We were all packed to go on our kid’s first jaunt to Europe last week when our flight was cancelled because of the volcanic ash. There would be no touring of the Tate Modern or dinners at French bistros, at least for now. Obviously, we were all disappointed when we realized there was no way we could get a flight to Europe over our children’s April break. So we did the next best thing. Got in the car and drove to Manhattan for four days. Instead of Madame Tussauds in London, we visited Madame Tussauds in Times Square. Instead of dining at L’Entrecote in the 17th arrondissement, we dined at the new L’Entrecote at the corner of Lexington and 52nd Street. There is only one item on the menu, steak frites, served tartare, rare, medium, or well-done, and paired perfectly with crispy French fries.
Our favorite day was going down to the Lower East Side to take one of the tours at the Tenement Museum, grab a sour dill from the Pickle Guy at the corner of Essex and Grant, a crème brulee doughnut from Doughnut Plant around the corner, taste the lox at the century-old Russ and Daughters, and then feast on the best pastrami in the city at Katz’s Deli. After lunch, we ran into the artist Shepard Fairey, creating his latest work on the corner of Houston and the Bowery. An added bonus was seeing Green Day perform live after seeing a performance of “American Idiot,” the new Broadway musical based on their music. In the end, we had a great time and London and Paris will have to wait until the summer. After all, the nature of travel is to be spontaneous.
TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s most trusted travel advice, just came out with their listing of the Top 10 Beach & Sun Destinations in the World. Number one on the list is Providenciales, otherwise known as Provo, in the Turks & Caicos. What a joke! I last went to Provo to write a scuba diving story on this Caribbean locale for Islands Magazine. Except for a sublime stretch of beach that was crowded with many overpriced hotels, I found the place to be another one of those scruffy islands in the Caribbean with no mountains, no waterfalls, no tropical allure, no beauty. It’s a culturally void locale where you can pop into the local bar and watch Monday Night Football on TV and feel like you’re back in the States. In fact, my favorite part of the trip was actually leaving the island and going underwater on a far more enchanting dive.
Number five on that same list is Myrtle Beach. This is one of the top beach destinations in the world?! Are you freaken kidding me?! Then there are two locales in Mexico, one in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, San Diego. Sure, they threw in the Cook Islands, Boracay, Philippines, and Byron Bay, Australia, but these are also bizarre choices. The first article I ever sold was on the Cook Islands, so it remains a nostalgic place for me. There’s a nice island trek across Rarotonga, but the landscape is not even in the same league as other South Pacific locales, like the mind-blowing verdant volcanic landscape of Bora Bora or any island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia. As for Byron Bay, it’s a popular place to hang for celebrities, but it can’t compete with the beaches north of Brisbane, like Coolangatta, or the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island.
This list wasn’t made by any one who can remotely call themselves the most trusted voice in travel. Judging from the list of locales, many of which are easy flights from the Northeast, I think it was written by some editor in the corporate offices of TripAdvisor in Boston, who has rarely traveled farther than Fenway Park. TripAdvisor is best used as a reference for hotels once you know exactly where you are going. I would never use them as expert opinion to find a stunning beach locale. Instead toss this list in the garbage and take my trusted expert advice, culled from over 20 years of being a professional travel writer. If you want one of the top beach and sun destinations in the world, start with Capetown, Folegandros, Greece, Kas, Turkey, the Gold Coast north of Brisbane, the Big Island of Hawaii, Savusavu, Fiji, Bahia, Brazil, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, the Seychelles, and yes, Bora Bora!
I just sat down for lunch with Dan Donohue, General Manager at the Lenox Hotel and asked him how the Lenox Hotel earned the number one ranking of all hotels in Boston on TripAdvisor. I always believed these rankings, especially as hotels inch their way to the top, are totally random. But he disagrees. He told me there’s a simple reason the Lenox is the number one hotel in the city--service. When he first took the job at the Lenox, he visited many of the lobbies of other hotels in the city. He sat and watched and realized that hotel employees wouldn’t even say hi to each other, let alone give a gracious nod to their guests. Not at the Lenox. His workers always go up to guests to ask them how their day is going. But what I really like about the Lenox is there’s no extra charge for that water in the mini-bar. There’s no extra charge for Wi-Fi. Guests aren’t nickled and dimed to death. “If a child wants a candy bar,” says Donohue, “we’ll find him one.” I visited two hotels this summer, Wequassett on Cape Cod and The Athenaeum in London, where everything in the mini-bar is free except for that bottle of Moet Chandon and other alcohol. There’s a certain degree of respect between hotel and guest when you’re not charged silly fees for beverages and Wi-Fi. On the other hand, nothing pisses off your guest more than charging them for these basic services after they already paid a decent amount for a night’s stay.
