Whale Watching Above the Arctic Circle

Merry Christmas from Tromso, Norway. I wish you many adventures this year.
Photo credit, Northern Lights, Chasing Lights
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Why Madagascar's Is Paradise for Wild Animal Junkies

I love the very idea of Madagascar, Wild animals plus adventures in remote lands is my favorite thing. Ring-tailed lemurs? Elaborate reptiles? I'm there. Please enjoy this trip to the eighth continent by Giovanna Fasanelli for Apex Expeditions:

It is so hard to describe to people who have never set foot on ‘The Eighth Continent’ what they are in for on a Madagascar Safari. But if you are an animal junkie, and have watched Attenborough’s documentary series entitled Madagascar, you may just have an inkling of what’s in store.

Some 90 million years ago, the piece of the Gondwana puzzle known today as India broke loose from the east coast of Madagascar, leaving the world’s fourth largest island lying in splendid isolation. Soon enough, animals began to arrive, either by air, swimming, or by rafting the distance on platforms of vegetation washed out from continental neighbors. The stage was set for one of the greatest radiations of life this planet has ever seen, millennia of evolution yielding over 12,000 species of flowering plants, around half of the world’s chameleons and a spectacular number of amphibians. Even more impressive, perhaps, are Madagascar’s lemurs, its tally of over 100 species placing it second only to Brazil in overall primate diversity. Add to these numbers the fact that over three quarters of every plant or animal species one encounters is found nowhere else on Earth, and one has a wildlife lover’s wonderland, every day being a treasure trove of the most enthralling proportions.

As one of the most threatened biodiversity hotspots on the planet, this is a destination to prioritize… YESTERDAY! It is changing at a disconcerting rate and forest reserves and national parks take each day as they come under an ever-changing government or lack thereof. People are breeding fast and people are starving. The animals and plants living in some areas are protected by local fady or taboos, but those in other areas are not. Due to massive deforestation, native wildlife is now restricted to pockets of indigenous vegetation, less than 5% of which still stands, making these relic populations all the more precious. There can be no more important destination for the discerning eco-traveller, and no more valuable a place to spend eco-dollars in support of conservation. There’s no doubt you will come away from visiting this country with bitter-sweet feelings for you will have touched the immense diversity and the extraordinary uniqueness of this evolutionary laboratory, and felt too, the desperation of its story.

Madagascar Safari with Apex Expeditions from Apex Expeditions on Vimeo.

In the areas that have been set aside, treasures, of the creature variety, are waiting behind every leaf… you just have to know where to look! Here are a few of my absolute scream-out-loud favourite creatures of Madagascar, which is a tough ask as there are literally dozens!

My first one is none other than the Ring-tailed Lemur. Ok, so no originality awards for me, but I have to nominate them as they truly are ineffably lovable. I haven’t known a traveller yet who hasn’t fallen head over heels! One afternoon at Berenty Reserve I was on my belly photographing a family group as they were nonchalantly walking past me when I felt a light touch on my back. A Ring-tailed had come up and just placed his little hand on me as if to say a very casual “Hey… what cha doin?”. I instantly melted into the ground… whilst he waddled off. It’s those moments that one never forgets.

The Painted Mantella Frog (Mantella madagascariensis) is another stunner resembling the poison arrow frogs of South America. Their skin secretes toxins and the bright colours warn predators to stay away. Talk about convergent evolution! The local guides know just where to find these beauties after which a brief photo shoot ensues! There are some 170 species of frogs on the island with new additions being found all the time.

It is no secret that a Madagascar expedition reveals some of the world’s most elaborate reptiles: a herpetologist’s veritable wonderland. The night walks/treasure hunts along the road at Ranomafana are the most fun you’ll have! The local guides really show off their spotting skills as they pull out all kinds of creatures for the trip list. When our guide found this creature I actually did let out a scream as it was a dream of mine to see one in the wild. May I introduce to you Uroplatus phantasticus – the Fantastic Leaf-tailed Gecko. Appearing like nothing other than a dried up dead leaf fallen over a low-slung branch, this creature lit up under camera flash exposing satanic red eyes. I wonder how many people had walked right past this rarely-seen, stealthy beast and been none the wiser.

For the finale I offer the apex predator of Madagascar: the Fosa (pronounced foosa or foosh). In late October to early November these powerful carnivores can be seen mating in the trees of the hot western forests. I would need 2000 more words to tell you about this captivating creature and how exhilarating it was to witness the spectacle. This odd weasel/panther-like beast measures two metres in length of which half is tail used for balancing in the trees as it runs down lemurs.

Discover the incredible magic this island holds soon… you will undoubtedly be bedazzled.

About the Author: 
Giovanna Fasanelli is one of the Co-Founders and Field Leaders for Apex Expeditions, which specializes in biologically and culturally unique travel experiences that explore the world’s most fascinating places—from Madagascar safaris to Brazil Amazon tours and Raja Ampat diving adventures. Their expeditions are inspired by a passion for true exploration and a desire to better understand our ever-changing and increasingly threatened planet. Each year, the selection of expeditions offered changes, providing unique year-to-year travel experiences.

