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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