Saturday, June 18, 2011

Radio Show: Rio de Janeiro + Its Travel Myths

I'm always amazed to hear how people avoid traveling to Rio de Janeiro because they think it's just ridden with crime. It's certainly curious, for example, that the flight attendants I spoke with on the way down told me to remove every last piece of jewelry I had on -- and I wasn't wearing gold or diamonds, that's for sure -- because well, it's Rio. They also told me to now go bicycling or jogging alone. Oh, and be careful of the traffic, especially at night when you'll encounter drunk drivers. It's a good thing I didn't listen to any of this advice.

You can listen (below) to my recent interview with Pat Boyle on the Travel Show at KPAM 860 radio in Portland, Oregon where I dispel these and other myths associated with this vibrant and welcoming city.

To listen to the show, simply click on the audio player below:

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Monday, June 13, 2011

A Gem of a Portuguese Sandwich Shop in New York

I'm one of those few Americans who's not in love with sandwiches. Whatever is layered between two pieces of bread had better be pretty interesting or downright tasty before I would ever give two thumbs up to a sandwich choice. I find most sandwich options boring, tasteless, laden with greasy mayonnaise or stacked high with fatty meats and cheeses. But my skeptical view on sandwiches was turned on its head when I bit into one of several sandwiches over a few days at the new New York City eatery, City Sandwich.

Chef Michael Guerrieri who has an eclectic background -- he was born in Naples, grew up in New York City and lived in and opened up an upmarket restaurant, Mezzaluna, in Lisbon -- presides over this wee Mediterranean shop that easily transports me to Portugal, a country I visit at least once a year.

The idea behind his new venture, which melds the Italian with the Portuguese, is all about simplicity and remaining true to traditional flavors and ingredients. When I spoke with him recently, I felt his passion for Portugal and for the cuisine he serves. "I'm putting my Italian-Portuguese upbringing on bread," he said.

Sardines are imported from Portugal and he's also tapped into New Jersey's Portuguese community. The breads are made in New Jersey by a Portuguese baker -- it arrives at the shop twice a day. They'll also be bringing in Portuguese wines. And don't expect to see any mayonnaise on your bread; instead, it's yogurt or olive oil.

Even the color scheme of the menu, with red representing meat sandwiches, green for veggies/fish and yellow for those that are egg based, are in keeping with the hues of the Portuguese flag. But the restaurant also has a New York sensibility. After all, melted mozzarella is not something you'd expect to find in either Portugal or Italy. (It's a New York City Italian phenomenon.)

My favorite sandwiches included the Auntie that combines pickled sardines with onions and cilantro. Even if you're not a sardine lover give it a try because the cilantro offsets any intense fishy flavor you might expect when sardines are on the plate. The Todd, my other fave, is constructed with smoked Portuguese pancetta and a honey-Dijon sauce. Given that I'm what I call a conditional vegetarian -- I only eat meat if it's a specialty or something that's a notable local delight and then I'll consume only small portions -- it's especially noteworthy that I finished the entire sandwich and found it exceedingly flavorful. (The size of these sandwiches -- hero-quality -- means you are getting very good value for the money, as well.)

Some customers may be hesitant in ordering the codfish; the alheira, a sausage of pork and sausage; and especially the morcella, a Portuguese blood sausage, sandwiches but I say give any of these a try or split them with a friend or colleague. Anything Michael touches turns to gold, cuisine wise. He is extremely skillful with his flavor combinations. I intend to return one evening and sip a fine Portuguese wine while nibbling maybe the Portuguese alheira with collards, not a combination that initially attracts aficionados. But in Michael's hands, I'm confident it'll have a blending of flavors that'll keep me coming back for more.
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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Finding an Authentic Bahamas

I've never been a fan of mega beachfront resorts, which line former pristine swaths of sand. To me they represent development gone awry. So when I was planning my trip to the Bahamas, I wanted to steer clear of any chain properties as well as those that featured gambling, water parks and the like. So, I focused my attention on the Out Islands of the Bahamas, which are particularly popular with fishermen and boaters. I finally decided on Long Island because it offered a nice mix of low key activities with plenty of authenticity. (My article and accompanying video slide show on pristine Long Island recently appeared in the Huffington Post.) But I realized that I'd have to overnight in Nassau because of flight scheduling issues. And this is where I was in a predicament, wanting an economical hotel that wasn't far from the airport and yet was laid back and charming.

It looked like these were tough criteria to meet and yet I thought I read about the Orange Hill Beach Inn. Then I started reading TripAdvisor and, curiously, the reviews were more all over the place than usual, with some saying they couldn't wait to return, that the staff couldn't have been friendlier and that it was a true hidden treasure, while others said it was filthy, the staff was rude and that the rooms were overprices. Wow, what a disparity. But, after looking at the expensive, glitzy alternatives, I decided to take the chance and I'm so glad I did.

I stayed two nights, one on each end of my trip to Long Island and I so wish that I had a week, that's how much I adored the Orange Hill Beach Inn. Yes, it's got a rough-around-the-edges feel. But it's also homey, and the staff was warm and welcoming. Yes, it's very low key but the setting, a lush garden expanse with all manner of blooming foliage, can't be beat. It's located literally across the street from a long sandy beach that I found perfect for walking or sunning with little in the way of crowds. My accommodation, which was one of two private cottages, was spacious with a wee kitchen and a small balcony where I sat and enjoyed the view from my mini-hilltop retreat. There's even a tiny man-made waterfall outside my door!

They have a small pool but my favorite activity was sitting in one of several wooden swing chairs amidst the palms, frangipani and other colorful and fragrant foliage. Among the other tropical plants on the property, we found bougainvillea, banana trees, sea grapes and dozens of other with blossoms in myriad hues. In the early morning, it was a delight to get a cup of coffee and sit amongst the foliage listening to the twittering birds, which were in abundance.

At first I thought that the location -- literally a five-minute cab ride from the airport -- would be noise (Not) and that it would be isolated (Not). In fact, the hotel does a daily grocery run giving you the opportunity to buy dinner fixings that you can cook if you're staying in one of the cottages. They can, sometimes, drop you off at a nearby restaurant that's also within walking distance. But, if none of that works for you, there's also a mini bus that runs along the coast that goes to and from downtown.

One of the best things about this inn is the food. They serve three meals but dinner is the real treat. The short menu changes nightly and during my two-night stay, they served chicken or shrimp fajitas, jerk chicken or tuna, grilled grouper, cracked conch, shrimp with pasta, and Bahamian lobster tail. My favorite was the Bahamian combo of chicken, ribs, and grouper fingers.

This is a family-owned business -- Judy, the owner, has had the place for 31 years. And they have a real following with guests returning year after year. In fact, it's not unusual to hang out in the bar, dining room or outside the reception area and find people you met on your previous visit.

So, where did all those bad reviews on TripAdvisor come from? Maybe some guests couldn't deal with some peeling paint, a faucet fixture that wasn't working properly or the shower that didn't heat up very fast. Remember, I said it was rough around the edges. Don't go expecting a palatial retreat. Go expecting to relax and enjoy the low-key Bahamian vibe, eat some tasty food, and maybe make some friends. That's what I did and I can't wait to return next year.
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