Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Creative Greek Cuisine in Connecticut

Why in the world would I take the Metro North train more than an hour from Manhattan for lunch? Because I heard that a new, ultra creative Greek restaurant recently opened in Darien, Connecticut. And my two-hour-some round-trip commute was worth it.

Chef Themis Papadopoulos helms the kitchen at Lithos that eventually will have a lovely outdoor terrace on a quiet residential street. He trained in France and it shows. Now, first I have to confess that Greek cuisine isn't my favorite, only because I'm often not surprised by the options. That's not the case at Lithos, where the creamy tarama and xtipito appetizers were so light, they were like puffy cumulous clouds. Tarama, made with codfish eggs, didn't come with the typical heavy fish taste. And the feta cheese-based xtipito is unexpectedly flavored with smoked paprika, as well as green pepper and pine nuts. Octopus at many restaurants is hit or miss; mostly miss. But here it was amazingly tender and flavorful, first slow cooked for three hours in red vinegar, then cooked in canola oil and served with a fava bean spread. One of the biggest surprises were the aoilis: a dollop of beet aoili created by mixing the chopped beats with the tarama; and a mango aoili that contains lemongrass and olive oil -- I definitely did not expect to see lemongrass in a Greek restaurant. Something new on the menu is the sesame feta pie, which has phyllo sprinkled with sesame and honey imported from Greece. (This might be my favorite item on the menu: part sweet, but not cloyingly so, and part savory.) The main fish course, grilled dorade, was cooked with  capers, lemon and parsley with a side of blanched Swiss chard plus kale. (The veggies were cooked in a vegetable broth with garlic and olive oil.) And unlike the rest of the U.S. I'm no fan of kale but combining it with the Swiss chard and cooking it all with garlic provided enough flavor to offset the typical kale bitterness I detest.

I usually avoid Greek desserts which often drip with honey. Here the desserts had perfect balance. The galaktobourek wasn't soggy and overly sweet, as I've often found it in other restaurants. Here, the custard cream was wrapped in phyllo and drizzled with a mildly sweet syrup flavored with lemon. The kataifi was a crispy phyllo tart filled with Brie and topped with pistachios -- typically you wouldn't find pistachios and cheese in this dessert. Even the baklava is different: here the shape is round instead of triangular. Since I'm a chocoholic, the chocolate mille feuille -- something I never found in a Greek restaurant -- was a hit: milk chocolate mousse was sandwiched between chocolate phyllo, with a side of kumquats that had been cooked in rose water.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Best Urban Rails-to-Trails in the U.S.

As transit networks for human-powered activities, rails to trails are bringing together communities, linked by a shared interest in a safe way to commute and commune with nature, and, in the process, protecting natural resources while also revitalizing local businesses.

1. Illinois Prairie Path, Illinois

Nicknamed the Roarin' Elgin, the now retired Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad once carried commuters and freight between Chicago and its suburbs. Its legacy, the 62-mile Illinois Prairie Path (IPP), one of the country's oldest rails to trails, is perfect not only for the botanically inclined but also the committed commuter.

2. Ojai Valley and Venture River trails - California

Urban grittiness is evident along the six-mile Ventura River trail where rotating and decommissioned oil derricks are in plain sight. But art installations also dot this trail, such as a bronze of oranges, reflecting the produce the railroad once transported, and other Ventura themes.

3. Burke Gilman Trail - Washington

 Traced by a sandy beach, Golden Gardens as well as other parts of the trail offer views of the mighty Olympic Mountains, even snow-capped Mount Rainier, in the distance.

4. Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, Florida

The path -- it's dotted with aluminum sculptures as a nod to its railroad history -- allows bladers, walkers and cyclists to safely and scenically traverse the Gulf coast, tidal waterways, myriad leafy parks and quaint neighborhoods in a state that's hardly noted for its pedestrian-friendly clime.

5. Minuteman Bikeway - Massachusetts

Short but oh-so-sweet, the 10-mile-long Minuteman Bikeway wanders through the landscape touched by the Revolutionary War, paralleling the Battle Road, aka Massachusetts Avenue, the route taken by British soldiers that marched to Concord. Following the path of the Lexington & West Cambridge Railroad from Cambridge to Bedford, this rail-to-trail is heralded as a year-round commuter way, even in the dead of winter.

6. Washington & Old Dominion Trail - Virginia

Many cyclists, joggers and bladers escape D.C. or commute on this trail that compliments the capital's retinue of memorials and monuments with lessons in history that are blended with a sense of peace rarely found in the chaotic Beltway.

