Author Archives: portsarecalling

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.

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!

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.

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

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.