Thursday, April 19, 2012

Preparing for Busy Season

Well, this year is getting busier and busier by the day. Just when I thought I wouldn't be taking many trips, suddenly I find myself with three in one month! How did that happen?

I must give thanks, first, to my wonderful friend Christi for getting married this year and having her bachelorette party in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend (there's one trip.) Now, that has been in the works for some time, so I already anticipated that I would be traveling over the long weekend. Next, my co-worker deserves a nod for alerting me to a super sweet LivingSocial deal for $50 off a JetBlue flight from Chicago to Boston. A little research into fares and free weekends, and my Cinco de Mayo will now be spent cruising around bean town with my best friend, Emily. Finally, I am ever thankful to my freelance publisher for hooking me up with an all-expenses paid trip to New Orleans. So during the second weekend in May, I will be enjoying the sites and sounds of NoLa--but I will be working, too, of course. Throw in a bridal shower in Wausau, Wisconsin, the final weekend of April, and, needless to say, my life is pretty hectic the next few weeks. And I love it!

This is the kind of busy that I enjoy, because it involves getting out of Chicago and experiencing other places. And most of the trips involve spending time with my closest friends who I don't get to see on a regular basis, so how could I possibly complain about that?

Now, being the crazed traveler that I can be, I have already started planning for these various trips, making sure I have everything covered: transportation, departure and arrival times, budgets, outfits, scheduled activities, accommodations, etc. There is a lot involved in the process, and with so many trips back-to-back, I need to make sure I have it all organized. The lists are already being made, and I'll probably be adding something to them every day before I embark on this crazy month of traveling.

Luckily for all of you, more trips for me means more posts to read! So be ready for some interesting tidbits, exciting adventures and oh so many pictures! It's going to be a thrilling month, to say the least!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Johnnie Walker: Tastes Like Scotland

Over the weekend I took part in a unique and special event--at least for me. My friend Jessica sent me a VIP invitation to a free Johnnie Walker tasting. Now, I am not the biggest fan of whisky and it's not my go-to choice when it comes to liquor. Still, who was I turn down an invitation to such a fun event, plus, it was free! So, I signed up for the Saturday tasting at 10 p.m. (because that was the only one Jessica could make it to).

Since it was a later time, we decided to make a night of it and experience a few different cultures. We started out in Greek Town, situated in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. We enjoyed a great meal of traditional hummus, moussaka, chicken kabobs, roasted vegetables and numerous flaming plates of Saganaki. (Just to clarify, we didn't have numerous plates, but plenty of people around us did, and it was quite a show.) After we couldn't possibly eat one more bite--and the wine was all gone--we went to catch the bus to take us to the tasting, which was at some remote studio somewhere on the West Side. When I say West, I mean Garfield Park, not exactly the best place for two young girls to be late at night, and I would have to say the most exhilarating part of the evening was walking the five blocks from where the bus dropped us to the studio. (Note to Johnnie Walker and your marketing team--pick a different location next time!)

When we arrived, a line was already forming outside the gates, where a man stood with a clipboard preparing to check off our names--very exclusive. Our two other friends, Amanda and Sam joined us as we entered the premises and filled out a quick survey about our drinking preferences--just a way for the company to track consumer tastes, habits and trends (there's my research marketing side creeping in). We received our free drink token, and, after a few more minutes waiting outside, were allowed to enter the studio. The room was subtly lit with pale blue beams, with golden spotlights aimed at the bar and food table. They presented us with a spread of cheeses, crackers and fruits, while a few waiters carried around trays of beef wellington pastry puffs and elk sliders.

