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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


As morning breaks each day in Alaska I know something marvelous awaits me around the next bend. On our Day of Denali—I must think of it as a proper noun—I enter the grandest National Park, six million acres and bigger than the state of Massachusetts! It is the site of North America’s highest peak. At 20,320 feet, it is “Denali” which means “the high one” in the Athabascan language. If measured from their bases, Denali is higher than Mt. Everest. Most people know Denali as Mt. McKinley, but once I see it, I know it will always be Denali.

Denali National Park is another wonder of our National Park Service. Cars are only allowed to mile 14 within Denali National Park, and by limiting the number of visitors and vehicles, care is taken that the environment is not over-used. Park-run shuttle busses move people from site to site. Visitors can also take tour busses to travel the 90 mile road—one road, a turnaround, and the same road out. This is wilderness. This is an area predominately trail-less too, and the joke is that once you are out there on foot, you become part of the food chain. I like our tour bus and the narrated tour. It is awesome to see the animals in their natural habitat.

Our guide, Dana, is another wonderful example of the Alaskan. She studied archeology at the University of Wisconsin and came to Alaska in the 70s on a summer dig. Smitten, she went home just long enough to pack her bags. She never looked back. As a guide, her knowledge of the area is formidable, and her evident concern for the varying ecosystems is palpable as she explains the web that bonds the vast variety of nature together. It’s a wonderful verbal tour of the ebb and flow of nature with its natural corrections.

One important rule on the bus—no loud talking. Animals should not become accustomed to human voices because they will stay too close to humans, like backpackers in the wilderness. Remember that food chain joke. On the other hand, if you hike in the wilderness, do talk or whistle as you go. The last thing you want to do is to startle a bear. It’s not really contradictory. In this case, familiarity breeds danger.

Surely Denali is another world. As we enter the park, my world morphs into a watercolor landscape with reds, greens, browns and whites flowing like waves toward the inevitable mountains. The climate stunts vegetation growth; here things grow slowly, and the result is low, melding textures and hues.

Berries are a staple, for the people as well as for the animals, and we see animals foraging in the distance, swimming among the waves, their bodies appearing and disappearing.

We see incredible wildlife. Everyone in the bus watches and we let each other know. Our driver tries to stop so we can photograph through the windows. There are caribou, bear, prairie dogs, eagles, and moose. I’ve been dying to see a moose since we arrived. What I did see in Denali are moose rear ends! Pooh!

These are Dall Sheep high up on the tundra.

The day, crisply clear, allows Denali to lose her cloud cover and reveal herself in all her breathtaking glory. Seeing her for the first time, seeing the North and South slopes from this angle and realizing how fortunate we are to be in this place at this time creates emotions I will never forget. It is truly spiritual.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I love Cancun. Don't come here expecting to be seeped in Mexican history and culture; for that you travel as we did last year to places like Chichen Itza where you'll stare in wonder at the magnificence of the Mayan culture. Cancun, on the other hand, was created specifically to draw tourists, and it does so successfully. Come here for the vitality, friendliness, fun, sun, sand, and Caribbean Sea. Visit El Centro for its shopping, Corrida del Toros (once was enough for me), Mercado 28 and good Mexican restaurants, but remember that this city is a result of hotel building.

Last year Rob and I stayed two weeks outside The Hotel Zone, a fifteen mile strip along a gorgeous beachfront lined with hotels, clubs, shops, places to begin tours to other parts of Mexico. We stayed in a sister hotel to the Temptation Resort and Spa where we are this year. It was much quieter last year in the family-oriented Blue Bay Club. We took day trips, snorkeled, sailed, and had our son and our friends join us in our suite. We enjoyed ourselves so much we bought another timeshare—from Premier by Original. Unlike the Blue Bay Club, Temptation is adults only. Twenty-one and over. There's a vivaciousness and tone geared to adults, and we find it a welcome change. Because we are only here for a week, our plans are different, and we are looking for the action and atmosphere of this resort.

Temptation Resort and Spa's décor is red and white, and we like the fresh feeling of it all.

Place these colors against a backdrop of green palms, three blue pools--a fun pool, a sports pool, and a quiet pool, and the sparkling aquas of the Caribbean, and we feel just fine. Our room is charming with a balcony overlooking, to the left the marina with its complement of incredible boats including the one we are entitled as owners to use during our stay, to the center the beach and sea, and to the right the big “fun” pool with swim-bar. Although the hotel is completely booked, it is run so smoothly that there is never a crowded feeling.

During the day there's action and music on shore and views of parasailors, windsurfers, hobycat sailors, and of many other water activities. The music at the fun pool is loud, happy, and spans decades and music styles. It begins early, but then it is New Age morning music. It changes throughout the day, and it's great. Early mornings bring glorious sunrises, and evenings bring the lights of Isla Mujeres out in the distance and lights of two dinner cruise galleons from farther down in the Hotel Zone.

