Friday, March 30, 2012

Freebie Friday: Another National Park Week on the Horizon

That's right, another of those lovely, free entry weeks is on the horizon, this time from April 21 through April 29. Yup, that's 84 million acres gratis!

And in addition to free entry there will be special events marking Volunteer Day (April 21), Earth Day (April 22) and for the kids, Junior Park Ranger Day (April 28).

For full information, click here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Getting Crafty in North Carolina

The day began with Whiskey for Breakfast. Which made sense, since we were in North Carolina. But this wasn’t a meeting of the “Moonshine Society.” Instead, a fiddler and a banjo player were jump starting the morning with a before-breakfast concert-- which included that classic Appalachian jig—at the famed John C. Campbell Folkschool of Brasstown.

Later in the day, I studied with an SOB and learned to become a hooker.

That’s a “single occupation blacksmith” and a rug hooker, to be clear. Because at the Folk School that’s what people do: spend a weekend or a week mastering an art or craft that interest them. (And yes, they also enjoy punning a lot, hence all the jokes in this column).

Because I was a journalist, the school let me sample additional classes in chair caning and wood turning, though regular students commit to just one area of study.

The experience, with the exception of blacksmithing (more on that below), was a kick—simultaneously relaxing and challenging. I spent happy hours soaking long strips of rattan and then meticulously weaving them into a complex pattern to form the seat of a stool; finding just the right groove so that I could shave off seamless strips of wood from a whirring block to form candlesticks and honey-dippers; choosing colored strips of wool to work through a linen mesh, a little rug growing in front of me. There was something intensely zen about all these activities. Conversation between myself and my fellow participants flowed effortlessly, punctuated by frequent laughter. I would be surprised, when glancing at the clock, to find 90-minutes had zipped by.  

Blacksmithing? Well, for this 5’2, 110-pound weakling that was a grind. I simply didn’t have the strength necessary to quickly flatten out the metal. But along with a very sore forearm, I walked away with a serviceable coat-hook, and new friends among my beefy, fellow Vulcans.

And that feeling of fellowship is a large part of the draw here. You see, the “folk” in the title of the school refers not to the type of crafts done—these range from traditional ones like weaving and book binding to more high-tech pursuits like digital photography and modern cooking—but to the people who come here. Inspired by the “folk school” movement in Scandinavia, a tradition of continuing education schools for adults, the school’s goal is to create life-long learners among its students. “We operate from a principal of non-competitiveness,” Jan Davidson, the school’s director, told me. “Our classes are not about becoming the best fiddler or potter. We want our students to learn something that will bring joy and creativity into their daily lives and to do it in an atmosphere that’s tolerant and caring, a real community.”

That welcome is available to a wide a range of students as classes are quite affordable (about $550 for a week, $300 for a weekend) as are the various lodging possibilities. One can rent rooms from locals (ask the office for advice), stay in the well-maintained, quite pretty on-campus accommodations (starting at $428/week and including all meals, less for weekends) or tent or RV it in a field on the school’s grounds (from $109 per week without meals).

I hope to return someday. I’ll make some more beautiful objects for my home…and friends to share them with.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Staying Fit on the Road

It's March, two months into the New Year. Which means most of us have likely forgotten our resolution to work out more consistently and lose weight. 

Take this blog as your reminder. And as a primer on staying fit while traveling.

Here are a few tricks and strategies:

Adjust to Jogging: There’s no exercise more suitable during travel, even if you’re track-shoe averse when at home. Why? It requires no equipment beyond the appropriate clothing and can double as advance reconnaissance for the sightseeing you’ll do later in the day. Plus, if you do your run early in the morning, you’ll get to see the destination you’re visiting just waking up and getting ready for the day, an illuminating experience.

To make the jog more pleasant, pack earbuds and whatever form of auditory device you use; I’ve been finding that while music works best for me at the gym, the slower pace of listening to a podcast or a book on tape is ideal for running (it also helps me to run longer when the story gets suspenseful).

To find good jogging routes, you may want to download the Loops application from (the company that made a name for itself with its calorie tracking apps for iPhones). Loops provides Google maps of the nearest runner-friendly routes, along with information on the elevation of the routes, their difficulty and how scenic they are (the app even provides mile markers between the beginning and ending points).

Pack a Theraband: One’s own body weight can be an excellent substitute for dumbbells and weight machines. So do your sit ups, lunges, squats and push ups, and learn how to use a theraband to simulate your other weight exercises.

You may not even have to pack one: hotels, most notably the Sheraton chain, will now share a “workout in a bag kit” free of charge. Marriott and Renaissance hotels deliver portable training devices to guest’s rooms.

