Off-beat can short for "off the beaten path," (or a musical term for a note that hits when you don't expect it to). And sometimes, even in a big city or major tourist destination, you can find yourself enjoying an experience that has a different rhythm than you might have expected. Sometimes it's fun to step aside and do something unusual.
Following are some of our favorite off-beat travel experiences:
Skinny Dipping Just About Anywhere
When I travel, I'm always seeking authentic moments that bring me in close contact with nature, or make me feel that I've escaped my everyday life. And happily I've found a way to experience the world that fulfills these lofty ambitions, yet that's simple and cost-effective as well.
Seriously, what better way to truly experience a place than to be totally exposed to it, to inhale it through your very pores, to wallow in it, nakedly? Best of all, it's something you can do (almost) anywhere you can find a clean body of water and a dry place to pile your clothes. (And, of course, obeying all local laws!)
My favorite places for taking it all off are in Europe, where everybody else is clothing-challenged and wouldn't even think of looking at you twice. Top on my list is the sand island of Sylt (www.meer-sylt.de) off the coast of northern Germany and Denmark's beaches (see www.strandguide.dk/eng/index.shtml for a list of those that allow nudity). Thanks to the Gulf Current, the North Sea is surprisingly warm in the summer. And just to reinforce how not a big deal this is, during a two-week vacation in Denmark's Zealand I even went swimming (nude) with my German boyfriend (also nude) while his mother and grandmother (clothed) picnicked on the beach nearby. This was on the same beach where I saw an elderly man running naked, flapping in the breeze. (Mind you, if this had been Florida the same man would have been tucked, nicely dressed, next to his oxygen tank on the balcony of his retirement community).
Another unforgettable spot is Fraser Island's freshwater lakes (www.fraserisland.net). I can't remember if it's legal here or not -- so check before you strip down -- but the water is pure, clean, sweet and skin-tingly crisp.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some toweling off to do. -- Margot Weiss
Tickling Liberace's Ivories in Vegas
If you're like most visitors to Las Vegas, you will likely spend most of your time tackling the city's one-armed bandits. For a more offbeat, but no less fun (and heck, even quasi-cultural) experience, head for the kitschy glory of the Liberace Museum (1775 East Tropicana Avenue at Spencer; tel. 702/798-5595; www.liberace.com). Housed in an appropriately flashy building a couple minutes' drive from the Strip, the legendary pianist's collection of jewelry (want to see the largest rhinestone in the world -- it's here), costumes (today's bejeweled divas have nothing on Mr. Showmanship when it comes to over-the-top clothes), cars (yes, that is a rhinestone-covered Roll's Royce), and pianos is a veritable salute to excess. Most of the flashy exhibits at the museum are off limits to prying hands, but if you'd like to follow in the master's . . . er . . . fingerprints, the museum occasionally allows guests who know their flats from their sharps to try their hand at one of Liberace's flashy concert grands. Ask one of the knowledgeable docents, if you're interested. -- Naomi Kraus
Driving Alaska's "Haul Road" to the Arctic Circle
In Alaska's Denali National Park, mid-August means winter is well on its way. After a week suffering in a perpetually cold, wet tent, I'm ready for a road trip. However, in a state with more airplanes than cars, roads are about as plentiful as you might think. Since I'd already come north from Anchorage, the obvious lure is to continue straight north -- to the Arctic Circle.
Seventy-one miles north of Denali I whip past the sleepy little town of Nenana, home of the annual Nenana Ice Classic (www.nenanaakiceclassic.com), maybe the most original gambling opportunity in America. You can bet on when the ice will break up on the Nenana River; in 2005, it was April 28, and the jackpot was nearly $300,000!
One-hundred-twenty-five miles north of Denali I arrive in Fairbanks, a quaint frontier town that doubles as the second largest city in Alaska. This is a good spot for viewing the great Alaskan Pipeline, more than half of which is elevated to protect the permafrost as well as to enable caribou migration. Without the Pipeline, I could never reach my ultimate destination -- at least not by car.
I'm driving the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. The James Dalton Highway (aka "the Haul Road") is a 414-mile dusty, gravel road through taiga forest and tundra to the northernmost reaches of Alaska. It was built in the mid-seventies as a haul road during construction of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline that runs from Valdez, in the south, to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Sea. It now functions as a service road for the pipeline and as the only means to reach the small communities of Coldfoot and Deadhorse north of the Arctic Circle and, ultimately, the bay.
