About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Taking in Odd Beers & Burgers in the Big Apple

July 22, 2014 by  

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indulgence burger

Beer & Buns “Indulgence Burger”

In March 2014, The Court, a St Giles Premier Hotel, unveiled possibly New York City’s most interesting burger joint: Beer & Buns (B&B). Forget beef patties with lettuce, tomato and pickles, as these burgers are made with a variety of proteins, ingredients and accompaniments inspired by other culinary cultures, mainly Europe and Asia.

“The inspiration for Beer & Buns came out of our desire to craft a creative, comfortable yet casual restaurant and bar in The Court Hotel and to also offer a new and unique food offering here in the Midtown and Murray Hill neighborhood,” said Abigail Tan, Head of St Giles Hotels, U.K., Europe and USA. “In our food trial and tasting sessions with Chef Nok, we came-up with the idea of developing hearty, burgers and sliders with an international flair and pairing it with global and local craft beers – We intended for Beer & Buns to be affordable as well so that not only residents in the area could get great mouth-watering sliders at great prices, but people working in the area and an after-work hours crowd would have easy access to a burger-bar that showcased delicious fare.”

Beer and Buns features Pan-Asian-influenced burgers and sliders cooked up by Thai Chef Wisit Panpinyo — also known as Chef Nok — as well as local craft and international beers.

Sip a refreshing Xingu from Brazil, a Blanche de Bruxelles from Belgium, or go local with selections from New Planet, Blue Moon and Mother’s Milk, to name a few.

If you’re in a decadent mood, order the $250 B&B Indulgence Burger featuring Kobe beef, sauteed foie gras, white truffles and caviar on a homemade artisan bread bun. While this may sound over-the-top, it’s a burger for a good cause as a portion of the proceeds go to City Harvest, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger in NYC. Don’t worry if you don’t have a two month’s worth of subway fare to spend on lunch, as there are budget-friendly options, as well, including a 3-for-$12 and 5-for-$17 sliders deal.

To help you choose your burger, Chef Nok offers a few pairing recommendations, beginning with the “Grouper on Fire,” fried fish doused in a house spicy chili and sweet basil served on an onion brioche bun, paired with a Founders All Day IPA. According to Chef, the citrus aromas and crisp, pleasant bitterness of the beer allow the meal’s spices to delight the palate without overpowering the fish flavors. The next recommendation is a “Bangkok Dangerous,” a “patty” of hot and sour shrimp cooked in Thai spices served with a Harpoon UFO White. This works well as the American wheat beer offers notes of orange peel and coriander that compliment the spices of the dish as well as the tom yum-style of the shrimp.

And when ordering the “Southern Smack Down” — a marinated pork shoulder burger infused with vegetable, herbs and soy sauce served on a crispy brioche bun — a Radeberger pilsner works nice as it’s light bodied and refreshing with a slightly grassy flavor that accentuates the burger’s herbs and vegetables.

For sides, a mix of American and Asian fare is offered, with everything from Parmesan truffle fries to onion rings to sauteed bok choi. These are just a few of the many Beer & Buns options, as they offer a number of other atypical burgers and entree selections. During the warmer months patrons can dine outside in the courtyard, seating up to 125 people. This is also where summer will bring a number of BBQ happenings beginning in July.

Look forward to a classic American barbecue on July 10 — think burgers, sausages, baked beans and corn on the cobb — and a South East Asian-style grill event on July 24 serving chicken satay, Korean style baby back ribs, Thai rice noodles, Thai salad with romaine and smoked tofu and more.

This post was original published on Drive the District

 

 

Matcha, Bento And An 11th-Century Temple: A Cultural Walk In Uji, Japan

July 19, 2014 by  

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green tea

While Japan in General is known for its curative green tea culture, there is one place where the offerings are truly rich: Uji.

Located in the Kyoto Prefecture, just on the outskirts of the city of Kyoto, Uji’s plains and hillsides grow green tea in abundance, while its streets offer green tea ice cream, complimentary green tea tastings and green tea curry at every corner. The tea history of this city dates back to thirteenth century, when a Zen Monk named Eisai gave seeds to a local priest he had procured in Sung dynasty China — where green tea was highly regarded for its curative capabilities — to open a tea farm. Locals soon realized the conditions were perfect for planting green tea. On a recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, I had the chance to experience the green tea and other cultural offerings of Uji for myself, as well as artisan shops, traditional food, scenic views and one of the country’s most famous temples.

green tea

 

Uji: Logistics

To reach Uji, I take the train from my hotel in central Kyoto to Uji Station, immediately greeted by a post office box shaped like a green tea plant when I exit. If this isn’t a sign the area is obsessed with their green tea, I don’t know what is. I’m also immediately swept up in the fact Uji has much more of a countryside feel than Kyoto, a welcomed change of pace (although Kyoto isn’t overly fast-paced itself, especially compared to the cosmopolitan Tokyo).

My guide for the day is Moriwaki Michiko (moriwaki.michiko (at) gmail (dot) com), a certified English and Spanish speaking guide who’s also part of the National Japan Tour Guide Association. Note: Even without a guide it’s possible to enjoy this day trip from Kyoto’s city center, especially as there is a free-to-take easy-to-read map of the nearby streets right when you get off the train. That being said, you may have a hard time understanding everything and asking questions with nobody to interpret, which is why hiring a qualified bilingual local to lead you around is a smart idea.

green teas

An expansive green tea selection at Nakamura Tokichi. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

Green Tea Tasting

We begin our walk by crossing the street and making a slight right onto Ujibashi-dori Street, lined with bakeries, artisan shops and green tea tasting opportunities. Almost directly across the street is Nakamura Tokichi, serving tea since 1854, where you can lounge in a Japanese garden with misters to refresh your skin, savor green-tea infused treats, cakes and jellies, and have a free green tea tasting. They make a variety of teas of all different qualities so you have many options for sampling local culture through the palate — as well as saving your wallet.

The building is over 200 years old, with much of the traditional elements preserved and on display like Japanese artwork, straw flooring, fusuma sliding doors and tatami mats. A noren flutters softly outside the entrance welcoming you in, while across street can see them making pastries with natural local ingredients at Patisserie Yuji.

daruma

Daruma dolls at Eirakuya Collaboration. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

Artisan Culture

Walk a little further up the street toward the water to Eirakuya Collaboration — open since 1615 — home to traditional Kyoto accessories and arts items. Here you can browse fans, purses and artwork depicting important festivals and symbols, cordial fabrics, daruma dolls (a symbol of determination, essentially a rolling head that always goes back to its original position no matter how you push it), frogs (a symbol of a good trip and happy return that one can also keep in their purse for wealth).

Something Eco

Something Eco. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

One of my favorite parts of the shop was called a brand called Something Eco (Someco) that allows you to create your own purse by wrapping beautiful fabrics in an origami style and attaching a wrist band, which also means the fabrics can be used for other purposes later.

green tea ice cream

Green tea ice cream. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

Next, we walk to Byodin Omote Sando Street and made a right, immediately coming upon more opportunities to savor local crafts and green tea flavors — as well as, according to Moriwaki, Uji’s best green tea ice cream at Masuda Tea Store Kyoto. While I can’t compare as I haven’t tried the other shops’ offerings, I will tell you I literally dreamed about the dripping green cone later that night. The sweet treat is made by combining egg, sugar and milk and cooking on low heat, before cooling the mixture and adding in matcha green tea and whipped heavy cream and freezing.

