Friday, December 31, 2010

What I Love About Rio de Janeiro

It's hard not to immediately fall in love with Rio de Janeiro. Of course, like with all kinds of love, it's always unexpected and maybe defies expectations. And that's what happened with my love affair with Rio. When I told all my savvy friends that I was going to this city that's said to epitomize wildness, all I heard was about the dangers that lurked around every corner. "Don't go out alone." "Don't wear any jewelry." "Don't go out at night." These were my farewell warnings from my friends in New York City.

Of course, the news coming out of Rio -- about armed police clearing out drug dealers from a favela (known as a community but what many would call a slum) -- the week I left on my trip didn't help with my expectations of crime. Instead, what I found was a wonderfully artistic, design-focused city, full of warm and welcoming people who went out of their way to be helpful. The neighborhoods of Leblon and Santa Teresa were perfect for walking about and discovering authentic galleries, cafes, restaurants, museums and shops.

Surprisingly, for a city that's noted for it's crowded communities and wall-to-wall chaotic traffic, the city is networked with bicycle lanes and dotted with clusters of lush parks cut by challenging hiking trails, and meticulously landscaped gardens.

Usually when you hear about a city's signature features, they often disappoint when seen up close. They just can't live up to the high expectations. In the case of Rio, Ipanema Beach's wide swath of golden sand, the immense granite Sugarloaf Mountain and the much-revered Christ the Redeemer statue that soars atop Corcovado Mountain are all breathtaking in different ways. And, though I'm not a fan of visiting major tourist attractions, these were all worth viewing because of surprising findings:

* On Morro da Urca, the hill adjacent to Sugarloaf, I hiked through a jungle and discovered families of monkeys.

* Every Sunday, the major road that parallels Ibanema and Copacabana beaches shuts down so that people can walk, bike or blade.

* The 125-foot-high Jesus statue is snuggled at its base by dense forest land that's oh, so hikable and dripping with exotic and native species.

This slide show will give you a glimpse of Rio's beauty and creativity, its ability to stay close to nature even when you're in the midst of all things concrete, and the sense of being alive that pervades all aspects of a city that you can't help but fall in love with.
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Monday, December 20, 2010

Non-Touristy New York City Travel Tips

It seems that every time I have a friend visiting me here in New York City, they tell me they can't wait to see the Empire State Building and Times Square. And I promptly groan in dismay. As a native New Yorker, I know there are so many less-visited sights that are ripe with cultural delights. Yet, these rarely seem to make it on many tourists' lists, especially if they only intend to visit the city for less than a week.

Nonetheless, I recently guest blogged for GotSaga on the sights I would recommend to my friends visit when they're in town.

Here are several additional ones that didn't make it on the list and briefly what I love about each. Not all of these are in Manhattan and not all are good for year-round trips. But they've all got unexpected treasures.

* Take a specialized walking tour with Context Travel. Unlike with many walking tour operators, these treks are very small and they are always accompanied by a guide who has a degree or an education in the subject, whether it's architecture, art or cuisine. I took a tour through Little Italy and Chinatown -- where I nibbled on everything from pork buns, five kinds of jerky and Italian cheeses -- and was surprised to visit shops I never knew existed.

* Who doesn't know Central Park? But even some New Yorkers have never visited the gated garden within Central Park known as the Conservatory Garden. Stroll here in the early in the morning during the week and you'll have the landscaped expanse with bronzes and blooming flowers pretty much to yourself.

* I always come away with a wealth of ideas when I visit the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. But if you think this museum simply exhibits oh, so cool objects that benefit the elite, guess again. An exhibition that will soon end in early January, "Why Design Now," displays everything from a solar water purifier for those living in areas with contaminated water to low-cost eye glasses that allow the underserved people of the world to fill their own prescriptions without the need for an eye doctor.

* It sits not even a mile off Manhattan's southern tip but Governor's Island isn't a well-known destination for tourists. It's only open to the public from June to October but I try to get there (by ferry) every chance I can because, after all, how often do you have a car-free island where you can bicycle or walk around the entire circumference that's so close to an urban area? There's something for just about everyone here. History buffs will enjoy strolling around the late 19th century wide-porched houses of Nolan Park and the grander brick buildings along Colonels' Row while art aficionados will want to visit the island when sculptures dot the lawns and paintings hang is some of these houses that once housed officers and their families. I always make sure to buy a double scoop of farm-fresh ice cream from Blue Marble. Then I sit along the shore, enjoy the cool breezes, and gaze at the expansive views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan.

* Whether you have or haven't heard of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood on the west side, you should sign up for a 3+-hour walking tour with Rum & Blackbird Tasting Tours. Come with an empty stomach because on A Taste of Hell tour you'll eat plenty of homemade treats, including chorizo tocos, milk shakes and empanadas. Even if you're a New Yorker, you'll enjoy this trip, as I did, because you'll find a historic feature, like the little-known 414 Hotel, that you somehow overlooked.

* Most New Yorkers and just about everyone else know Staten Island for one thing: the ferry that goes back and forth between Lower Manhattan and the island. I fell into that category as well, I must admit. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that Staten Island is chock full of pristine green spaces, more than any other borough of NYC. I've blogged about this last year. It is well worth visiting Staten Island and either walking, hiking or bicycling along wooded trails, having brunch along a pristine waterfront, wandering a quiet beach and then enjoying a fresh fish lunch.

* It seems NYC has its share of little-visited islands -- as far as tourists go -- and that includes Roosevelt Island that's set in the East River. The tram that easily connects the island with Manhattan just reopened after an extensive renovation, but you can also take a quick subway ride there on the F train but it's nowhere near as scenic. Plenty of people choose to reside on Roosevelt Island because of the sense of community and solitude. This, plus the stunning views of Manhattan are reason enough. But I visit to play tennis, bicycle along a four-mile path, jog along the promenade, picnic at Lighthouse Park, and, take the annual Magnolia Blossom Walk where not only can I relish in one of the first signs of spring but also learn about some of the island's architecturally-interesting landmarks, including the ruins of a smallpox hospital. (The Magnolia Blossom Walk is led by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.)

