Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cuba In PIctures

Imagine my surprise, returning to my hotel at the end of a long day to find that the towels had all been arranged on my bed so that they resemble swans. I found that this display of housekeeping origami was more the norm than not. Now think about walking into a small bodega-type store only to find that boxes of vanilla- or chocolate-filled cookies were pretty much the only packaged goods on the shelf. Not far away stretched a canopy of foliage where I spotted the world's smallest bird, the bee hummingbird.

Another day, I walked around a village that's completely wrapped around an eco concept, where a restaurant is solar powered and the hotel was built to accommodate the resident trees. In this village, Las Terrazas, I sat at a coffee shop high above lush gardens, ordered a cappuccino and stared into the foam at the barrista's insistence: the chocolate powder was sprinkled in the form of Che Guevara. Welcome to Cuba, a land of diversity and disparities, a land with warm, welcoming and exceedingly creative people, and protected green spaces that would satisfy even the most discriminating birder or botanist. I found a family of potters, a young jazz ensemble, a choral group whose repertoire included everything from Renaissance to Japanese folk music, and a slew of contemporary painters producing some very surreal work that I would gladly own.

Because it's difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba directly, I signed up with International Expeditions so that I could see the less touristy side of this politically-charged isle.

The above slide show will give you a glimpse into Cuba's colorful treasures.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Made in Brooklyn Walking Tours

Why would a native New Yorker like myself sign up for a walking tour in her home city? Because there's always a new discovery to be made in one of the five boroughs. Recently, I did a walking tour of Williamsburg  with Dom Gervasi of  Made in Brooklyn Tours. And over the course of three-some hours, Dom introduced our small group to what he called the "maker" movement: innovative locals crafting beer, chocolates, other food items, wooden furniture, textiles and much more.

Pudge Knuckles is definitely a name to remember. (In case you're wondering, the name comes from a moniker used by the owner's dad when he was a boy.) This light filled coffee shop sits oh, so close to the East River. So no surprise that from my table where I sit beside a small wood burning stove, I can crane my neck and gaze at the Empire State Building. The owner, Ivan Greene, is an avid rock climber who fell in love with coffee roasting and this neighborhood. Vegans and carnivores alike will find plenty appealing on the food menu, including a grilled sweet potato sandwich with vegan cheese, and a low-fat cheddar and roast turkey sandwich. Don't miss the pumpkin or caramelized apple pop tarts.

At the Brooklyn Art Library - it's an art house co-op - I found a unique collection of sketch books lining the walls and stacked on tables - there's some 22,000 of these created by individuals around the world. Yes, it's risky putting your vision out there for all to see. The way it works with this Sketchbook Project: You buy one of the blank books with a given theme, and then go all out expressing your self, as the author above did.

You could spend an hour or more exploring the myriad offerings in this shop that also stocks some unique published works: Geometry of Pasta, The Map as Art and Fill in the Blank. Everything in the inventory is vintage, do it yourself and old school inspiration. Such a welcome change from run-of-the-mill chain bookstores.

Of the four Brooklyn-based manufacturers making chocolate bars from the beans, Mast Brothers Chocolates is the largest. Owners Michael and Rick Mast are all about dispelling the mystery of chocolate. A chalk board displays the processing of chocolate from seed (yes, cacao is a seed not a bean) and you can watch chocolate production, including the use of the winnower machine. But most importantly, there's always chocolates to taste.

Set beside a blue stone sidewalk, Nightwood is a furniture and textile shop run by Nadia and Rye. These self-taught owners use mostly wool and cotton in their tapestries and are involved with upcycling (in this case using salvaged wood,including cedar from a water tower, from New Jersey) for the furnishings.

I've never found bagels to be all that surprising. That is, until I walked into The Bagel Store, considered to be the best in Brooklyn. French toast bagel. Bacon/egg/cheese where each is impregnated into the dough itself. Sundried tomato. And, I'm saving the most curious for last: Twinkie bagel. They are each served hot and, by far, the two that are my new faves are the sundried tomato and bacon, egg and cheese. The flavors were subtle but tempting.

