Thursday, December 29, 2011

Things You Didn't Know About Romania

Some countries, like Romania, are just ridden with misconceptions. In fact, once I told my colleagues and friends that I would be spending a week in this Eastern European country, I was hard pressed to find many positive comments.

More typically, I heard: "Why are you going there?" and "You better be careful of those gypsies." But, like so many of my travels, I was determined to do some myth busting. And this included looking for the Romania beyond the signature sights of fortified churches, painted monasteries, and anything to do with Dracula.

My article for the Huffington Post focuses in on Romania's hidden treasures.
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Friday, December 16, 2011

Volunteering in Spain + Why T-Shirts are Conversation Starters

With all the exotic places in the world, why would I return almost every after year to a tiny hamlet in Spain that's more than four hours north of Madrid? Many reasons: I can stay for free in a medieval environment;  wander car-free stone lanes that wind from your two-story dwelling; live among a group of Spaniards (mostly business men and women) where we spend our days learning about each other while I'm volunteer teaching them the intricacies of the English language (and without being stuck in a classroom); and engage in hours of role playing, group games, fun brainstorming sessions, and theater rehearsals. These are some of the many reasons I return to this hamlet named Valdelavilla.

Since the native English speakers have to chat one-on-one with the Spaniards for hour upon hour over the course of a week, that's where my JCreatures™ t-shirts come in. (I've blogged about the origins of the JCreatures™ several months ago.) These images are curious enough that wearing any of the seven t-shirt images almost guaranteed a lively conversation.
 I recently guest blogged for about Valdelavilla and how my t-shirts serve a couple of functions. Find out about my adventure here.
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Monday, December 12, 2011

Montenegro 4 Ways: Hike, Walk, Ferry + Float

When I signed up for a trip to Montenegro with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays based out of the U.K., I didn't know what to expect. But I did know that the company specialized in hiking and walking tours and I decided that would be the best way to see Montenegro, a country that doesn't get the kind of tourist traffic yet that its neighbor, Croatia, sees.

 When I met my group -- they all hailed from the UK making me the lone American -- I found out that none of us were thrill seekers. Many hoped there wouldn't be any knife-edge precipices. Others preferred to stay away from long, steep climbs. But we all adored nature. And basing out of scenic Kotor Bay, we found plenty of landscapes to admire. This is my piece for the Huffington Post describing my week of hiking, walking, ferrying and floating through Montenegro.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Some of My Fave Destinations + More Travel Tips

Whenever someone finds out I'm a travel writer, invariably they'll ask, "What's your favorite place?" My response is that I love every place I visit, for different reasons. I hate to single out one destination because every country, state or city has something to offer. I'm also often asked what's my favorite destination for great food. Again, I find culinary delights all over the world, even in places not known for their cuisine. But Shane at National RV Parks interviewed me recently and wanted to pin me down with regard to these and other questions, including why I decided to start this blog, did I always want to travel the world, and what tips would I give a newbie traveler.

Aside from doing tons of research beforehand, I always recommend everyone carry a well-stocked first-aid kit. (All manner of maladies can occur on the road, even when you're not far from home.) It's also interesting that he asked me why I started JtheTravelAuthority considering the third-year anniversary is rapidly approaching. (I wrote my first post on December 13, 2008.) And, in case you're wondering about my favorite destination that I would revisit over and over again, that would be Spain. (I just returned from Madrid where I bicycled their brand-new landscaped promenade that parallels the Manzanares River.) As far as the place that puts me in foodie heaven, it's Malaysia. (I get easily bored but there's no way to become tired of the seemingly endless spices, herbs and ingredients found in Malaysian cuisine.)

 Check out my interview at National RV Parks here.
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Perfect Shoulder Bag for Travel

On my recent trip to Madrid, I decided to check out a new bag: the AmeriBag. I was looking for a smallish bag that I could wear all around town, without fear of getting attracting pickpockets (as happens in Madrid). But I also had a lot of other criteria that the bag had to fulfill. It had to have a lot of interior as well as exterior pockets to organize sunglasses, notebooks, Spanish-English dictionary, pens, digital recorder, camera, iPod, map, makeup, and plenty more items should I buy something during the day. It also had to feel comfortable all day long as I walked 3+ miles each day checking out new hotels, restaurants, parks and art galleries. (In other words, no strain on my neck, back or shoulders -- body parts that often take the brunt of carrying a lot of gear on one shoulder.) I also hoped that the bag could be easily worn if I decided to go bicycling in the city or, if there was the opportunity to go hiking.

