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

Was Your Easter Chocolate Sourced From Ethical Integrity?

April 22, 2014 by  

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chocolate

Easter has always been a time to celebrate rebirth. During the spring, the entire planet seems to come back to life. Trees and flowers begin to blossom and the holidays are celebrated with an array of delicious foods. Most notably, chocolate eggs and bunnies have become a symbol of the season; however, while most of the holiday is a symbol for liveliness, even the whitest of chocolates hold a dark side, routed in slavery and unfair trade. Make sure you understand the facts about chocolate and where yours comes from this holiday.

The International Chocolate and Cocoa Industries

In the United States in particular, chocolate has become an important part of the nation’s culture. In a recent study by the Harris Poll, 52% of Americans have said chocolate is their favorite flavor. The International Cocoa organization has also found that Americans eat an average of 11 pounds of it and spending a total of $20 billion each year.

The chocolate industry’s production is based primarily out of western Africa, where climatic conditions are ideal for cocoa bean production in nations like the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Since some of the world’s largest chocolate companies like Mars, Nestlé and Hershey’s base their pricing strategies on their ability to sell large quantities of chocolate at low prices, West African nations are an ideal place to source their beans from. Unfortunately, these inexpensive costs come with other expenses as harmful chemicals like lindane and menthyl bromide are found in the pesticides used to maintain cocoa crops.

These chemicals have been known to lead to reproductive, respiratory and neurological complications. In addition, in order to be able to supply cheap cocoa, nations such as the Ivory Coast and Nigeria have become infamous for employing child slaves to work in cheap labor.

While Mars, Nestlé and Hershey have all denied supporting unfair practices and child slavery from any of their suppliers, it has been found that approximately 75% of the chocolate consumed in the United States is sourced from the Ivory Coast, a nation known for ramped child slavery issues. Since this issue began to rain attention in recent years, many reporters have journeyed to the Ivory Coast to attempt to shed more light on the situation; however, the nation’s government officials have been less than pleased with this attention and have detained several journalists looking to expose the secrets of the cocoa industry, which remains shrouded in secrecy.

Child Slavery in the Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast was first exposed for it’s unethical practices on a major scale in the 2006 Hollywood movie, Blood Diamond. The film brought light to the nation’s issue of child slaves and soldiers. Despite the attention it received, it is still estimated that over 100,000 children live as slaves in the nation.

How Children Enter Life as a Slave

There are several ways children can become child slaves. Many become slaves before they become teenagers, with some child slaves being as young as seven years old. Most are sold into slavery by their parents or family members who cannot afford to feed or care for their children. They are sometimes even told their child will be taken care of and will receive an education and job training. When a child is sold into slavery, they are often bought for as little as $30 and are often never able to see their family again. Other times, children are kidnapped off the streets by men in nice cars, luring them with promises of wealth and prosperity.

Life as a Child Slave

Once a child has entered the world of chocolate slavery, they get sent to a remote cocoa plantation where they are forced to work long 12-hour days with very little food while harvesting cocoa beans. To collect the beans, the children are made to climb cocoa trees, then hack the beans open using a machete and transport them back to the plantation. Since they are working with such a dangerous tool, many incur gashes and scars on their arms and hands in the process. In addition, slave drivers have been known to use violence on a regular basis to discipline inefficient slaves.
Despite these horrendous conditions, few children are able to escape. Many farms are hundreds of miles from the nearest town and surrounded by densely forested terrain. In addition, slavery is the only life that many of the children know and many don’t even have the expectation that escape could lead to a better life.

cocoa pods

Cocoa pods. Photo courtesy of Camino, an ethical chocolate manufacturer

Legal Action

Despite the large presence of child slavery in the Ivory Coast, the practice has technically been illegal across the globe since the 1989 Convention of Rights of the Child. This convention states that any child who is 18 years of age or younger is to be protected from economic exploitation. In addition, the Ivory Coast has ratified the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 1992, which requires their government to take immediate action to eliminate child labor.

Realizing that the Ivory Coast was not adhering to the terms of these conventions, the US government created their own Harkin-Engel protocol in 2005 to prevent people from contributing with their money (via purchasing unethical chocolate) to child labor. This protocol was originally created to impose a labeling system on chocolates to prove ingredients were not sourced from unethical resources; however, major chocolate corporations were able to bribe down the terms of the protocol and delay any impositions until 2020.

chocolate

Fresh, ethically-sourced ingredients from Camino

Finding Responsible Chocolate

Even with several failed attempts at providing transparency to the chocolate industry, there are still other ways to determine which chocolates are not rooted in slavery. Labels like Fair Trade, Equal Exchange and Rainforest Alliance ensure workers across the supply chain have received a fair wage for their work. Direct trade producers and those with shorter supply chains are also more likely to have sourced their cocoa ethically.

