Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Year in Travel

The end of the year approaches, and the time for reflection of the events past is once again upon us. It's been a busy year and I'd like to take this time to review it and to start preparing for the new year at Graham's Travel blog.

As far as my travel adventures are concerned, 2009 was a busy year. I visited two new countries this year: Sweden and Italy. They were both a pleasure to experience, and I wrote about my visit to Sweden in Sweden: Food in Tubes, Fika and Assault. The other big trip I took was with my wife and our cat when we moved from Oregon to Massachusetts in late April of this year (see: Flying With a Cat).

Just prior to that move we went to the Treehouse Hotel in Southern Oregon which turned out to be just as much a misadventure as an actual adventure. You don't have to read the telling of the Treehouse Hotel ordeal linked above, but if you are considering a visit, you'd really should read it before you book your stay.

2009 had me Trapped in a Revolving Door, and I even defended TSA agents. Reviewing the events of they year has gotten me thinking about what's to happen in the year to come.

In 2010 I've got some interesting product reviews lined up which are always fun to write (and hopefully are fun to read as well), and I'll be taking a crack at video blogging as I recently received a Flip video camera as a gift. The videos should be an interesting train wreck to watch as I always get flustered in front of a camera. I'll try to have fun with it, but let me know if the videos are painful to watch.

To all of those that have become regular followers of this blog, I thank you and wish you a safe and productive new year.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Holiday Travel Fatigue Story

Christmas is almost here, I've just been through my first big New England winter storm and it has got me thinking about Christmas travel and snow. This reminded me of a time a few years ago just after Christmas that illustrates the dangers of traveler's fatigue and the importance of keeping a logical mind in crisis. Below is that story...

My line of work often necessitates short notice travel in mid to late December. Invariably, someone somewhere in the world forgets some sort of deadline and it's up to me and my team to save the day. After one such trip to Europe I had less than a day at home before I got on another plane to visit my family in Southern California.

About 12 hours after landing in Los Angeles, I was in a car headed to Los Vegas. I don't remember much about the trip to Vegas or the rest of that trip for that matter, but I do know that I slept a lot as my body was adjusting to California time.

What I do remember is what happened once I returned home to Oregon. My grad student housemate, Ed, picked me up at the airport and I all I wanted to to was to get to sleep. We got home and he dropped me off with my bags outside our house. He left promptly, presumably to go back to the lab. I waved goodbye and headed into the house. I dropped off my backpack and just inside the door and headed out the door to get one more bag and I reflexively locked the door.

As the door closed, I instantly realized that I had locked myself out of the house since I have a habit of keeping my keys in my backpack while traveling. I tried all of the doors, but due to good habits, they were all securely locked. I went to my neighbors house to call my housemate and let him know what I had done...he didn't answer his cell phone.

Instead of staying put and waiting for him to return like a normal person would have done, I decided to walk 3 miles in threatening weather without a hat, umbrella or gloves, to reach my Ed's lab.

The journey started well enough, but when I was a little over halfway to the lab, it started raining. I quickened my pace and the cold started to creep in through my increasingly wet wool coat. Stopping by a news stand yielded a few newspapers that I used to protect my head from the rain. I kept one hand deeply in my pocket while the other was holding a newspaper. Switching off hands occasionally kept my hands from going completely numb, but they soon became wrinkled in the rain.

When I arrived at the building which I was heading toward, I found that all of the doors were locked. I did notice that there was a girl sitting at a table reading a book, but none of my pounding on the door got her attention. I would later discover that this girl was a cutout which was part of an art installation that, at the distance between us that night she looked quite real.

Disappointed, but not yet defeated, I headed over to the campus security office and had them ring Ed's lab- no answer. We tried his cell phone with the same results. It turns out that he had gone to the movies which explains why he didn't answer.

I decided that the best thing to do was to head home and wait by the house until Ed returned. I was quite cold at the time and I figured that if I found more dry newspapers I could use them to dry my hair and bunch them up within my clothes for warmth. I found some free papers, took off my coat, rolled them up around my arm and put my coat back on. This worked for a while, but I could no longer bend my arm which made holding a newspaper over my head quite difficult.

This is when I got another great idea. If I stuffed the newspapers down the front of my pants then I could bend my arm again. In order to get the newspapers down my pants I unbuttoned my jeans. Unfortunately, due to my cold and wet hands, I wasn't able to button my jeans again.

I trudged forth three more long miles back home, in the rain, with my jeans partially opened, a newspaper on my head and more papers stuffed in my jeans.

Less than a quarter mile away from home, Ed slowly puddle up in his car next to me and gave me a ride home. I was wiped out anew upon getting home and decided to sleep in 15 extra minutes in the morning because being 15 minutes late wouldn't be the worst thing in the world and an extra 15 minutes of sleep would mean that I'd be that much more productive.

I awoke the next morning to discover that 15 minutes before I had awoken it started to snow. The trip to work the next morning was quite interesting as the town was ill-prepared for the snow, but that's a story for another day.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Invasion of the B&B People

When I travel, I like to stay away from chains as much as possible. This isn't alway possible, but I find that staying away from Starbucks and TGIFridays usually allows me to find places that have much more character and charm than mass produced chain restaurants. Frequenting local businesses lets you feel a little bit of the local flavor of a new town much better than the cookie cutter establishments that are the same, or at least very similar, regardless of location.

When possible, I like to extend this philosophy to where I spend the night. Most of the time I do end up staying in chain hotels, but I find that staying in the occasional B&B to be most rewarding. I make more of an effort to do this when I travel for pleasure, but it has worked out well the few times that I stayed at a B&B while on business trips.

More and more, B&B owners are catering to business travelers by offering thing like earlier breakfasts, competitive weekday rates and free wireless internet access. In addition to these amenities, the people that run B&Bs are generally quite personable and eager to advise you on all of the best local non-chain restaurants.

The only problem with B&Bs can be your fellow guests. For one reason or another, my wife and I keep running into the strangest people at B&Bs. Uncomfortable interactions can usually be avoided by taking your breakfast early and eating at a table that is away from the others, but sometimes this just doesn't work. Some B&Bs offer fixed breakfast times and communal dining tables; this is where some of the B&B charm starts to wane.

Forced social interaction before the effects of coffee have been fully actualized is not something that I actively seek out, so my views on the topic may be slightly biased. I think that my tolerance for eccentric people must be at a minimum in the morning because I often come out of a social B&B breakfast with quite a cynical attitude. For your amusement, I will outline two actual couples that I have run into while traveling.

The Lacrosse Couple
My wife and I were staying at a B&B in Providence, Rhode Island for a Brown University reunion and most people at breakfast that morning were in town for their reunions- except for one couple. This couple were in town for a Johns Hopkins lacrosse game . This couple appeared perfectly pleasant when we met them, but the singular focus off their life quickly became apparent.

These people lived, breathed and slept lacrosse. They couldn't let the conversation go for more than three minutes without bringing up their beloved college sport. They told the table about their devotion to their team and even informed us that they took out a second mortgage on their house in order fund a trip to Australia in order to follow their lacrosse team.