My crew and I headed straight for the bar, where we had a choice of three drinks to try. Since I don't usually drink Johnnie Walker, I went for the safe bet and picked the Whisky Ginger--just Blue Label and Ginger Ale. Amanda opted for the Old Fashioned, which was pretty much Black Label over ice with a cherry--I definitely couldn't handle that. I glanced around the room and saw the timeline of Johnnie Walker projected along one wall and a Twitter feed along another. They certainly got points for presentation. We sipped our drinks, slowly, and wandered around the room, glancing at the bottles of whisky on display in glass cases. Then a black curtain was pulled back and we were told to enter another room with couches arranged in a horseshoe shape, surrounding a small stage. Each seat had three glasses, a dropper, water and a "walking man" pin in front of it, and there were also carafes of ginger ale and orangina. When everyone was seated, the tasting began.

We were first shown a short film featuring actor Robert Carlyle as he told us the history of Johnnie Walker. Now this I really appreciated, because I really got a feel for the Scottish heritage and family influence of the brand, and I realized how little I actually knew about it. A spokesman for Johnnie Walker came out and gave us a quick overview of how the tasting would go, and then we dove right in.

We started with Black Label. He told us to hold it up to the light to examine the color, swirl it around in the glass and then smell it. What did it smell like? Whisky, of course. That was my first thought. But then people started yelling things out--vanilla, malt, oak, a bit of smokiness. I was starting to pick up the scents, appreciating the subtle grains that went into this blended whisky. We were then invited to take a sip, and that's when I remembered why I don't drink this stuff. The flavor was sharp, bitter and the liquid burned as it trickled down my throat. It was all I could do not to cough, and I kept wondering how people drank this straight. We took our droppers and added a little water to the whisky, and then we smelled and tasted again. Can you taste the difference? No! But the nodding heads and smiling faces around me suggested we could, so I followed suit.

Moving on to Blue Label, the one meant for mixing. Now this was more my style. He asked us to mix it with either orangina or ginger ale, and then sip it as we liked. I added generous amounts of both to my glass, and magically that made it easier to drink. He didn't spend much time on Blue before moving right on to Gold Label. The Johnnie Walker girls emerged with trays of samples and handed us each a glass. This one we were meant to drink straight again, or with a small ice cube--which I opted for. While I thought I could sense small traces of differences from Black, I know I'm no whisky expert, so I just accepted that they were different and went on sipping my Blue Label mixture.

Finally, the girls brought out the Red Label, which I guess is a favorite for a lot of people, though I hear Blue is more rare and expensive, but what do I know? The whisky was presented in a small sifter, rather than a standard glass like the others. Once again, we looked at its color, smelled its scent and went in for a taste. I had to admit it was a bit lighter than the others, not as intense, but still way too much for me to handle. And even though we were only taking small sips, I was starting to feel a small buzz--after all, these are all 80 proof.

As a few questions were asked and the final comments were made, I found myself drifting to the land of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, the home of Johnnie Walker. I imagined it to be similar to the landscape in the film we had seen, with hills of green grass covered in eerie fog and no paved roads in site. It seemed like an exciting place, and I found myself mentally adding it to the destination list. And even though I still cannot manage to take a straight sip of Johnnie Walker without coughing or gagging, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the art of creating blended Scotch whisky. So why not visit the place where it all began?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Maya Adventure in Belize

As I read through my Twitter feed the other day, I spotted a tweet from the Travel Channel about a sweepstakes it was hosting with a grand prize trip to Belize. I immediately signed up! I mean, who wouldn't want to go to Belize--especially on someone else's dime--for eight days of beach lounging, scuba diving, trekking through the rainforest, and relaxing amid the incredible scenery of this Central American oasis.

Centrally located on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize is a quick flight from the U.S., which means it's relatively affordable for most people. The country features a wide array of geographical terrains, from coral sand and mangrove islands just off shore and lowland savannahs and lagoons, to the towering Maya Mountains and lush rainforests further inland.  So no matter what kind of environment you seek, you will most likely find it here.

For beach and ocean lovers, the Barrier Reef is where you want to go. Stretching 185 miles, the reef is the longest in the western hemisphere and a scuba diver's paradise. You can spend hours exploring the cliffs and crevices of this underwater environment, riddled with every imagineable species of fish, crustacean and algae. Off the reef are three of the four Caribbean atolls and thousands of cayes (pronounced "keys"), or small islands that are either coral sand-covered or mangrove entanlged. This system makes up Belize's marine environment, cited by many as the main draw of the country.

