Ten books to send you on a culinary journey

Anywhere you go, you will discover the importance of food in the local cultures. It gives a place a sense of identity: what is important locally, what is grown or raised locally, and what is favored locally.

Beyond that, food is a way of expressing love, affection, or respect for one another. When one hosts important guests, the host provides the best food that they can, even if it means personally sacrificing their own culinary comfort for a while. When having friends and family over for a celebration, the host prepares a feast appropriate to the celebration. And even when people mourn, how do those close to the mourners express themselves but by bringing food to ease the burdens of everyday tasks. We talk about emotional eating when our spirits are low, and we go out to eat and drink with our friends when we want to celebrate.

Think about some of the meals you have savored the most in your life – and how just thinking about them can bring you instantly back in time to a particular moment and memory. There’s a reason that #foodporn has become such a popular hashtag!

I’ll share two of my own favorite “traveling foodie” moments:

Swiss food is fantastic in general, but there is one meal in particular from my last trip to Switzerland that particularly stands out in my mind. My tour guide in Bellinzona took me to a restaurant called Ristorante Pedemonte, which is located quite close to the main train station in that city. Had I been looking for a restaurant on my own, I probably would have missed the place entirely, as I don’t recall seeing signage on the yellow building, and I thought at first that we were walking into somebody’s house! It was September – prime porcini season in the beautiful Ticino canton – and I selected strozzapreti ai funghi porcini for my meal. If you look up a recipe for this meal, it will seem ridiculously simple; but made with freshly made strozzapreti (“priest-choker”) pasta, excellent local olive oil, and porcini mushrooms from the local mountains, so fresh they were probably picked that morning, well – it was all I could do to not pick up the plate and lick it clean!

The other is in Finland. In Helsinki, there is a place called Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) located next to Kauppatori, the market square on the waterfront in front of Helsinki City Hall. Vanha Kauppahalli is renowned for its food stalls, but there was one in particular my mother (who is from Finland) knew that I would love: the place that sold munkki – that is, doughnuts. I ended up eating the raspberry-filled munkki nearly every day we went to downtown Helsinki on that trip! I don’t know what made these particular munkki so amazing – perhaps it is because cardamom is a common flavor addition to doughnuts in Finland; perhaps it was simply how incredibly fresh they were – but I have had American jelly doughnuts spoiled for me ever since.

Taste and smell are two powerful senses that can transplant you immediately. A good food writer can not only make you wish you were beside them, sampling the food with them, but also make you want to leap onto a plane and visit a place simply to experience that place firsthand. Here are ten excellent books that will give you that experience.

American Terroir, Rowan Jacobsen American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, by Rowan Jacobsen : Perhaps you think of “terroir” as a wine-related word; and it is true ― terroir, or “taste of place”, is a vital element of the wine industry. However, it is no less vital in the food industry in general. There’s a reason we why every region’s honey tastes different, what makes some wild mushrooms so elusive, how the same seafood ― such as oysters and salmon ― can taste vastly different when harvested in different parts of the world, and why the best chocolate beans come from close to where chocolate originated from. If you’re heading to Montréal any time soon, you’ll especially want to pay attention to his chapter related to Les Jardins Sauvages and foraging ― after reading this book, I definitely had to make a stop at the LJS stand in Jean-Talon Market while visiting the city. Jacobsen is one of the best food writers in the world, and if you enjoy reading American Terroir, you may also enjoy some of his other terroir-related books, such as Apples of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders, and The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation; or his culinary research books like Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

food_8 Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman : Like Jacobsen’s Terroir, Lohman takes the reader on a tour of American cuisine. As she outlines in the beginning of the book, her interest was piqued by her time spent working in a living history museum, and noticing how the antique recipes she made there differed greatly in taste than today’s modern versions of the same recipes. You might not think of flavors such as curry powder and Sriracha as being “as American” as chili powder, but Lohman shows how those three, along with five others, have influenced American tastes through the ages. You’ll learn as much about American history as you do about the American palate on this tour through our kitchens and our country’s background.

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Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, by Craig Carlson : Who hasn’t had the dream of running away to a city such as Paris and finding a way to live there long-term? Carlson had that dream, and more than that, he wanted to bring a little taste of good, proper, hearty American food ― specifically, breakfast food ― to the city he loved. As we learn from his misadventures, setting up shop in the City of Lights is no easy task for anyone, least of all an expatriate with ideals of creating a taste sensation among the food-snobby French. And while we see a bit of Parisian dirty laundry and cheer him on as he fights his way through French bureaucracy and red tape, the reader can also taste joy as he finds success ― and true love ― along the way.

