Monday, November 12, 2012

A Foodie Tour

Whole Journeys
Food and travel go together like...peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, wine and cheese...pretty much anything with perfect synergy that complements the details of the other flawlessly. Food can make a journey complete, since a destination would not be what it is without this important cultural element.

So it makes sense that there are plenty of tours centered around food, either offered by a tour company, a cruise line, a hotel or a local restaurant. But it's a bit odd to find a grocery store offering these kinds of trips. Enter Whole Foods Market, known for its selection of specialty and organic foods, as well as its commitment to offering local produce and meat, and sustainable seafood.

Whole Foods has now entered the travel industry with a new company aimed at active food lovers who want to "experience what travel should taste like." The company, called Whole Journeys, will offer guided tours from five days to two weeks on 11 itineraries in Europe, China and the U.S. The tours will take guests to local farms and food producers, wine tastings and cooking classes. Travelers will also be able to take part in cultural activities and physical endeavors like hiking and biking.

“We’re all about authentic experiences and rich cultural connections. I encourage guests to open themselves to the culture in each destination, and share their own perspective with the people there. When the trip is over, everyone comes away with a wider worldview and, hopefully, a deeper appreciation for global diversity and food culture and traditions,” said Kathy Dragon, executive director of Whole Journeys.
As of right now, there are a lot of tours through Italy, which makes sense considering the country's love of food and the importance it holds in Italy's culture. I've had the chance to experience many of Italy's cities and its wonderful culinary offerings, so it's time to venture somewhere else, some place different.

Turkish Delight. Souce: Whole Journeys' website
The "Turkish Delights" itinerary takes you all through Turkey's epic history and exotic cuisine. The trip explores the diversity of the country from the Aegean Coast and Ephesus, before heading to Cappadoccia. Travelers will walk roads taking them to "lunar-like landscapes of volcanic chimneys, gorges, vineyards, elaborately carved and Byzantine frescoed rock churches and entire underground cities." It lasts nine days, eight nights, and spots are capped at 16, so availability is pretty limited. 

All the trips start in April 2013 and cost anywhere between $3,000 and $4,500 per person. The tours include guides, visits, hotels and most meals.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Moving Forward

It's over. Election Day has come and gone, and Barack Obama has been reelected to a second term as President of the United States. It seems like the campaigns have been going on forever, and in one night, it all came to an end.

Now it is time to move forward.

Yes, I know many people are disappointed about the outcome, and they have made it very clear that they do not think Obama was the right choice. It is scary to think about how the bitter battles between candidates in all states will ultimately effect how well everyone works together to handle the upcoming challenges for America. It is a bit disconcerting to know that this country is so divided, with almost half the country voting against the incumbent. It appears that little has changed in the last four, eight, twelve years. We are still so polarized in our political beliefs and opinions. 

And yet both candidates have voiced the need for unity and bipartisanship to help the country fully recover and achieve economic growth. Change and improvement is not possible without collaboration between parties, but everyone seems to have their own agenda. And many who are angry about Romney's loss could bring that animosity to the table during House and Senate meetings, preventing any positive results.

Regardless of the winner, our country would still be facing this fiscal cliff, we would still be dealing with high unemployment and a slow economic recovery. Now it is time to toss our biased views aside and work together for the greater good of the country. The fact that both sides can be so stubborn and uncompromising is the reason we are in the position we are in. As a close friend of mine said, we dig our heels in and refuse to budge, and then we're surprised when things go to hell. Americans want results and right now, that fiscal cliff is looming in the distance.  Congress needs to get its act together, adopt a true bipartisan strategy and tackle this challenge.

The question still remains, however, of whether or not people will actually live up to the bipartisan image they touted during the election, or if they will go right back to their old ways and not work across the aisle for the greater good of the country?

I am hopeful that things will get better, even though I am nervous about the fast-approaching issues. For those who have given up hope and want to abandon the U.S.--if just for a little while--there are options. (I'm thinking Jamaica, Turks & Caicos or the Bahamas.) If any of you signed up for JetBlue's "Election Protection" giveaway and voted for Romney, I hope you win and enjoy your temporary trip out of the country. (At least I hope it's temporary, I wouldn't want a mass exodus from the U.S.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Contribute to Sandy Relief

A marina on Staten Island. Credit: CNN
Superstorm Sandy left a wave of devastation in her wake, displacing thousands of people who lost their homes and destroying amenities of people's daily lives. More than eight million people were without power last week in 17 states, and many cities are almost completely underwater.