For green tea liqueur and Uji Matcha Curry, Ito Kyu Emon is a must-visit, also offering complimentary green tea samplings.

Getting to lunch requires a waterside walk along the Uji River on the Path of Ajirogi, although English signs ensure you don’t lose your way. The path is paved, lined with shops and plenty of places to sit and take in the ambient bridges, boats and water in a peaceful space.

bento box

Colorful bento box from Kyouyouri Tatsumiya Restuarant. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

When the river path forks we head downward until we reach out final destination: Kyouryouri Tatsumiya Restaurant (Tel: (0774) 21- 3131), a traditional eatery where the menu highlight is Ujimaru Bento (about $30). While what the bento contains changes daily, you can expect to find 30 different small tastings of dishes like deep fried sea bream, pumpkin tofu topped with okra and taro with green tea sauce wrapped in bamboo bark — all served with a side of ground green tea-seasoned rice, miso soup and local green tea. You’ll have to take off your shoes upon entering the restaurant — so wearing socks is a good idea — and will dine in a private room with low tables, sliding shoji doors and, is you’re lucky, views of the Uji River.

If you haven’t had enough green tea, the city offers a Japanese tea ceremony experience at the Taiho-an (about $5, 10am-4pm seven days a week, 2 Ugi-Ttogawa), a sukiya-style wooden house with a tin roof. Here you’ll savor wagashi and matcha and learn how the Japanese tea ceremony is about more than just drinking tea, but also providing guests with a beautiful and meticulous experience, as you never know when life will be taken from you.

Much of the philosophy behind the tea ceremony seems to bear samurai in mind, as the most important people are seated in the “safest seats” — the ones farthest from the door and the least likely to get shredded by a sword — and are given the best bowls for drinking from. During my experience, the host, Ms. Sakatani, explains (in Japanese, translated by my guide) the meaning of the tea ceremony and the room’s decor.

matcha

Matcha green tea powder. Photo courtesy of Akuppa John Wigham.

We’re first asked to remove our shoes before entering the building and kneel around a tatami mat. A team of Japanese women in kimonos bring out plates of wagashi — seasonally shaped to represent the summer hydrangea flower (in autumn, you’ll more likely see a maple leaf sweet). The reason for the sugary treat is that matcha green tea is very bitter, so the sweetness prepares the mouth.

Once we’re served the tea, bowing as the giant bowl is placed in front of us, we take it in our right hand, place it on our left palm, admire the design on the ceramic and turn it clockwise as to not put our mouth on the picture when sipping. We’re instructed to take notice the bubbles on the surface of the tea, allowing ourselves to slurp them if we’d like. When finished, we turn the bowl counterclockwise and admire the bowl’s design again. Mine is made locally and depicts the Uji Bridge, another reminder of these talented and proud locals.

As we sip, sandlewood incense adorned with mini drink umbrella, again for summer, burns to purify the space, while a seasonal flower arrangement showcases the colors of June in a cormorant fishing basket, a sport that takes place in Uji from mid-June through August. Once the bowls are empty, the women clear them, exchanging bows as appreciation and disappearing through the shoji doors, made out of thin Japanese paper to look like stone walls in a Japanese castle. It’s amazing how every tiny detail is thought out, hoping to encourage visual and experiential enjoyment right down to the pot the matcha is made in. It is shaped like a nutmeg with a lid sculpted with pine tree leafs underneath and handles resembling eggplants.

buddha

Buddha. Photo courtesy of stephanie carter. Note: Byodo-In Temple did not allow photos for media use. To see a photos of the temple, click here.

Once we’re full of bento and tea, we experience a true highlight of Uji, especially in terms of spirituality: Byodo-In Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is actually the third place of worship I’ve visited that day — Kiyomizu Dera Temple and Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shinto shrine) were also on the itinerary — and I’ve come to realize that Japan’s temples and shrines aren’t just composed of elaborate pagodas, colorful structures and enormous torii gates, but also experiences to make wishes come true, enhance your life and explore nature.

Byodo-In Temple was built in 1052 by the Regent, Fujiwara no Yorimichi, and today home is home to the Hoshokan Museum displaying artifacts discovered from excavations on site; a garden that’s a designated National Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty, inspired by gardens from the classic Heian period; and Phoenix Hall — home to 52 Worshiping Bodhisattava statues on clouds as well as the famous Amida Buddha and paintings showing Amida’s nine grades of descent. The temple is one of Japan’s few remaining examples of Heian architecture, and is home to a number of National Treasures that will help you truly understand the country’s heritage. Not to be missed is simply standing in front of the Phoenix House, admiring the Phoenix’ atop the building that symbolize revival and the reflection of the building in the surrounding pond, meant to represent the sea and even incorporating a man-made “tide.”

uji bridge view

Uji Bridge View. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

Before heading back to the city of Kyoto the group stops to admire the view of the Uji River from the Uji Bridge, originally built in 646 by Doto, a priest of Gango Temple in Nara. It is one of the oldest bridges in the Japan, although due to a fire had to be reconstructed numerous times, most recently in 1996. Regardless, standing on it makes me feel like I’m planting my feet on a piece of history, while the surrounding water and mountain views provide the perfect backdrop for the day’s final bite of culture in Uji.

Still hungry for heritage? Just beside the bridge is Tsûen Teashop, operating since 1160 and showcasing a great example of machiya architecture. Kyoto is proud of its preserved history and tradition — one of the few Japanese cities not affected by air raids in the mid 1940s. Because of this, many buildings and businesses have been preserved. Now in its eleventh generation of the Tsûen family, the shop is recognized by Kyoto prefecture as a Cultural Property, with a history of serving tea to important people such as Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa and Japan’s second “great unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Even if you aren’t craving tea or are short on time, it’s a must-have experience to sit in this historical space for some time.

Top green tea photo credit: Green tea. Photo courtesy of Joel Burslem.

 

The Issues With Non-Raw Commercial Honey

July 18, 2014 by  

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Wild Honey Bee

For those who are used to buying honey-filled bears from the supermarket, stop right now. According to Damian Magista, the founder and head beekeeper of Bee Local, a Portland Oregon-based raw honey company, commercial companies are typically not contributing to healthy hives or creating the good-for-you product you think you’re purchasing.

The Problem With Commercial Non-Raw Honey

According to Magista, commercial honey companies often move the hives around, despite the detrimental affect this has on the bees. Moreover, once the honey is procured they’ll typically heat it up to high temperatures allowing it to smoothly flow through the machines — depleting any flavor and nutrients in the process. You can typically tell when a honey has been through this process as it tastes over-cooked and over-caramelized. If a honey is truly good, it doesn’t need to be cooked, blended or modified, but instead holds a natural flavor that becomes immediately apparent upon tasting. As commercial honey is also typically from forage and hives that have been exposed to chemical, herbicides and fungicides, you’ll be ingesting those, as well.

