Archive | March, 2012

Is space tourism the 8th continent?

28 Mar

I still remember the conversation.  Well, not the conversation exactly, but the way I felt after the conversation.  I felt weightless, like I was floating, with a perma-grin on my face.  I suppose it was fitting since I’d just had a 45 minute conversation with an astronaut.

Let me explain.  It was 1995, and I was a senior in high school.  I had founded a new school publication, and I wanted to interview an astronaut for the cover story.  It turns out that NASA considered me a “member of the press.”  I have to say that to this day I still appreciate that.  Thus, my interview with astronaut Rick Linnehan.  I wrote my story and sent him a copy.  I also sent him a holiday card.  Much to my delight, I received a holiday card in return from him…with an invitation to the launch of his first mission (STS-78) the following summer.

Personal photo of the launch of STS-78 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida

I give my parents a lot of credit.  We went to the launch.  Even though launch dates can change after you book flights or even once you get there, we still went.  They let me be excited.  They let me roam around the museum at Kennedy Space Center and ask a million questions they couldn’t answer.  As an invited guest of an astronaut we were admitted to a special viewing site several miles from the launchpad, so I was feeling pretty cool.  Hearing the countdown, watching the tail of fire and then hearing the sound…well, you had to be there.  And I was there!

STS-78 continues an upward trajectory for space

My friendship with Rick continued.  I wrote a story about attending the launch, and our local newspaper published it.  I sent Rick a copy.  Several months later, now in my freshman year of college, I received a package.  It was a pre-printed posterboard with images from Rick’s mission.  Around the image of the mission patch, Rick had all the astronauts from STS-78 sign it, and he wrote a message in gold ink thanking me for my support.  It is framed and still hangs on my wall today.  So yeah, I kind of have a thing with space.  Aspiration and inspiration, dreams and exploration, an unexpected friendship of sorts…it is tangled up somewhere in the stars.

It used to be that orbital space flight was the province of astronauts (and their international peers).  Is a new age of “commercial space flight” or “space tourism” underway?  What will the next decade hold?  Well, my crystal ball is broken today, but there is plenty of food for thought.

Surprised and confused.  Looking for a lexicon on space tourism

As I started doing research on this topic, I was surprised by, well, how confusing it all got.  Government agencies, private companies, nicknames for private companies, rocket names and their associated manufacturer, spaceports (yes, seriously)…I have yet to find a truly consumer friendly breakdown of the industry.  So with the caveat that I am not an engineer, let alone an aerospace engineer, nor am I am in the industry, nor have I spoken to anyone in the industry…I’m going to try and answer my own key questions as I embarked on this blog post.  Hopefully you find it a little bit useful, or at least amusing.

Just a few key points on traveling to space as a tourist

  • Did I miss it?  Are space tourists already a reality?  Not in this country, yet.  Seven people, including one who flew twice, took a trip on the Russian Soyuz rocket and spent 10 days on the International Space Station, at a price tag of $20 million +
  • What would a trip be like?  There appears to be an important distinction here between “suborbital” and “orbital.”  Suborbital takes you to about 62 miles above ground, allowing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the edge of the planet and the blackness of space.  Orbital takes you into low earth orbit.  From what I’ve read, the focus for tourism appears to be on the suborbital adventure.
  • How much will it cost?  Suborbital experiences are in the low six figure range, and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s company) has “several hundred” bookings already.  A robust, although one year old, summary of the operators can be found on
  • So when is this going to happen?  How big will this be?  $1 billion within the next 10 years, according the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Launches are expected within the next one to two years.
  • Where is all this happening?  So I kind of geeked out (yes, I just wrote that) on this map of the U.S. with locations of current and proposed operators, spaceports etc.
  • With the retiring of the space shuttle, what is next at NASA?  Deep space exploration, among many other things, with the owning and operating of low earth orbit transportation systems handed off to the private sector, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden (Translation: the space shuttle is expensive, so let the private sector do it in a more low cost way.  In the interim, astronauts are currently getting to the International Space Station via Russian capsules)

On a personal note…

Rick and I did finally meet, several years after his launch.  We’ve had lunch twice when I happened to be in Houston.  My sister jokes with me that I’m the only person she knows who can go to Houston and schedule lunch with an astronaut.  I just smile.

