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.

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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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