Not sure how to do these exercises? Turn on the TV in your room, and you may just find a free on demand video with an in-room fitness routine on it (a feature at Sheraton and a number of other major chains). Or simply surf to which has posted an easily-followed, customizable 20 minute hotel room fitness plan, which also includes instructional videos.

Research Gyms in Advance of Travel: Gone are the days when the hotel gym was merely a dusty, broken stationary bike tucked into a basement room. Hotels now realize that guests are serious about fitness and judge the quality of the hotel by its health center. Fitness is so important to the bottom line that some chains are going to extremes to stand out from the pack: Westin now not only provides work out rooms but will also lend sneakers and clothing to anyone who asks (borrowed jog bra anyone?).

That doesn’t mean all hotel gyms are equally stellar. Alas, no dedicated fitness web sites provide adequate hotel gym reviews (to my knowledge). However, the hotel review site does a bang up job in this regard, at least for the cities it covers, including photos of hotel gyms as well as good inventories on their machines and the state of their upkeep.

My resolution for 2013? To be in such good shape, after a year of working out on the road, that I can finally get to work furthering the cause of world peace.  Happy New Year, all.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Celebrating the Olympics Months Early

London has a new tourist attraction, and from the size of the crowds showing up to view it, it may be giving the Tower of London a run for the jewels. Pretty impressive for a sight that isn’t even completed yet.

London’s Olympic grounds, which can’t yet be entered without a hard-hat and a construction contract (for the most part; see below), are drawing hundreds of tourists each day to a viewing walkway that overlooks the site. And though the shells of the upcoming structures are impressive (or so I thought so on my fall visit) my guess is it’s the dramatic tale behind the development of this area that may be partially responsible for all the interest.

Tourists view construction
London was, after all, the underdog candidate during the last Olympics pick, having hosted the Games twice before (in 1908 and 1948; it will be the first modern city to host three times). What put the city over the top? Its innovative plans for land reclamations and the re-use of the site and venues, plans which may well serve as a paradigm for future Olympic host destinations.

The games are being set in Stratford, an area of London that few if any visitors will be familiar with (and no, this is not Shakespeare’s village, that’s Stratford-On-Avon). A tattered, ugly quarter, it had, since the 1840’s, been a place of heavy industry. Alas, the factories that once thrived here left an ugly legacy: mercury, lead and other toxic materials sunk into the ground, creating a wasteland.  

The effort to secure the Olympics for London, spearheaded by former mayor Ken Livingstone, was also a strategy to get the funds to clean up Stratford. A winning strategy, happily: in the last several years, workers have engaged in ‘soil washing’, a method of removing poisons from the earth. It’s been so successful that 98% of the soil being used in the Olympic park was cleaned in this fashion, and all the contaminants have been removed.

But that’s only the beginning of this very green Olympics story, which extends to the structures being constructed, all of which will have a second life after the competitions end. Seats in many of the buildings will be removable to make arenas multi-purpose and the Athletes Village will be converted into apartment buildings.

The thinking that went into creating these games, the intriguing history of the area and the “what’s going to be where” is all discussed on tours, both motorcoach and walking, that sweep the Olympics area. I took an excellent 9 GBP walk with the Blue Guides (; it departs daily, rain or shine, at 11 am. For those who prefer to go solo, there are panels set up at the construction site with computer generated images of what the site will look like when completed.

Because the sites need to be tested, seeing a sporting event in an actual Olympic venue will also be an excellent way, in the run up to summer of 2012, to get up close and personal with the Games. A number of these are planned for the upcoming months; to view the list and secure tickets, go to

A final part of the pre-Olympics experience? Shopping! At the Olympic viewing site  a small, but jam-packed, souvenir stand has been erected. One can also purchase knickknacks galore at a number of shops around London as well as at Heathrow Airport. Yes, Britain’s Olympic mascots are downright creepy—they make the weird Chinese ones from the last Games look in good taste—but, hey, they could be worth quite a lot on Ebay a decade from now. At least that’s the plan for my neon yellow Olympics umbrella….

Friday, March 23, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free South America Tours (Kinda, Sorta)

Several weeks ago, I reported that Intrepid Travel was throwing an unbelievably good two-for-one deal to Peru. Well, its seems Intrepid has become even more generous: through the end of March, they'll be throwing in the entire continent. That's right: two tours for the price of one to Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Galapagos Islands and yes, Peru, still.

You don't have to travel by the end of the month, simply book by then (travel must be completed by the end of September). And you don't even have to have a traveling companion to get in on this offer. Two-for-the-price-of-one can mean two back-to-back tours for the price of one if your a solo traveler. If your boss won't allow you to stay away from work for that long, Intrepid will throw in a 30% discount instead for the solo traveler.