If you’re looking for a sure bet for ethical chocolates this Easter, check out some of these companies:

Mama Ganache
The company’s philosophy is “Do No Harm” and is something they carry all the way from their cocoa farms to your table with 100% organic and Fair Trade products. For Easter, they’ve got a full collection of bunnies, eggs, baskets and truffles.

Camino
After the founders of this Canadian company witnessed the horrors of the chocolate industry first-hand, Camino was created to build vibrant local and global communities through chocolate production with their suppliers across Central America and Africa. For Easter, check out their milk chocolate bunnies.

Equal Exchange
Equal Exchange supports small-scale farmers across the globe that are involved in not only the production of chocolate, but also coffee, tea and various snacks. They have made it their mission to foster long-term sustainable partnerships with all of their partners and to provide high-quality end products. To celebrate the holidays, they’ve put together a special Easter egg gift box.

How do you ensure your chocolate is ethically sourced?

Top photo: Make sure your chocolate is ethically-sourced this Easter. Photo courtesy of timsackton.

The Magical Sunrise Atop of Guatemala’s Indian’s Nose

April 17, 2014 by  

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“Beep. Beep. Beep.” Is it 3:30 am already? While I had willed myself to resist the temptation of San Pedro’s nightlife, the women in the room next to me clearly hadn’t, as their shriek-like giggling and all-night techno party made it difficult to catch the necessary six hours of shut-eye I needed.

indian's nose sunrise

Luckily, the thought of seeing a beautiful Guatemalan sunrise over Lake Atitlan is enough to propel me out of bed to put on my hiking boots.

indian's nose sunrise

The beginning of the Indian’s Nose sunrise

Indian’s Nose, or La Nariz de Indio, sits at At 2,863 meters (9,393 feet) looking over the pueblos of San Pedro, Santa Clara and San Marcos. It’s name comes from the fact the profile of the mountain looks like a sleeping Indian. Interestingly, the peak was considered sacred by the Mayans, who would pray and conduct religious services at the top.

My guide, Jose of Atitlan Tours, is waiting on the steps of the tourism office. He smirks, “Cansado?”

I nod in reply to his questioning if I’m tired.

He laughs, “Mucho fiesta a Zolla’s Hostel?”

While I’d really wanted to attend one of Zolla’s legendary Tuesday night parties, I’d skipped out in order to be rested for Indian’s Nose. I sincerely hoped it was worth it.

Technically the trek begins in Santa Clara, and we board a local chicken bus — an adventure in itself — to reach the destination. The journey feels similar to nighttime rally racing in an old school bus, with the vehicle threatening to lose its front axle and body (I actually saw this near Antigua) with each lightning fast hairpin turn. Water spills all over my shirt as it jumps out of the bottle during one particularly daunting turn, and my bistec (steak) wrap goes flying across the bus. Oh well. At least I’d gotten a few bites in.

Indian's Nose sunrise

After about 45 minutes we reach the trailhead, which I would have never found on my own without a guide as we seem to snake through someone’s backyard crops to the woods.

We walk through tall corn fields illuminated by only the abundant stars in the clear sky, the dry earth beneath me pluming up dirt with each step. It gets even darker when we emerge into the forest, the flat trail quickly turning into extremely steep steps, many of which provide a height challenge for my 5’2” body. An older gentleman in front of me slips and falls on one particularly steep patch, and we help him brush off before continuing on.

Indian's Nose sunrise

Lake Atitlan from Indian’s Nose

Jose walks at rapid speed, clearly unphased by the unrelenting uphill terrain. It’s not until I manage to huff the phase “Holy f*ck” that he realizes the rest of us aren’t Guatemalan mountain men, and we take a short water break.

“Cinco minutos mas,” he says, as we continue on.

I’ve gone on hundreds of hikes through my travels, and when a trek is particularly challenging guides will often lie to you about how much time is left before reaching the top to inspire hikers to think they’re almost there. This is why I’m shocked when literally five minutes later we reach a flat top with benches and a raised viewing platform.

My watch readers 5:58 am, and the sky has slightly changed from black to midnight blue. You can also make out a line of hot pink along the horizon, as well as the outline of enormous volcanoes.

Indian's Nose sunrise

Indian’s Nose sunrise viewing platform

“Vamanos! Let’s go,” says Jose after about 15 minutes.

I’m confused. Did Guatemalans just enjoy seeing the pre-sunrise rather than the actual coming up of the sun? And why are we walking uphill again if we’re going back down?

