Sunday, March 13, 2022

Armchair Travel: Serene Scandinavia

While the world continues to open up to travelers, some corners of the planet remain difficult or impossible to visit. But one corner of the planet has always been more challenging for Americans to visit:  Scandinavia. 

A Norwegian coastal village. 
With fewer access points than Continental Europe, smaller cities, a lower population overall, and higher prices, the region, as a whole, can be daunting to visit. While over the past few decades I’ve had several trips to this quiet corner of the planet, one of my favorites involved a cruise. 

Typically, a cruise isn’t high on my list of ways to travel. I prefer to settle into a place and experience its streets and moods in the morning for breakfast, at cocktail hour as daylight fades, and after dinner when lights twinkle. I like to stay in a city for more than a day and ideally for a week. And by design, cruises force a traveler to superficially sample, but never linger in a place. 

So what’s the pay-off of a Scandinavian cruise? 

For me, the advantage was being able to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time, and to visit some spots that are more difficult to reach (I'm talking about you, Estonia!) 

And for those who don't have unlimited money, a cruise is vastly more economical, particularly in Scandinavia, which tends to be a pricey part of the planet.  

St. Petersburg's Church of the Spilled Blood (never mind the name, it's worth a visit--if and when it's advisable to visit Russia again.)
To cover these same cities and countries via separate trips would be costly—in dollars and time. And many cruises actually sail the Baltic Sea and may include even more difficult to reach ports such as St. Petersburg (Russia),  Gdansk (Poland), and Riga (Latvia).  

The cruise also enabled me to visit an infrequently visited historic and architectural gem: Talinn, Estonia. With its intact, towering medieval wall and cobblestone streets, Talinn offers off-the-chart charm. I’ve visited countless Continental towns, villages, and cities, but Talinn was truly unique.

Many cruises start or end in Stockholm. I’m glad mine started here because our departure made for one of my most memorable travel experience ever. As we set sail from the Nordic city’s deep-water port in the middle of summer, I sipped a glass of wine as we glided through an archipelago inhabited by  summering Swedes and their brightly colored wooden vacation homes. From the ship’s deck, we could see scores of summer-loving Scandinavians on holiday—perched on porches, lounging on lawns, docks, and rocks, and splashing in the clear sea. The backdrop? Pine and birch trees, patches of brilliant wildflowers, cottony clouds, small sailboats skimming across the glittering water, and waves reflecting the golden, early evening sun. 

I wanted to pull into one of those islands and spend a few hours enjoying the view from one of the lawns or gently-aged wooden docks. And that’s the disadvantage of a cruise—there’s no opportunity to linger longer in special spots such as these. Still, I experienced the idyllic islands up close and watched as Swedes celebrated their short, sublime summer. For a time, I was provided a glimpse of another world and another way of living. And isn’t that what travel is all about? 

Stockholm's idyllic harbor. 

TIP: If you book on Silversea or similar, most cabins have balconies. As we pulled into Helsinki and Copenhagen, I was treated to views of the cities, nearby islands, and harbors from the privacy of my balcony—while enjoying breakfast. 


Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Seabourn Cruises

Viking Cruises

Bergen, Norway.

A Swedish summer home. 

Stockholm, Sweden. 


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Pandemic Travel: Michigan, Paradise in My Backyard

In this pandemic-era of constricted travel and hemmed-in horizons, those of us hard-wired to travel couldn’t be faulted for falling into a fit of gloom. Many of the places we’ve longed to finally visit or pined to return to are unreachable or associated with risk. 

Michigan's The Fields.

During the past year or so, I reminded myself that I’ve got options. We all live someplace, after all, and though we may have the urge to board a flight that requires a passport or wander further afield, destinations in our own backyards merit discovering—or, in my case, rediscovering. 

While national travel and lifestyle magazines tell us there are only certain places in the world worth visiting, this is certainly untrue. In my case, influencers and tastemakers have long suggested that the Midwest has little more than the mundane to offer, but they’re misinformed. 

