Category Archives: North America

On My Itinerary: Oh, CANADA!

Jon has never been to Canada, other than the time he rowed over the border in a canoe during summer camp (I guess the borders of Wisconsin aren’t well-protected). So to mark off another country on his list, we’re driving up from Maryland through Amish country (PA) and the heart of New York towards Niagara Falls, then onto Toronto for a quick three-day roadtrip.

photo by Saffron Blaze

Jon has never been to Niagara Falls either, whereas I apparently visit it at least once a decade. This will mark my third time to the falls, and each time the area becomes more and more middle-America (or, middle-Canada). Today it is a destination spot for roadtrippers, luring businesses to its convention center and with the addition of many Falls-front hotel chains, like Marriott, Hilton, Embassy Suites, etc. etc. Many of these have hotel rooms with full views of the falls, which is kind of cool, so we booked one. There’s even a casino scene,  and you know you’ve reached the ultimate roadtrip destination when there’s a Great Wolf Lodge (an indoor waterpark hotel resort, yes). And all your favorite destination eateries: Rainforest Cafe, Hard Rock Cafe, Tony Romas, Outback Steakhouse, etc.

From there we will drive through the Niagara-on-the-Lake region, known for its wine and then into Toronto, which will be my second time there, which is actually a really cool city if it wasn’t in the middle of Canada. Jon is excited for the Hockey Hall of Fame and I for the walking tours where I can put my new camera to work.

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On My Itinerary: Culebra, Puerto Rico!

Over the Xmas holiday, we’ll be jetting off to the island of Culebra off Puerto Rico, with its crystal-clear water and white sand beaches. It’s one of the top diving spots in the world. It’s too bad I or any of my family traveling with me do not dive, but we’ll be snorkeling from above. I’ll be getting my whole family personal masks and mouthpieces for Christmas, so we no longer have to rent equipment that hundreds of other people have spat and chewed on before us. (This is also a test to see which of my family members actually read my blog and now learned their Christmas gift).
In any case, it has been quite an ordeal to book a flight to Culebra. Usually when traveling to the Caribbean, you fly through San Juan to connect – but for some reason, flying to San Juan itself is requiring a change of planes. We’ll be taking Spirit Air with its carry-on baggage fees and all (but all you need is a swimsuit and book, right?) and then switching in Miami. We have to figure out the second leg to Culebra – you can opt for a puddle jumper, or the ferry, which takes longer and ends up costing about the same after you factor in taxi fare to the ferry and everything.
Anyhow, I’ll keep everyone posted about this upcoming trip and the ins-and-outs of traveling to our favorite U.S. territory. Stay tuned!

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On My Itinerary: we’re driving to Chicago

Hark. We’re driving to Chicago. In a car. From Baltimore. I don’t know why this is such news, considering I did this route many times between St. Louis – New York during college, and Chicago- New York during graduate school, and even Los Angeles- New York when I moved out west. But perhaps now that I’m no longer 19 years old, the concept of driving all night (“ROADTRIP!!!”) is no longer as exciting. I mean, what’s wrong with an airplane? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with an airplane: it would have cost us more than $700 total to jet to Chicago for the weekend for Jon’s friend’s wedding, thanks to airline mergers, fewer seats, higher prices, overbooking, summer vacation and the recession.

So we’re driving. (Also because the in-laws really want us to take things from the basement to our house.) The trip is slightly shorter than if we left from New York (12 hours), which is good, and cuts down the time winding through Pennsylvania significantly, which is also good, but we’ll still have to contend with the long stretch of Ohio, which is bad and boring. I’m contemplating making a few stops in Amish country, and maybe even in Cleveland after seeing the hilarious video about the city which was so funny, I’ve had to post it here.

However, I have learned quite a bit about driving long distances, which I’m happy to share here.

1. Check your oil, tire pressure, windshield wiper fluid, brakes, battery, etc. It helps to have your car in good shape before you head out.

2. Use RainX on your windshield. Especially in winter. The directions say to “squeeze a small amount on a cloth and wipe” but the actual directions should be “squeeze large amount all over windshield, then use a lot of paper towels to rub it until no more streaks show.”

3. If you’re packing a full trunk, make sure you can access your spare easily. My friend was stuck unloading her truck in the middle of an Arizona desert and putting her laundry, fax machine, bedding and pillows on the highway after a flat.

