Monday, May 2, 2011

Once was Enough!

Arriving at the put-in, I looked at Clay with awe in order to remind myself why I was doing this.  We were enjoying a marvelous vacation in Costa Rica, and only for the man of my dreams would I fulfill his delight to raft the Rio Pacuare.  His goal was thrill and excitement in a jungle setting beyond compare, my goal was to have it over!  The rapids are levels III and IV, and for the uninitiated, level V rapids only exceed IV by the fast sequence of tough currents, so at level IV we would be experiencing fast, bouncing jumps over jagged and sharp rocks in a narrow canyon.  I had rafted in levels II and III elsewhere and knew that this was not my preferred sport, but there is that tremendous love that compelled me to join Clay and see his face light up with glee with each and every rapid conquered.

The Pacuare roams through eastern, central Costa Rica, cutting a swath through deep and old flora and fauna that put me in mind of Jurassic Park.  We passed the occasional waterfall, saw colorful and rare birds, and were able to swim in shallows that tried to make this whole daring adventure worthwhile. We were Jorge, our knowledgeable, trustworthy, and rather slight guide, Clay, a sizable man whose heft I counted on to keep us upright, and me, a petite, but strong, risk-averse type. Having only three of us in our raft seemed enviable and wrong at the same time, but Jorge assured me we would be fine on our two day trip, as long as I followed his instructions and did my part.  I hoped my part would be to lay prone on the bottom of the raft only to get up when we reached dry land again but, no, I had to paddle front, back left, and right, which only frightened me more to know I was being depended upon.  It’s hard for me to believe that I did much, but I lived to tell, so I must have done good!

Some rapids were light and lovely, but most were shockingly rough and fast, tossing our raft perilously close to canyon walls, shooting up at an angle of nearly 45 degrees with me holding on to small canvas tabs for dear life.  Jorge warned us when the tough ones were coming and what our plan would be, but that all rendered useless once when I looked over at Clay and saw the better part of his strong frame out of the boat with barely a toe hold to support him.  “So now we’re going to see what this is like,” I thought to myself as I looked away from fear and envisioned Clay out of the boat followed by Jorge to save him, leaving me alone in this fast moving rubber duckie.  Jorge yelled to me “Paddle, paddle”, which I did, and when I looked back to Clay he was still there, saved by that one big toe that I loved even more than I had an hour before.  Jorge marveled that Clay was still among us, I shocked myself by laughing heartily, and Clay looked triumphant.

The voyage was divided by a romantic night at a remote, isolated jungle lodge that lent itself to spooky stories fueled by red wine.  This was where Clay made my trip worthwhile, but I knew the whole time that the only way to get out would be 4 bouncy hours and about 10 challenging rapids later when I would see a parking lot and crawl out of that raft to touch Costa Rica’s dry land forever after. I am so glad I did that, but please don’t ever make me do it again!

Making the Most of Old Man Winter

It is no secret that we in the northeastern U.S. had a mighty dose of winter in 2011.  Snow events every other week, cold temperatures, and all the challenges that those present to city folk have made many wonder ‘When will it ever end?”

Having grown up in a cold and snowy climate, I know that the best way to beat these conditions is to join them.  This would be the winter to go cross-country skiing and give snowshoeing a try, both of which I enjoyed at Mountain Top Resort and Inn in Chittenden, VT.  I took a cozy cabin for the Presidents Day weekend, equipped with fireplace and majestic view, and spent my days in the wondrous wilderness of the Green Mountains of Vermont.  Those Green Mountains were white all over, thick and deep with snow, making for excellent outdoor sport conditions.

My travel partner and I are cross-country skiers, something I heartily recommend to those downhill skiers who find skiing a part of their past for fear of those rascally snowboarders or, more likely, of later life injury.  On this trip we tried snowshoeing, which was a more than pleasant diversion from the efforts of skiing.  I have always wondered what it would be like to be in the depths of a forest in the middle of winter without a soul around.  What does nature look, sound, and feel like under wintry conditions?  Snowshoeing allowed me to find out.  I heard large and old trees creaking, the pecking of a woodpecker echoing throughout the forest, and I saw sun-dappled shadows of tree limbs on un-trodden white snow.  Best of all, my travel partner and I could stroll side by side without a care in the world, enjoying nature and conversation without the worry of method, technique, or equipment. The jury is out, but he may find it is hard to get me on skis again!

The Mountain Top Resort provides everything you could want – comfortable accommodations, though nothing fancy, an ample dining room with a generous breakfast, an ice skating rink, sleigh rides, and a Nordic center equipped with ski rentals and lessons.  And if you’re not prone to activity, there is a spacious relaxing lobby with comfy seating where you can while away the hours with a book or just enjoy the view.   And what ski resort would be complete without a welcoming tavern equipped with a pool table for a little frivolity.  After all that outdoor fun, there is nothing like a hot toddy and the sound of laughter to cap off your day!

As the weekend came to an end, we approached the finish to February.   If I could spend my weekends in winter wonderlands like this one, I would be in no rush at all!

New York City Dining, fine and otherwise

Like all Manhattanites, I have a tiny kitchen.  With some custom refinements, I have turned it into a decent working space and love to cook when time and focus allow.  Also like all Manhattanites, we can gratefully choose from infinite choices for dining out, and we make it our business to try as many of those choices as possible.  Special places, cheap places, and all sorts in between, we are experts in dining on what is known as the Upper West Side  (UWS).  How do we do it without breaking the bank? We find deals through aggregating sites, such as Blackboard Eats and, which come in handy for saving $$.  All of the restaurants who participate in these sites welcome our business, and we have never been treated as anything but welcome when presenting our discount coupon.

