CategoriesAdventures

This Human-Powered Monorail is the Coolest Contraption Ever


As a longtime cyclist, I can tell you that there is nothing dorkier than a recumbent bicycle. But stuff a recumbent bike into a metal-and-plastic pod, hang it from a bunch of steel beams and all of a sudden you’ve got yourself a human-powered suspended monorail.

Or a Schweeb, as it’s known down in Rotorua, at the stupidly fabulous patch of land known as Agroventures.

schweeb
Two Schweebs duke it out on the course.

This was my second visit to Agroventures: The first was back in 2010, and I’d been kicking myself since then over my failure to just pay another $35 US or whatever to pedal the Schweeb (instead, I picked a trip down a hill inside a Zorb sphere, which was also pretty awesome). This time, I came to Agroventures specifically for the Schweeb.

And holy balls, it was one minute of heart-pounding, banked-turn goodness that left my quads twitching. If I lived anywhere near Rotorua, I’d be like "My dearest Agroventures friends, can we set up a payroll deduction system so I can feed my Schweeb addiction, please?"

If there was one here in my hometown, I would organize a Schweeb racing league (unfortunately, nobody was around to race me, which would’ve added to the fun).

Schweeb
It’s unthinkable to go to New Zealand and not try the Schweeb … trust me, I neglected it during my first visit and regreted it for years.

The Agroventures people slap a GoPro outside the Schweeb for each person and will sell you footage of your circuits on a convenient thumb drive. It would be even better if they’d let you use your own POV camera in addition to theirs because multiple camera angles and good editing make for better videos than static shorts – and yes, I would pay a few extra bucks for it because I’m goofy like that. Other than that, the Schweeb is perfection based on the dweebiness of the lowly recumbent bike. Who would’ve ever thought it possible?!

CategoriesTravel

Getting Around in Europe

transit
First, we have to fly there!

One of my favorite parts of travel is not driving. We usually go places that are walkable and have good public transit. Since Germany was our first destination for this trip, I hit my dad up for information. We were flying into Frankfurt and had to get to Schwabisch Hall.

He’d recently made the same trip to visit his family and friends. I figured a train to Schwäbisch Hall, a short taxi ride to our hotel.

Fortunately, he told me the stuff that doesn’t appear in a travel brochure (which Schwäbisch Hall doesn’t, either, by the way). He recommended catching a train to Stuttgart and renting a car for the rest of the way.

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Boarding the train to Stuttgart

As it turns out, that was pretty darn perfect.

The Train to Stuttgart

After spending a night in Frankfurt, we left our hotel and headed to the Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. Our train to Stuttgart took about 2 hours, and required no train changes. I just relaxed and read as the scenery flashed by, showing all these asphalt bike paths that made me long for a few weeks with my road bike in the German countryside. The stroller-friendly car had plenty of space for Anneka to practice her new skill of crawling. The price was $29 EUR each. You can get tickets right at the station without a problem.

One VW to Swabia

We rented a VW Golf Europcar at the airport and began a long, confusing search for the car in the multitude of parking garages. This was a stressful affair since nothing seemed to make any organized sense. Even worse, we weren’t sure how to install the carseat. The garage attendant was convinced there should be a base the carseat plugs into, while the desk people insisted otherwise. There’s a bit of a trick to using the seat belts to secure the carseat, but I can’t explain it here. And the staff could be far more helpful here (even though they’re very friendly).

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Let’s drive!

The VW Golf, by the way, is the only rental car I’ve ever liked as much as a Subaru. It handled beautifully, accelerating, braking and turning well in all circumstances – even rain. It was a six-speed manual, which was perfect for a guy who drives a manual at home. But I had a devil of a time figuring out how to put it in reverse. It turns out you push down on the shifter and move it to the top left. Good thing I had my smartphone to answer the question, or I’d still be stuck in that parking garage.

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The Eurostar will wow most American travelers.

Driving on the German freeways is nowhere near as frightening as you might expect, either. Yes, some people drive really damn fast. But they seem to use their heads along with their turn signals. Slower traffic is very good about keeping to the right. The highway signs are top-notch, and the pavement itself is in perfect shape.

Aboard the Eurostar

Our next train trip – and the London Tube doesn’t count – was the Eurostar from London to Brussels. Now, if you want to talk about an impressive train station, Saint Pancras Station is absolutely amazing. It’s huge, with a beautiful fusion of classic and modern design. It’s a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the layout and all the different trains. Arrive early if it’s your first time.

English: St Pancras International Polski: St P...
English: St Pancras International Polski: St Pancras International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The security is also a bit more airport-like, so be prepared for that. It’s considerably more genial than a typical US airport, though (a very charming security woman with an amazing Cockney accent referred to Anneka as our "lil’ chicken").

The train itself is comfortable and fast, with a very smooth ride. You’ll get a nice view of the the landscape on both sides of the Chunnel. The Eurostar slows down a bit as it goes under the English Channel.

Arrival in Brussels is pretty easy. We had little difficulty finding our local train into the city. Tickets start around $166, and the trip to Brussels took 2 hours, 30 minutes. Book early, ust in case.

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The ICE is nice – even moreso than the Eurostar.

That’s Right, ICE Man

The Eurostar set a high bar. And then the ICE, or Inter-City Express, completely vaulted over it. It was all just a touch sleeker, cleaner and more comfortable. Americans will long for high-speed rail service on par with the ICE after just one ride.

