Pirates not allowed at new Port of Mobile café

If you know any pirates, you might want to keep this article on the down low.


The Galley Café inside the recently-launched GulfQuest Maritime Museum is the world’s only restaurant with a ship tracking system at every table.

Which means that any of your peg-legged, eye-patch wearing friends could use said computerized screens to track their next target. Not only does the Galley Café show all the tankers, passenger ships, cargo vessels, tugs, barges, pleasure craft and other ships in the Gulf of Mexico, but it reports their speed, destination and GPS coordinates. About the only thing it fails to mention is whether or not any of the captains look like Johnny Depp.

What’s even more surprising about this little lunch-time café on the Port of Mobile is that the food, unlike so many museum cafes, is actually good. Really good.

Locals, who have already “been there, done that” at the museum that opened last September, go just to eat. And not because it’s the only restaurant on Mobile’s downtown waterfront. Helmed by Marshall Barstow, owner of the wildly popular Mama’s On Dauphin Street, The Galley Café dishes up hearty helpings of gumbo, pan-seared crab cakes topped with remoulade, bacon and fried green tomato sandwiches, shrimp and grits and all stripes of blackened seafood.

Besides being an excellent place to “put some South in yo’ Mouth,” as a popular slogan goes, but it also provides fun for mariners of all ages. The ship tracking screens are one of 90 interactive exhibits at this stunning $62 million museum that, from downtown, looks like a life-size container ship. It’s even called the SS McLean, after Mobile native Malcom McLean who revolutionized the shipping industry with “containerization.”

While learning the history, culture and commerce of the Gulf of Mexico, visitors can do everything from remotely navigate tug boats to tie a bow line knot to open valves in a cramped Confederate submarine.

The Galley, with indoor and outdoor seating and plenty of grog (but thankfully no scurvy bilge rats), is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday.

Leave the pirates at home. Aargh!

Your no-nonsense guide to stalking the Northern Lights

It’s that time of year for spotting the big disco ball in the sky. Yes, I’m talking about the aurora borealis, the northern lights, the ultimate light show presented by–ta-da–Mother Nature herself.


Here’s what you need to know if 2016 is your year for finally witnessing this cosmic, life-changing event:

1. Your odds go way up the closer you get to the Arctic Circle. The neon greens, the pinks, the reds, the blues, the violets that streak across the night sky are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in our atmosphere with supercharged particles from the sun. These head-on encounters happen 24/7 in a weird-shaped oval at the Earth’s magnetic poles, so the closer you are, the better “the seats.”

2. The show can only be seen by the naked eye when it’s dark and cloudless. This means winter is the time to look. As in now. Right now. When there’s no light pollution. They don’t call the northern climes the Land of the Midnight Sun because it sounds poetic. In the summer, it’s light. Nearly all day. But this time of year, when the air is crisp and the sun barely makes an appearance, Mother Nature starts auditioning for a Pink Floyd light show. Anytime the sun’s magnetic fields get distorted and twisted and sunspots and their solar flares start exploding, the pyrotechnics appear to dance and violently sashay across the sky. The good news is we’re only a couple years out from a solar maximus, so go now.

3. Pictures and videos don’t begin to cut it. Sure, you can watch Hotel Ranga’s webcam for a live stream of Iceland’s southern skies. The vibrant celestial ballet might even prompt an inadvertent sucking in of your breath. But until you’ve seen the real deal, it’s like “dating” a picture of Megan Fox.

4. Your options diminish if you want to be comfortable. As you can imagine, there is lots of frozen tundra with a ringside seat to this celestial spectacle. Hotel rooms and people? Not so much. In fact, the reason, you hear so little about aurora borealis’ counterpart, the aurora australis, is because it’s mainly visible in Antarctica.

Options for the northern lights are better. The Yukon, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries all offer packages and hotels and research stations. In Sweden’s Lapland, for example, there’s an ice hotel with suites and rooms carved by 100 artists and in Finland, you can watch the dancing display from a glass-topped igloo. But riddle me this? How long do you want to face bitter cold temps in an igloo? You can only showshoe, ice fish and ride reindeer for so long. In Alaska, on the other hand, you can gaze at the Northern Lights from the warm, mineral-rich waters of Chena Hot Springs, but if those lights don’t show up (and believe me, the aurora is a diva), you’re going to risk looking like a raisin.

