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Norway’s Good Nature.

Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Still high off his recent trip to Norway, guest blogger Evan Byrd would gladly travel back
to one of the happiest places on the planet!

Reeling, I sit with my airplane seat back up and tray table locked, absorbing swelling forest green hills gutted by long rivers passing through on all sides. I’m arriving in Oslo, Norway on an $800 roundtrip ticket from Newark that I had booked 5 months out. The airport is small in comparison to most but surprisingly inviting. It only takes a short while to figure out the many affordable transit options leading directly to city center.

Oslo is impeccably travel-efficient, offering various tram/bus/subway/ferry routes that rival the convenience of New York City’s subway lines. “Day” or “Multi-Day” passes provide access to all three of the aforementioned modes of transportation (save ferry, which is separate). Depending on your zeal for tourism, the Oslo pass is actually a good idea, as it allows for an all-day pass to popular tourist attractions & transportation.  Although don’t get caught without a card by one of the “tram ticket ferries,” because if I wasn’t such a good “stupid American” I would probably have gotten a ticket. Thankfully, 99% of the time, Norwegians speak English and are excited to practice with you. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!

For anyone travelling on a budget, Thon Hotel properties are affordable and have an absolutely delicious buffet style breakfast, with fresh fruit, warm pastries, omelets, salmon, and lots of other good stuff. Complimentary for guests, it alleviates the pain of having to remember to budget in your breakfast in a city that truly makes New York City look like a dollar store. My friend Ulrik once said, “Norwegians don’t care about paying high taxes but to the rest of the world we look like the Norwegian mafia!” And it’s not only my blood that the city’s too rich for, most locals I spoke with shared their preference for cooking at home and finding their own free activities (hiking being #1, which they do relentlessly).

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. Photo credit: Evan Byrd.

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Because of their accommodating transportation system, it is possible to be an efficient turbo tourist in Oslo. Many of the stops correspond to the actual attractions. For instance:

  • Vigelandsparken (Vigeland Sculpture Park): An absolute must for art enthusiasts, bicyclists, and lazy bodies looking to picnic for the day. The sculptures are serene and the park is symmetrically appealing and clean.
  • Nationaltheatretr: Near the Royal Palace and the Theatre. Also a more commercial area east of the theatre where the American footprint is clearly visible. Steer clear of the food options, ain’t nobody trying to eat at TGIFridays in Oslo!
  • Bygdøynes Bus Stop: Takes you directly to the more rural and affluent Bygdøy Peninsula on the #30 bus. History buffs will enjoy the Kon Tiki museum and learning about the original discovery of Easter Island!
  • Operagata Tram Stop: If not just to walk up the side wall of the Opera House, it’s an architectural masterpiece worth seeing the sunset from.
Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Now, I’m not one to be constrained to a city for all of my fun, nor should you given the expansive countryside Norway boasts to the west. The National State Railways offer daily rail trips for affordable rates. After Oslo, I visited my friend Ulrik and his family in Molde (mole-dee), a small town on the Western coast. The NSB took me to a town called Åndalsnes (6 hours from Oslo) and Ulrik scooped me up from the station. An hour and a half, two ferry rides, a couple of marshmallow treats, and several wondrous vistas later, we reached his home.

The Rauma Railway is the chosen route when traveling to this part of the country and it’s a spectacular ride. Norway has made a conscious effort to intertwine its railway system through, over, and alongside the mountain ranges. If you don’t have time to head into the heartland, at the very least travel to Åndalsnes located at the crossroads of the many impressive vantage points in Norway. Fjords are more prevalent here and reality quickly takes a back seat to the fruits of Mother Nature’s long and patient assemblage of Norway’s outstanding terrain.

For example, a fjord (fee-yord) is a mountain pass and bears the markings of steep stone walls and crystal turquoise water. The fjords are a result of melted glaciers which have carved the valleys of the fjords and then replaced the rivers with salt water from the Atlantic. Around Åndalsnes, with the help of a rental car or tour group, you can travel to:

  • Trollstigen (Trolls Road): Impossibly engineered mountainside road curving its way like a snake nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The view from the top is staggering.
  • Trollveggen (Troll Wall): Another crowd pleaser and the tallest vertical rock face in Europe (3,600 feet). It’s dark, mysterious, and imposing mountain face looms over you as you peer up from a nearby vantage point on the lawn.
  • Geirangerfjord, Eagle Road, & Flydalsjuvet: Geirangerfjord is a stunning fjord. The famous Seven Sisters waterfall is easily seen from the precipice of the Eagle Road or more commonly known, Ørnevegen, within the Geirangerfjord. Flydalsjuvet can be reached by travelling down the Eagle Road and up again past the hotel area where onlookers can actually step out, if they dare, onto a very picturesque yet precarious overhang (I was brave!)
Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird's eye view.  (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird’s-eye view. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Prepare yourself for hardy fare in Norway. It’s basically a comfort food menu and there’s nothing wrong with that! Try Kjøttkaker if you have an opportunity (with peas, which I was told is crucial by my Norwegian hosts). They’re Norway’s version of meatballs and compare similarly to Sweden’s famous creations. Be sure to hike plenty to work some of it off!

The food, culture, people, scenery, and experience all serve to envelope your mind, breath, and taste to the point of disbelief. I found myself asking Norwegians, “How in the name of Norsk Gods and Goddesses is your countryside even possible?”

So deserving is Norway for all travelers to indulge in a country rich in wildlife, meals cooked in traditional styles, monuments of international praise (Nobel Peace Center & Kon Tiki Museum), and a unified population serving each other before themselves. Ulrik once said, “We don’t think about paying taxes, we just do, it’s for the greater good.”

The happiest cities on the planet are said to be in Scandinavia where you can be greeted by an excited, “Hi, Hi!” or an afternoon invitation to scale a sizeable mountain. Hence, lending to the Norwegian’s good nature; a sense of belonging resonates within you.

With its tremendous surroundings, gushing ice-cold waterfalls, ancient stones lifted to insurmountable height, or just good company, you may keep your faculties wandering within forest green memories long after Norway fades behind jet black streams.

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Expert Travel Agents Know The Best of Both Worlds.

5-tips-to-help-you-successfully-book-travel-online-21285249

For a good time…call a Travel Agent!

That’s what it reads on a string backpack I carry every now and then. I often forget about it until someone stops me to ask if I’m a travel agent or if travel agents still exist.

Yes, thankfully, travel agents still exist. They’re also sometimes referred to as travel counselors. But no matter what you call them, they are there not only to help you plan a good time—a good agent has your back, as well.

As wonderful as online shopping has made our world, lately I’ve run into a lot of people who are completely overwhelmed by it. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, the time-suck that you can get dragged into by shopping for something as simple as a sweater often takes you on a never-ending journey when it comes to planning a trip online. And with consumers wanting more memorable experiences, leaving that solely to the online distribution channel is pretty risky.

Yes, the Internet is a wonderful thing but at some point you just need to have a conversation. You need the human touch. Human touch brings inspiration and creativity. That creativity comes from listening to your customer and asking the right questions.

Last month I attended The New York Times Travel Show in NYC and sat in on a panel discussion between industry experts called Forecasting the Future of Travel – Where Will We Be in the Next 10 Years. Much of the focus was on the power of technology in relation to travel agents. The question of whether all these travel technology options would at some point make agents obsolete hung in the air, so it was refreshing to hear panelists Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel correspondent, Arabella Bowen, editor in chief, Fodor’s Travel, David Pavelko, director, Google Travel, Google Inc, and Wendy Perrin, travel advocate, TripAdvisor, rally around the value of the travel agent. While they all made nods to technology, the consensus was that technology doesn’t provide service.

There was a bit of myth-busting too. We hear terms thrown around all the time about what the data is showing. “Big data solves a lot [of problems], but it doesn’t solve the surprise and delight of discovery,” said Arabella Bowen, editor-in-chief of Fodor’s Travel. “There’s no way to get an experience like that except with a travel agent.” Their bottom line was technology can’t replace travel agents.

As technology continues to innovate, travel agents will need to adapt to those innovations and use them to better service their customers. Expert travel agents know how to navigate the online and offline world. They use the best of both worlds to their advantage, combining their knowledge and expertise to provide you with the best possible service.

Finding an agent who specializes in a specific destination or certain type of travel provides more customization around your journey, making for a more targeted experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t still go off and do your own thing. It just means that they’ve done the groundwork for you to get your trip off on the right foot. They are also your go to person should anything go wrong, a human touch. Something the Internet certainly can’t replicate.

If you’ve never used a travel agent and are interested in working with one, T+L’s A-List Travel Agents is a good place to start. It’ll give you an idea of why it just might be worth your while to get a relationship going with a good one.

So, yeah, for a good time—call a travel agent.