Finally, this ain't one of those deals where the price is so stratospheric to begin with that the discount brings it into the realm of the possible. Intrepid is a small group tour operator, meaning that it travels low to the ground. It eschews international chain hotels in favor of locally-owned guesthouses and other smaller lodgings; it transports its guests by public transportation; and it never jams a tour with more than 12 people. All of this keeps Intrepid's costs quite reasonable. In fact, they're one of the fields price leaders.

For more information, click here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alternative Spring Breaks

Sometimes you just don’t want the same old, same old spring break. Here are some ideas for more unusual getaways for March, April and May. 

Antigua, Guatemala
Spring means processions in this ancient colonial city, once the capital not just of Guatemala but of all the Spanish possessions in Central and North America. During the month leading up to Easter, locals decorated the cobblestoned streets with alfombrasm, patterned rugs made of colored sawdust and flowers in anticipation of the eight-hour processions that will march through, destroying these colorful carpets with each step. It’s a sight so moving that hundreds come to Antigua each spring to watch these elaborate rituals.

Yachting St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Never heard of this southeastern Caribbean island nation? You’ve seen its aqua waters, swaying palm trees and colorful parrots flitting from tree to tree if you’ve watched the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; much of it was filmed here. And believe it or not, one of the most affordable ways to explore the area is to make like a pirate and rent your own yacht (which costs as little as $700 per person per week). The sailing here is primo, with challenging winds and dozens of islands (most uninhabited) to explore. Dive off the boat for spectacular snorkeling and the chance to swim among massive sea turtles.

Give the Kids the World Village, Orlando, FL
Engaging in a volunteer vacation is perhaps the most rewarding way to spend spring break, and doing so at the “Give the Kids the World Village” is especially so. It’s a resort created for all of the families in the Make a Wish program who choose to go to DisneyWorld and its entirely run by volunteers. You might find yourself helping children navigate the wheelchair accessible on-site playground, or serving banana splits in the ice cream parlor or sheparding the costumed characters who Universal Studios and DisneyWorld sends over to entertain the children too ill to leave the resort. The most magical place in Orlando.

Whistler, British Columbia
No secret: this hasn’t been a good year for U.S. skiers. Across the border in Whistler, however, the dumps have been historic, meaning that it will be most than possible this year to take a late spring break—heading out well into late April and early May—and still get in some brag-worthy schussing. Along with the ski action (including off-piste runs for adrenaline junkies), is the thrill of riding the world’s tallest and longest span gondola, the ability to try luging at the former Olympic park, snow shoeing trails, and such civilized pleasures as fine dining and shopping.

Death Valley, California
Whoever first coined the name “Death Valley” didn’t visit here in spring. At that time of year, there are few places that feel as alive, the entire region exploding with color as the wildflowers carpet the land. Its also a reasonably temperate time to visit, meaning one can hike and climb without risking heat exhaustion. Camping out is the way to go, but be warned: Death Valley is popular in spring, meaning that many of the spots are reserved months in advance.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Debut of Two New Hotel Booking Websites

Just when you thought no more clowns were going to emerge from that tiny car...

Yes, there are two new players in the overcrowded hotel booking space, each with a unique take on cost cutting.

The first, Tingo sounds like a brand of vibrator, but is actually a category of rebator (and that may be the dirtiest sentence I've ever used in this blog). It takes its model from AutoSlash, a car rental website that contacts travelers if the cost of their rental drops, allowing them to rebook at the lower rate. With Tingo, users search for hotels and gets an extensive list, including some  hotels that carry a price guarantee. A booking is made, and if the price drops, the consumer gets money back. In fact, Tingo rebooks automatically and guarantees there will be no switch in room category. The customer gets a refund after their stay for any price drops.

It sounds like a nifty idea, but at this stage there seems to be one hitch: when I searched Tingo, I found fewer low cost options than I did on such rival sites as Hipmunk. To give one example, I did a search for a Parisian hotel room for early May and Hipmunk was able to give me 28 options under $100 a night (including some full apartments through AirBnB, a fab option). Tingo only came up with 17 choice, of which only 8 came with the price guarantee. And when I checked one property, called the Amarys, it came up a few dollars higher in the initial search on Tingo than it did on other engines. Granted, it was a difference of $3, but heck, it adds up. Sure, it could drop below rivals costs theoretically, but I prefer to book the engine that's getting me the lowest prices at the start.

Whether or not the actual guarantee works...well, its a wait and see. I'll try them in the coming months when I have a trip planned and see if I get any cash back (I certainly have in the past with,  is just what it sounds like: a site that allows hotels (really hoteliers) to bid for your business.You make a reservation somewhere (and it has to be a refundable reservation for this to work), input it on Backbid, along with your dates, and then wait. Soon, other area hotels contact you, suggesting you abandon your initial choice and making that advice sweet with some serious discounts. In some cases, the new bids are hundreds of dollars cheaper than the original reservation.

