Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Portugal's Alluring Alentejo Region

You have to give it to those Romans -- they certainly knew how to pick their vacation spots. The Alentejo region in Portugal was considered their favorite. Just an hour from Lisbon, the region has plenty to satisfy my love of everything medieval. But the roads snaking through this region are to be enjoyed as well: rolling and twisting ribbons that wind past lush olive groves, well-tended vineyards and gnarled cork oak groves. Atop the hilltops, I spied many a fortified whitewashed village to explore.

The Alentejo region, Portugal's largest, has never seen the kind of tourist traffic that flocks to the Algarve or other regions. I've visited the Alentejo many times and have written about it in the print media over the past several years. But now we're seeing an increased interest in the Alentejo with features appearing recently in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

Here I'll take you to some of my favorite spots in this region that I hope will remain relatively unspoiled:

1. In Castelo de Vide, I wandered the narrow streets that are lined with colorful blooming flowers and discovered the old Jewish Quarter with the oldest synagogue in the country.

2. A former Knights Templar fortress provides spectacular views of the countryside from the 13th century keep in Monsaraz. Here, I walked the schist-lined street flanked by centuries old houses to the Sacred Art Museum to view a lovely 15th century fresco.
3. The walled city of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has something for everyone, from foodies to history buffs. Some of the most striking sights include a 16th century aqueduct and a Roman temple that has survived, and my favorite: the macabre Capela dos Ossos, a chapel that's entirely constructed from ceiling to floor of human bones. (An appropriate venue to meditate on the frailty of life.)
4. Marvao has one of the best preserved castles in the country where I wandered the battlements, towers and vast courtyards.
5. It's easy to spend the entire day in Serpa that's noted for its array of museums. The Watch Museum displays more than 1,000 time pieces, an Ethnographic Museum provides exhibits of equipment used in regional occupations, from shoemakers to blacksmiths, and the Archeological Museum has artifacts that date to the Stone Age. Serpa is also well known for its cheese production. In fact, I visited several artisanal producers and tasted the queijao de Serpa.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wandering in Turkey's Cappadocia Region

I've posted quite a bit about my adventures in Turkey, including Istanbul, Bozcaada Island and Kas. Perhaps one of my most atmospheric journeys in Turkey was walking and hiking in the Cappadocia region. Typically, visitors sign up with a tour group that either drives from village to village hopping off at key sites or they take a hike with a large group that wanders through some of the most popular valleys. Still others take to the skies, floating over the land in multi-colored hot air balloons. Others stroll the trails on their own, hoping to soak up the atmosphere with no particular agenda in mind and probably also missing some historically significant but off-the-radar sights. But traveling with Walking Mehmet is perhaps the most authentic way of learning about this area with its cave-carved churches, monasteries and chapels with curious monoliths termed fairy chimneys adding to the exotic aura of this area.
I recently wrote about my day of Zen-like hiking in this area on National Geographic Traveler's Intelligent Travel blog.
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Birds and Botanicals in Bermuda

I found plenty to keep me active in Bermuda that's known for its pastel-colored houses and tidy hedge-rimmed English gardens. But after walking the narrow streets of St. George's where 17th century buildings and a sense of British colonial history abounds, and then exploring the hidden coves and the soft pink sand of Horseshoe Bay, I sought out more leafy venues for walking, hiking and biking. That way I could learn about Bermuda's flora, including the endemic, as well as check out the bird species, because I heard that Bermuda is a great place for birding, almost year round. In the fall, in particular, Bermuda is the place where migratory birds rest on their way from Canada to South America. In addition, birders delight in spotting the rare petrel that was though to be extinct for hundreds of years.

1. Eighteen miles of rail bed once traversed by the Bermuda railroad (up until the late 1940s) have been converted to the Railway Trail. This path skirts the coastline, passes traditional manor houses and winds through woodlands, fields and a palmetto forest. Walk or bike even part of this secluded trail. You'll be far from any street traffic -- the trail meanders along the coast at times, at other points you'll be under a canopy of foliage and pass old manor houses. Just be aware that it's westernmost part that's the easiest: relatively flat and mostly paved. And, to get the most out of your journey, try to pick up the Bermuda Railway Trail Guide available from the tourism offices on the island.

2. Spittal Pond has 60-some acres of unspoiled wilderness (actually protected wetlands) where you can bird watch - this green space is especially good to catch migratory birds -- or hike on densely canopied trails. (This green space may be the best birding spot in Bermuda). Nature or mystery lovers alike will delight in a trek through this woodland. Aside from herons, flamingos and other waterfowl, on your walk past cedar trees, ponds and along the coast, you'll find a giant stone "checkerboard" believed to be formed by water erosion and a plaque at Spanish Rock with cryptic inscriptions. The latter is said to offer the oldest piece of evidence for the island's habitation: Spanish sailors are said to have landed here in the 16th century.