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

National Park Treasures Without The Crowds

Who wouldn't want to experience the magic of Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or a host of other national parks? But the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of visiting these parks in high season is fighting off the crowds.

So what if I told you that it's possible to have all the magic without all the madness? You'd probably think I was delusional. Check out my latest piece for The Huffington Post and you'll see from the accompanying slide show that you don't have to sacrifice scenery for sanity.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why I Love Off-Season Travel

I’m a big fan of off-season travel. In fact, you can read my quotes on this topic in today’s ABC News. There are some obvious reasons to hit the road off season: Flights and hotels are much cheaper. For example, I'm planning a trip to the Out Islands of the Bahamas in 2011 and I'll looking to go in May when hotel prices drop significantly.I also visit Vail and other ski areas in the summer when I can stay in at the resorts for a fraction of the cost and go hiking and mountain biking on the slopes.

As far as the crowd issue goes, I travel to Portugal a lot and I love going during the low season when the weather is still mild. And, unlike in the high season, it's easy to get reservations at some of the best restaurants in Lisbon during this time. Another plus of traveling during low season is that you can get more of a feel of authenticity and engage in more mingling with the locals. For example, I visit Reykjavik in December and January when there are only a few hours of daylight. And yet this is a perfect time to hang out in the cozy coffee shops and bars with the locals and chat about politics, the economy, design and art -- topics they love to talk about.

The low season is also a great time to experience local festivals that only occur at that time of the year. For example, in Croatia, the truffle festival in Motovun takes place in November.
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Castle Building in Southern France

How could a volunteer trip that involved helping rebuild a medieval castle turn into a lesson in Zen? That's what happened to me when I journeyed to a town not far from Avignon to spend a week with the group La Sabranenque that's noted for its restoration wook. I just guest blogged about this enlightening experience for Got Saga. They wanted to know about my favorite travel story that I enjoy telling and retelling. This is definitely it.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Visiting Davos, Switzerland Without Downhill Skiing

Though I downhill ski, when I travel to ski country, I like to find options that don’t lock me in to nothing but a week of high-priced lift tickets, expensive food at mountain resorts and dealing with everything from out of control skiers to long lift lines. Of course, everything is a little different in Europe but, still, I prefer varying my activities when visiting a ski resort.

And that’s what I did when I visited Davos, Switzerland. This is, of course, a mega resort and yet there is plenty to do that has nothing to do with downhill skiing. Here are some of my favorite activities plus additional options:

1. Cross country ski

More than 45 miles of trails beckon, some for those, like me, who prefer classic Nordic skiing, and others for skiers who like to skate. Many trails wander through peaceful valley. And you hardly have to be an expert: there’s a ski school, a place to rent equipment and, even better, the trails are free! Plus, you’ll find a two-mile trail that’s available for night Nordic skiing.

2. Ice skating

I’m not a big fan of indoor skating but, in Davos, you have your choice: If you prefer the relative warmth of an indoor rink, you’ve got it here. But Davos is also home to Europe’s largest natural rink. This is where I skate when I travel to Davos.

3. Hiking

Just because there’s snow on the ground is no reason to stop hiking. And Davos, with it’s well-marked trails, makes it easy to either work up a sweat on a strenuous trail or just enjoy the scenery. When I don’t have a lot of time to get to a trailhead, I walk around Davos Lake. Otherwise, there a lovely 2+ hour easy walk from Ischalp back to Davos that meanders through a dense, snow-coated forest and then along a wide trail to Calavadel with its scenic valley views, finally following a river to Davos.

4. Snowshoeing

I actually prefer Nordic skiing to snowshoeing which I find nowhere near as smooth and rhythmic. That being said, Davos offers some pristine showshoe trails, including those that make a loop from the top of the Pischa cable car station. There you’ll maybe have the well-marked trails to yourself as you wander along sunny slopes. And, of course, like most things in Davos, you can sign up for a 1+ hour showshoe trek by moonlight.

5. Tobogganing

Though I’m not the biggest fan of careening downhill at high speed with no chance of slowing down before hitting the bottom, families love tobogganing here, especially nighttime adventures along the curves of Davos-Schatzalp.

6. Horsedrawn carriage

This is definitely a more mellow alternative that can be perfect for couples who want a romantic ride by moonlight.

7. Wellness & Pleasure Pool Centre

After all these workouts, mellow as many may be, your muscles are bound to become weary. That’s why you’ll want to spend the afternoon at the Wellness Center where you can opt for a hot stone massage or an interesting acupoint massage (it’s based on acupuncture meridiens). You’ll also have your choice of treatments and rooms, like found in the Saunarium and Silent Room, with gorgeous mountain views. A Finnish sauna, foot pools, hydrotherapy pool and cold surge shower are all meant to stimulate your immunity and your circulation.

8. Museums

Davos is not all about action. The town is chock full of cultural activities. Among the museums that I love because I enjoy checking out vintage artifacts include the Winter Sports Museum where you’ll find displays of old ski bindings, sleds and skates; the Toy Museum with its teddy bears, doll houses and other items from a private collection dating from the 18th century; and the Museum of Medicine -- because I have a medical background, I can’t pass this up -- where you’ll find artifacts that make you glad you’re seeing a doctor in the 21st century.

In addition, because I enjoy checking out art, the Kirchner Museum is a must see for those who enjoy this German artist’s colorful landscapes. His work is said to have inspired Expressionism and this museum is the largest collection of his work in the world.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mexico's Day of the Dead Festivities

For many of us, it might seem scary to tell stories of the dead to very young children or to allow them to play with skeletons and skulls. But in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivities,it’s not only perfectly natural and appropriate but these and other activities are a celebration, where everyone spends time remembering their relatives who passed away. They honor them by setting up elaborate altars with items their relative liked when they were alive, whether it’s a favorite food or beverage or other items.

