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Adventures with Meerkats



Ostriches aren’t the only animal to visit in Oudtshoorn. Turns out this town, just north of South Africa’s Garden Route, is also a pretty sweet place visit meerkats too.

If you need a refresher, meerkats are cute little mongooses that live in the deserts and grasslands of Africa. Think Timon in “The Lion King.”

Better than the Disney cartoon, Meerkat Adventures takes small groups to see meerkats in their natural habitats. But the trip is not for those who like to sleep in. Watching these critters requires arriving at the site before dawn, when they arise.

After making the booking, tour guide and researcher Devey Glinister provides all guests coordinates and a pre-dawn meeting time from where he will guide the group via car to the viewing spot, which changes daily. He and his team study the meerkat families and know which hills they sleep in and where they move to.

Upon arrival, Devey and his team provide tea, coffee and a light snack (like delicious homemade rusks for dipping!) before settling around the hill and viewing the sunrise. From there, everyone watches with baited breath for the first meerkat to pop his head out, which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more.

My 4 a.m.-awoken, barely-functioning self fell asleep about three times in the waiting process, and I honestly don’t remember how long it took us to see our first meerkat, but I’ll guess somewhere around the 30-minute range. During the waiting time and after, Devey shares with you all kinds of information about meerkats, including the different family roles and survival habits. At some point, you watch the sentry, the first guard meerkat, pop out of his hill to check for predators, eventually followed by the rest of the family and the alpha at the very end. Together, the family grooms, basks in the sun and continues to watch for predators before moving on to start their day and the tour ends.

The whole process takes 2-3 hours and costs R 550 ($38.15). Great experience for wildlife lovers and those who wants to do something a little different on their trip. Vehicle required. For more info visit  http://meerkatadventures.co.za/home.html.

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Welcoming Summer with Detroit’s River Days


Twenty years ago, the Detroit International Riverfront was an unremarkable industrial setting full of parking lots, overgrown brush and broken concrete – a sad site for a major international border. Now, thanks to public and private investments and the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, the 3+ mile border along the Detroit River has become the Detroit RiverWalk: a magical pedestrian space along the river perfect for playing in fountains, riding carousels and people watching.

Hence the birth of River Days – an annual festival celebrating the development of the riverfront and an opportunity to show off all of the great experiences available on both land and water to visitors.

Now in its tenth year, the event features activities for people of all ages. Kids can enjoy activities including carnival rides, face-painting, crafts and a special children’s stage featuring animal performances, magic shows and storytelling. Adults can enjoy numerous live bands throughout the weekend, including big names such as the B-52s and Patti Labelle, as well as yoga on the riverfront. Boat tours, circus performances, jet ski demonstrations and zip line rides round out the festival, creating a fun, high energy atmosphere that is sure to surprise and delight.

Admission for the event ranges from $3-$5 with proceeds benefitting the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and their efforts to continue to create and expand a vibrant community space on the waterfront. For additional information visit www.RiverDays.com.

Hemel en Aarde, tasting South Africa’s “Heaven on Earth”


When people think of South African wine country, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Constantia are the first places to come to mind. But wineries actually exist throughout South Africa, including in the Hemel en Aarde Valley next to Hermanus, my favorite mistake by the sea.

Literally meaning “Heaven on Earth,” Hemel en Aarde wineries specialize in pinot grigio and chardonnay. While I’m not particularly wine savvy, I had a great time exploring the best Hemel en Aarde had to offer on my wine tour with Hermanus Wine Hoppers. True to the name, the tour is run in a hop-on, hop-off style, with a circulating safari vehicle that travels among nine different vineyards in the valley. In the interest of saving time (and my liver), I opted for three: La Vierge, Newton Johnson and Creation, where I enjoyed a delicious three-course meal at their award-winning restaurant.

Regardless of whether or not you drink, a tour through Hermanus’ beautiful countryside was well worth the visit.

Below are some photos of the experience:

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A Visit to Zwelihle – An Inside Look at a South African Slum


I knew a little about the slums or “townships” of South Africa. Remnants of the apartheid era, townships were the segregated, underdeveloped settlements created for non-whites to live in, usually on the periphery of the cities. Through movies and general apartheid knowledge, visions of tin shacks on dirty streets filled my mind and something I wanted to understand first-hand on my trip.

