Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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Drug law reform advocates worked very hard over the last year, won the election, and today marijuana is legal in two states: Washington and Colorado. As the new law (Initiative 502) kicks in today in my state, I was wondering how to celebrate. While many will just smoke a little pot, I would rather focus on building on our victory and contributing further to the end of the Prohibition of our age. Should this movement go nationwide? Watch the following clip, from today’s CBS This Morning, and tell me what you think.

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Still thrilled after our bear encounter (see my post from last week), our American Safari Cruise motored to the next stop. Up in the bridge, I studied the traditional yellow charts and learned to navigate the software program with those same charts digitized. A channel led to the distant horizon, evoking the mystique of the Pacific Ocean. Between us and the open sea was a dramatic landmass. The captain said, “That’s Admiralty Island — 1,700 square miles and 1,700 bears, one bear per square mile. Tlingit Indians called it the ‘Fortress of the Bears.’”

Anchoring in Thomas Bay, we geared up for a hike along Cascade Creek. In Southeast Alaska, the metabolism of nature seems to churn at a high level. While the region has a thousand estuaries, the entire area could be considered a single, vast estuary. Geologists figure more freshwater flows into the sea in Southeast Alaska than in the Amazon basin.

Everyone on board was issued rain pants, rain jackets, and rubber boots. While I wanted to use the hiking boots I packed from Seattle, it was the ship’s rubber boots that served me best. In this area, there are almost no trails and certainly no docks. Skiffs skid to a stop on wild beaches. Boatswains expect to ding up propellers on their outboard motors. Our 90 HP Yamaha outboard has a guard for the propeller — but they still get bent up, and the ship comes with four replacements for each skiff. Hopping out, then walking through marshy tidal flats, we often encountered the notorious “boot-sucking mud” — mud that could literally pull the boot right off your foot. The other risk was “topping off” — stepping into a river or tide pool that was deeper than your boots were high.

Boot-sucking mud at low tide.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Our hike followed the aptly named Cascade Creek up and up. As is the case when experiencing Southeast Alaska, the trail didn’t actually take us to a particular destination. Time after time, we’d venture in some direction, and the venture itself was the reason. We’d hike, motor, paddle, or gaze until we’d seen enough…then turn back. Things don’t seem to end around here. Stand on the prow of the ship and pan slowly in one direction, and the view doesn’t stop. Things just keep going.

It was amazing to think that the very rough Cascade Creek trail, apart from faint and unseen animal trails, was the only path through a vast wooded mountainside that towered mightily out of the sea. It led deep and high into a vast yet rare-on-this-planet coastal temperate rain forest. This climb took concentration, as each step needed to be carefully placed on a notched stone, exposed root, boggy ground, or stretch of boot-sucking mud. Walking sticks were so helpful it almost felt like I was cheating.

For the photographers, this was a chance for extremely close-up work: spider webs beaded with dew drops; armies of tiny mushrooms festooned in red, marching up a nursery log; and vibrant bouquets of little flowers growing in vertical gardens on the dirt-caked root system of a once mighty but now upended tree.

Sun and shade were nature’s sweet and sour, as a towering canopy filtered the light, and silver rims of backlighting seemed to direct my attention. Standing silently, I listened, smelled, and looked. Turning very slowly 360 degrees, it was as if I was in a fertile world where the cycle of life was a slow-moving carousel and the only color was moss.

Old growth and adventurous cruisers.

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On my recent trip through southeast Alaska with American Safari Cruises, while kayaking in a remote bay, we came upon a bear happily fishing for salmon…and catching plenty. We gently maneuvered our kayaks in place, paddling quietly against the flow of the river as it hit the bay, spending about half an hour observing this wonderful scene. (Thanks to Trish Feaster, for shooting this video.)

