The Soo Locks Of Sault Ste. Marie

The Soo Locks of Sault Ste MarieMichigan’s Upper Peninsula is an often overlooked travel destination. Sandwiched between three of the Great Lakes, the U.P. is a remote and rugged wilderness that features hundreds of miles of trail, incredibly dense forests and more solitude than anyone could ever ask for. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the options for hiking, camping and backpacking, while other visitors will enjoy the scenic beauty and laid back lifestyle.

That vast expanse of wilderness is occasionally broken up by quaint and inviting Midwestern towns populated by friendly and accommodating people. The largest of those towns is Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie), which is located on the southern banks of the St. Mary’s River on the eastern side of the Peninsula, just a stone’s throw away from Canada.

You wouldn’t know it while passing through the sleepy little town but Sault Ste. Marie (Pop. 15,000) is home to the busiest lock system in the entire world. Completed in 1855, the Soo Locks connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron, allowing ships to safely traverse the 21-foot drop that separates those two bodies of water. Each year more than 10,000 vessels pass through the locks, despite the fact that they are closed between January and March, and in 2008 alone, the locks saw more than 80 million tons of cargo come and go.The Great Lakes have served as shipping lanes for centuries and the Soo Locks are vitally important in keeping that traffic flowing today. As such, most of the ships that pass through Sault Ste. Marie are freighters, barges and tugboats. Some of those vessels are capable of steaming straight out of the Lakes and directly into the ocean itself, delivering as much as 72,000 tons of cargo to the rest of the world. It is not unusual for the locks to see the occasional tall sailing ships, cruise lines or even military vessels too.

During the summer travel months the Soo Locks are amongst the most popular tourist destinations in all of Michigan. Visitors actually come from around the world to take in the sights of a large ocean-going vessel passing through Sault Ste. Marie. The transfer process between the two lakes is a fascinating one and watching the locks in operation is a unique experience. That process can be observed from a lovely park that sits alongside the locks, which is the perfect place for spotting the large ships as they approach. Better yet, visitors can actually pass through the Soo Locks themselves by booking a local boat tour.

The Soo Locks Visitor Center is also a great place to learn more about the locks while visiting Sault Ste. Marie. The center provides a contextual history of how and why these modern wonders were built while also offering a large observation deck for watching the ships “lock through.”

When you’re finished enjoying the locks, be sure to spend a little time exploring Sault Ste. Marie as well. As Michigan’s oldest city, it has plenty of unique aspects to discover. And whatever you do, don’t leave town without trying the fudge!

Historic Battleship USS Texas Taking In Water, Leaking Oil


The USS Texas is America’s oldest battleship. Commissioned in 1914, it fought in both World War I and World War II. Since 1948 it’s been utilized as a museum at La Porte, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston.

Now the vessel is in peril. It’s sprung a leak and is taking on water. So much water entered the ship that it started noticeably listing to port. The old oil tanks got flooded. While the tanks had been emptied decades ago, they’d never been cleaned, so oily water spread out into the bay.

The oil is being cleaned and the water pumped out. While problems continue, the ship doesn’t appear to be in danger of sinking. The Houston Chronicle reports the ship is taking less water now, from a high of 850 gallons a minute down to 100. Repairs will hopefully start Monday and the ship will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Despite its current troubles, the future may be bright for this floating bit of history. In 2007 a state bond issue raised $25 million to dry berth the ship. This would help preserve it for future generations. Now it’s estimated the project may cost twice that. Getting the money will be difficult in this economic climate, but the project would create jobs and preserve a major tourist attraction.

Check out the video to learn more about this amazing vessel.

A Photo Tour Of Cape Town’s Colorful Bo-Kaap

Cape Town might be the world’s most visually striking city, between its dramatic coastal setting perched precariously against the looming Table Mountain and the town’s riotous collision of Europe and Africa, and from textiles to colonial Dutch architecture. Perhaps no Cape Town neighborhood better represents the sensory feast that is Cape Town than the Bo-Kaap, a wildly colorful enclave of brightly painted houses long home to the city’s unique population of Cape Malay residents.

Bo-Kaap got its start in the late 16th century, as Cape Town rose to prominence as a key stopover for merchant ships traveling between Europe and Asia. The largely Dutch traders who controlled Cape Town introduced Indonesian slaves (now known as Cape Malays) to the city, who then brought along their Islamic culture and cuisine. Bo-Kaap became home to the city’s Cape Malay community, weaving its way through a patchwork of brightly painted houses, historic mosques, spice shops and cobblestone streets.

