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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Along the Way

"I have dedicated my life to travel and am a strong believer in its benefits, both for the traveller and the local community that they are visiting. Travel broadens the mind by sharing cultures, language and traditions."  - Tony Wheeler, founder of LONELY PLANET

Looking for Adventure
I am in the midst of reading Unlikely Destinations by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders of the well-known and well-respected Lonely Planet travel company. It's an excellent book and is full of interesting stories and anecdotes detailing their own times on the road as well as the construction of their global empire. (You might say I want to be them when I grow up.)

But it occurred to me as I was reading one particular passage early in the book which went into some detail on their first trip around the world. In this section they were discussing the trek down from India, through Southeast Asia to a boat which would take them to Australia. It was a challenging trip because of both weather-related and economic factors. 

The "road" less traveled
As I have grown older, my sense of adventure hasn't decreased, but have to admit that my desire to "backpack across Europe" or hike the jungles of the Amazon has decreased to the point of disinterest. This doesn't mean that I'm above roughing it, it's that roughing it has become my second choice when visiting new places and things. There is, no question, an amazing attraction of sitting in a tent somewhere in the rainforest. listening to the sounds of the wild. On my N.O.W. list is a clear intention to go on a safari as well as a trip down to the coast of Antarctica. I don't need luxury accommodations as much as a degree of security in which events are not left purely to chance and risking the stranding of me in some exotic spot where my survival might itself be very well in question. (I love watching Dangerous Grounds with Todd Carmichael, but am certainly not looking for that kind of adventure in my life. At most, I'm more of a Michael Palin sort who has a plan and is along for an adventure.)
Lap of Luxury...

There are always challenges which are to be dealt with, and it's those challenges which determine your worth as a traveler, versus a tourist. A traveler tends to resolve things themselves, while a tourist waits for others to solve things for them. I've been, and will continue to be both a tourist and a traveler -- there are times I want to sit back and look at pretty things, or be part of a small group in a minibus going to look at a particular site (or sight). And other times I want to be off on my own trundling through a back alley looking for interesting things to amuse myself.

But, to be fair, my "off the beaten path" hasn't been really far off the trail, though I'd like it to be a bit more than it is. Far and away the best such trip was the visit to Churchill, Manitoba, six years or so ago. This is genuinely off the beaten path, and is a lesson in getting away from it all. But, again, we had "locals" there to watch over us and make sure we didn't wander into the path of an oncoming polar bear.

(Locals, by the way, are an excellent way of finding the good stuff. Ignore..or at least treat as suspect…the things the tour operators want to throw your way. They may be amazingly valuable, but are driven more by a sense of profit than a true sense of the local experience. Always ask a local for a recommendation, even if you're on a tour. It will help you understand a place a bit better, and also give you a chance to find out what is really, fundamentally good about a place.)

All grown up, and still on the road
The author in Japan
But what I find personally difficult to do is be 100% tourist, 100% of the time. I love cruising on Wind Star Cruises because of their itineraries. You can suffer yourself the illusion that you're not a tourist, you're a visitor. But years ago, when visiting Skagway, Alaska, I saw first hand the wave of tourists as they washed down into the town from four different ships docked in the bay. A virtual tsunami of people who were there for a day, only looking for low-cost shopping and some sort of day trip. I witnessed the same event in Monaco, and was personally part of such a wave in several ports in Mexico. And I found that I want to be in these places before and after the waves have come and receded.

Similarly, a true visit to a particular destination must include a selection of the local culinary scene. Give me beignet in New Orleans, sushi in Tokyo, steaks in Dallas, nicoise foods in the south of France, or seafood in Dubrovnik -- and yes, haggis will be a required food when I finally get myself up to Scotland. It's all part of the adventure, which is sorely lacking in the expansive floating hotel experiences of most cruise lines.

