Enter STA Travel contest to win trip for two

Would you turn down a trip that would take you and a friend anywhere in the world?

That’s what STA Travel is offering up, in a sweepstakes with Pier 1 Imports.

The grand prize winner gets the trip, plus two $1000 gift cards from Pier 1. Three runners-up get a $500 Pier 1 gift card and a $500 STA Travel gift card.

The great thing about this is it’s open to anyone 18 years and older. Usually STA contests are limited to 18-25 year-olds.

Enter online by midnight (CST) on Sunday, August 30th. Winners will be announced Tuesday, September 15th.

Talking Travel with Harry Helms

Today, Gadling got a chance to sit down and Talk Travel with Harry Helms, author of Top Secret Tourism: “Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You’re Not Supposed to Know About.”

Here is the unseen America of government facilities and installations protected by a wall of secrecy, deception, and misinformation. It includes huge, isolated areas (some larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island), along with innocuous office buildings located in the middle of major cities. This “other America” has an enormous impact on your life, but you probably have little idea of its extent, scope, and power.

As per usual, we have a few copies of the book to give away, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can get your hands on one.

Hi Harry, thanks so much for chatting with us. How did you get started traveling? Was it something you grew up with?

I was fortunate to have parents who enjoyed traveling, especially my father. He was the sort of guy who was always curious about what was over the horizon and wanted to see it for himself. He also enjoyed visiting obscure, out-of-the-way places, and that rubbed off on me. While I would never turn down the opportunity to visit someplace like Paris, I most look forward to visiting places most people have never heard off.

In your book, you travel around the country
and visit “top-secret America.” What kinds of places are these?

These are places that have come into being since World War II, and include government weapons testing and research facilities, bases used to test still-secret aircraft designs, relocation facilities for government VIPs and military officers in case of nuclear war, facilities used for espionage training and communications intercepts—in other words, the sort of places to government would rather you know nothing about!

How did you get interested investigating places you were told to avoid?

This started back when I got interested in visiting ghost towns and Native American rock art sites in southern California, Nevada, and Arizona and started finding these fenced-off areas, complete with warning signs and sometimes security patrols, in the middle of nowhere. I especially remember trying to locate a rock art site near China Lake in the southern California desert; I took an unmarked, poorly-graded dirt road I thought led to the site and instead came to a guardhouse manned by armed guards. Most of these places would not be marked on U.S. Geological Survey or Bureau of Land Management maps, and that got wondering what was going on inside those areas. To find out information about these sites, I had to do digging into such arcane documents as environmental impact statements, aeronautical maps and charts, lawsuit depositions, etc. It was like putting together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and I’m still trying to fit a lot of pieces!

Is there any sort of physical or legal danger involved in visiting any of the sites in your book?

Unless you do something really stupid like willfully trespass into a restricted area, you’re in no danger of being shot at or apprehended by security forces. However, visitors to some sites may be hassled by security forces and the local police, and they make ask you to turn off any video or photos you’ve made of the area. As I advise in my book, the best thing to do in such situations is to comply with their orders and then discuss things with an attorney when you get home.

Many of the sites I discuss in my book are located in very remote sections of the American west, and you may be over 100 miles from the nearest gas station or medical care. Your car should be in good working order with a spare tire, and a first aid kit, water, food, and other emergency supplies would be a good idea before visiting such isolated sites.

There’s a certain appeal to discovery, whether you’re plodding through a dense, untouched rain forest, or sneaking around secret government facilities — do you recommend the average Joe go out and discover their own “top-secret” locations? If so, what are some things to keep in mind to stay safe and out of jail?

One of the best tools I’ve found to discovering top secret locations is aeronautical maps and navigational guides. If you see an area that is off-limits to all air traffic, military and civilian, on a 24/7 basis, that’s a very good clue that something interesting and top secret is going on in that area. As always, the key to staying safe, both physically and legally, is to obey all warning signs and avoid trespassing into such areas. That can be hard to do; for example, the boundary at some facilities may be marked only by orange posts spaced 100 feet apart. If you’re not absolutely sure of where the boundary is, don’t push your luck!