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The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook : Most of us don’t give much thought to the humble mushroom beyond brushing any last tendrils of dirt from our freshest purchase. It turns out that the secretive world of the wild mushroom pickers is pretty fascinating, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering how successful you could be tromping around the woods of the Pacific Northwest, hoping to spy an easy fortune in rare fungi. Many of the most-desired mushrooms, much in demand by chefs and home enthusiasts alike, cannot by commercially cultivated; they must be found in conditions that cannot be replicated on the kind of fungi farms that produce the bulk of supermarket mushrooms. Porcini (also known as King boletes), chanterrelles, morels ― even if you aren’t a mushroom enthusiast, this is the kind of writing that will get you to try out these exotic fungi next time you see them on a menu.

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Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky : You might be thinking, What could possibly be fascinating about salt? As it turns out, quite a lot. From the origins of sayings such as “worth their weight in salt” and “salt of the earth”, to the story behind some of our most beloved condiments, salt ― the only rock we eat! ― has had a major influence over world history. Like Jacobsen, Kurlansky has a way of making complex food history absolutely fascinating, and you’ll find yourself constantly sharing tidbits you learn from this book. If you enjoy Salt, then look into Kurlansky’s other food and food-related writing, including The Big Oyster: History on the Half ShellHavana: A Subtropical DeliriumThe Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town; and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

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The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese, by Kathe Lison : Why is French cheese often considered the best in the world? What makes specific cheeses like Beaufort, Mont d’Or, and Roquefort so unique and highly demanded? What is so magical about the French cheese caves that makes people crave stinky, moldy cheese? Can iconic French cheeses truly be accurately recreated elsewhere in the world? Like any other food, cheese is influenced by its terroir, and Lison explores France to discover what, and who, makes most of its memorable cheese products that are beloved the world over. You’ll find yourself exploring your local cheese counter a lot more closely after reading this book.

food_napaNapa: The Story of an American Eden, by James Conaway : If you’re an American wine enthusiast ― and especially if you’re fond of Napa Valley wines ― you’ll want to read Conaway’s Napa and its sequels, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity. Conaway’s comprehensive history of California’s golden wine country begins with Napa, which chronicles the valley’s history through the late 20th century. The Far Side of Eden and Napa at Last Light tell the stories of what has happened to Napa now that availability has outpaced demand in this important agricultural area. You’ll find out how the valley’s farmers survived Prohibition, learn about how the 1976 Tasting of Paris really put Napa on the map, and how the wine world’s love affair with the valley has greatly changed the local scene over the past forty years. A trio of must-reads for any oenophile!

food_80Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time, by Mike Veseth : The demand for wine, particularly by those in their twenties, is influencing world agriculture. There are few countries in the world where wine is not produced, and Veseth goes on a round-the-world journey to sample various wines and to tell the stories that define various wine regions. You might not find wines from China, Algeria, or Kenya in your local supermarket, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Is there truly a best wine or best wine-growing region in the world? Veseth, the editor-in-chief of The Wine Economist, is a superb guide to take your wine desires on a spin around the globe.

food_nutmegNathaniel’s Nutmeg: or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, by Giles Milton :  Who would think that a tiny island barely one square mile in size in the South Seas would have such a huge influence on world history? Four hundred years ago, when there were still parts of the world that weren’t mapped and European powers were claiming lands around the globe, the Indonesian island of Run was at the center of a battle between the British Crown and the powerful Dutch East India Company. Run’s history is a spectacular story among the many stories that pepper the spice trade, and show how even a wee speck of an island ― and its exotic crop ― could, and did, spread its influence around the world. And if this book fascinates you, look for Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation, and Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. (Perhaps pair the latter one with Salt?)

food_chopstxChopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History, by Q. Edward Wang : You’ve probably never given much thought to chopsticks, beyond how to hold them properly and manage to eat with them. But there’s a long history for this basic eating utensil, and it’s more interesting than you might guess. If you find this book interesting, you may also enjoy Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.

There you go ― ten interesting books to not only whet your appetite for food, but for travel as well. Do you have any favorite food-related books? If so, let me know it in the comment section below!

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to Chicago for the 2017 NHL Draft

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So you’re coming to Chicago for the 2017 NHL Draft – welcome to the Windy City! Chicago is a city for sports fans, and be you a fan, sportswriter, or potential draftee, there’s plenty to see and do in Chicago beyond enjoying all that the NHL Draft has to offer around the United Center this weekend.


What to know about the United Center / NHL Draft

United Center: 1901 W. Madison

Draft times: Friday – Round 1, 6 p.m.; Saturday – Rounds 2-7, starting at 9 a.m.

Tickets: $10/day via Ticketmaster (Friday night sold out) – children under 36 inches in height do not need a ticket to attend the Draft.

How to get there: CTA bus line #20 – Madison; Blue line L (Illinois Medical District stop); Green line L (Ashland stop). Check out the CTA website for system maps and a travel time calculator. Parking for the event is $10/day; UC parking lots open at 2 p.m. on Friday, and 7 a.m. on Saturday.

Team stores: There’s a brand-new Madhouse Team Store at the UC that is open daily, or visit their store at 333 N. Michigan Ave. in the Loop/Mag Mile area.