I keep, in my study, a map with push pins denoting where we have been, and whether it's been a day trip or an overnight -- overnight being a true checkmark of a stay, but we define a visit as more than two hours outside the airport as the minimum standard for logging a place as "been there". This is woefully inadequate, of course, but it prevents use of a mid-flight transfer as qualifying for a pin. (If this were allowed I would add three states and a dozen other locations to my world map.)
Not a good view of the country

So adventure comes only if you grant yourself some time to absorb. I am guilty of the counting coup method of touring, and I've found that hill it's a terrific way to see a place if you're on a limited schedule, it's not nearly as satisfying as a stay and play approach -- which is itself a misnomer, since part of these travels can be occupied by a constantly moving road trip from one spot to another. In a week or so we're headed to Santa Fe for a few days. While our friends elected to fly, my wife and I are hitting the road and re-traveling I-40 between LA and Santa Fe. It's a fascinating section of the country and certainly worthy of a few days' transit. Better still, on the way back we're detouring to Monument Valley, an area I have wanted to see -- almost to the point of N.O.W. inclusion -- for my entire lifetime. It's an almost mythic place in both our national consciousness as well as in our collective heritage. It's about time I looked it up. Obviously there will be a future column with shots.

But it's about getting out, and getting away. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist, staying in a massive luxury liner and seeing the world from your stateroom balcony. But in the same way Todd Carmichael's rough and tumble risking it all approach, it just isn't for me. And since travel is keenly driven by a sense of engagement, of accomplishment, we must all find our own way of satisfying that need. That need may even change with our mood or particular need at any given time (though I can't picture Todd ever booking a stateroom on Carnival).

That's kind of the philosophy of The Thumbnail Traveler. Harking back to how I started this column, roughing it…backpacking through Southeast Asia, for example…is certainly the most fundamental method of travel. It's true, it's basic and, frankly, it's not for me. I prefer my roughing it to come in small portions, and knowing that no matter how rough it gets there's an exit. But we each must find our own most-rewarding approach. Mine is somewhere between Todd's scramble through the jungle and a night at the Ritz Carleton. Both have their appeal, it just depends on my spirit and the amount of money I can afford. But the most important aspect, as with any travel, is in what you gain along the way. 

Donald Trump has no doubt "been a lot of places", but I cannot say he is "well-traveled". Sir Richard Branson is well-traveled.

I would much rather be Sir Richard than The Donald any day. 

Get Up and Go!

Where are we going next?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


“Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone's home and backyard.” 
 Vera Nazarian

Conde Nast Traveler, one of my favorite travel mags, has a very cool series of short articles this month dealing with people who work in the service industry. Tour guides, hotel housekeepers, waiters, and even a short piece with one of the staffers dressing up in an Elmo costume to try to busk monies on the mean streets of Times Square. Not so mean, as it turns out, but an eye-opening experience for the writer in question.

Inserted throughout the main articles are sidelines which are themselves short interviews getting the "inside scoop" from various members of the service groups -- tour guides telling a short recollection of some sort of interaction with a tourist, a Parisian waiter discussing proper etiquette, and others who have fascinating observations usually accompanied by an illustrative anecdote.

This started me thinking about how we interact with others when we're on holiday or a business trip.

I seem to be relatively lucky when it comes to that sort of thing. Only very rarely do I get someone who is surly or unpleasant, and I usually will do something to correct the situation. (I've found that asking if I've offended them is a good icebreaker. Once they are made aware of the slight they typically fall all over themselves to provide good service. There are exceptions, but mercifully only a few.) (I wrote about such an issue between good and bad service at two giant Las Vegas casinos in a column entitled A Tale of Two Casinos, Twice Over.)

I do recognize that these people have hard jobs. It's not easy waiting on the public. Individually we can be wonderful and pleasant, but taken as a whole it can be overwhelming.

Just this last week my parents were in town and suffered that worst of airport fates: the cancelled flight. Suddenly a team of four airline representatives ere facing an unhappy group of travelers who they were inconveniencing in the extreme. It's a volatile situation and one which frequently results in terse exchanged and battered egos. I've found, as my parents taught me, that recognizing that you, alone, don't have the authority or power to change the situation is a great help when it comes to dealing with it.

When I am faced with this kind of an impact to my plans, I immediately consider the options and work proactively with the staff. I've found that a kind word and comment can go miles (pun intended). Make that person a friend instead of an opponent and you both win. (Friends of mine will assert that I can be very strong willed and assertive, but I usually reserve this sort of thing for the person who continues to be a jerk after a couple of olive branches have been proffered.)

So much of our enjoyment of a trip is contingent upon the interactions with others, which means the folks who make a living by making sure our plans or accommodations or interactions go as smoothly as possible. Our recent need to cancel our plans for a cruise through Northern Europe could have been a difficult situation, but uniformly the customer service representatives for Windstar, Westin Hotels and Air New Zealand were terrific in helping us cancel and perhaps leave room for flexibility in the future. 

