Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not So Laid-Back Hiking in Grenada

Whenever I travel to the Caribbean, it's not the sun-drenched beaches that I long for. Sure, I love to sit on the beach in the early morning or at sunset. But, I much prefer to spend the day exploring, and that often means heading out on one or more hiking trails.

The island of Grenada has several paths that are perfect for strolling. (Such as the trail along the shores of Grand Etang Lake, an extinct volcanic crater that's perpetually bathed in fog.)
Or the lovely Morne La Baye interpretive trail where you'll get an education on the island's distinctive flora, including the ever-present boldly-colored heliconia as well as a fern endemic to this area. And then you'll be treated to a fab viewpoint at the end.

Two other favorite areas for more leisurely walks is the La Sagesse Nature Center and Levera National Park, two good places for bird watching.
But trails for thrill seekers who want a rush of adrenalin around every corner are more the rule. Here's what I found on what's often referred to as the Spice Island, because of its nutmeg production. The island is covered with a network of paths snaking through the jungle-covered terrain, some hugging the cliffs and others scaling the 2,000-some-foot peaks. Since so many of the more advanced trails, including the treks to the Seven Sisters and Camp Fedon, are not well marked, I travel with a guide, such as Henry's Safari Tours.

• It's an easy hike to the first of three falls referred to as Concord Falls in the western part of the island. This is a perfect place to cool off in the pool and either hang out or prepare yourself for the hike to the other two.

But, after that, it can be thought of as a warm up jaunt that requires criss-crossing the wide Black Bay River and jumping onto slick, loosely placed rock piles. The trail snakes through thick brush with yellow and red heliconia flowers growing in abundance.

The rock-hopping has its payoff: Au Coin Falls with its water cascading 40 feet into a clear blue pool. The third set of falls, Fontainbleu, cascades some 60+ feet.

Another trek that's more rigorous wends to the waterfalls known as the Seven Sisters deep in Grenada's rainforest. You'll find the sweet aroma from the fields lush with bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg intoxicating. The flat track quickly gives way to a steep muddy trail along a narrow mountain ridge. Luckily the perfectly placed has roots help hikers climb this slope where you'll find several rushing waterfalls and clear cobalt blue pools -- perfect for swimming. Or, as I did, sitting on a flat rock and listening to monkeys scamper about.
• Grenada's got some heavy-duty all-day treks, including one to Camp Fedon, an outpost where Julian Fedon, a French Grenadian, led a rebellion in the late 1700s against the British. I did this hike from Concord Falls where the trail climbed steeply along the muddy slopes. Again, I made use of the well-placed vines, roots, rocks and shubs to keep my balance. But it's not all about staying upright because there's plenty of flora to appreciate, from the mahogany trees to the giant ferns and teak. All the sweating to get to the top is worth it for the panoramic views of the green rainforest and the cobalt waters in the distance.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Surprising Cultural Finds in Macau

Cool contemporary art, ethereal wines, sublime cuisine or curious museum artifacts is not what I expected to find in Macau. And, yet, once I got beyond the much-touted casino scene and wander the many cobbled lanes, I found plenty to tickle the senses. I recently guest blogged on this very topic that puts Macau in an entirely different light. For me, instead of seeing Macau as a quick one day stop-over -- as so many visitors do -- I see it as a many-day destination to enjoy the galleries, museums, restaurants, cafes and the parks and gardens (which I've mentioned before).
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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Staying Healthy On The Road

Some of you may know that aside from writing and consulting on travel and food and an array of other topics, I'm also trained as a nutritionist, exercise physiologist and medical writer. That background has been invaluable in terms of keeping me fit and healthy when I'm traveling. This can mean researching nearby jogging paths, carrying healthy snack items on the plane, selecting a reliable sunscreen and knowing the best ways to prevent the array of traveler's illnesses that could plague any trip.
I just returned from many weeks of traveling where I met people who were either waylaid because they contracted traveler's diarrhea, suffered from motion sickness on a yacht or wished they hadn't gained weight on their business trips. So I thought it was time to turn you on to a guest blog I had written that addresses these and many other questions regarding staying healthy when traveling.
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Greece Beyond Its Isles

When I travel, I never seem to do things the traditional way. Take a trip to Greece. It typically conjures up images of baking on a sun drenched beach or sitting aboard a sailboat as you hop from isle to tranquil isle. Instead I chose to bicycle for several weeks in mountainous Central Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula. My goal: to see the authentic side of the country that many visitors overlook.

