Tag Archives: United States

In Jackson Hole, Sleigh Bells Ring.

Feel the call of the wild at Spring Creek Ranch, WY.

Feel the call of the wild at Spring Creek Ranch, WY.

The holidays are staycation time for me. Like most people, it gives me a chance to catch up with old friends  or check out festive things happening in and around the town.  It’s like a  “time out” of sorts to indulge and maybe even be a bit lazy but when I heard about Spring Creek Ranch, I found myself wishing I could jump on a plane with a few friends tonight.

Sign me up and giddy up. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Sign me up.  (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Located just 10 minutes from Jackson Hole in Wyoming, conditions are cream of the crop when it comes to skiing. As someone who learned to ski on the black ice of Vermont’s Killington Mountain, being able to glide across fine, white powder is like dreaming on a goose down mattress after chasing sleep on a hardwood floor. Any opportunity to ski in those conditions is a gift but it’s their wildlife and natural history safaris that caught my attention.

Muledeer.  (Photo:  Spring Creek Ranch)

Muledeer. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Being smack in the middle of a winter wonderland on a horse-drawn sleigh surrounded by herds of elk sounds like a plan to me. Another ride takes you over to East Gros Ventre Butte, a mountain summit with one of the most spectacular views in the country. Afterwards, you can warm up with a hot toddy or a lovely meal at The Granary and marvel at the views of the Grand Tetons. A snowshoe hike will get your cardio going a bit while you follow tracks set by local wildlife. There’s dog-sledding, tubing, and ice-skating, too. If you’re into winter sports, Spring Creek Ranch offers unique experiences to enjoy these activities and absorb the stunning and natural environment that surrounds you. They even have a photo safari led by a professional photographer. For anyone who likes to bliss out behind a camera, this one’s for you.

View from The Granary. (Photo:  Spring Creek Ranch)

View from The Granary. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

People often associate the term “safari” with far off places but the truth is there are plenty of safari experiences to be had in the US. The ones Spring Creek Ranch offers are calling my name.

Named “2014’s Best Overall Resort In North America” by Ski Magazine, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offers by far some of the best conditions on the planet for enjoying the white stuff.   If frolicking in the cold isn’t your idea of a good time, there are loads of activities in the spring and summer.  From horseback riding, to balloon rides, to white water rafting, it’s an adventure travelers dreamscape.  Even better, the airport, the only one located within a national park, has direct flights from most major cities in the US.

As I compile my list of where to go next year, it looks like this is falling within the top ten. So many places to go and so much to see.

It’s the holidays, I can dream, can’t I?


Don’t Fear The Reaper.

'Til death do us part.  (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

‘Til death do us part. (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

“How do you say skeleton in Spanish?”

It was my first trip outside of the U.S.  I was 11 years old and sitting on the edge of my bed in the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City watching cartoons. A kid was dancing with a chorus line of skeletons. Their bones rattled as they danced around. Intrigued, I asked my mom to translate for me. “El esqueleto,” she answered.

It was October. A time of year when Mexicans prepare to celebrate el Dia de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead. From October 31-November 2, they gather to honor friends and family who’ve died. During this cultural celebration, each day has its own significance with lots of preparation leading up to it. In many homes, alters adorned with marigolds, incense, candles and candies are created. The belief is that during this time the gates of heaven open and spirits return to their loved ones.  It’s a reunion of sorts and families picnic in cemeteries.  Great festivities take place.  It’s even a bank holiday.  Sugar skulls, confectionary coffins and elaborately painted skeletons are also displayed.

Some people get a little freaked out by this idea. Not me. Raised on good, old-fashioned horror movies, many a night was spent huddled with my siblings on the couch with a fresh bowl of popcorn waiting for a ghoul to appear on the screen. I love this stuff and what kid doesn’t like sugar? Even more, I became fascinated with the little clay, hand painted skeleton figurines I’d glimpse around the town and in shop windows.

