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Nightly Terrors & Treats

 

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Halloween treats came early last night at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Raised on all things spooky, when I learned the New York Chapter of Horror Writers Association would be dropping in to host an evening of Night Terrors, I rang my brother who responded with “we’re there!”

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A chilly day outside the museum

Founded in 2014, the Morbid Anatomy Museum is a non-profit with a dark dance card of events and lecture series that are often sold out.   The idea for this popular space grew out of the Morbid Anatomy Library, a cabinet of curiosities created by Joanna Ebenstein’s blog. Situated near the murky waters of the Gowanus Canal, this somewhat desolate location beyond the strollers of Park Slope is an inviting spot for anyone looking to convene with other like-minded souls.

Last night six authors shared their tales, including Tonya Hurley, a New York Times best-selling author and the museum’s founding board member. Her popular novel series Ghostgirl is being adapted for the big screen.   In between readings, prizes were distributed to the audience member who had the best scream, or belted out the best zombie rendition of Happy Birthday, or who could name the actor who played Frankenstein in the 1931 film, for instance.

But it was the presence of the last writer, Jack Ketchum, which cast the biggest treat.   Ketchum, who’s been crowned “the scariest guy in America” by Stephen King, held us spellbound as he read his short story Bully. A four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, last year he was honored with the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award…so you get we’re I’m coming from.

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Jack Ketchum

With the, dare I say, holiday season approaching the museum is a unique place to buy unusual gifts. It’s worth visiting to check out their offerings of t-shirts, classic and contemporary horror literature, Victorian jewelry, housewares, and one-of-a-kind animal taxidermy. While I find that last item kind of creepy, this type of collectible sells out quick.

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Kittens Wedding ceremony.

Some upcoming events to get your ghoul on include Psychedelics of Death, Minder Reader: An Evening With Vinny DePonto, and Bram Stoker: Something in the Blood (which I’ll be at for sure).   Their current taxidermy exhibit, Art, Science & Mortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding, closes on November 6. If you find the idea of dead kittens from the 1800s all dressed up in frills and ready to party off-putting, you might rest easy knowing it’s owned by, and on loan, from Sabrina Hansen, the founder of Aslan Cats, a sanctuary in the Catskills.

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Local Spring Escape Plans

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With a constant barrage of cool and interesting things happening in and around New York City, choosing what to see and do can be like trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix. Now that winter seems to really be behind us, here are some good excuses to shed the coat and leave the house

Transitional Object: (PsychoBarn)
When the weather’s nice, it can be hard to commit to sticking yourself inside a museum. The recent installation on the Met’s Roof Garden is the perfect solution. British artist Cornelia Parker’s inspiration for her latest project came from the house in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Part barn, part movie set, the rooftop setting offers a killer view.

Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk
With their fast and furious punk songs, the Ramones didn’t just influence a movement but pop culture and art as well. For lovers of this band, the retrospective exhibit at the Queens Museum isn’t just a bittersweet walk down memory lane but a unique experience to surround yourself in everything that made you come alive when you bopped and bounced around to music from the guys from Forest Hills who became the house band at CBGB. It’s also a great way to introduce your kids to really good music!

Tulip Festival
Spring has been on the calendar for weeks and if the forecast holds out for the rest of the month we may finally be clear of winter’s long and icy fingers.   With over 13,000 tulips in bloom, alongside other flowers and blossoming trees, the Westside Community Garden is the perfect place to be in the thick of it. Located on West 89th between Amsterdam and Columbus, visiting the garden for a horticulture tour, flower arrangement class, or just strolling the grounds offers a lovely way to celebrate the season.

Smorgasburg
For food lovers, anytime is a good time to eat and Smorgasburg makes it so damn easy. With two Brooklyn locations, one in East River State Park in Williamsburg, and one in Prospect Park, this giant food festival showcases a market of up to 100 local and regional food vendors. This gastronomic outdoor extravaganza is a great entrée into the season and yet one more reason to hang out in Brooklyn.

Tribeca Films Festival
Now in its 15th year, the Tribeca Film Festival is a New York City experience. The project’s goal to revitalize lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11 is still going strong. This festival gives emerging directors the chance to showcase their goods alongside more established colleagues and it gives festival-goers a pick of classic films, new films, foreign films, documentaries, and more. For tourists, it’s a chance to experience the city on a local level.

So what are you waiting for–get outside!

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Sounds For the World.

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It’s been five days since we learned of David Bowie’s death. I’d bet that no matter where you’re traveling these days, except maybe the desert, you’d hear his music streaming from a radio, iPod, or some other device. And even in the desert, someone just might surprise you with a ring tone delivering a few chords from a Bowie song.

Wanderer. Outsider. Misfit. Changeling. If at any time in your life you identified with any of those labels than his music struck a chord for you. That’s why so many people around the planet are still in a bit of shock grieving his loss these few days later. I don’t think that’s going to subside anytime soon. I keep thinking of the old jazz standard There Will Never Be Another You when it comes to this man. That tune has traveled through time as well.

Walking through my neighborhood in Brooklyn or on the streets of Manhattan, Bowie’s music blares from boutiques and bars, delis and donut shops. Quotes from his songs are displayed on café blackboards. We just can’t let the man go.

Stepping down onto the subway platform this morning on my way to work I heard a musician strumming the opening chords to a song. Even with the rumbling of the train that had just pulled out of the station I could name that tune. It was Space Oddity and while I was already late for work I was willing to let a few trains go by just to enjoy the entire performance and get close to Major Tom.

It was a gravelly and low and lovely rendition. I threw a buck into the guy’s cardboard box and soaked it all in. I wasn’t the only one. A few commuters had gravitated near the music and for a few brief moments it kind of felt like a state of grace had fallen on the gritty subway platform. Like we were anywhere but within the bowels of the New York City subway system.

Magically, and weirdly, I did not have to let a few trains go by because not one appeared until the guitarist played the closing chords. All of us listeners got to soak up the full benefit.

That was lovely, I told him and asked his name. Jessel, he said. Then he wished me a beautiful day while others shouted “really beautiful” and “thank you” to him. Dollar bills fluttered into his box before we packed into the tin can that jolted us out of that reverie, jettisoning us into the city towards the reality of the daily grind.

That’s the great thing about music. Like travel, it’s takes us places, lodges itself in our memory bank, gives us refuge. That’s the thing about Bowie. No matter where you are, he can still take you out of this world. No ticket required.

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Get Crackin’

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With unseasonably mild temperatures hanging around the Big Apple these days, Jack Frost isn’t nipping at anyone’s nose. If the balmy weather has put a damper on your holiday cheer, a visit to a magical production of The Nutracker might put you in the spirit. With the mixed bag of productions performing across the New York City area there’s one for every age, making it easy to go nuts. Here’s a small taste of what’s out there:

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
For some, this performance at the New York City Ballet is the one true nut. The grandiose scenery and gorgeous costumes are breathtaking and the dancers are superb. It’s sugar plum fairy city. Through January 3, 2016.

Tickets: From $75 to $265
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center
Midtown Manhattan

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The Hip Hop Nutcracker
The name says it all! Kurtis Blow is the special guest MC who mixes it up for this holiday classic. A DJ, an electric violinist, and digital scenery infuse Tchaikovsky’s score with an urban note and contemporary spirit. Now through December 19.

Tickets: $39-$59
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
1 Center Street
Newark, NJ
1-888-GO-NJPAC

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Gelsey Kirland Academy of Classical Ballet
A different take on the classic, this production offers a bit more drama than Balanchine’s version. Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Kirkland trained under Master Balanchine so you’re definitely in for a treat. Now through December 20.

Tickets: From $20-$59
GK Arts Center
29 Jay St
Dumbo/Brooklyn
(212) 600-0047

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The Hard Nut
Based on a book by E. T. Hoffman, The Nutcraker and the Mouse King, this comic book tale set in the 1970s comes to life through the Mark Morris Dance Group’s clever modern dance and choreography, colorful costumes and winter wonderland in a wild and witty way you’ve not seen before. Now through December 20.

Tickets: Starting from $25
Peter Jay Sharp Building
30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn
(718) 636-4100

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The Knickerbocker Suite
This stripped down version on the time-honored classic delivers a modern twist. Performed by the Manhattan Youth Ballet at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, the first act features an animated film, the second act weaves iconic New York City landmarks into favorite Nutcracker moments. At only 70-minutes it’s a refreshing take on the traditional production and the city’s pigeons never looked so good!

Tickets:  $20-$35
Manhattan Movement and Arts Center
248 West 60th Street, NYC

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A (Wee) Taste of Edinburgh.

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If anyone had told me that my first meal in Scotland would be porridge, I’d probably have said, “Yeah, right.” But after a night flight from Newark, I needed some comfort. The June solstice may have been looming but that early Edinburgh morning greeted me with raw and rainy weather. I suppose that was my first Scottish experience.

History, fishing, golf, hiking the Highlands, pubs, whisky, kilts, haggis, Outlander. All of these things—and much more—are part of the Scottish experience. I didn’t particularly have one in mind when I arrived but it was so nice to see tourism alive and kicking here. If you’re looking for a large helping of history and culture, with a generous side of fresh air, wonderful hospitality, good grub and beautiful scenery—Edinburgh has it.

After taking the tram into the city center (and spying all the motorway traffic from my comfy £5 seat), I dumped my bags at the hotel and went in search of breakfast. I didn’t have to look far. A few steps from the hotel a sidewalk chalkboard beckoned me the message, “I would walk 500 miles for CAKE.” Warm and welcoming, Pep and Fodder serves up fresh-baked goods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A cluster of croissants and other assorted goodies flirted with my attention but when I saw porridge with honey and cinnamon on the menu board, I just went for it.

You know when something is downright delicious? Well this was it, pure comfort food perfection. As my spoon swirled around to catch every creamy bit it struck me that on some future cold and crummy day I’ll be saying, “I could murder a bowl of Pep and Fodder porridge.” So that was my first tasty Scottish experience.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city's crown.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city’s crown.

The majesty of Edinburgh is striking. From my tram seat I saw the giant rock of Edinburgh Castle. Staying in the New Town area, it was an easy 15-minute walk to the city’s most famous and glorious attraction. I’d hooked up with a friend from Ireland and our visit coincided with the setup of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual extravaganza of historical ceremony and entertainment. Scaffolding and bleachers were underway with the castle serving as the backdrop to the grand celebrations that will unfold in August.

After paying an entrance fee, we opted for the do-it-yourself castle tour. The majesty of this fortress, which dates back to the 12th-century, happens outside as much as inside its walls. Entering through a clock tower door, we joined a moving stream of visitors gazing upon the Crown Jewels. America doesn’t have this kind of history. After hearing the term used as an expression for so long it was a wonder to see the real deal gleaming, the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.

Secrets of the Royal Mile, a small group walking tour with Mercat Tours, provided a fun intro to Edinburgh’s history. Led by a cheeky historian who accented our route with tales of crime and culture, this 90-minute journey offered a bit of a workout as we navigated through the Old Town’s steep stairs and hills. For commitment phobic travelers, it’s an easy way to dive into history without blowing your day.

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty.  (Photo: C. Reilly)

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The ancient cobblestone streets call for walking shoes, my ankles were glad I’d worn mine.  This road runs the length of the Old Town that surrounds the castle and bustles with pedestrian, buskers and souvenirs. It’s very “ye olde” and close alleys tease your curiosity. Chasing history down the tiny lanes wedged between buildings that squeeze out the light is a good way to explore the area. Colorful candy shops draw you in and liquor store windows blaze with beautiful bottles of whisky of all ages. Along all the main drags, stores market a massive offering of cashmere sweaters, kilts and tartan.  It’s a wonder there’s any wool left.

With its incredible architecture and heritage, Edinburgh invites walking. It has world-class museums and the badge of honor for being the “world festival capital” so you don’t have to go far to indulge yourself. Relaxing in a sidewalk pub is great for people watching. Old world meets new as bridal parties proudly don kilts.

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

But what would a visit to Scotland be without a pot of tea? It’s kind of a must for a first timer. Whether you’re looking for an elegant or shabby chic atmosphere, Edinburgh is stocked with teahouses offering freshly baked cakes and sandwiches. Clarinda’s kitschy tearoom on Canongate, where I made quick work of a slice of orange cake, suited me just fine. With an abundance of cafes, pubs and restaurants refueling is easy.

Do you like it smoky? That was the question the ginger-haired bartender at The Balmoral Hotel’s Scotch bar posed when I asked for a whisky recommendation. We’d just come from a deliciously memorable feast at The Witchery, an award-winning restaurant at the gates of Edinburgh Castle. This dining destination attracts visitors as much for its magical atmosphere as for its menu. I’m still thinking about the hot-smoked Loch Duart salmon that I tried to eat very slowly.

The evening began with cocktails at The Scotsman Hotel. Walking over the North Bridge around 9PM the solstice sun lit this Edinburgh institution up like golden ale, making it way too inviting to pass up. Its bar buzzed with locals and tourists and we found prime real estate at its brass rail.

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

By the end of the night I wasn’t going home without a proper whisky. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to whisky tasting in Edinburgh. Yet I couldn’t bypass the Balmoral Hotel. Its Scotch bar is known to have one of the largest collections of whisky in Edinburgh; it’s also a very comfy place to hang out. After chatting with me, the bartender unlocked a walled cabinet and carefully weighed the options before presenting me with his recommendations. I’m no expert but I did fall for the Glen Elgin 12-year and my nightcap turned into a night hat.

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Strolling along Calton Hill the next morning rewarded us with stunning views of the city. We even saw hikers on Salisbury Crags. The city’s magic and majesty also lays in its proximity to the coastlines and mountains that surround it and which are easily reached by foot. Hiking boots I did not pack.

Cutting downhill through an old cemetery, we headed towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse where a long line of royalty reigned, including Mary, Queen of Scots. Today, Queen Elizabeth entertains there when she’s in residence. We lingered in the remains of its original foundation, an Augustinian abbey where it felt as if the history of the world was contained within its crumbling walls.

The Abby. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The Abby. (Photo by author)

That afternoon on a Virgin-Atlantic fast train to London, the Scottish countryside appeared like a never-ending painting of verdant green fields, with clusters of black-faced sheep and cows lazing around. Trees with tops flattened by the winds resembled acacia and bright yellow wildflowers popped from the fields. The train slowed through Berwick where the remnants of an old stonewall stood on the edge of a riverbed. Old stone cottages evoked house envy and a band of horses gathered on a hill appeared like a page from a storybook. Solstice sunlight pierced angry clouds as we barreled south. It was the longest day of the year and it was all part of my Scottish experience.

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Celebrate National Park Week.

Point Reyes National Seashore.

Point Reyes National Seashore.

In case you haven’t heard, April 18-26 is National Park Week. Each spring the National Park Service and National Park Foundation invite travelers near and far to celebrate the beauty and diversity of America’s parks.

With events happening across 400 of these beauties, finding one should be easy. If you’ve been looking for a unique getaway, consider one of these wide-open spaces.   There might be one not too far from your own backyard. If you’ve never taken the time out to explore your nearest national park, this might be the perfect week to do it.

For instance, Jamaica Bay Natural Wildlife Refuge is offering a free walk and talk on how to tell stories through photos. For New York City dwellers, it’s the perfect inspiration to go into the great wide open.   Point Reyes National Seashore in California is offering Journey of the Whales, where visitors learn about the migration routes of these animals. At Stones River National Battlefield in Georgia, a bicycle tour will take riders through the Civil War battlefield where they’ll hear stories and learn about this historic site. And at Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado, a new astronomy programs takes visitors on a celestial telescope tour as they check out the gold tier night sky. These events are a just tiny sampling of what’s being offered this week, there are loads more events happening in parks across the country not just now but throughout the year.

The great news is that if you can’t get out this week, you’ve got the rest of the year to plan a visit to one of America’s national parks. Stepping into spring, National Park Week is a great incentive to appreciate what we’ve got in our country’s backyard.

From California to the New York Island, go find your park!

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America’s Lost Treasures: The Plains Indians

Buffalo picture of tipi of Never Got Shot. Photo credit: Claudia Santino

Buffalo picture on teepee. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art transports you to another place and time. For anyone who’s been itching to pay New York City a visit, it’s a perfect reason. But it’s got a short run and will close on May 10, 2015, so start planning.

You don’t need to be an art critic to understand the value of this exhibit. It’s easy to fall under the spell and spirit of what the Plains Indians were all about. Some of the artistic forms on display go as far back as 2,000 years when migrating peoples contributed items into Plains Indian culture.   The bounty at the Met represents pieces from many Native American nations.

Man's vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Man’s vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The Great Plains of North America was once a vast open landscape of earth and sky, running from the base of Texas and heading north across the mid-west and into Canada. That idea alone made it easy to immerse myself in understanding how the moving canvas of their environment influenced Native American Indians.

We lost the treasures of our country’s earliest artists  a long time ago. The 130 items in this exhibit are on loan from museums in Europe and North America. This treasure chest of Native American art was tossed across the ocean ages ago when soldiers and other opportunistic eyes recognized their value and traded then off.

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Animal power and a reverence for nature was central to Native American culture and that relationship is on full display here in almost every piece. The pipe is also a significant item in the exhibit. It served as a sacred instrument used in prayer and other rituals. A symbol of friendship and trust, the peace pipe helped seal the pact.

For the Plains Indians these items served more than one purpose.  They were more than form and function. They were part and parcel to their way of life. A war club made of walnut wood is smooth and glossy and engraved with a constellation of four-pointed stars.

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The arrival of Europeans in the mid-1500s and onward had a significant impact on the Plains Indians, for good and bad. The goods they acquired from these new settlers entered into their artistic expression, with glass beads from Venice, cowrie shells from the Pacific Ocean, and brass buttons from England adorning their clothing and other materials. Battle gear, blankets, dresses, moccasins, shirts and headdresses, mix the natural and the New World and the items on display are a wonder. One very cool looking man’s coat of native tanned leather, porcupine quills, brilliant embroidery and metal hooks and eye fasteners was handcrafted by a Sioux-Metis woman, yet looks like something you’d see on London’s Carnaby Street.

Handcrafted man's coat. (Photo credit:  Claudia Santino)

Handcrafted man’s coat. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Traveling north from Mexico, the Spaniards introduced the horse. Native American Indians quickly harnessed its power, joining the spirit of this animal into their way of life and swiftly adapting to a more nomadic existence. If they were one with nature before, now they could ride alongside her changing seasons. They could hunt better and find the food and shelter necessary to sustain their way of life. Now on the move, they couldn’t afford to be materialistic. The creativity and craftsmanship around their evolving lifestyle is brilliant and inspiring.

The horse transferred the beast into an animal with sacred powers.