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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On many Alaskan cruises, the first stop out of Juneau is Glacier Bay National Park — for most passengers, an itinerary highlight. Because of the pristine and precious nature of this place, only a relatively few ships are allowed to visit, and they are carefully regulated. On our cruise with American Safari Cruises, we were joined by an enthusiastic ranger from the park lodge at the mouth of the bay. Then we sailed up a strait speckled with tiny icebergs until we came face-to-face with a tongue of the Grand Pacific Glacier.

Glacier-watching from the Safari Endeavour.

All photos by Trish Feaster.

Captain George Vancouver sailed by Glacier Bay back in 1794, when it was almost entirely covered by ice. Since then, the busy glacier retreated, leaving a bay that’s currently 60 miles long. Whether they’re retreating because of global warming or just going through their normal life cycle, glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, which break off in small bits and crash into the sea when they reach the end of their slow journey. A calving glacier loses six to eight feet of ice each day. Considering that the sloughing face of the glacier is about 250 feet tall and a mile or so wide, that’s a lot of baby icebergs.

Scientists figure that the ice that finally tumbles into the sea is over two hundred years old. That means rain that fell on the day Captain Vancouver dropped his anchor here could actually be the calving ice visitors see from their ships today.

The good ship’s happy transom.

Our small cruise ship has a stern designed for fun. A landing ramp lowers to the transom, providing a convenient and comfortable launch pad for kayaks and paddleboards. With the help of a hardworking crew, you simply put on your life vest, sit in the kayak, and clip on your “skirt.” They push you into the water — like a new ship sliding down its dry dock after the champagne crashes on its maiden voyage.

Whether on a small-boat tour, or even closer to the water in a kayak, when exploring desolate little bays and inlets, sea lions are a constant presence. From a distance, they look at first like floating bowling balls. As you get closer, hearing their snorting as they come up for air and seeing their little doggy-boy faces curiously checking you out, you realize they’re sea lions.

Kayaking to be close to Alaska.

While kayaks get you away from the ship and very close to the sea life, stand-up paddleboards take things one step further. My first time on a paddleboard was over Alaskan waters — and a polar bear I’m not. I was nervous. A paddleboard is an oversized surfboard that you kneel on, paddle a bit to get some momentum, and then gingerly stand up on. While I was filled with anxiety until I actually did it, as long as you don’t overthink it, paddleboarding is not hard. And once up and gliding across the bay, you gain confidence. For me, the reward came when I got into shallow waters. With a higher view of underwater sights (like Dungeness crab, pincers up and ready for action), this beats a kayak.

Sightseeing by paddleboard.

In Freshwater Bay, we spent a morning exploring. Several guides took small groups out in kayaks or on small skiffs. They were in radio contact, because when nature provides some action, they all want to be there. Word came that a bear was fishing at the waterfall at the head of Pavlof Harbor.

Paddling determinedly yet silently, we approached the waterfall. The scene was like an old-school museum tableau. It felt utopian: waterfall below mighty snow-spotted mountain; salmon leaping up falls, getting enough air for three tail wags; sun glancing off ripe brown seaweed; a family of duck-like mergansers in the foreground; berry bushes and crushed grass on the banks. And there, to the side of the churning waterfall, was a brown bear trolling for salmon. Looking wary, then still, then suddenly jerking into action, he made his catch. While young and not terribly graceful, he was good. He’d stomp on the salmon, pin it to the rock with his paw, bend down, and bite its head. Then, with his meal thrashing in the grip of his mouth, the bear lumbered to a sunny perch where, like a kid savoring the only Fudgsicle, he’d enjoy a fresh salmon picnic.

Salmon-loving bear.

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Our Alaskan cruise itinerary with American Safari Cruises was seven days of pure nature, stopping at no towns. In fact, after leaving Juneau, we barely saw a building. Southeast Alaska — a 500-mile-by-130-mile territory — has only 70,000 people. Other than Juneau, which contains about half of that population, there are only a handful of communities.

Southeast Alaska has three kinds of land: ice and rock, thick forest (a mix of old growth and once-forested younger growth), and ancient peat land (wetlands called muskeg). Its Fairweather Range is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with mountains climbing 12,000-plus feet directly up from the Pacific Ocean shore. (Take that, Norway.)

