Monday, January 30, 2012

Riding a Camel in a Convention Center

I had the privilege of attending the Travel & Adventure Exposition this weekend--due mostly to the fact that it was being held in the same building as the Lululemon warehouse sale and my friend found a way to get free entry. However, it was also a great opportunity to discover some new destinations, learn about exciting tour offerings and ride a camel...

Yes, you heard me right, a camel. To promote some of the safaris in Africa, one of the groups provided a real camel for people to ride. So my friend Bernice and I hit that booth first and hopped on up for a quick lap. It was certainly a good marketing scheme, which is mostly what these conventions are anyway.

The rest of the time was spent wandering around to the different booths, hearing various pitches about what makes this destination so great, or why we should choose this tour provider, or how to enter to win a free trip. There were so many fliers, booklets, and information sheets, that before I knew it, the bag I was carrying weighed at least 10 pounds.

While I certainly received more information than I could possibly ever need, the disadvantage of these kinds of events is that you are bombarded with so much in such a short amount of time, that a lot of stuff can get lost or forgotten by the end of it. I cannot really recall half of the booths I stopped at--unless I sift through all my papers--and I know I entered a few contests, but I'm not really sure which ones they were.

I will say, however, that I gained a lot of insight about places from the representatives there, because they are the experts, and a majority of the time, they are locals. The best way to learn about a place is to talk to the people who actually live there. We got the chance to listen to a Q&A session with travel industry experts about finding the best places to eat when traveling, and the piece of advice they all gave was to find a local coffee shop and ask residents to suggest where to eat. The same goes for activities to participate in, places to see and hotels to stay at. (This is another reason I love Anthony Bourdain's show The Layover, because he talks to locals and rarely refers to travel guides or visits all the big tourist spots.)

The adventure tour booths were some of the most exciting for me to visit. One that looked interesting was Adventure Center, which offers everything from culture & history and wildlife & wilderness tours to cycling and polar voyages. Of the historical trips, Bolivia Highlights or Treasures of Turkey are the first two I would opt for. The Bolivia trip is a 12 day itinerary that explores the region's indigenous country, La Paz, Sucre, Potosi's mines and the Uyuni Salt Flats. The Turkey tour is 15 days and highlights contemporary Istanbul and the ancient remains of older civilizations at site like Troy, Gallipoli and Ephesus. For something a bit more active, the Darjeeling, Sikkam & the Singalila Ridge walking and trekking 15-day tour gives you the chance to explore Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and trek through the forests of rhododendron and magnolia to see views of the Himalayan Mountains. Another one that sounds ideal to me is the Chianti: Walking & Wine tour, a week long stroll through Southern Tuscany's hilltop villages and vineyards.

For my first travel expo, I would say it was a success, though slightly crowded and hectic. I hope to frequent more of these in the future, perhaps when I have established myself more as a travel writer and analyst.

Stay tuned....

Monday, January 16, 2012

Interesting Travel Stories that Caught My Attention

Since I read the news all day long, I thought I would post some of the interesting travel stories that I have come across recently.

Costa Concordia Disaster
If you haev not been paying attention to the news lately--or you just live under a rock--a Costa Concordia luxury cruise liner shipwrecked off the coast of Italy, killing at least six passengers. This article talks about what caused the event and how authorities, travelers and Carnival are reacting.
The Latest Powder Adventures
New innovations, excursions, and excitement on the slopes this year!!

Gyms with great views
Fitness. Travel. All in one. I'm a total gym rat, so this article definitely caught my attention.

Cupcake confiscation
We all know that we can't bring liquids through security, but food has always been acceptible. So why can't you take a cupcake in jar form through TSA checkpoints?

Gayest cities in America
This article stirred up a little bit of controversy, through I can't imagine why. (sense the sarcasm.)

How much change is left behind at security checkpoints?
You will be shocked to know how much money we end up leaving behind at security as we're rushing to catch our flights. It is staggering! And where does it go? The TSA! I think it could definitely be put to better use.
Emigration hot spots
So if you could live in any other country than the one you currently live in, where would you live? This articles talks about some of the most popular places for Brits to emigrate to. Bonus: my company is quoted!