Nevada Test Site seen from Google Maps

What’s your favorite top-secret location featured in the book?

Oh, that’s easy—the Nevada Test Site, located about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

Why there?

One reason is that it’s such an outrageous place—-it’s where 126 aboveground and over 800 underground nuclear bomb tests were conducted between 1951 and 1992. It’s the most heavily nuked piece of real estate on the planet, and has huge blast craters resembling those on the moon, networks of underground tunnels, and replicas of suburban housing developments so the effects of atomic bomb blasts could be studied. While they no longer test nuclear weapons there, they do admit they conduct open-air tests of hazardous materials—-supposedly to study the effects on accidental spills and chemical weapons—and, according to a 2001 report in the New York Times, conduct germ warfare tests there. So the location of the Nevada Test Site isn’t a secret, but exactly what’s going on in there is still shrouded in deep secrecy.

The other crazy thing about the Nevada Test Site is that they offer monthly tours from Las Vegas. They bus you up there, you can’t take any photographs, video camera and binoculars are forbidden, and you’re not allowed to even make sketches of what you see. But you do get to see the inside of the facility and several of the buildings, nuclear test sites and craters, etc. It’s just wild to see such a combination of great secrecy and comparative openness.

The first place that comes to the reader’s mind, no doubt, is Area 51. What did you find there? What can someone expect to see if they follow your lead?

As I describe in my book, there are two access roads leading you to the Area 51 boundary, and they’re both located north and south on Rachel, NV, along Highway 375. If you go there hoping to see space aliens and crashed UFOs, you’re going to be disappointed—-all you can see are warning signs, security guards, and, from the north entrance to Area 51, a guardhouse. The security guards will be watching you from their vehicles parked just inside the Area 51 boundary. I’ve looked at their vehicles through binoculars and have seen them looking back at me through their binoculars, I’ve waved at them, and they’ve waved back. So the security guards there can be friendly so long as you stay outside the border.

At night you will see all sorts of moving lights in the airspace above Area 51. I don’t think these are UFOs, but instead are likely military aircraft, including some still classified secret.

Have you ever found yourself in hot water for accidentally crossing a line, or going where you weren’t supposed to?

Fortunately, I’ve never been arrested but did accidentally wander about a mile inside the Nevada Test Site back in the late 1990s. I came to a dirt road with an open gate, drove down the road, and it wasn’t until I had traveled about a mile that I noticed signs telling me I had entered the site. I turned around and got out, and then noticed “no trespassing” signs on the other side of the gate. However, security has been greatly increased at such sites since the 9/11 attacks and the chances of such accidental entries is much lower these days.

Have you ever been surprised by the lack of security at what is supposed to be a top-secret facility?

Not just shocked, but horrified! For example, there are some nuclear test sites which on public and which can be freely accessed by anyone—-they’re totally unguarded. Radioactive materials could be retrieved from such sites and used to make a “dirty bomb,” for example. But, as I said before, security at most sites has been greatly increased since 9/11.

Is there a top-secret location you tried and tried to gain access to — but just couldn’t? Or perhaps a place so top-secret you chose to avoid all together?

There’s never been a place I couldn’t get close to, but I have heard rumors about several places that I couldn’t confirm. If I couldn’t verify that a place existed, I left it out of my book. While I didn’t avoid any place, there are some sites, like Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, that gave me the creeps. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, so isolated your cell phone doesn’t work and you can only pick up a couple of radio stations, and me and a couple of security guards were the only people within 50 miles. It’s tough to keep your imagination from running away from you in such a situation!

Thanks so much for your time, Harry!

It was my pleasure, and be sure to obey all the warning signs if you visit any of the places I describe in my book!

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to two lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select three random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, June 27 at 8:00 PM.