7. Silver Comet Trail - Georgia

For 22 years since 1947, passengers could board a luxury train that cruised over towering trestles and through tunnels bored into mountains as it made the trip from New York to Birmingham, Alabama. That storied corridor has been transformed into the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail that spans Smyrna, Georgia (on the outskirts of Atlanta) to the Georgia/Alabama border near Cedartown in a rural North Georgia corner that's a mix of hardwood forests and rolling fields.

Find out more about this these seven urban rails to trails in the article I wrote for NationalGeographic Traveler - Intelligent Travel.
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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Brittany, France in Pictures

When I told friends and colleagues that I was traveling to Brittany to walk the Nantes-Brest Canal, this declaration was met with stares. Not even the savviest among them heard of this 216-mile-long canal in Brittany's interior. Why wasn't I going to the coast? And when I told acquaintances in France, they wondered if I would get bored. After all, they said, the scenery is pretty much the same, mile after mile. Right? Wrong.

Over the course of six days, I walked  a 60+ mile portion of this waterway, stopping in villages for lunch and dinner where my friend and I overnighted. Every step in this bucolic landscape was full of discoveries, as the colors, sky, foliage, reflections in the water, continually changed. The bed and breakfasts varied from chateaus reminiscent of Downton Abbey to country houses in centuries-old slate hamlets.

This YouTube video will provide a window into my peaceful journey where I found previous treasures around every corner and where the placid waters acted as a canvas for the verdant scenes.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Comparing Travel Backpacks

My recent travels took me from JFK to Orly airport, to the streets of Paris for 5 nights at a friend's house, to a train ride bound for Redon in Brittany, to the Nantes-Brest Canal where I walked 10-some miles a day for six days. And I carried all my essentials, including wine bar-perfect dresses, and clothes that were comfortable for walking as well as lounging at the end of the day and my prepared-for-anything first-aid kit, in an ultra comfortable, tiny backpack: the Flight 30 by Six Moon Designs. I recently posted about what I packed in this bag that I would be carrying for the first time and I had high hopes for it. It exceeded all of my expectations.

The bag, designed for ultra runners or super light backpackers, weighs in at a wee 19 ounces. The vest harness is unique, allowing the bag to move with you and comfortably transferring the load away from the lumbar region. I used packing cubes and zip lock bags to organize everything, and  external pockets carried a water bottle, tiny umbrella and other small essentials. (It was top loading but, with everything packed in individual cubes and bags, it was all very organized.) As my friend and I walked this flat paved path for 12+ miles on a few days, I blurted out "This bag is so comfortable, I could easily go another five miles."

Sadly, this was not my friend's experience. She purchased the Tortuga Travel Backpack based on my recommendation. I bought it in 2014 and, though I took it with me to Southeast Asia where I spent a month, I was completely unhappy with it.  It's a heavy bag, weighing in at 3.7 pounds. Sure, the company told me that my torso was too short --- 5'' 2" -- for the bag. But I had no idea it would be so uncomfortable in every sense: after wearing it for just 30 minutes, everything hurt, especially my back. And the padded hip belt that everyone loved just overwhelmed my tiny hips -- I'm a fairly skinny girl -- as did the wide shoulder straps. It just didn't work for me.

And yet, I recommended it to my friend who's 5' 8" tall and much heftier in girth. It's a bag that's good at organizing your gear with external and internal pockets and dividers. Plus it's front loading, which means you can easily find what you need without taking everything out, as you would with a top loading bag. The zippers are of good quality as is the bag itself. And it's the ideal carry-on size. So imagine my surprise when I met my friend in Paris and found out that both airlines she traveled with said the bag had to be checked. (She had not overpacked.) And my further surprise when she complained how uncomfortable the bag was, how it hurt her back, even though she packed light. The Tortuga Travel Backpack's website clearly states that it isn't made for hiking, but traveling from the airport to the hotel is hardly hiking, nor is walking a paved trail. But, alas, my friend did little walking with the Tortuga bag on our trip in Brittany, finding it too uncomfortable. She paid drivers to shuttle her bag ahead to our accommodations each night. And, at the end of our journey she gave the bag away. On the day I declared that I could easily go another 5 miles with my Six Moon Designs bag, my friend decided that as soon as she got home, she was ordering the Flight 30 bag, too. 

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fashionable + Ethical Bags for Your Weekend Travels

How perfect to find an ethical fashion accessory brand, especially one that's all about investing in women and girls, providing the women with fair work and, with the sale of each item, adolescent girls receive life skills mentoring. Also, it's so perfect that, planning to visit India in the fall, I found out that this company, Catrinka, which I originally wrote about months ago, is now selling the Kanta Weekender, a 100% cotton canvas bag with a hand drawn Indian street scene embellished with hand embroidery and mirrors.