Going local in Juneau.

All Photos by Trish Feaster.

The cruise industry is very big here. Giant ships inject — like syringes — a huge amount of business into the local economy, and hardball cruise companies extract their profits in an aggressive way. A grocer from Wrangell, a small town of 2,400, told me how tourists would buy bottles of water from his shop, then pour out the water and fill them with booze to sneak onto the ships — which didn’t allow alcohol purchased anywhere but on board. He told me how a big cruise line offered a stop in Wrangell, but only if every business in town paid 30 percent of its annual profit to the company. His neighbors got together and told the cruise line, “We’re third-oldest town in Alaska. We can manage without the cruise industry.” And Wrangell is no longer on most big ship itineraries.

The view of Juneau from our airplane.

The only Alaskan town I saw was Juneau, where our cruise started and ended. In spite of what must be the ugliest state capitol building in the USA, Juneau has a certain Alaskan charm. The industrial-strength harborside feels way too big… until a giant cruise ship drops in. The hundred-year-old facades of Main Street give a Gold Rush spirit to the main drag, which is lined by shops with tiny signs bragging “Alaskan-owned.” While most of the town’s 32,000 people were gathered for the first high school football game of the season, I had dinner at Tracy’s King Crab Shack (and almost bought the T-shirt: “Tracy gave me crabs”).

The tiny wooden Russian church, a century old, was a reminder of the colonial forces that converged on native communities here from both East and West. While all white settlers were eager to get the natives to embrace their religion, only the Russians allowed Christianity to be preached in the indigenous Tlingit language. That’s why their missionary work was much more effective — and to this day, there’s a big Russian Orthodox community of native Alaskans.

A small ship like ours (the Safari Endeavour, with just 43 staterooms) offers a different experience from the gigantic ships I can see lumbering up Puget Sound from my house. It’s quite a bit more expensive. But they’ve made their money up front, so everything (from on-board expenses to excursions and activities) is included. I stowed my wallet upon boarding, and I’ll have no bill of extra expenses when I leave.

The good ship Safari Endeavour.

My stateroom was in the bow, near the waterline — and that means next to the anchor. After rising with our anchor for several mornings, I know exactly how many links are on that 150-foot chain. On the plus side, a small ship doesn’t need to stick to a schedule. If a whale is jumping, we stop. Big ships march on through regardless, aiming for that next port of call.

The Safari Endeavour is just big enough to have a hot tub. On our first night, we were in the tub marveling at the snowcapped peaks and glassy waters arcing 180 degrees around our stern. I thought, “How could this be any nicer?” Then a crew member appeared and asked, “Can I bring you a drink?”

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In the wake of Black Friday, I’d like to propose a blow-out deal in the actual spirit of this holiday season. We’re injecting a little extra meaning into our holiday festivities by partnering with all my blog followers to raise a little money to help protect the poorest and hungriest Americans from necessary budget cuts being made in Washington DC. It’s simple: You donate $100 directly to Bread for the World, and I’ll send you an exciting Christmas gift package as a thanks! (Watch the video for a description…along with a quick trip through holiday Europe.) Thanks for helping boost me into the right holiday frame of mind. I hope this little initiative can do the same for you.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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This video (taken by Trish Feaster) captures the fun of our recent cruise with American Safari Cruises through Southeast Alaska. On the first morning of our cruise, we were excitedly awakened by our crew for the best display of breaching whales any cruiser could hope for. This is tough to capture on video, because you just can’t know exactly when and where the whale will pop out of the sea, but these clips offer a taste of the experience.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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I capped my 2012 travels by finally enjoying a cruise in Alaska. It was a beautiful experience. This eight-part series is my report to you. (All Photos by Trish Feaster)

When I carved out a week for an Alaskan cruise, I just assumed that I’d be on one of those lumbering ships. But as I struggled with the various one-week itineraries, it occurred to me that, sailing north from the Lower 48, I’d spend too much time getting there and back. And, once in Alaska, the big cruise ships — with 3,000-plus passengers — spend more time in cities (letting shoppers shop) and less time with the glaciers and whales. I wanted to experience nature, both intense and intimate. My search quickly shifted to smaller ships, and eventually I booked a week with American Safari Cruises, sailing from Juneau on their good ship Safari Endeavor — 43 staterooms, 60 passengers, and a crew of 30.

