Category Archives: Environment

China Travel Report: A Wrap-Up

Observations from my fourth visit to China since 1999.

satw-logoThe first time I went to China was to see the fabled Three Gorges of the Yangtze before the completion of the grand dam at Sandoping. The second time was to experience skiing in Heilongjiang Province, north of North Korea. The third was to see the completed dam and sail through a lock. And the fourth time was for the Society of American Travel Writers 2016 Convention. Here are some observations about the China scene:

  • In cities, more skyscrapers and residential highrises (many built on former farmland on the outskirts).  The national bird of China is the construction crane.
  • Incredible transportation infrastructure improvements. To try to help those of the country’s 1.385 billion who wish to get around do so, there are new tollroads, new bullet trains and new metros all over this sprawling country. China is working hard to provide public transportation, but those who can afford them remain enamored of their cars.
  • Whistle-clean cities, kept that way by squadrons of street cleaners — individuals with brooms. Part of the full-employment situation.
  • Still a lot of smoking, but a lot less public spitting than during my previous visits.
  • Tourist-oriented vendors moved from the entrances to major attractions (such as the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an) to the exits,
  • Serious commitment to recycling.
  • Impressive tree-planting projects in cities, as former dense low-rise neighborhoods are replaced by far taller buildings with significantly smaller footprints.
  • Creation of more and more “scenic areas” and “cultural attractions” for the benefit of both domestic and international visitors.

Woe-kiki Beach As Raw Sewage Spills into Bay

Big rains overwhelm system and foul fabled beach.

YuckFaceSomething on the order of 500,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed from manholes in Honolulu’s fabled Waikiki neighborhood yesterday  and into storm drains and eventually to the ocean. Lifeguards warned ten minutes to stay out of the water. Despite round-the-clock warnings, however, some tourists and even locals are still going into the ocean.

“City officials said the problem stemmed from heavy rains from overnight and debris that got into the city’s sewer system. Plus they said some people illegally opened manholes in their neighborhoods to alleviate flooding, sending rainwater into the sewer system,” Hawaii News Now further reports. “The city also said the problem was exacerbated because a nearby pump station was closed for construction.” The sewer system has since been patched to avoid a repeat of this potential contamination, and the ocean will cleanse Waikiki Bay. 

But as the recent release of contaminated wastewater into the Animas River in southwestern Colorado demonstrates, the after-effects of environment abuse linger in people’s memories and may affect travel plans for a long time.

Mallard Mountain Lodge Opens in B.C.’s backcountry

Small, simple and sensitively conceived and built lodge

MallardMountainLodge-snowFifteen years since the vision of a small, sustainable wilderness lodge was conceived and after a decade of planning and building, the Canadian Adventure Company opened its fly-in backcountry lodge on January 6. Located at 6,400 feet in the newly minted ‘Punch Bowl’ area of British Columbia’s western Rocky Mountains, the Mallard Mountain Lodge sits in a remote area of the Hugh Allan River Valley northeast of Mica Creek.  It offers guided excursions into the pristine backcountry, designed around ski and snowboard touring in winter and llama hiking in summer.

The Mallard Mountain Lodge offers doorstep adventure into the British Columbia backcountry.
The Mallard Mountain Lodge offers doorstep adventure into the British Columbia backcountry.

The lodge accommodates just seven guests in winter (eight in summer), has a living / dining space with a wood-burning stove on one level, semi-private sleeping quarters and showers on the second floor, with washrooms adjacent to the lodge. Every bolt and brace were flown in by helicopter, and the lodge was designed for maximum efficiency, occupying a small footprint with solar panels to generate power and incinerating toilets that produce no waste. Internet access? Of course not. Being out of reach is a bit part of the appeal of the backcountry.

The “Punch Bowl,” adjacent to the area originally named “Committee Punch Bowl” by David Thompson of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the fur trade era, is at the base of the Mallard Peaks with an area comprising five valleys: Whirlpool, Mallard, Simpson, Canoe and Iroquois, which connect to the Hugh Allan River Valley and flow into the historic Columbia River.