Olive oil is not as simple as you might think. In fact, step into appropriately named Olive and you'll see that choosing the right olive oil is as complex as selecting a fine wine. Here I found 12 extra virgin oils, from mild to robust. Some are just weeks old -- you can't get any fresher than this. The owner carries oils from Chile, Australia, California and the Mediterranean countries. But not all at the same time of the year because he's following the crush. You can taste any of the oils which are each completely labeled with the polyphenol content (this reflects its antioxidant status) and crush date.

The Gourmet Guild Williamsburg carries a vast array of artisanal food (and some non-food) products, with 60% of what's lining the shelves made in Brooklyn. Smoked seafood jerky, push-up cake pops, savory cookies, empanadas, as well as gift items such as handmade candles - and this is just a small sampling of what you'll find here. If you're looking for authentic food or gift items, I would definitely make the trip to Brooklyn to check this place out.

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A Scenic New York City Hotel

As a native New Yorker, I always find it curious that so many visitors prefer to overnight in the often cacophonous Time Square area. If I were to choose a hotel, I'd rather pick a neighborhood that didn't come with all the blaring bells and whistles, that had the low-key feel of a real neighborhood, and I'd pick a hotel where the rooms are saturated with natural light and, most importantly, offer remarkable views.

This is what I found at ONE UN New York that literally faces the United Nations. This luxe accommodation with its newly renovated West Tower is the hotel of choice for many heads of state who often choose the ultra spacious duplex suites. (And these  these picky guests can't all be wrong.) It's nice to know that even in the toilet in one duplex suite, you're far removed from astounding views that includes Grand Central Terminal and other signature sights.

As someone who craves expansive views, during my stay I couldn't get enough of my face-to-face with the Chrysler and Empire State buildings as well as the multiple bridges that span across New York City's East River and even the still-under-construction Freedom Tower. (These views from my guest room, the health club, the pool and the 30th-floor Sky Lounge where I had breakfast and evening snacks can't be beat. Times Square? Forget about it.) Who could tire of this first image (below) which I shot from my guest room?

This photo (below) is my view from the health club. It definitely kept me motivated as I worked out.

I found that the health club with its sauna and 40-foot-long pool (on the 27th floor) was perfect for unwinding after a day of meetings or shopping as the case may be. I snuggled into a lounge chair at pool side and caught up with the New York Times. Oh, and then there's the rooftop tennis courts, with an option to reserve tennis lessons with a pro. With all these distracting activities, who needs to leave the hotel?

Happy Hour in the Sky Lounge was a not-to-be-missed activity. In fact, after sampling the well-crafted appetizers, such as steamed chicken lemongrass dumplings, rissotto arancini with truffle essence, rustico cheese impregnated with peppers, and potato latka served with apple sauce, sour cream and caviar, I didn't think I even needed to book a dinner reservation.

The next morning at breakfast, I nibbled on almond croissants and a mini quiche while gazing at one of the water taxis gliding across the East River. I think I might have to stay just one more night.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gear Review: A Dental Emergency Device

Having dental issues when you're traveling is a sure way to ruin any vacation. Think about it:
What would you do if you were mountain biking in a forest in Colorado and you fall and knock out a tooth? Or, you spend the day cross-country skiing in the backcountry only to hit a tree and, you guessed it, you knock out a tooth?

You probably think that plopping your tooth in a cup of milk is the way to go? Really? Where are you going to get milk (and the cup) when you're stuck in a vast woodland or in the mountainous backcountry? And, aside from these practical issues, milk isn't the best vehicle to keep a tooth safe anyway. Once your tooth is knocked out it needs to be carefully placed -- the tooth's root is very susceptible to injury -- in a secure container that will nourish it with necessary minerals and other nutrients. And the clock is also ticking once your tooth is knocked out - your tooth's cells die in about an hour.

Save-A-Tooth to the rescue. This is a small, inexpensive medical device for just these emergencies. It'll keep your tooth safe and secure for 24 hours, enough time for you to hopefully find a dentist. And it's also got the ADA (American Dental Association) Seal of Acceptance.

I recently published a travel tips e-book, The Travel Authority: Essential Tips for Hassle-Free Travel that provides all manner of advice to keep anyone on any kind of trip safe, healthy and secure. Because I just found out about Save-A-Tooth, it obviously isn't in my e-book but it certainly will be added to the next edition. That's how strongly I feel about this product.  When you pack for your next trip, dental emergencies may not be on your mind. But they should be.

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