Day Trip to New Paltz, NY

New Paltz, New York makes a fantastic day trip or weekend getaway from Manhattan. For my first visit, a friend and I decided on a day trip. It’s roughly an hour and a half drive (depending on traffic) from Manhattan. Once we made it past the local urban sprawl it was a lovely scenic drive.

Because we only had one day — we planned to hike a section of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (22-mile-long), wander around the town, and see where that left us with time.

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Many cities in the US have created trails for public use on abandoned rail corridors, for instance Charlotte, NC has one, Indiana has a few, and of course NYC has the Highline — a 1.45-mile-long elevated walkway built on a disused New York Central Railroad line on the West Side. These trails are a fantastic way to reuse existing routes with scenic views, or a way to create walking and bike paths through concrete jungles full of automobiles and noise.

As we drove down Main Street, it was apparent that New Paltz was an eclectic community full of arts, entertainment, shopping, and a variety of cafés and restaurants. The GPS took us to a middle point of the rail trail, and luckily there was a spot left in the parking area. We grabbed our packed lunches, and after a short discussion, chose a direction and set off.

The trail passes through the towns of Rosendale, Gardiner, the Historic Huguenot District in New Paltz, and ends in Kingston. The section of the trail we walked was its own oasis in the middle of town. It’s a hidden path surrounded by greenery with small creeks and wooded areas. In some spots it seemed secluded while other sections of the trail had businesses and homes beyond the trees, with pathways leading to some of the private properties. We spotted horses, ducks, and other small creatures scurrying around. After a while, we found a bench and had lunch out on the trail.

My one piece of advice – pay attention because the path is wide enough for two people to walk but many people bike the trail, so be prepared to move over and let people pass. I wish we had had time to walk more of the trail so that we could experience the sections with bridges, views of the Wallkill River, and the Shawangunk Ridge. Next trip.

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After walking the trail, we headed to Main Street to check out the local scene. The drive through town with the Shawangunk Ridge as a majestic backdrop was gorgeous. On the way, we came across fruit and vegetable stands, including Dressel Farms, which has ice cream, apple picking, and signs indicating that strawberry season is days away. My vegan self passed on the ice cream, but my friend ordered what she claimed was a very tasty shake.

A few popular food spots to check out if headed that way — Mexicali Blue, Huckleberry, New Paltz Indian restaurant, China House, and Bangkok Café. We found two chocolatiers, Lagusta’s Luscious and Krause’s.

For the book lovers –Barner Books and Inquiring Minds are across the street from each other, just off Main Street. I liked Barner Books, probably because they had vintage typewriters for sale. I’ll let you in on a secret…I have this romanticized notion about writing a novel on typewriter.

Our final stop of the day was the Village Tea Room. Yes, it’s a traditional teahouse with cakes and sandwiches but they also have a full menu including vegan options, if tea isn’t your thing. I recommend the Monk tee. They also have a signature vanilla cake (not vegan) that looks like a bee hive with apricot preserves, honey butter cream and petite chocolate bees on top. The apricot jam looks like honey oozing out of the layers. My friend ordered a slice to go. I heard it was yummy but not too sweet.

For my next visit, I want to see the Minnewaska State Park, which is situated in the Shawangunk Mountains. It’s a hikers paradise replete with waterfalls, lakes, and dense forests. There is also the Mohonk Preserve with streams, fields and mountains that spans 8,000 acres of land, or the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary with 56 acres of grasses and plants. And after all that hiking, maybe a visit to one of the local wineries or breweries is in order. With all of the outdoor adventures this could turn into a regular weekend getaway.

 

 

New York touristy attractions for the local and visitor

Last month my uncle Ken visited me in New York, which presented an opportunity to explore the city in new ways.

Normally, I spend a lot of time walking in Central Park, but had never taken a pedicab before. Our driver was very knowledgeable of the statues and other landmarks in the park. It’s a great way to see the park, especially for those who cannot walk long distances. My recommendation is to pay cash at the park, instead of purchasing tickets online, and haggle over the price.