Photos:  Giovanna Fasanelli 
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Fun in the Water: Diving to Rafting, Snohomish County, Washington

Washington State is beautiful on the ground--snow-capped volcanoes, fir-tipped islands, wildflower meadows, rolling wheat fields--but it truly shines when you combine all that with rushing water. Here are two fun ways to get wet in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, this summer. To drill down on these adventures, check out the Snohomish County Visitors Bureau. 

1. Scuba diving in Edmonds, Washington (home to famous world traveler, Rick Steves). See the ferry below? For years, I rode it from Edmonds to  the Kitsap Peninsula, and then drove west until I hit Washington's wild Pacific Ocean beaches. But, look what I was missing right by the ferry dock. These divers are about to plunge into the bountiful, 27-acre Edmonds UnderWater Park, the most popular of the Washington's 10 underwater parks. 

Scuba dive down to the the nature trails and you'll see sunken vessels and "enormous lingcod, cabezons, spotted ratfish, various greenlings and rockfish, seaperch, gobys, sculpins, flounders, sole, eelpouts, Dungeness, red rock, kelp and hermit crabs, horse clams, geoducks, scallops, heart cockles, moon snail, giant pacific & red octopus, sea cucumbers, and numerous species of anemones, sea stars, urchin, nudibranchs, shrimp and seaweed."

2. Rafting.  I've rafted/kayaked all over the world, last year in Chile, but have barely scraped the surface in Washington State. Who knew the liftoff town of Index, was only an hour's drive from my Seattle home? This summer I rafted the Skykomish River with AdventureConnect and the Outdoor Adventures Center, a half-day, nine-mile shoot through the rapids, ending in a hot tub and steak feast in the company's Index headquarters.

The water was so warm that we got to jump out of our rafts at one point and swim around (albeit in neoprene suits), a rarity in these parts. I discovered that you can also snorkel with spawning salmon in the Skykomish later in the year.

Outdoor Adventures has two other adventures on my bucket list: 1. saltwater kayaking near Lopez Island. 2. Rafting the Sauk River, up in the North Cascades. Also try one of my favorite adventures: raft the Skagit River during eagle season to see the nesting birds. There's lots more water in Snohomish County. See you in Index (below).

Photo credits: Top photos, Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. Bottom photo: Outdoor Adventures. Index: Candace Dempsey 
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Val D'Orica: High on Tuscany

I came to Italy's Val D' Orica for the first time with my son, Jacob, to ride horses--only to learn that the horses were too spirited for mere amateurs to ride. Since we'd signed on for a week, we had to learn how to relax. The longer we stayed in this rarified air, enjoying this spartan beauty, the easier it became. No wonder it's a UNESCO World Heritage site and a summer playground for rich people from Rome:

"Gently-rolling hills covered in the dense vegetation of vineyards, olive groves, cypresses, beech and chestnut trees alternate with Medieval habitations, rural villas and castles boasting impervious towers – all of which is diffused in a tranquilly-isolated nature. This is the scenario that is laid out before the eyes of the visitor to Val d’Orcia – just as evocative in real life as it is when depicted by the Sienese Masters." 
A photo posted by Landscapes | Travel | Animals (@naturerad) on
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Starry Starry Arches National Park

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Bluest Skies Ever: Palouse, Washington

Thunderstorm building over the Palouse, Washington State. I went to my niece's high school graduation in Rosalia. She was valedictorian and is a wonderful, beautiful girl who has already completed two years of college thanks to the Running Start program. We've had such fun watching her and sister grow up--and spend all their summers at the lake in Northern Idaho, just as we did. Both grandmas died within the past year and were much missed. Their spirits seem to hang over this place. We lived here for a few years when I was a little girl and I've always loved the high, blue skies. 
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Lightning In Slow Motion

I love the lightning storms that sweep the far western United States, where I've lived nearly all my life.  I couldn't really "see" lightning. It all happened too fast. Check it out in slo-mo, thanks to the magic of NPR.
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If You Wrote Game of Thrones

I saw George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones books, in Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, Washington. "I'm a slow writer," said the Santa Fe resident. Check out this cartoon, "The Sad Adventures of sad George R.R Martin."

A photo posted by Mashable Watercooler (@watercooler) on

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Snowshoeing Up Mt. Rainier

Spring in Seattle and deep powder in the Cascades. I loved snowshoeing up to Paradise on Mt. Rainier, one of the snowiest peaks in the U.S. A sunny day with Evergreen Escapes. And, hey, Seattleites check out the wine tastings at Evergreen's Adventure Hub. The wine is made right there in Sodo and I got to hang out with my adventure colleagues there this week.

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Fast Train to Machu Picchu

Getting to the sacred shrine of Machu Picchu in Peru doesn't have to be arduous, no matter what people tell you. After acclimating in Cusco and tackling the Lares Trek with Mountain Lodges of Peru, we hopped aboard Inca Rail and rode in luxury, drinking wine and taking in the incredible sights.

This train leaves from "the ancient village of Ollantaytambo, a gem among Inca architecture, tracing a winding route along the Vilcanota river past snow-capped peaks and verdant crops until it slowly enters the enchanted rainforest that hosts the mystical Inca citadel." We arrived in Aguas Calientes, the tropical town nearest the shrine, happy and relaxed, ready to see Machu Picchu the next morning. One of the world's must-see sites, it was worth the ride.

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