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Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012
Diving with the Whale Sharks in Belize (Gladden Split)

Belize is worth a trip for a variety of reasons. If you like to relax on tropical beaches, or if you like to party, there is plenty for you to enjoy there. As a nature lover, you can hike through jungles, swim through caves, zip-line across the tree-tops, see manatees, Jaguars, and Monkeys, and lots more. But for scuba divers in particular, Belize is a prime destination with attractions like the world’s second largest barrier reef (only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is bigger) and the Great Blue Hole. Around every full moon in the spring however, attention turns to Gladden Split, as Whale Sharks congregate to feed on snapper spawn.

Note: If you are interested in diving the Great Blue Hole of Belize, see my other blog post here.

My attention was first drawn to Belize for this very reason. I would imagine every scuba diver wants to swim with whale sharks at least once in their lifetime. There are various places to do this, although in many one can only snorkel rather than scuba dive. In Belize however, you can encounter these amazing fish at depth (and with fewer people around), which is a completely different experience altogether. This appealed to me enough to tickle my curiosity. Once we did a bit more research on the country, and I found out about their barrier reef as well as other dive sites, but also other offerings for the adventure and leisure tourist, we were sold. So off we went in the Spring of 2011.

As it turns out, we should have planned our trip a bit better. I knew snappers spawned around the full moon in April and May. I wasn’t quite aware of how closely they stick to their schedule. They don’t just do this “roughly around the full moon”, but it has to be right during the full moon. In 2011, we thus ended up being just a few days too early. Nevertheless, it was an awesome trip (you can read about it here), whale sharks or not. We did however immediately plan to return in 2012 just to get another shot at seeing these marvelous creatures. (And you know what: Regardless of whether there are any whale sharks in Belize or not, we would have returned to Belize anyway, and now that we saw the whale sharks, we plan to return in the future as well).

Planning the Trip

I have to admit: I am normally not a big planner. I get an idea for a trip and off we go on short notice. But our 2012 trip to Belize has been planned for almost a year. We knew the full moon was going to occur in early April and early May. The best chances to see the whale sharks are just after the full moon, so we planned our trip around that fact (whale shark dives start perhaps a day or two before the full moon but go on for several days afterwards). We did our successful dive on April 9th with the full moon having occurred on April 6th. We heard some unconfirmed rumors about a single sighting the 8th and I don’t think there were any sightings earlier. We did however hear that there were a number of sightings the two days following our dives as well. So I would plan all my future attempts a few days after the full moon. Note that if you go outside this window of opportunity, you will not have a chance to see the whale sharks, as operators aren’t even running any trips. There simply is no realistic chance of seeing them.

The best place to start your trip from is from Placencia in the south of Belize (which is also one of my favorite destinations in Belize otherwise). You can find accommodations of any level in Placencia, from the super-fancy Turtle Inn (designed and owned by Francis Ford Coppola), to the still very funky Robert’s Grove Resort, all the way down to pretty simple inns and hotels. Personally, I enjoy staying at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro, which provides simple yet very unique accommodations paired with the best food you will get on the Placencia peninsula.

Placencia has a number of dive operators. We have used 3 of them (Avadon Divers, Sea Horse Divers, and Robert’s Grove) and found them all to be well run (Splash is another operator we hear good things about but haven’t used ourselves). Personally, I think Avadon Divers is a level above all the others, but I would recommend all of them. (And I am the kind of diver who may simply not dive at all on a trip because the operators are not to my liking… as happened on a recent trip to Cozumel).

Gladden Split is a marine reserve and whale shark dives are regulated to make sure there never are too many people in the water at once and to ensure the animals are not bothered in their regular routine. Dive operators enter a lottery system to be assigned limited time slots. No more than 6 dive boats are allowed in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve at any one time, and each boat is limited to 12 divers (even though most dive boats are of a size where they could easily accommodate larger groups) and I believe 8 snorkelers. What all this means is that you want to reserve your spot early, as these dive trips are popular and are usually sold out (with many divers returning for multiple trips out). We do almost all our diving in Belize with Avadon these days, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get on their boat for the whale shark dive. Avadon passed us on to Robert’s Grove, which was also good, but not quite up to the Avadon level. (Note: Our boat was not completely sold out with only 8 divers and only a handful of snorkelers. I think Robert’s Grove may mostly service its own hotel guests and may thus be worth a call if you can’t find openings with other operators).

The trip out to Gladden Split was relatively easy the day we did it. Gladden Split is about an hour and a half straight out into the Caribbean Sea from Placencia (due east). Boats are limited to 2-tank dives, which means you do not usually have to start too early (our boat left at 9am) as they can easily fit in the dives. Our trip was during an exceptionally calm day with almost no surface waves. I understand that often this is not the case and it could get a little rough. (This may also impact the enjoyment of snorkeling I would think…).

As you enter the marine reserve, the captain of your boat has to obtain permission from a marine park ranger who is on site with an anchored boat on a shallow part of the reef. It is somewhat likely that there already are a number of boats at the main whale shark area and your boat will have to wait. In general, this dive is an all-day affaire and you want to make sure you are on a boat of reasonable size. Operators such as Robert’s Grove and Avadon have good-sized boat with plenty of space to move around and (most importantly) plenty of shade as well as food and drink. We have also seen other boats out there which were much smaller, requiring divers to stay in their seat and offering practically no shade (we saw some divers seek shade and cooling in the water and under the small bow of their boats). It would seem to be an absolutely awful idea to be out there with one of these small boats. Not just would it make for a long day sitting in one spot, but you would absolutely get your noggin boiled under the tropical sun! So make sure you use an operator with a good-sized boat.

Our Time In and On the Water

Our boat left dock at about 9am embarking on our 90 minute trip out to the Gladden Split area. It is a nice boat ride going out in between some islands and over relatively shallow water. I had my feet dangling of the bow of our boat and saw a few rays swim under us and I saw dolphins on at least 3 or 4 occasions. (Although unlike Avadon on our prior dives, the Robert’s Grove guys did not slow down or stop to see if the dolphins had any interest in interacting with us). We arrived at Gladden Split and checked in with the park ranger. At that point it became clear that there were already 6 boats out in the relatively small whale shark area, so we queued up to wait with 3 other boats. There clearly was no particular rush for us to be out there any earlier. We anchored in a sandy area between some shallow reefs. For about an hour, we had the opportunity to swim and snorkel off the boat in quite a nice area. It is amazing how you are basically out in the middle of the ocean yet all of a sudden have an opportunity to swim in 10 feet of water and leisurely snorkel about.

Whale shark watching season is also turtle mating season. For almost the entire time we anchored, we had a very large (biggest I had ever seen) and friendly loggerhead turtle swim back and forth under the boat. I am not sure if it just enjoyed seeking out the company of humans or whether it mistook us for potential mates. At some point, a second turtle came around and started to interact with “our” turtle. For a while we thought we were about to witness something special, but alas, it was not to be as the female in the end just turned the unfortunate would-be-dad down and he swam away with seemingly his head hanging low.

Before we knew it, it was our turn to try our luck with the whale sharks. We knew from radio chatter, that none of the other boats had seen any yet (and there were only vague rumors about a single whale shark sighting the day before), so my expectations in general were fairly modest. We motored out into the deeper waters where the snappers spawn and the whale sharks come to feed.

The dive itself is a “blue water dive”. This means that you are diving in deep water suspended in the water column. In other words: You will often not see the bottom and you won’t see the surface. (It’s anywhere between 130 and 200 feet deep there, or more). This was our first blue water dive and it is a different sort of diving. I am not prone to getting disoriented, but even to me, this was a little odd. You take your giant stride off the back of the boat and the group then descends to 60 or 70 feet. (You are not allowed to dive deeper than 80 feet in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve). At that point, all you see is blue. Horizontal visibility that day was about 80-100 feet or more, but I can only say that because I saw the other divers in the water. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know whether you are seeing 200 feet of blue water, or 2 feet of blue water. At is an eerie feeling at first as you find yourself looking around in all directions, as you are not sure what might be appearing out of the deep or from behind you or…

Diving in blue water is... well... very blue! :-)

After a few minutes, a certain calm sets in even for new blue water divers. On our first dive, we saw absolutely nothing. I think I may have briefly glimpsed a fish at one point or another, but all in all, there was nothing. After the first few minutes of blue water excitement, this was the most boring dive I have ever done. What could you see theoretically? Well, a lot! In addition to the whale sharks, there are other sharks (reef sharks, bull sharks, silky sharks,…), rays, dolphins, barracudas, and a whole lot more. But we didn’t see anything at all. Not even a jelly fish. Only an undetermined distance of blue water in front of our masks. My expectations sank to an all-time low. I would have bet a lot of money that there was no whale shark in the area.

We surfaced after about 35 minutes with seemingly little air in my tank. Much less than I normally have at a dive to 70 feet. It seems I had developed a problem with my gas-gauge. I surfaced with my buddy and we kept swimming at the surface with a few snorkelers, until I was completely out of air. Oddly enough, my gauge already showed I was at 0 psi, yet I kept breathing out of my tank for another 10 minutes or so. So something was clearly not right. Nevertheless, I noticed that every single diver on this dive ran out of air much quicker than normal. I am not sure whether that is due to the excitement or whether it is because one tries to swim further than normal in the hopes of finding a school of snappers with the likely accompanying whale shark.

We went back onto our waiting dive boat and motored back to shallower areas for lunch and some additional snorkeling. At that point, our crew made a crucial decision: We were going to wait until as late as possible before we would go back in. You have to be out of the Gladden Split area by 5pm, so our plan was to not motor back in until 3:30pm or so. I give the crew a lot of credit for this, as they could have taken the easy way out and tried to be back home as early as possible. A lot of other dive boats seemed to do exactly that. But our boat wanted to wait it out because the dive master felt the best opportunity for sightings was as late in the day as possible. (Note: The Avadon boat also seemed to follow that same strategy of going the extra mile and went in for their second dive at exactly the same time as we did). So we waited on our boat for a few hours, had lunch, went snorkeling, and tried to stay in the shade.

On our way back in, we used the sonar of the boat and motored around in the main area for a little while in an attempt to find schools of fish under water, which we hoped were the spawning snappers. (One can never be sure as there are other schools of fish as well). Finally, our captain settled on an area he thought looked promising. From a bystander’s perspective of course, all one sees is the nondescript surface of the ocean. Our captain seems to have a good eye for different shades of blue, as well as his depth finder, because as soon as we entered the water, we saw schools of snapper beneath us. We descended to 65 feet.

Yet still, all we saw at first was snappers. Gazillions of them. Our dive master was a little ways ahead of us, while Ellen (my buddy) and I hung back with a park ranger who accompanied us, in the hopes she might know any special tricks. After about 10 minutes of finning around however, the dive master tapped his tank in a clonking noise to get our attention. He pointed into the blue void. At first, we couldn’t see anything, but soon enough, the dark outline of a whale shark appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

I am not even going to attempt to describe the awe-inspiring feeling this was. You see the wide iconic shape of the head of the shark (just the mouth can be more than 4 or 5 feet wide) with the pectoral fins off to the side. It was just slowly swimming right towards us with slow but powerful left and right sweeps of its tail fin. Most people are amazed as to how slow this animal moves, but looks are deceptive. It may not move its tail fin back and forth all that quickly, but when a 30 foot fish moves its fin back and forth, it’s sweep radius is considerable. The fish swam right through the group of divers at exactly our depth. I imagine the snorkelers could still see it, but clearly, we got a much better look. The whole encounter was surreal. You just float there, trying not to forget to breath, and the shark glides by you in the most peaceful way possible. Some people wonder whether it is scary to see an animal of this size, but the encounter is so non-threatening, there just never is any thought of fear entering your mind.

A whale shark appears in the distance with divers in the foreground.

The encounter only took a minute or two. In hindsight, the first sighting was really just a blur. But there you have it: Your adrenalin sky-rockets after the sighting, as you realize you had just checked one of those items off your bucket list. It was fun to see the reaction of the group. Most people had probably given up hope of seeing a whale shark that day. Several of the divers in our group had been out the prior days without any luck, and this was their last opportunity. One girl even did a little victory dance under water :-).

But this was just the beginning of the dive. We swam on for another 15 minutes or so without another sighting, but then another whale shark appeared out of the depths. It came up from below us and headed straight towards us. This time, we had a bit more composure to actually take it all in and enjoy the whole experience. I think for most people, the first encounter is to overpowering to really enjoy it, but this second encounter was just plan incredible. As the shark was literally headed straight for Ellen and me, we go the classic look of the shark coming at us head on. Eventually, I even pulled Ellen to the side a little so we wouldn’t accidently be bumped by the shark (which I envision similar to being bumped into by an inflatable rubber boat).

The shark from our 3rd encounter swimming by slowly. It is hard to judge the scale in this shot, but this one is about 30 feet long.

The shark then swam right past us very slowly and I could see its tiny little eye look right at us, probably trying to figure out what this weird species of aquatic bipeds with cameras was that congregates at Gladden Split every full moon in the spring.

The shark was easily close enough for us to touch it with our outstretched arm. (Do NOT however touch a shark or even try to hold on to it to hitch a ride! Not only does it distress the animal, but there is a $10,000 fine for touching a whale shark, and apparently there could even be associated jail time!). The encounter also seemed a bit longer this time (although it is hard to say). The shark then swam a little closer to the surface so the snorkelers probably got a better look this time than with the first shark.

A whale shark coming right at us up from the depths.

At that point, I started to supposedly get low on air again. I was reasonably certain I just had a problem with my gauge, and I had checked Ellen’s air and I knew I could breath of her’s for a little bit if need be. But why risk anything? I had decided to ascend to safety-stop depth when I got an answer to that question: A third shark appeared! I just had to stay! It slowly cruised by us, getting as close as 10 or 15 feet to me and Ellen. Not quite as close as the second one, but still! This was the third different shark we saw that day (one can tell by the shape of their fins).

Note: The whale sharks you encounter at Gladden Split are not juveniles, but they are not fully gown. The ones we saw were about 30 feet or so. They grow as large as 40 or 45 feet. But let me tell you: A 30+ foot animal (10 meters) is a LARGE fish. It is like swimming with a school bus! I’d still like to get a chance to see one that is even bigger, but these were still plenty large. They are the largest fish there is, after all.

After this third encounter, I was down to about 300 psi and gave a signal to the dive master that the two of us were going to ascend. Unlike in all other dives I have done where the whole group generally ascends together, in this case, we ascended and the rest of the group stayed as depth, as a single buddy-team doesn’t want to ruin the chance of the rest of the group for another encounter.

So we ascended to our safety-stop depth of 15 feet on our own, and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by other sharks! I am not even sure how many there were, and after seeing a 30 foot fish, it is hard to estimate the size and distance of anything else, especially in blue water. I would think that these sharks were about 4 or 5 feet in length. They were silky sharks. The Wikipedia says something like “silky sharks have been known to act aggressive to divers but that is generally not a problem as they only occur in open water and you are unlikely to ever encounter one”. Well, except for us, since we were out in the open ocean. After all the excitement of this dive, I have to admit, it gave me pause. What were we to do now? But since I was basically out of air, we had little choice but to hang out for our safety stop, alone, and have these sharks circle around us. All in all however, they did not seem overly interested. We just waited it out, and they made no aggressive moves. We continued our ascend after the safety-stop and swam around on the surface a bit longer.

At that point, just to top off this 5-star dive, I got stung pretty good by a jelly fish. I never wear a wet suit when diving in warm waters, so this one hurt (and I still have the markings as I write this close to a week later). I felt we had accomplished our mission on all accounts so we returned to the boat. I suppose we should have waited just a little longer, as the people who remained in the water saw a fourth shark just a minute or so after we had climbed up the ladder. But oh well!

As you can imagine, back on the boat, everyone was all smiles and people were high-fiving each other. This was an incredible, maybe even a life-changing experience. And by all credible accounts, we had been the first ones to see them this year, thanks to the extra patience of our dive crew. (Over the next few days, there were numerous sightings as well).

I have been told by some divers that the experience of a while shark dive like this was too organized and crowded for them. Personally, I never felt that way. Yes, our group had 8 divers in the water, and we did see another group under water. But when you see a whale shark 2 feet away from you, whether there are a few more divers within sight is really something that doesn’t make a big difference to me. Would it be cool to just encounter a whale shark somewhere by accident? You bet it would be! But the chance of that happening are remote.