You have plenty of time to enjoy the haunting and other-worldly landscape -- in August, Alaska's white nights are just coming to a close, with the sun not fully "setting" until near midnight (even then it remains a dark twilight, and only for a handful of hours). The millions of acres of stunted trees that comprise the taiga give one the sometimes chilling impression of the classic horror film The Day of the Triffids.
Milestones are few on the road between Fairbanks and the Circle. The one you can't miss is Milepost 56on the mighty Yukon River. The Yukon River is the fifth largest river in North America, and the E.L. Patton Bridge is the only bridge to span it in Alaska. Gas, food, and lodging is available at the Yukon River crossing, and if you foolishly neglected to fuel up before you hit the Haul Road, you'd better do so here, regardless of the price.
At Milepost 98, I take a moment to stop at Finger Mountain to survey the vast beauty of the area. Finger Mountain is really a rock formation called a tor and is said to point south toward Fairbanks, a guide to early aviators.
At Milepost 102, more quite literally in the middle of nowhere than any place I have ever seen is the generator-powered Arctic Circle Inn Gift Shop & B&B (www.geocities.com/sandyburroughs2003/ourlodge.html). Partially tucked under the pipeline, a cluster of wooden buildings takes up barely an acre of land in the endless expanse that is gradually giving way from taiga to tundra. The proprietress tells me that she must travel two hours north to Coldfoot to collect her mail and four hours south to Fairbanks to buy her groceries. I buy a cool pair of earrings she has handmade from discarded porcupine quills.
Finally, at long, long last, after ten hours on the road, I arrive at Milepost 115.3, the Arctic Circle. Miraculously, after seeing nothing more than a handful of eighteen wheelers on the Haul Road, a German motorcyclist pulls in, and we snap a few photos for each other in front of the sign.
I have two dramatic moose encounters on the return trip, a tense race for the Yukon crossing where I hope for more gas, and a total of 16 hours and 600 miles later I arrive at my tent, sweet tent -- cold and wet as it ever was. It's four am and the sun is just rising. -- Alexia Meyers
Exploring Mongolia's Gobi Desert in Style
It must be admitted up front: I'm not exactly the woman you'd expect to take off for ten days of intrepid trekking in Mongolia. The whole idea for my Mongolian excursion happened amid a late Sunday brunch -- yes, with a Bloody Mary or two -- in New York City's West Village. One of my girlfriends, a magazine editor, was chatting about a press release she had received that featured "luxury" accommodations in the middle of Mongolia, and by the time she had finished talking about the untouched landscape and camel rides, I was convinced. I had to trade in my stilettos for hiking sneakers and go.
Thanks to the Three Camel Lodge (www.threecamellodge.com), I experienced multiple adventures, met the kindest people, and gazed at the most picturesque settings -- all the while enjoying flushing toilets, hot showers, comfortable beds, and better-than-expected food. Set in the middle of Mongolia's Gurvansaikhan (The Three Beauties) National Park in the south Gobi, this sophisticated oasis for has raised the bar for offbeat travel experiences for me.
Expect rustic luxury as you stay in your very own ger (pronounced gair or gurr) -- a traditional Mongolian nomadic home -- which is a round tent-like dwelling, constructed of latticed wood wrapped in felt and canvas. The Three Camel Lodge's fifteen newest gers (completed in June 2005) are the first and only gers in this part of the Gobi to have bathrooms. Guests in the other thirty gers have a brief walk along a beautiful stone path to more-than-adequate Western-style bathrooms in the lodge. Warm blankets and heavy duvets top thick, comfortable mattresses. Hot water and electricity are available 24 hours a day, powered almost entirely by wind and sun. Such environmental sensitivity (aka "ecotourism") is crucial in a place where people and animals survive off of the land.
Daytrips by jeep from the lodge include a visit to The Flaming Cliffs is where, in 1922, Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews found the first dinosaur eggs discovered by humans. At Yol Valley, I saw ibex (mountain goats), camels, Srgali mountain sheep, a fox, hawks, and countless other birds, before riding a horse to a nearby glacier. And during a visit to Hongoryn Els -- spectacular and isolated sand dunes that run 60 miles alongside the Gobi Altai Mountain Range and reach upwards of 2,600 feet -- I rode a camel and met a local nomadic family.