The restaurants listed below are largely on the upper west side of Manhattan (W. 59th St. - W 125th St.), broken down by price range, and several of them have appeared on Blackboard Eats or  I am also including a short list from the theater district since just about everyone is baffled about where to eat in that area without spending a load of dough.  Take a look, and then take a try!  Let us know what you think.

Cheap enough:
Amsterdam Ale House: 340 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St. - good wings, burgers, full bar, etc.
Cafe at Fairway (v. good for breakfast/brunch/lunch) -- on Broadway and 74th St. in the upstairs of the grocery store.  Kind of a cool setting, and a great place for Brunch. Becomes a steakhouse at dinner -- low key and comfortable.
Gray’s Papaya - if you're willing to eat hot dogs, these are famed to be the best in NYC and they're on Broadway and 72nd St.!  Wait till you see the biz they do.
Shake Shack - The best deal in NY, and there are branches all over.  We go to Columbus and 78th St., but there’s one in the theater district, too. Great burgers; be prepared to wait in line, and during the day there are often kids here.  Evenings are fine.
Dinosaur BBQ - 700 W. 125th St. at 12th Ave. - Cheap, good barbecue but uptown quite a bit.  It is near Columbia University, if that’s useful.  Very popular, and near the #1 train, so be adventurous and go!

Medium prices:
Riposo 72  - W. 72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves. - a favorite wine bar of Clay's and mine with good, fresh food, tho the wine list has gone downhill.
The Tangled Vine - Amsterdam and W. 81st Street - wine bar with exceptional food.  Better wine list than Riposo (above) and much better food.
Landmarc - Columbus Circle -- great food (fantastic steak salad) and bar, but weird, albeit convenient, location.  It's in the Time Warner Center which is a shopping mall, but it's a reliable place for steaks and salad.  Good breakfasts, too.  Only reliable and reasonable place near Lincoln Center.
Josie's - Amsterdam and 73rd St.  Really good food; reliably fresh and healthy.
Citrus - Amsterdam and 75th St. -- Festive atmosphere (try the pineapple-infused tequila!), always yummy food - same owners as Josie’s.
Accademia di Vino - 2427 Broadway at 89th St.  - good, lighter Italian food.  Pricey, but reliably yummy.  There’s one on the east side, too -- these places are always busy so reservations are recommended
Penang - Malaysian - 127 W. 72nd between Amsterdam and Columbus.  Really yummy and quite reasonable.
Amber - Columbus and W. 70th St.  - Fantastic and reasonable sushi, as well as other Asian food.  This is a real find -- quality and price-wise.
Five Napkin Burger - Broadway and W. 84h St. - Exactly what it sounds like.  Great burgers - -big -- and a lively atmosphere.
Kefi -  Greek - EXCELLENT! but very busy.  Columbus and 84th - try to get a reservation unless you go early.  Will not disappoint.
Luke’s Lobster - Amsterdam around 80th St. Really great lobster rolls at reasonable prices.  It’s a hole in the wall, but they deliver, too!

Expensive but, oh, so special: (all require reservations; many on Open Table)
Ouest (pronounced "West") -- our favorite in the neighborhood - Broadway and 84th.  We love to go there for special occasions.  Great, hearty food, with very ample portions (and drinks -- try their cosmopolitans!).
‘Cesca (pronounced “Chesca”) - W. 75th St. just east of Amsterdam -- a personal favorite for eating at the bar (no reservations required to eat in the bar area).  Just charming, and the food is terrific.  Excellent and extensive wine list.  Same owners as Accademia di Vino (see above), but you pay for warmer atmosphere at Cesca.  Food is equally good at the two places.  If money matters, go to Accademia.
Telepan - Columbus and 69th St. - romantic, and delicious, fresh food; they pride themselves on local, which is great in three seasons out of four in NY!
Fatty Crab - 2170 Broadway, between 76-77; Hip, of the moment, interesting food.  Very loud and, I think, overpriced, but if you want to go somewhere that’s considered cool and the food is interesting and will not disappoint, this place will do it.
The Mermaid Inn - 568 Amsterdam Ave., between 87-88 -- Seafood, obviously, really fun, nice place.
Atlantic Grill - 49 W. 64th St., just east of Broadway.  Pricey fish place, but has the benefit of being very convenient to Lincoln Center.  Great service and excellent food, but you’ll pay for it.
Red Rooster - 310 Lenox Ave., between 125-126th St., This place is steps from the subway (#2 or #3 trains).  The hottest place in town right now and for good reason. The food and drinks are fantastic, and the atmosphere is really fun and exciting.  There’s a fabulous vibe at this place, and the food does not disappoint.

And just a few in the theater district:
Island Burgers and Shakes  -- 766 9th Ave. and 51st St.  Just what it says -- really good, cheap, tiny.
Gallo Nero - Italian - 402 W. 44th between 9th and 10th Aves.  Tiny place, but really yummy food.
Bali Nusa Indah - 652 9th Ave., between 45th-46th  Indonesian; delicious and cheap.  A real find in the theater district if you don’t want something ordinary.
Five Napkin Burger  - see above; there’s one on 9th Ave. at about 49th St. that can be very convenient before or after theater.
Elsewhere - 10th Ave. at 43rd ST. Great place for pre-theater, and you can make a meal out of the appetizers.