How sweet are these? (Photo credit:  Examiner.com)

How sweet are these? (Photo credit: Examiner.com)

The only thing more enticing than exploring the Camino Real Hotel, with the scent of Mexican oregano and poblano chili drifting from its restaurant, was ogling the skeletons set up in various scenes of everyday life. A bride and groom, a cowboy on a horse, a few fellows playing pool, a guitar player. You name, they created it. Mexican art can be whimsical and playful, and its full wickedness appears in the Day of the Dead dioramas.

Must be the season of the witch.  (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

Must be the season of the witch. (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

By day we explored the city and walked its streets. We visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where Mexicans and tourists made their way across the plaza to its doors upon their knees to honor her significance and gaze upon the cloak of Juan Diego that holds her image. We explored the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park where I became intrigued by another relic, the Aztec Calendar with its secrets locked within its stone. Afterwards, we strolled around Chapultepec Park. With its forest and lakes, the park is an oasis in the city.

I was digging all the old stuff and don’t think my mom was thinking too clearly when she agreed to a visit to the Pyramid of the Sun. She booked us a tour and we took an early morning bus to the ancient city of Teotihuacán. When we arrived a local guide gave an orientation about the ruins, where 200,000 inhabitants vanished without a trace. Even today, they still don’t know how this place was built.  I was intrigued again. My mom on the other hand went a bit pale as she gazed up at the very steep, 250-step climb ahead of us. Had anyone else been with us, she probably would have bagged it. But seeing how it was just us, she boldly took the first step. “Don’t look down” became the mantra as I held her hand from time to time, and we ascended higher and higher. When we reached the top she was quite pleased with herself. We stayed there for a while, staring out across the land, wondering what life must have been like for the people who once lived there and where they went. Getting down the pyramid was a different story and a whole different mantra.

Don't look down.  Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

Don’t look down. Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

On the way home the bus stopped along a market route where locals sold treasures made from famed Mexican silver. I’ve never seen so much silver in once place.   My mom bought me a bracelet. It was wide with cutouts and a detailed Aztec calendar intricately carved within its silver.  Decades later I sold it a stoop sale. What was I thinking?

But I still have the tiny skeleton figurines on my bedroom bureau. Like the Aztec Sun calendar, and the ruins of Teotihuacán, they remind me that everything changes and that everything can go poof in a second.

And this why we travel, right? To come outside of our own world, learn something new and, often times, something that makes sense.

That’s the real treat.

In Iran, You Had Me At Headscarf.

One of the largest squares on the planet awaits you in Isfahan, Iran.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

One of the largest squares on the planet awaits you in Isfahan, Iran. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.  Destroy your reputation.  Be notorious.

“That movie was not a fair portrayal of the Iranian people. Everyone in there was angry or had a sour look on their face.  They looked scary.”

I was playing catch up with my nomadic soul sister, Suzanne Anthony, and we were talking about the film Argo.  She’d been to Iran and I was curious to hear about it.  Like the tales of a 1,001 nights, she had me at headscarf.

During the US’ war on Iraq, one of the many casualties was the looting of its museums. Suzanne figured that with the drums of war banging away, it might not be long before Iran was in its crosshairs. She’d always had an itch to see Iran’s famous, hand-painted, blue-tiled, honeycombed mosques, and she figured it was time to scratch it.

The beauty of the blue mosques.  (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony)

The beauty of the blue and white tiled mosques. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Suzanne’s a solo traveler but Americans aren’t allowed to travel to Iran alone. They have to go with a tour group. I had to admit, it’s not every day you see vacations to Iran marketed. “I don’t think it’s something the market will bear because people are terrified of going. It’s all fear. Look what happens when you tell people you’re going to Mexico,” she said. “The media doesn’t help.”