Its an interesting concept, though I have to wonder why consumers even have to take the step of making the initial reservation. Why won't Backbid just let them input their dates and preferences and have hotels bid? My guess is that many would-be users will be turned off by this extra step.

As I said, these sites are brand-spanking new. If any of you have tried them, I'd love to hear how it turned out for you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shaky and Grounded Airlines

The list keeps growing.

Today, Forbes. com is reporting that India's Kingfisher Airline is running out of money quickly. The situation has gotten so bad, with so many flights cancelled, that the government may not renew its flying license. Apparently, the airline, which flies international as well as domestic routes, now has more than $1 billion in debts. Read more here.

And the little airline the could, couldn't, it turns out. Direct Air, which had the seemingly-savvy business plan of linking secondary markets with popular tourist hubs, stranded thousands of passengers when it closed up shop last week. It has now filed for bankruptcy protection.  My guess is it won't come out of that.

So, friends, be careful with your travel outlays. The major carriers in the US are still stable, but do your due diligence when booking with an upstart carrier or a small one in a foreign country. Usually information on the financial viability of these companies is readily those who think to look.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mistakes of a Travel Expert

Because I travel so much, I make many more mistakes than the average traveler.

You'd think it would be the opposite. That travel is a skill that could be learned and perfected.

But the truth is, hitting the road is a complex undertaking. And when you have to plan trips quickly, with little time for turnaround between one and the next, well...things go wrong.

Take last night's crisis. In looking at his airline itinerary, my husband discovered I had booked him, by accident, on an overnight layover. (We're going to Belize later this week, but because of his work schedule, my husband will be flying a different carrier, on different dates, than my daughters and I). I had meant to book him on a 6pm ticket from Miami to New York City, to line up with his 11am to 3pm flight from Belize City to Miami. Instead, it was a 6 am flight. Oy!

A quick call to the airline showed what I knew it would: in order to fix the error, they'd have to reticket the itinerary entirely, adding hundreds of dollars in the process. No thanks!

Instead, the ticket agent suggested my husband take his chances in the Miami Airport, and simply try to get on an earlier flight. The change fee (if there was a seat to change to, that is): $150 dollars. Ugh! And again, no thanks.

Instead, I started searching for one-way flights from Miami to New York. Quickly, I saw that a rival carrier had a seat on a 6:25 flight. And the cost? $150, the same as the damn change fee. Booked, problem solved, though at an ugly expense.

(One note: this would not have been problem solved had my husband had to check luggage. But we only own carry-on bags, a strategy that forces us to ALWAYS pack light).

The next problem I'm going to have to tackle at 6am Wednesday. That's 24-hours before the flight I take with my daughters to Belize takes off. Because we booked this vacation so late (long story), I was unable to get seats together for the three of us on three out of the four legs we're flying. Unfortunately, that's a crisis for my shy 9-year-old. And its one that likely could have been easily solved with an advance phone call to the airline as little as a year ago. But because so many seats are being held for higher level passengers than I (I'm not "loyal" to this particular carrier), a dozen or so seats won't be released until 24-hours in advance of flight, so I'm going to have to call then for the "privilege" of paying extra so we can be guaranteed seats together.

This, I admit, is not so elegant a solution (in fact, I find it maddening). But its an expense I have to swallow for my daughter's peace of mind.

And being a bit of a bulldog, I'm also going to call today, to see if we can do the switcharoo any earlier. I've found it never hurts to ask. Every once in a while you get someone on the phone who cares and takes the extra step for you (not the case with my first call).

We'll see.

By the way, I likely won't be blogging from Belize, as we'll be staying in very cheap places, without electrical outlets (no joke). I've programmed some blogs to run while I'm away and will post about the experience once I get back.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Capitol Travel Show Tomorrow!

Hello friends! Just wanted to give you a heads up that I'll be appearing at the Washington, DC Travel and Adventure Show tomorrow at the convention center. For complete information, click here.

And readers of this blog receive a discount on admission. Simply click on the link above and use code SPK2 to purchase a $7 ticket.

Hope to see you all there!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Good News for Flying Seniors

And you thought the TSA didn't have a heart.

Yesterday, John Pistole, the Administrator for the agency, announced during a speech he was making at the National Press Club, that those over the age of 75 would no longer be required to remove their shoes during the security screening process. The only exception would be if the shoes set off the metal detector.

Its a move to allow agents to concentrate on those travelers who pose a greater threat, and follows a similar move allowing those 12-and-under to stay shod during screenings.