Talking Travel with Brook Silva-Braga

Writer and director Brook Silva-Braga left his job as an Emmy award-winning producer with HBO’s Inside the NFL to do what many of us dream of, and a few actually go through with: he moved all of his belongings into his parents house and set out on a year long round-the-world trip. With less than five pounds of clothing, and over 30 pounds of video equipment stuffed into a backpack, Brook traveled around the globe, chronicling the entire solo adventure in an outstanding documentary called A MAP FOR SATURDAY (read my review of it here).

We got a chance to sit down with Brook and Talk Travel. What made him quit his cushy job at HBO to travel the world for a year? Does the movie appeal more to those of us who have already traveled a great deal, or those who have yet to catch the “bug”? Find out!

We’ve got three copies of the DVD to give away, so stay tuned after the interview to find out how you can get your hands on one! The contest has ended! Find out where you can purchase a copy of the movie at the end of the interview.

How much traveling had you done before you decided to take the leap and travel solo for a year?

I had traveled throughout the U.S. for work and vacationed in Europe, South America and the Caribbean but I’d never done the budget thing or traveled alone. I remember going to Peru with my family on a package tour — perish the thought — and one guy in the group was traveling by himself. We all looked at him like there was something a bit wrong with that.

What finally pushed you over the edge… that moment that made you decide to commit to spending a year on the road?

It’s kind of ironic how it came about. I was working for HBO and they sent me to the Philippines to produce a story. I figured while I was in Asia I’d head over to the Thai beaches for a few days. So naturally one night in Ko Samui I ended up Jell-o wrestling and that led me to meet Bill and Paul, who had quit their lives in Northern Ireland for an around-the-world year. I was blown away by what they were doing and tagged along for as long as I could. But after a couple weeks work beckoned and I headed back to the New York winter knowing I wanted more of that amazing thing I had felt in Thailand. I quit my job seven months later.

My boss took me to lunch just before I left and asked if I had gotten the idea for the trip during my time in Asia. When I told him “Yes,” he said, “From now on we’re only sending married producers overseas.”

How long had you been working for HBO before you left?

I started interning there when I was 19 and had been there full time for three years, so it wasn’t easy to leave but I knew it was the right decision.

Did you leave on the trip with any sort of agreement with them regarding a job when you returned?

I asked for a one-year leave and they couldn’t give me that. My boss suggested I could just take a few weeks each year and it would add up to the same thing. My co-workers were mostly supportive and a bit envious.

Was your job waiting for you when you got back?

I’m really lucky they didn’t give me the one-year leave because I needed another four months to finish the documentary when I got back. Afterwards I gave a copy of it to my old boss and he very generously offered me a better position than I had when I left. But I’m in a different place now professionally and personally and an office job just isn’t for me.

Did you plan on traveling with the intent of making the documentary from the beginning… or did you come up with the idea of documenting it when you started planning the details of the trip?

The idea to travel came first, but I was a little concerned about throwing away my career, so making a documentary was a way of lessening that concern. I had a million ideas for what kind of documentary to make but none of them were that good so I just started shooting my own preparations and by the time I left I knew it would be about the experience of traveling alone for a long time.

Some hardcore travelers scoff at the thought of bringing large amounts of technology along. What sort of reactions did you have from the travelers you met along the way when they saw you traveling with all of the video equipment?

The bag full of electronics made me a bit of a curiosity I think but it almost never drew a negative reaction. In a way I was an even more hardcore traveler because with all the electronic requirements for making the film my personal possessions were less than 10 pounds.

What about the people in the documentary? Were they excited about the project — or do you think they thought this footage wouldn’t actually see the light of day outside of your family and friends?

I learned that the word “documentary” is thrown around quite liberally these days. Anyone with a camera but without a script is “making a documentary.” So I think most people lumped me into that group. Also, because I didn’t have a crew with me and was mainly shooting people who I had become good friends with I was able to capture moments that a normal production crew wouldn’t.

