Help Quark Expeditions Select The ‘Polar Big 5’

Quark Expedition is selecting the Polar Big 5Big game hunters once coined the term “Big 5” in reference to the five toughest animals to hunt on foot in Africa. Today, visitors to that continent still keep their eyes peeled for those iconic creatures, although these days they are more likely to shoot them with their cameras. The animals that make up the Big 5 include lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes, which are amongst the most fearsome creatures found on our planet.

As a salute to the African Big 5, adventure travel company Quark Expeditions, which specializes in excursions to the Arctic and Antarctic, has asked us to help them select the “Polar Big 5.” They’ve narrowed down the selection to nine contenders, each of which inhabit the colder regions of the world. The nominees include the king penguin, walrus, polar bear, reindeer, elephant seal, leopard seal, musk ox, humpback whale and albatross. Quark has even set up a page for us to cast our votes to help bestow this honor on the five eventual recipients.

To entice us all into voting, the company is also giving away a ten-day voyage to the Antarctic, a dream destination for many. One lucky person who submits their vote for the Polar Big 5 will be selected to receive a fantastic trip to the bottom of the world that takes place in November 2013. For more details on the prize, click here.

The Polar Big 5 contest runs through November 30 of this year. To enter, simply head over to PolarBig5.com and make your selections. Any entry that doesn’t include the polar bear should be invalidated automatically.

[Photo credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia]


Cruise Vacations: Not Your Mother’s Slow Boat To China

cruise vacationsOften believed to be the travel choice of the newly wed or nearly dead, the nature of cruise vacations has evolved in recent years. At one time, a cruise vacation meant shuffleboard, never-ending buffets and a few thousand older, overweight passengers on a spin around the Bahamas. Now, the old iconic activities, dining options and even older passengers are being replaced with an active lifestyle and options for adventure travelers.

As new ships come out, cruise lines are careful to build in an ability to be flexible and cater to the traveler of today. Relevant dining options ranging from lifetime event dining, like a steakhouse dinner to celebrate a graduation at a fraction of the cost on land, to comfort food dining, like Macaroni and Cheese in the ship’s main dining room, reflect an evolving passenger’s taste.

Pinpointing that taste and satisfying it, cruise lines are more rabidly focused on capturing the attention of would-be passengers with far more than low prices and bonus offers. Branded experiences ranging from an infusion of DreamWorks characters into the Royal Caribbean fleet, a Nickelodeon influence on Norwegian ships and even Apple products in iLounges on Celebrity Cruises are proving popular. Off the ship, adventurous shore experiences often put cruise travelers on a path similar to that suggested by popular travel bloggers going it on their own.

Flickr photo via Trey Ratcliff

Along with this “give-them-what-they-want” focus comes a branding effort designed to jumpstart the infusion of trendy, relevant elements to the onboard experience on older ship as well. Royal Caribbean has a Royal Advantage program being rolled out to older ships, replacing tube sets with flat-screen TV‘s, adding new trendy dining venues found on the newest of ships and upgrading other elements of the onboard experience as well.

On Carnival Cruise Lines some travelers may lament the near extinction of the party-going frat sailings (AKA “booze cruise”) but don’t have to look far for new, different venues that are becoming the place to be at sea.

Inspired by what is popular while traveling, Carnival unleashed its FunShip 2.0 initiative in New York last October. The $500 million enhancement program includes partnerships with popular celebrities and leading brands.

Funnyman George Lopez and celebrity chef Guy Fieri along with Miami Heat‘s DJ Erie are doing more than simply lending/selling their well-known names and star statuses to the Carnival brand in an attempt to draw a new breed of cruise passenger. Each has worked with Carnival to create experiences that fit the brand and infuse their own unique style.

cruise vacationsThe Food Networks Guy Fieri is working with Carnival to offer a dining venue called Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the Food Network star’s (really amazing) hand-crafted burgers and fresh-cut fries with special recipes created exclusively for Carnival.

