Month: November 2013

Best Gifts Under $50 for Your Favorite Globetrotter

Being that it is Black Friday, some of us (i.e. those who don’t wait until December 24) are well on our way to making our Christmas shopping lists now that Thanksgiving has cleared and we are starting to be able to button our pants again. We would never forget that bottle of wine for Grandpa, that baking set for Mom, and that fancy watch for our boyfriend(s)… but what about the traveler in our lives?

Buying gifts for travelers isn’t very easy, mostly because those who are travel-happy tend to operate on the same t-shirt and jeans for multiple days at a time and are grateful to have a bar of soap for the next destination. However, get them something they don’t know yet that they want this here. Here are some of the coolest travel gadgets to score before December 25.

1. Scratch Map, $20 is a poster map for the wall in which you scratch off each country you have visited to reveal a rainbow beneath. Also hidden under the scratched off countries is geography trivia.

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2. Water Bobble, $10 is a reusable, self-filtering stylish water bobble that is great for avoiding those pesky tap water table charges in Europe if you’re good at sneaking off to the bathroom unnoticed. These bottles come in many colors, sizes, and styles, although I recommend the Bobble Sport because they still comes in the standard medium size but they are more colorful, dishwasher safe, and the cap is attached so you can’t lose it (unlike the normal bobble). Every month (or two, which is the recommended swap time), you purchase a new filter for about $5. Oh and you get to save the environment too.

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3. Apple World Travel Adaptor Kit, $39 includes a set of six AC plugs with prongs to fit outlets in North America, Japan, China, United Kingdom, Continental Europe, Korea, Australia, and Hong Kong and works with the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple MagSafe Power Adapters (for MacBook and MacBook Pro), Portable Power Adapters (for iBook and PowerBook), and AirPort Express. Trust me – you just dumped big bucks into your Apple iPhone and Macbook. Don’t mess it up by using some poorly converting cheap plug in another country and then blowing the whole thing to pieces. Invest in a quality converter.

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4. Bentgo Bento Boxes, $15 are like handy little make-your-own TV dinners, just without all of the fake food. These cute, streamlined compartmentalized boxes make creating meals for the road a lot less messy than your standard cafeteria-style lunchbox.

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5. SearchAlert Locks, $20 are the kind of thing that you think you don’t really need until you’re in a hostel in Scotland sharing a room with a convicted felon. These handy resettable combination locks also change color from green to red if the locks have been opened outside of your presence.

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My Life Aboard The Traveling Circus

As anyone who has ever read one thing written by me ever, you probably know that the most settled I have ever been is the few years where I lived in the boondocks at the edge of the woods with my mother, a yappy beagle, and an orange cat.  Not very exciting… or so it seems. 

Now that I’m back, (poorly) adjusting to post grad life, it seems all the more depressing. I have no one to hang out with, the only thing to do on a Friday night is go bowling (except there’s no one to go with…), and the only bar within a reasonable distance is Applebee’s, which doesn’t really work for me because I’m not ready to pick up soccer moms quite yet.

However, back in the day, this town was the place to be! Well, not really, but we made the best of it. Because there was nothing easy to do (…the closest mall is still 30 minutes away…) we had to make our own fun. Every single day. Mostly because we didn’t have a choice, but even still, it made us able to have fun in a cardboard box. I used to be good friends with a girl who moved to London, and her friends there in the city wouldn’t even believe her when she told them the trouble we got into on the weekends, no mind-altering substances necessary. We didn’t have a bar or a movie theater or a mall to keep us company, so we certainly never gave up being creative trying.

We would take our friends’ cars and hide them around town and make scavenger hunts for them to find them again. We would play golf in the middle of the night, setting up our own courses in abandoned playgrounds. We made our own boardgames, tie-dyed sheets in the backyard and then made them into tents and camped out under them, ran through high school hallways by nightfall, and otherwise caused innocent mischief like only kids can do.

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To do these things, I didn’t have to get on a plane or pay an astronomical museum “donation” fee. I didn’t have to try to find a dirty hostel to stay at or figure out why I had to pay for tap water at an overpriced tourist restaurant and I didn’t have to listen to a tour guide with a heavy accent tell me the history of anything. Instead, all I had to do was walk outside and call one of my dopey friends to come over.

In many ways, I think that it was these boondocks adventures that prepared me for a nomad life, one spent living out of a suitcase and scavenging for free meals and trying to solve little crises that only happen when you’re 18, dumb, and broke. Irony is, as much as we all complained about living in the edge of nowhere back in the day (and then, trying to make the best of it by having more fun than anyone who lived in civilization), it was those quirky adventures that made us yearn for it for every year onward, always keeping us upon the life aboard the traveling circus.

