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For every unique and tasteful souvenir, there’s a raft of cheap “I ♥ New York” mugs, useless bobblehead figures and oh-so-classy boxer shorts imprinted with the X-rated bits of Michelangelo’s David statue. Your trip deserves better.
I’ve found my own way to memorialize my travels, and it doesn’t start till I get home. As I wrote in 35 Travel Tips Revealed: Top Secrets of Travel Writers, “I like to bring a little bit of each trip home with me — and not just with postcards. After I return from a foreign country, I always try to recreate a local dish in my own kitchen, like Moroccan couscous or Belizean stewed chicken. The smell of the meal will often transport me right back to the place I just left.”
Be warned: It sometimes takes a little experimenting and Web searching to find a recipe that truly lives up to the flavors and scents you remember. Learning to cook in a new style can be a challenge too (I set my wok on fire one of the first few times I tried to season it). And don’t be surprised if you have to venture out to a specialty grocer for that hard-to-find banana flower, yuca root or Sichuan pepper.
But for me, the hassle is all worth it when the scent of toasting cumin calls up vivid sense memories of those colorful Moroccan spice markets I loved to visit. It’s the next best thing to being there.
What’s your favorite memento of your travels?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.
As a student backpacking across Europe, I lived on convenience store sandwiches, fruit, nuts and baguettes. (Oh, and gelato. Lots of gelato.) Fancy sit-down restaurants were for older, wealthier travelers; I rarely paid more than five bucks for a meal.
Nearly a decade later, my travel partner and I often find ourselves blowing $100 a day on restaurant meals during a trip. We’re gainfully employed and a little more grown up than that cash-strapped college kid I used to be, but I’m still a budget-conscious traveler. Surely I can enjoy great food without the painful price tag?
Writes Caroline Costello, “Especially in European destinations, where many decent restaurants are expensive and authentic local food can be purchased at affordable prices, getting your food from a local grocer is a great idea. Grab a fresh baguette and some cheese in Paris, bring them to the Tuileries Garden for an outdoor lunch, and you’ve got an authentic yet affordable Parisian meal with one of the best views in town.”
Picnics aside, grocery stores are also a great place to stock up on everyday needs such as water (I like to pick up a gallon jug and refill my smaller bottles each morning) and snacks. If your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, skip the $14 waffles and pick up some fresh bread and fruit at the local grocer’s; it’ll only cost you a couple of bucks.
See more ways to save on your next trip in Backpackers’ Secrets: Top Tips for Cheap Travel.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,’” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.
1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?
2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.
3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.
4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.
Get more summer vacation ideas!
– written by Dan Askin
I hate eating alone while traveling. If I have to do it, I seek out dark corner tables and I make sure I’m armed with a book or a laptop in which to bury my face.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to like dining alone, beaming confidently at the empty chair across from me while enjoying my food in peaceful silence. But a bad incident at Senor Frog’s in Myrtle Beach changed everything.
I know. Senor Frog’s, the hard-partying place that serves JELL-O shots and fish tacos to tank top-clad tourists in beachy destinations, isn’t exactly Shangri-La for the solo diner. Nevertheless, I was at Broadway at the Beach at the time (a vast Myrtle Beach shopping and entertainment complex), and my options included a Hard Rock Cafe shaped like an enormous Egyptian pyramid and various steakhouses and seafood spots. I’m a vegetarian. And it looked like the 70-foot-tall Hard Rock pyramid might swallow up a lonely unaccompanied traveler. So I took my chances with the frog.
In the same way that T.G.I. Friday’s displays vintage memorabilia and relics of Americana, Senor Frog’s posts smart-mouthed signs declaring “Save water. Drink tequila!” or “We don’t speak English, but we promise not to laugh at your Spanish!”
Sometimes, I noticed, Senor Frog’s staff placed signs next to patrons. As I waited for my nachos to make an appearance, I watched a waiter set up a sign next to a gaggle of giggling teens. It read “Supermodels at play!” with an arrow directing diners’ eyes to the girls.
“How sweet,” I thought. “But you better not put one of those things near me. You. Better. Not.” I sank my face into my novel and tried to blend in with the booth.
A server soon arrived and, with his left hand, slid a plate of cheesy nachos under my chin. In his right hand, he gripped a tall wooden sign, which he positioned next to my booth. “Needs a date,” it read. A fat arrow pointed mockingly to my head.