3. In Paget Marsh you'll find two dozen acres dense with palmetto and cedar forests that exists much as it did before settlers first arrived. Here you can wander the boardwalk that courses past grasslands and mangroves and expect to find plenty of bird life, such as king fishers, warblers and great egrets, and maybe even a giant toad.

4. Hog Bay Park is almost 40 acres of expansive forest, farm land and coastal property that sports undulating trails where you can take in the panoramic scenery from a hilltop -- providing maybe one of the best viewpoints in Bermuda. This park has an amazing array of birding possibilities, with more than 100 different species spotted, including purple finches and olive-sided flycatchers. After all the trail hopping, you can cool off at the shore whether by snorkeling or swimming.


5. Allspice and cedar trees are clustered on the landscape that's home to Warwick Pond, one of the island's largest freshwater ponds and a key site for bird life, both migratory and resident. Here you can meander on trails that wind past fields, marshes and, of course, plenty of woodland.


6. The Bermuda Botanical Gardens is hardly a wild locale but still worth a visit. Set on some 36 acres where the aromas are intoxicating, the garden is home to than 1,000 varieties of plant life, from frangipani to a giant banyan tree.


During your stay in Bermuda, if you'd rather hike with a group, check out the Walking Club of Bermuda that offers six-mile hikes or so with routes that change weekly.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

More Packing Tips

I've posted and guest posted quite a bit on my ultra-light packing tips making it possible for me never to check luggage when I'm flying. Whether I'm on the road a week or 7 weeks, everything goes in one Mountainsmith carry-on backpack and a Mountainsmith fanny pack. But, curiously, when I'm in my home turf, my ultra-light packing plans fall by the wayside. Unlike many writers, I don't work at home or in an office. I'm kinda the itinerant journalist, writing, researching and doing interviews in all manner of venues, from cafes and coffee shops to parks, gardens, libraries and other locales that allow for lots of natural light (a key criteria for me).

As a result, I carry around my laptop, and all my notes, notebooks, and research materials in a small but heavy backpack (not a Mountainsmith) and a large shoulder bag plus an addition portfolio (which might be a fed ex pouch) stuffed with more materials. The latter became quite problematic a few months ago when I inadvertently left it near an umbrella stand in a vegetarian restaurant while I ate lunch with friends. It turned out the manager thought it was a bomb -- no joke, that's what he said -- so he placed it outside next to the building's facade in a garbage can! (I was able to retrieve it.)
This all being said, it was time to check out some new baggage options for my jaunts around New York City. Enter Keen, the company that makes my favorite shoes that go on all my trips and are perfect for biking, light hiking, kayaking and walking around town. They sent me a messenger (sling) bag -- the Pearl -- to check out. Here's what I found:

This week, I tested this messenger-type bag because I had a lot of networking and workshop events, some all day and others at night, that required me to walk around a trade show floor and meet and greet a ton of people while collecting their business cards, giving them mine, taking notes of our meetings and then running to the next meeting or cocktail party where I had to transform into the non-itinerant journalist who would be sipping a glass of Chardonnay at, among other places, the Norwegian Consul General's residence here in Manhattan.

The Pearl was perfect. When I slung it across my back, I found a zipper compartment -- great for pens, business cards and small notebooks -- on the left side of the pack (on my back side) but easily accessible while it was still on my back. And, the location prohibited any subway thieves from infiltrating this pocket. Quite an accomplishment. In addition, I stuffed my cell phone into the mesh stretch pocket along the strap, making it also very easy to grab.

On the right back side of the pack was an additional small zipper that afforded access to the pack interior. Perfect for when I needed to remove my digital camera. Again, I didn't even have to remove the pack to accomplish this. The pack itself allowed me to stuff two additional sweaters, and plenty of notes and research materials. Yet, instead of looking overstuffed, the Pearl presented a very slim image. I could easily sit down to meet with clients and feel comfortable with the pack still slung across my back. It felt light as a feather (it weighs just over a pound) -- what a welcome change for me. And the day when I did need my laptop and some additional materials, interestingly the strap on the pack is so adjustable that I could sling it over my backpack and it all fit together perfectly!

The interior of the pack contains two additional mesh zippered pockets, one with a carabiner that was perfect for attaching my keys. (No more searching at the bottom of my overloaded bag for the missing keys.) Additionally, it's eco-friendly: the Pearl is made from recycled materials -- even the rubber is recycled.

I'm not saying this small bag takes the place of the load of luggage I normally tote around the city. But, on those days when I need to look trim for a frenzied set of day activities or for evening cocktail networking events, I'll look to the Pearl. It also makes for a fine overnight or weekend bag for that quick trip out of the city. I'm definitely bringing it as my only bag for the Thanksgiving holidays I'm going to spend with friends in Virginia.

I can't wait to wear it in the summer when I want a breathable bag on my back that won't lead to excess sweating as I run all over the city. The Pearl has a nice mesh and foam back side that looks like it'll be quite comfy in the sweltering August heat.
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