Since my shark-driven tour of Hermanus proved fruitless, I signed up for a tour of Zwelihle, a township within Hermanus of about 22,000 Xhosa people.

I did the tour with my new friend Sara I’d made at the hostel. Neither one of us was sure what to expect and wanted to be sensitive not to treat this community as a tourist attraction, but our guide Willie made us feel right at home. Short, round and jolly, Willie’s ebullience was infectious. With a bright smile on his face, he walked us through Zwelihle, proud to show us anything and everything.

To me, the township looked basically how I thought it would from what I’d seen in the movies. Away from the charming seaside of downtown Hermanus, Zwelihle lay flat in the middle of field, surrounded by an occasional hill in the distance. The roads, some paved, some dirt, were lined with tin shacks built within feet of one another. The houses stood on dry, dusty grounds on which lay sparse patches of grass and litter. Some of the homes had fences, even barbed wire. Others had brightly-colored laundry airing. Many had satellite dishes.

Most corners had a Spaza Shop, a Coke-themed tin shack which Willie explained meant “unregistered,” essentially a convenience store where people could buy food, drinks and general household items. Men gathered at these Spaza Shops to chat and laugh, women did chores outside the homes, kids played on the street. Willie smiled and greeted them all.

Willie explained there were different types of homes within the township. Many people, such as himself, rented the shacks for 200 rand a month (about $12.40). Those houses had running water and electricity, he said. Further within the township were flimsier shacks with no running water or electricity and public shared toilets. Willie told us these were free but available only to the disabled or elderly, or single mothers who qualified.

Though apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, the income discrepancy between white people and non-white people was clear, and the demographics of the township I saw appeared to be the same as it did when the township was formed.

Willie said finding work was difficult in the township, especially, he said, because of an influx of immigrants from poorer, surrounding African countries taking many of the jobs and keeping wages low. He also said the government was building better quality public housing on the land directly across from the township.

For me, I am grateful for the opportunity for the glimpse into a world so entirely different from mine and the warm hospitality in which it was experienced. I don’t know the future of South Africa, but I am curious to see the developments ahead.

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An Ode to Hermanus – My Favorite Mistake


I’m a planner. The minute I confirmed my South Africa trip, I immediately purchased a guide book to research and get organized. But one of the best things about travel is that you can’t plan everything. And oftentimes, it’s the unexpected which makes for the most memorable experiences.

Like Hermanus. Hermanus is a small coastal town outside of Cape Town, on the way to, but not quite on the Garden Route. I had stumbled upon it in my reading as the South African destination to whale watch. Unfortunate for my whale-loving heart, I was several months off-season. On the other hand – there was one other sea-related aspect of Hermanus that caught my attention: shark cage diving.

Shark cage diving is fairly unique experience limited to only a handful of locations throughout the world. The excursion involves taking a boat out into the ocean, being lowered in a cage a few feet under water and watching as sharks attempt to eat the chum located just outside the cage. You know, a few feet from your head.

Now, aside from the random bungee-jump excursion, adventure tourism is really not my thing. And while I liked the idea of being able to have said “I was sort of almost eaten by a shark,” my fish-phobic self didn’t know if this was something I’d actually have the courage to do. Additionally, time was limited, and my friends wanted to head straight to the Garden Route. It was looking like I’d have to give it a miss.

But somehow after a couple days in Cape Town, this voice in the back of my head saying “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” got louder. The morning of our scheduled departure date I made a snap decision: I was going to Hermanus. And as my companions didn’t share my adventurous sentiments, I was going to approach these sea predators alone.

I said goodbye to my friends, rented a car and headed east to the Hermanus Backpackers Hostel to await my sea fate. Nervous, I went to check in and book my excursion. I had come all this way, damn it, this was going to happen. I knew not to expect whales, but it didn’t dawn on me that the sharks would be anything but excited to meet me as well.

To my dismay, I learned that not only were there no whales, but there no sharks. In fact, there had been no sharks for weeks, despite it being a year-round occurrence and “why didn’t you call ahead?”. Since the trip cost about $100 and was only exchangeable for another trip if there were no shark sightings, the hostel recommended I explore something else in Hermanus.