I did enjoy doing this with scuba gear and at depth. I know there are several places where one can snorkel and swim with whale sharks, and I am sure that is cool too. But I enjoyed seeing them under water and in a smaller group. I think all the snorkelers on our boat had a great time, but swimming at the surface, elbow-to-elbow with the next snorkeler, looking a the sharks from above in the hopes that one will come close to the surface just can’t be the same experience. I would recommend the Gladden Split dive over organized whale shark snorkel trips (as are offered at places like Isla Mujeres in Mexico and other places) and I would recommend diving over snorkeling at Gladden Split too.

On a side note: As we were told afterwards, Bill Gates was also there that day and saw the whale sharks. I have no way of checking whether it is true or not, but I have no reason to doubt that he was there as we heard it from several independent sources. If it is true, he must have been among one of the groups of divers we met under water. So I guess we can now say “we went to Belize and dove with the whale sharks together with Bill Gates”. If nothing else, it makes for a good story! ;-)

Note: A big “thank you” goes to Tony Darst who gave me access to the photos I used in this blog post. My own camera case broke a few days earlier, and I would not have had any photos from our dive if it wasn’t for Tony who was on this dive with us and has since become a friend. Check out many more of his photos at www.Tonys-Eye-Photography.com



Posted @ 4:46 PM by Markus Egger (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (56)


Sunday, April 08, 2012
Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize

As I have mentioned in previous posts, we are scuba divers. I would call myself “avid”, although I do not have a huge number of dives. It’s definitely more a quality rather than quantity thing for me. And with that, I like to seek out interesting locations and have accumulated a rather interesting list of experiences in a relatively short amount of time (such as diving a Mexican Cenote/Cave, which is an experience most scuba divers will never have, although I would highly recommend it. Take a look at this post for more information on that little adventure). A year ago, we went on our first trip to Belize, after having read about this country in various dive book (you can read about last year’s trip in this post). The long and the short of it is that we liked it so much, we decided to come back this year.

Other than relaxing at one of my favorite places, we had a few separate goals for scuba diving. First, we timed our trip to coincide with full moon in April, which should theoretically give us a decent shot at diving with whale sharks at Gladden Split. (They usually appear at full moon in April and May… with the later being somewhat more likely, but we could only make the April date work this year due to our personal schedules). We also considered improving our scuba skills by taking another certification, since local dive operators in Belize are very good (we especially like Avadon Divers, but I hear other shops are also good). And finally, we considered diving the famous Blue Hole. Well, we succeeded in getting our Advanced Certification (we are not real certification-hunters, but thought we might as well do it after having been scuba divers for a while), and I can now also report success on the Blue Hole dive. (The jury on the Whale Sharks is still out as we are going to make our first attempt tomorrow – at the time of this writing – but so far, I haven’t heard of anyone having seen any Whale Sharks this year, so my expectations are somewhat modest).

The Great Blue Hole

There are numerous Blue Holes around the world. Blue Holes are basically vertical underwater caves. They are generally almost circular of varying diameter and reaching great depths. This makes the water in the “hole” look dark blue in stark contrast to the surrounding waters which are usually quite shallow. Hence the name “Blue Hole”. Out of all the Blue Holes, one of the more famous ones is the Blue Hole of Belize. (In fact, if you google just the term “Blue Hole”, the one in Belize is usually the one you get).

The Great Blue Hole has a diameter of about a thousand feed (over 300m) and at its deepest is 125m (about 410 feet) deep. So for recreational scuba divers with a theoretic maximum depth limit of 130 feet (40 meters), this is the equivalent of a bottomless pit. (To non-divers, 400 feet might not sound deep, but let me tell you: It is DEEP. The pressure down there would do unimaginable things to you). The Blue Hole is part of the Belize Barrier Reef System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the second larges barrier reef in the world (after Austrialia’s Great Barrier Reef). It used to be an above-water Cenote (“sink hole”) which is now submerged. You can still observe stalactites of immense proportions under water. Interestingly, they are at an angle, which indicates that the entire cave system must have shifted somewhat (probably during an earthquake). Reading more about these facts about the Great Blue Hole can be quite interesting and enhance the enjoyment of your dive. A good starting point is the Wikipedia page for the Great Blue Hole.

The Great Blue Hole has been made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who brought his ship, the Calypso, to the Blue Hole and dove there extensively. He declared the Great Blue Hole one of the world’s top-10 sites for scuba diving.

Looking at it from the air, the Great Blue Hole of Belize (near Amergris Caye) looks like this (photo from the Wikipedia):

When you approach the Blue Hole on a boat, it looks somewhat less dramatic. (Try to get to as high a spot on the boat as possible to see more of the difference in coloration). Boats are approaching in relatively shallow water, but mostly what you see is water all around (the areas around the hole which almost look like they are islands are really all submerged, although shallow, so you get much of an effect at sea level than it would appear from the photo above).

The Blue Hole is quite a ways out and not all that easy to get to from anywhere. Probably the best starting location if you are only going for the Blue Hole is Belize City (I am told). We started from Placencia, which is in the south of Belize. This made it a long boat trip. It took us about 3 1/2 hours to get there (which made for a 5am start). We had exceptionally calm waters which made for an enjoyable trip (we even spotted and interacted with dolphins on the way!). I understand that this can also be quite different when there is a bit of movement on the water, which can make for a long and rough up-wind ride. You should be comfortable on a boat and on the water in general to do this trip if the conditions are rougher.

Our Dive

When we arrived at the Blue Hole, there was only one other boat there and they were just getting done with their dive and about to leave. This meant we could tie up to the only permanent mooring line on the rim of the hole. This made for a casual and relatively stress-free entry (quite unlike other Belizian dives which are usually done without anchoring the boat and just jumping of the back while the boat slows down) although one could definitely tell that the excitement level on this dive was higher across the group than it ordinarily would be.

Jumping into the water, you can already tell you are over a very deep abyss. There is very little life in the Blue Hole. However, we did see some sizable Bermuda Chum (if memory serves me correctly) right after entering the water. While you are swimming at the surface, you can see the white sand below you (as you are entering near the rim) with a clear edge going into the abyss. The drop-off is vertical. Even if you are used to wall-diving, this makes for an interesting setup.

As you descend, you first go to a depth of about 30 or 40 feet (10-13m) or so (if I remember correctly), which gets you to the edge of the rim. At that point, you cross from a white sandy (sloped) bottom over the abyss. Since there is no way to see the bottom, and all you see is the deep blue water (and even very little of the wall as it is completely vertical and even a little overhanding at a few places), people liken the feeling to skydiving under water. I would have to agree with that assessment.

As you proceed further, you go to a depth of about 120 feet (close to 40 meters) where the vertical wall ends and the cavern opens up a bit. This however is not like a cave dive. The overhang is relatively minimal and you never get the feeling of being enclosed. It is just enough (maybe the overhang is as much as 12 feet in places) to swim in under and around the massive (and I mean massive) stalactites. It is an amazing feeling to swim through these formations. All you see is the wall next to you and the stalactites and the slight overhang above you. Below you is nothing but blue water. (If this thought scares you: Don’t worry. It doesn’t feel like falling or anything like that, because you can’t see to the bottom on don’t et a feeling of “being high up”. So this is not much different compared to being suspended in the water column at a safety stop).

At that point, you have reached the maximum depth of your dive. Make no mistake: This is a deep dive for recreational scuba divers! Since the cavern starts to open up at 120 feet, you are going deeper than that to actually swim around the stalactites. The deepest my computer showed after the dive was 138 feet. This is the deepest I have been and it is likely to stand as a record for me, as it even is beyond the theoretical maximum depth for recreational scuba divers of 130 feet. I am not one to hunt for deeper and deeper depths, but in the Blue Hole, there simply is a reason to go to that depth. If you do not want to go deeper than 100 or 120 feet, you are not going to see much here.

Some people are concerned about going this deep, and I think people should take this seriously. If you have never been on a really deep dive, I recommend that you take your advanced scuba classes and do a dive to at least 100 feet and go through your exercises to see if you are prone to Nitrogen Narcosis. Personally, I am not very susceptible to “getting narced”, and I felt no effects at even close to 140 feet (and I tried to pay attention to it). We did however have two divers in our group that showed some signs of getting a little silly, and one of the dive masters grabbed them by their tanks and ascended to a shallower depth. You def. want to pay attention to these things as this is not the place to be when your IQ drops by half and all of a sudden you decide you can go even deeper for no real reason. ;-) Other than that, diving at 140 feet doesn’t feel that much different from being at 80 feet. Pressure increases more gradually than the first 30 or 60 feet. You may have to suck on your regulator a little harder and you will consume your air faster, but that’s about it. But that does not mean that you should be going even deeper!

Oh, and bring a dive light! There still is natural light at this depth (although visibility is not that great… we had maybe 60-80 feet even though the conditions all around were quite calm). Nevertheless, having a light allows you to see more. I brought my large light cannon for that purpose rather than my usual small dive light, and was happy I had done so.

Due to the depth of this dive, the overall dive is very short. Bottom time at the deepest point is only 8 minutes. So you want to take it all in while you can. Between the excitement of the topography, and perhaps seeing some large marine animals (see below), it can all be quite the blur. But you absolutely must stick to your dive plan here. After 8 minutes, it is time to ascend to a shallower depth and you want to take your safety stops seriously. We ascended to 80 feet and stayed at that level for a little bit. Then we moved on to 60, and ultimately, we put in a 5 minute safety stop at 15-18 feet. Our dive plan called for a 24 minute dive, and I came up at exactly 24 minutes.

Note that this is not the place to push the limits. You are already going very deep, and if you want to dive the Blue Hole, it only makes sense if you are willing to go that deep. Diving to only 100 feet makes little sense here, and you might as well stay home and stare at the wall to get a similar experience. For this reason, you want to make sure you are not pushing the limits in any other way. You most certainly do not want to spend more time at the bottom that you have planned. While there might be worse places in the world to get bent (“DCS”… decompression sickness), you are several hours away from the next hypobaric chamber at best. You also want to make sure you are going with a dive operator you trust. We went with Avadon Divers, and they are the best operator I have ever dived with. I would wholeheartedly recommend them. But check out the operators on your own and make your own decisions.

What You Will See

So what exactly will you see on that dive? Well, mostly rocks. The amazing part of the Blue Hole is the actual formation and the stalactites and swimming suspended over the abyss. If you have come to see colorful reef fish, then this is not the place (although the other dives on the same trip you are likely to do will get you that part). You will definitely enjoy your dive more if you read about the Blue Hole and many of the facts that go with it. You will simply appreciate it all more in addition to the awe-inspiring overall setting.

As far as marine life goes, chances are you will not see much, but what you see is going to be incredible. I am told one is more likely to see some sizable sharks than not. There are Caribbean Reef Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Bull Sharks, and Hammerheads in the Blue Hole. However, I am told that even experienced dive masters who dive the Blue Hole a lot have never seen Bull Sharks or Hammerheads on their dives. Caribbean Reef Sharks seem to be very common however. We saw 5 large Caribbean Reef Sharks on our dive.

This was the first time for me to see sharks under water (and these weren’t any of the Nurse Sharks either, but these are sharks that really look like sharks). It was clear at the beginning of the dive that an encounter was quite likely, and this just added to the pre-dive excitement. I am generally unafraid of marine creatures, but your first serious shark encounter gotta get your adrenalin flowing, right? Plus, having been stalked by a very large Barracuda for the better part of a dive just 2 days earlier made me wonder what it would have been like if the Barracuda was instead a shark.

Seeing these reef Sharks however was a completely different experience. They showed up out of the blue water (the dive master had to draw our attention to them, otherwise we might have missed them completely) and just checked out who we were. They were clearly eyeballing us, but in a “oh… how boring… false alarm” sort of way. They swam at a distance of about 40 or 50 feet from us, cruising very slowly and peacefully. At no point did we feel stalked or threatened in any way. This was an all in all very cool experience and one I will seek out to repeat in the future.

Unfortunately, I could not bring my own camera, as my housing broke just 3 days before this dive. If I get photos from one of our fellow divers, I will post them here. For now, this photo from the Wikipedia has to suffice. It shows a shark that is quite similar in appearance (although perhaps smaller and less bulky than the ones we saw… I remember distinctly how impressed I was by the size and even more so the bulk of these amazing animals), except ours were just in blue water:

Why these sharks are there, btw, I have no clue. It seems exceedingly odd to me that in this pit which offers little in terms of other food sources (or so it seems to me), one would be almost guaranteed to see massive sharks. What do they eat in there?!? I heard some rumors that they might be chummed (fed) so they are artificially lured there. But that seems a bit odd to me as well, since it doesn’t seem like there could possibly be enough of that going on to keep the sharks there permanently and support a relatively large population in a small area. But in any event: They are there and it was an incredible part of our dive experience.

I hear that this is a dive that polarizes. People either are completely blown away or miserably disappointed. Personally, I was blown away. I would do this dive again in a heartbeat, despite the long boat ride and all.

What Else?

When you do the Blue Hole dive, you are likely to not just dive a single short dive, but you are likely to dive one or two more dives. Ours was a three-tank dive, so we went to two other locations on Ambergris Caye. Naturally, both dives had to be relatively shallow, with the first one being around 60 feet max, and the other even shallower. Those dives were incredible as well. We saw some of the best reef formations (lots of swim-throughs!) and a larger amount of marine life than I have seen on any of the other dives we were on in Belize. We saw everything from Eagle Rays, to Sting Rays, to Tarpons, Barracuda, lots of reef fish too numerous to list, to groupers, eals, and even a large turtle that stayed with us for probably 5 minutes or more (and got so near we could have easily touched it if we wanted), and so on.

We stopped for lunch on Long Caye, a beautiful part of the atoll. This in itself might have been worth the trip out. But that is a different story altogether :-)



Posted @ 12:51 PM by Markus Egger (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, April 10, 2011
An Amazing Trip to Belize (Placencia and Maya Beach)

He is drawing his circles around me tighter and tighter, shooting through the water like some sort of intelligent torpedo. He is definitely sizing me up, and at 6 foot 3 inches, I am probably only marginally bigger than this top-predator. I try to turn in the water as he circles me and darts around me at high speeds. I can clearly see rows and rows of sharp teeth. I am swimming in the middle of the Belizian ocean with no land in sight and only blue water below me, faced by Barracuda.

Hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was in my office in Houston. Then, on a Thursday morning we headed out for Belize, a destination we had on our radar for a while, even though Belize is generally overlooked by the traveling public. It seems to have the stigma of a place only the more adventurous travelers go. And while it certainly is a great location for “adventure travelers” who enjoy things like jungle hiking and kayaking, it never struck me as an extremely wild place to go to, and it does so even less now that I have actually visited.

Belize, or “British Honduras” as it was known up to 1981 before it gained independence from the United Kingdom, lies just south of Mexico on the Caribbean coast. It is reachable with a short 2 hour flight from Houston, which makes it just a tad further than destinations like Cancun, and a lot closer than Costa Rica and other places in Central America that seem to get more attention. It has much more of a Caribbean vibe than Mexico does, with many of its beaches and islands very closely resembling the picture perfect stereotype of a Caribbean scene, which is often difficult to find in real life. The people we met were all super-nice and we always felt we fit in a lot more than in places like Jamaica. Maybe the fact that Belize is the only English-speaking Central American country, helps. It takes away the “I am in a foreign place” feeling a bit, but it also helps in other ways. Or maybe it’s that while the atmosphere certainly is laid back, things don’t seem to be quite as chaotic and unorganized as in other Central American and Caribbean places. If your cab driver says he will pick you up at a certain time, he will be there. While many things are simple, they seem to be more orderly and better maintained than you’d expect.


Landed in Placencia. Time to get the bags.

Belize has one main airport of importance, which is in Belize City (which is not too surprising since the whole country is small and it’s population numbers less than 1/3 of a million people), which is where our flight from Houston took us. We then took another 20 minute flight on Tropic Air further south to Placencia. It is worth pointing out that the second flight is quite a bit different from the first one. Out of Houston, we took a big Continental (or “United” I should now say, I guess) airliner, but the flight on Tropic Air was a small 10-seater plane. There was one pilot, and our luggage was thrown in the door in the back of the plane, and off we went. Placencia airport is a small jungle airstrip (complete with a road crossing near the runway and a gate going down when planes approach). After you land, you just grab your bag from the plane, and off you go 2 minutes later. Kornel – our cab driver to the hotel – was already waiting for us with his old van. So off we went – picking up one of Kornel’s friends whom we happened to pass by on the way and gave a lift – and 15 minutes later we were in a beach-chair at the hotel. It wasn’t even noon yet.


