This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.
I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.
I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport -- and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.
Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.
Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.
Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west -- and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.
The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.
As it was, I found a decent place to park -- a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.
My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.
After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed -- and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.
Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.
There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.
It seems my old friends from the Professional Association of Dive Instructors are at it again – trying to lure me into SCUBA diving. And they know the right way to do it -- show me a bunch of photos of sunken ships and sharks.
PADI has also compiled a list of its 12 favorite wreck dives in the United States. What I like about this list is that they’re relatively modern wrecks. Each will give you a glimpse of fairly recent history.
If you’re looking at this list and wondering how to get started, it’s pretty easy – get SCUBA certified. There are more than 6,200 dive shops worldwide where you can get a SCUBA certification. Not quite as numerous as Starbucks, but still easier to find than you might imagine.
Now, let’s check out the dive sites and see what PADI has to say about them! I added some of my own commentary in italics.
Maru-Chuuk (San Francisco) â€” This cargo vessel, sitting 200 feet below the water, had six 500-pound bombs rip it open and send it straight down, smashing to the bottom of the ocean floor. Â Learn more here: trukodyssey.com
Carthaginian II (Maui) â€” This whaling-vessel replica rests at 95 feet and was sunk on Dec. 13, 2005, to serve as an artificial reef for marine life such as turtles and stingrays. Learn more here: mauiscuba.com
Sea Tiger (Oahu) â€” This boat, which was originally apprehended carrying 93 illegal Chinese immigrants was sunk as an artificial reef in 1999 and is just a short boat ride off of Wakiki Beach. Learn more here: wakikidiving.com
YO-257 (Oahu) â€”This former World War II Oiler Boat sits 120 feet below water and is considered an advanced wreck dive. It is reported that it’s not uncommon to see reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and green sea turtles will often rest on the decks of the wreck. Learn more here: diveoahu.com
We can safely guess that PADI folks will use any excuse to get themselves to Hawaii. I’m not judging --
HMCS Yukon (California) â€”This ship is a 366-foot-long destroyer which lies 105 feet below water and is the crown jewel of Wreck Alley in San Diego. The best photo op for this wreck is the huge smokestack that is covered with bright-orange and pink corynactis anemones. Learn more here: loisann.com
Destroyer? More than 360 feet long? Wreck Alley? How can you NOT want to dive this?
Oriskany (Florida) â€”The wreck titled the "Mighty O" is said to be the Super Bowl of wreck dives. Â This 888 feet long ship is the world’s largest artificial reef. On this dive you’ll have the opportunity to see amberjack, grouper, red, snapper, butterflyfish and French Angels. Learn more here: floridapanhandledivetrail.com
Sounds like we have lots of fish – and lots of ship here. I’ll resist the temptation to take a poke atÂ Florida and cite novels by Laurence Shames, Tom Dorsey and Dave Barry as evidence.
Manhattan (Great Lakes) â€” Lake Superior’s Alger Underwater Preserve contains several wrecks like the Manhattan, containing old nails, chains and pulleys and is a great representation of a 19th century steamer. Learn More here: Diversinc.com
Well, not all wreck dives can be in warm tropical places. I suppose you could drop intoÂ Chicago if you do this dive and have a nice bowl of ramen at the Slurping Turtle(keeping the aquatic theme) to warm you up.
LuLu (Alabama) â€” This vessel sank off the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama on May 26, 2013 making it the state’s first artificial reef. Now divers travel 90 minutes from shore to explore the boat 115 feet below the sea’s surface. Learn more here: downunderdiveshop.com
Papoose (North Carolina) â€” The Papoose was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942 and below water is where it has remained ever since. On a daily basis, five to 10 sand tiger sharks can be seen hanging around the sunken ship. Learn more here: discoverydiving.com
If you like sea creatures as well as wreck dives, I say this is a winner.
USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg (Florida) â€” A decommissioned U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship, the Vandenberg lies upright in 130 feet of water and is a favorite with divers, due to its large size of 520 feet. Learn more here: divekeywest.com
This one also sounds like a winner – though 130 feet down doesn’t sounds very easy! SCUBA experts, feel free to correct me and tell me I’m just being a big baby!
