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Biting the Big Apple

If you’re thinking about visiting the Big Apple, your timing couldn’t be better when it comes to relatively inexpensive outdoor dining options. I use the term “dining” loosely here, for I am talking about the growing New York City food truck scene. Spring and summer are fantastic times to walk New York City’s neighborhoods and sample all the different food trucks, captured here in my first Lonely Planet article, which was a blast to report. Plus the timing of this article is perfect because May 4-12 is National Travel and Tourism Week. To quote President Obama: “Tourism contributes to the success of the American and world economies…” And through travel and tourism we learn from each other, about each other, we try new foods, hear new languages, and see new ways of experiencing our world.

New York City offers a smorgasbord of foods, languages and experiences, with dozens of food trucks circling uptown, midtown and downtown, dishing up almost every ethnic flavor out there. You can try several trucks at once at the monthly Food Truck Rally held in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. As the weather warms up, more trucks will be out and about, including Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, which returns for the summer season at Union Square Park later this month.

Many thanks to the folks at the New York City Food Truck Association who helped with this story and who always lend a hand to New Yorkers, whether it’s Hurricane Sandy relief or simply keeping this city a fun, funky place to live. To learn more about New York City’s food trucks, especially how to cook what they cook, check out the newly released cookbook/love letter “New York a la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple’s Best Food Trucks” which features how some of these foodies got their starts on the streets. Come visit and have a food truck picnic with eight million of your best friends.

My husband Mike enjoying meat strewn over fried carbohydrates while I…


…sip a ‘Walk the Plank’ smoothie from Green Pirate Juice made with kale, cucumber and pineapple.


Japan Part 3 – Tokyo, the Cleanest, Safest Place on the Planet

I like contrasts so it should come as no surprise that I booked a five-star, $600 per night hotel for our weekend in Tokyo and then spent the weekend searching for free things to do. This wasn’t hard given Tokyo’s plethora of immaculately kept public city parks and gardens. Tokyo IS the First World, folks. The United States has a long ways to go to catch up to Japanese efficiency, cleanliness and orderliness, which can be found in abundance throughout city parks, the subway system, restaurants, shops and public bathrooms, and that’s just the beginning. Even Tsukiji Fish Market wasn’t as gross as you would expect considering all the vital organs getting tossed about. New York City has a lot going for it, but Tokyo buzzes with 13 million people and yet I didn’t see a scrap of food or an emptied condom wrapper lying on the sidewalk or along the train platforms (I have nearly stepped on both along the Jersey Shore). Let’s put it this way: I won’t wear flip-flops in New York City, but I’d walk barefoot around Tokyo. I could gush senselessly about Japan’s toilet technology–their porcelain buses are superior to American cars. Even public bathrooms had warmed seats.

We stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel near Shinjuku Station not because a decade earlier that’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson filmed Lost in Translation, but because the hotel has one of the best pool views in the world, according to Travel and Leisure. I’m a hotel pool junkie and base hotel choices not just on price or location, but on the quality of its pool. The 20-meter “sky” pool at Park Hyatt Tokyo was amazing, although you can’t see Mount Fuji while swimming in the water. You need to get out of the pool and, bam! there’s Mount Fuji staring you down from about 60 miles away. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this magnificent mountain. The only other people I saw at the pool were middle-aged Western male executives getting in a workout while I did a half hour worth of strokes in my bikini. Total bliss.



While enjoying five-star amenities (we get what the fifth star stands for–unparalleled awesomeness), we sought free family-friendly fun around Tokyo. Five words: public parks and window shopping. Neither costs much except the squeaky-clean subway ride to get around, and both yield plenty of cultural stimulation. Our hotel and a nearby playground provided a lot to see and do without going very far, plus even our room had a view of the great mountain, which made the hotel even more worthwhile. After poking around the hotel area, we ventured farther afield to a number of parks and shops.






Tokyo Tower and the aquarium in its “basement” below the foundation aren’t free, but adjacent Shiba Park costs nothing. Statues of “Jizbosatusu,” said to protect the souls of stillborn children, line the grounds. It’s spooky, yet peaceful and pretty, like many cemeteries even though no one is buried here (that we know of). The statues are decorated with knitted caps and baby clothes, and many hold pinwheels that spin in the breeze. Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist temple, stands near the rows of statues and gardens. Walk in, make a donation, light incense and say a prayer. We did.