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There were several bus tours on our itinerary. First, we took a Brooklyn tour, which was okay but as someone who spends time in Brooklyn, I recommend just taking the subway over and walking around the neighborhoods that you want to see. We also took a bus tour through Harlem and Queens. It’s a good tour and worth checking out, it even stops at Yankee stadium for a photo op. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the day we went, which made it much harder to see from the bus, and taking good pictures was impossible. On a sunny day, it would be great though.

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During this visit we also went on a few harbor cruises. This is actually the main touristy go-to item on my list when I travel to places along a coast, near a river or lake. We settled on a full loop harbor cruise. For the architecture and bridge lovers – this is your tour. This 2.5-hour tour also offers a great historical journey of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn skylines.

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We took the boat tour to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Honestly, my photos of lady liberty were much better from the boat than the island. It is definitely worth doing but with limited time, I’d take photos from the boat and go straight to Ellis Island, otherwise plan on this as your all day experience. The museum on Ellis Island is fantastic; many of the people who passed through the island have donated personal items to the museum. There is also a computer area where visitors can pay a nominal fee and look up and print or email their family records. We had limited time to spend looking up records but luckily the public can access these records from the comfort of their home as well, which is on my list of my new projects.

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For those who appreciate architecture, take the Ellis Island hard hat tour. It’s a 90 minute guided tour of the abandoned immigrant hospital buildings; the proceeds are going toward renovation.

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I love architectural photography, especially abandoned urban structures and old houses. The buildings are amazing and the history of the hospital was fascinating. A word of warning — it’s hot in summer and there isn’t anywhere to sit, so make sure you are up to doing the tour. I’ll probably go again so that I can take more photos.

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We visited the 9/11 Memorial and took the walking tour of the neighborhood. Our guide told her own personal story about her experiences on that day as well as describing how the tragedy unfolded in the neighborhood and throughout the city. Our group walked to the small church that was the only building in the neighborhood without damage, we went to the memorial pools, and then the museum. It’s a somber tour but part of our history that should be talked about and remembered. The memorial pools include the nearly 3000 names of the victims of 9/11. Every day a single white rose is placed next to the names of those with birthdays on that day.

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One night we went to see the Book Mormon on Broadway. I had seen it before, but it has been a few years. There were even a few references that had been updated since I watched it the first time. Another night we checked out Terra Blues club. It was my fist visit and definitely not my last.

I can’t seem to write a blog without talking about food. Here are a few highlights of restaurants with a little something to satisfy a carnivore and vegan. Benares Indian near central park in midtown has a great lunch buffet, Yum Yum Thai in Hells Kitchen is a great post-Theater spot, Pelligrino is classic Italian in Little Italy, New Malaysia is my favorite hidden gem in China town, and Maz Mezcal Mexican, Bangkok Thai, and Agora Turkish are local Upper East Side staples. Finally, a couple of cocktail spots — Gotham west market is a popular artisan food court on the West Side near the Hudson river (think Pike’s Place in Seattle) – inside, GENUINE Roadside serves food and great cocktails. The Penrose, a hidden treasure on the Upper East Side makes a splendid pickle martini.

Finding food, nature, and art in Chicago

A recent weekend getaway to Chicago, was full of relaxation, exploration and visiting with relatives who I rarely have the opportunity to spend time with.

Most of my time in Chicago was spent in the downtown Loop area. While walking through Millennium Park, I heard a live band playing Frank Sinatra and big band staples, a favorite genre of mine. So, I wandered over to the bandshell and found a party for seniors going on – apparently my age group now…it was a fun time.

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I continued wandering around Lurie Garden, took the BP Pedestrian Bridge to Maggie Daley Park (rock climbing and tennis), walked to Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain), and then walked the Lakefront trail.

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After sitting and watching the sailboats, I walked to Native Foods Café in the Loop for lunch. Whew, that was a bit of a trek.

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Next up: Navy Pier for a relaxing afternoon including a boat tour of the shoreline, taking in the sights from the pier and a short break at Harry Caray’s Tavern to enjoy a beer on the patio and a little reading.

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My niece showed me around her neighborhood, and we spent time chatting and people watching at Chicago Riverwalk.

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We also ventured out to some great cafes and restaurants. My top picks for coffee/tea spots in the Loop are the Goddess and the Baker and Peach and Green, which both also have good food options. As for food, Silver Spoon Thai is a new favorite, along with low key and affordable Flaco’s Tacos, and Naf Naf Grill.