And they add candles, fruit and flowers (the marigold in the flower of the southern part of Mexico) to tempt the dead to pay them a visit.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Xcarat, an eco-archeological park in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. And, though at first this sounded like one big amusement-type park -- which I’m not a fan of -- in fact, it’s an entertaining educational experience year-round, but especially during the Day of the Day -- really referred to as Vida y Muerte or Life and Death, which they celebrate from October 30 through November 2.

In the following photos -- most taken at Xcarat and one during a private ceremony in Coba -- you’ll see some of the colorful, lively and life-affirming activities.

This tiered cemetery is set on seven levels representing the seven days of the week and contains 365 faux graves that reflect actual tombs and the amusing epitaphs found all around Mexico. During the Day of the Dead, anyone can place offerings and a photo of their loved one on any of the graves.

Xcaret offers a number of special workshops and displays for children to celebrate the Day of the Dead, and that includes a visit with a very evocative storyteller who goes under the guise of La Catrina, the signature Lady of the Dead, wearing her traditional upper class dress. She tells stories of the dead that captivate children and adults alike (including me).

Another Day of the Dead specialty is mucbi pollo in which a chicken dish that can be prepared different ways is cooked by burying in the ground. I was able to attend a private village ceremony in Coba where I watched the locals prepare the mucbi pollo almost like a chicken pot pie -- they made the pie of corn meal, wrap it in banana leaves and bury it in the ground along with hot coals. The burying is accompanied by music played on traditional percussion and wind instruments. The highlight was when it was uncovered two hours later, accompanied by a shaman who blessed the food and offered it to the spirits.
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tracking Birds in Malta

I wouldn't call myself a hardcore bird watcher, but I'm definitely a tree hugger. So when I found out that hunters in Malta target song birds and endangered feathered creatures, I couldn't have been more shocked. Nonetheless, on my recent trip to Malta, not only did I get a chance to interview the intrepid campaign coordinator at the conservation group BirdLife Malta, but I also took a guided stroll through one of the country's leafy reserves that goes out of its way to protect migratory birds as well as a host of endangered plants.

I recently wrote about my bird-related adventures in Malta for National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What I Love About Kuala Lumpur

Often, it seems that the sleek Malaysia capital of Kuala Lumpur is nothing but a mega hustle bustle metropolis dotted with space-age edifices that make architecture aficionados drool. But I found plenty of peace in this energetic city that’s the epitome of diversity. (Their cuisine that melds the flavors of their Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures is one of my very favorite.) These are my top picks for any visit to KL:

Lake Gardens -- KL has green spaces aplenty and this is an exceptionally expansive -- some 230 acres -- landscape. In this jungle-like acreage, I wandered the lovely, well-tended gardens, jogged along the paths, and walked the landscaped hills in the early morning when locals were performing tai chi. The best thing is that within this botanical garden are many of the sights below, including the Bird Park and Orchid and Hibiscus gardens.

Kuala Lumpur Bird Park -- Keep your binoculars peeled as you gaze skyward. Within the fine net canopy of the aviary you’ll see a riot of color as macaws, toucans, cockatoos and other birds fly about. There’s plenty of bird action on the ground as numerous wading species make appearances.

Butterfly Park -- The space is small and a bit rough and tumble in places, but if you’re a fan of butterflies and you’re patient, you’ll likely spy an array of specimens. I was lucky to spot an iridescent Malay lacewing with its bold red and orange scalloped wings. Other species revealed a glistening wisp of teal or lime green coloration amidst their dark bodies. But even more curious were the giant bug specimens in the insect museum. (I’m glad they were behind glass.)

Hibiscus Garden and Orchid Garden -- Strolling through these petite adjacent gardens couldn’t be more fragrant and relaxing. It’s appropriate to find the terraced Hibiscus Garden in KL, considering this is the Malaysian national flower. The myriad shapes, sizes and colors of the blooms in both gardens captivated my attention. No wonder many visitors decide to purchase a specimen to tend once they return home.

Islamic Arts Museum -- I wish I had a couple of hours to spend examining the extensive collections of jewelry, illustrated Korans, ancient almanacs, costumes and other striking items. On display I found on display some delicate ceramics, such as Iznik (referring to a town in Turkey) porcelain, as well as mother-of-pearl flasks from the Mughal Empire in the former Persia.

Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely Monastery -- A mere third of a mile from the sleek Petronas Towers, this is the epitome of a tranquil oasis. Dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of compassion, this retreat offers contemplative spaces with bonsai, mandalas and gilded statues. But a real highlight for me, however, was the extensive vegetarian buffet lunch with all manner of soy foods that even meat eaters would be hard pressed to not relish.

KLCC Park -- At the foot of the Petronas Towers, this park is planted with thousands of different types of flora. Joggers, like me, enjoy the short track that runs through this expanse with its water features.

Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve -- KL doesn’t seem to have a shortage of verdant lands smack in the middle of urban chaos. Here, at the food of the KL Tower, I strolled a couple of well-marked nature trails (including the Merbau Trail) that network this jungle with its towering trees where I was treated to the sight of a macaque monkey. I had to watch my steps, though, because bird watching can be quite distracting here as well. It’s interesting to note that this is the city’s only remaining tropical rain forest.
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Sunday, October 10, 2010

More Hideaway Parks in New York City

Finding hidden parks and gardens is one of my favorite past times when I'm traveling. But there are plenty of out of the way greenspaces in my own backyard. I'm blogged about some of these parks and gardens before. But recently I was asked to guest blog about some additional secret green New York City hideaways, in addition to elaborating on one of my favorite: GreenAcre Park that's smack in the middle of Midtown.

