Friday, October 29, 2010

Scenic Train Bargain

One of the most scenic rail journeys in North America is also quite inexpensive. The Adirondack, a train that operates every day between New York's Penn Station and Montreal, goes right along the western shore of Lake Champlain, through the Adirondack Park and past Lake George. South of Albany it follows the course of the Hudson River to the city.
You get all this scenery for only $62 one way, or possibly less if you qualify for discounts for students, children, seniors or various other groups. This is far lower than the least expensive air fare, and comparable to bus fare.
The drawback, if you are in a hurry, is that the trip takes just over 11 hours, with a very long stop at the U.S.-Canadian border. But for those with leisure and a hankering for lovely views, it is a very relaxing trip. The part I like best is where the train seems about to fall into the enormous inland sea that is Lake Champlain.
Others prefer the views along the Hudson--lighthouses, sailboats and barges, the beautiful Tappan Zee bridge.
The Adirondack is one of the little known great railway journeys. For more information, consult

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lada Forever

I liked this juxtaposition of the old and the new in Yalta this past summer--a Lada in front of an Oriental pagoda style mansion under construction. The Lada is the iconic Soviet car that first began production in the early 60s in Togliatti, the Russian town named for a leader of the Italian Communist party. The original model was based on the Fiat 124 and adapted for Russian winters.
It's the car Russians love to hate--sturdy, long-lasting, totally unfashionable. Ladas were sold in a number of foreign countries--the UK, Canada, Brazil, among others, and they are still quite common in poorer parts of the former Soviet Union. Just a few days ago two Russian policemen were killed by gunmen who were driving a Lada in Grozny, Chechnya.
Today only the name lives on in a new high-performance car totally unlike the original Lada.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Travel Friends

One of the great things about travel is that you meet such interesting, pleasant people (at least most of the time.) Above are three I met on the Lomonosov this past summer--Margaret from Scotland, Jane from Florida and Ann from Illinois. All were or had been teachers and all were married but travelling without their husbands.
Lone travel by married people seems to be a growing trend among Americans. It has long been fairly common for the British. Makes sense--just because you want to go somewhere doesn't mean your significant other wants to go the same place. Why not split and see the places you each want to see as individuals, or the homebody can just stay home.
Travelling alone has some disadvantages, mainly financial (more on this later,) but it's a heck of a lot better than not travelling at all.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Number One Travel Savings Tip

The best way to save money on travel is to choose your destination wisely. Costs for lodging, food and travel vary widely in different parts of the world, and tend to be highest in big, well-known cities such as London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Paris and Zurich. These cities are very much worth visiting (I've yet to make it to Tokyo,) but be prepared for high prices. Even my town, Montreal, now ranks among the most costly cities in the world.
One way to cut the cost in big cities is to combine a stay there with some time in a nearby smaller city or town. For example, combine Paris with Tours or Rouen, or New York with nearby Tarrytown (especially appropriate at this time of year because it is in Washington Irving country. Irving wrote about the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, a good Halloween tale.)
There are some big cities that are relatively inexpensive--Buenos Aires, Argentina and Berlin, Germany are two of my favourites. Mexico City is also very interesting, but security is more of a concern there.
In general, South East Asia and Latin America are among the cheapest places on earth. I haven't visited East Asia, but it gets rave reviews from a lot of people. Roberto Rocha is a Montreal journalist who is writing about his world travels at, including a lot of posts from Asia.
I will be bringing you more tips on keeping travel costs down in the days ahead.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Friendship Force Offers Bargains

Friendship Force ( is a volunteer group that promotes international amity through home exchanges. Because travellers spend most of their nights with local hosts, the cost of a trip is significantly lower than that of commercial tours based in hotels, and there is in addition the chance to make new friends and really live with and like the locals.
Founded in the U.S. in 1977, Friendship Force now is represented in more than 50 countries, and has more than 300 local clubs. You do not need to belong to a local club to participate in an overseas trip, nor do you need to host visitors in order to be hosted.
Some of the trips listed on the group's Website sound very appealing (and inexpensive.) You can travel to exotic destinations like Georgia and Azerbaijan for about two weeks for $1200 U.S. not including air fare. Or if the Antipodes beckon, a 16 day trip to Australia and New Zealand goes for a mere $1400 U.S. for land only, or $2800 U.S. with air fare from Chicago.
Not everyone enjoys staying with strangers, regardless of how friendly those strangers are. But if you are willing to do so, you greatly expand your options for travel savings.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