On the cayes, guests will find individual resorts that encourage a slow pace and relaxation. One of the most popular destinations is Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize. San Pedro is the only town there, but offers a wide variety of attractions, including great clubs and restaurants, a cinema and dozens of boutique craft shops. Visitors can go bird watching, diving, snorkeling, wind surfing, kitesurfing, parasailing, boating, kayaking, fishing, and many other fun activities. They can end their day with a relaxing meal at a local restaurant or dancing away at a vibrant night club. This is an ideal spot for anyone looking to slow down and embrace life's adventures.

For the hiking types, consider heading further South. The Mountain Ridge Pine marks the beginning of the mountainous region, sitting at 1,500 feet. The Maya Mountains stand at 3,680 feet above sea level and are surrounded by limestone hills that boast the largest cave system in Central America. Thrill-seeking hikers and climbers will lose themselves in this mecca of dense trails, dark caves and scenic flowing rivers.The mountains are filled with a number of nature preserves and Maya ruins, giving people plenty to explore. After a day of hiking, swimming and exploring, many retreat to the town of San Ignacio, the heart of the Cayo District. It's remote location makes it pretty economical for tourists, and there is a bustling culture and atmosphere that proves to be truly authentic, rather than highly commercialized--like some other areas of the country can be.

For the wild adventurer, Southern Belize offers a completely different environment than the sandy, calm beaches to the North. Just to the southeast of the mountains, the region is saturated--literally--with water, with annual rainfall of 170 inches, it is a true tropical rainforest. Deep in the lush ferns and palms, visitors will find overhanging ledges, caves and hundreds of Maya artifacts left behind by the ancient people who once inhabited the wilderness.Some of the main sites you will find there are Lubaantum--the largest Maya ruin in the area--Nim Li Punit, Cahal Pech, Chaa Creek and many others. Toledo is Belize's Southern most district and is one of the most natural, untouched, least visited regions of the country. It features 1,669-square-miles of rainforest, mountains, rivers and ancient sites, as well as 4,000 species of flowers and 500 species of birds. If you're a nature and wildlife buff, this is the place for you. The largest town in Southern Belize, Dangriga, is not the most common place for a stopover, but you really should check it out. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges--and is by no means as big as Belize City in the North--but it is a super funky, vibrant and culturally rich city that marches to the beat of the Garifuna people--the innovators of a unique form of music called punta rock.

I also think that in these less frequented areas, you really get a taste of true Belizean culture, especially with arts, crafts, music and food. Obviously, there are plenty of great dishes to try, but some of the most popular are conch fritters, tamales, garnache, boil-up, dukunu, fry jacks, johnny cakes and ereba. The locals will know the best places to get these regional delicacies, but if you can't find a good sit down place, there are street vendors all over selling hot, delicious meats and cheeses wrapped in hand-made flour tortillas, and don't forget the rice and beans--an essential part to any Belizean meal. But be careful when you order this side, because beans-and-rice is a whole other ordeal.

Belize is a wonderful place to explore, discover, play and relax. I know I'm not even close to getting married, but if I ever do, I would seriously consider having my honeymoon in Belize. One of my old coworkers went there for hers and said it was absolutely incredible, she could not have asked for a better experience. It has an incredibly romantic, intimate aura about it that I think any couple would appreciate. Not only is it a good place to kick back, relax and enjoy a lovely fruity beverage while gazing over the crystal clear blue water, but also a great place to experience a completely different environment and culture. I cannot imagine a better way to connect with my significant other than to go hiking through a rainforest or swimming in a mountain lagoon or zip lining through the forest trees or scuba diving in a coral reef.

