Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year-End Donations: Help Make a Better Planet

It's not too late, folks. Did you just realize that you need (or simply want) to contribute more to charity before the imminent end of the tax year 2009? Do it today. Of course, there are tons of nonprofit organizations out there that could use your help, especially in these tough economic times. So, why not put your money where you know your heart really is, and donate some moolah -- and maybe some of your volunteer time in 2010 -- to great outdoors, wildlife and environmental organizations? Charity Navigator can help you find some of the best. For the record, here are a few faves close to where I live in California that I really believe in:
For social justice and environmental organizations with more global reach:
And don't forget to sign up for your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm-share program in 2010! We heart San Luis Obispo's CalPoly Organic Farm, which keeps our kitchen abundantly stocked with veggies and fruit year-round. Happy new year, everyone!

Photo: San Luis Obispo County (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Free e-Guide for US National Parks

If you're a die-hard national parks fan, or have been just recently inspired to get out and explore by Ken Burns' documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, then the National Park Foundation (NPF) has a freebie you'll want to download today. The America's National Parks Owners Guide 2009 overflows with good stuff, including pointers toward visiting little-known National Park Service (NPS) sites (for example, war memorials, maritime history sites and literary homes in the San Francisco Bay area).

The owners' guide, which you can download as a free PDF or browse through online, is organized into 20-plus regions, including Alaska and even Caribbean and Pacific Islands. Whether you're looking for new parks in your own backyard or maybe you're a planning an epic cross-country trip for next summer, check out the "Don't Miss" boxed texts. For more trip-planning advice, the NPF website also has a handful of short, snappy travel ideas.

Of course, if you're going to knock a few dozen more NPS sites off your life list in 2010, you're going to need an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80), valid at every national park and most federal recreation lands (a lifetime pass costs $10 for seniors, free for those with disabilities). Buy passes online or at any national park. While you're at it, consider making a donation to the National Parks Foundation. Anyone who contributes at least $50 gets a subscription to Parks magazine, which offers behind-the-scenes looks at what's happening in your parks right now.

Which national park is first on your list for 2010? Inspire us by posting a comment below.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden Hiking Trails in West Maui

As winter clenches us in its icy fist, it's time to dream about making the trip over Hawaii. Peak tourist season for the islands is just now getting underway. That makes it key to find places where you can escape the hoards -- a lonely but beautiful beach, a remote rainforest waterfall pool or a hiking trail with no one on it.

On the west side of Maui, you don't have to be a guest of the high-end Kapalua resort just to set foot in its groomed hiking trails
. Kapalua's Coastal Trail, which stretches for 2 miles along prime beachfront, is always busy with walkers, runners and cavorting kids. But newer trails let you get away from all those crowds. High in the hills above the golf course, the historical Maunalei Arboretum is practically deserted. Here gentle footpaths wind through shady groves planted with native and non-native arboreal species. Even kids will enjoy the 0.5-mile Lower Loop, or the 1-mile Banyan Loop that passes by those exotic gargantuan trees.

More of a cardio workout, the 1.25-mile Honolua Ridge Trail climbs from the arboretum's tangled maze of shorter trails to an impressive forest lookout. If you want a real adventure, follow the epic Mahana Ridge Trail another 6 miles downhill to the ocean, treating yourself to gorgeous views of Lanai along the way. W
hen I hiked this trail in October, I didn't see another soul. The side loop through a sugi pine grove was a cool relief from the hot sun, but the spur through overgrown pineapple fields was a bush-whacking waste of time, because none of the plants were flowering or fruiting. Still, it was one of the most memorable hikes I've done on Maui.

If you plan to do the entire 7-mile Honolua & Mahana Ridges route, wear shoes with good traction and bring plenty of water. Surprisingly, you'll stumble across chilled drinking water and flush toilets about 2 miles from the end of the trail, at its intersection with a paved access road. When you get to the end of the trail at D.T. Fleming Beach Park, you'll need to march your muddy, sweaty self for another 10 or 15 minutes uphill through the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton hotel to get back to the Kapalua Adventure Center. Prepare yourself for disapproving looks from snooty resort guests.

The Kapalua resort provides a free shuttle service from the Kapalua Adventure Center, near the driving range and golf course, uphill to the arboretum several times daily. Currently, the shuttle picks up at the center at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., returning from the arboretum at 9:50 a.m., 11:20 a.m, 12:50 p.m., 2:20 p.m., 3:50 p.m. and 5:50 p.m. Make sure you sign a liability waiver and pick up a free hiking guide booklet at the check-in desk inside the Kapalua Adventure Center before hitting the trail. Note that private vehicles are not allowed to access the arboretum or its trailheads.

Related Posts:
Free Online Vacation Planner for Hawaii
How Not to Be an Idiot While Hiking
Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?

Photo: Puu Kukui Watershed Reserve, Maui (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eating Sustainable Seafood Made Easy

Making sure that you eat sustainably harvested seafood has just gotten even easier, thanks to the eco-conscious folks over at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who run the Seafood Watch program. For years, they've been publishing those handy pocket-sized "Seafood Watch" cards to help you pick the most sustainable seafood, whether you're buying fish at the market or dining out. Those pocket guides are available for six U.S. regions, as well as in a specialty sushi edition (all available as PDFs here). But now you can skip the paper altogether, and just download the free iPhone or iPod touch application. It's customizable to whatever U.S. region you happen to be traveling in, which is a lot more convenient than carrying around all of those paper guides.