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One afternoon, we went to the wondrous Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His work depicts everyday scenes from a barber shop, a bedroom, to housing projects in Chicago’s South Side, where he where he has lived and worked since the late 1980s. As we moved through the exhibit the diverse themes were clear. His work is poignant, full of symbology and images that add another layer of meaning to each painting. This is the most excited I’ve been about a living painter in a long, long time. Marshall’s work travels to New York next, the Met Breuer. I’ll be going again.

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My final day was spent with family catching up. Over the past few years I have become more interested in genealogy. This trip was also an opportunity to learn more about my family history, specifically those who came from Eastern Europe, and when they arrived in the USA. Hopefully, I didn’t make my relatives too crazy with all of my questions.

No food, no friendship

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While in Nairobi, a friend and I visited the Giraffe Centre. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) breeds giraffes at the center and reintroduces them on the protected wild areas of land surrounding the center — 140 acres of indigenous forest. Their main focus is to provide conservation education to youth while providing a safe haven for the giraffes.

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The center offers several areas, including elevated platforms where visitors are able to feed food pellets to giraffes and watch warthogs scramble around near their feet. There is a snack bar, gift shop and outdoor area where large pieces of art are available for purchase. They also have a hotel, where the giraffes wander the property and occasionally poke their heads through windows looking for snacks.

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Though I love being able to see animals up close and interact with them when possible, I am very conscious of our responsibility as humans to act appropriately and not do anything to interfere with or disrupt their habitat.

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While at the center, I had the opportunity to feed several of the giraffes and it was fantastic; they are full of personality. However, there were a few cringe worthy moments. One tourist attempted to put his arm around the neck of a giraffe to take a photo and received a headbutt in response, as one of the trainers politely remarked – “No food, no friendship.” A woman also tried to feed a pellet to a giraffe from her mouth. I kept my inside thought about what I hoped would happen to her to myself. How to feed the giraffes is clearly spelled out to people before they receive the food, but does it really need to be? Does an adult really need to be told that they could spread germs to the giraffe and that it is potentially dangerous to feed an unsupervised wild animal from their mouth…why can’t adults just follow the rules? The magnitude of people lacking common sense never ceases to amaze me.

Aside from people behaving badly, the experience at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) is fantastic and worth the visit.


Our final excursion was to Kazuri beads in Nairobi. Kazuri is the Swahili word for “small and beautiful.” In many countries around the globe, including Kenya, it is often quite difficult for women, especially single or widowed mothers to find decent paying jobs. Kazuri, founded by Lady Susan Wood, provides training and skills for a permanent career for women. Kazuri currently employs 350 women and their crafts are sold around the world.

We visited on a Sunday and were unable to watch the women make the beads but they did have guides on hand to provide a tour of the compound and show what happens in each building, from shaping, polishing, firing to painting the beads and ceramics. The tour ends in the gift shop. The jewelry is exquisite and the pottery is gorgeous, needless to say, a little shopping took place.

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Exports and infrastructure ~ Kenya

The drive from Isiolo County to Nairobi offers a relaxing scenic landscape. The view of Mount Kenya alone, an extinct volcano at 5,199 m, is worth a look see. Mount Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site – it’s stunning.

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We also came across many fruit and vegetable stands along the way. As a tourist it’s best to go with easily peelable fruit at the stands, if it’s meant as an immediate snack, otherwise it needs a good scrub.

Kenya is one of the largest flowers producers in Europe, thanks in part to its ability to produce flowers year round without using greenhouses. Though known as a pastoralist area, numerous farms stretch along both sides of the road between Isiolo and Mt. Kenya. As we drove toward Nairobi at 6:00am we could see men and women walking to the farms to begin their workday. Children were also out in droves walking alongside the road in their red, green and blue uniforms on their way to school.

One of the other sights that caught my eye was the roadside garden center. In the United States (U.S.), the equivalent would be if garden centers were set up on the shoulder or in the median strip of the highway. The Kenyan garden centers carry trees, plants, flowers and gorgeous colorful pots and other accessories. The centers seem to be quite popular. We passed several on the way to Nairobi and later found more of them along main streets in a more urban center near Bungoma.

