Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gear Review: A Cool Icelandic Company

Most anyone who visits Reykjavik ends up buying some piece of high-tech outwear or other clothing item from 66°NORTH, a well respected company that produces, everything from shells and parkas to thermal underwear, scarves and hats. But, my favorite Icelandic high-tech company is Cintamani. It started with finding their website before my first trip to Iceland several years ago and noting it had a bit of a sense of fancy. Then, once I visited the store, I found that I was captured not just by their icon, which, resembling a sun with solar flares, seemed to embody this land of fire and ice, but also by the clothing that was light, comfortable, warm and well designed.

Oddly enough, I've asked several people recently who are very gear savvy about Cintamani and none of them have heard of it. Unlike 66°NORTH, which can be found in stores across the U.S., I've only found Cintamani in Iceland or online. Too bad because this is a high performance product that looks great.
I opted to test out the Embla, an ultra-light, zippered jacket. It's constructed of Technopile, which is a synthetic fleece that wicks away sweat, is breathable, dries quickly and feels very plush. It doesn't pill with use. And, even better, I wear this not only on the trail but also during the day by pairing it with a dress or skirt. It's comfortable in the winter when layered over a Merino wool (which I prefer) sweater, but I'm also wearing it in the spring now as my sole jacket over a T-shirt or blouse. If the day becomes too warm, I just tie it around my waist or roll it up into my small bag -- it takes up little room and the weight in my bag is barely noticeable. Plus, if I end up in a super air-conditioned store or movie theater, the Embla comes to the rescue.

 It's got two zippered side pockets that come in handy for a wallet or just keys and loose change.  The neck comes up relatively high to keep me warm if there's a cold breeze. The price, though, is hardly for the budget minded. The Embla retains for upwards of $140 or so. In my view, though, it's well worth it. And, like with the Nau product I just reviewed, the Embla is coming with me on my trip to Portugal and Luxembourg. In fact, I'll be wearing it on the plane too. (It looks like it might also double as a nice pillow or lumbar support.)

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Gear Review: Eco-Friendly + Stylish Clothing

Yes, I'm a gear head, especially when it concerns clothing. I'm always on the lookout for very wearable, practical, yet stylish clothing that packs well, dries quickly and is eco-friendly on top of it.  I just found such a clothing manufacturer, Nau, when I was browsing recently in REI in New York City.  Nau's high-tech, performance-based products are minimalist, light and fashionable. That's a lot to expect from a dress that I tested out, the Chrysalis, aptly named considering it transforms from a light, water-repellent, mid-thigh-length shell (that I wore as a long-sleeve dress in cool weather atop a black SmartWool sweater and black leggings) to a sleeveless dress with a hoodie.

 The Chrysalis is feather light and, though it looks quite simple, when I wore it all over New York City, it elicited comments from fashion-conscious and fellow gear heads alike. The craftsmanship is apparent as is the appealing silhouette. No matter if it was a breezy, chilly, rainy or sun-filled day (or all of these weather conditions in a single day as Spring in New York City tends to be quite fickle), the Chrysalis was oh-so-comfortable and adaptable.

This dress is made of 100% recycled polyester with an added water repellent finish. It's got two cute ties on the waist that you can cinch, as well as two deep front pockets, and a flattering back pleat. Plus, the hoodie converts to a lovely shawl collar. The construction easily allows the Chrysalis to go from day to night, from the bike path to the bar.

One day, I sat down to a meeting with a colleague who brought along her toddler. Within moments, her three-year-old proceeded to spill an entire glass of chocolate milk on my Chrysalis. I was unfazed, as I watched the milk bead up and blotted up the remaining liquid with a paper towel, leaving the Chrysalis fresh and unstained.

On top of all this, Nau's eco-credentials are coherent with my sensibilities: the company has a respect for nature, is a proponent of bicycle advocacy and hugs trees as much as I do. The organizations they've partnered with include Mercy Corps that delivers relief to communities affected by disaster or civil unrest; Ashoka that brings together investors, entrepreneurs and governments to initiate social change; and The Bikes Belong Foundation that has the goal of making the U.S. are more bike-friendly country.

I'm off to Portugal and Luxembourg this week and I'm wearing the Nau Chrysalis on the plane. Since I don't check luggage and I need clothing items that does double or triple duty, this will be my new favorite piece.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Colombia Beyond the Myths

When I tell friends I'm about to take off on a new adventure, if I happen to be traveling to Hawaii, the Caribbean, Spain, Chile or dozens of other places around the world, often the response is, "Oh, can you take me in your backpack?" That's not the response I got when I told friends and colleagues that I was venturing to Colombia. Instead, I heard, "Oh, be careful." "Don't go out at night." "You're not going alone, are you?" "Wow. Colombia. Well, email me that you're safe."