For a complete piece on this new development, click here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Plane! The Plane! Its Still Pricey, But A Tad Less So, Thanks To the Current Southwest Airlines Sale

From white sand beaches to airfare sales. Yes, the topic may be more mundane, but heck, its the flights that get you places.

So today, I present the latest Southwest Airlines promotion, with decent prices to a number of getaways. They look higher, on the surface, than they used to, but that's just because all of the hidden gotchas (taxes and fees) are now front and center. (Bravo to the Department of Transportation for that!)

Among the cut-rate couplings are:
  • Albany-Baltimore or Detroit-Baltimore: $69 each way
  • Albuquerque-Austin: $109 each way
  • Austin-Seattle: $156 each way
  • Birmingham-St. Louis: $69 each way
  • Boise-Portland: $69 each way

And here's the small print made bold: you must book by 11:59 March 15 to get a cut rate fare, and you can only fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between April 3 and June 13 at these rates.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Farewell to the Grenadines

For this final St. Vincent and the Grenadines blog, I'm going to concentrate on what's undoubtedly the most thrilling experience in a region filled with exceptional adventures: sailing through the Tobago Cayes.

No, we haven’t jumped to another country. The Tobago Cayes aren’t in Trinidad and Tobago. They are St. Vincent’s maritime national park, a collection of uninhabited, idyllic islands surrounded by some of the most fertile reefs on the planet.

One can take a day cruise to the Tobago Cayes from every island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but I did so in the most logical way: from Palm Island which is just a half-hours sail from the national park. (Another near-in option is Union Island).

Palm Island beach and pier
Palm Island is a private island resort that boasts around 70 guest rooms and 20 villas for rent. It’s not as upscale as Mustique, where meals are taken on white linens to the accompaniment of tinkling glasses and quiet laughter. Here, a local guy with a guitar makes dinner a reggae party, and beat-heavy Caribbean tunes are piped in for other meals and at the always crowded bar. The décor of the rooms and public spaces is also a bit more pedestrian but so too, thankfully, are the prices. Ignore what you see on the Palm Island website. By booking a package here, one that includes airlift, room, and all meals and drinks, its possible to shave hundreds of dollars off the published rates, dropping the price, in some cases, to about $500 per couple per night. In this part of the world and with this many inclusions (airfare, lodgings, tennis courts, gym, small golf course, and yes, unlimited and unwatered down booze and food) that ain’t bad.

But back to the Tobago Cayes and their enchantments. Nitty gritty details first: A daylong tour by catamaran, including a nice lunch, snorkel gear and guides, comes to $90 per person from most outfits.

Most cruises start in Mayreaux, the smallest of the nation’s inhabited islands. Visitors are let off on a bar-laden beach, where the welcome is relaxed and not at all pushy (unlike other areas of the Caribbean, which I won’t name here, vendors wait for you to come up to them. They don’t dog your footsteps or shout at you to buy).

On Mayreaux one swims for an hour, explores the little island, or if you're lucky, watch the Cirque-du-Soleil-like show being put on by the kite boarders who use the cove just behind the main beach. After strapping on special surf boards, they let loose a C-shaped, 10-foot long kite. It billows up almost immediately, whipping the kite boarders this way and that, on the water and flying above it at times. (In another lifetime, one in which I’m physically coordinated, I’d like to master kiteboarding. It looks like a hoot).

From Mayreaux visitors head out towards the reefs. I apologize that I didn’t have an underwater camera with me, so you’ll just have to take my word for how spectacular the ocean life is here. You snorkel in shallow water so close to the top of the reefs you have to arch your back to keep from touching them (or at least I felt I had to). And as you float above, schools of iridescent fish scoot by below. Because feeding the fish is illegal here, they don’t swarm you as they do in Hawaii. Instead, you get to watch these creatures interact with one another in a natural, unforced manner. The Grenadines are known as the “critter capital” of the Caribbean, so part of the excitement of snorkeling here is seeing all of the miniscule little creatures floating this way and that. Rare in other parts of the world, these worms, sea horses and other tiny beings are so abundant here they’re easy to spot even when one’s snorkeling rather than scuba diving.

As exciting, one also makes a stop at the turtle feeding grounds to snorkel among these massive and ancient creatures (some as old as 200 years, scientists now believe).

I’ll leave you with a view of the island used in Pirates of the Caribbean for the shipwreck scenes. If I had to be stranded anywhere, this stretch of the Caribbean would certainly be my choice.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Musings on Mustique

"Mustique"--if you'd tried to come up with a name appropriate for an island crawling with celebrities, it would have been hard to do better, don't you think? Yes, this is that glamland you've read about in Us Weekly and People Magazine. Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger call it home for part of the year (both are villa owners here), Kate and William chose it for their latest romp several weeks ago, and in the past few months the island has hosted the likes of Bill Gates, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.