5. Best option bar none is Hurtigruten. This Norwegian freight line that runs the length of Norway’s jagged coast offers 11-day cruises from Bergen in the south of the country to Kirkenes just nine miles shy of the Russian border. Not only do you end up 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, but 11 full days of looking ups your odds of spotting the celestial display by well, 11. Hurtigruten will even give you a second cruise (for free) if, for some strange, unexpected reason, you go away empty-handed.

Hurtigruten has been around since 1893 when the government contracted it to improve communication in a country’s that’s more than 1000 miles long and only a few feet across. Okay, I’m exaggerating about the width. But not about the wonders Hurtigruten has wrought upon Norway as it drops off mail, delivers freight and, more recently, delights intrepid cruise passengers (it’s not the QE2, not does it try to be) with 11-day round-trip journeys up and down its stunningly beautiful coast.

6. You get the guarantee without freezing off your tush. Hurtigruten doesn’t have all the foo-foo stuff of other cruise lines–the casinos, the musical cabarets, the photographers trying to capture your every movement. But it has warm, snug rooms and food that will knock your muck lucks off. There are daily buffets with piles of fresh and smoked fish, pates, cheese, green salad, yogurt and three-course evening meals. The captain will even alert you when the lights are doing their thing.  

7. It always pay to check with NASA. Since solar weather affects spacecraft in orbit and can knock out power grids, NASA keeps tabs on the sun’s aurora-causing activities. They’re one of several agencies that issue alerts if they’re expecting an impressive show. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration updates their forecast every 30 minutes.

Only in Helsinki: 5 Things You Will Find Nowhere Else

As a profiler of the weird and wonderful, I couldn’t wait to get to Finland, a country that stages world championships in phone throwing, wife carrying, mosquito catching and air guitar.

Where else would you find speeding tickets based on the offender’s income? Once, the director of Nokia revved up his Harley a bit too vigorously and was issued a ticket for 116,000 Euros.

I knew Helsinki, Finland’s capital, would not disappoint my passion for the one-off, quirky and unique.

Here are the top five things you can only find in Helsinki, a city that regularly doubles for St. Petersburg in movies:

1. Its Parliament House has its own sauna chambers. Although the impressive 200-seat Parliament House is currently being revonated (MP’s are meeting in nearby Sibelius Academy until 2017), you can bet that they won’t leave out the sauna chambers, a popular forum for debates.

In Finland, the sauna is a point of a national pride, a weekly ritual practice by 99 percent of the population. There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka. Any business worth its credit rating has a company sauna as do most passenger and cargo ships, every home and apartment building. A popular Finnish Finnish TV talk show that ran for two years featured hosts in a sauna chatting up celebs and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.

2. Per capita, Helsinki has the world’s most heavy metal bands. The normally underground head-banging, double bass drums and suicidal lyrics of heavy metal are “out” and widely celebrated all over Finland. It’s hard to find even a small town that doesn’t have at least one heavy metal group: there’s 53 for every 100,000 people, according to The Wire.

Helsinki streets are crowded with metal theme clubs, the Tuska Festival (Tuska means agony in Finnish), a three-day open-air festival draws tens of thousands of metal maniacs from all over the world and The University of Helsinki offers a class on heavy metal music in contemporary society.

There’s a heavy metal children’s music band (It’s called Hevisaurus and members dress in dinosaur costumes) and if you go to the Helsinki Rock Shop, you won’t find gems or minerals but a wide selection of official band t-shirts (black and heavily-studded, of course) of Finland’s most successful heavy metal groups: The Sperm, Wigwam, Children of Bodom (named after a famous massacre on the quiet shores of Lake Bodom), Hanoi Rocks (reputed to have inspired Guns N’ Roses) and His Infernal Majesty, HIM that headlines a midnight show most New Year’s at long-time rock stalwart, the Tavastia Club.

3. It screened the world’s longest running movie (so far). The Lord of the Rings Trilogy has a running time of 558 minutes, but that’s a drop in the cinematic bucket compared to Modern Times Forever, a movie that ran in Helsinki for 240 hours. This ten-day movie was projected onto the side of the Stora Enso Building, an appropriate venue since well, the riveting plot revolved around what would happen to modern architecture (specifically the Stora Enso Buidling) if humankind disappeared. But alas, Helsinki will hold the record for only five more years as Swedish director Anders Weberg just released a 72-minute trailer for his proposed 720-hour movie, Ambiance.

4. Travelers can lose their wallets without worrying or having to call the embassy. Reader’s Digest, in a test to find the world’s most honest city, dropped 12 wallets in 16 cities around the globe. The wallets, each with a cellphone number, a family photo, business cards and the equivalent of $50 were left in parks, on sidewalks, near shopping malls. In Helsinki, 11 out of 12 were returned.

