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.
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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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