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There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.

The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)

punxsatawney phil lonsome george


Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

galapagosBe you bucket lister or wildlife buff, the idea of cruising the Galapagos is imbued with animal magnetism. It’s evocative of a science fiction adventure — ship as time machine transporting travelers to a prehistoric land of black lava, alien cactus trees and giant tortoises.

It turns out that planning for such a voyage, which includes ticking off items like “underwater camera housing” or “quick-drying pants that magically become shorts,” is oddly satisfying. So with the determination of a flightless cormorant who hasn’t had eel in a week, I began researching, prepping and packing for a July Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s 48-passenger La Pinta.

As I dug through travel message boards and guidebooks, and picked the brains of past passengers, there emerged four cornerstones of the successful Galapagos cruise: protection from the sea and weather, proper footwear, a touch of pre-cruise study, and a means to record the experience of wandering onto a beachhead littered with groaning sea lions and thousands of fluorescent orange crabs.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Protection from Sea and Sun
The packing list skewed more backpacker’s trek than cruise. Instead of a blue blazer and dress shoes, I stuffed my carry-on with quick-dry shirts, zip-top bags to protect equipment and a floppy hat to repel the equatorial sun. Also part of the regimen: two large tubes of sunblock, one SPF 45 for the delicate face, the other a waterproof 30 for the rest of the body — plus aloe, should I forget to re-apply either.

The sea poses its own problems — the wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December — so I scored some Dramanine (which I later found that La Pinta offered in an all-you-can eat basket). Other passengers ultimately went with the prescription motion sickness patch, the dot-behind-the-ear option not available in South America.

Footwear
Simply put, lava, over which many of the hikes take place, is unforgiving. Still, I left my hiking boots at home, opting instead for the TEVA sandals I’ve taken over rocky Greek Isles, European cobbles and dessert sands. However Galapagos visitors roll, they should make sure they’re properly out-footed. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’ll just bring my oldest pair of shoes and then dump them at the end of the trip,’” said John, one of our guides. “If there’s one tip I can offer, it’s to bring a solid new pair.” (Break them in pre-trip to avoid calluses.) Sure enough, one French passenger suffered a dual sole-ripping on a single walk. His well-worn boots literally ripped in half. Given his propensity for mocking American dining habits, no one seemed too upset for him.

How to Pack for an Active Outdoor Vacation

Pre-Cruise Enrichment
The Galapagos is a place where pre-knowledge enriches the experience — or so I was told. “On the Origin of Species” felt a little too “Challenges of Modernity,” a 200-level class, so I tapped Dominic Hamilton, Metropolitan’s Head of Communications, for something less collegiate. He suggested three: “The Beak of the Finch,” a non-fiction look at a pair of evolutionary biologists who watched natural selection, in real time, shape a colony of finches; “My Father’s Island,” a memoir written by a woman whose family colonized Santa Cruz in the 40′s; and “Galapagos, the Islands That Changed the World,” a photo-laden companion book to the BBC documentary of the same name. My public library had them all and all were winners.

Capturing the Tortoise
travel packingThough the local wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching, camera-wielding homo sapiens, a colleague’s husband suggested renting a telephoto lens. I discovered LensProtoGo, which ships the lens in a waterproof, nearly indestructible Pelican case. The Nikon 80 – 400 millimeter telephoto lens costs about $1,600 new but only $15 a day to rent, and is ideal for framing the red-rimmed eye of the swallow-tailed gull or spying on other expedition ships. If you do bring the “bazooka” and plan on switching lenses, don’t forget the accouterments (a sensor cleaning kit). Jumbo-sized zip-top bags, procured from Amazon.com, would shield my camera equipment, already in a water-resistant bag, during wet landings (when Zodiacs pull up to a beach rather than a natural “dock”).

A second splurge, inspired by Galapagos cruise vets who shared regrets, was an underwater camera. I opted for a waterproof case for my Canon S90 point and shoot, which cost about $150. The video I took underwater, including a spiritual moment with a baby sea lion, was worth the cost.

The one thing I didn’t pack? My cat, a plague-like invasive species, had to stay.

– written by Dan Askin

galapagos crabEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal:
Galapagos vacations are famously expensive. The remote volcanic islands don’t lend themselves to bargain-basement independent travel, as they’re best explored by small ship or on a well-run tour package; and these are usually very pricey. With packages, Galapagos travelers are often at the mercy of high fixed rates, especially during the islands’ peak travel season, which is from June through September. But we came across a fantastic shoulder-season deal for travel in the fall, with a price tag that drops well below what we’re used to seeing for Galapagos tour packages.

Friendly Planet Travel is currently running a special on its Galapagos Island Express package, with savings of up to $500 per person. Package prices start at $1,999 per traveler, which covers most meals, roundtrip airfare from Miami, local transportation, six nights’ accommodations, naturalist-led tours and even the $100 Galapagos National Park fee. Departure dates range from mid-August through December.

The Catch: Spots are filling up fast. As of this writing, seven of the nine cheapest tour dates are sold out (those are the tours going for $1,999 per person). You’ll have to make a quick decision if you want to grab this deal before the last two tours are full.

The Competition: We did some more searching and found this package from Gate 1 Travel, which includes six nights’ lodging, roundtrip flights from Miami, some meals and more, with prices starting at $1,999 per person. But this package doesn’t include the Galapagos National Park fee, and the itinerary is slightly different from Galapagos Island Express, with two nights in Quito instead of one.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

– written by Caroline Costello