36 Hours to Ponder

36 Hours Book

It’s easy to get lost in Internet-search bunny trails when trip planning. To add a little focus to your exploration, a great jumping off point is The New York Times ”36 Hours” series. I love the hit list of off-the-beaten-path attractions it offers. Convenient color-coded ribbons help mark your spot in its five geographical sections.  

From headline cities like Boston and Los Angeles to the more sedate Boise, Idaho, and St. Simons Island, Ga., there’s a place for any mood or interest. The index in the back even lists cities by outdoor activities, nightlife, atmosphere, culture type, special interests, history and one-of-a-kind features.

While it’s not a substitute for other reference points, it’s a great resource for your first look at a location or pondering your next weekend getaway. 

As we plan our return road trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles with a stop along the way in Death Valley National Park, it has been a source for fresh and fun ideas. Some suggestions include stargazing at Griffith Park Observatory in LA and visiting Death Valley’s sand dunes in mid-morning when the shadows are long and cool.

My only disappointment with “36 Hours” is Tulsa wasn’t included in the collection of 150 places. With the great strides in development my hometown is making, I hope it won’t be long before Tulsa is on the map and in the book.

If you have some other go-to travel research books, apps or website suggestions, I’m all ears. 

Travel Resolutions for the New Year

I admit it. I love New Year resolutions. That probably won’t come as a surprise to the people who know me.

A new year is a fresh start. It’s a time of contemplation. It’s a place on the calendar to mark your good intentions.

So here it goes. Topping my list of resolutions this year is the more dedicated practice of reflection, especially when it comes to my travels. That’s where Snapshot Traveler comes into the picture.

In the spirit of reflection, here are my travel-related resolutions based on learning moments in 2012.

Resolution 1: Say yes more.

I’m a shy person by nature, so I’m stepping out of my comfort zone when I connect with people during my travels. In most cases, it has ended up being a rewarding experience when I say yes to trying something new - whether it’s a game of ring toss with a local in Beijing or trying the roadside juice ladled out of a plastic barrel in Manzanillo, Mexico. On second thought, it’s OK to say no to a few things.

During a Sunday stroll at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a friendly gentleman invited Don to join him in a game of ring toss. Little did we know Don had a talent for catching these colorful, fabric circles with his head.

Resolution 2: Don’t be camera shy.

The more you bring out your camera, the better shots you’re going to get. I love the saying of “f/8 and be there.” I learned it at a photography workshop when I was in my 20s. It’s a good travel philosophy. Getting the shot can come down to putting yourself in the best position to capture it. Whether it’s getting chatty with a vendor or hanging back to watch a scene unfold, take your time and have your camera ready. At the same time, it sometimes means leaving the heavy gear behind in favor of being fully there to savor the experience.

Snapping away gives you the best opportunity to capture those spontaneous smiles that warm your heart like the one on this proud and doting grandmother in Yangshuo, China.

Resolution 3: Keep calm and carry on.

It’s hard to remember the last time we didn’t carry on baggage - even for trips spanning several weeks. It’s now our accepted way of travel. After all, you’re likely to wear the same stuff over again as you gravitate toward your wardrobe travel favorites and there’s always laundry service. Avoid lost luggage, eliminate extra fees and simplify your travel choices by packing to carry-on. It’s a truly liberating and calm inducing.

We ditched the baggage and lightened our load for this road trip through Death Valley National Park. Yes, this outfit got a lot of repeat wears, but who really cares in the middle of a desert?

Resolution 4: Seek the ordinary to receive the extraordinary.

It pays to be cheap. That’s what guided us out of our hotel to find a local laundromat to wash our clothes in Madrid, Spain. If you apply Resolution 3, you’re likely to experience this firsthand. It not only helped us land a great local breakfast, but became a cherished memory of trying to navigate the streets of Madrid armed with a plastic bag filled with dirty laundry.

Don holds our bag of clean laundry. In the background is the pizzeria where we had one of the best breakfasts of the trip.

Resolution 5: Take it easy and ditch the itinerary.

A little research and game plan removes the stress of figuring out how to make the most of your travel days. But each day should be based on your energy level and mood first. I need to remember that my travel to-do list is merely a suggestion and to prioritize our must-see and must-do items first. The best experiences come from getting off the beaten path a bit.

Tired of being in a constant state of travel, we changed course and traded a multi-hour car ride for a visit to this market in Lijiang, China.

Resolution 6: Tune into my travel partner.

When you’re traveling with your husband - or anyone for that matter - remember it’s not all about you. While it’s good to push one another to do new things we wouldn’t necessarily try on our own, it’s important to consider whether seeing that museum with yet another porcelain collection is really worth it. After all, it’s more fun to reminisce over photos where you both enjoyed the experience. That’s the sweetest reward.