The terrain that dipped and rose dramatically a multitude number of times each day revealed a land of contrasts. Riding from Glifada to Sounio, I was overpowered by the pungent scent of eucalyptus trees one moment. The next, a warm salt breeze brushed against my face. Narrow mountain roads zigzagging through the olive tree-coated valleys then wandered through scented dense pine forests. Riding through a lush valley towards the coastal town of Nafplio, I took a high road that was very reminiscent to many a road I biked in the Colorado Rockies, complete with jagged, snow dappled peaks.

The generosity of the locals set the tone for the trip right from the beginning. As I took a breather on the side of the road, a man selling fresh figs, sensing my parched state, gave me a handful. The plump, moist fruits were better than any snack I would've carried.

Grapevine-lined roads to Epidauros sliced through fertile plains that were crowded with pomegranate, orange, fig and walnut trees. Riding through this cornucopia, I often encountered farmers who'd offer me a bunch of grapes they were loading into a small open bed truck.

Even when the usually bright weather turned grim with a blustery downpour on my ride to Livadia, my spirits soared when I pulled into a garage for shelter and a young man, seeing my muddy gear, ran out to hose down my bike. Then, a shopkeeper brought me a chair to sit on as I dried off outside his shop once the rain stopped. A woman next door even offered to dry my soggy clothes.

Later in the trip, on the long road to Olympia, as I paused to ponder the map, a woman walked into her garden and handed me several English cucumbers that quickly quenched my thirst.

Every day provided a wealth of surprises, as long as you were ever mindful of your surroundings. Outside the town of Arahova, luckily I was very attentive and spied a clutch of brightly painted houses perched high on stone outcrops. Zipping down a steep section after Kalavrita, I kept my eyes on the sheep in the middle of the road and almost missed an ancient monastery hugging the side of a windswept mountain.

Near many mountain villages, I shared the road with a menagerie. Sheep, mules and even chickens forced me to slow down as they crowded the road ahead. On other narrow winding roads, it wasn't unusual to see a black clad old woman ambling down the road aside a mule.

A three-mile side trip from Sparta led to one of the most striking sites: Mystra, a deserted Byzantine city set amongst the mountains. Numerous footpaths weave through this stone city whose fortress dominates the 2,000-foot summit. Meandering through this monumental town, I explored the octagonal domed church of St. Theodori, numerous other churches and fresco-laden chapels and lingered at the summit for the views of the snow-capped peaks and pine forests.

Every morning, in even the smallest villages, I followed the aroma of fresh baked bread, almonds and cinnamon to a zaharoplastio or pastry shop. And it certainly was not all about baklava, though honey, nuts and phyllo dough were major players. Among the dozens of sweet treats, I found small chocolate or vanilla iced cakes stuffed with rich custard, shredded pastries with nuts, and honey puffs and honey biscuits.

In the seaside communities like Nafpaktos, fresh squid was a real treat. I passed fishermen who were slamming them on the coastal rocks as a tenderizing technique. In the nearby tavernas, these freshly-caught squid were served fried and drizzled with lemon juice. No need for fancy dipping sauces.

It was easy to spend two hours at lunch where I never tired of Greek salads with red ripe tomatoes and cucumbers picked in the gardens behind the tavernas, and chunks of firm tangy feta cheese; as well as warm crusty bread and thick creamy sheep's milk yogurt topped with rich honey.

My next trip to Greece will surely be to check out the dozens of islands that pepper the Aegean Sea. But there's something to be said for getting away from it all by cycling through Greece's many mountain villages.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Meandering from Gaming to Gardens in Macau

Like many people, when I heard Macau I thought gambling. After all, flashy behemoth casino resorts like the Venetian, Grand Lisboa, Wynn and others attract those who make the ultra-short hydrofoil trip from Hong Kong not for Macau's lush parks and gardens but for the joy (or heartbreak) that awaits at the craps and baccarat tables. Then again, those non-gambler members of the family may find themselves ensconced with the masses who are mesmerized by glitzy sound and light shows where trees rise from the ground and transform through all four seasons in under what seemed like four minutes, dragons roil across a domed midnight sky of fire and ice, and the resident Cirque du Soleil troupe perform their aerial acrobatics in an otherworldly realm.
But, given the nature lover that I am, I sought out Macau's more serene side -- and found plenty of it. In fact, flora-draped parks and gardens are an easy walk or taxi from your hotel, wherever that may be because this peninsula -- and its two tiny offshore islands -- all on China's south coast, is petite. So small, in fact, that a local told me a rush hour traffic jam is when it takes 15 minutes to get home.