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Fan Fest: The “Centennial Fan Arena” held in parking lot “C” (directly north of the UC on Madison Ave.) will give fans the opportunity to tour the Museum and video trucks, try out the Clear The Ice Zamboni VR Experience, get a picture with the Stanley Cup, and for youth hockey players to engage in clinics and games on a ball hockey pop-up rink. Other fan opportunities are available within the Atrium in the United Center. There will also be an Instant Prize Tower where you can scan your Fan Fest pass to see if you are an instant winner of NHL and Blackhawks swag. The Fan Fest will take place rain or shine.

  • Friday – 3 p.m. to 9 pm. (doors to UC open at 4 p.m.; Draft begins 6 p.m.)

Stanley Cup photo opportunity – 3 p.m. to 8 p.m

The band Neon Trees will play at 5 p.m.

  • Saturday – 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (doors to UC open at 7 a.m.; Draft begins 9 a.m.)

Stanley Cup photo opportunity – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Blackhawks past/present players/staff who will be attending the Fan Fest are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brian Campbell, Tony Esposito, Denis Savard, Eric Daze, Colin Fraser, Adam Burish, Chris Chelios, Pat Foley, John Wiedeman, Troy Murray and Jim Cornelison. (Subject to change.) Fans must activate their Fan Fest passes at draftfanfest.com in order to be eligible for limited photo and autograph opportunities.


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Beyond the United Center – Exploring Chicago

Of course, there are plenty of attractions to see around Chicago: starting with Cloud Gate – or as it’s more commonly called, ‘The Bean’ – and Millennium Park; the Art Institute; Navy Pier; etc. Get your stomach-dropping views of the Chicago skyline at Willis Tower’s Skydeck with its glass Ledges, or the Hancock’s 360Chicago.

Jump on a Divvy bike and explore the lakefront trail or The 606 (Chicago’s version of NYC’s High Line). Grab a CTA bus or the “L” trains to explore Chicago’s neighborhoods. Get your suntan on at one of Chicago’s many beaches. (North Avenue Beach is a local favorite for its movie-iconic views of Chicago’s skyline, and the rooftop bar at the beach house.)

Attempt to get a ticket for Hamilton (good luck), or catch some comedy at Second City or the IO. Peruse The Reader online or in print for the latest entertainment listings.


Where to Dine – Close to the United Center

West Randolph Street between N. Halstead and N. Ogden is known as “Restaurant Row” for the many, many restaurants that line the dozen or so blocks – not to mention that there’s a lot of great places just off Randolph. It’s within easy walking distance of the UC.

Kaiser Tiger – their slogan is “Sausage, Bacon, & Beer” – really, need I say more? Great beer garden (includes bocce ball, ping pong, and bags); open for lunch.
Green Street Smoked Meats – best BBQ in town.
Parlor Pizza Bar – wood oven pizzas and great patios (has a 2nd location in Wicker Park)
Grange Hall Burger Bar – fantastic farm-to-table burgers
Little Goat Diner, Duck Duck Goat, and The Girl & the Goat – this trio of Stephanie Izard restaurants are all fantastic. Little Goat is more casual; G&G upscale; DDG is Chinese.
Au Cheval – known on local ‘Best of…’ polls for their burgers
Momotaro – named one of the best ‘modern Japanese’ restaurants in the US
The Publican – casual lunch spot with fresh cut, quality meats
Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken – fancy and classic doughnut flavors (and obviously, chicken)
Bottom Lounge – solid American food and a performance venue
Wishbone – casual American dining

Off the general Randolph Street area, but still relatively close to the UC:

Twisted Spoke – they bill themselves as a “family friendly biker bar”. Great burgers/sandwiches, and if whiskey, bourbon, and scotch are your thing, it’s hard to beat their selection. Roof deck is wonderful in good weather!
La Scarola – cozy Italian fare
The Dawson – great patio, and modern American fare.

If you’re that anxious to try Shake Shack, there’s several around town, including a West Loop location.


Where to Dine – elsewhere in town 

As most people in town for the NHL Draft are probably staying somewhere in the general downtown area, I’m going to highlight a few places in the general downtown area or easily accessible via the L (line/stop noted).

Petterino’s – excellent, old school American classics in an atmosphere where you might expect to see The Godfather in the next booth over. (Loop)
RPM Italian – upscale modern Italian
El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria – Mexican with a sense of humor (River North)
Primehouse – best steaks in Chicago. (River North/Mag Mile)
The Kerryman –  Authentic Irish food, nice patio. (River North)
Chop Shop & 1st Ward – as the name implies, great meat. Thumbs up for brunch. (Wicker Park. Blue line to Damen)
Big Star – “Tacos, whiskey, and honky tonk”. Awesome tacos and super patio. (Also super busy on weekends.) (Wicker Park. Blue line to Damen.)
Lowcountry – Very casual seafood joint based on the idea of Southern fish boils. (Wrigleyville/Lakeview – Red/purple/brown line to Belmont, or Red line to Addison)


(Oh right, pizza)

A lot of first-time visitors to Chicago want to know “where’s the best pizza?” If you really want to try deep-dish, head to Lou Malnati’s (locations all over town) or Gino’s East.