After wearing the bag for four full days, my verdict is that the AmeriBag definitely performs admirably. It looks sporty and chic; it didn't fall off my shoulder; and it was perfectly comfortable whether walking or cycling (I biked 10 miles). Plus, no shoulder, neck or backaches after 7+ hours of brisk walking each day. (The price can't be beat either.)

(It can be worn like a messenger bag or as a regular shoulder bag.) But, I decided to wear it slung in front so that I could easily protect it from thieves.

And, saving the best for last: Even my Samsung notebook fit in this bag, along with everything else. Perfect. I'll be taking it on many more trips.
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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Toronto - What I Found Out From The Locals

When two of my friends relocated from New York City to Toronto, I thought it was time to revisit the city and see it the way a local would. They've been living in the city now for just over a year and they shared with me a wealth of information reflecting on their perceptions of a host of social and cultural differences between Canadians (or at least Torontonians or Ontarians as a whole) and Americans -- including Toronto etiquette. Here's what they told me:

• Talking about religion is generally frowned upon. That includes avoiding putting up the office Christmas tree. Even saying "god bless you" when someone sneezes is not done. Certainly a curious finding given the large number of churches in Toronto. But the idea is that they don't wear their religion on their sleeve.

•  Many office workers can expect three-day-weekends 10 months out of the year. That includes Family Day in February, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Victoria Day in May, Canada Day in July and a civic holiday in August.

• Even the most high pressure jobs generally don't have their workers putting in more than 60-hour work weeks. And, it's generally a lot less than that. In Ontario, the average hours worked per week is just about 36.

• On the roads, Torontonians tend to be a more courteous lot, allowing drivers to almost painlessly merge into traffic when you have your signal on. (Of course, there are always exceptions and, remember that my friends are comparing Torontonians with New Yorkers.)

• Just as Torontonians don't like to discuss religion, they also tend to steer conversations away from discussing mental health issues. So, while in New York City it would be very normal to discuss visiting a psychotherapist or filling your prescription for an anti-depressant, not so in Toronto.

• The Toronto courteousness seems to extend to customer service departments as well. My friends had to deal with the fact that their cable and then cell phone were both turned off because of late payments. (Because they hadn't gotten a Canadian-based credit card yet.) Imagine their surprise when,  after they simply said they intend to make a payment, their services were turned right back on.

• Toronto is very much a bike-friendly city with a large network of bike paths strung throughout the city. In a fashion, and certainly, much more than in New York City, bicycles rule.  Businesses try to promote cycling and the city gives out awards to businesses that encourage their people to cycle.

• The city is gung-ho about recycling. You'll find a myriad of different recycle bins all over the city. Even the lovely Leslie Street Spit, an urban wilderness, is built of recycled materials. (Plus, on weekends, it becomes a bicycle-only thoroughfare.)

• There are a litany of Canadianisms, including that all candy bars are referred to as chocolate bars -- whether they contain chocolate or not. 

• It seems that the city has gotten comfortable with the medical marijuana issue, whereby people who suffer from various conditions are legally allowed to smoke, including in certain cafes. But the curious thing is that other people, who are not violating any other law, are also allowed to smoke pot in these venues. (They can't be (or aren't) arrested for simply smoking pot, so I'm told, unless they bring in marijuana or try to sell it or try to smoke tobacco.) Plus, curiously, no one calls it pot. It's referred to as cannabis.

• Toronto is a beach town. Who knew? Bordering Lake Ontario, Toronto has numerous sandy beaches, including the community referred to as The Beaches on the east side of the city, where many take advantage of the long boardwalks and promenades.
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Witches' Water Park in Austria

 In the summer, we expect Austria to have a network of cable cars providing views of jagged spires, wildflower coated meadows, and slopes criss-crossed with hiking paths. But a Witches' Water Park? This had to be a joke. It turns out that Hexenwasser Hochsoll, which translates to Witches' Water, is set in Soll in the Tyrol province of Austria, under an hour from Innsbruck. You could think of it as an ultra soft adventure park where parents and kids can spend the afternoon or the day experiencing nature and the vitality of water. Clearly, this is unlike anything you might find in Orlando, Florida.

Hexenwasser is given this name because legend has it that witches, who were both revered and feared, had long lived in this land where the women practiced their healing arts. Now, in a bucolic mountain landscape, you can explore dozens of stations spaced along a 1,500-foot-long route where you'll have an intimate experience with the power and therapeutic properties of water. Kneipp treatments are pools where you either immerse your arms to stimulate your circulation, or tread water, which is said to benefit varicose veins.

