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Why we won’t travel to North Korea

North Korean Painting of Kim Il Sung

Several weeks ago we wondered aloud whether ethical considerations should factor into our travel decisions. That post prompted a lively debate that helped us refine our thinking on the subject. Since then, fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl has written several thought provoking articles leading up to, and including, his recent trip to North Korea.

We agree with Earl that under normal circumstances the conscientious traveler is a positive force in the world. At our best we are ambassadors, educators, volunteers and economic engines for struggling communities. And it is for those reasons that we encourage people to travel freely and widely. But we also know that while those things are often true, they are not always true.

North Korea stands out as one glaring example of a country that is particularly immune to the benefits travelers normally bring. It’s also a place where tourism has the potential to cause real harm.

In recent years the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has slowly opened its borders to western tourism. We sense it’s a destination that will grow in popularity among hard core travelers. Earl may be among the first to go, but I expect others will follow. Should you?

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Mummy Cave Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Mummy Cave Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, AZ

After a couple of days at the breathtakingly large Grand Canyon, we were ready for something smaller and more intimate. If visiting the Grand is like going to a huge metropolis (complete with teeming sidewalks), Canyon de Chelly (“Canyon d’SHAY”) feels more like a quaint town. It is so cozy that you can explore the entire area in a single active day.

You access the bulk of Canyon de Chelly via two scenic drives along the North and South rims. You can visit all ten overlooks in about four hours. Budget more time if you want to while away an afternoon basking in the beautiful canyon scenery.

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Walking Distance

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright

That is mostly true, but I’m pretty sure I can’t walk to Japan. Not because of the distance involved but because it is an island. As much as I like to think I’m perfect, my water walking skills are strangely underdeveloped.

But the larger point is accurate. Plenty of people walk the entire 2,181-mile length of the Appalachian Trail. Others have walked coast to coast. Further treks are possible for anyone with the determination to undertake them. So it’s true that “walking distance” isn’t really an objective distance at all but rather a personal preference.

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Curieux, To Say The Least

Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine

Even if you don’t like beer, you owe it to yourself to try a Belgian brew (and if you do like beer, make it a double). The Belgians brew such fantastically flavorful and endlessly varied versions of the stuff that they really need a distinct classification to set them apart. Calling them ‘beers’ is just too limiting. But whatever you call them, Belgian beers are some of the best in the world.

What makes them so good is hard to say. It could be because they’ve been brewing beer seriously since the middle ages. But more likely it is because they’re not governed by some requirement or orthodox notion about what beer should be, they experiment with just about any combination. They add spices and sugars. They bottle them using the same methods applied to high end champagne and age them in oak like wine. If you can think of it, they’ve probably done it. After several hundred years of such experimentation, you’re bound to create something special. And they do.

So it was with great anticipation that we visited Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, ME. Allagash was one of the first artisan breweries to spring up in the 1990s that dedicated itself to the Belgian style of beer making. We had the opportunity to taste their original beer, Allagash White, a traditional Belgian wheat beer that is unfiltered and spiced with Curacao orange peels, and coriander. If that combination of spices makes you think we’re in an entirely different universe of brews, it’s because we are. But surprisingly, the spices are so well balanced and subtle that all you notice is that this golden hued beverage is deliciously different from what you normally get from similar looking beers. White is what we consider an everyday drinking beer; something refreshing on a hot afternoon or with a meal. It is a bit expensive to fill that purpose, but it would be nice to have a couple of bottles around for a change of pace every now and again.

Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine

Barrel aged beer! Curieux?

Then we moved on to tasting the Dubbel and the Triple, which are heavier, more flavorful, and sweeter beers. We think of these as “dessert brews,” to be savored slowly and deliberately for their own sake. The mahogany-colored Dubbel knocked our socks off with its rich malty flavor and hints of sweet chocolate. We picked up a couple of four packs and have been doling them out sparingly like fine truffles. The Triple was also excellent, with a fruit and honey flavor, but we were more intrigued by a beer we didn’t get to taste, Allagash’s Curieux.

The name, Curieux, means ‘curious’ in French, which couldn’t describe our reaction any better. To make Curieux, Allagash cellars their terrific Triple in oaken Jim Beam barrels for eight weeks, a process that has us ‘curious’ to say the least. We know what oak does to wine, softening Chardonnay and giving it a buttery vanilla flavor. But we’ve never experienced it in a beer before. We imagine the Triple picks up hints of vanilla and bourbon from the casks, but at this point, we can only imagine.

We were curious enough about this brew to snatch two 750ml (wine sized) bottles without ever sampling it. So far we’ve remained disciplined and haven’t yet gobbled them up. We don’t have a special occasion in mind to crack them open, but eventually our Curieux will get the better of us, no doubt.

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