I'm all for having a hobby, I have several, but I also understand when my conversation companions don't get excited about a vintage razor or a new fountain pen ink. The lacrosse couple had very little understanding or tolerance for anyone or anything that was not lacrosse. This sort of behavior is simply unacceptable so early in the morning.

The Rental Property Couple
While spending the weekend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, my wife and I met a couple that was taking a break from managing their lakeside rental property. They had a lot to say about rental properties in general and their recent experiences of renting to a cut rate movie company that used their rental as the location for a movie.

This wasn't a big budget movie, of course, but it featured the actor that was in a movie called You Have the Right to Remain Violent which according to is still in production. According to the rental property couple, this movie is like fight club, only with a moral.

From what I can gather, the movie that was filmed at their property is Ironsides, which is scheduled to be released in late December- I will not be watching this movie. Like the lacrosse couple, this pair couldn't stand the conversation being steered away from them and their interests, it was quite annoying.

I think that many people go to a B&B to get away from everyday life, but there are some people that just can't let things go and appreciate what is in front of them. More importantly, these are the people that just can't seem to shut up an enjoy their coffee.

Is it just me that keeps running into these obnoxious people or have you run into them as well. I'd love to hear about your run-ins with B&B people in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Road Trips: Great, if You Have What it Takes

Loyal readers of Graham's Travel Blog may have noticed that much of what I've written about when it comes to getting from point A to point B focuses on air travel. This stems from the fact that the majority of my recent travel has been done by plane.

While it is true that I have written about trains and public transportation, I haven't really touched upon one of the great travel experiences that is available. I am of course referring to the road trip.

Those that have been following my travel adventures for a while may remember The Time Denver Got Snowed In, a really long story which had a road trip component and Oregon Road Trip: Trail to the Treehouse Hotel, but I've yet to discuss road trips in a more general way. I'd like to rectify this shortcoming now.

Travel by car can be one of the most rewarding ways to travel as it can be as flexible as you need to be- you control the schedule. If you see an interesting site along the way then you can just stop and investigate it. Try doing that on a plane!

Of course, the correct attitude, along with copious snacks, is essential for a successful road trip as you give yourself up to the mercy of the road. Anything can happen when you abandon schedules and embrace serendipity.

These are often wonderful things such as stumbling upon a great little diner to eat lunch, finding a waterfall on an impromptu walk through the woods or discovering some wonderful garlic at a roadside farmer's market.

While there are plenty of great things to be seen on a road trip, it is also important to keep in mind that not everything will go as planned. I've been lost, had cars break down and gone for far too long before finding a restroom. These are all things that I've experienced first hand and I've made it though alright.

The flexibility and attitude required for a proper road trip wax and wane with me, but when I'm in the mood, there's nothing quite like loading up the car and hitting the road. The classic road trip is not something that I've done all that often recently, but moving to New England, with plenty to see in the area, has renewed my desire to drive for long stretches and see what's out there.

My wife and I have been making regular trips South to visit family, but we've also made it as far North as Portsmouth, NH and hope to explore further soon; I'm sure you'll hear about it.

So, where did this deep love or road trips come from? I guess that my parents can take credit for that. Growing up, we would take regular trips to Laughlin, Nevada, which was a 5 hour trip by car. On these trips, I would always look forward to stopping at Barstow, CA where we would use load up on all kinds of junk food from the gas station.

It's funny how normal eating rules tend to go out of the window on road trips. What was once a forbidden food item becomes easily accessible. I'm not sure why, but I embrace this universal truth to this day when I travel by car. Amongst my more treasured road trip snacks are Hostess Cupcakes and the sometimes hard to find Beer Nuts.

If you haven't gone on a road trip lately, and you can muster the correct attitude to support one, I highly recommend getting your car checked out and consider hitting the open road and embrace all of the possibilities that it can bring.

To my faithful readers: please tell me about your all time favorite road trip in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Travel with a Side of Tiki

Photographs by Nicole Holt

Early in my traveling career, I began to develop an interest in mid-century Polonesian pop culture. This isn't actual Polynesian culture, but the form that it took in the 50's and 60's in much of the continental United States. I'm talking about backyard luaus, tikified Chinese restaurants and of course tiki bars.

In the past 10 years or so, interest in tiki culture has been rekindled and the appreciation for it has come back in fashion. A few years ago I started to keep an eye out for the few classic tiki establishments that remained from the original tiki fever that swept the nation along with a few of their contemporary brethren.

Since my travels have taken me far and wide, it wasn't long before the list of tiki establishments that I visited became quite impressive including the following:
Tiki-Ti- Los Angeles, CA
Bahooka- Rosemead, CA
Bali Hai- San Diego, CA
The Tonga Room, CA
Mai Kai- Fort Lauderdale, FL
Kawloon- Saugus, MA
The Alibi- Portland, OR
Thatch- Portland, OR
The Jasmine Tree- Portland, OR (Sadly no longer with us)
Trader Vic's- Bellvue, WA

VIsiting a great tiki bar (Mai Kai, Tiki-Ti, Bahooka, The Tonga Room) is like stepping back in time to an era when Chinese food was a novelty and cars had style. In one of these establishments, you can lose track of where you are for a few hours and forget about the daily stresses of work and life. The escape is temporary, but time spent in a tiki bar can be quite refreshing.
The Mai Kai seems as if it has remained locked in time with a regular floor show, extensive drink menu and its original decor; it is truly a destination worth visiting and revisiting. While in Florida for business, I had an evening free so I spent it at the Mai Kai. Their bar has an impressive happy hour which includes 2 for 1 drinks and half priced appetizers. The people watching here is fairly decent, and I found that some of the regular patrons were quite friendly.

The Tiki-Ti is a treasure and I was fortunate enough to meet my brother and his girlfriend here for drinks while I was in Los Angeles a while back. This establishment has a very clubhouse feel to it, people are friendly and the drinks are strong (not to mention amongst the best you will ever have). You'll find more than just standard tiki cocktails here, but an array of drinks that can only be had at the Tiki-Ti. Thanks to a loophole in the anti smoking rules of California, this family run business allows smoking since it doesn't bother the family at all. When I think tiki bar, I think Tiki-Ti.

The Bahooka is the first tiki establishment that I ever visited as my mother had dinner here while she was pregnant with me. Gritty and often crowded, the ribs are legendary but they don't do a thing for me. The drinks, on the other hand, are well priced and available in large portions for sharing. Aside from the great, dark booths with a nautical theme and copious number of fish tanks, everything on the menu can be ordered flaming. Drinks are easy, but have you ever had a flaming side salad? I have.
I visited the Tonga Room while I was at a business conference in San Francisco. Fortunately, it didn't take much arm twisting to talk people into going with me and I soon found myself in the Tonga Room with a group of coworkers. We had a great time, and I enjoyed scoping out the excellent decor which includes part of an old ship and a bandstand that floats in the "lagoon".

Not all classic tiki establishments have stood the test of time as well as those mentioned above. Many tiki bars didn't survive the 70's and some of the establishments that did survive have taken drastic measures in order stay afloat. This often includes removing much of their tiki decor and making changes such as putting in lottery machines (The Alibi, Kowloon). Kowloon even has a comedy club and has only one tiki of note which adorns it's facade. It is sad that some things have to change so much in order to stay around. This fact makes it all the more important to visit the remaining classic tiki establishments that remain.