This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve always secretly feared when dining alone. Sharing a meal with a ghost in a restaurant stuffed with chatty quads and pairs, I’ve envisioned people whispering about me, wondering what happened to my date or whether I was some kind of socially marred loner. In reality, few people care about or even notice solo diners. Of course, there’s usually not a brazen sign broadcasting one’s lack of date.
“Take it away!” I hissed to the waiter. “No sign! Take it away!” The thing went down like a slap, but the damage was done. Thoroughly embarrassed, I choked down one or two triangle chips, signed the check and exited quickly.
Should I have laughed at the sign and taken myself a bit less seriously? Perhaps. But I was pretty embarrassed, and ever since that meal at Senor Frog’s, I’ve dreaded the table for one. How do you feel about dining alone?
– written by Caroline Costello
I have a confession: I can’t stand the taste of Coke.
Fortunately, this character flaw didn’t get me booted out of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta when I visited a few weeks ago. (To be fair, I don’t like Pepsi either.) Despite my bias, I didn’t want to miss out on one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so I tagged along with a few Coke-loving pals. Part museum, part advertisement, the World of Coca-Cola offers visitors a chance to watch the bottling process, meet the company’s famous polar bear and catch clips of old Coke commercials.
Frankly, I found all the exhibits and films a little hyper-promotional — but one part of the tour I did enjoy was the “Taste It!” exhibit, where you can sample more than 60 different Coca-Cola beverages from around the world. I discovered that I may not like ordinary Coke, but I do like South Africa’s fresh, fruity Bibo Kiwi Mango, as well as Estonia’s berry-flavored Fanta Magic. Of course, there were some duds too; my travel companions and I universally panned Italy’s Beverly drink, with its yucky chemical aftertaste. All told, Coca-Cola offers a staggering 3,500 different beverages worldwide (which gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “Always Coca-Cola” — you can’t escape the stuff!).
Coke isn’t the only brand that looks a little different when you encounter it overseas. Take McDonald’s. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Golden Arches is a hamburger and fries — but as we note in Strange International Foods: Our Top Seven, the restaurant has tailored its menus to fit regional tastes around the globe. Its Indian franchises have replaced the traditional Big Mac with a “Maharaja Mac” made from chicken instead of beef (to accommodate Hindu diners). The “McArabia” is popular in Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and features either chicken or kofta (spiced beef) wrapped in a pita-style bread.
I’m the type of traveler that generally tries to avoid big-name chains and products when traveling overseas; I’d rather sample local flavors and support homegrown businesses. But maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a familiar place and seeing it through a foreign lens. Maybe sometimes, even when you least expect it, it really is “the real thing.”
– written by Sarah Schlichter
When I pulled into Shelby with a group of other travel writers and tour operators, I had no idea that our arrival was big news — until we wound up on the front page of the local paper. “Focus on Cleveland County: Travel pros visit for a taste of our area,” ran the headline in the Shelby Star the next morning, complete with full-color photos.
We may have been the news of the day, but this little town in western North Carolina will soon be making its own headlines. It’s the future home of the Earl Scruggs Center, which will feature “music and stories of the Carolina Foothills” — including, of course, plenty of information on Scruggs himself, an internationally recognized banjo player and bluegrass musician who hailed from the Shelby area. (Among the exhibits will be banjos and other instruments played by Scruggs and his contemporaries.) The museum is scheduled to open in early 2012.
Not into bluegrass? Scruggs is only one of Shelby’s claims to fame. Come to town in the fall and you could catch the annual Liver Mush Expo, celebrating one of the region’s culinary delicacies. Pig liver and other parts (including the snout) are combined with cornmeal to create a liver mush loaf, which is sliced, fried and served in a variety of ways. I tried it on bread with jelly, and then with cheese and eggs — and can affirm that it tastes better than it looks! (The flavor is a bit of a cross between sausage and scrapple.) You can sample this “poor man’s pate” all year round at the friendly Shelby Cafe.
Save some time for strolling around downtown, or rather Uptown (a moniker deliberately chosen because it was more cheerful). Shelby boasts three main historic districts as well as a bevy of cute little boutiques and specialty shops. I stopped in the Cleveland Country Arts Council building, where a pottery show and sale was running, and boggled at the low prices for beautiful, locally made art. Also worth a visit is the Don Gibson Theatre, a restored Art Deco venue that hosts musicians, films and comedy acts.