The artisans behind this fashionable and ethically-produced bag is a mother-daughter team from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The bag is named for Kanta, the 33-year-old daughter on the team. (Her mother, Bhagwati is 52 and she learned embroidery craft from her mother.) The mirror work on the bag is traditional to Jodhpur, each panel taking two days to complete. The embroidered snowflake pattern originates out of Lucknow. (Both women are noted locally for their skillful hand embroidery work.)

The bag -- it'll hold all your clothing, accessories and toiletries for a weekend -- with its cow suede base and handles, cotton lining with zip pocket and top closure is assembled in a small woman-owned workshop based in New Delhi. Each bag provides three days of fair work to women in India. And indigenous adolescent Mayan girls receive a week of life skills mentoring through Catrinka's NGO partner, Redmi, with the sale of each bag. (Redmi strives to reach out to poor and at-risk indigenous girls, aged 8 to 19 in rural Guatemalan communities.)

So many of my activities, whether it's mentoring seniors at Barnard College where I did my undergraduate work or creating a fashion and accessories line, revolve around working with women and girls. Catrinka whose motto is "buy a bag, employ a woman, educate a girl, fits right along with this sensibility.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ultra Light Carry-On-Only Packing

Most people who travel to Paris for a week take along enough luggage for months of wardrobe changes. My trip will include not just five days in Paris but also more than a week in Brittany where I'll be walking 20 km from village to village with all my gear.

 These trip logistics dictated that I would be carrying my lightest pack ever. And it's especially timely given the new proposed carry-on rules that, hopefully, won't go into effect. (But they probably will.) According to the International Air Transport Association, the standard carry-on size would be 21.5" X 13.5" X 7.5". No problem for me: Aside from what I'm wearing on the plane, I've packed 3 dresses, one extra pair of pants, one pair of leggings, 2 tee shirts, rain jacket, one pair of Mary Janes, a hoody, warm synthetic fiberfill jacket, 5 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of underwear, 2 tank tops, iPad, first-aid kit, vitamin supplements, and toiletries, and a mini umbrella. All this went into my Flight 30 model by Six Moon Designs that's sized 17" X 11" X 7". (I managed to fit everything by placing different categories of clothing into individuals zip-log bags and squeezing the air out.) Because my clothes are either black or grey (plus bright colors coming from the tees, tanks, and scarves), there are myriad possible garment combinations. The very small Timbuka messenger bag that I will sling over my shoulder contains pens, antacids, chocolates, earplugs, eye shades, extra pair of eyeglasses, notebooks, batteries, connector wires, credit cards, cash, flashlight, dental floss, and peppermint lozenges.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What Not To Wear On The Plane

When you're trapped in a plane for anywhere from a few hours to having to cross multiple time zones, you're a captive, in a sense. And the clothes you chose for the flight had better keep you warm and comfortable and, sometimes more importantly, not attract unwanted attention.

That means no beach wear: no low-cut revealing tops, no shorts (it's often cold in the cabin and don't assume the flight attendants will provide a blanket). No shirts with offensive words or phrases that could stimulate an air rage incident. No sky-high heels that are uncomfortable and impractical in the cabin. (And no shoes that require untying/unbuckling anything.) No tight pants. Not only is this uncomfortable as you try to curl up in your seat over the next many hours, but even young people wearing tight pants could be at an increased risk of blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis).

This is an example of what I'll be wearing on my next flight -- I'm heading to Paris: 

 Notice, my slip-on shoes are cute but flat. These are Chaco Mary Janes.

My socks are made of Merino wool by SmartWool. (No chance of getting blisters once I land and hit the road. And, on the plane, the socks are breathable, wickable and comfortable.)

The loose-fitting pants are made of a synthetic that's light, breathable and doesn't wrinkle. When I'm not wearing this sort of pants, I opt for black leggings and a comfortable, simple black dress, made, of course, of Merino wool by SmartWool.

The long-sleeve shirt is Merino wool by SmartWool, so it adapts to different temperatures, wicks away sweat, and is ultra comfortable.

Under my shirt I wear a stretchy tank top that's also breathable.

I'm wearing a part synthetic/part light cotton infinity scarf that can do double or triple duty also as a head or shoulder covering. (It works in lieu of a hoody, so I can pull it over my head when I go to sleep on the plane.)

The long cardigan is by ExOfficio and is made of a comfy polar fleece-type synthetic that, like with the shirt, keeps me warm in frigid cabin. As a worst case scenario, I can take it off and roll it up as a neck or back rest. (It doesn't wrinkle either.)