St. Andrew's Church, Kiev

This glorious church was named for the Apostle Andrew and designed by Rastrelli, the Italian architect who also designed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in the late 18th century. It stands at the top of one of Kiev's famous streets, called Andrew's Descent. A winding affair with rough cobblestones and lots of steps, it is lined with small shops and art galleries.
I was there early on a Saturday and not much was open yet. There was an old man with a car piled with what looked to be very nice wool and sheepskin products, but on such a hot day I could not imagine buying any. I was very glad I had worn running shoes, rather than the usual sandals, to be able to negotiate the rough street..
One of the attractions of Andrew's Descent is the Bulgakov Museum, former home of the famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. His best-known work is The Master and Margarita, an account of the devil's visit to Moscow in Stalinist times.
After I reached the bottom of Andrew's Descent I got lost and had my first experience of Kiev's Metro, when a young man who spoke English told me I needed to take it. Fare is only about a quarter, it is efficient and at least on Saturdays, not too crowded. It's a good way to get around the city inexpensively.
St. Andrew's Church and the street beside it are well worth a visit, especially if you go when the shops are open.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2 for 1 River Cruises with Free Air

Viking River Cruises ( is offering 2 for 1 pricing plus free air fare on some of its winter cruises in Europe. The free air applies only from certain east coast U.S. destinations, but is still an amazing deal. The cruises are in continental Europe, mostly on the Rhine or the Danube (hurry before the toxic sludge hits.)
A 10-day Danube cruise from Budapest to Passau starts at $1,622 U.S., and includes stops at many scenic and historic cities and towns--Vienna, Durnstein, Melk and Regensburg among others. I love this area, especially Durnstein with its ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned. Considering this fare applies for two people, the per person cost is reduced to an amazing $80 or so per day for air, lodging, meals and some excursions. At this price, you can hardly afford to stay home.
I travelled along the Dnieper this summer with Viking. It was my first river cruise for quite a while and overall I thought it provided good value for money, particularly in a part of the world where tours are in short supply. If you haven't travelled on the historic rivers of Western Europe, this is a good opportunity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Naval Museum, Balaclava, Ukraine

This model of a nuclear submarine is inside the Naval Museum, where its full-scale counterparts used to be housed in Soviet times. You can walk around inside the formerly super-secret facility, being careful not to slip into the cold, dark submarine bays.
This is a delightfully creepy reminder of the Cold War, and a great place to visit on a hot day because it is so cool and damp inside. The facility was so secret in the Soviet era that even the name Balaclava disappeared from maps, and there used to be checkpoints on all the roads near Balaclava and Sebastopol. Even most Soviet citizens were not allowed in.
Admission to the Museum is reasonable, around $2 or so, and well worth it. For a full description of the history of this place, consult the article on the Website.
Of course, Balaclava is better-known in the English-speaking world because it was the site of the Charge or the Light Brigade, an episode of the Crimean War memorialised by Tennyson, and because its name was given to the kind of knitted headcovering favoured by bank robbers and terrorists.
Today unfortunately there is no marker of the field where the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred, it is just an open field on a road outside Balaclava.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kherson, Ukraine