The Canadian Adventure Company offers winter itineraries that delve into of one of BC’s remote wilderness areas via ski and snowboard touring, with optional snowmobile assistance to access a wider area. In summer, friendly llamas carry guest packs on hiking expeditions, adding a new dimension to the trekking experience.

Three-, four- and seven-night winter and summer packages cost $1,530 CDN for 3 nights, $1,890 CDN for 4 nights and $2,200 CDN for 7 nights. For US dollars, do the math. Packages include helicopter access between Valemount and the lodge,  all meals, accommodation and guide (A.C.M.G, Canadian Ski Guide or equivalent winter, and hiking guides in summer). Future years may see the addition of snowcat skiing and snowboarding. FoMoInfo: 250-835 4516.

Visions of Venice

 “La Serenissima” never fails to captivate

VeniceCoatofArmsThis was my fourth visit to Venice — the first in too many years. It is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, and as such, attracts unbelievable crowds. Unless you go out very early, stay out very late or get off the well-traveled paths, the hordes are unbelievable. At one point, I tried to count the number of guides’ flags and furled umbrellas within my line of sight, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately and serendipitously, my husband and I arrived for a short stay in the wee hours of the morning, long before our small hotel was unlocked. We hung around the Rialto, watching a woman sell beer to teenagers through the security gate of a café. When we were able to leave our stuff at the hotel and stroll to St. Mark’s Square at daybreak. We visited some of the main attractions, including hyper-touristy Murano and Burano, but I tried hard to focus on the details — the close-up charmers that make Venice so captivating, crowds or not. Here’s a random selection of very personal images of people, places and things that caught my eye:

Streetlight near the Doges' Palace at daybreak.
Streetlight near the Doges’ Palace at daybreak.
Painter capturing the Bridge of Sighs before the touristic hordes arrive.
Painter capturing the Bridge of Sighs before the touristic hordes arrive.
Misty morning view of San Giorgio Maggiore.from across the Guidecca Canal from St/.Mark's.
Misty morning view of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed in the 16th century by Augusto Palladio. It sits on a small island across the Guidecca Canal from St. Mark’s.

 

The beautiful clock face on the well-name Torre dell'Orlogio. It shows the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon in addition to the time.
The beautiful clock face on the well-name Torre dell’Orlogio on the north side of the Piazza San Marco shows the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon in addition to the time.
Typical group scene on Piazza San Marco, which I keep referring to as St. Mark's.
Typical group scene on Piazza San Marco (aka, St. Mark’s Square). The crowds are overwhelming and the line to enter the Basilica daunting — but worth the wait.

 

Three gondoliers, waiting on a small wooden bridge for their first customers to show up.
Three gondoliers, waiting on a small wooden bridge for their first customers to show up.
One of the many small canals that lace is islands in the Venetian Lagoon.
One of the many small canals that lace is islands in the Venetian Lagoon.
A flower-bedecked arch at one of a couple of universities in the city.
A flower-bedecked arch at one of a couple of universities in the city.
Souvenir stands all over the city sell knock-offs of the Carnivale masks that make this pre-Lenten festival one of the world's most dramatic.
Souvenir stands all over the city sell knock-offs of the Carnivale masks that make this pre-Lenten festival one of the world’s most dramatic.
As the glass-maker's island in the Lagoon, Murano is dotted with glass street art. this fanciful sculpture is not far from Il Faro, the island's landmark lighthouse.
As the glass-maker’s island in the Lagoon, Murano is dotted with glass street art. This fanciful flower sculpture is not far from Il Faro, the island’s landmark lighthouse. There resemblances to the work of American art glass meister Dale Chihuly, who in fact created a “Venetian Series” to honor the commonality.

 

Murano's ancient (started in the 12th century) Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato is known for its elegant colonnade and beautiful mosaic floor.
Murano’s Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, begun in the 12th century, is known for its elegant colonnade and beautiful mosaic floor.