Why do these bold-faced named choose Mustique? No doubt part of the reason is its intolerance towards paparazzi. They simply aren't allowed on the island. The island's two hotels and villa rental association won't take their calls, not that many would be able to convince their editors to pay the high nightly rates on the island.

Basil Charles at his indoor/outdoor bar
Or at least that's one of the reasons Basil Charles (pictured) gave me, when I had the pleasure of interviewing him at the famed Basil's Bar. A man who just about defines the word "charming" he goes on the defensive when his famous customers are disturbed, personally confiscating cameras from anyone who tries to enter his bar with one. (Camera phones are making his life more difficult nowadays).

Charles also filled me in on the other reason the 1% loves this place and that has to do with a well-timed gift back in the 1960's. Colin Tennant (aka the Baron of Glenconner) was then the owner of the island, and he decided to give his old flame Princess Margaret a plot of land as a wedding gift. It was a major marketing coup. The cachet of having a royal in residence soon persuaded other wealthy types to come, and bingo! In no time at all, the creation and expansion of mansions was giving full-time work to a cadre of 500 construction workers.

They're homes that would make Kubla Khan jealous. And hoi polloi like you and me, well, if we can't afford to stay in them, at least we can tour them when they're between guests. Almost all of which accept rentals (Want in? Two bedrooms start at "just" $10,000 a week and it goes up from there, though that includes a live-in staff and use of a souped-up golf cart to get around the island). I visited a handsome, infinity-pool bedecked one with a design that gave a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright; and another (pictured) that took its inspiration from Moroccan architecture. I wasn't sure if I was allowed to photograph it, hence the odd angle of the photo.

Its not just the 1% who come here, of course. Many arrive in pleasure boats (only those that debark less than 50 passengers are allowed) to spend the day on idyllic Macaroni Beach (pictured above). Why is a beach named for a pasta? It isn't. Apparently, there were two popular local brothers named Mac and Ronnie who liked to hang here. You get the picture.

Beyond the usual beach combing, swimming, and snorkeling, visitors to the island play tennis, ride horses, visit the small museum at the Cotton House hotel (formerly a Cotton Plantation; the museum holds artifacts from both Mustique's Carib and colonial past), get wonderful treatments at the spa (I indulged in a "Complete Luxury Coconut treatment that may well have been the most relaxing spa experience I've ever had) and tan, tan, tan.

More to come tomorrow.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Museum Visits Across Italy

I need to take a break from my coverage of St. Vincent and the Grenadines today to cover a much-appreciated yearly happening on the Boot. Called the Settima de la Cultura its the one week a year when all of the state-run museums in Italy--and they're a wonder!--open their doors free of charge to the public.

This year, the week will be occurring April 14-22. For a list of the included museums, click here (alas, the text is in Italian, but its not too difficult to figure out).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More From St. Vincent's

I apologize. I know I promised to do Mustique today, but I wanted to cover two more, lovely adventures that greet visitors to the main island St. Vincent (easily the most affordable of the Grenadines, with nice places like the beachfront Paradise Inn starting at just $70/night).

Before I jetted off to Mustique, I got to take a scenic ride up (and down and up again) the spaghetti of a road that leads from the nation's capital Kingstown to the Caribbean side of the island. This is where the newest resort, Buccament Bay is (I'll be staying there towards the end of this week, and broadcasting our show from there live on Sunday). It also is home to several delightful national parks.

I had the fun of visiting Darkview Falls, a tri-part waterfall that visitors can bathe underneath (it really is a "Calgon Take Me Away!" moment). The climbs to the second and third falls are challenging (my calves are complaining today) but with the reward of great views and lots of critter spotting. While up there, I almost got a praying mantiss to stand on my hand--it flew away, something I didn't know it could do. We also spotted a rare crab hawk, lots of beady eyed iguanas and fluttering iguanas.

A major part of the experience is the test of courage that's required to cross the hanging bridge, created from slippery bamboo stalks.

St. Vincent's is also blessed with dozens of petroglyphs, many millennia old. Here's a happy one I saw, located on a massive rock next to a stream. Archeologists argue as to their meaning. Some say they were meant as maps, others feel they have religious significance. But this one looks like an invitation to a really lovely party, don't you think?