Conceived, owned, and run by tour operator Nomadic Expeditions (www.nomadicexpeditions.com), the camp welcomes most visitors as part a package tour that begins and ends in Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia's capital. To learn more about my explorations in the Gobi, go to www.frommers.com/articles/3090.html. -- Jennifer Anmuth
Panning for Nuggets in California's Gold Country
Gold mining and panning along "the Mother Lode" has attracted prospectors and the curious since 1848 when Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. I got gold fever the day I spotted the glint of yellow in the water and held a nugget in my hand.
Our group assembled at Gold Prospecting Adventures (18170 Main Street, P.O. Box 1040, Jamestown, CA 95327-1040; tel. 209/984-4653; www.goldprospecting.com) in Jamestown, CA. Outside the shop is an actual piece of mining history; a trough of rough Boards called a sluice. Water is run through the sluice as dirt is shoveled in dissolving the dirt and allowing the gold to settle in the ridges along the bottom board.
The history of mining is captured inside the store with displays depicting early days of mining including gear used in the mid 1800's as well as an abundance of modern day pans, picks, sluices, and other essentials for the gold miner of the 21st century.
Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp is a living history location built by the proprietors of Gold Prospecting Adventures. Jimtown is set on Wood's Creek where the 49ers panned for gold. Along with panning for gold, prospective prospectors can explore the camp's old mine tunnel, Indian grinding holes, live animals, Mark Twain's cabin, and a BootHhill. Living history residents of Jimtown include: Smilin' Jack, Jake Smith, and Hangin' Judge Parker.
Visitors are invited to help with chores which include working the old rocker boxes, long toms and flumes. Two-day adventure packages are also available which offer either a semi-primitive (modern lavatories and showers provided) where the sky or your tent top is your ceiling along the Tuolumne River or lodging provided in cabin or dormitory style rooms with meals, swimming pool and other amenities. The camp provides the pans necessary to "pan" for gold and boots to keep you dry in the river. All the gold you find is yours to keep.
One might think very little gold is left after so many years of mining and panning. Actually, more gold was mined in the United States in 1993 than in 1849. Serious panners can be found throughout Tuolumne County. One of the largest gold finds happened in the mid to late 1990's when a 3,000-ounce nugget was found. The '49ers used sluices to find their gold. By 1852, hydraulic mining began in earnest and the most devastating chapter in environmental history began for California. Tuolumne County is littered with the remnants of hydraulic mining; surrealistic moonscapes of boulders stripped of the earth that once filled this area. Hydraulic mining leveled thousands of feet of land each day, quickly evolving into big business and a landscape changed forever. Debris from the mining operations, salt, silt and sands ruined rivers which had controlled flood waters. Farm lands were destroyed as the downstream impact of hydraulic mining crippled agriculture. In 1884, a federal injunction stopped hydraulic mining. In 1893 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began licensing individual hydraulic mines as long as the debris from their operations was not released into the surrounding rivers. Hydraulic mining continued until 1960 when the water systems became too expensive to operate. The educational stuff was all quite interesting and useful, but it became truly memorable when I panned a nugget weighing a bit over a quarter ounce! According to our guides, it was the largest nugget found in awhile. As we were leaving, the proprietors were preparing to head back out to do some of their own prospecting.
I decided to keep the nugget in its natural state, rather than make jewelry out of it. It is beautiful and smooth in my hand, with a jagged side that broke off from a larger nugget. It warms to my body temperature easily.
Now if I can just figure out a way of making a living from panning gold I will be happy the rest of my days . . . -- Kathleen Warnock & Donna J. Bungo
By the Light of the Solar Eclipse . . .
Geeks at heart rejoice! The opportunities for nerd travel are everywhere. I'm an eclipse chaser and a meteor-shower aficionado. In 1991, I traveled to Hawaii to stand on a beach, surrounded by glasses-clad tourists only too happy to stay put for hours at a time. Go for a total solar eclipse (not annular, partial or lunar). When you're checking out eclipse possibilities, find out how long the totality is (most range from 2 to 6 minutes). I'd go out of my way to see a 6-minute eclipse. A 2-minute event has too small a window, though, to get me to travel very far. Eclipse watchers try to find areas with low humidity, because clouds are your enemy.