Cruising Alaska.

Within a few hours of flying from Seattle to Juneau, my travel partner Trish Feaster and I found ourselves on the bridge of the ship with Captain Jill and several of the crew, scanning the sea for wildlife through our binoculars. The Safari Endeavour has a proud “open bridge” tradition — just knock first, and you’re generally welcome to hang out with the captain. As I marveled at the view, the expedition leader told me, “Here, take the captain’s seat.” I said, “It’s not every day you get to sit in the captain’s seat.” One of the crew replied, “Actually, yes it is.”

On the bridge with Captain Jill.

While it’s on every cruiser’s wish list, an Alaska cruise can’t promise whales breaching. But when those majestic marine mammals do burst out of the sea and happily skyward, you can bet the call goes out…and everyone’s on deck. I went to sleep with visions of breaching whales dancing in my head.

Just after our first sunrise at sea, a voice on our stateroom intercom wakes us up with a cheery, “Good morning. Humpback whales are breaching on the port and starboard.” I pull open the curtain and there they blow, right out my window!

Within minutes, we’re on the bow deck, coffee mugs and cameras in hand, ready for the action. We’re at Point Adolphus in Icy Strait, over a deep trench where two bodies of water converge — bringing together lots of plankton, which attracts tiny bait fish, which attract whales. (While we’re here on vacation, the whales are here to fatten up for their long migration to Hawaii.)

It’s a classic Alaska scene: Rays of sun break through the clouds and glint on a single trawler in the distance. Between us and that stately old fishing boat, the glassy sea is alive with leaping whales. It’s breakfast time. The gulls, the fishermen on the trawler, and the whales are all out. With whales showing off, the peek-a-boo porpoise and jumping salmon are ignored.

Before doing their leaps, the whales set the water rumbling with repeated slaps of their pectoral fins. Are they stunning fish, sending out sounds to other whales, or just entertaining us sightseers? They slap and slap repeatedly, like a little kid throwing a fit. Then the whale dives, its T-shaped tail (fluke) slipping up high and gracefully — and then, like a champion diver, out of view.

Waking up to a breaching whale.

Three whales spout geysers of water, enlivening the vast Icy Strait like squirting clams enliven a mudflat at low tide. They exhale, like clearing a snorkel in surroundsound. Our guide explains that over countless generations, the nostrils migrated to the top of his head, as that’s where the breathing is easiest — a great example of evolution.

Then, suddenly, as if looking for a partner to chest-bump with, the whale breaches, exploding joyfully out of the water. The motor drives of the fancy cameras all around me seem to clap each time the whale performs.

Marveling at this display of nature provides the same thrill as admiring a room full of Bernini statues — but here, it all happens in a fleeting glimpse. Culture is what man creates. Nature is God’s work. Enjoying and appreciating each is good living.

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One of my favorite parts of the process of making our public television program, Rick Steves’ Europe, is the final recording of our voice track. We shoot to a script in Europe. The footage is edited to a “scratch track” (a rough recording of me reading the script). Then, when all the video clips are edited and the fine cut is ready, I spend four or five hours in a booth to record the final voice track of the half-hour program. My read has to be timed exactly to the video clips, but the hard work is getting the inflection just right to help the ideas flow clearly.

At Clatter & Din (the studio we use in Seattle), we have a very cool new technology that lets our sound engineer, Eric, edit the audio clips directly to the video. My producer, Simon, oversees the process, coaching me and making sure everything is to his liking. During this clip, Simon didn’t know I was multitasking on a job that requires and deserves all of my brainpower. But I wanted to share this fascinating part of the TV production process as we recorded the voice track for the 14th and final show of our new series.