You can give your feet a reflexology massage by walking across what's considered the longest -- a little over a mile long -- barefoot trail in Austria. Wander along shallow water channels and across various surfaces, including pebbles, grass, and pine bark, as a way to stimulate your feet and your body organs. There's plenty of barefoot walking at Hexenwasser, through pools, ponds and basins.

Try to schedule a visit on a warm, sunny day and remember to take towels and the kids may want bathing suits. Expect invigorating icy cold spring water.

But, aside from the water focus, the park also has an educational aspect, whether it's learning about bee behavior at the apiary, finding out how to bake bread in a stone oven, discover what a day in the life of a woodcutter would be like, and see if you can tell time using a sundial.
Unlike other waterparks, where you have to shell out a wad of cash, here if you decide not to take the cable car up, all the stations are free. The cable car also goes from mid-station to the summit of Hohe Salve peak that offers 360ยบ views of the Tyrol's ragged peaks that pierce the sky.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Day Hikes in Bavaria

The ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen -- really twin Bavarian towns -- is my base for several days of stunning day hikes. Surrounded by soaring peaks that rise thousands of feet above the forest clad valley -- Zugspitze, which rises to almost 10,000 feet, is Germany's highest  -- Garmisch-Partenkirchen clearly attracts those thrill seekers who savor a rush of adrenaline from navigating along craggy slopes at dizzying heights where sure-footedness is a must. But, I prefer a more easy-going approach to my aerobic activities, which is why I chose this serious of short and easy-to-moderate trails that, for the most part, can be tackled by the whole family.

1. The Philospher's Trail is aptly named. Along the three-mile path that courses from St. Anton -- with its fresco-ceilinged church --  to Farchant, you'll have plenty of opportunity to meditate on nature, whether you're gazing down at Partenkirchen from on high or settling into one of several well-placed benches that are inscribed with quotes from some of the great philosophers.

2. The Kramer Plateau offers several options, including an easy three-hour route -- that runs along the southern slopes of Mt. Kramer. After crossing wildflower speckled meadows, along the way, you'll notice chapels that were built as a soldier memorials as well as an old chapel (Alte Kirche) bedecked with 15th century wall paintings. 

3. The Slopes of Mount Wank offer lovely views of the awe-inspiring Zugspitz mountain range. This moderate hike that wanders through pastures and dense pine forests passes the thundering Kesselgraben waterfall. Taking the cable car to the summit where you can lunch at the mountain hut and then meandering on trails that network the middle and upper slopes makes for a leisurely and scenic way to enjoy this almost 6,000 foot mountain.

4. The Parnachklamm Gorge is really the best hike of the lot given that along the four-mile path you'll be walking through dark tunnels and across small footbridges along a rock ledge -- luckily, they installed a guardrail of sorts -- positioned above a cascading stream that's snuggled at the base of a sheer-walled gorge. It's a national monument that's full of sensory pleasures: you'll become wet, thanks to the tumbling waterfalls that you pass behind. Then gaze about and you'll see a window of azure blue sky above while the spray coming off the cascades provides colorful reflections of the broad bands of sunlight that penetrate this deep slit in the earth.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Travel E-Books for Teens

 As a former teacher, I love it when there's the opportunity to use travel as a learning experience for kids. That's why I jumped at the chance to review a new set of travel e-books: "Planet Explorers: Travel Guides for Kids. Right now, author Laura Schaefer has written six guides to pique the interest of children and parents alike: Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. Each book is designed to be viewed on an e-reader, iPad or iPhone or other smart phone, making them practical when you and your kids are on the road.

But, though they are being marketed to kids 8+ years, after reviewing the NYC and Phili guides, I believe the guides are more geared for the teenager in the house, especially given some of the vocabulary words. (I'm not sure what average eight-year-old knows the words "nautical" or "pedestal" or cares about whether a cafe offers good coffee or that a restaurant has an informal dress code.) That being said, I find that the guides I reviewed are packed with such myriad facts that they not only offer what I call the "who knew" factor that kids -- me, included -- love, but they also can be used by parents and teachers to make history and  geography come alive.

In the New York City guide, even I found things I didn't know about -- and I'm a native New Yorker, like Edgar Allen Poe's cottage in the Bronx, or that the cherry trees at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden were donated by the Japanese government.

The guides are chock full of fun and useful information: New York City's Flatiron Building resembles the shape of a vintage iron; in the 19th century some 7,000 people lived in the five-storied building that's been converted into the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; the Bronx Zoo uses composting toilets to save water;  and Ellis Island was once called Oyster Island. (But who knows why?).

There are plenty of yummy food options, many that I think kids will gravitate to, including the Magnolia Bakery with its array of colorful iced cupcakes, and Peanut Butter & Company, where you can get PB topped with just about anything, from bacon to marshmallow Fluff. 