She got her visa and chose GAP, a Canadian tour company because the travelers they attract are younger and adventurous, more the backpacker type than the academic and older folks that book with US tours and do everything together. Her fellow travelers were Australian, Romanian and New Zealanders, and their Iranian tour guide allowed them to cut loose during the day.

She flew to Tehran alone but admits to being weirded out as the plane descended and a flight attendant announced, “By decree of Islamic law, all women must cover their heads.” Her nerves grew a bit more frazzled when she learned that US citizens must be fingerprinted. “The first thing the immigration guy said to me was, ‘Welcome, welcome! I love America. USA good. Welcome.’ He could barely speak English but he could tell I was nervous,” Suzanne said. From that point on, the little fear she had disappeared.

A big attraction traveler, Suzanne went for those blue-tiled mosques but what the attraction became when she arrived were the people. “It’s a very young group. They work very hard to let you know that they’re cultured. So they always want to talk about music and poetry. The Persian poets like Rumi from old Persia.” Music’s important too but Western music is stifled. She told of guys dressed like punk rockers in skinny jeans with spiked hair. Of one listening to his iPhone who asked her, “Do you like rock n roll?” She replied, “Yes, I love rock n roll.” He got wide-eyed and whispered, “I do too but here it is forbidden.”

And what about those headscarves?

What to wear? (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony_

What to wear? (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

“It was funny for me that the headscarf is a very powerful symbol that people fear. Women are asked to take them off in the US and women are asked to put them on there. We’re so focused on the power of a headscarf.” She remembers a gorgeous woman who stopped to ask her what she thought about wearing the headscarf and she answered, “I respect your customs and I’m willing to do it to visit your country. What do you think about it?” The woman wore a purple scarf, tossed it over her shoulder and said, “My god does not care about such things.”

On a visit to the holy city of Mashhad, all the women on the tour had to sport a chador, the black robe that covers you from head to toe. A bit freaky at first, they got over that feeling quickly when the Iranians looked at them and giggled. Blending in among a sea of black was an experience Suzanne had never had. She felt a huge energy shift. “All of a sudden you’re one of them now. You’re not the lone vanilla scoop in a chocolate sundae. You’re swept up in that mystique.”

The hospitality also blew her away. “They’d say, ‘Can you come to my house for tea?’ The whole Muslim culture is very much based around hospitality, that if you have a guest in your country it’s considered a gift. You’re considered a guest of honor.” These aren’t things we hear about in the media. Suzanne constantly met people throughout the towns she visited who’d say to her, “America very good.”

They’d also ask a lot of questions but there was one in particular that gave her a lump in her throat. “What does America think about us?”

“You don’t want to answer that question. So I just said people don’t know very much about you, they’re afraid of the government. One woman said, ‘Our government is crazy.’ And I said, our government is crazy too. They’d go on to say, ‘I hope someday our countries can be friends.’”

She went for the blue tiled ceiling but found so much more.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

She went for the blue mosques but found so much more. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Isfahan, with one of the largest squares in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was her favorite city. Travelers flock there for the Iranian and Islamic architecture, art, history, and parkland. But it was the blue mosques that she couldn’t wait to see. “I’m just crazy about those because you go inside these mosques and the ceiling’s are all honeycombed. Just to walk through a giant mosque and have every surface around you in these blue and white tiles is just beautiful. I couldn’t seem to get enough of those.” She came to feel the same way for the mirrored mosques. She also fell in love with the city of Shiraz with its poets’ shrines.

They visited a caravanserai, a sort of open-air dinner theatre in the desert. It turned into a wild and memorable experience when an Iranian tour group arrived and threw the party of all parties. “They threw upon the doors and dragged us into their party. Before you know it, we were all dancing. It was wild, the headscarves started to loosen and come off and everybody was on the dance floor. As quick as they blew in on their tour bus, they were gone and we were all stupefied. It was like prohibition. Here they were out in the desert and they were breaking all the rules.”