The mask transferred sacred powers. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A saddle blanket made of leather, glass beads and wool cloth was used for resting beneath a woman’s saddle and used on social occasions to convey wealth and power. A horse mask transferred this animal into one with sacred powers in warfare or during ritual. A crupper, a strap that secures a horse’s saddle, is beautifully crafted from rawhide, native tanned leather, wool cloth, silk, glass beads, porcupine quills and metal cones. A riding dress with a Morning Star motif signals the four cardinal directions.

Photo by Claudia Santino

A crupper. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

There are many standout items on display. One of them is a cradleboard. Passed down as family heirlooms, these baby carriers worn on the back were crafted by a woman’s family and featured elaborate designs. Thunderbirds accented this one, mythical creatures recognized as powerful guardian spirits. Tiny metal cones hang around the top of a framed strap, creating a tinkling sound to soothe a baby. The thoughtfulness of which stayed with me.

A cradleboard. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A cradleboard.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Something called the parfleche envelope blew me away. It was the Ziploc bag of its time, only a lot better and, clearly, a work of art. Made from buffalo rawhide by Great Plains women, this painted envelope functioned as a beautiful weather resistant container. Central to life on horseback, it was expandable, lightweight and unbreakable. I may only ride the iron horse to work every day but I like the idea of having one.

Headdresses made from raven feathers and other bird feathers and beads are majestic. Porcupine quillwork, an art form unique to Native American Indians, features strongly in their clothing and other adornments. Painted hides depict ceremonial battles, mythic birds and other forms of life and spirit, using every bit of canvas. They wasted nothing.

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

The Plains Indians spun materials from the natural world to evoke spiritual powers of animals and celebrate creation. A shield with a painted buffalo bull was passed down through five generations. A Cheyenne shield was used in war for almost 100 years. The animal depicted on their battle armor was the owner’s guardian spirit. The belief was that it was the image that would protect the warrior, not the shield.

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Sadly, in the end nothing could protect these Native Americans. Frontier settlers and the US government stripped them of their land and devastated the natural resources, mainly buffalo, that the Indians relied upon to sustain their way of life. The artwork here, from pre contact peoples to contemporary artists, are all of the elements used in their life which serves as a canvas to tell their story. In essence, they are America’s earliest experiential travelers and storytellers.

There’s a lot to marvel over in this collection. These in between days of spring when the weather toys with us are a good excuse to call in a mental health day or take vacation and play tourist for a day or two at one the city’s greatest cultural playgrounds. A chance to see what the Plains Indians contributed to American culture.

Come see this beautiful sight before it leaves town.

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Norway’s Good Nature.

Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Still high off his recent trip to Norway, guest blogger Evan Byrd would gladly travel back
to one of the happiest places on the planet!

Reeling, I sit with my airplane seat back up and tray table locked, absorbing swelling forest green hills gutted by long rivers passing through on all sides. I’m arriving in Oslo, Norway on an $800 roundtrip ticket from Newark that I had booked 5 months out. The airport is small in comparison to most but surprisingly inviting. It only takes a short while to figure out the many affordable transit options leading directly to city center.

Oslo is impeccably travel-efficient, offering various tram/bus/subway/ferry routes that rival the convenience of New York City’s subway lines. “Day” or “Multi-Day” passes provide access to all three of the aforementioned modes of transportation (save ferry, which is separate). Depending on your zeal for tourism, the Oslo pass is actually a good idea, as it allows for an all-day pass to popular tourist attractions & transportation.  Although don’t get caught without a card by one of the “tram ticket ferries,” because if I wasn’t such a good “stupid American” I would probably have gotten a ticket. Thankfully, 99% of the time, Norwegians speak English and are excited to practice with you. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!

For anyone travelling on a budget, Thon Hotel properties are affordable and have an absolutely delicious buffet style breakfast, with fresh fruit, warm pastries, omelets, salmon, and lots of other good stuff. Complimentary for guests, it alleviates the pain of having to remember to budget in your breakfast in a city that truly makes New York City look like a dollar store. My friend Ulrik once said, “Norwegians don’t care about paying high taxes but to the rest of the world we look like the Norwegian mafia!” And it’s not only my blood that the city’s too rich for, most locals I spoke with shared their preference for cooking at home and finding their own free activities (hiking being #1, which they do relentlessly).

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. Photo credit: Evan Byrd.

Vigelandsparken, a must-see for art enthusiasts. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Because of their accommodating transportation system, it is possible to be an efficient turbo tourist in Oslo. Many of the stops correspond to the actual attractions. For instance:

  • Vigelandsparken (Vigeland Sculpture Park): An absolute must for art enthusiasts, bicyclists, and lazy bodies looking to picnic for the day. The sculptures are serene and the park is symmetrically appealing and clean.
  • Nationaltheatretr: Near the Royal Palace and the Theatre. Also a more commercial area east of the theatre where the American footprint is clearly visible. Steer clear of the food options, ain’t nobody trying to eat at TGIFridays in Oslo!
  • Bygdøynes Bus Stop: Takes you directly to the more rural and affluent Bygdøy Peninsula on the #30 bus. History buffs will enjoy the Kon Tiki museum and learning about the original discovery of Easter Island!
  • Operagata Tram Stop: If not just to walk up the side wall of the Opera House, it’s an architectural masterpiece worth seeing the sunset from.
Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Operagata, worth the tram stop. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Now, I’m not one to be constrained to a city for all of my fun, nor should you given the expansive countryside Norway boasts to the west. The National State Railways offer daily rail trips for affordable rates. After Oslo, I visited my friend Ulrik and his family in Molde (mole-dee), a small town on the Western coast. The NSB took me to a town called Åndalsnes (6 hours from Oslo) and Ulrik scooped me up from the station. An hour and a half, two ferry rides, a couple of marshmallow treats, and several wondrous vistas later, we reached his home.

The Rauma Railway is the chosen route when traveling to this part of the country and it’s a spectacular ride. Norway has made a conscious effort to intertwine its railway system through, over, and alongside the mountain ranges. If you don’t have time to head into the heartland, at the very least travel to Åndalsnes located at the crossroads of the many impressive vantage points in Norway. Fjords are more prevalent here and reality quickly takes a back seat to the fruits of Mother Nature’s long and patient assemblage of Norway’s outstanding terrain.

For example, a fjord (fee-yord) is a mountain pass and bears the markings of steep stone walls and crystal turquoise water. The fjords are a result of melted glaciers which have carved the valleys of the fjords and then replaced the rivers with salt water from the Atlantic. Around Åndalsnes, with the help of a rental car or tour group, you can travel to:

  • Trollstigen (Trolls Road): Impossibly engineered mountainside road curving its way like a snake nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The view from the top is staggering.
  • Trollveggen (Troll Wall): Another crowd pleaser and the tallest vertical rock face in Europe (3,600 feet). It’s dark, mysterious, and imposing mountain face looms over you as you peer up from a nearby vantage point on the lawn.
  • Geirangerfjord, Eagle Road, & Flydalsjuvet: Geirangerfjord is a stunning fjord. The famous Seven Sisters waterfall is easily seen from the precipice of the Eagle Road or more commonly known, Ørnevegen, within the Geirangerfjord. Flydalsjuvet can be reached by travelling down the Eagle Road and up again past the hotel area where onlookers can actually step out, if they dare, onto a very picturesque yet precarious overhang (I was brave!)
Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird's eye view.  (Photo credit: Evan Byrd)

Flydalsjuvet, great place for a bird’s-eye view. (Photo credit: Evan Byrd

Prepare yourself for hardy fare in Norway. It’s basically a comfort food menu and there’s nothing wrong with that! Try Kjøttkaker if you have an opportunity (with peas, which I was told is crucial by my Norwegian hosts). They’re Norway’s version of meatballs and compare similarly to Sweden’s famous creations. Be sure to hike plenty to work some of it off!

The food, culture, people, scenery, and experience all serve to envelope your mind, breath, and taste to the point of disbelief. I found myself asking Norwegians, “How in the name of Norsk Gods and Goddesses is your countryside even possible?”

So deserving is Norway for all travelers to indulge in a country rich in wildlife, meals cooked in traditional styles, monuments of international praise (Nobel Peace Center & Kon Tiki Museum), and a unified population serving each other before themselves. Ulrik once said, “We don’t think about paying taxes, we just do, it’s for the greater good.”

The happiest cities on the planet are said to be in Scandinavia where you can be greeted by an excited, “Hi, Hi!” or an afternoon invitation to scale a sizeable mountain. Hence, lending to the Norwegian’s good nature; a sense of belonging resonates within you.

With its tremendous surroundings, gushing ice-cold waterfalls, ancient stones lifted to insurmountable height, or just good company, you may keep your faculties wandering within forest green memories long after Norway fades behind jet black streams.

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Expert Travel Agents Know The Best of Both Worlds.

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For a good time…call a Travel Agent!

That’s what it reads on a string backpack I carry every now and then. I often forget about it until someone stops me to ask if I’m a travel agent or if travel agents still exist.

Yes, thankfully, travel agents still exist. They’re also sometimes referred to as travel counselors. But no matter what you call them, they are there not only to help you plan a good time—a good agent has your back, as well.

As wonderful as online shopping has made our world, lately I’ve run into a lot of people who are completely overwhelmed by it. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, the time-suck that you can get dragged into by shopping for something as simple as a sweater often takes you on a never-ending journey when it comes to planning a trip online. And with consumers wanting more memorable experiences, leaving that solely to the online distribution channel is pretty risky.

Yes, the Internet is a wonderful thing but at some point you just need to have a conversation. You need the human touch. Human touch brings inspiration and creativity. That creativity comes from listening to your customer and asking the right questions.

Last month I attended The New York Times Travel Show in NYC and sat in on a panel discussion between industry experts called Forecasting the Future of Travel – Where Will We Be in the Next 10 Years. Much of the focus was on the power of technology in relation to travel agents. The question of whether all these travel technology options would at some point make agents obsolete hung in the air, so it was refreshing to hear panelists Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel correspondent, Arabella Bowen, editor in chief, Fodor’s Travel, David Pavelko, director, Google Travel, Google Inc, and Wendy Perrin, travel advocate, TripAdvisor, rally around the value of the travel agent. While they all made nods to technology, the consensus was that technology doesn’t provide service.

There was a bit of myth-busting too. We hear terms thrown around all the time about what the data is showing. “Big data solves a lot [of problems], but it doesn’t solve the surprise and delight of discovery,” said Arabella Bowen, editor-in-chief of Fodor’s Travel. “There’s no way to get an experience like that except with a travel agent.” Their bottom line was technology can’t replace travel agents.

As technology continues to innovate, travel agents will need to adapt to those innovations and use them to better service their customers. Expert travel agents know how to navigate the online and offline world. They use the best of both worlds to their advantage, combining their knowledge and expertise to provide you with the best possible service.

Finding an agent who specializes in a specific destination or certain type of travel provides more customization around your journey, making for a more targeted experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t still go off and do your own thing. It just means that they’ve done the groundwork for you to get your trip off on the right foot. They are also your go to person should anything go wrong, a human touch. Something the Internet certainly can’t replicate.

If you’ve never used a travel agent and are interested in working with one, T+L’s A-List Travel Agents is a good place to start. It’ll give you an idea of why it just might be worth your while to get a relationship going with a good one.

So, yeah, for a good time—call a travel agent.

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Friendly Skies My @ss!

Photo credit: B. Snyder.

Photo credit: B. Snyder.

PortsAreCalling approaches writing about travel from multiple perspectives and this week’s post comes to us courtesy of Joseph Mosomillo. A frequent traveler, below are his observations on a recent flight experience.

Corporate greed and the separation of classes could not be represented any better than when traveling by air today. The bottom line is clear—you get what you paid a lot for to begin with.

It starts the minute you enter the airport.

The lines are longer for economy because of cutbacks and, possibly, there are less qualified people at the service counters. The premium class counters are brighter. The people who serve you are more attentive, and your baggage is not scrutinized because it may be a few pounds over the limit.

As a coach passenger you’re offered numerous up-charges, just to make you feel like those fortunate enough to pay for premium class. It starts with priority boarding, this eliminates the anxiety of not getting your carry-on stored above you or somewhere on the aircraft without being forced to check it because they have run out of room. Then there’s the additional leg room so you can stretch out three more inches, it usually runs about $25 an inch.

Then there’s the baggage.

Last year the airlines made two billion dollars in additional baggage fees. Two billion! Still not enough to give us that small bag of peanuts. Peanuts to them but not peanuts for us.

They also offer you the option of buying more miles at the time of check-in so you can possibly upgrade in the future, just in case someone is asleep at reservations and doesn’t sell that same ticket for hundreds or even thousands more. Imagine you’re sitting in first class on an upgrade and some schmuck paid thousands more for the luxury of free food and extra room. Hey, more power to you if you can afford the ticket.

That brings me to the whole food thing. Here I am sitting about three feet away from first class with that imaginary wall made of cheap polyester fabric separating me from a reheated meal. Instead, they offer me a beverage along with a list of prepackaged garbage food to purchase, while I’m watching trays of food being served through that polyester curtain. Boy do I feel like a second-class citizen for that moment, or that hungry kid saying, “please sir, could I have some more?” I think the worst part is the ice cream sundaes.

I don’t think the Wright brothers had this in mind. Their ideals were meant for the world to experience the invention of flight, to soar above the clouds, look down at the beauty from above, and feel free. It was a way to get people from point A to point B, to connect people to different places and faces, and share different parts of the world. Flight would be a thing of beauty and convenience, it sure seemed to start out that way.

Boy, did we overshoot the runway. How can such a beautiful thing have turned so ugly?

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El Capitan’s Dawn Wall Climbers Set The Bar High in 2015.

Ben Margot/AP

Photo credit: Ben Margot/AP

In a new year that’s already delivered some real lows, two men have given us an ultimate high and something to cheer about.

Free climbers Tommy Caldwell, 36, and Kevin Jorgeson, 30, made history yesterday by clawing their way to the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in California’s Yosemite National Park in a single expedition. Using rock holds for their hands and feet–just their hands and feet–and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, they accomplished something that’s never been done. Known as the world’s hardest rock climb, they free-climbed the sheer vertical 3,000ft ascent in 19 days. Their only accessories—rope to stop their falls and sleeping tents suspended from the great rock face.

Desire may see possibility everywhere but not without commitment.

Their quest began on December 27 but it took years of planning and practice. One of the beautiful things about their achievement was the help of friends who ascended 1,200 feet every few days to help replenish supplies that helped them to achieve their goal. Bagels and whiskey helped sustain them, and the positive vibrations pouring forth from the friends, family, and onlookers at the feet of El Capitan and via a live-feed certainly helped. For a lot more details on this incredible climb check out NPR’s Free Climbers Make It To The Summit of El Capitan.

For anyone who likes beginning a new year with a challenge, Caldwell and Jorgeson have certainly provided some great inspiration. We may not all be up for something along the likes of El Capitan, but chances are you’ve got your own personal summit that you’re trying to reach. Whether it’s traveling someplace new or traveling out of your own comfort zone.

Where will you go in 2015 and what will you do? These two guys have set the bar damn high!

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It’s New Year’s Eve—Have A Ball On The Boardwalk.

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In case you haven’t heard, the #1 destination in the US for 2015 is Queens, New York. So say the folks over at Lonely Planet. Good for that borough.  Go explore it!

Nothing against Queens but after years of supersaturation in Brooklyn, I feel like my hometown could use a bit of rest. We were the center-of-the-universe before everyone came late to our party and now this borough is an actual brand.

If you had any doubts about that, you might want to turn your eyes towards Coney Island tonight where the first-ever New Year’s Eve Parachute Jump ball drop will go down. A side of fireworks will accompany this inaugural event and festivities also include sideshow performers, a rocking DJ (no Taylor Swift here!), and free hot chocolate. It’s meant to be frigid tonight but all of these things will warm you up fast.

“This New Year’s Eve, you won’t want to miss our beachfront boardwalk blast in Brooklyn!” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “Now that we have our very own seaside ball drop, why be squished like a sardine in Times Square when you can rejoice like royalty in the County of Kings!”

Where are you ringing in the New Year? If you happen to be in New York City, hop a train to Brooklyn (it’s a pretty fast ride) and be part of history.

Wherever you may be, have a very Happy New Year. All the best to you in 2015!!

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Grab a Seat

The closest I’m getting to Vietnam right now is Nightingale 9, a great restaurant in Cobble hill, Brooklyn, but for any foodies out there, here’s an incentive to get a closer seat at the table.

The Squeaky Robot

For the budget-conscious person in Hanoi, there are no better alternatives to eating than traditional Vietnamese dishes found on every sidewalk, corner and alleyway. One needn’t look far. The food here is delicious, cheap and fun, as it requires a level of proactivity and interactivity that is unfamiliar to many cuisines worldwide. I say proactivity because the best places in Hanoi only serve one thing, and they only serve that one thing for a short window in the day. My favorite bun cha place is open for three hours a day at most, even less if they run out of food. So you must plan and run. Once you plop down on a dubious plastic cube, the interaction begins. Fix your plate with whatever options are available: limes, chili sauce, garlic vinegar, pepper. Mix whole chilies into your fish sauce – let it rest! The chilies must permeate everything. Many…

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The Positive Revolution of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

slras_Photoby_zach_smith_3Music can heal the trauma of man.
Jahson Gbassay Bull

Travel is wonderful but at some point you’ve got to go home.

Unless, that is, you can’t.

That is the fate of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

If you’re not familiar with them, Sierra Leon’s Refugee All Stars are a band that was formed in the refugee camps of West Africa. Originally from Freetown, they, along with millions of others, were forced to flee their homes in the 1990s during a civil war in Sierra Leone that lasted a decade. In a crazy, shook up world, their story is incredible.

Born out of a situation you’d never hope to be in, instead of staying mired in hardship, these guys mined the power of connections and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Music became their weapon, and from the dirt camps of Guinea they led a positive revolution. From international music festivals, to intimate venues, their uplifting sound and rousing energy inspires people around the planet.

Beloved for their joy and spirit, for the past year Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have been celebrating their 10-year anniversary and the release of Libation, their fourth album, with a tour throughout Europe and the United States. It ended earlier this summer.

But once again, they can’t go home. They are cut off from their friends and families.

With Sierra Leone being one of the West African nations hit hardest by Ebola, recent reports list that more than 20 people a day are dying in that country from the virus. The limited amount of health care workers and hospital facilities make it impossible for everyone infected to get treatment, and all areas of the country have been impacted.

