Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Arkansas Traveler

Hello from the Natural State. Sounds like the intro to some new age workshop, but it is in fact the slogan of the beautiful state of Arkansas. The twenty-fifth state, Arkansas is in the heart of the Deep South, bordered by six other states, and the Mississippi River. Few places I can think of offer this much physical beauty and diversity in such a small area. But if you're like me, and I hope you're not, the name is a bit confusing. Looks like it ought to be pronounced "Are-Kanzes", like the state of Kansas. Well a lot of other people, including its residents, thought so too. In fact, there are many other ways to pronounce this name, which is a French interpretation of a Quaoaw Indian word. In 1881, the two U.S. Senators from the state had it out and it was decided for good and all that "Are-Kansaw" would be the pronunciation. States like Washington and Maryland don't have these problems.

Anyway, besides the beautiful mountains, valleys, caverns, and waterfalls, there is a natural attraction here that is truly one-of-a-kind. Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only diamond-producing site in the world that is open to the public. Seriously, you can come to this state park and dig for diamonds and other semi-precious stones like amethyst, peridot, garnet, and many others. And the park's "finders keepers" policy means that you get to keep anything you find, regardless of its value. Are you kidding me?! Shirley Strawn, of Murfreesboro, AR, found a 3 carat diamond here in 1990 that is to date the most perfect cut diamond ever graded by the American Gem Society. According to the AGS, a diamond this perfect occurs perhaps only once in a billion. Another diamond, found by a miner before the park's creation, weighed in at over 40 carats. To date, it is the largest diamond ever found in the United States, and goes by the name Uncle Sam. Roughly 60,000 visitors come here every year and they find approximately 600 diamonds. So if my math is correct, and it probably isn't, you have a 1 in 600 chance of finding a diamond. Think Vegas is going to give you those kinds of odds?

But if you want to guarantee you find a gem, rent a timeshare in Arkansas. I am staying at Escapes! to Hot Springs Village, in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit with mountain views in the 26,000 acre gated community of Hot Springs. And as you may have guessed, it is located near downtown Hot Springs, the only place in the U.S. with a National Park within city limits. Plus Golf Digest's #1 rated course in Arkansas is in Hot Springs Village, along with fishing, boating, swimming, tennis, waterskiing, and so much more. Looks like you can find a rental here on RedWeek for as little as $86, and own for just $899. The only thing bad I can say about the place is the name. Maybe it's just me, but it's more like a sentence, and having an exclamation point in it gets tiring if you have to keep saying it. I am glad I don't answer the phones around here.

Well, I am off on a little detour to check out what the NY Times called the World's Largest Biscuit, at the Smokehouse Cafe if Eureka Springs. It's every bit of four hours from here, but the thing is the size of a shoe box and their slogan is "eat in, waddle out." How could I not?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Kickin' Back in BC

Well I guess you heard about my run in with with los torros in Spain by now. I am under strict orders from my doctors to get some rest and relaxation, whilst my injuries heal. Being in the rest and relaxation business, I've had no problems complying. I've made my way to beautiful Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. If you should ever be so unfortunate as to get gored and trampled by a raging bull, put it on your short list of places to convalesce afterward. Victoria, named for said Queen of England, is the capital of British Columbia and located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It's about sixty miles from Seattle by plane or ferry, and even closer to Pt. Angeles, WA.

Hey, did you know that Victoria has some of the most mild weather in all of Canada? Yeah, it rarely gets hotter than about 86° F on summer days, and about 40° F on winter ones. And it receives about half the rain per year as Seattle. I think it is a closely guarded secret here, however, so I won't go on about it lest they give me the boot. Some of the top attractions in Victoria are Butchart Gardens, the Royal British Columbia Museum, and the Victoria Butterfly Gardens. For nature lovers, Goldstream Provincial Park is a must see for salmon spawning, bald eagle sightings, and cascading waterfalls. View grizzly bears, orcas (killer whales), and sea lions at the Knight Inlet wilderness. If it is culture you seek, Victoria offers up everything from opera to ballet, Shakespeare to street performers, and everything in between. And don't get me started on the world class cuisine options.

But perhaps one of the oddest attractions in Victoria is Miniature World, or "the greatest little show on Earth," as it dubs itself. It is a collection of some of the most painstakingly detailed dioramas I've ever seen, depicting scenes both real and imagined from early Canadian frontier life to space exploration of the future. All at 1/100th of the actual size. They even have the largest dollhouse in the world on display. You'll feel like Gulliver traveling through this place, and surely learn something you didn't know along the way. Although I must confess that I felt a bit like Godzilla at times as well, and had to resist the urge to fling a few city buses around or take out a skyscraper with the flick of my finger.

While in Victoria, I've booked a timeshare rental at the WorldMark Victoria Resort. This place is right in the inner harbor where the ferries arrive and is a great location for taking in everything this vibrant capital city has to offer. They have water view units overlooking the bay. RedWeek members give it five stars and I can see why. My two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit could easily sleep six, and the full kitchen, jacuzzi tub, outdoor deck, and walkable location is an ideal getaway for a family or large group. There are no resales available on RedWeek at present, so you might want to sign up for a posting alert when some do come up.