Virgin America: Hip and broke
Since the trendy Virgin America launched five years ago, it has had only one profitable quarter. Even though it has been operating most of its professional life in the red, it continues to expand.

Those are just a few of the articles that I felt compelled to pass along to my readers. If I find any other noteworthy news stories, I will be sure to post them here, or perhaps write a longer piece about them if they really tickly my fancy--yes, I did just write that!

And feel free to send me any travel stories that you find, I am always interested!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Croatia? The Wine...Of Course

It has been predicted that Americans will travel farther and spend more in 2012, with long-hauls to Europe, Asia and Australia already up for the year. And when travel agents were asked to pick the top up-and-coming international destinations, over a third of them said Croatia.

There are some obvious reasons why agents chose Croatia: its timeless treasures, breathtaking seaside views from rocky coves, throbbing nightlife, angelic forests, picturesque mountain waterfalls, baroque architecture, storied history, dynamic culture and delectable dishes. But one aspect of the country that does not get as much hype or attention is its wines.

A little background. Croatia's wine history dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and wine production has been going on in the southern regions for over 2,000 years, so clearly it has deep roots and experience in viticulture. Talk about impressive credentials. Many traditional grapes still live on in Croatia, and many of the wineries have introduced modern technology and techniques in order to bring out the very best of those grapes.


Plavac Mali. Credit: Snooth.com
According to an article in Bloomberg, under Yugoslavia's communist rule, Croatia was forced to destroy more than 160,000 hectares--a unit of land surface equal to 2.5 acres--of vineyards. The war with Serbia in the 1990s ruined thousands more of the fertile land. Economic and ethnic turmoil in the country caused Croatia to fall behind in the saturated global wine market, a sad setback for a country that used to make 650 different wines. However, it has more than double the vineyard land that New Zealand has, posing it as a real competitor in today's industry. It also helps that California's popular varietal zinfandel is a variant of Croatia's plavac mali--or "little blue"--meaning it has a flavor complex that millions of people will enjoy.
In the last 10 years, Croatia has opened many wine roads as a major part of its gastronomy tourism efforts. Most of them have opened in Central Croatia, mainly in the northwest areas and Moslavina. And while they are very busy all year round, the fall harvest time is most interesting to witness. Croatians are proud of their heritage, and enjoy celebrating their various traditions. November 11 is St. Martin's Day, the final and most important holiday of the year for winegrowers. It is when farmers christen the young musk and its transformation into wine. The country throws many festivals in honor of this day, and the events include a number of local customs.

Clearly, Croatia has a long-standing wine history, so why don't more people drink its products? Well, as of right now, it only ships about 5% of its 60 million litres of wine out of the country, which means most of the good stuff remains within the borders. The solution? Go there!

But where exactly should you go? Croatia has over 300 wine regions, and a very strict classification system that guarantees a wine's proper origin. Some of the best wine production can be found on the Dalmation islands, and there are a number of top wineries and vineyards that dot the countryside in the Peljesac Peninsula. Here is where you will find Grgic Vina, the Croatian counterpart to the acclaimed American winery Grgich Hills. Other areas in the Coastal region are Istria, in the north, where the focus is fruity white wines, with most being made from the Malvazija grape.

The Continental wine region stretches along the Drava and Sava rivers, and production is focused on white wines. Slavonia is the best-known area, and the most common grape planted there is Grasevina, which creates light, refreshing and crisp wines.

Zinfandel grape. credit: snooth.com
I could continue to list all the wine regions of Croatia, but I find that would get rather old and tedious. Instead, I recommend finding a good travel guide book or doing a little research online before deciding where to go. But do not limit yourself to one location, because then you'll be missing out on some truly incredible wines. Find the places that make varieties that fit your taste, and then make a plan to try to hit all the wineries in those regions...a true Croatian wine tour. (Perhaps this will be my next project.)