Even when I returned and told of the expansive nature preserves, the hot nightlife in Bogota, the fine restaurants with wines from around the world, the boutique hotels with spas, and quaint colonial villages paved with cobblestones, the responses were, "Sounds nice. Glad you didn't get kidnapped." Poor Colombia. There's so much beauty and culture that most people are missing because they continue to believe that terrorists, thieves, drug lords and kidnappers are lurking around every corner.

 My article for the Huffington Post describes 20 of the treasures I found on my recent trip to Colombia. And, as we all know, it's the people you encounter that can make or break a trip. In Colombia, I was surprised to find so many people who were delighted that someone from New York came all the way to their country.

And, if you don't feel like visiting Colombia alone, then check out Voyage Colombia, a company I used to help me plan this trip. They'll set up your itinerary based on your interests, whether it's the culinary scene or more nature based, and also provide an English-speaking guide and/or a driver that will be flexible, informative, helpful and absolutely interested that you enjoy your stay in Colombia.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Adventurous Hiking in Dominica

How does a peaceful walk in the woods become one of the most strenuous (and scary) hikes on the island of Dominica? That's what I'm still asking myself as I wait for my sprained knee to recover and the blisters and wounds on my hands to heal.

It starts innocently enough. I'm lounging beside the saltwater pool at the eco-friendly, ultra informal Rosalie Bay Resort when I mention to someone that I'd love to hike a low-key trail. Nothing with treacherous river crossings or knife edges that drop precipitously to points unknown. Nothing that lasts more than four hours round-trip. It's not that I'm an aerobic weakling. Quite the contrary, I'm a long distance cyclist, hiker and cross country skier. I'm just not someone with a Type T personality; aka, I'm not a thrill seeker. I'm not interested in ending up on one of those legendary Dominican hikes, such as Morne Diabloton, which translates to Devil's Mountain. Enough said. Or Boiling Lakes, a hike with scalding sink holes lurking about and one that just about everyone who visits Dominica tackles. As a volcanic island coated with jungle-like foliage that climbs to over 4,000 feet above sea level, Dominica isn't necessarily for the faint of heart. Instead, I'm seeking a trail that was scenic, full of botanical wonders, under the radar (of course), and nothing that would land me in the hospital. After all, I have a 2 pm lunch date at the Riverside Cafe that's said to serve amazing coffee beverages as well as smoked fish pie and a homemade lime sorbet.

Oscar, the older gentleman who becomes my guide, mentions Boli (or Bolive, as it's also called) Falls. "It's perfect for you," he says. "No river crossings. No knife edges. No one knows about it. And it's an easy three-hour round trip." Sounds like a no brainer.

Though it isn't the rainy season, which doesn't start for another two months, the day starts off with tumultuous showers. (A bad sign.) And it turns out that Oscar hasn't done the hike in seven years. (Turns out it's more like 10 years.) He feels it's safer -- hmmm, wonder what that means -- with a local who knows the trail well. In the nearby hamlet of Casgory in La Plaine, we meet someone who is referred to us. This bare chested younger man doesn't seem anxious to do this trail, however. Haggling ensues in the middle of the petite lane framed by boldly hued wood framed houses encircled with crotons, ornamental ginger and heliconia. "It's bad weather," says Augustus. "What's bad about it? It's rain," says Oscar. "Bad weather," replies Augustus. This goes back and forth. Somehow an agreement is struck and we drive through the bush to a flat "parking spot" rimmed in vine-like plants. Oscar confides in me. "I don't know how our Dominican men have gotten so soft."

Augustus doesn't look happy. He looks at the now drizzle. "We have to cross a river." I'm sure I've misheard. River, what river? Oscar says, "When I did this trail seven years ago, I didn't cross a river." "There's a river," says Augustus who takes off through the grass.

What starts off as a perfectly flat, pasture-like trail quickly slopes to 70 degrees of slick mud, gnarled roots and thick vines. But, since I know it would only be 1.5 hours of this Stairmaster exercise and a gorgeous waterfall (actually three) awaits, I keep climbing. I must admit that, in the back of my head -- at least it's in the back for the first 1.5 hours -- I'm thinking how I'm going to get back down. This is, by far, the steepest trail I've ever hiked. (And I hike all over the world.)

Somehow, while desperately grasping at vines and using the roots as steps on a ladder to nowhere, I spy the verdant La Plaine Valley through the trees. Massive Sloanea trees with impressive buttress roots pierce our path that becomes increasingly flooded. The air is filled with the sounds of the mountain whistler and other bird squawking and twittering. Amazingly, through this dark canopy, a small window opens, revealing the Atlantic. I manage to take a micro break and ask Oscar what's up ahead. "The worst is over," he says. Though it becomes less steep, it's only for the briefest time. Soon, we're back on the 70-degree slope where, at times, I feel like I'll fall backwards, perhaps all the way to the pastoral trail head. Clearly, Oscar misremembers this hike.

