Want to really live it up to ring in 2012? Consider Gansevoort Turks & Caicos’ “Fully Loaded” New Year’s Eve Package for the oh-so-affordable rate of $100,000 per couple per night. For this sum, you’ll enjoy:
Luxury accommodations in the Oceanfront Penthouse Suite
Private Gansevoort jet service to and from Providenciales with private luxury transfers
Complimentary Bloody Mary “conchtails” upon arrival
Gourmet bar & kitchen pre-stocked with requested favorites
Exhale Spa therapist and instructor on-call for daily class/treatment (massage, yoga, core fusion, etc)
VIP pool and beach service and seating
Luxury Catamaran Excursion with Seaplane drop off on secluded cove including:
Personal chef to prepare private dinner on island
Personal conch diving instructor to escort you on your conch adventure
Personal underwater videographer to capture and prepare home videos upon departure
Unlimited use of water toys (jet skis, water skiing, etc)
Overnight “glamping” in luxury tent complete with high thread count sheets, cashmere blankets and a real bed!
We’re pretty sure this sounds awesome, although if you excluded the private jet service, $100,000 a night sounds like a rather steep price. What do you think – would you ever book this lavish package?
In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.
Ah, the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Pure magic. Regardless of what you call them, these mysteries of our universe are truly impossible to forget once you see them, and now that I have, I totally understand why people plan entire trips around the sliver of a chance to witness them with their own eyes. The Northern Lights don’t come out for humans to see that often, but February and March are considered prime viewing months in the frigid wilds of Fairbanks. The northern half of Alaska is one of the only places in America where you stand a chance at seeing this phenomenon yourself, and it’s yet another incredible reason to visit The Last Frontier in the winter. Seeing these colored swirls dance across a starry Alaskan sky stirs the soul like few other experiences can, and if there’s one thing you’ll want to do when spotting them, it’s capturing the moment for years to come. Photographing the Northern Lights is no easy task; it’s more like a science, but it’s far from impossible. Read on to learn how I was able to capture the images seen here in the gallery on one bone-chillingly cold night north of Fairbanks.
%Gallery-118384%For one, it’s important to position yourself in a place that’ll provide the best possible chance to spot the Northern Lights. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs overnight trips to Coldfoot and Wiseman for this very purpose, and Chena Hot Springs Resort — located some 60 miles from the city lights of Fairbanks — also has a specific area setup to view them. But of course, they don’t emerge every single night, and their appearance is both varied and unpredictable when it comes to timing. You can read more on exactly where I camped out to capture these shots here, but the long and short of it is this: Fox, Alaska is just far enough away form Fairbanks to get a non light-polluted view of the sky, and Goldstream Road is known by locals as having great vantage points. If you’re looking for an easy spot to go in your rental car, Fox is it. Here’s a more detailed look at how to reach this spot.
Now, for the equipment. If you’re making the effort to capture the Northern Lights, you’ll need to come prepared. Being that it’s the winter, you’ll need to dress in pretty much everything you have. Spotting the lights requires patience and time. I started my campout session at 1:00am in early March, and didn’t see any activity until 1:40am. Once you see any activity at all, you’ll need to move fast. I saw them dance for around 60 minutes before vanishing, but there are no guarantees that you’ll see them hang around for that long. Heavy coats and pants, thick socks, a face mask and hand warmers are all a must.
Here’s a breakdown of what camera gear I’d bring when camping out to see the Northern Lights:
A DSLR (two if you have them!); the nicer the model, the better. My gallery here was composed with a Nikon D3S and a Nikon D90.
A sturdy tripod. This is essential. I know it means you’ll need to check a bag, but you simply have to have a tripod for each camera.
Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon’s 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is “wide enough” for most.
Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you’re at 100 percent before leaving home. If you have spares, bring them!
Flexible gloves. You’ll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.
A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots.
A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night.
So, that’s about it as far as kit. Now, let’s talk settings:
Widen your lenses as far as they’ll go — you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.
Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you’ll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.
Switch each lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity. Be careful to align that Infinity symbol precisely (rather than just cranking the focus wheel past it).
Lower your aperture as far down as it’ll go. I’m talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.
Lower your ISO to 200 – 1,000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you’ll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.
Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use “Bulb” mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from “whiting out” the shot.
Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.
Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you’re getting the angle you want; I’d recommend various portions of the sky to be in various shots to add some variety.
Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it’s important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.
Evaluate your results. If it’s too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it’s too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I’d use that as a last resort.
The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren’t guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have “one great shot” based on what your see on your DSLR’s LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that’ll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. If you execute the shoot properly, you won’t have to fiddle much with the shots in Photoshop afterwards. The Northern Lights pretty much accentuate themselves. I’d also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don’t see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it’s totally worth the effort.
Have any tips of your own for capturing the Northern Lights? From prime viewing locations around the globe to helpful photography tips, feel free to share in comments below!
My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.
In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.
A glimpse at the variety of events that make up Alaska’s Fur Rondy
Alaska’s Fur Rendezvous Festival is a real treat. The 2011 version is the 76th annual running of the event, and particularly over the past four years, things have been looking up for those involved. This year’s edition kicked off with a serious bang — the weather in Anchorage was absolutely amazing, and locals and tourists alike flocked to downtown in order to witness (or participate in) thoroughly Alaskan events like the Frostbite Footrace, dog weight pull, ice and snow sculpture carving and multi-tribal dance gatherings. The event is one that’s cherished by Alaskans all over the state. For one, it gives everyone a chance to come together and celebrate the awesomeness that is Winter in Alaska. Secondly, it gives Alaskans a reason to celebrate the impending arrival of Spring.
I had a chance to experience Fur Rondy as an outsider, but left feeling like someone who was welcomed with open arms. Peek the video above for a glimpse into the real magic behind this event, and read on for a bit of perspective that I gained from picking Ernie Hall’s brain.
%Gallery-117714%For those unaware, Ernie Hall is fairly big deal in Alaska. He moved here in 1959, the same year that Alaska gained statehood. Needless to say, he’s seen every single thing that has happened to The Last Frontier since becoming an official state within the US of A. For the past four years, he has been an integral part of organizing Fur Rondy, and I was able to sit down and pick his brain about the event. Currently, he sits on the board, and his job to ensure that sponsors are found, events are organized and that the community plays an integral part in everything.
According to him, Rondy had “fallen on hard times” a few years back. The issue was simple: the event had been ushered away from the locals, and turned more into a commercial spectacle. In truth, it’s the communities within Alaska that makes this all so special, and if you remove the pride factor, you’ve sucked the heart right out of the event. When he stepped in, he took it upon himself to convince sponsors to give him “one more chance,” and he vowed to let the community run things once again. Evidently, that’s exactly what happened.
During my stay this past weekend in Anchorage, I saw beaming Alaskans at every event. Crowds were noticeable, and people were genuinely excited to be here. The events themselves went off without a hitch. Ernie said that the 45 days leading up to the starting weekend were the craziest 45 days of his entire year, but once the planning was nailed down, he found that enjoying Fur Rondy was the easy part. Indeed, the events schedule rolled on like a well-oiled machine, and as a spectator, I kept finding myself in amazement at just how well everything was put together and just how “Alaskan” everything felt. If you’re looking for a neck-deep dive into Alaskan culture, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than at Fur Rondy.
This year, two events in particular garnered a vast amount of attention. The first is Yukigassen. It’s a sophisticated snowball fight that’s hugely popular in Japan, and the tournament held here at Fur Rondy was the first sanctioned Yukigassen event in the United States. The battles were intense, and from the sidelines, it certainly looked like gobs of fun. I’m giving it 12 months before places like North Dakota, Minnesota and other snow-filled locales pick up on it. Even The Travel Channel’s own Bert Kreischer (from Bert the Conqueror) made it out to join in the festivities, and we caught up with him for an interview here.
Not only did he sling a few snowballs at enemies across the field, he also participated in the World’s Largest Outhouse Race. He brought a crew up to Anchorage in order to race down a snowy street, pushing a gal in a customized Bert the Conqueror outhouse in hopes of claiming the gold. It’ll eventually show up in a future episode, but you can take a sneak peek from my footage here.
I departed Fur Rondy with one overriding realization: this festival is just magical. Visiting Alaska marked my 50th state, and it’s safe to say that it’s easily one of my favorites. There’s no question that this state is vast, but you’re able to get a handle on quite a bit of the culture by just spending a weekend or two at For Rondy. Just interacting with the folks who show up here is a real treat, and it’s already got my considering a training regimen in order to enter next year’s Yukigassen tournament. Who says a boy from the south can’t hang with these Arctic folks? (Well, I do, but I’m working on toughening up.)
