8 Hours in Stockholm

Sometimes when I travel, I don’t have long to linger. That was the case when we headed to Tromsø, Norway, for the Midnight Sun Run. We had a wee eight hours or so in Stockholm.

And there’s no way we would accept staying at the Arlanda Airport that whole time. We hopped on the Arlanda Express train – the fastest way from the airport to the center of Stockholm. From there, we did what we always do in a new city: walk.

Besides logging some miles, we ate some reindeer pizza. We people-watched. We shot photos. And we fell asleep in the Stockholm Cultural House.

Here’s what we saw. 

A bright morning in old town Stockholm.
Church steeples puncture the Stockholm skyline.
Stockholm City Hall – like something from the past.
Inside Stockholm City Hall.
Stockholm residents were happy to enjoy the sun.
The weather finally turned dreary and drove us indoors.

Safeguard Your House While You Travel

Ever worry about your house when you travel? Or get that nagging feeling that something is not quite right as you head to the airport?

Well, my streak of luck ended. After years of problem-free travel, it all caught up: A faulty seal in a toilet flooded our house while we were gone. And it made me write this story for Yahoo! Voices about steps you can take to protect your house.

The big one? Turn the water valves at your toilets off. Some people have also mentioned doing the same at the wash machine. Really, this experience with a house flood makes me dream about just having a yurt and a composting toilet. But check out the rest of the tips, too. You might find something that bails you out the next time you travel.

http://www.blogdash.com/full_profile/?claim_code=ecf477a6000978062b03d7366701ed76

 

 

TSA’s Security Circus Snags Wrenches

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. But your wrench can’t dodge the TSA if it’s too big. (Image from carolramsey.net)

My brother J.D. probably didn’t expect things to turn out this way. It was just a quick visit to Arizona and a meet-up with Sarah and me for gelato. So how in the world does the Transportation Security Administration come into play?

Well, it started with a shrieky sound and a burning rubber smell from my Subaru Forester about an hour before we were supposed to meet. I made it home, popped the hood and saw the soon-to-be-shredded final remnants of my fan belts. They were past due for a change (thanks so much to the guys who changed my oil last week and didn’t mention this as part of their 40-point "inspection").

I mentioned this to my Subaru-driving brother around a mouthful of gelato. Soon after, we had flashlights aimed on the offending belts and developed a plan of attack. A few problems emerged: All the auto shops were closed, we had some inadequate tools and a bolt had fallen into an awkward place.

J.D. picked the parts the next day at Camelback Subaru. And he grabbed some wrenches designed for hard-to-reach places. The repairs went off easily after that. J.D. figured he’d keep the tools since A), he paid for ‘em and B) he’s more likely to get repeat use out of them (I concur). And off to the airport he went to head home to Missouri.

Some Tools Are Too Big to Fly

The TSA agents snared J.D.’s shiny new wrenches in their security gauntlet at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. All but one, apparently, was at least three-eighths of an inch too long to get through security.

These are not sharp objects – what? No, I mean the wrenches!

"Three-eighths of an inch is what makes us safe?" JD mused as he told me the story.

According to the TSA website’s Prohibited Items page:
Wrenches and Pliers (seven inches or less in length) OK OK

JD sought some flexibility from the agents, including having me drop by to collect the tools. They were having none of it – they offered no ideas other than tossing these objects that are too dangerous to fly into a trash bin (is that any place for something too dangerous to fly?). And I can’t help thinking that these are now stored somewhere in a TSA employee’s garage.

The policy and "unsafe" length seem arbitrary. And it confirms a big knock against TSA: that it wrings its hands over objects rather than assessing who’s carrying the objects. They’re looking for stuff, not people with intent to cause mayhem.

TSA Keeps Authority and Sense Separated

This makes me think of Tokyo Narita International Airport: After we checked out baggage, a polite security agent pulled Sarah aside: "Excuse me, please – you have two cans of shaving cream in your backpack. Can you tell me why?" Sarah told her that she thought she’d left one behind earlier in the trip and picked up a second one. The agent thanked her and sent us on our way. She exhibited tact and good sense.

The point isn’t the $20 cost of the tools. The lack of good sense, unwillingness to solve problems and security theatrics, though, are the crux of the matter.

TSA made no one safer today by preventing a bunch of wrenches from flying. And that’s the organization’s mission, isn’t it?

