Thursday, August 23, 2007

Digital mountaintops...

So, I was reading the New York Times today...

Isn't that such a pretentious statement? Well, I guess it could be. I'm not one of those people who actively try to find reasons to say, "Well, I was reading in the Times..." or "Did you this this morning's Times?" or "It's a good thing I had the Business Day section, 'cause we ran out of toilet paper!" But sometimes it's unavoidable.

The Times is great - all the world's news packed into one, handy package that easily fits into your messenger bag and provides a concise analysis of everything you need to know to start your day. I love it. In fact, the only thing that I don't like about biking around the city (have I mentioned yet that I bike? I bike.) is that I can't sit on the train and read my paper in the morning. It means that I have to get up a little earlier in the morning to read it, but it's worth the time.

You will never, by the way, here me say, "I was reading in The New Yorker the other day..." because that is way too pretentious. I'm under the opinion that no one actually reads the New Yorker, they just carry around copies and casually leave them on tables in coffee shops, hoping it makes them look worldly and wealthy and pick up chicks. It's a fashion accessory for nerds the way that popped collars and too much cologne are for frat guys.

But that's not the point! This is a travel post! Shut up, Nagel!

The point is... the Times alerted me to a great new website. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) has always put out the best books for people looking to hike on the east coast, in particular, for the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But until now, their maps, trail information and directions have only been available in a handy, pocket-sized, annual print edition.

Well, my internet friends, the day you've been waiting for has come... the AMC is moving its trail map database online into a searchable, interactive website. Just check out It does require that you sign-up, but it's free to use and view the basic maps.

Now, all you need to carry is granola, some water and bug repellent.

Happy trails, to you my friend. Happy trails, indeed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Star light, star bright...

So I just spent the last couple days up in northern New Hampshire at Living Water Campground. Staying there definitely brought back memories - it had been a favorite Nagel family vacation spot for years, with the five of us heading up there pretty much every year while we were still kids.

My family hadn't been there in a while, but not much had changed. The camp store had gotten bigger (even added a pizza place and a Quiznos!) and the family that owns the area had built a few log cabins (very cute). But, other than that, it was all the same.

The campground is a peaceful slice of the White Mountains. The babbling Ammonoosuc River runs along the back edge of the campground provide a delightful, melodic background to nightly campfires and sunrise (okay, a bit later than that) walks through the woods.

But the thing that got to me the most about this latest trip was the sheer beauty of the night sky. I was lucky enough to make it up there on two consecutive clear nights in the midst of a meteor shower. Well, the show Mother Nature put on was Grade-A, top-quality.

Each night, the Milky Way stretch directly overhead, touching each horizon. Millions of stars, far more than I can see from my apartment balcony in Boston (where I can see the moon, Venus and landing lights headed to Logan) twinkled everywhere. The constellations not only stood out, they seemed like they were closer to me than ever before.

Looking up at the night sky, surrounded by perfect darkness and 100 miles from the nearest city, it was so easy to lose myself in the beauty of nature.

And that's one of the often overlooked aspects of travel, I think. We go around with our cameras and our checklists and visit the great monuments of the world. We see everything that man has built - huge skyscrapers, breathtaking cathedrals, beautiful works of art. But I think we sometimes don't take the same time to appreciate the natural beauty in the world around us.

So the next time you go somewhere, or even if you're at home, make sure to pause, take a moment and look up. You might be surprised at what you see.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 gets 1 star...

While I'm all about gathering information about the places I'm planning on visiting, I, for one, cannot stand

For those of you unfamiliar with the user-reviewed website that invariably pops up as the first Google search result whenever you search for "hotels in Boston," "resorts in San Maartin" or "escorts in Abu Dhabi," is an all-things-travel website. Users can join for free and then add reviews for hotels, restaurants, etc.

My problem, other than the whole cracking-Google's algorithm-for-hits (unless they own TripAdvisor, do they?) and spoiling my searches, is that the reviewers of the website often don't have a clue what they're talking about.

For example, take my absolutely all-time favorite restaurant in New Hampshire (my home state). The Friendly Toast, a mainstay in Portsmouth's Market Square for decades, is a treasure. A 24-hour joint on the weekends (and open late the rest of the week, unlike, say, the rest of the Granite State), the Toast is an eclectic diner. Kitschy "art" from the 50s, 60s and 70s adorn the walls, no doubt purchased from flea market remainder sales. Indy rock blasts through fuzzy speakers, vinyl booths stick to bare legs and coffee is served in chipped mugs slammed down on cracked Formica.

The food is the winner here. It's basically a breakfast plate/sandwich restaurant (ie: diner), but the Toast offers its own interpretations of the traditional menu offerings. For example: their fresh-cut, sweet potato fries are smothered in sour cream, brown sugar and Tabasco, the ham sandwich comes grilled with two kinds of cheese and asparagus and the pancakes are organic and the size of UFOs. Nothing tastes any less than spectacular, the ingredients are fresh and local and the prices are reasonable.

