Sightseeing even better on wheels
By Peter Rosegg
Special to The Advertiser
What makes a great visitor destination? Three things, in my estimation: a Ferris wheel, a Duck tour and a Segway tour.
Fine food, shopping and museums are nice, sure. But I have become a sucker for the fun parts of travel.
Historically, the Ferris wheel came first. The original "observation wheel" was designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. as a landmark for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His name has stuck to the big wheel.
Great cities around the globe have magnificent observation wheels, sometimes permanent like the high-tech London Eye on the bank of the Thames or temporary like the wheel found during the summers in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.
The big wheel in Vienna's Prater park is almost as well known around the world for the key part it played in Orson Welles' classic film, "The Third Man" as the zither music which graces the film. (If you visit Vienna, watch the film first and then take "The Third Man" walking tour when you arrive.)
When Hawaii businessman and politician D.G. "Andy" Anderson suggested a Ferris wheel at Kewalo Basin many years ago he was met with loud raspberries from many people who said it would somehow downgrade Honolulu. I never understood the opposition.
Next came Duck tours, using military surplus World War II DUKWs or amphibious landing vehicles for land and water tours in cities with rivers, lakes or ocean front.
The DUKW is a six-wheel-drive amphibious truck designed by General Motors Corp. during World War II to move troops and goods out of the water and up the beach during amphibious attacks.
Here's a bit of trivia likely to win a round of drinks in any English-spoken-here bar on the planet: DUKW is not a military acronym. The name comes from the model naming system used by GMC; D indicated a vehicle designed in 1942, the U meant "utility (amphibious)," K indicated all-wheel drive and W indicated two powered rear axles. Thank you, Wikipedia.
Unlike a typical tourist bus tour, Duck tours work hard to mix humor and fun with pointing out the sights. They often pass out whistles called duck lips shaped like a duck bill that make quacking noises when you blow through them. Some encourage riders to shout "Quack, quack" at pedestrians (except in the posh Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, where quacking is severely discouraged).
My first Duck tour was in Boston, where the driver wore an Italian gondolier's outfit and delivered the entire tour with a bad Italian accent despite being a proud Irishman with a deep brogue. Ducks in Boston have been christened with monikers such as Back Bay Betty, Fenway Frankie and Beacon Hilda and the drivers (or, forgive them, the "conDUCKtors") go by names such as Major Tom Foolery and Vincent Van Duck.
Kidding aside, Duck drivers in many locations must have not just a chauffer or bus driver's license and tour guide credentials, they need a boat captain's license and harbor permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. These days the Transportation Security Administration must be in there somewhere.
I've enjoyed Duck tours in Boston, London, Honolulu, San Francisco and New York. Boston was best, but the highlight of the London tour was when the Duck ahead of ours got stuck trying to get out of the Thames river. Our Duck had to advance down a shaky ramp to push the first Duck out of the mud back into the river before it could come ashore. Personally, I would have unloaded the passengers (such as me!) before attempting this somewhat risky feat, but it never occurred to our Duck driver and we had quite a thrill.
SIGHTS BY 2 WHEELS
Finally, welcome the Segway PT, a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle invented by certifiable genius Dean Kamen and first produced in 2002.
While Segways are sometimes used by police departments, on military bases, and in warehouses or industrial sites, they have never taken off as the general-purpose personal transporter that Dean (and I) thought they would. But for sightseeing in many places, the Segway is a treat.
Computer sensors and motors in the base keep the Segway upright and balanced, so virtually anyone who can stand up can learn to use one in under 15 minutes. After that, the less you think about the device, the better. For a sightseer, Segway is faster than walking, much less work than a bicycle, more in touch with surroundings than a closed bus, and way, way more fun.
I tried the San Francisco Segway tour last year which starts at Fisherman's Wharf and follows the waterfront through the Marina to the Palace of Fine Arts near the Golden Gate Bridge. On the big looping pier opposite the aquatic park the guide encouraged us to let our Segways rip, so we raced and frolicked with abandon. (Segways' speed limit is 12 to 15 miles per hour.)
On a recent trip my wife and I took the Paris Segway tour. It was a cold May day (the Segway office was selling mittens, which we bought!), but the tour was great, great fun, guided by a pair of lively young Americans who knew just enough about the sights, sounds and story of Paris to ham it up with an irreverent and slightly irrelevant tour.
Starting at the base of the Eiffel Tower, the tour goes along the Seine through Place de la Concorde and around Tuileries Garden (no Segways allowed inside) to the plaza near the Louvre from which the Arc de Triomphe can be seen.
Both Segway tours I took were conducted by City Segway Tours, www.citysegwaytours.com, which offers tours in Atlanta, Berlin, Budapest, Chicago, Vienna and Washington, D.C., as well as Baghdad by the Bay and the City of Light. Day and night tours are available and in San Francisco the advanced tour goes down Lombard Street, America's crooked street. The company started as Fat City Bike Tours and still offers cruiser bike tours in many cities, including Paris.
TOURS IN HONOLULU
And what about Honolulu? A local Duck tour operation, www.hawaiiducktours.com, offers two trips, one to the Arizona Memorial, Keehi Lagoon and downtown, and another that glides along Diamond Head to Maunalua Bay and Hanauma Bay. I've done the first one, and it was good fun.
Honolulu also has a fledgling Segway tour operation, www.segwayofhawaii.com, that recently moved headquarters to Aloha Tower Marketplace as well as Segway tours of Kailua, www.segwayofhawaii-kailua.com. I plan to check out both.
But still there is no landmark Ferris wheel here. The E.K. Fernandez moveable midway has a wheel that tours around town to fairs and carnivals. (The 50th State Fair started Friday!) But I still think Andy Anderson had it right. The views from a waterfront observation wheel — Waikíkí to Waianae, mauka to makai — would be awesome. And it would put Honolulu in the rare category of a city with all three fun attractions.