5. There’s a proposed law in Helsinki that will forbid schools to start before 9 a.m.. Not only do kids in Finland stay home until they’re 7 years old (compare that to the U.S. push for earlier and earlier education), but the school day doesn’t start typically start until 9, there’s twice as much recess and the kids go home earlier with little or no homework. While the U.S. sometimes struggles to find good teachers, in Finland, teacher wannabe’s are turned away. Only the top 10 percent are selected, they’re given status on par with doctors and lawyers and, most opposite to the U.S., they’re actually trusted to know the best way to teach their students. Probably most important is Finland consistently performs among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.

Machu Picchu without the crowds: when only the rare and one-off will do

When you’re George Clooney or Donald Trump you don’t stay at the Holiday Inn. You stay at hotels that provide exclusive fringe benefits, that tell a story or that offer unusual perks.

Inkaterra’s La Casona in Cusco offers all three. Here’s why choosy clients choose Inkaterra La Casona.

1. It’s Machu Picchu without the crowds. Who doesn’t want to mark this 15th century Inca citadel off their bucket list? But it’s your vacation, for goodness sakes, and the last thing you want to do is spend it with 5000 strangers, the average daily attendance at Machu Picchu.

At least not for long. So book a stay at this exquisite 16th century manor house in Cusco and let the concierge worry about the details of your day trip to Machu Picchu. Your only job should be drinking Pisco Sours and enjoying the colonial antiques, roaring fireplaces and giant marble bathrooms with deep Roman tubs.

2. Every detail of this boutique hotel begs to be Instagrammed. From its original textile murals and elaborate hand-carved cedar doors to the open-air restaurant’s handmade pottery, everything about La Casona screams, “Take my picture.” You’ll want to capture it all—the quinoa pancakes, the coca tea, the original Peruvian rugs, the Quechua shamans who show up for special ceremonies.

3. The George Washington (of Latin America) slept here. Simon Bolivar, the famous general who finally freed South America from Spanish tentacles, once lived in this two-story mansion that’s now an 11-suite Relais Chateaux hotel. And that’s just the beginning of its historic pedigree. Bolivar is one of several Spanish conquistadores who lived in this home built in the mid-1500’s on the top of the ruins of an Incan palace. No wonder the Peruvian government named it a national historic monument.

4. The owner pals around with Mick Jagger. Jose Koechlin, the enigmatic founder of Inkaterra, who plows profits from his five boutique hotels into conservation and scientific research in the Amazon and Peruvian Andes, was able to help the famous front man for the Rolling Stones finally “get some satisfaction.” Other notables in Koechlin’s rolladeck are German movie director Werner Herzog and famous Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson.

5. Location, location, location. It doesn’t get much prettier than Cusco’s cobblestone streets and wide-open plazas. La Casona is next door to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art on Plaza de La Nazarenas and just a romantic stroll away from the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas and Plaza de Armas with its cathedral and churches bedecked in gold and silver.

Inkaterra: Where you can feel noble about your travel dollars

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Is this a dream or am I really taking a bubble bath in the same 16th century manor house where Simon Bolivar once lived? Am I really gazing out over Peru’s Sacred Valley from a five-star hotel, drinking medicinal tea from leaves grown right on the grounds?

On a recent trip to Peru, my arms were practically black and blue from all the pinching. Is all this magic really happening to me, a kid from Kansas?

It all started at a hacienda in Urubamba. With knee-buckling vistas of the Andes from every window, Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is the latest offering in the Inkaterra lineup.

Like all Inkaterra projects, it plows profits back into the local community, buys produce from the Andean Farm project and offers guests a window into the real story behind the region. In this case, the constellations that guided the Incas in the building of their mysterious stone cities.

I suppose a person could go to Peru and NOT stay at an Inkaterra property. But it would be akin to going to Egypt and forgoing the pyramids.

Inkaterra is a celebration of all things Peru. All things that are good about traveling. Preserving cultures. Forging relationships with real people. Making sure the flora and fauna that makes the region so compelling in the first place will still be there tomorrow.

That Inkaterra happens to have a handful of pedigreed boutique hotels is almost beside the point.

It’s one thing to book a hotel for night-time snoozing. But to book a hotel that has the sole purpose of bettering the world, now that’s what I call a vacation.

Of course, hotel might be the wrong word. Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica is actually a field research station. It regularly sponsors scientific inventories and expeditions. With the help of National Geographic and several prestigious American universities, it has catalogued thousands of rainforest species and identified 21 new species including orchids, amphibians and butterflies.

