The Yukon: Larger than Life

By Susan Hammond

Last month, I was invited by Anderson Vacations and Yukon’s Department of Tourism and Culture to experience the spectacular and truly unique place they call home: Canada’s Yukon. With pristine landscapes, abundant wildlife, a rich cultural heritage and outstanding services, I quickly found out that the Yukon has something for absolutely every kind of traveler—even in the winter.

So, off I went with six other travel advisors (I was the only American) and our hosts to Whitehorse, Yukon (the territory’s capital) to hunt the dancing aurora, snowmobile through the woods, experience a dogsled “limo” and try to ice fish for the first time. Working in the travel industry for most of my adult life, I really thought I was pretty good in geography, however since I have never been to Northern Canada, I really didn’t know exactly where Whitehorse was located in North America. After spending my first night in Vancouver, we all took an approximate 2-hour nonstop flight the next morning on Air North, which is the Yukon’s airline, headquartered in Whitehorse. Now I know that this small city of approximately 28,000 in population is a couple hours north of British Colombia and a 2.5 hour drive northeast of Skagway traveling along the Klondike Highway.

After visiting Air North’s headquarters and their brand-new hanger near the Whitehorse airport, we checked into our hotel for the next five nights, anxiously awaiting the adventures ahead. Well, I would like to let you in on a little secret—the Yukon gets even more intriguing in winter. Almost 80 percent of the Yukon is pristine wilderness. That’s over 350,000 square kilometers (218,000 square miles) of mountain vistas, boreal forests, wild rivers and crystal clear lakes. And since there are 10 times more moose, bears, wolves, caribou, goats and sheep than people, there’s the possibility of seeing wildlife around every bend. We actually saw a lynx quickly creeping across a frozen lake our first day out. I can now say the Yukon compares to Alaska—without all the people and it’s more laid back with less tourists.

The Yukon River winds through Whitehorse, which is nestled in a broad, forested valley, with mountains flanking either side. The Yukon’s capital city is steeped in culture and history, with wonderful restaurants, vibrant arts community, world class attractions and top-notch tourist services. I found all the amenities of a large city with an endearing small-town personality. Whitehorse doesn’t come without its characters though. As we took a quick city tour, we stopped at the 98 Hotel Breakfast Club at 10 am one morn-ing to visit with some of the local characters. This bar is home to the famed breakfast club, a badge of honor worn by morning drinkers; he establishment opens at 9 am and closes at 11 pm. There’s an air of mystery around the place.

“People will either tell you to avoid the 98 like the plague, or make a point of going for an authentic Yukon experience,” says General Manager Angel S. “We’ve got the most colorful people in town. There’s nothing fake in this place.” I personally love this experience!

Our first day started around 8:30 am with a hearty breakfast as we prepared to drive about 45 minutes south of Whitehorse to an area called Carcross in the Southern Lakes region. The vilage of Carcross is home to the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. It boasts incred-ible scenery, cross-country ski and snowshoe trails and a variety of visitor’s services. Some of the Yukon’s oldest buildings dating back to the days of 1898 are located in this community. The year 1898 is significant in the Yukon because that is the year that the Klondike Gold Rush was coming to an end. Carcross got its name years ago since it was a major migration crossing for woodland caribou prior to the gold rush. It’s easy to feel the draw to Carcross because the compelling First Nation culture invites you to experience their heritage. We had the opportunity to stand in the presence of totem poles master carver—Keith Wolfe Smarch, as we were invited inside a carving shed to watch and learn the significance of his artwork’s shapes and colors. I quickly learned that wherever you travel in this territory, Yukon First Nation’s history and culture is part of what makes the Yukon the special place it is.

Upon sunrise (around 10 am) the next morning, we headed over to the start of the 36th annual Yukon Quest. This event is a dogsled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. For the last 36 years, dog teams have answered the call to endure 1,000 miles of rugged terrain across the heart of Alaska and the Yukon. The Yukon Quest poses challenges that no other race on Earth can boast. Extremely cold temperatures are guaranteed, and long distances up to 200 miles between checkpoints means a musher and dog team must be mentally and physically prepared for the worst Mother Nature can dish out. As we all were waiting for the race to start, the temperatures were hovering around -33 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, our hosts provided us all cold weather gear to keep us warm in the extreme

dogsledding3
Carcross Visitor Center

temperatures, however my heart went out to the dogs that were so eager to take off and run! This year, they had 31 teams that took on this challenge, representing six different countries. The race takes preparation, knowledge, skill and strategy just to finish and was a once in a lifetime experience for all seven travel advisors that attended this event for the first time!

