Skara Brae – Guest Travel Article by S.M. Carrière

In the Bay of Skaill on the north-west coast of the largest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands sat a large mound known then as Skerrabra.  A storm in 1850 washed part of the mound away, revealing part of village that was inhabited 5 000 years ago.  A local by the name of William Watt began an amateur excavation of the site, which was abandoned in 1868.  After another storm, in which some of the site was lost to the weather, earnest excavation and preservation began in 1925.

It is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of four sites that make up “The Neolithic Heart of Orkney”.  And my goodness is this place beautiful!

Skara Brae. Image courtesy of Orkneyjar.com
Skara Brae. Image courtesy of Orkneyjar.com
The interior of a dwelling. Image courtesy of Orkneyjar.com
The interior of a dwelling. Image courtesy of Orkneyjar.com

Inhabited in the Neolithic (literally, the “new stone age”) the village, which has since been renamed Skara Brae, is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.  It is a fantastic example of the sophistication of the Stone Age inhabitants of the island of Britain, replete with stone furniture and even toilets!

Tolkien fans will be pleased to note that the dwellings of Skara Brae were dug into the ground and covered over with earth and sod.  These were the original hobbit holes!

The site is a brilliant playground for both learning and fun, boasting not only the ruins of the village which you can wander around, but also a visitor’s centre (with games!), a café and a gift shop with locally made souvenirs.

If you’re an archaeology or prehistoric anthropology nerd like I am, Skara Brae and the entire Heart of Neolithic Orkney should definitely be on your must-see destination list.

For more information on Skara Brae and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, see http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/propertyresults/propertyoverview.htm?PropID=PL_244 and don’t forget to book with Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel for a trip full of magic, wonder and learning!


This article brought to you by our guest author S.M. Carrière. She is a local Ottawa speculative fiction author and prehistory of Britain enthusiast. She has a degree in Directed Interdisciplinary Studies: Ancient Cultures with a Celtic Studies concentration and is celebrating the release of her fifth book, Human, this month.

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Fandom Cruising

Are you a fan of The Walking Dead? Star Trek? Music, comedy, and general nerdery? There are three cruises that might peak your interest that are about to set sail.

The Norwegian Pearl in Minecraft scale. Image from www.static.planetminecraft.com
The Norwegian Pearl in Minecraft scale. Image from www.static.planetminecraft.com

The Walking Dead

This cruise is completely booked, with a waiting list, however, it is one of the first of it’s kind, and thus deserves a mention. For three days, January 15-18, 2016, you would sail from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas with four stars from The Walking Dead, on board the Norwegian Pearl. The website contains all sorts of interesting information, and if you think you might be interested, check out The Waiting List requirements – you have to be on it before December 1st!

Star Trek

The Norwegian Pearl is busy with Fandom bookings; it is also the ship for the Star Trek cruise! January 9-15, 2017, you can sail from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico, to Nassau, Bahamas, and back to Miami, with legendary actors like John de Lancie and William Shatner. Check out the itinerary – it looks fantastic!

Music, Comedy, and General Nerdery

The JoCo Cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas is a convention at sea! Jonathon Coulton, Paul and Storm, Imogen Heap, and others are performers and featured guests on this cruise, which is taking place February 21-28, 2016, departing from Port Canaveral, Florida. Ports of call include CocoCay, Bahamas; St Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and St Maarten.

There are many other geeky or Fandom cruises. Let me know what you’re interested in, and I’m sure we can find something for you! There’s even a crochet cruise! 😉

If you are interested in going on any of these cruises, or others. You can contact Jennifer Desmarais through Orleans Travel. jennifer.desmarais@orleanstravel.ca

Seattle, Portland, and everything in between

It takes just under three hours to drive between Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, but I decided to combine that area together, because I am Canadian, and that’s short – it’s longer than that from Ottawa to Toronto!

Seattle, WA

There are a lot of geeky things to do and see in Seattle! The EMP Museum should be top of your list, though, and there’s an exhibit going on right now (it will be closed Oct 5 – 16) that I would love to see: Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic. There are numerous authors, film makers, and others who have been inducted into their Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. The museum itself is, to quote directly, “…a leading-edge nonprofit museum, dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture.” Tickets are approximately $22/adult (prices may change).