Verdant foliage can appear in the unlikeliest of places in Manhattan, including in the atrium of a skyscraper or in the narrow alley between two brownstones. Exploring New York City slowly on foot is the way to find the attractions beyond most guidebooks.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Making the Most in Malta

As far as travel styles go, I'm the compulsive and meticulous planner who likes to pack in as many --usually off-the-beaten-track or, at least, less touristy -- experiences as possible into each and every day of my trip. And finding a bespoke tour operator who listens to the needs of the client and has an insider knowledge of the destination makes the planning all the easier.

I don't always seek out this help, but, for a number of logistic reasons, I did in the case of Malta, where I wanted to go beyond the many historic monuments that occupy so much tourist attention. I was lucky when Jessica Colley contacted me on twitter and gave me a heads up on Trevor Zahar and Natasha Borg, co-owners of Culture3Sixty. No matter your interest, whether it’s focused on diving, sailing or other sports; luxury oriented with visits to spas; or more nature based, they can dig up the perfect locales, as they did for me.

This is a micro sampling of what Culture3Sixty arranged for me:

• tours of wineries for tastings and tours, such as the Meridiana Wine Estate, which is planted on the original British military airfield. In fact the original control tower still stands, but now it houses a laboratory. Designed as an old Malta country residence, the winery allowed me to taste a crisp 2009 Chardonnay, and a bright berry Cabernet and Merlot blend with just a hint of oak.

• visits to gardens, such as the San Anton Gardens that were originally laid out by Grand Master Antoine de Paule of the Knights of Malta as his private residence. (As I mentioned in a previous post, so much for the vows of poverty.) These gardens are so lavish and they were such the talk of the town at that time that they’re said to have inspired Versailles. With tinkling fountains, elegant statuary, foliage from around the world and peacocks strutting about, San Anton is a must-see for garden lovers.

• restaurant reservations, such as Fra Giuseppe in the town of Balzan. Housed in an 18th century building, the restaurant stocks some 200 bottles of wine from all over the world. Sitting in a wee stone room where the walls are hung with contemporary paintings, I sampled ftira, a ring-shaped Maltese bread that’s somewhat crunchy with a soft interior and filled with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and capers.

Whether venturing down narrow cobbled lanes in the capital city of Valletta or wandering around the less visited locales in the central part of the country, you'll find Malta restaurants that radiate authenticity.
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Palatial Garden in Malta

I didn't have the chance to stay in a palace on my recent trip to Malta. But I had the next best thing: an afternoon in the expansive Baroque gardens of Palazzo Parisio. In the town of Naxxar with its atmospheric narrow lanes, many decorated with potted plants and flowers, the palace dates from the time of the Knights of Malta. In fact, it was their holiday house. (So much for the vows of poverty that they were required to take.) And, though the ultra-ornate rooms lined with Carrera marble and hung with Caravaggio paintings are plenty striking, I was most struck by the serenity and natural beauty of the well-tended gardens. (I am a huge park and garden buff, as you all know.) And, though checking out gardens in the heat of August hardly sounds delightful, it is in Malta and especially in the gardens of the palace where I relished in the sight of colorful oleander, bougainvillea and hibiscus blooms as well as roses and the numerous species of palms -- a couple are said to be some 200 years old -- as well as citrus trees and many others. (There are also some private side gardens where the restaurant grows herbs and vegetables for items on the menu.)

But even if you're hardly the garden lover, you'll enjoy just hanging out pre- or post-lunch on one of the many lounge chairs set on the grassy lawn or in a comfy sofa with a drink in hand in the canopied gazebo. I spent hours just doing this.

My video shows some of the tempting garden lounge possibilities.

Anyone who's planning a wedding should take note. This is a most romantic venue for the ceremony.

And, because I couldn't tear myself away from this verdancy, I lunched outdoors under a canopy at the palace's restaurant, Caffe Luna. The mostly Mediterranean menu includes local ingredients, especially at the lunch hour. I found the best choice was the assorted tea sandwiches that included chicken with chutney, and cream cheese with arugula and chives. And though these were most flavorful and filling, the desserts were a high point. I chose the signature cake: a slice of carrot with pineaplle and walnuts plus a dish of lemon granita. What could be more refreshing?

The only thing I missed was High Tea in the garden -- it's considered too hot in August for this service . Ah, another reason to return.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Travel Tips for Island Escapes + Healthy Travel

Over the past four weeks I've been unusually busy, not only traveling in Malta (I've blogged about my adventures on the island of Comino and will be posting about my travels on the big island of Malta in a couple of weeks) but also writing guest posts for some fellow bloggers. Each one of these posts, like my own blog, deals with either hidden treasures or key travel tips. I want to share these with you:

1. I'm a big fan of island travel, especially when I can find lands that radiate authenticity. In this guest post you'll find out why I especially adore Sardinia, Corsica, the Azores, Bozcaada and the Lofotens. Because I believe in checking out the landscape slowly, on some, I bicycled past vineyards, sandy beaches or small fishing villages while on others I hiked and walked through a lush, wild landscape.

2. So much of the Caribbean is hardly off the beaten track, especially the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, when I visit my favorite island, St. John, instead of sunning on a stretch of golden sand, I take to the hiking trails far from the madding crowds. Here's what I found along these dirt paths that network this island that's mostly preserved as a national park.

3. A trip just isn't enjoyable when you're sick or in pain. Which is why I carry a very organized and extremely complete first-aid kit. Because I also have a medical background, I've devised a first-aid kit that takes care of just about any malady that might hit you on the road, whether you're doing a weekend at the beach or traveling far afield. In this post, I've described in details everything I carry in my first-aid kit. Some may think it's overkill, yet my kit packs small. And, it fits along with my "always be prepared for anything" mentality.
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Monday, August 30, 2010

Surprising Finds on Comino Island in Malta

I’m always a little skeptical when I plan a trip and people, whether friends or locals, tell me that I should reconsider going or staying there. That’s what happened recently when I planned to stay two nights on Comino Island, the smallest of the three Maltese Islands.

