Alaska Rail And Cruise Packages Add Value, Adventure

Alaska rail and cruise packages, commonly called Cruise Tours, are heating up as more travelers opt to see more of what the land of the midnight sun has to offer. Choosing a multi-day land exploration, either before or after a seven-day cruise line sailing, gets passengers deeper into the Alaska heartland than possible by ship only. Now, a third-party travel source is offering to combine their package with a standard cruise line experience for something different.

Rocky Mountaineer is a rail line that offers over 45 Canadian vacation packages on four unique routes through British Columbia and Alberta, each rich in history and natural wonders. The luxurious train travels by daylight through the wild beauty of Canada’s West and is a great way to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies either before or after an Alaska cruise.

Traveling eastbound or westbound on the Rocky Mountaineer, the all-daylight rail journey departs three times per week on both the First Passage to the West and the Journey Through the Clouds routes from the end of April until the beginning of October. The Rainforest to Gold Rush route runs from the middle of May until the end of September, as does the Whistler Sea to Sky Climb route.On board, Rocky Mountaineer offers different levels/choices of service for rail journeys too. All passengers get onboard attendants that provide friendly service and informative commentary of the regions through which the train travels. Gold, Silver and Red levels of service offer more onboard amenities.

Now, combining Rocky Mountaineer extensive experience on land with Holland America Line’s experience at sea, comes a package that bundles it all.

Called Canadian Rockies Highlights & Coastal Passage with Pre-Tour Cruise – 2013, the package includes three days onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, a seven-night Holland America Alaskan cruise, eight dinners, eight lunches, nine breakfasts and five nights of hotel accommodation. Also included are Banff & Seattle tours, a Yoho Park tour and Helicopter Flightseeing.

The offer is simple: book a Coastal Passage rail/cruise trip by March 28 directly through Rocky Mountaineer and earn up to $1300 in credits toward the cruise portion, or extra hotel nights/restaurant meals along the train portion in cities like Seattle, Vancouver and Banff.

Want to know more about what travel via rail in the Rockies is like? Check this video:

[Photo Credit- Rocky Mountaineer]

Video: Old West Ghost Town Of Bodie, California

Here’s a double dose of American nostalgia for you. Back in the 1950s, Maxwell House coffee had an “American Scene” series of TV shorts. This episode takes us to the ghost town of Bodie, California.

Gold was discovered in Bodie in 1859 and soon it became a boomtown with more than a dozen large mines and countless smaller claims. Some $80 million in gold was extracted from the surrounding hills, a huge amount for the 19th century.

Bodie is a popular destination these days and is lovingly preserved by the California State Parks. Back when Maxwell House filmed there, it was still not quite a ghost town. It had a population of nine, and one rugged miner was still looking for a big strike. The few diehards hoped that Bodie would become a boomtown once again. It was not to be.

So sit back and enjoy this show from the early days of television, talking about the early days of the Old West.

Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

You know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%One of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

East of Africa: Sapphire of Ilakaka

After hours of driving through untouched landscape, a speck of civilization appears on the horizon. It’s a sizable town; modest in structure, but full of activity and commotion -even at a distance.

A patchwork of low-grade wooden structures stem from a single main road. Electrical wires criss cross each other in all directions, connecting small shanty homes with restaurants and makeshift offices with pre-fabricated Zain mobile phone shops.


The main road is filled with pedestrians. A man with a turkey slung over his back fervently tries to make a sale with a local butcher. Several children pile onto a improvised sled, transporting an oil barrel that’s adorned with a hand painted message in English: “God is Good”. Next to them, three Chinese men in business suits carry large black briefcases into a shiny building that is marked as a gem brokerage.

It feels like we’ve rolled into a strange, Malagasy version of the Wild West, minus the cowboy boots and the saddled horses. This is Ilakaka, population: 30,000, and home to Madagascar’s booming sapphire trade.