As the band takes shelter in the U.S., I was lucky enough to meet them when I booked them for an event in New York City. A gentle group, their feel-good sound immediately permeates a room, and it’s all peace, love, understanding, and connecting. They bring a sense of place with them, and for a little while it was Sierra Leone. With a bit of funk, a bit of reggae, and lot of West African soul, if you can’t chill to that, then you can’t chill.

I suspect that most of us don’t know what it’s like to live like a refugee but it can’t feel all that good. And while the U.S. isn’t the worse place in the world to be holed up, when a place isn’t your home, it isn’t your home. So they’re doing what they can by taking a bad situation and using it as an opportunity to raise money and awareness to help the people of Sierra Leone fight Ebola. As ambassadors for world peace, and with music as their arsenal, they continue to create goodness in an even crazier, shook up world.

The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars are a generous group of men, so I’d like to use this opportunity to be an ambassador for them. With the holiday season upon us, I know there are plenty of parties being planned right now that are going to need music.  Not only will you have an internationally acclaimed band at your event that’ll get people on their feet, but you’ll also be helping them in their campaign to raise awareness. They can travel anywhere for a gig, except back home.

Unless you work for a humanitarian organization and volunteering to go in, travelers aren’t going to Sierra Leone. As the western world does the freak about the few Ebola cases that have touched their shores, the best thing we can do to stop its spread is to help eradicate this virus in the countries where it’s become an epidemic.  This is a collective endeavor.

So spread the word and spread good will. None of us may be traveling to Sierra Leone anytime soon but that doesn’t mean some of the best things about Sierra Leone can’t come to you.

Want to learn more? Click here for details on booking Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

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A Cemetery in Marbella: A Photo Essay

Some folks get creeped out by the thought of a cemetery. Not me. Raised across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the most famous in the US, as a kid I would slip through the bars on a wintry day and make snow angels among the beautiful tombstones. In summer, it’s still magic watching millions of fireflies dance the night away. Here’s a nice photo essay from The Daily Norm whose cemetery visits inspire travel.

The Daily Norm

There’s something inherently beautiful about a cemetery. It’s not just the peace and quiet, which is of course an inevitable feature of every cemetery or graveyard, but the tangible demonstration of human emotion shown by the care taken by those living for the memories of their beloved dead. This can be seen through the wording of a grave, through the flowers carefully laid alongside it, and through the regular cleaning of the stone with as much care as would be taken for a feature of a living household. There is also something innately civilised about caring for the dead and paying homage to the past, not least because it can make us more appreciative of our life and the lives of others still around us.

While I do like an English graveyard, headstones tilting in all directions and covered in moss and decay, my favourite type of cemetery is a…

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Eight things I learned from travel

The recent post by Life After Liquidity, 8 things I learned from travel, is too good not to reblog. For anyone who’s been on the fence about getting up and going, here’s a good kick…enjoy!

Life After Liquidity

Travel Cover

As I write this post I am sitting in the Caltrain, passing through various suburbs of the San Francisco Bay peninsula on my way to the city. It’s comforting to be surrounded by so many familiar sites once again.

My wife and I have had quite a journey: 17 countries, dozens of cities, and countless airports/train stations/bus stations. We’ve witnessed both staggeringly beautiful phenomena (Northern Lights in the Yukon Territories) and horrifying moments (a mob beating up some dude in the streets of Istanbul) along the way. Fortunately, my wife and I came out the other end of our trip completely safe and with a lifetime of memories.

I’ve delayed writing this post as long as I could; it’s been taking me a while to process what I’ve learned from this trip. The short answer is: a lot.

I may not be able to cover all the lessons I’ve learned…

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Cold Spring, NY—A Perfect Getaway.

Photo credit: Claudia SantinoGet outta town!

For New York’s city dwellers without beach houses or country homes, escape is a thought that’s constantly simmering throughout the summer. For visitors, ditching Manhattan to explore greener pastures makes for a nice retreat. The trouble is that traveling to a destination that instills the feeling that you’ve escaped the city’s limits can take a few hours. Without a car, or the budget to rent one, finding the right place to accommodate you logistically can be a bit challenging.

Except for Cold Spring, New York.

Located just over an hour from Grand Central Station via the Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson line, once you arrive Cold Spring it’s just a short stroll to Main Street where you’ll find a small village with lots of offerings. Especially its access to the great outdoors.

Located on the banks of widest part of the Hudson River, across the water the looming hills and plunging cliffs of West Point will have you feeling a world away from Manhattan’s hustle and bustle. Sailboats and paddleboats make their way along the same historic waterway Native Americans used in the 1600s and which later became a main hub for travel and transportation.

With its proximity to New York City, this charming and historic town is a welcome shock to the senses, making it an ideal getaway for day or weekend trips. Its easy navigation makes it equally accommodating to older travelers and families, many of whom can be seen strolling or relaxing along the water’s edge. A few local inns located just on or off Main Street and the nearby towns of Beacon and Garrison offer additional accommodations for visitors who come to explore the areas access to historical culture, art galleries, boating or cruising on the Hudson, and nature trails.

On a hot August morning, I was drawn to this easy getaway for a day of standup paddle boarding, or SUP as it’s known. Once off the train I easily made my way to Hudson River Expeditions, an outfitter specializing in all things paddling for the novice to the expert, including canoeing and kayaking.

All things paddling await you at Hudson River Expeditions.

All things paddling await you at Hudson River Expeditions.

Whether you’re looking for private instruction or just interested in renting for an hour or more, these folks are a full service operation. Their tours of the Hudson Highlands area includes such offerings as a leisurely paddle through the Audubon sanctuary of Constitution Marsh, an open river paddle through World’s End to West Point, or a journey to Pollepel Island to explore Bannerman Castle, to name a few.

Gearing up at Foundry Cove, which George Washington used as a strategic location against the British, a guide adjusted a paddle to my height. Reviewing the basics at the launch point, he said to imagine an imaginary buoy out on the Hudson and instructed me not to cross it because of recreational vessels. That wouldn’t be a problem, with its abundant wildlife Constitution Marsh held all the appeal.

It was late afternoon and he said the best part would be going out with the tide. “You’ll catch a free ride,” he added, waving me off with a big smile.

Unless you’re riding rapids, or doing it with your spouse, paddling is a meditative sport. Being on a board solo gets lets you dive into that state of mind a lot easier. Add a bit of chop from the wake of passing boats and your core muscles get a quick opportunity to kick into gear.

Paddling in the big pool of the Hudson River with a sapphire sky and a 360-degree view of forest is pure magic. In the distance, the majestic mountains of the Hudson Highlands on both sides of the river draws visitors to its prime hiking trails with Breakneck Ridge being one of the most popular. There’d be none of that on this trip but it was an incentive to return.

Hudson Highlands.

Hudson Highlands.

Bird watching is popular in Cold Spring, with the colder months attracting visitors eager to see eagles set up camp here before heading back to their nesting areas in the spring. In Constitution Marsh on this perfect summer day, periwinkle blue dragonflies zoomed around and a family of ducks paddled about, the mum herding a renegade duckling back in line. Birds flew in and out of the tall marsh grasses and a quick eye was needed to identify them.

I believe it's a wren.

I believe it’s a wren.

Blazing sunlight glittered across the water as kayakers leisurely made their way through the marsh channels, snug in their cockpits they looked like muffins baking. When the heat is on another benefit of SUP is sliding off your board for a refreshing plunge.

In the late afternoon a kayaker glided out of a channel, warning me of the receding tide. When my paddle began hitting the sandy bottom, I headed back towards the river and the rushing water carried me out of the marsh, under a trestle and out into the Hudson. A free ride indeed.

After all that paddling, lunch was in order and on Main Street one was easily found. From one end to the other, it is chock-a-block with eateries from comfy cafes to restaurants. Cathryn’s Tuscan Grill serves Northern Italian fare and has café garden bursting with flowers. With its pretty front porch, Hudson Hill’s Café & Market is just the sort of place you expect to find in a small town like Cold Spring. Open for breakfast and lunch, their menu offers a nice selection of sandwiches, burgers, salads, and even fish tacos, and their portions are hearty. Thirst quenching refreshment came in the form of cider pressed in nearby Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery and it was especially nice over a pint glass filled with ice.

Lots of spots to eat on Main Street.

Lots of spots to eat on Main Street.

Weaving in and out of the local galleries, antique stores and vintage shops is a good way to walk it all off. But save room for ice cream because it’s just the sort of town that beckons this kind of summer treat.

Moo Moo’s Creamery can easily satisfy that craving and saying their portions are generous is an understatement. While it was yummy, the small cone of strawberry ice cream I ordered could easily have fed a family of four.

Cold Spring Film Society's spooky sunset feature

Cold Spring Film Society’s spooky sunset feature

This main thoroughfare slopes down to the Hudson River where people gravitate to simply enjoy the view of sailboats gliding by with a perfect backdrop of mountain. The Cold Spring Film Society plays free sunset movies a la fresco every Saturday throughout the summer. Local food and wine shops benefit from the outdoor movie picnics and are a good way for visitors and locals to mix. The sci-fi flick Alien was the feature during my visit and I could think of no better way to spend a splendid summer night than dockside scared out of my wits.

September 6 brings a double feature, American Tale followed by Dirty Dancing. A great way reason to visit Cold Spring and enjoy some of the last nights of the season.

With its low humidity, September often promises some of the best weather on the East Coast, providing a few more opportunities to enjoy summer in Cold Spring. The jewel tones of fall foliage will soon set the mountains surrounding this area ablaze, attracting leaf lovers.

All the sun and fun eventually catches up with you. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about hitting traffic on the way home. Settling into a window seat, dozing off was easy as the rhythm of the train rocked me all the way back to the big city.

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Got Vacation?

Posada Margherita, Tulum.  Photo by Claudia SantinoThe US Labor Department recently released findings that one out of every seven workers does NOT take paid vacation.

If you think that’s crazy, that’s because it is.

There was a time when vacation was the silver lining of working for the man but, apparently, no more. This once sacred cow of an employee’s time has morphed into busyness as a badge of honor. Like a scene out of Network, I keep excepting people to throw open windows and scream, “I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE.” but the silence is deafening.

Network, the film whose famous line could be a rallying call for folks to take their paid time off.

Network, the film whose famous line could be a rallying call for folks to take their paid time off.

Say what you will but this all started with laptops and cellphones. The insidious lamb to the slaughter takeover of our lives from “smart” devices and constantly being plugged in got in the way of real living. It obliterated the separation between church and state. We’re in a wired world where we are constantly “on.” Once out of the office, some folks have a hard time disconnecting and some managers and office cultures expect a live line at all hours.  These days it’s not uncommon to hear coworkers who do go on vacation tell the office that they’ll have their phone with them.

What the sound of the ocean isn’t entertaining enough for you, you must have your cell phone?

The Employee Confidence Survey, conducted by the transparent career community site Glassdoor, is a window into why employees are leaving paid vacation time on the table. Anyone interested in all the details can read the report but here’s a bird’s eye view on their results:VacationBreakdown-Q1-14

Why would employees entitled to paid time off not take it?

For some, it’s a case clear case of climbing the corporate ladder, company dedication, being a good worker bee, and getting the gold star.  Some are so freaked out by the amount of work they have that the thought of taking vacation is stressful.  For others it’s guilt (about what I have not idea), or fear of losing their job, or being afraid of the boss.

Speaking of bosses, is there nothing worse than a boss who calls you while he or she is on vacation? Vacation for you is vacation for me. The operative part of that word is “vacate.” It’s like the boss who goes on maternity leave but doesn’t leave—it’s sheer craziness.

And here’s the really sad part. A 2013 survey by Oxford Economics found that 13% of managers are more likely to promote workers who don’t take vacation days. That’s real nice.  Another side effect of not taking vacation: heart problems, poor morale, and most likely not that fun to live with or be with.

Not surprisingly, the study found that employees who do use their vacation time are more productive and less stressed out. So why would you want to promote someone who is overworked and stressed out? The benefits of taking vacation benefits everyone.

And here’s where the travel agency and industry has a shot. Everyone knows the Got Milk ad campaign. Why not…Got Vacation? There won’t be white moustaches but the creativity around that tagline is endless and could wrap itself around the planet several times over.

When it comes to people who can’t disengage from work, a friend of mine says, “No one ever spent their last breath saying, ‘I should have spent more time at the office’.” On that note, no one should end up on a hospital bed saying, “I should have taken my vacation days,” but that’s what’s going to happen because it’s turned into the American way. Can’t we take a page out Europe’s book on this one?

It’s August and if you haven’t used any of your vacation or holiday time yet, do yourself a favor and take it. Summer’s not going anywhere but hopefully you are. And that goes for the rest of the year. Use it or lose it because that’s probably your company’s policy anyway.

If you need any more encouragement, this might give you the push needed to call a travel agent, take a staycation, get out the roadmap, or get off the grid.  Whether or not he’s your cup of tea, his humorous take on taking vacation is spot on.  Click here and fast forward past New Rules to the closing monologue.

Enjoy your vacation!

 

 

 

 

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The Grand Canyon—Keeping It Real.

sunset-on-the-north-rim-of-the-grand-canyon-hdr-mark-greenawalt

Do we have to ruin everything?

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon, it was in the mid-90s. Some colleagues and I were in Phoenix for a company meeting and had 24 hours to kill before it kicked off. There were five of us, and one rental car, so we decided to head to Sedona. Once there we went horseback riding, bopped around the town, ate and contemplated the beauty of this destination. Over icy bottles of beer, we were feeling groovy and the last thing we wanted to do was return to Phoenix. I mentioned how I’d never seen the Grand Canyon.

The next thing, one of the guys from our group pulled a quarter from his pocket (obviously that’s when peopled carried cash) and gave us the directive, “Heads we head for the Grand Canyon, tails we’re back at the hotel.”

That night we found ourselves split up between 3 bunk beds in one room of a hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was cheap and we were cheerful and all charged up for our renegade getaway from the claws of a corporate meeting. It felt like camp as our company of two women and three men giggled, whispering tales in the dark until we drifted off to sleep.

Early the next morning we hit the road, three in the back and two in the front. But one of our gang was itching and scratching. He’d had a bunk all to himself and was convinced he had bed bugs. Someone turned the radio up and when signs for the Grand Canyon began appearing, I forgot everyone.

With the exception of a few cars, the parking lot we pulled into was pretty empty. Which way to the canyon, I asked one of my travel companions who’d already been. “It’s right there,” he said pointing over my left shoulder. And he was right, it was right there.

How this glorious force of nature, so all-encompassing, so massive, so breathtakingly, incredibly, jaw-dropping, out-of-this-world, awesomely obvious natural work of art couldn’t have immediately captured my attention bewildered me. Looking back, it’s like being on safari when all of a sudden an elephant appears out of nowhere, without a sound. How is that possible?

We only had two hours and I sat on a rock ledge on the South Rim staring into the abyss of this natural wonder and the Colorado River that formed it. As the sun rose, the orangey-coral, multi-colored striations that paint the canyon walls changed. Birds flew through its corridor, soaring high and low and I envied their view.

One might river.

One mighty river.

The Grand Canyon is humbling. It is also compelling and I almost wanted to throw myself in. It is an all out force of nature and it truly is quite grand.

Every once in a while my eyes drifted and I saw visitors doing the same thing as me. Cameras came out but mostly people sat individually or as couples, losing themselves in the canyon’s vortex. There is no past or future when you are in a space like this, it is nature’s cathedral and she has your undivided attention.

Since then, I’ve revisited the Grand Canyon several times and it is always a unique experience. I’ve hiked down into it, staying overnight in the Havasupai Indian village (a bit depressing) and swam in Havasu Falls (gorgeous). The North Rim of the canyon is my preferred side. It’s less accessible which is probably why I like it, but no matter what vantage point you view it from there’s not a bad seat in the house. And there’s no sunset like a Grand Canyon sunset. New age and woo-woo stuff aside, it is most certainly a spiritual experience.

Bird's eye view of Havasu Falls.

Bird’s eye view of Havasu Falls.

So last week when I read A Cathedral Under Siege, it invoked the question for me—do we have to ruin everything? If you’ve ever visited the Grand Canyon than it’s a must read. If you’ve never visited this geological wilderness wonder, it may inspire you to experience it.

The article is written by Kevin Fedarko, whose book The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, was featured on PortsAreCalling last year. As a guide in Grand Canyon National Park, this man knows more than a thing or two about this natural monument and the havoc that two development projects underway will wreak upon it.

One is the construction of a residential and community center just two miles from the South Rim’s entrance. Development requires water, which requires tapping into wells, which basically means tapping into the delicate balance of nature connected to the Grand Canyon. The other project is the proposed construction of a tramway that would descend into the canyon, as well as an elevated walkway, an amphitheater and a restaurant. The tramway would provide access to 4,000 plus visitors a day.

Is that really necessary?

This kind of heavy traffic equals congestion, pollution, destruction, and ultimately desecration.

I ask again, do we have to ruin everything?

I’ll leave you with Fedarko’s thoughts:

“Conservationists often lament the inherent unfairness of fights like this. Whenever a developer is defeated, nothing prevents other developers from stepping forward, again and again. But for those who love wilderness, the loss of a single battle can mean the end of the war, because landscapes that fall to development will never return

If you care about places like the Grand Canyon, there’s something inherently wrong about that. But there may be something reaffirming about it, too, because these threats call upon us to reassert our conviction, as a nation, that although wilderness is an asset whose worth may be difficult if not impossible to quantify, without it, we would be immeasurably poorer.

Every 15 or 20 years, it seems, the canyon forces us to undergo a kind of national character exam. If we cannot muster the resources and the resolve to preserve this, perhaps our greatest natural treasure, what, if anything, are we willing to protect?”

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Getting ‘Used To’ Travel.

FtrainSeveral years ago when some friends and I and boarded my local F train that’s part of New York City’s lovely subway system, a very funky odor greeted us. Basically, it smelled like crap. I suggested we move to another car, while another friend said, “You’ll get used to it.”

Are you kidding me? Why should we have to get used to it I wondered, as other passengers sat there reading or staring blankly in the practiced effort of avoiding eye contact.

Airline travel can sometimes be a similar experience. We’ve gotten “used to” things we feel we can’t control. Last week on a flight to Seattle, the flight attendant asked all passengers if they would kindly remain seated upon landing so a family traveling together could exit first. The plane had been delayed an hour leaving New York and it was going to be a tight connection for these folks to make their next flight. No problem, I thought, what’s a few more minutes? Apparently, it’s a big deal to a lot of people. The family could barely make it though the gauntlet of passengers who just couldn’t wait to get off the plane first.

We may be captives for a few hours in a flying can but that doesn’t mean we can’t be civilized. We may not be able to move to another subway car to get away from an offensive smell, or passenger, but we can show good etiquette.