Oh what a night! The caravanserai courtyard.  (Photo credit:  Suzanne Anthony)

Oh what a night! The caravanserai courtyard. (Photo credit: Suzanne Anthony)

Suzanne thinks it would be an amazing thing for more Americans to visit Iran. Why? Because she thinks if you open up your mind and your heart, it’ll be an enriching experience like no other. “I was relieved to not have everybody be right who thought something bad was going to happen to me there,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Go and see it for yourself.” Another plus, women don’t have to pack much because nobody’s really going to see you!

My nomadic soul sister, Suzanne.

My nomadic soul sister, Suzanne, chills at the caravanserai.

I’ve barely scratched the surfaced here. Visit Take To The Highway to get all the details behind Suzanne’s incredible journey in Iran and to follow her other trails.

Sorry About Your Vacation But We’re Closed.

You're joking...right? (Photo credit: Laura Morales.)

You’re joking…right? (Photo credit: Laura Morales.)

Yesterday my boyfriend asked me, “How pissed would you be if when we’d gone to Egypt they’d told us ‘sorry, the pyramids are closed today’?”  I don’t think I really have to answer that question.

But that’s how it’s gone this week for millions of tourists across the United States because of the federal government shutdown.  National parks, museums, and other famous institutions that draw visitors from across the U.S. and abroad are shut out from some of the most inspiring, natural, awesome, and thought-provoking experiences this country has to offer.  For the folks doing the traveling it’s been a major disappointment.  Sure, there are some who’ve made lemonade from the lemons of our government’s internal affairs, but for others the plans they’d had to visit the country’s federally run attractions have turned out to be a bust.

Travel advisors and tour operators who are politically aware may have had a jump on things by having a Plan B up their sleeve for their customers.  I hope so, anyway.   But for travelers who like to go it alone, what started out as an eager vacation has most probably turned into a frustrating experience and a poorer view of our government.  This especially holds true for any foreign visitors.

As of today, the government is in day four of its shutdown but there’s strength in numbers. Travel agents, the travel industry as a whole, and U.S. citizens can do something about it.

How?  All you need to do is write your federal representative.

Tell them how you feel.  Especially for anyone in the travel industry whose livelihood depends on tourism.  It’s that easy.

Power to the people, and to travelers.

Fall Into It.

Nankoweap Rapid is mile 52 along the Colorado River.

Nankoweap Rapid is mile 52 along the Colorado River.

If summer’s about escapism then autumn is all about back to business. But for many, fall is the time of the year when a lot of us hightail it out of here.   The crowds are gone, the roads are clearer and we can have places more to ourselves. But what’s travel without a good book? More specifically, without a good book about travel?

Depending on the direction you’re headed, some travelers prefer total immersion. And as most travelers know, any good travel tale is not without its fair share of ups and downs.  With that in mind, here are a few recommendations for all you travel advisors and travelers to inspire travel reading, travel writing, but mostly…travel.

theoldwaysI like a guy who likes to walk so I’m looking forward to The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert McFarlane. Shortlisted for the 2013 Warwick prize for literature makes it another good reason to pick it up. A literature professor, McFarlane leads us along the paths of the British Isles in England and Scotland, where he meets people and learns the history of these places. Step by step, he experiences the meditative bonus of walking, the thinking that goes with it and shares how exploring a country on foot is one of the best ways to enjoy travel. For anyone who’s hooked on their Kindle app and can’t get away, or for travel advisors who want to check things out, you can use Google Earth to track his path and see what he saw as you read along. Pretty cool.

