feast or famine

113987980__341337cSummer is prime time for festivals chock-a-block with regional curiosities. And since part of the adventure of traveling is trying new things, I’m usually game to try  just about anything. Here are three feasts, however, that might make me question how much is too much?

Roadkill Cook-Off, Marlinton, West Virginia. It’s not quite as disgusting as it sounds, honestly. This festival, on Saturday September 28, serves up meals made from creatures who often find themselves flattened on the side of the road. Actual roadkill isn’t used in the dishes, but visitors will be sure to get an authentic roadkill experience with sample dishes such as tacos filled with armadillo, porcupine stew and marinated bear.

BugFest_Raleigh-NC

BugFest, Raleigh, North Carolina. For those with an ironclad stomach (or fans of “Fear Factor”), the annual BugFest, sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, incorporates insects and creepy crawlers in all of its featured dishes. The September 21 festival encourages participants to try bug-inspired foods prepared by local chefs, and fine-tune their entomophagy skills – that’s the practice of eating bugs. Some of last year’s popular dishes included superworm enchiladas and cinnamon-sugar crickets.

bull_ballsTesticle Festival, Clinton, Montana. The “testes festy” is an event you’ll need, um, balls for. As you’d expect, the August festival is named for the main dish being served: bull testicles. Reports from last year’s festival found that participants consumed an average of 110 pounds of bull and bison testicles – served deep-fried, beer-battered or marinated. Let me hazard a guess at the t-shirt: “I had a ball at the Testicle Festival.”

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wish list: 17-mile drive

17-mile drive

 

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wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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wishlist: spitbank

Spitbank Fort

The English city of Portsmouth has been fortified since Henry VIII built Southsea Castle in 1544 to protect the entrance to the harbor. The Tudor monarch was well aware that the strategic naval port on the south coast of Hampshire was exposed to attack from the French, a consideration that also concerned Prime Minister Palmerston a few years later in the mid-nineteenth century. Across the Channel, a newly crowned Emperor Napoleon III had revenge for his uncle’s defeat at Waterloo on his mind, which caused the British Government to reassess their coastal defenses. The result: a ring of detached sea forts - Spitbank, Horse Sand and No Man’s Land – built on the Spithead shoals in case of French invasion. The irony is that the forts never saw any action in the defense of he city, landing them the nickname “Palmerston’s  Follies.” De-activated by the end of WW II, the forts have been privately owned since 1982, going through many guises until one of them – Spitbank – finally found its true calling as a luxurious hideaway hotel. Arrive in style from your own private yacht or let them pick you up from nearby Gosport in a water taxi. The first thing you’ll notice is how things have changed since 1867: the previous gun emplacements have been transformed into eight stunning bedroom suites with sea views. The rooftop’s been converted to highlight a hot pool, expansive sun decks, and a steam sauna – all of which look out to Portsmouth Harbor and the iconic glass Spinnaker Tower. Your biggest decisions are likely going to involve where to eat and what to drink, so start with some bubbly in the Victory Bar before moving on to local crab and ribeye in the historic arched, brickwork of the Officer’s Mess. How about digestifs round the fire pit, looking out over the Isle of Wight? If the breeze proves too strong, settle in for brandy and roulette (or poker) in the Crow’s Nest. Win or lose, there’s nothing like waking up to the sound of the waves. Take a room for a short break or – more to my liking – hire the fort out as your own private island, with your own private crew. There’ll be no need to worry about neighbors telling you to keep the noise down – until the other two forts go condo that is.

spitbank suite

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wish list: grub hub

grub hub camp kitchen

Eight years in development, the Grub Hub provides a complete outdoor kitchen, including side tables for cooking and prep, an aluminum table that holds a two-burner camp stove, a molded back table for dining, tower organizer, all terrain tires, and a sink to make clean-up easy as it gets in the wild. The whole contraption sets up in just a few minutes and – even better – folds up into a backpack for easy portability. Light enough to haul across the Pembrokeshire Coast Path yet rugged enough to handle the Salcantay Route, I think I might need this for my next hiking adventure – because, you know, finding my way back to the Four Seasons can be grueling. Check out the unbelievably quick set-up HERE.