Staying Awake in the City That Never Sleeps

New York City has never, and will never, be a sight to me. It will never be a tourist destination; it will never have the romanticism of Florence or the grandeur of Paris or the history of Budapest. However, I’m also realistic to know that this isn’t New York City’s fault. This hub of business and fashion – an epicenter of power that many people hope to one day visit – is probably about 45 minutes or so away from me, which, when you already live in a town with only a general store to call its own, isn’t much of a drive.

Each time I visit this graying city, I feel prompted to feel guilty that I have never climbed the Statue of Liberty and never rode a double-decker tour bus, although I can boast that I have scoured the Louvre and stood upon the Cliffs of Moher. I feel bad that I’ve never even skimmed a New York City guidebook or bothered trying to find a worthy pizzeria. Instead, I make sure I bring $20 for the monstrous tolls and hope that I don’t get home too late to shower off the city scum.

So here is my challenge to myself, and maybe you, too : below is a collection of New York City sights and attractions that will make the horrific parking worth it and maybe, if the city is in your backyard, too, make you rethink your need to hop on a plane for every new destination.

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1. Little Italy is no Florence, but it’s still pretty reminiscent of classics like The Godfather with its zeppoles, pasta joints, and pastry cafes lining the streets.

2. Washington Square Park arch is a good ol’ American replica of Paris’s Arc di Triomphe where you can stop and listen to some street musicians, watch the hippies and beatniks, and enjoy a cup of joe.

3. United Nations Secretariat Building is a 39-story complex which isn’t open to the public, however visitors can tour the midcentury dignitaries room when it is not in use, check out the current exhibits, and send out personalized postage using its own post office.

4. New York Public Library is guarded by Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions that dote the entrance, before you can hustle on in and check out the muraled 300 foot Rose Main Reading Room.

5. St. Patrick’s Cathedral boasts more than 200 saints, stained glass, the alter of Saint Louis, and an oversized copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta crafted by the same man who created Patience and Fortitude, above.

6. Radio City Music Hall houses opulent chandeliers, lush carpets, and its own Art Deco concert hall meant to resemble a setting sun, and is also the place where the Radio City Rockettes find themselves each Christmas season.

7. Museum of Modern Art contains constantly-updated new exhibits and a sculpture garden with works by Picasso and Rodin.

8. Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place of famous New Yorkers such as William “Boss” Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lola Montez and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Be sure to check out its massive Gothic arch at the main entrance as well as climb to the top of Battle Hill, one of the highest points in Kings County and a pivotal spot during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

9. Flatiron Building is a notoriously un-tourist friendly attraction because the space above the ground floor is inaccessible to the public (where publishing house Macmillan calls home), however its making in 1902 still represents the coming modernity and innovation to the city, although back in the day it was said that the building would never stand the high winds.

10. Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in 1883 and, at the time, was a feat in itself – it was the longest suspension bridge in the world  and now, is a nice stroll for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the views of lower Manhattan for a little more than a mile.

11. Empire State Building, a staple of the Empire State, was the city’s highest building upon its completion in 1931.

12. The Statue of Liberty offers breathtaking views of the New York Harbor and Ellis Island, the entrance of immigration for millions of hopeful soon-to-be Americans.

13. Central Park is a 843 acre plot that has become a cultural hub as well as the destination for sunbathers, ice skaters, and bird watchers.

14. Grand Central Terminal sports a constellation adorned ceiling and a four-faced opal clock over the main information booth as well as a Tiffany glass timepiece and a likeness of Mercury, the god of travel.

15. American Museum of Natural History hosts dinosaurs, fossils, and human origins and culture halls.

16. Staten Island Ferry runs 24/7 and is totally free, providing the scenic tour from Staten Island to lower Manhattan.

17. Times Square was once a hub for vice, teeming with sex shops and drug dealers. Over time that notorious reputation has eroded, and now the area can feel like a tourist-clogged shopping mall.

18. Bronx Zoo houses 5000 animals over 265 acres.

19. Rockefeller Center is a tourist hub that contains the bronze Atlas statue, the skating rink, the Today show plaza, Top of the Rock, and the rinkside Prometheus statue.