North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of wine, but the number of wineries in the state has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years — and the Shelby area is getting in on the action. It’s easy to drive a loop around the region’s three wineries: Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard & Winery, Owl’s Eye Vineyard and WoodMill Winery. Be sure to sample a few muscadine wines, which are local to the Southeast and offer high levels of healthy antioxidants (about 20 times as much as a Merlot).
If you’ve got kids in tow, make time for a stop at the Shelby City Park, with its historic 1920′s “carrousel” and miniature train. It’s just 50 cents each for a ride.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
It was 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and a 45-minute wait stood between me and my breakfast.
I was at Snooze, a celebrated Denver breakfast spot with five locations in the Mile-High City. Snooze is known for its cheeky out-of-the-box dishes, like red velvet pancakes, breakfast pot pie and breakfast tacos. But the eatery’s also notorious for its very long lines.
I thought I was clever to show up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but one has to wake up pretty early in the morning to outsmart Snooze’s hungry mobs. There was a throng of mostly 20-somethings, cups of coffee in hand, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk. The hostess informed me that I would be seated in 30 to 45 minutes. Wisely, Snooze serves free coffee to waiting patrons, and breakfast cocktails are available at the bar.
I grabbed some coffee and loitered for the better part of an hour, poring over skiing magazines on a heated porch while my companion slurped a Bloody Mary. Despite cold hands and a rumbling stomach, the wait was worth it. I ordered the Benedicto Tuscano, a hunk of French bread topped with a ragout of tomatoes, white beans, kale and squash; two poached eggs; cream cheese hollandaise sauce; and shaved parmesan. Our waiter brought us a cinnamon pancake with pecan butter on the house. I would have waited twice as long.
I had discovered Snooze on TripAdvisor. As of this posting, Snooze is ranked 11th of restaurants in Denver, and dozens of reviews mention the eatery’s discouraging wait time and crowds. But the restaurant’s reputation as a perpetually packed house is what attracted me.
In Finding the Best Restaurants on the Road, travel expert Ed Hewitt writes, “It may be counterintuitive, but in some cases it pays to follow the crowds — if perhaps not the tourist crowds. If you find a busy restaurant, chances are good that it is busy for a good reason. … At the very least, your meals will likely be fresh, as high volume usually means food does not sit long.”
A line that curls around the block may look daunting, but it’s a sure sign of a crowd-pleasing culinary treasure. If you can’t stand to stand around for a spell, eyeball the hours posted on the restaurant’s door, and arrive right when the place opens. If the restaurant serves dinner and lunch, show up at 3 p.m. for a snack. Don’t flee from the crowds — follow ‘em and then come back at a better time.
How long would you wait for a table at a sought-after restaurant?
–Written by Caroline Costello
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, an operating company of Expedia, Inc.
Last week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:
It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.
It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.
“Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?
– written by Dan Askin
I once examined a meal on the road as a scientist would an alien life form: with extreme care, a sense of awe and absolutely no intention of consuming it.
The setting was Moscow, 1997. Outside, old women who’d lost their pensions hawked cigarettes amid the Soviet gray of sky and concrete. We were in a “three-star” hotel dining room in a dingy, slightly bug-ridden hotel. Was there a menu? No, just a cast-iron skillet filled with lumpy white plasma.
The first taste was reminiscent of potatoes. A gooey, glue-like consistency left the food sticking to the roof of my mouth. With each bite, my oxygen intake was further diminished. (Was this an espionage tool to asphyxiate foreign dignitaries during State dinners?) The beverage to wash it down was a steaming carbonated liquid with an unidentifiable berry-like fruit on the label. The berry seemed to be glowing. Birds, which we all know can eat things humans can’t, were swarming the berry bush.
Thirteen years later, the acid-aftertaste still clings to the back of my tongue.
After a few bites, I could no longer swallow. So I explored with my fork, scalpeling through the membranous top layer and delicately separating glob from chunk. The consistency was creamy in places, milky in others. After some careful rooting, I exhumed … a fish skeleton. The whole thing struck me as a morbid version of the Kinder egg sold at the nearby souvenir kiosks. But instead of a plastic toy inside a chocolate egg, I got a rotting fish skeleton inside a noxious blob of potato-matter.
This was in the early days of digital photography, so no one thought to use their 35 mm or disposables on a food shot. Hopefully the prose picture was enough.
I’ve vomited up mine, so now it’s your turn: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had while traveling?
– written by Dan Askin
Egg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?
For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.
DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.
According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.
Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).
For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.
–written by Sarah Schlichter