Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

The US is proud of its whiskey: Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and American Rye. But only Bourbon has been declared as a native spirit of America by the US Congress in 1964. Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon and creates 95 percent of the world’s supply. And today, you can visit eleven signature and fourteen craft distilleries as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, plus several more distilleries that are promoting on their own.

Over the weekend, I was with Purdue and MIT PhD students on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail! We visited two signature distilleries: Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark, and a craft distillery called Willett. The fourth one, Buffalo Trace, is one of the few distilleries not part the organization but very much worth a visit.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Wildlife-watching tours in Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland, the small north Atlantic island, has come out of the obscurity from years ago to top most people's travel bucket list. Some want to visit the country to watch the Northern Lights, swim in the many geothermal water spas or do a glacier hike. Those who just want to stay in the capital Reykjavik will be surprised by the number of things to do in the city and one of which will definitely be popular with not only solo travelers, but also the whole family.

Yes, who wouldn't like to go watching some marine animals in one of the northern-most cities in the world? Iceland is home to some of the cutest birds in the world, the puffin, and receives a very big and special visitor every summer: the giant whales that come to feed in the rich Icelandic waters.

Watching whales off the coast of Reykjavik
Many companies offer whale-watching tours in Reykjavik. The whales come to Iceland in the summer months looking for the region's food and nutrient-rich waters. In winter, they swim to the warmer southern waters, where they also have their babies. The best time to see whales in Reykjavik is in July. But even though there are many of them, it's important to know that there is no guarantee you will see them - wild animals have their own time and it's possible that most whales in the proximity are submerged during your tour. But in fairness, most people are lucky and will see them.

The whale-watching tours leave from the old fishing harbor in the city center, near the ultra-modern Harpa Music Hall, and there are slow and fast boats. The captains know exactly where they feed and they work in cooperation with each other, so they will contact nearby boats to confirm the presence of the giant sea mammals.

I recommend you be among the first people to board and take a seat at the front of the boat. That way, you have guaranteed visibility no matter what side of the boat the whales appear. If you're lucky, you can see some dwarf sperm whales, which measure 8 to 10 meters long, at just 100 meters from the fishing harbor.

It is also common to see the humpback whales around Reykjavik. They measure on average 17 meters long during the north-hemisphere winter, they live mostly on the coast of Brazil. Since the boats cannot get too close to them, so as to not to alter their behavior, I would highly recommend you have some good zoom lenses to make sure you get some good shots.

Whale-watching tours can last between 2 or 3 hours, depending on the size of the boat and its speed.

Puffin-watching tours
Puffins are some cute little birds that live in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic Oceans. Measuring around 10cm, these tiny fish-eating birds can swim incredibly well, even though they look very clumsy when on the ground. It is not uncommon for people to confuse puffins with penguins at the Reykjavik Aquarium, for example. And if you look closer, you can understand why: both their bodies are covered in black and white feathers, their straight position and the fact they both are great swimmers.

Iceland is home to 60% of all puffins, but they can also be seen in northern Canada, Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands in Scotland. With such a big population, there's no doubt that Iceland is the best place to see these cute creatures.

The good thing is that, like with the whales, it's not necessary to get out of Reykjavik to see puffins. The boats that offer puffin-watching tours leave from the same harbor as the whale tours. You can just turn up and buy your ticket directly from the tour companies' stores.

Some boats can get very close to the islets where the puffins make their nests, so it is good to ask when shopping around. The first puffins can be seen around 2km from the harbor. You will be amazed by how (really) tiny they are. So much so that the boats will provide you with binoculars to better appreciate the birds.

They flap their wings up to 400 times per minute, so it's quite a sight watching them fly. The same recommendation of having good zoom lenses apply to the puffins. One curious fact about them is that they only have the orange beaks during their mating season. After that, the colorful layer falls off and they will have a more dull, gray beak. Another fact is that they are considered a delicacy by some communities in Iceland.

Most puffin-watching tours last only one hour, but some companies offer slightly longer tours - at 1.5 or even 2 hours. The cost is around 5,500ISK (roughly 55USD) for adults, and 2,700ISK for children aged 7 to 15 years old.

