Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

I was less than enthusiastic when the opportunity for an Alaska cruise arose. Actually, I turned it down first the time around. Nothing against Alaska, which I understood to be a place of great natural splendors; I bristled at the idea of boarding a floating hotel in Seattle or Vancouver and being whisked at a vast rate of knots for a weeklong northbound marathon of coastal highlights. However, Alaska didn’t give up. One year later it came calling again, and this time it had an offer I couldn’t resist: The Island Spirit.

CATCHING THE ISLAND SPIRIT

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman's art.

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman’s art.

I board the Island Spirit in Peterburg, a small fishing port still solidly anchored to its Norwegian roots, wedged on the Northern tip of Mitkof Island, in the Alexander Archiplago of Southern Alaska. The unassuming blue vessel barely stands out among the jumble of working fishing boats in the tiny harbor. But the powerful 128 foot (39 meter) long ship, once a rugged oilrig supply vessel painstakingly repurposed by his owner and captain Jeff Behrens, is just the right size to squeeze its way into narrow fjords and idyllic anchorages inaccessible to larger vessels. On board, it’s all casual comfort and thoughtful amenities: viewing decks on both passenger levels plus a rooftop “terrace”, large sliding windows everywhere and good binoculars always within easy reach. And Captain Jeff is a man with a passion for the pristine wilderness of Southern Alaska. He and his enthusiastic crew of eight clearly can’t wait to share it with us, the 16 passengers on this early June voyage.

Alaska Frederick Sound.

Dusk on Frederick Sound

We leave Petersburg on the evening tide, sailing up Frederick Sound at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for us landlubbers). Within minutes, any hint of human encroachment disappears. All that’s left is unspoiled Alaska immensity. Distant snowy peaks sparkle in the clear dusk light. Within two hours, we’ve reached Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early morning whale sighting.

 

 

The next morning we get underway at 7:00 AM. I am still hovering at the edge of consciousness, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ship, when Captain Jeff’s announces over the ship’s public address system: “whales at eleven o’clock”. We all emerge from our cabins, most of us with anoraks hastily thrown over pajamas, to congregate just a few feet a way on the bow viewing deck.

 

WHAT’S WITH FORD’S TERROR?

Alaska Inside Passage Ford's Terror.

The Island Spirit anchors for the night in Ford’s Terror.

Today’s destination is Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit is said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to navigate it. Additionally, fierce currents make the canyon unmanageable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for a late nineteenth century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting gorge and was trapped in its roiling waters for several harrowing hours. We wait in Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, for the timing to be just right before engaging into the passage.

Alaska Inside Passage Grizzly.

Alaska Grizzly in Ford’s Terror.

We emerge into an oblong cove rimmed with dramatic slopes of black pines forests streaked by thundering waterfalls. Above the tree line, snowy mountaintops gleam against the cloudless cerulean sky. As we finish our dinner, First Mate Andy announces that a grizzly bear is grazing at the water’s edge. We don our life vests and rush en masse toward the awaiting skiff.

The weather is still radiant the next morning and wildlife viewing stunning. A flush of colorful harlequin ducks take flight just in front of the skiff, a marten peers at us from behind a rock and a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs scamper as we approach while bald eagles soar above. I muse that, should Captain Jeff decide to remain in Ford’s Terror for a week, I would happily forgo the remainder of the itinerary. But we are off again on the afternoon slack tide.

A mile-long wall of ice

Alaska Inner Passage glacier calving;

Dawnes Glacier calving

The next morning is all gloom and mist. Ice floes get increasingly larger as we head up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Then the ship slows to a crawl and we are staring slack-jawed at an approaching mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. Captain Jeff inches the ship forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. We spend the rest of the morning listening intently for the next gunshot sound of cracking ice, followed by huge slabs of ice sliding into the sea. Crew members hand out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.

Pulling into Juneau that evening is a bit of a downer. The entire waterfront is lined with city block-sized cruise ships pouring throngs of tourists onto the streets of the state capital. Churlish of me I admit, but I opt to forgo joining them for an after dinner stroll. I am in a better mood the next morning, when I discover that most of the behemoths have vanished during the night.