And yet, on TripAdvisor, you get the bourgeois bistro lovers whining about their old plates and the CD selections! PEOPLE! I love fine dining as much as the next guy, but I'll also alter my expectations of a good meal when I'm in a freakin' diner. *sigh* Some people just don't get it...

That's my problem with TripAdvisor... too many of the reviews are written by people who don't travel, like to whine and go into the whole experience all wrong.

Another example? NYC's Wolcott hotel... It costs under $100 a night to stay there (which, for Manhattan, is ridiculously cheap), yet people who stay there complain about the size of the rooms (hellloooo... it's NYC), out-moded color schemes (well, how much did you pay for room and you were expecting Egyptian Cotton?) and quality of the free breakfast (hey, it's free!). A budget hotel is a budget hotel, not the Four Seasons - but, if taken with a grain of salt, it can be just as much fun to visit.

So, my fellow travelers, my advice would be to do the same with TripAdisor. Take all that the people there have to say with a grain of salt. And if you find that the general impressions given on the site are wrong, correct them!

Friday, August 10, 2007


Okay, okay... so I don't want to post too many links here, because that gets boring. BUT this is one of the best things I've ever seen.


Talk the talk!

Today’s travel tip…. carry (and use!) a phrasebook.

Sure, we Americans stick out like neon signs in Amish country, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to blend in. Learn a few words (“1,2,3,” “please,” “thank you,” “beer” and “bathroom” for starters) in the local dialect and you’ll be amazed at how far you’ll go.

Think about it – you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, iPod in your ears and a fanny-pack-wearing, camera-clutching family stops you and starts yammering on in Farsi or something. You don’t speak it, of course. And when you don’t understand them, the family just starts yelling loud, making dramatic gestures until they’re screaming and flailing all over the sidewalk.

Sound pleasant? Of course not…

Yet, why do we Americans insist on doing the same thing everywhere we go?

Sure, stammering out a coulple mispronounced phrases can be embarassing, but it gets you out of your comfort zone. Locals are usually impressed by your (meager) attemps to learn the language and will smile, correct a pronunciation and then respond in perfect English 75% of the time anyway.

And then, you’ve made the first step to making a new friend… all because you chose to show respect for the culture you’re visiting, subtley acknowledged your outsider status and learned something new.

Now that’s the only way to travel!

Oh, and pick up lines, while they are just as ineffective abroad, are still fun to learn anyway. And they remain a staple of my limited French… JAY VOO DRE VOUV-WAW CESS-SCHAW OH-LEE?

You’ll thank me later. I promise.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

August is three-paycheck-month!

It's kind of like Christmas, although Christmas only comes once a year. So maybe it's a second and a third Christmas because it's exciting, you look forward to it, it falls on a different day each year and, if all goes right, you come out on top.

But this August marks for the second time this year (the first was March, I think) that I'll be received three modest direct deposits from my employer. There won't be any big hurrah, there's no advanced notice, but I'll be getting money on the 3rd, 17th and 31st.

This is all a mere by-product of having 52 weeks in the year, meaning you get 26 paychecks spread out over 12 months. But it feels like a bonus!

I budget. I have to - I don't make enough money to spend freely, without a care to where it goes. I live comfortably, sure (much more so than my first job out of college, for example). But, still, I got bills to pay and rent to make. So, each paycheck is allotted and divided, with little slices of the pay pie headed to different place (landlady, savings, dealer, rash ointment - you know, the usual).

But that budget only takes into account getting paid twice a month. Not THREE times. Whooo! So this means my pockes will overflow with cash and little ol' Mike is gonna have himself a reg-u-lar spending spree.

I've been eying, of course, the gorgeous iPhone. I could use some new shoes (well, maybe that's not a need, but I heart shoes). There are restaurants to visit, books to buy and concerts to attend!

Alas, there is also my credit card to pay off as well as savings to lay aside. You know, those stupid things that come with being an adult. Also, my car broke down yesterday, so in all likelihood, that's going to cost me, too. As if sitting by the side of the road for an hour on a 95-degree day in a metal box wasn't payment enough...

Whatever happened to the joyous days of being a kid where, when you got some extra money for a birthday, holiday, report card or not telling mommy about daddy's magazines? There were no bills to think about! No, there was only the difficult decision in the Toys R Us aisle of whether to buy a bunch of GI Joe men or blow all your loot in one go on a tank or a new base or whatever.

Getting old sucks. And it costs more.

But still, at least I'll get a little thrill from that extra deposit... before I send it off to pay down my debts.

I'm Mike and my card is American Express.