This very clumsy clip was filmed on my iPhone as I was wearing a headset (which I later took off and put next to the phone for the audio).  You’ll see me  battling my way through one sequence from our script (about hop-on, hop-off bus tours), then stepping away from my mic and over to the window to watch Eric clean up my recording and patch the usable audio clips of my voice into a smooth rendition. Finally, he cuts that to the established video.

Check with your local public television station, as these new episodes are debuting all over the USA this month.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Our latest guest blog from The Travelphile, Trish Feaster, describes some memorable meals she’s enjoyed in Europe. One thing I appreciate about traveling with Trish is her foodie sensibilities. If you’d like to hear more, follow her blog.

Food Porn
There’s something so evocative to me about pictures of food and the power they have to vividly remind me of mouth-watering meals and moments that I’ve had on my travels. I can look at my culinary photos and remember exactly where I was, the scent of the dish just placed in front of me, and the way the flavors open up on my palate. The best currywurst I ever had was in Berlin, just a few blocks from Under den Linden. When I look at the photo of that dish — a steamed then fried plump pork sausage laden with a tangy yet sweet blend of ketchup, curry powder, and Worcestershire sauce, protected by a crispy and salty French fry fort, and accessorized by caramelized necklaces of onions — my mouth just waters. And I’m reminded that over sixty years ago, in West Germany, because of the kindness of some British soldiers, a Berlin chef was given these now-seemingly common ingredients and invented this saucy recipe that is now served over 80 million times a year in Germany. Food, especially when you’re traveling, is not merely about sustenance and nutrition. It’s about the culture of the place.

Countries reveal themselves through their foods. Regional specialties are shaped by the climate, season, and terrain of the area. In France, many pair their wines with cheeses from the same region because they’re designed to go together. They have a common terroir (the idea that agricultural products and even livestock from a particular area are influenced by the geography, geology, climate — coupled with human tradition and pride — and are therefore embodied with flavor characteristics that are particular to that region), so their flavors complement one another. Italians would call that “ben sposato” or a good marriage. In Italy you’ll find that Northern specialties tend to feature creams, cheeses, butter, beef, and pork (although seafood is common on the coasts) while Southern dishes often spotlight seafood, vegetables (particularly tomatoes and eggplant) and olive oil. Spain’s northwestern coastal region of Galicia is heralded for its seafood and sauce-laden dishes, while its central mountainous and agricultural region of Castilla-Léon dominates in the preparation of pork, beef and game dishes, as well as stews.

National cuisines are also spiced up by newer immigrant cultures melding with established ones (whose modern-day traditions were also shaped long ago by conquerors and visitors of ages past). Döner Kebabs (Turkey) are found on practically every other corner in Berlin. Bun Thit Nuong (Vietnam) and Tagines (North Africa) are commonplace in Paris, and Chicken Tikka Masala (an Indian-influenced recipe) is actually considered to be Britain’s national dish. Culinary diversity reflects cultural diversity.

The same is true in America. Our varied regional staples range from New England clam chowder to Texas BBQ, from Wisconsin cheeses to California avocados, and from Idaho potatoes to Hawaiian poi. And even within regions, influences from cultures, as well as lifestyles, have helped impacted the ever-changing American cuisine scene. Throughout our history, our diets have been shaped by the British, Native Americans, Spaniards, the French, Germans, the Dutch, African cultures, Italians, the Irish, Latinos, Asians, Caribbean cultures, Jews, Indians, Middle Eastern cultures, and by so many others. Within and beyond specific cultural cuisines, we also have foods that cater to the health-conscious, the gluten-free clientele, low-carb eaters, vegetarians, people on low-sodium diets, foodies, those who only eat organic foods, and so on and so on. “Fusion” foods are ubiquitous, food trucks are all the rage, and desserts are practically considered their own basic food group.

