Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.

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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.

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!

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.