When I was in high school, I got to know a sweet and charming exchange student from Germany named Linda. We hung out together and I did my best to show her around Seattle before she had to go home six weeks later. I regretted not having the opportunity to get to know her ten months earlier when she first came to the U.S.
Five years went by, and we would write an occasional letter. She’d tell me about her life in Germany, which revolved around a constant barrage of tests or how she’d been accepted into a school she’d always wanted to attend and I’d tell her about whatever flying rating I was chasing or what classes I was taking at the time. I always knew I’d see her again, or at least I had hoped I would.
While flying for Era, a regional airline based in Anchorage, I happened to write a letter that would forever change my life. I was in the town of Deadhorse, up on the north slope of Alaska, flying some scientists who were tracking the migration patterns of bowhead whales. For nearly a week, the weather wasn’t good enough to look for these whales from the air, so I wrote to Linda and happened to mention that I could travel cheaply-free in fact, if I were willing to ride on a FedEx cargo plane to Germany from Anchorage-and that I would love to see where she lived.
Before heading out to dinner one night in Anchorage, I checked the mail. A letter from Germany had arrived. I stuffed it in my coat pocket and drove to the restaurant with my sister and a good friend. I couldn’t wait to open it, so after placing my order for beer battered Halibut, I tore open the envelope. Linda hadn’t wasted much time writing back. The letter explained that she’d be in London for New Year’s eve with some friends from school and invited me to join them if that was possible. I was excited to leave right away, but I wondered if we’d have anything in common, since we last saw each other at the age of seventeen.
In London, we stayed at a place called “Ken’s Guest House” in a room that wasn’t much larger than a walk-in closet. The decor included three black and white TVs stacked on top of each other in the corner, no furniture to speak of and a shared bathroom down the hall. We didn’t really mind the spartan room since we wouldn’t be staying there long-we’d be moving to a youth hostel the next day anyway. After ringing in New Year’s of 1991, we talked until 7a.m. For a better idea of what happened to us, just watch the movie Before Sunrise. The next day, Linda introduced me to her parents who were also visiting London.
It wasn’t long before Linda was visiting me in Anchorage and I was spending all of my time traveling to see her in Germany and later in Wales. For two years I commuted from Alaska to Europe. We were married in Seattle just weeks before I landed a job at a major airline that promptly furloughed the bottom 600 pilots. We moved ten times during those next three years, but now we’re happily settled in New England.
Today, I fly to London regularly as a crew member and I can’t help but think of that first meeting with Linda, at the Victoria train station, and how we celebrated New Year’s eve together at Trafalger Square in 1991. Twenty years later, I managed to trade away my Barbados 25-hour overnight for a 44-hour layover to Heathrow. With so much time in London, why not bring my wife along to celebrate twenty years since the date that brought us together. We could swing through the Victoria station and just catch the midnight swarm of people at the square.
I immediately checked the loads, which is to say, just how full the flight was over and back. Three months earlier, I tried to get Linda on one of my trips while her mother was visiting from Germany and was willing to watch the kids. Unfortunately, I found myself waving goodbye to her from the cockpit as we were pushing back from the gate in Boston. Every seat was filled on the 767.
According to the computer, this time we’d have plenty of seats on the flight over. Coming home would be a different story. Should we risk it, I asked? Linda thought there were worse things in life than being stuck in London, a position I’m sure a few London travelers who had been stuck at the airport earlier that week would disagree with.
It couldn’t have worked out better. Linda got a seat in the back but stayed up in the cockpit while the passengers boarded and I explained just how to preflight the airplane, what we checked for and what everything on the overhead panel did. It had been eight years since Linda had been on a flight with me, and I was probably more excited than she was to have her come along.
Let’s face it, layovers by yourself can be boring, repetitive and even depressing. Flying to the same hotel, in the same city over and over, with little energy or motivation to get out-especially in the winter-can leave you wishing you could bring along a friend or loved one. Of course, it’s nice to fly with co-workers you consider friends, as I’ve written about in the past, but it’s a huge treat to bring along a spouse.