It isn’t until 10 minutes later when we reach another viewing platform I realize we’re not leaving but relocating. We wait, although it doesn’t take long for the shapes and shadows of peaks and clouds to become visible, the stars and darkness transforming into a grey-blue backdrop dotted with dragon-shaped black clouds and San Pedro Volcano peaking through a vast pillow of floating white cotton. I feel just like Katie Perry in “California Girls,” except instead of cupcake bras and glitter I’m wearing a pink rain jacket and alpaca hat (But hey! I’m still in the clouds!).

indian's nose sunrise

Full Indian’s Nose sunrise

I run around Indian’s Nose like a starved puppy, the bright oranges and pinks from the sun acting as my nourishment. My goal is to get a photo of the sunrise over Lake Atitlan from every angle every few minutes as to not miss a thing: the changing of the black clouds from dragons to pirate ships, the orange streaks in the baby blue sky, the bubbling cauldron of cloud blanket, the jagged coastline peaking from under the fog, the nearby peaks drenched in neon, the first glimpse of the sun waking up and, the highlight of the experience, the emerald green Lake Atitlan coming into view under a Bob Ross-inspired sky.

If you’re going to skip a night out dancing and doing shots of Quetzelteca for any reason, make it a sunrise hike up Indian’s Nose. Not only will you burn off those refried bean-soaked nachos, but you’ll experience Lake Atitlan from above the clouds and volcanoes. And I know this is an opinion, but in my opinion this is truly the world’s most surreal sunrise experience.

Indian’s Nose Travel Tips

Because the hike begins before sunrise make sure to dress in layers and wear a hat and scarf to keep warm and cool down when necessary. The hike is very steep, and a flashlight, sturdy hiking shoes, water and snacks will make the experience much more enjoyable.

Additionally, while it’s possible to do this trek on your own it’s not recommended. It’s difficult to find the starting point, the trail isn’t well marked and it’s not unheard of for robbers to hold up unsuspecting hikers. I paid 100 Quetzales (about $13 USD) for transportation and a guide from Atitlan Tours in San Pedro, although there are a number of tour agencies offering similar deals.

 

 

Scrumptious Bagel Balls at Manhattan’s Bantam Bagels

April 17, 2014 by  

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Photo courtesy of Bantam Bagels

Well, they — as in Bantam Bagels — calls them “mini bagel balls,” each filled with an exotic cream cheese or filling. Creator Nick Oleksak, who owns the shop with his wife Elyse, says the idea for the atypical snack came to him in a dream. He grabbed his phone, made a drowsy note to himself and the next day the first batch was made.

There are many flavors to choose from when it comes to Bantam Bagels. Some examples:

  • French Toast: Cinnamon nutmeg egg bagel filled with a buttery, maple syrupy cream cheese
  • The Bleecker Street: Pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni. Filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese
  • Everybody’s Favorite: Everything bagel filled with freshly chopped vegetable cream cheese
  • Cinnamonster: Cinnamon raisin bagel filled with sweet walnut cream cheese
  • Grandma JoJo: talian spiced bagel topped with thinly sliced, marinated tomato filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese
  • The Hangover: Cheddar cheese and egg bagel topped with melted cheddar cheese filled with bacon cheddar cream cheese and a drizzle of maple syrup

And more! They’re constantly being made throughout the day, so these bagel balls are fresh and warm. Tip: Just make sure when you bite into the bagel ball you have the little hole where the filling is squeezed into inside your mouth, or prepare to have it splattered all over you.

Bantam Bagels is located at 283 Bleeker Street in Manhattan.

Awareness Check: Is Rhino Poaching Funding Terrorism?

April 15, 2014 by  

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Rhinos

Something 50 million years in the making is on track to be wiped out in a matter of a few decades. The rhinoceros — essentially the world’s last dinosaur — is being relentlessly hunted and slaughtered for its horn. Comprised of keratin, just like your hair and fingernails, rhino horn is worth double its weight in gold at latest estimates. The horn is being used for myriad ‘cures’ in traditional Asian medicine, from arthritis to cancer, despite being illegal and medically useless.

South Africa is home to the world’s largest remaining population of rhinos, but it is also where you’ll find the greatest amount of violence against the animals, with one being killed on average about every nine hours. The white rhino species is the most abundant at 20,000+ animals, but estimates put their tipping point — at which more animals are being killed than are being born in a given year — within the next year or two.

Conservation Efforts

Thus far, few efforts have been fruitful in stopping the killing, as the prize is just too great for poachers. Conservationists and researchers are working on devising any means possible to protect the species, from poisoning living rhino’s horns to using drones to spot poacher activity.

Additionally, there are new efforts underway to try and reduce the length of the breeding cycle, as well as discussions about possibly synthesizing horn. Both are innovative approaches to mitigating the problem and could make some inroads.

Translocation is another approach to protecting rhinos. The government of Botswana has an initiative to restore its rhino population (which was poached out in 1992) with animals translocated from South Africa, the epicenter of today’s poaching crisis. There are several African-based tourism companies with efforts in this area, including Great Plains Conservation (GPC), &Beyond, and Wilderness Safaris.

The latter is planning to translocate an unspecified (due to security) number of black rhinos sometime in the first quarter of 2014, and GPC and &Beyond plan to translocate up to 100 animals in 2015 if they are able to secure funding.

