Sunday, March 29, 2009

Israel: A Happening Holy Land

As a native New Yorker, it's hard to imagine living any other place in the U.S. What city could rival New York's vibrancy and creativity, its edginess as well as its sophistication? But one city that reminds me so much of New York but with the added plus that it comes with an amazingly beautiful waterfront promenade and a sandy beach to boot is Tel Aviv. Here you have a small city that's jam packed with creativity, liveliness, an incredible restaurant scene, notable architecture aplenty and art galleries and design emporia popping up all over the place. I just spent a week there, using it also as a base to visit other parts of the country. My first post from this trip is devoted to just a few of the cool Tel Aviv-based venues I visited:

1. When I walked into La Champa, an intimate cava bar, I felt transported to Barcelona. Many of those packed into this small narrow bar were dancing to the live Spanish music played by an Israeli band -- plenty were enjoying the vibe outside as well. I stood at the bar -- as everyone does; there's no sitting here -- and sipped a wonderful glass of cava (they serve nine different kinds) while nibbling on patatas bravas, chorizo and manchego. When I left near 1 a.m., things were still going strong.

2. The city's love affair with Spain is apparent in the recently-opened restaurant appropriately named Pintxos. (It's the Basque spelling of a word referring to small one-bite tapas.) They offer 15 different varieties on a tray -- you pick what you want as the waitress passes your table -- and I gobbled up 10 of these. I couldn't resist the white truffle spread on bread, Danish blue cheese with grapes, and artichoke with truffle oil and cashew nuts.

3. If an architect didn't tell me about one-year-old Salon, I wouldn't have found out about this gem. After all, they don't advertise, there's no web site and don't expect anyone to hand you their business card because they don't have one. This is a word of mouth establishment on the edge of Tel Aviv that's only open on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I showed up at 10 pm on a Wednesday -- the more "laid back" of the two nights, though it's never laid back -- and sat at the bar. (That's where all the action is. You're only steps away from the chef who's preparing food on the bar top that's stacked with all manner of fresh ingredients, from black tomatoes to Arab almonds.) Everything, from the ultrathin raviolis to the flavorful focaccia is handmade. And though eggplant and radishes never have thrilled me, they became my favorite foods, at least the way they were prepared here. I chose the six-course tasting menu where I found out the chef's love of tomatoes of all sorts.

4. Film buff that I am, Hotel Cinema couldn't be a better locale to lay my head. Centrally located off of Dizengoff Square, this boutique accommodation is housed in the original Bauhaus-style movie theater that opened in the 1930s. Every floor has plenty of the theater artifacts to explore, whether it's film projectors, old movie posters or cinema tickets. They even provided a small carton of popcorn at check-in.

5. Open less than a year, the Hotel Montefiore is a boutique affair that's become a happening place. Housed in a building dating from the early 1920s, the 12-room hotel couldn't have a better location near tree-lined Rothchild Boulevard -- my favorite strolling street in Tel Aviv. Expect to be catered to here -- they'll arrange everything from having a fitness trainer or masseuse come to your room to setting up private guided tours. My next posting will discuss my dining experience in their restaurant.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Israel Travels

Just wanted to let you know that I'm traveling in Israel and will be back on Sunday. I've been running all over the place checking out hot designers, new restaurants and recently-opened wine bars. Getting back at 2 a.m. each night didn't leave time to post. But you can expect a complete update on what's happening in Tel Aviv this Sunday. In the meantime, you can check my updates on twitter.
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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Florida Keys Are Still Wild

Driving from Key Largo to Key West, many people find it difficult to imagine what Florida must've been like before malls and wall-to-wall resorts invaded the area. Yet, all t takes to experience the wilderness of the Florida Keys is to make a very short detour off the main highway or take a pleasant ferry ride. Some of the wilderness venues are so close to the main drag, it's almost hard to believe it when residents admit they've never heard of a particular spot. There are more than half a dozen of these nature preserves to choose from. On my last trip to the Keys, I based in Islamorada and took day trips to each of these leafy destinations below:

• The Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is just off Route 1. It's the largest remaining tropical hardwood forest in the U.S. and home to endangered plants and animals. Thanks to the signs and labels along the paths, it's easy to pick up plenty of botanical facts about the Jamaican dogwood whose leaves were once used to stun fish or the Bahama strongbark tree whose tea is said to be revitalizing.