With its vast expanse of land, wide grape variety and ideal climate, Croatia has more than enough options for you to choose from when it comes to wine. No matter what area you visit, you will more than likely find a fantastic vineyard nearby that provides tastings, tours and bottles for sale. Croatia has been slow to market its wines outside of the country, and not many people in the U.S. have had the privilege of trying them--which is a real shame. However, this can easily be remedied by those who are willing to take a long journey abroad.

Croatia has always been on my list of destinations, and with this newly acquired knowledge about its wines, I have even more reason to plan a trip there--sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Enjoying "The Layover"

What can you do during a long layover? And when I say long, I am not referring to the standard five hours spent at Heathrow Airport. I am talking about an overnight stay, usually between 24 and 36 hours, where there is time to pick up luggage, check-in to a hotel and see a bit of the city. What are the key places you should hit in San Francisco? Where are the can't-miss places to dine in Amsterdam?

All these questions and more are answered in my new favorite show on television, "The Layover" with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel. In the series, Bourdain has between 24-48 hours to tell a story about a city, its people, culture and food. As a seasoned traveler, with many connections around the globe, he is able to provide some of the most exclusive and interesting insight and tips about any given city. It basically helps travelers make the best of their downtime, encouraging them to get out of the airport hotel and into their stop-over city.

The show has been on the air for over a month now, and Bourdain has hit some of the biggest and most impressive cities in the world, including New York, Montreal, San Francisco, Singapore, Miami, Rome, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

The Amsterdam episode premiered last night, and what made it extra special for me is that I have actually been there, so I recognized a lot of the places Bourdain visited. I loved the different ways he described the city, and found myself actually laughing out loud at many of the comments he makes. Like when he is in a traditional Brown Cafe, the dutch equivalent of a British pub, and when the crowd starts to sing an old drinking song, Bourdain says: "I feel like I got high and ended up in the middle of a rogue production of Annie." If you have ever been to Amsterdam, you definitely get what he's talking about. I truly appreciate Bourdain's adept observations and witty banter, and I have admired his writing style for years. I hope to one day develop those same skills in my own travel writing, and I think getting a few more trips under my belt may just help in that department.

As far as the places he chose to highlight, I give him credit for locating the old, unique, hidden gems of Amsterdam, places that few tourists think to go or can even find in a short amount of time. While he only has 36 hours, he manages to fit in an awful lot, probably because Amsterdam is relatively small and easy to get around, especially if you take a ferry or ride a bike--which Bourdain recommends. "In Amsterdam, bikes, crappy old bikes actually, are kings of the road," he says. "Even cars fear them. You better look both ways." If I ever make it back to Amsterdam, I fully intend on visiting the Café Int Aepjen, one of the oldest bars in the city. The little tidbit that Bourdain shared that I found most interesting was the name's origin. It was an old sailor bar and if a customer couldn't pay for his room, he would give them a monkey he collected during his travels, hence the name "in the ape." It's these strange facts that give a city its character.

I also hope to visit the Upstairs Pancake House, credited with some of the most interesting pancake concoctions around, and the source of a line from a Beastie Boys song: "Whne I'm in Holland, I eat the pannekoeken." It is located in the center of the city, but is difficutl to find, since it is so small. Once upstairs, you will find a small room with only four tables, so it's probably best to get their early, or you will most likely have to wait. Although, Bourdain did not really talk about the hours or seating situation. As far as the pancakes, you should probably ask about the daily special before ordering, since it changes all the time. The pancakes are made fresh with fruit, cream, bacon, cheese and an assortment of other ingredients. I used to be a big pancake eater, but my taste for the delightful breakfast dish has waned in recent years. This place could just reinvigorate my appetite for these sweet, decadent disks of fluffy batter.

One thing I will not be trying in Amsterdam--which is apparently a local delicacy--is pickled herring. I'm usually one for trying the local fare, at least once, but that just does not sound appetizing at all. So I'll be giving that a miss and heading over to Three Little Bottles to try--as Bourdain calls them--"indigenous beverages." The bar has been open since 1650 and nothing has really changed since then. Here is where you can get a real taste of an Amsterdam original: Jenever, a dutch liquor. There is an art form to drinking the intoxicating liquid. The bartender fills a small glass to the brim, and you must sip off the top without touching the glass at all, only then can you pick up the glass and finish off the liquor. Bourdain desscribed it as a gin, which I admit is not my alcohol of choice. But for the sake of experimentation, I would certainly order a round--or two--espeically since it is so unique to the region. And as the Dutch say, if it isn't made in Holland, it ain't real jenever.

