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.

May 19th, 2011

Where to Find Me

by Joanna Eng

While I have been a little absent from this blog, I’ve been writing up a storm about sustainable travel for other sites:

At BootsnAll, I’ve been authoring a green travel series, with articles like 10 Tips for More Eco-Friendly Travel and 6 Natural Phenomena to See Before They Disappear.

And for FlipKey, a vacation rental site, I’ve been contributing on topics like How to Make Your Rental Energy Efficient and Save on Gas: The Top 10 Walking Cities in the USA.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

April 4th, 2011

Travel during Times of Political or Environmental Turmoil

by Guest

By Stephanie Grace Loleng for

When disaster hits a region, such as the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threat in Japan, or the political upheaval in the Middle East, governments take necessary measures to evacuate their citizens. Travel warnings are widely issued against non-essential travel to those countries. However, once the situation settles, some travelers still consider visiting nations with political or environmental troubles.

Government-issued travel advisories deter travelers from going to countries with political turmoil or natural disasters. After last month’s disaster in Japan, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert against non-essential travel to the country. It also warned against non-essential travel to Egypt during the recent political protests and eventual overthrow of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Furthermore, U.S. citizens were advised to leave Egypt, and travel companies evacuated their clients. For the most part, tour operators, travel companies and travel agents will abide by government travel advisories.

Yet some travelers choose to disregard these warnings. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter Marc Champion chronicled his family’s trip to Egypt in early March, noting that “there may never be a better time to visit the land of the pharaohs. Cairo’s hotels are offering deals, flights are largely empty, tour companies are discounting, crowds are non-existent and, make no mistake, Egyptians want you here.”

One morning, Champion and his wife took their kids to Tahrir Square, where many of the 1,000 people gathered wanted to pose with the children. “Thank you for coming to our revolution,” said one of the protesters. The Egyptian uprising began on January 25, and within nine days, 1.1. million tourists left the country, according to then-Vice President Omar Suleiman (cited by Champion). Only now, over a month after the resignation of Mubarak on February 11, are travelers slowly coming back. Yet Champion notes that even though there are still tanks in Cairo, he and his family didn’t feel unsafe. It seems that Egypt is safe for travelers despite the State Department warnings.

There is a difference between a State Department travel alert, such as that issued for Japan, and a travel warning, such as the one issued for Egypt. A travel alert addresses short-term events and is canceled as soon as the immediate danger is over, while a travel warning reflects ongoing problems. According to the State Department website, travel warnings “remain in place until the situation changes,” sometimes for years. However, as a recent Budget Travel article points out, tour operators are starting to organize trips to Egypt again even though the travel warning is still in place.

According to Alan Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle Corporation, which owns the travel brands Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel, the decision to continue tours to Egypt was made after “extensive meetings with ground operators, community leaders, and tourism officials,” Budget Travel reports.

Safe to travel to Japan?

According to its website, the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently “not advising general restrictions on travel to Japan.” However, the organization does advise avoiding areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami because of “disruptions to essential services such as transport and electric power.” They also advise that travelers read the FAQs regarding the concern of nuclear radiation exposure in certain areas.

Some countries are specifically warning citizens not to travel to areas that may be affected by the earthquake and threat of radiation from the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant. According to Smartraveller, an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and and Trade website, Australian citizens are advised “not travel to Tokyo, areas surrounding Tokyo and Honshu north of Tokyo due to disruptions to essential services, infrastructure damage, aftershocks and continuing uncertainty about the status of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.”

The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office also advises travelers “against all but essential travel to Tokyo and north east Japan given the damage caused by the 11 March earthquake, the resulting aftershocks and the tsunami.” The also advise British nationals in Tokyo and north of Tokyo to leave the area because of the situation at the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant.

Despite these warnings, Travel Weekly cites recent research showing that devastation in a country has only a short-term impact on travel. According to a study done by research analyst TNS in early February, during the riots in Egypt, more than half (55 percent) of adults said they would be deterred by a terrorist attack from booking a destination, 44 percent by civil unrest or riots, 37 percent by a natural disaster, and 28 percent by government collapse. Despite this, almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) of the more than 1,600 people surveyed had not changed, postponed or cancelled a trip because they were concerned about safety or security in the region. The two biggest worries for travelers were getting sick overseas and losing their passport. These statistics show that although a large percentage of travelers are worried about travel to a country experiencing political or environmental strife, it is not an overwhelming concern.

The U.S. State Department encourages U.S. citizens who are traveling abroad to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows travelers to register contact information and travel details before departure. The State Department can then communicate travel alerts, warnings and updates from embassies, as well as contacting the traveler in the event of a crisis.