As soon as we stop on the side of the road a few hawkers approach us. I try to explain in French that we’re not here to buy anything, but they insist that I come see their shop. Curiosity gets the best of me and I follow them to a small stall where a few men are clutching tiny plastic zipper bags filled with purple and blue stones.

There’s nothing elaborate about the presentation of the stones. They clear a bowl of meat for sale off of the table and empty the contents of the bags for me to inspect. An aging Indian man with a long beard sits behind a metal grille and counts out the prices for the stones. When it’s apparent that I’m really not going to buy anything, the bags get packed away as fast as they were dumped out.

I’m told that the Sri Lankans, Indians, and Thais control most of the gem market here, with a majority of the mining done by poor Malagasy father-son teams. They are lured by the dream of making over $10,000 USD in one find; truly a temping proposition in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

In the past eleven years, Ilakaka has been subject to an expansion that could be compared to California’s gold rush of the 1800’s. Sapphire deposits were discovered in 1998, when only 40 people inhabited the area. Now, 50% of the world’s sapphire comes from Madagascar, and Ilakaka is at the heart of the fever. The current official reports document 30,000 inhabitants, but locals insist that there are closer to 60,000 people in the town…a number that’s hard to track amidst high turnover in workers and unreported children belonging to working families.

Walking further down the road, I notice that the diversity for such a concentrated population is striking. Apparently, each of Madagascar’s 18 ethnic groups are represented in Ilakaka; and businessmen from all over the world come here to buy Malagasy gems. But because of the profitable nature of the business, violence has become prevalent in the rogue town.

The word on the street is that one of Osama bin Laden’s relatives was gunned down last year because of his visible success in sapphire trading. Another victim was shot in his hotel room only months ago while carrying a sapphire worth nearly $25,000. The local police claim to be attempting to control criminal activity, but low salaries and high bribes seem to be getting in the way of any tangible results.

But the violence doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone from coming to Ilakaka just yet. There are bars, brothels, and casinos…plenty of economic activity. But there are no established banks or sources of electricity from the national grid. Most of the shacks that the miners camp out in have no running water or sources of light; which on one hand, is good news for the ToughStuff sales team.

Within an hour, they’ve negotiated several deals and have even captured the interest of some of the wealthy gem brokers. They say that Ilakaka will be a good opportunity for trade and entrepreneurial expansion; undoubtedly a familiar sentiment in this dusty, lawless town.

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!

Band on the Run: The Swelling of Art in Wells, BC

The little town of Wells, BC is as cute as they come. It’s snug in the valley between several mountains, (one of which is mysteriously called “Island Mountain”), and it’s a eastward turn off of highway 97 that connects Prince George, BC with Williams Lake, BC. I had never made that turn until this weekend and it took me along highway 26 for about 90kms into what is an historic hotbed.

Here’s some history: Wells, BC is really close to what is known as “historic Barkerville.” This area was bursting with activity during the mid 1800’s with the Cariboo gold rush. During its heyday, Barkerville was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. However, with the death of the gold mining prospects there, the town died and sat abandoned for seventy years until the provincial government decided to restore it and bring it back to life as a tourist centre.

That was obviously the definition of a ghost town. I’d love some of those stories!

Wells, BC, on the other hand, was built in the 1930s as a company town for the Cariboo Gold-Quartz Mine. This mine was discovered long after things had died for Barkerville and represented yet another modest boom for the area. Wells enjoyed about a thirty-year burst of activity and prosperity before, as it always happens, the Earth could not sustain such abuse, gave up the last of her jewellrey in disgust and then forced the mines down.

Everywhere in Wells are mining or panning-for-gold references and old-fashioned images of the Wild West. By that, I mean rickety but colourful storefronts, paintings of covered wagons, and lots of puns about nuggets and gold dust finding their way into the names of restaurants and shops.

The people there welcomed us with big grins, hippie beads and sun-kissed shoulders.