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For our journey from Nairobi to Bungoma, we flew from the Nairobi Airport to the Eldoret airport, then drove to Bungoma. It’s about an hour flight, and another two – three hour drive depending on traffic, versus a nine-hour drive. We flew Fly540. Eldoret is a small airport but clean and efficient. The Nairobi airport is also a breath of fresh air compared to some of the more rough and ready airports I’ve travelled through in the past two years.

Kenya is more developed than many of the countries that I have spent time in recently. Though, that doesn’t matter to me most days, when it comes to extensive driving — infrastructure starts to matter. For example, the lack of paved roads in some countries turns a 1.5-hour drive in the U.S. to a 7-hour drive on dirt roads. It’s also rough on the body as the vehicle slams endlessly into ditches that resemble moon craters and tosses a (hopefully) strapped in body around the entire time. Let’s just say, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Kenya’s main roads outside of Nairobi and across the country are paved.

Kenya’s investment in infrastructure is apparent — roads, aviation, ports and a foray into energy and solar power. That said, Kenya isn’t without its issues and poverty does exist. However, investment in the country by the government, coupled with its focus on exports, such as flowers and coffee is a good formula for continued development and makes Kenya a solid example on the continent for other countries struggling with growth.

Food and lodgings in Kenya

Kenya is a place I could easily overstay my welcome. For the past two years, a great deal of my time has been spent traveling across Africa for work. Unfortunately, the Kenya trip was probably my last time in Africa for a short while.

On this latest adventure my time was split among Nairobi, Bungoma and Isiolo in Kenya.

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While in Nairobi, our group stayed in the city center at the Sarova Stanley, an amazing hotel built in 1902. The staff is friendly and accommodating. The hotel is elegant and comes with all of the amenities of a luxury hotel at a decent rate. It’s in a great location surrounded by plenty of restaurants and shopping. The outdoor Maasai Market is about 5 minutes walking distance. The market sells arts and crafts, textiles, jewelry, etc. It is definitely worth going but sellers are aggressive with tourists — be prepared to haggle and have a good grasp of the exchange rate before going in. If you can find a local to go with you, that will make it a more relaxed experience.

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Nairobi has a treasure trove of restaurants, and though my dining experiences were limited to the downtown area, but there were plenty of vegan options.

A favorite casual spot — Java House — not only do they serve great coffee and pastries, they also make full meals. The curry vegetables and Mexican fajita veggie plate hit the spot. They also sell bags of coffee, and I bought a few. My suitcase heading to Africa always includes clothes and workshop materials; the return suitcase is full of clothing, coffee and spices – always!

One night after wandering around downtown, I wanted something quick to take to my hotel room so I stopped at Teriyaki Japan. They sell spicy fast food noodle bowls, with a hint of African spices. Yummy, fast, cheap, and filling.

For breakfast, the Sarova Stanley’s restaurant is a great option especially for business meetings with their spacious indoor and enclosed patio dining. It has a fantastic buffet with hot vegetable options, Indian food, pastries, fruit and typical western breakfasts. The hotel also has a fantastic Thai restaurant; the Thai Chi. The food is traditional Thai, accompanied by options of soothing hot green tea as well as a wonderful wine list. The restaurant also has a masseuse on staff to offer a short shoulder and hand massage while waiting for the food to arrive – yes, please.

 

Outside of Nairobi, we stayed at the Northern Galaxy Hotel in Isiolo, about 3.5 hours from Nairobi at the foot of Mount Kenya. This is a main thoroughfare for those traveling to more rural areas including the savannahs of northern Kenya. The organization I work for held a workshop at the hotel and while the Galaxy is not the Sarova, it is a clean, safe space with an accommodating staff. Myself, and two colleagues have various food allergies and the manager made sure that we all had fantastic food that we could eat at every meal, including Mukimo – a mixture of mashed potatoes, greens and beans. I could eat that all day long…

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Frequent travelers with food issues will understand how important it is to find hotels and restaurants that will accommodate allergies. I’ve had my fair share of bread and peanut butter or french fry meals. Luckily, in this modern world we have many options for snacks that have some protein. I always bring dried fruits, nuts, as well as spreadable nut butters by Justin’s — they have started making snack packs with pretzels and dried fruits as well, thank you! Many hotels in Africa either have electric kettles in the rooms or will bring you a large thermos of hot water for tea, so I always pack a few Asian noodle soups just in case. I won’t say who…but I will out my friend who travels with a small suitcase dedicated to snacks because of her food allergies. Those with wanderlust do what they have to in order to travel. No one wants to have stomach problems while traveling, especially if there isn’t a hospital nearby.

