dollars as they peal out of your wallet.
Time to Chill, Grab a Burger

If you have a champagne budget, weeks of freedom, love the airports and have been everywhere at least once before, then knock yourself out and let others plan your vacations for you.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy the process, know what you want to see, know how you want to get there (and spend the time once you have), and understand that monies are not unlimited -- then get involved, get your hands (and feet) dirty and plan the trip out so that there is room for adventure but not for unpleasant surprise. You’ll be astounded how much more fun you have while actually vacationing instead of counting coop.

Blaze your own trail!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Night of the Mantas

For the first time since beginning this blog a few years ago I am using the work of another photographer. 

James Wing  is a renowned oceanographic photographer and videographer. It was my pleasure to meet him briefly aboard the Hula Kai, the boat used in the expedition below. Wing's work is extraordinary, and given the challenges of shooting this sort of adventure I asked -- and received -- permission to use his work here. All underwater images below are copyright 2012 James Wing, Mantaskona.com. 

(Thanks, Jim!)

Vacations...not just travel, but vacations...often give us the opportunity to escape the everyday world. That's kind the the purpose behind taking them, in fact. Escaping the everyday world.

And when that escape means traveling, it expands the opportunity by giving us a chance to do something new and unusual. During our recent trip to Maui -- introduced in my last blog entry -- the emphasis was, indeed, on getting out doing new things. And, as you might expect given the location, several of them had to do with water. Specifically, the ocean. Any reader of the blog knows I am a huge fan of oceans, never having lived more than a relatively short drive away from one and often finding myself surrounded by them while away from home. (The exceptions being work-related trips which, for some strange reason keep landing me in places like Phoenix, Philadelphia, and in one particularly bad August week, Jackson, Mississippi. But I digress...)

Long time friends and readers also will recall I'm a huge proponent of Phil Keoghan's NO OPPORTUNITY WASTED (NOW!) List for Life philosophy. If you're not familiar, think a more sophisticated and take-action form of Bucket List. Not just for wishing, Phil suggests you not only have a list, but you actively plan its execution. 

So finding ourselves planning a trip to Maui gave us a number of Life List opportunities. One such activity, as I discussed last time, was seeing the sun rise over Mount Haleakala, an absolutely stunning experience worthy of its reputation.

The two other activities of note involved communing with wildlife. Sea life, to be exact. As we were planning the details of the trip, my wife reminded me that one of her premiere NOW items was to swim with manta rays off the coast of the Big Island. Sensing an opportunity...pun intended...we looked into the possible options and happily noted that the location was right off the coast of the Sheraton Keauhou Bay, just south of Kona.

The view from the Sheraton

(I'm a member of Starwood Preferred Guests -- so this worked to our advantage. Since we had extra points in their program, and planned to stay at the Westin Kaanapali during our stay on Maui, this gave us some symmetry in hotel choices. We booked two nights in Keauhou, with a flight into Kona instead of straight to Maui as first intended.)
We arrived in the islands on a Thursday night and that evening went out onto the manta ray viewing platform at the Sheraton. Under previous ownership, the hotel had years ago begun turning on bright lights for their dinner guests to be able to dine under the stars but enjoy an ocean view at the same time. As often happens with man-made changes to the the rhythms of the natural world -- in this case illuminating the ocean during nighttime hours-- the lights had an impact on the environment, attracting billions of plankton from the dark waters if the Pacific. By chance, plankton are the favored food of mantas, and, well, nature being what it is, mantas began to be attracted to the coastal resort as well.

The Hula Kai and sister ship tie up

Flash forward a decade or so, and you've got something special.

Each night the resort turns in their lights, and a pair of "official" tour groups set sail from a nearby harbor to anchor just off the shoreline. Around 30 guests in total. A specially constructed boom of lights is lowered into the water, providing a convenient grip for the guest snorkelers which prevents anyone from drifting off and getting lost. Donning a wetsuit, each person gets into the waters and swims to the boom, finding a place and settling in. Within a few moments in our case, a cry went up soon after everyone was lined up. A palpable ripple of energy went down the line as we waited expectantly for the first manta to heave into view.

I'll pause for a second to describe the setup. 

copyright James Wing, 2012
You're floating, face down, hands tightly gripping the pad on the boom. Lights from the boat illuminate the sea floor some thirty feet down, and you've got other snorkelers to each side of you. Well below a professional diver/videographer records the scene. When you see him shift, pointing his camera and lights to the side, a thrill runs through you unlike any I've experienced before. Something mixing a respectful awe with a sense of fear as to what is just outside your view.

copyright James Wing, 2012
Then we see it. The diver swims backward as a large black shape cuts across the bottom. The manta. It swims effortlessly forward with a gentle thrust of it's wings, executing a casual, almost lazy, arc upward and its pure white abdomen comes into view. The manta continues up on its curve, skimming just inches from the snorkelers. 

copyright James Wing, 2012
 Despite the fact our heads and ears are under water you hear the amazed exclamations of everyone around you, and it's almost impossible not to join in the chorus. It really is something breathtaking and near zen like in its beauty. The manta continues in what has now become a series of progressive arcs up, skimming the swimmers, and down again to the bottom. On the boat we were told that thus is the way the mantas feed on their microscopic food. But it takes a bit of courages as that massive wide-open maw comes at you so closely you can look down the manta's gullet. Is this what it's like to be a plankton, you wonder? Reassuringly there are no teeth gaping at you, and you begin to relax as the manta continues its lazy dance down the line. 

Moments later it is joined by another, and yet another. They take turns, gently gliding through our view, in a graceful ballet. Since we cannot see the plankton other than as a faint "mist" in the water, it seems as if they're simply flying blissfully through the dark ocean. 

Finally, a monster pulls into view. 

copyright James Wing, 2012
The diver turns his camera and lights on the massive newcomer -- we are told later this is "Big Bertha", the largest manta anyone has seen in these waters. And a giant she is. Her wingspan is reportedly fourteen feet, tip to tip. She dwarfs the diver below. But as she begins her own turns, scooping her meal just inches from our masks, she is a graceful and beautiful leviathan of the deep. Nervous giggles and expressions of amazement can be heard through the water as she moves down the line. 

The show goes on for more than half an hour, and there's a sense of loss when it finally ends. At some point, without warning, the appearances get longer and longer between, until, at last, you see the diver give the "all done", and slowly the tourists are herded back onto the boats for hot chocolate and soup. The swimmers are all exhausted after the time spent gripping the boom -- you don't realize how tightly until you try to climb back onto the boat. But each person excitedly describes what they saw, and how they saw it.

It's a moment in our lives very few of us will ever forget.

Me, to the right of the light (copyright James Wing, 2012

The night manta cruise is conducted by Fair Wind, and can be booked at

More of James Wing and his team's work can be seen and purchased at
http://www.mantarayshawaii.com/ and

Read more about the challenges facing ocean life and what you can do to help at

Get a copy of Phil Keoghan's NO OPPORTUNITY WASTED at