Now that they’ve had the chance to see the final product, what are they saying?

The biggest rush from this project was watching it premiere in front of 500 people in Cleveland, but the second best moment was watching it in a Berlin hotel room with my friend Jens. I met him in Australia and he’s one of the main characters in the film. After his section played he got a little emotional and grabbed the DVD case. I was videoing his reaction so I know just what he said: “I will have this for the rest of my life…Like my children I tell them, ‘Here, this is a movie about what I have done,’ and they can see me.”

For some reason I was really, really happy to do that for him. I worked 18 months on the movie and it really has very little personal meaning to me because I’ve seen it so many hundreds of times but for him to have a record of his trip like that is really cool.

Do you think the documentary appeals more to people who have traveled in the past or people who plan to travel in the future?

The response from both groups has been really nice. At first I was concerned that hardcore travelers would have a ‘been there, done that,’ attitude but they haven’t. Travelers love travel I think. That’s something we all learn when we get home and the only people who want to hear our travel stories are other travelers.

Where has it shown so far?

So far it’s played festivals in Cleveland, Memphis, Paris and Wales. It will play at the Ischia Film Festival in Italy at the end of June and the Globians Film Festival in Potsdam, Germany this August where it will be the opening film.

Can you tell us anything about the MTV premiere?

A U.S. TV date will be announced soon and international TV details are being finalized as well. I feel very corporate saying all that.

What’s in store for the future? Any more traveling?

I’m hoping to visit some friends in Europe this summer and finally make it to Iceland. I’ve started drawing lines through a map of Africa with hopes for this winter. There will be more documentaries from far-flung places but I think ‘A Map for Saturday’ says what I have to say about the experience of travel. Now I’ll just enjoy it.

Thanks, Brook!

A Map For Saturday can be purchased online at AMapForSaturday.com.

The Amtrak Picture Perfect Family Vacation Sweepstakes

Amtrak is sponsoring a contest called the “Picture Perfect Family Vacation Sweepstakes,” and the idea is simple: create an account on their system and upload your favorite family vacation photo, and you’ll be automatically entered to win 4 Amtrak “Sleeper Accomodation” tickets from any station in the continental U.S. (find the closest one to your house here) to Chicago, along with 4 nights of accommodation at the Essex Inn.

Not a good photographer? Don’t worry — your photo won’t be judged, it’s just your ticket for entry into the contest, which comes to an end on July 6th. If you want to increase your chances of winning, you can login once a day and upload a new photo.

Good luck!

Spa-Addicts Frolic in France Sweepstakes

Marie AntoinetteHere I was minding my own business, looking for cheap hotel rates on sidestep.com when I was distracted by an advertisement. Loud, hot pink, bright yellow text all grabbed my attention and next thing I knew I was being directed away from the travel search engine. Oh joy! But wait, it gets better… So I’m taken to this Spa-Addicts website, which I’ve never been to and here they are having a sweepstakes inspired by the newly released Sofia Coppola film, Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst. Now let me just say three things: One, I’m not a big fan of Kirsten Dunst; two, I do like Sofia Coppola; and three, I’m a complete addict when it comes to sweepstakes. Who cares about the taxes you might have to pay if you win, it’s still a whole heck of a lot cheaper than paying for their package deal in full. And now, surely, you must be curious to know what these Spa-Addicts are offering in their sweepstakes?

The so-called world’s premiere spa guide is giving you the chance to win roundtrip economy class airfare to Paris, France for two, four nights accommodation for two in a furnished luxury apartment, two Le Grand Classique Treatments at the Yon-Ka Spa in Paris and Two Soin Velours Treatments at the Yon-Ka Spa. Sound dazzling enough to enter? Head over to Spa-Addicts now. Who knows you may very well win a trip to Paris, but if my voluntarily spreading the word and good karma works in my favor, then I could be landing in France soon. (Be sure you read the official rules as always.)

Good luck!