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Next we headed to Bungoma, which is a full day drive from Nairobi or a short hour, hour and a half flight, then two-hour drive from the closest airport. We stayed at the Elegent Hotel. It’s a nice hotel central to the city. It is quite large, clean, safe and has Wi-Fi. The staff also took very good care of us and made sure there were dishes that we could eat. In walking distance are local street vendors and a large grocery store. Pay attention to where you are walking, as the boda boda’s (motorcycles) have a tendency to zip along on the dirt walking path, it almost ended badly for me one night.

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Now for a short rant — honestly, as much as I enjoy a luxurious hotel, I am always grateful for a clean, secure place to stay. It bothers me how often the smaller hotels throughout Africa, especially in developing countries are criticized on travel websites for their lack of amenities. For those hoping for a positive travel experience in non-western countries, perhaps adjusting expectations will be of great benefit, and a little kindness goes a long way. That is all.

First impressions of Juba, South Sudan

Recently, I spent almost a month in South Sudan for work. In order to do the current situation and people justice — this will be the first in a series of blogs.

As the newest country in the world, South Sudan was already a fragile country, then a fight occurred between the President and Vice President, leading to a conflict that has turned the Vice President into the leader of the opposition party. The consequences of which are the spread of massive violence, including horrific human rights violations throughout the country.

There are certain inevitable experiences that one has when traveling and working in countries experiencing conflict, a civil war or those involved in a post-reconstruction stage (after the peace agreement has been signed). Upon arriving at the Juba airport one notices that it is packed with NGO (UN, WHO, WFP) and other cargo planes, which are parked everywhere — and very few commercial airliners. The WHO aka The World Health Organization is the first stop – hand sanitizer and forms to fill out with questions about where you are coming from, and everyone receives a temperature check. Having my temperature checked happens to me at a lot of African airports these days.

It’s hot and chaotic at the Juba airport and very similar to the Kinshasa, DRC airport.

As we drove off we could see the new building for airport being built, which makes arrivals seem like a shack, though, with the current state of affairs I wonder where the money will come from to finish the project.

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IMG_2760 There’s a unique hustle and bustle with lines of UN vehicles, cars and TukTuk’s (rickshaws) driving through town. I was surprised by the absence of military personnel with machine guns. Though after being in Juba a while I realized that they are stationed around town, just not on every corner. It didn’t take long before we were off of the paved road and on a bumpy dirt road.

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We stayed in an area near the White Nile River, a local Mosque and some small business. The hotel had the feel of a compound and felt relatively safe. The scariest part was being in the flight path of the airport and watching, hearing and feeling the incredibly low flying planes above the hotel. It was so loud and powerful that the buildings shook.

One of things that surprised me about Juba was the noticeable amount of immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some of the hotel workers explained that there were more opportunities for them in South Sudan, which was unexpected.

Most of my time in Juba was spent at the hotel where we held the workshops and I ate almost every meal in the hotel restaurant. The morning and lunch buffets had many vegan options. Ordering off the menu at night was more limited, but doable. My main option other than fried potatoes was vegetable curry. Seems to be my staple dinner in African countries – but it was good. One night ended up being French fries and beer – don’t knock it. If they would have had popcorn…For me, it’s all about having reasonable expectations and gratitude — while in a country where people are starving I am not about to complain about variety.

My group was able to go out for dinner a few times and we enjoyed the food at Turkish restaurant so much, we went twice. Great space, good service, with many veg options and wonderful fresh juices.

We also ended up out of the compound to attend meetings in the area where the UN and the American Embassy have offices. It’s an interesting trek over there because none of the roads are paved until you reach ministry row, the area near the official residence of the President and the compact center where other businesses are located, but once close to the embassies it returns to unpaved difficult to navigate roads.

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