Spiegel Grove (Florida) â€” This vessel served in the U.S. Navy and was nicknamed "Top Dog," as this massive warfare ship once carried 330 troops, 18 officers and eight helicopters. Divers have the opportunity to fin through the wheelhouse, find barracuda on the deck and swim through propellers at the stern. Â Learn more here: horizondivers.com
I’d be all over a trip into the wheelhouse!
U-352 (North Carolina) â€” This German submarine had a crew of 40 serving aboard the vessel. Of that 40, 15 remain inside as of May 9, 1942 when USCGC Icarus downed the ship. It now lies 115 feet and the must see for divers include the conning tower, gun mounts and torpedo-loading hatch. Olympusdiving.com
Oh, my! This sounds like a spooky, creepy winner. I have a soft spot for U boats since I visited the U-505 at the as a boy.
An earlier version of this blog post about great desserts appeared on Yahoo Voices. Since Yahoo Voices is no longer among the living, I updated and resurrected it – because … dessert! Be sure to chip in with your favorites in the comments.\
I recently wound up at a Cheesecake Factory for a work function. And it’s not quite right to go to a place named after cheesecake and not try some.
A slice of milquetoast chocolate-coconut cheesecake and a boatload of calories later, I wondered who’d stolen the flavor from my dessert. It was so bland that I had to pine away for the great desserts I’ve eaten while traveling. If you’re planning to travel, scan this list and see if you’ll wind up near them. If you do, be sure to drop in for some seriously fine desserts.
Finale – There’s obviously more to Boston than baked beans. Or even Boston cream pie. If it’s great desserts you want, get to one of the three Finale Desserterie & Bakery locations. Try a sampler platter – there are too many goodies on the menu to pick just one. My dining party outvoted me, but I would’ve gone for the Retro Chocolate platter. I didn’t mind our sampler platter – I just thought it contained a few tame choices and too many things with berries: When I eat dessert, I load up on the chocolate. The chocolate lava cake was the standout.
Mungalli Creek Dairy – I blame this little dairy in the remote Atherton Table Lands of Australia for ruining all other cheesecakes for me. Ever since trying the Sicilian cheesecake (whole-milk ricotta, orange glace, flecks of dark chocolate, cinnamon cookie crust) atÂ Mungalli Creek Dairy, every other cheesecake I’ve sampled disappoints me. Maybe there’s something about making cheesecake from the milk of cows that are wandering around. Just getting there adds to the adventure – it’s a few hours away from Cairns near the town of Yungaburra. And it will involve a trip through the hills on a narrow country road.
Patagonia Chocolates – Queenstown, NZ, is mostly known for its adventure sports. A few more places like Patagonia Chocolates could also put the scenic city on the map for great desserts. For me, the star at Patagonia is the ice cream. The banana split flavor isn’t what Americans might expect since it lacked strawberry, focusing mostly on banana and chocolate flavors. I was only in Queenstown for a two days, but made three stops at Patagonia for ice cream.
Sufistin Kaffihus – It takes about 15 minutes by bus to reach Sufistin Kaffihus from Reykjavik. And it’s worth all the uncertainty of wondering which stop is the right one for those of us still flummoxed by the Icelandic language. The chocolate-coconut cake there was worth every calorie – it was sweet enough to be a proper dessert, but not so cloying that it was a chore to finish the last bite. It was also fairly light despite its richness. It was all about balanced sensations and letting the individual ingredients shine through. Sufistin doesn’t have a Web site – but you’ll find it near The Viking Hotel in HafnarfjÃ¶rder.
Ã†gir microbrewery – There’s a lot to praise about this brewery in Norway – first, it looks like a historic stave church. Inside, you could imagine vikings trying to drink each other under the table. The beer is excellent, too. But this is all about great desserts, so let’s talk about the chocolate brownie … we had it drizzled with some raspberry sauce. A scoop of raspberry ice cream topped it off nicely. It pairs very well with any dark beers on the tap list (the lineup changes frequently).