And yet, there's much beauty. We pass a bois diable tree that's considered one of the hardest woods around. (It's commonly referred to as the Devil's Wood.) Gommier trees with their sticky sap dripping down their trunks are around every corner. The pungent resin is used to start a fire while the wood is traditionally carved into boats. All the baskets I saw in the nearby Carib villages the other day were made from the fiber of the Larouma tree that stands in front of me. The fronds of tree ferns flutter above our heads -- Oscar tells me the island is home to 65+ fern species -- and somehow despite the thick shade, an orange tree manages to bear small fruits.

The views of the ocean become better and better while my anxiety grows with each new toe or hand hold. Now I dread the return journey even though the iced latte beckons. When Oscar points out a White Wood tree that the economically disadvantaged use to fashion a coffin, I wonder if this is an omen.

It's not all about climbing, however, We have stretches of the path that plummet down, making it difficult to remain upright.  (This portends what I can expect on the return journey.)

Though Oscar is the strong, silent type, I know he's also worried when he asks Augustus if we could take the fork to the right, to cut off some of the climbing. "It's a steep downhill," he warns. "Steeper than we've already done?" asks Oscar. Augustus nods. "We're not doing anything steeper than what we did." We plod on and Augustus, who says little, reveals that it was his father who cut this trail a long time ago.

Suddenly the air is filled with the crashing of water -- it's the Sari Sari River, I'm later told. (Hopefully it won't be crashing much when I have to fjord it.) A green Sisserou Parrot, the national bird, flits by.

More than 1.5 hours has passed and, yet, each time we ask Augustus how far, he says "Man, we got to climb a mountain and then straight." He demonstrates our trajectory with an arm gesture depicting a slope of a hill and then a beeline for the waterfall. The only problem is that this is what he's now told us three times over the past hour or so. Clearly, his idea of one mountain to climb isn't the same as ours.

Once we hit the two-hour point, I'm very worried. But, I have to put aside these ruminations in favor of the immediate task: crossing the tumbling river. We plant our feet on some precariously placed rocks and still have to step into the icy waters to get across. And the climbing begins afresh.

Oscar pulls me aside and says that Augustus doesn't seem confident as to the trail, which is now difficult to follow. Plus, the 3 hour round trip has ballooned to almost 5 hours!

Finally, I spy a waterfall cascading dramatically down a cliff in the distance. Actually this is the third (and the one with the steepest drop) in the triad of what makes up the Bolive Falls. When you follow the trail that terminates at the emerald transparent pool of Bolive, you'll only be able to see the top two cascades, and not this third one. But it would take another 30 minutes or so to reach the refreshing pool. And, again, Augustus does his little arm gesture of another mountain we have to navigate and then the straight-away.

Suddenly the sky darkens and Oscar says "The weather is changing. We have to turn back now." He's worried about the river rising. How prescient, considering in an instant, we're hit with torrential rains that don't let up for over an hour. This is when the trek becomes decidedly a hike on the wilder side of wild. No, not the river re-crossing which, though it's much higher than before, is very manageable. No, it's the descent with slippery roots, thick mud, no place to get a toe or heel hold, and nothing to hold me upright. So, faced with falling on my face either straight down or careening over the edge, I opt for sitting on my butt. (That doesn't work great either, which is why my hands become lacerated,  my legs and arms are stained with the odoriferous sap and I sprain my knee.)

Just as suddenly, the thunderous rains halt and the sun blazes through the trees. A light mist settles over the forest, which is now soundless. Finally, the birds reappear and the trail reverts to the flat pastoral landscape where we started so many hours ago.

Thankfully, Oscar did regular weight training because he managed to get a death grip on my arm during each of the many treacherous descents, making sure I made it safely back to the car, and my much needed latte. Though I'm covered in mud, and limping and bleeding, I head to the Riverfront Cafe for a very late lunch. Since I didn't eat or drink anything on the entire 5+ hour hike, I end up having two iced lattes at the Riverfront Cafe, smoked fish pie, a piece of onion pie, chocolate cake and the lime sorbet. 

Back at Rosalie Bay, whenever I tell anyone where I trekked, they exclaim, "Bolive! You did Bolive?" And then they proceed to relate how they would never do this hike. Someone says there are three things he knows about Bolive: It's long, it's beautiful and it's challenging. Only when I check online do I find out that Bolive is considered one of Dominica's most difficult and adventurous hike.

At least now I can stand confidently in front of all my friends who've visited Dominica and regalted me with tales of their testosterone-laden hike to Boiling Lakes. They'll know that I didn't wimp out. I did Bolive.
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