Archive for July, 2008

Lofoten: Mountains, sea, and fish heads

July 8, 2008
First sight of Lofoten on flight from Bodo

First sight of Lofoten on flight from Bodø

When Wessel suggested we do our annual cycling tour in Lofoten, I had to answer, Lo-what? Where the heck is that? That was a couple years ago, and while I can’t say that all roads now lead to Lofoten (pronounced LOO-foo-ten there), a Norwegian archipelago above the arctic circle, I have noticed the name a few times. For instance, National Geographic Traveler last year ranked it as one of the world’s best (and best-preserved) island destinations. Still, not one American I mentioned our trip to had heard of Lofoten, and I noticed only a few Yanks during our weeklong visit there in June. (Not that I’m complaining!) On the other hand, there was a steady stream of folks from Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Vacationing Norwegians were mostly due to arrive in July, when school is out and most folks go on holiday. If you want to catch the Midnight Sun, you’ll need to go from late May to late July.

I’m writing a travel piece on our cycling trip for August publication in the Boston Globe, so here’s a little preview.

Fishing village of Hamnoy

Fishing village of Hamnøy

The words that kept going through my mind the first few days of cycling were: “impossibly beautiful.” Really, it was crazy gorgeous, and now, when I look at our photos, I’m again amazed by the scenery. Jagged snow-capped mountains rise from a clear blue sea, roads wind along rocky coasts, and red fishing shacks dot the land. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We were blessed with several days of bright sun, which made the raw, damp, and cloudy days a bit less painful. Different parts of the island were quite varied, from farmland to woods, mountains to sea. The water was so clear it reminded me of the Caribbean. I wonder how the growing cruise industry here will affect that.

Rorbuer in A

Rorbuer in Å in the south of the Lofoten

There are a few cities here, but mostly tiny to small fishing villages and farm communities, some without any services. The most characteristic building is the rorbu, a fishing shack usually painted brick red. Some stand alone, while others are clustered together to form a village of “rorbuer.” They are picturesque and fairly scream “Norway.” Many have been updated as mid-range or upscale lodging, and some have been built as new, which means they’re kind of fake, but they’re still lovely and comfortable, so unless you’re a rorbu purist, they’re fine. Some are on hills overlooking the water, some are just back from the water, and others are on stilts right over the water. Some rooms over the water have a hole in the floor for in-room fishing!

Drying cod on a wooden rack in Hamnoy

Drying cod on a wooden rack in Hamnøy

The craziest sights were the wooden racks of drying cod all over the island. Cod is the biggest export business here and it is huge. Most of the dried cod (sans heads) is exported to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where it is a kitchen staple. (I lived in Portugal and know this to be true!) The cod heads are sent to Nigeria, where they’re used in a spicy soup. It’s common to see a few fish hanging from a house (sometimes just for decoration) but the wildest sights are the humongous racks you’ll encounter in a town, with hundreds, no, thousands, of fish hanging to dry. We were at the tail end of the drying season (cod fishing is done from January to April) and were lucky to see so many. Wessel could not stop photographing them — every single day in every conceivable way.

Diane cycles north on main road E10 connecting Å to Svolvaer

Diane cycles north on the island Moskenesøya

While there are more cars than bicycles here, Lofoten is a very popular place for self-contained cycling, meaning you carry your own gear. The four islands that make up the archipelago are connected by bridges, and all of Lofoten is only about 110 miles from end to end. Of course your mileage will grow considerably when you zigzag from town to town. We saw only a couple cyclists the first few days, but just before we left, in late June, they started pouring in. As for the cycling itself, in some places the roads are narrow and curvy, without shoulders and with traffic. For the most part drivers were incredibly polite, but tour buses, of which there are many, sometimes got waaaaay too close for comfort. There also are a few tunnels, but most can be bypassed using the “old road” (in various states of repair) outside the tunnels. I can see how beginner cyclists might find the main road rather nerve-wracking. There are great side roads, but they all have to be reached from the main road. So if you’re comfortable riding in some traffic, cycling around Lofoten is, for the most part, two-wheeled nirvana.

Couchsurfing his way around the world

July 3, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published June 8, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I wish everybody in his and her 20s would take this kind of trip before “settling down.”  Hudson is more adventurous than most. He got an early start by to college in Australia, just for the fun of it. 

WHO: Hudson Doyle, 26, of Brookline, Mass.

WHERE: Around the world

WHEN: September 2007 to February 2008

WHY: “I had just finished a graduate degree in acupuncture and I wanted to see how they practiced Chinese medicine in China. I also wanted to go to Australia and visit friends,” said Doyle, who went to undergraduate school in Sydney. “I got my ticket through STA Travel when I was still a student.”

Hudson Doyle (far right) eating lunch with couchsurfing hosts in Torino, ItalyGOING AND GOING: Doyle’s flights took him to Spain, Italy, Cyprus, China, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. He was on a tight budget and stayed mostly in youth hostels but he also stayed for free with eight CouchSurfing members for a total of 30 days. “It’s a great service, but it’s quite a bit of work online to find places that fit your schedule.”

NOW WHAT?: Doyle’s only reason for going to Cyprus was to visit a friend there. “Just before I was going I got an e-mail from him that he was being deported because of a visa issue. So I wasn’t really prepared to go there alone.” He stayed at a sketchy hostel in Nicosia before finding a CouchSurfing spot with a Dutch citizen living in Limassol.