Earlier this year Jaunted posted 8 Ways to Avoid Being ‘That Annoying Passenger’ on a Flight, I figured it bears repeating and, hopefully, you’ll pass it on:

Ah, airline travel. Could there be a more perfect example of a love/hate relationship? We feel fortunate for the opportunity to travel anywhere around the globe in a day; however, we’d be lying if we said the experience was always a relaxing one.

Airline travel is no longer comfortable in economy class, and it’s up to us to do our part to stop the bleeding. Some of these recommendations may seem small and trivial, but a little goes a long way at 30,000 feet!

Here are a few ways for you to help make someone else’s flight more enjoyable, and to avoid being “that guy” at the center of happy hour horror stories:

Don’t use the seats for balance as you walk down the aisle. Instead, use the overhead compartments. If you reach up and slide your hand along it, you’ll be able to catch yourself if there’s a sudden bout of turbulence. Every time you grab the corner of a seat, you create an earthquake, and if you’ve ever had someone do it to you while you’re nodding off, you know how annoying it is.

Along those same lines, don’t use the seat in front of you to pull yourself up when going to the rest room. Use the arm rests to push yourself up, as grabbing and pulling on the back of the seat is on par with kicking it.

Turn your bags back to front in the overhead. Time and time again we watch people put their bag sideways and take up the space of two. Don’t do that! It simply delays takeoff when the last people can’t find space and the flight attendants have to go around and turn the bags themselves.

Look behind you before reclining. We know you have the right to do it, and most times it’s all right, but sometimes, especially in smaller planes, we’ve wanted to knife the person sitting in front of us. We’re on the tall side – six foot two – and we’ve had situations where one minute we’re working on our computer, and the next the laptop is under our chin and we couldn’t type a word comfortably even if we had Tyrannosaurus arms. Take a peek behind you and just make sure you’re not making someone more uncomfortable than the comfort those extra few inches will provide you. That’s not too much to ask, right? By the way, if someone does it to you, all bets are off and everything is fair game. That particular time, we felt no hesitation or guilt for having to push on the seat to access the bag at our feet. We hate to say fight fire with fire, but sometimes it’s the only way.

Don’t eat aromatic food. Notice how we didn’t say bad smelling food, as that leaves too much up for interpretation. You might love the smell of tuna, but the other hundred people on the plane most likely do not. We had a man next to us eat canned octopus in garlic sauce once, and we spent the next three hours keeping the woman on our right from shoving the can down his throat.

Introduce yourself to your seatmate. You have to walk a fine line with this one as we’ve all heard people complain about the person next to them who “wouldn’t shut up,” but at least say hi to the person next to you. We find most people are up for some conversation, and sometimes it turns into a pleasant back and forth. That said, feel it out and pick up on people’s signals. If they’re fiddling with their earphones, casually give them a chance to end the conversation. But, at the very least, make an effort during takeoff and landing. To us, it’s weirder to sit next to someone for three hours and not say a word than it is to introduce yourself.

Wait until the row in front of you deplanes before deplaning yourself. We’re not sure why there is so much confusion about this (cough, Europe!). It seems like it should be common sense and common courtesy, yet inevitably there always seems to be someone who thinks they shouldn’t have to wait and who tries to push past us as we’re trying to exit our row. We were once in the second to last row of the plane and had the man in the last row almost knock us over as we stood up from our aisle seat and stepped out. Needless to say, words were exchanged – it’s just plain rude. If you happen to have a tight connection, be nice and quietly ask permission to go ahead (there’s nothing worse than a panicking person screaming about their connection… it’s a rookie traveler mistake and no one takes you any more seriously whether you ask nicely or act like a knucklehead. In fact, it’s the people who are pushy that we want to help the least).

Don’t stand in the aisle when waiting for the bathroom. We know you have to go, but we really would rather you not stand over us while you wait. It’s already tight quarters, and hovering over someone sitting in an aisle seat doesn’t make it any better, not to mention that certain body parts tend to line up with our face when they’re standing next to us (this is also a common time when people tend to rest their hands on the back of seats). Stay in your seat until there’s no line, or wait in the food galley until the person in front of you comes out. Thankfully, airlines have started to police this themselves and it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

Deep breath, rant over. Happy flying!

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NYT | Chinese Tourism in Vietnam

A good one for travel agents to take note of, this fits under the category of “we’re all connected.” I’m always treated to great visuals when I read From Swerve of Shore and always learn something through this blog. Hope you do too!

From Swerve of Shore

AJS Chinese Tourism Danang

A few weeks back, I shot a really interesting story with Mike Ives (among the top writers in this region in my opinion) about the drop offs in Chinese tourism in central Vietnam. We spent a few days in Danang speaking with tourism officials, hotel managers, and the handful of Chinese businessmen we could find. What was just a few months ago a city with a heavy reliance on tours from all over China, has now seen nearly 100% of those tours cancel, and hotels are reeling and travel agencies are wondering what the future holds. And I’m wasting my time writing anything about it, when really you should just be reading the article (and watching the slideshow): China Tensions Choke Off Tourism to Vietnam.

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Eco-Friendly New York State Summer Escapes

It’s easy to get into a writing slump, especially when the weather’s hot and sticky or when you’re not traveling, so I was quite happy to come across this post from Nature Traveler. Not only did the article give me some good ideas for seeing things in my own backyard but jogged my memory about other places in my own state. What’s happening in your backyard?

Lavanya Sunkara

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” said naturalist John Muir. There is no better time than Summer to savor the great outdoors. Beautiful island beaches, river kayaking, gentle hiking, and friendly farm animals are a short Zipcar or train ride away. Central Park has its perks, but New York State offers much more nature than Manhattan. Take the day off and venture out with your family and friends to these awe-inspiring and eco-friendly places to come back relaxed and recharged.

1) Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Willow

WFAS-CowsSurrounded by the Catskills Mountains and located just seven miles from the town of Woodstock, the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary is a haven for more than 200 rescued farm animals. Turkeys and chickens run free, while pigs snooze in the barn and cows graze away on acres of green grass set amongst rolling hills. Visitors can feed and hang…

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Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 6–Meet Me at the Station

IMG_2101It felt like a scene out of a Wes Andersen movie when all of a sudden a slight man in a conductor’s uniform came zipping around the bend on an Ecoped, making a quick stop on the gravel road. In his blue uniform, matching hat, pocket watch and welcome smile he seemed too good to be true. Owner of the Train Station Inn, Jimmie LeFresne is the real deal.

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Time well spent on the tracks, LeFresne turned his boyhood dream into reality.

A childhood spent playing in this Tatamagouche railroad station, one of the oldest in Canada, LeFresne turned his passion for trains into a hospitality reality. Back then the trains moved goods and services across the country; its stockyard was filled with pigs and cows. Times changed and it fell to ruin. To prevent its demolition, in 1974 LeFresne had the foresight, at 18, to purchase the station. In 1989 he opened the Train Station Inn, creating a love letter to a bygone era.

Uniquely appointed railway cars serve as accommodations: 2 boxcars, the rest 6 cabooses. The stationmaster’s house operates as a separate suite.

It’s not every night you get to sleep in a caboose; mine was bright orange with a small wooden patio added to one end. Investigating the authenticity of the existing apparatus within the car had me feeling like a kid.

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Boxcar Jane is a sweet home away from home

Staying in boutique and luxury hotels is a treat but the Train Station Inn is an entirely different experience, more like a bucket list experience. Its uniqueness would appeal to friends looking for a special getaway, multi-generational family travelers, honeymooners, or couples in search of a memorable wedding destination.

Lunch and dinner is served in the dining car, where some of the good food you’ll eat comes right out of the Inn’s garden and from local farms and fishmongers. Ambassadors for keeping things local, they serve up organic and fair trade coffee and the next morning at the Jitney Café, a brick house that was once the men’s waiting room back in the day, a cup of it and a yummy breakfast of Orange Acadian Toast with maple syrup had my name on it.

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Whet your whistle at the town’s newly opened brewery.

Situated along the Tatamagouche River, the Inn is walking distance to this community-driven town’s attractions. Travelers visit to experience its hospitality, museums, galleries, spiritual center, and an annual event like Oktoberfest. Located about 20 minutes from town, I popped into Jost Vineyards for one more taste of their fine Tidal Bay. It’s just one of the provinces many wineries.

Later, I stopped in Pugwash where I had a date for a game of disc golf. In the nearby town of Wallace, the Chip Ship  drew me in like bait and I pulled over to sample another tasty basket of fish and chips. Afterward, I slowly made my way back towards Halifax.

 

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All aboard the Chip Ship for some good eats!

When I asked EatLikeALocal guide Monica MacNeil what the most significant thing is about Nova Scotia, she spoke for herself and on behalf of Nova Scotia’s tourism organization. “It’s the people,” she said. “It’s the history of the early Europeans and first peoples that we can trace our roots and origins through to today. That’s what continues to shape our hospitality, spirit and friendships.”

She also mentioned never being further than 40 minutes from the ocean, no matter where you are in Nova Scotia.

I do believe that has something to do with it.

For more information on planning your own Nova Scotia road trip to one of the province’s many shorelines, click here.

This six-part Nova Scotia road trip series was originally featured in Mrs Robinson.

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Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 5—Northumberland’s Beaches

IMG_2066Out of Pictou heading west on Highway 6, the last thing I expected to come across on my Nova Scotia  road trip was a lavender farm.

Open daily from June-September, Seafoam Lavender Farm is family run; its mission is to promote health and wellbeing through the cultivation of this shrub. While the long winter had delayed the season, new growth was beginning to sprout among the variety of lavender beds laid out in row upon row and owners Dave and Suzy Belt have big plans for their crop.

Lavender's bounty extends well beyond this basket.

Lavender’s bounty extends well beyond this basket.

Their onsite shop is already stocked with an assortment of bi-products from the beloved purple buds, from skincare, to food, to household products. It was pretty impressive but the winner was the vanilla ice cream sundae that Suzy brought out topped with perfectly fresh whipped cream and a generous drizzle of lavender syrup.

Traveling is often about finding a new favorite thing. The Belts get two thumbs up for all their efforts and for spoiling me with their unique and super delicious treat.

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Lavender lemonade, the perfect twist on a hot day

Throughout the drive, I’d been wondering about these so-called “warm waters” that were always in sight. I mean, I’ve been to Maine and that water never gets warm. Here I was much further north, just how welcoming would these waters be?

Recommended by the folks at Seafoam, Rushton’s Beach is the warmest salt-water beach in Nova Scotia and I caught it at low tide where a wide sandbar seemed to extend forever. There was barely another soul in sight.

Since arriving in Halifax, the clear blue skies made the sunny weather seem tailor-made. Screw the bikini back in the car, I stripped down to my undies and walked into my first summer swim and into one of heaven’s gates. If water can be gorgeous, this was it.

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Another perfect summer day at Rushton’s Beach.

On the walk back to the wooded parking lot, dogs trotted towards the beach with wide canine grins, their owners walked lazily behind them. In its mouth, a black lab held a bright orange ball as it ran along the long boardwalk leading to the sand. It was around 5PM and I looked back at this perfect hour, on a peaceful slice of local life and wished I could stay. Similar beaches dot the Northumberland coastline, each offering one of nature’s best forms of free therapy.

I didn’t think it could get any better but a stay that night at a defunct railroad station would make this trip unforgettable.

Next Stop: A trip back in time.

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Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 4 –The Province’s Birthplace

photo-10Passing through the harbor town of Pictou, where the summer seasonal ferry to Prince Edward Isle operates, a newly opened food kiosk served up an excellent basket of fish and chips to my road weary travel. It was clean food, the batter light and crispy, the chips homemade. Waterfront Fries prides itself on using grandma’s recipe. It was a great find and one that would put me on a fish and chips trail.

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Things that may you go, pull over!

At the end of the day’s drive, I settled in at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort, a comfortable hotel with an unobstructed view of the Northumberland Strait. Its budget-friendly accommodations range from standard rooms to log cabins. It’s also got Chef Thomas Carey, whose amazingly delicious seafood chowder took first place in the 2014 Taste of Nova Scotia Chowder Cook-Off. With a reliance on the sea, Nova Scotians pride themselves on the culinary traditions created from the waters that surround them. Tonight, I would learn how to eat a lobster like a local.

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One of the many activities offered at Pictou Lodge Beach Resort.

The lesson was delivered courtesy of Monica MacNeil, who writes EatLikeALocal. She was also partly responsible for my expanding waistline. MacNeil’s skills around this crustacean are impressive, even if I was a buttery mess. She knows good food and if you have any plans to visit, you may want to look her up. An ambassador for all things Nova Scotia, she’s an outstanding guide and a great teacher.

Anyone interested in learning about lobsters might find the Northumberland Fisheries Museum Lobster Hatchery a curious place, you can even adopt one.  Newborns are no bigger than ants and it takes years for them to mature to a size large enough where they can settle on the ocean floor. That’s if they don’t get eaten first. Here you’ll see lobsters of all sizes. My favorite was Blueberry, named for her genetic mutation. I was thankful my eating lesson had taken place the night before because in gazing at her beauty I could see no lobster in my future.  Fish and chips were another story.

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The only blueberry in my future is off the shrub.

A visit aboard the Hector was a reminder there’s no place like home. This replica of the ship that made Pictou the birthplace of New Scotland provides a glimpse into the arduous journey of the 189 Scottish Highlanders confined to it for more than a few weeks in 1773. Anyone with an ounce of Scottish blood may want to check it out.

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Mrs. MacGregor keeping it real.

One of the highlights of any road trip is pulling over whenever the fancy strikes. You cultivate a discerning eye and a sixth sense for what looks right. It was a pleasure to witness small-town life with mom and pop run operations, dollar stores, bars and restaurants. That is one of Nova Scotia’s draws. There are also lots of laid back cafes and a cozy one is Mrs. MacGregor’s Team Room. Known for her melt-in-your-mouth shortbread (which also make great gifts), she serves up her own recipe of fresh seafood chowder. In fact, the only thing that seemed to rival a fish and chip trail was the possibility of charting a chowder trail. Good reasons to return.

But the coastline was teasing and I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to step into its so-called “warm waters.”

Next Stop:    Who needs France when you’ve got lavender growing in your own backyard!

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Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 3–No Time Like the Maritime

GabrieausThe charming town of Antigonish is a great base for day tripping to points of interests along the Northumberland Shoreline and some of Nova Scotia’s other shore areas.

Some travelers dislike staying in B&Bs, and I get it, but the Antigonish Victorian Inn might change your mind. Set amongst four acres of farmland, each room in this heritage house is well-appointed with comfy beds, curtains that keep the morning light at bay, free wi-fi and cable. Rates are wallet-friendly and the Inn has welcomed visitors from dignitaries to international travelers, so they know what they’re doing.

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A cozy welcome at Antigonish Victorian Inn.  Photo credit: Visit Antigonish

Easy to get around, Antigonish has pretty much everything you need on its main street.

A road buddy scored a tiny rose gold teacup on a chain at Aphrodite; a boutique that carries locally sourced fashion, art and jewelry. Now in its 7th year, there’s an International Film Festival held here each October. Antigonish is also known for its beloved St. Francis University, July’s highland games that celebrate Scottish sports and music, its access to outdoor activities, and…beaches. But the only dipping tonight would be at Gabrieau’s, one of the regions most coveted restaurants.

Big Island oysters, fresh and sweet, were served raw and baked. A bottle of L’Acadie, a local crisp and sparkling wine that won a top award at France’s Effervescents du Monde, provided the perfect pairing.  Cape Breton snow crab salad with local radishes was quickly inhaled. A main course of plump Maritime mussels from the Eastern Shore with pan-roasted, smoky haddock was complimented by Tidal Bay, a Nova Scotia appellation white wine. A pecan tart with buttery pastry and a slightly salty flavor provided a perfect finish.

The co-op movement began in Antigonish in 1861 and Chef Mark Gabrieau is proud to be part of its enduring legacy. He tills his own parcel of land on a co-op acreage where he grows seasonal fruits and vegetables that make their way onto his menu. A proud ambassador for Nova Scotia’s food movement, he’s won numerous awards, including the 2013 Taste of Nova Scotia Prestige Award for Restaurant of the Year.

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The province’s lighthouses have their own draw.

For anyone remotely interested in where their food comes from, Nova Scotia’s cuisine is heavily influenced by the land and sea. Whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner, a majority of the food I ate was locally sourced, meaning profits go back into the community. With tourism being such an integral part of the province’s revenue, it’s yet another good reason to return.

The next morning a stroll through the Antigonish Landing Trail, a wildlife sanctuary for birds and a local hiking and kayaking spot, was the perfect way to start the day before hitting the road.

Next Stop:  Finding my way around a lobster.

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Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 2—Earltown to New Glasgow

photo-9Tucked away in Earltown’s Cobequid Hills, Sugar Moon Farm is a family owned sugar camp renowned for its maple products, especially its pancakes and the liquid gold you pour on them. I’d taken Highway 102 north from Halifax and on the way made a pit stop in Truro to visit the Glooscap Heritage Centre. The Mi’kmaw are Nova Scotia’s Aboriginal people and this museum celebrates their culture and legends. Afterwards, a small hike in Victoria Park, where I barely made a dent in its 1,000 acres of natural beauty, got my appetite going.

Open year-round, Sugar Moon Farm’s log cabin restaurant with its seasonal and local menu attracts visitors far and wide. It’s as popular for its food and tours, as for its access to hiking and biking trails, skiing, and snowshoeing. The only thing better than working out is the reward of eating good food afterwards.

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There’s good stuff cooking at Sugar Moon Farm.

Quinta Gray who runs the business with her husband let me sample the cream of their crop. A bit of a maple freak, I fell for a mid-season harvest and some of the best stuff I’ve ever tasted. Along with fresh-baked biscuits with maple butter and some maple baked beans, I made quick work of a stack of stoneground organic wholegrain buttermilk pancakes. Their all-you-can-eat service kept any pangs of guilt away. Throughout the year Sugar Moon features chef nights to showcase some of Nova Scotia’s finest. Day or night, single or traveling with a family, it’s a sweet spot for a getaway and I left trying to figure out how to make that happen.

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Celtic spirit isn’t hard to find in New Glasgow.

A visit to the riverside town of New Glasgow, founded by Scottish settlers, found the culture and spirit of this Gaelic community alive and kicking. At the indoor-outdoor New Glasgow Theatre, two young girls in green plaid skirts performed a traditional highland dance. Their black leather laced slippered feet whispering across the worn and weathered wooden planks of the gazebo. A festival town, one of its most popular attractions is The New Glasgow Riverfront Jubilee. Held every August, it showcases domestic musicians and is a great way to get turned on to old and new sounds in its lovely outdoor setting along a lazy river. Camping, B&Bs, and more traditional hotels accommodate the thousands of visitors who gravitate to this town throughout the year for its music and hospitality.