It was my ‘leg’ to fly over to London, so of course, anytime you know someone in the back, the pressure is always there to make an extra smooth landing. With a little help from the tower controllers at Heathrow, the touchdown was even better than my usual “landing only a mother could love.”
Typically at Heathrow there is an airplane flying just 3 miles behind you when you touchdown. This means flights are required to spend a minimum amount of time on the runway. That night however, the tower informed us that there was no one behind and we could plan on rolling to whatever turnoff we’d prefer. I touched down in the normal target a thousand feet down the runway and then instead of using a significant amount of brakes and reverse thrust, elected to roll to a slow stop using two thirds of the two mile long runway.
I escorted Linda through the terminal, meeting up with the rest of the crew as they pulled up in the bus that would take us to the hotel in western London.
By this time it was 8:30 p.m., so we decided to get some dinner after changing at the hotel. We made an appearance at the pub downstairs and had just enough time for a drink and visit with a few others from our flight before going upstairs to watch the rumored fireworks from the window of our room. I had heard that most of the fireworks would be near the London Eye, but we were shocked by the spectacular display which broke out directly from the giant wheel. Without a doubt, they were the best fireworks display we’d ever seen. From the BBC:
A 44-hour layover gives you the luxury of sleeping in a bit and staying closer to your home time zone. As much as London has to offer on January 1st, Linda was very much looking forward to not having to set an alarm clock.
We wandered down to a Starbucks quaint cafe for some tea.
“Did you put sugar in my tea?” Linda asked.
“Uh, yeah. Don’t you take milk and sugar?” I said, realizing immediately that she didn’t.
“I’ve never put sugar in my tea!”
This was bad. Linda was actually born in Belfast before she moved as a kid to Germany. The one cultural habit she kept from her years in Northern Ireland was an affinity for tea. And not just an occasional cup of tea, she started the day with tea and she took time in the afternoon for her “wee cup of tea.” After eighteen years of marriage, not knowing how she took her tea was not a good way to start off a romantic weekend getaway.
After retracing some of our steps twenty years ago, such as finding the best book stores in London and eating at a Chinese restaurant where I first got to know her parents, we popped into a cafe (this time not Starbucks) for a pre-theatre cup of tea. I managed to get the order right and we joked about it a bit.
I may have salvaged the tea faux pas with tickets to We will Rock You, which I knew would be the perfect musical to see if we were feeling a bit jet lagged. Linda loved the show and we were certainly wide awake afterwards, so we headed down to Trafalgar Square to see the area where the New Year’s celebration had been-the night before and ours twenty years ago.
A few blocks south was the Thames, so we headed down there to look at the London Eye across the river. We headed back toward another tube station, and just passed Big Ben as the clock struck midnight and the bells wailed.
The next morning we still had plenty of time to tour the city, so we set out to walk in front of Buckingham Palace and then to take a peak into the famous department store Harrods, during their one and only annual sale. Harrods turned out to be absolutely packed, and honestly there wasn’t anything there that either of us were interested in. But it was a spectacle to be seen, that’s for sure.
With just a couple of seats open for the flight home, we were a bit worried about Linda getting a seat. Fortunately the loads improved and the flight ended up with ten open coach seats. The flight attendants, some of whom I hadn’t worked with before, gave Linda a little extra special attention without making her feel like a burden on them.
So while being married to a pilot may have a few significant drawbacks-Linda often feels like she’s a single mother-there are occasionally some times when a really good deal like this comes along.
Thanks Linda for putting up with twenty years of this often turbulent career. It looks like a smoother ride is ahead, I think. But maybe we’ll just leave the seatbelt sign on.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.
The 2011 Tour d’Afrique is officially underway! Just three days ago, more than 120 cyclists set off from Cairo, Egypt on a four month, 7,375 mile race across the world’s most exotic and alluring continent. The competitors will pedal through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia before aiming to arrive in Cape Town, South Africa on May 14th.
If you have the urge to drop everything and join them, you can sign up to complete one of the eight partial sections ranging in distance between 1000km and 2000km.
Today’s Photo of the Day from localsurfer isn’t of the Tour d’Afrique, but I think it’s a great illustration of how important bicycles are as a mode of transporation and heavy lifting throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. So much in fact, that a series of social enterprises are now popping up to help local African entreprenuers by building and loaning inexpensive but durable bikes.