What about you, have you ever gone on a wildlife-watching tour? Where was that and which animals did you see? Let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Five great reasons to visit Palm Springs, California

There are many reasons why you should visit Palm Springs, California, especially since it's one of the most popular vacation destinations in the US.

1. Palm Springs has the largest concentration of mid-century modernist architecture
Since the 1920s, modernist architects have designed sleek and modern homes that sparkle in the dramatic desert landscape of Coachella Valley. Architecture buffs will definitely have a field day exploring the buildings and homes of Palm Springs.

Glass and clean lines create an elegant yet informal assemblage of residential, commercial, civic, educational, cultural, and religious buildings, as well as hotels, creating a character that is uniquely Palm Springs. The city's heritage was recognized by National Trust for Historic Preservation which included Palm Springs in its list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations for 2006. In 2009, Palm Springs was designated a Preserve America City.

To experience the architecture of Palm Springs, stay at one of the modernist hotels or luxury vacation homes. There are also guided tours, especially during Modernism Week every February.

2. Palm Springs and its environs play host to several popular music and arts festivals
There's the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Modernism Week, and the Coachella and Stagecoach Music Festivals, to name a few. And these festivals are big!

The Palm Springs International Film Festival is held every January and features international cinema as well as American independent films. Modernism Week every February features the modernist architecture of Palm Springs. The mission of the event is to "celebrate and foster appreciation of midcentury architecture and design, as well as contemporary thinking in these fields, by encouraging education, preservation and sustainable modern living as represented in the greater Palm Springs area."

Held every April at the Empire Polo Club, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is attended by more than 250,000 people. The festival features various artists covering rock, indie, hip hop, and electronic dance music. There are art installations as well. Stagecoach Festival is an outdoor country music festival, also held every April at the Empire Polo Club.

Other festivals include Desert Trip, Food & Wine Festival Palm Desert, Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational, Tour de Palm Springs, and Fashion Week El Paseo.

3. The area around Palm Springs is a perfect place to enjoy nature, explore the desert, and experience Native American Culture
Explore the Coachella Valley Preserve or Joshua Tree National Park. The reservation lands of the Agua Caliente host the Indian Canyons, namely Palm Canyon, Murray Canyon and Andreas Canyon, which all offer hiking trails. You can go horseback riding as well. Tahquitz Canyon is the best place to experience Native American history and culture.

For those who want extra adventure, you can take a hummer tour of Joshua Tree National Park and ride a dune buggy through the desert. If you're not the hiking type, there's the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which offers grand views of the snow-topped peaks if the San Jacinto Mountains.

And there's the Living Desert if you want to see the local flora and fauna, including mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and meerkats, and more than 1,400 species of plants.

4. You can rent your own luxury villa in Palm Springs
No doubt, the perfect way to experience the real Palm Springs is by vacationing in a luxury villa. There are so many luxury villas in Palm Springs that are available for vacation rentals. You can find one that fits your needs, for a private group of friends or family.

Villas usually range from three to six bedrooms, some have up to eleven, and can house from six up to twenty six people. If you are a Hollywood fan, among the Palm Springs villas available for rent are the former homes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

If you don't have a group, you can always stay at one of the many modernist hotels. There's Del Marcos in the Historic Tennis Club district, designed by William Cody in 1947. Other hotels in the district,  are Hideaway, Orbit In, and Desert Riviera, all designed by Herbert Burns. Then there is Howard Lapham's Desert Star is in South Palm Springs.

5. It's one of the more popular winter destinations in the US
Winter is coming! And vacationers in the US will be flocking to Palm Springs, where winter temperatures average 20ÂșC during the day. The city gets more than 350 days of sun with less than five inches of rain. How's that for consistency?

Soak up the sun during winter and make sure to explore the city! Downtown Palm Springs is the area of Palm Canyon Drive, lines with many galleries, restaurants, and shops. Every Thursday evening, the city has the Palm Springs Village Fest, which hosts artists, artisans, entertainers, and stalls selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, jewelry, snacks, and sweets. There are also a lot of fine dining options available.

