August 14th, 2012

Arches, Canyons, and Nooks: Photo Highlights from Western U.S. Road Trip

by Joanna Eng

I just took a two-week break from writing about Queens and went out west in search of distinctly non-urban adventures. Instead of wedging myself between people and buildings as I normally do, I found some big rocks. Plenty of them.

Upon arrival, the first thing I did was find a ledge to hang out under at Red Rocks Park in Colorado.

Rafting down the Colorado River, surrounded by rock walls, was quite the adventure. (Thank you, NAVTEC Expeditions of Moab, Utah!) I highly recommend going in a separate inflatable kayak, juuust in case you end up in a group with 20 teenage boys.

Sand Dune Arch was my favorite spot to explore in Arches National Park in Utah.

Swimming in a canyon near New Agey shops in Sedona, Arizona, reminded me of my college days in Ithaca, New York.

This area of the Mojave National Preserve is called Hole-in-the-Wall, so of course I had to go there.

And, if I could declare one favorite rock formation in the world, it just might be a beach canyon. (Is that even a thing?) This one, in Ocean Beach, San Diego, had waves surging in from both ends.

February 2nd, 2012

Deliver a Car, Get a Free One-Way Road Trip

by Joanna Eng

You know how it costs extra to rent a car in one place and drop it off in another? And some rental companies and locations don’t allow it at all. Well, I recently found out about another way to make one-way road trips happen, basically for free: become a driver for a car that needs to be relocated.

Rather than ship a car across the country on one of those big trucks, some people opt to have someone drive it for them. It’s like carpooling in that you’re not adding to the number of cars on the road; but you have the privacy and control of having your own car. In the United States, check Auto Driveway for these types of driving opportunities. In Canada, Hit the Road seems to be the major service.

Photo by Vlasta Juricek

You need to have a good driving record and pay a deposit, and the opportunities are limited by the number of driving requests customers make. (Right now there are only three routes listed on Auto Driveway and nine on Hit the Road.) But beyond the pick-up location, the drop-off location and general time and mileage constraints, the vehicle is all yours for the duration of your road trip.

As with any other really good deal, you have to be patient, flexible, or just ridiculously lucky to make this work. Now I’m just crossing my fingers for a car that needs to be transported from Denver to LA this summer—with unlimited mileage and no time limit!

December 21st, 2011

Book Review: Zinester’s Guide to NYC

by Joanna Eng

Let me start by saying I’m not a zinester. I have never really read a zine beyond casually paging through one in a bookstore. Nonetheless, the idea of a “wholly analog” guide book with alternative picks appealed to me. So I checked out the Zinester’s Guide to NYC from the public library.

The guide is not a zine but an actual book, printed, bound, and distributed by an indie company. The primary author, Ayun Halliday, got some of her zine-making friends to contribute reviews and suggestions that appear in the book. The result is a collection of funny, weird, cheap, random, participatory, vegan, artsy, etc., things to do in all five boroughs.

Park(ing) Day photo by Barry Hoggard

I love the inclusion of tons of hands-on activities like pie bake-offs, story telling events, juggling classes, mix tape exchanges, guest bartending, turning a parking spot into a public park, and displaying your own art on street poles. I love the section on vegetarian restaurants. I love the handwritten list of songs, books, and movies about New York City that runs along the bottom of each page. I love the lists of places to find the best bathroom graffiti and old-school black-and-white photo booths. I love that the book not only mentions rats and other disgusting sights and smells, but expounds on these subjects—way to keep it real.

The book definitely has flaws. Beyond the typos and formatting inconsistencies that I spotted—who knows, maybe they were left in on purpose to make it more zinelike and immediate?—I wasn’t too impressed with the book’s coverage of Queens, my home borough. For instance, the list of bars in Queens only includes businesses in Astoria, the yuppiest neighborhood of all. The section on volunteer opportunities also seemed limited to me: there are plenty more nonprofits in the city that would appeal to readers, so why are these the only ones highlighted? I guess it’s more of a list of the places the author’s friends have volunteered. And I suppose that characterizes the spirit of the entire book, in a way.