After watching most of the teams head out on their journey, we were taken to the Lumel Studio in downtown Whitehorse for some hands-on glassblowing. Upon entering the warm studio, we each were allowed to select a piece we wanted to make and take home. I chose to make a small bowl with assistance from one of the apprentices of the studio: Angus. Angus was very patient as I selected the colors of my personal piece and success-fully made a bowl that is actually round and sits level on my desk holding candy for my clients’ enjoyment.

The following days we encountered snowmobiling through the woods, ice fishing on a lake for trout, conducted site inspections at a few local hotels/inns and spent a couple evenings hunting for the northern lights. Leaving at 10:30 pm both evenings and driv-ing 30 minutes south of Whitehorse to get away from the small city’s lights, we came upon three very comfortable and warm yurts and two teepees with bonfires roaring inside. These outer buildings offered hot chocolate, tea and s’mores fixings while we waited for the weather to gift us with this other light source. Unfortunately, we did not get a break in the clouds either of those nights, however we loved the hospitality from our hosts and Aurorae guides.

As I look back at my short journey in Northern Canada, I am already thinking about taking my family back in the summer for some hiking, canoeing down the Yukon River, attending one of the many festivals offered each season and enjoying the midnight sun. The creative spirit is strong in the North, and any of our professional advisors at Endless Travel can assist you experience this territory’s wildness, beauty and contradictions.

The Albanian Riviera

In southern Albania, sandwiched between the Ionian Sea and hills of olive groves, the town of Sarandë (pronounced and sometimes spelled Sa-ran-da) sits on a horseshoe-shaped bay, edged by beaches and a promenade, the Bulevardi Hasan Tahasini.  While Albania may not be the first place you would think of for a luxurious vacation, Sarandë’s friendly residents and phenomenal local cuisine (fresh off the fishing boats) makes the town a relaxing and inexpensive place to spend your holiday.

Facing west, towards the Mediterranean, Sarandë’s geography lends itself to spectacular sunsets. The climate is warm enough that Mandarin orange trees line the streets, providing a quick snack as you explore the plentiful bakeries, butchers and fruit stands.  While English isn’t always spoken by the locals, they are all exceptionally welcoming, and always happy to have visitors.

Sarandë comes from the name of the Byzantine monastery of the Agioi Saranda (Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning “Forty Saints” in honor of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The monastery dates back to the 6th century AD, and it is thought to have been an important regional pilgrimage site. The second floor of the monastery was destroyed during World War II’s Allied bombings.  While the monastery today is in a state of ruin, it is worth a visit, not just for its historic importance, but for the panoramic views of the town.

Nestled at the top of the hill about a 50-minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Sarandë is Lëkurësi Castle. The castle’s ruins feature imposing round towers and sweeping views, and it has been expanded with a spacious eatery. The views overlooking Sarandë and the farmland nearby, are stunning and well worth the trip. Built in 1537 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Lëkurësi Castle was constructed to protect the town from invaders approaching the coastline by boat.

Albania was an isolated country post World War II, and didn’t open her arms to tourists until the fall of communism in the 1990s. The country had distanced itself from neighboring nations and other communist countries, and even now you can see remnants of the communist era in the form of numerous pillbox military bunkers along the roads leading to places like The National Park of Blue Eye (Syri Kalter) with its 18 natural springs or the ruins at the Butrint UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since its liberation from the restrictions of a communist government, Sarandë has become a popular tourist destination among Albanians and visitors from around the world, with its population swelling to over 300,000 people during the summer months.  However, in the offseason, the town settles down into a peaceful village perfect for your extended, quiet getaway. Just a short ferry ride to Croatia or Greece, Albania is an ideal base as you explore the Ionian Sea region.

Related Reading: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1995) by the American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca.

 Blog post was written by and images copyright AlphaPixel Reach

Wales, The Hidden Gem of the British Isles

Tucked unobtrusively along the southwestern edge of England, Wales is a picturesque nation often overlooked by travelers. With a population of approximately three million people, the Welsh are outnumbered by their sheep by a ratio of 4:1.  And while this makes it a wonderful destination for oviphiles, Wales has much, much more to offer.

One of the first things most people notice as they explore the towns nestled in the rolling green hills and atop the steep slate cliffs is that every town has a church.  As the majority of early villages were founded by a Lord or landowner as they built their homes, most towns have a castle or manor house — and an accompanying church for which the town is generally named.  When you see “llan” (church) in a place name, odds are there is a house of worship close by.

Wales is a country rich in culture and legend passed down orally, by the cynfeirdd (early poets). This includes the earliest version of the legends of King Arthur, which are reflected to this day in the Welsh flag: a red dragon on a field of green. The red dragon is the nation’s mascot and is believed to have been the battle standard of Arthur and other ancient leaders. Some believe to this day that Camelot was in Wales and that its ruins can still be seen at Caerwent.