Traveling well as a pair requires a little give and take. Don followed me to this late-night eatery churning out churros and chocolate into the wee Madrid hours.

With a little reflection and applying some lessons learned, here’s to making 2013 a travel year to remember!

Ask Your Waiter - Even If the Answer Is Fried Octopus

Always go with the enthusiastic waiter’s recommendations, especially the ones who are honest enough to say “don’t bother with that one.” 

Much to my husband’s chagrin, I tend to pepper waiters with lots of questions about the menu, trying to ascertain the true meaning of their word choice and facial expressions. After all, I may only have one shot to eat at the restaurant. I want to get it right.

Case in point, the fried octopus at Asia de Cuba in West Hollywood. I wouldn’t have tried it without the waiter’s prodding, but I’m so thankful I did. 

Another memorable dish came from the advice of our gracious waiter at a restaurant overlooking the shore of Positano, Italy. Of course, in that postcard-perfect setting, they could have served beach rocks in my soup and I wouldn’t have complained. Instead, I had my first taste of spaghetti alla puttanesca.

Asking for recommendations is the ultimate icebreaker for learning more about the people and culture of a place. What better way to get to know someone than through a discussion over food, a universal language.

Next time, take the time to ask. You’ll get more out of it than just a better dish.

Authentic Travel Through Dirty Laundry

One carry-on bag and seven days into our Spain tour, laundry duty called.

The experience turned out to be a great way to feel more like a local in a foreign locale.

Carrying a plastic bag filled with choice clothes to get us through the remaining days of our trip, we boarded a taxi bound for Onda Blu on Calle del Leon. The best part of our laundromat find: its ideal location just a few doors down from a fantastic breakfast spot.

Euro coins in hand, the helpful laundress filled the washing machines with soap while we separated and loaded our lights and darks.

With about 25 minutes before we needed to transfer our wet duds into the dryer, we slipped into Pizzeria Cervantes for one of our best breakfasts of the trip. Long pieces of toast, eggs fried in bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice - a Spanish standard - and cafe con leche brought together elements of home and the classic taste of Spanish life.  

Who would’ve thought doing laundry on the road could be so rewarding? As if added airline fees and the fear of lost luggage weren’t enough motivation, a more authentic travel experience is now the best reason to carry on luggage for the next extended trip. Breakfast and laundry is a winning combination. 

Wishful Traveling: Finding the Perfect Getaway

Time is limited and travel options are boundless. So how do you reconcile these opposing forces to make the most of your precious travel budget? Here are five tips to help you sort it out. 

  1. Start with a goal in mind. Like most things in life, the best way to get what you want is to start with a goal. Do you want to relax and remove yourself from distractions so you can immerse yourself in that stack of books collecting dust on your nightstand? Do you want to be transported to another time by visiting a place rich in history? Do you want to get lost in another culture? Do you seek meaning by volunteering your time to make a difference in a community? Do you want to learn a new skill or pursue an interest such as rock climbing, cooking or studying a language?
  2. Create a wish list of travel options. Once you’ve thought through what you want to get out of your travels, put it in writing. Brainstorm the locations you’ve dreamed of seeing that fit with your goals. Determine when you can get away during the year and consider the work-related and personal events around those times. Match the trip type to the experience you’re seeking – whether it be decompressing from a stressful time period or recharging your batteries.
  3. Put the fun in research. If you’re passionate about travel, it’s likely you have more options than time and finances to fulfill. Anticipating and planning for travel is part of the adventure. Have some fun with your decision-making process. Designate a movie night where you watch a DVD or movie related to the destination in consideration. Assign family or friends to research one of the contenders and bring everyone together to talk about what they discovered. Turn it into a trivia game where you try to stump one another with the most interesting trivia. Or, focus on one location and host a dinner with foods and facts about the place being discussed.
  4. Pick in season. With your wish list of destinations in mind, find out which season will give you the best experience. In some cases, it might be high season where optimal weather is more likely and crowds are not a concern. Or, you may opt for a time when there are fewer tourists to give you a more authentic, intimate experience. Whatever your decision, take the time to Google “the best time to visit . . . .” This will help you plot when to plan the trip based on your schedule and interests.
  5. Plan ahead. We all know better deals come with planning, but in many cases it’s the only way to secure the best spot to make the most of your adventure. For example, staying at a historic lodge in a U.S. National Park requires booking up to a year in advance.  

With your goals and wish list in hand, you have the foundation for building that perfect getaway and making your travel dreams come true.