The beach at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro

We checked into a small place a little outside Placencia called “Maya Beach” (and the aptly named “Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro”). We (and by that I mean “Ellen”) did quite a bit of research on hotels before we went. In Placencia, you can get anything from the $600-a-night “Turtle Inn” hotel (owned by Francis Ford Coppola) to privately owned bed & breakfast places. Our hotel was also privately owned but a step up from the bed & breakfast variety. I would call it a “Boutique Hotel”. We were aiming for a privately owned place that had only a few rooms to avoid crowds, and had unique rooms and direct access to the beach. We were also aiming for good food. The Maya Beach Hotel turned out to be all that and more! Next time to go, this hotel will be the first place I will check for availability for sure!


The view from our room at the Maya Beach Hotel.

What I really liked about the hotel was that it had a definite Caribbean feel to it. Each room was unique, as the hotel basically is a built-out beach house. We actually had to switch rooms twice since we booked on short notice, so we got a good sampling. We had and entire floor in a separate house, which would have slept a family of 6 (with kitchen and fridge and all). It had its own pool and a really nice veranda right on the beach. We stayed in an upstairs room which had a balcony and an amazing view. We stayed in a “small” (and by that I mean “bigger than your average hotel room, but smaller than the other rooms”) room that opened up right onto the beach. This wasn’t your average 5-star hotel experience, and things certainly were a bit rustic. If you are looking to get pampered and want to spend your days indoors getting massages, this is not the place for you. But if you are looking for a unique clean place that enables you to experience the awesomeness of the Caribbean, then this is where you want to be.


Sunrise over the Caribbean. Picture taken from the porch in front of our room.

Given that this was a relatively short trip from Houston, we had most of the day left to enjoy and we spent it lazily on the beach and on the veranda in front of our room. At night, we enjoyed the Bistro’s fabulous food, and we quickly switched (as hard as this might be to believe for people who know me) into a relatively early schedule, going to sleep much earlier than I normally would (it gets dark early in the Caribbean) and we also got up quite early because we had an excursion booked the next day.


Note a bad place to hang out and relax…

We headed out relatively early and went to a Mayan archeological site before noon. Lubaantun is an interesting although not all that large site in the middle of the jungle. You can see remains of ball-courts and other structures. It doesn’t compare to sites like Tikal or Chichen Itza, and I wouldn’t have made the trip just to see this site, but in combination with other things, it was worth seeing. We also had an enjoyable lunch right on site, sitting between Mayan ruins.

After lunch, we drove on a bit further (as it turns out, there is quite a bit of driving over bad roads involved in all these trips) to get to a cave system. This is one of the adventurous things to do in Belize: You hike through the jungle following a river until you get to a cave the river emerges from. Apparently Belize is riddled by these underground river systems. In our case, we entered the system in our swimmies and with small headlamps attached to our foreheads and started to swim upstream into the pitch-black cave. What an experience! The Mayans believed these caves were the entrance to the underworld, and I can only imagine the first Maya entering this cave with a torch (which probably went out 100 feet into the cave). It turned out to be a pretty easy swim that took us about 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the cave system (or at least the end of the human-accessible part of the cave). At that point, we spent a bit more time in the cave and swam under a waterfall, before we turned around to swim downstream.


The entrance to the cave, where you start your swim.

On the way out, we stopped and turned out lights off for a while to get a good impression of how thoroughly dark it really was. Even after a few minutes, my eyes couldn’t adjust enough to pick up my own hand in front of my eyes, and I generally tend to see pretty well at night. Terry Pratchett would have said “this darkness wasn’t just the absence of light… this Darkness was spelled with an upper-case D and engulfed everything like a mud-slide would burry a nickel”. But then he is British.


One of our co-adventurers swimming through the cave with a head-lamp.


The author, getting ready to dive in under the waterfall.

The hike through the jungle itself was very enjoyable as well. We followed the river back out, and at some point I took a dive into the river for a short and refreshing swim. One just hasn’t lived until one takes a swim in a natural river in the jungle. (Of course in an older blog post, I said the same thing about getting peed on by a Monkey. I have now changed my mind on that. Swimming in the river was better).


Time for a refreshing dip in the jungle river.


A “visitor” coming in over the phone wire.

On subsequent days, we spent hours kayaking out to, and circumnavigating a small mangrove island where we briefly spotted a dolphin near out kayak (or it might have been a manatee… I am not sure… somehow – don’t ask me how – it could have been either). We biked into town. We walked along the beach. And we relaxed in one of the many hammocks the Maya Beach Hotel has. We snorkeled, and we took several off-shore boat trips out to islands and to dive, each of which was amazing.


Kayaking to a nearby mangrove island.

And that’s how I ended up swimming off-shore, eye to eye with this enormous Barracuda, who keeps darting around me with a very clear interest in me. I keep turning in the water in an effort to keep up with this amazing fish as I catch some movement out of the corner of my eye: A large Southern Stingray approaches majestically gliding through the water. I snap a quick picture of the Barracuda and exhale through my scuba regulator to descend to a slightly deeper depth. A second Stringray comes into view and I manage to snap a picture of both of them at the same time before a turtle draws me off into a different direction.


Two Southern Stingrays in a single photo.


Turtles can be quite majestic under water.


A turtle swimming right under the surface in the clear Caribbean waters.

Oh, and did I mention? Scuba diving in Belize, on the world’s second largest Barrier Reef (outsized only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) is just out of this world too! But that shall be the topic of a different post…


Southwater Caye



Posted @ 1:37 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, August 08, 2010
Scuba Diving at the Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico

As my friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook (www.Twitter.com/MarkusEgger and www.Facebook.com/MarkusEggerEPS) may know: Ellen and I became NAUI certified scuba divers in early June (2010). So needless to say, we were eager to get into the water for our first non-training scuba adventure in the ocean. (We have done a few lake dives, but they were not very exciting by comparison). In fact, we had already brought our scuba gear on our recent trip to Italy, but we knew that was a long shot, and indeed, we didn’t get to dive.

So our first real ocean dive was going to happen in Mexico. We just got back from a relatively long weekend at the Riviera Maya (think Cancun… although we like to go a bit further south and away from the party/retirement crowd) where we went for my birthday with the specific goal to go diving. There are tons of places to dive down there. The entire Riviera Maya (well, at least the part I have seen) seems to have a reef just off shore that is easy to dive on. Of course people also love to go to Cozumel for diving, which is an island just off Playa del Carmen (so one could do a day trip to Cozumel from where we were). Personally, I have not been a big fan of Cozumel since our cruise to Cozumel a few years back. Not that the cruise was awful, but it just wasn’t all that great either. But maybe, now that we are divers, we will go back to Cozumel for some drift diving.

Puerto Morelos

Our very first ever ocean dive, we did in Puerto Morelos, a tiny town about half way between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. A friend had made suggestions for 2 dive outfits he had used before, both of which looked pretty good, relatively speaking. (Don’t expect a pristine German-run dive operation in Mexico!). They were Dive In, and WetSet. I contacted Dive In first (for no particular reason), but they were booked solid when we wanted to go diving, so we ended up with WetSet.

As you would expect, our first dives took us to the easier locations (as described on the Dive Locations page on WetSet’s homepage). In particular, we dove “Cabezas Grande” and “Rodman’s”. Both turned out to be very easy dives. About 30 feet of water. No current. The visibility on these dives was excellent. The water temperature (86 degrees Fahrenheit/ 30 degrees Celsius) is such that one is perfectly comfortable without any kind of wet suit or just with a dive skin.

For us, this was a very exciting dive, obviously, since it was our very first ocean dive ever. So for us, just being under water was awesome, and we also saw some interesting things. Although, truth be told, we didn’t see nearly as many fish as I would have expected or have seen just with a snorkel before. The most exciting marine life we saw was a large moray eel. But it didn’t matter all that much. For a first dive, this was awesome!

I also made some first attempts with an underwater camera. I still have to figure out the best settings for underwater photography (which is quite different from above-water picture taking, I discovered), but here are some shots:

 

Taj Mahal Cenote, Tulum

So that was it for the ocean dives. In addition, I specifically wanted to dive in a Cenote. Cenotes as “sink holes”. Basically holes in the ground (usually in the jungle) that lead to vast underground river systems. The entire Yucatan peninsulas is perforated with such cave systems. (Check out Wikipedia’s definition of Cenotes for more info). More than 10 years ago, Ellen and I snorkeled in the famous Dos Ojos cenote. It was an amazing experience. We snorkeled at the top (there is air and light everywhere we snorkeled) and we saw scuba divers swim along beneath us. In fact, I wrote about that experience here, and at the very end I said “I promise that if I ever start scuba diving, I will come back to Dos Ojos and dive”. Well. I wanted to make good on that promise.

Unfortunately, WetSet does not go to Dos Ojos. So that was a bit of a bummer (and I will go back to Dos Ojos do dive one day!), but they promised us another cenote that would be at least as good. So this wasn’t quite the same thing, obviously, but we agreed to do it.

The Taj Mahal cenote is south of Tulumn. So if you are staying in Cancun, get ready for a 2 hour drive (or so). The cenote is in the middle of the jungle and you will bounce along a dirt road for a while. Once you get to the cenote, you are in for quite an experience. The setting is quite nice, and the cenote itself is awesome. There is no question that the cenote itself is at least as good as Dos Ojos. Diving there was an experience I will never forget. When I got back to the hotel, I posted on Facebook that this was “both one of the most amazing experiences I ever had, and also one of the stupidest things I had ever done”. Why stupid? Well, for one, I wasn’t nearly qualified for this dive!

The Taj Mahal cenote is considered “cavern diving”. Personally, I am not very familiar with cave diving terms, so to me, a cavern was something with plenty of ambient light. Also, based on having requested the same experience as our Dos Ojos snorkeling trip, I assumed there would be both water and air in a “cavern”. As it turns out, Taj Mahal generally has no air in the “caverns”. You are diving in an overhead environment (meaning the water goes all the way to the ceiling). If you need to surface, you have to first swim through tunnels to get to a spot where there is a hole in the jungle floor above. Also, there was a lot less light than I would have expected. To me, this was a plain cave dive. Now I am sure, real cave divers would disagree. They would say “you saw ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ more often than not”, so it is a cavern dive. And they would say “you didn’t penetrate nowhere deep enough to make this a real cave dive”. That may all be true. But if you mention the word “cave dive” to a novice diver, she will probably imagine something pretty darn close to what we did. And I think all cave divers would agree, that the 4th or 5th dive ever, is not the time to do an extended “cavern dive”.

Anyway: I am very comfortable under water, and I have no general problem with confined spaces, so I was comfortable doing it while we were in there. We did 2 dives total with a total underwater time of about 1 hour and 45 minutes. We encountered 3 or 4 surfacing opportunities during that entire time. Nothing bad happened to anyone. So I guess it was just the fast track to gaining more diving experience, both in terms of actual dive experience, as well having learned a lesson about doing more research myself to know what to expect and whether or not I should be diving. But there is also no question that despite my great sense of direction, and despite there being some guide lines in that cenote permanently, I would have had a hard time finding my way out if that need arose. Also, I would have not been qualified to assist another diver in the case of emergency. So that is not good.

With all that said, Taj Mahal is an amazing cenote! We saw stalactites and stalagmites. We saw thermoclines and haloclines. We saw amazing light shows where rays of light penetrate the surface. We even saw “laser lights”, which are thin beams of light coming through the jungle floor overhead and then being refracted both at the surface of the water as well as various layers underwater, creating an amazing zig-zag pattern that words can’t describe. We saw bats. We surfaced at a “puddle” in the middle of nowhere, which if you saw it from the jungle, you’d swear is no more than a foot deep. The water is “layered”. While you come up, you’d swear you are about to break the surface, just to see that there is more water above. There were several such layers at that point. Amazing! We saw roots growing from the jungle floor into the caverns, giving it all an “Indiana Jones vibe” (in fact, one of the caverns is called the “Indiana Jones Room”).

Due to the lack of ambient light, there is practically no life in these caverns. Only at the entrance, did we see some very small catfish that nibbled at the hair of my legs. Quite the experience, especially if you are as ticklish as I am… :-). The water is about 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) which seems warm, but compared to the outside air temperature, you will be freezing! I recommend a wet suit. I had a shorty, but was cold in the end.

Here are some impressions from this dive:

Bottom line: I highly recommend doing this cenote to everyone who’s qualified, but I recommend to only go if you are comfortable with your diving technique (especially buoyancy control) and are not afraid of dark and enclosed small spaces.



Posted @ 2:32 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Saturday, July 24, 2010
Fun Sports in Austria

I haven’t written about Austria in quite some time. It’s odd in a way, to write about one’s home from a travel point-of-view, even though I only live in Austria a few months a year now. Still, when we go to Austria, we are not there as a vacation. Besides, I have already written a lot about Austria such as my skiing (here) and cross-country (here) posts, or my Christmas Posts (here and here), and various hikes and walks in the winter (here and here) and summer (here and here). I blogged about winter sports (Ice Speedway and ski jumping and hockey) and summer sports (mountain biking and regular bike races). I blogged about Geo Caching and swimming across lakes. I blogged about culinary experiences (Alte Schmiede and Red Bull’s Hangar 7). I blogged about various festivities (here and here) and just about Austria in general (here). So clearly, there is no shortage of stuff to talk about.

We just returned from another trip to Austria. And guess what! There’s more to talk about! :-)

This last trip included a short visit to Italy (which you can read about here). The remainder of our stay in Austria was not a vacation or holiday. We had to work regular hours while we were there. Nevertheless, there is so much to do there, even just over a lunch hour or on a weekend, we had a blast! All the things I talk about in this blog post can be done within an hour or two (or an afternoon max) and they are within walking or biking distance of my home town (Saalfelden… near Zell am See and other tourist locations, such as Saalbach/Hinterglemm or Leogang).

Mountain Biking

We mountain bike a lot. This is one of those things where with an hour or two of time, you can just hop on the bike and go. There are tons of places in the area, representing all levels of difficulties. My Facebook and Twitter followers have already seen many of my “mountain biking pictures of the day” posts over the last few days. Here are some of these pictures:

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

Mountain biking in Austria

BTW: You can follow me on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/MarkusEggerEPS) and Twitter (www.Twitter.com/MarkusEgger) where I often post more of these types of pictures.

Zip-Lining

Another thing we did was “Zip-Lining” (“Hochseilgarten”) in Hinterglemm (Saalbach). Well, I shouldn’t say “we”, because I do not enjoy heights, and I thus didn’t participate. Nevertheless, my friends did, and I kinda just tagged along. As it turns out, the “Hochseilgarten” in Saalbach/Hinterglemm is very impressive and professionally put together and run. I was quite surprised how big a facility this was. You could spend all day there if you wanted, climbing about high up in the trees, and even zipping across the valley 500 feet up in the air or ride a bicycle across a wire above a river, if you are so inclined.

Here are some impressions from this endeavor:

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

Zip Lining in Austria

There you go. That tiny dot highlighted by the red arrow in the last photo is a person zipping across on a wire.

They are also currently working on some additions to their part. They are opening a few new tracks. They also just built a giant bridge (known as “the Golden Gate of the Alps”) and a walkway high up in the canopy (“Baumzipfelweg”). If you are interested in doing this, check out their Facebook page or this link.

Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is big in the area. I actually had my own boat when I was little (like 7 years old or so), but despite the prime opportunity, I have not done any whitewater kayaking since. (We did do a sea kayak trip in Alaska, which I blogged about here). But we have been talking about kayaking for a while now, and on this trip, we finally decided to do it.

We chose “Base Camp Lofer” to rent some gear from. Lofer (which is just around the corner from Saalfelden) is one of the best places for whitewater kayaking. The river (the “Saalach”) has anything from beginners areas to stretches of river they hold the world cup on. Anything from class 1 to class 5+ rapids can be found within a few miles. Since most of us had never done it before, or (like me) were no experts, we started out easy. This was a blast though. I enjoyed it so much, I am actually thinking about buying my own kayak now.