4. Keep a phone charger in your car.

5. Don’t play the see-how-far-your-car-can-drive after the gas light goes on. Fill up before it reaches the E.

6. Have kids in the car? Read this blog entry I wrote a couple weeks ago.

7. Keep Wet-Ones and napkins/ paper towels within reach. And a plastic bag to act as a trash collector.

8.  Switch drivers often. Drink coffee. Eat beef jerky and carrots. Sing songs together. Contemplate short-term and long-term life plans. Listen to weird religious talk radio in other states. It’s an educational and cultural way to learn about our country.

More importantly, we’re headed to KENYA and TANZANIA the weekend after, so stayed tuned for the more exciting updates on that (I assure you, they will be more interesting than the blog entry about the cheese we try in Dutch Pennsylvania).

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In the Suitcase: Much Ado about (driving into) Manhattan

I do this every time I go into Manhattan, even when I lived there. I think, you know what, I’m going to drive there. I’m going to deal with the snarled traffic on the FDR and try this new trick by taking the Willis Avenue bridge, or if I’m coming from New Jersey, I’ll be lucky and there won’t be any traffic going through the tunnels. And then, I’ll find parking within reasonable walking distance to my destination. Of course I’m always, ALWAYS fooling myself.

Tip: don’t try to bring a car into Manhattan. Take public transportation.

When I lived in Manhattan, I compared it to Hotel California – you can check out anytime but you can never leave. And no wonder. If you’ve ever tried to leave Manhattan through the tunnels or the George Washington bridge, it can be so awful that you consider giving up and staying stuck on this island forever.

Getting into Manhattan costs money. How much money? Well, if you’re from New Jersey or south, you get to pay $8 to cross the Hudson. $8!! And about 30 minutes of your life sitting in traffic waiting to go through. And, as my friend Grace recently pointed out, you risk your life each time you go through those tunnels, eeking through those tunnels like toothpaste in a tube. Who knows what could happen down there, under the Hudson River, with nowhere to swim or run? I tried not to think about it as I edged my way into the city this past Memorial Day.

Then there’s the issue of parking. You can circle for hours, literally, especially since you can’t turn on red anywhere in the city and pedestrians take up all your green light time. If you do score a spot, you have to make sure it’s not a street-sweeping day, or a meter that will expire within an hour and there will be a meter maid standing there waiting for your meter to tick to 0. She’ll probably have your ticket written out in advance. Then you are always worrying whether someone has broken into your car and/ or driven it away. Or, you can park your car for $35 for the first few hours in some lot.

Heed my advice. Take the subway/ PATH/ Metro North/ Long Island Railroad/ New Jersey Transit/ Amtrak/ the bus into Manhattan. You can even park & ride. Here are some links to those forms of public transit.

PATH (to/from New Jersey)

Metro North Railroad (to/ from Westchester or as my cousin Sean says, the “Bestchester”, Connecticut and upstate)

Long Island Railroad (to/from Queens and Long Island, or as my friend Steve calls it, “Strong Island”)

New Jersey Transit (to/from NJ, duh)

Boltbus (to/from NY, Boston, Philly, Baltimore and DC)

Amtrak (Eastern Corridor and nationwide)

Photo credit: www.tysto.com.

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Chomping Around Town: Philadelphia Cheesesteaks

We were in Philadelphia this past weekend for a retreat with Jon’s department. The last time I had been in Philadelphia, other than a quick trip last fall to a spa for a story in DAYSPA magazine, was in 1994, when my sister was graduating from college. That was probably around the same time Jon had last been in Philly, on a school trip to visit America’s great beginnings (imagine the poor teachers who had to supervise hundreds of kids on an airplane!) In any case, both of us did not feel obligated to re-visit the Liberty Bell or the Franklin Institute with its giant heart.

Instead, Jon’s only requirement was to hunt down the best Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

The problem was that we would only end up at one because there’s only so many cheesesteaks one can eat in a weekend. So, would it be Jim’s, or Pat’s? Tony Luke’s or Geno’s? Those four cheesesteak creators were apparently topping the lists from Jon’s research, which included a visit to this comprehensive cheesesteak site, a consultation with his friend David, a former Philly resident and adoring food consumer, and the concierge at the Sofitel in Philadelphia.

