Monthly Archives: March 2017

Trip Through the Still-Wild Boundary of Montana

OF AMERICA’S 59 national parks, two of the most celebrated lie some 400 miles apart in western Montana—Glacier and Yellowstone. Even though I’ve lived in the region for four decades, I’d never taken the time to fully explore the in-between territory outside the parks. So one spring day, after the snow had mostly melted off, I set out from Yellowstone with my compass pointed north toward Glacier. If you don’t stop, weaving a path through the wild heart of the northern Rockies, the drive takes about seven hours, but I was in no rush and spread the trip out over three days.

The first thing you realize leaving Yellowstone—by way of Highway 89—is that the abundant wildlife doesn’t stop at its boundary. Just north of Gardiner, a park gateway town, electric warning signs flash “animals on the road” and indeed they were: 20 or so elk milled about in the middle of the highway and mule deer too numerous to mention crowded the shoulder all along a 50-mile stretch of highway. Antelope grazed, unperturbed by traffic whipping along the road, bison wandered across the green hills and bald eagles wheeled overhead, scouting fish along the purling Yellowstone River. This is Montana’s Paradise valley, which unfurls north from the park’s historic stone arch. The Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S., bisects the valley and many people come to raft it in these parts, especially on the churning rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon, the color of chocolate milk in the spring, giving way to a sea-green shade come summer. The steel-gray Absaroka Mountains tower mightily in the background.

For centuries, the Paradise Valley was a shared hunting ground for Native American tribes in the region. But much of the written history of this part of Montana features pick-wielding prospectors and their dogged search for precious metals. In the 1860s, gold miners moved into the Paradise Valley to work the lodes. Among the settlements they built is Old Chico, a mountain village a half-hour north of Yellowstone, now home to just a handful of people who live in an assortment of old cabins and newer houses with breath-stealing views of the peaks. Within walking distance sits Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, centered around a large geothermally heated swimming pool. The resort’s barnwood-lined dining room, which serves grass-fed beef and fresh fish, also happens to rank among the best restaurants in the state. After dinner, I swam in the hot pool, steam shrouding the mountain scenery.

The 19th-century miners here also needed to eat, and so cattlemen and their herds made their way to the Paradise Valley. A gold miner named Nelson Story drove 1,000 cows from Texas across the plains, up the Bozeman Trail and on to Montana where he founded a ranch tucked in the mountains near a town called Emigrant. The Story family still owns the property. Nearby is another sprawling spread called the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, a high-end rustic retreat owned by Arthur Blank, chairman of Home Depot.

I joined Interstate 90 at Livingston, a windblown railroad town with a quaint historic downtown backed by a sudden rise of mountains. I spent the night in a meticulously refurbished railcar (listed on the vacation-rental site VRBO), set in a cottonwood grove a few miles south of town.

This region was still largely cattle country when I first came west in the 1970s, but it has since become a destination for the world’s well-heeled who come for the scenery, skiing and fly fishing. “I think it’s because the landscape and people are still authentic,” said Cyndy Andrus, deputy mayor of Bozeman, the bustling college town just 30 minutes from Livingston.

After lunch in Bozeman, at a popular place called Dave’s Sushi, I stopped at the Madison Buffalo Jump, a seven-mile detour (one way) off the Interstate, some of it on a bumpy gravel road but worth the trip. The tribes who came here over the centuries got dressed like bison and whooped and yelled, luring and chasing the creatures down lanes lined with rock, and over the cliff to their death or near death on the rocks below. I hiked to the top for an expansive view of the valley. It’s the kind of place, as the saying goes, where you can watch your dog run away for three days.

Just up the road, the town of Three Forks is named for the nearby site where three rivers—named the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson by Lewis and Clark—meander and oxbow and finally get their act together to create the beginning of the mighty Missouri. I hiked around the Missouri Headwaters State Park and found the exact spot where three rivers become one.

I motored on to Helena, my hometown, founded in 1864 when four exasperated prospectors, on the verge of giving up, finally plucked gold nuggets out of a small creek that tumbled out of the mountains. The gold-filled creek became Last Chance Gulch, the main street of what quickly evolved into a prosperous city. Some say that for a time, Helena claimed more millionaires than any town its size, which is easy enough to fathom when you drive through its 19th-century mansion district. Today, new coffee shops, a microbrewery and a wine bar line the gulch. Jill Roberts, who returned home to Helena after many years as a sommelier in New York, co-owns the wine bar, Hawthorn Bottle Shop and Tasting Room. “My Dad used to sing in a barbershop quartet in front of this building,” she said. “I wanted to be part of bringing back historic Helena.”