Foods can remind us of the struggles of our forefathers. When times were tough and resources scarce, families made due with what was available. In Estonia, harsh living conditions due to weather, the tumult of living under the rule of at least five different foreign countries, and collective farming systems under Communist rule that exported Estonian products to other Soviet countries often left people in precarious circumstances without much access to wealth or food. But one thing remained essential, even sacred, to Estonians – black bread. It is always served with a meal. No Estonian would dare complain about the bread saying it’s too hard or too dry, and if a piece fell to the floor, one would pick it up, kiss it to show respect, and eat it. In fact, instead of saying something like Bon appétit, Estonians say jätku leiba—may your bread last.

We, too, can think of our family traditions and realize the crucial role food plays in our own cultures. In my own family and throughout the Filipino culture, we have stories of limited access to certain foods due to poverty, war, or unavailability. Because of that, it’s ingrained in us to always share what we have and to insist that our guests eat heartily. When you can provide, you do so to the best of your ability because one day you may be in need and have to rely on the generosity of others. Whenever I go to any of my relatives’ houses, the first question they ask isn’t “How are you?” it’s “Did you eat yet?” And I’ve never left a Filipino party without the host insisting that I baon (BAH-ohn) some of the dishes or take some home as leftovers.

When you consider what you consume, whether you’re traveling across the sea or across the street, think about the history behind that meal. Let it be a bridge into that culture — culture resides at the hearth as much as in the museum. Think about where the ingredients came from or how they were cultivated/harvested/raised/processed. Reflect on why that dish became important to that region, why it became popular outside of that locale or why it’s part of the national cuisine. Ponder why it may be considered a delicacy in the country you’re visiting but not in your own and why that distinction exists. There may be a real history, tradition, and culture behind that meal, and when you become more aware of that, the food takes on a whole new cultural flavor that makes your dining and travel experience that much more pleasurable.

Capturing a photo of the meals I enjoy isn’t just about capturing a culinary memory. It’s a way to add another layer to how I learn to understand and better appreciate the culture of the place I’m visiting through food. Create your own food porn to stoke memories and gain better insight into the cultures you explore. You’re not just eating something tasty…you’re ingesting a piece of that very culture. With an understanding of the context of what you’re eating vis-à-vis the people who made it, you are, in a sense, communing with that culture. And that’s well worth the calories.

Can’t get enough food porn? Check out some of these finger-licking foods.

When you’re in Berlin, currywurst is one of the best meals you can have.

Seafood and vegetables are plentiful in Southern Italy.

Bun Thit Nuong (Vietnamese noodle salad with BBQ Pork) and Nems (egg rolls) are a filling feast for many Parisians.

Hearty rye black bread is served with every Estonian meal.

Did you eat yet? You can take some home for baon.

Hungry for Hungarian goulash?

Whether you imagine yourself as an upperclass school girl or a working class bloke, high tea will hit the spot.

In the Czech Republic, wild boar is a staple and is often paired with dumplings which were introduced to the Czechs by the Germans.

It’s said that it was the Jews who preserved this tradition of what we now know as foie gras (which dates all the way bay to ancient Egypt) after the fall of the Roman Empire and shared their culinary knowledge as they migrate north through Europe.

Churros (shown here with Spanish chocolate) were rumored to be invented by Spanish shepherds. As a substitute for fresh bakery bread, they would quickly cook the churro paste in a pan. The resulting pastry resembled the horns of their churra sheep.

Les Bougresses in Paris makes my favorite dish — Ravioles du Royans (Royans is a community on the west coast of France) . The origin of these postage-stamp size pasta pillows (nowadays stuffed with Comté cheese) is attributed to the Romans who made their presence felt throughout what is now France.

Parma ham, wrapped in a chickpea blanket and drizzled in truffle oil. Buon appetitio!

Delicacy or not? You’ll never know until you try one of these butter, garlic and parsley-soaked escargots. The French consume 40,000 tons annually.

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