Archive for October, 2009

A Real Wild Time—Part 2

October 29, 2009

In the previous installment, I pointed out that you don’t have to travel to remote corners of the globe to have an extraordinary experience.  Well, here’s another example of a genuine once-in-a-lifetime adventure hiding in plain sight at one of San Diego’s most-visited tourist attractions:

me and rhino

Ewwww! Rhino slobber!

Let’s try a little word association.  When I say “San Diego,” you say what?

Anyone who’s ever visited America’s Finest City knows there’s no shortage of ways to fill in that blank.  But I’m thinking of one word in particular: Zoo.  After all, there are good reasons they call it the “World Famous San Diego Zoo,” not the least of which are some of the classic episodes where the zoo’s animal ambassador Joan Embry and her furry friends visited Johnny Carson on NBC’s Tonight Show.

While meeting some of the zoo’s exotic animals didn’t always work out quite the way Johnny envisioned, it was always amusing.  And I can tell you from personal experience that the zoo’s new Backstage Pass program is every bit as much fun.  Maybe more, in fact, since you get to be a participant instead of just a spectator.

The two-hour family-friendly adventure starts with a tasty boxed lunch and private stage show starring a wide array of critters ranging from Sonic the hedgehog (gee, I wonder where they dream up these crazy names) to Amara the cheetah.  After lunch, my family and I got to do a meet-and-greet with more animals including a male emu named Daphne (apparently it’s not that easy to tell the boy emus from the girls).

While all that was fun, the best part of the experience as far as I’m concerned was getting to feed, pet, and scratch the heavily-armored backs of two endangered Indian rhinos.  To be this close to such rare (only 3,000 remain in the wild) and amazing creatures was a real treat.  And, let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve been slobbered on by a hungry rhino!


A Real Wild Time—Part 1

October 22, 2009

A lot of folks mistakenly assume that having a truly extraordinary experience means spending a ton of dough or traveling to exotic locales.  Today’s post, the first in a two-part series, proves that ain’t necessarily so.

Eat your heart out, Captain Ahab!

Eat your heart out, Captain Ahab!

Considering I’m all about hunting down remarkable adventures, it’s probably not all that surprising that I generally tend to shy away from theme parks and similar attractions that cater to the masses. But my recent trip to San Diego reminded me that sometimes, with a little digging, it’s possible to turn up some downright extraordinary experiences even in the most touristy places you can imagine.

Case in point: SeaWorld’s Beluga Interaction Program.  While dolphin encounters have become fairly common, I can’t think of anywhere else you can get up-close-and-personal with one of these great white whales short of making the arduous and expensive trip to the Arctic Ocean (you can read about my friend Bob Howells’ beluga experience in the waters of Hudson Bay here).

While actually sliding into the 52-degree water with two of the park’s 14-foot long belugas was definitely the high point of our behind-the-scenes experience in the park’s Wild Arctic habitat, it was far from the only cool thing we did during the 70-minute program.  Seeing an 11-foot tall male polar bear rear up on his hind legs to reach a treat offered by his keeper—even if he was behind his protective steel enclosure—was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

I am the walrus!

Obie: I am the walrus!

My favorite part of the experience, however, was the chance to feed a 2,500-pound male walrus named Obie. After his snack, the portly pinniped showed off a few of the hilarious sounds he could make, including a lion-esque roar that left me covered in fish scales and walrus snot  (Note to Self: Never stand in front of a vocalizing walrus).  Now there’s a story for my next cocktail party!

In short, the entire Beluga Interaction Program was an absolute hoot.  Not to mention a great reminder that sometimes you’ll find extraordinary experiences waiting for you in the least likely places.

NEXT TIME: We go on safari without leaving California.

Treasure Hunting Time!

October 17, 2009

Pink tourmaline

Pink tourmaline

Just heard a report that the price of gold has reached an all-time high at over $1,000 per ounce.  Which got me thinking that maybe it was time to head back to Wood’s Creek in California’s Sierra Nevada gold country to see if I could dig up—literally—enough gold to give me a little extra walking-around money.

It also reminded me of another natural treasure I discovered nearly 20 years ago in the mountains northeast of San Diego.  Just past the sleepy little town of Pala (not quite as sleepy these days, now that the Pala tribe has opened a glittering new casino with a killer buffet) you’ll find the turn off for Gems Of Pala.

Here you can sift through buckets of gravel in search of the same hot-pink tourmalines that were coveted by the last Chinese empress.  The material is brought up from the area around the gem pockets in the depths of my friend Blue Sheppard’s Stewart Mine and is often filled with small tourmalines that range in color from pink to a gorgeous green/pink bi-color variety known as watermelon.

Treasure hunting with Blue Sheppard

Treasure hunting with my friend Blue Sheppard

At $20 per bucket, it’s an inexpensive and fun way to spend the afternoon treasure hunting.  Best of all, it’s also an outing that—if you’re lucky—might very well pay off in a collection of gemstones that are actually many times more rare than diamonds!

Paranormal Activity Anyone?

October 8, 2009

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Maybe you’ve heard about this new movie Paranormal Activity, which is supposed to be the scariest new movie to come along since The Blair Witch Project made us all think twice before heading into the woods with a video camera back in 1999.

Of course, watching a  movie like this is just one way to get that spooky feeling that makes a shiver run up your spine.  For a more authentic paranormal experience, I’d highly recommend you spend the night at St. Francisville, Louisiana’s Myrtles Plantation.

This grand 1796 antebellum home has seen so much tragedy over the past two centuries that it’s no wonder many paranormal experts believe it to be one of the most haunted homes in the U.S.  You’re bound to get goose bumps just listening to the guide’s tales of ghostly encounters that actually seem to get more frequent when guests are present.  If that’s not spooky enough for you, you can arrange to spend the night in one of the rooms of the main house where former guests have heard everything from the sounds of some long-ago social event to a mortally-wounded man staggering loudly up the steep wooden stairs.

And while there’s no guarantee you’ll see a ghost, it’s a safe bet that you’ll come away with some great stories to tell at your next Halloween party!

So Much Hot Air!

October 1, 2009

balloonfiestaVERTJust a quick note for all those folks headed to this weekend’s 38th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (October 3-11).  As cool as you think it is to watch from the edges of the field as 700 hot air balloons from 17 countries lift off—and it is among the coolest spectacles you’ll ever witness—you simply must spring for one of the balloon rides that go up in the middle of each morning’s mass ascensions!

Now I know what you’re thinking: You’ve been up in a hot air balloon before and, while it was great fun, you’re not sure you really wanna lay out the dough for another balloon ride.  Well, trust me on this one, you most certainly do.  The rides provided by the festival’s official operator Rainbow Riders (no relation, unfortunately) take an already over-the-top adventure and turn it into one of my all-time favorite extraordinary experiences.

To get a better understanding of what I mean when I say these rides are like standing inside a giant three-dimensional kaleidoscope, check out the story and photos on