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travel tips: round-the-world

It’s the ultimate trip: circumnavigating the planet, stopping off wherever takes your fancy. Great for travelers who want to see it all, or who are just plain indecisive. But booking a round-the-world trip can be a complex business. Here’s a guide to getting started.

How to do it: The most economical way to circumnavigate is to buy a round-the-world air ticket that uses one airline alliance. Theoretically, any routing is possible, but knowing how the RTW booking system works will make your trip cheaper. For example, the Star Alliance, a coalition of 27 airlines, offers a RTW ticket with a maximum of 15 stops. Its member airlines fly to 1185 airports in 185 countries. There are rules: you must follow one global direction (east or west — no backtracking); you must start and finish in the same country; and you must book all your flights before departure, though you can change them later (which may incur extra charges).

How long you need: You could whip round the world in a weekend if you flew non-stop. However, the minimum duration of most RTW tickets is ten days — still a breathless romp. Consider stock-piling vacation days, tagging on public holidays or even arranging a sabbatical in order to take off two months, ideally six to 12. The maximum duration of a RTW ticket is one year.

When to go: The weather will never be ideal in all your stops. So, focus on what you want to do most and research conditions there: if a Himalayan trek is your highlight, don’t land in Nepal mid-monsoon; if you want to swim with whale sharks off Western Australia, be there April-July. Then accept you’ll be in some regions at the “wrong” time — though this might offer unexpected benefits (for example, Zambia in wet season means lush landscapes and cheaper prices). In general, city sightseeing can be done year-round (escape extreme heat/cold/rain in museums and cafés) but outdoor adventures are more reliant on — and enjoyable in — the right weather.

Where to go: The classic (and cheapest) RTW tickets flit between a few big cities, for example London — Bangkok — Singapore — Sydney — LA. If you want to link more offbeat hubs (Baku — Kinshasa — Paramaribo, anyone?), prices will climb considerably. The cost of the ticket is based on the total distance covered or the number of countries visited. Remember, you don’t have to fly between each point: in Australia you could land in Perth, travel overland, and fly out of Cairns. Or fly into Moscow, board the Trans-Siberian train, and fly onwards from Beijing. Pick some personal highlights and string the rest of your itinerary around those. For instance, if you’re a keen trekker, flesh out a Peru (Inca Trail), New Zealand (Milford Track) and Nepal (Everest Base Camp) itinerary with Brazil (Rio’s a good access point for South America), Australia and North India. If budget’s an issue, spend more time in less expensive countries. Your daily outgoings will be far higher in Western Europe and North America than South-East Asia; Indonesia, Bolivia and India are particularly cheap.

Tips, tricks & pitfalls:

— Talk to an expert before you book: you may have an itinerary in mind but an experienced RTW flight booker will know which routings work best and cost least — a few tweaks could mean big savings.

— Be flexible: moving your departure date by a few days can save money; mid-week flights are generally cheaper, as are flights on Christmas Day.

— Think about internal travel: it can be cheaper to book internal flights at the same time as booking your RTW ticket — but, with the global increase of low-cost airlines, you may find it better (and more flexible) to buy them separately as you go.

— Be warned: if you don’t board one of your booked flights (say, on a whim, you decide to travel overland from Bangkok to Singapore rather than fly it) your airline is likely to cancel all subsequent flights.