Controversially, South Africa may drop out of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in order to legalize trade in rhino horn. While this is causing somewhat of an uproar, it may have merit.

Horn can be harvested safely from living rhinos approximately once every three years, and South Africa has plenty of horn in storage, both from farmed rhinos and from natural deaths of animals. The real question is whether or not legalization will drive increased demand, as well as blurring the line between legal and illegal product.

Rhinos

Rhino Poaching And Terrorism

The darker side to the slaughter of rhinos is the money trail from poaching activities. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, an independent organization committed to protecting the natural world from environmental crime and abuse, the trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn is funding terrorism.

For example, ‘Up to 40% of al-Shabaab’s (a Somalia based al Quaeda linked terrorist group) money comes from … buyers.’ Ultimately, it is the consumers of ivory and horn that are funding al Shabaab, helping them to purchase weapons and explosives which they use to carry out terrorist activities, such as last year’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Perhaps worst of all, the people of Africa (and India, Nepal, Indonesia and Malaysia) are being robbed of their heritage. Tourism is an immensely important part of GDP for countries that have rhino populations, and it is one of the few activities that passively protect the rhino.

Rhinos

How You Can Help

What’s the ethical traveler to do? First of all, go and see the rhinos. This may sound a bit clinical, but in countries where there is human wildlife conflict or where resources such as land and water are scarce, wildlife is only ‘valuable’ when it brings in some kind of revenue. Tourism is the best source for that revenue. Travelers can also choose to travel with an operator that either donates some of its revenues to reputable charities, or uses camps that promote conservation or research.

Next, stay abreast of what is happening with these animals, and consider regular charitable giving to an organization that supports research, protection and conservation. Learn more about the International Rhino Foundation, Save the Rhino Trust or Wildlife Protection Solutions and consider supporting one of them. Finally, and this is obvious, never ever purchase a product made from endangered species. If you aren’t sure what it’s made from, don’t buy it.
Travel Information

To help support translocation initiatives, consider travel with Great Plains Conservation or &Beyond. Great Plains Conservation is headed by wildlife filmmaker Derek Joubert of National Geographic fame, and they have a special program for certain dates in 2014 and 2015 where they will donate a portion of bed night revenue from several of their Botswana camps to their Great Plains Foundation 501c3 to fund the rhino translocation.

In addition to the knowledge that a stay with GPC or &Beyond is funding their initiative, all travelers will receive a special Beverly Joubert canvas print as well as other surprises while on safari.

A stay with Wilderness Safaris also supports translocation and protection initiatives. Wilderness Safaris funds the non-profit Wilderness Wildlife Trust, which supports a variety of projects in southern Africa, including wildlife management, research and monitoring. Wilderness has camps throughout southern Africa, as well as in Kenya and Republic of Congo.

For rhino lovers in particular, a stay at their Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia is an exceptionally good choice. The camp offers a unique wildlife experience where travelers have the chance to view Africa’s largest free-roaming black rhino population on foot, and to help contribute to its conservation. The camp is a partnership with Save the Rhino Trust and the government of Namibia.

Contributed by Gretchen Healey who  gave up a window office in the IT industry to embrace travel as a profession.  

 

Behind the Scenes & History of Child Street Vendors

April 15, 2014 by  

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child street vendors

Before I take any international trip, my friends and family become overwrought with “helpful pieces of advice” for me. Most of it is usually common sense like not doing drugs in alleyways or leaving hundreds of dollars unattended on tables; however, one piece that stood out to me before embarking to Cambodia was to not buy cheap gimmicky souvenirs from street vendors. At the time I was a bit of an impulsive shopper, especially for small purchases. After deciding this was one piece of advice I wasn’t going to follow, I determined it wouldn’t be the worst, as instead of ending up dead in an alleyway, I’d probably be out $3 but would have a pile of bracelets and a local merchant would have been supported.

After arriving in Siem Reap — a small town next to the famed Angkor temples — this shopping analysis held true. I strolled through local markets picking up scarves and key chains; however, I soon realized many of these “merchants” were in fact small children. At first this choice in salesmen seemed fitting, many of my friends (and probably myself, as well) seemed significantly more likely to make a purchase from a child, if only because they were cuter. That being said, I couldn’t begin to wonder why at 11am on a Tuesday these kids were posing for photos with me and endlessly offering me “pretty bracelet for a pretty lady? Only one doll’ah” instead of being in school.

child wastepicker

Child wastepicker. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco.

The Facts About Child Street Vendors

Unfortunately, child labor in regards to street vendors are not an isolated issue. Across many developing countries, children of low-income families often end up being forced out of an education to instead help support their parents and siblings by selling candy, cigarettes or lottery tickets on the streets. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty, as while working on the street provides a short-term solution to make money, dropping out of school means the child forgoes the opportunity to receive an education and create a better life for themselves in the future.

