Archive for the ‘Travel Stories’ Category

Valentine’s Day in NYC

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

I'll miss you Starbucks the Snowman...

I couldn’t let Valentine’s Day pass without visiting Central Park to see how my dear Starbucks the Snowman was holding out. Alas! Poor Starbucky was not in good health, and had withered away… Lucky for me, I had a back-up dinner date with a very charming, handsome and fun real-live man, who was a good sport to take this photo.


A Skinflint’s Survival Guide to NYC in a Blizzard

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

What do you do when you’re visiting New York City in the aftermath of a blizzard? Well, if you have ample bucks to spare, you can do a lot. Plenty of great Broadway shows to see, concerts, museums, fine dining … you get the drift.

But, what if you’re on a tight budget, and looking for, shall we say, cheap thrills? As a proud Recessionista, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s maximizing fun at minimal expense. So, as a public service, I will now share some of my Shoestring Survival Tips to the Big Apple in a Blizzard:

    DON’T ORDER ROOM SERVICE! As tempting as it is to stay-put in your cozy hotel room and order from the room service menu, take a look at the prices and the service charges. My hotel was charging $7.75 for one (yes, one) egg — plus a $3 service charge! That’s like, $11 – for ONE egg! You could buy 6 or 7 dozen eggs and feed 50 panhandlers breakfast for $11!
    SCOPE-OUT A SUBWAY SANDWICH SHOP I was lucky to have a Subway Sandwich shop just two doors away from my hotel. In the midst of pelting sleet and thunder-snow, I was easily able to brave the elements, and get to a $5.00 footlong, which was a helluva lot better than that $11 egg! (Yes, even in the middle of NYC, you can still get a Subway $5.00 footlong — good to know.) Plus, they serve Seattle’s Best coffee and really cheap breakfast muffins, which is quite handy in a pinch.
    CALL THE LETTERMAN SHOW After checking-in to my hotel, I took a walk (just before it started to snow). I saw that the Ed Sullivan Theater / David Letterman Show was just around the block. That night, while hunkered-down in my hotel room, I watched Letterman as he joked about the impending storm, and I was struck with a brilliant idea. Maybe, since we were about to be hit with estimates of a foot of snow or more, a lot of the people who had tickets to the next day’s taping wouldn’t show-up, and I could get in on stand-by. I figured since I was able to dance 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 6 straight weeks in freezing temperatures while ringing a bell for the Salvation Army, I could easily manage to walk a block or two, blizzard or not, to see the Letterman Show!

    So, I went onto the Letterman Show’s website, and got the skinny on how to get free stand-by tickets on the day of the show. You just phone 212-247-6497 starting at 11:00 am (the show tapes Monday through Thursday), and answer a trivia question (which is supposedly easy). The next morning, I phoned and got a recorded message stating the show was “on hiatus” till Monday, Jan. 31st. ‘Hiatus, my ass!’ I thought. ‘They took a snow day!’ Yup, somewhere between 5 pm on Wednesday (which is when they tape that evening’s show) and 11:35 pm (which is when they air the show), they decided to cancel Thursday’s taping and go with a rerun of Hoffman and DeNiro. They probably figured (as I did) that the studio audience would be scant in a blizzard. But did they even bother to consider that maybe, just maybe, there was a woman in a hotel room just a block away, celebrating her 50th birthday alone (because her friends were too wimpy to walk through a couple of lousy slush puddles to visit her), who would TOTALLY show-up and TOTALLY cheer like a banshee, even if the guest was someone sorta lame? Wusses! You’re all wusses!