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wishlist: the perfect (un) cube

When it comes to ice – to paraphrase a famous ecdysiast - you either got it, or you ain’t. (And boys, I got it.)  Or rather, I want it. Let the 2011 holiday wishlist begin with this Ice Ball Press Kit from Cirrus. For years I’ve been prattling on about substandard ice and you wouldn’t believe the curious looks I get – as though all ice was created equal. Ha! Too long a staple of only high-end cocktail bars, where a bartender would actually hand-carve them out of frozen blocks, these ice spheres have way less surface area than cubed or crushed ice. Which means they melt slowly, chilling your drink instead of making soup. If you think that sounds just a bit too precious try splurging for an aged single-malt whiskey. It’s something you want to savor, not slurp – and that, dear reader, is what proper ice is all about. The 16lb, gravity-powered, aluminum presses come in 2 sizes to produce either 2”- or 2.75”-diameter balls, and’ll turn out the perfectly round drink-coolers in just under a minute with next-to-no cleanup or attention. Santa, I’m ready to be bowled over.

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indian superfood

Exec Digital is a new digital-only magazine that randomly dropped into my in-box earlier this month. Although more geared toward “executives” – whatever that means – it nevertheless features an interesting pastiche of travel, food and lifestyle writing. One piece in particular really struck me where it counts: the belly. Chef Gurpareet Bains’ favorite curry houses around the globe made for a quick read yet left me with a fistful of notes-to-self for future reference. You can read it below or catch it in situ HERE, courtesy of the folks at Exec Digital.

International House: The Best Curry by Gurpareet Bains

Gurpareet Bains, chef to A-listers and royalty, author of Indian Superfood and most recently winner of the 2011 Chef of the Year ‘Curry Gong’ at the English Curry Awards, takes a breather from his book tour to share a select handful of his personal favorite Indian restaurants dotted around the world.

Devi, New York, USA - Average $60 per head

Only in the last few years have dapper Indian restaurants started popping up in New York. And although it is most definitely the pioneering days of curry in the US, New York just had to deliver in style…

Devi is America’s only Michelin star Indian restaurant, and accordingly worth a visit. Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur are sure to whip your taste buds into a frenzy with traditional Indian home cooking fused with the bold flavours of the new world.

I’m salivating just musing over fond memories of the grilled scallops with roasted pepper chutney and bitter orange marmalade, and the signature Tandoori lamb chops with pear chutney. Or for something a little more traditional, how about Phool Makhanee Kee Sabzee (lotus seeds and cashews in a creamy sauce) or the all-time-favourite, and must have Indian street food, Bombay Bhel-Puri?

With an ambience akin to an old worldly Rajasthani boathouse palace, this is the place to entertain and astonish. Be sure to invite your Indian business clients to a dinner at Devi. Deal done and dusted!

Cinnamon Kitchen, London, England - Average $60 per head

With London widely recognised as the curry capital of the world, restaurants on this side of the pond have a mighty high bar to aspire their standards upon – and the Cinnamon Kitchen doesn’t fail to astound. Right in the heart of London’s financial district, the Cinnamon Kitchen is located in a courtyard abuzz with activity. Start with a Cinnamon Spiced Martini in the Anise Bar, sipping it just to the left of the main dining room.

When you’re ready, the main dining room is a converted warehouse with 20 foot ceilings that reverberates a debonair ‘007’ style.  With an exceptional wine-list, a flawless brigade of staff and most importantly, award-winning chefs Vivek Singh and Abdul Yaseen on-hand, you’re really in for a spectacular night.

The menu is short; instead, it focuses on a select few dishes that they get right every single time. Although the meals are presented in an aptly contemporary fashion, with subtle hints of fusion, the food is truly Indian at heart. To start, I’d recommend the Fat Chillies with Spiced Paneer or Hyderabadi Lamb Mince.  As an entree, try Scottish Angus Fillet with Masala Chips or Seared Sea Bass with Kokum Curry and Rice (kokum is slightly sour, although less so than tamarind). The dessert menu is as equally as spectacular – so remember to leave room.

Dhaba, Claridges Hotel, New Delhi, India - Average $30 per head

Dhaba specializes in Punjabi Highway Fare. In the Indian state of the Punjab, locals consider highway eateries – better known as Dhabas – to serve up the best food…and they are absolutely right. It’s rather a kind of street food for people on wheels, who miss home cooking.