Says Karen Foster of Truth Theory, “Most golden honey you see at your local grocery is dead and far from the health promoting powerhouse of its raw unpasteurized counterpart. Processed honey is not honey at all and if you desire any kind of health benefits, you must stick to the real stuff.”

raw honey

Raw honey. Photo courtesy of William Ismael.

In her article, she talks about not only the lack of health benefits in commercial honey, but also the adverse health affects, for instance, an increase in LDL cholesterol levels. Moreover, as commercial honey can be so processed it removes the pollen, it can’t even technically be called honey.

Foster cites an interesting study done by Food Safety News in 2013 where 60 vessels of honey where purchased throughout Washington DC, and tested by Vaughn Bryant, director of the Palynology Research Laboratory and one of the top honey researchers in the USA. The results were shocking: 76%+ honeys tested had the pollen removed. And these aren’t honeys sold in tiny unknown stores. We’re talking Walgreens, Walmart, Costco, Stop & Shop and other large companies.

When a honey contains no pollen, this means it has been filtered — a lot. And there is really no reason to do this as it removes all the health benefits and costs extra time and money. That is, unless you want to cover your tracks as to where it came from.

honey

Processed honey. Photo courtesy of mamat123.

Honey Laundering

Which gets us into another big issue in the honey industry: honey laundering. This refers to large honey packers purchasing illegally imported honey — often tainted with FDA-banned chemicals. According to Magista, these honeys are extremely modified, cut with additives like high fructose corn syrup, unrefined sugar and malt sweeteners to add weight. Many times, this honey will stop at several ports around the world due to the fact that much of it is from China — where honey carries an import tax — to keep costs down. This honey travels a long way before it finds its way onto the grocery store shelves and into the home of unwitting customers.

An article on the subject by Live Science states that often these illegal honeys often contain lead, heavy metals and even antibiotics like chloramphenicol.

“Honey laundering relies on the lack of transparency in the honey trade to survive,” explains Magista. “The big honey packers are, in my opinion, complicit in it. They will claim otherwise. When they are buying very large quantities of honey at rock bottom prices they know where it’s coming from and what it is. Unfortunately they don’t care. It’s all about the bottom line.”

What’s even scarier is even when these chemical-filled honeys are caught at the border, they simply get sent back to the exporter — who then just repeats the routine until it gets through customs.

Like most food and drink products, the only way to be sure of a product is to meet the producer and visit the facility. Typically, the smaller the producer the higher the quality, as lack of machinery and industrialized production practices means more individual care goes into the item. Moreover, these producers are often more transparent with their practices, especially without big budgets that allow them to hide behind marketing jargon and PR tactics.

honeycomb

Honeycomb. Photo courtesy of hisks.

Not Focused On Honey

The thing is, commercial beekeepers aren’t really interested in producing honey — they only get a small amount of money for that. Instead, what they’re really offering are pollination services, which help other plants like almonds, cherries and avocados grow.

“It’s a huge business in Oregon and the United States,” explains Magista. “A commercial beek will have between 5,000 – 10,000 hives. They’ll get paid about $150 per hive to pollinate depending on the crop. So multiply that by, say, 10,000 hives and you have $150,000.00 just for one crop pollination. After they have finished they pack up the hives and move them to another crop. The honey tends to be a by-product of this industry.”

dead bee

Dead bee. Photo courtesy of mattison7.

Colony Collapse Disorder

These negative practices — along with the fact many commercial honey companies take all of the honey from the hive when harvesting, which the bees need to get through lean times, among other factors — can contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a major issue at the moment as honey bee populations are decreasing. CCD refers to the vanishing of bees from the hives and the collapse of the hives. This wouldn’t only mean the demise of honey bees, but also the many fruits and vegetables they pollinate.

For Magista and Bee Local, it’s about treating the hives with respect and allowing them to thrive. In fact, in his eight years of urban beekeeping, he’s never had one case of colony collapse disorder.

“Our main goal at Bee Local is to produce the most flavorful honey we can while supporting healthy populations of honey bees and educating the public about the how important our pollinators are to the health of our ecosystem,” he says. “We’re combating [negative honey industry issues] by being absolutely transparent about our honey, it’s origins and by educating the public about this problem. We want to lead by example.”

honeyed garlic

Bee Local experimenting with honeyed garlic. Photo courtesy of Bee Local.

Terroir-Focused Honey

For Magista, bees are a passion and, as he believes, a destiny. When he tells the story of how he got involved with beekeeping, he explains that about eight years ago he was sitting in his backyard watching bees flying out of their hives. Suddenly, a voice told him that beekeeping was his destiny.

“It was like a lightening bolt hit my skull,” says Magista. “Through an odd set of circumstances it all played out and here I am. A full time professional beekeeper.”

To get things he started he would purchase bees from a sustainable beekeeper in Oregon and harvest honey in his yard. Finally, the time came when he needed more space. After putting a hive in a friend’s yard located in another neighborhood in Portland, he sampled the result and realized it tasted and looked completely different from what he’s producing before. That’s when a light bulb went off in his head: terroir honey.

Terroir. It’s a term typically associated with wine; however, the truth is honey and wine share many similarities, the main one being they’re influenced by the land the product is produced on. For bees, the plants they pollinate will affect the aromas, flavors and textures of a honey. For example, if a hive is in an area with lots of lavender you’ll get lavender characteristics in the honey. Of course, what forage is available will depend on the local soil, climate and landscape aspects, again getting us into terroir. The mouthfeel — another faceet often associated with wine — is affected by the flowers, sugars, water and pollen content of the honey. Magista provides the example of buckwheat honey, which tends to be very thick and rich. Compare this to an acacia honey, which is lighter and more buttery, and you’ll see the difference.

And you don’t have to travel to the countryside to experience this. Magista is doing it right in the city of Portland, using neighborhoods instead of vineyards, comparing and contrasting and seeing amazing results. For example, he describes his Mt. Tabor honey as having an exotic flavor — tasting “like a Stargazer lily smells” — while a honey from Creston-Kenilworth is rich in blackberry but with an uncanny citrus finish.

beehive

A Bee Local hive. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Going Local

Bee Local, in line with its name, keeps things local by working with other Portland-based companies. For example, along with managing rooftop hives for New Seasons Markets and Provenance Hotels — which then gets used in their property bars and restaurant, they’re training Chef Chris Starkus of The Urban Farmer on how to keep bees on his rooftop garden. They’ve also worked with Salt & Straw Ice Cream to develop honey-infused flavors and have a number of other innovative collaborations in the works (wasabi honey and honey salt, anyone?).

The company is also working to produce single-origin honeys with foreign beekeepers, such as those in Ghana and Eritrea. The project allows Bee Local to not only make exotic and delicious honeys many people have never tried, but also helps to give market access to small, noncommercial beekeepers in developing nations. While the Ghanian honey he’s sampled tastes of dark, smokey caramel from the local neem, shea and baobab trees, the Eritrea is the exact opposite, crisp, clear and slightly resinous with a “legumesque” finish.

Having a rooftop honey experience with Bee Local on top of the Hotel DeLuxe. Video taken by Jessica Festa with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

A Rooftop Honey Experience

I get to experience Bee Local for myself during a tour of the hives atop Hotel Deluxe, one of the Provenance Hotels Magista works with. The view of Mount St. Helens is beautiful from the top. Even more spectacular, however, is the globs of honey that ooze from the honeycomb as Magista pokes his finger through. It’s like liquid gold.