Collection-of-Sand-Essays-Pe“…the most important things in the world are the empty spaces,” writes Italo Calvino. In one way or another, the 38 essays that make up A Collection of Sand focus on Calvino’s visual experiences and how they inform travel. Around his pleasures and fascination of maps and books and how certain places, in this case Japan, Mexico and Iran led to contemplation on space and time and civilization. Beautiful writing.


robberofmemoriesSeems only fitting that since there’s a chill in the air that you should have something chilling in your hands, or on your iPad. In which case, The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Columbia may be right for you, especially if you’re heading in that direction. Michael Jacobs takes us with him on his adventure up Magdelena, a river that runs through the heart of Columbia where he charts its course geographically and emotionally. Like most first-world travelers who go it alone, he sheds himself of life’s modern comforts. His journey is challenging and dangerous but his tale, where South America is the central theme, serves up a different perspective altogether.

alexandriaEgypt might not be the first place you think of going to these days but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of what it once was. A long time ago, in a land far away, an old flame turned me on to The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and this masterpiece has stuck with me ever since. Made up of four small novels, it’s a lush and seductive tale of friends and lovers in Alexandria before WWI. Its central theme is love conveyed across the different viewpoints and experiences of the characters that make up these stories and whose common ground is the city.

BehindBeautifulForeversBehind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo. I suppose the title pretty much sums up it up but don’t let that get you down. Boo won numerous book awards for this story and any traveler worth their salt knows that the closer to the bone you get to living in a country, the sweeter the meat. A journalist for the New Yorker, Boo takes us into the slum of Annawadi and its underworld of characters that make up the citizens who do what they can to make a life for themselves and their families who live on the other side of life in the shadows of shiny corporate hotels.

urbancircusAnother glimpse into the lives of others, The Urban Circus: Travels with Mexico’s Malabaristas by Catriona Rainsford takes you on a wild and wacky ride. Rainsford joined a group of young, itinerant street performers on a two-year journey across the country where she learned to live hand-to-mouth with them. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, this true story will give you a chance to see beyond the tourist zones and into the everyday lives, genuineness and character of Mexicans.

If you’re into adventure travel, or have customers who live for it, then this gripping and heart-stopping story is the perfect companion. The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko is the harrowing tale of three guides who ride the Colorado River through the heart of the Canyon.  Check it out:

There’s loads of stuff out there. Are you reading any good travel stories these days, fiction or otherwise? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them.

Discovering Southern Values.

Ruffner Nature Center in Birmingham.  (Photo credit:  A. Headrick)

Ruffner Nature Center’s view in Birmingham. (Photo credit: A. Headrick)

Travelers lucky enough to fly around the globe are always on the hunt for new and different experiences and perspectives. For anyone without a lot of time to spare or who like quick getaways, there are plenty of cities and towns in the good old U.S.A. offering amazing food, cultural and natural attractions, or historical value. One of them is Birmingham, Alabama. That’s right, Birmingham, Alabama.

Why Birmingham? Because this week in September marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in this southern city and institutions are generating tourism by making civil rights relevant for a younger generation. That might sound like a strange thing for anyone who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, or for those of us who grew up in racially mixed areas exposed to a generation of African-Americans that had to fight for their rights. It seems crazy that there are Americans who aren’t fully aware of the events that took place during what is probably the most turbulent period in American history, but there are. This year, Birmingham has seen an uptick in visitors—whether through school outings, individual travelers, or families who want their children to understand the facts and details of one of this country’s darkest periods.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) opened in 1992 as an interpretive museum and research center.  BCRI is a cornerstone of this city and documents Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Its mission is to promote civil and human rights worldwide.  Many of their education programs are geared towards young people with a goal to start a fire in the heels of the future. Their outreach education program reaches 20,000 people in various community spaces, and they have traveling exhibitions. The city gets its fair share of tour and convention groups, and individual travelers, who come to soak up the history by visiting BCRI and other historical places like the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park.

Kelly Ingram Park draws visitors to Birmingham.

Kelly Ingram Park draws visitors to Birmingham. (Photo credit: CLUI.)