No whales, no sharks and no time to catch up with my friends, I looked at my options: a visit to the local township and a wine tour. While not my original plan, I signed up anyway for the next day and headed to town for dinner.

Despite being in a coastal town, the hostel was not actually located on the coast or even visibly close to it. Nestled in a quiet residential street, the same was true for its visible proximity to the downtown. As I followed their map to the city, I really had no idea what I was in for.

And then I saw it.

Straight ahead, green and blue ocean that stretched for miles with white waves crashing against faded orange cliffs all along the shore. To my left a sleepy yet charming seaside town full of restaurants and shops. A small green mountain guarded over everything.

I was in love.

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The day was fading, so I quickly found a lovely seaside restaurant featuring fresh seafood, local wine and stunning views. The restaurant itself was mostly full, so I opted to dine alone outside and enjoy the view in the cold. As I sat down, I was greeted with a complimentary glass of local sherry and a blanket and immediately began to relax. I ordered the shrimp meal and a glass of pinot grigio, something Hermanus is famous for, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful, delicious and relaxing meals I’d ever had.

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The next day proved to be equally as incredible as my first impression to the city, with the disjointing experience of a South African slum on the one end, followed by an afternoon of wine tasting and fine dining on the other, a fascinating experience showing both ends of life in South Africa. (Stay tuned for more on that).

As I returned to the hostel, relaxed, slightly tipsy and ready to leave for the Garden Route in the morning, I heard the morning sea report from the staff: they had seen sharks after all.

While I didn’t have the time to wait another day, I decided I didn’t care. Stunning views, incredible food and an eye-opening look at South African life, my spontaneous trip to Hermanus ended up being one of the best mistakes I ever made.

For the sea life, I’ll just have to return :).

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Getting Glamorous at the Gatsby Gala


Those familiar with Detroit know the city is full of historic neighborhoods containing row after row of stunning architecture. While numerous tours throughout the city offer opportunities for visitors to see these homes up close, there’s a new event in town that allows guests to experience this time period on an even deeper level: The Detroit Gatsby Winter Gala.

As the name suggests, the event is a celebration of everything fabulous about the 1920s. Set in the historic Charles T. Fisher Mansion, the location itself makes this event a winner. The 1922-built house was the home of the co-founder of the Fisher Body Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of car bodies in 1914. The 15,000 square-foot mansion features 46 rooms containing Tudor-style ceiling murals, a grand staircase, a pipe organ, a Prohibition-style speakeasy and more – the perfect backdrop for an evening of opulence and entertainment.

With this setting, fringed, feathered and tuxedoed-party-goers are transported back in time enjoying a night of dancing, drinking and mingling throughout the house – the dream of any Great Gatsby or Downton Abbey fan.

While new, the party is looking to become an annual or semi-annual occurrence. Organizers held a less formal, outdoor event last summer with their First Annual Detroit Gatsby Lawn Party at Detroit’s Palmer Park neighborhood, and they are planning to repeat the event this September.

Ticket prices range from $80-$100 for the winter gala and $25 – $150 for the lawn party, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting a local charity. Events sell out, so it is recommended to purchase tickets early.

For more information visit http://detroitgatsbylawnparty.com.


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Cape Town – Boulders Beach


By far my favorite thing to do in Cape Town was visiting Boulders Beach – a small beach near Simon’s Town famous for its colony of African penguins. It gets its name from the large boulders in the sand and water, but really, no one cares about the damn boulders.

What people care about are the penguins, because:

  • They live on the beach not in the arctic
  • They sound like braying donkeys
  • Penguins!

Basics on what you need to know:

  • Boulders is located about an hour outside of the main city near Simon’s Town – accessible by car or MetroRail train (walk from Simon’s Town)
  • Costs R65 – about $4
  • Penguins are viewed from the boardwalk – you get close but not *that* close
  • It is recommended to pair with the Cape of Good Hope – about a 30-minute drive away

Photos below!

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South Africa




I’ve recently returned from South Africa, a truly incredible country. The mountains and coastline in the south offer one amazing view after another. The sheer number of and proximity to wildlife on safari at Kruger National Park created one of the most amazing travel experiences in my life. And Johannesburg is a fascinating city offering a raw, real perspective of a country that has been through a lot and continues to move forward.