I'll continue to stop by tiki bars that I come across in my travels as the next time I come through town, they might be closed. I encourage you to do likewise as this is a part of America's culture that could very well disappear if we don't support it. If you have a favorite tiki bar that I should keep on my radar, please let me know in the comments section below.

You can learn more about Polynesian pop culture by reading The Book of Tiki by Sven A. Kirsten. If you'd like to check out tiki bars on your travels, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Tiki Road Trip by James Teitelbaum and spending some time searching the online community of Tiki Central where you'll find more information about tiki bars than you'll know what to do with.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Product Review: Starbucks Via Ready Brew Decaf

Being both a traveler and a lover of coffee, I was intrigued by the marketing strategies employed by Starbucks to promote their latest product: Via Ready Brew Coffee. They claimed that the product was perfect for people on the go, picturing a traveler dragging a suitcase in one hand while displaying Via Ready Brew coffee in the other. At that point, I knew that this was a product that I was destined to review. One problem though: I had drastically cut back my caffeine intake a few months ago and Via didn't come in decaf...until now.

At this time, the only variety in decaf that is offered is a bold Italian roast. Since switching to decaf, I've generally found that I'm shying away from darker roasts, but I found this version pleasant and invigorating despite the lack of caffeine. I was presently surprised that I didn't find the same amount of burnt flavor that I normally associate when getting coffee at Starbucks.

The package claims to contain a combonation of instant and microground coffee. Each individual serving packet contains a fine powder, which is unlike the coarser grains of many traditional instant coffees. The fine powder allows Via to dissolve quickly in most liquids, even in cold liquids. This allows for the possibility of an impromptu iced coffee without needing to heat up water, mix the coffee and let it cool down.

While I did enjoy using this product at home, the logistics involved in brewing this coffee on the road are a little trickier. First of all, you need 8 ounces of water to mix with one packet of coffee so you'll need a way to measure 8 ounces of water. You could eyeball this, but I'm not inclined to eyeball anything when it comes to my coffee. Starbucks does sell a travel mug which has a line at the 8 ounce mark and holds 6 packs of Via, but it seems a little too gimmicky to be put to practical use.

I suppose it boils down to what you are looking for in your morning coffee. Since I have switched to decaf, my morning coffee is no longer about getting a quick caffeine fix to get me going in the morning. For me, coffee is about comfort, warmth and ritual. Let's take a look at what it would take for Via Ready Brew to fit my needs while traveling.

Once I have a way to measure the water (a measuring cup), I need a way to get the water suitably hot. Since I don't trust the hotel staff to clean and maintain the coffee pots that you find in hotel rooms, that would mean carrying around an immersion heater. This also requires the use of a mug that won't be melted by the heater so I'll need to carry around a ceramic mug as well.

In addition to this extra gear that I'll need to pack (measuring cup, coffee mug and an immersion heater), I'm used to drinking my coffee with cream. I could carry some small packs of ultra pasteurized half and half with me, but that seems like I'd be going a little too far.

For me, carrying these extra items with me is a bit further than I'm willing go for a good cup of coffee. In a real life travel situation I'd probably just try the Via with cold water and without cream. I'm not quite hard core enough about my coffee to make this sort of sacrifice in coffee drinking experience. If I really can't find a decent cup of coffee, I'll gladly do without before I use this product on the road.

Does Via Ready Brew produce a tasty cup of coffee under ideal conditions? Absolutely. It's just when conditions are less than ideal where this product fails to meet my needs.

Via Ready Brew certainly has home and office applications, and I can easily see people keeping a packet of decaf on hand for the odd guest who drinks it, but I can't visualize this as a travel staple.

The biggest problem with this product as a home product is the packaging. For $10.95, you get 12 eight ounce servings. This is a bit pricy compared to instant coffee that comes in bulk packaging. Not only does economy come into play when you change the packaging but you also reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste that is involved.

In conclusion, Via Ready Brew decaf is, at its core, a great product that misses the mark, at least for me, in usability.

Starbucks Ready Brew Decaf can be purchased at any Starbucks store for $2.95 for a 3 pack or $10.95 for a 12 pack ($1 more expensive than the regular Via).

Have you tried Via Ready Brew or Via Ready Brew decaf? Will you be using this product while traveling? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments selection below.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

5 Tips for Holiday Travel

Once again, we are entering one of the busier times in the travel year. This is a time where business travelers are joined by throngs of families trying to make it to their holiday celebrations. In order to help things move a little more smoothly this year, I've put together a few of my favorite holiday travel tips.

1.Pack a good attitude
More than anything, the right attitude can keep travel from being an unnecessarily frustrating experience. Holiday travel is a lot like rush hour in a big city; everyone is trying to get to the same place at the same time. This causes traffic jams and delays, and we should all expect this by now.

Holiday travel is the same; there will be delays. There may be delays of several hours, but the airlines will do the best they can to get you to your destination. Delays will either be caused by weather or mechanical reasons.

If your delay is weather related, you'll have plenty of company to share in your misery. Make a new friend and share travel horror stories if you have one. You'll feel better for it, I promise.

If your delay is mechanical, then know that someone is doing their job and thinks that your safety is at risk. It's better to be cautious than sorry.

Whatever you do, please don't yell at the airline employees, it won't help and it won't win you any friends on the other side of the counter.

2. Don't wrap your gifts
When it comes time to inspect your checked and carry-on baggage, the TSA may need to unwrap any wrapped gifts you may have with you. Save yourself some frustration by wrapping them when you arrive at your destination. I've found that gift bags are a great alternative to wrapping paper.

An even better alternative is to use reusable grocery bags as gift bags, this way the wrapping is actually useful after the gift has been unwrapped. Some reusable bags are actually quite nice handsome, so keep an eye out for bags that might work.

3. Let online shopping simplify your packing
If you are going to order gifts online, you may be able to save yourself some trouble by having your gifts sent directly to your destination. You'll need an accomplice to intercept and store packages, but you won't have to worry about the items breaking due to rough airline handling.

As an added bonus, you'll likely need to check fewer bags when you travel which is nice considering all of the baggage fees that are all too common now.

4. Don't forget the ice
TSA has recently changed their rules about bringing ice and other frozen items through security. If the item is solid at the time that you take it through security, it counts as a solid even if it can later melt into liquid form.

This may not sound like a big change, but it is. Foods that require refrigeration can now be packed in your carry-on. Want to bring a special cheese or pastry item to Thanksgiving? No problem. I like to fill a freezer bag with water and freeze it, this goes into the bottom of a soft sided ice chest.

This also opens up the possibility of bringing home a frozen container of your aunts famous chicken soup without risking putting it in your checked luggage. Details of this change can be found on the TSA blog.

If your ice chest fits in a larger carry-on, you'll want to take it out for the security screening as TSA doesn't like bags within bags.

5. Review the TSA guidelines
If you only travel once or twice a year then reviewing the TSA guidelines before you travel is time well spent. There's nothing worse than realizing that what you thought was a benign item turns out to be on the TSA's forbidden items list. Head over to the TSA Traveler's Website for all of the latest information.