• At Indian Key Historic State Park, rangers lead treks through this 10-acre greenspace that has a colorful past. The rogue wrecker bought the island and built one of Florida's first post offices; an agriculturist introduced agave and prickly pear; and a band of Native Americans attacked in the 1800s destroying most of the island's structures. You'll see the ruins of the town square and be able to roam trials that were once busy streets.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park is one of the last virgin tropical forests in the Keys. The park is named for the endangered medicinal tree that 's said to possibly be the tree of the Garden of Eden and also the source of the Holy Grail. Rangers also lead guided walks on the island where you'll find plenty of oddly named and lush foliage. Kayaking, snorkeling and fishing are three other top activities you may want to consider both here and at Indian Key.

• The Crane Point Museum, Nature Center and Historic Site is a 60-some-acre wilderness preserve that is sure to satisfy botany and history buffs alike. Here you'll find the Adderley House, the oldest house in the Keys outside of Key West. It's constructed of sand, shells, lime and rocks. Walk the trails that wind past fresh water ponds and mangrove forests with blue herons and white ibis.

• In Long Key State Park, visitors can walk the pleasant Golden Orb Trail, so named for the spider whose web is many times stronger than the same mass of steel. It meanders through a dense mangrove forest to an observation tower high above the forest.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Always Island Time on Tangier Island

As a high-octane person, I find it hard to slow down. But I had no choice when I took the ferry to Tangier Island, Virginia. After all, there are no daily newspapers, no magazines, no nightspots and no alcohol. (The community boasts strong religious roots.) But in this the world's soft-shell crab capital, I found plenty of small, otherwise forgotten pleasures with a few curiosities thrown in for good measure.

Interesting facts:

• Forget the car. The way to get around the island with its narrow lanes is by renting a golf cart or a bicycle or by walking.

• Most men have been watermen, harvesting hard- or soft-shell crabs.

• The citizens have a cockney-ish accent with some curious slang. ("You're too soon" translates to "you're late.")

• Kids catch crabs using string dangling from the bridges with chicken bones as bait.

This is how I'd spend a long three-day weekend:

1. The recently opened Tangier History Museum provides a window into the island's life, including Tangier's key role in the War of 1812.

2. Take out a kayak or canoe and paddle along the several water trails that course from the harbor past crab sheds, through marshes and the network of channels that slice the island. Take the yellow trail and you'll find a pristine strip of sand, perfect for beaching your beaching your boat and discovering Native American arrowheads.

3. The new self-guided history walk highlights dozens of sites, such as the old jail and family tombstones that occupy many front yards.

4. Sign up for the Honorary Waterman's Tour. You'll spend the day with watermen aboard traditional boats catching hard-shell and peeler crabs.

5. Rent a bicycle and pedal the network of paved and unpaved roads to explore the island's nooks and crannies.

6. Fuel up at Spanky’s, a 50s-style ice cream parlor on Main Street.

7. Walk along a long stretch of sandy beach or simply take in the sun in a very low-key atmosphere.

8. Watch the sunset from the island's stone jetty along with many locals.

9. Have lunch at the Chesapeake House that serves family-style meals on long tables piled with clam fritters and corn pudding.

But another great dining spot for all things crabby is the Fisherman's Corner. Try the soft-shell tidbits and the creamy bisque.

10. Choose one of a handful of inns, such as the Bay View and plop yourself on a rocking chair on the front porch and listen to the silence/
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Aruba Beyond the Casinos & Beaches

A trip to Aruba hardly sounds like a workout, unless it means pumping your biceps at the slot machines. But if you manage to pull yourself away, as I frequently did, from the main town of Oranjestad and it's warm, breezy beaches, plenty of calorie-burning hikes as well as interesting sights loaded with natural beauty await.

1. Arikok National Park provides plenty of hiking opportunities in a dramatic arid land laden with rolling hills. I walked many of the cacti-lined paths that wind past boulders, crevices, rock outcrops and the bizarely-shaped divi-divi trees. Here I found dozens of marked trails leading to caves with petroglyphs dating thousands of years ago, ruins of gold mines, and a re-creation of an island settlement from 200 years ago.

2. Both Ayo and Casibari are littered with oddly-shaped giant boulders. I followed the dirt paths and stone steps up and over and between the boulders of Ayo. The giant rock formations, covered with petroglyphs, seem so out of place, as if they were just dropped on the arid landscape, that you won't wonder why it's often referred to as the "Stonehenge of Aruba."

3. Climb steep often narrow stone steps to the top of Casibari for a view of the surrounding cactus garden and of Haystack Mountain in the distance.

