Kenai Fjords: Alaska's masterpiece

by Brian Jewell 14. July 2011 22:27


In my eight years of professional travel I've been compiling a list of places that every American should visit. The list is full of big-name destinations: The Grand Canyon, Washington D.C. and New York City come to mind. Today, I added another must-see spot: Kenai Fjords National Park.

We arrived this morning in Seward, a small town at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, which is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Though there are numerous jaw-dropping national parks in Alaska, Kenai Fjords is unique in numerous aspect, including the fact that it is the only park visited almost exclusively by boat. So our group boarded the Kenai Explorer for a six-hour sightseeing cruise that would take us alongside the fjords for incomparable view of scenery and wildlife.

A fjord is a geological formation that has been carved by a glacier, and the Kenai Fjords are massive stone monoliths and islands that sit on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. Behind the large stone formations sits the Harding Ice Field, an expansive range of snow-capped mountains where a number of active glaciers continue to move down hill toward the sea. These two elements create a dreamy duality of scenery: Cruising along the coast, I was taken aback by the way that the tree-topped rock formations in the foreground contrasted with the snow-capped mountains climbing behind them in the background. This place where the mountains meet the sea is as beautiful as any other place I've seen on earth.

And the attraction goes beyond landscape snapshots. Our boat's captain and crew helped us to spot humpback whales and Steller sea lions in the waters and rocks of the fjords, as well as puffins and other sea birds that make their home in the area. And the highlight of the cruise was a visit to Holgate Glacier, a 400-foot high colossus of snow and ice that moves at four feet per day into the sea. Standing outside on the deck to see the glacier, we could feel it cooling the air around us. Large chunks of ice that have calved off the glacier float in the water, and our boat crew fished a few pieces up on to deck for us to see and touch. It is the cleanest, coldest and most dense ice that you will likely ever see.

It's hard to described how moving this experience was. The Kenai Fjords are so grand, so pristine and so transcendent. There are many great reasons to visit Alaska; after a day soaking in their majesty, though, I am convinced that the Kenai Fjords are the only reason you really need.


Marveling at the scenery from the bow of the Kenai Explorer

The Chiswell Islands, evidence of the area's glacial past, and the distant Harding Ice Field

Approaching Holgate Glacier

Small chunks of ice that calved off the glacier are crystal-clear.


Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at

Rafting on the Kenai River

by Brian Jewell 13. July 2011 22:05

Glaciers have made quite a mark on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, carving out many of the mountain passes and rocky formations that make this area so scenic. But these behemoths of ice aren't just a thing of the past; dozens of glaciers linger in the mountinas around here, and their melting run-off trickles down into the Kenai Lake and Kenai River.

Today, I took a float trip down the Kenai River, along with Cruises and Tours Worldwide and their visiting group from First State Community Bank in Missouri. It was an adventure from the beginning. Arriving at Alaska Wilderness Adventures, we enjoyed a delicious salmon bake along the river, and then went through the commical proccess of outfitting around 50 people in river wear: rubber boots, waterproff overalls and rain slikers. From there, we broke up into groups of eight and loaded into large rubber rafts for a leisurely float down the river.

Though it's been cloudy and rainy here for a few days, the sun and blue skies broke through during our afternoon float trip, treating us to wonderful views of the electric blue water color that is the signature of glacial run-off. Our river guide Gus explained that this color comes from fine particles of silt that the glacier picks up as it slowly scrapes alongside a mountain. Gus also spent much of the 90-minute trip pointing out some of the various birds and small animals that live along the river, and telling us about the salmon run that will happen here nextt week. We passed a few fly fishermen along the way, but Gus said that next week, when tens of thousands of salmon return to these waters to spawn, sections of the riverbank will be packed with anglers elbow-to-elbow, creating an event known locally as "combat fishing."

At the end of the day, I was both sun-soaked and bone dry, and full of wonder after seeing some of America's most pristine natural areas from water level.


Outfitting for the trip

The grandeur of the Kenai River dwarfs raft passengers.

River guide Gus

The closest thing you'll to a rapid on the peaceful Kenai River

Sitka spruce trees tower beside the river banks.


Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at

A hike to remember

by Brian Jewell 12. July 2011 22:27

Sometimes I do my best thinking while hiking down a mountain.

It's a cloudy day atop Mt. Alyeska, a ski area about an hour's drive south of Anchorage. Now in mid-summer, there is no skiing, as the temperatures hover around 60 degrees. Instead, Alyeska turns into a nature lovers paradise, with many miles of hiking trails leading from the Alyeska Hotel at the bottom to upper tram station near the top of the mountain. Braver souls can hike up the 2,300-foot incline; since I had limited time before dinner, I decided to ride the aerial tram to the top, and then hike down on the 2.5 mile North Face trail.

From the top of the mountiain, I enjoyed wonderful views of Turnagain Arm, an extension of the Cook Inlet, as well as the incredible greenery of the valley below me. Thick white clouds loomed low overhead, although instead of obscuring the view, they somehow seemed to tuck me in, creating a sealed-off wonderland of steep mountainside and lush color. Though trams passed by from time to time, the valley was nearly empty; as I set out on my hike, I had the whole mountain to myselt.

I was amazed how quickly the landscape changed, as the path went from steep and rock to gentle and muddy, then finally wide and well worn. As I descended, I discoveded new plant life at about every 100 feet in elevation. The colors and shapes of these leaves and flowes mezmerized me. Although I don't know what they are called or where else they grow, I enjoyed stopping to study them along the way, marveling at their intricate structures and the way that the colorful petals stood out from the green background.

The hike down was peaceful and leisurely. I made sure to make some noise along the way, to scare off any bears that might cross my path. And I took plenty of time to ponder the beauty of this corner of Alaska -- one of the most beautiful states in the country -- and to ponder my place in such a magnificent world.


Alyeska's aerial tramway


About to bloom


Beautiful buds

Deep blue "somethings"


Raindrops and wild flowers


Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at

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Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Feasting on Federal Hill

by Brian Jewell 4. May 2011 21:35

I had one of the most delicious experiences of my life today. With a well known culinary school and a thriving foodie scene, Providence has become one of the new cuisine hotspots on the east coast. Federal Hill, a local neighborhood traditionally occupied by immigrants, is home to 62 great restaurants, many of them Italian.

I took a culinary tour of Federal Hill with chef Cindy Salvato, who operates a company called Savoring Rhode Island. We started at Schialo Brothers Bakery, a traditional Italian bakery where one family has created bread, cakes and cookies in a brick oven for nearly 100 years. Next, we visited Roma, an grocery store with beiautiful meats, fresh pastas and imported olive oils, and then Tony's Colonial Food, where the proprietor offerd us a taste of mouth-melting prosciutto. From there, we visited Constantino's Venda Ravioli, a large Italian market and restaurant, where we sampled delicious cheeses and pickled peppers stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto balls.

As if that weren't enough, Cindy took me to lunch at Zooma, a neighborhood Italian restaurant where we ordered pan-fried fresh calamari, brick-oven pizza, and a trio of pastas. The rich bolognese, pillowy gnocchih and intricate sacchettini (stuffed with cheese and mushrooms) were an overwhelming feast of flavor that may be the next best thing to Italy itself.

Fresh bread at Scialo Brothers Bakery.

Bolognese and horseradish at Zooma.

A lesson in olive oils with chef Cindy.


Prosciutto and mozzarella stuffed peppers at Venda Ravioli.


Venda Ravioli's homemade pizza.



Newport's colonial history

by Brian Jewell 3. May 2011 22:21

Everyone knows about the mansions in Newport, RI -- perched high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic ocean, these 19th-century estates were the summer homes of rich robber barrons (Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and the like). Less known, perhaps, are the equally impressive Colonial sites throughout this historic city. I spent today touring numerous historic areas, from the Whithorne House to the Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue, which help to illuminate the distinctive architecture, artistic history and religious heritage of this state.


Whitehorne House: This 1811 structure is part historic home, part furniture museum. Visitors learn about the house and its typical New England architecture during a tour. But the highlight of the visit is not the home itself, but its contents -- today, the structure houses a great collection of Newport furniture, a style that sprang from the simplicity of the area's Puritan roots and evolved to be a beautiful example of Colonial Rhode Island craftsmanship.



