Hot Huntsville

                                                     Early Masonic lodge in Huntsville

Huntsville is hot. No, it’s a super nova! Known as Space City for its marvelous museum focused on the US space program and associated “space camp’ (more in a future article), Huntsville, in far northern Alabama (close to Tennessee), is a great destination for a family vacation.

When Huntsville was designated the site of a convention I attended, my first reaction was “Why Huntsville?” But Huntsville offers a lot. In 1950 the city was tiny, but then it became the center of rocket development for the US. Engineers poured in, and today the city has the highest number of engineers per capita than anywhere in the US. Forbes lists Huntsville in the top 10 smartest communities in the world. These smart people have been very proactive in converting a sleepy Southern town into a fantastic city.

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To Know Cuba, Leave Havana

Most tourists who visit Cuba see either Havana or a nearby tourist beach, and nothing more. While Havana is an interesting, bustling, international city, it does not represent Cuba. And the beaches visited by most tourists are all-inclusive resorts off limits to most Cubans. They serve very mediocre Cuban food with culture delivered in contrived shows.

Back-roading in Cuba isn’t easy if you want to do it like a Cuban might. That is because the buses are crowded and uncomfortable, although very cheap. They accept the local currency, the peso, only. Most visitors to Cuba will never see a peso because Cuba has a second currency for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Currency or CUC.

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Magnificent but Remote Panama Beaches

People often visit Panama but only see Panama City which does not have nice beaches. But leave Panama City and there are very nice beaches tucked away in hard to access places. Many people make a tradeoff of quality for accessibility. Some do it without knowing the options. So here’s the lowdown.

In Panama City itself, two beaches are worth a mention — Veracruz beach and Playa Bonita. Both are on the banks of the Canal and neither are particularly good. About two hours away by fast ferry are the beautiful beaches of Contadora. Still most tourists drive to the beaches around Playa Blanca (about one and one-half hours west of Panama City) because of their all-inclusive hotels. The beaches are not ideal due to strong undercurrents and cold Pacific waters.

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Hot Time in Iceland

With no preconceived notions about Iceland and lured by a cheap flight, I headed to where the summers are short and daylight can last most of the day.

A newbie to international travel? Iceland is an excellent place to start adventuring. With its combination of Danish and Nordic influences, the carefree but enterprising spirit of the Danes and the mild manner of the Norse combine to deliver small town charm in a chic metropolitan capital.

Beginning in 2010, when a volcanic eruption near Reykjavik shut down surrounding air traffic as far away as London for several weeks, people have wanted to see what Iceland is about. Tourism boomed. The infrastructure is excellent. Booking a trip to anywhere you want to go through one of many suppliers at nearly any travel desk is easy. The trips will almost always include pick-up and drop-off wherever you are staying.

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Third World Resort at a Third the Price

 I’m thinking I need to return to Cienfuegos, Cuba. I originally visited as part of a back roads trip to Cuba to experience the country outside Havana and the popular beaches.

I came away impressed with everything about Cienfuegos, and I know it would offer even more on my next trip.

I stayed in a private home, part of the casas particulares network of private places to stay in Cuba. Private enterprise has taken hold. Cubans have learned that they can make a lot more money privately renting rooms in their homes than they can working for the state, the only alternative to private entrepreneurship.

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Can’t We Stay As Warm as Iceland?

Insulated pipes (cutaway shown) transport naturally hot water throughout Iceland

 Imagine if the U.S. didn’t need to concern itself with oil supplies from the Middle East. Well, in Iceland, when the oil crisis of the 1970s hit, they decided to do something about it. Today, Iceland generates 100 percent of its energy needs from renewable resources. Why can’t we? They have a combination of hydroelectric power, wind power and geothermal power. What I found most interesting was the geothermal power generation.

Like Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful, Icelanders were also able to see geysers in their country. In some places, they could see steam seeping to the surface. They knew that there were super-hot places below the surface. Today, Icelandic scientists are the leaders in harnessing this power.

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Get Thee to the Brooklyn Flea

The venerable Williamsburg Savings Bank Building in downtown Brooklyn stood for years as the tallest building around. Its clock tower served as the timepiece for the surrounding neighborhoods, and its clock face was the largest ever at the time. Built in 1927 in a modernized Byzantine-Romanesque style that is hard to duplicate today, with large amounts of limestone and marble accompanied by beautiful mosaics and tinted windows, it was, and remains, an architectural masterpiece. Eventually it was eclipsed by taller buildings, converted in part to luxury loft condominiums, and today the old bank floor with its 63-foot-high ceiling is the centerpiece of one of the coolest uses you can think of … a Saturday flea market known as the Brooklyn Flea.

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When You’ve Got to Go, India’s a Pain

Emirates Airlines is a major carrier flying to India. And it’s the airline I used for a recent trip there. So you would think that the airline would warn its passengers about the bizarre Indian airport security system. But it doesn’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

I was scheduled on an Emirates Airlines flight leaving Delhi, India’s busiest airport, en route to Dallas. I always recommend checking in online for your flight if you can. Usually you can only do this 24 hours in advance. I did this for my return flight using my computer and the internet connection at the hotel. Note that many Indians do not have computers or ready internet access, so doing this would be impossible.

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If the Stetson Fits, Wear It

Stetson. Today the brand is almost synonymous with Texas itself, despite the fact that only some of the hats are made here, and the company started in Philadelphia. Since the beginning of the Stetson Hat company in 1865, the company has grown to be the largest hat manufacturer in America. Many of its hats are made in a Garland factory, along with those of Dallas’ home-grown Resistol brand which it acquired. You can tour the process and come away with a better understanding of what goes into making each hat. It takes many highly skilled artisans using some modernized equipment but mainly relying on older machinery which is no longer manufactured and, even if it were, using outdated designs replacement of which would be extremely costly. Upgrading a single sewing machine capable of specialized stitching (and there are rows of them), for example, would cost about $25,000.

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Main Street America Close to New York City

 Two and one-half hours of easy driving north of New York City, on the fashionable east side of the Hudson River, you hit the town of Hudson, N.Y. You can reach Hudson by train using Amtrak, too.

What you’ll find is a town that has, in recent years, been discovered by people who once lived in Brooklyn and those who like to get away from Brooklyn for a weekend. They have flooded the town creating a Mecca of sophistication in the middle of rural New York. Because they have bid up prices, don’t expect to find real estate here for a steal anymore. You missed those days. But if you’re looking for an unusual, quiet, rural town for a vacation, Hudson is a place that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists.

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