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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