    TAKE A WALK THROUGH CENTRAL PARK It’s one of the few places in New York that still doesn’t charge admission. And no matter what time of year, or what kind of weather, you are guaranteed to witness a non-stop parade of colorful characters, not to mention whimsical sights such as a horny snowman (see my other post Walking in a Winter Wonderland).
    DO YOUR HOMEWORK AND FIND A GOOD PRIX FIXE MENU I found a deal at a really nice Indian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen – $19.95 for appetizer, bread, chutney, and wide choice of entrees, including rice. Awesome! Don’t be intimidated if you don’t know how to pronounce ‘prix fixe’, you can always call it a fixed-price menu (it’s pronounced ‘pree-fix or pree-feeks,’ btw, but I recommend you try calling it a ‘prick’s fix’ – just to see what you might get – hey, you never know in NY).
    PUT THOSE PESKY PANHANDLERS IN THEIR PLACE Okay, no one cares more about helping the needy than I do. But these days, panhandlers are everywhere in NY. I literally had 4 people hit-me-up for money within one minute on a 50 foot stretch in front of the Carnegie Deli. You simply can’t help ALL the people who ask you for money. And, you need to consider whether or not your donation is really helping them to live a productive life, or enabling them to drink more cheap whiskey. In the case of the latter, I suggest you save your money for your own cheap swill. If you have any leftovers from your ‘Pricks Fix,’ get it wrapped to go, and hand it to the first panhandler you see on the way back to your hotel. If they don’t accept it, they’re not that desperate. I also like to check-out their shoes and their coat. If they’re better dressed than I am, I’ll simply point to my thrift shop coat, and ask them for money. They never give me any, but a homeless man did once give me some candy — oh, wait! Maybe he wasn’t really homeless — I just assumed he was because he wasn’t wearing any pants under his trench coat.
    TAKE A TOUR OF CARNEGIE HALL Okay, so this is gonna set you back some bucks. $10 whole dollars to be exact. But, it is so worth it! Especially if you luck-out and get in a small tour group of just 7, and among your group is a very nice lady who virtually discovered a couple of musicians in San Miguel, Mexico playing Latin or Gyspy Jazz. She told her neighbor, Doc Severinsen about these guys. Severinsen was so blown away, he came out of retirement to tour with his new latin quintet called the San Miguel 5. It JUST so happened that while our little group was touring the stage area (in front; we weren’t allowed on or backstage), the musicians (this lady’s friends) came onstage to do pre-show sound checks. Our tour-guide was cool enough to let us enjoy the intimate sneak-preview for a while. It was great! And let me tell you something, ladies, these guys are goood loookin’, too! Front row seats to a professional sound-check at Carnegie Hall? Not too shabby, for a skinflint!

My “Forty-errr-th” Birthday at the Senior Center

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010
My eggplant Rollatini "birthday" lunch at the senior center.

Eggplant rollatini birthday lunch at the senior center.

Had a birthday lunch today with my Uncle Ed and the “pleasant seniors” at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center. Eggplant Rollatini, pasta, salad, bread and even a cup cake — all for $2.50. Okay, so the food-tray wasn’t exactly dinner at The Four Seasons — but the company was fantastic!

"Birthday" lunch at the senior center with Stella and Inez --- I want to be Inez at 85 --- if I live that long!

Birthday lunch at the senior center with Stella and Inez --- I want to be Inez at 85 --- if I live that long!

I can’t imagine a better way to feel relatively young on one’s “forty-errr-th” birthday, than to spend the day with a group of octogenarians. Okay, I lied. I can imagine a much better way to feel young, but that involves the words “beach” and “boy-toy,” which of course, everyone knows I’m saving for the big “fifty-errr-th” birthday celebration— that is, if I ever decide to have one of those.

I told my Uncle Ed it was my forty-errr-th birthday, and I was going to stay “forty-errr” for a while. Uncle Ed said, “I think you could stick with 39 for a few more years. You can still get away with that, you know.” Uncle Ed’s a sweet-heart to say I could still pass for 39!

Then again, Uncle Ed is 82 years old — and I think anybody under 50 could pass for 39 in his book!

Julie Andrews, wine and crossword puzzles ... these are a few of our favorite things.

Time with Uncle Ed: Julie Andrews songs, wine and crossword puzzles ... these are a few of our favorite things.


Don’t Fuhgeddaboud Brooklyn (Iowa)

Sunday, November 29th, 2009
Sign off I-80 in Iowa, pointing to the town of Brooklyn.

Sign off I-80 in Iowa, pointing to the town of Brooklyn.

by Liz von Achen

Among the many things I love about Brooklyn, New York are the borough’s quirky entry and exit point signs. “Welcome to Brooklyn – Name it … We got it,” or “Leaving Brooklyn – Oy Vey!” and my favorite; “Leaving Brooklyn? – Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Recently, while driving along I-80, somewhere between Des Moines and Iowa City, I noticed a sign for an Iowa town named Brooklyn. Initially, my intent was to simply pull over and snap a photo of the sign to share with my Facebook friends. Curiosity and a sense of adventure beckoned a further investigation into this particular part of America’s Heartland.

