Chills and things that go bump in the night – Live!

Calling all Halloween aficionados: there are all kinds of places that are happy to creep you out around the world.

I really got into this kind of travel a few years ago when I discovered that Sleepy Hollow is a real place! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic eerie tale by Washington Irving, has always been my favourite Halloween-season story ever since watching Disney’s delightful animated version called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Washington Irving was inspired by a real ghost story in what was then the wilds of Tarry Town, New York, along the Hudson River, where Irving had spent some of his youth.

Irving became arguably the most famous American writer of his day. He was a multi-talented man — architect (he built his own house, Sunnyside), diplomat for the American government, mentor to many other contemporary writers. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which you can tour, and his memory is so revered in that area that his headstone gets rubbed constantly by visitors and has had to be replaced more than once.

Montgomery Place Estate, Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley was the summer recreation spot for the wealthy of New York City, as well as a hub of the American Revolutionary War and the inspiration for the Hudson River School of painters, so there’s a lot of history to be visited. The entire area has also embraced Irving’s gothic legacy and becomes a Halloween-themed playground every autumn. One of our favourite places is the Headless Horseman theme attraction, rated one of the best in the U.S. There’s a 20-minute hayride through monster-filled woods, a dark and creepy corn maze, several haunted houses, several shops full of Halloween treasures (the first time we went, my hubby took one look at the shops, parked himself on a hay bale and gestured for me to go and knock myself out), cafes, magicians, music, stilt walkers — this place is truly amazing!

Of course, Disney always does a bang-up job of Halloween. We particularly liked Halloween at Disneyland in California. It’s not nearly as big as Disney World in Florida — if you stay at one of the onsite hotels at Disneyland, you walk out the door into essentially a giant street party that extends into the two parks, plus you get to dress up in costume and enjoy adult trick-or-treating, photo ops with your favourite villain, dance parties and all the rides.

However, last fall we did the Howl-O-Scream evening at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia, and I liked it even better. During the day you can see all the wonderful spooky detail throughout the park…

… but as dusk starts to fall, fog begins to creep through the air, and the park turns into something delightfully eerie.

Each zone of the park has its own creatures, from the medieval French version of creepy clowns,

to Jack the Ripper in England, who held a wicked knife to my throat, and responded, “Possibly” in a charming British accent when I asked him if I was going to survive my photo op.

Giant menacing pumpkins oversee shadowed cemeteries,

and walkways become murky trails into the unknown.

Howl-O-Scream is a wonderful combination of fun for kids and eerieness for adults, and there’s no extra admission for the event — you enter any time with your day ticket and you’re good to stay as long as you want.

For all of us Halloween enthusiasts, there are many places, both in North America and abroad, to enjoy some pretend terrors. Watch for details about a new spooky adventure in Ireland next week!

We are sorry…

Waiting for a flight, Heathrow

You’ve probably seen the many headlines. With those words, 144-year old travel company Thomas Cook announced abruptly on Sunday that it was closed for business, leaving about 600,000 travellers around the world in the lurch and a lot of employees suddenly looking for work, including airline pilots.

How could such a thing happen to the most veteran travel company in the business? Rumours of sky-high executive salaries are rife, and a gigantic reality show will play out over the next while as investigations get underway and some dirty secrets likely see the light of day.

Along with the vast personal and economic repercussions, it’s a sad time in the travel industry as we watch this once-great company die. Thomas Cook, the founder, led his first escorted tour in 1841 — about 500 temperance campaigners, if you can believe it, to a rally. He continued organizing a variety of tours around the British Isles, and within four years was taking people to Europe.

1922 Thos Cook poster, By 90 years old advert, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32011543

He officially opened shop on Fleet Street in London in 1865 and began making connections abroad that allowed him to, with his son as a partner, form the first commercial touring company. He made tours to exotic lands, like Egypt, accessible to the masses.

In our early days of travel, it was one of our pre-trip rituals to buy some Thomas Cook travellers’ cheques, until better forms of travel money came along.

It’s my feeling that in a situation like this, the travellers already abroad should be taken care of before any other legalities, but until/if that ever happens, here are two things you should always do to prepare for overseas emergencies:

  1. Buy travel insurance, both for trip cancellation and possible medical needs. We were all set to go to Mexico with friends in November a number of years ago, when a hurricane swept through the Gulf in September and took a number of resorts with it, including the one we were booked at. Afterward the clean-up and repairs, the resort was supposed to reopen the day we were due to arrive, but we had our suspicions about how good the facilities were going to be (having seen first-hand how quickly things often got done in the Caribbean back at the time), so we cancelled and in short order got our money back with no difficulties.
  2. Make sure there’s room on your credit card for emergency expenses. Many of the travellers in the current crisis have suddenly found themselves being charged by their hotels just to avoid getting kicked out — although, frankly, if a hotel I was staying at didn’t handle the situation with due tact and consideration, I’d be giving it a very bad review.