For many in disaster areas whose losses are not covered by insurance, the best option is to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People who cannot live in their homes are eligible for housing needs assistance, like hotel or rent money. The agency will also offer assistance for home repairs, cleanup costs and medical expenses related to the hurricane.

On Saturday night, about 12,800 people stayed in 200 shelters, the Red Cross reported. The group has served over 481,000 meals and snacks to people in need, and provided more than 12,000 health services and emotional support.

But there is still so much that needs to be done. And many Americans from across the country are wondering how they can help. Apart from traveling however many miles to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, or any of the other devastated states, there are a few other ways people can lend a hand.

First, you can donate to the Red Cross, either by visiting the website or calling the help line. You can also text "Redcross" to 90999 to give a $10 donation. Blood supply is also low, so anyone in the surrounding areas who is eligible to give blood should try to make an appointment.

The Feeding America network delivered rtuckloads of food, water and supplies to communities in need, and its food banks set up additional emergency distribution sites, which are always looking for more volunteers and donations.

The Salvation Army set up feeding units and shelters in disaster zones. You can help in their efforts by visiting their website and provide clothes, food and beds to the displaced. You can also donate $10 by texting "Storm" to 80888.

Relief Center in Midland Beach. Credit: CNN
FEMA says that cash is the most efficient method of donating, and there are a number of organizations in each state that are active in disaster relief where people can donate or volunteer to assist.

Hundreds of businesses, media outlets, celebrities and big-name corporations have also made an effort to help. On Friday night, NBC held a telethon called "Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together," whcih raised close to $23 million for victims. The one hour event was hosted by Matt Lauer and headlined by Christina Aguilera and Bruce Springsteen. It generated a record number of donations by phone, text and online for the Red Cross. Time Warner and CBS each donated $1 million. The money will be put towards shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance.

Any contribution helps the cause to help rebuild the East Coast and get people back to their homes, their families and their lives.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Let's Ride...100 Miles

Propelling along the pavement, a heavy headwind slowing progress, muscles pumping ever furiously to accelerate, to keep going, to reach that final goal.

Riding the Rockies
I imagine this is what it must feel like to ride 100 miles timed, no less--a feat I have never attempted, and certainly have no desire to do. But for many, century rides are a welcome challenge, the true test of physical strength and endurance and the epitome of exhilaration.

Century rides are bike rides of 100 miles or more within 12 hours. It is unknown when exactly these races began, but long-distance races have been going on for what seems like forever. Cycling has been around for centuries, mostly as a means of transportation before the invention of cars. Bikes were a replacement for horses--though I think I would have preferred a horse. It wasn't until the 1860s that cycling became an official sport. It began with a short race between major landmarks, and then grew to longer races between cities, mostly in European countries. The trend crossed the pond to the U.S., where cycling became an immensely popular sport.

The League of American Bicyclists--orignally Wheelmen--began in 1880 and became the leading organization for cyclists in the U.S. It thrived for years, especially with the advent of the chain-driven safety bike in the 1890s. But soon amateur racing fell off with the rise of professionals, and the league dissolved in the early 1900s. It wasn't until the Great Depression when it was revived, but it went into decline again after WWII. Finally, in 1965, the league reorganized for good. It mostly existed as a social organization, holding annual rallies with mapped routes. In 1994, it changed its name to the League of American Bicyclists, to appease the female members, and slowly became more focused on advocacy and is now the voice for cyclists at the national level.

Under this sanctioning body, a number of bicycling coalitions now operate, providing education, social gatherings, organized rides and official races for amateur bikers. It is through these groups that many of the best century rides can be found. 

RAMROD. Seattle Times
There are hundreds of century rides across the country--and around the world--one could not possibly pick the best, or even the top 10. But I found a few that I think sound either super challenging or super fun.

  • Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day (RAMROD) is a 154-mile ride around one of Washington State's most famous natural national icons. Riders can enjoy the scenery of the mountain and the park while climbing nearly 10,000 feet of elevation in two mountain passes.
  • The Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic is a one- and two-day ride and considered one of the 10 biggest recreational races in the country. It is approximately 202 miles, and most riders finish in two days, but some get it done in one, if you're up to the challenge.
  • The Tour of the Scioto River Valley, better known as TOSRV, started back in 1962 as a father-son outing before becoming one of the biggest touring weekends in the U.S. It begins in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday and riders spend the night in Portsmouth and return to Columbus on Sunday, for a total of 210 miles.
  • Escape New York starts in Manhattan and crosses the Hudson River and leaves the city to explore other regions of New York. Riders can choose to go 25, 50, 65 or 100 miles along some of the best roads of the West Hudson Highlands.
  • Chile Pepper Challenge in El Paso, TX is a 100-mile ride that tours Mesilla Valley. It starts and ends at La Vina Winery--post race wine party, anyone??
  • Santa Barbara Century runs along the Pacific Ocean. It is a super challenging, 9,600-foot elevated ride of 100 miles. Luckily, beautiful views will make it worth the effort.
  • Savage Century takes place in Newark, Delaware, and spans three states--Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is a bit of a hilly ride, with three that have an average grades of 8%.
  • Ride Westcliffe is one of the most difficult century rides in Colorado, but also one of the most thrilling. It runs from Westcliffe to Colorado City via the Frontiers Pathways Scenic Byway.
  • Hot Doggett 100 takes place in Mars Hill, North Carolina, and takes riders through the mountains of Madison County with 9,600 feet of climbing. For less of a challenge, there's the Devil's Fork Metric, a 100k or 60-mile ride.
  • Red Poppy Ride is held in conjunction with the Georgetown Red Poppy Festival in Texas. It runs through scenic Eastern Williamson County. Not only do riders enjoy a pleasant spring race through country roads, they also get an impressive jersey designed with the flowers the ride is named for.
  • Old Kentucky Home Tour (OKHT) is a two-day ride through the rolling hills of rural Kentucky. You have the option of a 55-mile, 72-mile or 102-mile ride, but not matter what distance you ride, all are encouraged to bring cookies for the famed "cookie stop."
Old Kentucky Home
While physically, I am more of a runner than a biker, many of these races make me reconsider hopping back on that bike and getting in gear. If for no other reason than to experience some incredible sites of our great country. There are so many places I have never visited, and to see them from the vantage point of a bike would certainly be a memorable experience. I would definitely have to train for a long time before attempting one of these, even the shorter rides, but part of me thinks I would be up for the challenge. Who wants to join me on the ride of the century?

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Journey to the Promise Land

Along the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean lies the State of Israel, the world’s only Jewish majority state. Israel has been the subject of much controversy over the years, as it is widely considered an enemy to many countries in the Middle East, in particular Palestine. Turmoil in the region tied to the Iraq war, Syrian terrorism and Egyptian uprisings, have left a cloud of insecurity, uncertainty and fear, deterring many from visiting the Middle East. While most of those concerns are warranted, Israel has been deemed a safe state, and welcomes tourists from all regions.
It’s a good thing, too, because Israel has a lot to offer. It is said to be one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East as far as economics, industrial development and finance. Not only is it a modern cultural hotspot, but Israel also boasts a number of archaeological and historical sites, unique geography and religious venues, not to mention a wealth of museums.
Dead Sea
One of the nation's treasures--and possibly one of the most popular attractions--is the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth (417 meters below sea level). It has the highest concentration of salt in the world, and this, as most people know, means you will have no trouble floating in the water. The western shore inside Isreal's borders has some organized beaches and bathing areas were tourists have access to the natural health spa. That's right, the salinity provides relief to ailing guests. The sea bed has deposits of black mud that is spread on the body and feeds nourishing minerals to skin.
Surrounding the Dead Sea is a collection of hotels, hostels and houses, restaurants and shopping areas. There are also companies that offer activities like jeep and bike tours, camel tours and rappelling. The sea's edge is dotted with springs and abundant plant life, as well as a desert landscape that offers breathtaking scenery. Some important historical sites can also be found in this region, including the Massada Fortress, ancient Ein Gedi and the Qumran cave, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were dsicovered.

View from Mt. Zion
Jerusalem is the capital of Isreal, though it is often not recognized as such by most countries. It is considered to be one of the holiest cities in the world, built thousands of years ago as a hub for faith, religion and spirituality. The Old City is at the heart of Jerusalem, surrounded by a wall and divided into four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. Important holy sites for the three major religions can be found inside: The Western Wall (for the Jews), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of teh Rock on the Temple Mount. Apart from these, the Old City--and the rest of Jerusalem--holds thousands of other important religious sites, it's difficult to see them all, so grant yourself enough time.