Welcome to Brooklyn "Community of Flags"

Welcome to Brooklyn "Community of Flags."

A two mile drive on a country road lined with row crops led to Brooklyn Iowa’s own official ‘welcome’ sign. Welcome to Brooklyn “Community of Flags.” While not quite as edgy as the Brooklyn, New York signage, the slogan held a certain intrigue. I wondered what exactly a town had to do to earn such a slogan. Was there some sort of law that mandated every home and business to display an American flag? Did they hold the Guinness World Record for the most flag ownership per capita? What was up with this small town in Iowa and its flags? I needed to know.

A left turn at a vintage 1930′s filling station brought me to Jackson Street, which appeared to be Brooklyn’s downtown hub. The Opera House (originally opened in 1911) stands as an impressive reminder of its heyday as the town’s center of cultural activity. I marveled at two bicycles casually left on the sidewalk, with no apparent need for lock and chains. This was, after all, small town America. Population just under 1,400.

Brooklyn, Iowa's now defunct Opera House has been under renovation.

Restoration of Brooklyn's now defunct Opera House has been a project for several groups over the years.

No need to lock your bikes in Brooklyn, Iowa.

No need to lock your bikes in this Brooklyn.



I Eat My Words, Nebraska

Thursday, November 12th, 2009
Lincoln's Historic Haymarket

Lincoln's Historic Haymarket District

by Liz von Achen

Previously, I mentioned that the state of Nebraska smells like manure. In truth, much of the state DOES smell like cow dung, especially at rural rest stops on the I-80 corridor. But after taking a day trip into the city of Lincoln, I developed a whole new appreciation for Nebraska’s fertile aroma.

Lincoln, Nebraska is a great big little city, with some damn good tasting beef. Following easy, idiot-proof signs to ‘tourist information,’ I found the Lincoln Visitors Center in the old railroad station at the Historic Haymarket. This is a section of Lincoln that was the original town market-square, where in the 1860′s, wagons, equipment, hay and whatever else people needed (I don’t know; pies? petticoats?) were bought and sold.

I was a bit surprised at how many tourism brochures the center had. ‘You mean Nebraska actually has something to offer besides corn fields and smelly cows?’ I wondered. As a matter of fact there’s a lot more to Nebraska than meets the nose. And Lincoln was the perfect city to prove it to me.

A friend had mentioned that Nebraska was famous for its bar-b-que and its beef. Omaha Steak, anyone? So, duh-uh… as long as I was in this neck of the plains, I figured I should try some of its beef. Not in the mood to bite into a whole cow, I set my sights on a burger, and on a burger-quest I went.


Adventures on Bonaire

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

by Liz von Achen

Located in the Caribbean, just 50 miles north of South America, the island of Bonaire is known as a diver’s paradise, offering underwater thrills for both the beginner and advanced scuba diver or snorkeler.

Bonaire also offers land and water based thrills that are of a, shall we say, alternative nature?

If you think diving a beautiful reef is as thrilling as it gets on Bonaire, try taking a tour with one of the island’s naturalists – that is, if you dare.

If you’re a by-the-seat-of-the-pants adventurer, willing to trade a few safety factors for kicks, you might love spending an afternoon with Dutch biologist and nature guide Klaas Bakker.

Klaas Bakker arrived at my hotel in a clunky old van filled with fossils and other natural specimens he’s collected over the years. He proffered a hard-covered journal crammed with personal notes of gratitude left by some of the many tourists with whom he’s shared his expertise. In leafing through the accolades, I couldn’t help but note that there are lots of people who really love this guy.

After spending an entire day with the man, my best explanation for Bakker’s appeal is his nutty professor persona, and off-the-cuff style of guiding. His creative cookery probably doesn’t hurt him, either.

Mr. Bakker offers half or full day eco-tours that can be customized to suit your particular interests. I had a sampling of his nature hike, cave exploration, and snorkel tour.