In addition to this cycle of poverty, child street vendors are also at a high risk of encountering sexual abuse. A study was recently conducted in Vietnam by the Research Center for Management and Sustainable Develop and found that 92.5% of street children surveyed reported being sexually abused. Since the kids often stay out selling their goods late into the night, many are exposed to potentially dangerous customers on a regular basis. Many are easy targets simply because of their innocence and lack of knowledge. The same study found that many of the children surveyed did not understand what sexual abuse was, even if they were victims of it themselves.

children

Breaking the cycle of children street vendors. Photo courtesy of Toybox.

Breaking the Cycle

Child street vendors represent a difficult and complex issue; however, there are several organizations aimed at providing care and support to get these children off the streets:

Amani Children’s Home

Amani works with street children in Tanzania to give them a safe place to live, along with three nutritious meals a day. Workers and volunteers at the home are also committed to providing children with an education and increasing their knowledge about sexual health. They rely heavily on volunteer support, welcoming travelers to stay and play with or help educate the kids at the home in Tanzania, near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. They also take online donations and hold a “Kilimanjaro Climb for Kids.”

Heal Kids Foundation

Heal Kids works with disabled and disadvantages kids in Myanmar by building schools and libraries, supporting orphanages, and providing much needed medical treatment and clean water. Their overall mission is to improve the lives of poor, orphaned and abandoned children and do so through donations and sponsorship. Supporters can raise money in their charity runs, extreme adventure challenges (think skydiving for charity) and hosted events and can also organize the collection of clothes, books and toys for donation.

Toybox

This foundations works with street children in Latin America through projects that ensure their basic needs are met. This includes providing children with food, school supplies, heath care and clothing. They also work to provide psychologists, teachers and social workers for the kids. They work with a team of volunteers and also take donations to sponsor a child.

Top photo credit: Child street vendors selling produce. Photo courtesy of Wonderlane.

Going Deep with Alsace Wines from France

April 13, 2014 by  

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alsace

Alsace, France. Photo courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar.

“‘The Queen of Riesling’ — That’s what I want it to say on my tombstone!” laughs Stephanie Frederick, my instructor for the day for my Sommelier Society of America sommelier certification. Not only does she hold a diploma from the Wine And Spirits Education Trust in London and the distinction of being the third woman to ever be inducted into the Bons Entonneurs de Rabelaisens in Chinon, France in 1984, but she’s hysterical, and will be teaching today’s class about the delicious wines of Alsace and the Loire Valley in France (although I’m saving The Loire for a separate post — stay tuned!) .

The “Queen of Riesling” joke stemmed from the fact Alsace is known for its dry Riesling, and anyone who thinks of this wine varietal as sweet will be immediately blown away drinking an Alsace Riesling. In fact, Riesling is often referred to as the “King of Alsace” (so I guess Ms. Frederick and her beloved wine will make a perfect royal couple).

Alsace is primarily known for its whites, which make up about 90% of the wine production in the region. This is because of the region’s cool climate, which leads to less-ripe fruit that have less sugar and more acidity — perfect for adding a crispness to the palate. In order to balance this acidity, Alsace winemakers will use chaptalization, or the addition of sugar before fermentation to be converted in alcohol by yeast, which provides fullness and warmth.

Robert Ross Moody

Epicure & Culture editor Jessica Festa with Robert Ross Moody, Sommelier Society of America Chairman. Photo courtesy of Betty Pallis, Senior Program Coordinator of the Sommelier Society of America.

Unique Alsace

There are a few unique facets to this region. First, unlike the other wine regions in France, Alsace wines are labeled mainly by their grape variety. For most wine regions of France, terroir is thought to be the most important aspect of the winemaking. In fact, typically the laws of the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) – a terroir-focused certification given to certain geographical regions in France in reference to agricultural products, like wine — prohibit the showcasing of the varietals on the labels; however, because of the region’s German influence Alsace uses the German method of labeling. It’s also worth noting that in Alsace winemakers must have 100% of the grape varietal listed on the wine bottle, as blends require a “Edelzwicker” or “Gentil” listing.

Additionally, when talking about Alsace wines one should not neglect to mention — or better yet, discuss in length — the local dry Rieslings. For those who believe sweet Riesling is all that’s out there, or is all that needs to be out there, try an Alsace variety and have your mind blown. These complex dry wines offer a bright acidity — typical of dry wines as sugar and acid counteract each other — and often intense minerality and fruit flavors. Moreover, moderate alcohol levels offer a rich texture.

alsace riesling

Alsace Riesling. Photo courtesy of Michal Osmenda.

If you have one wine while in Alsace, make it a dry Riesling; however, I’m not sure why in a region that produces such aromatic and balanced ripe fruit wines someone would only try one. The region also produces reds, whites, roses and sparkling varieties through three AOCs: Alsace AOC, Alsace Grand Cru AOC and Crémant d’Alsace AOC. Alsace AOC makes up most of the region’s wines — mainly still whites — with the main grapes being Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir.