The shortest route from here to Glacier zips through the Swan Valley, but who’s in a hurry? I headed west, driving a couple of hours to Missoula, another lively college town in the mountains. The novel “A River Runs Through It” was partly set here, and a river called the Clark Fork does indeed run through the center of town. Surfers in gleaming black wetsuits gather below the Higgins Avenue Bridge to ride its rapids.

A few miles north of town, I stopped at what may be the least likely Montana tourist attraction: the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, a legion of statues built by a Buddhist monk from Tibet on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The road from there winds past the National Bison Range, where I stopped for a peek at the herd, and through the Mission Mountains, named for a 19th-Century Jesuit mission set in, for my money, one of Montana’s prettiest valleys at the mountains’ foot.

I finished my trip in northwest Montana with a night at the century-old Kalispell Grand Hotel, and then on to West Glacier, the gateway to Glacier National Park. This is huckleberry country, where the blueberry’s wild and more flavorful sibling, stars in menus all over town—in pies, milkshakes, Martinis, beer; come July, locals will tell you where to pick your own.

When I finally drove into Glacier National Park, snow still clogged the high country there. I sat on the shore of Lake McDonald, at the edge of the park, and looked at the famed peaks at the far end of the water’s edge and their mirror image in the still surface.

Holidays in Italy with no cars and lots of sound

THE PEAK of Stromboli lurked behind my hotel, black smoke seeping from its top, making me more fearful as the hours passed. The total absence of vegetation on the volcano’s upper half gave it a daunting and desolate feel.

I had signed up to climb to the summit of the volcano that comprises most of this small, carless Italian island, strung in between Sicily and the nation’s boot, and issues the black sand that covers its beaches. Stromboli is one of several active (in its case, hyperactive) volcanoes in Italy, from Sicily’s Mount Etna to Mount Vesuvius near Naples, which buried Pompeii 2,000 years ago. Stromboli’s volcano erupts constantly—volcanologists register activity at least every hour—and it has been that restless for 250,000 years. The persistence of its eruptions as well as its relatively hike-able size (it rises 3,000 feet from sea level) make it the rare active volcano that people can experience up close. Francesco Sortino, a scientist at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology who was working in Stromboli for the summer, told me before I set out, “Stromboli is a spiritual experience. Arrive at the top and you’ll see.”

Stromboli is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the eastern end of the Aeolian chain of seven islands and six submerged volcanoes, many of which derive their names from Greek deities. Stromboli comes from the ancient Greek word strongule, which means a round, swelling form. A couple of the other islands have had explosions in recent centuries, but only Stromboli keeps churning out the fireworks from its summit craters. A major eruption in 2002 caused a 10-foot tsunami, and 2007 and 2014 also saw significant bursts that closed the volcano to visitors for a while. Scientists vigilantly monitor eruptions and if they get too intense, they close the trail.

As the start of my excursion approached, my anxiety grew. It wasn’t the possibility of being close to eruptions—the gases, the lava—that scared me. I worried I’d lack the stamina to make it to the top and back down. Italy in high summer is hot, and hiking for five hours along a 4 ½-mile loop could be exhausting. But Ingrid Bergman had done it in a dress and espadrilles in “Stromboli,” the 1950 film Roberto Rossellini shot on the island.

There are less strenuous ways to appreciate the volcano. Boat tours circle the island, offering a view of the western slope no hiker can get: a spectacle known as the Landslide of Fire, a cascade of ash and rocks falling hundreds of feet from the craters to the water. Evening tours hit this spot right at sunset to see sprays of magma in the best light.

You can also appreciate plenty of the volcano underwater. Only the top third of the mountain is above sea level, and the ocean floor drops off quickly beyond the surf, giving the sea its deep blue. Boats take divers and swimmers to Strombolicchio (little Stromboli), the original center of the volcano, where magma hardened into what is now a column of rock off the coast.

Since 2003, only hikers accompanied by guides have been allowed to reach Stromboli’s summit. Three outfits operate near-identical excursions: They all use the same trail to get hikers up and back, and stop for a bit at the crest overlooking the craters. Most groups set out in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, and arrive at the summit by sunset. Hikers are advised to be in good physical shape, which seems open to interpretation.

