June 2011 Archives

Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake in Iceland. To the...

Image via Wikipedia

June 17 mark's Iceland National Day, their Independence Day Celebration if you will. Founded in 1944, the date was chosen because it was the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, a major leader from the Westfjords and political component in the Icelandic freedom movement. A godfather like figure, Jón is revered as one of the few experts on Icelandic history. Although Iceland had been independent since 1918, its foreign affairs had been conducted by Denmark until the beginning of World War II. Today, the "land of fire and ice" is one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world.

History of Iceland National Day

Jon Sigurðsson also founded the Ný félagsrit, translating to "New Association Writings," an annual magazine that conveyed the news between Denmark and Iceland. He remained the main contributor and financial backer. A picture of Jón Sigurðsson is on the 500 Icelandic Krona banknote and he is often referred to as simply President ("Jón forseti") by Icelanders. Although a republic of Denmark, Iceland decided to abolish the monarchy and opt for a Presidency due to the US influence. Therefore, Sveinn Björnsson became the first President of Iceland. His first term was only one year, but he went on to manage the country for two more consecutive terms running unopposed. Sadly, he died during his third term becoming the only President to ever die in office.

Celebrate the Freedom

A much anticipated yearly event, Iceland National Day is celebrated throughout the country with each region putting on its own parade led by a brass band. Riders on Icelandic horses (a small pony breed) partake in the festivities, as well as flag bearers, giving candy to the children and releasing thousands of balloons through the sky. After the parade, important figures make speeches, including Fjallkonan ("the woman of the mountain"), Iceland's symbol of freedom and purity. She wears a Skautbúningur,the national ceremonial costume. Romantic looking, these flowy garbs consist of a brightly colored bodice, jacket and headpiece.

Dry bay at the Pacific coast and Alsek River

Image via Wikipedia

While not for the faint of heart, whitewater rafting is a great activity for those who are adventurous enough to give it a try. Whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned pro, it's hard to beat the thrill of cruising down a winding river, water splashing all around you anxiously anticipating the next set of rapids.  However, with so many rivers to choose from, it can often be a tough decision where to unleash your wild side. Are you a beginner looking for Class I and Class II rapids or are you a whitewater expert who is looking for their next big challenge?

From Pennsylvania and Oregon in the U.S. and Chile and Ecuador in South America, there are opportunities for whitewater rafting all over the world and if you know what you're looking for, the sky's the limit. Do you want a guided tour or do you and a group of experienced friends want to brave the waters yourself?  Here we look at some of the best whitewater rafting in the world- for beginners and experienced rafters alike.

Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, Alaska/Canada

Glaciers and icebergs are among the main attractions on these two rivers flowing through a breathtaking wilderness of mountains and tundra on the borders of Alaska and Canada. A trip through the upper Alsek is an incredible journey through one of the largest protected parks in the world. Beginning in Kluane National Park in Canada's Yukon, catch sight of spawning salmon or a grizzly bear as you wind through the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park in British Columbia and ends in Alaska's renowned Glacier Bay National Park. A perfect excursion for the photography lover, wildlife is abundant with wolves, moose, deer and occasionally a wolverine. Float through the largest non-polar ice cap in the world through a spectacular 30+ miles of the lower Alsek River to Dry Bay with opportunities for a glacier walk along the banks. There are numerous tour companies that take trips along the Alsek and Tatshenshini, so you're sure to be able to find the perfect pace and level for you.

Middle Fork, Salmon River, Idaho

As one of the world's most popular whitewater rivers, the Middle Fork Salmon River has something for everyone. There are rapids up to Class IV and glorious alpine and forest scenery that flows through America's largest road-less wilderness area outside Alaska. Wildlife is abundant and can include the occasional mother bear and her cub swimming or the ever-popular moose and deer sighting. Middle Fork flows through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest forest in the lower 48 states and is the historical origin of white water rafting trips. Boasting 100 frequent rapids for over 100 miles, hot springs and reserved forest campsites, a trip down the Middle Fork Salmon typically starts at Boundary Creek boat launch, just below Dagger Falls. The first 22 miles to Pistol Creek Rapid are very fast as the rapids follow one another in quick succession. The alpine section offers class IV rapids that are continuous through Velvet Falls and Pistol. Velvet Falls, 5.5 miles from the put-in, is a short, steep drop into a river-wide reversal. The difficulty of the rapids may not be for beginners, but veteran rafters love the challenge and adrenaline-inducing speeds that the river has to offer.

Rio Upano, Ecuador

The Rio Upano or "River of the Sacred Waterfalls" offers a true sensory experience with nature, as rainforests engulf you with Toucans and iridescent butterflies. Starting in the remote town of Macas on the far western fringes of the Amazon Basin, you can embark on a journey where the pace varies from gentle rapids to tumultuous rides through narrow canyons. The Rio Upano treats you to Class II-IV whitewater rapids, mammoth waterfalls and glimpses of native Ecuadorian tribes. The highlight of the trip is the Namangosa Gorge, with Class IV rapids and a number of waterfalls plunging down the gorge's sides. This is a great river for beginners and experts alike, as it has challenging but manageable whitewater, in addition to good hiking trails and beautiful riverside camps when you want to take a break and enjoy the surroundings. Add in the area's amazing cultural history and contact with the Shuar Indians along the rivers banks and you've got a rafting adventure that's physically challenging and mentally and spiritually invigorating.

