Chernobyl officially opens for tours
The big yellow Ferris wheel sits idle; the bumper cars look frozen in suspended animation, as if they were abandoned mid-collision. So does the nearby school, whose cafeteria is littered with the detritus of dusty gas masks in case of nuclear war, its classrooms strewn with Cyrillic math textbooks and Soviet newspapers from the 1980s. A sign warns schoolchildren to save energy and heat.
Welcome to Pripyat, the Ukrainian town with the misfortune of sitting just miles from the world's most notorious nuclear power plant, Chernobyl. Twenty-five years ago this once heavily forested area bore the brunt of the world's deadliest nuclear power disaster, leaving untold victims who suffered from the radioactive fallout and ecological disaster in its wake.
Now it is one of Ukraine's most visited sites. Roughly 6,000 tourists—most of them Europeans—stream through this ghost town annually on private tours unsanctioned by the authorities. But starting this year, the government is also looking to cash in on the plant's notoriety, with plans to open up the zone to official tours, as well as boost its safety by building a giant concrete shell to encase the reactor by 2015.
After making the two-hour drive from Kiev, the tour kicks off in the no-frills office of the Ukrainian information agency. My guide, Yuri, points at color-coded maps of the radioactive fallout from the exclusion zone—or "dead zone"—a 30-kilometer radius that requires permits (and passports for foreigners) to enter. Next up is a drive-by photo op of the half-finished cooling towers and rusting nuclear reactors. There's an Iwo Jima-like statue devoted to the 29 firemen who died here, too.
Tourists tote around a yellow Geiger counter, which resembles a garage door opener and beeps incessantly as it measures the air's radiation. Levels can vary from as low as 10 microroentgens or one-millionth of a roentgen, in Pripyat (harmless), to 200 in front of Reactor No. 4. (possibly harmful with long-term exposure), the site of the meltdown.
"Only when it started beeping a lot was I scared," said Lina Selander, an artist visiting the nuclear zone from Sweden. "It's like Chernobyl's soundtrack."
The most surreal stop of the tour is Pripyat. There are no hazmat-like outfits or special masks necessary. The poplars do not glow from radiation. The town is an eerily mundane time capsule, buried in dust and left almost exactly as it was when its roughly 50,000 inhabitants were forced to flee in 1986. Tourists are allowed to roam relatively un-chaperoned through the necropolis' spooky remains of apartment blocs, a gymnasium, dance hall, swimming pool, and an Orwellian-eque Palace of Culture, whose peeling sky-blue paint and scattered broken glass feel like a Soviet version of the Titanic.
After the four-hour tour and a prison-style meal, visitors stand on a contraption that looks like a time machine. If it flashes green—no radiation—then you are good to go. On your way out of the exclusion zone, you (and your vehicle) must go through a similar radiation x-ray of sorts.
Tours are not cheap, running upwards of $150 for groups and $400 for individuals. Sergii Mirnyi, a commander of the radiation reconnaissance platoon that responded in 1986, accuses the government of "milking" the disaster for every last tourist dollar. He says the reactor should stand as a monument to ecological education.
"Chernobyl tourism," he told me, "undoubtedly can generate money. But I believe it can generate so much more."
What do you think? Would you go on a tour of Chernobyl? Do you support the fact that the government is offering tours of the region?
The government is expected to roll out official tours later this year. Until then, there are roughly a half dozen private companies offering tours in English. Visit tour2chernobyl.com or tourkiev.comfor more information.