Actually, it’s bee puke. Yes, you read that right. According to Magista, bees produce honey by gathering nectar from flowers and storing it in a special honey stomach — foraging until it is full — to be brought to the hive. The worker bee’s stomach begins breaking down the honey with their saliva and gut bacteria until they regurgitate it up for a hive bee to further break down and put into the honeycomb. Once a honeycomb cell is full, the bees will furiously fan their wings to help evaporate the excess water until is around 17 to 12 % water. Once the honey is at this stage, it will be capped with beeswax to become honey.

Sometimes, honey can also be bee poop. “Forest dew” honey is made when aphids feed on coniferous trees, then excreting a sugary liquid. From there, the honey bees will gather the stool and use it as a honey base.

“It’s double insect processed honey,” laughs Magista. “Bug poop and puke honey — it tastes amazing”

Also interesting is that beekeepers have the ability to actually make queen bees. Queen bees come from the same eggs that workers and drones do; however, it’s all about the way you care for them. According to Magista, you can turn a bee into a queen by feeding her only royal jelly for an extended period of time.

I taste some of the rooftop honey for myself, bees landing of my legs and arms but mellow as the nectar in the hive is flowing. It tastes and smells of fresh roses, not surprising as Portland is the “City of Roses” and the International Rose Test Garden is nearby. Terroir.

honey cocktail

“Local Honey” cocktail. Photo courtesy of Hotel DeLuxe.

It’s The “Bee’s Knees”

Down in the hotel’s intimate Driftwood Room, which has retained the same interior since 1954 with round tables, driftwood-crafted artworks and unique acoustics that keep voices soft, I sample some more honey. This time, in cocktail form. There are four honey-infused libations on the menu tonight: a “Board of Directors” made with dry vermouth, green chartreuse, honey and lemon juice; a “Local Honey” featuring local Aria gin, farigoule wild thyme liqueur, honey and lemon juice; a “Port Authority” with whiskey, Port, honey, basil simple syrup and lemon juice; and a classic “Bee’s Knees” featuring gin, lemon and honey. The Bee Local honey enhances these drinks by offering a rich texture, smooth mouth feel and slight herbal essence.

Says the Driftwood Room’s Bar Manager, Mike Robertson, “Getting inspired with honey is easy. It is a versatile sweetener and can be used in many of the same ways you would use sugar or agave nectar. With the “Local Honey” drink I tasted the honey and I wanted to enhance the herbal taste, so I added Farigoule (French wild thyme liqueur) to a classic cocktail (the Bee’s Knees) and I worked on the proportions to get the balance just right. The honeycomb garnish was from my memories of eating it as a kid. I thought it would go well with the drink and it looks great on the glass.”

driftwood room

The Driftwood Room. Photo courtesy of Hotel DeLuxe.

Despite the glowing recommendation, I order the “Port Authority” solely based on my love of Port, which also has a honeyed characteristic. The wine gives the drink body, while the lemon lifts the acidity and the basil offers an touch of earthy Portland sweetness, as the property also grows its own herbs in a rooftop garden. Despite everything going on, the whiskey shines through, not overpowering but just enough so you know you’re drinking alcohol. It’s heavenly, especially paired with bites like tuna tartar, croque-monsieur, veggie flatbreads and shrimp-blended crab cakes. It’s clear that honey can really sweeten a meal.

Visit For Yourself

Want to visit Bee Local yourself? Magista loves welcoming visitors to his small production facility at 1810 SE 10th Avenue to teach them about beekeeping and honey as well as allow them to savor a honey tasting. Like with wine, you can even do a vertical tasting to see how the honey changes over the years. Just be sure to make a reservation before you go, which can be done by emailing Damian (at) beelocal (dot) com. After your beer experience, head across the street to The Commons Brewery and see if they have a honey saison on tap.

Top photo – Bees searching for nectar. Photo courtesy of santscho.

 

The Osaka Guide for Foodies

July 18, 2014 by  

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bento box

For food-focused travelers, Japan should be at the top of the to-do list. Not only is traditional Japanese cuisine on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, but you’ll find an array of dining and meal styles. During a recent trip to Osaka — often touted as the “food capital of Japan” — I found do-it-yourself-dining to be a fun and popular way to discover the country through the cuisine. Coming from Kyoto, where meals were focused on presentation and showcasing the seasons in a very detailed manner, Osaka was more practical, serving good food in a variety of styles and atmospheres. For those wanting to explore restaurants in Japan and Osaka through their stomach, here are four recommended interactive dining experiences based on my travels.

Getting Around

The easiest way to get around Osaka is the subway and tickets are 180 yen (about $1.75 USD) each way. Signs are maps are in Japanese and English, making it easy to understand where you’re going.

For a local guide, I recommend Michiko Moriwaki (moriwaki.michiko (at) gmail (dot) com), a certified English and Spanish speaking guide with vast knowledge and a great sense of humor.

 

1. Kisshan

Address: Namba dining maison 8F

We sit in our private dining room, fresh grilled meats sizzling on a wood-fire griddle. The smell of cooking onion mixes with Kuroge Wagyu beef, and I sit staring as white turns to black and red turns to brown in seconds. A plump piece of chicken sits on my dish from the previous course, and I struggle to cut it in half with my chopsticks, stabbing the meat with my righthand and then attempting to saw through with my left. I realize this is probably offensive and put the chopsticks down, hoping nobody saw me.

“Michiko, how would someone cut this in half?” I ask, assuming there must be some trick I can use.

She looks confused. “You wouldn’t.”

I realize now why our server at Kisshan has provided us bibs.

I’m currently savoring yakiniku, Korean-style barbecue (or Japanese-style, depending who you ask) where the tables double as grills and, after coating the top of the grill with beef fat, you cook your own beef tongue, Kuroge Wagyu beef, pork, chicken and vegetables while savoring already-prepared sides of kimchi, bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl with vegetables) and egg drop soup (which some people add into their bibimbap). It costs about $50 USD per person including dessert, and will leave you completely satisfied — as long as you’re not a vegetarian.

fried food

Frying raw meats and seafoods ourselves. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa, taken with a Nokia Lumia Icon.

2. Kushiya Monogatari

Address: Multiple locations. I ate at Nanbanaka 2-10-70, Nanba Parks 6F.

Walking down the aisles of the brightly lit buffet-style restaurant, tables featuring oil tubs with baskets of frying food, all preconceived notions that Japanese only eat healthy are washed from my mind. Kushiage-style cuisine refers to deep fried skewered-foods; however, while many restaurants cook the skewers for you, Kushiya Monogatari allows you to be your own chef.

In the restaurant clear display cases are filled with meats and vegetables: chicken tenderloin, shrimp, salmon, squid, sweet potato, shrimp dumplings, takoyaki, mushrooms and more. I slide open the cases, placing raw bites to be deep fried at the table. Nearby, pastas, fresh fruit and prepared salads remind me a meal of only fried foods may not be a completely nutritious (no matter how tasty). I enhance my enormous spilling pile of food with some sauces for dipping — cheese sauce, spicy sauce and plum sauce are just a few options — and make a bowl of wet flour and yam and another of bread crumbs to coat the food before dipping it into the oil.