North Johnstone River, Australia

The North Johnstone is a steep, natural flow river that carves its way through a spectacular volcanic gorge. This stunning river in the tropical far north of Queensland offers Class IV and V whitewater rapids amidst the volcanic gorges and the ancient rain forests of Palmerston National Park. At night, rafters can view luminous fungi glowing on the rocks and fireflies dancing through the forest canopy. Best of all, you don't have to worry about what time of year to visit because the park and rapids are always in pristine condition. There is a limited frequency of departures, restricted group sizes and stringent National Park permits that ensure that the North Johnstone River and surrounding ancient rainforests are preserved, enabling rafters a rare glimpse of a very precious and untouched part of North Queensland's World Heritage Rainforests. Whether you're looking to challenge yourself with Class V rapids or simply want to float along and enjoy the breathtaking scenery, the North Johnstone River is one not to be missed for rafting enthusiasts.

Zambezi River, Zimbabwe/Zambia

Commercial rafting first began on the Zambezi River in 1981 and since then has grown in popularity to the point where a rafting trip on the Zambezi is now a regular feature in most tourists' itineraries. More than 50,000 people a year enjoy whitewater rafting on the river claimed as the best rafting trip in the world. Classified as a high volume, pool-drop river, there is little exposed rock either in the rapids or in the pools below, making it extremely challenging. The distance between rapids varies from 328 feet to 1.2 miles and the Batoka Gorge, where the Zambezi churns its way over 23 rapids, is approximately 400 feet deep at the put-in point and 750 feet at the take out point. The British Canoe Union has classified the river Grade 5, which means "extremely difficult, and has long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas." In fact, nearly half of the rapids you'll come across are Class V, which is the toughest you are allowed to raft. Due to the steepness of the gorge, wildlife is not abundant, but adventurous rafters should have enough adrenaline to make up for the lack of nature.

While competitive and serious runners compete in large scale regional marathons, those looking to partake in running for sport, fitness or fun may enjoy one of the many smaller 5 K races around the nation. Running has become quite trendy as a hobby, evolving into it's own subculture and with the increased interest from young urbanites,  more and more quirky 5 K races and 10 K runs have popped up for a variety of charities, causes or just for kicks. Take a look at some of these weird races, don your best running shoes and wackiest costume and get your kicks at these 5 Ks- the best races in America. 

 Muddy Buddy

muddy buddy.jpg

Traverse a 6-7 mile off-road course neck deep in mud, while competing in five obstacles in teams of two at Columbia's Muddy Buddy. With one person running and one on the bike, after the first obstacle, the rider will drop the bike, complete the challenge, and begin running. The runner will arrive, complete the obstacle also and switch to the bike. Teams will continue leapfrogging each other through the entire course. Locations and dates vary across the country so if you're in the mood to get physical- roll your pants up and get ready to get dirty. The mud pit at the end is the celebratory prize for crossing the finish line. 

Bay to Breakers

Touted as America's biggest streaking event, this San Francisco fun run dares you to bare it all to promote the acceptance of the public nude figure. Held every year in May, "the running group with a wardrobe malfunction"completes 7 1/2 miles for pride, a celebration of organized chaos and gives everyone a chance to cross freewheeling off their bucket list. Initially called the Cross City Race, the original 147 runners in 1912 subsequently reached an estimated 110,000 participants in 1986.  In 2010, an estimated 60,000 people participated with a reported 33,000 registrants. The event comes highly recommended because everybody should run through the streets [naked] at least once in their life.

Men's Health Urbanathalon

A full-fledged downtown obstacle course taking place in the fall, racers compete in waves based on their qualifying times in separate male and female heats. Enter as an individual to run all 9 miles by yourself or compete on a three person relay team for group bonding fun. A combined 40,000 runners between the three host cities, Chicago, New York and San Francisco come out to participate in the Road Rules style physical challenges. Are you up to the challenge of running through tires, swinging the monkey bars and other tests of brute strength? 

Keep Austin Weird Fest and 5 K


Unofficially deemed the "slowest 5 K race you'll ever run," literally anything goes in

Texas. Wearing only a banana suit and high heels is highly encouraged, as well as stopping along the way for a breather at Austin iconic locales like Amy's Ice Cream and Yellow Cab Austin (just in case the physical activity is not really for you). Whether you're athletic or not, at least go to enjoy the live music as the festival is ultimately a toast to the amazing town of Austin. 