 

The island of Burano is know for lace -making and for brightly painted buildings.
The island of Burano is know for lace -making and for brightly painted buildings.
Lovely architectural details like this Moorish-influenced window are all over Venice.
Lovely architectural details like this Moorish-influenced window are all over Venice.
One of many palazzo along the Grand Canal.
One of many palazzi along the Grand Canal.
Venice clings to its past but is also very much engaged in present events. This palazzo hosts cultural exhibitions.
Venice clings to its past but is also very much engaged in present events. This palazzo hosts cultural exhibitions.

 

The Rialto in the wee hours of the morning. This iconic stone bridge was completed in 1591, replacing earlier wooden bridges. It was the only bridge across the Grand Canal until 1854. Centuries of gondolier job security, when these craft were true transportation -- not a tourist attraction.
The Rialto in the wee hours of the morning. This iconic stone bridge was completed in 1591, replacing earlier wooden bridges. It was the only bridge across the Grand Canal until 1854. Centuries of gondolier job security, when these craft were true transportation — not a tourist attraction.
Late autumn and early winter rains and high tides cause flooding in the Lagoon almost every year. Add to that rising sea levels and cruise ships sailing right up to Venice's doorstep, and you have a highly threatened city. In addition to world water engineers trying to keep the Lagoon waters at bay, New York-based Save Venice Inc. supports stabilization and restoration projects.
Late autumn and early winter rains and high tides cause flooding in the Lagoon almost every year. Add to that rising sea levels and cruise ships sailing right up to Venice’s doorstep, and you have a highly threatened city. In addition to world water engineers trying to keep the Lagoon waters at bay, New York-based Save Venice Inc. supports stabilization and restoration projects in this magnificent city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Authorities Poised to Ban Cruise Ships from Grand Canal

One tourist death & one near-miss will hopefully change laws

"La Divina," a 4,500-passemger behemoth named in honor of Sophia Loren, is the largest ship to call on Venice. The No Big Ships in Venice Committee calls her "the menace to Venice."
“La Divina,” a 4,500-passemger behemoth named in honor of Sophia Loren, is the largest ship to call on Venice. The No Big Ships in Venice Committee calls her “the menace to Venice.”

Four of us, celebrating two landmark anniversaries, are heading for Italy at the end of this month (my husband’s and my 20th and our brother- and sister-in-law’s 25th). Our first stop will be Venice. A lifetime ago, I visited La Serena three times — once each in fall, winter and spring, so never in summer’s peak tourist season and before the cruise industry explosion. These ever-larger floating sea monsters destroying Venice’s tranquility and ancient foundations might finally be banned from the Lagoon following two recent headline-making incidents. As eTN Global Travel Industry reported:

“The eyesore of cruise ships on Venice’s famous skyline could soon become ancient history, as the behemoths are set to be banned from the city’s waterways. The new proposals by Italy’s Environment Minister follow a crackdown on water traffic, after the death of a German tourist two weeks ago.

“Joachim Vogel, 50, a professor of criminal law, was crushed against a dock by a reversing vaporetto water bus as he took a tour with his family by gondola near the Rialto Bridge. The tragic accident has prompted authorities to bring in a series of new safety regulations including ‘a floating congestion zone’ on the Grand Canal to ease the chaotic rush hour waterway traffic. . . Venice’s proud residents have long been up in arms about the presence of large cruise ships passing through the lagoon, with a flotilla of protesters taking to the waters in June. Lobbyists argue that the huge ships, sometimes ten storeys high, erode the canals and the city’s fragile foundations, contribute to the worsening flooding that occurs every winter and damage the delicate eco-systems of the lagoon. The cruise companies pay huge port fees for the privilege, but their passengers frequently eat and sleep on board and contribute little direct revenue to restaurants and hotels.”

Back in July, according to the UK’s Daily Mail Online, another incident was a close call (a near-miss, in airline lingo) of a cruise ship coming perilously close to the shore to show off for a mega-yacht owned by a VIP:

Venetians have reacted with fury after a cruise ship allegedly passed within yards of the city’s historic banks while performing ‘a salute’ to a major company shareholder. Film footage of the [110,000-ton] “Carnival Sunshine,” which is owned by the same parent company as the notorious “Costa Concordia,” appears to show the 110,000-ton liner passing within 20 metres of the city’s fragile shoreline. The ship botched its manoeuvre, squeezing a vaporetto water taxi and other boats between the ship and the bank, witnesses claimed….