I was guest lecturing at Emerson College in Boston last night when a student asked me how I take notes when I’m out there in the wild, backpacking, canoeing, mountain biking, etc..? It’s actually a very good question. I used to carry a microcassette recorder until I went on a backpacking trip through the Mojave Desert for Men’s Journal magazine. On day three of that trek, I reached down for my recorder and saw that the tape had melted in the sweltering heat. I never liked transcribing notes upon my return, so I switched to writing in a CVS-bought notepad that fits easily into the one of the four pockets on my canvas shorts. That also has its problems. It sometimes gets wet from rain, water, or sweat and I can’t read my notes. Other times I simply lose the notebook. When I returned from a biking trip to Prince Edward Island for Canadian Geographic, I couldn’t find my notebook anywhere. After freaking out, I wrote the story from memory and called the people I interviewed to confirm their quotes were correct. The magazine loved the piece. It just goes to show you that your memory works far better than you can possibly imagine. In fact, I still remember the waves of nausea I felt the first night of that Mojave Desert trek after hiking 15 miles in the heat and carrying a 50-pound pack. Freeze-dried noodles was not exactly my idea of comfort food, but my body craved carbs so I ate every last morsel.
I’m off to Kenya in a week to research and write four stories. Most people stress about packing for a trip, including my wife, who hates the thought of reducing all her possessions into one measly suitcase. I can often pack in less than 15 minutes, thanks to my trusty packing list that’s stored in my computer. Depending on the locale and weather, I adjust the list, but for Kenya it will include passport, printed copy of passport page in case passport is stolen, airplane information, prescription drugs like Malaria pills, Imodium (no travel writer leaves home without it), other bathroom accessories, notebooks, pens, laptop, laptop plug and surge protector, headset for Skype, plug converter (incredibly important. Kenya is on the British plug), iPod and headphones, iPod charger, Flip video camera, Canon camera and additional long lens, camera charger, suntan lotion, Carmex, mosquito repellent, file on Kenya, two good books to read, most likely downloaded on my Nook, the latest Economist (which takes about five hours to read, perfect for trans-Atlantic flights), baseball cap, two nice pair of pants for dinners, shoes, nice long-sleeve and short-sleeve collared shirts for dinner, cargo shorts with four pockets to hold my notebook and pens during the day, lightweight long sleeve safari shirts, more casual T-shirts, polar fleece jacket because it does get cold at night in the bush, socks, underwear, flip-flops, sneakers, swimsuit, money belt, $300 US cash, one credit card, business cards, and finally a gift of pencils, crayons, and stickers for school kids. They went gaga over the Obama stickers I brought on my last trip to Africa in 2008. And that’s it. I’m finished, ready to roll. Write it down once on your computer and you’ll have it for every trip in the future.
The time between America’s Thanksgiving and Christmas is usually slow season for many resorts and travel destinations. For warm-weather locales, the big surge happens from late December through early April. So I was surprised to find that many of the resorts I was visiting on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula were filled to capacity with a mix of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and South Americans. Destination Weddings are still the big trend in travel, with daily nuptials being held as many as three times a day at some of the resorts I stayed at. American media loves to focus on crime in Mexico, but I found the Yucatan to be incredibly safe. The United Nations Climate Control Conference was being in held in Cancun while I was there, with many heads of state including the Mexican president, staying next door to me. So Federal Police were everywhere. Yet, even away from Cancun, making my south to Tulum, I never felt unsafe. That is, until I made my way to the swim-up bar at Iberostar Paraiso Maya and was surrounded by a group of drunken Saskatchewanians. That’s always dangerous.
This past month, I was home only three days, traveling to Kenya, Mexico, and Chicago. That’s a long time to be away from my family. My antidote for homesickness is a video call on Skype, where I can see and talk to my wife and children. The clarity of the call is exceptional, far superior to any international cell phone I’ve ever used. All you have to do is sign up at Skype, pay a nominal fee (it averages about 10 cents for a 10-minute call), and start adding all the significant people in your life as contacts. For travel writers and all other businesspeople who find themselves on the road a good chunk of the year, it’s the most essential tool to connect with your loved ones.
Point. Snap. Postcard. World Nomads has just launched a Postcard App for the iPhone that makes sending postcards as easy as a push of the finger. Here’s how it works. Users download the free app from iTunes. Via PayPal, they purchase stamps (the cost of $2 per stamp works for delivery anywhere in the world). Users then snap a photo that is then turned into a postcard image. Type a message for the back. Add a delivery address and then submit everything electronically. The postcard is printed in the USA on real high-quality gloss paper, stamped and then sent to the address on the card anywhere in the world. When making stamp purchases there’s also an opportunity to donate to one of World Nomads’ Footprints Projects that funds community development projects and fights poverty worldwide.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Debbi Karpowicz Kickham for more than decade. She worked as travel editor at Robb Report before having an illustrious freelance career that has taken her on cruises around the world, with multi-month stopovers at her favorite haunt, Hawaii. Now Kickham is sharing her insights on how to look good while traveling in new book titled “THE GLOBETROTTER’S GET-GORGEOUS GUIDE: Diet and Beauty Secrets of Travel and Beauty Pros, Traveling Executives, and Celebrity Travelers.” She notes that it’s the world’s first beauty book for traveling women. The book is filled with tips from flight attendants to road-warrior CEOS and executives, on everything from beauty products to luggage. There’s a chapter on cruising, another chapter on beauty products from around the world made with local indigenous ingredients, and a special bonus section about buying bargains throughout Paris and France. Samantha Brown of The Travel Channel wrote the Foreword, and Kickham completed interviews with Joan Lunden, Cheryl Tiegs, Ivana Trump, and other well-known names. So if you haven’t yet found that perfect Christmas gift for your loved one, this might do the trick.