Totem Poles and Icons

Alaska Inside Passage Tenakee Spring.

Tenakee Spring (Population 129)

The small Juneau State Museum with its superb collection of objects from Alaska’s many native populations is well worth a visit. Still, I am glad when we sail again toward Chichagof Island and anchor off Tenakee Springs (population 129) where Main Street is a stretch of gravel road lined with small wooden homes.

The next day we stop at the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs (seasonal population 30). Here, Main Street is a simple boardwalk leading up a hill to hot spring pools located right where we enjoy a soak with a view next to a roaring waterfall.

Alaska Sitka Russian Orthodox Icons

Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of Russian Orthodox Icons

Our final destination is Sitka, a bustling fishing port with a varied cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the nineteenth century capital of Russian America. This allows me to enjoy in the course my last Alaskan afternoon a striking open air display of Tlingit totem poles and, in the onion-domed Saint Michael’s cathedral, the richest collection of Russian orthodox icons I have ever seen.

Never did nine days in the slow lane flee so quickly.

GOOD TO KNOW

With comfortable accommodations for a maximum of 32 passengers, the Island Spirit offers an opportunity to explore at leisure the narrowest fjords of the Inside Passage of Alaska from May to September. Its small size enables it to sail in close proximity to glaciers, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Owner and captain Jeff Behrens adjusts the itinerary in real time to take full advantage of frequent wildlife sightings, including whales, porpoises and sea lions.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Petersburg, Alaska

Cliff-dwelling through the ages

Cliff-dwelling through the ages

We leave behind Istanbul and the gilded splendors left on the banks of the Bosphorus by two millennia of successive empires for a further jump backward into ancient history. The next stop is Nevsehir, the gateway to Cappadocia, in the heart of the arid highlands of Central Anatolia. In Cappadocia, or “Land of Beautiful Horses” in the language of its Bronze Age Hittite settlers, history is hewn into the rock, by the elements and the various human waves that have inhabited it since pre-Hellenic times.

FAIRY CHIMNEYS AND BYZANTINE CAVE CITIES

Turkey - Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys

Cappadocia is an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers.

Millions of years of volcanic activities covered the area with layers of lava and compressed volcanic ash (or tuff) that were then eroded by the harsh climactic conditions into an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers. “Fairy chimneys” were formed when the lava covering the tuff gave way along preexisting cracks and the remaining protected areas became isolated pinnacles. These pillars of soft rocks topped with conical lava hats can reach heights up to 130 feet (40 meters).

The region is a beehive of cave and cliff dwellings. By some estimates, local inhabitants were carving their homes into the soft tuff as far back as 4000 years ago. Later, some of the first Christian settlements were established in the protective remoteness of the area. Eventually they grew into vast underground cities capable of sheltering tens of thousands inhabitants.

Turkey - Cappadocia cliff city

Kaymakli is a seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels

One of the largest, Kaymakli is a fascinating seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels, some of them quite narrow, with the various living spaces arranged around ventilation shafts. Of the four levels open to visitors at this time, the first floor holds mainly stables and a giant millstone that controls access to the other floors. A stunning church with a pillared nave and two apses is carved into the second floor, its domed ceiling covered in vivid Byzantine frescoes. The third floor contains all the life-sustaining areas: wine and oil presses, grindstones and kitchens.

We spend the night in Uchisar, the highest point in Cappadocia, topped by a sprawling cliff dwelling, the Uchisar Castle. From there the entire city, many of its buildings anchored to the rock face, cascades all the way down do the valley below. Our hotel is nestled in the rock, at the base of the castle. The view is jaw dropping!

Turkey - Frescoed cave chruch in Cappadocia

A richly frescoes Byzantine cave church in Cappadocia.

The next day, we head to the nearby troglodyte (cave dwellers) complex of Pasabagi (more gloriously frescoed rock churches there). This is also the area where the most spectacular “Fairy Chimneys” are located. The site is known as Monks Valley, as the chimneys were home in the fifth century to a hermitage of Simeon monks, who lived in seclusion by cutting shelters high the pillars.

GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITIES CONVERGE

Turkey - Ephesus Greek Amphitheater

Ephesus had the largest Amphitheatre in the antique Greek word.

Because we are “in the neighborhood” (i.e. Turkey), we don’t want to miss the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus. It’s quite a trek from Cappadocia: a three-hour drive to Ankara, during which we ride along the crusty banks of Tuz Gölü (meaning Salt Lake). With its 643 square mile (1,665 square kilometer) surface, it is the second largest lake in Turkey and one of the largest hypersaline lakes on the planet. After a quick stop in Ankara, the country’s capital since it replaced Istanbul in 1923, we fly to Izmir for the night and we are ready to explore Ephesus in the morning.

Ephesus. Turkey.- The Library of Celsius.

The Library of Celsius in Ephesus.

In spite of its long and illustrious Greek history, it is the memory of its Roman grandeur that remains. By the first century B.C. it was one of the largest city in the Mediterranean world with a population of more than 250,000. It had the world’s largest theatre and its largest building, the temple of Artemis. Both can still be seen, although little remains of the latter. But the stunning façade of the Library of Celcius, built a couple of centuries later and the iconic monument of Ephesus, still stands in all its awesome splendor.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Uchisar

Back to Byzantium

Back to Byzantium

Like many of my far-flung travels, my recent trip to Turkey begins with two words: “Yes! When?”

At the other end of the phone half way around the world, a friend is telling me of her upcoming business in Istanbul, and can I get myself there for a bit of exploring afterward. As simply as that, thoughts of visiting Turkey “someday” become “next month.” Four weeks later, I am landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport; and find myself immediately immersed in the mystique of the millennia-old oriental city.

The drive from the airport takes me along the Bosphorus, the legendary boundary between Europe and Asia that flows through the middle of the city, east to west from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. On both sides, Istanbul spreads from its endless waterfront over wooded hills.

At the crossroads of cultures

The Byzantine Cathedral Aya Sofia

One a cathedral then a mosque, Aya Sofia is now a museum filled with Byzantine treasures

Fortunately for visitors to this sprawling city, successive dynasties of Byzantine kings, Roman caesars and Ottoman sultans conveniently settled themselves within and on top of their predecessors’ seat of power, in the Old City neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Bound by water on three sides (the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara to the north, east and south respectively), and the ancient city walls to the west, this peninsula holds what once was Constantinople and Byzantium before that.

We spend the next three days bouncing back and forth between empires. Our first stop, Aya Sofia, is a metaphor for the evolution of Istanbul. A massive structure whose huge dome is considered to this day one of the world’s great architectural achievements, it was built in the sixth century as a Christian cathedral by Byzantine emperor Justinian. Eight centuries later, following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Aya Sofia became a mosque, its soaring domes and elaborate mosaics covered with Arabic script and gold for the next five century, until it became a museum in 1931. Now some beautifully restored Byzantine mosaics can be seen again along with the Ottoman artwork.

Istanbul -the Blue Mosque.

The cascade of domed roofs of the Blue Mosque.

From there we walk across a small park toward the cascade of domed roofs and the spear-like minarets of the seventeenth century Sultanahmet Mosque (a.k.a. Blue Mosque). Rumor has it that when Sultan Ahmet I set out to build the mosque that bears his name, he wanted to surpass the grandeur and beauty of Aya Sofia. While I am no expert, I will call the endeavor a draw.

The Blue Mosque is indeed as stunning as its sixth century neighbor. Its central dome rises 140 feet (43 meters), held by four giant columns. The mosque’s interior is covered in elaborate abstract patterns of Iznik tiles. Light streaming from 260 windows set high into the domes plays on the tiles and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. While it is one of Istanbul’s prime tourist attractions, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship that can hold up to 10,000 worshipers.

Down into the sunken palace

Istanbul Cistern Basilica

The Istanbul Cistern Basilica dates back to Roman times.

