Archive for the ‘U.S.’ Category

Well Hello N’Awlins

January 8, 2012

If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you probably have a vision in your mind of live, boisterous jazz; females with semi-loose morals begging for colorful beaded necklaces; gawking men hanging from balconies in the French Quarter with said necklaces; and – essentially – debauchery galore.

You’d be right.

But you may not know about some of its other charms:  incredible mansions, horse-drawn carriages, old-time trolleys, multi-level wrought-iron balconies overflowing with lush plant life, rich history and even a cemetery that looks romantic in the rain.   New Orleans can offer a completely different experience if you’re aged 22, 42 or 102 – and there is certainly something for everyone.  On a long weekend trip to this famed locale – my first ever – I was determined to experience it like I was ageless.  That meant a fair share of jazz clubs, fried seafood, museums, mansions, shopping, iconic New Orleans concoctions (both liquid and solid), some…let’s say “bead-related activities,” and all around general soaking in of the culture.

The French Quarter is defined by hundreds of balconies that are truly charming and truly New Orleans

In doing research for this trip, TripAdvisor was again a go-to resource for finding moderately priced and conveniently located lodgings.  James and I (and our traveling companions Mike and Laura) settled on the one-of-a-kind Le Pavillon Hotel just a few blocks outside the French Quarter.  This iconic hotel – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – is over the top with massive crystal chandeliers, a rooftop cabana oasis, highly attentive service, and is certainly worth a try if you want that old-time Louisiana feel.  And who wouldn’t want to be treated at 10pm every night with a complimentary peanut butter and jelly bar, ice cold milk and hot chocolate?  Click here for the back story on that one!

Le Pavillon Hotel Lobby

I’m also lucky to know a few people who are originally from Louisiana, and were more than happy to offer up suggestions of “must do’s” in New Orleans.  The lists were actually a mile long – and those were just the highlights of the city!  You can’t really go wrong whether you focus on eating, drinking, sightseeing – or all three.  A couple of my don’t miss suggestions:

Cafe au lait and fresh beignets (glorified donuts) at Cafe Du Monde.  Here’s a tip – bypass the long line (can you say tourist trap?) – which is actually for take-out – and make your way into the cafe, where you can grab your own table and order from the overly simplified menu.

Beignets and Cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde

 

Order a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House.  First, a little history about Napoleon House – this is a New Orleans landmark made famous when its first occupant, Nicholas Girod (mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815) offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile.  Famously, Napoleon never showed, but the name stuck.  Honestly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but as soon as you step in – if you happen to go when it’s open – you can tell there’s something special about the place.

Napoleon House (credit - NOLA.com)

A Pimm’s Cup is a gin-based mixed beverage with 7-Up and a slice of cucumber – perfectly refreshing on a hot day in New Orleans.  Explore the bar and make sure you try to get a table in the courtyard out back.  And if you really want a treat – order a muffuletta sandwich, which is a New Orleans specialty made on Sicilian bread with a marinated olive spread.

I realize the tips above are both food-related, but I’m probably underplaying the role that food played on this trip.  I’ll share some more highlights from New Orleans soon!

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Took the (Camera) Plunge!

January 24, 2011

It has been so long since I updated this blog – sad!   As Gilly would say….”sorry.”

I finally bought a new camera after months of research – a real, grown-up one beyond a point and shoot that is still compact enough to take on trips and carry around easily.  I decided on the new Canon G12 – it acts like a digital SLR without all the bulk.  It has some pretty neat features, which I tested out on a trip to Boston in November.

Boston Common in Vivid Color

College brochure material, no?

Fisheye fun

Life in Technicolor

"Old Fashioned" function gives images a dated treatment in 5 different grades

I’ve been having a lot of fun with the G12 and look forward to testing it in international waters…who knows when that will be??  No trips on the docket as of now, but stay tuned!

Kauai Revealed…or not

August 11, 2010

I like to think I’m an adventurous person (hey, I’ve been skydiving twice and even did this), but I am constantly reminded what a scaredy cat I really am.  So many things frighten the bejeezus out of me, such as bugs, some varieties of fish, and the thought of falling off a cliff to a rocky death.  Coincidentally, all of these things also make up a trip to Kauai.

Enter Kauai Revealed – one in a set of books written by locals for tourists-who-want-to-feel-like-locals and experience things only those who have spent years exploring the island would know about. The book has special chapters just for those super adventurous people who prefer to risk death over relaxing while on vacation. The most important lesson learned while using this book as a reference is realizing that a Hawaiian’s standard for “adventurous” is likely 10X riskier than yours, wherever you happen to live.  We discovered this while struggling to accomplish even the most basic outing: hiking.

Hiking = walking with a backpack whilst surrounded by trees, no?  Not in Kauai!  This island is home to some of the most extreme hiking trails in the world, including the legendary 22-mile round trip Kalalau Trail along the cliff’s edge of the Na Pali coast:

This is definitely not me.

That one was definitely out of our league, so one day while exploring the island we attempted to find something that was more suitable to our minimal hiking experience (we live in the urban jungle of NYC). The Kauai Revealed book talked about a nice trail that led to the famous Wailua Falls of Fantasy Island fame, but it was supposedly unmarked and therefore unknown to most tourists (and discouraged by officials).  All we had to do was count 100 meters backwards from the guardrail by the falls and there would be an unmarked but well-traveled opening.  After a bit of searching, we found the spot that would seem most obvious, mainly identified by – what else – an open air Jeep.