I’ll always remember my final sentence of the article I wrote in high school.  “When you look up at the stars, you should be proud.”  I still believe that.  Now I would add that maybe, someday, you will get to be among them.  Until then, there are plenty of places worth exploring, and people worth knowing, right here on earth.

 Header Photo: Antarctica.  All photos © W2S Hilary


A collection of four travel vignettes

21 Mar

My proverbial mouse is a little tired today.  See I’ve had him (or her) running around a lot as I scrolled through my photos in search of which story to tell you this week.  A digression, we should be glad it wasn’t a real mouse.  For the record, I don’t do well with live rodents.  Luckily I do better with the computer variety.

I kept stopping on random photos and then moving on as I realized I couldn’t make a blog post around them.  There might even be a blog post to come on the destination itself, but these particular photos wouldn’t be included because they wouldn’t further the narrative.  So…I decided that a few them were going to see the light of publication simply because I liked them.

Norwegian Folk Museum (Oslo, Norway)

Children play on a rainy day outside the Norwegian Folk Museum

Prior to heading up to the Arctic, Polar Buddy and I spent a few days exploring Oslo itself.  The museum was enjoyable, and perhaps it would have been more enjoyable on a better day.  It was pouring rain.  And much of the museum is outdoors.  Then I saw these vibrant school children.  The rain and fountains were clearly the highlight of the afternoon.  Plus, those outfits were priceless.  It reminded me of when I was little, and I wanted nothing more than a rainy day (rare in California during the drought) to wear my raincoat, carry my umbrella and jump in a puddle.

Note to self: Celebrate rainy days (literal or figurative).  Wear something bright.

Pacific Coast, outside of Todos Santos, Mexico (near Cabo San Lucas)

I was recently in Cabo San Lucas with a close friend for vacation.  I had been once before several years ago.  There is a reasons for the popularity…it is beautiful and close, yet still away.

Beach outside of Todos Santos

In my relentless quest to get off the beaten track, we asked a shopkeeper in Todos Santos for the “locals” beach.  Sure enough, a barely marked dirt road off the highway led down to a stunning beach (Playa Los Cerritos, I believe) that definitely wasn’t a secret to locals.    With good reason.  As I strolled along, close enough to misjudge a wave and get soaked, I noticed the pattern in the sand.

Note to self: Sometimes beauty and wonder are right at your feet.

Happy Dog near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

On another day, my friend and I decided to do a guided horseback ride along the beach.  I mean, why not?  The company took us to a different beach, also on the Pacific side.  There were some amazing cacti as we all rode down to the water.  Now if only my horse had the same commitment that I did to making sure I didn’t end up in one of those cacti, it would have been great.  There were no injuries, except to my pride.  Plus, I got this photo of the friendly canine who kept us company.

Note to self: Sometimes the dog has the best time.

Ile d’Yeu, France

Bike riding in Ile d'Yeu France

Sometimes life just happens and you end up in random beautiful places.  One of my favorite travel companions happens to also be French.  We stayed with her family while calling Paris home base to and from a trek to Nepal/Tibet in 2007.  I also got to be part of her family.    It was a rough gig (um, not).  To celebrate her father’s birthday, we went to Ile d’Yeu, off the northwest coast.  To explore the island, we rented bikes.  There might be a picture of me from later that afternoon with chocolate all over my face from a nutella crepe.  I can’t confirm that.

Note to self: Just go with it.  And crepes are always a good idea.

Old City, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Old City in Sarajevo, Bosnia

I debated including this picture.  My blog is upbeat, optimistic, and filled with a sense of promise.  This somewhat bucolic picture of Sarajevo masks pain.  It masks bombed out buildings, remnants of war.  I somehow don’t feel qualified to comment on such a tender wound.  So I’m taking a risk and sharing it with all of you anyway.  This photo always reminds me that as travelers we have a responsibility to the people we meet, to the countries that graciously let us inside their borders.  We have a responsibility to let ourselves experience and be impacted in an authentic way.  No one said authenticity was easy.