I love the idea of my vacation dollars going to preserve rainforest (42,000 acres so far), fund scientific expeditions and build schools for the local Quechuas people. You won’t be surprised to hear that Inkaterra was the first in Peru to go carbon neutral.

E.O. Wilson, the famous Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard scientist found more ant species during his stay at Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica than anywhere else in the world. The orchid garden at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel has the world’s largest orchid collection.

The fact that Inkaterra’s five properties also happen to have high-count sheets, Peruvian antiques, custom-made crafts and quinoa pancakes only adds to the mystique.

When Jose Koechlin, the enigmatic owner of Inkaterra, first bought property in Aguas Caliente, the tiny town at the base of Machu Picchu, he donated 11 acres to build a school, a train station, a market and homes for locals. He made sure the cloud forest was preserved.

Only then, 15 years later, did he open the hotel that today has an organic farm, a tea plantation and a preserved cloud forest with the 372 species of orchids and 111 species of butterflies. Oh and did I mention there’s also an Andean Spectacled Bear Rescue on site.

So, yes, gather all the hotel points you want, but, as for me, I want my travel dollars to help make the world a better place.

Better call Albuquerque: Breaking Bad Fans have new spots for selfies

Rabid Breaking Bad fans still make pilgrimages to Albuquerque to have an Indian taco at Los Pollos Hermanos (Twisters, in its civilian life), grab a coney at The Dog House and buy blue meth candy from Debbie Ball at her three-decades-old candy store in Old Town. There’s even an RV tour with stops at 17 locations from the still-popular AMC show.

To get a jump on what’s sure to only add to Albuquerque’s mojo, here’s a tour of six must-see’s from the new prequel, Better Call Saul.

Loyola’s Family Restaurant. When Jimmy McGill (in a fake British accent) asks Craig Kettleman, the county treasurer accused of embezzling $1.6 million, and his wife Betsy to meet him at Loyola’s Cafe, he couldn’t have given the long-time family eatery a better endorsement.

Not that it needed it. Located on historic Route 66, this diner with maroon vinyl booths and wrap-around counter has been packed with University of New Mexico students, cops and chile-loving locals since it was opened by Loyola Baca in 1984. Her daughter Sarah Cordova now runs the joint that also sells by the quart posole, menudo and red and green chile that will make your nose run, your pits sweat and your heart dance flamenco.

Fried chicken, chicken fried steak and liver and onions go for $9.19. For a New York strip, be prepared to pony up $11.99. And even though Loyola’s appeared to be open into the wee hours in Breaking Bad (“Cornered”—Season 4, Episode 6), it closes by 2 each afternoon. Don’t miss the roadrunner lamps. 4500 Central Avenue, SE, 505.268.6478.

Café Lush. With Jimmy’s credit card already being declined at the flower kiosk, he didn’t try lassoing in new clients at this tiny, 12-table café in a quiet edge-of-downtown neighborhood. But it played a cameo role in the pilot as twins Cal and Lars waited at 7th and Tiejeras Avenue with skateboard in hand.

Café Lush (baristas even write the letters L-U-S-H on top of lattes) is top of the list for Albuquerque’s vegan, organic and gluten free set. Their breakfast pizza which looks and taste nothing like a pizza (but is every bit as delicious) satisfies both persuasions. They also make gluten free brownies, muffins and tortillas and such daily specials as shrimp tacos with Napa cabbage and mango salsa. They even have a Better Call Saul burger, but it’s a turkey burger with cheese and peach mustard. 700 Tijeras Ave. NW, 505.508.0164.

Java Joe’s. Psychopathic Mexican kingpin Tuco Salamanca is back, along with his henchmen No-Doze and Nacho Varga. Luckily, he’s not snorting meth straight out of the bag just yet. His abuelita’s house (where Jimmy first meets him) is at 12204 Manitoba Drive Northeast, but if you want to see his hideout, the one a certain chemistry teacher blew up by throwing fulminated mercury on the floor, it’s not in ruins after all. Instead, it’s a quaint neighborhood café serving breakfast platters and its own house-roasted coffee in a funky vibe complete with nightly live music. 906 Park Avenue SW, 505.765.1514. http://downtownjavajoes.com

Vintage 423. Jimmy had trouble making conversation with his blonde bombshell date at this upscale Northeast Heights supper club. And no wonder. He’d just survived a different kind of encounter in the desert with maniacal, grandma-loving Tuco. Although this elegant, low-lit restaurant doesn’t really serve breadsticks (the crunching of which reminded Jimmy of the twins’ legs being broken) it does serve a fabulous homemade French baguette with chile olive oil spread. If its accompanying bar with the waterfall were anywhere else, patrons would be required to wear a tie. Here, like Jimmy, you can get drunk and throw up in the bathroom wearing about anything you like. On weekends, expect hours-long waits. 8000 Paseo Del Norte Boulevard, 505.821.1918.