 

Merino Wool/Bamboo from tasc Performance: Review

Me and my Merino wool/bamboo shirt at the Tromsø Midnight Sun 10k.

Winter is coming.

That’s not my favorite quote from A Game of Thrones. It’s just a fact, and it makes me happy after another Arizona summer and quasi-autumn that lasted about 4.7 days.

Truth: I haven’t been cold since I was in Norway. And even then, I wasn’t all that cold. Sure, Norway is chilly for an Arizona dude even in the summertime. But I also had a few items from tasc Performance to keep me warm. The folks at tasc Performance sent some of their new long-sleeve merino wool/bamboo fiber shirts for testing.

I started the Midnight Sun 10K (which really start at about 8 p.m.) in one of them. I used another as a base layer for hiking the Bessegen Trail in Jotunheimen National Park. I’d reach for one of them anytime the rain started to fall or the wind started to blow.

There’s a base layer of Merino wool and bamboo from tasc Performance under all the other puffery.

This is the first time I’ve used a technical shirt with any wool in it. Here’s what I thought of the new tasc Performance gear.

  • They take up no room in a pack, yet are still warm.
  • They look damn good.
  • I’d prefer to wear them as a second layer. I didn’t wash them beforehand, and they were a bit itchy to my skin. Soon, it will be cool enough for me to try them now that I’ve washed them.
  • I love the wrist gaiters. Slipping my thumb into one pulls just enough of the sleeve down to cover my hands a bit. Great for wearing gloves.
  • Be careful with those cool gaiters. I shoved my hand in with a little too much authority and yanked a bunch of stitching out.
  • The Merino wool doesn’t get soaked very easily. It seems to repel light drizzles. Is it just me?

Over the last year, tasc Performance has become my go-to brand for exercise apparel. If you want to something more comfortable than tasc, you’ll have to do as the ancient Greeks did and hit the gym in nothing but olive oil. The Merino wool adds a new element to the bamboo lineup. It’s not as soft yet. But warm? You betcha. It’ll get loads of action this winter, no matter where I go. And we’ll see if the itchiness abates.

Scary SCUBA Advice – Truk Lagoon to Turtle Tomb

turtle tomb
Turtle skeletons lurk under the water (courtesy of PADI)

When I run the world, Halloween will be a quarterly holiday. I’ve been known to have multiple Halloween costumes each year. I use a Dremel tool to carve pumpkins.

But as much as I like Halloween, my friends at the Professional Association of Diving Instructors have one-upped me. They take Halloween underneath the sea – and they’ve exposed us to a submerged world of turtle skeletons, the World War II-era wrecks at Truk Lagoon and even underwater pumpkin carving (I guess I can’t use my handy Dremel underwater …).

Here’s what PADI has to say about its top picks for Halloween-themed SCUBA dive destinations:

truk lagoon gas mask ghost fleet
Remnants of the Ghost Fleet wrecks. (courtesy of PADI)

Turtle Tomb: This creepy dive spot in Sipadan, Malaysia is covered with a thick layer of white sand and dust composed of numerous skeletons of turtles who were unable to escape the winding underwater passageways. I have a measure of sympathy for the dead turtles … but that might up the creep factor a bit.

Ghost Fleet wrecks: Dive into a graveyard of more than 50 Japanese vessels that found their final resting place at the bottom of Truk Lagoon in the Eastern Caroline Islands.

Night Diving: Scared of the dark? Face your fears with a night dive. Your flashlight will be the only thing keeping the dark at bay as you dive deeper.

 

Add a new challenge to carving pumpkins by doing it underwater. (courtesy of PADI)

Spooky Scuba: Check your local dive center this Halloween for spooky specials, like underwater Haunted Houses, SCUBA dive costume contests and underwater pumpkin carving!

I have to give props to PADI for some imagination in fusing Halloween and SCUBA diving. If you’re looking for the same sort of thrill you used to get out of Jason and Freddy Krueger, this might be your ticket. Now, I just might take up SCUBA just to see the Truk Lagoon wrecks!

 

 

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Darwin, Australia: My Guide to the Top End’s Top City

Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”

But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.

Launchpad for Adventure

The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.

Enjoying a sunny day in Darwin, NT.

Small City, Big Nightlife

Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.

Don’t Go Homeless

Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.

Want to see really Australian wildlife? Then get to Darwin and book a tour.

Shopping and Stuff

The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.