What I would've loved to have found in the NYC guide  is a section on Hudson River Park, which is perfect for biking, jogging, blading, skateboarding (they even have a skateboard park) and learning about a  host of botanicals along the landscaped route that parallels the river.

Since I'm an obvious tree hugger, I was happy to see Fairmont Park included in the Philadelphia guide. (The Schuylkill River Trail is listed as a must visit; I agree. It's perfect for the family who wants to get back to nature within the heart of a major metropolis.) Among the fun facts in this guide, I was surprised to learn that the park was owned by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and that the Curtis Institute of Music is more difficult to get into than Harvard University. (Who knew?) It's also lovely to find out that the Museum of Archeology has a garden growing Egyptian papyrus. This is the kind of information that goes way beyond simply viewing ancient exhibits in glass cases.

Those who visit Phili with this guide will find out that the city is home to the nation's first medical school, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art played a prominent role in the movie "Rocky," and that Morimoto, an Iron Chef, owns a restaurant in the city-- though, with such a rarefied, sophisticated menu, it's not one suiting the tastes of most kids, that's for sure.

Overall, I think it's worth checking out these e-book guides for the wealth of information that could be incorporated into teacher's lesson plans or used by parents and teens when traveling as a way to boost the enrichment factor.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Magic in Montenegro

I just returned from Montenegro's Bay of Kotor -- a dramatic landscape of craggy mountains and turquoise waters. A land where the early morning sun brushes across the towering peaks, painting a luminous broad swath across the rough limestone surface. Where the black veil of night is streaked with a zig-zag glow from the string of Kotor's medieval battlements that are lit up along their length as they snake up the steep slope.

On this trip with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, turning a corner along many a bay brings a surprise. While I spent most of my time hiking the rocky slopes covered with fragrant macchia, oaks and conifers, the magical waters were almost always within view. And then there were those few excursions onto the mirror-like watery surface itself that brought more discoveries.

Perast is just one of several gems in the necklace of towns along the Bay that's often referred to as a fjord, but, in fact, geologically it isn't since glacial activity were not responsible for its formation. This Baroque village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is most heralded as the birthplace of some very well-regarded sailors. With the rise in prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries, maritime captains established themselves in palaces and villas, some which remain today, converted into houses, accommodations -- such as the Hotel Admiral, restaurants (like the Per Astra Restaurant) and even a museum.

The offshore twin islets, St. George and Our Lady of the Rock, add to the allure of Perast. Taking a ferry, we motor out towards the wee rocks, seeing the tall, monolith-like cypress trees encircling a 12th century Benedictine monastery on St. George, where the abbey was destroyed in an earthquake.

While visitors are not allowed to set foot on this island, we dock at Our Lady of the Rock, appropriately named given that, according to legend, a painting of the Virgin Mary was discovered on a tiny rock jutting from the sea at this very spot. (The artificial islet itself was created by rocks added bit, by bit, over time.) Now, in her honor, stands a brilliant blue-domed church that we tour with and English-speaking guide who points out the dozens of oil paintings, 17th century working organ, silver crowns, and many precious and domestic gifts (from irons to sewing machines) that were donated to ward off disasters at sea. Probably the most memorial item is a work of embroidery hung on a wall: a woman used silk, gold and silver threads and her own hair to sew an image of the Virgin encircled by cherubs. (It took her 25 years while her husband was at sea and, supposedly, the hair-threads turned white over time and she became blind. It's unclear if her husband ever made it home.)
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Friday, September 30, 2011

An Oasis Near Gatwick Airport

The last place I'd expect to find a pocket of verdancy is basically down the street from Terminal 4 at London's Gatwick Airport. But that's exactly what I found when spending two full days and nights at the Hilton London Gatwick Airport.

It all started with the hurricane that hit New York City. My flights were so delayed that I had to change my itinerary. The result: I had to stay near the airport for two nights. Now, you'll rarely see me write about chain hotels, but this is one of the exceptions. Staying at any airport hotel could spell disaster with noisy rooms, out-of-the-way hotels that require taxis to the airport, bad hotel food, and basically nothing to do except connect to wi-fi. This wasn't my experience here where they have an all-you-can-eat happy hour -- it was so large, I skipped dinner both nights -- in the Executive Lounge. Costa Coffee's sunny sitting area with skylights on the first floor made a perfect quiet spot to work while sipping an iced cappuccino. The hotel is directly connected with the South Terminal so I didn't have to wake up super early to make my connection after I checked out. (There was also a Boots shop where, if you forgot any toiletries or you needed any over-the-country medications, you could easily stock up on travel sized items.) And,maybe the best thing about my stay: when I asked the concierge if there were any parks nearby -- it seemed like a stupid question but I was hopeful anyway -- she replied that there was a large park and I could take a bus (#10) across the street to Crawley (15 minutes away) and then either walk a little over a mile or switch to the #2.

