Monthly Archives: February 2014

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.

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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.

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.

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!