Ueno Park is Tokyo’s oldest public park, created in 1873. It is near Ueno Station and home to temples, ponds, water fountains, nearly 9,000 different types of trees, hundreds of plants and flowers, and several cultural institutions including art, science and natural history museums. Ueno Park embodied Japanese austerity and botanical whimsy, with cherry blossom boughs waving to people from everywhere. You could easily spend a day there, but since we only had three days in Tokyo, we breezed through Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum in about two hours, plus our feet were sore. We perked up with ice cream for about $3 USD that came in cool Japanese flavors, like sweet potato, cherry blossom, and green tea, in addition to traditional chocolate and vanilla.






Around downtown Tokyo…not sure how dreamy this shop is for ladies since it was closed.



Everyone’s favorite mutant lizard can be found in another hygienic city park near a Starbucks and a bridal shop selling white Western-style gowns.


There’s plenty to look at around Tokyo, especially the people watching and fashion. Shopping opportunities are boundless. When it comes to priorities, it’s “shopping for clothes, food, and then paying for housing,” says a friend of Mike’s, who has been living the ex-pat life in Tokyo for the past decade. You can wander all over Tokyo, not spend any yen, and return feeling visually overwhelmed, from the colorful, never dull Tsukiji Fish Market…



…to posh department stores that are equally colorful.


You will find tons of color as well as funky mushrooms at KiddyLand toy store, a strange, hypnotic, noisy place.



And, of course, Hello Kitty, hawks everything from doughnuts to attitude, because next to Godzilla, she rules.


We’re Just Tenants Here

The Earth’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, is located along the Nepal/Tibet/China border, stands an astounding 29,035 feet, and grows a quarter inch every year. Garbage grows with the mountain; Mount Everest has become such a popular place that several decades worth of trash have accumulated. An estimated 50 tons of garbage, including a rusting helicopter, food waste, and enough abandoned camping equipment to house hundreds if not thousands of refugees, are up there. One Earth Day, the Nepalese took a break from operating as tour guides, switched gears to be garbage men, and hauled down about 4,400 pounds of junk off the mountain. In the true spirit of recycling, or upcycling, as some call it, the rubbish is finding a second life as objets d’arts thanks to Da Mind Tree.

Mount Everest epitomizes the dichotomy and complexity of travel; people explore the world, they litter, they move on, garbage piles up, soon marring the very beauty of what was there to explore in the first place. Yet travel can inspire thoughtful leadership and visionary stewardship when it comes to our planet, a belief espoused by The International Ecotourism Society. The very act of travel or tourism can be a vehicle for conservation. We’re all capable of traveling responsibly and minimizing our impact, from simple acts like reusing our towels at hotels to tossing our plastic water bottles into recycling receptacles instead of into trash bins to bringing a portable coffee mug around the world (as my husband actually does because he consumes coffee constantly) instead of filling styrofoam cups everywhere.

Next spring, we’re vacationing at the HQ of global conservation, Costa Rica, a model for green living. Costa Rica understands that green (also my favorite color) makes people happy. When animals and plants thrive, people thrive. America’s National Park Service upholds this concept every day. Think about some of the favorite places you have visited or camped at or hiked. Would you want a pile of trash blocking your view of Longs Peak Mountain in Colorado? Want to stroll along the Santa Monica beach kicking empty bottles and cans? What about snorkeling in Key West and having a tire float toward your face?

Below are some of my favorite places on the planet featuring animals and landscapes from the four continents we have had the privilege to see. I push my family to live green both at home and on the road (or in the sky) for somewhat selfish reasons; yes, it’s the right thing to do, but we want to keep traveling. We want to enjoy the land and the sea and all that Earth has to offer and keep it free of man-made junk interfering with our fun and our time on Earth. Mother Nature is the landlady here; we’re just tenants.

A pelican by our boat in Key West, Florida, USA

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA

Cherry blossom trees along the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan

Santa Monica beach, California, USA

Big Sur, California, USA

An iguana says hello in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Sheep graze at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Catskill Mountains, New York, USA
Farm 2

Birds chase each other along a canal in Brugges, Belgium

Mayan ruins along the Caribbean coast, Tulum, Mexico

Garden Delights and Donut Hopping

Yes, snow covered the Big Apple yesterday, but according to the Gregorian calendar, the spring equinox is just 96 hours away. You could spend spring time in Paris or spring break in the Caribbean or you could enjoy spring springing forth here where I call home. There’s plenty to do, more food trucks and ice cream trucks will be out, and the city parks will be in bloom.