I was told that the Comino Hotel -- the only accommodation on the wee island that measures about 3.5 square km -- is falling apart, literally. That this car-free island is a complete snore with basically nothing to do. In fact, locals on the main island of Malta and the middle-sized greener island of Gozo said I could walk the entire circumference of Comino in two hours. After that and a swim in the pristine waters of the Blue Lagoon, I should take the next ferry back to Gozo.(Comino is snuggled in the channel between Malta and Gozo.)

Needless to say, after a week of hearing these comments, I was reconsidering my two night stay on Comino that has a year-round population of four people. Good thing I didn’t change my plans because neither the friendly, charming, comfortable hotel nor the unspoiled island lived up to the bad reputation I was prepared for. In fact, quite the opposite. After spending two activity-laden days and eating some very yummie food at the hotel, I wished I had a third day just to relax, reading a book while gazing at the waterways or sitting beside a tidal pool or cove.

Here’s what I found on Comino, an island that’s definitely worth a two and maybe a three-day visit if you really want to get caught up in nature and history while living the very low-key, laid-back life.

1. Yes, the Comino Hotel does feel stuck in the 1960s and the interior does need some work. But it’s not falling apart, by any means. In fact, my room #297 had perfect views of San Nicklaw Bay where I could sit on the tiny balcony and watch the sunrise every morning. And given that this hotel is an amazing deal considering the seaside location and that the staff couldn't do enough for its guests, I overlooked the tired and sometimes tattered interior.

2. There are no restaurants on the island -- we’re talking a desolate island, remember -- except for the one at the Comino Hotel and the truck kiosks that sell burgers and such beside the tourist laden Blue Lagoon. But that worked out great because the hotel’s extensive dinner buffet was fresh with something for all palates. For dinner, these were some of my favorite buffet items: salads, including cucumber and mint, octopus, and baby shrimp with cauliflower; fried calamari; roast turkey with mustard/sage gravy; vegetable quiche, cream of pumpkin soup, a cheese platter that included the local gbejniet cheese that’s either served fresh or coated in black pepper, fresh fruits, and some scrumptious desserts: lemon mousse and a chocolate layer cake. (It’s a good thing I was walking five hours a day to burn off all these calories.)

3. The first day I walked almost five hours along the island’s network of dirt roads and paths passing fragrant wild thyme, blooming oleander and caper bushes, clumps of pines and a scattering of orchards. Walking along the clifftops and headlands, I spied curious offshore islets with odd erosion holes that gave you a glimpse of the sea on the other side.
4. St. Mary’s Tower, a 17th century watchtower build by the Knights of St. James, makes for an interesting visit where you can spot the well where the knights would gather their water and the basement that was once accessed by a long rope ladder. Once I crossed the footbridge, I prowled around this tower that that was built to protect the channel from ship piracy. The rooftop provides panoramic views of the island from this almost 300-foot-tall perch.

5. Carrying lunch from the hotel that consisted of a sandwich made of thick Maltese ftira bread filled with tuna, olives, onions, capers and tomatoes, I found a perfect place for a much-needed shady picnic: the patio of the island’s old isolation hospital. (This sprawling building is where the island's four residents live, but one of them saw me approaching and gave me the go ahead to lunch in the shade.)

6. I checked out the iridescent azure-toned Blue Lagoon at 7:30 am knowing that it would become packed with lounge chairs and umbrellas, starting at 8 am. The lazy atmosphere with nary a sound beyond the crashing waves, completely transforms to a chaotic atmosphere the rest of the day until the last boats depart late in the day. Each morning, I took the short walk here before breakfast to enjoy the solitude.

7. Instead of the Blue Lagoon, I visited a cove that sees few if any visitors: Smuggler’s Cove on the South Channel. It requires a longer walk and there are no kiosks, boats or lounge chairs to rent. What you do find are pristine tidal pools where you could sit and watch crustaceans and fish swim around your toes. Good swimmers can also enjoy the deep cool waters offshore.

8. The only kiosk at the Blue Lagoon that’s worth visiting is a small stand selling fresh fruits, including prickly pear cactus. One day I lunched here on nectarines, watermelon, prickly pear and yogurt while sitting under the kiosk’s expansive umbrella.

9. Two people told me about St. Mary’s Caves that are accessible not just by sea but also by foot. It took three tries wandering down several paths along the cliff front to find the massive cave complex that you can simply walk into and swim in a calm pool of seawater. (I’m told that the Count of Monte Cristo was filmed here.)

10. On my second full day on the island, I walked all the paths I missed the first day and found an old hilltop cemetery, St. Mary’s Bay that’s much more relaxed than the Blue Lagoon, lush valleys that are still verdant despite the tempertures, and a small chapel ringed by a stone wall and tall conifer trees that also provide some much needed shade and a bit of a breeze.

11. Other activities available from the hotel include aromatherapy massages, canoe or windsurf rental, diving -- and even mountain bike rental. The hotel also offers two outdoor swimming pools (one is for children) and two small strips of golden sand.

continue reading "Surprising Finds on Comino Island in Malta"

Monday, August 23, 2010

Michelle Obama's Spanish Vacation - Visiting Ronda

Michelle Obama certainly has great taste in vacation venues when she decided to holiday in southern Spain last week with her daughter, Sascha, and friends. One of the most picturesque cities in the Andalucian area that she visited was Ronda. I certainly don’t have any insider information on her full itinerary in this Moorish town, but I’m sure she took in some of the more iconic offerings.

1. I walked through the Jardines Ciudad de Cuenca, a series of tiered gardens that sit on the edge of the gorge. These green spaces are a quiet oasis landscaped with palms, cacti, roses, stone benches and boulders.