That's it for my holiday travel tips. Plan for a busy travel season and take things as they come. Just remember that panicking and yelling at people won't help you and you'll be fine. If you have any holiday travel tips that you'd like to share, please share them in the comments section below.

Update 11/21/2009: The TSA blog just published an article about tips for holiday travelers that you may find informative. Head over to the TSA blog for details.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Factory Tours: An Educational Way to Kill Time

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Since I don't have much choice in the places to which I travel for work, I've decided to make the most of it and I try to enjoy places as they come and see what each new destination has to offer as I encounter it.

I try to keep an open mind in how I fill my free time while traveling. While it is true that I end up wandering around a lot, I have quite a few options: I could go to a museum, visit a coffee shop or, if I'm lucky, go on a factory tour.

For some reason, I really like to find out how things are made, and factory tours are a great way to indulge that desire. It is true that some factory tours are overproduced and a little too "Disney", but for the most part, I've found factory tours very rewarding. I'd like to share with you three of my favorite factory tours that I've been on so far.

1. Theo Chocolate
Location: 3400 Phinney Ave N, Seattle, WA,
Cost: $12
An organic, free trade chocolate company, Theo is located in the Fremont area of Seattle, just a short walk from the Fremont Troll. The Tour starts with an informative lecture which describes where chocolate comes from and how it's harvested. With the groundwork established, you get to go into the factory. Nothing was active on the weekend tour, but the duties of the machines and steel tanks were all explained satisfactorily.

Samples were available both on the tour and immediately after. You can try any of the chocolate bars that they have on hand so that you can make an educated choice in deciding what to take home with you. They also have a variety of non-bar confections as well, I'd recommend the salted caramel.

2. Harpoon Brewery
Location:306 Northern Avenue Boston, MA
Cost: $5 and you get a sample glass to take home.
Who wouldn't want to go on a tour of a beer factory? This tour was just plain cool and parts of it made me feel like I was in the movie Strange Brew. While the initial description of how beer is made was educational to those that don't know how beer is made, the tour really starts to shine once you are walking through the factory.

Being amongst the massive mixers, storage tanks and pipes is quite an experience. You get to walk right where the workers walk and you can almost feel that beer is made here. You can't go everywhere on this tour, but I felt that I wasn't being coddled at all as the tour had a very relaxed feel about it.

After the tour, which lasts 30 minutes, there is a 30 minute beer tasting back in the tasting room/gift shop where you can sample any of the beer that they have on tap. The sample glasses had a line at the 2 ounce mark, but I didn't see any samples poured that were less than 4 ounces. Everyone really enjoyed this tour.

3. Hammond's Candies
Location: 5735 N. Washington Street, Denver, CO
Cost: Free

I visited Hammond's several years ago at their old location, but they still run regular tours. I remember being the only non-parent, non-child on the tour, but I enjoyed it immensely. Unlike the other two tours mentioned in this article, the Hammond's tour was conducted while candy was actually being produced.

Since candy making is a hobby of mine, I appreciated seeing candy being made with old equipment, just like it has been made for years. Of course, there were samples at the end of the tour and an opportunity to buy more candy in the gift shop.

I will admit that there is one factory that I missed out on visiting while traveling which I do regret. I was in Switzerland and did not visit the Victorinox factory, which produces the beloved Swiss Army Knife.

I looked into it and I just wasn't in the right part of the country to be able to make the trip. I try not to have travel regrets, but that one gets me when I think about it.

Do you make a habit of going on factory tours while traveling? What's the best factory tour you've been on?

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Wonder of the Norwegian Club Sandwich

Photographs by Nicole Holt

The origin of Norwegian cuisine was once described to me as being designed around making the cheapest foods available last through a harsh winter. How else could one explain a countries food that includes Lutefisk? This special dish is salted white fish that has been preserved with lye. Lye is a highly caustic chemical which, amongst other things, is used in soap making. I'm convinced that Lutefisk was invented through a housewife's failed attempt at murder.

Given that many of the dishes in Norway were unfamiliar to me, you can understand my surprise and relief when I went into a cafe and saw a club sandwich on the menu. After a long and tiring flight, seeing that simple sandwich on a menu in a new country was like randomly meeting an old friend in a strange town.

For the uninitiated, the club sandwich is a constructed with 3 slices of bread where the middle slice of bread separates two distinct layers of hearty filling. Usually the bottom layer is thinly sliced turkey, while the top layer is bacon, lettuce and tomato. This club sandwich is usually cut into quarters and held in place with toothpicks.

I've been eating club sandwiches for many years so I didn't hesitate in ordering one in order to see how the people of Norway had made this sandwich their own.

When my sandwich arrived, I was surprised to find that, while there were three slices of bread, the bottom layer was not turkey, but rather a beautifully grilled chicken breast. My "Norwegian Club" was delicious and I decided that I should further explore the local influences on this sandwich.

All in all, I ate three club sandwiches in Norway which ranged in both the number of bread slices and overall quality. My favorite was eaten in a cafe attached to a small art gallery which was located just a short walk from my hotel. While this particular sandwich only had two slices of bread, the bread was thick and had been brushed with butter and grilled before being formed into a sandwich. The chicken breast was perfectly cooked and the bacon was a site to behold on it's own. Thick cut bacon cut in one inch pieces was piled impossibly high with another slice of golden toast perched upon it.

The sandwich was surely a sight, and I regret not having my camera with my to take a picture of it. Picking up this sandwich was impossible, so I resorted to a knife and fork. Washed down with 7-up in a glass bottle, this was by far the best club sandwich that I have ever had.

It's funny how often I think about that sandwich, all others which include bacon are instantly compared to that Norwegian marvel and they invariably fall short. If you ever find yourself scratching your head in a cafe in Norway, do yourself a favor and try the club, you're not likely to be disappointed.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guilty Travel Pleasure: Television

I will freely admit that I don't always get out and explore new areas like I should. Travel takes a lot out of a person, and I'm not always up to trekking through a new town in search of something interesting to see or do. Sometimes I'm just too tired, while other times I'm uncertain if the neighborhood is safe to explore at night. At any rate, I usually turn to television. I use TV as a distraction, for background noise and sometimes just as something to keep me awake until it's time to go to sleep.

There's quite a bit of variety in TV programming throughout the world. For instance, in Europe MTV actually plays music videos for the better part of the day.

I'd like to share with you a few of my favorite TV moments that I've experienced while traveling.

1. The Simpsons in Switzerland
After a trip to the grocery store to pick up and sample a variety of chocolate bars, I was feeling the effects of all far too much sugar: I was quite warm, I was unable to cool off and my heart was racing. After a walk through a nearby square, I decided to head to my hotel room for a bit of a rest in order to give my heart a chance slow down.

I flopped down on my twin bed and searched the TV channels for something interesting to watch, and I found The Simpsons. Normally, I'd find something different, but the show was in German so I thought I would give it a try. The voice casting was pretty good for Bart and Lisa, but they got Homer completely wrong. The voice was a little to quick and, well, German for Homer. It was the efficient delivery that was so incongruent with the character which was distracting. I watched the whole episode, amused by this slight difference.