In the end, we couldn’t find parking near any of them except Jim’s, so Jim won. However, I gather they are all very similar experiences: long lines and waits. Pictures of celebrities, mostly from the 80’s, standing with Jim/Pat/Tony/Geno. Low-maintenance eating area. Perhaps giant cans of Kraft Cheez Whiz lining the wall with cans of mushrooms. The sounds of metal spatulas chopping up steaks on the stove and cooks yelling out orders.

We ordered cheesesteaks with provolone, peppers, onions and mushrooms with ketchup squeezed on top. And the verdict: Jon thought it was tasty, but he didn’t think it was any better than the ones served at the Hoagie Hut in Chicago. Though I’m really not a hoagie or cheesesteak connoiseur, I also admit I did not think it warranted all the hunting for parking spaces and waiting. It wasn’t like there were any hidden or secret ingredients in the steaks: plain steak browned with onions and peppers and canned mushrooms. New York has its advantage of high-fluoride water to make the best bagels and pizza, Boston has its swarm of Maine lobsters and clams to make New England chowda, and Chicago has its audience who desire deep-dish pizzas. Sorry, Philly, you’re going to have to try a little harder.

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Getting Lost In: San Diego!

Really, there is nothing quite like touching down in 75-degree weather when the rest of the country is experiencing a cold spell, even in Miami (24 degrees?!).  And after staring down from your plane window at miles and miles of white squares across the whole country, it’s no wonder that southern California has its share of tanned airheads – no cold front to bring them back down to earth, even for a short winter.

Not that I’m complaining, as we were thrilled to arrive even into a 50-degree evening into LAX. We took our rental car down the next day to San Diego to visit my friend Josh, who recently moved near La Jolla (the posh part of town).  San Diego is an incredibly beachy town, and the residents move there to surf and play beach volleyball, or because they’re stationed at Camp Pendleton, or because they are doing their residency at UCSD medical school. But visitors come for more than just the beach. Because I haven’t frequented San Diego enough, there’s always something new to see or do in this beautiful weather and town to make a daytrip worthwhile.

Sea World/ San Diego Zoo/ Wild Animal Park. These are San Diego’s staples (next to the beach), good ways to pass an entire day and spend $70 in one place, especially if you have little ones. Sea World is even more interesting just because it has aquatic creatures and you’re near the ocean, so if you’ve never been, it may be worth the visit. Kiddos 3-9 are only $59! The Zoo costs less – $37 for adults, $27 for kids 3-11, and you can get a $70 pass to both Zoo and Wild Animal Park ($50 for kids) or even a combination Zoo-Wild-Sea for $121 ($99). The Wild Animal Park allows you to wander among the animals and pet giraffes who roam freely, while the zoo houses the famous and adorable pandas.

Torrey Pines State Reserve. For some easy and incredibly scenic hikes along the cliffs above the ocean (beware of crashing cliffs!), head to Torrey Pines State Park. Dramatic cliffs, caves and erosion that makes it look like Bryce Canyon line this coastal area, where softball-sized seaweed and smooth rocks dot the beach. The beach is also packed down enough for runners to have a long length of running course. It’s $10 to park inside, but if you park your car in the lot right outside the entrance, you can walk on in for free.

Watching harbor seals on the beach. At Casa Beach in La Jolla, many friendly seals ork their way onto the sandy shores to tan in the sunshine. This area can be roped off in winter when the pups are born, but still visible.

Gas Lamp Quarter. Now here is a wonderful example of a city really pushing its revitalization efforts (San Antonio’s Riverwalk; Culver City, Calif; downtown St. Louis, Missouri). Fortunately, it’s a little less Disney-like than what some other cities have done.  A walkable, slightly touristy, slightly trendy historic neighborhood lets you park your car and roam through the restaurants, bars and shopping scene. There are plenty of fine dining options, but I’d like to plug Acqua Al 2 (322 5th Ave, 619-230-0382) which is famous for its blueberry steak. I have actually only been to its other location in Florence, Italy, and if the food is anything as phenomenal as it was there, then you’re in for a tremendous culinary experience.

Las Americas outlet shopping. It’s home to all your favorite outlet stores, and includes one of few Neiman Marcus Last Call outlets (anyone want a pair of Jimmy Choo for $100?). But what’s mostly fun about this place is its proximity to the Mexican border, where you can see the Mexican flag waving large and proud on the other side. 

