Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Like Nowhere on Earth

The most basic of co-habitation
Where on earth can you observe and play with sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, penguins, sharks (!!), and blue-footed boobies? All of these creatures, and others, co-exist in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador.  Just south of the equator, this archipelago serves as a habitat for wildlife that fly, swim, and crawl and that are found nowhere else on earth.

Many visitors find the most practical way to see this diverse life is from a boat, and there are cruise ships that accommodate from 10 -100 passengers.  Our trip, however, was a land-based trip, meaning that we slept on land but spent most of our days on or in the water.  We traveled with Row Adventures (Remote Odysseys Worldwide) who provided us with a simultaneously rugged and comfortable trip with a small group of 6 adults and our very able guide, Henry. We departed from the city of Guayaquil, and then stayed for two nights at a Galápagos National Park campsite on San Cristóbal Island, three nights at the lovely Casa Marita on Isabela Island, and two more nights at the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn on Santa Cruz Island.

The first few nights were spent here!
Activities included snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, and bicycling, all in the name of spotting wildlife. The snorkeling was my favorite part since it provided me with the rare opportunity to swim twice with very large sea turtles who were easily 5 feet wide at Los Tuneles and Bahia Ballena (Whale Bay), and even rarer opportunity to swim with sharks (yes, you read that right!) at León Dormido (Kicker Rock), a majestic formation that jumps out of the sea and can be seen from miles around.  Cue up the "Jaws" music, take a look at these videos, and you'll pardon the understandable profanity!

Those reef sharks were about 10 feet below us but didn't frighten me.  If our trusted guide, Henry, felt we were safe there, that was good enough for me.  It was a thrill, for sure, but I enjoyed swimming with these huge sea turtles just as much! Watch carefully as our guide gets a high-five.

On land, we were repeatedly accompanied by sea lions, large and small.  They are apparently friendly, seem to have no fear of humans, and are all over the place!  They came in large numbers and in all sizes on every beach.  'Some sleeping, some playful, and some nursing.  We learned that sea lions reproduce annually for about 25 years and have a gestation period similar to humans, so imagine those mama sea lions busy with every stage of parenting for that length of time!

My new friend!
We need that line to our anchor -- no chewing!

We watched them swim, as well, and Clay even snorkeled with sea lions at Isla Lobos.

There were fascinating creatures on land, too, that included areas filled with marine iguanas, making it appear as if we had entered one of Dante's circles of Hell, but in truth they wanted nothing to do with us. They seemed perfectly content to sunbathe, and occasionally sneeze out salt which proved they were awake!

And, of course, there are the famous giant tortoises, distinct from sea turtles in that they live on land. Yes, there were gigantic tortoises in the wild who seemed to enjoy climbing over each other and simply appreciate some peace and quiet. I was inspired by their calm demeanor, and their slow and quiet lifestyle: something to aspire to!

Last, but not least, there were the flying species who were too numerous to count.  We saw birds in all sizes and colors: herons, egrets, warblers, flamingoes, and Darwin's famous finches (of course!), and the most famous Galápagos bird of all, the blue-footed boobie.

Look carefully at the photo to the right and you will not only see blue feet, but a parent booby protecting its newly-hatched chicks.  We saw him protecting two babies who our guide said had been born within days of our sighting, and this was perhaps the greatest highlight of my trip.  Every once in awhile, this Daddy booby (identified as male by the size of its pupils) would stand up to stretch, and we would see two little chicks adjusting to life "on the outside."  We were standing a mere 4 feet away and stayed quiet as if we were in a nursery, but one surrounded by lava lizards and iguanas.  Words cannot do justice.