Hudson Doyle in Zhejiang Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hangzhou, ChinaDOCTOR’S NOTE: The internship that Doyle, a graduate of New England School of Acupuncture, had set up was an hour south of Shanghai at Zhejiang Provincial Hospital in Hangzhou. “It’s a picturesque city popular with Chinese travelers. It’s small in China – with 4 million people.” I took a bus from Shanghai with a piece of paper they’d sent me with all their information in Chinese. Otherwise I did a lot of sign language and pantomime. I observed rounds in acupuncture and Chinese herbals. The acupuncture was pretty much the same, but I learned a lot on the herbal side. The doctor was really good at diagnosing and making formulas.”

EASTERN FAME?: While staying in a dorm with young Chinese travelers he was asked to help with a China Central Television cultural documentary to precede the Olympics. “They took us out to this sanctuary and we acted out like a skit; I was a foreign traveler and a Chinese guy was the interpreter.”

Hudson Doyle holding a banana flower, hiking in the jungle in Chiang Rai, northern ThailandISLAND TIME: In Thailand Doyle hit the beach, landing on Koh Phangan in time for its infamous rave-like Full Moon Party. “It’s a pretty cool little island and not very developed, although tourism is expanding. From Bangkok he went to Ching Rai, where a guided jungle trek took him through hill tribe villages. He stayed with friends in Australia before heading to North Island, New Zealand, where he mostly hitchhiked around. “It was just fantastic, and the people were so generous.”

Is Element hotel green, or a wash?

July 2, 2008

Here’s a benefit of writing a blog. Even if my letter to the editor at the Boston Globe isn’t published, I still get to share it with globe (i.e. the world) readers. I got a little worked up after a reading this story in the business section yesterday (I zip through the Globe daily online, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post) about a new hotel venture by the same company that brought us Westin/W Hotel. This is what I sent the Globe:

Dear editor:

I was disappointed that the July 1 article on Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc’s new test hotels in Lexington (Mass.) read more like a public-relations fact sheet than a news article. Here are some questions I’d like to see vice president Brian McGuinness answer about his “ecoconscious” Element hotel.

1) Why did you tear down the old Sheraton to build a new structure? Inherently, that is anti-environmental.

2) Sure, it’s nice that you have such things as in-room recycling, low-flow showerheads, and energy-saving bulbs, but many hotels have that already. What makes your contribution to this field so special?

3) You give priority parking to hybrids, but you probably know that many compact cars get better mileage than larger hybrids. Will I get VIP parking for my 1994 Honda Civic hatchback? It still gets 35-plus mpg on the highway, and I haven’t used up valuable resources buying a new car for 14 years now!

4) Since these weren’t mentioned, here are a few things I wonder if you do have. If not, why not? Solar energy, geothermal energy, windows that open, recycling building materials, recycled particleboard in the rooms, a green rooftop, native plantings, a bike-sharing program, kitchen composting, in the rooms and with any food services you provide.

5) Is your building certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System? If not, why not?

The answers to these questions would help consumers decide if your hotel is truly eco-conscious or just another green-wash marketing scheme.

Diane Daniel/Durham, NC, USA

 

A flight fit for a queen

July 1, 2008

Who says air travel has lost its elegance? On our 20-minute flight recently from Bodø on the mainland of northern Norway north to Svolvaer on the Lofoten archipelago, the flight attendants wore white gloves. Now isn’t that quaint, I thought.

Diane, a.k.a. Lady Di, in front of a 40-seater Widerøe airplaneWe were flying with Norwegian airline Widerøe, on a 10-row, 40-seater puddle-jumper. No one was allowed to sit in the front two rows. After everyone was on board, a group of official-looking men and women arrived. One man was wearing a secret-service type earpiece. I asked the Norwegian woman next to me who the VIPs were but she didn’t have a clue.

After the pilot made an announcement in Norwegian, she turned to me and said, “It’s Sonja, the Queen of Norway.” I thought she was pulling a naive tourist’s leg, but she assured me it was no joke. Earlier, I was told by many Norwegians that the royal family uses public transportation and likes to hobnob with the common folk.

The pilot then made an announcement in English about our late takeoff, starting with “Her majesty, ladies and gentlemen, we have a few minutes delay.” This cracked me up.

I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but not knowing how crass this would appear, I restrained myself. The passengers were acting nonchalant — until we landed. We weren’t allowed to disembark until Sonja was whisked away, so everyone watched, leaning over the aisles to peer through the little windows.

First, a guy on the ground walked up with a red carpet, which he unfurled onto the runway at the bottom of the airplane stairs. Unfortunately for him it was a very windy day and the carpet kept flapping up. Very embarrassing! Finally Sonja stepped onto it and walked a few feet next to a waiting car.

For you fashion mavens, she was wearing a proper-looking beige pantsuit with subdued scarf, overcoat and large sunglasses. Her entourage left in an Audi sedan led by police with a small motorcade following. According to our taxi driver, she was staying right there in town. “Everyone knows she is here,” he said. Apparently she visits Lofoten occasionally for hiking and the great outdoors.

In case you’re wondering, though King Harald V was not with Sonja, he did meet up with her a few days later for a tour in the far north, which was extensively covered on Norwegian television. The royals might mingle with the masses, but they also create quite a stir everywhere they go. Count me among the stirred.

By the way, on our royal-free flight back to Bodø the next week, nary a white glove was in sight.