Through this appellation you can savor one of the world’s most unusual yet delightful wines, Pinot d’Alsace, a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay, all Pinot grapes that are related through genetic mutations and hybridization. Featuring aromas of green apple with a touch of honey and flavors of ripe fruit, crystallized ginger, cloves and grapefruit, this complex slightly smokey and spicy wine is a must-try.

Side Note: According to Ms. Frederick, too many people believe California is the epicenter of the wine world, and begin to think the wines they’re producing as the standards. Just sample a Pinot Noir from California and a Pinot Noir from Alsace and you’ll quickly see there’s a whole big world of wine out there. While a California Pinot Noir tends to be more intense in flavor and fruit forward due to the warm climate and local soils the grapes are grown in, Alsace Pinot Noirs are high in acidity and with discreet tannins.

Alsace Grand Cru AOC refers to white wines from 51 individual vineyard sites. The laws for these wines are strict, and wines must be made using one of the four “Nobel Grapes of Alsace,” including Muscat, Pinot Gris, Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Yield specifications are lower and minimum alcohol levels higher than with Alsace AOC.

This means lots of sun for ripe fruit is needed, leading to wines that are rich with flavors of honey (whether sweet or dry) and minerality that reflects the terroir they’re grown in. While these make up only a small portion of Alsatian wines — about 4% — you’ll typically be getting very high quality.

And for those who enjoy sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace AOC is made using the same methods as Champagne — although to be called Champagne a sparkling wine must be made in Champagne, France. For the white, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Auxxerois, and even sometimes Chardonnay grapes are used, while their sparkling rose is composed of 100% Pinot Noir. Typically grapes are picked early in the harvest for a fresh and elegant drink.

riesling grapes

Riesling grapes. Photo courtesy of Bernt Rostad.

Mind Blown

One major pet peeve of Ms. Frederick’s is when people automatically associate sweet wines with Beringer White Zinfandel and think it’s something drank by those on a serious budget or with no taste. With a serious look in her eye, she proclaimed loudly, “There are so many great sweet wines out there like Hungarian Tokaji or those produced by Klein Constantia in South Africa. I’m telling you, sweet wine can be cool!”

One of the regions where sweet wine is “cool” is Alsace, which is know for its sweet winemaking methods, including Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Vendange tardive translates to “late harvest” in French, and the grapes hang on the vine until they begin to dehydrate for more concentrated sugars that lead to a delicious dessert wine. It’s made using one of Alsace’s four Nobel Grapes of Alsace. There’s also Sélection de Grains Nobles, wine made from berry-by-berry picked botrytis grapes, or grapes affected by grey fungus that shrivels and dehydrates the grapes. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes, winemakers actually want their grapes to rot, as botrytis can add flavor and intensify sweetness.

lychee fruit

The distinct aroma of lychee fruit is typical of Alsace Gewürztraminer. Photo courtesy of John Loo.

The Tasting

In terms of the tasting, the Alsatian wines we tried included a 2012 Jean Ginglinger Pinot Blanc “Cuvee George”; a 2011 Riesling Grand Cru “Frankstein” Manbach; and a blind tasting. We started with the blind tasting, first looking at the color of the wine — a golden yellow — before inhaling its aromas.

There was a distinct smell of lychees, rose petal and grapefruit. As for the taste, it felt full-bodied and tasted off-dry with a slight acidity. This is an exact description for an Alsace Gewürztraminer, which tends to have exotic fruit qualities and a slight spice (not to mention Gewürztraminer is one of the region’s most popular grapes).

For the Pinot Blanc, I immediately noticed the golden color and floral aromas. As I let the off-dry, slightly creamy wine envelop my palate, I tasted delicious fruit-forward notes of peach and melon (and with such a snowy winter in my home of New York City it made me crave summer).

What’s really great about this wine, as I learned in the class, is it delivers value at approximately $15. The wine offers a higher quality than the price tag would leave you to believe. This is because Alsace is known for its Riesling, although just because the region’s Pinot Blanc isn’t as popular doesn’t mean it isn’t as good.

Alsace Wines

A look at the wine’s we tasted for the Alsace portion of the course. Photo courtesy of Betty Pallis is the Senior Program Coordinator of the Sommelier Society of America.

Finally, the dry Riesling offered flowers and peach blossom on the nose, a granite minerality with bright acidity, and  flavors of pure citrus.

Have you sampled Alsace wines or visited the French wine region? What do you recommend?

 

On Staying Green in Kerala, India – Where Nature Meets Luxury & Eco

April 13, 2014 by  

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Silent Valley National Park

View from atop Meesapulimala Mountain in Silent Valley National Park. Just one sight that makes you realize why Kerala is called “God’s Own Country.”