Newport Art Museum: Paintings, drawings and other works of art on display at this museum range from Colonial times to the modern area. The exhibits highlight Rhode Island artists, as well as other creative minds from New England. One of the chief attractions is the museum's distinctive main building, an 1862 mansion.


Redwood Library: This institution holds the distinction of being the oldest lending library in the country, and visitors can still see some of the books first purchased by the library members in 1747. A visit to this library is a study in art and architecture as well -- the building is one-of-a-kind, and the art collection includes a Gilbert Stewart painting of George Washington, in addition to other significant pieces.


Touro Synagogue: Another Newport first, Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the United States. The building was dedicated in 1763, and remains a symbol of Rhode Island's heritage as a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. An active congregation still worships here every week, so group tours must be planned around their service times.

Nine Thousand Words

by Brian Jewell 2. March 2011 07:22

This afternoon, I'll board a plane in Shanghai and begin the 30-hour trip home. I leave China with a wealth of memories and images. We've seen and done so much more than I've had the opportunity to blog about here. So as a farewell gift, here are some of my other favorite images from this trip. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this is about 9,000 words' worth of travel treasure.


A chef in Beijing prepares the world-famous Peking duck.

Beijing artists practice calligraphy by painting with water on dry stone.

The Temple of Heaven is Beijing's most significant historic religious site.

Artwork at Beijing's Summer Palace, a lakeside retreate of the Ming Dynasty emperors.

Xi'an's elaboarte preparations for the Chinese New Year celebration.

The underground swimming pool at the beautiful new Sheraton hotel in Shanghai.

Locals and visitors browse the shops at Shanghai's "Chinatown in China."

The Shanghai Acrobats perform amazing athletic feats nightly.


A Legacy of Art

by Brian Jewell 1. March 2011 07:00

So far, I've written a lot about China's history, its imperial dynasties and how that heritage shows up in modern Chinese life. Today, though, we took a welcome break from history lessons to explore the Shanghai Museum, a free public institution that houses some of the best of Chinese artwork.

Beautiful art is among China's greatest contribution to the world, and the exhibits at this museum follow the development of various media from pre-history to modern times. One large gallery traces jade carving in China, from 3.000-year old simple ceremonial tools to elaborately carved jewelry worn by royalty in the early 20th century. A gallery on currency showed the fascinating artistic touches in ancient Chinese coins and more modern paper bills, and a clothing gallery highlighted the traditional costumes of many of the ethnic minority groups in the country.

Among my favorite were the painting and calligraphy galleries. There is an art form in Chinese writing that we in the West can little understand. Masters of calligraphy are considered artists here in China, and their best works are presented on long scrolls in the museum's display cases. Many of the paintings, also presented on scrolls, used black ink or soft water colors to create idyllic natural scenes reflecting the diverse beauty of the Chinese countryside.

Many visitors will also enjoy a visit to the porcelain gallery, which explains how Chinese craftsmen created a new kind of pottery that grew to become a world-famous art form. Some of the finest porcelain works on the planet are on display in this museum, and guests come to realize how fine porcelain pottery came to be known as "China" in the Western world.

Our group spent about an hour and a half in the museum, and at the end of that time, I found myself wishing for much more. If I ever find myself in Shanghai again, this museum will be at the top of my to-do list.

Ancient stone carvings in the sculpture gallery.

A world-class example of Chinese porcelain art.

A Tibetan ceremonial mask.

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Wonders of China

Eat Your (Ox) Heart Out

by Brian Jewell 28. February 2011 17:15

We've enjoyed a number of over-the-top meals here in China, including hosted dinners last night in Xi'an and tonight in Shanghai. Chris Lee, owner of China Plus USA, is very well respected here in China, and so when he brings a FAM tour on a visit, his tourism friends pull out all the stops.

Last night's dinner included a number of colorful dumplings, many shaped to resemble frogs, ducks or other animals, as well as a variety of local delicacies. Among them were some foods that you won't find on western menus, such as ox hearts (I tried them -- not nearly as bad as you might think). But the meal also included many wonderful pork, chicken, beef and seafood dishes. All together, we counted some 37 dishes that were served family-style to our small group.