Hot Chocolate 15 K/ 5 K Race 

Pegged as Chicago's sweetest race, The Hot Chocolate run is put on by Ram Racing, the team behind the Cinco de Miler, Turkey Trot and other Chicago favorites.  Taking place on November 5th, 2011, the fun run begins in iconic Grant Park and winds throughout the city for great views of the lakefront and downtown. Both the 5 K and the 15 K require a 15 minute per mile pace or faster to participate. With chocolate and sweets at checkpoints throughout, the after party features Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate fondue as the icing on the cake. And the cherry on top? Your registration supports Ronald McDonald House charities.

An ever-popular vacation destination, Italy's reputation as a cultural and culinary Mecca is well founded.  It boasts more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country, and its vast history is further accented by its wide variety of breathtaking terrain and craveable cuisine.  Planning a trip?  Don't miss these must see Italian destinations.



Millenia of history await you around every corner in the ancient city of Rome, an absolute must-see during your visit to Italy.  The capital of modern-day Italy and the ancient Roman Empire alike, Rome boasts world-famous architectural monuments such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, and also serves as the crux of the Catholic church.  Explore Vatican City, the abode of the Pope nestled within the walls of the city of Rome but technically its own separate country (no need to bring your passport!).  Be sure to drop by the Vatican Museums complex, which houses the Sistine Chapel as well as Raphael's School of Athens.  Equipped with a map and a good sense of direction, it is easy to navigate to streets and sights of Rome within a couple of days, but what's the rush?  There's gelato a plenty, great people watching, and nightlife abounds.


While pizza is delicious throughout Italy, it is in Naples where you will arguably find the best.  A couple hours south of Rome, Naples is a seaside city that boasts a remarkable history as the Greek colony formerly known as Neapolis, translating to New City.  If the city's sights such as Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Duomo San Gennaro aren't enough to keep you occupied, Pompeii--and the infamous Mount Vesuvius--makes for a perfect day-trip, easily accessible from the city by train.  If you would prefer to relax by the beach, the island of Capri is only a short ferry away, making for another great day-trip (although you may be tempted to stay longer!).  If for no other reason, go to Naples for the pizza.  You will not know what pizza is until you have experienced one of these fresh and simple masterpieces fresh out of the oven--especially from Pizzaria Gino Sorbillo, a local favorite.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, meaning "five lands," is a breathtaking national park in the Liguria region consisting of five villages lining eleven rocky miles of the Italian Riviera.  Surrounded by mountains, olive groves, and terraced vineyards, Cinque Terre allows no cars or motorbikes to disturb the scenic terrain.  Village hopping is instead accomplished with trains, boats, and footpaths.  Dotted with quaint harbors, superb picnicking areas overlook the Mediterranean Sea, which supplies the villages with its famously fresh seafood, the local cuisine of choice.  Rent a canoe or a kayak to explore the coast, and be sure to sample some of the local pesto--the region of Liguria is known for it.


Visiting Florence, Italy is like stepping back into Renaissance times.  The artistic wealth of the city is sure to leave your head spinning, as it boasts a vast collection of works by the likes of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Donatello.  The famously wealthy Medici family left their mark on many of the city's public buildings and played a significant role in bringing the Renaissance to life through their extensive patronage of the arts.  The wealth of the city did not die out with the end of the Medici dynasty, and today Florence is home to plenty of well to-do Italian fashionistas.  After being sure to see the city's most popular sights, such as the Duomo and The Uffizi, you may be interested in exploring the surrounding Tuscan countryside.  Take a day trip to Siena to stand in awe of the Gothic architecture, or venture to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower.  



The very existence of the city of Venice is a wonder in itself.  Built on the marshy lands of the Venetian lagoon on the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, the complex system of canals and the palazzi that appear to be floating in thin air attract scores of visitors each year, each wanting to experience the charm of this one-of-a-kind city.  While Rome boasts ancient history and Florence astounds with Renaissance art, Venice holds its own with a distinctly Venetian style, influenced by years of trade with cities such as Alexandria and Byzantium.  While visitors flock to the Basilica di San Marco, Venice is also known for its impressive collection of modernist art housed at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  If you plan to visit this summer, be sure to check out the 54th Venice Biennale, a major biannual contemporary art exhibition that lasts the entire summer and most of the fall, and is this year exhibiting artwork from 89 countries.


A landlocked region in central Italy, Umbria is less touristy than Tuscany but rivals it in beauty.  The regional capital is Perugia, a university town boasting museums, churches, and nonstop cultural events, but what really distinguish Umbria are the rolling hills covered in wildflowers and the medieval towns that dot the countryside.  Come to Umbria to feel the genuine heart of Italy, and experience some of the best cuisine and wine that Italy has to offer.  Umbria is particularly known for the tartufo (truffle), as well as pork from the butchers in the Norcia area.  The many small cities scattered through the Umbrian landscape include Assisi, which houses Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (famous in part for its magnificent frescoes) and Spoleto, which hosts an epic annual summer music and opera festival called the Festival of Two Worlds.  Despite the passing of time, Umbria has remained as authentic as they come.

by Dorothy MacAusland, Contributing Author

Photo credit: William Su


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