The nature hike yielded a good understanding of Bonaire’s eco-system, and the ravaging effects of the island’s goat population, with a rather technical education on the many different species of flora and fauna found on the island. On a thrill-factor scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it an 8 if you’re really, really interested in learning the names of odd looking trees and a 3 if you’d just rather take pictures of them.

Klaas serves snacks at Seru Largu.

Klaas serves snacks at Seru Largu.

Next was a stop at a scenic overlook named Seru Largu (means “Big Hill”) for a mid-morning coffee break among a few curious lizards. Klaas serves the coffee and snacks from a wooden tray he ingeniously constructed to keep his plastic eating and drinking utensils from getting lost to the tradewinds, or covered in sand.

The following highlight of the tour was a more ambitious snorkel into the deep, dark waters of a limestone cave located just outside the Washington Slaagbi National Park. Here, caution seemed to have been thrown to the wind as Klaas unabashedly stripped out of his shorts and into his little bikini bathing suit.

“What the heck am I doing here?” I wondered, as I watched his partially revealed butt crack descending before me into the great unknown. I didn’t feel a high comfort level, since we weren’t wearing any fins (so as not to murky-up the translucent cave water).

My apprehensions were soon further heightened by the fact that Bakker carried an old flashlight which was marginally working, while I had no light of my own. The flashlight kept shorting out, and he would give it a few whacks against his hand to get it working again. I was not feeling at ease with this situation at all. Bakker sensed this, and said, “Oh, don’t worry…”

At that point, I half expected him to reveal that the bulge in his little speedo was really a back-up light source. But, instead, he said, “I know the way out.”

Now, the very real possibility of being lost in a totally dark cave, in some 20 feet of water, without fins, without a light source, and at the mercy of Bonaire’s own version of a half-naked Yule Gibbons, might be a real rush for some people. I do admit this.

And, I also admit that I actually might have found the entire experience to be fantastic had I been with a friend with whom I could share the terror.

But, call me Goody-Two-Fins, I just don’t think anyone should ever explore a spooky cave filled with deep water without a backup light source.

The fun continued when Bakker purposely turned the flashlight off so that I could experience total darkness, as well as the sensation of shrimp (apparently the only living organisms in the water) nibbling at my body.

Complete absence of light in this stillness, where centuries old stalactites and stalagmites continue to form ever so slowly but surely, was quite remarkable. And, I was actually beginning to feel an almost spiritual sense of calm … until the shrimp started to nibble.

The nibbling didn’t hurt at all. I mean, we’re talking shrimp, here. But, in that dense blackness, my imagination turned those harmless little shrimp into gigantic-mutant-killer shrimp. I told Bakker I wasn’t comfortable with the situation, and we soon headed out of the cave.

We then traveled along the coast of the National Park, with Klaas pointing out many of Bonaire’s best known dive sites.

He stopped at a secluded cove, carrying a cooler and snorkel gear down a rocky slope onto a pristine beach. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean Bay offered a picturesque backdrop for lunch, which consisted of tamarind jam and tamarind juice (both of which he makes himself from the fruits of his own garden) and meat and cheese sandwiches.

We snorkeled after lunch, exploring a pleasant shallow reef. I surrendered all my concerns about Klaas to the visual absorption of colorful angelfishes, parrotfishes, and a great variety of coral. That is, until I spotted a nurse shark, and then watched as Klaas tried to grab it by the tail, frightening the creature into retreat. Now, I know that nurse sharks are supposed to be harmless, but, again, call me Goody-Two-Fins …

At that point, I felt I had enough excitement for one day, and was ready to get back to the resort. After sharing some of his homemade yogurt (you guessed it, tamarind again), Klaas handed me a cup of tea to drink en route to the hotel. I took two sips before surreptitiously spilling the brew from the open window of the van. I had begun feeling intensely lethargic and extremely wary when Klaas admitted that he had infused the tea with a ‘special Chinese herb.’ As much as I wanted to ask him to elaborate, I bit my tongue because something told me, I probably really didn’t want to know

Note: This story was originally published in 2002. It is unknown whether or not the tour guide services above are currently available.

© 2009 Liz von achen All rights reserved.