Monday, March 29, 2010

4 Tips for Buying Cooler Souvenirs

I admit it, I'm a travel cheapskate. Not hard-core, but I like to save a buck or 20. Especially when it comes to souvenirs. Over 15 years of traveling around the world has taught me that rarely, if ever do souvenirs look as cool or seem as interesting once you get them home. If you're tired of buying souvenirs you never use, read on.

Tip #1: Buy only one or just a few big-ticket items during your trip. That way, you're not filling up your bags with knickknacks that you're just going to stick on a shelf and let get dusty or put in a drawer and forget about at home. I've never regretted the antique woven rug (US$250) that I bought in Africa, the hand-carved Buddha statue ($40) from Laos, or a ceremonial tea bowl ($110) from Kyoto, Japan.

Tip #2: Get creative with free stuff that you can craftily turn into souvenirs. Some of my favorite freebies are atypical 'Do Not Disturb' signs from hotel rooms (Las Vegas is an especially fruitful source), which I hang on my office door to let folks know when I'm seriously writing. I also take tickets from sports games and music festivals and turn them into laminated bookmarks for my bedside reading pile. They sky (or really, your imagination) is the limit here.

Tip #3: Hit the thrift shops and look for whatever that place is famous for. Recently, I bought gently used golf clubs for just a few bucks each at a Goodwill store in Scottsdale, AZ, a retiree and resort mecca. I found some awesome mid-century modern decor in Palm Springs, CA (too bad that sexy couch just wouldn't fit on top of my car, because its was practically priced to steal).

Tip #4: Buy everyday stuff that you'll actually use at home. Wherever I go around the world, I often pick up a cooking tool or some unusual-looking dishes that I can use at home on an everyday basis, instead of a souvenir I'd hardly ever look at. Lately, I've been buying micro-roasted coffee from indie coffee shops in whatever towns I visit. That way, when I get home, I've got at least a few week's worth of morning brew, and while I'm making it I can dream about my last trip...and of course, the next one I'm going to take, too.

What are your tips for buying cooler souvenirs (i.e., ones that you'll actually use and not just end up recycling, re-gifting, donating or throwing away)? What's the most expensive souvenir you're still glad you bought? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Digging Up History at the Grand Canyon

This is your kids' chance to channel their inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (without stealing precious artifacts or shooting up and destroying the ancient ruins, of course). Grand Canyon National Park is hosting an Archaeology Day this Saturday, March 27. Arizona's most-visited national park is already known to be the home of over 4000 archaeological sites, and the total number may actually be 50,000 or more. Some of the ancient Native American sites date back 12,000 years.

While most of the day's activities, like sifting through simulated dig sites for artifacts or making clay pinch pots, are aimed at kids, the evening programs are enough to make curious adults sit up and take notice. On Friday, archaeologist Ian Hough will give you a sneak peek of exciting recent finds in the park. On Saturday, ranger Jennifer Onufer will virtually take you on an archaeology rafting trip down the Colorado River. Both programs start at 7:30pm at the Shrine of the Ages Auditorium in Grand Canyon Village on the park's South Rim, about 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, AZ.

Photo credit: Grand Canyon NP (Sara J. Benson)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Marine Life Cameos at Monterey Bay Aquarium

I recently wrote an article for Matador Travel, "Close Encounters with Marine Mammals: At What Price?". If you have time, click to join the conversation about what the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, the killing of a human trainer by an orca at Orlando's SeaWorld, and captive dolphin encounters and wild dolphin swim tours may all have in common. But I'm still left wondering about what ethical criteria should be used when determining which animals can be kept in captivity and which shouldn't.

Looking at the issue closer to home, take California's Monterey Bay Aquarium as an example. Already a leader in vetting sustainable seafood, the aquarium maintains a conservation focus throughout its exhibits. Animals on display that exhibit high intelligence, such as sea otters and sharks, are part of species research and recovery efforts. The work that human trainers do with captive animals is meant to keep them healthy and their minds stimulated, with only positive reinforcement techniques used. Some animals are even released back in the wild, as is the case with white sharks who have been tagged for scientific research.

So, if you're looking for an aquarium experience that you can support with a clean conscience, head up to Monterey. Go now, and you'll get to see the baby sea otter Kit that was rescued right in my own backyard of Morro Bay, as well as a new sunfish. The sunfish will only be in the Outer Bay exhibit for as long as it stays healthy, continues to feed and does not show signs of stress, so go see it while you can.