Note to self: Take risks, some big and some small.  Be authentic.

So there you have it.  What are some of your random travel memories?

Header Photo: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.  All photos © W2S Hilary

When is “someday”? Practical tips for making your dream trip a reality

13 Mar

So I’ve written quite a bit about some amazing travel adventures I’ve turned into reality.  But this blog is more than a travelogue.  It is about sharing my (hopefully somewhat helpful) tips on how to help you create your own “someday” memories.

See? Yup, I was outlining this post before writing it.

So I spent some time putting pen to paper, literally, on the mental steps I’ve gone through over the years.  So without further ado…

It starts with “Where do you want to travel?”

For starters, this is all about you.  Also, obstacles don’t live here.  I’ll get to that later in my post.

  • Do some unconstrained thinking:  What travel destinations reoccur in your dreams?  Is there a place you talked about as a child?  It might be the appeal of the mountains or a secluded beach, an iceberg or a leopard, the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal.  All of the above?  Even better.  Maybe it is someplace you’ve seen in a movie?  I will (somewhat sheepishly) admit that I learned about Angkor Wat when the destination was used in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie.  I was working in Asia at the time, and I rationalized that Cambodia was closer now than it would be when I returned to the United States.  So I went.  For the record, those movie folks had it right.  Totally awesome.

    Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Personal photo from 2002.

  • Make a list without numbers: I advocate writing the list down, although my personal list is mental.  Not having an exact priority is key because fluidity helps when turning destinations into real trips.  If a friend is ready to go to your #2 destination, you don’t want to say “no” because you haven’t been to #1 yet.
  • Answer key questions: What do you like to do on vacation?  What truly makes you happy when you are traveling?  For me, I have fair skin that burns easily, and I like to be active, so sitting on a beach for a week isn’t ideal for me.  I still have plenty of tropical destinations on my list, but I’ll need activities.  If there is a mismatch with some of the places on your list from above, ask yourself if you just want to “see” them or if you truly want to “experience” all of what that destination has to offer.  Focus on destinations that you truly want to experience.  I’m fascinated by Mt. Everest and getting to base camp was the experience I wanted to have, not climbing it.  This is very individual, but be honest with yourself and own it.  No apologies needed to anyone.

Next ask yourself “With whom do you want to travel?”

This is still about you.  And we are still overlooking obstacles.

  • Brainstorm on “Who”: There are so many options.  Spouse or a significant other.  Friends (list them by name).  Family (sibling, parent, cousin).  By yourself.  By yourself (on a group trip).
  • Consider compatibility: While very personal, I typically look at three dimensions:
    • Desire: does this person have a passion like I do to travel the world?
    • Philosophy/Style: will this person want or be able to experience the destination in the same way as I do?  Activity level, attitude towards money, and appetite for adventure are all things you need consider in terms of how they match with you personally.
    • Commitment: Will this person, can this person, commit to trip?  A bigger trip requires a bigger personal and financial commitment (ie. one year out)
  • Reality Check: Will I have fun with this person?  Consider that one person might be great for a long weekend and another for a two week trip off the grid.

Overcoming obstacles: I can’t go on my dream trip because…

I could write a whole post (and still may) on this topic alone.  Hopefully the strategies above have put key building blocks in place.  Still: time, money, safety, fear, guilt…they can all get in the way of your dream trip.

Here is how I did it for Antarctica:

  • Money: I knew I was going to make this dream happen, and I had Polar Buddy identified and secured as my companion.  So I had 12 months to skip a long weekend here or there and put the money towards the trip.  I had a birthday and holiday gifts for which I could request any gear I might need.  And I took smaller trips in the following years.
  • Time: I told my employer when I booked the trip, and I did it between Christmas and New Year’s, a slower time.  Tell your boss you will help put a coverage plan together for your absence.
  • Guilt: I did this trip over Christmas.  I wouldn’t be seeing my family.  Guilt, yes.  However, they were amazingly supportive.  Making a dream trip come true is inspiration for others to do the same.