One incredibly delicious reason to be grateful to Mexico
Cinco de Mayo is not, as some believe, the celebration of Mexican independence (that's September 16). In fact, most Mexicans don't celebrate the 5th of May at all, which is when Mexico beat France at the Battle of Puebla, effectively driving the French out of North America. So why do Americans love the holiday? I can't speak for all of my compatriots, but for me it's a chance to celebrate the things that I love about Mexico. There are many reasons to exalt the country (ancient ruins, beautiful beaches, and colonial towns to name a few), but that list would be way too long for this forum. Instead, I'd like to take this opportunity to hail one of my favorite Mexican gifts to the U.S.—the taco. Not only are tacos delicious, affordable, and easy to eat on the go, they're diverse. You can pretty much wrap anything between the folds of a corn tortilla and call it a taco. And you're just as likely to encounter (and enjoy) them in upscale Mexican establishments as you are when they're whipped up roadside. Not surprisingly, they feature prominently in our tour of the world's best street food. For this occasion, I decided to track down a top notch taco recipe. The easy thing to do would have been a Google search (taco recipes are a dime a dozen), but I wanted something a little more special. For guidance, I turned to my friend and chef, Jesse Kramer—the only person I know whose obsession with the hand-held comfort food rivals my own. While I spend an embarrassing portion of my after-work hours consuming tacos, he has made producing them his life's work. He even left behind a job as a cook at the Gramercy Park Hotel's Maialina restaurant and moved to one of Brooklyn's most Mexican neighborhoods, Sunset Park, to pursue his passion (his taco stand, which opened this past December, is appropriately named "Brooklyn Taco" and I can personally attest to the fact that they craft one of the best tacos in all of New York). To hear him talk about his specialty is like listening to a painter discuss a masterpiece. According to Jesse, a successful taco starts with finding just the right corn tortilla. And he can't say enough about the spices and vegetables from Mexico (he talks about cinnamon from the Yucatan peninsula the way I talk about my favorite author). All the wheedling in the world couldn't convince Jesse to give up one of his patented taco recipes, but he did graciously share a traditional Mayan favorite of his—Rescado Rojo—a flavorful paste that can be applied to the taco filling of your choice (typically chicken, beef or fish): Ingredients: 1 tablespoons achiote (annatto) seeds 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 8 black peppercorns 1/2 teaspoon of allspice 1 whole clove 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cloves garlic 3 tablespoons bitter (Seville) orange juice or 2 tablespoons orange juice mixed with 1 tablespoon white vinegar Instructions: In a nut or coffee grinder, grind the achiote seeds, cumin, oregano, peppercorns, allspice, clove and salt. Grind the garlic in a mortar or molcajete, add the ground spices and sir in the orange juice to make a paste. Place in a small glass jar, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Prepare your choice of filling (chicken, beef, or fish) as you would normally, and then top with the paste and pile into a warm, corn tortilla. If you do make the recipe, tell me how you liked it! (If you find yourself in the city, check out Brooklyn Taco on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 6:30pm at Artists and Fleas, a local arts and crafts show, in Brooklyn.) Do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo? If so, what do you do in honor of the holiday? SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 10 Smallest Bars in the World Confessions of a New York Street Food Vendor Vote Now for the World's Best Cruiser
Is air travel the next frontier for social networking?
Are you the type of flier who's learned the name, hometown, and five-year plan of all the passengers in your row (and maybe a flight attendant or two) by the time you de-plane? Or are you of the "Headphones on. Do not talk to me" variety? Planely, an air travel-focused social networking site that debuted in late 2010, is on a mission to make the friendly skies…well, friendlier. The service connects Planely users to one another by allowing them to register their upcoming flights on the site. It then alerts travelers to fellow Planely passengers that are on their flight, or passing through common departure or arrival airports. (For a glimpse of why Planely might just be onto something with this, check out their Twitter feed chronicling "people bored at airports over the world."). To help get the word out, Planely launched a contest that deemed Cebu Pacific Air, a Philippines-based carrier, The World's Most Sociable Airline. 142 airlines (among them JetBlue, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta) were tallied in the ranking, which had Norwegian Air Shuttle in second place, Swiss in third, American Airlines (the top U.S. carrier) in eighth, and Binter Canarias, a Spanish airline, pulling up the rear at number 121 (as one of 22 airlines that booked a single flight). All flights registered on Planely between April 13 and April 20 were tabulated, and after a Twitter campaign that corralled their more than 150,000 followers, Cebu Pacific, the participating airline with the most flights registered (an impressive 913), was crowned the winner on April 22. if (WIDGETBOX) WIDGETBOX.renderWidget('bbedda30-44fc-4ef7-af84-45e790fc5f4a');Get the Poll Creator Pro widget and many other great free widgets at Widgetbox! Not seeing a widget? (More info)While skeptics will (justifiably) say that Planely's premise has the potential to veer into the cheesy (mixers in the airport lounge, anyone?), there is something to be said for the benefits of their communal approach to traveling. Having a network of contacts not only makes the world an easier place to navigate, but it lends itself to budget-mindedness as well. In a conversation with Planely's CEO, Nick Martin, interviewer Phil Campbell described looking forward to "the day—it might be a way off yet—that I get into an airport and manage to share a taxi with someone into a city…this whole process of sort of sharing the cost is starting to take off more and more." Would you be interested in connecting with other travelers through a social networking site like Planely? MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: What's the best social network for travel? How travelers can complain effectively with social media. Denmark launches a social media site for travelers.