For anyone pulling a weekender, there’s entertainment, outdoor activities, and nightlife. Whether your palate is high-brow or low-brow, you’ll find down home cooking and finger-licking barbecue, as well as some of the most exceptional food in the country. Over the past few years a handful of the city’s chefs were recognized with the James Beard Award and in Food + Wine. Its natural beauty is discovered at the 67-acre Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and five miles from the city is Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, a 1,000-acre preserve and urban forest with loads of hiking trails. State parks offer more opportunities to hike and bike year-round. Anyone into fishing will be happy to discover that Alabama is known as the “bass capital of the world.”

Birmingham shakes with history and It’s hard to go anywhere in the city without finding a place that’s significantly tied to the Civil Rights Movement. Its past is dark and complicated but the unity created by the brave, and mostly young, men and women during the Civil Rights Movement spurred a government to move this country forward.  It might not be a city that instantly comes to mind when you think about traveling in the U.S. but the historical and educational value, and southern hospitality,  you’ll find there is an excellent reason to visit.

It’s also one of the most affordable cities in the country.  If they don’t have it up their sleeve already, travel agents with the good habit of recommending destinations may want to add it to their list of places to visit in the U.S.

Gimme Shelter.

Shelter Island jewels. (Photo by author)

Shelter Island jewels. (Photo by author)

Anyone who’s visited the beaches of Long Island knows how lovely they are. Over the years I’ve clocked time in the gorgeous towns of East and South Hampton, the hamlet of Amagansett, and one of my favorite places in the world, Montauk, affectionately known as The End. But in all that time, I’d never been to Shelter Island. Always passed on the way out to the eastern end of Long Island, I’d look at the ferry sign and think that one day I’d visit. Anyone I know who’s been always spoke of how gorgeous it is. This past weekend I got to see its beauty.

I’m leaving on a…quick ferry ride. (Photo credit: Tim Kelly)

Nestled between the North and South Forks of Long Island, the island really is sheltered. I was heading there for a wedding, and took the first morning train on the Long Island Railroad out to Greenport. The three-hour journey is the first step in getting that “away” feeling and gives you time to read, nap, or catch up on whatever needs catching up. By the time the train arrives, decompression is nicely underway. A few steps later you’re at the ferry, excited with the anticipation of being so close to your destination. It’s a quick seven-minute zip across Shelter Island Sound but enough time to make me feel like I was a million miles from New York City.
Visiting Shelter Island is like being in a time capsule. With its lack of noise and overall hustle and bustle, white picket fences, gabled homes, wrap around porches, rolling hills, boats bobbing in the harbor, and lush land, it feels like Mayberry RFD. Its natural beauty is startling. Just to give you an idea, The Nature Conservancy owns one-third of the island. This keeps it real and keeps it wild. No one was walking around with head’s down staring at their cell phone; in fact I didn’t see one person on their phone the entire time I was there.

Dering Harbor.

Dering Harbor.

There’s no such thing as perfect but to this visitor the pristine beauty of Shelter Island was almost overwhelming. To boot, the weather was bright sunshine, no humidity and clear skies. From the moment I checked into the Chequit Inn, the wedding couple spoiled me (and all their other guests) rotten with goodies and meals. Sure, I was there to celebrate their union but being there gave me—and the rest of the crowd—an opportunity for a little vacation. A mode that everyone seemed to take to immediately.

The added bonus was reuniting with friends who don’t live in the US anymore, and making new ones. A gang of us rented bikes and spent Saturday exploring. It’s probably the best way to see Shelter Island, you can stop and start back up when you like. We rolled through the roads of Dering Harbor and gaped at the off the hook homes that look like something out of The Great Gatsby. We made a pit stop on a wide-arced, sandy white beach, empty except for a sole person in a deck chair reading; a turquoise umbrella sheltered her. Aside from the gentle lapping of water on the shoreline, all was quiet. She had the world at her feet and heaven around her.

A sweet ride.

A sweet ride.