Enough thinking already… how does this all come together?

  • Start talking: Begin chatting with any of your potential travel companions.  You can be vague at first, “You know, I really want to go to Iceland.  Where do you want to go?” or “Did you see that amazing picture of X hotel on Pinterest.  Wouldn’t that be a fun long weekend getaway?”  See what they say or what ideas they have of their own.

    Ah, Paris. Long weekend in Paris? Mais oui.

  • Think of it as developing a “someday” vacation pipeline: Your spouse may be ready for a long weekend getaway while your childhood friend might be willing to go on safari next year.  Or vice versa.  While planning my trip to Antarctica with Polar Buddy, I was talking with a new friend who turned out to be a big traveler.  It also turns out we both wanted to go to Turkey.  That became my dream trip for the following year.

A few more tips to help you organize your dream trip

I consulted my friend and Professional Organizer Julie of Simplify Me to get some of her best suggestions.  In her own words, here are Julie’s tips:

  • Keep a To-Do list: The list should include all the things, big and small, that need to be done (or purchased) from the time you decide to make your trip happen until the moment you are sitting in that airplane (or train, or car, or llama express) seat.  Writing down all the steps that you need to take will not only make your trip a reality, but will also help you to make sure you don’t forget anything and are not doing a mad scramble right before you are set to leave.
  • Ask for help: If you can’t travel much because of obligations, like pets or family members that need your attention, line up help for these things well in advance. Often friends don’t mind coming by to get your mail, water your plants or make sure your pipes don’t explode in a big freeze.  Book services to take care of pets and family members that may need it.  There are pet care services that can even stay at your home (to take care of fido and snowball, not your mother!).  Also, make sure you have several backups for all the important things, in case something falls through while you’re away.
  • Pack before you pack: Do a dry run of packing a week or so before you really pack for good.  This will assure you’re not forgetting anything, and you will also be able to see how things fit (and if they don’t) into your luggage of choice. This is especially helpful if you are planning a backpacking trip. Most of all, don’t forget to pack a good attitude (I think it’s under your bed) because things sometimes happen a bit differently than planned, but if you’re on a mission to have a great time, you won’t let those bumps ruin your dream trip!

So what is your dream trip?  What are your best tips to make them reality?

Header Photo: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico sunset.  All photos ©W2S Hilary

Antarctica: Penguins, Icebergs, and My Journey to Continent #7

8 Mar

My preoccupation with Antarctica

For as long as I can remember, Antarctica was magical to me.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to visit.  My father can confirm I talked about it even when I was young.  It epitomized remote, untouched, and off-the-grid.  I knew I’d be among a select group of travelers.  It had always, always been a question of when, not if.  So as a belated 30th birthday present to myself, I planned a trip with the friend who would become my “polar buddy.”  For my best tips, skip to the end of the post.

Now, a few years after the trip, the mystique is gone.  I don’t get quite the same tingling in my spine.  I do want to go back someday, to the interior, to the land of Emporer Penguins and ice tunnels (a girl can dream).  But for each of you, I long for you to have the experience I did … of making a dream come true from anticipation to actuality to nostalgia.

Getting to Antarctica: Crossing The Drake Passage

Often referred to as some of the roughest waters in the world, there is no significant land mass at the latitude of “The Drake.”  This allows for the unimpeded flow of water through the passage, which makes for rough seas.  Fair enough.  The only expertise I can claim is my own experience,  so I’ll stick with that.  However, if you have a tendency to get seasick, you may want to speak to your doctor about choosing the right treatment before your trip.  That said, I truly hope that if you want to go to this amazing place, you won’t be deterred by “The Drake.”  And for the record, I do get seasick, but if four days of agony was the price I had to pay for Antarctica, I was still in.