Who knows if I'll win this trip to Belize--I'm keeping my fingers crossed--but if by some miracle I get selected, you better believe that I'm going to make the most of it and see as much of this fantastic country as I can. But remember, it's a trip for who wants to join me?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fan of the Hunger Games? Go to North Carolina!

I have only been to North Carolina once in my life, and that was during my junior year of high school for a college scouting trip. It was a whirlwind of campus tours, one-night hotel stays, on-the-road dining and long hours in the rental car with my parents. There was a lot that I didn't get to see, but I do remember how lush and green it was, with thousands of acres of forest, rolling hills and sprawling lakes. So, it definitely makes sense that filmmakers would choose this locale to shoot the blockbuster hit, "The Hunger Games."

For those that don't know, "The Hunger Games" is based off the first book in the best-selling young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins about a post-apocalyptic world where one boy and one girl from 12 outlying districts are offered up to the Capitol to compete in a televised battle, called The Hunger Games, where they fight to the death until only one survives. I have read all three books and seen the first movie, and I am definitely a huge fan! So when I heard that a majority of the movie was filmed in North Carolina, I was intrigued to know exactly where it was shot, and where the cast and crew spent their down time.

A number of the arena sequences were shot at DuPont State Forest, located between Brevard and Hendersonville. This 10,400-acre wilderness boasts nearly 90 miles of trails to hike and bike and a number of beautiful waterfalls to explore. Some of the most popular areas to visit are Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and High Falls, which can all be reached in one 2.6-mile hike--if you're up to the challenge. The Mountain towns of Brevard and Hendersonville also offer some amazing sites and attractions, from cute shops and boutiques, to galleries and historical sites, to culinary gems and restaurants.

The Cornucopia scenes were shot at North Folk Reservoir,which is unfortunately closed off to the public. The tourism board of North Carolina suggests viewing it from the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, which provides visitors with yet another physically taxing outdoor activity. But lets be honest, a hike on this trail is nothing compared to the physical demands of the Hunger Games, so I think you can sweat it. If you are totally up for something upbeat and active, check out Navitat canopy tours, offering a 3 1/2 hour zipline at Pisgah's edge. While it was never used in the actual film, many of the actors, including Josh Hutcherson who played Peeta, made the trip.

Asheville is where the cast and crew lived during filming, and where they spent most of their down time. The artsy Appalachian town has some really unique destinations and lots to experience. The cast was seen dining at The Laughing Seed Cafe, Lexington Avenue Brewery, Wasabi and Southern Kitchen and I would check those out first. As for where to stay, well, there are a couple options. Hotel Indigo is where the three main characters stayed--so obviously, I would try for that one first--but if that is all booked up, the rest of the crew and cast shacked up at DoubleTree by Hilton Biltmore.
Source: via Vanessa on Pinterest

Charlotte played the role of the Capitol in the movie, so naturally there are some great places for sightseeing. The cast stayed at either the Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte (super fancy, and probably well out of my price range) or Dunhill Hotel (more of a boutique-style hotel, but probably still pretty expensive). As far as where they went while in town, the cast frequented the NoDa area, or North Davidson Street. Registered as an historic district, this neighborhood is known for its eclectic art and music scene, authentic cuisine and exciting nightlife. It was reported that the cast often visited Cabo Fish Taco, Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen and Amelie's French Bakery. Actors dressed to the nine's as the flamboyant residents of the Capitol were seen shooting scenes at Knight Theater in the Uptown district of Charlotte, so try to venture over to that area if you have a chance. Even if you cannot get into the theater, there are plenty of other great things to see and do around the neighborhood, and at least you can say you stood in the same spot as Stanley Tucci, who played Caesar Flickerman.

While The Hunger Games has certainly provided a boost to North Carolina's tourism business, it in no way overshadows the brilliant beauty of the state, or its unique cities, delicious food and buzzing culture. The fact is, North Carolina never needed the publicity of the film to lure visitors to its borders, because it already has so much going for it as it is. Still, a little time in the spotlight never hurt anybody.