Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Alaska - Views to Drive For

Parked in an RV park just outside the Homer Spit. Everyone raves about the Homer Spit but we found the RV parks there crowded, expensive and frankly a bit trailer trashy in appearance. So we got out of the spit and stumbled upon this amazing RV park with just the most spectacular, uninterrupted view of the Kachemak Bay.

Another RV park along the the Sterling Highway. You are guaranteed scenic views pretty much everywhere on the Kenai Peninsula.

This is the view you get while driving along the first 50 miles of the Seward Highway. These are the waters of the Cook Inlet, the Alaska railroad hugs the coast and the Chugach Mountains rise up all around.

Views to Drive For
Do the words ‘vacation in Alaska’ evoke an image of a fine white cruise ship sailing silently past glaciers and icebergs? Do you imagine yourself standing on deck, binoculars firmly in place, trying to spot the odd beluga whale or polar bear? If you do then you are not alone my friend. Travel companies over the years have built a formidable reputation around Alaska as a cruise destination. But after a road trip through parts of the state, I must say that that branding has happened at the expense of another truly wonderful mode of transport – the RV or motor home. “But wait”, you say, “RVing sounds difficult.” “What are Alaskan roads like? How can I drive there? Surely, I’ll get lost!” We had many of the same apprehensions at the start of our journey into the centre of Alaska so read on for how it all turned out.

How can I drive an RV?
We flew into Anchorage and rented our RV from there. It was 29 feet long and basically when we saw our RV we gulped knowing that we were all graduating into the big boys club. Size, however, is deceptive. Thanks to power-steering and automatic transmission driving an RV is so embarrassingly easy that you really don’t get any bragging rights. No gear shifts, no muscle testing tackles with the steering wheel and no neck Twizzler reverses either. When you want to back up just send one of your co-passengers to guide you. And when you want to go forward, well, just do it! But the only way you’re getting your hands on the big baby is if you have an international driver’s license which you should take with you from India.

What are Alaska’s roads like?
In the summer, they are mostly splendid and if you go there in mid-May like we did, just before the peak season starts, the roads are also empty. This combination makes it a great driving experience. And since this is Alaska the views are to drive for. A personal favourite of ours is now the Seward Highway – it takes you south from Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula and is flanked in the first 50 miles by the waters of the Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains. Remember those car scenes in old films? You’d know the car is stock still while the scenery in the background keeps changing to give the appearance of movement? Driving on some of these roads can feel like that because the vistas remain fantastic for miles on end.

How many can stay in an RV?
Legally the number of people in the RV should be equal to the number of seat belts in it. Period. Practically, you don’t want to be packed in like sardines. So it really depends on what you’re comfortable with. We were five adults in a 29 foot RV meant for six and while it was impossible to do anything without bumping into one another, at night we all had separate spots and slept comfortably.

What is the inside of the RV like?
If you live in an RV for a few days you will not be complaining about how small your house feels (if it does). There is more room there than you can imagine and at the end of our trip the RV fan club had grown by five. Life and space are in fact what you make of it. The RV has a kitchenette complete with stove, oven, sink, fridge and some counter space. It also has a shower area, a separate toilet, a “master bedroom”, a dining table that turns into a bed at night, a bunk bed above the driver’s seat and several other nooks that are a marvel of space management. Ironically if you want privacy you have to escape into the outdoors – where for miles on end you can potentially meet noone.

Where do I park for the night?
There are RV parks all along Alaska’s highways and most of them have excellent bathrooms and a laundry room. You can save many of your RV’s own resources and plug into the public ones for a small fee per night. During peak summer you have to call and make bookings in advance but in May most parks are still empty so you can simply drive right in, find a spot you like and park. If the manager has left for the day then settle your bills in the morning. Of course you could just as well park anywhere that catches your fancy – by the side of a stream, or on the base of the Chugach mountains or anywhere really but you need to have a full battery and water tank to support such a move.

Is it expensive?
RVing is not expensive but it is not cheap either. What I mean is that the advantage it offers over staying at hotels is reaped if you have a big group in the RV and you do it for a longer duration of time. Economies of scale sort of thing. We did it over 12 days and saved a lot of money on hotel stays and food because we cooked many of our meals. But you are still paying a daily rental fee, mileage charges, fuel costs, RV park rentals and a one-time house-keeping fee. It can add up but it is oh so much fun!

We drove along some of Alaska’s best highways like the Seward, Sterling, Glenn, Richardson and Parks highway and its safe to say that pretty much all of them offered spectacular views – some just more consistently than others. I don’t know the joys of a cruise ship but I’ll bet a million bucks on the thrills of RVing in Alaska.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Give Me What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

When I was younger, marriage wasn’t a particularly appealing prospect. I mean how boring to be stuck with one man all your life when variety is a well-known spice. However even in the deep cynicism that sometimes afflicts the young, I have to say that one thing about marriage was wonderful even back then. Gifts. Aaaaaahhh. The idea of standing on a stage receiving hundreds, indeed thousands, (hey, I’m Indian) of gifts on your wedding day was mesmerizing. For that one thing alone it was all worth it, I thought. But then I really did get married and what a great shock it has been to the system. Things are not what they seem and everything has turned upside down. The idea of one man is now very appealing but the gifts – oh dear, oh dear – what a great big disappointment!

So here I propose a radical overhaul in the way we give gifts at weddings in India.

I’m writing about this many months after my wedding because I had to go out to buy a gift today for a little new born. Allow me to digress completely here. The mother and child will be leaving town soon to return home so I took great care to avoid bulk. After a quick browse, for I hate dallying in malls, I settled upon a little blue pillow and a little blue baby suit. If you’re good at packing a bag, you know that both these items can be compressed to the size of an adult fist - easy to pack, unbreakable and utterly useful. No mother looks at a little blue pillow and tosses it into the rubbish heap. And if it has a stuffed teddy on it, no way! Pleased with my purchase I have now packed the gift into a little, believe it or not, blue bag which is ready to be personally delivered tonight.

At the risk of beating my own drum I want to say that I took great care to buy the gift. I had a modest budget but I put an effort into creating something of value for the user. And here I want to show you how this is all connected to wedding gifts.

Is it just me or have any of you had the experience of getting odd cups and saucers palmed off to you on your wedding day? Our parents had pleaded with the invitees not to bring “boxed gifts”. Basically we were subtly trying to tell everyone that we would be leaving the country so just bring cash. Or bring gold bars if you really must. Or just bring yourself for Christ’s sake. But please don’t bring in the crockery you don’t use.

Most people didn’t listen.

We ended up with lots of unwanted coffee mugs, tea cups, a kettle, random cut glass dishes and a hideous photo frame. It’s all sitting in cupboards at our parents’ house, occupying space and will probably not be of use to us in this millennium or the next. Why, oh why can’t people be more thoughtful about what they give? Don’t get the wrong impression, I really don’t mind recycled gifts. My grandmother is constantly giving me things she doesn’t want but only because she knows I’ll love them. She never gives me a jute sack or a gold tray, or a Swarovski pig. That she knows will go out the window. So why can’t more Indian wedding guests put some effort into gift-giving?

Because they don't, here is my proposal. If the gift registry concept won’t work in India because people won’t use their credit cards online, then the bride and groom may have a collection of gifts of every price range ready at the door. Just pay up front, put your name down against it, wish the bride and groom, eat and leave. All’s well that ends well and the couple can live happily ever after without the clutter of bad china.

Doable you think?