Saturday, March 17, 2012

An Eco-Conscious Coffee Plantation in Mexico

Whenever I walk into a Starbucks - which is as infrequent as possible - I often wonder why they can't make a good cup of coffee. (Obviously, I'm in the minority considering their huge sales figures and the number of stores that pop up on every other corner in Manhattan where customers flock to the counter for high-fat frappuccinos and overly sweet caramel macchiatos.) But, as a coffee lover, I'm always determined to find the perfect cup. So, it was to my delight when I spent several days at the Argovia Finca Resort, a sustainable and organic coffee plantation in the mountains of Mexico's Chiapas province.

I just wrote about my stay at Argovia for National Geographic Traveler - Intelligent Travel. After reading this, you'll never wonder again what makes a great cup of coffee. (It takes a lot of care, work, knowledge, and thoughtfulness, qualities that are in abundance at this coffee plantation.)
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Friday, March 16, 2012

A Penthouse Stay in New York City

As I writer, I'm fairly particular about what venues spur my creativity. My biggest necessity is natural light, and lots of it. In the summer, when I work outside on the waterfront in Battery Park City, light clearly isn't a problem. But, the rest of the year, abundant sunlight streaming into my writing venues, whether coffee shops or public atria, is a precious commodity in New York City. Since I live in a small and, I might add, dark dwelling in Queens, a NYC suburb, I'm not one to work at home. Plus, sometimes I prefer to work into the wee hours of the morning while remaining free of the normal house-bound distractions. That's why I recently chose a  mid-week getaway in the Penthouse Suite at the Gracie Inn Hotel on the Upper East Side.

Housed in a century-old building, the five-floor Gracie Inn offers guests a choice of 13 different rooms. And, though a penthouse sounds like it would come with an astronomical price tag, interestingly, this duplex suite accommodates six people. And, with nightly rates of $300 to $400, that's fairly economical, given that it's in Manhattan where ordinary rooms can go for at least that price; it's got a prime Upper East Side location that's way more tranquil than New York's prime tourist neighborhoods; and, most importantly for me, my duplex is designed with a sun room and the outdoor terrace on the upper floor.  Light poured in through the sun room's immense window that looked out to the terrace, the two venues where I spent most of my time. I chose the perfect time for my writer's retreat: the winter weather was unseasonably mild at 67°F. (I also made good use of the teal-hued hot tub set just below another window that provided light galore.) Though the lower level was equipped with a kitchenette, living room and bedroom, I found the low natural light conditions on that floor not to my liking. 

I checked out some of the other rooms in the inn and found that those facing the street also had some acceptable natural light, while those accommodations looking out to the rear were quite dark. Of course, many people are unaffected by somber lighting conditions, some even prefer it.

Though I took some creative breaks to explore my Upper East Side neighborhood, if you preferred to avoid leaving your room, the Gracie Inn makes it easy given that breakfast is served in bed. Each guest can choose four items from the menu, which includes juices, toast, yogurt, bagels, croissants, fruit and cereal. However, because I try to eat healthfully, which means opting for low-fat dining, I would've preferred if non-fat yogurt, skim milk and whole grain muffins were on the menu. 

Another caveat worth mentioning is that, during my stay, I found a number of maintenance issues, including the on again-off again (more off than on) WiFi, the ultra-loose shower head, the blinds that fell off the window in the bedroom on the lower level when I attempted to raise them, the satellite TV connection that also was on again-off again (though there are two plasma screen TVs and only the one on the lower floor was on the fritz), and some curious sooty substance in the hot tub (which didn't stop me from luxuriating in it after I flooded it with running water and soap).

In my book, the Gracie Inn Hotel is a laid-back, low-key bargain. Don't expect luxe furnishings or amenities. The shampoo and soaps are all basic brands and many of the furnishings are antiques from the original apartments in this building. But, because of this sun-filled penthouse and the inn's location in a trendy Manhattan neighborhood, I would gladly stay here again.

When I dragged myself away from my perch in the late afternoon, I walked one block to the East River Greenway. Paralleling the water, the paved path attracts walkers, runners, and bladers or those who just want to lounge on the myriad riverfront benches. The most refreshing section passes Carl Schurz Park, a sprawling green space with winding paths, dense patches of woodland, stone stairways leading to peaceful alcoves and spacious lawns. After jogging north, I retraced my path, cutting into the park that's home to the Mayor's official residence, Gracie Mansion. Mayor Michael Bloomberg never moved into Gracie Mansion -- though he lives on the Upper East Side -- but it's open for tours of the canary-yellow-painted building on most Wednesdays.

On my way back to the Gracie Inn, I found a new spot for wine tasting, Vino-Versity. Part wine shop, part wine school, it's set up to educate the consumer on the intricacies of viticulture in a fun, light and approachable way. They usually offer up to five wines to taste. (I sampled the Santa Julia Chardonnay from Argentina, which had melon notes and another Argentinean variety, Cuma Torrontes, that had a hint of citrus and is said to go well with guacamole.) Every day of the week they hold classes and tasting events with a different theme. Saturday is Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere. In other words, you'll learn the difference between Prosecco and Cava, while Fridays is The Spiritual Experience where you'll compare artisan liquors.

My next stop was for take-out dinner at Chennai, an Indian restaurant where, for $15, you get a choice of appetizers (I opted for the vegetable samosa) and an entree (I chose the mangalorean, a spicy chicken with green chilies, ginger and fresh curry leaves). Back at the inn, my terrace made for a perfect venue for dining on this flavorful cuisine as the sun slowly set.