Tilgate Park turned out to be a gem for the whole family. This expansive park covered with well-tended lawns, gardens, lakes and woodlands, is also home to several hundred animals, some endangered. At their Nature Center, I spotted wild guinea pigs, chattering lories (which have hairy tongues), a large Stanley cranes (the national bird of South Africa), terrapins (that bury themselves in the mud each winter), a mara (a large rodent that's native to Argentina), along with pea fowl, goats and many more creatures.

Near one of the lakes ringed by a boardwalk, I learned some botanical facts, including that the oak trees nearby can support more than 400 species of insects.

I strolled to the walled garden -- interestingly, during World War II, it became a horticulature research station -- that's appropriately named, given that it's surrounded by tall hedge rows. Families stopped to picnic at some of the benches set beside blooming flowers and water features.

At the wildlife garden, I wandered past a pond covered with water lilies, and then inspected the nettle, holly, purple buddleia.

Curvy paths wind under towering trees to the Peace Garden that commemorates both VE Day and VJ Day. Tall grasses snuggle minute ponds. I found that the only other people here were two mothers with their strollers who sat under some shade trees.

Past the azaleas, heather, moss and a petite waterfall, I amble to a dense pine forest that's so thick with conifers that it almost blocks out the sun.

An equally placid Heath Garden is carpeted with camellias and rhododendrons. Again, I find that I'm all alone.

Tilgate Park, once known as the Tilgate Estate, was originally part of a forest that dates back to the Norman conquest. The three lakes are said to date to the 17th century when they were served the iron industry by driving waterwheels. Champion trees, including Chinese dogwood and Blue Atlantic cedar, dot the landscape.

Tilgate Park is all about eco-consciousness, protecting the plants and animals while providing environmental education. So I was quite surprised to find out that the Crawley Borough Council intends to lease the park to a private company for 25 years beginning in 2012. I talked to numerous residents who are angered by this action which will result in the construction of a gift shop and concessions as well as boat ride facilities and much more, turning this community park into almost an amusement park. This is a Facebook page to oppose this action. I'm hoping the Crawley residents can stand up against this action.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Origins of JCreatureTravel

Many of you may wonder about the origins of the name JCreatureTravel, which is my Twitter handle. The JCreatures™ are characters that I created and have been drawing since I was 10 years old. At that time, they reflected a 10-year-old's emotions: happy, sad, angry/frustrated, and so forth.

When I was in elementary school, I'd add the Happy J to letters and notes I sent my girlfriends. In high school, I signed my friends' yearbooks with the Happy J. In college, when I mailed postcards from my spring break or summer travels, one of the JCreatures™ always appeared to illustrate how the trip was going. Then, when I was a high school biology teacher, if my students performed particularly well on an exam, I would draw the JCreatures™ (of course, the Happy J) at the top of their exam, along with an A+.

That's why, when I decided to open a Twitter account, it seemed only natural to use JCreatureTravel as my handle.

As a travel writer and blogger, I wanted the JCreatures™ as my icon. Each of the different characters reflect my emotions during the course of my trips:

Happy J -- When I met a new friend in Tel Aviv, revisited my favorite plaza in Madrid (Plaza Santa Ana) or found a great bicycle path (such as one of the rails-to-trails I recently blogged about).

Sad J -- When I was forced to say good-bye to one of my favorite cities (like Reykjavik) or when I found that a tree that I loved in my neighborhood toppled because of a tornado that we suffered this past year in New York City.

Frustrated J -- When I somehow missed the last bus of the day in a small town in Spain because of a communication error, or when the restaurant I hoped to visit in Lisbon was closed for a week in the summer.

Sleeping J -- Though not an emotion like the others, sleep plays a big role for me, as it does for any traveler. Luckily, I rarely get jet lag, because, among other things, I immediately set my watch to the time of my destination after my flight takes off. That means that on most flights from New York City, I'm asleep.

I'm now selling a variety of T-shirts, including shirts with long sleeves and those with spaghetti straps, that each bear one of the four JCreatures™. Should you decide to buy one, I hope you enjoy it. Wear it when you travel. It certainly might be a conversation piece and maybe a way to help you make new friends, which, after all, is what travel is all about for me.
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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Travels in Romania & Prince Charles

Who knew that I would find a kindred spirit with Prince Charles? OK, you probably are thinking that I've become a bit delusional because of heat exhaustion or fatigue from all my travels through sweltering climes. But, no, this is exactly what I discovered recently while driving along dusty country lanes in Romania.