After this architectural extravaganza, the small bunker-like building across the street from Aya Sofia that marks the entrance to the Basilica Cistern is a bit of a let down. Inside its non-descript doorway, we start down an ancient stone staircase. Fifty-two damp steps later, we reach a surreal underground world of towering Hellenic marble columns (336 in all, lined in 12 rows of 28 each) rising from a dark pool of water. We are in the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Palace). Originally constructed in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, the cistern was enlarged in 532 to its present state by Justinian to meet the water needs of the Great Palace imperial complex. The 30-foot (nine meter) high columns are thought to be “recycled” from various parts of the empire. For me, this unique watery cathedral-like space is one of the most striking sights of Istanbul.

istanbul medieval Rumelian fortress.

The medieval Rumelian fortress on the Bosphorus.

The next morning we board a public ferry to cruise from the Golden Horn, the crescent-shaped inlet that has served as a natural harbor for Istanbul since before it was Byzantium, out into the Bosphorus and east toward the Black Sea. We pass the great 19th century Ottoman waterfront palaces, then the colossal medieval walls of the Rumelian fortress. Further east still, we discover traditional fishing villages and yalis (seashore wooden villas).

No end of Treasures

Istambul-Dolmabahce

The Dolmabahce Palace.

What about all the other much vaunted “guidebook musts?” Yes, we do fit those in also. We wander through Topkapi Palace, a labyrinth of ornate rooms that conjure images of turbaned sultans and their harems, before enjoying a panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara from its private terraces. We dutifully follow the crowds through the Dolmabahce Palace – think Versailles on the Bosphorus. And we make the de rigueur stop at the Grand Bazaar. This ancestor of the shopping mall is now overflowing with overpriced goods for tourists. The Spice Bazaar, a vast aromatic market piled high with coffees, dried fruits, spices and herbs feels more enticing. Besides, locals still shop there; always a good sign.

Istanbul Chora Museum.

the Chora Museum is a striking exemple of Byzantine Church .

On the last day, an afterthought visit to the out-of-the-way Church of the Holly Savior in Chora (now Chora Museum) delivers one of the biggest thrills of my stay in Istanbul. The current structure, build in 1081 on the site a fifth century church, is considered one of the most striking surviving example of a Byzantine church. In the early fourteenth century, Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with exquisite mosaics and frescos that illustrate the genealogy, birth, life and resurrection of Jesus. After the fall of the city to the Ottomans, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque and its glorious artworks plastered over. Thus they remained mainly intact throughout the centuries, to be cleared and restored when the mosque was turned into a museum in the late 1950’s. These are the most breathtaking Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Byzantium

Farewell to Africa – for now

Farewell to Africa – for now

“Once the red dirt of Africa gets into your hiking boots, you will never get it out.”  The place was Kuyenda, a tiny bush camp in the heart of Zambia’s remote South Luangwa National Park and the first stop on my first African safari.  The year was 2006. The soft-spoken words came from a man who knew what he was talking about.

A LIVING LEGEND

Zambia South Luangwa, Phil Berry

Phil Berry is one of the most respected naturalists in Zambia.

Born in England, Phil Berry moved to Africa as a child and grew up in Northern Rhodesia before it became the Republic of Zambia in 1964. And there he was still, now a living legend well beyond the Luangwa Valley, for his life-long dedication to the protection of elephants and rhinos and as a pioneer of the walking safaris for which the park is famous.

I nodded. I was still groggy from the 48-hour journey from North America but after one single day in the bush, I already understood. The day’s game drives had taken us from elephants tearing at Mopani trees for their breakfast and hills dotted with skittish impalas ready to bounce off at the first hint of menace to a pride of lions still sleeping off last night’s feast in a shady glade. Then there had been a intoxicating African sunset and a lovely al fresco dinner under the black velvet and diamonds sky. I was already hooked.

CLOSE CALLS

Kenya highlands black rhino

In the highlands of Kenya, my first rhino sighting ever.

It took three trips before I was finally able to sight a rhino; and a close up encounter it was. It was in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy the highlands of Central Kenya. My guide stopped our open land cruiser and pointed into the dense brush. “Rhino,” he whispered.

I got so excited that I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the overhead roll bars, camera at the ready, thus forgetting one of the cardinal rules of game watching (no abrupt move). The startled black male rhino came charging out of the brush, coming straight at us before finally making a ninety degree turn a mere six feet from impact!