For traditonal, thinner-crust pizza, I personally love Piece in Wicker Park (they’re also a brewpub and co-owned by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen – Blue line L to Damen), Pizano’s in the Loop (get the buttercrust), or Gino’s East.


Beer pubs!

As the country has embraced a craft beer explosion, Chicago is no exception; there are many places to lift a pint of local craft beers. You’ll also find many of them sold in local grocers, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, etc.

Finch Beer (Near West Side. Close to UC.)
Chaos Brew Club (West Town)
Forbidden Root Restaurant & Brewery (Noble Square/Ukrainian Village)
Haymarket Pub & Brewery (Randolph St/Restaurant Row)
Cruz Blanca (Randolph St/Restaurant Row) – Rick Bayless’s newest entry to his Chicago restaurants – brewery and taqueria
Vice District Brewing (South Loop/Near South Side)
Motor Row Brewing (Near South Side)
BaderBräu (Near South Side/Chinatown)
Alulu Brewpub (Pilsen)
Lagunitas Brewing (Pilsen)
Moxee BBQ & Cajun and Mad Mouse Brewery (University Village)
Hopewell Brewing (Logan Square)
Revolution Brewing (Logan Square)
Half Acre (North Center)
Begyle Brewing (North Center)
Dovetail Brewery (North Center)
Burnt City Brewing (Lincoln Park)
DryHop Brewers (Boystown)
Corridor Brewery & Provisions (Wrigleyville/Lakeview)
Band of Bohemia (Ravenswood)
Empirical Brewery (Andersonville)
Temperance Beer Co (Evanston)
Smylie Brothers Brewing (Evanston)

The Chicago Brew Bus also has weekend local brew pub crawls.


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What’s happening this weekend in Chicago 

Friday, June 23

Country LakeShake – 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. (Northerly Island, Museum Campus)
Chicago Ale Fest – 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. (Butler Field, Grant Park)
St. Pat’s World’s Largest Block Party – 5 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. (West Loop)
White Sox vs. Athletics – 7:10 p.m.

Saturday, June 24

Chicago Whiskey Wine & Spirits Beach Festival – 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Montrose Beach)
Chicago Food Truck Fest – 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (South Loop)
White Sox vs. Athletics – 1:10 p.m.
Ravenswood On Tap (beer fest) – 1 p.m – 9 p.m. (Ravenswood)
Chicago Ale Fest – 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. (Butler Field, Grant Park)
St. Pat’s World’s Largest Block Party – 2 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. (West Loop)
Country LakeShake – 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. (Northerly Island, Museum Campus)
Chicago Zombie March – 3 p.m. – 5:30 pm (Loop; starts at The Bean)
Navy Pier – Aon Summer Fireworks – 10:15 p.m. (Navy Pier; viewable from many points on lakefront. Good views from Grant Park and Museum Campus.)

Sunday, June 25

Chicago Food Truck Fest – 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (South Loop)
Chicago 48th Annual Pride Parade – kicks off at noon! One of the oldest and largest pride parades in the US! (Boystown/Lakeview/Lincoln Park)
Ravenswood On Tap (beer fest) – 1 p.m – 6 p.m.
White Sox vs. Athletics – 1:10 p.m.
Country LakeShake – 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. (Northerly Island, Museum Campus)

50 Things “Star Trek” Taught Me

In Las Vegas, you used to be able to enjoy Star Trek: The Experience (1997-2008) at the Las Vegas Hilton.

For Trek fans, it was a great experience. As you waited in line to experience the “ride”, you would pass through the “History of the Future Museum”, then you’d get “beamed up” to the Enterprise (in probably the coolest live-action special effect ever in Vegas), where you’d help beat the Borg, before you headed off to the Deep Space Nine Promenade to enjoy a meal at Quark’s, and pick up some Romulan Ale and tribbles for your friends at home. The staff were dressed in full makeup as Klingons, Ferengi, and other familiar Trek characters, making the illusion more complete. While it has been reported that ST:TE may return in some form to Vegas, it hasn’t quite happened yet.

But that’s okay. We have fifty years of Star Trek to celebrate – from the Original Series (“TOS”) to the current generation of films. Star Trek debuted on September 8, 1966, and has made an impact on our culture ever since. If you doubt that a fictional science fiction program can have that kind of impact, are you reading this on a smartphone or iPad/tablet? Used a language translator, wireless headsets, portable computer memory, GPS, voice-activated computers, medical diagnostic beds and devices? Heard of replicators (3-D printers)? Even hypersprays and phasers are no longer simply science-fiction.

So to celebrate 50 years of Star Trek, I’m taking a little side trip from writing about travel to write about …. 50 things that Star Trek has taught me over the years.