The city has many museums and galleries including the Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs Air Museum, and Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. The weather is also very pleasant for a round of golf at the many golf clubs around Palm Springs.

If you're with kids, they'll enjoy the Wet n' Wild Water Park, Living Desert Zoo, Children's Discovery Museum, Cabazon Dinosaurs, the Palm Springs Tram, and the many adventure activities available in the city and its environs.

And it's very accessible. While Palm Springs has its own international airport, the city is just an easy two-hour drive from Los Angeles and San Diego, and a host of other airports. So getting there will not be an issue.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Northwest Indiana's largest corn maze in Lafayette

Fall in Indiana means, among many things, that it's corn maze season! Farm tourism is a big thing in the United States. Many farms around the US create cornfield mazes as an added attraction. And they sure are fun! As they all say, there's more than corn in Indiana. But seriously, there is a lot of corn!

Purdue Fulbrighters at Exploration Acres, Lafayette, Indiana
We drove 14 miles south of campus to a corn maze at Exploration Acres, Northwest Indiana's largest corn maze. For entrance, we spent $8.50 ($10.50 adult entrance less $2 coupon). We went straight to the corn dog stall since it as lunch and we were starving!

Every year, the farm comes out with a different design for the maze. You won't see it at ground level. But a map of the maze will let you know what the design is. This year's maze had a barn, tractor, farmer, squirrel, and cow in the design.

To add to the fun, the maze map had coupons of establishments in Lafayette and West Lafayette. But to be able to use them, we had to look for numbered markers scattered all over the maze to punch the coupons and make them valid.

Aside from the maze, there are a lot of other things to do such as pumpkin picking, and an area with many activities for children. There is also a fire pit area which the group booked to roast hotdogs and marshmallows. But a fire pit would not be complete without smores! So we made some as well.

Corn mazes usually close by the end of October. So if you want to see one, you have one last weekend to do it. There should be a corn maze near you in the US.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Hello from Purdue University!

This is definitely long overdue. I've been putting off further studies for the longest time. But I finally made that giant leap, dropped everything in the Philippines, and left to pursue my PhD in Hospitality and Tourism Management. Hello from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA!

I have been here for a little over two months now, which makes it the longest period I've ever stayed outside the Philippines, and counting! And I still have a long way to go!

It was a challenge to shift from the professor role back to student mode, especially after eight years teaching at the Asian Institute of Tourism, University of the Philippines, Diliman. But the experience has been very memorable so far, as I work on earning my PhD at Purdue's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

There are so many people and institutions to thank for making all this possible: the University of the Philippines System, UP Diliman, Asian Institute of Tourism, Fulbright Scholarship Program, Commission on Higher Education, Philippine-American Educational Foundation, and Institute of International Education. And of course, thank you to Purdue University for the opportunity to study in such a great campus!

Here is some trivia about Purdue University:

1. Purdue University was founded in 1869 with land and funds donated by Lafayette businessman John Purdue. It is best known for its Engineering and Agriculture programs.

2. University Hall is the only one of the six original buildings that remains standing. I have classes here twice a week. Another trivia about Purdue's buildings is that except for two, all the buildings, both old and new, are made of bricks or have bricks in their designs.

3. Purdue has produced 23 astronauts including Gene Cernan, Neil Armstrong, and Gus Grissom.

4. Purdue University has its own airport. Amelia Earhart worked at Purdue because it was the only US university with its own fully equipped airport at that time.

5. The school colors are gold and black.

6. Purdue students and alumni are called Boilermakers. Boiler up! BTFU!

7. It is part of the Big Ten Conference and thus takes its football very seriously! I finally got to watch my first American football game!

8. The school mascot is a train called the Boilermaker Special. The school's athletic mascot is Purdue Pete.

9. The 10-foot drum of the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band is the world's largest bass drum. The marching band has more than 380 members.

10. Purdue's Hospitality and Tourism Management Programs (Undergraduate, Masters, and Phd) are ranked number one in the US by several peer-reviewed studies in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Education.

Hope to see everyone back home soon. In the meantime, this will be my home away from home!
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