And even the very nice customer service person at American Airlines tried her best, though the airline has placed so many restrictions on their frequent flyer plan that it was not a good overall response -- and this is a key. Companies must themselves allow their service representatives latitude, and they must ensure that their own policies and procedures are not draconian. (Even the best customer service person cannot put lipstick on a pig and label it a supermodel.) American is losing our business precisely because their policies have become very difficult to deal with -- three years ago they were not, but the management has made serious changes to the program and, at the same time, alienated even the most loyal of customers.

If you would like to read the series in Traveler you can find ti here: What Flight Attendants, Tour Guides, and Waiters Really Think of Travelers

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I have remarked many times in this column, it's important to be flexible with your plans. Sometimes it allows for explorations and adventures you hadn't counted on, and other times it consoles you when something falls through.

Sadly, our much anticipated trip to Europe this August has been called off. Economics, medical expenses and a badly-timed major engine malfunction in our SUV have combined to make the Scandinavian Tapestry tour on the MSY Wind Surf an expense we cannot afford at this time. This sort of thing has happened before when we bite off larger-than-usual expeditions such as our attempt to get to Hong Kong and Perth a handful of years ago (though that was canceled for medical reasons, not financial ones).

But it's essential you make these decisions and, as I have also remarked upon occasion, not do something that is beyond your means. Yes, we must see the world, but driving yourself to the poorhouse to do it is a commendable goal, but not terribly bright in execution.

So this permits us a luxury of sorts, and that is planning another, much less expensive trip to a perhaps nearer and less pricey destination. Possibilities include Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and the rest of the United States (save Hawaii, which we already have on the planning books for next year). 

Aborted plans can be a regular challenge in almost any trip. Not only far in advance, but also at the last minute. Sometimes events themselves force a retrenchment -- two years ago my wife collapsed at the Vatican Museum requiring we spend the afternoon at the emergency room and a quiet evening at the hotel instead of out exploring Rome. Yes, we could easily lament the lost opportunities, and stopping a few galleries short of the Sistine Chapel certainly hurt, but it gives us something to look forward to on a future excursion to Italy (nothing like a reason to go back to somewhere you enjoy).

In this case, while it is frustrating to have to cancel plans, lose some of the down payments, and inform our friends that we won't be joining them, it's a necessity born of knowing our limits and not making short term decisions that could leave us in a hole for 2014. Better to retrench and stick closer to budget than risk "confetti check" with serious downsides should another financial problem occur.

Staying within budget, or only slightly exceeding it, is the hallmark of a good traveler. From a planning standpoint, it's far better to understand and appreciate your limits than it is to try to keep up with the Joneses and discover you've lost your home on the gambit. 

Budget travel is often as or more rewarding than is first class. How so? I truly believe that you see more of the everyday culture when you travel under a budget than you do by living it up. Case in point: if you want to sample the local cuisine most savvy travelers will tell you the local street market and street vendors are far more accurate a sample than are the three and four star restaurants in your hotel.

I enjoy luxury as much as anyone else does. No question. If I were again to head to Monaco, I would certainly want to stay at a nice hotel within walking distance of the casino. Who wouldn't? But do I really get an understanding of the culture and possibilities of the Riviera? I would argue you don't. A stroll through old-town Nice is far more instructive, fun and, frankly, appealing to me than is sitting in a sidewalk tourist trap in Monte Carlo (I know, I've made that actual decision and never regretted it).

Why do we travel if it's solely to live in copycat luxury at each destination? How much do I glean of Paris if I stay at the Westin -- which I have done -- versus a local though perhaps less comfortable inn? It's virtually the same equation as eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square versus, say, Sardi's a few blocks over. Or HB Burger on 43rd? 

One of the minor -- exceedingly minor -- niggles I had with the anticipated cruise with Windstar was the inability to wake up in a foreign land and just go exploring on my own. It's part of the fun for me, and while the Wind Surf is an amazing cruise, and this itinerary was an interesting one, I do like the concept of pulling up to a small cafe's table in the corner of the town square, and just watch the world go by.