2. Infomercials in Norway
Informercials have always captivated me. I grew up in a household that occasionally purchased items after seeing them on TV (snackmaster and a food dehydrator). I think that my interest in infomercial has something to do with the cheesy showmanship of the format.

The last time I was in Norway I found a channel which was a dedicated to informercials. Regardless of the language used, what they were selling was clear enough, and the classic informercial plot was easy to follow:
Phase 1: Establish a problem
Phase 2: Show shortcomings of other products that address this problem
Phase 3: Present a better product
Phase 4: Wow, that's amazing
Phase 5: You'd be stupid not to buy it

The formula stays the same, while just the language changes. Somehow this captivated me, and I couldn't switch away.

3. Sheep to Shawl Competition in State College, PA
This is, perhaps, my favorite travel TV moment. While visiting Penn State, I stumbled upon a cable access presentation of a sheep to shawl competition. Several teams gather annually to participate in the sheering sheep, carding of wool, spinning of yarn and weaving shawls.

The whole process takes about 3 hours and it's pretty amazing to watch as the raw material rapidly makes the transformation from the source to a finished product. The shawls are then auctioned off for charity, and the teams start planning for next year's competition. I had never seen anything quite like this, and I couldn't go to sleep until I saw the finished shawls.

Even though it isn't the greatest thing to do while traveling, I still enjoy the comfort of watching TV while enjoying the subtle differences in programming. Do you have any interesting TV travel stories? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Black Licorice: One Traveler's Quest for Sweets

Photographs by Nicole Holt

When it comes to licorice lovers, there are decidedly two camps. There are those that love the nostalgic flavor of the black variety, and there are those that love the sweeter flavor of the red
variety. I am decidedly in the camp of black licorice lovers.

It's not that I have anything against red licorice, but, most of the time, I prefer the soothing anise flavor of black licorice.

I didn't always favor black licorice, but I wasn't really exposed to it until about 10 years ago. In general, black licorice isn't widely consumed in the United States, so the samples that I had early on were often stale due to the fact that they did not sell quickly.

While I slowly went about my path of black licorice exploration, there was a huge variety of which I was simply ignorant. International travel eventually broadened my licorice horizons.

The black licorice produced overseas can contain more variety than a slight sweetness and a mild anise flavor. That licorice could be more savory than sweet was a revelation to me.

My introduction to savory licorice came in the form of a salted licorice fish called Salt Sild. A coworker brought some back with him from a trip to Finland. I examined one of the small black fish; it was caked in fine white salt which were caked in salt.. It tasted impossibly salty and was not at all like candy with which I was familiar. Beyond the salt, a strong aftertaste remained. The flavor was not entirely unlike molasses but not quite the same. It was disgusting.

A few months later, I noticed an open package of Salt Sild on my coworker's desk and decided to try another. This time I wasn't disgusted by the flavor. This time I was prepared, and I was able to appreciate it for what it was. The complexity of the licorice struck me: a savory, salty and slightly sweet candy. It was amazing.

From that point on, I have kept an eye out for interesting black licorice on my travels. Scandinavia proved to be the epicenter of my licorice discoveries since many varieties of licorice are available there. These range is from sweet to quite salty. Some are hard, while others
are soft. Some leave a pleasantly bitter anise flavor behind when eaten, while others leave behind a mild honey flavor. Some licorice varieties even have a waxy feeling to them.

While salt is a common addition to licorice, menthol is also a favorite in Europe. Mentholated licorice can vary from pleasant, like a cough drop, to cough inducingly powerful.

While in Sweden, I found little boxes of Salta Katten, and I couldn't resist the little salted licorice cats. I brought the small yellow boxes home and forgot about them until my wife and I went to
the movies. I pulled out a box of the tiny black cats and popped a few into my mouth. Soon I realized that something wasn't quite right; my mouth was going slightly numb. There is something in Salta Katten that causes oral numbness.

The experience with the mouth numbing salted cats was slightly disturbing, but it was a nice reminder that there is such a great variety of licorice that I have yet to explore. It's just too bad that our options for finding licorice within the United States are limited...

I had thought that all hope for finding excellent licorice in the United States was lost when I visited Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA, earlier this year. In this market there is a shop called Chocolate By Mueller. While chocolate is their namesake, licorice is another one of their passions. They stock well over 30 types of fresh imported and domestic licorice, and the proprietors are very knowledgeable about all of them.

At Chocolate By Mueller, I purchased the freshest licorice wheels I have ever tasted. After speaking with the proprietor, I discovered that their location gains some of the credit for the freshness that they are able to provide. Reading Terminal Market attracts tourists from all over the world, including those parts of the world that love licorice. For those that have been denied access to decent licorice on their travels, the licorice selection at Chocolate By Mueller is like an oasis in the dessert.

My only problem is that I don't live in Philadelphia, but all is not lost because they ship. If you ever find yourself in Philadelphia near Reading Terminal Market, I highly recommend stopping by for some salted licorice. For those that don't find themselves near Philadelphia, you may find a variety of licorice brands at Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market, candy shops and stores that import European goods.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Moleskine Journal: Common Availability, Uncommon Quality

A while ago, I wrote about the raw utility of the travel journal in Travel Gear Highlight: Travel Journal. In the comments to that post, a reader noted that I should try a Moleskine journal.

Since December of last year, I've been carrying a small black Moleskine (3 1/2" by 5 1/2") on all of my travels, and it's now full of notes from my adventures. I've been quite impressed with it. It traveled with me to Moscow, Sweden, Italy, all over the United States and through a cross country move. Needless to say, it's been through a lot.

Despite all it's been through, my little Moleskine only shows some minor wear at the corners and some staining from a peach that was accidentally left to rot in my bag. Other than that, it has remained in great condition. The quality of this journal's construction continues to impress me. It's built of quality components, and it's built to last.

The quality of the Moleskine becomes all the more apparent when compared with a journal of similar design yet inferior quality. I've used several journals for other projects that were obviously inspired by the Moleskine design, which were made by the Picadilly company. With much lighter use, the components began to fail.

The ribbons fell out and the elastic bands quickly lost their stretch. A loose elastic band may seem like a small detail, but it could allow the journal to open and become damaged while bouncing around in a backpack. Damage to the corners of the Picadilly journals were also evident far before similar damage was found on the Moleskine.

It should be noted that the Picadilly journals are much less expensive at around $4.00 USD while the same size Moleskine costs $10.00 USD.

I have to admit that before I used the Moleskine I was a bit skeptical about it being of legendary quality. Now, there is no doubt in my mind; this is the best journal that I have ever used.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Guest Post: Finding Adventure Close to Home

Photograph and Article by Nicole Holt

While Graham is away on trips, I like to plan the things we are going to do together when he is home. Being married to a man who travels regularly for work is a challenge for me because I do not get to share in his adventures. I make up for this by planning adventures for us to have when he is home.

The vast majority of these trips are local or, at most, an hour to two hours away by car. They are simple activities like going to an arboretum or checking out a place that has multiple pinball machines. The simplest one was exploring our backyard.

I didn’t notice the mushrooms growing all around our house until we had been living in Eugene for over a year. I blame it on the distraction of wedding planning followed by the gloom and subsequent seasonal affective disorder inherent in a rainy Pacific Northwest winter. After finally noticing the mushrooms and starting to photograph them all over our neighborhood, I decided that Graham and I needed to explore the woods behind our house.