Dhaba’s menu is comprised of many traditional family recipes handed down generations. Try something suitably rustic, and typically Punjabi, such as Baingan Ka Bharta (spicy barbecued eggplant), Dahl Makhini (lentils slow cooked overnight, until rich and silky), and accompany this with flaky Tandoori Rotis and some of the more familiar suspects such as meat kebabs and  balti curry dishes – and you will be eating just as heartily as any Punjabi farmer. If you’re not sure what to order, or if you want to try a bit of everything, go for the Thali, which is the chef’s taster menu, and is very much the avant-garde thing to do.

But at Dhaba, it’s not only about the food. The ambience is also of the classic rural highway eatery, complete with a truck fresco, rustic interiors and waiters dressed in traditional Punjabi dress. There is even a thatched ceiling and walls replicating the irregular mud painted texture of a village hut. An old wireless belts out golden oldies from the silver era of Indian cinema, putting the final touches on a perfect evening. 

Ravi’s Restaurant, Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Average $10 per head

Ravi’s on Satwa Road (near Satwa Roundabout) is an institution, and arguably Dubai’s number one curry house. Set amidst the hustle and bustle of old Dubai, and bounded by spiraling minarets and the haunting sound of muezzins’ calls, this is the place to eat curry.

It’s very much a rough-and-ready diner style restaurant with Formica tables; fortunately, the tacky decor only enhances the experience of Dubai before it became an international tourist destination.

Ravi’s is frequented by the legions of Indian and Pakistani expats living in Dubai – which is always a good sign of authentic food. If you can imagine classic dishes, such as Butter Chicken, Tarka Dahl, Biryani and Naans, all served up in monumental portions, and for just a few dollars – this is Ravi’s!

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wishlist: singita

Consistently awarded top local and international honors, Singita Game Reserves has introduced an added value promotion that will move Africa to the top of your wish list: free nights at four of their low-impact, luxury African lodges in South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The Singita Ebony and Sweni combo package offers a complimentary flight between the two lodges as well as one free night when booking two nights at each lodge. Located in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, Ebony Lodge features superlative views plus suites with private swimming pools along the Sabi River. Just a short flight away, seductive Sweni Lodge is nestled within a riverine forest on a private concession in the game-rich Kruger National Park. Intimate and romantic, Sweni has dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass walls and private viewing decks.  Alternatively for anyone who wants to unpack and stay put for a few days, a free night offer is available at either the stylish Singita Lemombo, overlooking the N’wanetsi River, Singita Pamushana, perched high atop sandstone cliffs overlooking the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in Zimbabwe, or Singita Grumeti Reserves, located in the vast landscape of Tanzania’s Serengeti plains. All of the lodges boast unmatched game viewing, haute cuisine, and high style – along with an uncompromising dedication to conservation and sustainability above all else. It’s enough to make me wish I had waited to book next week’s trip to Kenya. Yes, that’s right, dear readers: I’m off to Ireland next week, followed by Africa the week after. From a tent in the Masai Mara I’ll be watching the great migration of wildebeest across the plains. My postings, needless to say, might be a bit intermittent.