Base Camp was a great place to rent kayaks, because they actually allow you to try it out just for a few hours, without going through a multi-day and expensive course. They provide everything from the actual kayaks to wet gear, and so forth. They sent us of with a bunch of people (you always need someone to pick you up downriver), two of which accompanied us in boats, while the rest of them just were there to drive cars around and provide support.

The only low point of the trip was that one of the guides dislocated his shoulder. As is mostly the case with such accidents, it happened messing around on an easy stretch of the river. Luckily, one of the people in our group was a doctor. So he was well taken care of, and we ultimately continued on without him. (No, we didn’t just leave him behind… he got picked up by an ambulance).

Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me (since that isn’t all that easy to do). However, here are some other kayaking photos from Lofer (all of which taken at much rougher spots than were we went):

Kayaking in Lofer

Kayaking in Lofer

Kayaking in Lofer

Hopefully I will be able to upload some of my own kayaking photos in the near future…

Hiking and Geo Caching

Finally, we got back into a hobby we’ve had in the past but haven’t done much in recent years: Geo Caching (you can read an older blog post about it here). If you have never heard of Geo Caching, the basic idea is this: People hide stuff all around the world in “geo caches”. These can be seen as little treasures, although they generally have little value. Geo caches usually contain knick-knacks and usually also a log book. You can then go out with a GPS and try to find these caches. Think of it as a high-tech treasure hunt. Some caches are easy to find. Others involve riddles. Some are hard to get to physically.

There is a Geo Caching web site (www.GeoCaching.com) where you can get information about caches. What really got us back into it is that there now are thousands of caches in just about any area. Look up a cool cache, and you have a cool destination to hike or bike to. It is a cool way with a purpose to get out and about. And not just are there now many places, but modern GPS devices make geo caching much more enjoyable. In particular, I am fond of the new Geo Caching iPhone app, which is by far the best way to find caches, if you ask me.

We are sure to go after more caches in the future, and Austria (among many other places) is a great way to do so!



Posted @ 4:00 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, July 04, 2010
Vieste, Gargano, Italy – Windsurfing and Eating :-)

We just returned from a trip to Vieste. Where is Vieste, you ask? It is pretty far south in Italy. Basically, when you think of the “boot” that’s Italy, Vieste is the tip of the spur. (Click here for a map). We drove there from Austria, which was a lengthy drive (11 hours), especially considering that we only had 6 days there. So a long drive for a relatively short trip, but boy, was it worth every moment of it!

But first things first: Why did we even end up going to Vieste? It really all started some 20 years ago. Even as a teenager, I have always heard of the “Gargano” region of Italy (that’s what the spur is called) as a great place to go windsurfing. At the time however, I did not have a good way to get there, so I was stuck reading about it in German Windsurfing magazines (Surf Magazin). So this year, we found ourselves looking for a good place for a short vacation. We didn’t have much time. In fact, we had originally planned to go somewhere this spring, but we were so busy with our day jobs (thanks, economic crisis!) that all ideas of heading to the Caribbean, Central America, or Maui, had to be given up. We already knew however that (just like every year), we would be coming to our second home in Austria in June. Hence the idea arose to just drive somewhere from Austria for a few days.

Of course driving limits the distance you can go. (So my favorite destination – which is Greece – was out). We didn’t want to fly anywhere, because although it would have been very inexpensive to fly somewhere from Austria, we felt it wasn’t flexible enough. Plus, I wanted to go windsurfing. So that immediately limited the options, because windsurfing means you have to a) find a good place to rent gear (and not just any gear), and 2) you need a place to stay near the place that rents the gear, or else you are up for a pain in the rear trip. A quick search of some of the places I remembered, and a short discussion with a travel agent friend of mine, resulted in 2 “hits”: Gargano and the south of France. So I sent off some emails to the surf stations there, and the guys from France never answered. Alas, Italy it was!

The Journey

The drive was much what you’d expect it to be. We left on a Friday evening (after watching that night’s World Cup football/soccer game) and drove until about 5am. We got to just before Rimini, which is a bit more than half way. We had thought about just taking a hotel for the night. But hotels are not that easy to find along the Italian Autostrada, and I felt like I only needed a nap. So we slept in the car for 3 hours and moved on. We got off the Autostrada (the highway, basically) around 1pm the next day. (Total toll charges to basically drive the length of Italy, came to Euro 50, in case you wonder). This brought us pretty close to our destination. However, as you drive out the spur, you are getting onto small and windy roads. Not quite “Road to Hana” material, but pretty close. So it took well over another hour for us to finally get to Vieste.

As you get off the highway, you are driving through some of the most poverty-stricken parts of Italy. Lots of low-income housing and other crappy stuff to see. Not exactly what you are hoping for as you are nearing your vacation destination. But if you ever go on this trip yourself: Fear not! It gets a lot better. We finally reached Vieste around 2:30pm. The town itself has a picturesque setting as so many Italian towns do. Vieste is not very big. It has an old town center (see below) as well as the more modern parts. The modern parts are typical Italian low-income living areas (i.e. “crappy”), but as you get into town (especially in the evenings), you can’t help but be charmed by Italian life-style. Boy, there is a lot of stuff going on there! You see people sitting in sidewalk Cafes, and you smell awesome Italian food being cooked. It is Italy’s finest and Italy’s worst all in one place. But after a few days there, you won’t even notice the crappy parts anymore over all the cool stuff!

Vieste

Right as we arrived, we were in for an involuntary tour of the city. We had booked a bungalow at a campground called “Punta Lunga”. However, we didn’t really know where that was, and somehow, I had gotten the impression it was south of Vieste. So we drove down around the south side and discovered all kinds of cool clubs and restaurants (not to mention the vistas!), but no Punta Lunga! We then continued on to the north side, but this darn place was hidden so well, we drove past it twice before we finally found it. By that time, we had pretty much become experts and knew where everything else was. (If you ever look for Punta Lunga yourself, here is a tip: You turn right at the only traffic light, which is about 3 minute north of Vieste).

Punta Lunga Campground and Bungalows

We chose to stay in a bungalow at the Punta Lunga campground, because we wanted to be close to the windsurf center I had chosen (see below). My expectations for this were pretty low, but so was the price. As it turned out, the bungalows weren’t anything fancy, but they were nicer than I had expected. And the campground itself was very nice for a campground. It has several restaurants (or 1 restaurant and a few snack bars) and a bar, and an entertainment area (with the same darn song being played all the time!). Everything is right on the water, and the beach is somewhat secluded. Quite a nice setting, actually! Especially since things weren’t too busy there. (I imagine August would be not quite as nice a time to come, as it is probably packed!).

The Punta Lunga campground

The Punta Lunga campground

So if you ever intend to go there with a camper van or a tent, this is a pretty cool place to go. And if you are interested in a bungalow, you get good value for the price. Note: If you rent a bungalow, rent the real bungalow. They have other options, such as renting a mobile home or a so-called “Banga” bungalow, which I would advise against. The Bangas looked like they were bought out of old stock from Soviet Russia! But the real bungalows were OK, and you could even cook there. We didn’t take advantage of that (as it would be a waste of awesome restaurants in the area!), but it is nice to have a fridge and a stove.

Our little bungalow in the Punta Lunga campground

We also dined right at the restaurant at the campground twice. This is mostly an option for a lazy night, as the restaurant isn’t anything special. The fish there was pretty good. The “frutti di mare” was very good, actually. Pizza was just OK, although I got pizza there on both visits, so it wasn’t horrible either.

Almost everything at Punta Lunga is reasonably priced. All kinds of foods (snacks or real food) were reasonable. The only thing I was not happy with was the price of the beach chairs and umbrellas. I guess if you come in a camper-van, you bring your own, but if you have to rent, it is a rip-off! Also, even though the place claims they “now are a wireless Internet zone”, the Internet sucks too. It is relatively expensive and it only works in a tiny area (which is also the children’s entertainment area and mostly loud, especially in the evenings… did I mention they were playing the same song over and over and over…?). Speed was OK, but how hard could it possibly be to have reasonably priced wireless Internet in the whole area?!?

Windsurfing

Of course the main reason we came was windsurfing. I had chosen Punta Lunga, because I had first chosen Gargano Surfcenter as our windsurfing station. This turned out to be a great choice. This windsurf station is not very large, but there is enough gear there. It is all up to date. Most of it is high-quality Lorch and Aerotech gear. I usually pick my windsurf stations based on whether they have Neil Pryde sails or not, but I was very happy with the Aerotech sails, and the Lorch boards turned out to be excellent as well. (So much so in fact, that I would consider buying a Lorch board and Aerotech sail myself now). Tomy and Diana immediately made us feel welcome, and the overall vibe at the station is great, regardless of whether you are a beginner or a pro.

Gargano Surfcenter has excellent gear

The windsurfing conditions were good as well. I am always worried when I go somewhere for a week, because one usually gets just a day or 2 of sailing at best. Not enough to get back into it and too much to be bitten by the bug again. Very frustrating. In this case however, we had enough wind to sail every day. Not super-strong (about 5 bft, 20 knots or so… a bit more at times) but consistent. The spot also builds up a bit of wind-swell. About 1 meter max any time I sailed, but I hear on good days (one of which I just missed by a few days), it gets up to 11 bft of wind-speed, and 4-5 meter waves. As far as I can tell, waves are pretty much always the same direction as the wind, so no wave-riding here. We also had quite a bit of chop, so if that bothers you, then this isn’t the spot for you.

Windsurfing at conditions we had when we were there

Windsurfing at conditions a few days before we arrived

One of the things I really enjoyed at Gargano Surfcenter was that I could switch boards and sails any time I wanted. More so than at any other rental station I had ever been at. One day I just went through various boards, sails, and even harnesses, just to try things out. Very cool! I also felt that Tomy and Diana were more than fair in how they counted my time on the water (and only the actual sailing time counted for rental, so if there would have been a day without wind, I wouldn’t have ended up paying for it) and I felt I ended up getting a good deal. Especially since they were nice enough to use some of the time block I had purchased towards a lesson for Ellen.

There are more windsurf and kite surf stations just a bit further north. And truth be told, I am under the impression the wind may be a bit stronger there in general. However, there were a lot more people on the water there, and windsurfers and kite surfers were all sailing in the same area. Always a recipe for disaster, if you ask me. Personally, I would go back to Gargano Surfcenter and Punta Lunga. Maybe if I ended up without much wind there, I might make a day-trip a few miles north. But in general, I think one is better off at Gargano Surfcenter.

BTW: Gargano Surfcenter also has a group on Facebook.

Diving and other Sports

There are quite a few other things one could do in Vieste. Anything from Mountain Biking, to SuPs (Stand-Up Paddle Boards) and to Go-Karts is readily available. We didn’t have enough time to try anything else really. However, Mountain Biking could be very cool there, and I found myself wishing we had brought our bikes. It seems there are lots of places to go, and lots of little back or beach-roads to discover. Bike rentals are available too, but we didn’t really go for it after all. (We spent quite a bit of time just walking along the coast).

We did actively try to find a way to go scuba diving though. Unfortunately, it turns out that’s not readily available in Vieste. We were told there is a filling station in the port of Vieste somewhere, but we looked and didn’t find anything. Besides, we didn’t bring our own tanks anyway. We snorkeled around a bit one day, but there really wasn’t much to see at all, so I doubt there is good diving there, even if one had a way to do it. The best option probably is to take a day trip to the island of Tremiti. Such day-trips are readily available from Vieste, and I am told that the trip is worthwhile regardless of diving, and in addition, Tremiti has a scuba center. We didn’t have time to check it out, but that seems to be a viable option.

Trabuccos

One of the things you will notice as you drive along the cost is odd wooden contraptions build out on the cliffs. At first, they look a bit industrial and crappy, but then you realize they are kinda nifty and cool, actually. These are called “Trabuccos” and they are old fishing rigs that can only be found in this area of Italy. (Click here for a description of Trabuccos on the Wikipedia). In the old days, fisherman would use Trabuccos to cast their nets into the Adriatic Sea and let them lay at the bottom for a little while, before they pulled them back up and collected everything in it. These days, that doesn’t amount to much, as overfishing lead to pretty barren waters. Good news for water sports enthusiasts who are afraid of sharks ;-), but bad news for everyone who likes marine life.

The Trabucco at Punta Lunga

A model Trabucco

In any event: You can see Trabuccos all over the coast line. Some of them are even built out as restaurants, which is very cool (see below).

Vieste – Old Town

There is more to Vieste than just water sports. Go into the center of town (park you car for 3 Euros at one of the monitored parking areas in the outskirts of town… you won’t find parking in the center) and you can’t miss the old town. Simply follow one of the main roads that lead into town until you hit the main square. There is tons of stuff going on there as well, but keep going upwards. The oldest part of town is at the top of the hill. You will find an area of tiny little roads and ally ways. No cars allowed here, because they wouldn’t fit anyway. Just walking around here is great fun and should not be missed. And then of course there are the restaurants. Oh boy, are you in for a treat!

Vieste Old Town

Of course you will also see lots of other little shops (such as the typical small Italian designer and souvenir shops). You will see people socializing in the streets. You will see places people live. And you will have great vistas and photo opportunities.

Vieste Old Town

Vieste Old Town

Restaurants

We ate a lot on this trip. And I mean A LOT! If you like Italian food (and that includes pizza and pasta, but I am talking mostly about fish and other things from the ocean), then you will feel like you died and had gone to heaven! We didn’t have a single bad meal on the entire trip. There is too much too talk about really, but let me sum up some of the most important dining experiences we had:

Pelikano: This is a beach restaurant (and club, actually... see here) on the beach to the south of Vieste. It’s a very cool and modern restaurant. Somewhat on the upscale side. Expect relatively decent food, very nice ambience, and a somewhat higher price. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back there. On the other hand, we found so many excellent places, “pretty good” has a difficult time competing with “experience of a lifetime”...

Nicely set plate at Pelikano

Sapore di Mare: This is a restaurant with a view! It sits at the top of the cliff just about as far into the old town as you can go. Keep going until you can go no further (which is not very far in Vieste) and you have reached Sapore di Mare. The setting of the restaurant is such that you simply must not miss it if you ever go to Vieste. The restaurant itself is relatively simple. The food is to die for! We ate “frutti di mare” (mixture of various things such as scampi and squid… a true Italian classic!), Cozze (the black mussels), spaghetti with mussels, and a mixed fish grill plate. Everything was excellent and priced fairly. We will go back here on our next trip to Vieste!

Sapore di Mare has a very nice setting

Cafe Mistral: This one is outside of town, very close to Punta Lunga (just go south from Punta Lunga, and it is the first restaurant). This features a great view of Vieste in the distance. The restaurant itself is modern and tasteful (and a club at night, I believe). Pretty cool, Italian ambience. Also very good food. Once again, we ate mussels, frutti di mare, a fish soup, and some pizza, and it was all good. The price was also reasonable, all things considered.

Cafe Mistral is all about Italian design

La Ripa: Another highlight of the trip. This little restaurant (billed as a “typical Viestian restaurant”) is in the heart of the old town (near Sapore di Mare, actually). It is probably a tourist trap, and I have no idea if a lot of locals would go there. And yes, it is a tad on the expensive side (not too bad). But we had a great time there and one of the better dining experiences I ever had. We ate anything from fish to cozze to frutti di mare to grilled cheese and pasta, and it was all excellent. The wine wasn’t bad either. We may have paid about 80 Euros for 2 people, but I felt it was more than worth it. Every so often, there is nothing wrong with just being a tourist :-)

The ambience at La Rippa can't be beat

The ambience at La Rippa can't be beat

Nameless Place in the Middle of Nowhere: One night, Tomy and Diana (from Gargano Surfcenter) were good enough to take us (together with 3 other windsurfing couples we had met) to a little place they know. I would never be able to find it again on my own, and as far as we could tell, it doesn’t even have a name. I am not even sure it is really a restaurant vs. just some place that happens to sell food to people in the know. We paid 25 Euros each for all we could eat and drink. And what a feast it was! They served up every conceivable local specialty. It must have been 30-35 different appetizers. Any type of fish, octopus, vegetable, scampi, mussel, squid, made in any conceivable way you can imagine. This was followed by a few different pasta dishes. All home made. Then, all the fish and/or meat you can eat as the main course. Followed by some traditional desserts. It must have been 40-45 different courses, plus wine and a “digestivo” and whatever else one wanted to drink. This was the kind of dinner you will never forget, enjoyed with a fun group of new friends. You simply can’t have that kind of experience elsewhere. Awesome!