Known as “God’s Own Country” for its diverse ecosystems and landscapes, India’s Kerala is the perfect destination to explore Mother Nature. It’s also a worthwhile place to learn how to respect her, beginning with the carbon footprint you leave when traveling. The following Kerala accommodations are committed to sustainability as well as teaching guests about the local environment.

Hornbill Camp deck

Relax on your own private deck on the river at the Hornbill Camp

The Hornbill Camp, Thattekkad

Set on the Periyar River — Kerala’s longest river at 244 kilometers (152 miles) — guests of the Hornbill Camp can enjoy peace and quiet in a literal sanctuary. In fact, not only is the camp situated directly across from the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, home to over 260 bird species, but also on an organic plantation. Staff lead guests on walks of the plantation, teaching them about how the property-grown spices and fruits are used for cooking and medicine.

Additionally, kayaking excursions with knowledgeable bird watchers allow you to spot King Fishers, Crimson-backed Sunbird and Wynaad Laughingthrush. Cycling the Canal Route and seeing how locals river off the water for bathing, washing and play is also a sustainable and interesting experience. Accommodations themselves are comfortable cottage tents with ensuite bathrooms and hot showers, while food is prepared usually locally- and onsite-sourced ingredients.

Kaliyar River

Looking down the Kaliyar River at Dewalokam

Dewalokam, Kannadipuzha

For many, India brings to mind images of aromatic spices, curative herbs and sweet fruits. In Kerala, there’s no better place to experience this than Dewalokam, a homestay on an organic farm. The family-run property is owned and managed by husband and wife Jose and Sinta, along with their children Tara and Paul.

Onsite activities include guided walks of the spice gardens (home to literally hundreds of spices and fruits), morning Hata Yoga, bamboo rafting down the Kaliyar River, farm-to-fork Kerala cooking demonstrations, and Ayurvedic spa treatments. Nearby, there’s also waterfall hiking through the Idukki Forest Reserve and viewing a large colony of fruit bats.

While you’ll certainly sample tastes of the spice gardens and animal farm through the cooking — the buffalo yogurt and farm-fresh eggs are delicious — your spacious room with jungle views will also have accents of this, with cardamom-spiced water and natural lemongrass cleaning agents. Free WiFi can be enjoyed on the balcony.

Rainforest Boutique Hotel

The treehouse room at Rainforest Boutique Hotel. Photo courtesy of Rainforest.

Rainforest, Athirapally

You’ll be immersed in the jungle, with views of the Athirapally Falls — also known as the “Niagara of India” — Asia’s largest waterfall. Hiking trails abound, with the property providing excursions for you to explore the Sholayar Rainforest and spot animals (including wild elephants!). Rooms are spacious with private balconies, deep stone tubs overlooking nature and enormous rain showers, where you can indulge with organically-made Ayurvedic bath essentials.

For something that really puts you into the wild, opt for their treehouse. In their indoor-outdoor restaurant enjoy authentic Kerala cuisine made from locally-sourced ingredients amongst birds and wildlife. In fact, don’t be surprised if a cheeky monkey hops on the table and steals your sugar packets. During construction of the hotel, the utmost care was taken to ensure the forest  and its eco-systems were not disturbed. Instead the hotel blends into its surroundings, intertwining the architecture with the terrain. Additionally, natural materials like granite rubble, river pebbles and local palm tree wood were used instead of concrete. To adhere to forest zone rules, alcohol is not served on the premises.

The post Ethical Travel: 3 Sustainable Stays In Kerala, India appeared first on Epicure & Culture.

Top Ten Tips for Seeing the Best of Guatemala

April 11, 2014 by  

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lake atitlan

Lake Atitlan. Photo courtesy of Shawn Coomer.

1. Please tell us a bit about your experience in Guatemala. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences did you end up having?

I spent over two months in Guatemala as part of an 18-month family around the world trip. During that time, my wife, son and I traveled across the entire country and really learned to love it.  The people are incredibly friendly and the culture is both fascinating and unique.

The main reason we decided to visit Guatemala was its reputation. We had heard from other families who had traveled there about just how wonderful it was.  Not only was it a great place to take a child, but we soon learned just how wonderful of a place it was to both visit and live.

While traveling around the country was important, perhaps the best experience we had was settling down for a month in Quetzaltenango.  During that month we rented an apartment, I studied Spanish at a local school. and we got to know the locals and really experienced a taste of Guatemalan life.  It was fantastic!

2. What’s one of your favorite things to do in Guatemala you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?

The Guatemalan guidebooks are full of great experiences like visiting Tikal or the market at Chichicastenango, but there is so much more.  Perhaps my favorite off the beaten path experience in Guatemala was visiting the Church of the Black Christ in Esquipulas.

The Black Christ is one of the holiest figures in Catholicism.  People make pilgrimages from all over the world to pray in its presence.  While I am not Catholic, feeling and seeing the faith of the people visiting the statue was very powerful.  In a way it is a great look into the local culture as most Guatemalans are Catholic.