Magmatrek, the outfit I chose, instructed me to bring: a backpack and lots of water; a windbreaker, sweater and long pants for the cold weather at the top; a flashlight and snacks. I had all that ready. And yet, I couldn’t get rid of the butterflies in my stomach. At 5 p.m., I checked in at Magmatrek’s office on the main town square. A picture of a red stiletto was captioned simply “NO” in four languages. My guide, Nicola, checked my footgear—I wore ankle-high boots, as the website hadsuggested—before handing me a red helmet to protect against falling rocks. He had some bad news: The god of wind was not cooperating. Gusts coming in from the west were shoving clouds right into the craters. The day before, climbers hadn’t been able to see much and the gasses at the top were intolerable.

Our group of 20 set out single-file up a little road, past a cart selling giant peaches. Within 10 minutes, we were already on a dusty path that zigged and zagged, bordered by bamboo stalks that barred any breeze. As the sun fell behind the slope, we paused for a water break to look down at the village. The architecture could be Greek—white Lego blocks of houses, accented with blue doors—but it’s on this side of Italy that the African plate is sliding under the European plate, causing the volcanic activity that created Stromboli. An hour in, halfway up, we reached the vegetation line beyond which the cactus, fig trees and caper bushes below couldn’t survive. “Now we’re on the moon,” Nicola told us, gesturing to the barren landscape ahead.

We hit a traffic jam of trekkers: 300 people were visiting that day, Nicola told us, as many as live on the island year-round. The dust beneath our feet grew thicker and darker, and volcanic rocks, some football-sized, blocked the path, increasing the risk of tripping. Whenever the trail briefly leveled off, my feet and knees were so grateful. Out of breath, I noticed clouds skating by below us, but the top of the volcano was still shrouded.

As we neared the summit, just before sunset, we put on warmer clothes and our helmets. Nicola distributed dust masks to help fend off the fumes. Little good they did: Within a few steps, several of us were coughing as we inhaled the carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide the volcano spewed.

The crest overlooking the craters was dark and otherworldly. Stromboli blew black smoke and dust up into our eyes, forcing us to turn away. Nicola drew a line in the ash with his walking pole and told us not to go past it—two feet away led straight down to the craters and beyond, the Landslide of Fire.

Then, for a moment, the clouds rose and we could see the volcano’s pit and the sea below. “Look for red,” Nicola instructed. Smoke erupted again, obscuring the view, but I thought I saw a glow.

We departed in quiet awe after about 20 minutes—longer than Nicola thought we would be able to withstand the fumes. My legs felt somewhat refreshed, but I was not prepared for the trials of the descent. The steep trail was thick with ash that reached our ankles; Nicola said to imagine we were skiing. When night fell, we strapped flashlights to our helmets. By the time we got to the vegetation line and the path cleared, my thighs were quivering.

Five hours after setting out, we reached the town square and dispersed. I hobbled down a little road to the beach on my own. It was all black—the sand, the water, the sky—except for the white hem of the sea. I pulled off my shoes and stumbled over the rocks to wash my feet in the waves. The rocks and I had both come a long way.

Getting There The only way to Stromboli is by boat. Hydrofoils make the trip from Naples (about 4 ½ hours, snav.it) and Sicily (1 ½-hours from Messina, libertylines.it)during spring and summer. Leave your vehicle at home: There are no cars on Stromboli, only golf carts and mopeds.

Staying There La Sirenetta Park Hotel offers the prime location, across the street from Ficogrande, one of the island’s best beaches. Most of the rooms provide sea views, but make sure to ask for one farthest from the hotel’s popular nightclub. The breakfast of freshly made pastries, fruit and yogurt, included in the room rate, is enough to fill you until dinner (from about $137 a night, lasirenetta.it).

Hiking There The three main trekking companies are Magmatrek (magmatrek.it), Il Vulcano a Piedi (ilvulcanoapiedi.it) and Stromboli Adventures (stromboliadventures.it). Group hikes to the summit cost about $32; private tours are also available. Il Vulcano a Piedi also leads shorter tours to the edge of the Landslide of Fire, a three-hour hike that goes halfway up the mountain. Totem Trekking, on the main square next to the point of departure, rents hiking boots, flashlights, backpacks and other gear. Children older than 7 are technically allowed but operators don’t recommend it.