There were many reasons to not explore our backyard area by myself; needless to say, I did not feel safe. So, I planned to go back there with Graham. At first, we stayed fairly close to the house, but over time, we ventured farther into the woods. It did not take us long after that to find the cliffs and the small brook below. It was beautiful back there, especially on a sunny day when the light filtered through the trees. The day I took the above picture was just such a day.

Roaming around those woods with Graham was one of my favorite things to do during our final months in Eugene. It is a shame that we did not think to explore back there sooner, and now that we live in a metropolitan area, I miss being able to stroll out of the house to go on rambles in the woods. However, the thought of our backyard explorations serves as a continual reminder that adventure can indeed be found in your own backyard and that engaging and worthwhile experiences are possible anywhere if you are open to them.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Introduction to Sign Spotting

When I travel, things change quite rapidly: time zone, climate and even culture. Considering that things change so often in my life, I look for simple things that I can find wherever my travels take me. One of my favorites is visiting grocery stores, but I also like to play a game known as Sign Spotting.

The basic point of Sign Spotting is to keep an eye out for interesting signs. It sounds riveting, I know, but bear with me. You look for signs that make you smile, laugh out loud or scratch your head and think, "What the heck did they mean by that?".

Truly dedicated Sign Spotters take pictures and post them on websites such as There have even been several books published filled with interesting signs.

Personally, I enjoy the slight distraction of Sign Spotting as well as the amusement that I feel whenever I find an interesting new sign. Some signs, like the one pictured at the beginning of this post, have interesting stories that accompany them.

When I saw the sign embedded in the ground that proudly proclaimed "THE SPACE WITHIN THESE LINES IS NOT DEDICATED," I laughed to myself and took a picture. After that, I began to think about it and decided that there must be a story behind it, so I was determined to find out what why it was placed.

One of the people with whom I was working with in Philadelphia said that he had heard that the sign had something to do with street vendors. While this was possible, I wasn't entirely convinced because the verbiage was pretty cryptic.

Some digging on the internet led me to a detailed explanation on the Philadelphia Weekly website which had a detailed explanation. It turns out that the sign means that the space is private property and therefore not dedicated to public use. The sign signifies that the owners are being nice in allowing you access to the area but that you should be respectful of their ownership.

Not all Sign Spotting is as involved as the above example so I'll give you a couple of simpler examples.
The above sign can be found in Portland, Oregon. The sign is intended to be a warning to cyclists about the trolley tracks. The thought of cyclists being hurt on their commute is not really funny, but the sign always made me smile.
The above sign was the product of vandalism at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada. It's one of those signs that you can walk by a dozen times without registering because No Smoking signs are everywhere these days. I'm lucky that I glanced over at it because it's become one of my favorite signs.

Sign Spotting is a great travel distraction, and you can do it without any planning or special equipment. A camera helps, but it's not needed to derive pleasure from this "sport."

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Southwest Airlines: A Pioneer in Queue Management

Early in the life of this blog, I posted an elaborate rant about how much I hate standing in lines while traveling titled Queue Madness or Why I Hate Standing in Lines. In this post, I outlined just how much time travelers spend in line, and I pleaded to the world to pay attention to the neglected art form of queue management.

Since I don't have the authority to enact sweeping changes in queue management, and I'm not quite up to rogue queue management yet, I decided that venting was where I would have to leave the topic.

Since then, I've seen many examples of poor queue management that would not be very interesting reading. However, I did run across something worth sharing on my recent trip home from Nashville, TN: an actual attempt at queue management.

At the Southwest Airlines gates at the Nashville International Airport (BNA) I noticed some tall posts that appeared to be gateways for groups of rows.

At first I wasn't completely sure that what I was looking at was queue management, but further inspection of the posts and the video screen that explained them removed all doubt in my mind; Southwest Airlines takes queue management at boarding time seriously.

Instead of a cyptic system groups or a chaotic everyone-boards-right-now tactic, Southwest Airlines has streamlined the process as follows:

1. Get in the line between the posts for your row number.
2. When it's your line's turn, you board.

Unfortunately. I was unable to witness an actual boarding because I was not flying Southwest that day, but the dedication to queue management was evident and greatly appreciated by at least this frequent traveler.

I'd like to thank Southwest Airlines for taking on a problem that has plagued the world for far too long. I hope that others see this example and build upon what Southwest has achieved in the field of queue management.

I have a few questions for my readers who have traveled with Southwest Airlines. Does the queue management system that I saw function well in practice? Do the gate agents enforce the queues that were so thoughtfully designed? Is this system used in airports other than in Nashville?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Desktop Archaeology: The Power of a Receipt

It's not often that I'm home long enough to clean my office, but occasionally certain forces come into alignment just long enough for me to make some progress on the project. When I do clean my desk, I often unearth pieces of paper about which I had long forgotten. I like to think of rooting around through forgotten ephemera as desktop archaeology.

Recently, I was going through a neglected pile, and I found a stash of receipts. It is my habit to clear out receipts on a semi-regular basis, but somehow these had eluded my attention for the better part of two months. As I looked down upon one particular receipt, a smile crossed my face as I vividly remembered the purchase.

I wasn't planning on purchasing any food while waiting for a connection at the Washington Dulles airport. However, a Five Guys burger restaurant with 50 pound sacks of potatoes stacked in the dining area caught my eye.

Any establishment that is willing to cut their fries from fresh potatoes is worth trying, so I got in line and purchased a small order of fries.

When my order was called, I received a paper sack containing a small drink cup overflowing with fries. As far as I can tell, the cup is merely a formality since they fill the cup and most of the bag with fries. Embracing the spirit of informal dining, I dumped the contents of the cup into the sack along with a packet of salt and two packets of pepper. After a liberal shake in the bag, the fries were seasoned to my liking, and I took them to a nearby table. The fries were by far the best that I've had at an airport.

I hadn't thought about the fries until I unearthed the receipt, which is notable because they made quite an impression at the time. Several hours after finding this receipt, I left for a trip to Nashville, TN.

As fate would have it, if you believe in such a thing as fate, I stumbled upon another Five Guys restaurant that very day. I figured that any establishment that puts such effort into their french fries must surely put similar care into the rest of their offerings; I was determined to put this theory to the test. Two days later, I got my chance, and I wasn't disappointed.

Burgers at Five Guys come with an unlimited number of toppings, which include grilled onions, mushrooms, hot peppers and a variety of condiments. The burgers are as well executed as the fries.

The lesson here is that something as simple as a little slip of paper can remind you about something wonderful, so you might as well clean your desk every now and then. Had I not found that receipt on that particular day, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed a most satisfying lunch at Five Guys.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Art of Locking Yourself Out of a Hotel Room, or How Not to Impress Your In-Laws

Locks really only have one job to do: they keep people out, and they usually do it well. On a normal day, I don't have problems with locks, but on the rare occasion they cause me endless headaches.

Whenever I enter my home, I engage the deadbolt; when I travel, it's no different. As soon as I enter my room, I snap the deadbolt shut and engage the bar-style lock or security chain if one is present. This habit had served me well until I inadvertently locked my wife and myself out of our hotel room for a very embarrassing half hour. On the plus side, I did learn quite a bit about hotel room doors.