I’m no gourmet chef — which becomes obvious by how many times I forget to first dip the meats in the flour/bread crumb mixture — but you really can’t go wrong with fried food. I can’t stop. I’m not even hungry anymore and the shrimp and chicken just won’t stop finding their way into my mouth. At one point I notice I’m chewing crisp breading-coated yam on one side and oil soaked mushrooms on another, but I’m too happy to be ashamed.

Another highlight for me is dessert. Along with a make-your-own sundae station, a decadent chocolate fountain cascades like a waterfall, and you can stick donut and marshmallow skewers — obviously a major focus of the restaurant — under its ripples.

The price for the lunch buffet is about $16 per person while the dinner buffet is about $25 per, both for 90 minutes.

3. Fuku Ebisu

Address: 7-6 Soemoncho Tyuoku, Osaka

Phone: 06 6484 0839

“They’re like pancakes and you can put squid and bonito fish flakes on top.”

Gross. A fishy pancake? This is how okonomiyaki — thought to have originated in Osaka — is described to me. From my Western mindset, pancakes were meant for maple syrup, bananas and chocolate, not creatures from the sea. Little did I know these were not the floury griddle-fried pools of batter, soon to be pastry-like bread, I was accustomed to.

Like the other restaurants in this series, the tables at Fuku Ebisu double as kitchen appliances, this time a large flat iron grill. In Osaka, okonomiyaki batter is composed of flour, yam, water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage — as well as additional ingredients like pork belly, squid, cheese, leeks, octopus, shrimp, onions and much more. For toppings, ingredients like bonito fish flakes, mayo and thick Worcester-like sauce are common. The meal is hearty, which is why it’s often known as “Osaka Soul Food.”

okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki. Photo courtesy of Chris Gladis.

The restaurant is located in Osaka’s famous street food area, Dotonbori, one of two downtowns.
Unlike the many private quiet meals I’d enjoyed in Kyoto, Fuku Ebisu was loud and raucous, with beers flowing, laughter booming and plum liqueur dribbling out of the side of my mouth. It was downright fun.

For the meal, the server brings the okonomiyaki mixture to the table and places it on the grill to be made before my eyes. While I did not entirely making it myself — probably for the best — you I’m given a special spatula called a kote to cut up the tableside-made meal and continuously move it so it doesn’t burn and slap it to expand it’s size — an important part of the cooking process.

Another delicious dish you can order to have cooked before you is tonpei yaki, consisting of eggs stuffed with shredded cabbage and pork and topped with rich sauces, mayo and bonito flakes that melt onto the meal as it cooks.

Again, if you’re looking for dainty Japanese dishes, this is not the place for you; however, if you want something delicious and filling, Fuku Ebisu is for you.

shabushabu

Shabushabu. Photo courtesy of Drew Bates.

4. Shabu Zen

Address: Inside the DF Gurukasu City Building at 2-4-2 Shinsai Bashi, Tyuoku, Osaka

Phone: 06-6213-2935

“Shabushabu! Shabushabu! Shabushabu!”

I watch as Michiko snatches a piece of beef with her chopsticks and quickly swishes it around the hot pot’s boiling water, saying in a hushed but excited fashion the word “shabushabu” over and over.

“Michiko, what are you saying?”

“Shabushabu! Shabushabu! Shabushabu!”

Possibly the most fun Japanese dish to say — and to make — is shabushabu. The name comes from the very sound Michiko is making across the table from me as she boils her beef. And this is exactly what shabushabu is, boiling delicious slices of beef, as well as shrimp, octopus, pumpkin, sprouts, mushrooms, cabbage, crab, scallops, green onion and other tasty local ingredients. Oh yea, and like yakiniku make sure you’re wearing your bib. Shabushabu can get very messy as chopsticks and food fly around the table.

 

 

Take in 5 of the Most Scenic Landscapes in Patagonia

July 16, 2014 by  

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You’re probably wondering why I would bother writing a guide on outdoor experiences and landscapes for a destination that is almost nothing but outdoor experiences. That sheer, often overwhelming amount of choices is exactly why I feel the need to narrow the top natural things to do down into a short list — to make it easier to guide your trip. The following guide includes a mix of popular and lesser-known experiences to give you an array of options.

1. Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Argentina

What’s interesting is that while Perito Moreno is also in Los Glaciares National Park you’ll experience a completely different landscape. In fact, despite doing these two hikes within the same week the Perito Moreno hike felt like winter while the Fitz Roy hike felt like autumn, burnt and fiery foliage everywhere.

There are a number of trails to choose from, so you can essentially make your own experience. Whichever you decide to do, however, you can expect to see lots of colors, truly glistening streams, snow capped peaks and trails shaded by trees. I recommend doing the moderate trek up to Laguna de los Tres (“The Three Lagoons”) to see the bright turquoise waters against a beautiful snow-covered Fitz Roy background.

Valle de Lobos

Valle de Lobos

2. Perito Moreno, Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz, Argentina

Hiking on Perito Moreno — located in Los Glaciares National Park — is one of Patagonia‘s most popular experiences, with numerous tour operators offering the trip. Perito Moreno is enormous, encompassing about 250 square kilometers (97 square miles) with its water coming from the world’s 3rd-largest freshwater reserve, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. With a guide, you’ll strap on grampons and trek your way over slippery ice, blue snow and crystal beauty.

As an avid hiker myself, I was blown away by how peaceful and just… different the landscape was. This excursion is not only a fun adventure but also a science experience, as while most of Patagonia’s 50 some odd glaciers are retreating Perito Moreno is one of only three that is growing — by about two meters (6.6 feet) per day. The reason why is still being debated.

martial glacier

Hiking up Martial Glacier

3. Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Argentina

While this may sound similar to hiking on Perito Moreno, it’s completely different. Not only is this a self-guided trek, its challenges lay less in trying not to face plant on ice and more in the extremely steep uphill climbs that are also slippery at times. If you don’t have grampons you probably don’t want to hike ON the glacier, but instead can hike up to its base to enjoy a mix of sea, woodland and ice views, a great photo opp for a contrasting landscape.

Additionally, the hike is more rocky with black earth mixing with white snow and blue ice. When I did the hike I started from my hostel in town, walking through the woods and up to the glacier, which was difficult but fun (you can ask your accommodation for a map). You’re other option is to take a taxi and begin the hike at the base of the glacier. Tip: At the base is an elevated platform where you can enjoy an aerial picnic.

fitz roy

4. Valle de Lobos, Ushuaia, Argentina

A budget-friendly alternative to Tierra del Fuego in Ushuaia is Valle de Lobos. Despite being relatively unknown, the landscape of the attraction is outstanding as you make your way through Bosque Forest, passed the Rio River and over the Puente Bridge, all the while being surrounding by mountains. Trek to Esmeralda Lagoon, which looks metallic with a light-blue, off-white color.