Cornish Pasty Co – When I want a serious dessert, I go to the nearest of the three Cornish Pasty Co. locations in the Phoenix area (there’s also a The Cornish Pasty Co. in Las Vegas). I usually get a chocolate bread-and-butter pudding if I want a big dose of chocolate. Otherwise, I go for a banoffee pie – never heard of it? The Cornish Pasty Co. version is a collision of bananas, caramel, graham crackers and made-right-there fresh whipped cream. There are other desserts, too, but these are my standouts. Hint: Only the hugest appetites will be able to manage eating a pasty and a dessert.
Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Iceland. And my post about a suggested itinerary is one of my most popular posts. I think it might be handy, though, to do a Wandering Justin-style Iceland travel guide.
Here’s what I have to say about some of the common questions people ask me, beyond my suggested Iceland travel itinerary.
What’s the Food Like in Iceland?
Nearly everywhere we stayed, we woke up to a huge Scandinavian-style breakfast that was included in the price of our accommodations. We’d find grains, cereals, bread, jam, a variety of meats, plenty of cheeses, jam, tea, coffee -- well, you might get the idea. I even got into the pickled herring and shrimp spreads.
When it came to lunch, we were a bit more on our own. We spent many of our days on the road, so we’d run into a roadside convenience store and grab sandwiches. This would usually get us a better sandwich than we’re used to in the United States, with more exotic sorts of ingredients.
Dinner, dessert and coffee is where Iceland really excels. I ate enormous amounts of fresh fish, lamb and smoked trout. If you like chocolate, you’re in luck – so does nearly everyone in Iceland. Many of the restaurants and coffeehouses feature some rich desserts. Oh, and coffee – the entire country seems to be full of classy coffeehouses. ThoughÂ Kaffitár appears to be a country-spanning chain, its baristas turn out top-quality cappuccinos (my espresso drink of choice, and one that says a lot about the barista’s skills).
Iceland does lag in craft beer, though. There are some rather draconian laws inhibiting homebrewers, which is usually Ground Zero for any nation’s craft beer movement. The Icelandic government is hell-bent on getting a cut for alcohol sales, so it seems to view homebrewers as an economic threat.
What Historical Sites are in My Iceland Travel Guide?
I’m going to be straight-up on this one: I didn’t put many historical sites on my itinerary. I lean more toward scenery and geology. That’s not to say that Iceland doesn’t have plenty of of history – Vikings populated this country, and did their best to survive its conditions hundreds of years before modern conveniences.
If history is part of what makes you travel, though,Â Thingvellir National Park is a must. It’s the site of the world’s oldest parliament. And this list of historical sites offers plenty of ideas. But the very best resource I’ve found for getting ideas about historical sites in Iceland is the book "The Tricking of Freya." Though it’s a work of fiction, it is packed with for-real information about Iceland’s historical, archaeological and natural sites. It’s also a top-quality mystery.
Now, if you’re also interested in natural history, I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the area near Myvatn, with its steam explosion craters, the Dimmuborgir lava field,Â Hverfjall crater and theÂ Hverir thermal area. If you’re staying in the area, be sure to stay on the north edge of the lake – there are far fewer flies buzzing around on that side.
If you’re into hiking, a stop at Skaftafell National Park for a few days is a must. Looking back at it, I wish I’d known about Kristinartindar. It’s one of the coolest-looking mountains I’ve ever seen, and I want to go back to Iceland just to climb it. And it wasn’t in a single Iceland travel guide that I’d found. Oh, and don’t missÂ JÃ¶kullsarlon or any chance to hike on a glacier.
Icelandic Culture is Everywhere
Culture in Iceland isn’t reserved for museums. You’ll find it in the murals in neighborhoods, the independent shops selling hand-made goods and even at the geothermally heated city pools. You’ll definitely find it in the astounding number of bookstores, where you’ll find books from Icelandic authors (I’ve heard Iceland has the highest per-capita number of published authors). The culture is even embedded right into the language – a council of experts approves new words that enter the language, and rigorously keeps out influences that can erode it. I met some friendly Swedish travelers who told me that Icelandic is very much like Swedish would’ve sounded a thousand years ago.
