31 July 2008

Fun in Russia

What is big, bizarre, cold, hot, dangerous, exciting, historic, and new? Russia! And the best place in Russia for westerners to visit is the old capital city of Saint Petersburg.
There are tricks to visiting Russia in general, and Petersburg in particular. You of course still need a visa, and we at VSC can help you with both the visa and the visa support.
My favourite time to visit Petersburg is at the end of June for the white nights. It is dark for about 30 minutes per night then, and the city is alive at all hours.
No trip to Petersburg is complete without a visit to the world's greatest art collection: the State Hermitage Museum. The best way to get tickets to the palace is on-line through the museum's own website. You can avoid the long lines at the ticketing office in the museum by purchasing tickets online from the museum website. Get a single day ticket for US$17, or a two-day pass for all their facilities for only US$26. Do not buy from touts or ticket agencies.
Not all culture in Petersburg hangs on the walls. The arts are alive in Petersburg, and one of the best, classiest, and most historic places to see them is at the Mariinsky Theatre, formerly called the Kirov, and originally called the Mariinsky. This is the stage upon which the original Swan Lake was performed. This is a wonderful grand theatre, and the home of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet. Get tickets directly from the theatre for the best prices and selection. Weekday box seats near the stage can cost as little as US$35, and you can take your own food and champagne! At these prices touts and ticket agencies will get you seats in the rafters. Get tickets directly from the theatre on-line, for low prices. Dress up and have fun.
Russia, like Britain, has been vilified for poor cooking. But Petersburg is alive with great places to eat. For fine dining in the great Russian tradition, I recommend the Taleon Club in the old Eliseev palace just south of Nevsky Prospect on the Moika canal near the Hermitage. Dinners and luncheons are superb. Brunch is served every Sunday from noon until 16:00, and comes with black and red caviar, lobster, champagne and lots of other delicious dishes for only US$45. Look at the Taleon Club and hotel website to see how wonderful it really is, and then reserve a table on-line.

23 July 2008

Is it really dangerous?

In our daily lives we tail or our movements and activities for safety. When we travel we also do this, although sometimes it is completely subconscious. We do not even consider going to certain places no matter how interesting or inexpensive they may be, as they are beyond our comprehension.
So how much do we really have to fear bombing and terrorism and extreme acts of violence? Well, almost not at all. Tourists are rarely targeted as a group for acts of political or military violence. The largest attacks on tourists in a major foreign destination (in terms of deaths) took place more than a decade ago in 1997 in Egypt, and turned out to be the last attacks. Egypt stepped up security, and the militant groups were totally suppressed.
The real dangers are common street crimes such a pick-pocketting, mugging, and assault. These are far more likely to touch the average tourist than any major or minor political or military incident.
The sad fact is we have become the target for a virtually endless moving picture show of images and sound bites telling us to be afraid of the world. Governments and the media have restricted our outlets to the world by tightening our perception of our own safety zone. By vilifying certain countries and regions and peoples, the power that be have effectively reduced our space to travel. And the result is somewhat bizarre.
The list of the most dangerous places for Canadian tourists is rather strange and somewhat counter-intuitive. The top three countries for violence against Canadian tourists are China and Cuba and Mexico. Mexico and Cuba are two of the top foreign destinations for Canadians, attracting more than a million people each year. Given the number of incidents of violence versus the hordes of travellers, the actual number of incidents seems small.
A good example of a vilified country said to be unsafe would be Iran. There is no question it is difficult to get a visa to Iran, but it is a safe destination. The official Canadian government position is that we should avoid all travel to most of Iran. At the same time, DFAIT says “Travel is safe in most areas.” The fact is Iran remains a safe destination with many wonderful sites such as Persepolis, and an extremely cheap and efficient rail and airline system. This is just to say the travel warning system is politicized, and cannot always be counted upon for good advice.
On a recent cruise we expeienced this phenomenon first hand. Our stop in the capital of Sri Lanka was cancelled due to political tensions in the far north of the country, well away from our port. At the same time, we added a port visit to Colombia which was then engaged in a nasty little war with a great deal of U.S. military aid. Was there a real, or just a perceived, security concern?
Since the 11 September incidents, US tourists, who make up the bulk of the english travelling public, have by a slim but real majority, selected safety and security as their top concern when looking at foreign travel. They have largely bought into the lie, and thereby cut themselves off from real travel.
External Affairs, now known as DFAIT, issues travel advisories and travel warnings about all countries and places. They are easy to check and sometimes fairly clear in meaning. However, there is a degree of political motivation present, as friendly countries are never violent, while unfriendly countries get lower safety ratings. That said, the DFAIT list and the UK Foreign Office list are head and shoulder above the virtually useless and extremely partisan list produced by the US State Department.

11 July 2008

Take the Train, eh!

In an age where we are concerned about the environment, taking the train is an increasingly popular travel option. Throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and even significant parts of Africa, the railway is the way to get around in comfort while seeing the country and enjoying a true local experience.
But how do you know if the train even runs in the country you will visit? And how do you find out if the train goes to a place of interest to you?
This is now easier than at any time in history, thanks largely to a man named Mark Smith. A few years ago, this train-travel-lover set up a website called “The Man in Seat 61". Seat 61 is said to be the best seat on Eurostar chunnel service between Britain and France.
A quick visit to Seat61.com will tell you immediately about the state of train travel in nearly every country on earth. All countries with passenger train service are listed and detailed. Mark Smith does not hide information, and usually right up top lists the actual rail service website for that country. Smith even tells you about reliable ticket services, and urges readers who have recently used lined and services to write in with comments and suggestions.
If, for instance, you wanted to experience the world’s longest train journey, the Trans-Siberian Express, you would start by visiting the Seat 61 site about the various services which make up this fabled set of routes. Smith even provides the routing to get you from London to Hong Kong without ever being on an airplane, bus, or ship.
If you wanted to move all over China, but not use the airlines, you would visit the Seat 61 section on China.
Rail travel is also possible in several African countries, and Seat 61 covers them all: Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
You can even learn about rail service in Cuba, and find out how to see the country in comfort from end to end. Cuba has a daily rail service from Havana to Santiago de Cuba (near the US concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay) and return. This service usually takes about 15 hours, and can be done during the day or night. Don’t forget to ride the Hershey Express (named for the former chocolate plant) from Havana to Matanzas.
He also has a new book out: "The Man in Seat 61", published by Bantam Press, July 2008, £12.99