Follow that story: Lisbon becomes an even more lovely bargain
We're not flush yet, either. But that doesn't mean we're staying put. We continually scan the horizons for romantic places to visit, no second mortgage required. Portugal's City of the Seven Hills is one of our current finds. It's where you can feel as if you're a visiting celebrity, even if you don't appear on lists compiled by Forbes. Feel retro-chic glamorous as you stroll around the cobblestone streets of this small city of 490,000 people. Sip cappuccino with a view of a majestically restored medieval fortified cathedral. Then glance at your better half in disbelief, because you can spend the night in an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century house for about $140 a night in peak season. Pousadas de Portugal, which translates roughly as "inns of Portugal," are 40-odd country former castles, monasteries, fortresses, and palaces, ranging in size from 9 to 51 rooms. Some inns are located in restored monuments. Others are hybrids of modern hotels and historic properties. Learn more at the site of Pousadas de Portugal. Standard hotels are even cheaper. Upgrade without breaking the bank. As we predicted in our Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2011 story, Portugal's debt crisis is leading to bargains for tourists in what has long been a relatively affordable Western European nation. Most Portuguese speak decent English (unlike their neighbors in Spain or France), reports ABC News. The weather's typically lovely in Lisbon year round. Late spring, summer, and autumn have only a few days of rain each month on average, though in August temperatures can reach the 90s. The shopping is old-timey fun, especially in the neighborhood called Príncipe Real ("Prince Royal" in English), with its independent shopkeepers reclaiming townhouses painted in crimson and pale yellow. For more details, let me quote shopping-obsessed New York magazine: In Chiado, rediscover nearly extinct brands at A Vida Portuguesa, like Oprah's favorite all-natural Claus Porto soap or whimsical Bordalo Pinheiro plates. Treat yourself to a proper pair of gloves at the tiny Luvaria Ulisses, open since 1925. Get your hands massaged and measured, then choose a pair (or, at $88, two!) among a selection of fine-leather styles. What about the food, a critical part of any vacation? Let me just quote ABC News about the cuisine: Hearty Portuguese meals features dishes such as feijoada (bean stew) and cabrito (goat), and basic local restaurants called tascas offer up the best lunch bargain across the nation. The menus usually feature plenty of fresh fish out of the Atlantic as well as dried, salted cod. (bacalhau) How about the nightlife, you ask? It's true that centuries of history still weigh down the old town, but that doesn't stop local residents from looking toward the future. According to Monocle, the city's artists, young musicians, and entrepreneurs, are making (port-flavored) lemonade out of the lemons they've been handed by the financial crisis. Concerts and theater performances are up by double digits as venues such as Nimas, a converted cinema, draw indie acts. Fashion and design museums lie at the heart of urban renewal projects in refurbished historic buildings, such as in the Parque Mayer theater district. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2011 Portugal: Two Friends Explore Lisbon and Beyond Algarve, Portugal: Where the Guinness Man Goes on Vacation
America's best new microdistilleries
Upstart distillers are reviving the craft-spirits scene by combining old-world techniques with modern recipes. Even better, they give visitors a seat at the tasting-room bar. Brooklyn, N.Y. You might call Brad Estabrooke's cleverly named Breuckelen a micro microdistillery. After all, it produces only one type of gin and the full tour takes all of 20 paces. Fine by us. That leaves more time to sniff out the rosemary and ginger notes that set this year-old drink apart. brkgin.com, tours free, tastings $3. Park City, Utah Producing spirits since 2007, High West Distillery & Saloon is Utah's first legal distillery since 1870. A more amazing first: It's the only ski-in distillery we've seen. High West offers three tours a day and an on-site gastropub with hearty fare to soak up the label's eight spirits. highwest.com, tours free, tastings $20. Columbus, Ohio A two-year stint in Switzerland inspired Greg Lehman to open his vodka- and gin-based Watershed Distillery last year. It also led to the distillery's unofficial pastime: Hammerschlagen, a drinking game involving hammering nails into a log. Is that really a good idea? watersheddistillery.com, tours $5. Madison, Wisc. At Death's Door Spirits, you can do one better than a distillery tour and actually help kick off the production process. Each fall, fans take a weekend and trek 200 miles north to wooded Washington Island, where they pick wild juniper berries for next year's gin. deathsdoorspirits.com, tastings by request. Portland, Ore. Since it opened in 2004, trailblazer House Spirits has produced aquavit, gin, and whiskey—and inspired a slew of local competitors, like Bull Run Distilling Co., opened by an HS founder in 2010. Guided tours run only on Saturdays, but the tasting room is open five days a week. housespirits.com, tours and tastings free. —Beth Collins MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL 10 Smallest Bars in the World A Barfly's Guide to San Francisco The Czech Republic's New Brewery Hotels