20. Yankee Stadium opened in 2009 to much fanfare and stands opposite the now-flattened original.

Information courtesy of Time Out New York 

How To Choose a Guidebook

As we all are well aware, I’m totally down for saving dollars whenever I can… and I fully trust technology to help me do so. I use GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas stations near me, TripAdvisor and AroundMe to find the best  restaurants in my area, and I love FourSquare for snagging discounts at places I check into. However, technology isn’t always the answer, and this is the case for one classic traveling staple… The Guidebook. Nothing beats buying a ripped up guidebook off the Internet for $2, carrying it around and holding up a map over your face, and when it’s all said and done, stuffing it in the hostel drawer for the next lucky traveler. Adversely, no one wants to put their trust in a guidebook that turns out to not be reader-friendly, outdated, and only directs you to boring places. So, to help you out on your journey through the library, Amazon.com, or the nearest book kiosk at the airport, here are some of my top guidebook picks.

I’m a huge sucker for that cheesy dad-type Rick StevesEven though he sometimes has lame jokes and the hand drawn maps can confusingly be not-t0-scale, one of my favorite perks of these guidebooks is that attractions are nicely organized in a meaningful manner of those you can’t miss and those that can be forgotten when you’ve only got a few days in a new city. These guidebooks also feature easy-to-follow walking directions and descriptions of attractions that stick to the cool parts and don’t expect you to read paragraph after paragraph about one painting. At the same time, these books choose enough detail in that when attending a fairly well-known museum, I can often use the book itself as my own “tour guide.” The book itself reads a lot like a well-traveled friend showing you around a new place.

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When I can’t get a hold of a Rick Steves, I go for Frommer’s, an American classic for travelers. These books read a little more classroom, but they are still jam-packed full of essential information like the easiest public-transportation ways to access your favorite destinations, tips about countries you wouldn’t know otherwise, and top events and festivals in the area. However, I sometimes feel like there is too much information and it needs to be scaled down a bit or organized better so that one can quickly sift through to find the desired text.

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I like Lonely Planet guides – I appreciate their user-friendly and modernistic designs and clever and colorful photos, however, they too, try to pack too much information into too-few pages, missing a lot of stopping points and glazing over some that they do mention. When buying a guidebook, I want to be carrying something that I feel like I would die if I left it at some trattoria, not something I’m constantly wasting time sifting through the pages and wondering if I missed out on a cool sight.

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When purchasing a guidebook before a trip (which I definitely recommend because you’ll have your pick of any brand and you can buy it used and save money, plus you can read it on the plane and get a headstart) make sure you check out the “Look Inside” feature usually available on Amazon.com because all guidebooks are not the same. Obviously, you want it to cover all or most of the destinations you are going to and you want it to have the focus you prefer, either one focused on history, important museums, and educational opportunities or the most well-known attractions, coolest sights, and best restaurants. If you’re buying a used guidebook, know that you will most likely have to purchase a map as well.

On My Way Home

Living on the Jersey Shore, surrounded by 24 hour diners, dark-haired greaseballs, and leopard print yoga pants, I couldn’t really be much further from Italy, where well-dressed people enjoy shots of expresso and kiss on street corners. I think nostalgically about my time in Italy daily, often wondering how I ended up back here surrounded by the congested parkway and the smog of the nearby city. Often, it feels like that was another world, another lifetime, and it becomes more and more difficult to remind myself that was me there and not a body double. However, during every afternoon run on the boardwalk, gazing out over the pink sky and quietly whispering winds, I sometimes forget that I’m here at all and instead, I’m taken back to being that carefree, kind-of-dirty kid one year ago.

The Jersey Shore beach doesn’t really look like any of the beaches I ever saw in Italy did. It doesn’t look like the spotted mountainside beach towns of Cinque Terre, nor does it possess the sunny winding roads of Sorrento or the wilderness-ridden cliffs of Capri. The air isn’t as light and clean here and the people aren’t as happy and slow-moving. Hell, even the water here doesn’t have the turquoise dreamy tides of the Mediterranean. However, seaside smells and salty air are the same no matter what town you’re in, and the little towns on the Shore are no different. Sometimes when running on the boardwalk, I almost want to close my eyes and, just for a second, remember my first weekend trip to Cinque Terre.

The more places that you go, the more that you realize how remarkably similar many of them are. Don’t get me wrong here – the world is a quirky place, reminiscent of a family of black sheep where each cousin is a little different from the next. There is no place in the world with the tres chic of Paris, the art splendor of Florence, or the loom of Budapest. However, they all have sister qualities within them nevertheless. New Orleans is the dirty, rogue sister of Savannah, San Francisco, the big-city hipster brother of Seattle. And when you happen to run into one of these unexpected family members, even in a place as unsexy as the Jersey Shore, it’s always a welcome reminder of the home that once was.

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