My travels in Transylvania took me to what my guide, Irene, described as "...exactly in the middle of nowhere." She was referring to the village smack in the middle of the country where time stopped. It literally sits at the end of the road, and not a paved one at that, amongst rolling hills and picturesque valleys at the foothills of Carpathian Mountains. As unlikely a place as I could imagine, Viscri is the village -- it's known for its centuries-old fortified church -- where Prince Charles purchased a rundown property several years ago. But if you think this dwelling is replete with palatial splendor, guess again. In fact, he purchased this old farmhouse -- and it's available most of the year to guests (royal or non-royal alike) as a very economical inn -- as part of the sustainability philosophy that he embraces.

Prince Charles has long been a champion of eco-consciousness and maintaining one's connections with nature. His book, Harmony, maintains that man can only advance headlong into a successful future by getting back in touch with the old ways, including our balanced relationship with the earth.

So this is how I ended up feeling a kindred spirit with Prince Charles, who has long been in love with Romania, initially because of a distant relative who had married the Romanian crown prince. And then, after visiting year after year, he saw how this land -- where the locals still made their own cheese, bake bread, knit sheep's wool garments and use horse-drawn carts for transportation -- fits right in with his eco-conscious side.

The baby blue-painted farmhouse accommodation in Viscri has a large courtyard with an old bread oven, a tool shed and a covered rough wood table where you can picnic on local products (such as crusty breads, tangy cheeses, homemade jams and spicy smoked sausages). The bedrooms are simple, as are the other petite rooms, and are decorated with antique objects and furnishings that harken back to a far earlier time. This is the ideal place to truly feel like you've left the 21st century far behind.

Outside the confines of the farmhouse, you'll find a gravel road where men walk their horses, women sit on benches outside their brightly-painted houses knitting socks, and a farmer sells his produce. As I strolled through this placid village lined with pear trees, I marveled at the simplicity: a dug-out log serves as a trough to water the animals; turkeys and ducks wander about, and a stork nest is perched high atop a chimney.

Type A person that I am, even I found it hard to feel stressed-out as I settled into the tranquil village rhythm. It wasn't until I drove out of Viscri, passing houses that displayed their knit goods on their wooden fences, that I came upon an RV caravan and a tour bus. They were all heading for the fortified church, the only reason most tourists come to this remote corner of Romania. I'm just glad I had the place to myself, if only for a brief time.
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fun + Functional Dresses - Gear Review

I've long been in love with the clothing produced by a company with an oh, so cute name: Horny Toad. Actually, it was one piece of clothing that I purchased years ago that I fell in love with and that I carry all over the world -- their Tomboy Vest, which they no longer stock. (sob)

I found it one winter when I was cross country skiing at Royal Gorge in Soda Springs, California. I had sweaters and jackets with me, but the jackets were just too warm for all the activity I was doing, and the sweaters left me still a bit chilled. After spotting the vest in a sporting goods shop, it was love at first sight. It fit snugly and comfortably, the shaggy pile was soft and all I had to do was wear my merino wool Icebreaker hoody (which I also carry on all my trips), and top it with the vest and I was warm without becoming overheated once I hit the trails hard.

But, for me, the vest plays many roles when I travel. It also works as a pillow or a lumbar support on the plane.

Yet, despite my love affair with this vest, I somehow never explored the other products that Horny Toad manufactured, until this summer. That's when I found out they had some cute dresses and I decided to test out three of them.

First off, Horny Toad is a company that's in keeping with my world view and politics. They try to be as eco-friendly as possible, using sustainable fibers, and they also get involved with good social causes. (Among their "do good" activities, they partner with a company (which is involved with providing all sorts of opportunities to developmentally-impaired adults) that does their web order fulfillment, and they also donate clothing to homeless shelters.)

Second, the clothes are simple, fun and functional. Two of the three dresses I tried -- the SKA

and the Double Helix dress -- combine organic cotton with other eco-friendly fibers allowing the dresses to dry relatively quickly when wet and to remain if not wrinkle free after I unpack them, at least the wrinkles didn't hang around long once I wore the dresses around town.

Both of them felt so comfortable that, despite the 100-degree weather here in New York City, I wore them most of the summer, washing them frequently, and wearing them day and night.