All in all, I’d say the book is worth the low price ($9) for those with quirky tastes who are new to the city or planning a trip here for more than a few days. If you don’t have a group of artsy, adventurous friends to show you the ropes, this guide book is a good stand-in.

December 17th, 2011

Restaurants That Treat Workers Well

by Joanna Eng

A lot of talk about ethical restaurant choices revolves around the food itself and whether it’s local, organic, seasonal, healthy, natural, humanely produced, and so on. Obviously, I’m interested in those foodie factors, but what about how the restaurant treats its employees? When dining out, it would be nice to know not just whether your steak is from a grass-fed cow, but whether your server and the rest of the staff are being paid fairly.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) just released a Diners’ Guide (the first annual) to help people choose where to eat based on businesses’ track records with fairness towards employees and opportunities offered to employees. You can download the guide and other advocacy information here.

A standout in DC. Photo by Katie Campbell

The Diners’ Guide assesses a limited number of restaurants in Ann Arbor, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Washington, DC, and a few others spots, as well as plenty of national chains. Businesses range from cheap eats to fine dining, and the guide shows that most of those evaluated do not live up to ROC-United’s standards. There are some standouts, though, and it’s especially helpful to see which fast food chains offer paid sick days, adequate wages, and the like.

If you really want to support restaurant workers’ rights, perhaps a night out at COLORS is in order. It’s an eclectic restaurant founded and cooperatively owned by former workers of the Windows on the World—which was at the top of the World Trade Center—who survived 9/11 and went on to create the Restaurant Opportunities Center. It’s actually the social enterprise arm of ROC-United, and it has been on my to-eat list for years.

Others that earned top marks in New York City include Cowgirl, Craft, Crema, Good, La Palapa, Las Chicas Locas, Nectar, One If By Land, and the restaurants under Union Square Hospitality Group (Blue Smoke, Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe, etc.).

December 12th, 2011

LGBT-Friendly Honeymoons

by Joanna Eng

I’ve been thinking a lot about honeymoons—specifically my own, which remains completely unplanned. We haven’t even settled on a country. But for us and many LGBT couples and straight allies, one factor that “helps” narrow down the list of destinations is the level of support that each country’s (or region’s) government offers to LGBT people.

Obviously, this filter can apply to any kind of travel, not just honeymoons. But since a honeymoon is specifically about celebrating a relationship, it’s particularly relevant. As a recently married couple, even a heterosexual one, would you want to commemorate your commitment in a place that doesn’t welcome gay couples? As a same-sex pair, general safety, comfort, inclusive cultural offerings, and equal treatment while traveling are some of the extra factors to consider.

Some honeymoon planners might want to pick from among the ten countries that currently allow full, legal same-sex marriages nationwide: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden. Other cities and states that have legalized same-sex marriages at a more local level include Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mexico City, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington, DC.

Street art in Buenos Aires

Or you may want to at least avoid countries where same-sex relationships are completely illegal. There are plenty of other pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT measures to weigh; the ILGA website breaks down the relevant laws by country on a helpful map on its homepage. Beyond the legal factors, sources such as Equally Wed—a same-sex wedding magazine—provide information about what it might be like to travel to certain destinations as a same-sex couple.

You may also want to look into LGBT-welcoming accommodations wherever you decide to go. Purple Roofs is an international directory of bed and breakfasts, hotels, and tour operators that identify themselves as “lesbian owned,” “transgender owned,” “gay friendly,” etc. There are even discounts available at some lodgings if you mention Purple Roofs.

There are more gay travel websites and books out there, and targeted sections of guides such as Lonely Planet, but to be honest, most of these resources don’t seem all that helpful. Your best bet is probably to figure out where you might want to go first, and then look up independent LGBT sources specific to that destination.

Does anyone know of other resources to check or factors to consider when planning an LGBT-friendly honeymoon?

December 6th, 2011

The Best in Travel Journalism 2011

by Joanna Eng

Like last year, I read through the winning articles of the 2010–2011 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition and wanted to post my favorites here.