2.At the18th century Casa del Rey Moro or House of the Moorish King, I visited the surrounding Islamic and European garden with its manicured hedges, lily pond, palms and cedar. Here, I climbed down the long, slippery underground stairway that was cut out of solid rock. At the end of the 365 steps that lead to the bottom of the gorge, I looked out at the impressive rock face and green water of the Guadalevin River.

3. Sitting on the edge of Ronda's precipice, the Casa del Don Juan Bosco is noted for its extensive collection of local ceramics. Decorative art also found outside the house in the tiered garden with decorative tile work, mosaics and fountains.

4. At the Plaza Maria Auxiadora or Plaza del Campillo with its flowering trees is a narrow path that snakes down to the bottom of the gorge. Along the way, I found the remains of the medieval city walls, an old Moorish door to the city and flourmills also from the Arabic period. This path has one of the best views of the gorge, El Tajo, as you stand face-to-face with the cliff and directly across from the New Bridge, and the waterfall that tumbles into the river.

5. The museum inside the Palacio de Mondragon displayed an interesting Muslim funeral exhibit with tombstones dating from the 14th century and an explanation of how the dead were buried on the outskirts of Ronda.

6. At the Arab Baths, I watched a video that explained, in Spanish, how water was pumped in from the nearby stream.

7. I could've spent hours examining arrest warrants, dioramas of bandits' hiding places in caves, their weapons, death certificates, and pseudonyms all on display at the appropriately named Bandit Museum. The extensive exhibits are devoted to the life of Spain's bandits, especially the bandits of Andalusia where they have long been romanticized in literature and myth.

8. Popular with locals, the Alameda del Tajo Gardens in the center of town are landscaped with iron arbors, palmetto, bamboo, conifers and a balcony hanging over the cliff edge. Here, I strolled the adjacent path lined with flowering shrubs and trees that parallels the gorge.

9. When I finally stopped to relax, I ordered a café con leche at a cafe across from the Plaza Dequesa de Parcent that's planted with tall conifers, palms and orange trees.

10. I followed the signs out of Ronda for Virgen de la Cabeza, a lovely short that winds through a hot and dusty land that's lined with old stone walls, olive trees and wild pistachio. This one-mile trail leads to a Mozarabic church that was built in a cave in the 9th century. I walked through the rooms cut into sandstone -- with monastic living quarters and others for worship -- and into the crypt. On the second Sunday of June, the locals make a pilgrimage to this hermitage where they honor the Virgin Mary with prayer and celebration.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

A Little Bit of Portugal in New York City

It's not often that I step into a restaurant in New York City and find that after the first bite, I feel transported to another country. But that’s what happened to me the other night when I had dinner at a very recently renovated restaurant on the Lower East Side.

Nomad, a restaurant specializing in North African cuisine, still retains a North African theme with its murals, lamps, naturally-sculpted rose stone pieces and other embellishments. But now that it has Portuguese chef, Luisa Fernandes, as its executive chef, the restaurant has taken on a whole new life.

Luisa conjures up some magical Mediterranean fare that include elements from Spain, Italy, Greece, France, North Africa, and her native, Portugal. Portugal is one of my specialties and every dish that came out of the kitchen harkened back to my travels across that country. But each also had a little twist that made it approachable to the American palate.

The fresh sardines came topped with pickled onions. Perfected grilled baby octopus was nestled in amongst chickpeas that were nicely flavored with bits of lamb sausage. A stuffed quail was dressed with a tangy pomegranate sauce and served with couscous, onions and raisins.

I ordered a balanced Trajadura wine from Monho, Portugal to accompany the meal. And I couldn’t get enough of the freshly-baked garlic and herb flatbread. (Many of the dishes are cooked in the brand new wood burning brick oven set into the wall in the dining room. And it’s the maple and cherry woods Luisa uses here that lend to the aromatic flavors.)

The interior of the restaurant couldn’t be more romantic, with flickering candles and a soon-to-open garden courtyard.

If you want to dine in a restaurant where the chef -- who, by the way, was the 2009 champion on the Food Network's cooking competition show, Chopped -- has a supreme passion for cooking, then I’d run right down to Nomad if you live in New York. And, if you don’t, I’d put it on my list of places to dine when you're next in town.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Awesome Urban Travel Bag - Mountainsmith + Discount

I call myself an itinerant writer because, unlike many independent journalists, I don't work out of my home nor do I write in an office. I much prefer a more natural environment, preferably sitting outside on the waterfront in lower Manhattan or in one of the city's many hidden green spaces or, if it's inclement, in a cafe or atrium bathed in natural light. As a result of my wanderings, I carry around a load of stuff including my laptop, extra batteries, power cord, portable printer (I don't always carry this, though), iPod, an e-reader, files, books, notebooks, and more. It can really weight me down. So when Mountainsmith -- a company whose products I have long used and have blogged about extensively -- asked me to test out one of their urban backpacks, the Cruiser, I jumped at the opportunity. Here's what I found:

The pack easily fits my laptop (max size is 15") in a protective neoprene sleeve in one of the two main zippered compartments. This rest of this main compartment is further divided so that I slipped my bulky files and large notebooks including legal pads in one part and in the other section I placed my batteries, power cord, e-reader and printer. The middle zippered compartment -- where I keep my books, magazines and tape recorder -- contains several small pockets for my pens, cell phone, iPod, camera as well as a fleece-lined sunglass case and a mini zippered pocket where I put my business card case. On the front of the pack is a diagonal zippered compartment where I put things I need to grab immediately, such as my house keys, sunscreen, tiny first aid kit, and small memo pad.