Case in point: during my childhood, one of my family’s annual summer vacations included a trip to the fern-carpeted, pine-scented woods of northern Michigan. In mid-summer, my parents would pack our paneled station wagon with me and my four siblings, swimsuits, inflatables, and shorts, and drive to my paternal grandparents’ house, the final few hours of our drive on near-empty, narrow state roads lined with thick forests after the interstate ended in Grand Rapids. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

My grandparents’ house, surrounded by stands of birch interspersed with deep green pines, sat back from the edge of a steep dune overlooking a small cove. The scallop shaped cove, framed by immense trees and littered with reeds, fallen logs, and lily pads, offered a glimpse of a large, cobalt blue lake just beyond a narrow channel. 

A thick wood of birches and pines behind the house rose from an ancient seabed now carpeted in sand swales, ferns, and blueberry bushes. We typically forged our own paths through the seemingly endless woods, ever watchful for bears—which we both did and did not want to encounter—along with sweet, wild blueberries (which we weren’t conflicted about encountering.) 

Summer days at that latitude only dissipate toward midnight, the sun’s final rays burnishing the evening clouds before giving way to a vast, ink-black sky blanketed with glittering stars. My siblings and I spent the seemingly endless hours of these dreamy days in a boxy, simple boat with heavy creaking oars hunting for turtles, frogs, and bullfrogs which we caught and released in the cove while the warm August sun browned our backs. 

When we weren’t rowing around the cove, we swam in crystalline lakes, picnicked, hiked, and always, always visited nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. At the park, my siblings and I would somersault and tumble down ancient dunes the height of skyscrapers and then spend hours exhausting ourselves climbing back up. My parents and grandparents watched from shady, picnic table aeries, likely amused and undoubtedly happy that we had worn ourselves out and would fall asleep in the return car trip. 

There were visits to pine-paneled, clamorous supper clubs where everyone dressed for dinner. Late afternoon stops at ice cream shops featured flavors like Blue Moon and premises-churned ice cream long before anyone thought that was something worth promoting. Occasionally, my grandfather piled us into his tank-like car and brought us to a North Woods bar where he sipped Hamm’s or Pabst beer while my siblings and I, perched awkwardly on barstools, slurped Shirley Temples.  

Leland's historic Fishtown. 

When the pandemic reduced O’Hare flights to a trickle, closing off much of the world I’d previously so easily wandered, I suddenly found Michigan on my mind. In truth, I’d longed to return for decades—my childhood memories never having faded—but I’d postponed visiting. After all, Michigan was easy to get to. And I’d spent a few decades seeking out spots that were remote and difficult to visit.  

At that moment, I realized the pandemic provided a golden opportunity to see Michigan spots I’d visited as a child, and to discover new places that had appeared in the meantime. 

In the decades since my childhood, plenty of other Americans have somehow discovered some of these places. Summer cottages in the pristine, tranquil Leelanau Peninsula are as likely to be owned by heat birds from Dallas or Atlanta as nearby Detroit or Chicago. 

Still, it’s an uncrowded, tranquil corner of the world largely overlooked by glossy magazines and Instagram influencers. And, undoubtedly, like enticing corners of the world near you, it’s easily reached and certainly worth a visit. 

Instead of viewing the pandemic as a scourge for traveling, maybe it presents the perfect opportunity to explore—or revisit—those special spots that exist in every corner of the world, including in our own backyards. 

Western Michigan Picks:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore For hiking, scenic drives, pristine beaches, and dune hikes for wearing out the kids.

Leland Lodge For strolls around the quaint village of Leland and golfing. TIP: Don't bother with the dingy, overpriced private cottages. 

Lakeside Inn This rustic, former artist colony inn, less than two hours from Chicago, sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Think beach walks, easy drives to nearby quaint towns and restaurants, and campfires. 

Fields of Michigan Glamping with all the fixings—campfires, luxe bed linens, hot water, bike rides through farm country. TIP: Arrange for the private dinner cabin nestled on the edge of a deep green, fairy tale wood.

Virtue Cider Limited release ciders, cidery tours, and light fare surrounded by orchards and bucolic farms. 

Saugutuck Somehow charming despite swarms of tourists. TIP: For Michigan-made bespoke jams and preserves, visit American Spoon

Isabel’s Sublime baked goods and sausages, sandwiches and prepared foods to take away or eat on the patio. 

The Lakeside Inn.


Virtue cider.

The Fields of Michigan. 

Southwest Michigan is known for its blueberry farms. 

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