In all cases, don’t panic. Contact your travel agent for assistance — they will likely already be aware of your situation and be putting plans into place. You can also check in with your country’s local embassy (find information for Canadians here).

Livingstone airport, Zimbabwe

Beyond that, keep yourself comfortable and safe while you wait to return home. I was leading a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe when the volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010. We were able to complete our safari as planned (and had a fabulous time), but as we were getting ready to leave Livingstone in Zimbabwe for our flight to Johannesburg on the first leg to return home, we heard that the damn volcano had gone off again and we might not be able to get past South Africa for a few days. My travellers were getting nervous, but I told them, “Look, if we’re stuck in Jo’burg for a night or two, I know a really nice hotel attached to a mall with great shops and restaurants — we’ll just remain comfortable there until we can fly again.”

As it turned out, the volcanic plume drifted eastward out of our flight path and we were able to make it home with little trouble.

So how can you avoid a travel problem like this Thomas Cook fiasco? You can’t, sadly — one of the most established names in the business tanked unexpectedly, at least to the rest of the world. Where there warning signs before that? Apparently not where most of us could see them. The best you can do is, like the old Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. Don’t let something like this put you off travel — it should always be a great adventure!

The search for peace

I remember exactly what I was doing on September 11, 2001. I imagine that most people do. Some events are so impactful on a global scale that they are forever etched in our collective memories.

I was sitting at my desk in a common area at our local college, working away, when someone came out of an office and said, “There’s something going on in New York.”

The internet was still in its early days as a news source, but several of us crowded around our colleague’s live stream to watch, stunned, as events unfolded. I can recall watching the second plane fly into a tower; it was so surreal that it was hard to absorb.

Word spread quickly and I think most work ground to a halt as the Library set up a big TV screen in the lobby. No one knew what to do. This horrific event was unfolding before our very eyes, and all we could do was watch.

The 9/11 tragedy had ripples for a long time afterward.

The skies were eerily quiet for days while a no-fly rule was in effect. Friends with relatives in New York City were glued to their television sets. Everyone wondered how the aftermath would play out.

I live in a community close to the Canadian-US border, with hydroelectric plants and a number of big factories, so most people that I knew experienced some anxiety over the possibility of our own attack – although I suspect that scenario was on most people’s minds in North America.

In the height of irony, astronauts on the International Space Station, a cooperative venture bringing nations together far above us, could see the smoke plumes and struggled with their own sense of helplessness – you can read their poignant point of view in an article on Space.com.

Six years later, when my hubby and I went on our first African safari, airlines still had considerable restrictions on what travelers could bring on board, and we became very creative at packing economically.

9/11 changed our modern landscape, and there has been endless speculation about why it happened. Like most historical events, we may never know all of the truth, but I think we can agree that global peace continues to be a series of forward steps alternating with backward steps.

I believe that the root of conflict is a lack of respect for someone else’s right to hold a different point of view, and I believe that one of the ways we can work toward global peace is to travel.

It’s really difficult to hold another place or culture at arm’s length, to put a psychological wall up, when you’ve been there in person and met the ordinary people who live there, work there, try to provide for their families, laugh, feel pain, feel sorrow. It’s hard to turn away from animals and environments in need when you’ve walked among them.

We have met so many wonderful people on our travels. We have seen the magnificence of places like Africa and the Amazon Jungle, and know how critical they are to life as we know it.

Life thrives in the quiet places of our planet. Beauty and harmony are there. Find those places and their inhabitants, and understand why all the parts matter.

As a counterpoint to the sadness of 9/11, and the many ongoing conflicts in the world, one movement we can embrace is Forest Bathing. The name may sound silly, but bear with me on this.

Forest Bathing is a Japanese practice that promotes wellness by spending mindful time in a forested area. Nature is healing. Buildings, as beautiful as some of our constructions can be, are artificial environments, surrounded by cities that often don’t include much green space. Our increasing urbanization is separating us from the planet that has nurtured us for eons.

September 7th, this past weekend, was International Forest Bathing Day. The practice is really catching on world-wide, and there is likely at least one certified guide within fifty miles of you. Of course, anyone can do forest bathing for themselves, but you need to be able to do it slowly, taking the time to notice all the beauty and enjoy the serenity.

Find your centre, your inner core of peace and connectedness. I’d love to hear about it.

…and speaking of storms

Ah, the memories — rain lashing at our windows, wind howling, four of us huddled in our bedroom nervously riding out the category five hurricane on our honeymoon.

My hubby and I knew very little about hurricanes when we booked our honeymoon in late August in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No one really talked about them at the time, before the advent of satellites, the internet and instantaneous news.

Our travel agent sold us on the island of St. Thomas, and we chose a nice-looking resort on the north side called Point Pleasant. We liked the way it was tucked into the hillside; it had recently won an award for best preservation of the environment, and since the burgeoning field of ecology and environmental science was my major in university, it seemed like the perfect fit.

