Friday, June 26, 2009

New York's Often Green Hidden Treasures

My search for the world's hidden treasures includes looking in my own backyard, namely New York City.

1. The most awaited treasure -- which will hardly be hidden but absolutely worth visiting -- is the soon-to-open High Line Park that represents an amazing transformative design making use of the old elevated railroad line that once ran along the West Side of Manhattan. Here you'll find some of the old 1930s tracks as well as a sundeck and a shallow fountain for dipping your feet.

2. In the heart of Midtown on 51st street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, postage stamp-size Greenacre Park is complete with a two-story waterfall and a small babbling brook.
3. Equally small Paley Park sitting on 54th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues is noted for its 25-foot waterfall and juniper trees.

4. Central Park’s only formal garden, the Conservatory Garden, is an almost undiscovered gem. If you enter on Fifth Avenue, you’ll step past the original wrought iron gates of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s house. An expanse of manicured green lawn spreads before you with an allee of crabapple trees on either side. At the center of the South Garden sits a reflecting pool and a bronze sculpture fountain of Mary and Dickon, two characters from the children’s classic novel, 'The Secret Garden." Depending on the season, thousands of blooming tulips or Korean chrysanthemums grow in the nearby North Garden.

5. A place to enjoy cool breezes and great views is Hudson River Park, where a bike/jogging path stretches five miles along the river from 59th St. to Chambers St. and then continues inland to Battery Park, the oldest park in the city at the southern tip of Manhattan. At Pier 40, stop at the Downtown Boathouse for a kayak rental. Nearby, you can watch people fly through the air at the Trapeze School of New York.

Probably the prettiest section of the Hudson River front is Battery Park City Parks, a series of green spaces from Nelson A. Rockefeller to Robert F. Wagner Jr. parks. Along these 36 acres are wide meadows for sunning and picnicking, planted gardens, a cove with a patch of shaded wilderness and views of the Statue of Liberty.

6. Many who stroll this area also come to experience the Irish Hunger Memorial, an unexpected slice of that country's rural countryside complete with rocks and flora brought from Ireland and sweeping across an undulating landscape.

7. The Museum of Jewish Heritage with its unique rooftop "Garden of Stones" dedicated to those who perished and survived the Holocaust. Here you'll find a rooftop dotted with boulders, the base for growing dwarf oaks. It's certainly a place the lends itself to contemplation.
8. Across from Ground Zero, the gleaming Winter Garden is a 10-story glass and tricolor Italian marble atrium with sixteen 40+ foot-tall Washingtonia palm trees. Each month, especially during the holidays and summer, there is some going on, whether a concert or a dance performance.
continue reading "New York's Often Green Hidden Treasures"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

London's Less Visited Greenspaces

There's no lack of parks and gardens in London but it seems that four -- Hyde Park, Regent's Park, Kew Garden and Kensington Gardens -- seem to attract all the attention. In fact, when I told a friend who recently relocated to London that I would be visiting a roof garden and a medicinal herb garden, he wanted to tag along. He had no idea what I was talking about.

• The Kensington Roof Gardens literally sits on the top of a building down the street from Kensington Gardens. Once you get off the elevator and walk through the doors, you'll hear the sound of cascading water in this garden that's said to be the largest roof garden in Europe. Part of the garden sports an English woodland as well as Tudor and Spanish gardens, the latter reminiscent of the Alhambra.

• The Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673, sits on four acres and features more than 6,000 species, including medicinal plants that allow visitors to trace the history of medicine. (Because I have a background in biology and medicine, exploring the plants that were used to make various drugs was oh, so fascinating.) This is also London's oldest botanical garden.

• There are parts of Green Park, next to the Ritz Hotel, where you won't run into anyone. Named for the dominant color, Green Park has no flower beds. Instead, you find rolling fields of grass and hawthorne, silver maple and black poplar trees.

• Sixty different species of wild birds have been spotted in 50+ acre Holland Park. Walk the woodland paths to the tranquil Japanese Kyoto garden with its small lake and stone lantern. (I always enjoy finding a Japanese garden in an unexpected locale.) You may even spy a white peacock. (I did.) Or visit the formal garden with geraniums and blue salvies.
• Just across the Thames from Kew Gardens sits Syon Park with its conservatory housing exotic flowers, such as banana and pineapple plants. You can walk along the lakeside, and pass a woodland of oaks, maples and sweet gum.
continue reading "London's Less Visited Greenspaces"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bicycling Norway's Lofoten Islands

In northern Norway, bicycling the Lofoten Islands from the town of Svolvaer to Å, I found picture-postcard harbors, bright red rorbuers (or spelled rorbu) aka traditional fisherman's huts) set on stilts and perched on tiny bays, and the ever-present massive cliffs that rose high above.

Svolvaer, a busy port town, is a town noted for the Lofoten War Memorial Museum dedicated to World War II. They display original military uniforms and many unpublished World War II photos on display. If you stay overnight in Svolvaer, you may want to take a ferry to the Skrova, a very walkable offshore islet.

Just outside of Kabelva are two institutions -- the Lofoten Museum and the Lofoten Aquarium
with plenty of exhibits that provide insights into life in the Lofotens. In addition, in the Espolin Art Gallery hangs the work of Kaare Espolin Johnson, a well-known painter of the Lofoten people.