Los Altos Skatepark. When Jimmy came up with the hare-brained scheme of tricking the Kettlemans into becoming a client, he knew just where to find the no-brain skateboarders Cal and Lars. Los Altos Skate Park, the largest in the southwest, has 35,000 square feet of skateable area, a banked street course, two bowls and accommodates BMX bikes, skateboards and in-line skates. There are even bleachers, phones and colorful murals at this popular park near Lomas and the I-40 overpass that, just last year, got a facelift. 10140 Lomas NW.

“Omaha” Cinnabon. Want to take a selfie at the Cinnabon where Gene (yet another alias for Saul) now spends his days wearing an apron, mixing dough and stirring up CinnaSweeties? No need to head to Omaha. The opening B&W sequence was filmed at the Cinnabon inside Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall. They even gave out some 350 free mini-buns the day after the pilot premiered. 10000 Coors Blvd Bypass NW. 505.792.8136.

It takes The Thief to create guts, glory and glamour in Oslo’s hottest new arts district

When Nobel Peace Prize winners head to Oslo, they stay at the Grand Hotel. When Rihanna, Pink, Steven Tyler and Justin Bieber go to Oslo, they stay at The Thief.

Here’s why. The Thief is provocative, inspiring, even ballsy. I mean, who else would name a hotel after a villain, especially in a city where art thievery (Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has been stolen not once, but twice in Oslo) has made international headlines?

The Thief has the pedigree to get away with it. It’s owned by Norwegian billionaire, Petter Stordalen, who steals away to his 170-some Nordic Choice Hotels in a biofuel-powered Ferrari. He also chained himself to a nuclear plant in England in 2002, but that’s another story.

In only two years, this edgy hotel has created a splash nearly as big as Pal Enger who, with three other men, waltzed into Oslo’s National Gallery on the opening day of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and made off with Scream.

The Thief’s contemporary art collection is its protagonist, not some afterthought to match the bedspreads. Curated by Sune Nordgren, the former director of Norway’s National Museum, the hotel’s art collection includes the most important names in contemporary art. The restaurant has a $2.5 million Andy Warhol, the elevators feature Julian Opie video images of blinking, winking women and the Oslo Suite has several Peter Blake installations. Each of the 118 rooms has original contemporary art.

No wonder this bold hotel that sprang up on Tjuvholmen (this tiny island along the Oslo Fjord from reclaimed docklands actually means Thieves Island) has earned the dubious distinction of paying the world’s highest hotel insurance premiums. It’s one thing to abscond with those tiny hotel shampoo bottles, but at this hotel you’re sleeping next to art by Richard Prince, Albert Merz and Fiona Banner. There’s even photography of Kate Moss taken by Bryan Ferry and albums covers from Roxy music.

My favorite perk of staying at The Thief is free admission to Europe’s hottest new contemporary art museum. The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Art, designed by renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, is a few steps from Fru K’s, the Thief’s organic, local, artistically inspiring restaurant, and all guests have to do is show their room key for complimentary entry.

I’ve followed bad boy Damien Hirst’s career since 1992 when his controversial shark in formaldehyde landed him a nomination for that year’s Turner Prize. So having unlimited access to The Astrup Fearnley (I went twice) that has a whole room and a half of Hirst’s work was one of the highlights of my time in Oslo.

Of course, entry to this privately-owned contemporary art gallery that created a stir in 2002 when it paid $5.1 million for Jeff Koons gilt porcelain of Michael Jackson with pet chimp Bubbles is just the beginning of Thief amenities.

The robes are designed by internationally-renowned designer Cecilie Juvodden. The chairs by Antonio Citterio and, if you want, you can actually purchase original pieces of art right from your 42-inch plasma TV.

Guests get a treasure map for scouting the hotel’s art collection and, for those crazy enough to to leave the premises (my chief question being, “Why?) just know that within walking distance, there’s a beach, a sculpture garden and many of Oslo’s best galleries and restaurants. City Center’s also nearby.

As the hotel promises, it’s guaranteed to steal you away from the ordinary.

The Thief, Landgangen 1; 47-24-00-40-00, Oslo; thethief.com/en.