It was an amazing and challenging vacation.  With so much to do and so much to see, we could not waste a moment.  We returned to Guayaquil to fly home, and now I can spend some time like my buddy below, dreaming of the lives of creatures that can only be found in this rarest of places like nowhere else on earth!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Starting Summer in the Berkshire Mountains

We had put in three days of enriching and hard work at the annual Think Tank of the New York State Association of Independent Schools. This year's conference was even more stimulating than ever, a convening of 30 educators from every stage of career and every region of New York State gathered at the Carey Conference Center in Rensselaerville, New York.  Once we finished, though, we were ready to take a break and put the 2012-13 school year to bed so I could welcome the work of the 2013-14 school year.  A mere hour and a half away, we arrived in Lenox, Massachusetts, home of the wonderful Tanglewood Music Center.
We stayed at the beautiful Gateways Inn, a recently renovated inn that has the coziness of a bed and breakfast but with all the amenities of a fine hotel.  Centrally located in the heart of Lenox, we could have walked to Tanglewood for our evening jazz concert with Terence Blanchard.  Our seats were on the lawn of the Seiji Ozawa Hall where we enjoyed sandwiches and a bottle of wine along with the exciting, while smooth sounds of Blanchard's trumpet and 5-piece band.  Our Saturday was spent at the Clark Institute in Williamstown after stopping for lunch at a most unsuspecting place, Café Reva in Pittsfield.  It looks like a dive from the outside --  if you see it at all. Easy to miss, this place is nonetheless a must-find.  'Great breakfast, no matter what the time of day, with amazingly generous portions served by the most chipper servers you ever want to meet.  It was a good stop on the way to The Clark Institute where we enjoyed an exhibit of Winslow Homer as well as seeing several pieces from their permanent collection.

One more town to visit on Sunday, but only for major bargain-hunting at Lee Premium Outlets in Lee, MA. We have taken in a few outlet malls in our day, but this was one of the most manageable ones we've seen, with all the necessary stops.
Our room and board deserves more attention.  At The Gateways Inn, they serve generous, interesting, and delicious breakfasts, one day being a thick and fruity challah french toast, and the next day being scrambled eggs along with bagels and lox. We had a delicious meal there one night with tasty food from an impressive menu.  There is an elegant yet comfortable bar, where one night there was a clarinetist playing and the following night a cabaret singer.  'Plenty going on, and none of it disappointing!  A couple of last mentions from the department of eating:  we loved The Scoop in Lenox where an extensive list of scrumptious ice cream flavors awaits, and a quick lunch can also be had in Great Barrington at one of our favorite spots, The Great Barrington Bagel Co.
We got some rest, some culture, some bargains, and some good food.  'Not a bad way to start the summer.  The Galápagos Islands await us in July and, if nothing else, this post allowed me to test out my new Posts app for the iPad and see how this blogpost comes out.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler

There are plenty of reasons to visit New Orleans: history, culture, cuisine, music, and fine people, to name just a few. If you come with an open heart you will absorb all of this with very little effort. The easiest and most accessible sources for enjoying all of the above are the food (you gotta eat!) and jazz (whose roots are found in this very fine city).

One can eat a lot and cheaply in New Orleans, and we did some of that, but we also tried some of the city's finer restaurants since it has become famous for fine chefs who have reinvented uses for crawfish, sausage, rice and beans, hot sauce, and pork.  Best sandwich (or Po'boy, as they are known), hands down, was the Cochon de Lait at Cafe Amélie, whose beautiful courtyard only increases the pleasure of the meal.  Basically a pulled pork sandwich, the Cochon de Lait Po'boy is served on a perfectly toasted, freshly-baked roll with a spicy and creamy sauce, interspersed with pickles that cut that heat just the right amount.  Another New Orleans standard is the muffuletta, which is basically like the Italian sub sandwiches of my youth, only larger, and with a healthy dose of olives and dressing.  The "original" can be had at the Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the heart of the French Quarter.

Most people feel that a trip to New Orleans is not complete without having beignets at Cafe du Monde.  The beignets there were delicious, for sure, but the crowds of tourists are a turn-off for this traveler, so I refer you to Morning Call, at the location in City Park where you will also find a wonderful art museum, sculpture garden, and some of the largest and oldest oak trees in the country.