Different, from previous product upgrades that have happened throughout the years, cruise lines are listening and communicating with passengers and targeted travelers, speaking their language. Also, reflecting a degree of transparency, cruise lines are letting us in behind the scenes to see what goes into bringing something new on board as never before.

At a press conference in New York, Fieri manned the outdoor grill most of the afternoon, making soon-to-be signature burgers and answering questions. When asked why he got involved with the project, straight-talking Fieri told us, “…because these people at Carnival really care about their customers. It really means a lot to them that the people who sail on their ships have a good time. I wanted to be a part of that.”

It’s funny how you can hear something like that from a cruise line a million times and think nothing of it, but let those words come out of a popular icon in the world of food and all of the sudden they have meaning.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too and gets really detailed in its execution on board. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board. We sampled (OK make that “inhaled”) both in New York and agreed with most others that it was one of the best burgers ever.

Carnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s “creative director for comedy” as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

cruise vacationsTo become the cruise line’s curator of comedy, acting as a consultant on the vetting and hiring of comedic talent for the line’s existing fleetwide comedy clubs, Lopez will play an active role in the securing of top up-and-coming comedic talent, utilizing his vast resources within the North American comedy scene.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” Lopez told us. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

“Carnival’s guests absolutely love comedy which is why we are already the cruise industry leader in fleetwide comedic programming and, in fact, we host more guests in our shipboard comedy clubs than any land-based comedy chain in the U.S.,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “By partnering with George Lopez, an exceptionally talented, respected and popular comedian, Carnival’s comedy offerings will be taken to an entirely new level.”

Lopez is seriously into the comedy concept too, much like Fieri and his cooking. In an interview with CruiseRadio‘s Doug Parker and Matt Basford, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding, “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about.”

cruise vacationDJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity promises to bring an exciting and relevant new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations told us. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement – much like Carnival had done for 40 years.

But through his new comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

An important point to note: none of this costs extra. This is Carnival reinventing the at-sea experience, adding more options than ever, all included in the price.

The onboard experience is changing in other ways as well. Big name entertainment is lending their name to new cruise ships as Godmothers, or just to be were the entertainment action is.

Martina McBride performed on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas; Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before.

Off the ship too, cruise lines are taking a good hard look at what they have for travelers once ships reach their destinations. Taking a page from travel bloggers, cruise line “excursions” are far more than a busload of tourists complaining if the air conditioning is not cool enough.

Today we’re seeing cruise passengers getting off the bus and on to kayaks, scuba diving, surfing, hiking and climbing trails, viewing history, arts and culture up close in any given port. At the end of the day some ships may stay in port late or overnight before moving on to their next stop.

Always a solid reason for cruising, travelers get to see and sample destinations they may or may not want to return to later, for a longer land-based vacation.

No, today’s cruise vacations are not your parents’ idea of a good time, they’re yours, whatever that may mean.


Photos via Carnival Cruise Lines

Icy Antarctica: a hot spot for student travel

Antarctica whalesWatching whales leap out of the water is one of many opportunities travelers have when visiting Antarctica, as an increasing number of people worldwide are looking to explore the bottom of the earth. Student groups, individuals and families are frequently heading south on an Antarctica adventure that many only dreamed of just a few years ago.

Recently, a group of Michigan State University study abroad students on an expedition in Antarctica found their boat stuck on ice and stranded, but not for too long.

“We just enjoyed the scenery for a while,” sophomore Jennifer Campbell said. “About a half-hour later, I had taken probably 100 videos because about 100 whales were around our ship, teaching their young to hunt.”

The frozen tundra of Antarctica has become a hot spot for ecotourism, too. Thirteen MSU students participated in the expedition in Antarctica program a few months ago.

“Not any two people have the same short list of reasons for going – the love of adventure and (being) off the routine path of MSU are some reasons why,” said Michael Gottfried, an associate professor of geological sciences in a State News article.

But the increasing amount of travelers visiting the continent could have consequences. Students are told to wash their boots and not to take anything because it changes the environment.