We were on a short skiing trip to Mt. Hood with my wife's parents and her sister. We were staying in a hotel, and our room had an adjoining door to my wife's family's room. After we entered our room, I flipped the bar-style lock on our main door. When we left to go out for dinner, we passed through to the adjoining room, closed the door and left for the evening. Upon returning we discovered that our room keys would no longer work. After trying several times, we headed downstairs because the door just wasn't opening.

I've before because the electronic key cards can, from time to time, become decoded and no longer work.

Upon reporting malfunction to the front desk, the attendant reprogrammed our key cards, and we returned to find that we were still unable to open the door. The slightly annoyed hotel attendant, who was really only there because of the proximity the mountain, rolled his eyes, put down his bowl of yogurt and proclaimed that the battery in the door was probably dead. I hadn't thought about the doors having batteries before, but it did make sense; all those card readers in the doors run on batteries so eventually they need to be replaced.

The attendant gathered a small case and we went up to the room. After unscrewing something on the bottom of the door handle, a small panel came loose revealing a battery and some electronics. He plugged in a small device and was able to unlock the door. Surely enough, the latch was in place and the door would only open about two inches. The attendant was unimpressed.

"Ah, well there you have it," the attendant proclaimed. "We have an opener, but it's a little tricky. We may have to wait for Phil to get back from his break." Phil was the other hotel attendant who was on duty that night.

Another trip to the front desk produced a spring steel device that looked a lot like a slim crowbar. In the right hands, this device could be used to pop open the bar-style latches. This device is handy for when guests try to exercise squatter's rights or when they just manage to lock themselves out thanks to their overzealous safety habits.

The attendant opened the door slightly using his electronic device, slipped the tool into the gap as far as it could go while still connecting with the lock, closed the door. Next he opened the door while simultaneously pushing inward with the tool. This did absolutely nothing. The idea is that the tool will be able to push the latch out of the way just before it engaged, thus allowing entry. Like most things, the use of this device is more easily described conceptually than it is to actually do; the attendant was having a hard time of it.

After 10 minutes of repeating the above process without success, Phil came by to open the door. He looked at the tool, bent it slightly, held it up to the light and smiled. Within 3 tries, he had that door open like it was nothing at all. The first attendant went back to his bowl of yogurt knowing that he should spend more time honing his skills of the hotel arts, but he was probably thinking about the slopes again before he made it to the stairs.

We thanked Phil, and we were happy to be in our room again. I learned a valuable lesson: when using adjoining rooms, always go out your own door!

Have you ever locked yourself out of your hotel room? I'd be glad to know that I'm not alone on this one.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Washington, D.C.: As A Tourist For The FIrst Time

Until a few years back, my only exposure to Washington, D.C. was what I had observed up from watching movies and television. My main impression was that D.C. was where politicians and lobbyists hashed out what the special interest groups deemed the "right" direction for our country's policies.

Basically I saw the district as a place where the powerful of our country influenced policy for their own personal gain while the majority of the population were left with little recourse.

When I was first sent near Washington on business with a coworker, I was talked into driving into town so that he could see the capital. Reluctantly, I agreed, and we jumped in our rental car to experience D.C. traffic first hand. We parked the car and fed all of our loose change into a meter for a 40 minute run around the Mall.

This experience gave me another impression. Seeing all the monuments didn't fill me with pride, but rather of a galvanization of our country's complete lack of modesty. The scale of things was skewed to the absurd and I was embarrassed by it in front of my coworker who was born in China.

Time went by and I was sent to George Town. This time I started to see some of the neighborhoods and meet some of the people that call D.C. home. What really started to turn me around was meeting up with one of my wife's college friends and going to Rockland's BBQ. Being shown around by a local really let me see more than the negative things that have been building in my mind for untold years. In Dupont Circle there's a bookstore/coffee shop/bar; any city that can support that kind of shop can't be that bad.

And so, on a cool fall night, standing in front of a Dixieland style band in Dupont Circle, while the impact hammers of a road construction crew rang in the background, I had a change of heart about Washington D.C.

My wife and I recently visited her college friend before he moved to China on a Fulbright scholarship. We went to visit him and went to see D.C. as I had never done so before, as tourists.

To my surprise, D.C. isn't all business, and there's plenty for tourists to do. There are more museum's than you can shake a stick at and most of them do not charge admission. The only museum that we wanted to visit that we didn't get to go into was the Air and Space museum. We were turned away at the entrance on account of my Swiss Army knife having a screwdriver on it (actually it has three). Apparently, they are worried about people with Swiss Army knives taking home souvenirs.

What they should really be worried about are the little kids damaging priceless works of art over at the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery is a lot more interesting than it sounds. I was a bit hesitant about visiting it at first, but it was great. They even have a decent bronze collect and an area where you can learn about art restoration.

Once we passed through the hall containing each president in sequence, there was a hall containing presidents depicted in their steady decline to death. It's a little morbid, but I went with it. A little girl stood fixated on a painting of Lincoln on his deathbed, whipped up her camera and took a flash picture. She turned to her mother and said, "I got it right here!" while she rapped Lincoln's face with her knuckle. Her mother sighed and said that she probably didn't need to touch the paintings.

I stood back and waited for a docent to jump out of the woodwork and beat the life out of the child, but there were no repercussions to this heinous act. My expectations may seem a little harsh, but conditioning is a powerful thing, and my conditioning had been completed downstairs about 45 minutes prior to this incident.

Downstairs the gallery shows off their latest acquisitions and we found the now iconic piece of artwork depicting Barack Obama titled HOPE. During the last presidential election this piece was converted into poster form and was widely distributed. While still powerful, what these copies lack is that the original was not done on a solid canvass, but rather on a collage of vintage newspapers and bits of wallpaper.

I had no idea that this piece had such great detail and I touched the velvet rope gently to steady myself while I got a better look at a newspaper clipping. Unknown to myself prior to this point, touching the velvet rope was tantamount to licking the art and I was greeted by a booming voice warning me to, "Step away from the painting". I recoiled slightly and I took a long look at the docent, who could have easily passed for a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub.

Doing the math in my head, I figured that I, who couldn't pass as a bouncer at a bingo parlor, stood no chance against this particular docent so I stepped back. At least our paintings were well guarded I thought. Now you understand my disgust at what happened in the gallery above.

Visiting the touristy parts of D.C. put us in contact with a wide variety of tourists. Many of the visitors to D.C. were actually from other countries, and many different languages could be heard everywhere you went. That the capital can draw in such a diverse crowd from all over the world seemed fitting as the United States is a similar gathering of people from around the world. Coming to this realization felt good.

While I was disappointed to be turned away from the Air and Space Museum, the visit showed me more of the softer side of D.C., one that was good for my outlook on the country that I live in. I'm not saying that D.C. isn't where the powerful form policy in their own interest, but it does have free museums.

Have you had a similar perspective changing experience while traveling? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Regional Cookie Highlight: Almond Macaroons

Photographs by Nicole Holt

Traveling to a new place exposes you to many things that are familiar, yet slightly different and therefore exotic. I've written about my love of exploring grocery stores for this reason, but today I'd like to take a more focused look at the exotic familiar.