Too bad you can't take a picture of the taste. This was awesome!

Trabucco da u’Manfrudien: This was a lucky find. We just walked along the beach one day about 20-30 minutes north of Punta Lunga (just on the south end of the larger windsurf bay near Portichelli) when we saw a pretty nicely maintained Trabucco. We walked closer to take a picture when we noticed a sign hat said it was OK to come in. We walked up the wooden plank, and would you know it! Someone turned the thing into a tiny little restaurant. We didn’t have any money on us, but we came back the next day for lunch. And we ended up with an experience of a lifetime!

A trabucco turned into a restaurant

The whole place was tiny. Nevertheless, about 30 Italians were feasting in little groups. Nobody spoke anything but Italian there, and there certainly weren’t any non-Italian tourists other than us. We managed to order 2 appetizer deals that turned out to be multi-course meals. We had frutti di mare, anchovies, all kinds of vegetables (and other bite-sized appetizers), olives, bruschietta, pizza, and the best plate of cozze (mussels) I ever had. All that for 10 bucks a person. We then followed it up by a grilled fish plate we shared. It was also excellent. We had a bunch of drinks and spent about 3 hours there. In the end, it cost us just over 30 bucks. I gave them 40, because I felt it was worth a lot more. (Normally, you do not tip much in Italy).

The place is tiny, but there is always room for one more...

Not much room for a kitchen here, but they make some of the best things you'll ever taste.

Conclusion

Travel is almost always fun. But sometimes, you go on a quick trip just to get away. You don’t have super-high expectations. Yet before you know it, you are having the time of your life! This certainly won’t be the last time I go to Gargano and especially Vieste. I intend to go to many of the same places again, but there are tons of additional ones we had heard about but didn’t have time to go to. (And I now have to go on a diet before I return).

This was travel at its best!



Posted @ 4:06 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, June 28, 2009
Another Greek Sailing Adventure

As long time readers of my blog know, I like to go to Greece every now and then and sail around the islands. We did this last in August/September of 2006 (you can read about it here: A Journey to Greece, Sailing in Odysseus’ Track Part 1, Part 2, and subsequent drive up the Amalfi Coast and visit to ancient Pompeij and a few places in the Tuscany region). We made a similar trip in September of 2008. We once again drove down to Venice from Austria, got on a ferry to Greece (Iguomenitsa) and then hopped on a boat with Neil in Lefkas. I could probably write the same review of the journey as I did 2 years earlier. It was still great fun to take the ship out of Venice and all that. However, there isn’t anything really new to report on that part of the trip.

The same could be said about a lot of the trip. We went to Lefkas, stocked up on a bunch of goods we put on the boat, and off we sailed. That is Ellen, and myself, but also my parents came along time time, and Neil - owner of www.LefkasYachts.com - was our skipper again, as I still wouldn’t be comfortable operating a boat all on my own. (A little bit of sailing isn’t a problem, but when a wind storm blows over and you have to make sure the boat is anchored properly, I would not be comfortable on my own).

On our first leg, we sailed out of Lefkas down to Mytikas (on the main land across from Lefkas), where we once again had an excellent dinner of various Greek delicacies. It was all good, but we really came for the Octopus. I am not a big Octopus fan myself – since it generally is a chewy mess – but in Mythos, you will find the best Octopus of all time. Tender as steak, and super tasty. If you ever are in the area, you just have to try it out!

Over the next few days we continued on to various islands and villages. Overall, this was pretty similar to our trip 2 years earlier. One just tends to go back to favorite places, and when sailing in the Ionian Islands, places like Fiskardo (on Kefalonia) are always great stops. Slightly overcrowded perhaps, but late in the season (September), it really isn’t too bad. However, we did go to a few new places as well. In particular, Assos stood out for me as a very cute little port of call.


Some classical Greek scenery in Assos.

One of the things that is really neat in Greece is that one can go pretty much anywhere, and each little town or village one comes up to has a quay (“dock”) one can simply pull up to and spend a few hours or the night. There always are tavernas nearby, and one is ready for a great night of food and partying in a typical Greek fashion. It is quite unlike anywhere else.

The weather we encountered made the trip quite interesting. While it was still better than back home in Houston (where hurricane Ike slammed into our area with devastating effect), and while most of the days were quite sunny, we had a stretch of a few days of rain and a pretty severe wind storm. One night, while anchored in Fiskardo, some other boats were ripped loose and slammed into the rocks at the opposite side of the port. We had to assist in a rescue operation. Not that anyone got hurt, but several boats ended up on the rocks and were severely damaged.


We ended up sailing in some pretty high winds and some serious waves. Top boat speed (measured by GPS) was 11.8knots… pretty darn fast for this type of boat...

We also tried a new thing this time around: Yacht racing!

We didn’t have a huge amount of time, but we had 2 opportunities to partake in races. One was a 3-day “rally” around some of the islands. We passed on this one, since it simply would have taken too much time and we weren’t into it quite that seriously, but we ended up by accident (or perhaps by Neil’s planning ;-)) in the same port as the starting location for one of the legs. So we informally took part of it anyway, and it turns out that we pretty much would have kicked everyone’s butt if we really would have competed officially. Despite the fact that we dragged our dingy – the small boat – behind our boat, to the dismay of a lot of the competitors :-).

Encouraged by this result, we decided to compete in the big Ionian Regatta, which had several hundred boats and yachts compete. This was quite the experience. One just hasn’t really seen what these boats can do until one goes for the mad scramble that is 200 boats trying to cross the start line at the same time.


The start of the Ionian Regatta. Ourskipper Neil is concentrating hard, while we are goofing around, trying to avoid the apparently traditional food fight… (yeah, I don’t quite get it either).

The regatta was split into 2 groups, with a group of smaller boats getting a head start of 10 minutes (since they are not as fast as the bigger ones) and the group of larger yachts going second (we were part of the later group). Neil did very well getting us going. Unfortunately, the wind stopped about 15 minutes after the start and everyone just sat there for 2 hours trying to move a little bit and getting into the wind first whenever it came around. We weren’t overly lucky in this endeavor, but we still did OK.

Once the wind picked back up, we did OK. Neil is a great sailor and he got us pretty close to the front of the pack, even though some of the other boats were significantly larger and thus theoretically faster. Unfortunately, about half way through the race, the traveler on the main boom broke, throwing us into a frenzy trying to fix it. It left us with very limited ability to adjust the size of the main sail, but luckily, the winds stayed pretty steady and we weren’t too severely handicapped.


One the home stretch towards the town of Syvota. Some boats are quite far ahead, but we still came in 13th.

When it was all said and done, and handicaps were calculated in (each boat has a certain handicap to adjust for things such as size, type of propeller, and all kinds of other things), it turned out we came in 13th. Not too bad at all for our first race, and considering there were several hundred boats in the race. We were happy and ready to celebrate our victory in one of the many tavernas in Syvota (this was the port that marked the finish of the Regatta). Unfortunately, we had to leave that same evening to make it back to our ferry to Italy in time. Oh well, we will party the next time. This time around, a little snack and glass of Retsina had to do:


A short celebration of a good racing result.



Posted @ 1:13 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Saturday, June 27, 2009
Windsurfing in Egypt (and other Water Sports)

Readers of my blog have recently seen my general overview of our trip to Egypt (“Relaxing with the Pharaohs”), our trip to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and our trip to Cairo and the Pyramids. All these things were awesome, once in a lifetime experiences. However, my main reason for going to Egypt, and the main reason why we will certainly be back, is the incredible water sports, and in particular windsurfing, that is to be had there.

In fact, we didn’t go to Egypt with a specific location or hotel in mind at all. Instead, I first searched for a good windsurfing station, and then picked a hotel nearby. The one station that looked best to me was Surfmotion, owned by German transplant Peter Mueller. The Station features tons of Neil Pryde, JP, and Fanatic equipment. None older than 6 months, and plenty of equipment on hand at all times. In hindsight, this is exactly the station I’d pick again (although I just went to look up their web site, and the site seems to be gone… I hope they are still there). Surfmotion is actually right on the grounds of the Abu Soma Intercontinental hotel, which is a very nice, albeit somewhat pricey hotel. Nice rooms, OK food, and the usual hard Egyptian beds.

From a windsurfing point of view, it doesn’t get much better than Soma Bay, assuming you like flat water. The sea is incredible. No matter how far out you go, you will look down into turquoise, unthreatening water everywhere. A little further out you get a bit of chop, but close in, especially at low tide, you will sail like in a flying carpet, with the biggest bumps being an inch or two at most. Perfect to practice your jibes and tricks. The wind generally starts around 10 o’clock in the morning and picks up more and more, and it dies down again between 3pm and 5pm, sometimes going a little later. This makes it pretty easy to schedule things for experts and beginners alike. High-wind times turn Soma Bay into a great playground for advanced sailors, while the flat water and the shape of the bay combined with wind direction make it an ideal location for first-timers.

Surfmotion provides both windsurfing and kiteboarding. “Kiters” are in the area a little upwind in some very shallow water (especially during low tide), while windsurfers sail out right from the surf station. This is a very convenient separation since it avoids the usual problems when kite boarders (with their kites on long strings) and windwurfers (with long masts) get tangled up.

Here are a few photos taken right from Surfmotion:

Windsurfing

Windsurfing

Windsurfing

Windsurfing

Windsurfing

Kite surfing

We spent most of our time windsurfing. We slept till about 9 or 9:30, then walked over to the surf station, started out picking our gear (you have an assigned board, although you can change any time if you want… but this assures nobody runs of with your board. Sails you pick as needed), and often, Ellen would take some lessons as long as the wind wasn’t too strong. (Note: They have a competent staff or instructors for both windsurfing and kite surfing). Then, the wind would start picking up and I would sail myself, generally switching down to at least one smaller sail size as the day went on. (Switching gear is exceedingly painless, as the Surfmotion staff will already wait for you at the beach and pick up your sail and hand you whatever you need, without you even having to leave the water… awesome! :-)). In the late afternoon, we would return to the hotel’s beach on the other side of the small peninsula it is on, and do some relaxing or ride the camel on the beach (the hotel has their own camel).

Note: Surfmotion doesn’t serve any actual food they make there, but you can order sandwiches ahead of time. Tell them the evening before and they will bring whatever you order from Hurghada. This is generally a good idea as the hotel didn’t offer much in terms of quick snacks. And who wants to go to a sit-down restaurant in a 15 minute windsurfing break?

Surfmotion
The Surfmotion station photographed from the Abu Soma hotel. The water is just to the right out of the frame…

The equipment provided by Surfmotion is excellent. I am always worried when I rent gear, because it can make or break your vacation. However, here, everything is brand new. Yes, it is rental gear and gets a lot of use, but you get excellent sails, boards, and even the fins are very good (usually, rental equipment has awful fins!). I ended up with Neil Pryde sails and Fanatic boards. JP is a little more expensive to rent and I considered upgrading, but once I sailed the Fanatic board, I was highly satisfied and didn’t bother to change.

Note that there is tons of other water sport to be had at the same location. In fact, there is even a second windsurfing station right on the property of the Abu Soma hotel. Surfmotion is German run (clientele being international) and the other one (can’t recall the name) is British operated with mainly British clients and seemingly catering more towards beginners. Also right on the premises is a German operated diving school. You can take a scuba diving course right there and get licensed (the German operated business providing excellent lessons and international licenses like anywhere else). Of course, you can also take scuba trips right from there if you are already an experienced scuba diver.

We considered taking the scuba lessons. However, windsurfing conditions were so good, we just didn’t have time. Maybe next time. We did however go on snorkeling trips, and frankly, this was by far the best snorkeling experience I ever had. (For comparison, I have snorkeled in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Brazil, and Egypt was better by an order of magnitude!). From what I understand, it is also one of the world’s best locations for scuba-diving.

I did end up taking kite surfing lessons. There wasn’t all that much time for that either, but I spend 2 hours and was lucky enough to pass all the tests at the end to get an international kite surfing license. This was fun, and I am glad I did it. I even ended up buying a kite afterwards. However, I have to admit I still like windsurfing a lot better.

As far as as wind conditions go: It doesn’t get much better than Egypt. When it is hot, the wind blows and it blows very steady (especially in the summer… I hear it isn’t as consistent in the winter). And of course this being Egypt, it is always hot. You can look up the weather in Hurghada online. I am convinced they just put up a static page. It is always the same…

Soma Bay Sunset


This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:



Posted @ 1:28 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, June 14, 2009
Cairo, The Sphinx & the Pyramids, and Taking a Rest in Khufu’s Sarcophagus

The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, the Nile, the Red Sea. All worthwhile things to see on a trip to Egypt. However, there is one sight that tops all the other Egyptian sights, quite possible any other sight in the world: The Pyramids.

So when we went to Egypt, we knew we must to to see the Pyramids, even though we were in Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and the Pyramids (which are practically in Cairo) are not exactly around the corner. We had the choice of driving to Cairo by bus, which would have been a 2-day trip and not exactly a lot of fun I imagine, or take the more expensive option and fly from Hurghada to Cairo and back the same day. We took option number 2, and in hindsight, that was the much better choice. It still made for a very long day as we left our hotel before 4am in the morning. The flight itself was quick and uneventful. We actually had expected a very small plane (like a 6-seater), which I looked forward to, but it turned out to be a regular small passenger plane.

Of course, Cairo itself is quite an interesting place to visit as well. It is one of the world’s largest cities (#10 or #11 or so, with a population of about 17,000,000), and the largest city in Africa. It’s a sprawling part Arab and (small) part Christian metropolitan area in the dessert, with the Nile flowing down the middle, creating a little bit of a green stripe. The rest if all sand-colored (including most of the buildings). Even the sky as a red-ish tint, as there is tons of sandy dust in the air. (And I would guess a good part of that is probably just pollution). Mix in some very high temperatures (even for my taste) and you have quite the experience. Every breath you take feels like you are getting your lungs sandblasted. Not very pleasant at all to be honest. I can’t believe people live there year round. I guess one must get used to it, but I am sure the health-implications remain.


Cairo as seen from the Alabaster Mosque. Everything is red-ish brown, including the air…

But we were only there for a day, so our mind was on other things. Our tour of Cairo started out with a trip to Muhammad Ali’s Alabaster Mosque (no, not the boxer). This actually turned out to be quite interesting and educational. I found it interesting that even though we aren’t Muslims, we were still welcome there, and overall, the experience put the Muslim faith into a different light for me. Personally, I am always very open minded about such things anyway, but I think it would be particularly interesting for people who hold a prejudice against it. We really just had to take our shoes off (people kneel in there, so they don’t want the carpets to get dirty) and in we went. Quite interesting.

Anyway: Our main goal in coming to Cairo wasn’t to learn about the Muslim faith, but to see some ancient Egyptian stuff. Our next stop gave us a really good dose of that: The Egyptian Museum. This place has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities anywhere in the world. I knew that before. What I didn’t realize beforehand was that they do so in a relatively small amount of space. And of course, there are a gazillion people visiting. The experience in fact was not entirely unlike riding the London Subway during rush hour. Smelly sweaty people are pressed up against each other, trying to catch a glimpse of various ancient artifacts. The temperature inside the museum probably being a good 20 degrees warmer than outside. It almost made me dizzy. I am sure it must have been above 50 degrees centigrade in there (more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit). So it is safe to say that this isn’t the kind of museum you spend a lot of time in, enjoying all the sights and taking it all in at your pace. Still, it was an interesting experience.

King Tut's golden death maskThere are 2 things that really stand out in the museum (and are well worth the extra price of admission): King Tut’s treasure, and their collection of actual real mummies. King Tut’s treasure includes his gold treasure with the actual burial mask he wore (the famous solid gold mask you always think of when anyone mentions King Tut) as well as tons of other items that are either enormously valuable (generally solid gold) or interesting for other reasons (such as a 5,000 year old fold-up camping bed with even the metal hinges still working… amazing!). This was one of the highlights of the trip for me (and that is when I started regretting that I didn’t see his tomb).

The collection of mummies is quite grotesque in a way. You would through it and you see the actual bodies of 5,000 year old people (Kings, mainly). All the important ones are right there. We visited their tombs a few days before in the Valley of the Kings and now we saw the actual bodies right in front of us. Very unusual. (Come to think of it, they may be the only dead human bodies I have ever personally seen up close). On a side-note: This part of the museum is also less crowded and well air conditioned. Probably worth the price of admission right there.