Since, as you probably already know, I never check luggage, these items of clothing allow me to dress up or down once I've reached my destination. I can wear the tank top at the beach or under a sundress that needs some extra coverage. The black long-sleeve Merino wool shirt pairs well with a skirt or a sleeveless dress (if it's chilly). The scarf is especially useful if I'll be visiting religious sites but also if it's breezy.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

A Rooftop Retreat in New York City

You think you know a neighborhood, until you don't. Every day, I commute back and between Manhattan and  Queens via an express bus, a bus I board in the Herald Square neighborhood. Most non-New Yorkers know this as the home of Macy's, Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. It's one of my least favorite hoods, hardly one that would be considered charming. So imagine my surprise when I found out that a scenic rooftop bar was steps away from my bus stop.

The Hyatt Herald Square is home to "Up on 20," a small faux greenery-walled venue with prime views of some of New York's iconic sites, most notably the new One World Trade Center - seen from the South  Terrace, and the Empire State Building, visible from the aptly named Empire Terrace. Snuggling into one of the comfy sofas on the sunny South Terrace makes for a relaxing end to the work day. Whether you choose one of the drinks on the daily Happy Hour menu or not, you're bound to find quality. "Up on 20" gravitates to locally-sourced menu items. The Dorothy Parker, Chief Gowanus and Perry's Tot all come from NY Distilling Company; New York beers include Blue Point (from Long Island), Bronx Pale Ale and Southern Tier. Two popular cocktails are  refreshingly appealing with the approaching sweltering summer: Newton's Apple made with Knob Creek Bourbon, elderflower liqueur, apple and lime; and the Pavan Sangria Rose mixes white rum with Pavan, fresh berries and seltzer.

But more than the views and the alcohol, it's the eclectic menu, especially the shareable items, that's stellar. They divide the menu into four parts, each targeting a diner with a different palate: those who want to dig into a juicy burger, crave something light (salads), prefer a snack that pairs well with beer (spicy pork crackling, truffle fries), or are attracted to something more adventurous.The latter fits my dining profile and this, plus the sweeping views and laid back ambience (but I wasn't there on a weekend night) is what would keep me coming back. Among the shareable, creative dishes that are must-tries: the pulled whitefish sliders with avocado, cilantro and lime -- I'm a big fan of whitefish and this did not radiate fishiness; shrimp ceviche served in a bowl with pineapple and chile and a side of kettle chips to scoop up the shrimp -- perfect amount of heat; and, my very favorite, the ultra flavorful mini meatballs with hoisin sauce, sesame glaze and baby leeks. Each of the dishes was served with a pleasant aesthetics that included minimalist slate dishware.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

An Innovative Portuguese Restaurant In New York City

    Chef George Mendes of Aldea fame, the Michelin-starred Portuguese restaurant in New York City, recently opened Lupulo -- the name translates to "hops" in Portuguese -- a restaurant distinctly different in terms of its design and menu concept. While Aldea is fine dining and more traditional cuisine of Mendes' homeland, Lupulo has a  contemporary decor with traditional touches, and the same can be said for the cuisine.

    An immense oval bar sits smack in the middle of this expansive space that's suffused with natural light. Portuguese blue and white tiles line one wall while heavy maritime-type ropes act as vertical room dividers. An open, non chaotic kitchen takes up one entire wall.

    This gastropub  specializes in dishes that are an homage to Portuguese, but with a welcome creative twist. A mackerel spread had none of the expected bold fishy flavor. Instead, the kaffir lime, Vinho Verde wine, olive oil and a  touch of sea  salt lend a complex but mild flavor. The bowl of mackerel spread is ringed by ultra thin pieces of toast. This dish is one of several tasty petiscos (Portuguese tapas or small dishes) that include the light and flavorful grilled green asparagus with a dollop of dried sea urchin, plus sorrel and walnuts.

    For main courses -- though we shared everything -- I recommend the green peas made with diced chorizo, and topped with sunnyside up eggs along with parsley,Vinho Verde and kaffir lime. (The latter two appear in a number of dishes and, I must say that I never tired of the tanginess they gave each dish.). Another creative entree is the red snapper crudo, served in a bowl of coconut milk and kaffir lime broth, made spicy thanks to serrano peppers plus benne seeds.

    Unlike most people who love Portugal's traditional egg-based desserts, I find them cloyingly sweet. Thankfully, Lupulo's desserts are Portugal made modern. We opted for the chocolate "salami" sprinkled with sweet chocolate powder, and served with a side of olive oil ice cream.

    Of course, because Lupulo is named for the Portuguese word for "hops," it's no wonder that you'll find a wealth of craft beers, including the Sagres Pilsner and varieties from Japan, Belgium and Germany. Lupulo's wine menu features only wines from Portugal including the region I'm most fond of: the Alentejo. 

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