If you just must have a museum recommendation, be sure to visit theÂ Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (In a way, I’m sad it moved from the beautiful northern town of HÃºsavÃk – you should go there anyway). It’s in every Iceland travel guide for a reason: It is a perfect avatar for Iceland’s humor and curiosity – and willingness to take an idea further than anyone ever imagined. If you do decide to visit the museum, I also recommend watching the movie "The Final Member" before your visit.
The Views Outdoor
People like to say Greenland is white, and Iceland is green. Umm, that’s kind of true – but don’t go getting the idea that Iceland is covered in old-growth forests. The green comes more from moss and smaller, shrub-like plants. Glaciation and other factors are behind that.
Iceland has a very raw, unfinished natural beauty with lots of colors besides green – I mean red, brown, yellow, white, just about everything. The mountainous terrain lends itself to great views, too. Here’s the truth: You will not fail to find a great view every single day, no matter where you go. From the coasts to the interior, the scenery will never fail to astound you.
You’ll be able to get around the most in the summer; from September until early June, many of the roads into the interior are closed. But the cold months will also allow a glimpse of the Northern Lights. In the summer, you won’t see so much as a single star – you’re up so far north that the sun will just dip below the horizon for a bit before popping back up. And cloud cover is also common.
What About Accommodations?
Hotels in Iceland can be pricey, well past $100 a night. But if you’re a good shopper, you’ll find some good deals. When I go back to Reykjavik, I’ll book a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. It’s more bed and breakfast than hotel, but it was was than $100 US per night, friendly and comfortable – and just the right proximity to the downtown area. Elsewhere, camping is a great option. Free-range camping is allowed with certain limitations, and campgrounds are about $25 a night … a nice option since they include bathrooms and often kitchens. I also liked the Hotel Laki, Efri-Vik,Â Guesthouse Frost and Fire (Frost og Funi) and Hotel Lundi Restaurant. Hotel Laki and Frost and Fire were a bit higher-priced, but nice indulgences after camping – and they were also very stylish. Hotel Lundi was a bit less expensive, and much more homey; I felt like I was visiting a family friend’s house.
Other Good to Know Iceland Travel Tips
It’s astoundingly easy to get around Iceland, even if you don’t rent a car. The bus service is reliable and punctual – and the buses take credit cards. Even far into the interior, the drivers use wireless devices for busfare.
If you do rent a car, don’t expect American-style travel times based on getting around at 70 mph. Speed limits are slower because of smaller, narrower roads. Renting a car is great if you’ll stick to the main roads because you’ll have the freedom to be more spontaneous. But if you want to head into the interior, especially on the F Roads, I’d recommend you take a bus. The interior roads are unpaved, and they can challenge drivers not accustomed to the conditions.
It might be a quick stopover that brings you to Iceland – many people ask me what they can do in three days. My answer: “You can make yourself wish you stayed longer.” Look, spend enough time to get a true taste of what the country offers. It’s magnificent, and it’s a more unusual and adventurous destination – why go the same places everyone else does?
Iceland also really wants you to stick around. Aside from the considerable hospitality, there’s also the VAT tax refund. So you can do some shopping and get a little cash back. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s just kind of nice.
I’m not one to tell an airline "I’ll never fly you again." But I definitely have a pecking order for my airline choices. And I will absolutely pay more for an airline I prefer. I wonder how many other people are in the same – ahem – plane of existence (I thought "same boat" would be mixing my metaphors). So tell me about your airline packing order, and I’ll share mine with you -- I’m going to break my list our by domestic and international, base on those I’ve flown before. Airline alliance membership continues to be a huge factor for me, and I’m often willing to shell out more to stick with my preferred Star Alliance. And I’d also like to here what makes you make your airline choices – what’s beyond the ticket price for you?
For Those Little Domestic Trips
I have the overwhelming majority of my frequent flier miles through the United Airlines OnePass, so it’s one of my top airline choices. I started flying Continental about 15 years ago, and stayed on-board during the United merger. I’ve never had a bad experience -- and I’ve even had a few great flights. Booking is always easy, though I’ve sometimes had to chase down my mileage credits. Plus, United Airlines is based at my favorite terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Extra bonus!