If you seek blooms, the New York Botanical Garden is a much welcome reprieve in the concrete jungle. The popular Orchid Show is on until April 22 (aka Earth Day) and will soon be followed beginning May 18 by another fantastic exhibit featuring Philip Haas sculptures titled “The Four Seasons.” The installation exhibits as well as last year’s Monet’s Garden made fantastic day trips, and are perfect for visitors looking to do something outside of the usual Times Square-Broadway-Rockefeller Center lineup. I particularly enjoy returning to the Orchid Show especially when I don’t have a tropical vacation on the horizon.








Switching gears from garden delights to other types of delights–food! New Yorkers love to talk about food as much as they love to eat food. Pizza might as well be the city’s signature culinary delight, and there’s a guide on who’s pizza is best. (Many of them are good. I like thin-crust pizza with lots of cheese, and, yes, I fold my slice.) You could spend your spring fling just sampling the different slices and deciding which pizzeria got the sauce or the crust or the cheese just right.

The Food Truck Rally at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park returns for the spring/summer season beginning April 7. This is a great way to experience New York cuisine without breaking the bank. Walk around the circle of trucks and enjoy pizza, dumplings, waffles, classic American burgers, organic fruit smoothies, cupcakes, ice cream and tacos. If you’re craving it, chances are the food trucks are cooking it. Two New Yorkers decided they craved food truck food so much they wanted to learn how to cook it at home. So they wrote New York a la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple’s Best Food Trucks which will be published April 2. These two foodies, Siobhan Wallace and Alexandra Penfold, hail New York’s burgeoning food truck scene while highlighting success stories and favorite recipes.

Food trucks are a fun way to fuel up for the rest of your sightseeing, whether that takes you uptown, midtown, downtown and all around. I also recommend Pies -n- Thighs which enjoyed some recent publicity from the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, so now lines are even longer to get into this tiny joint in Williamsburg. Get there when the doors open, before the previous night’s party goers wake up and realize they’re hungry. The chicken and waffles are phenomenal and the donuts, I can’t say enough. I loved the donuts there so much I included them in a recent CheapOAir blog post about donut hopping in New York City.

We covered the outdoors, food, so now shopping. Yes, there’s Fifth Avenue shopping where you will find stores that can be found in most malls and big cities. There’s junky souvenir shopping in Times Square. There’s stolen goods shopping along Canal Street, as well as scarf shopping in Chinatown (two thumbs up). And then there’s New York City street shopping, like flea markets and farmers markets and unusual little places where you can find unusual things. My favorite is Union Square Greenmarket open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays where later this spring, you’ll find the Big Gay Ice Cream truck scooping up Bea Arthurs and Salty Pimps parked near 17th Street and Broadway. I’ll be in the line waiting for my Salty Pimp. For those of you who can’t wait two more months, Big Gay Ice Cream has shops in both the East and West Village where the Salty Pimp Cupcake is available.

To get a more complete list of everything that is going on in this whacky metropolis of ours, including street market shopping opportunities, NYCgo offers fantastic roundups of everything across New York, and they are far more in the know than I am. I’m just a tax-paying resident who likes to eat and shop here.

Sprinting Toward Spring Break

It’s hard to write about the beaches in Cancun or along Southern California’s coast when it’s barely 40 degrees out and the sun is ignoring you. But I did it. As we all daydream about where to thaw out this spring, I thought a roundup of some favorite spring break destinations might be in order. You can check out my latest blog posts for CheapOAir, like the one about beaches in Los Angeles or the one about Cancun’s beaches or there’s also Cancun’s newest Mayan culture museum and it’s not-as-new underwater sculpture garden. My tropical wish list includes more of Mexico, and more of the Caribbean, especially St. Lucia. Both have been added to the ever-growing vacation destination list.

What about the Florida Keys? We visited Key West after the annual wave of college party goers had already swept through and locals had swept up the remaining detritus. By the time we arrived in April, we had a clean, quiet island of margarita-sipping grownups who had already partied hard years ago. I love the funky, artsy, “we-answer-to-no-one” vibe on Key West and we look forward to going back and visiting our favorite pools and cafes again.

If you prefer history over the beach, Washington, D.C. is a fantastic spring break getaway because so much to see and do there is free, plus it’s the one time of year the city actually looks like it’s in a good mood (as opposed to humid, stressed-out summers or deadline-driven tension throughout fall and winter as fiscal and calendar years come to a close). How can you be grumpy when everything is blooming pink? Also, the foodie scene is gaining ground and visibility in Washington. Book soon because cherry blossom season is just weeks away.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, our spring break this year will be in Japan, where blossoming cherry trees are treated with the same reverence as Buddhist temples. I’m buzzing with excitement, and really look forward to blogging, tweeting, posting and just spewing giddiness via social media while touring Tokyo and Kyoto. More to come!