Some of my favorite experiences included:

  • Visiting the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Cape Town
  • Walking along the cliffs at the Cape of Good Hope
  • Stumbling upon Hermanus, the charming whale town along the coast
  • Getting up close and personal with ostriches in Oudtshoorn
  • Watching a pride of lions devour a kudu on safari
  • Learning about the fascinating history of South Africa on a six-hour walking tour of Johannesburg

Below is a short slideshow of the highlights from the country. Lots more (including lots of video) to come!

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Getting Lost in the Fall at Blast Corn Maze


One of my absolutely favorite things to do in Michigan in the fall is a corn maze, and the Blast Corn Maze at Nixon Farms in Dexter doesn’t disappoint.

The experience is basically what it sounds like – a winding journey through the corn stalks with the goal of finding the way out. At Blast, that maze goes through more than 10 acres of corn with three options of a short, medium or long route for all levels of skill (or patience). For extra challenge, bring a flashlight and try it in the dark!

In my case, my friends and I arrived in late afternoon and opted for the long route. We decided to really test our navigational skills by splitting up and racing, which seemed like a great idea at the time, except then I remembered my personal sense of direction was lacking, and I hadn’t bought a map…

Luckily, the maze is marked by eight check points to lead you on your journey and extra exits are available if you truly cannot find your way out.

Despite literally running around in circles for 15 minutes (and somehow finding my way back to the start!), I was determined to make it through the entire path and made friends with a young family who had had the forethought to purchase a map.

Together, we examined the pumpkin-shaped design to navigate to our next checkpoint, hitting some dead ends along the way but making our way steadily through the path.

In the end, I lost (badly) to my friends, who had made it through the maze sans maps in about a half an hour. For me? 57 minutes :).

For those with a less competitive spirit, just walking through the stalks on a crisp autumn day is worth the experience. There’s a peacefulness to being surrounded by corn under sunny blue skies, and the sunset reflecting off the stalks and surrounding trees was absolutely beautiful. Though I certainly wouldn’t recommend a viewing of Children of the Corn beforehand ;).

At $8 per ticket, Blast is one of the more affordable corn mazes in the region and, being open until early November, it also makes it one of the longest-running in the state. In addition to the maze, it offers a variety of supplementary attractions including a pumpkin patch, hayrides, petting zoo, cider and more, making it a fun fall attraction for the whole family.

To learn more visit www.blastcornmaze.com.

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Noel Night: A Christmas Celebration in the D


Noel Night 5

People in Detroit love Christmas – and there’s nothing more evident of that than Noel Night, a 43-year-old annual event in Midtown celebrating everything Yuletide. It is this time of year in early December when tens of thousands of people descend upon Woodward Avenue for what can only be described as a magical evening.

The big institutions – the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Science Center, the Detroit Public Library, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – lead the pack as focal points for both culture and festivities. Surrounding them, more than 70 shops, businesses and churches follow suit featuring artists, holiday treats and more than 200 area music, theatre and dance groups.

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While a significant focus of the event is shopping, one of the best aspects of Noel Night is the opportunity to explore all the historic Midtown museums, churches and institutions that may not otherwise be easily accessible, and for free! My personal favorite experiences at Noel Night have been exploring the Victorian mansions at the Inn on Ferry Street, seeing the murals at the Detroit Public Library and discovering the history of the Scarab Club – a more than century-old artists’ club patronized by artists including Diego Rivera and Norman Rockwell. Add in carriage rides, ice sculptures, a petting zoo and a community sing-along on Woodward Avenue and you have yourself a pretty unforgettable night.

The key to a successful Noel Night is not to get overwhelmed. Despite its five-hour duration, it’s impossible to see everything and traffic will be intense. A better strategy is to go online or pick-up a Noel Night brochure to view the schedule ahead of time and identify the performances you’d most like to see or the spaces you’d most like to visit. Otherwise, take advantage of the pedestrian streets and allow yourself to wander and delight in whatever you happen to stumble upon. And if there’s something you missed, take comfort that, with a history spanning four decades, you can always go back next year!

For more information visit http://midtowndetroitinc.org/events/noel-night/noel-night.

For more Michigan travel tips visit Under the Radar Michigan.