Next Stop: On the road and headed for Antigonish, known for its Highland Games, beloved St. FX University and…food.

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Discovering Nova Scotia—Tag Along On My Road Trip.

IMG_1800While a good problem to have, deciding on a travel destination can sometimes be tricky. As someone who’s been lucky enough to have visited many incredible places, gearing up for a trip that’ll take me to the other side of the planet often involves a lot of pre-planning, whether that involves the friends who’ll go with me or the budget needed to finance it. As a New Yorker, I often gravitate to flights headed east or south of my country’s border.

People often travel far from home to experience bucket list destinations. The further away, the more the idea of a place seems to excite them. I’m guilty of it myself, yet in doing that we might overlook some incredible opportunities within our own country or continent. A recent road trip to Nova Scotia was a surprising and refreshing reminder that amazing experiences can be had closer to home. I’ve traveled to Canada multiple times, skied Quebec’s Mont Sainte-Anne, shopped the streets of Montreal, lived in Toronto for a brief period, and marveled at Vancouver’s beauty. But after a week exploring the Nova Scotia region that offers the warmest ocean beaches in Atlantic Canada, like a fish—I’m hooked.

The road trip would take me along the Northumberland Shore, known for its natural beauty, warm waters and fresh seafood. At a cocktail reception my first night in Halifax, I feasted on lobster roll sliders and a seafood chowder made with coconut milk, lemongrass, and a hint of heat, that was so ridiculously delicious had I not been in public, I would have licked the bowl. Heaven appeared in the form of a very generous slice of blueberry pie, courtesy of Between the Bushes in the Annapolis Valley.

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Perfect pie, the only time I don’t mind being blue in the face! (Photo by author.)

Nova Scotia is known for the wild blueberries that grow in its fertile ground and it produces over forty million pounds a year. Nothing says summer like blueberry pie and after what seemed like a never-ending winter, the unmistakable and indelible flavor of that inky fruit was like a trumpet call to the taste buds.

Its health benefits are another plus. Van Dyk’s 100% Wild Blueberry Juice, would be the first Canadian item that would make its way into my luggage. When I learned about the Wild Blueberry Harvest Festival in August, my summer holiday plans began recalibrating. If you go wild for summer fruit, it’s just one of many reasons to pick this province.

Road trips and food trip are a match made in heaven. (Photo by author.)

Road trips and food trucks are a match made in heaven. (Photo by author.)

Food often plays a large part in most travel experiences. I wasn’t sure what to expect in Nova Scotia and one of the first things to impress me was the cuisine. While it’s not part of my food regime, I was surprised to find gluten-free or vegan offerings no matter where I went.  Traveling through the natural beauty of farmland and coastline, my road trip would take me through small towns. With its strong Scottish heritage, hospitality is a hallmark of Nova Scotia and from the time I arrived, it showed in every welcome I received and in every bit of food served, from food trucks to fine dining. If what I’d inhaled in Halifax was a hint of what lay in store for me, than I was heading for foodie paradise.

The flip side, thankfully, is that the province is also hailed for its access to top-notch outdoors adventure. From biking trails, kayaking, golfing, sailing, surfing, tidal bore rafting—you name it, when it comes to exercise in Nova Scotia the world is your oyster. Whether or not I made the choice to work it all off was up to me!

Join me over the next few days as I head north out of Halifax towards those warm waters…

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All Caught Up In the (Beautiful) Game.

KansasCity

Who knew Kansas City had such a strong futbol fan base?

I can’t believe it but I’ve caught the fever.  World Cup fever, that is.

A friend opened a bar in my neighborhood during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.  In support of my new local, I logged a lot of time there and watched a handful of games.  Although it’s been said this kind of fever is contagious, I walked away entertained but unscathed.

This time, something changed—Brazil 2014.

Maybe my resistance was low. I’d just returned from a road trip where I was out early and up late. If I had to pinpoint it, maybe it began when I somehow succumbed to watching the Brazil vs. Chile match. From there, things just heated up. I found myself crying over Mexico’s heartbreaking loss to The Netherlands, swooning when Colombia beat Uruguay, and delirious when Costa Rica defeated Greece.

Before the angony of defeat. (Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Before the agony of defeat. (Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1994 the US hosted the World Cup. To earn that gig, it had to start a national league. Since then, interest has operated at a simmer but after all these years America’s passion over soccer has finally reached a rolling boil. Especially among younger viewers. This is a great thing. Bars are full with men—and women. This means relationships—platonic and romantic—will be made the good old-fashioned way.

While American football prides itself as the game of this country, interest in soccer looks like it’s truly ready to take the field. It might take Americans awhile to wrap their heads around how a game can end with a tie 0-0, but they’ll get it one day. When the US made it through the group stages, it really set things afire for fans. The World Cup is breaking social media records and the US vs. Belgium match was one of the most Tweeted events ever.

Not that our boys ever had a chance.  It’s the one game we don’t own.  Unlike South Americans, and other folks who’ve been at it since infancy, it’s not a game that’s in America’s bloodstream and it’s probably going to take a lot more years to get there.  Like the gorgeous Brazilian model says in the Kia ad,In my country, this is futbol.

But that’s okay. Independence Day is tomorrow and you can still celebrate.

After the United States lost the knockout game, the country’s collective anxiety is gone. So pick a team, sit back and enjoy the quarter finals.  Take your passion, have a word with your ego and lose it in another country’s national identity. Hell, you might even find yourself hootin’ and hollerin’ for them.

The only thing more exciting than watching a match is watching the enthusiasm that a country’s fans bring with them to a game. It’s a beautiful thing. World Cup watch parties are being shown in parks from sea to shining sea across this country. Find one and have some fun.

Wherever you are, or whatever your sport, Happy Independence Day.

I’ll be rooting for Colombia, whose goal celebrations can’t be missed!

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Pushing Boundaries.

Ferrocarril_Central_AndinaWhile working on a project last month, I had the great pleasure of meeting Arden Haselmann. A young woman in her last year of college, Arden is majoring in peace and conflict resolution. When I said I didn’t realize it was a major, she told me it wasn’t, that it was something she created through her own dogged pursuit. Participating in a Thinking Beyond Borders gap year program really sealed the deal for her. This organization teaches students to have a meaningful social impact. Later this year, she’ll travel to Rwanda where she’ll have ample opportunity to put her studies into action. I shared an article I’d recently read about Rwanda’s lively art scene and how its artists are expressing themselves about the country’s horrific past or with optimism about its future. It offered another view into how Rwanda is dealing with the aftermath of its genocide. I hope to interview her when she returns.

Aside from her confidence and desire to make a positive impact globally, Arden is another great example that through curiosity and a desire to tap into something that’s knocking at your inner chamber door, you can stretch the boundaries of an organization’s structure. That just because something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean you can’t create it. Everyday I meet more and more people living life on their terms and outside the margins of cultural expectations when it comes to work and what brings them fulfillment.

While PortsAreCalling is about travel, anyone who’s been following it (and I thank you whoever you are) knows that it’s not always about travel on the traditional plane. It’s an opportunity to take a creative journey to destinations that range from north, south, east, and west, to food, literature, photography, and death. For the times when I can’t physically travel somewhere, it’s an opportunity to stretch my own mental boundaries. To meet and write about people who inspire me…like Arden.

She mentioned she’d gone to Turks & Caicos on a family vacation. When I asked how she liked it, she said it was lovely and that while she’d a great time but it felt odd to do nothing. Having lived in other countries because of her studies, she’s more comfortable diving into life on a local level. I told her she’d discovered the difference between being a tourist and a traveler.

How about you? How do you stretch your mental boundaries and where will you go?

Not everyone can afford to travel,  how will you spend your summer?

If you do travel, what’s your preference—tourist or traveler?

Share your story, let’s inspire each other.

 

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Finding Balance in Aruba on Paddleboard

After trying out Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) last year, I vowed to make it part of this summer’s activities whenever possible. Nature Travelers’s SUP yoga experience inspires me to take it one step further. Maybe you’ll feel the same…

Lavanya Sunkara

Stand up paddleboard yoga brings new meaning to the word serenity. Balancing above the tranquil, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea is a life-altering exercise every yogi must experience. A four-hour flight from New York landed me in Aruba, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea, known for its trade winds, casinos, white sand beaches, water sports and a growing interest in stand up paddleboarding. I felt calm the moment my feet touched the buttery, soft sand of Palm Beach, where I spent a weekend at the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino.

My yoga instructor, Rachel Brathen, and I paddled to a clearing a short distance away from the boaters, snorkelers, and sunbathers on Marriott’s stretch of Palm Beach. The waters of the Caribbean were cool and inviting. Rachel began with a few sun salutations and I followed, slowly bending and then returning upright while balancing myself on the…

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Of Cats & Soccer

Crianças_jogando_futebol_de_areiaFor anyone remotely connected to someone who loves soccer, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that as of today the doors of heaven open to the beautiful game with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It’s the biggest single-sport event on the planet, in which case you’ve lost your spouse, father, brother, cousin, boyfriend or girlfriend to six weeks of pure football (as it’s properly known) passion.

On the slim chance there are any football fans reading this, than you’re not sitting pretty in Brazil right now. Cheer up, Americans may have come late to the party but interest and passion around the game has built up over the years with World Cup fever sweeping the nation. If you live in a rural area this could mean there may be a park or town square showing the matches on a big screen, which is a pretty nice way to experience it. City dwellers will have their pick of places to watch a match and anyone lucky enough to have a Brazilian restaurant in their neck of the woods will get more than a taste of the motherland. It’ll be full on excitement in Italian restaurants and English pubs this Saturday with England vs. Italy. Wherever you are, get out there and root for the underdog.

On a road trip in Canada right now, I hightailed it from Brooklyn where my mate has made our place command central for all things World Cup and where my cats are probably dressed in England t-shirts by now. It’s a great time to fly the coop and that’s my biggest piece of advice to anyone in my shoes. Unless you want to be totally ignored, do yourself a favor and make tracks.

You’ll be scoring big points.

(Photo credit: soccercat)

(Photo credit: soccercat)

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To the Shores to Remember

DDAY-2Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. In Normandy, solemn ceremonies, commemorative concerts, and festive events will take place to mark the Battle of Normandy.

During WWII France was a no-go zone for travelers but thankfully things have changed. We can visit that country, along with England, Germany, Poland and other parts of Europe once ravaged by war because of the men and women who stepped up. The anniversary of D-Day draws travelers worldwide. Tourism to this area gets a boost through tour companies, river cruises and individual sightseeing. History buffs, politicians, relatives of soldiers, and the small number of veterans still alive who fought that bloody battle are drawn back to France and to the beaches whose beauty should be solely reserved for pleasure but where brave men lost their souls.dday-nomorewar

For anyone raised without a father or relative who fought in WWII, this day may hold no significance whatsoever. Despite the victory for the Allied troops, for anyone interested in traveling back to understand what went down that day, Memories From Normandy are letters written by American, British, Canadian, and German veterans. They offer a personal glimpse into a day most would run from.

Today’s wars are fought differently but have created no-go zones in different countries that we may have once visited but might never step foot in again in our lifetime. Hopefully, one day that to will change.

But for those who sacrificed their lives, today we remember.article-2336753-1A29700E000005DC-945_964x569

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Catch & Release Your Summertime Reading.

SuitcaseofbooksAnyone who’s ever discovered a book along the way while traveling knows what a treat it can be.  In addition to other forgotten things, travelers often leave behind books when they head home or on to other places. Some do it to free up real estate in their luggage, others do it intentionally so another soul can enjoy the literature. Reaching for a book in the common space of a hotel, B&B, hostel, or cruise ship creates a subtle connection with the previous owner. Sometimes a bookmark is left inside, or maybe some notations alongside the margin, leaving behind hints of the previous reader like perfume that lingers long after someone has left a room.

This passing along of literature is kind of like a universal kinship. We may never meet the previous reader but some type of intimacy has been exchanged as the book passes from traveler to travel, along to parts unknown. It’s not about ownership. It’s all about sharing.

For anyone who appreciates finding a good book, or open to the mystery of discovering a book, check out Bookcrossing.com. Launched in 2001, it’s a celebration of literature based on creating a world library through a social networking structure. Their mission is to connect people through books and their model is “catch and release.” After signing onto their site, readers can start leaving books in their travel wake and, if interested, can track these books and connect with other readers. To date, it has 1,204,991 Bookcrossers (booklovers!) and 10,331,054 books traveling through 132 countries. Pretty cool.

The clever thing about Bookcrossing.com is that you can leave books anywhere, which means you can do it in your own backyard. This makes life a bit more fun for those down times when you’re not traveling. No matter where you live, you’re bound to have tourists or travelers passing through your village, town, city, or countryside. You can leave a book anywhere—restaurants, a park bench, a monument, a subway. Imagine the surprise, and delight, when someone comes across this treasure and discovers it was meant for them!

If you’re the sort of reader who’s been meaning to clear out any books you may have around the house but who has trouble parting with your old favorites, this offers a great alternative. The best part is you can follow the books you set free as they make their way around the world and discover who might appreciate them as much as you do.

Happy reading and happy travels!

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Stepping Into America’s Big Backyard.

APR-Yurts-03Summer’s soft opening happens this weekend with the Memorial Day holiday. Backyard barbeques will be heating up and gas will be pumping to move folks along the highways and skyways. After a long winter of wicked weather across the country, and strange climate conditions happening around the planet, it’s a great time to contemplate how you’ll spend your summer and maybe consider some new experiences and destinations.

Summer offers the perfect excuse to eek out a long weekend—at least once a month—to get out of town, or even to stay in town and finally see and do all of the things you keep meaning to experience. Summer let’s us off the hook. No matter how old you are, there’s something about dreamy summer that awakens our inner child…if we let it. In an age of always being shackled to some device, listen up and heed the call to disconnect and enjoy all of the great opportunities summer sends your way. From simply enjoying a slurpy slice of watermelon to learning something new like stand-up paddle boarding, there’s loads of great stuff waiting for you.

Montana buffalo in their own backyard.

Montana buffalo in their own backyard.

Maybe this is the summer you go big when it comes to travel, in which case I’d like to throw a suggestion your way. Go on safari.

Before you say, “Yeah, right!”— hear me out. Everyone always thinks Africa when they hear safari and, yes, many of the countries on that continent will expose you to incredible, life-changing experiences. But the reality for many folks is that for whatever reason they can’t cross the breach in their mind to even contemplate that kind trip as a reality. The distance, the flight, the cost—these are common roadblocks I often hear people talk about. So how about an American safari? There are some pretty unique experiences lurking in this big backyard.

Did someone say road trip? On the Great Plains of northeastern Montana, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is 273,000-acres of protected wild grassland teeming with wildlife. This place is the perfect excuse to grab your best friend, or family, pack up the car with snacks, unplug, and shake up the brain with word games. If being on the road for a long stretch of time isn’t your thing, you can fly or take Amtrak to reach the APR and book a rental car from that point. The part I really like about this place is you can go highbrow or lowbrow.

If you’re into cushy digs and aren’t one to skimp on comfort, then Kestrel Camp is the best of both worlds. Opened in 2013, the five luxury yurts here are individual sanctuaries that rival some of the camp accommodations you’d find in African countries. The plush beds, hot showers, and a panoramic view to top it all off makes these climate-controlled, safari-style tent bungalows one sweet treat. You’ll dig into your wallet a little bit on this one but with the money you’ll save on flights, transfers, hotels, and all of the little add-ons, it’s a smart choice. The chance to spend time in one of the few untouched reaches of wilderness in the U.S. and experience it alongside biologists and naturalists is all part of the adventure. I love that APR saw the light and created this experience. They even have sundowners!

The lounge at Kestrel.

The lounge at Kestrel.

Anyone who camps knows there’s nothing like slipping your sleeping bag out of your tent to soak up a starry, starry night. If going back to basics is your thing then Buffalo Camp is the perfect spot. Made up of 4 tents and 7 camper sites, there may be no potable water but at $10 a night in this rustic stretch of paradise you’ll be stealing heaven. Situated near this campsite are hiking trails, biking options, and a prairie dog town. For anyone who likes an unstructured vacation, appreciates nature, and wants to be unencumbered of their “stuff,” the simplicity and stillness that you’ll find here makes this campsite pure bliss.  There’s no cellphone coverage here (which will hopefully enhance the feeling that you’ve left it all behind), and service is also limited in other parts of APR, which might have you shouting yippee!

A low impact platform awaits your home away from at Buffalo Camp.

A low impact platform awaits your home away from home at Buffalo Camp.

Regional campgrounds are also available in the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge but no matter which accommodation you choose, it’s all about conservation and that’s one of APR’s best experiences. For anyone with kids, it’s a great way to introduce the little ones to nature on a different scale and stoke their interest in animals and travel. If you’ve never been on safari than indulging in one closer to home may inspire you to make the leap next year to Africa. It’s closer than you think.

Summer’s calling. The older you get the quicker it goes, so don’t let the season fly by without indulging in a different kind of travel. Your younger heart and soul will thank you.

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Of Nigerian Schoolgirls & Landays.

(Photo credit: Drew Brown)

(Photo credit: Drew Brown)

Climb to the brow of the hill and sight
where my darling’s caravan will sleep tonight.
–A landay, author unknown

When it comes to travel we don’t mind investing our time, money, and spirit into a destination. The reasons we travel are endless. We go, we enjoy, and we return home, hopefully sated and, if we’re lucky, having made some new friends. The good times we have are provided in some measure by the people who live there.

In light of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, a militant group, 4 weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about what we bring and what we take away from a place. And what gets taken for granted.

“Those poor girls.” “Their poor parents.” These are two thoughts I’ve heard the most over the past few weeks. I’ve thought them myself. Most of us take our education and the access to it for granted. We don’t worry about extremist groups freaked out by the idea of educating women.

Any place on the planet that has a good standard of living for its citizens is a place where women have the right to an education, contribute to the work force and are empowered. It raises the bar for everyone, and it contributes to a country’s tourism dollars. If there’s a country you have a desire to visit but are skittish about traveling to because it might fall somewhere on the danger zone, chances are its female citizens are marginalized or uneducated.

(Photo credit: David Levene)

(Photo credit: David Levene)

Being here on the other side of the world from Nigeria, it may be easy to just pray for these girls and hope for the best because you can’t see any way to help them. But for anyone interested there is a way. The Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) is a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa by investing in the education of girls. It doesn’t cost a fortune and a few bucks go a long way. I could give you the lowdown on it all but Nicholas Kristof’s recent op-ed article What’s So Scary About Smart Girls opens the book on why educating girls in this part of the world matters so much. He does an excellent job explaining why books are more powerful than bombs and drones.