Since I wore them all the time, they were bound to become stained with ketchup, mustard and even curry sauce. All I did in each case -- and I was in restaurants so there was no chance to take the dress off and launder it -- was run into the ladies room, and quickly wash out the stain while I was still wearing the dress. And, then I went back to my meal or I raced around the city to my appointments. Both dresses dried quickly while I was walking about. And, no one even seemed to notice my little incident.

Both the SKA and Double Helix were perfect for informal summer afternoons where I would go to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to check out new ice cream shops. But they also worked well when I had to go into meetings in Midtown as well as when I was checking out new bars and restaurants at night. To go from day to night, all I did was add a scarf or a cardigan. In fact, my business banker at Chase admired these two dresses and said she wished she could dress so casually fashionable at work.

I did mention that I tried three dresses and the third is the Dizzie. And, while it is constructed solely of organic cotton -- which means it does wrinkle and doesn't dry all that quickly -- I still found myself bringing it on some of my trips because it just looked so great (it had an unusual plaid pattern) and wore well. Since I felt it has a country charm type of style, I took it with me when I did my rails-to-trails trip this summer in the Midwest and the south. I wore it during the day in Little Rock, Arkansas when the temperatures soared into the 100s and at night when we visited wine bars. Again, I received plenty of complements.

Another thing I loved about all three dresses is that it got me away from my all-blank color palette that I perpetually wear in Manhattan.

So, now I have more than a love affair with the Tomboy Vest. My love affair extends to Horny Toad.

continue reading "Fun + Functional Dresses - Gear Review"

Monday, August 22, 2011

Reykjavik's All-Day Culture Night

As I stood on a line snaking down a steep set of stairs in a narrow white-washed house and out the front door, and down a curvy path to the sidewalk, I thought that only in Reykjavik, Iceland would the locals and visitors alike be able to hang out in the house of the city councilman who stands over the stove cooking waffles that you could then nibble on with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

That's exactly what I did recently on one of the most special Saturdays of the year in this petite city. The capital's Culture Night -- it should really be renamed Culture Day & Night since the multitude of events go on from early morning to after 11 pm -- is a 15-year-old annual festival of art, music, dance, crafts, design, food (and more) that attracts thousands of people.

This year saw the inauguration of Harpa, Reykjavik's architecturally-noteworthy concert hall and conference center that glistens along the old harbor. After Iceland's economic collapse in 2008, this cultural center is bringing new life to the waterfront, especially given the curiosity factor the building provides: Some 1,000 hexagon-shaped glass bricks reflect and refract the ever-changing light and the landscape of sky and sea.

Culture Night always starts with the marathon that attracts participants from all over -- on my flight from JFK, I sat next to two women runners from San Francisco. (Many of the city streets are closed to vehicles because of the marathon route.) Children can participate in their own 1.1 km or 700-meter runs and, from the crowds of parents with toddlers in tow, it was very popular.

With a massive three-page Culture Night schedule in hand, I packed in as many cultural events as possible within 14 hours or so. And that included stopping at the city councilman's house for waffles and cream. I joined a handful of others sitting in his living room enjoying the sun pouring through the windows of the second floor, checking out his CD collection and admiring the artwork hung on the walls. (And, of course, the cloud-like waffles and sweet cream.)

At the Reykjavik Museum Harbor House -- one of many museums that wave the admission fee and extend their normal hours on this Saturday -- I watched children attempting to solve a giant jigsaw puzzle from one of Erro's (a pop artist) paintings.

At another branch of this museum, I explored an exhibition dedicated to the Icelandic horse, which has long played a significant role in the life of the nation. Interestingly, a few paintings showed a mythological sensibility while one was quite apocalyptic

Outside the pond-side City Hall, children played chess at a row of tables.

As I rounded a corner, I ran into a clutch of people who are part of a historical walking tour of the city.

Then it was on to the National Museum of Iceland where I had the opportunity to embroider my name on a table cloth using a traditional stitch.

I strolled down the street to the lawn adjacent to the National Gallery where I found Sola, the storyteller, dressed in a long crimson dress, and her story mobile, a van displaying a boldly-colored image of a young girl reading a book as she reclines in a dragon's paw.

The day (and night) was packed with activity after activity: Bollywood dance classes, calligraphy workshops, flea markets, violin recitals, jazz and rock bands, Tai Chi demonstrations, photo exhibitions.

At 10:45 pm, LED strips that line the glass blocks in Harpa lit the facade for the first time with myriad colors that will keep the building glowing through the long Icelandic winters. And then the sky brightened with a stellar fireworks display at 11pm along the harbor.