Okavango Delta Elephant

This old bull stares us down and out of his watery kingdom.

Who knew elephants could charge so fast in water? Also in the Okavango Delta, this large bull took exception to our boat navigating in “his” channel. He started menacingly toward us until we finally got the outboard motor into reverse.

 

 

BREATH-TAKING MOMENTS

Masai Mara newborn Elephant

Newborn elephant learns how to nurse.

We came across this elephant cow in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. She stood patiently while her hour-old calf tried to figure out what to do with its nasal appendage in order to start nursing.

 

 

 

 

Botswana - Leopard in the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, my first sighting ever of a leopard in a tree.

While I had seen leopards on several occasions on previous trips, I didn’t get to observe one settled in a tree until my fourth visit to Africa. We were driving in the waterlogged world of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when my ranger pointed into the tree canopy right above our open vehicle. Lucky for us that this magnificent cat had obviously already enjoyed a large dinner.

 

 

Botswana-Kalahari lion

After a blood-curdling warning roar, this old timer resumed his benevolent attitude.

We were settling in to enjoy our tailgate sundowner cocktails in a sandy clearing in Bostwana’s Kalahari when we heard a chilling moan nearby. It turned into a high-energy rumble, then escalated into a full-blown roar that made the air vibrate around us and my entire body shake.

My guide calmly motioned to me to climb back into the cruiser. I certainly remembered the “no sudden move” rule this time! We then eased at very low speed in the direction of the roar.

Having served us notice that we were trespassing, the old lion had resumed a deceivingly benevolent demeanor.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Then there are all the unique, memorable people I’ve met along the way, too many to include, so I will only mention these two:

Cobra

My great Zu/hoasi Bushman guide, Cobra.

In the Kalahari, Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet took me on a desert nature walk. He mainly spoke the distinctive clicking language of the Kalahari Bushmen, but somehow we understood each other.

 

 

 

Masai schoolgirl

Masai first-grader and her prized book bag.

In a country where the literacy rate for women is still only around fifty percent, I was delighted to meet this enthusiastic Masai first-grader at a charter school supported by andBeyond, the safari organization with which I was traveling through Northern Tanzania. She even let me admire her book bag, her proudest possession.

Location, location, location!

South Luangwa

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

On my first visit to Alsace several decades ago, I commented to my local host about the warm welcome I had experienced everywhere I went. “We have had plenty of practice with visitors over the past couple of millennia,” he quipped. Quite. First came the Romans in the first century B.C., who are credited with covering the undulating hills of this wedge of alluvial plain on the west side of the Rhine with the vineyards that are to this day the pride of the region. After the Roman Empire fell apart came the Allemans, who gave the region its language, then the Franks. That marked the start of a one thousand year tug-of-war that saw Alsace change hands multiple times between France and Germany; and develop a unique culture that, while remaining definitely French, has maintained strong German influences in its architecture, cuisine, arts and traditions.

Vineyards, geraniums and foie gras

Alsace - Colmar window boxes.

Window boxes overflowing with geranium are an Alsacian tradition.

La Route des Vins, the 170 kilometer (106 mile) itinerary that meanders north to south from Marlenheim to Thann through the legendary Alsatian Vineyard abound with villages and towns filled with picture-perfect half-timbered facades and window-boxes of cascading red geraniums. Along the way, a proliferation of noted eateries dish out the succulent specialties for which Alsace is renowned, such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut simmered in white wine with smoked pork and sausages), paté de foie gras (goose liver paté, which originated here in the eighteenth century), a wide variety of local charcuteries and smoked fish, and the pungent Munster cheese.

For me, however, the ultimate destination of any visit to Alsace is Colmar, the self-appointed capital of La Route des Vins. Mainly spared the destructions of the French revolution and two world wars, it has an exceptionally large and well-preserved historic center for a city of its size (population 65,000). Its cobblestone streets lined with architectural treasures that span eight centuries of combined French and German evolution welcome visitors with the laidback cheerfulness of a small town. At the edge of the historic center, the especially picturesque La Petite Venise (Little Venice) neighborhood is clustered around a network of canals from the river Lauch, where tanners and fishmongers were once located. Farmers also used these waterways to ferry their products to the town market in small pole-propelled wooden barges. Similar barges are in operation today with silent electric motors, to allow visitors a close look at the ancient and still inhabited riverside homes.