The way over was pretty standard, according to the staff.  The underlying motion still made me plenty queasy though (excuse me while I go eat some ginger at the memory).  On the way back to Ushuaia we got the “Drake Shake” with almost hurricane force winds.  It was actually quite a serious adventure, and I even went up to the bridge of the boat to watch the waves come crashing over the bow.  It was serious enough that we were not allowed outdoors, and it lasted about 24 hours.  Polar Buddy, who does not get seasick, was very excited.  Walking anywhere on the boat was a zigzag effort with the strong waves, and I quickly realized why there were no sharp edges anywhere, on anything, period.  Chairs were battened down to the floor, and eating was a bit messy if timed incorrectly with the waves.  Antarctica, you were still worth it.

Penguins, Penguins, Penguins (and seals)

Penguins everywhere! There I am at the edge of an adelie penguin colony

Ideally, you’ll be doing two landings per day.  Getting into and out of the zodiacs you’ll ride to shore can be a handful if the waters are at all rough.  Listen to the staff and watch your fingers.  You are supposed to stay a certain number of feet away from the penguins, but in some places there are so many penguins you couldn’t do that no matter how hard you tried.  Plus, with no natural land predators, they don’t care about you.  At one point, I looked down and there was a penguin at my feet.  They are busy little creatures.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see emperor penguins.  I would still like to see them at some point.

A leopard seal, seen up close from the safety of a zodiac

Seals require more deference.  We only approached with a guide to watch quietly.  It really is pretty awesome to be that close to such a big animal on foot in the wild.  We also saw a leopard seal (they eat penguins, fyi) on a piece of ice from a zodiac.  They look a little sinister, and they are fierce predators.

What you will see in Antarctica: A tale of itineraries and icebergs        So I had a vision in my mind of what I was going to see on my voyage to Antarctica.  After all, I’d read my guidebook front to back.  Once on the boat, I learned that I wouldn’t have exactly the postcard pictures I had my heart set on.  I’d have others instead.  Our trip went into the Weddell Sea, which I was told is less common.  One of the unique characteristics of the Weddell is the presence of tabular icebergs.  Flat on top with sheer sides, they are very large and breathtaking to behold.

Happy seal and busy adelie penguins on Paulet Island

I recently spoke to Joy Martinello of Expedition Trips (who helped Polar Buddy and me plan our trip to Antarctica) to make sure I had the most accurate information on what type of itinerary to expect.  She explained that operator itineraries are deliberately vague due to the highly variable weather conditions (this is Antarctica after all), and that your expedition leader is creating your experience as you go.  The operators want to ensure you have the best experience.  This means heading to spots that have rich wildlife and where conditions (water, weather, ice) will actually allow you to get ashore.  And for those purists who want to have a true continental landing (vs. only islands, which tend to have great wildlife), it usually does happen, according to Joy.  No guarantees of course.  It did for me personally; I got to check off continent number seven fair and square.

A tabular iceberg in the Weddell Sea

My top five tips for a successful journey to Antarctica

  • Book one year out, on a boat with 100 people or fewer: Boats fill fast, especially over Christmas and New Year’s.  Also, only 100 people can be on land at the same time, so if you want to maximize your time ashore (you didn’t come this far not to, right?), then keep that in mind
  • Figure out what matters to you: Price points can vary significantly, and it is an expensive trip.  I cared about safety and getting ashore, along with price.  I determined a value equation that worked for me, and I was very happy.
  • Don’t forget about booking your flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia early and include buffer time: Most visitors are going to Ushuaia for the same reason you are.  Make sure you get this locked early.  Also, I left a full extra day in BA in case something happened with my flight from the US.  I wasn’t missing the flight to Ushuaia.
  • Consider a clear camera filter to protect your lens: Not expensive and useful with the frequent saltwater spray, especially in the zodiacs.  Zodiacs are great places to take pictures so you’ll want to feel comfortable doing so.  Also, I had a condensation issue at one point, and I removed the filter and it cleared up.  I was happy to have it happen on the clear filter and not the precious lens!
  • Let the experience unfold: More than many other places I’ve been, this one you have to let go once you get on board.  Antarctica is still remote, and your journey will be special because it belongs to you.

If you’ve been to Antarctica, what is your favorite memory or best tip?  If you haven’t, is it on your list?  Why or why not?

Header Photo: Antarctic Peninsula horizon.  All photos © W2S Hilary

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