I wouldn't have a moment's hesitation of booking another Windstar cruise, and certainly will in the future. But sometimes having to live by a budget can teach you things and give you experiences that traveling first class cannot. In this case, I intend to make lemonade.

Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Can You See Me N.O.W.?

"Memories are made when you’re traveling – not when you’re chained to your desk." - Sir Richard Branson

The path to Adventure
A relatively short entry this week. We're in the midst of putting the final touches on a  couple of planned trips for the rest of the year, and beginning some basic planning for 2014 if you can believe it. We seem to be falling into an accidental pattern of "near home" and "far abroad" on alternating years.

This year's two trips promise some grand new experiences. In less than four weeks we'll be in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with our friends Jim and Glenda. (Jim is the guy seen leaning against my bright red car in the middle of the Mojave Desert in this blog entry.)

On each trip we try for some sort of activity, visit or experience which is both challenging and new. In this case, taking a note from my most recent N.O.W. list, we're going to go hot air ballooning.

As a person with severe acrophobia, this is sure to test my limits, but I'm committed to follow through. (My wife and I had scheduled such a trip years ago in Sedona, but were rained out. I'm feeling lucky this time.)

This in mind, here is a revised copy of my N.O.W. list, showing the things we've recently accomplished on it, and replacing them with something new.

1 - Small ship trip up the Amazon (or down, if coming from Peru).

2 - Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

3 - Sleep under the stars in Wadi Rum (Get Lost)

4 - Cruise to Antarctica, walk amongst penguins (Break New Ground)

5 - Lose 75 lbs by December 2013 (Test Your Limits) This is in progress. You can follow my progress at LOSING MY WEIGH

6 - Photograph both sunrise and sunset in Yosemite NP

7 - Take a hot air balloon ride (Face Your Fear, Leap of Faith) Scheduled for early May

8 - Get a book of my photography and travels published (Shed/Express Yourself)

9 - Drive the length of Route 66, end to end

10 - Take an African Safari

11 - Cruise Loch Ness In planning for August

12 - Ride a boat through the islands of Phang Nga Bay

13 - Visit Stonehenge

Pack 'em up, move 'em out!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

ROAD TRIP: The San Juan Islands

"We went out to the islands to get berries, fish." Isadore Tom

The San Juan Islands, huddled in the center of the Straight of Juan de Fuca -- named in honor of a 16th century European explorer -- mark the transition from the Northwestern United States into Southwestern Canada.

The San Juans are comprised of eight large and dozens of smaller islands. Without a doubt the "capital" is the town of Friday Harbor, which serves as sort of a regional jumping off point and host to the thousands of tourists who flock to the area every year.

Morning along the passage
The best (and pretty much only ways, save your own boat) to get to Friday Harbor is via the Washington State Ferry system, which has frequent departures from the mainland terminal in Anacortes -- roughly an hour and a half drive north of Seattle. Or from the Canadian side from Sidney, which is a major ferry hub for the Canadian ferries that come in from Vancouver. Either way it's a spectacular ride through some literally stunning scenery. Best tie for both is early in the morning or later in the day when the angles of the sun are at their most dramatic.

Downtown Friday Harbor
As with most seaside towns and areas, the primary activities are sailing, eagle-watching, fishing and watersports, though the latter may be tempered by the knowledge that the San Juan Islands have their own "resident" pods of killer whales -- three of them according to our tour guide. These residents stay in the area year-round, as opposed to migrating pods of whales which move their location dependent upon the time of year. The good news about this is that you can usually see a few of them on the many regularly scheduled Whale Watching tours out of Friday Harbor. (We took the high-speed Western Explorer Zodiac-style boat from Western Prince. Not only more quickly able to adapt to the whales' changing locations, but a thrill-ride on its own. Highly recommended for the adventurous types.)

Inside the massive Washington State ferry
The rising tide
Another fascinating feature of the islands comes twice a day dependent upon the location of the moon: the tidal surge (right). The islands are located ideally for a significant rise or drop of the ocean, which in sections produces a virtual "sea" of eddies and whirlpools. A fascinating sight and certainly a most memorable moment for anybody who has experienced it.

But regardless of your intent: catching fish, seeing whales, birdwatching or just strolling the streets and galleries while stopping for a drink to people watch, the San Juan Islands are an easy-access retreat from the city, and a truly beautiful part of the world.


Sunset in the channel