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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