Because I'm only 5'2" I'm thrilled that the Cruiser fits my compact torso. Most times a heavy-loaded pack will hang down to my butt making it very uncomfortable to tote a heavy load. That's not the case with the Cruiser which has very comfy foam shoulder straps, a sternum strap which also helps distribute the load, and foam backpanels that provides some pretty good airflow on my back. In fact, I've been testing out this pack for the past month in New York City where the temperatures have been sweltering and I found the pack as comfortable as possible under these conditions. This weekend I walked three miles briskly both on Saturday and Sunday carrying a full load in the humid temperatures and my back wasn't a sweaty mess as might've happened with backpacks that press against your torso. Nor did I suffer any back strain as often happens with a pack that doesn't carry a heavy load well.

The Cruiser has two water bottle pockets on each side and I use one to store a little umbrella because the weather this summer in NYC included unexpected thunderstorms almost daily. Another nice feature is a little rubber haul handle on the top of the pack which I use regularly when yanking my bag off the floor of buses and subways, instead of pulling on the shoulder straps as I normally would. And below the diagonal zipper is another rubber loop where I could attach my keys if I needed to.

The only thing I'm not thrilled about is that the pack is a little too snug to additionally pack clothes and toiletries for my multi-day trips. (I tried it out on a four-day trip to Cedar Key, Florida but I had to severely trim what I brought along in order to fit everything.) Though the pack has two compression straps that keep everything snug, I opened them all the way but still couldn't fit the slim number of clothes I needed for the trip in addition to my work gear. So my recommendation is that the Cruiser is perfect for the urban road warrior. It looks and feel good, and fits everything you need if you want your backpack to double as your desk.

And, if you are interested in purchasing this bag or any other cool Mountainsmith gear, they generously are offering my readers 20% on all purchases from today until August 6 if you use this discount code: JTTA20 on the Mountainsmith website. My Mountainsmith backpack and fanny pack have long been the only bags I travel with and the reason I never check luggage, even when I'm on a 6+ week journey.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Florida's Hidden Retreat

It's hard to believe that there are still hidden corners in Florida, a state I've criss crossed extensively. Yet, I just returned from Cedar Key that harks back to the Florida of maybe 50 years ago. But what was even more curious was that every single person I spoke with before my trip thought Cedar Key was part of the Florida Keys on the east coast. In fact, Cedar Key is on the west coast -- so, clearly, not part of the Keys. And given that there are no water parks, or beach resorts, and that it's one hour from Gainesville or two hours from Tampa, it's understandable why Cedar Key is off the radar.

The island of Cedar Key is one of 17 barrier islands, many of which are part of the pristine Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

Here's what I found and did:

1. Cedar Key is the farmed clam capital of the U.S. We enjoyed healthy, plump and juicy clams served in myriad ways

2. Kayaking along shallow salt marshes and marine estuaries

3. Plenty of bird watching possibilities, including shore birds like ibis, heron and egret

4. Bold sunsets that I never tired of watching

5. Roads where I rarely saw cars, making it perfect for renting a bike and pedaling around to the museums, old cemetery, petite landing strip and across the bridges linking four of the isles

6. Several state reserves, like the Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve, where I could walk sandy trails bordered by lush foliage and spy curious animal tracks

7. Wandering the town of Cedar Key to check out the arts and crafts shops where I talked with painters and sculptors

8. Taking a historic walking tour of the town that's dotted with buildings dating to the 19th century

My base for this five-day trip was the Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, a yellow pine, two story 19th century dwelling just steps from the water. Here I knew I had just stepped into another world when owner Alice Phillips greeted me saying "We don't lock our doors here." To a native New Yorker, this couldn't have sounded more alien. But every night we found the door to the inn's public rooms unlocked. There we could raid the ever-present cookie jar for chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies, M & Ms, or biscotti.

The town is oh, so walkable. So at night, we'd wander from dinner down the streets where everything shuts down at 9:30 pm to find our inn along a dark residential lane rimmed in tiny lights. What a welcome sight.

My room, the Honeymoon Cottage, one of the 7 rooms and 2 suites at this B & B -- was plenty quaint and comfy with thick bathrobes, a clawfoot tub, rose detailing, lace curtains and antique accoutrements.

But the key selling point of this room is the views of the garden with the 500-year-old live oak tree. As a New Yorker where views of nature are in short supply, I couldn't get enough of this one.

The backyard garden is where I spent much of my down time listening to the tinkling water fountain or watching the butterflies flitting about the blooming flowers. I often curled up with a book on the patio that fronts the backyard. And, despite the fact that the area drips with heat and humidity in the summer -- conditions I happen to love -- the patio was comfortable with its fans blowing a cooling breeze.

Every morning we were treated to fresh fruit salad, cinnamon raisin toast and bagels, yogurt and an ever-changing hot breakfast. The cream cheese omelet with chives was plenty flavorful. So was the French toast with nutmeg, and breakfast burrito with bacon and cheese. My favorite: the light-as-clouds pancakes. (I have a thing for pancakes that float off the plate; and these were so fluffy that I could've tied them down.)

The breakfast room, like the rest of the inn and Cedar Key in general, was like stepping back in time. An antique type phone and clock hung on the walls as did a framed set of the well-known Donax brushes that were made from local saw palmetto plants.

Alice and Bill, her husband and co-owner, keep a wall of DVDs, CDs and books to occupy anyone who can't find enough to do in and around the islands.

I spent five days here and I could've easily have spent another five or more. It's not every day that you find a warm, friendly place where the owners take such great care in providing their guests with everything they need for an enjoyable stay. They knew I'm very type A and I wanted to know everything there was to do and see and they didn't disappoint. They gave me the insider info on the best restaurant to eat chowder and who serves the best Key lime pie. They suggested who I should kayak with because I'm a novice kayaker as well as who gives one of the best boat tours in the area.