“Out of the Mist” by Kim Brown Seely, Virtuoso Life – Takes the reader from a Rwanda known for genocide to a Rwanda with a growing ecotourism market.

“Loneliness the Same in Any Language” by April Orcutt, San Francisco Chronicle – This short piece reminds us that the most memorable travel moments often have nothing to do with seeing the sights.

“On the Backs of Giants” by Melanie Radzicki McManus, Star Tribune – Taking care of elephants in Thailand sounds much more interesting than just riding them.

Photo by Andrea Hale

I also ordered the winning book Zinester’s Guide to NYC: The Last Wholly Analog Guide to NYC by Ayun Halliday and will be reviewing it here soon.

December 5th, 2011

8 Gift Ideas for the NYC Adventurer

by Joanna Eng

For that New Yorker who doesn’t stop exploring, here are some gifts that might be their speed. (True, this is more or less a wish list for myself, but I thought it would be helpful to others too.)

Photo of the New Museum by Jeffrey Chung

Free Arts NYC membership: A $35 (minimum) donation to this local educational arts and mentoring nonprofit gets you an entire year of free access to the Bronx Museum, the Dia:Beacon, and the Museum for African Art, plus two-for-one deals at 16 more museums and other benefits. On the donation page, just select “Membership Card is a gift for” and put in the recipient’s name.

Brooklyn Brainery gift certificate: At this crowdsourced educational center, you can take inexpensive classes on practically any subject that people are willing to teach. Course titles have included “Abandoned New York City,” “How to Kill at Karaoke,” “Weird Spices,” “Beekeeping 101,” “Foreign Alphabets,” “Pizza History,” “How to Shop in Chinatown,” and “Fashion Anthropology through Shoes.” Gift certificates start at just $5.

Forgotten New York by Kevin Walsh: Even the most savvy New Yorker will learn something new from this guide book that points out obscure and quirky spots around the five boroughs. As one reviewer quipped, “There are no more nooks nor crannies in NYC left to find hidden gems. Kevin Walsh has found them all.” It’s $14.95 on Amazon.

AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near New York City by Daniel Case: This guide book details 50 day hikes accessible from NYC—many via public transportation. It would be a helpful reference on those weekend days when you just need to take a break from urban life but don’t have time for a full-fledged vacation. I have used the Berkshires book of the same series and would highly recommend it. You can get it for $11.67 on Amazon.

The Diner’s Deck: Packaged like a deck of playing cards, each set of 52 coupons lets you finally try out some of those restaurants you’ve been meaning to go to for years. Every card is a $10 gift certificate that can be used with a $30 purchase anytime during 2012. It’s $29.95 for a restaurant deck or $19.95 for the bar and lounge version. A good deal if you use more than a few of them throughout the year.

Smartbox Adventure Gift Card: Similar to the Diner’s Deck, this is a set of gift certificates for over 60 businesses in the New York area. Activities include horseback riding, rock climbing, biking, paintball, windsurfing, swimming, fencing, paragliding, surfing, skateboarding, and martial arts. It’s $58.65 at Barnes & Noble. Smartbox also sells gift card sets focused on restaurants, spas, B&Bs, and family fun.

Unlimited Ride MetroCard: For someone who doesn’t already get these automatically every month through their job, an unlimited card frees them up to explore the whole city via subway and bus for a whole week ($29) or month ($104) without having to pay. This pass makes for a good gift because the recipient can begin their free period of transport anytime they want, provided they do so before the expiration date—which is usually pretty far into the future.

Zipcar or Mint membership: Car sharing is a practical option for someone who wants to use a car occasionally, since not all of NYC is easily accessible by public transportation. Membership comes with perks like free gas, convenient pick-up spots, hybrid and other low-emissions vehicles, and lower rates than those of typical car rental companies. Mint only offers cars in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, while Zipcar is more widespread. Note that you’ll need access to the person’s driver’s license and other personal info to sign them up.

Any other ideas?