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Exploring the Grenadines

For the last two days, I've been on St. Vincent and Young Island in the Caribbean. Here's why:

St. Vincent is still a largely agricultural island, very different than the cookie-cutter tourist Caribbean. The Mesopatamian Valley (pictured here and named by the British) serves as the "grocery store" for many of the neighboring islands, its fertile, volcanic soil used to grow most everything: bananas, potatoes, corn, pumpkin, you name it. The volcano shrouded with mist in this photo erupted in the late 1970's. Though locals here don't expect it to erupt again in their lifetimes (and frankly, I don't know the reason why), they note that the richness that ash cloud bestowed on their soil even helped their neighbors. Barbados apparently got a dusting and produced record breaking crops that year.

As you can see, some of the beaches are of black, volcanic sand. Soft to the touch, it glitters like fairy dust in the sun. This quiet beach--one of many unpopulated ones on the island--is covered with wood from a recent storm system that brought down a number of trees. St. Vincent is uniquely blessed in the Caribbean, in that its never been hit by the eye of a hurricane (another reason to pick it--safety!) but it has experienced the heavy rain and tidal surges that come from nearby storms.

The beach shown above is actually attached to a National Park housing a historic site called Black Point Tunnel--a massive tunnel, blasted by a plantation owner to allow the transport of his sugar crop to a harbor in which boats could land. An impressive engineering feat in its day, the tunnel cost $5000 to create, a number that translates into millions of dollars today. Walking it is quite spooky, as you see the prison-like interior room where the guards had to sleep, making sure no-one stole the sugar while bats swoop overhead.

Nearby was St. Vincent's Botanical Gardens. The oldest in the hemisphere, the contain saplings of breadfruit trees brought here centuries ago by the HMS Bounty (yes, that infamous ship).

I stayed not on the mainland but on Young Island, a tiny outcropping just a 2-minute ferry ride from the shore. Its where Keira Knightly and Johnny Depp bunked during the making of Pirates of the Caribbean (it was largely filmed on St. Vincent). The hotel has only bungalows and these serve not only as guestrooms but also open air ones make up the terrific on-site restaurant and bar. The hotel also has tennis courts, a pool and board-game room.

It also has its own little white sand beach as you can see, with a swim-up bar. 

I'll report tomorrow from Mustique.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Boffo Jaffa: Tel Aviv's Most Creative Neighborhood

When mythological Greek hero Perseus saved Princess Andromeda from the sea beast, he did so in the port of Jaffa. Look out into the harbor and you’ll see the rock she was supposedly chained to, near a long trail of stones jutting from the water, the remains of the dragon’s tail according to local legend. Biblical Jonah also made an appearance, sailing forth to tangle with the whale from here, as did the New Tdisciple Peter who resurrected the widow Tabitha and experienced visions about dietary laws in Jaffa. And those cedars from Lebanon used to build King Solomon’s temple? They were shipped into this very harbor.

The only famous tale that doesn’t seem to have some landmark associated with it in Jaffa is that of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. And yet it’s this myth that may be most emblematic of Jaffa today.

A mere decade ago this once-celebrated seafaring town was a slum, its old town crumbling, its residents scared to leave their homes due to the area’s high crime rate. Starting in the mid-90’s, however, the government of Tel Aviv (Jaffa is now a neighborhood of that younger city) began pouring money into Jaffa’s redevelopment, with some $100 million shekels (approximately $26 million dollars) for the revitalization of the port area alone. Crews cleared out the massive mounds of trash that used to blight squares, and the government encouraged artists to move into the buildings of the Old Town.

Today, Jaffa’s the poster child for urban renewal, an area so vital, so joyous it’s become a must on the Tel Aviv tourist trail.

That ebullience comes, most potently, from Jaffa’s artistic community, which has dotted the old city (arguably the most beautiful in Israel) with works of public art. A favorite is the live orange tree that artist Ran Morin suspended about two feet off the ground in one cobbled courtyards. Yes, one can see the cables holding the tree, but the effect is magical nonetheless.

Julian Roux at work
Visitors see art being made at both the Hand Factory (15 Netiv Amazalot St.) and at Adelina Plastelina (23 Netiv Hamazalot St.). At the first, owner Julian Roux sits in a corner of the gallery drawing Bosch-esque visions of modern life. Chat him up—for a guy who paints dystopias, he’s a very friendly and accessible fellow. Nearby is the little factory for polymer clay goods (jewelry, household items) mentioned above. Along with watching the artisans at work, a highlight here is the tiny museum the owners have created in back, which showcases the archeological finds (from the 2nd century BC) they accidentally dug up when renovating their basement in 2006.