“At the time of the incident an 150ft super yacht belonging to former Carnival CEO and major shareholder Mickey Arison was moored on the same part of the shoreline, the local newspaper Nuova Venezia reported, fuelling rumours that the manoeuvre was an in fact a sail-by salute. The incident raises the spectre of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, which sank after hitting rocks off the coast of Tuscany during just such a salute to the island of Giglio last year.”

The cost of refloating the paralyzed “Concordia” (hopefully) without harming the Mediterranean’s largest marine sanctuary, is approaching $1 billion — more than a year and a half after s hot-dogging captain brought her too close to the rocky shore. The accident cost 30 lives, but the cruise line seems not to have learned much from the tragedy. It seems, though, that the government has. The Italian Environment Minister, Andrea Orlando, said he would present proposals for reigning in the cruise industry before a cross-party committee of Parliament in October. He told the paper Il Gazettino that the proposals would implement the emergency legislation drafted after the “Concordia” tragedy, prohibiting ships of more than 500 tons from coming within two nautical miles of “landscapes of value such as the Venice lagoon or fragile environments such as the marine sanctuary between Sardinia and north-east Italy.”

I’m waiting to hear what, if anything, the Italian Parliament does to prevent future incidents and to restore La Serena’s serenity. It won’t be in time for our visit, but others will benefit to restrictive new legislation.

3D Film Features Monarch Butterflies’ Mighty Migration

3D film captures this awesome journey plus tour operators that enable visitors to see it

MonarchButterflyI recently attended a screening of “Flight of the Butterflies,” a captivating IMAX 3D film, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science at the invitation of the Mexico Tourism Board. Other than a little anthropomorphism (giving a name to one particular monarch butterfly out of the millions  millions photographed) and an audience-pleasing dramatization of researchers’ efforts to discover where the monarchs’ annual migration route led, this film is a dazzling documentary that follows the life cycle including the 2,500-mile migration undertaken by four generations of these beautiful insects .

The monarchs who live east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in the 200-square-mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to hibernate in dense clusters hanging from oyamel fir trees. In spring, they migrate north through Texas where they lay their eggs on milkweed leaves and finally to the northern United States and Canada in the warm months. The 2,500-mile migration of these fragile insects is the longest of any insect in the world. The film captures each of four-generation life cycle, which is also explained on an illuminating monarch butterfly website. (Monarchs west of the Rockes overwinter in California’s eucalyptus forests, in case you’re wondering.)

MonarchButterfliesSwarming.jpp

Recently, there have been reports that this winter’s population in Mexico had dropped precipitously from just last year. “Mexico monarch butterfly population smallest in years, study says,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The amount of land occupied by the migrating creatures shrank 59% from a year ago, scientists say. The decline could hurt tourism and the ecosystem.” I have to add: To say nothing of hurt to the butterfly hordes themselves, which suffer due to weather incidents and expanding human populations and with that, loss of habitat and disappearance of critical host plants. The most recent major decline in 2010 was attributed to severe storms. Unless monarch butterflies are close to being eradicated, recovery can be rapid — in theory anyway — because females all lay several hundred eggs. Conservation efforts therefore are concentrated on milkweed that the monarchs need.

MonarchButterflyReserveNeverthess, the World Wildlife Fund, which knows a lot more than I do, has declared the monarchs an endangered species. The organization recommends two particular week-long tours whose highlight is butterfly viewing: The Kingdom of the Monarchs (“Witness the amazing migration of 300 million butterflies. Itinerary highlights Angangueo, Valle de Bravo and Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. 6-day tours) and Monarch Butterfly Photography Adventure (“Capture photos of one of the world’s most remarkable natural phenomena. Itinerary highlights Angangueo, Valle de Bravo and Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. 7-day tours”). Other tour operators that do or did offer monarch tours include Interlude Tours, Mexperiennce, Mich Mex Guides and Top Travel, Monarch migration season is about over for this year, but try to catch the film in Denver of elsewhere and think about it for next year. S&S Tours already as an escorted, small-group trip scheduled for 2014.