The best time to visit is during Argentina’s fall — which begins at the end of March — when the foliage becomes intense with colors. In terms of price comparison, while Tierra del Fuego costs about $40 USD with transportation and admission from the city center, the same for Valle de Lobos costs about $15 USD and is a much shorter ride.

torres del paine

The “Paines” at Torres del Paine

5. Torres del Paine, Chile

Tim Burton was the first thing that came to mind as I hiked through burnt earth, twisted roots and animal skulls in this otherworldly park. The giant “paines” — or three peaks of the Cerro Paine Mountain Range — loom in the background, reaching 3,050 meters (10, 007 feet) above sea level, as glaciers, valleys and crystalline lakes enhance the beautifully atypical landscape.

If you’re feeling adventurous, fill your pack and take on the W Circuit, a 4-days trek where you’ll overnight at basic lodges (refugios) and take in the three main park highlights: Ascensio Valley, French Valley and Grey Glacier.

 

Taking in Stunning Summertime Views of New York City

July 15, 2014 by  

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roosevelt island tram

We all know the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock and 230 Fifth offer great aerial views of New York City. That being said, sometimes you just want a less crowded and non-touristy experience. To help you enjoy unforgettable Big Apple views the way the locals do, here are Travel + Escape’s top picks for where to enjoy lesser-known views in New York City.

Upstairs at the Kimberly

145 E 50th Street, New York City

Located in Midtown East on the 30th floor of the Kimberly Hotel, Upstairs at the Kimberly is a swanky rooftop lounge offering classic cocktails, farm-to-table food fare and aerial views through their floor-to-ceiling glass indoor dining room and outdoor rooftop patio adorned with cascading ivy walls and whimsical strings of incandescent bulbs. Sample dishes like crunchy spiced “Duck Cigars” with pomegranate dipping sauce, flavorful lobster sliders and Italian-inspired mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese and pesto.

Upstairs at the Kimberly

While many rooftop bars have blaring club music and a wild party scene, Upstairs at the Kimberly is more of a swanky lounge that’s great for those looking to catch up with friends and enjoy good conversation. That is, if the front-row views of the Chrysler building don’t take your breath away. Take in the view while sipping their signature “Chrysler” cocktail, which features liquefied honey, fresh squeezed lime and lemon juices, cognac and Champagne or sparkling wine served in a Champagne flute with a lime wheel garnish.

Roosevelt Island Tram. Photo courtesy of Brett Saffer Images. (top photo credit)

Roosevelt Island Tram

Access at 59th Street & Second Avenue Station

A lesser-known scenic experience in NYC is the Roosevelt Island Tram. Simply swipe your MetroCard to access the tram, which includes a panoramic gondola ride over the sparkling East River. From the south side of the tram, you’ll enjoy views of the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, United Nations Building, Randall’s Island, Astoria and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. You’ll also feel like you can reach out and touch the Queensboro Bridge as it runs alongside the tram. The Roosevelt Island Tram follows the same path as the F Train, but provides a much more scenic and fun way to get to and from Roosevelt Island and Manhattan. Tip: Before exiting on the Manhattan side look down to take in dizzying views of 1st and 2nd Avenues.

statue of liberty

Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of Tom Fakler.

DSW Designer Show Warehouse in Union Square

40 E 14th Street

While known for having an expansive shoe selection, the DSW store in Union Square is also one of the best spots in the city to enjoy unparalleled views. Take the escalator up to their 6th floor to take in aerial views of Union Square Park, the beautiful clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, the Empire State Building and the Fuerza Bruta Theater. The best part? You won’t have to purchase a $20 cocktail to enjoy a great view as the experience is completely free.

empire state building

Sitting in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Photo courtesy of Randy Scott Slavin.

Vu Rooftop Bar

17 W 32nd Street

Located in Koreatown, Vu Rooftop Bar is a lesser-known and unpretentious rooftop bar located on the 14th floor of the La Quinta Hotel. Part of the experience is entering through the budget-friendly accommodation, which is the last place one would expect to find a trendy rooftop venue. Once you get to the top, you’ll be immersed in a casual yet ambient atmosphere with friendly staff, comfortable couches and an outdoor patio where you can sip handcrafted yet inexpensive drinks in the shadow of the Empire State Building, allowing you to really experience the enormous size of the iconic building. We recommend visiting during their daily happy hour from 5pm to 7pm, where you can also enjoy $5 cocktails and beers as well as $3 shots.

alma

Photo courtesy of Alma Restaurant

Alma Restaurant

187 Columbia St Brooklyn, NY 11231

Located in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn you’ll find Alma Restaurant. Featuring three distinct floors, this stylish Mexican restaurant serves up traditional cuisine fused with American and Asian influences and strong margaritas. The real draw to the venue, however, is the panoramic views of the Brooklyn piers, Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline. The best view can be found on their rooftop — especially facing Columbia Street — which has tables (not barstools) for a comfortable and scenic roof terrace experience. We recommend visiting at night when you can see Lower Manhattan twinkling against a darkened backdrop — especially when paired with their spicy guacamole and a mixed tequila tasting.

the high line art

Public art along The High Line. Photo courtesy of Anita Breland.

The High Line

Runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues

An abandoned elevated railway that was converted into an urban park, the High Line provides more intimate views looking down on individual New York City streets, making you feel both immersed in the city’s architectural culture yet distanced as you walk through the High Line’s gardens, lawns and public art. The experience is less about getting an aerial view and more about getting a unique view as you feel like you’re growing with the skyscrapers — and close enough the touch them. The High Line allows visitors to truly appreciate the large variety of architectural styles in New York City and how they seamlessly blend together to enhance the local eclectic culture. For example, next to an old weathered brownstone covered in graffiti you may find a contemporary building with reflective siding and an optical illusion-creating angled facade, showcasing both the the city’s roots as well as its future. Moreover, from the High Line you’ll have prime views of an array of landmarks, some of which include Chelsea Market, the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, State of Liberty, the abstract yet functional InterActiveCorp headquarters building created by famed architecture Frank Gehry and Diane von Furstenberg’s design studio on the High Line’s southern end featuring a geodesic glass box top that looks like a diamond that fell from the heavens. Moreover, the Hudson River follows the park adding a tranquil element to the experience.

lower manhattan view

Lower Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry. Photo courtesy of Tom Fakler.

Staten Island Ferry

For a relaxing and free way to enjoy prime NYC views, ride the Staten Island Ferry. Sip a cold brew (yes, the ferry serves beer), and enjoy the Manhattan skyline fading in the distance as well as close up views of Lady Liberty as the ferry sails past the iconic statue. Once you reach Staten Island, head to Wagner College, walk out onto Howard Avenue and toward the main entrance to a clearing in the hedges where you can take in a postcard view of the Verrazano Bridge, which is best viewed at night with a twinkling cityscape.

What’s your favorite NYC view? Please share in the comments below.

 

Tips & Tricks for Travel to Fort Lauderdale, Florida

July 6, 2014 by  

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The Hotel Deauville

I recently visited Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I explored the offerings of this beachfront, high-rise resort-filled city. While not as adventurous or budget-friendly as say Ecuador or Guatemala, it didn’t disappoint. Here is my recommendation for Fort Lauderdale things to do for solo travelers.

Stay

An accommodation option in Fort Lauderdale offering both private and shared accommodation is The Hotel Deauville, located less than a block from the beach and offering a heated pool onsite. There’s also a communal kitchen and BBQ area, air conditioning, Wi-Fi, a washing machine, lockers and a television room are some other amenities — the latter being a great one for helping solo travelers make friends.