I still had the whole night ahead of me to work on some creative brainstorming while sipping wine and lounging in the hot tub.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Denmark: A Cyclist's Paradise

When I travel the world, I have a preference for active travel, whether hiking, walking, bicycling or Nordic skiing, to name a few. It's not only a way to acquire an intimate contact with the land and its people, but I can stay in shape while having fun doing it. So, with the rising obesity rates in the U.S. -- among children, the obesity rates have tripled; and among adults, almost 40% are considered obese -- I wonder how some countries get their citizens to work out. Most notably I'm thinking about Denmark. Sure, when we think bicycle-friendly countries, The Netherlands always come to mind. But, in fact, after Holland, Denmark has the next highest rates of cycling in the world. I've bicycled all over Denmark and have found it a pleasure to ride in a country where the bike is king. I had little worry that a car would slam into me from the rear or cut in front of me as it made a right turn. I had no problems taking my bike on the trains nor any problem navigating Copenhagen's city center. Dedicated bike trails network across the country that has the most cyclists in not just Copenhagen but also Denmark's two other big cities: Odense and Aarhus. For example, Denmark is networked with over 6,000 miles of cycle routes and the city of Odense is covered with some 300 miles of bike paths. In Copenhagen, some 36% of people get to work by bicycle, compared with 29% by car and 28% by public transportation.

So what is Denmark doing right and what are we doing wrong? Some would say that Denmark has such a small population that it's easier to get people to bicycle. Yet, even in cities, like New York City where I live, cycling is not all the rage. And, it's hardly safe. In fact, I have long stopped biking in Manhattan because of near collisions with cars, trucks and taxis. The bike lanes are not separated from traffic, which means anything goes. (Cars typically park or disgorge their passengers in bike lanes.) It's not easy to park your bike safely should you want to shop, nor can you easily find a place to pump up your tires, grab a drink of water from a fountain or find a bathroom that a cyclist can easily drop by.

Then there's the problem with the out-of-control cyclists, most notably bike messengers or delivery people who ride on sidewalks or the wrong way on streets, or run the red lights (just as many cars do) which has resulted in a significant number of pedestrian accidents.

And, of course, there are plenty of cities in the U.S. -- Tampa, Florida, for one -- where cars rule and where even pedestrians take a risk crossing the street. No wonder it's hard to get people bicycling.

In Denmark, it's not just kids; people in all age groups cycle, from young to old. And they don't just cycle for pleasure. It's a way of life, whether they're going shopping or heading to work. And, the Danes don't cycle just because it's healthy or because it's good for the environment. Rather, getting somewhere by bicycle is faster and more fun than doing so by another method.  Denmark has realized that cities that are bicycle friendly are people friendly and infrastructure that encourages this also encourages social interaction among its citizens, benefits the economy because workers are not stuck in traffic jams, and makes for a more attractive urban environment.

 Here are some things you'll find in Copenhagen, Odense, and/or Aarhus, in particular, that encourage cycling:

1. Bicycle parking facilities are conveniently located near shops/main train stations; are covered; well lighted; have video surveillance cameras as well as bathrooms, water fountains and air pumps.

2. Bicycle racks are also conveniently located, with some installed beside kindergartens. 

3. At intersections, bike lanes are painted with a bright blue bike icon to alert motorists.

4. Children not only learn how to ride a bike before first grade but safe cycling is part of some school curricula.

5. Bike lanes are preferentially de-iced and cleared of snow so that the citizens can bicycle in the winter.

6. Trouble-shooters are employed to traverse bike lanes and determine and report if there are potholes or other surface problems.

7. Cycling marketing/promotional campaigns are not just about print and television ads, but rather are quite innovative involving bike touring programs for seniors, having parents test out bike trails to haul their kids, partnering with businesses by giving them a fleet of bicycles their employees can use during the day for short business treks, giving out complementary bicycle lights that don't use batteries as well as seat covers and water bottles.

8. Copenhagen has an interesting way of dealing with people who illegally park their bicycle: The city employs what's referred to as Bike Butlers who pump up the tires and oil the chain of the offending bicycle. (It's seems to have been more successful than other punitive actions.)

9. Some traffic lights are timed to coordinate with the speed of cyclists, rather than cars, and there may be a special bike traffic light.

10. A GPS system is being utilized so that a stolen bicycle can be tracked.

11. Copenhagen has plans for bike-through shopping facilities; a new bike sharing program; more and wider cycle paths, including those where the car stop white line is way behind the cyclist which is favored when the light turns green.

12. Denmark promotes cycling by integrating the cooperation of governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations as well as private companies. It works because everyone knows that a city that  respects their cyclists and where cyclists respect other citizens is a city that's more livable for all.
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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lodge-to-Lodge Cross-Country Skiiing Washington's Methow Valley

Whenever I return from a cross-country ski trip, I hail the sport as one of my favorite activities. The superlatives I use to describe my delight upon gliding through a silent forest, picniking in huts with scenic views, overnighting at lodges snuggled amongs pine trees, and finding out that a week of cross-country skiing is amazingly inexpensive somehow are not attractive to commited downhill skiers or sedentary folk alike. The uniform reason they express: Cross-country skiing is just too much work. Sure, it's a sport that burns calories galore (almost 500 calories/hour if you ski slowly) and it's a full-body exercise. And then there are all those hills that you have to surmount.

But, what many people don't realize is that it's possible to find flat cross-country trails through pristine landscapes. I found one of these places: the Mazama trail system in Washington's Methow Valley. Anyone in reasonably decent shape can ski (even slowly) a mere two to five miles between lodges. That's what I did. I've already posted about my stay at one of those lodges, the North Cascades Basecamp. But, you can read about my four-day trip on the Huffington Post where I've provided a slide show of the four lodges I visited as well as images of what to expect along the way. It might help change your mind that cross-country skiing is an adventure reserved for Olympians.
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