Wavehouse. Okay, so the ocean is right across the street, but there’s the Wavehouse at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, featuring the Flow Rider. It’s a wave machine on which you ride either a boogie board or a little skateboard without wheels. There’s also an outdoor bar and dining scene surrounding the Flow Riders, and occasional concerts and parties. I’ve experienced riding one during my days as editor of Aquatics International, and was pretty terrible at it. While you’ll probably wipe out endless times before you get the hang of it, it sure beats riding that rickety wooden roller coaster next door which left me bruised and very sore.

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Getting Lost In: The Outer Banks, North Carolina!

IMG_4909Only until a year ago did I even hear of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And it’s still under debate whether it’s a series of islands or a peninsula and an island; nevertheless, it is basically a very skinny strip of land where, at some points, you can stand at the middle of a residential hill and view the ocean on one side, the sound on the other.

IMG_4846The Outer Banks are flanked by beaches on both sides and crashing waves, with enormous houses wrapped in wood shingles and wearing outdoor decks like inner tubes, where the upstairs is downstairs and the downstairs is upstairs and about five or more families can all stay together under one roof. We were fortunate to get my IMG_5009friend Sara’s family’s vacation property in the northern town of Duck, and they have a pool and hot tub, and two decks, and ocean views, and a hammock, and a giant picture window on the main floor with a shipswatch corner, and all the wonderful things that should be found within a dreamy vacation house. We added our bikes and Mother Nature added some excellent autumn sunshine to round it all out. If you plan on a similar trip, you should do the same.

Eat. We went looking for coffee at Cravings (1209 Duck Road) in Duck and found some delicious fried fish and southern BBQ sandwiches instead. I had the crabcake sandwich. We also dined out at The Blue Point Bar & Grill (1240 Duck Road), which was like a 50’s diner with views and upscale food. I tried the trout on a bed of sweet potatoes. It was delicious. The day before our half-marathon, my friend Jen found herself drinking beers and eating buckets of peel-and-eat shrimp at the Sugar Shack (7640 S Virginia Dare Trail) in Nags Head.

Sites.  I admit, I never really quite understood what a “dune” was and finally discovered it for the first time. IMG_5021A dune is like a mountain of sand that stretches like a desert, but isn’t as dry, but is just as impressive.  Jockey’s Ridge State Park gives you a really great idea of what being stranded in a desert would be like, except it’s more like a giant beach with the ocean far away. People brought kites and snowboards – yes, snowboards, and boogie boards – to go riding down the hills of sand (people with bloody sand burns were spotted, too). Sunset is an impressive time of day to see the dunes. The Wright Brothers National Memorial pays tribute to the nation’s “first in flight” – also North Carolina’s state motto, which has brought controversy with Ohio, where the Wright Brothers’ bike shop was IMG_5066located and where the airplane was built, making Ohio the “Birthplace of aviation”. If history interests you, you can also check out some stuff in Roanoke and learn about Virginia Dare, the first English person to be born in America, as well as the Lost Colony, which apparently (I never knew this before) was a settlement where all the people left and nobody knew where they went. To this day, they still haunt the island. Actually I don’t know if that last part is true, but there is an outdoor theater musical going on in the Outer Banks re-enacting the Lost Colony.

Play. Biking  along route 12’s bike path is another great way to check out the sites and get some leisurely exercise. IMG_4928The road is fairly flat and easy, unless the winds off the ocean work against you. If you’re a runner, as a very large number of us were this particular weekend for the marathon and half-marathon race, it’s a lovely course for that as well. Of course, playing on the beach is one of the main reasons people come here in summer, and even in autumn it’s still wonderful. Jon attempted an ocean swim which lasted all of one minute, and we gathered numerous seashells with my niece and tried to identify them against a guide to local seashells we found in Sara’s house.

Shop. Outer Banks has your fair share of kitschy vacation souvenir and swimsuit shops, but there are a few gems around. Island Bookstore is a favorite of Sara’s, but I didn’t get to stop in. Knitting Addiction  in Kitty Hawk was recommended to me by a fellow writer/ knitter who understands the horrific habit of dropping many bills on irresistable colors, textures and varieties of yarn so fortunately for me, I had arrived by bike and with no wallet. There’s also some outlet shopping further south.

 Of course, there’s always just sitting on the deck with a cold cocktail or beer in hand and watching the ocean waves roll for hours on end. What’s the rush? It’s the south, after all. And it’s the Outer Banks. Aaaah.

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