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wishlist: spawn of the sea

Lush and tropical Anse Chastanet in St. Lucia is one of the Caribbean’s most scenic resort hideaways. In the heart of the island’s marine reserves it’s also one of the rare places where divers and snorkelers can witness the miraculous Coral Spawning, one of nature’s most spectacular performances. Often described as an upside down snow storm, corals spawn by releasing millions of packets of egg and sperm cells that appear underwater as massive pink and white clouds which slowly drift to the surface where fertilization occurs. The next day the sea is partly covered by pink slicks of coral larvae – the next generation of one of the ocean’s most vital organisms. Within a few weeks the larvae will settle on the bottom and begin the process of reef building. The advantage of such mass spawning is obvious: to increase the larvae’s chances for survival. Most will be eaten by fish and other sea organisms, but the sheer volume of spawn insures that many will live to propagate the species. Of course, the reproductive process takes on added significance as the effects of global warming and other environmental factors slowly decimate the world’s coral reefs, making this a bucket list experience if ever there was one. To witness the magnificent spectacle – expected to happen about a week after the August full moon - Scuba St. Lucia, Anse Chastanet’s PADI dive operation, is planning a series of night dives to the Anse Chastanet reef, located just off the resort’s beach. Double-dipping for the week is a bargain, too. For $1869 per person a summer dive package includes seven nights accommodation, airport transfers, all meals and then some, plus 12 beach or boat dives with all the gear.

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wish list: in vino vibrato

Sonor Wines is the brainchild of Viennese food and wine expert – and horn player – Markus Bachmann. His pioneering method exposes wine to music during fermentation – a process that, according to its inventor, refines the finished product. Bachmann explains that once in the steel fermentation tanks, a biochemical reaction is set in motion by the tiny vibrations triggered by sound waves. He also believes that varieties of wine which have been treated using this technique contain less sugar, have a fuller flavor and are more drinkable. Different genres of music are also said to give the wines different characteristics. In principle, this means any type of music can be used, from symphonic works to hunters’ classics, waltz and polka melodies and even Viennese folk sounds like Schrammelmusik. The process has been put to the test in Vienna’s Wienbauschule Klosterneuburg on a Grüner Veltliner, but no reports yet on whether it bears similar results to playing Mozart in utero. However, a number of leading growers have taken the plunge and put the new approach into practice, including Vienna-based producers Peter Uhler and Franz-Michael Mayer, who have already bottled the first generation. If music be the food of wine, I say, play on.

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wishlist: top of the world, ma

Located at the very top of the International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong, the newly opened Ritz-Carlton looks to be taking luxury to new heights in every sense of the word.  Occupying floors 102 to 118, it’s the tallest hotel in the world – set in the world’s fourth tallest building – with breathtaking views of Victoria Harbour and the iconic Hong Kong skyline at every turn.  Of the hotel’s six restaurants the jewel in the crown looks to be tapas-inspired Ozone on the 118th floor, which also has the distinction of having the world’s highest al fresco terrace.  The indoor infinity pool on the same floor – another world’s highest? – features an LED ceiling for anyone grown weary of the constant panoramic views.  And since you’re not exactly worried about privacy 1,600 feet up in the air, the floor-to-ceiling windows at Spa by ESPA promise to create an urban sanctuary unlike any other. Smack in the heart of the city, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong looks like it might very well be not only the tallest hotel in the world, but also one of the best.

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new year, wishlist

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smoke this

An unexpected prezzie arrived at my desk yesterday:  my very own smoker!  Which is funny because just last week I was rambling on about how I wanted to smoke my own my meat.  It’s electric, so no open flames or burning coals, thankfully.  The question remains:  do I attempt to use it inside my apartment or snake a power-cord  out onto the fire escape?  Or up to the roof? Plus, there’s the excitement of what do I smoke first!  Stay tuned – my new toy should make for a fragrant fall weekend.

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the final frontier

Pravda reports the Moscow-based Orbital Technologies has sky-high hopes that its planned Commercial Space Station can serve as a tourism hub for well-heeled travelers and offer “overspill” accommodation for the International Space Station, as well as workspace for science projects.  It should have the so-called space hotel in orbit possibly by the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016, according the the Associated Press.

A cozy fit, the first module will measure just 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) and have four cabins, designed for up to seven passengers, who would go into orbit using the Soyuz shuttle, chief executive Kostenko said.

Up to now space tourists, who have included the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberte, have squeezed into the International Space Station (ISS) along with cosmonauts and animal life, including fruit flies.  The new hotel promises more comforts than the ISS, but there’s no word yet on any amenities, let alone a space spa.

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