From my research, there are many bars and shops that have pin ball games, arcade games, table top board games, and/or card games available to play while you drink a pint. Here is a list of some places you can check out, and here is a list of more! I do have to warn you: the AFK Tavern is located in Everett, thirty minutes North of Seattle. The reviews vary between 3 to 4.5 stars out of 5. Food can get expensive, but they have drinks like Polyjuice Potion…I mean, come on!

Lastly, I want to talk to you about the views you can see from some of the tallest buildings in Seattle. There are two options: The Space Needle and The Sky View Observatory. They each have their pros and cons. The Space Needle is a two minute walk from the EMP Museum, so it would be easy to see both in one day. However, The Sky View Observatory, which is located in the Columbia Center, is a short nine minute drive away, so it’s not unreasonable to visit it either. They are approximately equal in price (around $13-15/adult), and they both have a restaurant on the observation deck. The Sky View Observatory has two pros that The Space Needle does not. One, you can take a picture of The Space Needle, and two, it is much higher: soaring at 902 feet compared to 520 feet. Either way, you are in for a spectacular view!

St Helen’s, OR

St Helen's in Oregon dedicates October to Halloweentown. Image from their Facebook page.
St Helen’s in Oregon dedicates October to Halloweentown. Image from their Facebook page.

Did you know that Halloweentown was filmed in St Helen’s, Oregon? I didn’t, until a Facebook post popped up a couple of months ago, and I found out that the entire month of October is dedicated to Halloweentown in this city. How incredibly cool is that?

Portland, OR

There is a pretty awesome arcade that becomes a bar after five pm: Ground Kontrol. They have their own version of Geeks Who Drink! Super fun game.

There are some great bookstores and comic book shops in the Portland area, which are always fun to check out!

The Portland Geek Community is also super organized when it comes to their online community. They have a website for all the events that go on in the city, and a Geek Council!

There are tons of events that happen throughout the year that are rather…unique…in Portland. So if you find yourself in the Northwest, check out the possible events that could be happening in the area!

There is so much to do and see in the Seattle/Portland area! If you are interested in going, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

Montreal

A city that has made a name for itself in the geek community recently is Montreal. Not only are tons of movies being filmed in Montreal, but its Comic Con, Otakuthon, and smaller conventions have attracted some big name guests, and they have comic book shops on practically every corner on St Catherine.

And they now have a public Hobbit garden. What could be better?

Montreal's Hobbit garden, picture from www.mtlblog.com
Montreal’s Hobbit garden, picture from www.mtlblog.com

Girls on Games wrote a great article on local hot spots that you should check out, including a bunch of coffee/board game shops, and the Montreal Science Centre.

If you want to see a bunch of film locations from your favourite movies, you have come to the right city. From movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past to Warm Bodies, and tons of others, you can easily hop from one movie set to another. Although there are no touring companies at the moment, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be one in the future. In the meantime, I would love to build a tour for you!

Last but certainly not least, Just For Laughs is based in Montreal. They are definitely worth the time!

There is so much to do and see in Montreal! If you are interested in going, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

Italy

Inspired by The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which I saw on Saturday with friends and family, I would like to talk about Italy and the numerous fandom possibilities to be found in this beautiful country.

Italy's countryside, picture from www.telegraph.co.uk
Italy’s countryside, picture from www.telegraph.co.uk

I’ve noticed, while doing research for these Wednesday posts, that Viator tours pop up more often than not. I have to say, I’m impressed that they are putting the effort into catering to the geek community. In Italy, they have three tours: Angels and Demons half-day tour in Rome, and The Godfather and Inspector Montalbano full day tours in Taormina.

Rome

Love-Rome also has tours for Angels and Demons, as well as Roman Holiday and The Great Beauty, all of which take place on an electric golf cart.

If you love any and all movies made in Rome, another tour company has a tour that encompasses many. I think if I were to take one of these tours, this would be the one.

You could, of course, plan your own tour of Rome, following this helpful guide. Honestly, though, Rome has been the setting for so many movies, that you could wander the streets aimlessly and still find a movie location.

Venice

Venice has a tour that will take you to many film locations, such as the Venetian Library, St Mark’s square, the Doge’s palace, La Fenice theatre, St Barnaba church square, and, of course, the canals. Movies filmed there include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Tourist, Othello, Casanova, and Merchant of Venice.