Well, I am off to afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. It's a daily tradition in Victoria going back over a century. While normally a coffee-and-donut type of guy, I can't pass up this chance to mingle with fellow travelers, locals, celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty alike. They serve their own special blend of tea, and homemade goodies by award-winning pastry chef D'Oyen Christie. If you go, a "smart casual" dress code is in place. Which is to say that I'll be trading my Hawaiian shirt and Crocks in for a polo shirt and some penny loafers. A small price to pay for freshly baked raisin scones served with heavy cream and strawberry preserves, wouldn't you say?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Beware of Charging Bulls in Pamplona

My post comes to you today from a local hospital. Sorry I could not provide my usual Monday post but, while participating in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, I became injured! Although gored in the leg and then trampled by a 1200 lb. bull, my doctor says I should make a complete recovery. My physician tells me it was a miracle, or at the very least dumb luck, that I was not more seriously injured.

I guess I yinged when I should have yanged. Of course, stopping along the route to converse with spectators was probably not a good idea. I was just trying to tell someone how much money I saved renting a timeshare instead of staying at a hotel when suddenly, the bull appeared out of nowhere and headed straight for me.

It's mostly my pride that was hurt. Well, that and this giant whole in my leg, and the head-to-toe bruising... but mainly my pride.

While lying in my hospital bed I saw a clip of myself on the Spanish news, as my death-defying tale has made me a bit of a media sensation. They are calling me, "El Ambassador del Loco." Can anyone translate that for me?

I should be discharged later this week so I can be off on another timeshare travel adventure!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Reflections on Independence

I hope you had a nice Fourth of July, and were able to spend some time with your family and friends taking a well deserved, mid-summer breather. For someone who travels for a living, you might be surprised to know that I don't travel for the Fourth. The airports are jammed, rental cars booked, attractions crowded, etc. So I kick back at home, reflect upon my good fortunes, catch some fireworks, and get ready for my next trip.

I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard a fellow named Ray Raphael say that we sort of celebrate our independence on the wrong day. Yeah, he's a historian and author and he points out that the Declaration of Independence was voted for on July 2, 1776, and did not start being signed until August 3rd of the same year. John Adams even wrote to his wife Abigail on the 3rd that the second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. He predicted fireworks, patriotic songs and speeches, the works. So how did we end up doing it on the 4th? Well, in the days before the interweb, TV, radio, etc., things needed to be printed up, delivered to the masses via dispatches on horseback, and then read in the town square. That took a day or two to organize and, by the time it occurred the date at the top of the document read July 4, 1776. And so it has been ever since. Turns out, both Adams and Thomas Jefferson (the guy who wrote the thing) both died on the 4th of July fifty years later. So maybe they each got two extra days, if you want to look at it that way.

But there's no ambiguity about the fireworks. They shot them off at the first 4th of July and all of them since. According to the American Pyrotechnics Associations, over $945 million dollars worth fireworks were sold in 2009 alone. And fortunately, there has been a 920% decrease in firework-related injuries since 1976. Still, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 6,400 Americans spent part of their 4th of July in an emergency room last year due to firework mishaps. So there's still a little work to do, but it's clear you can have a blast and still be safe.

And how about this hot dog eating contest at Coney Island every 4th of July? Legend has it that it started with two recent immigrants to the U.S. in 1916. The eating contest was devised as a way to settle a feud as to who was the more patriotic of the two. It was held on July 4th at Nathan's Hot Dog stand in Coney Island. Legend or not, tens of thousands of people flock to the event every year, and over a million more watch it on TV. The event is currently sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and all participants are members of Major League Eating (MLE). I don't make this stuff up folks. The 2010 title went to Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, his fourth in a row, after he devoured 54 hot dogs and buns in ten minutes. Are you kidding me?! But the event was marred by controversy when ex-champ Takeru Kobayashi, currently in a dispute with MLE and not part of the competition, showed up and tried to jump on stage. He was arrested after a melee with NY's finest and taken away. But no one was injured, and Pepto Bismol (MLE's top sponsor) flowed freely afterwards.

Well it sure is great to be free, and there is no better place than the good old U.S.A. to be so. And while I choose not to eat 54 hot dogs and buns or blow part of my hand off in observing it, the 4th of July is undoubtedly my favorite day of the year.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Contest Winner

We have a winner for my Where's Seymour contest. Jen correctly identified the Space Needle as my location in June. For being the first correct answer chosen at random, she wins a RedWeek.com membership. Congratulations Jen, and thank you to everyone who submitted an answer.

Packing Cubes by eBagsBe sure to check out the new Where's Seymour contest for July. This month's prize is this great 3 piece set of packing cubes by eBags (a $29.99 value). Any serious traveler has to have these things. Good luck!