I’m ready!

Grenada’s New Underwater Sculpture Park

Art now. Artifical reef in the future. A long-view vision

Vicissitudes back in Grenada's Underwater Sculpture Park. Grenada/Grenadaines image.
Vicissitudes back in Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park. Grenada/Grenadaines image.

In the Molinere Bay Marine Protected Area’s shallow water just offshore at St. George’s, Grenada’s quaint capital, the noteworthy Underwater Sculpture Park combines art and a  marine habitat as an example of creativity as well as sustainable tourism. Said to be the world’s first of its kind,  British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor designed it to act as an artificial reef as fish, soft coral and later hard coral began colonizing the installation.

“As artificial reefs, the 105 sculptures are proving to be highly successful in attracting a stunning array of varied marine life and are easing the environmental pressure on other reefs in the area,” commented Howard Clarke, chairman of Grenada Underwater Sculpture Management, Inc (GUSMI). “Creating artificial reefs is not uncommon, but using Taylor’s pieces of artwork is a unique way of helping out nature. It has opened up a new world of possibility for the diving and snorkeling industry,” concluded Clarke.

Molinere Bay was originally damaged by a storm surge, and the sculptures installed there assist in the regeneration of the area by providing new surfaces for coral to grow and a habitat for marine animals to live. Many of the statues have prolific coral life growing on them and are attracting diverse species of reef fish, turtles and more.

The latest addition to the park is a new 28-piece sculpture called “Vicissitudes” that was unveiled below the water’s surface in late November 2012. Better known locally as the “Circle of Children,” the new artwork replaced the original Vicissitudes, a collection of figures from diverse ethnic backgrounds holding hands, that were damaged by a storm surge. Vicissitudes, which means “a natural change or mutation visible in nature or in human affairs,” is one of the largest projects launched in the development of the park. Over time, the new statues will become part of the underwater marine environment and coral, soft sponges and filter-feeding marine life will soon start to inhabit them.  Locally operated boats offer snorkeling and/or diving tours to Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park.

Most Ethical Destinations Cited

 Best practices + superb scenic and cultural attractions = ethical travel destinations

EthicalTraveler-logoEthical Traveler’s annual survey of the world’s most ethical tourism destinations highlights 10 countries  in the developing world that have all demonstrated a clear and continuing commitment to environmental protection, human rights and social welfare. They are places you can visit with a clear conscience that you are supporting destinations that exhibit best practices and also offer great scenery and cultural attractions. This year’s 2013 top ethical destinations, in alphabetical order, are Barbados, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Ghana, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau, Samoa and Uruguay. 

“This year’s winners are doing a great job showing the world that you can have a successful tourism industry along with sustainability and social justice,” said Ethical Traveler Executive Director Jeff Greenwald. “With the number of international arrivals expected to top the 1 billion mark in 2013, travelers have more power than ever. Every dollar we spend is a statement about which countries and governments we choose to support. By visiting the countries on our list, savvy travelers can have great vacations and promote the values we all share.”

Ethical Traveler used publicly available data to evaluate destinations on a broad spectrum of criteria including ecosystem support, natural and cultural attractions, political rights, press freedom, women’s equality, commitment to LGBT rights, and— the survey’s newest indicator— terrestrial and marine area protection.

Among the three examples of best practices: “Ghana maintains a high degree of freedom of the press, has a stable democracy which just re-elected a pro-environment President; about 15 percent of its territory is environmentally protected in some form. Latvia is well-rated for human rights and press freedom; it was also the most-improved country on the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) Environmental Performance Index (EPI). In Uruguay, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and women’s rights are among the best in the region.”

This year’s report also includes a section recognizing “Destinations of Interest” for the coming year.  While not part of the 10 Best Ethical Destinations, Ethical Traveler encourages potential tourists to peer behind the “media curtain” and explore controversial countries like Burma, Cuba and Namibia that are in the midst of dramatic social changes.”