This is a travel blog, my intention is not to get wrapped up in politics but the situation involving the girls who were kidnapped doesn’t begin and end in Nigeria. I’m not traveling there any time soon but one day I might. I don’t mind investing a few dollars to enhance the future of someone who could contribute to making her country a more inviting and progressive environment for the women who live there and for anyone visiting. To quote Kristof, “To stick it to Boko Haram, help educate a girl.”

India makes a plea for the girls.

India makes a plea for the girls.

Journalist Eliza Griswold has been traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. In 2012 she returned to the Pashtun area, a border region and Taliban stronghold between these two countries, to collect landays, an oral tradition of folk poetry that’s been around since 3400 B.C. The landay is two lines of 22 syllables and named for a poisonous snake because it is sharp and to the point. While poetry is revered in Afghanistan, these poems are a clandestine activity and a secret way into the lives of these women. Another country where women are marginalized, in this region over 20 million Pashtun women live a hard life surrounded by violence and suffering. Many of them are illiterate but despite the societal traditions, laws, violence and suffering, these women aren’t passive. Their voices find expression through the landay. For the women who write them down, discovery of this poetry can cost them their lives.

The power of the pen.

The power of the pen.

Griswold’s recently published book of translated landays I Am The Beggar of the World gives anyone curious about the culture a way to connect with these women. It’s a way to take a fantastic journey and dispel any stereotypes or preconceived notions you might have about them. It’s a passageway towards a day when we can hopefully travel to this place and meet some of the women brave enough to share their enlightening and empowering words. If you’re interested in learning more about landays, check out the Poetry Foundation.

Travel opens doors and enriches us.

For the places we can’t visit, we may have to crawl through a window to contribute, connect and invest in a different kind of experience with the people who live there but chances are it’ll be well worth the effort.

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Get Smart, Visit the World Science Festival 2014.

WSFMadness

There’s something about to happen in New York City at the end of May that can truly be considered a backyard bonanza for those of us who live here. For anyone looking to start their spring to summer getaways, then it’s a brilliant reason to come and visit the Big Apple. (Ground Control to travel agents—it could win you major points among your customers for recommending this trip.)

The World Science Festival 2014, May 28-June 1, is an extraordinary and fantastic celebration of science held in and around New York City. Its mission: to make science compelling and accessible to everyone. It does this by taking science out of the laboratory and bringing it to life on a local level in unique and creative ways by some of the world’s leading scientific and artistic minds.  For fans of Breaking Bad, this may just be the place to get your rocks off. The World Science Festival blows the lid off science being out of reach for us lesser earthlings by holding intimate to large-scale festival events in museums, kitchens, theatres, parks, and in the streets. Last year, the five-day festival drew over 200,000 visitors and to date has attracted over 1 million attendees.

I’ve never considered myself much of science geek but with an offering like:  Alien Life: Will We Know It When We See It? , count me among the converted! For anyone else who might think science isn’t your thing, the World Science Festival may just change your mind, too. The program features day and evening events, from a MOTH science-themed StorySLAM in a nightclub, to urban stargazing and music with astronomers and physicists. The Scientific Kitchen Series cooks up workshops on the science behind such yummy stuff from beer, to butter, to pie, to…did someone say, chocolate? Mast Brothers, artisanal Brooklyn chocolatiers, will take you behind the scenes and inspire an altogether different passion when you discover the scientific process that goes into producing a bar of your favorite dark matter.

Speaking of addictions, ever wonder why some folks can have one drink and never touch the stuff again, while others can’t stop coming back for more? The Craving Brain: The Science of Uncontrollable Urges features a panel of leading researchers whose work focuses on how addiction changes the fabric of the brain and new breakthroughs that may one day change all that. Extracting DNA from your own spit, a debate on the latest discoveries of the big bang, a theatrical exploration of Einstein’s life, an Ultimate Science Street Fair in Washington Square Park…these are just a few events that will blow your curious mind. Oh, I forgot to mention robots—they’ll be there as well.

Genetics looms large throughout the Festival and the article Scientists Add Letters to DNA’s Alphabet, Raising Hope and Fear in today’s The New York Times, is a timely lead up.  One of its signature events is On The Shoulders of Giants, which features a leading figure in the science community. This year, geneticist and humanitarian Dr. Mary-Claire King, who discovered the breast cancer gene BRCA1, will give the special address.

With such an imaginative and incredible sampling of events, there’s not a smarter reason to visit New York City right now.  Click here for the full Festival lineup and ticket info.

[youtube+https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQY43_3tvCA]

 

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Florence: Gelato 101

As if we needed another great reason to travel to the land of amazing food. Here’s a little lesson for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to visit Italy yet. Enjoy…

ISA Study Abroad Student Blog

Danya Migdali is a student at California Lutheran University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Danya is currently studying abroad with ISA in Florence, Italy.

Gelato 2 Flavors for the Hungry

When I first talked about going to Italy, my friends and family mentioned that I would probably end up at a gelateria once or twice. Due to my excessive love of ice cream, I guessed it would be a bit more. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have some news to announce. I have become a gelato addict! It has turned into an almost daily habit for me, although I attempt to try new flavors and gelaterias each time I go!

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Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

China-Xiamen-sunset-in-Gulang-yu-island

Guest blogger Robyn Bushong sets sail for Xiaman.

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia, my travel buddy, and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday, evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt. Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler, Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

(Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Our home away from home. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The first day of boarding, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I had sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too. Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

I think one of the best ways to describe the relaxed ambience on this gorgeous sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests stretched out on lounge chairs, their favorite beverage at their side, book in their hand and they’re half asleep and half reading. All the while listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen is a gorgeous tropical seaport that is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, BC, I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple—that we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

DSC_5238

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the US’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.) Only suggestion: it would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada. Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony of five different varieties for our group of 34 at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities, ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad, highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was mesmerizing.” Highlights of his talk: “China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.” Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year. Pork is the preferred meat. There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants and 300 local dialects!” And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Guest chef demonstration.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Guest chef demonstration. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai, to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.  Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

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HONG KONG… Our Asian Adventure Began Here!

Guest—and first time—blogger Robyn Bushong travels to Hong Kong, and Ports Are Calling is happy to feature her posts as she sets sail.

We arrived in Hong Kong as first-time visitors only to be greeted with torrential rains and dense fog. Welcome to Hong Kong! But the pouring rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. My dear friend Cynthia and I had just completed 21+ hours of travel from Galveston, Texas to begin our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony “Pearls of China, itinerary that was to begin in Hong Kong, April 9th, with calls in Xiamen, Shanghai (two overnights), Dalian and then concluding with a three-day land package in Beijing on April 21st.

We were met by our private guide (who we had arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and taken to our hotel –The InterContinental. Highly recommended as the property is located directly on Victoria Harbor and the unobstructed view from our room: Simply Spectacular! First order of business upon arrival at the hotel was lunch and to review our priorities for sightseeing in this intriguing and enticing city. Since the hotel’s specialty restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, featured dim sum, we eagerly chose this venue and learned it was a recipient of a “1-Michelin Star.” Our guide ordered for us and the quality and presentation was outstanding. As we concluded our fine lunch, we told our guide we wanted to walk since the rain was subsiding, as we were ready to see, do and experience everything possible in the time we had to enjoy this exciting, world-class city.

The InterContinental's night view.

The InterContinental’s night view.

We headed to the Star Ferry for the 10-minute ride between Kowloon (where our hotel was) and Hong Kong. A friend who handles tours in Hong Kong had set our priorities for sights: First and foremost, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Next, see the Financial District, Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple and browse the fine shopping district; enjoy dim sum (check!) and experience the Stanley Street Market.

With all the trees, dramatic and colorful flowers, and gorgeous landscaping, Hong Kong’s “green space” was amazing. What was also amazing were the hundreds and hundreds of tourists out and about on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. What we learned was that the previous Saturday (April 5th) was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day. In Chinese it’s Ching Ming – which literally means “Clear and Bright” and is a tradition where families travel to their family tomb to sweep, clean and place flowers or other memorials on the gravesite. Because the national holiday fell on a Saturday, the banks/financial institutions were closed on Monday and apparently many people added an extra day to their holiday weekend.

We walked through the Financial District and the IFC (International Financial Center), and passed such fine stores as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Piaget, Rolex, etc. As we headed towards the Peak tram station, we passed St Andrew’s, an elegant Anglican Church (Episcopalian) and the historic St. John’s Cathedral completed in 1849. Then we boarded the tram for the ride to the top of the Peak. The trams, which have been operating for over 125 years, hold 120 people each and run about every 8 minutes. Following the brief—albeit very steep—ride to the top, we arrived at an incredible sight. Our friend was right: Standing on the top of Victoria Peak and looking down over the entire city…WOW! While we were walking around, a volunteer greeted us with a complimentary headset device that provides a detailed overview of the area. We had wanted to do the 90-minute walk around the perimeter of the peak, but it started raining again so we departed.

A rainy view from top of Victoria Peak.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

A rainy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

After we took the tram back down, the rain had stopped again and we walked to Man Mo Temple. Built in 1847, the temple is one of the oldest traditional-styled temples in Hong Kong and is dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). From there, we stayed on Hollywood Road to view some of the city’s most beautiful antique shops and fine jewelry stores. To ensure we got a bit more immersed in the local culture, our guide suggested we take the subway to the Temple Street Market area. Living in Texas we’d never experienced anything like this before. Crowds on the New York City subways couldn’t hold a candle to the throngs and throngs and throngs of people traveling in all different directions in Hong Kong’s subways. Everyone had an electronic device in their hands. And how these commuters could maneuver from one escalator and subway car to another—while seemingly never taking their eyes off their cell phone—was simply incredible. From there, we worked our way along the busy streets of food vendors, pastry and coffee shops, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, camera shops, and other small, neighborhood businesses. Food vendors sold fresh crabs, fish, lobster, and “internal organs” of other creatures cooked to order, and served on a skewer with hot and spicy sauces. As we observed the frenzied pace at which everyone was moving, our guide told us that since most locals work from 9am till about 7pm, we were right in the middle of the prime rush hour pedestrian traffic.

Downtown Hong Kong bustles.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Downtown Hong Kong bustles. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

We kept moving along the bustling streets, heading towards Temple Street Market. Once there, we were amazed at the stalls—everything from cheap watches, imitation leather goods, jewelry, silk scarves, t-shirts, shoes, camera and electronic equipment, toys and souvenirs. Our guide told us that the market is only open nights from about 6pm-midnight. Each of these hundreds of vendors packs up their wares at night, only to set-up again the next evening. What a hard way to earn a living. We didn’t buy anything, but were glad we saw the market. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel, bid our guide farewell, and at 8pm on our first night in Hong Kong… we were DONE!

The next morning we awoke early to gorgeous sunshine and an indescribably beautiful skyline. As we ate breakfast, we watched the buildings come to life as neon signs lit the skyline starting around 7am. We were to board Crystal Symphony early that afternoon, so we had time to do a little shopping and sightseeing on our own. We set off on a leisurely walk through the streets near our hotel to shop and later enjoyed lunch at the world-renowned hotel, The Peninsula. We didn’t realize at first just how close we were to the Ocean Cruise Terminal as it was only a short walk from our hotel. We also learned that Hong Kong had recently completed a new terminal, but that it was miles from the city centre. Ocean Terminal, where Crystal Symphony was docked, showcased multi levels of retail shops offering everything from Gucci to Nike and all literally just footsteps from where we were to board our ship. What a great way to start a cruise.

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

I also just learned that Crystal Symphony will return to Hong Kong during the holidays for a 15-day “China Sea Holiday Spectacular” (December 21- January 5, 2015), and will be docked at Ocean Terminal during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Can you imagine what an experience that would be to see one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays light the skies over Victoria Harbor—and all to be enjoyed from the prime vantage point of a balcony or deck aboard the ship!

Well, we’ll be boarding soon and our Asian adventure aboard the Crystal Symphony…it’s just about to begin!

Featured post

Golf, Getting Into the Swing of Things.

Augusta.

Augusta.

This weekend starts the first of the four major championships that revolve around a little dimpled white ball. Cherry blossoms may herald spring but so does The Masters Tournament, held annually at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. It’s the only major tournament held at the same course each year. Why? I have no idea…you’ll just have to ask a golfer. Mark Twain once said that golf is a good walk spoiled and while I tend to agree with him, there are plenty of folks who’d gladly argue that point over 18 holes.

Listening to the Masters on TV, broadcasters speak in hushed tones and a whispered reverence normally reserved for church as they profile everything from a golfer’s background to the state’s iconic magnolia blossoms. From a live perspective, I don’t really see how spectators can glimpse that little ball as it flies through the air but I guess that’s what passion’s all about. And I suppose that after watching the pros go at it for four days, the desire to hit the links and pull out your Big Bertha is just too overwhelming. So if you’re itching to get out there—and get away—here are a few budget friendly destinations to put you in the swing of things:

Mirimichi
Memphis, TN
This southern city may be renowned for its blues and barbecue but the addition of Mirimichi golf course in 2009 provided another reason to visit the land of Elvis. Native son Justin Timberlake did the right thing when he invested $16 million on revamping an existing golf course in his own backyard, turning it into a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly property. He also kept prices low, making this public course user-friendly for locals while encouraging tourism at the same time. Mirimichi was ranked the #1 golf course in the U.S. in 2013 by Golfweek magazine and is also the first golf course in the U.S. to receive official Audubon Classic Sanctuary certification by Audubon International, a non-profit environmental education organization.

Another good reason to go to Memphis.

Another good reason to go to Memphis.

Torrey Pines Golf Course
San Diego, CA
As the song says, it never rains in California and with pretty much perfect weather all year round, San Diego is a traveler’s dream. Its spectacular scenery, nightlife, and dining options make it a hole-in-one destination for most travelers but it’s the municipal greens in La Jolla at Torrey Pines that make this destination a paradise for golfers. Yeah you might blow a bit more cash on this trip but it’ll be worth it for the five diamond experience and panoramic views you’ll get at the Lodge at Torrey Pines when you book a Signature Package that includes two nights and a chance to play on the course that hosted the 2008 US Open and which has been chosen to host it again in 2021.

A captivating course at Torrey Pines.

A captivating course at Torrey Pines.

Salish Cliffs
Shelton, WA
My British friends who live in the US have no problem going to play golf when there’s a chance of rain; they know they’ll have the course all to themselves. If you’re of the same spirit then you may want to consider a flight to Seattle. Most people may not think of The Evergreen State as a golf destination but Salish Cliffs is changing all that. Part of Little Creek Casino Resort, this property offers inviting stay and play package discounts where you’ll golf in a pristine wilderness area of the Pacific Northwest. The hotel’s amenities include Seven Inlets Spa, which has a robust menu of treatments and entertainment at the Skookum Creek Event Center that often includes headline acts. After a few days of golfing, head into the Emerald City and explore all its unique offerings.

The 17th hole at Salish.

The 17th hole at Salish.

Tobacco Road
Sanford, NC
Golfers are spoiled for choice in North Carolina, as anyone who’s ever spent time swinging balls down there knows. Tobacco Road has earned its place as one of the top 100 public golf courses in the U.S. by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine and it also ranked as one of the top 50 in the world by Golf Course Architecture Magazine. With its gorgeous greens, friendly rates, proximity to 30+ other courses, and southern hospitality, what more could you want from a golfing weekend. Check out Tobacco Road Golf & Travel to see all the options within this destination.

The view above the Road.

The view above the Road.

The Algarve
Portugal
The International Association of Golf Tour Operators voted this southern region of Portugal, Europe’s Best Golf Destination for 2014. The Algarve beat out such heavy hitters as the Scottish Highlands, the French Riviera, and Central Ireland. Portugal is one of the few affordable European countries where you can stretch a dollar, offering yet another reason to consider putting this trip at the top of any vacation plans you may be working on. If golf’s your game then you don’t need me telling you where to go in the Algarve…you’ll figure it out but click here for some sweet recommendations.

Vale do Lobo,

Vale do Lobo, just one of the many courses in the Algarve.

Any good courses in your neck of the woods? Share the wealth and drive some travel there!

For D.H.P

Featured post

Cherry Blossoms, It’s Poppin’ Time.

US-FEATURE-CHERRY BLOSSOMSIt’s April and that means it must be cherry blossom season. Nothing says spring like these glorious trees and even though there’s still a chill in the air, I’m going to trust Mother Nature to make one of her finest appearances when she’s ready. After the drudgery and darkness of what seemed like the longest winter in ages, when these buds burst in shades from the softest white to the deepest pink and reach full blossom, the world just looks a whole lot brighter. Few things are more delightful than lying under a cherry blossom tree, its pinky petals swirling a magical snowstorm around you.

I’m crazy for cherry blossoms and crazier for them because of the travel they inspire. If you’re looking for a good reason to get away, I’m giving you one. Washington, D.C. may showcase the grand dame of cherry blossom, or sakura, festivals in the U.S., and a trip to the nation’s capital never disappoints, but there are plenty of other places around the country to be in their good company. So if you’re looking for a day trip, weekend getaway, or something a bit longer, figure one of these destinations into your plans and don’t forget the camera.

Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival
Branch Brook Park, NJ

April 5-13, 2014
Cherry blossoms are the crowning glory of this town and Essex County takes great pride in these trees.  Locals and visitors pack this park to take part in a 10K run through the cherry tree groves, bike race in the Cherry Blossom Challenge, or enjoy a number of other events. Vaux and Olmsted, who designed NYC’s Central Park, conceived the design for this park so visitors are in for a treat.

Essex County Branch Brook Park, NJ April 5-13, 2014

The pride and joy of New Jersey’s Essex County.

Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival
Vancouver, British  Columbia
April 3-28, 2014

Vancouver came late to the cherry blossom garden party but after their first festival in 2006, the city’s been attracting visitors to this extravaganza ever since. The festival’s organizers believe so strongly in the power of the beauty of these blossoms to unite people, that their purpose behind this annual event is simple—to embrace citizens of all ages.  Yet another great reason to visit Canada.

Vancouver's very cherry trees.  (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

Vancouver’s very cherry trees. (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, GA
March-April

Cherry blossom season peaks early in Georgia, with these natural debutantes making their entrance in March. No worries, festivities run through April and because this town is the cherry blossom capital of the world, visitors can reap the benefits long after the crowds have gone.

Southern bells.

Southern bells.

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival
April 2-13, 2014

Philadelphia, PA
The City of Brotherly Love, karaoke, and cherry blossoms—it doesn’t get much better than that!  A project of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival is an engaging cultural celebration with events like Dine Out Japan, musical and dance performances, sushi making classes, martial arts and loads more.