Getting Around

As long as you stay near to Fort Lauderdale Beach you can pretty easily get around by bike. That being said, there are a few attractions — like Funky Buddha and FAT Village — that are a little farther and you’ll need a vehicle for. I personally rented a car from Avis, which cost $213 including gas and collision insurance for the cheapest model — a Chevy Sonic 5-Door Subcompact — from Thursday morning to Sunday morning with airport pickup and drop off. If you don’t want to rent a car — although this is the most convenient option — opt for the inexpensive Sun Trolley, which takes you around downtown, and the bus, although this can be quite slow.

Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits

Delicious desserts and cocktails at Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Where To Eat & Drink

Fort Lauderdale isn’t the cheapest destination, but it is possible to eat well without spending a fortune. First of all, there are a number of really delicious food trucks floating around. I encountered them in front of Fat Buddha Brewery — where you’ll find them daily — and at the FAT Village Art Walk, which happens on the last Saturday of each month.

Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits

On Las Olas there are a number of non-chain restaurants, cafés and wine bars as well as galleries, boutiques and local businesses. One that I found really enjoyable as a solo traveler was Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits. They serve innovative southern-style tapas with globally-inspired sauces. Snacks start at $6, and some of their tapas and appetizers are pretty filling on their own, like the coal-fired pterodactyl (turkey) wing with crispy skin and a sweet habanero glaze or the dinosaur beef short rib done “Korean-style,” the meat simmered alongside the bone for five hours in a mixture of rice wine, kimchee base and demi glaze. My personal menu favorites were the chorizo-stuffed dates with melted Swiss cheese and thick red pepper sauce, and the “Lobster Popcorn” featuring a movie-theater box of fresh popcorn topped with deep-fried lobster and served with a side of honey truffle oil. For dessert, their homemade bread pudding topped with peanut butter fudge ice cream  is absolutely enormous and could be a meal in itself (albeit not the healthiest one). I actually ate half at the restaurant and save the other half for breakfast the next morning. Again, maybe not as healthy as a yogurt with fruit, but so satisfying.

Funky Buddha Brewery

At Funky Buddha Brewery I started out drinking solo but soon made new friends outside near the food trucks and then playing a colossal-sized game of Jenga.

Funky Buddha Brewery

I happened to visit Fort Lauderdale when Funky Buddha Brewery was having their one-year anniversary, so of course I went to check it out. Even those who who aren’t big beer drinkers (like myself) will find something they like. At the festival some of the options were “Chocolate-Covered Cherry Porter,” “Don’t Tell Reece Peanut Butter Cup Brown Ale,” “Fire in the Hole Raspberry Habanero Red Ale,” “French Toast Double Brown Ale,” “Blueberry Cobbler Ale” and a “Nutella Porter” brewed with cocoa nibs and hazelnuts. These were just a few of their innovative dessert brew options. Best of all, the beers actually tasted like what they said they would (I’ve definitely tried dessert-themed beers in the past that lacked flavor). While they don’t always have all of these of tap, you’ll have at least 10 beers to choose from whenever you visit.

What makes this such a great solo traveler spot isn’t just the beer, but the games. They have tons of board games and sports games like bocci and corn hole. I ended up getting in on a game of giant Jenga, and made some new friends from South Africa, New Jersey and Florida.

For an inexpensive meal, Funky Buddha also has food trucks outside their premises each day, typically from 1pm on Sundays, from 11:30am on Saturdays, from 4pm on Fridays and from 5:30pm on Mondays through Thursdays (although sometimes earlier, so check their Food Truck Calendar). Some food trucks that regularly make an appearance include Conch Shack, Outside the Box Sandwich Co., Ceviche 305, Chaco’s Chinese Taco, Legend’s BBQ, Latin Burger & Taco, IL Fiorentino, Sweet Cravings NY Desserts, 2 Jive Turkeys, Palate Party and Saucy ‘Stache, to name a few.

crab

10 ounces of fresh and hearty jumbo crab meat. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Hollywood Prime

For an uber fancy dinner where you can enjoy a quiet night out in an ambiance atmosphere, Hollywood Prime is a great choice. You may be wondering why I’m recommending a 5-star steak house serving 23-day aged prime beef with prices to match. The trick is to order just an appetizer, as they have many that are huge and really satisfying. I ordered the 10-ounce jumbo lump crab meat ($20) paired with an unexpected spicy homemade mustard and was full afterward. Not exactly cheap, but also not crazy if you’re craving a refined atmosphere. They also serve an onion soup gratin that’s super hearty for $10, fresh salads for under $15 and an out-of-this-world tomatoes & buffalo mozzarella salad ($16) with 8-year aged balsamic from Medina, Uglyripe Heirloom tomatoes from Plant City Florida and water buffalo mozzarella imported each week from Italy. It’s topped with sea salt, black pepper, fresh chopped basil and extra virgin olive oil from Italy.

banyan tree

Giant banyan tree in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

What To Do

When I travel solo I love spending a few hours in nature hiking or cycling, enjoying the outdoors and spending quality time with myself. In Fort Lauderdale, I found this splice of solitude at Hugh Taylor Birch Park. Encompassing 180 acres (73 hectares), the park is full of things to do. You can easily spend a full day there hiking or renting bikes, kayaks, canoes, banana boats, paddle boards, elliptioges, jet skis and surf boards through M. Cruz Rentals. For something quirky, they also offer a Segway tour that takes you to some of the hidden natural sites of the park. The price for this is $50 for 30 minutes, $75 for an hour or $100 for 90 minutes.

I chose hiking and biking. The park entrance fee was only $4 for a single-person vehicle, and for the bike it was $12.50 for an hour or $25 for four hours. There’s a two-mile (3.2-kilometer) loop trail that takes you along the Intracoastal Highway — where you can picnic and see manatees, moreso in the winter — view an enormous banyan tree and a huge beehive, and ride on a rail trail. There are also some hiking trails and the chance to see lizards, turtles and birds. If you don’t want to spring for the bike rental another option is to hike and then head to the on site beach or rent a canoe ($5/hour).

Bonnet House

Exploring the Bonnet House gardens. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Bonnet House Museum and Gardens

Afterward I recommend going over to the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens. Whether you’re interested in historic homes or not the property is a treat. Admission is $20 for an adult ticket or $10 to just tour the grounds (this does not include access to the house). When I went I simply wandered the 35-acre (14-hectare) grounds and gardens with my camera, taking photos and stopping to sit by the water and watch the birds. They have a really impressive orchid collection, a dessert garden, enormous lizards, swan lakes, al fresco art and three cheeky monkeys that roam around. If you go inside the house you can see how a local artist couple lived in from the 1920s to 1990s, with touches from each era apparent throughout and an impressive art collection.

The Pink Submarine

Hopper Sub II courtesy of The Pink Submarine.