One fun fact that I was not aware of until I watched the show was how popular Indonesian food is in Amsterdam. But it makes sense, since the Dutch held control of Indonesia well into the second World War. During that time, locals from the country would bring over some of their cultural traditions, as well as their food. Bourdain and his friends head to Tempo Doeloe in Centrum, one of the best Indonesian restaurants in the city. According to the waitress, and Bourdain's friends, the best option is to pick a number of small items and sample each one along with a plate of rice. It allows a guest to taste a variety of flavors--and spice levels--in one sitting, rather than choosing only one dish. Bourdain is pleasantly surprised at the spiciness of some of the dishes, which only made me more eager to try this place, because I like my food hot!

While I love the show and everywhere Bourdain chooses to go, I do have one small complaint. He spends very little time talking about anything other than food. I know that Bourdain's background with food and cooking plays a big role in his television shows, but as someone who travels, I would like to see more of a city than just its restaurants, bars and cafes. Obviously, food is a major part of a city's culture, heritage and history, and it certainly reveals a lot about a place. However, there are other things that show the history and customs of a place, such as architecture. And what about shopping? Tourists like to shop, and I personally love checking out a city's shopping district. Tiny boutique shops hold some amazing treasures, and even some of the commercial shops have some fun artifacts and items.
Dam Square

Amsterdam is compact, so it is easy to see a lot in a short amount of time, even on foot. Although the tram system is very convenient, which Bourdain points out in the show. You can also see a great deal of the city on aboard Museumboot Canal Cruises, which allows you to hop on and off at any stop. A few attractions that Bourdain discusses are Vondelpark, an English-style park that is the largest of its kind in the city. It is a great place to take a relaxing walk, enjoy a picnic, or even a free summer concert at Openluchttheater. Dam Square and Kononklijk Paleis are two sites that you really cannot miss when visiting Amsterdam. The Paleis, or royal palace, was built in 1655 and was the town hall until it was renovated to look like part of a royal residence. The Dam Square is a bustling area filled with tourists and numerous street performers. There plenty of museums, and most guests will hit the Anne Frank Huis and Van Gogh Museum. Bourdain points out that the Anne Frank House is always crowded and the line is exceptionally long, two factors you do not want to deal with when on a time crunch.

Clearly, Amsterdam has a lot to offer tourists, and it can be difficult to decide exactly what to do with your limited layover time. The best advice: If you know you have a long layover somewhere, do a little research before your trip to select a few key sites you want to see, and focus on those attractions/restaurants/museums, rather than wandering aimlessly.

"The Layover" certainly helps in this arena, because it takes care of a lot of the guess work for you. So I recommend checking out the show, if for no other reason than to get some good ideas and hear about some places that may not show up in a guide book or online.

Check out this link to see some pictures from the Amsterdam episode.


The New Year has Arrived!

Happy New Year!!

I hope that you all had a fantastic New Year's Eve/Day celebration, saying goodbye to--what I would consider--a rollercoaster 2011, and welcoming a promising 2012!

Now is the time to put everything from the last year behind us and look forward to the year ahead. As many of you begin your resolutions--whether they are new ones or ones that you vow to keep every January 1--I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors.

As for me, I will continue to provide insight, tips, news and opinions about travel, and, hopefully, boost my own travel writing portfolio with more freelance work and professional trips (I'm crossing my fingers on this last part).

For those of you who plan to heed my advice from the last post and take a trip somewhere new and exciting this year, here is a list of some of the top destinations for 2012. I hope this gives you some inspiration for your travels this year, I know it has certainly got me thinking about places I would like to go.

I am excited to start this next chapter, and hopefully my faithful readers will keep tuning in and reading my posts. As always, I love suggestions and comments, so feel free to post your thoughts!

Cheers to 2012!!