Florence

Florence has the Museo Galileo, which combines scientific instruments and research into one facility. One of the best things about this museum is it has disability access!

There is tons more to do and see in Italy! If you are interested in going, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

New Zealand

Chances are, you’ve seen the beauty of the New Zealand landscape in a movie or TV show.

New Zealand, picture from Discover Down Under. This is my number one place I want to visit. Look at this view! www.discoverdownunder.com
New Zealand, picture from Discover Down Under. This is my number one place I want to visit. Look at this view! www.discoverdownunder.com

A brief selection of movies that were filmed in this picturesque location include The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, King Kong, Bridge to Terabithia, and Avatar. One of my favourite TV shows also comes from this beautiful county: The Almighty Johnsons. If you haven’t already seen it, you DESPERATELY need to. Like, right now. Norse gods in New Zealand? What could be better?

New Zealand recently started their very own Comic Con, with the inaugural event occurring on July 17-19 of this past year. Armageddon Expo is also happening on October 23-26, 2015. They’ve got quite the line-up of guests. Auckland would be an excellent place to visit in October this year!

As a fan, if I were to travel to New Zealand, I would want to see movie sets as well as the scenery. Lord of the Rings/Hobbit sets have been left intact in various locations, and there are a myriad of tours that you can take, some of which can be found here. A tour that I found of particular interest is run by Film Scouts. They are hired by film companies to scout out locations, but they also run a tour company. You’d definitely get some pretty unique experiences with them!

Weta Workshop, New Zealand’s amazing prop and model creators have a 45 minute guided tour through their Cave. I think I would spend the entire time with my jaw on the floor. They amaze me.

You should read Sail Evenstar’s blog about their stay in New Zealand (Part 1, Part 2)! Great stuff, and quite the thorough exploration! (Facebook, website)

New Zealand has a lot to offer and I can’t wait to visit. If you are interested in going, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

Norway

Norway is a beautiful country full of geeky opportunities. Tons of movies were filmed there, including “Empire Strikes Back” (in Finse), “Die Another Day”, “Eight Below”, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra”, and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (in Svalbard), parts of “Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince” (in Rauma), “Ex Machina” (in Norddal and Luster), and “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” (in Mardalsfossen). Of course, “Vikings” was shot in many locations in Norway, including Sokndal, Bjerkreim, Gjesdal, Forsand, Aurland, and Stranda.

Note: Svalbard is an island much further North of the continent, and would probably be a trip all on it’s own.

And that’s not even counting Oslo, Norway’s capital. One of the best comic book stores exists there: Outland. They have everything you could possibly want, including Lego, board games, comic books (obviously), and collectibles.

Akershus Fortress is also located in Oslo. It was used as the model for Arendelle’s castle in Frozen, and Norway’s building in Epcot is a replica of the Fortress.

Akershus Fortress picture from www.visitolso.com
Akershus Fortress picture from www.visitolso.com

For History buffs, Norway is an amazing place to visit. They have museums, carvings, and historical centres all over the place. I read through this website, a mom and her six year old son’s trip to Norway was beautifully written.

She also writes about eight haunted places in Norway that you must visit. They have a Ghost Walk similar to the Haunted Walk in Ottawa!

Let’s not forget that Disney’s Cruise Line Magic has a “Frozen” themed cruise to Norway as well. See Norway with that Disney magic thrown in!

Anna and Elsa from Disney Cruise Line www.disneyparks.disney.go.com
Anna and Elsa from Disney Cruise Line www.disneyparks.disney.go.com

If you are interested in a trip to Norway, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

New York City

I visited New York City in November last year, and I loved it. The people, the rush, the insanity…

I was there with my classmates, on a tour organized by Travac. I highly recommend them.

However, if you want to go to some famous fandom haunts, you may want to build your own itinerary.

DSC01264small
Times Square, facing the TKTS booth and the red stairs. Photo taken by Jen of www.jeneric-designs.ca

New York City Comic Con October 8-11, 2015

This spectacular event is happening in 71 days! They’ve announced a few pretty awesome guests, including Felicia Day, Jewel Staite, Nathan Fillion, and (omg!) John Rhys-Davies. They are also hosting the NYCC Eastern Championships of Cosplay

Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular October 7, 2015

This is a once in a lifetime event, happening the day before NYCC! I seriously wish I could go to this. Hosted by Michelle Gomez (Missy from Doctor Who), there are two shows: one at 3pm and one at 7:30pm, with tickets ranging in price from $80-$210.