Friendly Skies My @ss!

Photo credit: B. Snyder.

Photo credit: B. Snyder.

PortsAreCalling approaches writing about travel from multiple perspectives and this week’s post comes to us courtesy of Joseph Mosomillo. A frequent traveler, below are his observations on a recent flight experience.

Corporate greed and the separation of classes could not be represented any better than when traveling by air today. The bottom line is clear—you get what you paid a lot for to begin with.

It starts the minute you enter the airport.

The lines are longer for economy because of cutbacks and, possibly, there are less qualified people at the service counters. The premium class counters are brighter. The people who serve you are more attentive, and your baggage is not scrutinized because it may be a few pounds over the limit.

As a coach passenger you’re offered numerous up-charges, just to make you feel like those fortunate enough to pay for premium class. It starts with priority boarding, this eliminates the anxiety of not getting your carry-on stored above you or somewhere on the aircraft without being forced to check it because they have run out of room. Then there’s the additional leg room so you can stretch out three more inches, it usually runs about $25 an inch.

Then there’s the baggage.

Last year the airlines made two billion dollars in additional baggage fees. Two billion! Still not enough to give us that small bag of peanuts. Peanuts to them but not peanuts for us.

They also offer you the option of buying more miles at the time of check-in so you can possibly upgrade in the future, just in case someone is asleep at reservations and doesn’t sell that same ticket for hundreds or even thousands more. Imagine you’re sitting in first class on an upgrade and some schmuck paid thousands more for the luxury of free food and extra room. Hey, more power to you if you can afford the ticket.

That brings me to the whole food thing. Here I am sitting about three feet away from first class with that imaginary wall made of cheap polyester fabric separating me from a reheated meal. Instead, they offer me a beverage along with a list of prepackaged garbage food to purchase, while I’m watching trays of food being served through that polyester curtain. Boy do I feel like a second-class citizen for that moment, or that hungry kid saying, “please sir, could I have some more?” I think the worst part is the ice cream sundaes.

I don’t think the Wright brothers had this in mind. Their ideals were meant for the world to experience the invention of flight, to soar above the clouds, look down at the beauty from above, and feel free. It was a way to get people from point A to point B, to connect people to different places and faces, and share different parts of the world. Flight would be a thing of beauty and convenience, it sure seemed to start out that way.

Boy, did we overshoot the runway. How can such a beautiful thing have turned so ugly?

El Capitan’s Dawn Wall Climbers Set The Bar High in 2015.

Ben Margot/AP

Photo credit: Ben Margot/AP

In a new year that’s already delivered some real lows, two men have given us an ultimate high and something to cheer about.

Free climbers Tommy Caldwell, 36, and Kevin Jorgeson, 30, made history yesterday by clawing their way to the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in California’s Yosemite National Park in a single expedition. Using rock holds for their hands and feet–just their hands and feet–and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, they accomplished something that’s never been done. Known as the world’s hardest rock climb, they free-climbed the sheer vertical 3,000ft ascent in 19 days. Their only accessories—rope to stop their falls and sleeping tents suspended from the great rock face.

Desire may see possibility everywhere but not without commitment.

Their quest began on December 27 but it took years of planning and practice. One of the beautiful things about their achievement was the help of friends who ascended 1,200 feet every few days to help replenish supplies that helped them to achieve their goal. Bagels and whiskey helped sustain them, and the positive vibrations pouring forth from the friends, family, and onlookers at the feet of El Capitan and via a live-feed certainly helped. For a lot more details on this incredible climb check out NPR’s Free Climbers Make It To The Summit of El Capitan.

For anyone who likes beginning a new year with a challenge, Caldwell and Jorgeson have certainly provided some great inspiration. We may not all be up for something along the likes of El Capitan, but chances are you’ve got your own personal summit that you’re trying to reach. Whether it’s traveling someplace new or traveling out of your own comfort zone.

Where will you go in 2015 and what will you do? These two guys have set the bar damn high!

Grab a Seat

The closest I’m getting to Vietnam right now is Nightingale 9, a great restaurant in Cobble hill, Brooklyn, but for any foodies out there, here’s an incentive to get a closer seat at the table.