Eating There Hiking the volcano earns you several good meals on the island—then again, hiking isn’t required to sample any of them. Punta Lena is the most romantic restaurant option, with the sound of crashing waves through the open windows. Swordfish carpaccio and grilled fish pair well with white wine from one of Stromboli’s neighboring islands. Spaghetti alla Strombolana, the local pasta specialty, features a sauce made of wild fennel, tomato, capers and mint and dusted with breadcrumbs (via Marina 8). Da Luciano draws big groups of friends for pizzas, pasta and more grilled fish(via Roma 15). For the hike to the summit, or a picnic at the beach, pick up some freshly made deli sandwiches and snacks at La Bottega del Marano (via Vittorio Emanuele). Cool off with a scoop of artisanal ice cream from Lapillo Gelato. Local flavors include pistachio and chocolate orange (via Roma).

Their City is Overrun with Tourists

In Capri, a squabble between two mayors—who are also cousins—highlights a larger debate throughout Italy. While tourism is an important revenue source, many Italians up and down the Italian peninsula would like tourists—at least some of them—to stay away.

Last year, Giovanni De Martino, the mayor of Capri, was fed up. He watched as ferries arrived from the Italian mainland in rapid succession, disgorging tourists—many budget day-trippers—every five minutes, only to face hourlong waits to board the cable car from the port to the town’s center.

Worried that the hordes were endangering the island’s charm and exclusivity, Mr. De Martino launched a push to reduce the frequency of the ferry arrivals to every 20 minutes.

But the mayor soon faced a bitter foe: his own cousin, Francesco Cerrotta, mayor of Anacapri, the only other town on the island. Mr. Cerrotta immediately took up the fight against his cousin’s attempt to slow the tide of visitors.

“Someone in Capri still dreams of Jacqueline and Onassis strolling along Via Camerelle,” Capri’s main drag, Mr. Cefrotta told Italian media. “Capri needs glamour. But it also needs to fill hotels, restaurants and shops.”

Still, recent incidents, such as two tourists swimming nude in the Trevi Fountain and another diving off Venice’s Rialto Bridge, have only strengthened officials’ determination to find ways to keep the hordes at bay. The number of tourists arriving in Italy topped 52 million in 2016, up nearly 30% since 2000.

But authorities are finding it devilishly difficult to stop tourists from coming. Efforts to limit incoming visitors are colliding with legal, business and practical challenges.

In Florence, a 2016 city decree raising the cost of entry tickets for tourist buses was, in part, struck down by a regional court. The city appealed the decision, winning a temporary suspension of the ruling.

The Cinque Terre, the tiny fishing villages on the Italian Riviera, drew 2.5 million visitors last year, 500 times the local population. In response, local officials unveiled a plan this spring to cap the number of tourists allowed onto the picturesque walking trails connecting the five towns. Despite protests, the system got under way in June.

Venice, which each year sees 15 million day trippers pour into an area five times the size of New York’s Central Park, has heard more calls from locals and some politicians to limit access to the floating city. But the idea has gone nowhere, in part due to legal hurdles.

“We don’t want to close the city,” said Paola Mar, head of tourism for the city. “And the law doesn’t permit it.”

Earlier this month, Venetians held a symbolic referendum calling for something to be done about the huge cruise ships that disgorge millions of tourists each year and sail perilously close to St. Mark’s Square. They are angry that a 2012 government decree calling for them to be rerouted is so far a dead letter.

Some smaller destinations enjoy a special legally protected status that gives them a free hand in checking the flow of tourists. For instance Pinosa, a small island off the Tuscan coast, accepts only 330 people a day, while its neighbor Montecristo allows 1,000 a year. Video surveillance cameras help authorities to enforce the limits.

In Capri, Mr. De Martino’s plan to limit ferry service was squelched by regional authorities. But the two cousins have continued to fight over everything from limiting the circulation of huge tourist buses to improving the port to accommodate the flow. “Capri has borne the brunt of unchecked arrivals…we need to do something,” Mr. De Martino argues.

This spring, when a fresh surge in crowds on the island sparked new calls for a cap on the number of visitors, the two cousins were again at odds. Over a long holiday weekend in June, almost 45,000 people, mostly day trippers, came to Capri, three times the local population.