This post is sponsored by Accor Hotels. With over 4,000 hotels in more than 90 countries stretching across all continents, Accorhotels offers you a huge choice of destinations.

There are over 400 hotels and resorts in 18 countries across Asia Pacific. Choose from a range of hotels, from Sofitel to Ibis, Pullman to Novotel. Accorhotels offers accommodation to suit all budgets.

Craft Beer in the Twin Cities: Three Great Pubs

Page 1 of the beer list at The Happy Gnome.

It took a Facebook comment to remind me of what’s extra-awesome about craft beer. I’d just posted a photo of one page of the beer list at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, Minnesota. An old buddy nicknamed Poot replied:

“I’ve only heard of like two of these. Breweries, that is.”

And it hit me – craft beer is one of the few things in the world that isn’t whitewashed homogeneous boredom. You can travel all over the United States and find craft beer you didn’t know about the previous day. You might seek something specific, like a Surly stout. But brews like Scotty Karate and John Henry Three Licker Spiker wait for you to run into them beak first.

Here are three places I had a brew in the Twin Cities, and what I enjoyed about them. I posted all of them to my Untapped account for all posterity and accuracy.

The Happy Gnome

Locals from the Twin Cities allege that St. Paul is the nerdy basement dweller to Minneapolis’ prom king. Yet The Happy Gnome is a fine craft beer destination that I was glad to visit. Even before you get to the beer, you can get some duck bruschetta or some quality crab cakes. And creme brulee for dessert? I’m game.

Having some laughs with Dan from Athena Custom Cycles at The Bulldog Lower Town.

The beer is a treat, too: Dragon’s Milk by New Holland Brewing Company was a study in how temperature can affect a beer. It came out cold, and with a medicinal artificial cherry note – but that dissipated as the beer warmed, leaving lots of malt and whiskey flavors. I also liked Pahoehoe Coconut Blonde by Two Brothers Brewing Company – I don’t usually drink blondes, but I had to try this since Two Brothers brewed it with coconut water; the effect on the Pahoehoe is subtle, but I could detect an unusual – but pleasant – texture and a hint of sweetness. The star of the show, though, was Scotty Karate by Dark Horse Brewing Co. Read the description in the photo, and you’ll have all the info you need.

Warning: Weekends at The Happy Gnome will be crowded and loud indoors. And you can’t get a seat in the dining room unless you plan to order entrees, which rubbed us the wrong way at first. The patio is nice, though, and The Happy Gnome staff and menu won us over.

The Grand Hotel

Hotel bars usually suck. They serve watery swill like Bud and Stella, with maybe a nod to craft beer like New Belgium Fat Tire. The taps and bottles at The Grand Hotel in downtown Minneapolis turned my prejudice on its ear.

We started with a Northwest Passage IPA (Flat Earth Brewing). It was floral and slightly piney it its hoppiness. It could hang with many a better-known and more-vaunted IPA from Colorado or California (but perhaps not Oskar Blues Gubna, which approaches Superbeer status). As the bartender chatted with us, we mentioned our love of barrel-aged brews. And he plunked a bottle of John Henry Three Lick Spiker Ale in front of us. Despite never before appearing on our radar, Three Lick Spiker earned our “Best of Trip” award. Dense, malty, black hole-dark -- it will leave your tastebuds in euphoria. Well, if you happen to like strong ales aged with oak chips from a bourbon barrel. Which I do!

Extra props: The bartender here told us not to miss The Happy Gnome during our visit to the Twin Cities. We salute you, sir!

The Bulldog Lowertown

Dan from Pallas Athena Custom Cycles suggested The Bulldog Lowertown, and it was definitely a winner. The noise level was moderate, the tater tot level was high and the beer list level was even higher. This time, I chose the Furious, an IPA from the somewhat polarizing craft beer kingpins Surly Brewing Co. They have a bit of a reputation among locals as a bit -- aloof (this surprised me since they were so friendly via email). Well, the Furious proved that Surly lives up to its hype. I love a crisp IPA redolent with piney goodness. And that’s what I got.

And for the record, I sampled nothing on this trip that I could get in Arizona. To the best of my knowledge, Three Lick Spiker might be the only one I might be able to find in my home city. Down with the same-old, and up with unusual regional craft beer finds!

Hey, you can follow me on Untapped to tag along through my craft beer adventures!