And one cannot leave Jaffa without enjoying a serene interlude at the Ilana Goor Museum (4 Mazal Dagim St.), a 250-year-old house that’s now a museum but also serves as a residence for this internationally recognized artist. I could have hung out on the sculpture-packed terrace at the top of the house all afternoon, simply enjoying the views of the sea and Tel Aviv in the distance. But then I might have missed Goor’s extraordinary collection on the other floors, which includes her own art and furniture, a masterpiece-laden assortment of African sculptures as well as works by such Goor pals as Henry Moore and Francisco Zuniga.
My Shaksuka

Not all artists are visual artists, of course, and Jaffa boasts one of the most unusual theaters and dinner experiences in Israel, if not the world. Called the Nalaga’at Center, it presents shows written and performed by its troupe of blind and deaf performers. In the same waterfront complex is Black Out, a restaurant in which diners have their meal entirely in the dark, served by blind waiters. Though it sounds hokey, dining here and seeing a show may be one of the most profound, moving experiences you’ll have in Israel.

I’ve focused on the artistic side of Jaffa, but of course the town’s overflowing with delightful cultural and historic experiences, from walking tours (head to for a list of free ones) to the shopping frenzy at Jaffa’s chaotic flea market to eating at one of  many excellent restaurants here. On that last item, I’ll put a plug in for Dr. Shaksuka (4 Beit Eshel St.), which serves up Libyan tomato casseroles with poached eggs on top and a choice of dozens of inclusions. If you’ve ever thought kosher food was bland, you’ll change your mind after digging into one of these fiery, vivacious stews.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Puerto Rico's Answer to the All Inclusive

One of the more unexpected pronouncements the late Pope John  Paul II made was against all-inclusive resorts. He didn't disapprove of them because he felt that they were dens of vice, or any such thing. Instead, he reasoned--quite logically--that they hurt local economies, and therefor should be avoided. In too many areas where all inclusives have sprung up, local restaurants and shops suffer because the tourists who once roamed far beyond the gates of their hotels now stayed put.

Puerto Rico, trying to safeguard its vibrant culinary scene and the ability of its people to become small business owners has disallowed all inclusives. But, because the officials there understand that this puts them at a disadvantage when competing with cruiseships and such all inclusive-laden destinations as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, they've created a compormise.

Called "Puerto Rico Zest", its a dine around program. Quite simply, visitors can dine in restaurants across the island and know they can get a three-course meal for just $25 at all the participating restaurants (which are listed on the site). So instead of being stuck in a mediocre buffet at some all inclusive, they get sit down service at their choice of eateries. At almost all the eateries kids menus are available. Full info is available here.

Puerto Rico is also the site of the Caribbean's longest running food festival the Saborea, which will be taking place this year on April 21 and 22. Yum!

Friday, March 2, 2012

An Invitation: Please Join Me and My Father This Weekend at the New York Times Travel Show

My father, Rick Steves & me at last years show
Yes, that's right, we've hit the big time!

Dad and I will be speaking twice this Saturday, at 11am and 3pm. In between, we'll be signing books and taking questions one on one.

But beyond us, the New York Times promises to have a wide range of exceptional experts in all fields of travel from the emerging Cuban market to specialists in travel for women. Among the big names at the show are Samantha Brown, Seth Kugel (the NY Times' Frugal Traveler columnist), Adam Richman, and Patricia Schultz (of 1000 Places to See Before You Die).

And bring the kids (who get in free!). There will be all kinds of activities just for them, plus cooking demonstrations, cultural performances and more.

For full information, click here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A New Hotel Chain for Health Conscious Travelers

In 1951, a real estate developer named Kemmons Wilson decided to take his family on a road trip. Disgusted by the conditions he found at the often tawdry motels he had to stay in on the road, he decided to get into the hospitality business. In 1952, he opened the first Holiday Inn. Its premise--that travelers could have a clean, well-maintained room with access to a pool and could bunk their entire family in one room without additional charges (previous motels had charged by the person)--was such a hit, that he was able to expand. Now there are thousands of Holiday Inns, and the parent company IHG owns a number of other chains.

Always the pioneer, IHG announced this week that it would be creating a new type of hotel, one that I think will attract as many tourists as the original Holiday Inn did. Called "Even", the hotels will have a health and fitness emphasis, yet unlike other hotel chains that make a big deal about their exercise equipment, Even will be for the value-minded traveler. The nightly rate will be on the affordable Hilton Garden Inn or Hyatt Place level.

In media interviews, the founders have promised that these new properties will have better-than-usual fitness facilities which will be featured front and center. Guests will be reminded that they should be working out because they'll see the workout room from the lobby as they check in. 

On the healthy food side, mini smoothies will be a breakfast option and the hotels will pass on vending machines. Meaning fewer 2am soda and chips temptations for stressed business travelers.

The location of the first Even hotel will be announced this spring. IHG hopes to open several hundred Even properties in the next five years.

As a road warrior who's constantly fighting the battle of the bulge, I, for one, am heartened by this news. Even: I may be one of your first customers!