3 Great Diving Barrier Reef tips, From Affordable to Epik

WAKING UP on the beach in classic Australian swag—a weatherized canvas bedroll unfurled on a cot on the sand—I was one of just 10 visitors on an otherwise deserted Queensland island. Butterflies and birds flitted overhead, but we hadn’t come to look up. We were here to dive. The day before, we’d submerged four times on the reef just off the coast, amid electric-blue Maori wrasse and shark-size giant clams.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a conglomeration of 3,000 reefs longer than the Pacific coast from Vancouver to Tijuana. That’s a lot of territory to cover if you’re a vacationer looking for the ultimate diving experience in just a few short days. I visited during the height of its 2016-17 coral bleaching, when unusually high water temperatures were causing corals to expel from their tissues the zooxanthellae that provide their color and energy to survive. Still, given the 8,000-year-old reef’s enormous size—eight times that of our planet’s second-largest reef, off Belize—vivid sections still abound and I found myself overwhelmed with the options.

In the end, I opted to experience the reef in three distinct ways, setting up my home base at a campsite, on a resort island, and on a liveaboard cruise ship, around different parts of the reef. The only constant: access to the reef’s astounding variety of life (dive leaders naturally focus on the healthiest sections), which never failed to disappoint—and never failed to remind me how devastating its loss would be.

I started in Townsville, a seaside city in northern Queensland, with Remote Area Dive, a scuba operator that offers campsite-based dive experiences. This wasn’t glamping. Five other travelers, three divemasters, a boat captain and I pulled out from the dive shop at 5:45 a.m., hauling a trailer full of scuba and camping gear. We drove 1½ hours up the coast before boarding a boat for a 40-minute trip to tiny Pelorus Island. Shimmying cottonwood and beach almond trees lined the white coral beaches where we set up camp.

We made two dives later that morning, using the boat to explore the fringing reefs around the 1.5-square-mile island, then returned to land for turkey sandwiches and watermelon. We completed two more dives later that day, the last of them just after dusk. By day, we saw pink fire coral and clownfish darting among the undulating tentacles of anemones. At night, the beams of our lights revealed slithering sea snakes, translucent cuttlefish, and striped orange and yellow nudibranchs, slugs that looked like jewels. Back on land, there was less to see: a much-appreciated barbecue around a campfire and a starry sky.

Some in our group slept inside tents, but I opted for the outdoor swags and cots. We went to sleep slicked with salt and, in the morning, washed it off with two more dives.

Numerous resort islands dot the Queensland coast but few are as extravagant as 1,829-acre Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday chain, which offers a range of accommodations. The nicest is the Qualia resort (pictured), where it’s easy to want to stay in your room forever.

But since hibernation wasn’t the point of my visit, I spent my initial morning on a catamaran-sailing trip; we snorkeled around shallow corals and then lolled on Whitehaven Beach, often voted the best in all of Australia. It might have felt more indulgent had I not been lolling with the 30 other people on my excursion.

For each of the following two days, I boarded the island’s even larger dive boat for the two-hour ride to the closest section of outer reef, where the barrier-reef corals give way to continental slopes extending more than a mile down. We didn’t need to venture that deep at Bait Reef—75 feet was enough—to encounter a half-dozen whitetip reef sharks on every dive, along with scores of pineapple sea cucumbers (so-called for their pineapple-y armored skin), sea turtles, marble rays, hefty coral trout and 3-foot humphead parrotfish that reminded me of aquatic bulldogs.

Post-dive highlights at the resort included a hot shower in my comfortable hotel room, dining on local slipper lobsters and visits with the resident koalas, who snuggled and snoozed in the trees.

The acme of dive experiences is a liveaboard trip on a custom-fitted scuba yacht that allows passengers to reach distant sites while maximizing their number of dives. Most liveaboards in Australia are based in Cairns, including the 26-passenger, 122-foot Spirit of Freedom (pictured), which runs trips of three, four or seven nights. I opted for the shortest. We dived twice the first day, including at dusk, sighting painted crayfish and a carpet shark, named for its patterned skin and tasseled face.

Honeymooners took the tight but charming top-deck cabin; I shared windowless two-bunk quarters with the ship’s lone snorkeler, a retired financial software engineer from California who strapped a rechargeable shark deterrent to his ankle each time he entered the water.

We spent the next two days at the Ribbon Reefs, ¼-mile-wide strips of coral 60 miles from shore, focusing on their “bommies,” pinnacles that rise 100 feet from the reef. Some coral was bleached or phosphorescent, which meant it was fighting to survive. But the water clarity and the sea life we saw along the more distant reefs made liveaboard diving best. We ended our trip diving at Cod Hole, a site named for its massive potato cod, which can grow to 7 feet and 250 pounds. They counted among the biggest bony fish I’d seen—until 9-foot Queensland groupers began feeding in our stern lights that night.