But even more important were the other guests who checked into the Cedar Key B & B. I rarely hold long conversations with guests at breakfast. But here I found people who were smart, interesting and welcoming who had a love of nature. And many of them had either been here before or, if not, they knew they'd return again. And I'll be one of them, too.
continue reading "Florida's Hidden Retreat"

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Savvy Packing With Only A Purse

You probably all know by now that no matter how long I'm on the road, I don't check luggage. Everything, from my very complete first-aid kit to my high-performance clothes -- that can take me from the beach to the bar, from walking tours in Istanbul to biking trips in Norway -- goes in my carry-on bag from Mountainsmith. And my personal item is a Mountainsmith fanny pack that converts to a shoulder bag -- it contains my camera, notebook, tape recorder, reading material and so forth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard that, as of August 1, 2010, Spirit Airlines will be charging $45 for a carry-on bag. I was determined to never travel on Spirit. That lasted until I just was forced to buy a ticket on Spirit for an assignment in Atlanta, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama. I was going to be traveling before August, so there was no chance of them hitting me with a carry-on bag charge. But I took this as the opportunity to do a test run: pack everything for a five-night trip in a purse. Yes, you read correctly: a purse.

In August, Spirit will allow you to bring a personal item that measures no bigger than 16"x14"x12" on board for free. To me, that could easily translate into a purse.

And already, there's been plenty of advice in the media on how to pack like a pro.

1. The New York Times provided a slide show showing a flight attendant rolling her clothes into a small carry-on bag. (In the accompanying article in the New York Times, other advice from flight crews included bringing a lot of black items and carefully deciding what you really need on a trip).

2. SmarterTravel recommended:
• wearing clothes with lots of pockets
• packing clothes that don't wrinkle
• forgoing lots of toiletries that you can get at your hotel anyway
• using compression bags

And there are travel writers and bloggers that I admire for, among other things, their savvy packing strategies, like Andrew Evans who recently traveled for 10 weeks by bus from Washington, DC to Antarctica. Here's what he packed.

But my goal was to only carry a purse. I dug out one from my closet that's simply constructed, contains several pockets, is made of almost indestructible material and measures 15"x14"5" so it would work with the Spirit Airlines personal item criteria. And, because, clearly I couldn't get five nights of clothing and accessories into just a purse, I would wear the rest of the clothes on board. It sounds comical, but I was able to do it so successfully that if you were sitting next to me, you'd never know that I was wearing seven tops (plus a vest) and two pairs of pants. Actually, it's not a whole lot different from the many layers of clothing women wore every day in the 18th century. Check out this slide show of how they did it.

Watch my slide show that documents what I packed, what I was wearing when I boarded the plane and the multitude of outfits I had for my five-night trip. (Actually, there were plenty more mix and match options than I provided in the slide show.)

I have to admit that carrying only a purse was quite freeing, because it forced me to be even more thrifty with what I brought, paring everything down to the bare essentials that would still allow me to look somewhat stylish.

Many of the items I packed were wickable, quick drying clothes that didn't wrinkle. Among the pieces of high-tech clothing that I especially depended on are manufactured by: Mountain Hardwear, ExOfficio, SmartWool and Icebreaker which I've blogged about many times before.

Everything I wore was in a neutral color, which makes it easier to mix and match. And the materials were all light-weight. I love the dresses I bought at a small New York City-based boutique called Pookie & Sebastian. No, the fabrics are not high-tech, nor were they made of merino wool, like the Icebreaker dress I adore and blogged about. But the dresses are light weight, they pack small, they don't wrinkle and they paired well with other high-tech items I brought along. Plus, they fit with my color scheme. And, because I love clothes that are convertable, e.g. pants that become shorts or long sleeve shirts that become short sleeve, I especially loved the black dress I packed that transformed into at least three different dresses as well as a blouse that I could wear with my tights.

Another item I can't live without is my XUBAZ, a scarf with hidden pockets -- another item that I've blogged about. It's light weight and works well whether it's warm or cool outside and, because it has pockets, it doubles as a hidden purse, of sorts. After all, who would steal a scarf?

Having a multitude of pockets in my clothes is key to carrying a lot of gear. And I had a total of 18 pockets in the clothing I wore on the plane: 8 pockets in my photo vest, 4 in my scarf, 1 in my Mountain Hardwear hoodie and 5 in my Mountain Hardwear pants. So, in case I wanted to remove some items from my purse and carry them on me, there was plenty of room.

My itty bitty black purse that I packed with my clothes contained my notebook, pens, credit cards, money, and camera. (It has several deep zip compartments that fit all these items.)

The three zip lock bags you see in the slide show were divided this way: one contained liquids such as shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, first aid gels/liquids like cortisone cream and anti-itch ointments; one contained makeup (a luxury for me but I had room, so why not), and the third had vitamin supplements plus non-liquid first-aid supplies/toiletries, such as band-aids, blister pads, gauze, toothbrush, and dental floss.

Given that the spring weather in Atlanta and the surrounding areas would be cool at night and warmish during the day, I had layers that would work for almost anything: from hot days to even cold nights. (I carried a small, light weight Mountain Hardwear rain jacket draped over my arm in case of rain -- but this isn't pictured in the slide show.) And, because I'd be running around the cities during the day, visiting museums, parks and gardens and meeting public relations people, and going to nice restaurants and bars at night, I had clothes that worked for all these occasions.

As far as shoes, the only ones I had were the ones on my feet, by Keen and, again, ones I've blogged about before. (I wore them in black, of course.) They're comfortable for lots of walking during the day and they work well at night too.

In case you're wondering if I was hot on the plane wearing seven tops (plus a vest) and two pairs of pants, the answer is no. I'm always cold anyway unless the temperature is above 75 or so.

This was only a test run to see if I could easily get around the Spirit Airline carry-on charge. I don't ever intend to fly on Spirit again -- aside from carry-on fees, their new planes have seats that don't recline at all -- but at least I know that if I'm forced to travel for five nights, in a pinch, a purse makes a great carry-on bag for me.

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