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!
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