We swam in Coecles Harbor, near the Ram’s Head Inn, where I found my new favorite sport—paddle boarding. We could have lolled seaside all day but we had to head back to our hotel to get spiffed up for the night’s festivities. Cycling home along the shoreline the breeze carried the sweet smell of grass and clover mixed with salty air, creating the sort of moment that only summer can bring. The sort of feeling you had as kid, when you didn’t have a care in the world. When a minute seemed like an hour, and before sound became noise. The feeling that you didn’t want the day to end, wishing you could capture it forever. Magic.

Sunset ceremony sky over Coecles Harbor.  (Photo credit:  Lawrence J. Winston)

Sunset ceremony sky over Coecles Harbor. (Photo credit: Lawrence J. Winston)

We returned to the Ram’s Head for the outdoor wedding ceremony during that golden hour where the sun blazed over the rolling lawn that overlooks the harbor. As it set, it cast a lingering gift of neon orange glow over the dinner party. Then this brilliant fireball slowly dipped into the sea. Delicious food, good times, no one wanted the glamorous night to end but we eventually had to call it quits.

Show me to my table.  (Photo credit:  D. Powell)

Show me to my table. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

The following day the celebration continued with lunch on a secluded private beach. More food, more drink, more laughs, more swimming. We combed for seashells and found a treasure of mermaid’s toenails, scallop, spindle and snail shells. My sun hat became a bucket for my bounty. So many shells, so much sunshine, so much summer.

Someone asked me what time I was leaving, I said never.

Freedom To Find Happiness.

The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness,
only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.
–Benjamin Franklin

Lady Liberty from the Red Hook pier in Brooklyn.  (Photo credit: D. Powell)

Lady Liberty from the Red Hook pier in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

When we think of travel, the words happiness and freedom often halo the thought.  In America, traveling for pleasure didn’t begin until after the Civil War and only the rich could do it. Anyone fortunate enough to travel these days most likely doesn’t give thought to the genesis of the idea of “vacation.”  We travel to free ourselves in some way.  Travel is escapism.  Yes, it can be all about rest and relaxation but one of the benefits of travel is that—if we allow ourselves—we break out of our own world and glimpse it through the eyes and lives of others.  We may not always like what we see but it can give us a better understanding of who we are, what we cherish, what’s important, and what matters.  A Swiss chef I once worked with told me that Americans don’t appreciate their freedoms.  This was a long time ago, and I didn’t really understand what he meant back then but over the years I get it.

This past week, at The New York Public Library on 42nd Street a rare exhibition of two of the most important American historical documents were on display together.  Anyone interested could see an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights.  With the 4th of July approaching, I figured I could use a refresher on the documents that form the foundation of freedom in the United States.  As kids we learn about them in school but as we grow older we forget about them.  About what they really mean and the collaboration it took to get those ideas on paper.  We forget that pretty much everything we can do, including travel, was built on the bedrock of these ideas and the history that followed.

Let’s start with the Declaration of Independence.  It’s written in iron gall ink on handmade laid paper.  There’s hardly anything that we use that’s handmade anymore, so I was impressed just peering at it.  And I hardly know of anyone who writes by hand these days, and Thomas Jefferson’s is beautiful. The Bill of Rights displayed is one of 14 original copies.  Aside from the obvious aesthetic worth of these documents, their true value was evident by the amount of international visitors, and Americans, in the gallery. These manuscripts are slightly faded, and you have to either be really young to read them or have great eyeglasses.  But it didn’t matter.  You could hear people reciting sections from these documents and it gave me chills.  A black man who lives in Washington Heights said he wanted to see them because his family hails from South Carolina. There is slave blood in his veins and he wanted to view Jefferson’s original, unedited, version of the Declaration.  The power of these documents generated energy in that room and I felt proud.  They were giving away copies and I snatched one up.

Today is a holiday for a reason.  Before you jump on a plane or in a pool, raise the sails, or fire up the grill, kick back in a hammock or crack open a cold one, maybe take a moment to thank Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Livingston, Sherman, and Madison, who had the intelligence, foresight and the good sense to create these documents and hook us up in a very big way.