Philly's festivities await you.

Philly’s festivities await you.

Sakura Matsuri,Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
April 26-28, 2014

Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s CherryWatch Blossom Status Map predicts the first tree to bloom next week and Brooklynites can’t wait.  Held the last weekend of April, the Sakura Matsuri is an entertaining celebration of Japanese culture, including a traditional kimono fashion show.  The garden will be buzzing that weekend, so if you’d like to avoid the crowds and have the view all to yourself, plan an off visit during the week.  No matter when you go, make a day of it by visiting the Brooklyn Museum, located next door.

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

You don’t need to visit a festival to enjoy these blossoming beauties.  They’re easily found along esplanades, in most parks, and sprinkled throughout neighborhoods that have cherry blossom friendly climates.  All that’s required on your part is to gaze up and enjoy their pink but fleeting loveliness.

 

Featured post

Even Bishops Do It.

Salisbury, England.

Salisbury, England.

Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer, wrote, “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Considered one of the greatest travelers of all time, accounts of his journeys were published in the Rihla.

I'd like to follow in his footsteps.

I’d like to follow in his footsteps.

Two weeks ago while roaming around online looking for some spiritual inspiration, I came across Huffington Post’s live Lenten blog. I wasn’t looking for any religious instruction but what I discovered was an inspiring, travel related, surprise.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lent, it’s the 40 days of observance, beginning with Ash Wednesday, leading up to Easter, and probably the most significant and spiritual season for Christians. It’s a time of repentance and fasting. In the self-denial department you can go big or small but chocolate, desserts, smoking, dieting, cursing—these are usually the big ones on the Lenten hit list. And that’s how I came across Bishop Edward Condry of the Diocese of Salisbury.

Salisbury's most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Salisbury’s most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Forget the sweets. The Bishop went big and put some thought into his Lenten challenge by ditching his car and committing to serve his rural community by bike, by foot, and limited public transportation. Granted, he is an avid biker but anyone who’s ever visited a city in England like Salisbury knows it’s not easy to traipse around from one end to the other without a car, but the bishop was intent on doing this for several reasons. The first is for the traditional Lenten observance of fasting, the second is to call attention to climate change, and the third is to be more respectable of nature’s gifts and resources.

The coolest thing is, he’s blogging about it daily.

And that brings me to travel. Specifically to travel agents and travel ambassadors everywhere. Every place you go, including your own backyard, is an opportunity to share your experience. The bicycling bishop may be pedaling around town inspiring others through his unique choice of Lenten observance but his travels are generating ideas and he’s finding inspiration to write about them.

Because that’s what travel does, it generates ideas. Towards people, food, wine, arts, fashion, architecture, sports, culture, politics, the environment, or religion. No matter how near or far we travel, it stimulates us in some way. Bishop Condry was stimulated by his faith to look around and approach abstinence in 2014 from a different perspective. The view from his handlebars stimulated him to write about it.cropped-ed-cycling-email

If you’re not used to writing it may feel a bit daunting at first, as in—who am I to write about this? But I’d ask—who are you not to write about it? I have a feeling the bishop would ask you the same thing.

Once you brush your fear aside and get your thoughts on the page you just might discover that you have a lot to say. You can start as big or as small as you like. There are no rules, so don’t make any. Bishop Condry didn’t.

In this world of user-generated content, travelers everywhere contribute to thousands of travel sites. If you’re afraid to take a big leap, start small. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Vimeo, are great outlets to share your travel experience through words and photos. Just find the one that works for you. Skittish about social media or afraid to click the publish button? No sweat, just break out the old pen and paper, it works every time.

Travel agents who might think there’s no way they can write just might surprise themselves. Speak with your owner or manager about doing a piece on your next trip and publishing it on the company website. If your agency has a marketing department, ask a colleague for guidance to help craft it.

ed-static-with-lock-emailBishop Condry’s goal is to clock 2,000 miles without a car and he’s halfway there. His daily blog posts are musings on his Lenten experience, and about nature, wet clothing, climate change, the people he meets along his travels, and about transportation. Through this observance he’s discovered a few new ways to spread the good word and share it. He’s certainly inspired me to ride and to write. The man is one cool dude.

Whether you hop on a bike or a plane, take a page out of the bishop’s book. Don’t be shy.

Interested in riding along with the Bishop Condry? Click here.

Featured post

Wandering In Whitstable.

Whitstable's beach huts.

Whitstable’s beach huts.

The steely green water dragged millions of small rocks and shells back into the ocean, sounding like a stylus at the end of a record that keeps going around and around. A thin and wispy cloud blanket crossed a cobalt sky and seagulls soared and dipped. Their screeching echoed across the beach. Behind me a row of pretty beach cabanas, each one named and painted a bright and different color sat locked and waiting, like debutantes itching to get to the ball. I was in Whitstable and even though it was March in England, I was happy as a clam to be on a shoreline.

Spring came early to Southern England this year and the counties around London are beaming. Daffodils and their cheerful faces greet you from front walks and along the motorways. Here on family business, I had a free day before flying home and as much as I’d have liked to roam around London, I wasn’t up for being around crowds. Staying in Hertfordshire, a northern suburb of London, I was looking for a place that wasn’t too much of hike but far enough that it would feel like I’d gone away. I stumbled upon Whitstable, a beach town on the north coast of Kent known for its seafood. Just over an hour by car, it was the perfect getaway so off I went.

The drive south along the M25, to the Dartford Bridge Crossing, to the M2 was a breeze. I suppose it being late morning on a Thursday might have had something to do with it. The sun was blazing, the windows were down and the borrowed car had a Hollies cd in it, so, really, what more could you ask?

Horses grazed along the shamrock green hills that rolled along either side of the motorway and cherry blossom trees stood out like cotton candy amongst gloomier neighbors. Manicured rows of apple orchards and other fruit farms made for a pretty journey and before long I was turning off towards Whitstable.

Within minutes I was driving along the high street towards the harbor, passing flower shops, bakeries, interior design stores, galleries, pharmacies, and all of the traditional goods needed for everyday living. It was a relief to be in a town that hasn’t been malled by big box stores. Before you reach the seaside, there are loads of little hotels, restaurants and cafes. It’s a bustling street and with its proximity to London once the summer season opens it must be jammed. As much as I’d have liked to stroll around, with only a few hours to spare the ocean was calling.

Wonderful Whitstable. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

Wonderful Whitstable. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

Crunching along the gravely beach, I picked through oyster shells bleached white by the sun and the tides. Tiny nautilus, other baby seashells, and smooth rocks in hues of blue to pale gray carpeted the beach like confetti. Heading west along the paved shore promenade, locals walked their dogs, and bicyclists and joggers did their thing. Inspiration to get off the couch just might be easier in this stretch of paradise.

Fresh good stuff.

Fresh good stuff.

Low slung hotels and “rooms to let” with ocean views are sprinkled all along this coastline and even though it wasn’t high season, this part of Whitstable seemed quieter. I found Jo Jo’s, a café with lots of yummy food, ordered a honey pistachio cake and coffee, then made myself at home on the patio at a weather-beaten wooden table, smiling at the superb view. It was a slice of heaven, this Whitstable. Moments later a waitress asked some locals at the next table, “Who ordered the fish finger butty?” All I could think was—I wish I did! This sandwich, a comfort food for Brits of all ages, is traditionally made with cooked frozen fish fingers and placed between two slices of bread but what was being served here was all grown up. Battered pieces of fresh haddock with arugula on a golden roll had me rethinking where I’d eat lunch.

A grotter.

A grotter.

Harvested since the Romans set up shop in England, Whitstable is most famous for its oysters. During the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival, held every July, the town teems with locals and international travelers who come to celebrate this hometown bivalve. This four-day celebration features an oyster blessing, an oyster parade, crabbing and kite-flying competition, and loads of other seaside activities. Grotter building, a local tradition where small mounds of sand are decorated with oyster shells and lit with candles, and a fireworks display wind down the festival. Parking is limited but Whitstable is easily accessed by public transportation and it’s an easy town to walk around. Anyone spending time in London looking for a retreat can hop a train from Victoria Station and within an hour and a half be on the beach. And that’s what I’d come here for.

The beloved bi-valves.

The beloved bi-valves.

Walking back past the harbor, I wove in out of little lanes leading to the sea. The scent of vinegar hung in the air where an older couple shared a bag of fish and chips on a bench that faced the ocean. An old, black dog soaked up the sun at the feet of two crusty local men with red and ruddy faces that gave them a look far older than their years. The Forge, a seaside shack has a counter where you can suck and slurp away Whitstable oysters shucked right on the spot for you. It doesn’t get fresher than that.

Ahoy matey!

Ahoy matey!

Passing the harbor boats and fish market, I made my way along Whitstable Harbor Village with its pop up shops and children’s seaside toys, towards Crab & Winkle Way where I’d seen a sign for The Lobster Shack back on the beach. Facing the water, it was a secluded spot, at least for now, and it seemed like the perfect place to test the seafood waters. Outside, fisherman prepared oyster beds and wooden picnic tables set on the shingle beach welcomed visitors. A Whitstable Brewery Pilsner wet my whistle, and while I couldn’t go for a swim, the half-dozen rock oysters, cod-fish soup, and a perfect bowl of mussels, sweet and coral colored, in a broth of white wine, butter, garlic, onion, carrot, with fresh thyme, provided an altogether different immersive experience.

Fisherman's huts.

Fisherman’s huts.

There are lots of options for overnighting in Whitstable but it was the 150-year old converted fishing huts that caught my eye. Located directly on the beachfront, they were once used to store cockle-farming clutter. Today, these cozy cottages have all the comforts necessary for a short or long stay. Next time, I thought.

Sea Belles await you.

Sea Belles await you.

Elliott’s Coffee Shop provided the perfect excuse to sample some more local sweets. A pretty café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, I made off with a carrot cupcake and a coffee for the ride home. But before getting in the car I took a walk along the beach where those colorful cabanas sit simmering for that slow boil towards summer when their doors will burst open to welcome swimmers and sun worshipers.  Hopefully, I’ll be back.

Featured post

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

Dublin celebration.

Dublin celebration.

Everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. At least that’s how the saying goes.

There certainly is something infectious about St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps it’s all the merrymaking or maybe it’s just something about the Irish. For cities that go green in honor of the great patron saint, the celebrations can sometimes be hard to avoid.

Anyone who’s ever visited Ireland knows the place is magic. Even my friends from the Emerald Isle who live in the US will tell you the same. Being from or having grown up in Ireland is a different kettle of fish. It’s only by being there that you can truly appreciate and understand the Irish. For Irish-American friends who’ve never been, you have no idea what you’re missing.

County Clare's Cliffs of Moher.

County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher.

To them I’d also say skip the St. Paddy’s Day parade and forgo the hangover you’ll have the next day. Instead be bold and grab a last-minute flight or travel package for the real deal. Anyone touching down in Éire over the next few days will be spoiled for choice with celebrations.

In the States, St. Paddy’s day may be all about parades, beer, corned beef and cabbage but in Ireland it’s a religious holy day and public holiday. Parades are held (pretty much an American import) and festivities take place across the counties. While folks may pop into a pub for a pint, you won’t find the swilling that goes on here. You won’t find any corned beef and cabbage either. Irish immigrants in the US who couldn’t swing for a traditional ham cooked up that dish from kitchen tips they borrowed from Eastern Europeans.

The man had a way with words. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

The man had a way with words. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

What you will find is an incredible culture rich in hospitality, literature, art, and music. Over the centuries, some of the most stimulating, beautiful, and enchanting words to grace a page or guitar note have been gifts from the Irish. Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Braham Stoker, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Nuala O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien—the list goes on and on. And what would a playlist be without the likes of Liam Clancy, Van Morrison, U2, or Elvis Costello, to name a few. I mean, really, as cultures go, there’s kind of no contest.

Dublin's Trinity College attracts locals and visitors.

Dublin’s Trinity College attracts locals and visitors.

In terms of hospitality, there’s no welcome like an Irish welcome. They are the land of a thousand welcomes, after all.

During my first visit in 1995, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness and generosity of strangers who directed me to follow their car, or who accompanied me by foot, to ensure I reached my destination.  When it comes to resting your bones, from hostels, to guest houses, to luxury hotels there are loads of lodging.  I like  Ireland’s Blue Book, leaf through it and you’ll understand why.

Before I traveled there, lots of folks said that while I’d probably like Ireland itself, that I’d hate the food. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The potato famine left an indelible mark on its history but since then Ireland’s come a long way.  Thanks to lots of rain and the  rich and rolling land beneath its feet, the country ‘s long been a leader in the “from farm-to-fork” sustainable food movement.  Something that other parts of Europe, and especially the US,  came late to the party on.

A yummy lunch at Morans on The Weir. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

A yummy lunch at Morans on The Weir. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

On this small island you’ll find the freshest seafood you’re most likely ever to come by. Call me biased but there’s no salmon like Irish salmon. Whether inland or coastal, an afternoon pit stop spent over a piping hot bowl of delicate seafood chowder or plump and buttery mussels that melt in your mouth is heavenly. Some fresh-baked brown granary bread to sop up all the good stuff, and a nice healthy Guinness to chase it all down makes it a perfect meal. Meat lover or vegetarian—bring your appetite, you won’t be disappointed. Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork is Ireland’s most famous cooking school but as the country’s culinary reputation has grown, several others have popped up. The immersion experience that these schools offer draw professional chefs and foodies from around the globe and do their fair share of contributing to Ireland’s tourism.

Ballymaloe Herb Garden.

Ballymaloe Herb Garden.

If you can’t celebrate the real thing, from Alabama to Wyoming you can probably find a festivity near you. Like the symbolic shamrock, Boston, New York City, and Chicago act as patron city saints for St. Patrick’s Day in the States. If you’re in one of these cities this week, or month, chances you’ll find some good stuff. Check out Boston’s Irish Cultural Center, Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, or the Irish Arts Center in NYC.

For folks looking for a quieter experience, throw on some Irish tunes or settle in between the pages of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story for a magic mix of talent, or How The Irish Saved Civilization. An Irish coffee wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

I don’t know why some people are drawn more to other cultures than their own. Since my first journey to Ireland I’ve been back at least eight times. Yes, I’ve got a thing for the Irish and I’m happy to celebrate them any day of the week.

Sláinte and have a Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Featured post

Interested in Voluntourism? Do Your Homework.

(Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Monitoring meerkats in Kalahari.  (Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Voluntourism.

For many travelers, the chance to combine tourism and volunteer work sounds like the making of a great itinerary. It’s a nice and noble gesture, a chance to leave a good footprint in the places we trample for our own pleasure. It’s a chance to combine a passion for travel with a desire to give back and, hopefully, make a difference.

It’s often said that travel is the best education because it gives us a chance to connect with other cultures in a multitude of ways. Voluntourism provides a greater opportunity to make this connection. Over the past decade, voluntourism has developed into a revenue stream for travel companies and charities. It’s a product that gives them an opportunity to court tourists and travelers who want to get away and do good works at the same time. Sounds simple enough.

But where does your money go?

It’s the first question you might want to ask. If you sell travel, it’s the question you want all the answers to before you recommend voluntourism options to customers.   It’s the question that’s brought a lot of controversy to voluntourism, because the high price a consumer might pay—and some of these experiences can be pretty pricey—don’t always have a high level impact on the people and places where the good Samaritan work is being done.

Last month, The Journal of Sustainable Tourism published a study that revealed the more expensive a trip product, the less responsible it was. It also discovered that the less expensive the experience, the greater the impact. The study also found that just because a product is labeled as a volunteer tourism opportunity, it doesn’t mean the end results will be positive.

So what’s a traveler with pure intentions to do? According to Victoria Smith, lead author, and Dr. Xavier Font, who conducted the study, there are a few key things to look out for:

How is your money being used?
Basically, you’re looking for pricing transparency. If a company doesn’t publish this information, ask them to break it down for you. You want to know where your money is going and how the community or conservation effort you’re serving is benefiting from it. Most companies will take a cut, and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be more than 20%.

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

How does this project make a difference?
If you’re going to put in the time, you want to be sure it was well spent so it’s good to know the goals and details of a project up front. You also want to be sure that the project you sign up for will, in fact, use the skills you bring to it, or that you actually have the skills that might be needed. Depending on the project, you could be doing anything from chipping paint, to data entry, to teaching English, for example. It’s preferable to know in advance what you’ll be doing.

What is the length of the project?
In order to make a difference, we typically need to put in an investment of time. From students to baby boomers, people who commit to volunteer projects realize that to have any kind of impact, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for shorter-term experiences and that good things can’t be done in 48 hours. Where there’s a will—and a desire to give back—there’s a way, and travelers who’ve set their sights on charity work who can’t commit to extended lengths of time often use any vacation opportunity to connect with volunteer opportunities wherever and however they can.

It’s not about me.
Remember, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.  Voluntourism isn’t vacation and any company that markets an experience this way should probably be avoided. Anyone looking to enjoy a bit of down time may want to cover that part of the trip first. This way, your needs are out of the way. Being of service is about following someone else’s lead; it’s about putting the needs of the community or the task at hand before your own. You’re there because you want to make a difference and the gift of giving is in knowing that your commitment contributes to the overall impact of a project.

Be prepared.
Committing to volunteer work abroad isn’t something that should be done on a whim. In addition to researching the company you book with, and depending on where you’d like to serve, you may need a visa, vaccinations, and possibly a background check. Doing your homework will help you identify the project that’s right for you.

Since his volunteer experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ken Budd uses his vacation time to lend a hand around the world. It’s part of his mission to live a life that matters. Anyone who’s ever thought about volunteering, whether at home or abroad, may want to read his travel memoir, The Voluntourist. For a listing of credible organizations that market to individual or family volunteer experiences, Peter Greenberg Travel Detective is a good source. Voluntourism.org is a resource with loads of info, and TripAdvisor is another site to review volunteer experiences.

Whether you want to stay local or travel far.  Whether you can commit two nights, two weeks or two months to help make a difference, it’s all good.

Featured post

Postcards, Little Souvenirs.

postcardcollage“What should I do with all of these postcards?”

We were trying to make sense of the small place we live in and keep up with the clutter, a difficult task. My boyfriend got to a section within one of his drawers where he keeps mementos. You know the area. It’s not exactly a junk drawer, just a place where you store things you’re not quite ready to part with quite yet.

He held a thick stack of postcards I’d sent to him over the course of our years together. Postcards from the north, south, east and west of Ireland. From Argentina and Uruguay, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Jamaica, Costa Rica, France, Russia, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Malta, Italy, and loads of other places.