October 12th, 2011

Hiking off the Metro-North

by Joanna Eng

For weeks, I had been itching to get out of the city, to be surrounded by trees again. So after coordinating busy schedules and researching hikes that can be accessed via public transportation, three of us took the Metro-North train up to Cold Spring, New York, to trek up Bull Hill.

The start of the Washburn Trail was a one-mile walk from the train station—not bad. I was, for some reason, skeptical about how “strenuous” the hike would be, but after plenty of steep uphill action for over an hour, I needed all the extra food and water we had brought. We reached the top with an abundance of rewarding views under our belts.

We followed the hike description and looped back down on a few other trails. Fun features of the descent included trying to hop across Breakneck Brook where the bridges had washed away, exploring mysterious abandoned buildings, and counting frogs in an old cistern and well.

We found out later that the buildings (and old road, farming equipment, cistern, etc.) were part of the Edward J. Cornish estate. Several special details in the mansion have been preserved, like elegant diamond-shaped tiles and brick fireplaces in every room.

After the hike, we had time to explore Cold Spring’s Main Street, where we treated ourselves to “the last ice cream of the summer,” browsed antique shops, visited a newly opened Chinese grocery store and scoped out real estate listings—because of course, we were all dreaming about moving here after such a picturesque fall day in the Hudson Valley.

I’m already planning for the next Metro-North adventure: maybe Breakneck Ridge, Garrison, or Peekskill.

September 8th, 2011

Take a Dip in a Different Kind of Pool

by Joanna Eng

Photo by Radio Rover via Flickr

Lately I’ve been copyediting hotel descriptions for a travel booking site. From tiny motels off of interstate highways in landlocked states, to swanky beachfront resorts in coastal communities, one thing that lodgings love to “boast” about is a swimming pool—indoor, outdoor, heated, coupled with a hot tub, surrounded by a sundeck, accompanied by a water slide, flanked by a bar, offering views of the ocean, mountains or skyline. (I’ve even heard of a guitar-shaped one in Nashville. And of course, there are plenty of Texas-shaped pools in Texas.)

Another type of pool I’ve come across, usually in upscale settings like resorts and spas, is the salt water pool. Using salt water chlorination, this alternative to a conventional chlorinated swimming pool is deemed more environmentally friendly because a much smaller amount of harmful chemicals needs to be pumped in and out monthly or weekly. These saline pools (which are not, by the way, salty enough to taste like the ocean) may also be more pleasant and safer to swim in than standard chlorine pools, reducing risks of hair damage, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory problems.

But salt water pools still follow the philosophy of using chemicals to completely sanitize water for swimming. The Daily Green showcases a more natural way to go: sustainably designed pools that let nature do its job to control bacteria, algae and mosquitoes, rather than eradicating them with dangerous substances. Most of these “natural” pools use plants around the edges to act as a filtration system; as a bonus, these well-landscaped oases turn out to be much more aesthetically pleasing than your typical stark, bluish pool.

Let’s hope this sustainable trend catches on in the American hotel industry, and that smelly chlorine pools will go out of style along with those scratchy bedspreads.

June 14th, 2011

Homey Getaways: Summer Housesitting

by Joanna Eng

It looks like the plan this summer is to house/dog/cat sit for two different sets of friends—one out on Long Island, and the other in upstate New York. The more I think about these arrangements, the more they sound like ideal vacation opportunities. While helping our friends out a little bit, we’ll be able to get out of the city and explore both areas’ beaches, lakes, parks, and food options. Swimming, blueberry picking, farmers markets, bike rides, and breweries, here we come!

It occurs to me that we’ll also get access to lots of perks that most hotels and vacation rentals don’t provide. My own apartment doesn’t even offer most of these:

  • Photo by gillicious

    Free use of bikes and cars

  • Fresh vegetables from the garden
  • Free laundry in the basement
  • A screened-in porch to relax on
  • Access to board games and books we don’t own
  • A free trial of non-urban life and practice taking care of pets and gardens

Maybe I am getting boring, or maybe I am just getting tired of living in NYC, but this all sounds pretty exciting to me.

The only downside? I’ll still be working.