4. At the center of the island, Haystack Mountain (Mount Hooiberg) can be seen from almost anywhere. After climbing several hundred stops to the summit of this cone-shaped volcanic rock, I was able to glimpse the coast of Venezuela, a view that's only possible on a clear day, in the distance.

5. The highest point in Aruba, Mt. Jamanota, can be reached by driving part way up and then taking one of the dirt paths to the top.

6. Many visitors don't realize it but Aruba has some great bird watching options. For example, not far from Orangestad, Bubali Pond, a bird sanctuary, provides plenty of opportunities to spot herons and egrets.

7. Getting to Natural Pool isn't easy: it requires at least a brisk half hour walk once you park the car or some serious off-roading where your vehicle has to navigate over a heavy-duty rocky surface. But this off-the-beaten-path pristine pool is worth it. Here you can snorkel, swim or just hang out on the rocks on the windward coast enjoying the views. You'll feel like you're completely isolated from civilization, which you are.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Plenty of Nature in New Jersey

Think about where you'd like to travel to get back in touch with nature. Are you thinking? Well, New Jersey probably wouldn't pop up to the top of your list. But let me banish your misconceptions of the Garden State -- there's a good reason it's given this moniker. Here you can do everything from trekking in woodlands to bird watching to kayaking around wetlands.

These are a few of my favorites:

1. The Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit is a hidden jewel. On this 13-some-acre estate, you'll find not only formal gardens but also a 19th century Colonial Revival mansion. Visit the Wildlife Habitat on a summer morning and you're bound to see Monarch butterflies and hummingbirds. Interesting carnivorous plants can be found in the bog while the Daffodil Bowl is a wilder setting that's lush with summer wildflowers. Pick up a self-guided brochure and then stroll on a trail that that loops through the woodlands and wetlands dotted with native beech and old tulip popular.

2. At the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor you can sign up for one of their summer kayak trips to a small island where, in June, you'll hear plenty of squawking from birds galore. Here you'll spot snowy egrets, great blue herons and others feeding in the creeks and marsh's pools. They've also got bird walks and pontoon boat trips where a naturalist will take you along the creek into the intercoastal waterways. Or wander the trails on your own using one of their self-guided brochures. You may even spot a diamondback terrapin, the creature that the institute has been long protecting.

3. The New Jersey State Botanical Garden in Ringwood is blessed with almost 100 acres of formal gardens which retain their early 20th century design. Here you have a property surrounded by part of Ringwood State Park, an expansive woodland sliced by a web of trails. But the centerpiece are the 13 garden rooms which are quite elegant. You can wander the fragrant Magnolia Walk, past giant rhododendrons, diminutive waterfalls and reflecting pools. The garden is especially noted for its extensive lilac collection that's at its best in early June.

4. The Terhune Orchards in Princeton is the place to visit for berry picking. Depending on the month -- check out their website to see what's ready to pick -- you can walk away with buckets of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries as well as cherries. June is especially fun during the annual Blueberry bash. You'll find blueberry-based salsa, cobbler, muffins and much much more. You can also walk the trail through the farm that wanders through a meadow and into a dense forest as well as show up on certain Tuesdays in the summer where your child can learn how different fruits or vegetables grow.

5. New Jersey and wine tasting also seems incongruous but guess again. Check out the Alba Winery & Vineyard in Milford. They've got a lovely fine art gallery, wine tasting space and winery all within an old limestone building dating to the early 19th century. At their tastings you may be able to sample any of the more than 18 wines they produce as well as artisanal cheeses and olive oils. This is an award-winning winery that plays host to an array of events every summer. Some of these include hot air balloon rides, a fireworks festival as well as the opportunity to hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage through the vineyard.

6. The Four Sisters Winery will delight both wine novices and oenophiles alike. Their Vine to Wine event provides so much information that you might want to make your own wine after it. During Family Fun Days, the kids can take a tractor-drawn hay ride or participate in a watermelon seed spitting contest while the adults tour the cellar and taste a selection of wines. One of their most popular events in the Grape Stomping where you can jump into a 10-person barrel or one designed for couples.
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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Israel's Wonderful Wine Scene

Think Israeli wines and what first comes to mind? Probably a sickly sweet Manachevitz. But you'd be completely wrong, because Israel is noted for its very sophisticated viticulture. In fact, the renowned wine critic, Robert Parker, has given some very high marks to some Israeli wines.

One of my favorite sources of everything wine-wise in the country is the Israeli Wine Blog. You'll find plenty of information in the wineries, festivals, expos, wine tastings and much more. Another great information source I love is Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines. This book is updated every year and is almost a bible for oenophiles. I picked up a copy when I was in Israel, though you can easily buy it through Amazon.