Though the Bo-Kaap is quickly gentrifying, the neighborhood remains a fascinating sensory feast for an afternoon stroll. Turquoise and bright green houses compete for your eye’s attention with nearby Table Mountain, as a thick blanket of clouds gently rolls across its summit. Nearby a group of worshippers kneels outside one of Bo-Kaap’s mosques, their chanting wafting its way to your ears. On the next corner, a market stocks halal meats and fresh-made Koeksisters, a sweet South African donut.

Begin your own exploration of the Bo-Kaap signs and sights of the neighborhood in the Gadling gallery below!

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Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum

AmsterdamAmsterdam owes its wealth to the sea. In the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch sailed around the world looking for rare products to bring back to Europe. They were one of the great maritime powers and are still important in shipping today.

Amsterdam is a city made for the sea. Its canals are laid out like a spider’s web, where every family that could afford it built a narrow house on one of the canals, complete with a private warehouse and crane on the upper floor. This maximization of seafront property allowed a large section of society to share in the nation’s wealth.

To really understand Amsterdam and The Netherlands, you need to visit the National Maritime Museum, called Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Dutch. This museum, reopened earlier this year after a major remodel, offers a history of Holland’s maritime adventures from the past 500 years.

Just a short walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the museum is housed in a large 17th century arsenal. Inside are modern interactive displays explaining how early mariners found their way by the stars, how ships were built, and where and for what they traded.

One of my favorite displays is a set of reproductions of sailors’ photo albums from the past century. You sit in an easy chair flipping through the pages while listening to an audio commentary explaining the photos. It was like sitting with some old Jack Tar as he spun tales of the sea. There’s also a large collection of ship’s ornaments, nautical equipment, and an art gallery of maritime paintings.

%Gallery-139729%Another big draw is the Amsterdam, a beautiful full-sized replica of an East Indiaman from the Age of Sail. This is a big hit with Dutch kids, if the squealing school groups crawling all over it were anything to judge by.

Some locals have complained that the remodeled museum has been “dumbed down”, and while I applaud the many exhibitions specifically directed at children, I have to agree the museum lacks a certain something. There’s a large amount of wasted space and as I finished every floor I was left with the feeling “that’s it?” Yes, the displays are artistically lit and well labeled, and the whole execution is well conceived, yet I was left feeling I’d missed out on something.

Another problem is the price–a tooth-grinding 15 euros ($20.23) for adults and 7.50 ($10.12) for kids and seniors. Thankfully I had the I amsterdam City Card, which got me in for free. If you don’t have the card, I’m sad to say that unless you’re a serious history or nautical buff, the price simply isn’t worth it. It’s a shame the high entrance fee will drive people away, because there are some really beautiful artifacts and works of art here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Naval Museum in Madrid: an overlooked treasure

MadridAfter six years of living in Madrid, I’ve finally made it to the Naval Museum.

It’s overlooked by most tourists. In fact, it’s overlooked by a lot of madrileños. I’ve met some locals who didn’t even know it exists. Perhaps being so far away from the sea they don’t expect there to be a major naval museum downtown. It also doesn’t help that it’s tucked behind a modest facade that’s easy to miss.

Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a massive collection of paintings, cannons, uniforms, even parts of old ships.

Spain was one of of the leading naval powers in the Golden Age of Sail. It owned much of the New World and scattered colonies around the globe. It protected its interests with a large fleet of warships.

The museum skips lightly over the medieval period and gets really detailed starting at the Age of Exploration. Columbus is given his due, and many other lesser-known explorers are also covered. The maps are fun to study. The most important is that of Juan de la Cosa, made in 1500 and the first known map to show the New World.

The biggest section is for warships from the 16th-18th centuries, when Spain was a superpower. Here you’ll find uniforms, weapons, flags, and a nice collection of figureheads like the one shown here. One of the most interesting exhibits is the wreck of the Nao, which sank in 1600. Archaeologists donned scuba gear and excavated the wreck, bringing up a huge collection of porcelain from China as well as other artifacts.

The 19th and 20th centuries are also covered, although not in as much detail. By then Spain’s power was waning. There are some detailed models and paintings of ships that were making the transition from sail to steam. They had steam engines but kept their masts just in case those early engines broke, which they did regularly! The Spanish Civil War is only covered in passing. I’ve yet to see a Spanish museum that’s come to terms with this bloody conflict. It’s still in living memory, so the old wounds remain open.

The section for the modern navy is worth a look too. While small compared to those of the U.S., Russia, and UK, the Armada still packs a punch. It has two aircraft carriers, ten frigates, four submarines, and a host of smaller ships. This puts Spain way ahead of Morocco, its only potentially hostile neighbor.

The only downside to this museum is that the signage is all in Spanish. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language; most of the exhibits are pretty self-explanatory. The museum is free. Because it’s in a military building, make sure to bring ID to get in.

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