We may live in the digital age, but I’ll take a postcard any day over an email, Facebook post, text or tweet, from anyone out there tripping around. Digital messages have become so commonplace that they don’t give you any time to miss someone. Besides the meaning behind vacation is to vacate, right? Vacate your town; vacate your friends and family, to basically remove yourself from your current premises. I’m of the mind that unless it’s a real emergency, shooting out digital notes from the road while you’re on holiday is as bad as getting messages from the boss who’s on vacation.

Postcards are a different story. These little souvenirs are gifts to the people we send them to. There’s something about finding a postcard in the mail that puts a smile on my face. It’s a little treat that instantly connects me to a place where I might never have been and which sometimes inspires me to visit. It’s a little bit of intimacy from someone who’s taken the time to think of you while they’re in some other part of the world. It’s a thoughtful gesture that asks for nothing in return but sends great pleasure.

Like listening to an album, there’s a ritual around a postcard.

Gaudi's La Perdrera.

Gaudi’s La Perdrera.

First, you have to select one. Sure, there are postcards bought on the fly—and that’s okay, because the intention is still there. But when you have time, the selection of each card is part of what makes sending one unique. I like spinning the racks in bookstores or magazine shops around ever so slowly to see what’s available and what speaks the most about the destination I’m in. Depending on where I am, or how long I’ll be there, chances are that I’ll only be sending one.

Later, there’s something about sitting on your own, whether you’re enjoying a post-safari sundowner in the Chobe National Park and gazing out at baboons practicing their military strategies, or sipping a perfect hot cocoa in a delicate porcelain cup in a hotel bar in Barcelona, to write a little story on that six by four-inch card that further establishes your sense of a place. Taking the time to contemplate your words and relish your experience helps appreciate the destination and the present moment of being there.

At the same time, postcards are all about distance. You don’t have to plug into anything because you don’t want to be connected. Some people may sign off, “wish you were here” but that’s easy to say when you know that won’t happen. In an age when we can find out anything on our own about a place with the click of mouse, postcards enable us to share intimate thoughts about our travels that friends and family won’t learn until they open their mail, or sometimes long after we’ve returned home depending on a country’s postal service.

A trip to the village post office gives you a chance to meet locals, be brave and practice another language (even if you stink at it) and buy lots of colorful stamps. You lick them, press them onto each postcard, and then send them on their merry way. Then you keep on keeping on to your next experience whether it’s sitting pretty on a beach or gearing up to hike Machu Picchu.

For the recipient, finding one in your mailbox is like being treated to an ice cream cone, it’s a nice surprise. You check out the stamps and read the tiny words that describe the destination on the flip side. Maybe you read it leaning against your mailbox, or hold off with anticipation until you get inside and savor it over a cup of coffee. Then you follow the words of the traveler and imagine where they might be now. If they’re not home yet, you’ll have to wait to hear all about their trip but something in the postcard has you traveling with them. There’s something about putting pen to paper and dropping a postcard in the mail that no app can take the place of.

Who says you can't send a postcard from stay cation?

Who says you can’t send a postcard from staycation?

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and picked up a book I’d bought several years ago but hadn’t read. Around 22 pages into it, a postcard fell out. I abandoned the book right away and savored my find. It was a photo of people floating in canoes and kayaks with buildings and some kind of industrial ship in the background. For a minute I was stumped but when I turned it over, I couldn’t help but laugh. Posted in 2008, it was from one of my best friends. She was on fire to take a vacation but didn’t have the money to burn. Badly in need of down time, she opted for a staycation and one night invited me to join her for a sunset tour with The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Located within a 15-minute walk from the building we both live in, I was happy to join her as a tourist on that perfect August day.

Now the Gowanus is no Erie Canal. It’s basically been a dumping ground for as long as I can remember. But over the past decade, efforts have been made to restore it to some level of decency so it can rise to the level of the affluent neighborhoods around it. As we drifted down the canal, it shimmered with the iridescence only oil can bring to water. I wondered what was seeping into my sneakers. Heading towards where a scrap metal yard exists, along with other industrial businesses, every once in a while we’d get a whiff of sewage. But in the opposite direction, where it’s quieter and more residential, the water was cleaner and our guide told us that oysters were starting to call the Gowanus home. A good sign when bi-valves set up shop. Unfortunately, last January, a dolphin took a wrong turn around New York Harbor and wound up in the Gowanus. That’s not something you see everyday and its plight captivated local residents and made the news. Already ill, it didn’t stand a chance in the polluted canal. “Go-Go-Gowanus! The Canal is Wow! The memories of the slick, fragrant waters are ones I shall never forget!!,” my friend had written.

My boyfriend had a loft bed and he’d plastered the underside of it with all of my postcards. When he’d kick back in the tiny living area underneath it, he’d look up and see all of the places I’d traveled to or might be visiting at that moment. They were a storybook of my life in a way. Of places I loved and would return to with him or on my own, or never set foot in again. Of new friends and new food…always food. And a reminder of my famous line that an old boss would kid me about anytime I returned from a trip, “Let me guess?” he say. “You could live there!”

Do you want to throw them out, I asked? I couldn’t blame him if he did; after all, we were going for a major clear out. “Not just yet,” he said. Then he sat on the bed leafing through them, getting lost in faraway places.

Featured post

Ice-Skating The Winter Blues Away.

Zipping around Lake Louise.

Zipping around Lake Louise.

“If I could fire Mother Nature, I would.”

Those were the latest words from a friend who owns a construction business in New York City. The winter weather has wreaked havoc on his projects, stalling them one way or another. This, in turn, does a number on his mood.

He’s not alone. There are plenty others who’ve had it up to here with the winter of 2014. Spring may be one month away but I don’t think even a betting man would put money on it. Cabin fever is at an all time high and crankiness, moodiness, over-eating, and a general malaise are some of its main symptoms.

So if you’re not among the fortunate who planned a winter getaway, there’s only one way to beat the winter blues. Instead of trying to dodge the season, why not get up, get out, and make the most of it.

Anyone watching the Winter Olympics may already feel a bit inspired to bend their lazy bones. Sure, those athletes make it look so easy but for those of us who may be a bit skittish about taking to the slopes, especially if you haven’t dropped into a fast run for quite awhile, there’s another activity that’s pretty low maintenance, affordable, and depending on where you live, super easy on the eyes.

Ice-skating.

Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa.  (Photo credit: Ottawa Tourism)

Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa. (Photo credit: Ottawa Tourism)

Before you say no way, take a look at the prettiest 10 ice-skating rinks with a view. You may discover they’re in your own backyard. If you, or anyone you know is traveling in their vicinity, give them a tip and tell them to visit. Whether or not they like to strap on a pair of skates, the spectacular views alone will captivate them.

Central Park's Wollman Rink.

Central Park’s Wollman Rink.

From skating in Central Park with the New York City skyline twinkling all around, or zipping around an ocean side rink in cut-off shorts down in San Diego, to cutting figure eights at Somerset House in London where champagne and chocolate indulgences await you, these rinks offer a unique perspective, and experience, on sightseeing.

If you can’t make it to any of the rinks listed, chances are there’s one in your town with a cool view, and a hot cocoa, that’ll suit you just fine.

Featured post

Burns & Frozen Pipes.

The weekly snowstorm.

The weekly snowstorm.

The snow is falling fast in huge clumps outside my window as NYC gets socked with yet another snowstorm.

The sound of shovels scrunch, scrunch, scrunching away along sidewalks and the intermittent rumble of snowplows serves as yet another reminder of why I don’t want a car. Ice pellets bombard the window and somewhere out there in the driving wind I hear the honk of a local blue jay. He’s high on a branch pecking away at some late morning breakfast. What the hell is he doing out there? Then he flies away in the blizzard’s whiteness. How lucky that he can just fly away and go anywhere.

A friend is enjoying a holiday south of the border and I think of her with a mix of envy and delight. Good for her that she got out of Dodge without any hassles and is missing the nuttiness that comes with a snowstorm and the travel delays that follow.

It seems like everyone I speak with grows more pissed off by the weekly blizzards. They are done with this weather.  Would it be nice to be away on an island or chilling out in some laid back haven enjoying the sound of the surf and getting toasted by a Caribbean sun? Hell yeah. But I love the winter and appreciate the snowfall. I take advantage of it to hunker down and do the things I won’t do once the windows get flung wide open again.

Writing is another matter. Finding inspiration when you don’t travel brings its own challenges. But like the tiny flower buds that peek out from the dark cluster of leaves in the cyclamen plant on my windowsill, you have to reach for every ray of light to grow your ideas.

Local things. There are loads of local things to spark ideas and I’m a huge ambassador for investigating your town, city or state. Living in a metropolitan area gives city dwellers easy access to arts, culture, and parks. There’s always something out there waiting for us and sometimes you have to look at it from a different point of view to find the creative angle to find your story. For folks who live in more rural areas, the access to mountains, lakes, woods and wilderness has its own rewards. Music, movies, food, wine—travelers journey for these interests and whether you live in the city or suburbs, we all have them in our backyard which means we can write about them. It’s all about reaching for the light from a different angle.

Burns, favorite for a reason.

Burns, favorite for a reason.

Earlier this month, I traveled upstate for a Robert Burns Night and for one brief evening was transported to Scotland. Burns, a poet and lyricist, was Scotland’s favorite son and although he died in 1796, his birthday is celebrated every year in Scotland and pretty much anywhere Celtic culture is appreciated. The night’s all about tradition, with pipers, haggis (pudding made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs—blech!), lots of Scotch whisky, and lots of tartan plaid. It was on ribbons and bows, skirts, shirts and dresses. There were men decked out in kilts, with turned down kilt hose, garters clipped to their socks and daggers tucked into them, discussing their sporran and what is was there for. And there was lots of poetry, speeches, and silliness.

If you’re looking for a way with words, the Scots found loads of inspiration in one supper. There’s an order to this night, and it starts with the drone of pipers welcoming in the guests. From then on, there are opening ceremony blessings for the supper and a special one for the haggis. Then they stab it, cut it up, and serve dinner. There are speeches and poems, a toast to the lads and a toast to the lassies. . It all ends with Auld Sane Syne, a song which no one knows the words to except for the main bit. The Scotch whisky is flowing and the snow is blowing.

There was snow, lots and lots of it. It snowed from the moment I woke that morning, until long after I drove back to Phoenicia in the falling snow that night to the house I was staying in. The house with the frozen pipes.

Trying to write when you haven’t traveled can kind of be like frozen pipes. Sometimes you’ve got to blast a blow dryer on them and that still doesn’t work. It’s hard and it’s laborious but if you want things to flow, it’s got to be done.

Since last night, 2,400 flights have been canceled nationwide. Whatever your weather conditions, don’t let it keep you down.

Featured post

Traveling In the Year of The Horse.

horseback-safaris

Safari anyone?

On January 31, in galloped the Year of the Horse on the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

A 12-month cycle, the calendar is based on archetypes of 12 animals and 5 elements. 2014’s theme is actually the Yang Wood Horse. Yang represents activity, and the year is considered to be one of high energy, production, movement, and a perfect time to travel.

On that note, I figured why not focus on destinations where horses figure predominately in one way or another.

Whether you like sitting in a saddle or just gazing at these noble creatures, there’s something about being near horses that quiets us. If you’re a horse person, then you probably have an unbridled passion for these animals and know what I’m talking about. There’s something about looking at the world from between a horse’s ears that just feels right. Some folks may say yuck to the smell of a stable but to me it’s a welcoming scent, so let’s go!

The wild horses of the Carmargue.

The wild horses of the Carmargue.

Wild Horses
I’ve only ever seen the Carmargue wild horses on public television but their ghostly beauty is enough for me to get off the couch and book a trip. One of the oldest breeds in the world, they’ve been around since 50,000 B.C.  Carmargue horses live around Saintes Maries de la Mer in southern France, within an area that runs from the Rhone River to the Mediterranean. These pale grey horses roam the marshland and salt marshes of the region and are protected by French law. Their allure draws visitors far and wide who come to paint, ride, photograph or just be near these sturdy ponies. A major tourist destination, the Carmargue Natural Park includes a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve, where each year hundreds of thousands of migrating birds rest for a layover. In addition to the wild horses, the bird wildlife, especially the pink flamingoes, is a major attraction for bird-watchers. Located near Arles, if you’ve got any time on the front or back end of your next stay in Paris, consider a side trip.

Pink flamingos in Carmargue Nature Park.

Pink flamingos in Carmargue Nature Park.

Dressage & Design
Who needs an excuse to visit Italy? The food alone is enough of a reason but when you add the opportunity to take dressage lessons in a place like Castello di Reschio, sign me up. Located in Umbria, this luxurious retreat blends modernity with classic old world aesthetic design that the Italians are oh so good at creating. If you’ve got a thing for design and architecture, these digs will have you over the moon. Depending on how many folks you want around you, the Reschio farmhouse accommodations sleep anywhere between 2 to 14 and will blow you away. Once you see them, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll have to pry you out by your fingernails. The proximity to Tuscany and the chance to explore the towns that dot its map, or take cooking classes, is another draw. Budget wise, it’s not for the faint of wallet but if you want to learn to ride, or perfect your moves, and feel it’s time to treat yourself to an all around, out of this world experience, then this might be the place for you.

All the pretty horses at Castello di Reschio.

All the pretty horses at Castello di Reschio.

A different point of view at Panagea.

A different point of view at Panagea.

Rawhide
If that’s too rich for your blood and you like it closer to the bone, then Panagea Estancia might be more your speed. This working cattle ranch in the north of Uruguay attracts visitors looking for the real deal of what the life of a South American gaucho, or cowboy, is really like. The ranch doesn’t promote itself from a tourist perspective, but they do welcome travelers who like to rough it. In terms of accommodations, we’re talking bare bones here but if you want to ride, or learn how, brush up on your Spanish, and live life off the grid then this is the place to do it. For $60 a day, you’ll not only get horseback riding lessons but the room and board to go with it. A steal if you ask me.

Race ya!  (Photo credit: African Horseback Safaris)

Race ya! (Photo credit: African Horseback Safaris)

Perfect after a day in the saddle.

Saddle Up On Safari
The only thing better than being on safari would be horseback riding while on safari. If you’re an experienced rider, then African Horseback Safaris can deliver that magic. With their Macatoo Camp located on the western side of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, you’ll find yourself in a mecca for wildlife as you race through floodplains, canter along side giraffes or zebra, gaze up at elephants, or follow on the heels of buffalo and antelope. With 4 to 6 hours in the saddle, you’ve got to love it and being able to ride in such a pristine environment is a dream. If your travel buddy doesn’t want to live your fantasy, no problem. Non-riders can enjoy a safari experience by boat or game drive, and whether or not you’re in the saddle the sundowners that’ll greet you at the end of the day will quench your thirst. This outfit also offers Eco-Safaris that you can tag on to your trip. If you’re looking for the ultimate riding experience, this is it.

Flirting with a friend at Flag Is Up Farms.

Flirting with a friend at Flag Is Up Farms.

Join Up
If being on the back of a horse isn’t your thing, and you’re simply looking to get a better understanding of these creatures, consider a visit to Flag Is Up Farms. Owned and operated by Monty Roberts, best-selling author of The Man Who Listens to Horses, this farm offers courses on horse behavior, horsemanship, and how to communicate with these animals through the language of Equus. Roberts’ pioneered a non-violent approach to working with horses years ago, which he eventually coined Join-Up®. It’s a philosophy based on learning the  unspoken language of horses that creates a trust-based foundation in a cooperative environment. Through subtle body movements and gestures, students work individually with horses in a high-walled, round-pen and experience for themselves this silent method of communication. It was a pretty thrilling experience for this Brooklyn girl and drinking a few juicy glasses of local red wine at the end of each night was a pretty sweet treat. Flag is Up is nicely set amongst the rolling hills of Santa Ynez wine valley and while they don’t offer accommodations, there are a variety available in the nearby towns of Solvang and Buellton. With its emphasis on communication, the real value of Join-Up® is that it can be applied to any relationship and the course attracts people from all walks of life including CEOs, veterans suffering from PTSD, abused women, children, educators, and medical clinicians.  Even the Queen of England endorses Join-Up® and over the years of his providing services to Britain’s racing establishment, in 2011 Monty was made an honorary Member of the Royal Victorian Order.

A New Forest Cottage.

A New Forest Cottage.

Pony Up
Whether you want to ride or just be around horses, the inhabitants of the New Forest, in Hampshire, England, will intrigue you. Roaming freely through the land are the famous New Forest Ponies, a band of about 3,000 whose mere presence contributes to the country’s tourism. These pretty ponies have run wild in these woodlands for 2,000 years and are cared

New Forest Ponies.

New Forest Ponies.

for by New Forest Commoners (local land owners). Visitors come just to watch the ponies, attracted by their gentle nature and beauty, as well as the romance and history of these creatures. Whether you’re a novice or advanced rider, there are a handful of stables in the forest that will saddle you up for lessons, riding, or a leisurely trek. The opportunity to enjoy a car-free journey is another plus, as you can easily hop a train from London. Once there, renting a bike is one of the most popular choices for exploring the area. There’s also a coastline where you can enjoy a shoreline stroll or hop a small ferry to Hurst Castle & Lighthouse. Book a room in one of the New Forest Cottages, and you’ll really feel like you’re in an enchanted forest.

The Chinese believe that the Horse year represents freedom and that when it comes to travel the further away you go, the better.

It’s also believed that you have to act fast in a Horse Year.  So if you’ve got an itch to go somewhere, giddy up!

Cider Shines.

cider-550x500Nothing beats a glass of cider over ice on a hot summer day.   Its sparkling spirit is the ultimate balm when your internal thermometer has heated past its breaking point. Those scorching days may be behind us but that doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy a glass of the hard stuff.   For anyone who’s never sipped this tasty beverage because they think it’s sweet, 2015 Cider Week NYC will crush that conception.

Kicking off today, an idea whose seed was planted in 2011 has grown to dozens of events across the city this year. If you’re a cider virgin, a good place to start is Applelooza on Lafayette Street where lots of tempting tastes await you. Featuring more than 40 different hard cider and apple spirits, you’re bound to fall for one or two.

Since its hard times during Prohibition when cider apple trees were destroyed, the beverage is having its moment and New York’s Hudson Valley and Catskill regions are a big reason behind it. Farm-made and craft ciders feature large during Cider Week, making for a great way for urbanites to connect with an agricultural movement typically associated with large farm production across the country.

Like beer and wine, cider offers a versatility in flavor which is probably why its gaining popularity as the fastest growing alcoholic beverage. The events taking place around the city bring the orchards to the city’s streets.

Cider Week NYC runs from November 6-15. A great reason to take out the Big Apple’s apples!