As owners we are treated as royalty with our own VIP room and “butler,” Alberto who makes arrangements for us, particularly advance reservations in one of the four excellent specialty restaurants: Asian, Italian, Tex-Mex, and Seafood. Other perks we receive are free wifi, lovely bathrobes, “premier” menus at the restaurants in addition to the regular menu, higher quality liquor, Bacardi Anejo for example. At the beach there is a “Members Only” section where a separate bar and chaises are set up. This is not to suggest that regular hotel guests are treated badly. Indeed, looking around I see nothing but happy faces.

Escaping the frigid temperatures at home this January, we arrive to find our room's thermostat set to 65°. That's where we keep the temperature at home which my son describes as a “meat locker.” We raise the thermostat to 68°. Unlike last year when we did a lot of sightseeing, we intend this week to be a beach escape with snorkeling in a cenote as our only day trip. We already know we'll be back. From Temptation we can sail HobyCats to our hearts' delight, and that means every day possible.

Our routine is simple. After breakfast we walk along the jogging/walking path on the hotel zone or use the hotel's gym. The gym is nicely equipped, and its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the sports pool. In addition to the usual accoutrements, there are bowls of fresh fruit. We spend the rest of the day at the beach. We keep the bartender/waiter busy preferring lunch here although we sometimes tear ourselves away for El Embarcadero for the luncheon buffet.

It is winter here, and the sun disappears behind the hotel sometime around 3 PM, so we have time to shower and change before heading to Paty O's to begin the evening activities.

We try each of the specialty restaurants, and each is superb. I cannot show you photos because they are beautifully but dimly lighted. The décor is lovely and in keeping with the food. Service is exceptional. What I especially appreciated is the high ceilings and the noise absorbing décor. I hate the bare walled, techno style with nothing on either wall or window to absorb sound. At Temptation, the ambient noise did not prevent soft conversation, something dearly missing from most restaurants today.

We are so relaxed we decide to forgo the cenotes this year and spend some more time in the spa becoming even more relaxed with massages! The concierge helps me find a tour where we can snorkel in three different ecosystems, and that sounds grand. If we come back here next year, I’ll keep that in mind, but we might head to Cabo where there is another Temptation. That’s mighty tempting.
One more thing: I'm a sucker for towel sculptures, and our chambermaid was an artist.

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Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo puts me in a peculiar position; two of my best friends, avid and intelligent readers highly recommend it. My brother-in-law who travels with his Kindle close to his heart so he can grab every available minute to read gives this novel, a national best seller, rave reviews. Yet another friend, a voracious reader, disliked it enough to give up early in the book. I did not get involved with the book until I was almost halfway through, and while I decided to stick with it only to find the crime's solution, I am now debating whether to weather the second book in the trilogy Larsson left us after his death simply to learn more about one of the characters. My reaction is not close to any of my friends'. If anything, it is surprisingly close to the New York Times Book Review's.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a crime novel that had the potential to wow any fan of this genre. The crime exposes the underbelly of depravity in an essentially misogynistic society. Larsson's plots make strange bedfellows of some very unusual characters. I mean that both figuratively and literally. The novel centers around a dishonored journalist hired by the octegenarian head of a corporate dynasty to solve a 40 year old murder mystery. In his search for the murderer, Blomkvist teams up with a strange young woman, Lisbeth Salander, whose unfinished story intertwines with Blomkvist’s life as well as with his sleuthing. Other characters appear, and as a reader I expected them to forward the plot, but in most cases I landed dissatisfied in blind alleys. The denouement should tie up the loose ends. I need not be happy with the knots, but I should not be left hanging.

The potential is enormous, but I don't think Larsson even comes close. What he needed was a brave editor with a red Sharpie. Of the 590 pages, I'm sure more than 100 pages could be cut. The background of Blomkvist's legal troubles is, for the most part, extraneous except to explain why Henrik Vanger chose to hire him. Some of Blomkvist's other relationships do not forward the plot nor do they significantly allow us insight into Blomkvist's character. Some of his motivation is vague, and the book's ending is weak because we cannot understand his actions. I like to visualize the character, but I could never pick out Blomkvist in a crowd.

I got to know Lisbeth Salander a bit better, though she, too, was unsatisfactorily developed. At least I could see her physically. She develops as a strange, violent, iconoclastic, genius whose photographic memory allows her to do things way beyond her years and experience. So much about her is unknown, but that is not my only major problem. Her dialogue is so out of character. On some occasions she speaks as one would imagine, but for the most part, she speaks no differently from Blomkvist. It just doesn't work for me.

On the other hand, this crime novel is intriguing and unique. Was I unhappy that I plodded through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? No. Lisbeth Salander is incredibly intriguing. As she develops, I wished the book were entirely about her. I wish it so strongly that I am tempted to read Larsson's second book because she remains a character along with Blomkvist.

Why include this review in Third Age Traveler? My unfailing respect for my friends mean that avid readers can love this book. So you might want to give it a try.

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