The ride from Brussels to Frankfurt was pleasant and comfortable, and without the added security measures of the Eurostar and its Chunnel route. Europe’s rail transit infrastructure is amazing, and I just don’t understand how the U.S. can allow itself to lag decades behind.

It takes about 3 hours and costs 99 EUR. Our car was often nearly empty, but I’d still book ahead of time.

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The trains in Belgian are clean and comfortable.

Based in Brussels

It’s also worth mentioning that Brussels has great rail transit headed to nearby destinations like Ghent and Bruges. For these short, 45-minute-or-so trips, you’re looking at $25 round trip on a clean, comfortable train. You can roll right to the station and purchase tickets.

A Warning

Escalators and elevators can be hard to find in Europe. And when you do find them, they might be small. Our BOB Ironman stroller was pretty awesome everywhere but in the elevators. Keep this in mind during your trip.

CategoriesTravel

My Recipe for Travel Advice

travel advice
I eat the possum pie – or anything else weird that someone puts in front of me. That’s my travel advice.

A few days ago, I saw a “10 Travel Rules to Live By” list on Huffington Post. Or to be fair to the author’s original headline, “10 Principles to Make Your Travel Memorable.”

I don’t recommend reading it. It’s full of the usual generic gooey travel advice – you know, embrace, awe, interact, hippie blah blah. There is nothing original in this list. Reading it gave me just one “a-ha” moment: that travelers tell other people how to travel way too much. That’s a steaming load of fly-covered assumption, and we all need to knock it off.

But we all like travel advice, right? OK. I can do that. I’m going to tell you a few things about how I travel. Accept or ignore as it applies to you. And have fun however you roll, even if it’s completely counter to what I write. Let’s go:

travel advice
When I travel, I move fast. But it’s OK to be a slow roller, too.

I roll at my own speed

If the Huffington Post bit is anything to go by, I travel all sorts of wrong (Sloooow it down, it says). I rarely spend three days in any one place. I like the physical challenge, planning the logistics, hopping flights and whizzing around on a high-speed rail line – obviously not in the United States. You may vary. And that’s OK. Stick your toes in the sand, walk everywhere you go, get to know all the locals by name. If it’s what you like, it’s the right way to travel.

I seek no deep meaning – just a good time

I once met a couple that gave me attitude about going to Australia. They’d just been to Thailand, and told me they don’t travel anywhere that English is the official language. I asked how much Thai they learned. They looked uncomfortable -- and admitted they only spoke English during their trip. To me, they try to turn travel into a intellectual statement that they try to wield like a blunt instrument. They want travel to make them feel superior and intelligent. And look, it’d be a lie if I said my travel experiences don’t make me feel a step ahead of non-travelers. But that’s not the point: I want to have fun, and let the socio-political-artistic-intellectual observations come unbidden, not according to what I expect.

I never talk about a “bucket list”

God, I hate this phrase so much. Aside from its crap movie origins, I hate it because: It turns travel into a checklist; and it focuses on running against the clock. Instead of a “bucket list,” I keep a mental “up next” list. It becomes a Hunger Games roster of destinations competing each other to be my next adventure. Losers get recycled into the next list. I like that approach a lot better.

I eat everything in sight

Some of my best stories come from eating strange stuff – rotten shark meat, boiled silkworm larvae, camel schnitzel, possum pie … the list goes on. Locals always love it when I dive face-first into their food (nobody likes persnickety tourists who won’t try anything odd). The actual taste isn’t the point – it’s all about the experience. Though sometimes, I taste some pretty delicious bits from my “eat all that is edible” policy.

CategoriesTravel

Norway and Finland – Getting There, Around and Back

All aboard for the next train out of Flam, Norway!

Getting around is part of the fun of a visit to Norway and Finland. Our trip gave us a chance to check out just about every mode of transportation and many brands, from United Airlines to the Gjene ferry. Here’s the wrap-up:

  • 1 leg on US Airways (Phoenix to Chicago)
  • 1 leg on Scandinavian Airlines (Chicago to Stockholm Arlanda)
  • 7 legs on Norwegian Air Shuttle (Arlanda, Oslo, Tromso, Bergen, Helsinki – see my review)
  • 2 legs on United Airlines (Stockholm to Newark, Newark to Phoenix)
  • Round trip on the VR train (Helsinki to Turku)
  • 1 leg on a boat from Memurubu to Gjende (Jotunheimen, Norway)
  • Round trip on ferry to Suomenlinna (Helsinki)
  • A few hundred miles of driving in Norway
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the surprise of the bunch; nice planes, good service, good on-time performance and a very nice bit of regional flair.

The VR train was less of a surprise since European rail service has a good reputation. The VR exceeded our expectations, though. Watch for a full review here.

United Airlines wasn’t much of a revelation overall. But somehow, I got us seats in Economy Plus for the flight from Newark to Phoenix. That extra few inches of legroom was a nice surprise. If you have a few extra bucks or enough air miles for the upgrade, I’d highly recommend United Airlines Economy Plus. I was more than a bit surprised by the satellite TV in every seat. Had I not been hip-deep in a re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire, I would’ve thrown out $7 for the 4+-hour flight … especially since Goal TV is one of the stations. United Airlines seems to be in the middle of some real improvements for domestic flights.