Wilton Manors

An area that’s less touristy than the Fort Lauderdale beach front where you can find affordable food, interesting galleries, charitable shops and even the — first museum dedicated to AIDS is the LGBT-friendly Wilton Manors. The locals here are so friendly and so proud of their community, happy to tell you anything you need to know. I ordered a “Beacon” sandwich with a hearty loaded baked potato salad (about $10) from The Pink Submarine — a mom and mom owned shop — and ended up chatting with the owner for 40 minutes, as well as another customer who was eating and wanted to know about the FAT Village Art Walk I was attending that night (he’d overheard me talking about it). Everyone was so friendly, which is great when you’re traveling solo.

For a sit down venue with great wine in the same neighborhood I would suggest 13|Even, which offers 40+ beers and 40+ wines by the glass, as well as a happy hour from 4-7pm daily with $5 wines. They also serve a delicious caramelized onion, bacon and goat cheese flatbread. The Naked Grape Wine & Tapas, a cute wine bar with indoor and outdoor seating. I sat outdoor with a book and enjoyed a rosemary lemon and white bean dip for $6. Other affordable menu items include Greek olive mix ($4), sausage-stuffed mushrooms ($7), many cheeses macaroni and cheese ($5), Italian meatballs ($5) and a Rosa Marina Flatbread with rosemary ham, diced green apples and fontina cheese ($10). Afterward, head to the brand new World AIDS Museum and Education Center, the first of its kind in the world, or go kayaking or stand up paddle boarding with Atlantic Coast Kayak Co. on the Middle River.

las olas

Las Olas at night. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Las Olas

The perfect free activity in Fort Lauderdale is wandering down Las Olas, sometimes dubbed “The Style Mile.” What I loved about Las Olas was the number of boutiques, free art galleries and local businesses one can explore. It’s much different than by the waterfront, where chains and big businesses dominate. For a local dining experience wine bars, cafes and innovative eateries line the cobble-rimmed sidewalks — including the above-mentioned Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits (which has a ton of interesting galleries and shops near to it).

fat village

Fat Village Art Walk. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

FAT Village

And if you can visit Fort Lauderdale on the last Saturday of the month like I did, you can partake in the Flagler Arts and Technology (FAT) Village Art Walk. Not only are there food trucks and artisanal vendors selling cheap and delicious eats, but businesses and galleries stay open late to put on art exhibitions and offer free wine, beer and nibbles — I even got to make my own ice cream sundae at The Good Hands Gallery, a law office by day and an art gallery once a month during the art walk. It’s a lot of fun — not to mention completely free — with electronic music blasting into the streets and warehouses-turned-studios offering everything from flamingos made out of soda cans to exhibitions inspired by the cosmos to interactive “game show” style pieces and more. There are also a number of courtyards like at Helium and C&I where there are vendors, graffiti artists, bars and food in an enclosed outdoor space which is nice. No map is needed. Simply wander the blocks around around NW Fifth Street and NW First and Andrews Avenues and follow the colors pouring out of the open garage-style doors.

Fort Lauderdale Beach

Looking for shells on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The Beach

And if all else fails, you can always head to Fort Lauderdale Beach. It’s free to enjoy, with many recreational opportunities available like wind surfing, deep sea fishing, jet skiing, swimming and scuba diving.

Have you ever traveled to Fort Lauderdale? What recommendations would you give someone traveling there solo or as a backpacker? Please share in the comments below.

Note: My trip to Fort Lauderdale was sponsored by Fort Lauderdale Tourism, although the itinerary was planned by myself and I did indeed travel there solo. I was not required.

Top Photo courtesy of The Hotel Deauville. 

A Boat Load of Planning Tips for Your Trip to Japan

July 5, 2014 by  

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temple

Planning a trip to Japan? Read on for essential travel tips, packing lists, must-try foods and not-to-miss cultural experiences.

Japan Travel Tips

1. Japan is a large country with many different climates. For example, if you’re going to Okinawa it’s likely to be warmer than Tokyo. Keep this in mind when packing, and check the forecast before you go.

2. Pack light, especially if you’ll be using the trains. There isn’t always a lot of space for baggage.

3. Between the many cultural attractions, wild street fashions and beautiful gardens you’ll take a lot of photos. Make sure to bring a camera with battery and backup memory card, and/or have a place to store photos online like SmugMug, PhotoShelter or Dropbox.

4. For temples, shrines and communal baths there is a certain etiquette that must be followed. Your best bet is to watch what the locals are doing and follow along.

5. You can leave most of your toiletries at home, as Japanese hotels provide shampoo, conditioner, soap, razors, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, towel, shower cap and many times even a robe, slippers and pants.

6. If you plan on purchasing clothing or shoes in Japan, keep in mind larger and taller individuals may have trouble finding their size.

7. When eating rice, never place chopsticks sticking up in the food, as this is how rice is traditionally served to the dead.

8. In cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, the metro is an easy and inexpensive way to get around.

9. For those planning to travel around the country extensively, a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) can be useful for unlimited rail rides for a certain period of time, depending which pass you choose. Or, if you have extra time to spare, the bus takes longer but is much more economical.

10. Remove your shoes whenever entering a home, temple, guest house or anywhere else you see shoes lined up by the door. If you don’t, it is disrespectful.

11. Show gratitude when someone shows you kindness. Having good manners is essential when visiting Japan.

12. Be mindful of your volume in public. Japanese people tend to speak quietly and politely. Try to do the same.

13. Don’t blow your nose in public. In Japan, this is seen as rude.

sushi

Sushi. Photo courtesy of Rita.Yang.

Must Try Food & Drink In Japan

  • Sake
  • Matcha Japanese Green Tea
  • Sashimi and sushi
  • Ramen
  • Miso Soup
  • Japanese Curry
  • Tempura (deep-fried seafood and vegetables)
  • Okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake with vegetables and meat/seafood mixed in)
  • Donburi (meat and rice bowl)
  • Yakitori (BBQ chicken skewers featuring many parts of the chicken)
  • Gyoza (Potstickers stuffed with vegetables and pork)
  • Mochi (Japanese rice cake, often used in desserts)

Japan Packing List

  • Camera (with battery and extra memory card)
  • Pocket dictionary-
  • Smartwool (or other wicking) shirt
  • Light roll up rain jacket
  • Umbrella
  • Comfortable walking shoes you can easily slip off for temple visits
  • Medications
  • Scarf, hat, gloves
  • Sunscreen
  • Extra socks (for temple visits)
  • Tailored pants and dress shirt
  • Jacket (even in summer, as AC can be strong)
  • Conservative clothing for temples and shrines
  • Clothing you can layer to match the temperature

onsen

Onsen. Photo courtesy of Ryan McBride.

Japan Cultural Experiences

  • Japanese tea ceremony
  • Sumo wrestling
  • Have a craft cocktail (Tokyo)
  • See A Geisha Show (Kyoto)
  • Learn the art of calligraphy
  • Learn the art of flower arrangement
  • Savor sushi at a seafood market
  • Learn karate (Okinawa)
  • Drink craft beer
  • Visit a Buddhist Temple
  • Soak at a sento or onsen
  • Say a prayer at a Shinto Shrine
  • Sample some sake
  • Hear a sanshin concert (or other traditional music form)
  • See a Kabuki performance
  • See a Bunraku puppet show
  • Center yourself with Zen Meditation
  • Peruse a pottery studio

Have something to add? Please share in the comments below.

Top Photo courtesy of Marc Veraart.

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