In the end we traveled for hours out of our way to see the Black Christ and visit Esquipulas and it was worth it.  While the town itself wasn’t anything special, the church is beautiful as are the people and their faith.

3. For those wanting to experience local Guatemalan culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?

Find a feria.  Each town has its own fair at some point in the year so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one.  Feria’s are a big deal in Guatemala and the locals love to party.  Not only will you find games and rides, but the food is amazing and you will most likely not see another tourist.

We were lucky enough to spend Guatemalan Independence Day in Quetzaltenango.  They happen to have their feria during that time and it is the largest in Guatemala.  The party went on for a week with parades, concerts and of course the main fair which included rides and incredible food.  It was amazing!

4. No trip to Guatemala would be complete without savoring the culinary culture. What’s your recommended food and drink pairing?

Guatemalan food isn’t the most sophisticated.  For me, the best food in Guatemala is street food.  Usually once the sun sets you will find street vendors on just about every corner.  A good place to look is around churches as people tend to congregate there.

From fried chicken to tacos you can find almost any kind of food on the streets of Guatemala.  In my opinion the best thing I had in Guatemala was pupusas.  While pupusas originally came from El Salvador, the Guatemalans have made them their own.  There were times when we would go to the central square of Quetzaltenango every night to eat one. Yum!

If you are looking for a drink, then Gallo beer is the best thing.  Gallo is the local beer of Guatemala and is cheap, found everywhere and tastes decent.  Even if you are not into beer, drinking a Gallo while eating a pupusa in the Central Parque is a very Guatemalan thing to do.

indian's nose

Sunrise hike up Indian’s Nose at Lake Atitlan. Photo courtesy of Jessie Festa.

5. Where can one take in a spectacular view in the Guatemala?

The simplest place in Guatemala to get a great view is to climb a volcano.  If you don’t have a lot of time in the country you can climb Volcan Pacaya which is near Guatemala city.  For the most stunning view, go to Lago de Atitlan and climb one of the volcanoes there.  The entire Lake Atitlan area is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen anywhere!

6. Tell us about one of your most memorable unexpected adventures in Guatemala.

In some ways when it comes to tourism, Guatemala is like the wild west.  The tourist facilities outside of Antigua just aren’t there and the only foreigners traveling around are backpackers.  This means that often times adventure can be found almost anywhere.

One time we set out on a four hour ride to a town called Lanquin.  Lanquin is nearby what is described as a stunning natural pool complex called Semuc Chapney.  During the drive to Lanquin it started to rain heavily and the mostly dirt roads were dangerous and almost washed out.

While we made it to Lanquin, the next day it continued to rain and the owner of our hotel said it was a very dangerous road and he didn’t recommend going.  Since we had our son, we decided to turn back.  It was another four hours of white knuckling on those horrible roads, but we made it to safety.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Semuc Chapney.  It was quite the adventure though.

7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to Guatemala?

I would say mosquito repellant. While the climate varies from the highlands to the coastal areas, mosquitoes are generally everywhere and there is some malaria.  Other than that, maybe some Imodium as minor food poisoning is common.  You can buy both of those things there.

8. What’s one thing that surprised you about Guatemala as a destination?

How safe it was.  We had heard stories of the high crime rate in Guatemala and it certainly is jarring to see armed guards everywhere.  That is just a way of life there. With that said, it isn’t more dangerous than some areas of the United States.  If you use common sense and don’t go into bad areas at night, then things are fine.  We never had a moment of feeling unsafe in over two months of travel in Guatemala.

9. What would you tell someone looking to travel to Guatemala but is nervous due to safety or cultural/language barriers?

Like I mentioned before, safety comes with common sense.  Be sure not to bring fancy clothing or jewelry and don’t flaunt any expensive items.  Outside of that make sure to stay in safe areas and don’t go anywhere at night that is abandoned or uncrowded.  Antigua also has a tourist police force if that makes people feel more comfortable.

As for cultural/language barriers, they shouldn’t worry.  You will always have barriers of some sort when traveling.  The people of Guatemala are incredibly friendly.  I have never felt as welcome anywhere as I have in Guatemala.  While it is true that English speakers can be hard to find, people are willing to try to communicate.

10. While most have heard of Antigua, what’s one lesser-known destination in Guatemala you recommend that people may not have heard of?

While Lake Atitlan is somewhat well known, I highly recommend going there.  The little towns along the shore are full of atmosphere and I could stare out at that lake with the volcanoes rising above it for days on end.  It truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

If you want to get a taste of Guatemalan city life, Quetzaltenango or Xela as the locals call it is great as well.  Xela is the country’s second largest city and spending a few days there provides a great look into Guatemalan city life without some of the dangers of the capital.

Contributed by Shawn Coomer who has spent nearly a decade traveling around the world with his wife and son. 

 

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