Tonight we're in Shanghai, China's business center, and staying in the brand new Sheraton hotel that is currently in its soft opening phase. The hotel management treated us to a wonderful dinner at their upscale Japanese restaurant on the 37th floor. The meal included beautiful sashimi --  raw tuna, salmon and shellfish -- as well as a number of traditional Japanese soups, salads and fried rice. The highlight, though, was the Wagyu beef, prepared in front of us on a tepenyaki grill. The cattle that Wagyu comes from are fed a premium diet, and caretakers massage them daily by hand to make their muscles extra soft and tender. The result was one of the best steak meals I've ever had, impossible tender and full of fresh flavor.

There are some perks that come along with working in the travel industry, and in China many of those are built on personal relationships. Here, as in so many other places, it's all about who you know.


A platter of ox heart and other delicacies... yum!

Frog-shaped dumplings in Xi'an.

Gathering around the tepenyaki table at the Sheraton in Shanghai. 

Fancy fingerwork makes dinner entertaining.

A splash of red wine turns beef preparation into fireworks.

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Wonders of China

An Underground Army

by Brian Jewell 27. February 2011 03:51

For tourists, Xi’an is best known as the home of the terra cotta warriors. Discovered by local farmers digging a well in the 1970s, the terra cotta warriors are part of the massive grave complex of Qin Shihuang, an emperor who ruled around 220 B.C.

Previously, Qin was known in history for unifying China (through a brutal military campaign) and beginning construction of the Great Wall. With the discovery in the 1970s, archaeologist soon came to learn about his massive tomb complex, for which he had craftsmen build more than 7,000 terra cotta figures of foot soldiers, archers, charioteers and horses.

Today, about three thousand of the figures are unearthed and reconstructed in the main viewing area of the Terra Cotta Army Museum. Excavation still continues at the site, where workers unearth more figures in dozens or sometimes hundreds of pieces. To reconstruct just one of the figures takes around three months.

The terra cotta warriors have become one of the most known symbols of China, and have given historians a lot of insight into the beliefs and burial habits of the ancient Chinese. This large, still-life army is a striking sight to see. Even more striking to me, though, is everything it says about Qin and the ancient Chinese attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of workers toiled for nearly 40 years to create this terra cotta army to escort Qin to his afterlife, along with many other yet-to-be-unearthed features of the burial site. Afterward, many of the workmen and artists were killed, so that grave robbers would not discover the location of the burial site.

China’s history is defined by the heavy-handed rule of its emperors, and pock-marked with millennia of human rights abuses. Though we in the West still take issue with many of the policies of the current Communist Party rule (I can’t access Facebook, Twitter or Google here, thanks to the government’s “Great Firewall“), through the long lens of history we can see now just how far China has come. Hopefully, continued openness, free trade and interaction with the West will help China to emerge from its cocoon of authoritarianism to show the world the beauty that waits inside.


Full-size replicas of the terrac cotta warriors are available in the on-site gift shop... for about $3,000.

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Wonders of China

Dinner with a Dynasty

by Brian Jewell 26. February 2011 13:47

In Xi’an, a city of six million people in central China, the legacy of ancient emperors is still alive today. For many years, Xi’an was the imperial capital of China (the current capital is Beijing).

After flying to the city this morning, we spend our evening attending the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show. The Tang emperors ruled China from 618-907, during a time that has become known as the golden age of Chinese culture and civilization. The show presents many of the traditions of the period -- including music, costume and dance -- in vivid color.

If you’re a frequent group traveler, you’ve likely lost count of all the different dinner shows you’ve attended; this one though, was unforgettable. More than 100 dancers and musicians are involved in the production, playing Chinese instruments and music that date back more than 1,000 years. Though the sights and sounds were completely foreign to us Westerners, they were also beautiful and captivating.

This show is a first-rate production as well, with intricate staging and lighting. At one point, it actually rains on the stage; in the ending finale, actors representing the Tang emperor and his entourage parade majestically through the audience.

The more I travel in this country, the more I realize how much of its national identity comes from the imperial attitudes and dynasties of old. Perhaps understanding more of China’s past will inform the way we interact with them today.


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Wonders of China

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