The next solar eclipse is March 29, with a 4-minute totality that is best seen in Turkey and parts of Russia and Africa. Look through the leading astronomy magazines for specialized group tours. Eclipse chasers often book cruises or go on trips to the ends of the earth. Vacations Internationale still has space left on their "Solar Eclipse 2006 & Egypt Tour" with guest astronomers from Canada's Pacific Observatory (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested). Go to www.eclipsetours.com for Carson Wagonlit's roster of astronomical tours. For general info about eclipses, log onto NASA's website at http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/solar.html.
And if you can't travel far, go after shooting stars. I joined the local astronomy club on the shores of a small lake in Whistler, British Columbia, to watch the Perseid meteor shower. We huddled under blankets in the cold summer night and saw at least 40 shooting stars an hour. Depending on the night and the shower, you can even better that number (www.amsmeteors.org/showers.html#2006 has a calendar of meteor events). Next up: the aurora borealis! -- Naomi Black
Falconry in New England
The Equinox Resort (http://equinox.rockresorts.com) in Manchester, Vermont has been welcoming guests in one form or another since 1769 (including Mary Todd Lincoln and her boys in the 1860s), and in the intervening few centuries has become a jewel of the RockResorts, adding such bells and whistles as an Avanyu spa, the Gleneagles golf course, the Orvis fly-fishing school and an off-road driving course as amenities to its spiffy classic manse. We went for the outlets (Manchester is famous for them) and the School of British Falconry. While I still love to wear the Burberry sweater I got for $79 (marked down from $239!), the photos we look at and the moments we talk about begin with Harris hawk that one of us flew into the clear Vermont sky. The Equinox offers the only branch of the School of British Falconry in the U.S.
It was just the two of us and master falconer Robert Waite as we strode into the airy barn where the birds stood in their stalls, some hooded, some being attended to and weighed. Like athletes in training, the hawks must keep to a certain weight, and are only hunted when they are hungry (to ensure they will head home for a meal afterward, rather than off for a leisurely flight over a mountain). We were flying a Harris hawk that day; the Harris is not a "traditional" falcon, being a native of North and South America, but it is one particularly suited to being trained: unlike many hawks, it is a social animal whose natural history includes cooperative hunting. Harris's hawks normally hunt in family groups consisting of the breeding pair (or trio, since polyandry is common) and their offspring from the previous year. We learned about these hawks and this hawk as Rob donned a leather glove, and took us outside. The hawk followed a lure, flew to a high post, came back down when called and ate from his hand. Then it was my partner's turn: she held up her gloved fist and down the hawk came, settling on her hand, staring at her with its huge yellow-rimmed eyes. The introductory lesson ended far too soon for marveling at the experience at being so close to such a wild, beautiful creature. -- Kathleen Warnock
Stoves and Music and a Bunch of Other Stuff in Maine
For a truly unusual experience head to Bryant's Stove and Music, Inc. (27 Stovepipe Alley, Thorndike, ME, 04986; tel. 207/568-3665; www.bryantstove.com), in Thorndike just inland from Penobscot Bay. Here you'll find Joe and Bea Bryant, an elderly couple who refurbish and sell used coal, gas, and wood-burning cast-iron stoves. Their selection is vast and they offer some of the most gorgeous stoves you've ever laid eyes on. But checking out the cookers is only part of the fun. In addition to the stoves, jovial, suspender-wearing Joe also has on the premises a tremendous, almost indescribable selection of Americana pieces including vintage dolls, whirligigs, antique cars, player pianos, and calliopes, to name just a few -- really! Entering the museum is like entering an alternate universe where Joe, pulling strings, turning knobs, and playing pianos, is in charge of charming the masses. Making your way through the collection is fabulous and strange, and calls to mind what it might be like to be in a Twilight Zone episode or a Tim Burton movie -- it wouldn't be surprising to see Edward Scissorhands walk through the room at any moment. It's a positively one-of-a-kind experience. Get there by taking Waldo Ave. (Rte. 137) west out of Belfast for about 15 miles, then turning right onto Route 200 and continuing a bit farther. Admission is free. -- Cate Latting
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