The festival we performed at is called “Arts Wells Festival.” I love the double meaning when it’s said fast, although the logo doesn’t highlight the “swells” part of the festival name so I never did ask if it was intentional… but, I’m going to assume so. After all, in an area that has experienced significant swells in growth for destructive reasons, why not encourage the swelling of arts and community — constructive swells in Wells. (Well, that’s where my mind took me, anyhow!)

We arrived at around four o’clock on the last day of this long weekend festival. That was the soonest we could get there and it felt as though we arrived to a house party that was long underway. People were comfortably hanging out front of the century-old Sunset Theatre that was a wood frame building no bigger than a one-room school house with a stage and a front lobby and a tiny backstage tucked behind a musty old curtain. It reminded me of the school/church from Little House on the Prairie.

Everyone was either dusty from a long weekend of barefoot dancing at the main festival site (the local school down the road) or was damp from having just taken a dip in the river that ran right behind the theatre.

I wandered into the crowd unnoticed and found my way to the inside and the merchandise area looking for someone who could let us know where we needed to be and when. I found two smiling women selling CDs and eager to check in our items before the four o’clock show ended. We were scheduled to perform at five o’clock and were the final performance of the festival. It didn’t take me long to see the lay of the place and know that it would be a simple set-up and easy load-in.

I returned with a stack of CDs and was awarded two wooden festival badges with strings to hang around our necks. They are, by far, the coolest festival badges I have ever seen. Handmade and completely in tune with the vibe of this place; it was a family atmosphere and “homemade” seems to define everything that this festival is about.

I walked back outside then to get my gear and introduced myself to a couple of funky looking guys sitting on the outside steps. Turns out that most people here for the event were from Victoria or Vancouver, but a few were locals and everyone was super friendly – so friendly, in fact, that someone offered to go home to his house to get his amp for me to borrow. He hopped in his station wagon and was gone and back within five minutes. The tube amp under his generous arm as he made his way backstage made me smile immediately. There’s nothing better than tubes with my electric! (And of course, his smile to return my smile made me smile even wider.)

Just before four-thirty, I had myself organized enough to take in the last fifteen minutes of an amazing four-piece, spoken-word, beat-boxing group from Victoria called “Odditory Presence.” They were amazing. In the few songs I caught, they made me laugh, think and want to dance… and there was no instrument on stage besides their mouths and their minds. The mouth is an extremely important instrument for change. They’ve certainly got that covered.

When we stepped on stage, the place was full and looking onwards expectantly. Microphones were hardly needed thanks to the fact that it was built for optimum acoustics from a time when microphones weren’t even a consideration. It was intimate, to say the least. We laughed and were really casual on stage, playing a few old songs (“Goldilox” from our 2000 “The Wage is the Stage” release as our encore!), lots of new songs and telling long-winded stories. All told, the place embraced us and when we finished our encore, we were invited into that established group of friends that had long forgiven us for our late arrival.

The evening wore down then into dinner and drinks and a late-night jam. Well, it wasn’t too late, really. We headed back to our billet’s house before midnight knowing the long drive back to Edmonton the next day was going to hurt if we kept drinking wine and “scream singing” cover tunes!

A sunny-smiled woman named Kate who lives in a log home and is a massage therapist there in Wells put us up for the night. Her house smelled of cedar and incense. We both stepped in and knew we’d have a hard time leaving. Even the soap in the bathroom was handmade and all natural. And, the fact that her backyard is the foot of a mountain doesn’t hurt either. Her spices lined the kitchen counters in jars – counters that are homemade with tile tops and framed by pine – and the old fashioned stove top kettle reminded me of my grandma, its spout ornate and swooping upwards like a raised eyebrow lifts a question.

When we pulled out of Wells the next morning, I really didn’t want to leave. Just a taste of this warm community was a tease. My heart swelled with fondness when the drivers of two pick-up trucks that passed us coming out of the café in the morning as we were balancing steaming travel mugs honked and waved, the driver of one leaning out the window with “great show last night” catching the wind and making its way to our ears. Maybe next year (if they’ll have us back), we’ll plan a longer stay.

Yes, I think that’s in order.