 

50 Things Star Trek Taught Me

(*In No Particular Order)

1. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background was, you can become something amazing.
2. We’re all working together for the same common goals.
3. Women belong in the Captain’s chair, and on the command deck.
4. A sense of humor goes a long way in helping making interpersonal relations better.
5. Overestimate how long a job will take you – and then when you perform ahead of schedule, you’ll look like a miracle worker.

6. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations = diversity is a great thing for all of us.
7. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.
8. Don’t judge people by how they look.
9. There’s always different points of view to every story.
10. Embrace who you are; it’s what makes you special – and can make you celebrated.

11. Perfection isn’t all that great.
12. Good friends are invaluable; and friendship is a powerful thing.
13. Everything can be fascinating.
14. Bigotry is stupid. Really, really, really stupid.
15. The cooler-looking the alien, the more other people love them, even if they’re grumpy. (Hi there, Klingons.)

16. Being bold (or boldly going) while being smart and logical is generally a better idea than rashly going or abrupt decisions.
17. Don’t adopt animals or introduce them into your ecosystem if you don’t know what their downsides are. Especially cute little fluffy things like tribbles.
18. There are plenty of letters in the alphabet.
19. Violence isn’t the answer – there’s always alternatives.
20. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

21. Human ingenuity can will out over cold logic – or Borg brainwashing.
22. If you dream it, there’s somebody out there who can actually invent it. Sometimes, that might be yourself.
23. Men and women are equal – and there’s plenty of times when women are actually smarter than men.
24. It’s possible to be honorable, just, virtuous, and honest, and get ahead in life without climbing over other people.
25. Despite how good dreams or holodecks may be, it’s always safer to fall in love with reality.

26. Never wear a red shirt if you’re going to do something dangerous.
27. Clear communication can be tough – and it’s easy to be misunderstood.
28. With great power comes great responsibility. (Spiderman doesn’t have a lock on this ideal.)
29. It’s ok to give people the final goal, and let them find their own means to reach it.
30. Have courage and faith in your own abilities.

31. Go explore someplace new every single day.
32. If you get lost, use it as a reason to learn something new.
33. Working together can help solve seemingly insurmountable odds.
34. Even when you have the technology that can do everything for you, it’s still a good thing to be employed and productive.
35. Even if money isn’t important, it’s still important to have a purpose in life.

36. If your Security Chief is warning against something, it’s probably a bad idea.
37. Just because something is against your own moral or religious compass doesn’t mean that other people should be denied that right or ability.
38. Take responsibility for your actions instead of blaming others.
39. Doing your job without complaining about it makes things better for everyone.
40. Resistance is futile. (Or is it?)

41. Leadership comes in many different forms and styles.
42. Live long, and prosper.
43. Creative pursuits, family, pets, and hobbies are an important balance to a busy and stressful work life.
44. When striving to be a better human, aim for the best qualities about humanity.
45. Home living spaces in the future are extremely tidy and Zen.

46. It’s important to weigh other opinions and facts, but sometimes, going with your gut is the right way to go.
47. Today is a good day to die. But it’s always better to live to fight another day.
48. Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
49. Sometimes it’s the youngest person on the ship who saves the whole world.
50. Boldly go where you’ve never gone before.

How to afford to travel? Start with changing your mindset.

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Several years ago, friends and co-workers used to ask me how I “always seemed to be traveling somewhere.”

Well, I don’t know so much about always – in fact, in my own mind, I felt like I wasn’t traveling anywhere near as much as I wish I did. But it drove home a point: everything is a matter of perception.

Back then, I had a job that afforded me the salary and the time (to the tune of four weeks’ PTO/year) that allowed me to travel much more frequently. I’d spend half my vacation time visiting my parents (blowing my largest chunk of it at the holidays), and the other half would be spread out mostly among long weekends of 3-4 days, versus longer vacations of 1-2 weeks like most people seemed to prefer. I had a high-demand job and it was important, from a mental health standpoint, to get away a little more frequently, even if it wasn’t for as long.

Lots of times, when I talk with friends about travel, they wax poetic about dream vacations in exotic locales, and often end by saying something like, “…someday, when I win the lottery, I’ll take that trip.”

Well, why wait?

I’m not suggesting blowing a hole in your bank account or credit cards, but with a little creativity and more importantly, budget planning, anyone can afford to go to those dream locations. Ask yourself: A) would I rather downscale my grand vacation ideal, and get to see __ location that I’ve always dreamed of, or B) do I want to wait until I’m retired or can otherwise afford this trip? After all, life is uncertain, and you never know what might happen – not just to yourself, but to your dream vacation spot.

Examine your dream vacation, and figure out what you can do less expensively.

Something that’s important to keep in mind when traveling: every place has a “high” season and a “low” or “off” season. Of course, that’s driven by weather – how many people are eager to fly someplace cold in the middle of winter, for example.  The important thing to know is just how different the low, off, or “shoulder” seasons may be from the high season – being willing to travel at other than the peak times can save you considerably in terms of flights and accommodations.