Then there are the memorable meals of finer cuisine.  Every meal we had was memorable, and the menus were diverse with choices for lovers of all kinds of food.  Having followed the story line of Chef Jeannette Desautel on the HBO series, "Treme", we were pleased to spot the actress, Kim Dickens, dining at the bar of Herbsaint, one of Donald Link's fine establishments.  One of my richer meals, I enjoyed a gumbo of chicken and andouille sausage for an appetizer, followed by a pasta served with a "fried poached egg".  As a lover of both fried and poached eggs, I was curious, and was fully satisfied by what amounted to a creamy and very fresh pasta carbonara.  Our other meal at a Donald Link restaurant was at his famous Cochon where my dining companions and I gorged ourselves on char-grilled oysters, crawfish pie, onion-braised beef shoulder, smoked pork ribs, and as my brother attested, "the best fish I've ever had."  There was even more to this meal, but you have to experience it to appreciate it.  If you go to New Orleans, put this one at the top of your list.  Casual in ambience, with friendly service, it hit all the right notes. And this list would be incomplete without mentioning Bayona, centrally located in the French Quarter, where my striped bass tasted like it was right off the line.

A couple of other restaurants worth mentioning are Lilette and Domenica.  When you are done ogling the beautiful homes in the Garden District, try out the first for lunch,  and when you want an early "happy hour" meal, try the second.  Domenica promises half price drinks and half-price pizzas between 3 and 6 p.m., and not just any pizzas -- trust me on this one.  They are huge, with the freshest of ingredients; mine had big, juicy clams with just enough grit to prove they were in the sea the day before if not that morning!  And there is a bonus here -- your wallet won't feel any pain.

While I will remember these meals for a little while, at least, I will remember my evenings in the NOLA jazz clubs forever. They know how to approach jazz in New Orleans, with casual soul and quality thrills.  If you're a fan of brass music, as much New Orleans jazz promises, I can recommend the Treme Brass Band, and Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, both easily found on any night around town to the tune of $5 and $10 !  We saw Kermit Ruffins and his band at The Blue Nile on Frenchman Streeet, where you hear jazz along with the locals, and he rocked the room for over two hours.  Take a short listen from one of my favorite numbers, the New Orleans classic, "St. James's Infirmary".

The Treme Brass Band was an even more casual set but, again, very long and satisfying.   We heard them at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, where we also heard John Boutté a couple of nights later.  There are no reservations at these clubs; just show up with a few bucks in your pocket and be prepared for a very special night.  For a somewhat more traditional, some might say classier, show, we heard Irvin Mayfield at his own club in the Sonesta Hotel.  Smoother jazz and a crowd that came from the hotels in the Quarter, it still came cheap at $15 a seat for another 2-hour set.  These clubs do not have drink minimums either; have as much or as little as you want.
Treme Brass Band
Last, but not least, you have a memorable night in store when you take a cab to Rock 'n' Bowl where you can bowl, if you want, but stick around for the rousing band and dancing.  There is a very large dance floor with dancers of all ages and walks of life.  The night we were there featured a fantastic zydeco band,
and the dancers ranged from stylized and trained to the last step, to teenagers brought by their parents for some good, clean fun.  In fact, it might have been the cleanest crowd I've been with in a very long time.  I felt like I was in a movie and any moment Kevin Costner and Sandra Bullock might appear. The taxi ride is a bit of a trek, but worth every minute and penny. Entrance fee is only $10 at the door -- do not miss this place.

On our last day in New Orleans we already began to plan another visit.  As music lovers, this place can't be beat. There are many other reasons beside music to visit, though, not the least of which is to help this unique American city recover from the mess that started with Hurricane Katrina. And here I must recommend the book "Nine Lives" by Dan Baum, which is a fitting accompaniment to anyone's interest in the good folks of New Orleans.  On the streets and clubs of New Orleans, the people are warm and generous, the climate is the same, and the atmosphere insists you have a good time.   Take your days slowly because your nights will be full and you will not want to miss a minute!