Cookies are something with which most of us become familiar during childhood. Usually a sweet after meal snack or a between meal snack, the cookie, at least for me, instantly brings nostalgic comfort.

When I started to travel extensively, I noticed that the varieties of cookies that were familiar to me in my childhood aren't always available. Variations of the chocolate chip cookie are widespread, but snickerdoodles are often rare or even unheard of. What I did find was a wide variety of cookies that I'd never seen or even heard of before. Wonderful cookies with names like pfefferneusse, Jaffa Cakes, black and whites and Tim Tams.

Shortly after moving to the Boston area, my wife and I stopped in at Darwin's, a coffee shop in Cambridge, MA, to get some coffee and the dessert case caught our eyes. In particular, there was flat cookie half covered in chocolate labeled as an almond macaroon. Up to this point we had both only known macaroons as a rounded coconut based cookie that generally wasn't flat.

Purchasing this single cookie on a whim exposed us to the world of almond macaroons, which has kept us on the lookout for new examples to tempt our taste buds ever since.

On a recent Saturday morning, we rode our bikes through Somerville and Cambridge, MA, to collect a few examples. We only made it to two bakeries before the heat persuaded us to pursue cooler activities, but many bakeries in the Boston area make this specialty.

Our first stop was Lyndell's, an old bakery with reasonable prices and a wonderful habit of using copious amounts of their not-too-sweet butter cream. Stepping into Lyndell's is like visiting a bakery that your grandparents frequented while growing up. There's a good reason for this feeling as Lyndell's has been here since 1887.

Lyndell's is the home of the almond disk ($1.25 each or $14 for a dozen), a soft cake based cookie with a crunchy base that has a very distinct almond flavor. On top of this cookie, a generous portion of lightly vanilla flavored butter cream is held together by a thin layer of dark chocolate.

The almond disks are roughly shaped as they are made by hand, and they are clearly not one of the mass produced cookies that have become all too familiar. As corny as it may sound, they look as if they are made with love.

The sweetness of the cookie is balanced nicely by the large amount of butter cream atop it. Eating one is a decadent experience, yet the cookie is not dense. The Lyndell's almond disk must be kept refrigerated, which makes it a bit difficult to transport long distances or in hot weather, but its well worth the effort to track down when you are in the area.

The original Lyndell's that we visited in Somerville is at 720 Broadway but they also have a location in the tourist friendly North End of Boston at 227 Hanover Street.

Hi-Rise Bread Company bakes a very different type of almond macaroon ($1.00) that is just as delicious, just in a different way.

This is a chocolate-less cookie with a crunchy exterior, moist interior and a slight dusting of powdered sugar on top. With an assertive almond flavor, Hi-Rise's almond macaroon is simply a pleasure. The single almond atop each cookie is a nice touch, never allowing you to forget what kind of cookie you have before you.

The macaroon's dry texture makes it a natural accompaniment to an iced coffee in the summer or a hot coffee in the colder months. Both of these drink options are available onsite, though we haven't yet tried their coffee. A sign out front did boast of their cold brewed iced coffee, and I take this as a good omen.

We visited the Hi-Rise near tourist friendly Brattle Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge at 56 Brattle Street, but there is also another Cambridge location at 208 Concord Avenue.

Our quest for the best almond macaroon is far from over, but with Lyndell's and Hi-Rise, the bar has been set quite high. If you know of any bakeries in the Boston area that are producing excellent almond macaroons, please let me know. The next time you are in the Boston area, be sure to try an almond disk or almond macaroon.

I'll continue to keep an eye out for interesting cookies wherever I go. If your area has a local specialty cookie please let me know in the comments section below as I never know where my travels will take me next.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Product Review: The Tugo, A Cup Holder For Your Luggage

If you’ve ever tried to walk quickly from your favorite airport coffee shop to your gate while balancing your carry-on luggage and your hot coffee, then you know how challenging it can be to avoid spilling hot coffee all over yourself.

In a misguided attempt to avoid this balancing act, I once tried putting my nearly full cup of coffee in the water bottle pouch on the side of my backpack. When I reached my gate a few minutes later, I realized that a fair amount of my coffee had spilt onto my backpack and some had gotten onto my clothes.

After that experience I resigned myself to live with this limitation. Fortunately, I would not suffer forever as someone with more ingenuity than I noticed this problem and decided that the lack of cup holders on luggage needed to be remedied. Behold the fruit of that ingenuity: the tugo.

Photograph by Nicole Holt

The tugo is a flexible cup holder that can easily attach between the handle posts of most rolling luggage. The tugo holds all standard disposable coffee cups, some reusable coffee mugs and most 16-20 oz fountain drink cups. The design lets the cup hang freely between to anchor points and tries to use gravity to keep the cup upright, which should free up a generally make life easier. We’ll get to the “tries” part in a moment.

I first heard about this product on Twitter and the tugo sounded like the product for which I had been looking for some time. A few twitter and e-mail exchanges later with the makers of the tugo resulted in the generous offer to send me one for review; I gracefully accepted this offer.

Upon receiving my tugo, I noticed that the packaging was slick and well thought out. The side had an opening so that you could see the color of your tugo before purchase. The tugo is currently only available in black, but the tugo website,, pictures a red model which appears to be the prototype. The only flaw with the packaging that I found was that the images used to illustrate the operation of the tugo were backwards as if they had been flipped 180 degrees. Regardless of this error, the images are clear enough to facilitate the operation of the tugo.

The red prototype is used in the video located at tugo video and clearly shows a coffee cup swinging freely in the tugo when in the luggage is in use.

I opened the package and removed the tugo. While it is made of a rugged rubber-like material, it didn’t have the same stretch as rubber. Its material and build reminded me of a fan belt. That may sound strange, but, like a fan belt, the tugo is built tough and built to last; I was very impressed.

I was ready to put the tugo to the test. Not long after I found myself in an airport and in need of coffee. I purchased a12 oz decaf and attached the tugo onto the rolling carry-on that I borrowed from my wife just for this purpose.

Once I tightened the straps, I placed my coffee in the tugo and tilted the carry on forward. The coffee immediately began to slosh out of the opening, so I stopped to examine the setup. Due to the angle at which the handle sat and the lack of flexibility caused by the robust material used in the tugo, the cup was permanently angled forward. With the cup opening in the direction of movement, it didn’t take much tilt to have coffee spilling out and onto the floor.

Ah, but this lack of flexibility works both ways. By turning the cup around so that the opening faced the bag, the coffee would always be tilted back slightly, which would prevent spills. With this detail sorted out the tugo got the job done, even though it didn’t do it as intended.

Please note that if your bag isn’t well balanced and prone to tipping over, use of the tugo will result in coffee going everywhere.

Despite the fact that the tugo doesn’t flex as much as the red prototype, it still works and would make an excellent travel accessory for the right type of traveler.

If you travel frequently with a rolling case and love coffee (or know someone who does) then the tugo is well worth considering. Business travelers are a natural for the tugo, and flight attendants and pilots may find this useful as well.

The tugo can be purchased for $10 from select retailers as well as directly from

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