During my five days in Macau, these are some of my many eco-adventures:

1. Camoes Garden -- Dedicated to Portuguese poet, Luis de Camoes, this garden is coated with dense foliage, including some towering Ficus trees with impressive buttress roots. Despite the sweltering heat, I found plenty of shade under the tree canopies. It's worth wandering around the meandering paths here to find locals performing tai chi exercises with brightly colored fans as well as those walking barefoot along an ultra-rough pebbled trail as a form of reflexology. (Some people find it better than a traditional foot massage.) Other residents meditate atop giant boulders while small groups of men enjoy card games in a gazebo.
2. Guia Hill -- Despite temperatures soaring into the high 90s and humidity feeling like it was over 90%, I didn't want to miss walking along the shaded 1.2-mile jogging path that encircles Guia Hill, Macau's highest point and home to China's oldest coastal lighthouse. I tackled the path after 5 pm on a weekday and found plenty of joggers and walkers -- some sans shoes -- sharing the path which still felt serene. Along the way are spots with panoramic city views as well as side trails leading either up towards the lighthouse or down to an adjacent park, Flora Garden.

3. Flora Garden -- I rushed past the zoo, cable car and aviary to check out the less tourist-laden sections of the park. Instead, I climbed steeply up the many-tiered park to find secluded alcoves, belvederes and a narrow stone path surrounded by dense foliage that leads eventually to the main jogging path around Guia Hill.

4. Lou Lim Ieoc Garden -- Anyone who loves landscape design will enjoy wandering this classic Chinese garden complete with a moon gate, placid water features, winding paths and dozens of rugged and oddly-shaped stones pockmarked with holes -- some allowing you to climb stairs above it all or penetrate into shallow grottoes. One section of a pond had voluminous lotus leaves coating its surface. This property is also the site of arts and crafts exhibitions -- when I visited on display was a calligraphy exhibit.
5. Dr. Carlos D'Assumpcao Park -- Just steps from my hotel along the harbor, the MGM Grand, I found a small rectangle of peace. Early Sunday morning, I strolled along the paths that bordered and crossed over a pool where lily pads floated, and then continued along a straight avenue lined with shade trees. Nearby, local men and women practiced their slo-mo tai chi choreography.

6. Carmel Gardens -- Located on Taipa Island, these gardens are named for the pastel yellow painted church, Our Lady of Carmel, a neo-classical building sitting at one of the upper gardens. Here I found dozens of blooming flowers, palms and conifers as well as a flora-covered pergola. Then I walked a narrow path down to a lower garden where a couple of men were planting and weeding. These gardens are especially delightful for the offshore bird sanctuary as well as the five restored mansions that have been mostly turned into museum pieces that provide a window into Macau's past.

7. Seac Pai Van Park -- On Coloane Island I spent time walking the main Coloane Trail that looped around the upper reaches of the park. Though I was told that it'd be difficult to find my way given that the trail signs are in Portuguese and Chinese, that I'd find myself alone on the trail because it was noon on a weekday, and that the heat would be unbearable at this time of the day, I had no trouble. Not only that, but walking this path was one of the highlights of my trip. Yes, I met few people along the path that's about 5 miles long. But the handful of folks I ran across were all hiking the same level path and all were helpful when I showed them my map. In addition, all trail intersections are carefully marked -- it's hard to get lost. Plus, if you were the least bit confused, you could walk up (not down) and you'd find yourself at the A-Ma statue set atop the island's highest point. (From there you can walk the paved path down or see if the free shuttle bus is running back to the main road.)

Don't miss the informal arboretum at the start of the trail where all the trees -- whether laurels, soapberry or tropical ornamental -- are labelled with Latin names for those with botanical interests. The trail is dotted with perfectly placed pagodas and benches to rest, gaze at the views of the beaches or waters far below or just relish the serenity. Something I found at all these parks and gardens.
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