Wherever you are, here’s to catching up with freedom and happiness.
Here’s to a Happy Independence Day!

Small Town Pleasures in Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur (Photo credit: Daniel Fajardo Valenti)

The Pacific coastline region of Nicaragua around San Juan del Sur seems to be on every list of best places to go in 2013.   Recently, I had the chance to visit and found a destination whose chill-out factor suited me just fine.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a country listed as the second poorest in the Western hemisphere, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Nicaraguans are friendly, hospitable and mellow, and while their country may have attracted unwanted attention in the 1980s during the Iran-Contra affair, it’s now being noticed for all of the right reasons.  As one of the few places left to visit that won’t break your bank account, it’s easy to see why so many Americans and Canadians retire here.  San Juan del Sur is a tranquil fishing village that surrounds a crescent-shaped stretch of beach dotted with small bars and cafes. The town is simple to navigate and offers lots of options for eating, drinking and booking activities.  Taxis are plentiful, making it easy to check out the other lovely and uncrowded beaches up and down the coast. But if you’re looking for a bit more than soaking up the sun, here are some ideas to help plan your trip.

Five Cool Things to Do In & Around San Juan del Sur

1. Catch the Surf
Surfers helped put this area on the map and this town’s been operating as a hub for them ever since.  If you’re not ready to plant your feet on a board just yet, pitch a blanket and watch the experts.  Otherwise, no matter your age, you won’t be at a loss to find a surf camp that’ll suit you up.  Ladies, for the adventurer in you, check out CHICABRAVA—an all girls surf camp whose motto is – Get Stoked…In Style!  Founded in 2003 by 6-time Nicaraguan National surf champ, Ashley Blaylock, this retreat style camp will both challenge and pamper you.

An intermediate student gets stoked.  (Photo credit:  CHICABRAVA)

A CHICABRAVA intermediate student gets stoked. (Photo credit: CHICABRAVA)

2. Grab a Horse and Giddy-up
There are a handful of outfits around San Juan del Sur that run horseback tours for much less than what it costs to ride in the U.S.  Rancho Chilamate, an eco-friendly ranch owned and operated by an ex-pat Canadian couple, guide half-day tours at sunrise or sunset, depending on the tides.  They’ll suit and saddle you up, and include a photography tour of your ride.  In addition, a portion of the ride revenue goes back to the local community to help with healthcare and education costs, as well as other types of assistance projects.

Sunset ride on the beach.  (Photo credit:  Rancho Chilamate)

Sunset ride on the beach. (Photo credit: Rancho Chilamate)

3. Learn Spanish
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the culture and improve your high-school Spanish, then consider adding some lessons to your itinerary. There are several language schools in and around San Juan del Sur that can easily fit into your budget, and your new skills will have you chatting with the locals in no time!

4. Grab a Mat and Get Centered
When you start your morning doing sun salutations on the beach, the day only continues to get better.  From teacher-training camps to retreats to community classes, there are several top-notch yoga schools and studios to help you “be here now.”  Several of the surf camps also offer yoga.

Bondi Beach Yoga

(Photo credit: tarotastic)

5. Get Your Munchies In the Jungle
Pizza is definitely on my desert island list of foods and as a Brooklynite, I think I can vouch for the good stuff.  Munchies Blues Cafe is a Monday night, reservation-only experience in the jungle out by Playa Marsella. They serve Roman-style pizza that rivals some of the best stuff in my own neighborhood.

This list barely scratches the surface of activities you can enjoy in Nicaragua.   Tourism is rising but there’s still time to enjoy its simple pleasures.  With a landscape made of volcanoes, jungles, lakes, lagoons, rivers, beaches and lush rainforests, this country seems to offer something for everyone.   So the next time you’re wondering where you should go, think about discovering the beauty, tranquility and people of Nicaragua.