The Way Station

A TARDIS-themed bar (must be over the age of 21 to enter), they have cool events happened almost every single day. Check them out on their website or Facebook.

Central Park

This park is gorgeous, and I was there after all the leaves fell. There are many things to check out in Central Park. On top of that, as of 2011, there have been 305 films shot in Central Park. (What??) That’s not even counting the number of TV shows that had scenes there (Doctor Who The Angels Take Manhattan, for example). Viator has a walking tour that will take you to 30 different locations in Central Park that were used in various movies.

Central Park Film Festival August 25-29, 2015
Free movie screenings! A fun line-up for this year, too.

Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Photo taken by Jen of JenEric Designs.
Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Photo taken by Jen of www.jeneric-designs.ca

Broadway

Seeing a show on Broadway (or off-Broadway) is an absolute MUST for everyone who visits New York. You can buy your tickets in advance here, or you can stand in line for two hours at the last minute ticket booth (TKTS) underneath the red stairs in Times Square and get up to 50% off. (Go as early in the day as possible, and before you stand in line, ask an attendant if the show you want is available for purchase there…you might have to go to the theatre itself to buy the tickets.) You can spend the time pretending that the stairs are going to get destroyed by an evil villain. (That’s what I did…)
There are so many options for shows, and I can highly recommend Wicked, Lion King, Jersey Boys, and Matilda, all of which were seen by myself or my classmates. It really is an amazing experience.

For a different sort of entertainment, Ellen’s Stardust Diner has singing waiters who will perform for you while you eat. There is always a massive line to get in, and the milkshakes are awesome, but nothing beats the voices on these waiters. It’s not too far from Times Square, about a block up and over.

Grand Central Station and the Whispering Gallery

 Grand Central is more than just a Subway station. There is an amazing cafeteria, and a very cool open gallery, where if you stand in one corner and whisper into the wall, a person in the opposite corner can hear you as clearly as if you were right beside them! We had fun whispering stuff to our friends until a wedding party showed up and we gave them the space.

There are SO many things that can be done in New York City, and I barely scratched the surface. Check out these cool places or this detailed website that you can go to if you have a few minutes (or hours) of free time in NYC.

If you are interested in a trip to New York, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel. jenniferd@ajtravel.ca

The Galapagos Islands

I found out some incredibly exciting news last week about the Galapagos Islands: baby tortoises have hatched there for the first time in ONE HUNDRED years! Read the article explaining the situation here.

Baby Galapagos Tortoise! So adorable! Picture from www.thedodo.com
Baby Galapagos Tortoise! So adorable! Picture from www.thedodo.com

The islands were the influence for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, due to the massive variety of species and subspecies found on the different islands. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The “archipelago and its immense marine reserve is known as the unique ‘living museum and showcase of evolution.’”

An International law was put in place in 1998: “Special Regime Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Province of the Galapagos.” This regulates “tourism through a visitor management system.” No large vessels are allowed near the islands, and only small group tours are permitted. Ecoventura is one such tour company.

Friends of mine went to Ecuador, and visited the Galapagos Islands, on their honeymoon six years ago. I asked them some questions about their experiences:

Why did you choose the Galapagos Islands as the place to visit on your honeymoon?
Kristen: I love nature and Ed loves science/scientific discoveries. I had heard that the Galapagos has some beautiful nature, varied environments, and creatures that are almost entirely unafraid of humans.
Ed: In school, we always learned about Darwin and the Galapagos finches. I thought it would be neat to see myself. The fearless animals were also a draw.

What were some of the things that you did on your trip?
Kristen: We hiked through a lot of different environments – an island covered in hard black volcanic rock, an island of volcanic ash dunes, and one full of lush rain-forest vegetation. We also snorkeled among sting rays, bright colored fish, sea lions (a real treat) and reef sharks (a bit of a surprise to us).
Ed: We strolled around a town and stopped by a fish market where there were as many pelicans and sea lions as there were customers. We visited a ranch with huge turtles, and a facility where they are breeding little baby turtles too! We attempted to see the canyon of a volcano (but it was too foggy that day), and ventured down into some lava caves.
Kristen: We also spent some time on the boat itself, getting to know the other dozen or so passengers from around the world. Their stories and impressions were almost as memorable as the sights on the islands.