The Squeaky Robot

For the budget-conscious person in Hanoi, there are no better alternatives to eating than traditional Vietnamese dishes found on every sidewalk, corner and alleyway. One needn’t look far. The food here is delicious, cheap and fun, as it requires a level of proactivity and interactivity that is unfamiliar to many cuisines worldwide. I say proactivity because the best places in Hanoi only serve one thing, and they only serve that one thing for a short window in the day. My favorite bun cha place is open for three hours a day at most, even less if they run out of food. So you must plan and run. Once you plop down on a dubious plastic cube, the interaction begins. Fix your plate with whatever options are available: limes, chili sauce, garlic vinegar, pepper. Mix whole chilies into your fish sauce – let it rest! The chilies must permeate everything. Many…

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The Positive Revolution of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

slras_Photoby_zach_smith_3Music can heal the trauma of man.
Jahson Gbassay Bull

Travel is wonderful but at some point you’ve got to go home.

Unless, that is, you can’t.

That is the fate of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

If you’re not familiar with them, Sierra Leon’s Refugee All Stars are a band that was formed in the refugee camps of West Africa. Originally from Freetown, they, along with millions of others, were forced to flee their homes in the 1990s during a civil war in Sierra Leone that lasted a decade. In a crazy, shook up world, their story is incredible.

Born out of a situation you’d never hope to be in, instead of staying mired in hardship, these guys mined the power of connections and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Music became their weapon, and from the dirt camps of Guinea they led a positive revolution. From international music festivals, to intimate venues, their uplifting sound and rousing energy inspires people around the planet.

Beloved for their joy and spirit, for the past year Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have been celebrating their 10-year anniversary and the release of Libation, their fourth album, with a tour throughout Europe and the United States. It ended earlier this summer.

But once again, they can’t go home. They are cut off from their friends and families.

With Sierra Leone being one of the West African nations hit hardest by Ebola, recent reports list that more than 20 people a day are dying in that country from the virus. The limited amount of health care workers and hospital facilities make it impossible for everyone infected to get treatment, and all areas of the country have been impacted.

As the band takes shelter in the U.S., I was lucky enough to meet them when I booked them for an event in New York City. A gentle group, their feel-good sound immediately permeates a room, and it’s all peace, love, understanding, and connecting. They bring a sense of place with them, and for a little while it was Sierra Leone. With a bit of funk, a bit of reggae, and lot of West African soul, if you can’t chill to that, then you can’t chill.

I suspect that most of us don’t know what it’s like to live like a refugee but it can’t feel all that good. And while the U.S. isn’t the worse place in the world to be holed up, when a place isn’t your home, it isn’t your home. So they’re doing what they can by taking a bad situation and using it as an opportunity to raise money and awareness to help the people of Sierra Leone fight Ebola. As ambassadors for world peace, and with music as their arsenal, they continue to create goodness in an even crazier, shook up world.

The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars are a generous group of men, so I’d like to use this opportunity to be an ambassador for them. With the holiday season upon us, I know there are plenty of parties being planned right now that are going to need music.  Not only will you have an internationally acclaimed band at your event that’ll get people on their feet, but you’ll also be helping them in their campaign to raise awareness. They can travel anywhere for a gig, except back home.

Unless you work for a humanitarian organization and volunteering to go in, travelers aren’t going to Sierra Leone. As the western world does the freak about the few Ebola cases that have touched their shores, the best thing we can do to stop its spread is to help eradicate this virus in the countries where it’s become an epidemic.  This is a collective endeavor.

So spread the word and spread good will. None of us may be traveling to Sierra Leone anytime soon but that doesn’t mean some of the best things about Sierra Leone can’t come to you.

Want to learn more? Click here for details on booking Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

A Cemetery in Marbella: A Photo Essay

Some folks get creeped out by the thought of a cemetery. Not me. Raised across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the most famous in the US, as a kid I would slip through the bars on a wintry day and make snow angels among the beautiful tombstones. In summer, it’s still magic watching millions of fireflies dance the night away. Here’s a nice photo essay from The Daily Norm whose cemetery visits inspire travel.

The Daily Norm

There’s something inherently beautiful about a cemetery. It’s not just the peace and quiet, which is of course an inevitable feature of every cemetery or graveyard, but the tangible demonstration of human emotion shown by the care taken by those living for the memories of their beloved dead. This can be seen through the wording of a grave, through the flowers carefully laid alongside it, and through the regular cleaning of the stone with as much care as would be taken for a feature of a living household. There is also something innately civilised about caring for the dead and paying homage to the past, not least because it can make us more appreciative of our life and the lives of others still around us.

While I do like an English graveyard, headstones tilting in all directions and covered in moss and decay, my favourite type of cemetery is a…

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