Tel Aviv is the second largest city in Israel and is referred to as "the city that never stops." It is the economic and cultural center of the country, offering a lively, entertaining atmosphere with festivals and nightclubs that draw people out to the streets until the wee hours of the morning. Apart from an active nightlife, Tel Aviv features dozens of daytime attractions, including 20 museums such as the Land of Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The city hosts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israeli Opera Company, and most of the national dance and theater companies are situated in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv's has a wonderful shopping scene, too, with bustling street markets and modern malls. Its markets are truly exquisite, displaying a variety of local fare that reflects the locals behind the whole operation. The best known open-air market is Carmel Market, located near the Neveh Zedek quarter, which offers a wide array of fresh produce and ingredients. It's perfect if you have a kitchen where you can prepare a nice meal. If not, it's also a great place to grab some picnic fixings or snacks to munch on as you tour the rest of the city. If you're looking to make a deal on your purchases, head over to Jaffa Flea Market, where bargaining is the name of the game. But be warned, vendors do this for a living, and they have this down to a science.

While you can see original crafts and pieces of art at markets, it's a bonus to see them actually being made in front of your eyes. For this special treat, venture over to Shuk Ha'aliyah, where craftspeople can be seen at work making metal pieces and furniture.

Tel Aviv
The beaches of Tel Aviv are some of the best in the world, and are a must see while visiting the city. The entire west side of the city is one long stretch of beach, and each is divided and named based on the hotel or street nearby. The beaches certainly add to Tel Aviv's party city image, but some are relatively quiet and pleasant for those who are looking to just relax.

I guess it should be no surprise--especially considering its biblical ties--that Israel has an impressive collection of vineyards and a booming wine industry. The Bible includes dozens of verses referencing planting vineyards, producing wine and blessing the wonderful fruit of the vine. God be praised for wine! Unfortunately, I've never tasted any varieties from the region, but I'm certainly open to it. I mean, if it was good enough for Jesus and his disciples, it's good enough for me. Today, the vineyars supplying grapes for production are planted on sites from biblical and later periods. More than two hundred wineries currently operate in Israel, and wine tourism has become common, focusing on visiting wineries and surrounding areas. Many places have opened wine routes attracting tourists and wine lovers from all over the world. Some possible vineyards to check out include Zohar Winery, Bazelet Hagolan Winery, Stren Winery and Golan Heights Winery, to name a few.

While we're on the subject of wine, I should also mention Israel's thriving olive business. The image of the dove carrying an olive branch is an historical symbol in Jewish culture, and the olive tree plays an important role in Israel's culture. Olive oil is one of the most important agricultural elements for the country, used for food, light, heat, medical treatments and cleaning and hygiene. The olive harvest season is very important to the people of Israel. Olive festivals are held to mark the season, and families make trips to the groves to harvest olives and watch them being pressed. If you happen to be visiting during the season, you're in luck, because tourists are encouraged to take part in the events and participate in harvests.

Other than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there are plenty of other areas in Israel you should definitely try to check out. At the Southern tip of Israel sits Eilat, a resort town perfect for sea-sports enthusiasts. There, you can enjoy diving, water skiiing, boating, swimming, snorkeling and much more. This city is a perfect getaway, as the temperature stays warm year-round and it rarely rains. Haifa is the third largest city and is said to be one of the most beautiful. It has the country's largest port, an active beach and is surrounded by dozens of nature sites. The city is speckled with a variety of unique churches, adding to its brilliance. Different religions and faiths live in harmony in Haifa, making it an incredibly tolerant city. The Bahai Faith's World Center is located in Haifa. It is an expansive complex on the slope of Carmel, and its famous for its gardens, which include landscaped 'Hanging Gardens." Probably one of the best ways to experience the cities--if you're physically up to the challenge--is a "step tour." Four marked walking routes begin on Yefe Nof Street and proceed down the beach. There are also various nature routes descending the mountain along one of the many rivers of the region.

You should definitely try to check out the Sea of Galilee and a place called the Cove of the Sower, a stretch of undisturbed beach on the northern shore. This area was the site of many events of Jesus' Galilee ministry.

I feel like I could go on forever about everything Israel offers, because what I've written so far does not even begin to do it justice. The solution, I suppose, is to actually visit this magical place. And one day I will. (My parents are actually there as we speak...but unfortunately I could not tag along...I have a job, after all.) I'm sure they will come back with some incredible stories, pictures and memories--and gifts--which will only make me want to visit even more. One day, I'll make it there.