So that was the museum, but now we were ready to move on to the main attraction: The Pyramids and the Sphinx!


The Pyramids. Look closely, and you will see the city of Cairo right in the background.

When looking at pictures of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, one really gets quite a wrong expression of it all. The Pyramids are not out in the middle of the dessert somewhere. They are really in a suburb of Cairo on the edge of town. Pictures are usually taken so one only sees the dessert, but when taken from the other side, one can clearly see that they are right in town (on “One Pyramid Street”, if memory serves me correctly). Also, the Sphinx is not right next to the Pyramids, and it is significantly smaller than I expected. Once again, it is mainly due to the pictures taken from an angle that makes the Sphinx look large and right next to the Pyramids rather than it being quite a bit smaller and a few miles off.

In any event: The whole thing did not disappoint. We came up the the Pyramids with our tour bus, and the guide gave us a few different options: 1) go inside the Big Pyramid (Khufu’s Pyramid, a.k.a. “Cheops Pyramid”), which was a hot, and – according to the guide – strenuous affair, or 2) go inside the medium size Pyramid which was a leisurely stroll in and out (and also less expensive). As you can imagine, I didn’t want any part of option number 2. I hadn’t come all the way to Egypt to see some average Pyramid nobody really cares about (quick: Name the King who built the second largest Pyramid of all time… see! Nobody knows). So we went into the large Pyramid, while the entire bus load of our co-travelers went for the smaller one. It really amazed me. Not a single other person went for the main attraction.

Inside the Pyramid: The Grand GallerySo we made our way up a few steps the outside and then went through the entrance tunnel into the Grand Gallery, a huge “hall” leading up the the burial chamber of King Khufu/Cheops. It is a fairly steep flight of stairs leading up a little ways, but it really wasn’t all that exhausting. I am not sure why the guide recommended we shouldn’t do it. After all, just this one chamber is well known enough to make it all worth it. (Note: You are not supposed to be taking pictures inside the Pyramid – I think they want you do pay for it if you do – and yes, I do admit that I tried to snap a picture with my iPhone, but it didn’t turn out at all…).

Once you pass the Grand Gallery, you enter the burial chamber, a big and somewhat featureless rectangular chamber with hieroglyphics on the wall. What really makes this impressive of course is not just the overall size of it all, but also the history behind it. When you stand inside this place and you think back 5,000 years, and imagine the laborers building it all, or the funeral procession carrying in the sarcophagus of the dead King Khufu. You look around yourself and you see the same chamber they saw back then, and you see the sarcophagus they used then, and you experience a sensation quite unlike any other.

When we were in the Great Pyramid, only a handful of other people were in there at the same time. There were 2 British girls from another tour group, and there was an Egyptian guide/guard in the chamber at the same time. He tried to show us a few things in the chamber in his broken English, and managed to communicate enough to make it all more interesting. He even dared me to get inside the sarcophagus and lay down in it, which I did. So I ended up laying down inside the outer sarcophagus, King Khufu’s final resting place. And as if that wasn’t enough, the guide took the other three people by the hand and rounded them up around the sarcophagus and started to chant his best imitation of what is presumably an ancient Egyptian death chant. It all added up to an experience unlike any other that I am sure to never forget.

After a little while, I got back up and out of the sarcophagus. I considered laying in there waiting for the next tourists to walk into the chamber and then jump up and give them a good scare, but the whole scene was so eerie, I considered it possible that people might have an actual heart attack. Inside a grave no less. How ironic would that be? Well, ironic maybe, but not funny, so I didn’t do it.

We left the Big Pyramid and re-joined the rest of our group, who had an uneventful and not nearly as memorable time in the other pyramid. Not too surprising, when we told them about our adventures, they all regretted that they didn’t also go in the big one. I don’t blame them. They are now returning to their homes knowing they got oh-so-close to one of the most impressing achievements of mankind yet they chose to go into the smaller and much less impressive pyramid, just to save a few bucks and to avoid what turned out to be a not very hard exercise.


Here I am, with my very own camel in front of the Pyramids.

Of course we still all got to see the Pyramids from the outside, and that by itself is an incredibly impressive experience. They are so large, it is hard to even comprehend it all while you are there. You really have to make yourself look at people and other things in front of the Pyramids to get a good sense of the scale. And make sure you take a picture while you are there. Even with a camel in tow, as there are lots of Egyptians there with their camels, looking to earn a bit of bakshish (tip) in return. It will cost you a few bucks, but it is a cool experience to sit on a camel in front of the pyramids.

Once we had done all our picture taking from all kinds of angles and distances (they actually drove us to a scenic overlook a few miles off) we went on to see the Sphinx. Like I mention above, it is smaller than I expected, but nevertheless, it is very impressive. Expect a ton of people there, so take your pictures while you can and before the mass of people pushes you on. I recommend to take some pictures from a little way off with the Pyramids in the background. Yes, you end up with the same deceptive pictures as anyone else that make it look like the Sphinx is right next to the Pyramids, but who cares? They will be some cool pictures nevertheless.


Yes, I know. My head is bigger than the Spinx’es. Thanks for pointing that out :-)

So that was that. We then went on to a few more sights with our tour group. We went to the obligatory “Papyrus Museum” where we actually learned how papyrus was made (which was somewhat interesting, and we all appreciated the air-conditioning). We also went on the the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, which is one of the largest Bazaars in Africa, we were told. It was quite impressive and I am happy to report that the merchants there were outspoken and made jokes and tried to get you to buy, but they were not nearly as pushy as I expected them to be. I enjoyed the experience. Sadly, this is also the place where a few months after our visit (February 2009), a bomb killed a French girl.


The Bazaar in Cairo

And that was it. After the visit to the bazaar, we hurried back to the airport and ultimately back to our hotel which we reached more than 24 hours after we had left. A long day for sure. It was hot, and the quality of the air in Cairo was so bad, Ellen actually contracted bronchitis (or a similar temporary breathing problem). I would say it was all worth it though. There aren’t that many days in one’s life where one goes to bad knowing that the events of the day will be fondly remembered for the rest of one’s life.


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Saturday, June 06, 2009
Luxor, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Valley of the Kings

We went to Egypt to relax, swim, snorkel, and of course windsurf (see my previous post). Nevertheless, when you go to Egypt (especially the first time around) and you have even a remote interest in archeology and/or culture, you must go and see the local sights, including various Egyptian temples, tombs, and of course the Pyramids. (Heck, even if you normally do not have an interest in archeology or culture, you must go and see these sights!). Personally, I love Egyptology anyway. How can you not? 5,000 years ago, these people already did stuff and had culture that some countries are even lacking to this day! 5,000 years! It is hard to imagine. To illustrate the point: I went to Delphi in Greece where things are 2,000 years old. Quite old one might think. But 2,000 years ago, when the Greek went to the Oracle in Delphi, the Sphinx was already older than Delphi is now! The old Egyptian stuff was already ancient, when other ancient stuff was still brand-spanking-new! It boggles the mind.

So when we went to the Red Sea, we intended to go on a few trips within Egypt to see some of this stuff. After doing some initial research , we decided to not arrange for anything ahead of time. I looked a few things up and decided that we could either do something on our own, or book a local tour. In the end, we used local tour organizers (“local” being an odd term in this sense, since all local organizers seem to be either German or British run). It actually turns out that that was the only way to go. Tourists can’t just rent cars in Egypt and drive around. I assume one could probably get a special permit or license or something if one lived there a long time, but for tourists, everyone simply told us it couldn’t be done. And that was OK with us in the end, because the tours were inexpensive. Besides, I have always felt that with a knowledgeable tour guide, a pile of rubble turns into an interesting archeological site full of stories, history, and excitement.

In the end, we decided to take two different tours. One to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and the other (which I will blog about separately) to Cairo to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx (among other things). For both, there generally were two options. 1) be part of a larger tourist group, and 2) rent your own driver and guide in a single car. For the Luxor trip, we decided to go with option number 2, and as it turned out, it was by far the better deal. For just a few bucks more than in the group, we had our own car that went where we wanted and when we wanted, with the air condition set the way we wanted, and I guess theoretically with the music playing we wanted (although our guide had a somewhat odd taste – which included playing the same song a million times – which we let him get away with).

Our trip to Luxor started pretty early in the morning (5am if I remember correctly). Our guide with driver and car came to our hotel and picked us up. The hotel (Intercontinental Abu Soma) was nice enough to prepare to-go portions rather than our regular breakfast and dinner. Our first leg in this trip was to go to the nearest town, which was the starting location for the “convoy to Luxor”. As it turns out, Egypt is very particular about protecting tourists, and even though few incidents happened in the last decades, I guess it never hurts to err on the cautious side. For this reason, no tourist trips drive across country on their own, but instead, everyone has to be part of a convoy. Our particular convoy included several hundred vehicles, and we are told in the winter (which is high season) it could be ten times as many. The convoy includes a number of police cars, and as it turns out, along the path of the convoy, local security blocks off all other roads, and no other cars may drive at the same time. There even are scout cars that to ahead to make sure there isn’t anything undesirable the way, such as a car bomb. It seems to be quite a secure system. Not that it has ever really been needed. We are told there never were any incidents of any kind, and I guess the overall system makes sure it stays that way.

Driving in this convoy is a particular experience all in its own. For some reason, drivers seem to be compelled to pass each other vigorously (especially on the return trip when it gets late). I am not sure what the point of all this is, since nobody can actually pass the police car driving at the very front. I guess people just want to be among the first cars that get to the final destination. The result of all this is a mad scramble, and it seems to be best to not pay too much attention to it all, which will probably save you a few gray hairs.

Overall, this entire setup (especially with our personal car) worked out very well. Our guide was great (although he was mainly a German guide who didn’t know that we were mainly interested in English descriptions, but he did a great job speaking English too). We talked about anything, from Archeological sites to religion and Arab clothing. He was a very nice, open minded, and really smart guy, and it was very interesting to learn about more about Arab culture and the life of a modern Egyptian.

The Temple of Karnak

Our first stop was the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. `This is really a collection of various sites. Imagine it more like a town that grew over time with various temples and sites. All of it is a 5,000 year old open-air museum of vast proportions. This is also the second most visited archeological site in all of Egypt, second only to the Pyramids.


The entrance to the Temple of Karnak, with its gazillion visitors.


Pharaohnic statues at the Temple of Karnak

Even though this wasn’t the main tourist season, the place was packed with people when we were there. I was glad we had our own personal guide, so we could try to weave through all the other people and visit a few locations when they seemed the least busy. And there were all kinds of things to see here, from typical temples, to obelisks, and tons of statues and hieroglyphics. Amazingly, some of the drawings are still showing their original, 5,000 year old colors. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Can you imagine painting your house in a way that lasts 5,000 years?!?

Personally, I am quite interested in Egyptology, but I didn’t know all that much about the Temple of Karnak. It is a pretty cool sight, but it is also in some ways the least spectacular of all the places we went there (which is still more spectacular than just about any other archeological site I have ever seen). I think part of the reason for it being so popular is that this is right in the middle of Luxor and very easy to get to.

The Valley of the Kings

The second stop of the trip took us to the Valley of the Kings, the main reason for me to go on this particular trip. This is where a lot of the Pharaohs have their tombs, including Tut Ankh Amun (“King Tut”) as well as many others. The location is near Luxor, but across the Nile and perhaps a 15 minute’s drive into the dessert. When you go there, you pay a fee to get into the valley, which entitles you to go into 3 different tombs out of a total of 63. Different tombs are open on different days, and the choice that presents itself is up to chance. (However, Tut Ankh Amon’s tomb is a separate ticket purchase that is not included in the standard ticket, but on the other hand, you apparently almost always have the choice to see it, unless there is something unusual going on).

Note: It is hot in the Valley of the Kings! This is one of the hottest places on earth, especially in mid-August when we were there. We live in Houston, so we are used to the heat, and I personally have an unusually high tolerance for heat. It didn’t overly bother be, but even I noticed it, especially inside the tombs. Bring plenty of water, and don’t overdo it!


This enclosure protects the entrance to King Tut’s small tomb. 

When we were there, we started out seeing the tomb of King Ramses II (he is the guy who build the Temple of Abu Simbel, one of the most recognizable Egyptian sights). This is a tomb close to the entrance of the valley, and thus easy to get to. It is also a large tomb that is a simple straight shot down into the mountain to the grave chamber (note: the mummy isn’t in this tomb, but we saw it in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). It reminded me a little bit of an ancient subway entrance with hieroglyphics on the wall. Tons of other people where there to see it, so you ended up walking in the right-hand side, being pushed forward by the steady flow of people, making your way in and out in just a few minutes. Don't get me wrong: It was very impressive and I would have been satisfied with that experience alone. However, it was to get much better.

The second tomb we saw was right near the first one (Tuthmosis I, if I remember correctly), and it was a bit more excitement in terms of architecture. It went around a few bends and there were traps for grave robbers on the way in, and it offered somewhat of an Indiana Jones feeling to it. From a plain archeological point of view it was also quite interesting, with several different chambers and lots of drawings and hieroglyphics. Once again, tons of people though, pushing you in and out (with the first few fainting from the heat).

So now we were down to our last choice, and this is where having our own guide came in really handy. Instead of just going to the next closest open tomb, he told us that we could also go and see the tomb of Tuthmosis the 2nd, which was in the far end of the valley, a little bit up a cliff. Not a lot of people went there, he said, because of the short climb up. This sounded just like what we wanted, so off we went. I was excited about this, because this particular tomb is known to be one of the most sophisticated ones (finally, watching thousands of hours of the Discovery Channel is paying off for me). The actual climb wasn’t really all that bad as it turned out. A few very steep flights of stairs up and that was it. Only the heat made it a bit harder than some people might want. The actual entrance to the tomb is quite small and a steep flight of stairs down, leading past grave-robber traps and through a number of very nicely decorated chambers, around a bend, and finally down into the grave chamber with the sarcophagus still there.

When we were in this tomb, we were the only ones, except for an old Egyptian who made sure nobody took any photographs, or at least not without giving him some Bakshish (tip) first). The entire tomb was completely silent, and their air, with all its super-fine dessert sand dust, which felt a lot like breathing gypsum enriched air, felt like it hadn’t moved in 5,000 years. We spent quite a bit of time in this tomb, taking in all the sights in quite and with all the time we wanted to take, with the old man trying his best in his broken English to explain the meaning of different drawings and pointing out various details. Just the feeling of being in this place was out of this world. It was very hot, yes, but otherwise, I think it is a shame that not a lot of people go and see this, as this was a much better experience than any of the other tombs we saw. After some time (and giving the old man his well deserved tip), we climbed back out through the narrow entrance and knew we would never forget this experience. With the time seeming to stand still, and the old man in the tomb, one felt like Howard Carter (the discoverer of Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb) might come strolling around the corner in his old outfit any minute.


Ellen and Markus just having emerged from the tomb of Tuthmosis II. 

If you ever visit the Valley of the Kings, make sure you do something like this! Don’t just visit the 3 tombs everyone else visits that day. Go our of your way and see something that is not overrun and do it at your own pace. As it turned out, we were the only ones that visited Tuthmosis II’s tomb that day, and that was pretty cool I thought. It also meant that the old man spent all day inside this tomb waiting for just us, to show us around. This makes the tip we gave him a hard earned day’s income. Keep that in mind when you consider how much you want to give them. (And yes, you should give them something. It is just part of the deal and the culture. When in Egypt, do like the Egyptians do…)

The only thing I regret about having visited the Valley of the Kings is that we didn’t go to see Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb. Sure, it is a very small and unexciting tomb. Almost like entering a small apartment with a flight of stairs leading into just a few small rooms. And sure, it costs extra, and takes extra time, as you probably have to get in line. Our guide thought it wasn’t worth it, and I think he probably is right in some ways. But on the other hand, it is King Tut’s tomb! It is where the treasure came from (which we went to see in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), and regardless of how insignificant a Pharaoh he was, and regardless of how small the tomb is, it is still a place everyone knows about. Also, his actual mummy is in the tomb, so you can see King Tut himself right then and there. I do wish I would have seen this, and hopefully, I will get to go back and take a look at some future trip to Egypt.