Alsace - Colmar fine dining.

The dining room of l’Echevin overlooks the Lauch River.

La Petite Venise is also home to the romantic Hostellerie Le Maréchal, created from four adjoining sixteenth century homes overlooking the river. Under the traditional steep tiled roofs, neat rows of windows are underscored by flowerboxes overflowing with the ubiquitous red geraniums. Inside, passageways have been opened through the common walls to link the various public areas, forming a maze of cozy nooks filled with antiques. At the rear of the property, the intimate dining room of L’Echevin (French for high ranking medieval magistrate) overhangs the river. In addition to its inviting setting the restaurant is a recognized destination for Alsatian gastronomy with two toques from Gault et Millau and three forks from Michelin to its credit.

Beyond La Petite Venise

Alsace - Colmar medieval center.

Ancient wrought iron signs still advertise local businesses.

Alsace - Colmar Insenheim Altarpiece.

Center panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

The opportunity to roam at leisure through entire neighborhoods of meticulously maintained medieval houses and the prospect of a couple of superb dinners at L’Echevin would be reason enough for a weekend break in Colmar, especially now that several daily TGVs (short for Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train) make it an easy three hour trip from Paris. But on this recent visit, the lure was the town’s foremost artistic treasure: the striking Isenheim Altarpiece, considered Matthias Grünewald’s greatest masterpiece, originally painted in 1512-1516 for a monastery in nearby Isenheim. After undergoing extensive restorations in anticipation its five hundredth anniversary, it had been recently returned on display at the Underlinden Museum. Housed in a former thirteenth century convent for Dominican sisters, the museum also holds a major collection of Upper-Rhenish medieval and early renaissance sculptures and paintings, including several altarpieces by native son Martin Schongauer as well as works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer.

Alsace - Riquewihr vineyards.

Riquewihr is surrounded by some of the most prized winegrowing land in Alsace.

Alsace - Riquewihr architectural details.

Riquewihr is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

For me, no visit to Colmar is complete without a side trip to Riquewihr, the walled village classified as one of the most beautiful in France, a mere 12 kilometers (seven miles) away. Nestled in the middle of some of the most prized winegrowing land in the region, it is still home to families who trace their uninterrupted winemaking tradition back to the early seventeenth century. There I looked forward to a visit to my favorite vintner, Hugel and Sons, and a walk up the hill beyond the city walls to their venerable Schoenenbourg vineyards, reputed since the Middle Ages for producing some of the finest Riesling in the world. But it was raining on the day of my visit, hard enough to postpone the Schoenenbourg until next time. Instead, Etienne Hugel, the current head for the vinery took a few of us under the historic sixteenth century building of the Hugel headquarters for an extensive tour of the cellars. We set off through a succession of vaulted halls that reach deep under the old town. Wines are maturing there in rows upon impressive rows of giant oak casks, including the famous Sainte Catherine dating back to 1715, still in use and a Guinness World Record holder, before ending our tour in the tasting room. A warm welcome indeed!

Visits of the Hugel cellars are by prior appointment only.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Colmar, Alsace, France

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early entrant in the race to promote its rich game population and preserve its natural habitat, Kenya boasts more than 50 national parks and game reserves as well as private conservancies covering over 10 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be seen there, as well as cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small; and herds of minivans filled with awed tourists.

Kenya - Mara Lions

“Say, who invited all these people?”

A large number of visitors is drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by the wide umbrellas of flat-topped acacias, and proud Masai in crimson robes herding their cattle in the open plains. To accommodate these visitors, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructures, including large-scale accommodations that make it a favorite destination for mass tourism. But as Kenya’s popularity increased, so did the potential threat to its environment.

 Enter Gamewatchers Safaris

It’s with these challenges in mind that Jake Grieves-Cook, a long time figure in Kenya’s tourism industry established Gamewatchers Safaris in 1989 to set up an operational model that personalizes the tourism experience while giving landowners the opportunity to improve their quality or life and preserve the land and wildlife for the next generations.