We assume the Jeep people have the same book we do, so we embark down the trail – and dooooown it goes.  We climb down to the riverbed, grasping onto tree roots and slipping on the clay-like soil. James finds a walking stick the size of a small tree, which saved my life about 4 times.  We finally reach the leafy bottom near the river and follow the water towards the falls.  Easy! Except then the trail kinda sorta disappears. So we try to figure out the most obvious way one would get to the falls (which we could literally hear!), but each route we tried ended in almost falling to our deaths.

While contemplating whether to forge ahead or turn back, we hear noises and realize it’s the people from the open air Jeep.  Lo and behold, an older man and an even older woman come hiking along from the opposite direction. We make polite conversation and ask about the remaining trail, and find out that there is one point that has only ropes to help you traverse a rock wall (hm, totally not mentioned in the Kauai Revealed book) and we also discover that this woman is 82 years old and hiked further than we were able to!  I had to ask her secret (aerobics!), and then we made one more attempt to make it to the falls so we weren’t shown up by an octogenarian (albeit a very likable one).

An 82-yr old woman did this??

Alas, we never made it to the bottom of the falls, but it was such an adventure regardless.  The best part was that the hike uphill from the riverbed was much easier than going down, so we survived!  Maybe next time, we’ll heed the signs from the beginning…

Binoculars – Check!

June 17, 2010

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice (you might remember the dire oversight I made on my trip to Botswana by forgetting binoculars on safari).  In the event of a majestic breach by one of the thousands of Maui humpback whales, I wasn’t going to miss it!

A quick primer on buying a pair of binoculars:

  • What the numbers mean when looking at binoculars: 8X32 essentially means 8X magnification and 32mm lens.
  • Don’t go crazy for magnification – the higher the number, the shakier the view will be.  For whale watching, stick to around 7-12X magnification.
  • The bigger the lens, the more light you will get, but they will also get bulkier the larger you go.
  • We found this Tasco 8X25 pair to be ideal for travel – durable, with a neck strap, and comfort lenses for easy viewing on a moving boat.

Spotting whales from the shore in Maui.

We booked a whale watching cruise through the Pacific Whale Foundation.  The price was super reasonable, and they had several knowledgeable experts explaining the behaviors and biology about humpbacks.  They even dropped a “hydrophone” into the water so we could listen to their whale songs.  Being that it was the very tail-end of the season, we weren’t expecting to see much of anything (however, they do guarantee sightings through May).  We spotted several different groups of whales – first evident by their exhalations (BLOWHOLE!) – typically a mother and her calf, since the calm waters of Maui are ideal for nursing.  Immediately after the blowhole sighting, you’ll see their “humped back” as they swim along, and then after a few exhalations they usually dive back down hundreds of feet under the water.  This is the point at which you’ll see their flukes, or tail. Sometimes they’ll play at the surface and wave a fin in the air, and on very special occasions a whale will excitedly breach above the water. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see this from start to finish close up, but we saw some breaches from far away and caught the tail end of a few.  It must really be a sight to see right by the boat (if you’re as obsessed with whales as I am).

I sooo did not take this photo, but whoever did is a very lucky (and talented) person.

In traveling to Hawaii during whale season – October through May – there’s a good chance you’ll have a sighting just from shore, if not from a whale watch cruise.  You can park along the Maui bay and just wait for the action, like James here:

Waiting....

Even with the clear waters of Maui, it’s still difficult to see the entire creature and appreciate its enormity. I sometimes wish I had the means (and courage) to see a whale up close, but in the meantime I’ll get my fix from Youtube:

Open Air Jeeps Are Awesome….Except When They’re Not

June 4, 2010

When our friends found out we were going to Hawaii, they all said, “You HAVE to rent a Jeep!”  Indeed, Hawaii has a surplus of rugged Jeep Wranglers for your renting pleasure, but before you subscribe to the open-air Jeep fantasy, I need to let you in on the reality.

Do you like power windows?  Air conditioning?  Power locks? Shocks? Air conditioning?  How about not getting rained on? Do you like that?  Then, don’t rent a Jeep.

Now, I’m not a car snob – I don’t even own a car – but, when you’re renting a vehicle on vacation, those simple pleasures can make the difference between not even thinking about your mode of transportation (preferred) to locking 3 out of 4 doors when you have your dad’s borrowed GPS stuck to the dashboard (oops).

But let’s talk about rain, because that was the main reason our rented Jeep became the bane of our Maui existence.  When we planned the trip, we had visions of open-air Jeep-ing through the mountains and along the coastline.  Exhibit A:

From an actual car rental brochure...so not as awesome as it looks.

But, we didn’t actually think about the unzipping/tucking/pulling/folding part of the Jeep. Do any city folk know how to make their Jeep a top-down dream in 1-2-3 steps? Not that I know of.  While driving along the climate-surprise Road to Hana, the best we could do was to unzip the sides flaps and as soon as we figured that out, some random clouds rolled in and the rain started.  So we pulled over and zipped everything back up.  Then the sun came out and it was 90 degrees in the Jeep within 5 minutes.  So we rolled the windows down and then up, based upon whether it was raining, sunny or windy. Despite our climate control issues, the scenery in Maui usually made us forget that we hated that Jeep:

Clouds...and rain.

Wait, now it's sunny! Roll the windows down!

Oh crap. Look at those clouds around the corner.

......SUN!?

When we got to Kauai, we switched our rental car to something with all the options – A/C, power windows and locks, the works!  It felt like quite a treat after 5 days in a bumpy hotbox.  However, we noticed hundreds of other Jeeps driving around the island – most with their tops and sides all zipped up, likely fresh from a drive through the rain in the mountains.  Amateurs!

Just a tip – you’ll read in some guidebooks that you need 4X4 to navigate the Road to Hana or drive all the way around Maui – not true.  The road is bumpy, but most of it is paved and fairly well-traveled.