We arrived on a Monday morning after a series of connecting flights culminating in a hair-raising 30 minutes on a little island hopper airline called Prinair — the door to the cockpit was coffin-shaped, the bolts on the metal housing on the wings were loose and rattling as we flew along (I tried to pretend nothing was wrong, but my hubby could tell something was bothering me).

The resort was perfect — condo-style rooms built into the lush, steep hillside, with 25 feet of sliding glass doors opening onto a wide balcony draped with fronds from a tall palm tree, overlooking the most beautiful blue-green water.

That evening, after dinner, we were chilling out sipping rum punch on one of the terraces when someone mentioned that there was a storm coming in. Okay, we could handle a bit of rain, we thought.

On Tuesday as we explored the small island, the word “hurricane” came up. We asked in town, and found out that there was indeed a hurricane headed in our direction, forecasted to arrive the next day. I remember thinking, you’ve got to be kidding me, then, well, there’s nothing we can do but shelter in place.

Wednesday started out as a gorgeous, sunny day, so we went into town again to do some shopping. Building owners were taping up their windows, and in the harbour small boats were being tied down while the cruise ships fled out to sea. Hmm.

Back at the resort, the owners gave out instructions: the storm was expected to hit around midnight. We were to crack open the sliding glass doors a bit so that the hurricane’s weird air pressure could equalize and avoid blowing them out. Then we were to stay in our bedrooms and close the louvered doors — the bedroom and bathroom were at the back of our unit, almost completely set into the hill. If things got bad, we were to hide in our tub.

We had a nice dinner with another honeymoon couple from Michigan, but the wind began to pick up as darkness fell, and we were worried about them walking all the way down the hill to their unit, which was at the bottom past quite a bit of construction materials where new units were being added. There were no phones in any of the rooms, you see, so we would have no way of knowing if they made it safely.

As our building was the second closest to the main building and restaurant, we convinced them to do spend the night with us. So on the third night of our honeymoon, the other couple and I were in our king sized bed (fully-clothed, of course, in case we lost a wall!), while Mike was on the floor next to the bed, leaning against the nightstand.

Waiting and not knowing what was going to happen was the worst part. We had some drinks and chatted nervously for a while, then tried to doze off a bit. At one point the window air conditioner kicked in suddenly over our heads and startled the crap out of us.

As it turned out, we got lucky. Fifty miles south of us, Hurricane David suddenly turned due west and took out the Dominican Republic. We ended up with only the fringes of the storm, which was bad enough — a couple of other units in our resort did lose their sliding windows, and in the morning we no longer had a palm tree draped over our balcony.

The night had been stormy but not overly dangerous, although for months afterward I would tense up at home whenever the wind picked up. The skies remained grey and the waters continued to churn down on the beach, tossing boats around vigorously. We could see beheaded cacti all up and down the hillside.

There was a lot of debris on the roads, which were all closed, so most of the resort guests ended up in the restaurant and bar at some point. We met two couples from the southern U.S. and had dinner with them.

No one could call into the island, but we were able to call out and reassure our families that we were safe and sound. My dad had been frantic because news reports had said the island had been evacuated. My hubby’s larger family was still post-wedding partying around their pool when we got through to them.

We were playing cards in the glass-walled restaurant into the evening, fairly relaxed, when I noticed the big window next to me bowing in at least 12 inches, then popped back into place. I was just wondering if anyone else had seen that, when all of a sudden the wind picked up and began to howl strangely. We could see small trees flying past the window, the wind shrieked, and the lights went out. As a group, we dove under the table, not sure what the hell was happening.

After a few tense minutes, the staff said we could come back out. Everyone was shaken, and they told us to head for our rooms. The electricity was out throughout the resort, so we were given lanterns to use — and here’s a tip: in utter darkness, don’t hold the lantern in front of you, because it will effectively blind you to anything else. My hubby slipped on the wet wooden stairs and bruised a rib. The six of us headed back to our room, again because we were the closest; my hubby and I joked afterward that to the resort staff we must have looked like one kinky honeymoon couple!

The remainder of the night was quiet. We found out the next day that a tornado had torn through the other side of the hill that our resort was on. Lucky again (all in all)!

When we could get out and about again, we found out how bad our hurricane turned out to be, and how truly fortunate we’d been, ideally positioned in a resort on an island made of one big hill, tucked securely into the hillside on the north while the hurricane raged south of us.

What also saved us at the time was the speed at which the hurricane moved, unlike Dorian, which has hovered over the Bahamas this week to do extensive damage, and hurricane Harvey which dumped so much water onto Texas two years ago. There’s been a great deal of speculation lately regarding how much effect climate change has had on these storms to make them so slow and so much more damaging. Hurricane David resulted in over 2,000 lives lost, I think in large part because there weren’t fast and effective warning systems in place back then; now we have warnings that people often ignore, and storms that lurk in place like monsters.

Mother Nature always wins. Should you ever find yourself in the path of a hurricane, don’t risk your life.

Lion Tail Magic supports IFAW, which is collecting donations to help the animal victims of Hurricane Dorian.

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.