In Henningsvaer, a large fishing village, I easily spent a day just strolling the curvy streets and sitting in restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Housed in a former fishing processing factor, the town’s Hus Gallery has an extensive collection of paintings by Lofoten artist Karl Erik Harr.

In Borg, I stepped into the life of the Vikings in the Viking Museum, where I examined a replica of a Viking ship, sniffed the aroma of wood tar, saw the flickering of light radiating from cod liver oil lamps and tasted bowls of lamb stew as peasants would eat.

But, some of the most dramatic Norwegian scenery can be found in Nusfjord. It’s also where I stayed in an original fisherman’s hut or rorbuer. To get the most authentic Lofoten experience, staying in a fisherman's hut is a must. In fact, I found it one of the highlights of my trip. Some of these rustic rorbuers come with a hole smack in the middle of the floor which the fishermen used to cast their line.
The town of Reine, another dramatic spot backed by high pinnacles, is the focal point for boat excursions, including trips to the turbulent Moskenstraumen where you may catch a look at puffins and other sea birds.

Nearby, I browned the dolls, teddy bears and historic toys among the more than 2,000 collectibles on display at Dagmar’s Doll Museum.

I easily lost track of time as I bicycled along to the 19th century (and oddly-named) village of Å that's been turned into a living museum. It's also literal end of the road on the Lofotens. Here you can tour the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum with its cod liver oil factory, smithy and century-old bakery that serves up tasty cinnamon buns. For a real education on cod fish, Norway’s oldest export, a visit to the Stockfish Museum is a must. This museum traces every step of cod production from the ocean to the plate.
continue reading "Bicycling Norway's Lofoten Islands"

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Barbados Beyond The Beaches

There’s plenty of development on the island of Barbados but unspoiled locales are never far away. Sure, we know all about the swaths of sandy beaches. But this island is actually laced with dozens of trails running through unspoiled wilderness. Were it not for the Barbados National Trust, one wonders how unspoiled these lands would remain. If you want to explore Barbados' wild side, every Sunday, the National Trust offers guided hikes where dozens of locals and tourists show up.

You're initially broken into different groups based on speed, from those taking a breakneck pace ("Grin n' Bear") to the "Stop and Stare" group that takes plenty of time to smell the roses. I chose the latter, not because I couldn't deal with a challenge but because I wanted more time to learn about the area's botany, history, geology and architecture.
On my five-mile trek, we:

-- strolled along a beach where coral and sea grass grew, great food for turtles.

-- encountered a black belly sheep, a tough animal that can go all day without water. I'm told the meat is very lean.

-- gazed from atop a cliff where I found out that this spot is noted for its stiff wine, the longest uninterrupted wind run in the world, 3,000 miles across the ocean.

-- headed through a meadow carpeted with wildflowers.

But the hike is not a walk in the park. Two miles of difficult walking on slick mud, wet rocks, leaves, roots and stems required good balance, a walking stick or help from the locals -- they're skillful at negotiating the steeps.

Offshore, we spotted the remains of the old railway line, which, on the land, was converted to a 24-mile walking path.

We only walked a portion of this trail but our guide provided plenty of narration on why the railroad was doomed from the start: landslides and salt corrosion to name a few issues. As one of the steepest lines in the British empire, the railroad sometimes required passengers to get out and walk.

There's not much of a chance of getting lost on the trail. Since sea grape was used to stabilize the railway line and protect it from the salt, by following the sea grape you can easily follow it.

For me, hiking the trails in Barbados provided a welcome way to get away from the typical tourist attractions while learning about the island's ecology and history.
continue reading "Barbados Beyond The Beaches"

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Galapagos Without A Cruise Ship

Instead of exploring the Galapagos by cruise ship -- the most common way of visiting the archipelago -- I instead wanted something a little more carefree. So I based on the main island of Santa Cruz, staying at the Royal Palm Hotel, a five-star resort in the tropical Highlands that's hard to leave, and took day trips around the island as well to other nearby isles.

These are some of my favorite activities on Santa Cruz Island:

1. Visit Tortuga Bay with its calm lagoon and fine white sand. You'll see plenty of Opuntia or prickly pear cactus.

2. Hike up the almost 3,000-foot Cerra Crocker, the islands highest point and a volcanic cone. The steep climb is worth it for the panoramic view of the surrounding islands from the top. On the way, I spotted a variety of bird life, including finches, the Galapagos rail and the dark rumped petrel -- it's a key bird watching area.

3. Trek to El Chat, the Tortoise Reserve. You can get extremely close to the reptiles that roam the dirt paths munching on grass.

These are the islands that make great day trips from Santa Cruz:

1. South Plaza where I found the black and white striped hybrid iguanas, born to a female land iguana and a male marine iguana.

2. Santa Fe, an arid land populated with pale yellow-green land iguanas. I wandered a trail that wanders through a forest of Opuntia that actually grow like trees. Some are more than 100 years old.
3. North Seymore where blue-footed boobies mate. We watched their odd dance which is part of their courtship ritual. Then I walked a trail that courses past palo santo trees -- their resin smells like incense -- and lava rocks.

4. Bartolome, three hours from Santa Fe, harkens to a moonscape, splashed with black sand and dotted with volcanic cones. Off of the north beach, you can snorkel with penguins.
continue reading "The Galapagos Without A Cruise Ship"