Music this Autumn: Concerts in Birmingham, England

Symphony Hall Birmingham interior
Music lovers will know how fantastic an experience a live concert can be. Listening to your favourite albums at home is one thing, but seeing your idols on stage is a whole different ball game. The Midlands city of Birmingham is always oozing with gigs from all music genres and this summer/autumn is no different. If you’re travelling from outside the city, or want to make an evening of it, Birmingham hotels from Travelodge can provide you with quality and comfort at amazing value.

In September, pop over to the Symphony Hall to spend an evening with Dave Stewart – one half of the incredibly successful group, the Eurythmics.  If you’re in the vicinity on the 15th September, be sure to book tickets to see The Cult on the Birmingham leg of their tour – playing at the O2 Academy with support from gothic rock band, The Mission and post-punk rockers, Killing Joke. The Cult developed a dedicated following in the 1980s with their post punk singles, such as ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ and broke America in the late ‘80s with some heavier tunes, including ‘Love Removal Machine’. They’ll be sure to put on a great show this September – be sure to go and check them out.

As autumn arrives, the music scene really picks up in the Midlands city. Top indie rockers, Bloc Party, fronted by Kele Okereke, are at the O2 Academy on the 15th October. For tickets, call the venue directly. Pop punkers, Bowling for Soup, well known for the Grammy award-winning song, "Girl All the Bad Guys Want" in 2003, are also at the Academy on the 24th October. If you’re after a musical night filled with fun, this is it. The English singer-songwriter and acoustic genius, Newton Faulkner plays at the academy on the 18th October. His first album released in 2007, Hand Built by Robots, reached double platinum and his new album, Write it on your Skin, reached number 1 in the UK album charts. If acoustic music and rhythmic guitar is your bag, this is the gig for you.

November sees a huge array of spectacular bands going on tour. We have the stadium rockers, Europe, giving their latest rendition of "A Final Countdown" among other well known hits to the O2 Academy on the 21st November, followed by The Levellers on the 23rd. Influenced by punk and traditional English music, these guys always fill the venues and are well worth watching at least once. The classical superstar, Andrea Bocelli, is playing at the LG Arena in the NEC on the 10th November. The Italian tenor will be sure to provide an emotional evening with his awe inspiring voice and incredible personality. If metal music is more up your street, two industrial metal veterans will be playing at the NIA on the 29th November; none other than the multi-talented Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson will be performing on their nationwide "Twins of Evil" tour and are not to be missed.

Whatever music you’re into, Birmingham is home to a huge number of venues that play host to music all over the genres and guarantee an awesome night for you and your mates.

This is a sponsored post encouraging travelers to visit Birmingham this fall to check out some live music.

 

Traveler’s Overview: The Twin Cities

You’ll see a variety of architecture in the Twin Cities.

Wow, there’s something stinky on this Delta flight. Kind of like a bison pooped around seat 37D, and they used a dirty diaper soaked in Febreeze to clean it up.

This was the Facebook post that brought my trip to Minneapolis to a close. I was the last person off after nearly three hours stuffed in seat 41A of a 757. Other than the funky odor, I had no other complaints about the Delta flight. It was on time, and the crew was pleasant.

Let’s break down the rest of Minneapolis on the double, with more to come in the future:

  • Minneapolis and St. Paul are both good places to grab a regional craft beer. There are tons of local breweries, and they get adventurous with the recipes.
  • The Twin Cities has a first-rate “rails to trails” system. If the Phoenix area had a cycling infrastructure even half as good as this, the time I spend on my road bike would increase 10-fold. Cyclists would love a visit to this area. Well done, Twin Cities.
  • Like your ethnic food? How does copious amounts of Thai, Himalayan, Ethiopian and Chinese sound? I saw less Japanese or Mexican (the latter of which is less “ethnic” and more “default” to a guy from Arizona). The Twin Cities might be in the Midwest, but you won’t eat like you’re in the stereotypical Midwest.
  • Yes, this really is the land of 10,000 lakes. Whether flying or driving, you’ll see all sorts of bodies of water.
  • I noticed plenty of stylish and varied architecture – office buildings and homes alike.

In future posts, I’ll get more specific and tell you where I went, stayed, ate and quaffed. Let’s just say that I’ll give props to Minneapolis and St. Paul for being pleasant summer destinations. I’d recommend the Twin Cities for any quick getaway for anyone eager to escape the Southwest heat for a spell – especially if you’re a cyclist and willing to travel with your bike.