Dave Seminara is a journalist and former diplomat based in Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, Outside, ESPN, and a wide variety of other publications and sites. Twitter- @DaveSem website: www.daveseminara.com
Walking near London's 16th-century St. John's Gate in the city's East End, I was looking for an old pub called the Jerusalem Tavern early on a misty Saturday night when a young woman in a skin-tight miniskirt approached me with a question. I was about to apologize and say, "I'm not from around here," when she pointed to her friend, who was wearing a dress with deep slits practically up to her waist on both sides, and said in a distinctive Cockney accent, "What do you suppose she'd be good for?"
She extended her right thumb and said, "I think a snog," released the index finger while saying, "a wife," and then flipped down the third, suggesting a possibility that rhymes with truck. I had just arrived in town after a sleepless night spent on a plane, followed by a layover in Germany and another flight west to London necessitated by the vicissitudes of using miles for reward travel, and I could barely process their accents or what was being asked. As I gave them a confused look, she repeated the question as her friend turned and looked away, horrified.
Air travel can be a tribulation anywhere but traveling through the world's mega-airports is never high on my list of fun things to do. Last week, I spent some time at Heathrow (in London) and at Frankfurt International airport - two of the world's dozen busiest, and some would say best-avoided, airports. These temples of transit require travelers to demonstrate the patience of Job, the endurance of an ultra-marathon runner and a good sense of humor to roll with the inevitable hassles. But which airport is best avoided if you are transiting through Europe and have options - Heathrow or Frankfurt Airport?
I lived in the Balkans for a spell several years ago when I was in the Foreign Service, and the government would frequently route us through Frankfurt, which was rated the 11th busiest airport in the world last year, with just over 57 million passengers transiting it in 2012. Our usual rule of thumb was that if the layover time was less than two hours, we knew the chances of making the onward flight was about 50-50 if it was in the 60- to 90-minute range. Less than an hour? No chance, particularly if you checked bags and hoped to see them again.
Whenever I need a little escape but can't get out of town, I fire up an episode or two of "Globe Trekker" so I can live vicariously through the adventures of travelers like Megan McCormick. Since she started hosting the show in 1997, she's taken viewers to the Greek Islands, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Micronesia, India, the Silk Road and a host of other exotic locales.
"Globe Trekker," shown in the U.S. on PBS, is my favorite travel show because it focuses on real travelers experiencing slices of local cultures, not sightseeing. McCormick is my kind of traveler. Her enthusiasm for the places she visits is infectious and you can't help but conclude that she'd be a fun person to travel with. She got the travel bug in college and has found a way to make a living out of her wanderlust.
We were locked out of the humble home where country music legend Loretta Lynn grew up and were about to leave Butcher Hollow when someone pulled up in silver Chevy Silverado pickup truck. A trim man with neatly parted gray hair wearing a pair of jeans and a red-checked shirt stepped out of the truck and introduced himself.
"I'm Herman Webb," he said, shaking my hand.
It took me a minute to realize that this was the brother of country music stars Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale. But how did he know that we wanted to tour the home they grew up in?
"You were just down at the grocery shop," he explained, sensing my confusion. "They called and said there was someone here to see the house. I live just 500 feet down the road there, so here I am."
Just weeks before Pat Farmer was scheduled to depart for a 20,919-kilometer run from the North to the South Pole, his major sponsor pulled out and he was faced with a choice: give up his dream to be the first man to run Pole-to-Pole or sell everything he owned to finance the expedition. Farmer, a 51-year-old Aussie who jokes he's been having mid-life crises since he ran his first ultra-marathon at age 18, decided to sell almost everything he owned – his house, his furniture, and most of his worldly possessions – in order to take a shot at his dream.
And then he ran. Farmer completed his Pole-to-Pole run in 10 months, averaging about 40 kilometers per day or 46 marathons a month, running through blistering heat, freezing cold and the impenetrable Darien Jungle. Along the way, he raised A$100,000 for Red Cross International. Now back in Australia a year after completing the run, Farmer is trying to get back on his feet financially, but says he has no regrets.
You don't have to leave the Midwest to catch a glimpse of the Roman Coliseum, the White House, the Kalahari Desert and the fabled windmills of Mykonos. Nope, all you have to do is take a road trip to the Wisconsin Dells, one of America's delightfully tacky resort towns, where you can travel the world without venturing very far off the Wisconsin Dells Parkway.
I've lived in Chicago for years but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the Dells, the region's quintessential summer weekend getaway place for families, until I finally experienced the place in all its tawdry glory while on a camping trip at nearby Mirror Lake State Park. Sophisticated city types mock places like the Dells, which is chock-a-block with mini-golf, wax museums, water parks and every conceivable type of tourist trap imaginable. But I have a soft spot for tourist traps. You could even call it a morbid fascination.
It was a rainy Monday, just after 7 a.m., when I pulled into the parking lot at Keeneland, one of the nation's most venerable thoroughbred racetracks. I had read that watching the horses morning workout was one of the best free things to do in Lexington, Kentucky, but on a dreary, wet day, I figured the horses would probably be lounging in their stables, nibbling on carrots or catching up on their sleep.
But before I even made my way into the beautiful, old track, which is a National Historic Landmark, I could see the horses gracefully galloping through the mud, impervious to the rain. I walked up into the track past rows of wet, empty benches and positioned myself against the rail. There were about a dozen horses and jockeys out on the track working out. I looked around the empty grandstands and realized that I was the only spectator.
What kind of accommodation do you expect for $49 a night? Are you visualizing a place with 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress and free Perrier and gourmet coffee? Or for $49 bucks, would you expect a place where they rent by the hour, where you might be mingling with junkies and prostitutes and want to wear latex gloves before you touch anything?
If you're a skeptic like me, you might have a hard time believing that it's possible to rent a luxury apartment for $49 in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and a host of upper-crust types who have dogs worth more than my car, and horses worth more than my home. But I found out this week that it is indeed possible to stay in style in CVille for less than fifty bucks a night.
Five years ago, when my wife and I had our first child, our lives as travelers changed. We still hit the road just as often as before, but now we find ourselves seeking out zoos and playgrounds and children's museums and a host of other kid friendly attractions that we never would have visited during our childless years. Most of the time, I acquiesce to the child-centric activities more or less kicking and screaming, and although I enjoy watching my kids have fun, 3- and 5-year-old boys aren't exactly well known for showing gratitude and appreciation, so I sometimes wonder if the kid stuff is worth it.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, we treated our boys to the one kid-focused activity we've never tried before: a circus. These days, many of the larger traveling circuses perform in large arenas, which hold little appeal for me. I wanted to bring my kids to an old-school circus performed under a big top, and I found what I was looking for at Circus World, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and just 10 minutes from the tourist trap insanity of the Wisconsin Dells.
Click here to read part one of this story. In recent weeks, U.S. and Canadian officials have been fighting over a development issue at the Peace Bridge, but when I drove over the bridge, built to commemorate 100 years of peaceful relations between U.S. and Canada, one warm day late last summer, I had much older hostilities in mind. Two months before, I had taken a bike ride from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time, I returned to cycle the Fort Erie to Niagara Falls section of the trail, with the goal of learning a bit more about the War of 1812, and to approach Niagara Falls from a direction I'd never seen before.
I ditched my car in Fort Erie, a town on the Canadian side of the border where the U.S. army withstood a six month long siege during that forgotten war. On the New York side of the border, Fort Erie is known more for its proliferation of gentleman's clubs, know as the "Canadian ballet" in these parts. Ontario's drinking age is 19 and Americans have long flocked to Fort Erie's strip joints, which offer full bars and nude women, a combination that isn't legal in New York.