A more handson way to experience Israel's varied wine offerings is to attend the annual Israel Wine Festival held each summer at Jerusalem's Israel Museum in the unique Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden.

During the evening, wine lovers sample vintages from at least 30 different Israeli wineries, wander among the illuminated works of Henry Moore, Roden and other sculptors, while listening to live jazz and nibbling on artisanal, cheeses, hummus and other delectables.

Of the country's 250-some producers, the Golan Heights Winery has been very influential to the country's new wine generation. It offers regular tours and tastings where you might be able to sample their award-winning Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2004.

The Ramot Naftali Winery is a boutique property that still harvests grapes by hand. Clearly the operation is on a much smaller, but it's no less noteworthy, scale. Located in the Upper Galilee and a half hour from the Golan Heights, this family-run winery is celebrated for its reds, such as its gold medal-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, that are all aged in French oak barrels.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Center of Iceland's Elf Activity

Half the fun of the East Fjords is getting there. Traveling with a guide from FA Travel, we drove on roads that wind through a desolate land where the marshes are riddled with bird watching possibilities, from loons to swans. At one point, we passed a curious solar- and wind-powered vending machine housed in a tiny green hut beside a covered picnic table. Before the road dropped to the sea, a prominent cross rose from beside the road, indicating the location where, in the 1300s, a local successfully battled Naddi, a half man, half beast who lived in the scree slope. All is certainly curious on the way to Borgarfjordur Eystris, which is said to be home to the largest number of elves and hidden people in Iceland.

Some of the best hikes in the country can be found in this area where trails course across deserted inlets to green valleys studded with turquoise lakes bordered by snow-crowned peaks and mountains streaked with pink and ochre colors from rhyolite rocks. The geological features are firmly rooted in the local lore. The king of the elves is said to live in the picturesque Door Mountains. On the outskirts of the town of Bakkagerdi, a rounded hill is supposed to be the dwelling place of the queen of the elves. A short drive away is Hafnarholmi, an islet with thousands of puffins.

Each day our biggest choice was deciding which hiking trail to tackle. One climbed to Brunavik, a quiet cove with a black sand beach and plenty of wildflowers on the way. Another meandered to Storurd, which literally means "big scree." This path led to a boulder-ridden meadow with a teal green glacial lake, perfect for a picnic. I dipped my feet into the icy waters, only for a moment and gazed at the calm waters in this peaceful setting where we didn't run into another hiker the rest of the day.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Colorful Chilean City

With a network of steep streets set on hillsides that are also sliced by equally steep staircases, Valparaiso
reminds me of a rustic but much more charming San Francisco. Just over an hour from Santiago, Chile, this port town is probably most identified by its 14 funiculars that drop off residents and visitors alike among the brightly painted clapboard houses. What a cool way of getting around this hilly city but, after taking a couple of these, I chose to walk to get a more intimate feel of the land. A walking tour is a slow endeavor, to be sure, not only because of the aerobic workout required to get about, but, more importantly, because of the many distractions including the boldly-painted murals along an endless array of facades.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also dotted with several museums, from the Fine Arts Museum
that's housed in an early 20th century mansion to another that faces a panoramic viewpoint and displays the cartoons of journalist, Renzo Pecchenino, aka Lucas

Valparaiso's Central Market, where vendors hawk prickly pear, miniature avocados, giant brown seaweed and many more items, is a must-see before boarding the circa 1910 funicular.

But, though the town has a quaint aura, there are accommodations that radiate luxury. Casa Higueras, a restored mansion from the 1930s that went through a $2 million restoration in late 2006, is a sophisticated 20-room boutique property that provides guests with an infinity pool that hangs over the hill and an outside blue-tiled Jacuzzi. Rooms have plenty of antique touches, whether it's an old writing desk or a tiled fireplace. I enjoyed lunch at their restaurant, Montealegre, that features local-sourced seafood and amazing views -- after it, I sat on lovely umbrella-shaded terrace high above the city's port. My overnight was spent at the amazing Hotel Zero, which was once a house dating from 1880. Some of the nine rooms provide views of the sea but all come with alpaca blankets, Egyptian cotton sheets and work by local artists. (Despite so many sights to check out, I found it hard to leave this accommodation.) Interestingly, the name, Zero, refers to a "back to basics' approach, which translates to the idea that the hotel should be thought of as your home. In the terraced garden lush with bougainvillea and almond trees, I sipped first a beverage blended from cherimoya and then a glass of white wine while snacking on on olives and goat cheese.
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