But Wales is not in short supply of other castles and ruins to explore. Tinturn Abbey, situated in Monmouthshire, on the Welsh bank of the River Wye, is the focus of Gordon Masters’ historical novel The Secrets of Tintern Abbey dramatizing the 400-year history of the Cistercian community there. Castell Conwy is a medieval fortification in Conwy, on the north coast of Wales, built by Edward I. You can walk around the city of Conwy atop its defensive walls. In fact, Wales is believed to have more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

Visiting in the spring or summer gives you the best opportunity to explore places like Bodant Garden, where you can spend hours wandering the winding pathways that meander through forests, lakes and flowers. Make sure to stop for tea and scones in Llandudno, a north Victorian seaside village with exceptional restaurants and breathtaking scenery. For those who appreciate the unique, a visit to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch in North Wales is always in order. Translated as “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave,” it is believed to be the longest place name in the world.

No scenic tour of Wales is complete without a trip on the railway to the top of Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park. The Welsh name – Yr Wyddfa – means “the barrow” which may refer to the cairn ( mound of rough stones built as a memorial) thrown over the legendary giant Rhitta Gawr after his defeat by King Arthur.

And the beautiful oddity of Wales is Portmeirion, a tourist village in Gwynedd. Designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion is an Italian village in the middle of Wales, created because he was tired of traveling between Wales and Italy. The village has long been a source of inspiration for writers such as Noël Coward, who wrote Blithe Spirit while staying there.

For a small country not often on the tourist radar, Wales has a wealth of culture, history, and scenery for those who want to spend a serene holiday just a little bit off the beaten path. 

TU HWNT I’R BONT TEAROOM https://www.tuhwntirbont.co.uk/

Blog post written by and images copyright Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach.

Ireland, from North to South

Éire, also known as Ireland, is the second largest of the British Isles, and is split into two countries, The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. From coast to coast, the Emerald Isle is awash in beautiful vistas and historic and cultural venues.

Donegal farm, Photo by Heather Mount

Many visitors begin their explorations in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland.  With the youngest population of any city in Europe (about half the population of the city is 25 or under), Dublin is never in short supply of adventure. One of the most walkable cities in Europe, Dublin has something for everyone.

With a vibrant theater and performance scene, a plethora of art galleries, museums, monuments and historic buildings, the arts lovers will never be at a loss for something to do. The sports fanatics can watch rugby, cricket or soccer from most any of the city’s 667 licensed pubs. And there are even a number of nature trails within a stones throw of the city. Whether watching the numerous and varied street performers, exploring the grounds of Trinity College, or drinking one of the ten million pints of Guinness produced in Dublin every single day, you could easily spend an entire vacation in Dublin alone, but Ireland offers so much more.

At the southwestern edge of County Clare’s Burren region you will find the iconic views provided by the Cliffs of Moher.  Running about eight and a half miles along the coast, the cliffs vary from 400 to 700 feet above the sea. Continuing south, you’ll come across the Gap of Dunloe where you can bike or hike along the winding mountain pass. And for the ultimate local experience, you can hire a trap and pony to take you on a horse drawn carriage ride to see the Gap’s five lakes.

The Gap of Dunloe sits within the Ring of Kerry, a scenic, 111 mile circular route through County Kerry. Along the ring, travelers will find epic vistas, classic pubs and historic landmarks such as Ballymalis Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Beehive Cells. For the hearty adventurer, there is also The Ring of Kerry cycling path (using older, quieter roads), and The Kerry Way, which takes its own signposted route.

The centuries of social and political fluctuation in Ireland has impacted the cuisine. Custom, conquest, and cultivation all changed the tenor of Irish food, culminating in the diverse menus we find today. Black pudding, poundies, curry chips, scones, fried bread, spiced beef and Irish stew are among the varied traditional foods you can find throughout the country. And for a uniquely Irish experience, you can find The Oratory Pizza & Wine Bar in Cahersiveen along the Ring of Kerry.  Built in an old church, they serve gourmet pizza and a wide selection of wines.

And of course, Ireland is home to numerous authors. WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, CS Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift and Maeve Binchy are only the tip of the Irish literary iceberg. May and June feature the Belfast Book Festival, the Bloomsday Festival, Yeats Day and the International Literature Festival Dublin.  A UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin is packed with landmarks honoring Ireland’s literary greats.

Ireland has adventures for everyone, and as Lady Gregory once said “I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland.”

Post written by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach for Endless Travel.