If you live in California, or even if you just buy seafood caught offshore here, buying sustainable seafood at the grocery store will soon get easier, too. Two months ago, Assembly Bill 1217 was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Assembly Member Bill Monning from Carmel, just down the road from the fishing port of Monterey. AB 1217 will develop a voluntary program for labeling seafood caught by California fisheries that have been certified as sustainable by the California Ocean Protection Council, also using the Seafood Watch program standards.

That's good news for consumers who want to make more informed seafood buying choices. But it's probably not such good news for Trader Joe's, which earlier this year received the worst scores of any national supermarket chain when it comes to selling sustainable seafood, as rated by Greenpeace (again, using the Seafood Watch list standards). Even mega-retailers such as Walmart ranked better than TJ's in a mid-2009 evaluation. (Whole Foods, incidentally, came in third.) For the full nationwide scorecard results, click here.

When you're shopping for seafood, you can also look for the blue sticker of sustainability as certified by the international Marine Stewardship Council.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CityCenter Now Open in Las Vegas

So, this is it. The moment has finally arrived on the Strip. No, I'm not talking about New Year's Eve insanity in Las Vegas. I'm talking about the much ballyhooed CityCenter, a massive hotel, condo, shopping and entertainment complex that some predicted would never be finished. Despite the economy and this MGM Mirage project's ups and downs, CityCenter is now open for business just off Las Vegas Boulevard.

Well, kind of. When I visited CityCenter this week, there was still a lot of work left to be done. Hand-written signs said "Elevator This Way" and the hulking complex was still half empty. Curious tourists were poking around the boutique shops and hotel lobbies, a bit perplexed as to where they could and couldn't go (omnipresent security staff were quick to educate them about the latter). As I drove around the confusing maze of access roads and driveways, valet parking attendants hungry for tips enthusiastically waved me toward them. Apparently, the party hasn't really started yet.

But that's not unusual for mega-hotel and casino openings on the Strip, at least not in the 21st century. Construction delays and half-baked "soft" openings are par for the course. Here's a thumbnail guide to what's open now at CityCenter:
  • The free monorail between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio casino hotels is back in service, after years of sitting unused. This is fantastic news for everyone who was tired of battling the crowded sidewalks between Tropicana, Harmon and Flamingo Avenues. Now, you can skip all that by riding the monorail for free.
  • Las Vegas' sleek, brand-new Mandarin Oriental hotel truly is a "nongaming oasis." The petite ground-floor entryway with its impressive Asian artwork is nothing compared to the 23rd-floor sky lobby with its tea lounge and Eurasian fusion restaurant Twist by three-star Michelin French chef Pierre Gagnaire. Don't miss salivating over the window displays at street-level Amore Patisserie. If you book now, you can get a complimentary night with one night's paid stay (hotel rooms from $545, excluding taxes and fees).
  • You can't miss the geometric facade of the shopping mall Crystals angling out into Las Vegas Boulevard. There is no catwalk fashion label too haute for this place -- think Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and the like -- but the most talked-about shop open so far is boudoir-ready Kiki de Montparnasse. Perfectly positioned is Eva Longoria's restaurant Beso, to be followed up on New Year's Eve by Eve Nightclub. Look for Wolfgang Puck's mod French brasserie and Mastro's Ocean Club for steaks, seafood and stiff martinis opening soon.
  • Vdara hotel and spa, tucked away from the Strip on the far west side of CityCenter, is a nongaming, nonsmoking all-suites hotel with a spa, sky pool and lounge. The Silk Road Restaurant has outrageous sculptural interior design alone worth a look. Suites currently start at $129/night, excluding taxes and fees. Although they're not stand-outs compared with other luxury boutique hotels on and off the Strip, the views and handy location do measure up.
So, what's next to be unwrapped at CityCenter? Aria, a hotel that is LEED Gold Certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, expects to open on Wednesday, December 16. Smack in the heart of CityCenter, Aria will ultimately have 16 restaurants, 10 bars and lounges, three pools with cabanas (including an adults-only pool, Liquid) and a deluxe spa. Rooms right now start at $149/night, excluding taxes and fees. There will also be a quirky new Cirque du Soleil production, Viva ELVIS (preview tickets cost $87 to $150). Yes, that's right folks. Flying acrobatics in blue suede shoes. Whatever will they dream up next?

Photo: Crystals at CityCenter (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Binion's Hotel Closes, Vintage Vegas Lives On

Did you hear the news that troubled Binion's hotel in downtown Las Vegas is closing? Of course, Binion's poker room -- where the World Series of Poker was born in 1971 -- will remain open, and so will the casino. But you won't be able to get a cheap steak-and-eggs deal in the coffee shop anymore, and there will be no keno (well, who cares about that, really). A favorite of real-live Nevada cowboys, Binion's 24th-floor steakhouse will close on Monday, December 14, after the NFR rodeo leaves town, but should reopen by December 28 in time for New Year's. I'm just crossing my fingers that the casino-level snack bar, with its hand-made burgers and sweet cherry pie, doesn't go anywhere soon.

I'm a die-hard fan of all things classic Las Vegas, but I've got to admit those hotel rooms at Binion's were just not up to snuff the last time I stayed there. Stiff competition, including from the glittering Golden Nugget and its brand-new Rush Tower across the street, was just too much. Even the basic rooms at Main Street Station are better value than Binion's. Still, it's hard not to get nostalgic about the downfall of a Fremont Street legend like Binion's, which has already changed owners more times in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of places downtown, on or off Fremont Street, to get that vintage Vegas vibe:

Related Posts:
Las Vegas: Save Money, Escape the Strip
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Photo: Fremont Street, Downtown Las Vegas (Michael Connolly, Jr.)