If you want to learn more about behind-the-scenes work at Monterey Bay Aquarium, I highly recommend subscribing to their always interesting, educational Sea Notes blog.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Travel Essentials: Finding Indie Coffee Shops

When I travel, I'm a big fan of guidebooks, both print and digital. (But I love pouring over detailed topographic recreational maps even more.) Sure, I'll check Yelp! and TripAdvisor for recent reviews and recommendations, too. But at the start of any given day on the road in North America, all I really need is for someone to point me toward a good indie coffee shop.

I mean, what can't you find out about a new town while you're just standing in line waiting for your daily dose of caffeine? Check the bulletin boards for happening festivals and events. Pick up the local alt-weekly tabloid paper and peruse its picks for eats, bars and clubs. Chat with the person next to you in line to find out where they love to go hiking, or which museums they take out-of-towners to. Tip big, and the barista/baristo might just give you the best insider travel info of all.

So why isn't there a great online directory for indie coffee shops? Yelp! often falls short (for example, every cafe in my town gets four stars, and lemme tell you, only one or two are actually good, especially for travelers). A look at showed zero coffee shops nearby.

OK, then. I'm going to get the ball rolling by randomly nominating 10 of my fave indie coffee shops in small towns and cities around California and the US Southwest:
Know of equally great coffee shops, maybe right in your own backyard? Or java joints that you found serendipitously while traveling? Rave about 'em by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Five Florida Escapes from Spring Break(ers)

I live out West, so writing about the East Coast is stepping outside the zone for me. But hey, I drove 2850 miles around the Sunshine State last November, so let's put all that exploring to good use: escaping the madness of spring break. Even in March, you can have an amazing time getting back to nature or finding your own private island (well, what feels like it anyway) in Florida. Here are 5 alternative spots:

1. Everglades National Park On the water (yes, Florida Bay counts, and so do all of those swamps), this park is surprisingly bewitching, even for outdoors fanatics who think they've seen it all before. Let me tell you: If you haven't been to the Everglades, then you really haven't done it all yet. Rivers of grass, kayaking with manatees, abundant bird life, a safari-style tram loop open to mountain bikers...and that's just off the main park roads.

2. Orlando Now, before you go casting stones at Mickey Mouse, I'm definitely not recommending a Disneyified spring break. But Orlando is where you can go to see major-league baseball teams the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros play for peanuts during spring training. Check out Florida's Grapefruit League for other teams (e.g., NY Yankees, LA Dodgers) also warming up in the Sunshine State this month.

3. Cedar Key Float away on the Old Florida vibes of this boondocks island, about a 90-minute drive southwest of Gainesville. Zip around town in a little electric 'gulf' (i.e., golf) cart, or hop aboard a boat tour of the nearby national wildlife refuge. Shame on you if you miss out on eating the fresh Gulf clams, shrimp and fish (apologetic nod to my vegetarian and vegan readers, though).

4. Canaveral National Seashore Happily stranded between the Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach to the south, and Daytona Beach to the north, this pristine stretch of beach is an antidote to spring break partying. Quiet, windswept dunes, family-friendly beaches, lagoons for kayaking, and offshore islands (empty!) where you can boat in to primitive campsites. Got manatees? Yup, right next door at Merritt Island NWR.

5. Fort George Island This spookily jungle-like cultural park outside Jacksonville lets you loose on a self-guided driving tour along a bumpy, swampy dirt road. Imagine scenes from The Great Gatsby at the Ribault Club, a restored Gilded Age mansion, then visit the 19th-century cotton, citrus and sugarcane plantation of Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Jai, a former slave.

What's your favorite place to escape the crowds in Florida? Or any other beachy destination, like Hawaii? Share your top picks by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit: Everglades National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Free Online USA Vacation Planner

A quick birth announcement. The brand-new edition of Lonely Planet's USA guide has just been released. Over two dozen travel writing all-stars wrote this guide, which I wrangled together as the lead author. Whoah, Nellie!

For all of you keen road trippers, I wrote a new chapter covering Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Great River Road and more. I also created a full-color feature chapter about US national parks, which includes an interview with a former ranger colleague, Ken Hires.

Wanna a sneak peek for free? Start dreaming about your next road trip by downloading the free "Getting Started" chapter as a
PDF here. You'll get 35 itineraries sprawling all across the country, including themed trips like Blues & BBQ (Chicago to New Orleans) and the Continental Divide (Albuquerque to Glacier National Park, the latter celebrating its NPS centennial in 2010).

Itching for an island getaway instead? Check out these free trip-planning guides to Hawaii and Honolulu, Waikiki and Oahu, excerpted from other Lonely Planet guides that I also co-authored.