Even though I visit Reykjavik almost every year, I think I'll most miss the city this year because of Culture Night. It's an event that intimately connects you with the life of the city and its people -- something I'd like to experience year after year.
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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Finding Peace on Sao Jorge Island in the Azores

When I travel, I often hope to get away from an urban center. And, though Ponte Delgada, the capital of the Azores archipelago on the island of Sao Miguel, certainly has its share of shopping malls and fast food restaurants, that would never be a reason for me to visit. When I took ferries and planes to five of the nine islands, including Sao Miguel, I was seeking a connection with nature as well as the ability to step into another era. That's what I found on each of the islands, but especially on the island of Sao Jorge.

This island is most known for its flavorful, piquant cheese. And, though I walked to several cheese factories to see how it's processed the old-fashioned way and to sample several slices, I was more interested in getting up close with the riot of native plant life on this isle.

You'll see what I found on Sao Jorge in an article I recently wrote for National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog. If you want to feel like you're alone on the edge of the earth, then hiking on this island is a must.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bicycling Four Rails-to-Trails

As I mentioned in a previous post, I took a trip to four of the six states that I somehow never visited. In each state, I stopped in one city to bicycle the length of a rail-to-trail. Here's what I found in my wanderings in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas:

The Keystone Trail - Omaha, Nebraska

This trail is very well used not just by cyclists, but also parents pushing strollers, families walking with kids in tow, joggers, and bladers. Having a well-maintained trail so close to downtown certainly motivates members of the community to get into a fitness mode. And, though I didn't feel far removed from my urban environment -- a network of highways were withing sighting distance and when I neared the airport jets roared overhead -- the trail allowed me to get "in the zone" as I pedaled parallel to the rippling Papio Creek, past the sprawling lawns of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and St. Mary's campuses, and the small copse of shade trees in Esther Pilsner and Democracy parks. Tall, delicate grasses waved beside the trail while plump clouds bumped up against each other as they drifted above. With Missouri River flooding that has affected Omaha, it was no wonder that part of the trail, at the Bellevue Loop, was closed.

The Landon Nature Trail - Topeka, Kansas

This sun-dappled mostly dirt/crushed stone trail literally starts smack in the city (right beside Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site) and cuts through agricultural lands. It couldn't be more convenient but it wasn't swarming with cyclists or walkers because I was bicycling in the middle of the workday. And, though the entire almost 13-mile peaceful trail is technically open, the last couple of miles is so thick with gravel and stones and overgrown with weeds, that I had to turn around. What I found on my tranquil journey were expansive farms growing corn, alfalfa and soybeans, colorful moths fluttering in front of my face, tall cottonwood and ash trees and a brilliant display of wildflowers.

Osage Prairie Trail - Tulsa, Oklahoma

Railroad fans will especially enjoy cycling this paved path that has a reproduction of an original mileage marker and Osage Prairie signs that are replicates of railroad crossing signs. This path also crosses over several different types of bridges, including an original trestle bridge constructed of core 10 steel and another that's a plate-girder type. But it's not just railroad fans that will be fascinated by this trail that provides scenic views of the Tulsa skyline at the trailhead, but also birdwatchers and nature lovers. That's because the trail courses through a prime birding area, according to the National Audubon Society. Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the candy red trumpet creepers while towering pecan, walnut and oak trees line the trail. When I cycled this path, many a creature crossed in front of my bike, including a tortoise, a weasel and a black snake. A former railroad car transfer station at the end of the trail in the town of Skiatook has been transformed into Central Park with its boldly-colored waterpark, curvy lake, blooming flowers and shaded benches. It's so well designed that the entire community, young and old alike, is attracted to this relaxing venue.

Arkansas River Trail - Little Rock, Arkansas

You're never far from the river along this trail that travels along both sides of the waterway that separates North Little Rock from Little Rock. After I started out with views of the old State House and Petit Rouge, the rock that gives the city its name, my trek became a little more exciting than I anticipated because I ended up cycling on the lone day that week when the city was hit by a violent thunder storm with torrential rains. Instead of heading indoors, I continued cycling -- this was the only day I had allotted for this trip so I didn't see an alternative -- until the rain impaired my vision. Once I pulled off to the side of the road, lightning struck a transformer 20 feet away, sending sparks flying in all directions. I immediately got back on the bike but, again, was forced to bail out and, coincidentally, lightning struck a tall tree directly across the road. I finally took shelter with half a dozen other cyclists in a nearby open-air pavilion where we waited it out. Once the storm abated, I continued along the path, passing tall red-tinged bluffs, an old quarry, the lush Emerald Park (a good mountain biking and hiking venues), the massive pedestrian-only Big Dam Bridge, and the spacious Murray Lock & Dam Park with its well-tended and densely forested sections.
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