Hatshepsut’s Temple

Our trip then continued on to the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut, which is really just on the other side of the Valley of the Kings, although one has to take the long way around. On the way, we also stopped at a place that still manufactured hand-made alabaster ware. This was one of the downsides of having the private car: There is no good way to get out of being dragged through such shopping experiences, and the pressure to buy is enormous. We went to the alabaster place, and also to a “Papyrus Museum”, which was mostly a common papyrus shop, as they have them all over Egypt. If you travel in a larger group, it isn’t as hard not to buy anything, but if you are the only customers in the shop, and a demonstration is done for you,, there really isn’t much you can do other than buy an inexpensive piece. Oh well, it made of a nice souvenir. (Really, the only way to get out of this is to tell the driver not to go there, but he is instructed by the tour company to do so, and pushing the matter may cause a very awkward situation. Just consider it part of the price of admission).

The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut was impressive. I am really not sure what else to say about it, other than that I would consider it a must-see if you are in the area. A picture is probably worth a thousand words:


The temple of Hatshepsut. 

Crossing the Nile

Finally, our day was just about to come to an end. The last part of the trip was to cross the Nile again, which this time, we did on a small boat, which took us not just across, but also a little up the river, past the Old Winter Palace hotel, which is so rich in history, including dame Agatha Christie having spent a lot of time there, and I assume having written some of her countless novels there. Quite an experience in itself, and something I am glad I have done. This gave us a glimpse of what it must be like to take a cruise on the Nile, which is another item I have yet to check off my bucket list.


A boat trip on the Nile

And that concluded the day. Certainly, it was a day in my life I won’t forget. I saw a lot of things that day which I’d recommend for everyone to see at least once in their life.


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Saturday, May 30, 2009
Relaxing with the Pharaohs

Last August, we took a trip that was quite unlike any other I had ever taken before. We went to a place that everyone knows and everyone would probably consider a cool place to go on some level. It is also a place that hardly any Americans ever venture to (especially not lately) yet many other countries (especially European countries) think of as a fairly standard vacation destination.

I am talking about Egypt.

Why did we even think about Egypt? One of the main reasons for me to go was water sports, and in particular windsurfing. I love to windsurf, but in Houston it is difficult to do (at least in the way I like to do it). So I have gone quite a few places in search for good windsurfing conditions. From Maui to Hood River, to Costa Rica and to Greece. Most of those places have one thing in common: You generally spend a lot of time waiting for wind, and with only a week or 2 or even 3 on location, one always runs the danger of not having any wind at all. So my hope was that in Egypt, things might be different. And to make a long story short: they were!

But let’s start at the beginning: We started our trip in Salzburg, as we already were in Europe (our second home) rather than in Houston. We had a direct flight from Salzburg to Hurghada, our destination of choice. Hurghada is on the Red Sea and a windsurfing and scuba diving paradise. The flight wasn’t long and it also wasn’t expensive. In Europe, one can always find a pretty inexpensive charter flight to all major vacation destinations, as long as one can live with the set schedule. Charter flights usually leave on weekends and one mostly books such vacations in one week increments. If you want to go for 10 days, you are out of luck, but otherwise, this deal is great is it is a very inexpensive way to go. We stayed for 2 weeks.

Note: I am not sure what the least expensive way would be to get to Egypt from the United States. I am sure there must be decent ways to do this, although in some ways, it may not hurt to first go to London, Munich, or Amsterdam and try for a charter flight and hotel package from there on. I would not at all be surprised if that turned out to be the least expensive option.

After a few hours flight that turned out to be very pleasant (and the plane being one of the most modern I have ever flown on… the airline was “Fly Nicky”, Nicky Lauda’s new airline). Entrance into Egypt was also straightforward. One buys an entry visa on the spot (for cheap) and there was nothing to it. I had some concerns at first, because most people on this flight were either Austrian or German, yet Ellen is American, so I wondered if being American could make it more difficult to go to a middle-eastern country. (One of the many advantages to being Austrian is that one is welcome just about anywhere in the world). However, it turned out to be no problem whatsoever.

In fact, let me get this out of the way before I go on: Egypt is a tourist destination. Other than the Suez Canal, tourism is their main income stream and Egyptians generally welcome all foreigners, regardless of where they are from. This was my first trip to a Muslim country (or “mostly Muslim” I should say, as about one fifth of the population is Christians… and they all seem to get along just fine) and I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were many unknowns, such as the overall culture and the attitude towards Westerners (especially Americans) or little things, such as drinking alcoholic beverages. As it turns out however, the Egyptians are a fun bunch of people. They always have a joke on their lips and seem generally in good spirits. They are very communicative. And they were genuinely happy to see Americans. (As it turns out, the US now is the country with the fewest visitors to Egypt and they would love to change that).

We took several trips last year, and I have to say that this was one of my favorite ones, and being pleasantly surprised about the people was a big part of that. Over the last 12 months, we went to places such as Costa Rica, Hawaii, Alaska, Jamaica, Greece, and more. And I have to say that while Costa Rican’s seem to have been the friendliest and the people I was most comfortable with (except for perhaps the Greek, but I have spent so much time there, it would be an unfair comparison), the Egyptians run a close second in my list. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against the Caribbean, but I much prefer Egyptian people over pushy Jamaican drug dealers and other weirdoes.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: After we cleared customs, we went on a bus trip to the Intercontinental Abu Soma Hotel in Soma Bay, a little south of Hurghada. As is common in these types of arranged trips, the transfer to the hotels can be lengthy, as a few buses drop people off at various hotels and our hotel was one of the furthest from the airport. So this was a bit of an ordeal, but it was not too bad. We arrived at our hotel and were pleasantly surprised. It was a very nice facility, and it was somewhat sizable, with not a lot going on (only crazy people like us Houstonians venture into the African desert in the middle of August).

Abo Soma Hotel
The pool with an pool-side restaurant and bar at the Abu Soma Intercontinental Hotel.

Abo Soma Hotel
This shows a little less than half of the hotel’s beach. Blue skies, nice sand, and turquoise water. And you won’t see a cloud during the entire trip.

I was very pleased with the service and our room and everything else in general. The only bad thing about the hotel is the food. For some reason, the standard restaurant everyone goes to tries to cook international food, and it just isn’t very good. (It was quite an experience to have Tex-Mex night in Egypt, with all the Egyptian girls wearing jeans and cowboy boots and sombreros). As it turns out however, the local food they prepare is quite good. And all the separate restaurants were also very good. I really enjoyed their Arab-themed restaurant and really like that type of food. It is a very tasty combination of meats and pastries (well, at least the dishes I ordered were… Ellen stuck more to the vegetable things). We also enjoyed the Greek restaurant as well as the Italian restaurant the hotel had. (Note: There is nothing but dessert around the hotels, so you are likely to eat most of your meals in one of the hotel’s restaurants). On our next trip to Egypt (and we are def. planning to go back), we will probably only buy the breakfast package and just go to the different restaurants and pay every night.

The other thing a I heard people complain about was the beds. Egyptian beds are hard as a board. That’s just the way it is. I have heard the same thing about other Egyptian hotels. Get used to it and don’t let it ruin your vacation. I personally like firm beds, but this was a bit beyond firm. But you get used to it after a few days. (I actually read the Terry Pratchett book “Pyramids” while I was there and even that book made fun of the hard Egyptian beds… it was quite funny, actually).

We spent a lot of time just relaxing and hanging out at the beach. We slept late, went windsurfing until the early afternoon (I will post a separate entry on windsurfing as it was easily good enough to deserve its own post), and then we just relaxed on the beach. There are tons of water sport things to do. You can rent sailing boats for instance. You also absolutely MUST at least take one of the boats out to go snorkeling. The Red Sea has to be just about the best place to do that. I have snorkeled in places like the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Hawaii, but the Red Sea is orders of magnitude better! There literally are times when you can’t see the bottom of the sea 10 feet below you, because there are just too many fish. It is absolutely unbelievable and one must experience it to believe it.

Note: Due to our windsurfing activities, we missed the regular snorkeling and scuba diving boats that leave from the hotel. However, we ended up paying one of the boys that operated the boats a little bakshish (tip) and he took us out for a few hours later in the day all by ourselves. We went to 3 different locations, and it was awesome. The guys operating the boat being very friendly and even getting into the water with us to have some fun themselves and showing us the good places. I think the next time around, I will avoid the boat with all the people on it, and spend a few bucks again to get my own private ride.

You can also take scuba lessons and tests right on location. We had originally considered doing that, but the windsurfing was jut too good and left us too little time. It is def. something you should consider doing there if you are interested. The schools are either German or British-run, and the licenses you get are regular international licenses.

They even had their very own camel at the beach (and horses), which I thought was very funny. For a small fee, one was allowed to ride the camel up and down the beach. Camels have quickly become one of my favorite animals. With their odd legs (apparently they must be very intelligent, but most of their brainpower is used up operating their awkward legs… at least according to Terry Pratchet) and funny faces. They always look like they are smiling. (I think they are planning something…)

Camel
A Camel in action. Well, they never move very fast.

Of course this is Egypt, and we didn’t just sit on the beach and windsurf every day. We went on several trips to see the sights the world has enjoyed for the last 5,000 years. After all, one can’t go to Egypt and not visit the Pharaos, right? (Especially if you, like me, enjoy Egyptian history).

Egyptology
Here I am, proving that my head indeed is bigger than the Sphinx’es. And we apparently also have the same hairdresser. I do have a much nicer nose though…

At first, I wondered whether we could just rent a car and drive around to see some of the sights on our own. That wasn’t possible however, since tourists can’t drive cars in Egypt. Instead, one has to rent a local driver and drive in convoys. We ended up going to Luxor that way. We could have gone with a larger tourist group, but for very little money, we rented a car with driver and a guide for the sights. We saw the temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings that way. We also went on a short Nile cruise that day. On a different day, we took a small plane to Cairo to see the Egyptian museum and (of course!) the Pyramids and the Sphinx.

All these things were awesome, and I will create separate blog posts for all these things. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am sure to come back, if for nothing else but the windsurfing.

Windsurfing
The author, enjoying himself tremendously…


This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:



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Monday, May 25, 2009
An Indian Wedding in Jamaica

In a previous post, I wrote about our trip to Jamaica. As mentioned in that post, the real reason we went there was that a very good friend of mine, Nick Landry, was getting married to his lovely bride (Ishani). And this was quite the get-together. One could almost start a joke that way: “A Canadian, an Indian, an Israeli, an Austrian, someone from Dubai, and an American walk into a bar…”. But that is what it was like. People from all over the place came together for this event. Most people of course were either from India (Ishani’s family and friends) or from Canada (Nick’s entourage) with a good helping of Americans or people transplanted either from or to America, mixed in.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this all took place at the Dunn’s River Sandals Resort, which turned out to be an excellent place for a wedding. This of course was a bit of a special case, as I am sure Hindu weddings are not quite the norm in Jamaica. And I have to admit, I knew nothing about Hindu weddings myself either. In fact, my knowledge about India is limited to a school project when I was about 12 years old (although this went on for half a year, so we learned a lot) and my experience with Indian software outsourcing. The later leaving me with a less than favorable impression, but the former bringing up fond memories of Indian mysteries and wonders. And as I am an enthusiastic traveler (and mesmerized by different cultures and generally fascinated by differences and change more than anything else), I have always wanted to visit India (as you can see in my bucket list). So I was looking forward to this tremendously.

And I wasn’t to be disappointed. In fact, I was quite surprised by a few things. The evening before the wedding the couple held a reception. It was really cool to see a lot of people in traditional Indian outfits (and even Nick looked good in his Indian/American fusion suit). Personally, I made the mistake of wearing a long sleeved white shirt, thinking that being used to Houston temperatures, how bad could Jamaica be? Well, it was bad, and I had to change my shirt several times. I was sweating like a horse! (How romantic…).

Anyway: The reception was a blast. I really didn’t expect the Indian culture so happy, outgoing, and welcoming outsiders. They all partied the night away. People danced, drinks were consumed, and henna tattoos applied. In that very order, which made for some interesting tattoos :-) Luckily, they were not permanent.

Dancing the night away, Indian style
Ishani and Nick dancing the night away at the reception.

So this was great fun and entertaining much beyond my expectations.

The next afternoon was the day of the actual wedding. It was to be held outside. It is my understanding that this was the first Hindu wedding put on by the resort, so they had to do quite a bit of research and preparations. From what I can tell (as I am obviously no expert on Hindu weddings), they did an excellent job, and everyone seemed very happy with it.

The wedding itself was – from what I understand – a simplified or shortened version of a traditional Hindu wedding, as the traditional ceremony apparently is a lengthy affair. The way it was done here, it was all over in a few hours, which worked out really well considering the temperature and humidity level. (At some point, there was rice sprinkled over the groom, and it simply got stuck on Nick’s bald and sweaty head. It was quite the sight ;-)).

The ceremony started with the groom on “stage” by himself and the bride coming out about 10 or 15 minutes later.

The bride
Here comes the bride…

The “stage” was quite elaborate, and it gave it all a real interesting flair. And a lot of the customs and ceremonies were quite nice with a lot of symbolic character (like the mixing of 2 different colored waters the families perform, symbolizing the inseparable result).

Nick and Ishani on 'stage'
Nick and Ishani on “stage” (for want of a better term).

After the ceremony, we headed back into the hotel (their “back yard” made for a perfect setting for the wedding) for another reception, which turned into another fun party.

The couple after the ceremony
Mr. and Mrs. Laundry, right after the end of the ceremony.

All in all, this was a very very nice wedding. The setting was great, and the Indian style wedding was a very festive ceremony. I am glad I got invited, and I am happy I got to see Indian culture from an angle I would otherwise probably not have had the opportunity to.



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Monday, May 25, 2009
The Value of a Mile

If you travel a lot (as I do), you probably have collected a ton of air miles (and if you are not in a frequent traveller program, you probably should be, regardless of lowered return in recent years). Plus, there are tons of other ways to collect miles, such as credit card programs. The question that often arises however, is "how much is a mile worth, exactly?". In other words: If you have a $400 ticket or the alternative to pay with 25,000 miles, which is the better deal?

Well, the conventional wisdom used to be that a mile is worth about 2 cents U$. This is based on the fact that it generally takes 25,000 miles to purchase a domestic round-trip ticket, while the price of such a ticket used to be $500 on average. This has changed a bit however, since the price of an average domestic round-trip ticket is now about $360 (stats from late 2008). Therefore, $360 divided by 25,000 = just under 1.5 cents U$

So in simple terms, if you were to pay with 25,000 miles for a $400 ticket, you would save about $40. However things aren't quite that simple (are they ever?). For one, you collect more miles on that flight. Say the flight is from Houston to Seattle and back, you would collect another 1,900 miles each way, or 3,800 miles round trip.  Depending on your airline and frequent flyer program and actual fare class, you will collect that many miles, or a little less, or even twice as much. For the sake of argument, let's say you collect exactly 3,800 miles. That would be the equivalent of $55, so you now lost $15 on the whole deal. (Or you might have earned the equivalent of $110 if you are in a higher frequent flyer category, and thus lost $70 on the deal). Not to mention that the next time you go on the same flight, the fare may be twice the normal rate and now you could really safe significantly, but now your miles are gone. (For instance, going from the US to Europe, I have had $500 round trips and I have seen $2,500 round trips for the same flight... guess which one I would rather spend 50,000 miles for an international round trip on!)

Of course on the other hand, you may not be able to get a qualifying seat on the expensive flights. So there is something to be said about using your miles when you can. Often, I end up trying to pay with miles and there are no seats open for miles-based travel. In that case, you may end up paying a premium. Instead of flying to Europe and back for 50,000 miles, you may all of a sudden have to shell out 100,000. The equivalent of $1,500. Still not a bad deal if the ticket would otherwise have been $2,500, but if you are at all flexible with your schedule, it still is a bitter pill to swallow.

So bottom line, when should you use your miles? Personally, I am looking to get the equivalent of 2.5 to 3 cents per mile. If a domestic round trip ticket is above $600 or $650, it is probably worth paying 25,000 miles instead. Especially if it is a relatively short domestic trip and you wouldn't have earned all that many miles anyway. Internationally, if your round-trip is more than $1,000, you may consider using miles instead. Although keep in mind that a paid trip to Europe would also give you a ton of miles. A trip from Houston to Munich and back is 11,000 miles. If you are an elite frequent flyer (or whatever the airline of your choice might call your program), you may earn as much as 22,000 miles on that trip, or the equivalent of $350 (or almost a domestic round trip with miles alone, just for that one trip to Europe!). Besides, you may get other perks if you pay for your flight, such as a first class upgrade. So maybe make that international magic number $1,200.