WOW!-Worthy Supercomputer Center Opens in Cheyenne

NCAR’s new facility includes visitor center

Photo: Carlye Calvin (courtesy UCAR)

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is located in a 20th century Boulder landmark designed by I.M. Pei, but when it came to finding a place for a new supercomputer, Wyoming was selected. The Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) is a $70 million facility built to house one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. It is used for scientific research and provides advanced computing services to scientists across the nation in a broad range of disciplines, including weather; climate; oceanography; air pollution; space weather; computational science; energy productions, and carbon sequestration, and the visitor center is for informing and exciting the public. Quite a cultural contrast to Cheyenne Frontier Days and all of Wyoming’s Western icons. Remember, a cowboy on a bucking bronco graces the state’s license plate.

Another kind of petaflop.

Cheyenne, the capital of an independent-mind state whose residents are not enthusiastic about government involvement in what they can do with their land and water, is a curiously inspired location for winning locals’ minds and hearts about environmental stewardship, How super is the supercomputer? I never heard of a “petaflop” before, but I understand that this monster is a 1.5 petaflop supercomputer; one petaflop equals one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) computer operations per second. And did I mention there’s a visitor center? As home to a public visitor center with experiences aimed at K-5 through high school and the general public, this educational hub can engage the public and explain the center’s science mission. NWSC is primed for school field trips. And if they need a mascot (especially for kids), I suggest they consider a floppy-eared dog.

There are educational interactive displays covering topics like extreme weather science, supercomputing, wildfires, energy, water resources and their impact on society. A simulated mini-tornado and various short videos depicting everything from wind to wildfire simulations will make the science come alive.  Visitors to Cheyenne are invited to take self-guided tours 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.  North Range Business Park at 8120 Veta Drive, Cheyenne;  307-996-4321.

Point Reyes National Seashore at 50

Protected seashore north of San Francisco a treasure worth honoring

Until I moved to Colorado, I never lived more than three miles from saltwater. My love for mountains is beyond measure, but when I am on a coast, I want to get as much upclose saltwater contact as I can. In fact, it was in Colorado that I embarked on my scuba certification so that I could immerse myself in saltwater when the opportunity arose.

The Point Reyes National Seashore celebrates its 50th anniversary as a protected unit of the National Park Service on September 13. President John F. Kennedy, who loved and respected the sea, also sign the order creating the Cape Cod National Seashore on  the other side of the country. The Point Reyes National Seashore Association calls Point Reyes “our iconic American park that almost did not happen,” and continues to explain, “In the 1960’s the Point Reyes peninsula was slated for development into a city of 150,000 people with Limantour Beach’s wild beauty becoming a private golf course and the pristine coastline bulldozed to make way for water view condominiums. . . .A small group of visionaries worked against great odds to protect the remarkable place and park we enjoy today.”

Isn’t that a story we’ve heard over and over, with pristine seacoasts, precious but timber-rich forestlands, Civil Ware battlefields and free-flowing rivers threatened time after time? Every victory over proposals to mine, to drill, to dam and to develop irreplaceable landscapes and eco-systems is a victory for the country and the planet. At Point Reyes,  small group of visionaries worked against great odds to protect the remarkable place and park we enjoy today — and when I visit friends who live in Marin County, we often visit the national seashore, I just didn’t until now that I had the PRNSA to thank for this accomplishment, that had been deemed “virtually impossible.”

One of the Point Reyes National Seashore’s myriad landscapes. (Photo: US Geological Survey)

The national seashore is a tapestry of sandy beaches, commanding cliffs, dramatic headlands, crashing surf, tidal pools, saltwater marshes and home to 1,500 species of plants. birds, mammals and sea critters — as well as a long history of human habitation that stopped for short of a city of 150,000 people. There is, and will remain, a landmark lighthouse. Earlier this year, another landmark occurred with the direction to close the seashore to commercial oystering operations and wind down ranching in the national park in order to return the land to wilderness status. What a suitable way to acknowledge the anniversary.