“It is untouched; you can tell how things have changed after centuries of human progress,” sophomore Jennifer Campbell said. “If everyone wants a piece of it, it’ll be all gone.”

Although many nations conduct climate and other scientific research in Antarctica, the MSU trip isn’t based solely on science, Gottfried said. Students in dance, journalism, engineering and other majors have taken the trip not just to explore wildlife, but also to learn about the physical and biological aspects of the area.

“People underestimate the pristine quality of this beautiful place,” Campbell said.

Looking to travel to Antarctica? A number of travel companies are offering unique adventures:

  • National Geographic Expeditions does a 14- or 24-day Journey to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer that hits the Antarctic Peninsula and the surrounding islands and waterways.
  • Journeys International has a 12-day Active Antarctica Adventure that allows those along for the ride to test their endurance with an average of two, off-ship activities each day, including camping, kayaking, mountaineering and cross-country skiing while appreciating the penguins, whales and icy landscapes.
  • Abercrombie and Kent sails the whale-rich waters of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula’s bleach-white, remote coastlines on a comprehensive expedition cruise that reveals the many faces of the world’s last frontier. This one lets us go behind the scenes of an environmental research station and chat with on-board experts nightly about the day’s discoveries.
  • Students On Ice is an award-winning organization offering expeditions to the Antarctic to provide students, educators and scientists from around the world with inspiring educational opportunities at the ends of the Earth.

This video gives us an idea of what Students On Ice is all about.




Flickr photo by Antarctica Bound

Video: kalimba player in Malawi

One thing that consistently amazes me while traveling in Africa is how the people are able to create musical instruments out of just about anything. Take the kora, for example. This West African stringed instrument is made from a gourd and fishing line.

Another popular instrument is the thumb piano, or “lamellophone” for all you musicologists out there. It’s a small wooden plate or box with strips of metal of different lengths on it. These are plucked with the thumb to make different notes. A bit of scrounging in any African town can get you the parts for a thumb piano in less than an hour. Because they’re light and easy to make, they are popular with the griots, Africa’s wandering troubadours. They’re also popular with kids because it’s easy to learn the basics.

The thumb piano is called different names by different people, like kalimba or mbira. In Ethiopia, where I saw them being played, the instrument is called a tom. I bought one for my kid when he was five and he loves it. In fact, it was the first instrument he learned how to play. Unlike the recorder, which he’s learning now in school, nobody taught him how to play the tom, he simply figured it out for himself, and that’s much more fun.

Check out this video of a kalimba player in Malawi, who’s so good a bird starts singing along with him! I’d love to know the words to his song.

Partial solar eclipse highlights the 2011 Antarctic travel season

An Antarctic solar eclipse will take place on November 25thA visit to Antarctica is high on the list of “must see” places for travelers looking to get off the beaten path. It is the highest, coldest, driest continent on the planet, and yet it still holds an undeniable allure for many adventure seekers. They come to kayak amongst the massive ice flows, visit penguin colonies, and to step foot in a place that few people ever get to see. This year, a few lucky visitors will also get the opportunity to witness a solar eclipse.

On November 25th, a partial solar eclipse will take place in the southernmost regions of the planet, making it only visible in New Zealand and the Antarctic. While the kiwis will have just 20% of the sun obscured from view, the Antarctic Peninsula will see nearly 90% of our star blocked from sight as the moon passes in front of it. Anyone traveling through the region on that day is sure to have a once in a lifetime experience.

Adventure travel specialists Quark Expeditions is not only preparing for the impending Antarctic cruise season, which begins in November, they’re currently offering a 15% discounts on all of their cruises scheduled to take place during the eclipse. The company has two different itineraries available and four separate cruises that will be in the Antarctic when the celestial event takes place.

It isn’t often that you know that a travel experience is going to be truly unique and special before you even go. But I’d say witnessing a solar eclipse over the Antarctic Peninsula ranks as an unforgettable sight.

[Photo credit: sancho_panza via WikiMedia]