For example: in areas like the Caribbean and Florida, it is actually high season in the winter, when everybody escapes the cold weather elsewhere. While hurricane season technically stretches from June 1 through November 30th, it is at its “peak” from mid-August through October, when the waters are warmest. But this is also generally a great time to be in the islands – regular rain makes everything greener, the warmer waters are more pleasant to swim in, as well as attracting more fish to enjoy while snorkeling or SCUBA diving, and there are less tourists than the winter high season. Hotels may be half the cost that they are “in season” – and in more remote locations, you may have hotels practically to yourself. Flights to Florida in September and October tend to be downright cheap, since school is back in session and it’s still considered hurricane season.

Another example: Paris in August is the low season – the locals tend to leave town in droves. Hotel rooms are cheaper, and the streets are less crowded. The city doesn’t completely roll itself up in August, but you’ll find fewer boutiques open, the city markets aren’t as active, and the weather is hot and sticky. If you don’t mind all that, there is still plenty to do around the city, and you’ll do it for less money.

Is your dream to have a week or two of high luxury? Well, that may require some careful planning and budgeting, especially if you have a particular luxury hotel or experience in mind, but again – it’s a matter of where you feel you can cut some expense corners and still have the kind of experience you dream of.

A few ideas:

  • If your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, you can always go to the local market and pick up fresh fruit, snack bars, and pastries for less money than you’d spend on a sit-down breakfast/brunch.
  • Related to this, getting a hotel rate that “includes breakfast” isn’t worth it if the cost is more than $5-10/person over the room rate, especially if it just consists of cereals and fruit. You could go to to Starbucks or McDonald’s and get breakfast for less than $10! (The one obvious exception to this would be hotels that are so far from anywhere else as to be inconvenient or expensive to seek breakfast elsewhere.)
  • Restaurants often offer discounts or even two-for-ones between 3pm and 6pm (generally called some sort of “happy hour”), which tend to be their slowest times of the day; if you don’t mind eating then, it can help your budget. If you’re a late-night eater, some restaurants also offer price breaks after 9 PM.

A little flexibility can go a long way.

If you can travel midweek – Tuesday or Wednesday – that is when flights tend to be cheapest. Likewise, if you’re not traveling during prime hours of the day, you may find less expensive flights.

Do you have flexibility in your plans at either end? If the airline you’re traveling on requests travelers who might be willing to take a bump, you could find yourself in possession of free ticket(s) or airline funds; but the flip side of that is you will spend a little extra time traveling.

Depending on where you’re traveling to, and if you have the time to make up the difference, it may be less expensive to fly via an alternative airport.

For example, last fall, I wanted to visit Montreal for 4-5 days. Flying direct to Montreal – which would be an international flight – would have cost me over $450 round-trip. Instead, we got a round-trip flight via Albany, New York – at a cost of about $138 each – and a car rental for just $64. I ended up with free upgrade to a Prius. Even with the gas tank refill and the parking cost at our hotel, we still spent less for two of us to travel round-trip to Montreal than just one direct ticket there.

Yes, that meant a 3-1/2 hour drive each way, but had had enough time that it wasn’t important. I was able to fit in a side trip to Lake Placid, which I had always wanted to see, and on the way back, we stopped at the duty free shop on the Canada/U.S. border and picked up some incredible perfume bargains – so in the end, it was worth it.

Another example would be flying into an area like San Francisco or Los Angeles – cities served by multiple major airports due to the vast size of their city/region. Depending on flight and car rental costs, you may save yourself considerable costs by where you choose to fly in/out of. Alternatively, in some circumstances, should time be short and if you have a final destination somewhere outside of these very large cities, you may find the extra time gained by choosing an alternative airport worth the extra cost.

But if your time is limited, alternative airports are not always worth it. Do the math – both the financial and the clock – and decide what is worth it for you.

 

“The world’s a playground. You know that when you are a kid, but somewhere along the way, everyone forgets it.” – Yes Man

Can another destination give you what you want for less?

There are some experiences that you just can’t substitute for other places: sailing in the Greek Islands; setting foot on Antarctica; hiking the Annapurna circuit; sunrise over the Hawaiian volcanoes; taking in the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

But there’s plenty of budget alternatives for things like experiencing wine country, surfing at a beautiful beach, hiking in the mountains, and even luxury experiences like spa visits. For example, Napa is lovely – but it has gotten incredibly expensive, and is crowded on the weekends.Did you know there are vineyards in every state? You could do a “weekend in wine country” in your own part of the country!

Being creative about your destination and experiences can be fun. If your goal is simply to get out of town for a few days, why not pull out a local map and blindly put your finger on it, then choose to visit whatever place your finger lands closest to?

In the 2008 movie Yes Man, the main character, Carl (played by Jim Carrey), changes his life by choosing to say “yes!” to all of life’s opportunities instead of constantly saying “no”. He meets free spirit Alison (played by Zooey Deschanel), who fits that kind of mental approach to life.

Early in their relationship, Alison observes, “The world’s a playground. You know that when you are a kid, but somewhere along the way, everyone forgets it.” Once they have been going out for a while, they decide to go on a vacation together. As Carl is entering the airport, he runs into friends who he discovers are going to spend time at their father’s “little” place in Tahiti. You can tell that Carl at first is nervous in admitting he doesn’t have a destination; he’s too used to letting others judge him – and judging himself. But when Alison arrives, he happily picks her up and carries her to the nearest economy airline counter, where they ask for two tickets on the next flight out – which ends up sending them to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Not exactly a tourist mecca – and Carl and Alison have no idea what they’ll do once they get there. But they see a sign for a telephone museum in the airport, and they begin their adventures there, eventually visiting a meat processing plant, and taking in a University of Nebraska football game.

I’m not exactly suggesting you seek out meat processing experiences (I’ve had one – it’s pretty smelly), but I’ve tried to embrace that kind of traveling mindset ever since I saw the movie. Schedules can be well and good, but sometimes it’s great to simply explore places you would have never thought of visiting.

Think you can’t afford a vacation? Yes, you can – if you budget for it and stick to your savings plan.

You may need to track your expenses for a couple weeks to decide where you can prune corners from your day-to-day budget, but the easiest way to set aside money for vacation is as soon as you get your paycheck.

Do you have three specialty coffees per day? Do you go clothes shopping every week? It is “impossible” for you to resist a bag of your favorite snack every day at the supermarket? Decide what you feel you can live without, or at least live with less of, and put that money towards your vacation dreams.

If you don’t already have a savings account, open one up – then make sure a debit card is not attached to it, so there will not be a temptation to spend from it. (Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.) If you have direct deposit, set it up so that an amount gets deposited from each paycheck – be it $10, $25, or more, based on your vacation target plans. You might be surprised at how quickly it can add up; and if your budget is often tight, your vacation fund can also do backup duty as an emergency fund.

Are frequent flyer mile charge cards for you?

Frequent flyer miles cards aren’t for everyone. Most of them come with a yearly fee from $69-$99, and most airlines require so many miles to get anywhere good that you might as well just pay for the tickets.

If I was going to recommend a frequent flyer credit card to anyone, it would have to be Southwest Airlines. Their flights are affordable in general, and you may be surprised at how few miles it can take to get free flights with them. (I’ve gotten flights on Southwest for as little as $59 one-way, and have redeemed miles for flights for as little as 4,000 points.) They also have far fewer restrictions on how miles are redeemed versus other airlines.

Trying to get creative with collecting frequent flyer miles can be challenging, and it can be time-consuming enough that it’s not for everyone. Do your research on them before deciding you want to pursue earning tickets for travel using credit cards.

* * * * *

In short, there are plenty of ways to get creative, have fun, and enjoy travel – and even make travel dreams come true – without breaking your bank. It will take a willingness to adjust your budget a little in order to save for your goals, but anybody can travel if they plan ahead for it.

 

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

– Mahatma Gandhi 

Eight great places for fantastic doughnuts in Chicago

donut_vault

The Doughnut Vault

While not the original Chicago doughnut shop, the hole-in-the-wall Doughnut Vault, opened in 2011, is the place that really put these high-end sweet treats on the Chicago map. Using a combination of social media – especially Twitter – this shop on the River North corner of N. Franklin and W. Kinzie often has double-digit lines wrapping around the block. Their popularity led to a doughnut truck, and a second location on N. Canal near the Ogilvie Transportation Center. They have several flavors they offer daily – their amazing gingerbread stack, classic old-fashioned, and huge vanilla and chocolate, and a jelly-filled, for example – and then there is the doughnut of the day, with names like Birthday Cake, Roasted Almond Glazed, or Mexican Hot Chocolate. Doughnut Vault’s quirk helps lend to their popularity: they’re only open as long as they still have product on the shelves. On a busy morning, they might close as early as 11 AM; other days, they’re open until 3 PM.  To top things off, they sell $1 cups of coffee made from delicious local Metropolis Coffee.

Do-Rite Donuts & Coffee

Do-Rite has taken after The Doughnut Vault’s lead, and may close earlier than their posted hours if they run out of product. They have two downtown locations, 50 W. Randolph (Loop) and 233 E. Erie (Streeterville), but unlike the other doughnut shops on this list, they offer chicken sandwiches at their Streeterville location. Chicken and doughtnuts may not seem such an unusual combination when you remember the Southern comfort food of chicken and waffles. Do-Rite offers a handful of gluten-free varieties and a daily vegan choice in addition to their nine standard daily flavors.

donut_stansStan’s Donuts & Coffee

Stan’s Donuts actually originated in Westwood Village (Los Angeles) in 1963. Chicago baker Rich Labriola saw Stan Berman featured on a TV travel show, and ended up partnering with him to bring Stan’s to Chicago. Stan’s offers one of the largest daily varieities of doughnuts: seven standard flavors, plus a wide varieties of specialty flavors, bismarks, “dough boys”, long johns, danish, bars, bagels, “donut cakes”, and even ice cream sandwiches made from doughnuts and gelato.  Their display case is generally crammed full of colorful, wild doughnut creations. They now have locations at 1560 N. Damen (Wicker Park), 259 E. Erie (Streeterville), 26 E. Roosevelt (South Loop), 2800 N. Clark (East Lakeview), and soon to be opening at 3300 N. Broadway (Lakeview).

Glazed & Infused

If there was a contest for most outrageous doughnut in Chicago, the battle would no doubt come down between Stan’s and Glazed & Infused. They call their products the “flavorful re-invention of the iconic American doughnut – handcrafted and uniquely imagined”. Their maple bacon long john is a local favorite, but they offer everything from traditional old-fashioned to their heavily-loaded ‘sweet tooth’ and their indulgent blackberry cheesecake doughnuts. They now have five locations: 813 W. Fulton Market (West Loop), 201 E. Delaware Place (Streeterville), 222 N. LaSalle (Loop), 30 E. Hubbard (River North), and 939 W. Armitage (Lincoln Park).

donut_fire

Firecakes Donuts

Firecakes is one of the more recent entries in the Chicago doughnut scene, but their delicious flavors are proving popular. They also follow the Doughnut Vault’s model of “open until sold out”, and like Stan’s, they offer a doughnut ice cream sandwich. While their doughnuts aren’t as huge as some of the other shops in town, their quality is high and the taste is excellent, sporting flavors like triple Valrhona chocolate and Hawaiian-style maple glazed pineapple & bacon. They have two locations: 68 W. Hubbard (River North) and 2453 N. Clark (Lincoln Park).

Dat Donut

Dat Donut‘s slogan is “Too good to dunk!” One of the oldest dedicated-to-doughnuts bakeries in Chicago, Dat Donut has been serving up their treats since 1994, and serves them 24/7 (except Sundays). Visit them at 8251 S. Cottage Grove (Chatham). They offer traditional flavors, as well as their famous “Big Dat”, cinnamon rolls, turnovers, fritters, donut balls, muffins, and some breakfast sandwiches served on croissants.

Beavers Coffee & Donuts

This charmingly-named doughnut shop is located in the French Market at 131 N. Clinton (next to Ogilvie Transportation Center, West Loop) and Beavers is seen around town with their food truck. They offer a unique option in the doughnut market, selling “mini donuts” in four quantities (mini/4, small/9, medium/15, and large/35), which you can then personalize via a choice of four sugar toppings and a variety of signature topping flavors like s’mores, turtle, “rock star”, and “funky monkey”. Not enough fun for you? Then try their donut milkshake, which can be make to any signature topping flavor you like.

DB3 (Evanston)

One of the newest doughnut shops in the Chicago area just opened on the north side in Evanston – DB3. Unfortunately, they’re only open on weekend mornings – perhaps as they get better known, they’ll extend their hours. Located next to their sister business, Ten Mile House restaurants (http://www.tmhevanston.com/), this shop offers some great flavors.  1704 Central Street (Purple line L or Metra UP-N line to Central)

 

30 great reads that will inspire you to travel!

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This past month on my Twitter feed, I’ve been naming various travel books I have enjoyed reading. I’ve compiled them below, along with a few other titles I haven’t tweeted about.

ANTARCTICA

ASIA

  • William Dalrymple –In XanaduDalrmyple and his travel companions trace Marco Polo’s route overland from Jerusalem to Xanadu
  • Pico Iyer – Video Night in Kathmandu – Examining American culture’s impact on mid-1980’s Asia – the book that put one the best modern travel writers on the map.
  • Matthew Polly – American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China – Young kung-fu obsessed American journeys to the legendary Shaolin Temple to study martial arts
  • Mark Salzman – Iron & Silk – Young American martial artist explores life as an English teacher in post-Cultural Revolution China, and is mentored by China’s foremost martial arts master.
  • Paul Theroux – Riding the Iron Rooster – Theroux, one of the greatest travel writers of our time, spends a year exploring China via its extensive train network in the 1980s.

AUSTRALIA

  • Bill Bryson – In a Sunburned Country – In his funniest book to date, Bill Bryson explores the extremes and the fun about living in Australia.

EUROPE

NORTH AMERICA

SOUTH AMERICA

WORLDWIDE / MULTIPLE REGIONS

FICTION

  • Sir Terry Pratchett – The Color of Money – The Discworld is about to discover its first tourist, Twoflower, who hires the inept wizard, Rincewind, to be his guide around the city of Anhk-Morpork. The first book in his iconic Discworld series.