What was your overall impression of the Galapagos?
Ed: The animals are so fearless that it almost seems like everything is fake. Their indifference to human presence is surreal and feels almost unnatural. The variety of environments and mircro-climates is mind-boggling, especially since they are all so small and close together.Just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see, there’s something more.
Kristen: I agree. Visiting the islands feels a bit like walking through a zoo, with lazy animals not really paying attention to you, or maybe if you’re lucky, putting on a show for you…but all the while, you have to remind yourself: This is not a zoo, this is nature. It’s a bit surreal.
We went to the Amazon for the second half of our honeymoon and that was more what we’re used to: “Look way up there through your binoculars and be very quiet and you might see a monkey or parrot” as opposed to “Please don’t touch the sea lion who is having a nap on the dock while you board the ship.”

Would you recommend this trip?
Kristen and Ed: Yes. We would recommend the trip, but would suggest that you really research which tour group you are going with. Having a really knowledgeable guide can make the hikes more interesting and memorable. Also, the ships range from around 16 passengers to 90. We really enjoyed our small ship, because we got to know people better, but the 90 passenger ship might be more sturdy for someone with sea-sickness. (We had one night of pretty choppy waves)
Side note from Jen: The larger scale ships don’t have the same approval from the government of Ecuador, so you won’t get to see as much. The Galapagos Islands are highly protected, and big tours aren’t recommended.

Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
Kristen: The Galapagos is wonderful, but there are also a lot of other neat things to do while in the Ecuador area. Peru (Machu Picchu) is not far away, and the Amazon rain forest extends right down into Ecuador. If you are heading all the way to South America, you might consider extending your stay a few days to check out one of these other wonders as well.
Ed: If you plan to venture out of Ecuador, be aware that there is a $25 exit fee (Airport Departure Tax) every time you fly out of the country.

The Fandom portion:

“How do the Galapagos Islands fit in the theme of Fandom Travel?”

Well, if you don’t think that influencing Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is enough to qualify this location as Fandom, that’s ridiculous. 😛

However, the Galapagos were used as a set location for a feature length film in 2003. Can you guess the movie?

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Follow in the footsteps of Russell Crowe, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy and Paul Bettany, although you’d have more chances to explore the islands than poor Bettany’s character.

If you are interested in a trip to the Galapagos, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel.

Suggestions for the next place you’d like to see me write about are welcome! Where would you like to go?

Discover Japan

Today, I was asked to price out a trip to Japan. Since the quickest way to figure out an approximate price for something is to search for tours that already exist, I went to G-Adventures because they are both an amazing tour company, and sustainable. They only offer small group tours, and always make sure that they hire local guides. Among many other things. Plus, they’re Canadian!

I also did a quick estimate for flights. I found that it costs between $1600-1900 CAD per person to fly from Ottawa to Tokyo. Not bad, considering it costs about half that to fly from Ottawa to Vancouver.

This tour completely blew my mind: Discover Japan. It covers temples, castles, and gardens outside of Tokyo, as well as giving the travellers plenty of opportunities to purchase food on their own.

For the geeky traveller, there are tons of things that you can do in Tokyo before and after the tour. Here is an article that helps you to find a bunch of apps that are pretty cool: with one, you can type in your question in English, and it will translate it for you!

If you like robots, (who doesn’t like robots?) the US challenged Japan to a giant bot-fight, and that will be happening next year, date undeclared at the moment. Pacific Rim or Real Steel, anyone?

Akihabara seems to be the place to go, if you’re interested in seeing video games, popculture collectibles, and other attractions.

If you like monster movies, like Godzilla, here is a pre-planned walking tour by Vili Maunula, complete with mini descriptions of the sights you will see.

Mt. Fuji with fall colors in japan.
The beauty of Japan. Image courtesy of www.japaneseammo.com

This article sums up the best high-tech locations to visit in Tokyo, including the incredible National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

Japan is definitely on my bucket list! If you are interested in any of these tours or trips, contact me Jennifer Desmarais through AJ Travel.

Suggestions for the next place you’d like to see me write about are welcome! Where would you like to go?