Delta Air Lines
I don’t fly Delta very often. Sky Harbor isn’t a hub, and I haven’t collected a fistful of miles or anything. Most of them have been somewhat accidental. But I also haven’t had any truly bad experiences (I was even able to endure a poopy-diaper sort of stink on a flight to Minneapolis). Since I don’t fly Delta very often, I don’t hoard SKyMiles like Smaug guarding his gold – and it’s easy to donate SkyMiles to my preferred charity -- you won’t believe how important air miles are to nonprofit organizations.
American Airlines/US Air
The merger between these two airlines has really made them fall in my rankings. Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few times to merge my accounts. Every single time, I got "Our system is down" or "Your records do not match" messages. Blah.
American is also eager to talk about its fleet renewal, but I still see a lot of silver MD80s flying over Phoenix -- though I don’t mind the US Air domestic fleet. I know this is the domestic portion of this post, but I have avoided flying these airlines on international routes: American’s fleet is still pretty old, and I really dislike the US Airways choice of the Airbus A330 (my least-favorite airliner). The combined mega-airline isn’t doing itself any favors with its continuing difficulties in merging my AAdvantage and Dividend Miles accounts.
Some people love Southwest Airlines. I get it. The employees are genuinely nice and the fleet is pretty modern. But when I fly, I want air miles that I can apply to my big trips -- my international, intercontinental adventures. Southwest Airlines makes itself a nonfactor as one of myÂ airline choices with a loyalty program that does nothing to help me reach exotic destinations.
For My International Adventures Abroad
This is a tough category. My airline choices for international flights are closely linked to my destination. If I had my way, Air New Zealand and Asiana Airlines would be able to take me anywhere I want to go. But nope, that’s not the reality. So let me break it out by region.
Asiana Airlines stand out among my otherÂ airline choices anywhere in Asia, even if flying through the Incheon hub costs me a bit of time. I flew All Nippon Airways on my last trip to Asia – and while its service absolutely schools US-based airlines, it still takes a backseat to Asiana.
Now, Hawaiian Airlines remains an intriguing option I haven’t yet tried. It flies directly from Phoenix to Honolulu, and then from many points to Asia and Oceania. The only not-so-great factor is the potentially awful choice of the Airbus A330; if Hawaiian Airlines was wise enough to equip them with air conditioning nozzles at every seat (which SAS and Vietnam Airlines do not do), I’d be OK with the A330.
United Airlines is a factor as one of my airline choices – the crew of its 787 flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport does credit to the airline. But it still falls short of Asiana or All Nippon Airways if all things are equal.
I have a dilemma here: I want to pick Norwegian Air Shuttle – yep, a low-cost carrier. Its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet puts it above SAS and its Airbuses. And even though there’s a British Airways flight to London directly from Phoenix, I’m more likely to start my trip in Scandinavia -- and I haven’t heard many frequent travelers sing the praises of British Airways. On the other hand, I’ve experienced great service on every single Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Granted, those were short-haul flights. But still, I think that will translate well to intercontinental flights. But a flight on Norwegian Air Shuttle would net me zero airline miles. That doesn’t sit well for one of my airline choices. If it’s part of an airline alliance, I don’t know about it. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about this.
So where does this leave me? With Air New Zealand. I can take a short flight to Los Angeles International Airport and grab an Air New Zealand flight to London. The quick stopover nets me an excellent airline, a shiny new Boeing 777 and a fistful of air miles on a Star Alliance member airline.
It’s hard to get to South America from Phoenix on anything but American Airlines or United Airlines. I’ll give the nod to United Airlines – as I have twice – since it’s a Star Alliance member and is generally decent.
But I haven’t been able to try a South American carrier like TAM or LAN. That’s pretty disappointing.
One Airline I’d Love to Try
I already mentioned the Norwegian Air Shuttle intercontinental flights. But I’d also be eager to try any Virgin airline – America, Atlantic or Australia. I’m trying to parse its codeshare agreements, which seem all over the board.
There are no Virgin America flights from Sky Harbor, though. If that ever changes, I’d be up for some Virgin America flights. The praise-complaint ratio for Virgin airlines remains far into the positive, so I’d consider this great news.
Drunken porn star assaults Delta Air Lines staff at airport