This elm tree stump was carved with images from Russian fairy tales to commemorate the Russian victory over Turkey in 1787. Kherson, which rates hardly a mention in the Bradt guidebook to Ukraine, is a pleasant city along the Dnieper that has been a hub of shipping and shipbuilding since the time of Catherine the Great.
This monument lies along a leafy pedestrian walkway lined with cafes downtown. There was also an Internet cafe there, where the young manager was unusually honest. By mistake I gave euros instead of hryvnias to pay for my time. He pointed out my mistake so I could correct it. The hryvnia is worth only about one-tenth of a euro, so the difference was significant.
Today the shipbuilding industry is not thriving, but Kherson retains the air of a once prosperous small city. Many of the crew on my ship hailed from Kherson, the ship's home port.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Independence Square, Kiev

The heart of Kiev, this enormous square boasts a large floral clock (visible above) many cascading fountains, the largest underground shopping centre in Kiev, the central post office and a trendy McDonald's. (Yes, McDonald's are trendy in this part of the world.) It is a popular gathering place at all times of day, and a nice venue for cooling off on a hot summer day.
In 2004 this entire huge area was filled with protestors wearing orange scarves in support of their presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko, who claimed he had been poisoned by Russian agents. The peaceful Orange Revolution led to Yushchenko's rise to power, but to many observers now it seems to have been a case of exchanging one group of oligarchs for another.
In any case, it is a must for visitors to Kiev.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Potemkin Steps, Odessa

Tourists looking down the famous Odessa landmark, the Potemkin Steps, toward the port. These 192 steps featured in Sergei Eisenstein's film about the Battleship Potemkin, an incident from the 1905 Revolution. Sailors on this battleship mutinied and sailed into Odessa's harbour, where huge crowds gathered at the port to greet them.
It all ended badly when Czarist troops killed the leader of the revolt and about 2,000 other people, but the sailors' mutiny encouraged Bolshevik leaders because it showed that the military might turn against the state, as many did later in the 1917 October Revolution.
Today you can still walk up or down these stairs, or if you're lazy take a free funicular. Primorsky Boulevard at the top of the stairs is a nice place to walk, with Black Sea views and plentiful trees. In the evenings it is a good place to people watch, as locals mostly replace tourists out enjoying the weather.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ukraine Economy

This empty barge on the Dnieper River near Zaporozhye is symbolic of the economic malaise that has beset this country (and many others) since 2008. It was one of the very few commercial vessels I saw in a nearly 6 day trip down the Dnieper River in late July-early August. GDP in Ukraine is estimated to have fallen about 15 per cent last year, but it expected to recover by about 4 per cent this year.
Ukraine has many resources, including some of the best agricultural land in Europe, timber, coal and minerals, as well as a highly literate population. However, its economy is beset by corruption and by the fact that in Soviet times factories in general were not efficient by free market terms. And Ukraine was especially hard hit by the economic crisis that is affecting us all.
Two lecturers on the cruise spoke of corruption, which adds an unspoken cost of about 30 per cent to most transactions, and makes foreign investors wary of sinking money into the country. According to one university lecturer, little has improved since the Orange Revolution of 2004, which was supposed to install a more modern and democratic system. She said instead one group of oligarchs just replaced another, and the hopes some Ukranians held of the country's eventually qualifing for membership in the European Union have been abandoned.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Livadia Palace, Yalta Conference

This charming small palace was built for the ill-fated Czar Nicholas II, and was a favourite summer destination for the Czar and his family for a few years in the early 20th century. It is in the hills above Yalta, Crimea and enjoys pleasant sea breezes even in the hottest weather. (A good thing, since it is not air-conditioned and crowds can be large.)
In February 1945 Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met here to discuss the fate of postwar Europe. They agreed to a division of both Germany and Austria into four zones of occupation, among other provisions. The agreements reached here, along with those at Potsdam later in the year, led to the de facto recognition of the Soviet Union's control of the entire Baltic and Eastern European region, and soon to the Cold War.
According to the Yalta agreements free elections were supposed to be held in Poland, but they never took place. The Red Army was in control of Eastern Europe by this time, but neither Churchill nor Roosevelt put up much of a fight against Stalin's designs.
FDR was in very poor health at the time of the conference, and was to die just two months later. So, this palace does not have a very happy history, but it is still a must for any visitor to the Crimea. Admission costs around $5, not bad for such an important building.