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Sunday, May 24, 2009
TechEd and a Hockey Game in L.A.

We just returned from a week-long trip to L.A., mainly to visit the Microsoft TechEd Conference. It was a decent (although not great... kinda slow, really) conference, and we were plenty busy with 2 different booths as part of the trade show, and I also presented my first ever TechEd session (which went very well and allowed me to check off another item of my bucket list). There were a few notes of general travel interest though:

First of all, the hotel. As all TechEd speakers, we stayed at the Sheraton down town, and I was somewhat disappointed with the hotel. For one, it always ticks me off when a hotel in this price class doesn't have a mini bar. It got even worse though, since they didn't have 24 hour room service. This may or may not matter to you, but if you are there to work (as we were), and you are trying to spend a few hours working in your room rather than going to lunch, it sucks that there is no room service between 10am and 5pm. And frankly, that's just weird! Why would they stop room service during lunch hours of all times?!? One other day, I managed to order room service, but they said they didn't have french fries that day and it would take them longer to get me french fries. Hu?!?

Also, the overall condition and upkeep of the hotel left much to be desired. The air conditioning unit above the bed looked like it was bought used from a Motel 6, and it sounded like a freight train. Oh, and don't even get me started about the Internet connection. 10k download speeds at best. A third of what a 20 year old dial-up modem can do?!? Outrageous. And for some reason, cell phone reception in the hotel was just about non existent too. Not sure why that would be.

So in short: If this wouldn't have been the MS conference hotel, I would have not stayed there, and I will try to avoid the hotel in the future.

One of the days we were there, we were in for quite the treat: We went to see game 6 in the NHL playoffs between the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings. It was an excellent game, and I can only recommend to anyone who has never seen a meaningful hockey game live, to go and see one. Ice Hockey is a great spectator sport! Of course unlike the last hockey game we saw in L.A., this one was not at the Staples Center right next to the conference center, but the Ducks play at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Getting there was a bit tricky, as the traffic in L.A. going that way in the evening is insane! So instead, we went by subway and Amtrak, which was quite the experience. (They should seriously review their check-in process which just seems to be retarded... but in a funny sort of way, rather than an annoying way). There is a stop right next to the Honda Center, so that worked out OK. However, I was glad that we had a right back with someone, rather than going through the mess it usually tends to be with public transportation after sporting events.

Another item of note was the excellent dinner we had at Takami. Actually, the food was pretty good, but not super-great (they have Sushi and other asian food such as Robata), but the setting is incredible. It is at the top of one of the high-rise buildings right down town L.A., and it seems to be one of the cool hang-outs these days. What makes the setting unusual is that one is basically outside at the top floor of the building, only shielded from the elements by wind screens. Pretty cool, and I recommend you check it out. (Note: You have to enter through the building's lobby, and yes, it looks like nobody is home and nothing is going on, but once you get to the restaurant, the place is rocking...)

Other than that, we also went to see the new Star Trek movie, which I liked a lot (and Ellen hated... but she just doesn't like Star Trek for some unfathomable reason...).

And that was about it. No cool parties or anything like that this year. The economy also took TechEd down a notch...




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Saturday, May 02, 2009
Spending Easter Weekend in Phoenix

Ellen and I spent Easter Weekend 2009 in Phoenix (or more accurately: Mesa) with Ellen’s parents. It was an enjoyable trip, and I did a few things I would def. recommend.

Right when we got there, we went straight to see a hockey game. It was the last regular season game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Anaheim Ducks. Phoenix isn’t exactly known as a hockey town, but this was a cool game to see and I would recommend that if you ever are in Phoenix and are remotely interested in ice hockey, go and see a game. Here’s why: First of all, you get to see Wayne Gretzky. I guess it must be frustrating for the players that their coach is more exciting than they are, but I guess that’s just the way it is. Secondly, tickets are more reasonably priced than in most other NHL towns, and the game actually was very exciting and the people seem to be into it a lot more than I would have thought, which always makes for a fun game.

Also, and this should be a major draw for most people, the area around the stadium has been developed to be a great happening place! There are bars and restaurants and live bands outside, and its generally a fun place to be.

Unfortunately, when we were there, it was actually very cold (well, relatively speaking… it was in the 50’s – just over 10 degrees centigrade). They could have almost played this game out of doors!

Anyway: The game was great fun and even went into overtime and shootout. The Coyotes were already eliminated from play-offs, but they still managed to be competitive and in the end beat the Ducks, who had played a great last 2 months of the season, and are arguably one of the best teams of the league at this point.

What else did we do? Well, we ate a lot. We went to a Cuban restaurant (Havana Cafe). It was an experience, and they have some very good Paella. Most of the rest of the food is meat and potatoes type of dishes. Lots of starches. I like starches and carbs, but there were a *lot* of starches. So most of the food was OK, but not great, but the paella was awesome.

We also went to the local Fogo de Chao restaurant in Scottsdale. Always a treat. It’s as good as everywhere else.

We also went to a small Thai restaurant called Siam Orchid. It is one of these small places in a strip mall, and it was excellent. I highly recommend it.



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Friday, April 17, 2009
A Day's Worth of Air Traffic

This is a pretty cool visualization of a day's worth of air traffic around the globe, as soon from space (kinda):

External link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XBwjQsOEeg 

 

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Thursday, March 12, 2009
Anniversary in Vegas

We spent the weekend before last in Las Vegas with friends of ours, who celebrated their 25th anniversary there. It was a hoot! Ellen and I went, our friends went, so did their son with his girlfriend, and - as a total surprise to all of them - my parents (who are also good friends with them) went there too.

The surprise was a complete success! We all stayed at the Mandalay Bay hotel, which was great (as always) and - due to the economic crisis - less expensive than usual. We went there a day early and arranged for one of the large stretch limos from the hotel to go to the airport and pick up our friends, who flew in straight from Austria. My parents waited in the limo while we picked them up. So once they got into the limo, they saw my parents and where completely blown away. :-)


The rowdy Las Vegas party contingency :-)

Over the next few days, we had a great time. It is always fun to go to Vegas with people who have never been there, or - as in this case - have not been there in many years. We went from hotel to hotel and from sight to sight. They even did the rides on top of the Stratosphere tower. 2 of the 3 are completely insane. You couldn't pay me to go on them, but they went for it and had a blast!


Crazy Dobretsbergers riding one of the amusement rides on top of the 1,145ft tall Stratosphere tower. (This is the least scary of the rides, actually)
 

We also saw Cirque de Soleil's "O" at the Bellagio hotel, which was great as always. It was also pretty expensive ($170 a person), which is a little steep if you ask me. I probably wouldn't have gone again by myself (we have seen all the Cirque shows a number of times before), but with the whole group it was great.

Other entertainment included the usual Vegas fare (gambling, going from hotel to hotel, frequented various buffets, we stopped at our favorite Piano Bar (Bar at Times Square) in the New York, New York hotel, ... ). On their anniversary evening, we all went to a Brazilian Steak House (Via Brasil) which was pretty good. Not quite Fogo de Chao or Guri do Sul quality, but still pretty good. Via Brasil is a little ways from the Strip (about 15 minutes in a cab) but it is much better than the Brazilian Steakhouse offerings on the strip.

Overall, Vegas is visible hurting. We were told they have 60% less visitors than a year before. Not sure how accurate that number is, but it would not surprise me. I also assume that the people that do go to Vegas are probably spending a little less. Overall, times don't seem to be good for Vegas. On the other hand, I would have expected some better deals. We got a reasonably good price for the rooms at the Mandalay Bay, but they weren't super-cheap either. And the price of "O" really surprised me. There were a few other annoying things too. We went to the buffet at the Planet Hollywood hotel and were charged an 18% gratuity, because we were a party of 8. I generally am annoyed when I am charged a penalty for giving someone more business, but 18% at a buffet where the waitress showed up twice to refill the coke (or Pepsi... don't get me started ;-)), is an outrage.

Anyway: Overall, we had great fun. We spent most of our time indoors, because it was still a little on the cold side. The Mandalay Bay just opened all their pools, but in late February, things are not exactly warm there, and for some reason, none of the hot-tubs were heated. Seems odd to me that early in the year, one would operate all the pools except for the heated ones. But such is life I guess. On the other hand, they had about 20 life guards positioned around their wave pool to watch the 5 or so people who were tough enough to go in despite the low temperatures. Only in America...

 

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Sunday, January 11, 2009
Using an Xbox 360 Internationally

For those of you interested in gaming, and the Xbox 360 in particular: I just posted a blog post on using Xbox games and hardware internationally.



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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Watching the L.A. Kings vs. Detroit Red Wings in L.A.

We are in L.A. this week for Microsoft PDC 2008. As luck would have it, this conference is at the L.A. Convention Center, which is practically one big complex with the Staples Center. This is where the L.A. Kings play (and also the L.A. Lakers…). So I took a few minutes and walked over to the stadium (after checking on the web first) to see what games were on, and – even more luck – it turned out the Kings played the Detroit Red Wings (current NHL champions) that very night. And – most lucky of all – tickets were still available, since L.A. is not really a “hockey town”. (Try getting into an NHL game with the Stanley Cup Champions playing in Canada for instance…).

So we got some very good tickets (12th row behind the L.A. goalie) for $76 each, which isn’t bad all things considered. And it was worth every penny! I expected the Kings to be overrun by the Red Wings, but the game was very close and exciting. (At one point, a Kings player was taken into the boards so hard the glass broke!). The Kings even lead up to less than 2 minutes before the end, when a defensive error allowed the equalizer and sent the game to overtime. There was lots of action in overtime as well, but no goals were scored, so the game had to go to a shoot-out. It doesn’t get much better than that! :-)

In the end, the Red Wings won the shoot-out. I am sure they were glad (you could really imagine the locker room talk: “c’mon guys… we can’t loose against the Kings!…”) and the Kings wasted a great opportunity. But at least they were rewarded with a point.



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Sunday, October 19, 2008
Splash, Dash, and a Wedding, at the Sandals Resort in Jamaica

This year, we decided to skip the usual July 4th celebrations and instead head down to Jamaica for a long weekend and to get my good friend, fellow speaker, and partner of many late night crimes in Las Vegas and Orlando, Nick Landry (a.k.a. “ActiveNick”) married off. We were joined by Alan Griver and Beth Massi, who had a layover in Houston on their way from Seattle/San Francisco, so they decided to hang out with us for a night and celebrate the occasion with a fabulous dinner at Guri do Sul, the new Brazilian steakhouse we have nearby.

Going to Jamaica from Houston is pretty straightforward. It’s a 3 hour direct flight into Montego Bay at a somewhat reasonable (although not cheap) price. The one thing you need to be aware of is that you need a passport that is valid for at least 6 more months. I got lucky, because I made it in with about 5 days to spare (and getting another passport from the Austrian embassy would have taken forever… I since had mine renewed back home with took only 10 days… although in the past you could do it on the spot). Anyway: Entry is fairly painless although somewhat time consuming.

We stayed at the Sandals Resort in Dunn’s River, which is one of Jamaica’s nicest resorts. It is a beautiful resort and I would recommend it to anyone willing to spend the money. The resort itself is nice and offers all sorts of entertainment. It is an all-inclusive resort, meaning that you do not need any cash at all while you are at the resort, and in fact, you are not even allowed to tip. No matter what you want, you just walk up to a bar or restaurant and get it. And contrary to what you may often hear about all inclusive resorts, the service was good and reasonably fast for Caribbean standards. In other words: I don’t think it would have been any faster if it was a cash-bar system.


The beach at the Sandals Resort is quite nice, and generally not all too busy…


…because most people like to stay at the pool, which is sometimes so packed, you can hardly see the water.

The resort can get pretty busy, but most people seem to stay at the pool (or, more accurately: in the pool chairs). This is great if you like the sandy beach better than the concrete slab around the pool, since you will always be able to find a few empty chairs.

The only real downside with this resort (besides the hefty price tag) is that it is pretty far from the Montego Bay airport (about a 90 minute ride in a hot and smelly bus). Add up the ride to the airport, flight, immigration procedures, wait for the bus, and bus ride to the hotel, and you end up with a wasted day. The same goes for the way back, especially since you have entry in the US as well as a lengthy border procedure when you leave Jamaica (which is pretty unusual and the only other time leaving a country has taken me that long was on a trip to Israel). That is a bummer, because it means if you have 4 days for a short trip, then half that time is wasted with travel, which means there are many better destinations than the Dunn’s River Sandals.

What makes this even more of a bummer is that this destination would otherwise be perfect for a 4-day getaway. You can be pampered and relax and be entertained, and simply forget everything that is going on outside the resort. And I mean that quite literal! Because right outside the resort, the world’s a different place. Everything I saw of Jamaica (which admittedly was limited to the 90 minute stretch on the north side) seems to be relatively barren and not a tropical jungle by any stretch of the imagination. The resort itself is fenced in, and if you venture outside, you immediately end up amongst shacks that are built up right to the resort walls. People will try to sell you drugs and all kinds of other things you have little interest in buying, and they do it in a way that scares you away, even if you might have been interested. It is quite puzzling actually, how pushy they are, to a point where it just has to hurt their business.

In general, I found that staying inside the resort was the better choice, which is odd for me, because normally, I hat that sort of thing and want to see the native stuff/people over the fakery. But here, that just wasn’t that appealing. Locals for instance are nice in a “Ya mon! No problem in Jamaica, mon” sort of way, but it always also seems to be a “you and I, we have a good time… but my good time is different from yours, you rich bastard” deal. (Note that this was different inside the resort, where the locals seemed to genuinely like the guests). So at no point did I feel that Jamaica was a cool place where I could settle down and be comfortable and free of worries. Maybe I am just spoiled, but compared to Costa Rica or even Egypt, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome. Or maybe it is because I don’t smoke dope. Who knows?

But don’t get me wrong: We liked this experience very much for what it was. We leaned back and relaxed, ate, and we were probably were more active than most people at the resort. We went out to the reef to go snorkeling (which was OK, but not truly awe inspiring… but if you have never been to a good diving/snorkeling destination, you should do it, especially since it is free), we swam a lot, we kayaked all about, we sailed on a hobby cat, and I even rented a jet ski on several occasions (which is not provided by the resort, but tolerated… I paid 30 or 35 U$ for half an hour, which is less than half of what they asked for, and I am sure I could have gotten it down further if I wanted, but what the heck, let them make a living too…), and we even played some par-3 golf.

The resort also has a number of different restaurants, which are decent. (You have to try the “Jerk Chicken” or “Jerk Pork” while you are there, since it is the local specialty… you will like it if you like BBQ). There is something there for every taste and almost every dress-code. (Although I have to say that “do me a favor and hand that plate down to the other end of the table, mon” and “here is your expensive bottle of wine… I will bring you the opener in a moment, mon” is not the kind of service that goes at all with an upscale restaurant. They need to do a lot better than that, especially if they hassle you about wearing a collar-less designer shirt).

So how would I rate this experience overall? Well, it was a fun thing to do, in an “I am on vacation with non-vacationers” sort of way. The people at the resort were almost exclusively American, and the resort clearly caters to them. Most people like to hang out at the pool so they do not have to face the “dangers of the oceans” and they float around on air mattresses so they do not have to face the “exhaustion of swimming”. I got the impression that most people could have a similar experience if the hotel and pool where somewhere in Wyoming (no offense to… um… “wyommingers?”… “wyommingnites”… ah… “people from Wyoming” :-)…). The resort allows no children, but for some reason, most of the adults there are not into staying out late and partying at the bar very much, which I would have expected from people who are without their kids for a few days. (The resort also organizes an evening trip to “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, which they try to sell you as a local Reggae Club… we didn’t go but it seemed odd…). People eat a lot, and they add a little activity here and there. The resort has sailboats and kayaks you can borrow for free, but on a schedule that is a little odd (“it’s a quarter to 4pm now… come back tomorrow…”).

I was a great place for Nick and Ishani to have their wedding. (But that is the topic of a separate post).

All of it adds up to a lot of mindless fun and a few fun days if you take it for what it is, but don’t expect to have any adventures or experience the native culture. I would do it again, but it probably ranks at the bottom of my list of trips this year (with only the Mexican Cruise rivaling it for bottom spot). But that probably tells you more about what an awesome traveling year this was for us…



Posted @ 4:53 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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