Kenya -Ol Pejeta, Tent

Guest tent at Porini Rhino Camp.

With its four Porini Camps, (Porini is Swahili for “into the wild”), Amboselli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offers an innovative solution: small tented camps (between six to ten tents depending on the camp) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the renowned Amboseli and Masai Mara National Parks. One exception is Porini Rhino Camp, located in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, one of largest rhino sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly camps, every effort is made to minimize the footprint on the environment. There are no permanent structures, power is exclusively solar-generated, and all waste is managed according to strict procedures.

Kenya - Mara Porini Staff

The Masai staff at Mara Porini Camp welcomes us with a traditional “jumping dance”.

The host conservancies are on private land leased from the local Masai tribes who receive financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Tribesmen have access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. Because of this close partnership, the guests enjoy extensive contact with the community, such nature walks with Masai Warriors, visits to the local villages where we are welcomed and allowed to observe the tasks of daily lives as well as celebration songs and dances.

Kenya - Amboselli Elephants.

Amboselli is reputed for its large elephant population.

There are also nighttime game drives (these, like the walking safaris are not allowed in the National Parks). I especially enjoy the opportunity for substantive conversations with my Masai guides about their tribes’ history, their current lives and aspirations.

 

 

Spectacularly Diverse

Each camp is located in a spectacular site with its own wildlife particularities.

Kenya - Amboselli Wildebeest.

Wildebeest at Amboselli National Park.

Amboselli Porini Camp in the Selenkay Conservancy is adjacent to the north side of the Amboselli National Park, famous for the large herds of elephants roaming its sun-baked plains. Access to the park is via the conservancy’s private road, against the eye-popping backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.

 

 

Kenya - Porini Rhino Camp

Male Black Rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Porini Rhino Camp is located on the verdant plateau of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, between the foothills of the Aberdares Range and the stately snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya. In addition to its large rhino population, it features large herds of rarely seen herbivores such as reticulated giraffes and Grevy’s zebras.

Kenya - Mara Buffalos

Buffalos in the Masai Mara National Park

 

 

 

Mara Porini Camp is nestled in a soaring grove of yellow-barked acacia within the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, ten miles from the Northeast boundary of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The conservancy is host to a large resident pride of lions that I have the chance to observe repeatedly. Early morning game drives on the way to the park in the rolling meadows filled with herbivores browsing for their breakfast in the clear morning air are a special treat.

Kenya - Mara lion

This old male looks like he never shied away from a fight.

Porini Lion Camp is in the Olare Orok Conservancy on the northern border of the Mara. The abundance of “big cats” in the conservancy and  the park is such that it is hard to keep focused on any other game! Although the sight a pair of copulating white rhinos did hold my attention, as does a breeding herd of elephants with several newborn calves; successfully tracking an elusive leopard is a high point of my visit, so is a pride of lions getting ready for their hunt. In the end, a cheetah and her three tiny cubs won my cuteness award for the stay.

Good to Know

  • Contrary to mass tourism organizations who often provide closed, air-condition vehicles for their game drives, Gamewatchers’ drives are in custom-built, open-sided land cruisers, each with three tiers of two individual seats. Although the vehicles can accommodate up to six guests, there are never more than four of us in any vehicle throughout my stay, and more than once I have the special treat of a private game drive.
  • In recent years, Porini Safari Camps and their parent company Gamewatchers Safaris have been consistently honored with various prestigious Responsible Tourism awards such as “Best for Conservation of Endangered Species outside Protected Area” at the World Travel Market in London, and the SKal International Sustainable Development in Tourism Award. They have also have also been repeatedly awarded Ecotourism Kenya’s Eco-Warrior Award in the Accommodation category for “working with communities next to the national parks and resers to create protected wildlife areas.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris Founder and Managing director Jake Grieves-Cook remains personally involved in wildlife conservation projects with Masai communities in Amboselli and the Mara.
  • Gamewatchers Safaries: http://www.porini.com, email: julie@gamewatchers.com , or call toll free: +1-877-710-3014.

Location, location, location!

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya