I am standing before you (well, for the moment sitting at my computer) as indisputable proof that children become a product of what you expose them to and the passions you ignite in them.
My parents instilled in us the value of the great outdoors at an early age. Time spent in nature was family time. Respect for wildlife was a fundamental lesson. Any day spent outside was a good day. Different cultures were to be explored and embraced.
We were allowed to be dirty, to climb trees, to dig for worms. We were encouraged to be independent and silly. We were trained to be good campers who picked up after themselves and always made sure the fire was completely out. We grew up road-tripping in a big blue van and staying in KOA campgrounds. Animals were revered and the land was a gift.
We saved turtles, snakes and tarantulas that found themselves on roadways and we nursed back to health baby birds and tiny squirrels that fell from their nests.
Yesterday, heading to Easter with my family, we pulled over to rescue a snake off the road because that’s what we know to do when you see an animal in need.
Scrapes, bruises and splinters were par for the course and tree houses and rope swings were our playground.
I write this with a patch of poison oak on my forehead, dirty nails and a dozen scrapes on my legs from romping through the brush. My hair still smells like campfire and my counter is littered with the remnants of s’mores I have yet to put away.
We didn't have a lot of money and we didn’t need it because it was clear that cash was not a factor in having a good time. Nearly all my toys, clothing and camp essentials came from Saturday morning garage sales found and circled in the corresponding section of our local newspaper.
These days I buy all my adventure gear through Ebay, Goodwill and Craigslist...and campsites are still preferred over fancy hotels. The smell of canvas from our old tent is pure nostalgic magic.
We attended Native American Pow Wows in fields full of fireflies with the smell of fry bread hanging in the humid Oklahoma air and distant lightening on the horizon. We were honored to be ceremoniously smudged by chiefs and asked to dance in tribal formation surrounded by regalia clad men and women of local tribes.
The chanting and rhythmic drum beats of tribal elders is still one of my favorite sounds in the world.
Today I have my own smudging items…sage I pick and dry from my local hike, a hawk feather I found in the Alaskan wilderness and an abalone shell I dove for off Catalina.
My sis and I laugh that we were the OG hipsters…road trips in a van - CHECK, Native American Pow Wows and hanging out in tee-pees - CHECK, old school VW beetle- CHECK, camping vacations - CHECK, bison - CHECK, fondness for National Parks - CHECK, copious amounts of turquoise jewelry - CHECK, bone broth - CHECK.
My dad is an avid photographer. An entire wall of my folks' garage is dedicated to photo albums. These days my Instagram feed takes up way less space but offers me the same outlet to document adventures.
When we first arrived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma as Polish immigrants we were invited to a Southern Baptist Sunday service. We sang and danced with the congregation and joined afterwards for the best Southern food you can imagine. We were the only caucasian family in a church of over a hundred people and were so loved upon and welcomed. Our best family friends were from India, Iran and Romania. We spent traditional holidays with them enjoying their food, company and celebrations.
A few weeks ago, in Tennessee, we were invited to a Southern Baptist church and I couldn't have been more at home and happy. Cultural immersion is the cornerstone of my world travels...and I miss good home made Indian food.
We toured museums like they were theme parks and picnicked more than we ate inside.
Still today any meal eaten outside just tastes better…a few grains of sand or a fly in my soup are not a problem.
My bedroom walls were covered with posters of animals gathered from ranger stations...and National Parks were the Holy Grail of good times.
These days my furniture is artistically decorated with vintage National Geographic covers, my road atlas sits by my bed, I’m still drawn to ranger stations like a moth to flame and I have season passes for various National Parks.
Gifts I wanted were rock tumblers (my dad is a geologist) and microscopes so I could make my own slides and examine everything from butterfly wings to flower petals and record my findings in a notebook. I amused myself by playing travel agent and scientist in the backyard. When I got a little older (we’re talking high school here) I would drive my friends to state parks around our home town and insist we reenact the Lewis and Clark expedition by swimming across rivers, exploring meadows and pretending we were documenting the region.
These days those who know me well hand out REI gift cards for birthdays and watch me turn into a kid in a candy store. I tear apart owl pellets to examine their content and carefully inspect bear poop curious of their diet. I still make my friends pretend we're on expeditions. Sometimes we actually are.
When I was ten-ish I wrote to National Geographic telling them how much I wanted to work for them one day. They wrote back suggesting I follow a scientific path in college.
I got a journalism degree instead but it all worked out in the end when I hosted a show for them in 2012. America's Lost Treasures. Getting my publicity shot taken in that yellow rectangle made me cry and is still one of my career highlights.
My dad just updated my National Geographic Magazine subscription as a Christmas gift…to go along with the Scientific American he got me for my birthday.
So if you ever question if your actions, words, deeds, passions and guidance affect your kids….I assure you that they do.
Dreams Do Come True
Every now and then I get to work with terrific brands and highlight some of my favorite exotic destinations. A few years ago I did a solo adventure to the Cancun, Mexico area to swim with whale sharks, play on the white sand beaches and dive the turquoise water. Now one of my favorite getaways has a new resort that's out of this world...Dreams Playa Mujeres Golf and Spa Resort. Unlimited luxury, everything included, gorgeous location! Winner winner chicken dinner. I'm always very particular about the brands I collaborate with and with Dreams Golf and Spa Resorts I can't wait for my next trip to warm water, soft sand and all the diving this mermaid's little heart could wish for! And here's the best part...if you visit Dreams Playa Mujeres Golf and Spa Resort (by clicking on the name) you can enter to win a stay for up to four people for three nights. If you win, please bring a suitcase that I can fit into with my mermaid tail!
You can also find them on social media with #ExperienceDreams
Once you get down there, you'll want to know about all the adventures you can have! If you go between June and September the whale sharks are a must. The experience of swimming with them is a lifetime bucket list must do.
Here's my whale shark story that appeared on the travel blog Wandermelon.
Kinga Philipps takes a solo adventure off the coast of Cancun and finds unspoiled beaches, transparent water and epic dives surrounded by whale sharks and manta rays.
What better place for a solo sojourn than the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and a place called Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women. It was my eat, pray, love of sorts. Except, instead of pasta, I indulged in tacos. Instead of an ashram, I found my peace beneath the waves. Instead of Javier Bardem, I met a weathered fisherman named Ramon…and his whale sharks.
Isla Mujeres is a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland and can actually be seen from Cancun’s hotel zone. Hidden in plain sight. To paint a vivid picture, the place looks like the set of a beer commercial. Transparent water, white sand that puts freshly fallen snow to shame, perfectly coifed palm trees and ridiculous sunsets. It’s a slice of still-unspoiled paradise. No one could fault you for a day spent lounging in a hammock with a cold one in hand.
But I’m not much of a lounger. I came to see the whale sharks that migrate here each June to September. The largest gathering ever recorded, 420 strong, happened right in these waters.
I was to check in with my outfitter, Searious Divers, at an internet café in the town square. There I met Ramon. If I was looking for my version of The Old Man and the Sea, I found him. Hemingway would approve. Two hours later, we had discussed everything from the migration habits of whale sharks, his long-standing conservation efforts to protect them to — randomly — the medicinal uses of various jungle plants. Ramon was one of the original fishermen in the area to encounter the whale shark gatherings. It wasn’t until 2006 that the information was released to the scientific community. With research came the tourists and those wanting to capitalize on them. Ramon has been instrumental in orchestrating protective measures and continues to fight to protect the sharks.
After all that, however, we checked the weather and Ramon informed me that whale sharks don’t like rain and disappear into the depths so tomorrow’s trip would be postponed.
I, on the other hand, like rain. I rented a bike and cruised the five-mile-long island, only slightly blinded by a mild tropical downpour. I explored every stretch of beach, gorgeous old cemeteries, visited Punta Sur where the sun first touches Mexican soil each morning, ate my fill of roadside tacos and made friends with several members of the islands well-groomed population of stray cats. My bike, nicknamed tetanus with wheels, proved itself to be a valuable off-road option and a considerable amount of exercise…which balanced the foodie in me.
On day three, I made it to the sharks. One hour by boat over choppy seas and we arrived at the feeding grounds. Whale sharks are filter feeders eating mostly plankton but show up to these waters to dine on tuna eggs…and this was an all you can eat buffet.
Massive speckled beasts surrounded us like animatronic Disney creatures on rails. Giant mouths skimmed the surface. Huge fins cut through the water. If they had been anything but gentle giants this would be a nightmare. The Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and zip lock sandwich bags are all ridiculously cool, but nature trumps us every time.
I jumped in, camera in hand, and choked on my snorkel in amazement. Thirty-foot behemoths moved toward me with mouths agape until the very last second before impact when they would gracefully divert course and glide beneath like a semi-truck with the delicate nature of a ballerina. If that’s not on your bucket list, write it in immediately.
Among the sharks were hundreds of manta rays spinning underwater and occasionally leaping out of it in alien displays of mastery over air and water. In a fortunate twist of events my camera equipment failed. Fortunate because it forced me to be present. I was no longer there to get the perfect shot. I was just there. As if on cue, a whale shark pulled up beside me and let me pace it. On my other side another joined us and I, sandwiched between two monster fish, swam watching mantas float past wishing to be nowhere else on earth in that moment but there.
Other than the whale sharks, the area offers excellent diving. I made contact with a small dive shop, Scuba Garrido, which turned out to be an excellent choice for quality of dive options as well as the people who worked there. We did two dives exploring local reefs and the well-known underwater museum where various statues, including a VW Beatle, have been erected to serve as a reconstructed reef.
On the morning of my departure I swam with the whale sharks again. Then with salt in my hair, sand still stuck to my feet and one last taco in hand, I flew home.
S5E1 - Kinga Philipps - Swimming in Shark Soup
Travel Stories Podcast » Take a listen to my story on the whale shark diving experience. Click on the title and you will be whisked away to magical podcast land.
By Backpack Digital | Travel content crafted to inspire
"Kinga loves sharks, so she went to Isla Mujeres, where whale sharks gather periodically in an afuera. She sailed the rough seas to the afuera, where she encountered one of the greatest scenes of her life. She could see the whale sharks’ dorsal fins, the manta rays swimming with them, and so she jumped into the water with her GoPro. The manta rays spun around her; the whale sharks swam around; she felt as though she was swimming in shark soup. Just then, the GoPro died, and Kinga had to be innovative on fixing her problem in order to document the experience. Between her GoPro, her phone, and her own two eyes, Kinga had to find a way to keep her memory for the rest of her life. What she discovered, though, was how to be properly present in her moment as it happened, leading to her best-ever travel experience - all while she was swimming in shark soup."
Girl Gone Wild
If you haven't been to the marvelous piece of California desert called the Mojave National Preserve you need to make time for a little adventuring. This 1.6 million acre park is the perfect place to get lost...and I mean that seriously as there are only a few paved roads, a lot of 4x4 only terrain and camping just about anywhere you want to throw your REI collection on the ground and call it home.
I went solo. I'm not saying you should, but I'll strongly suggest it. It's a chance to talk to yourself out loud, quiet the chatter in your head and wake up at 5 am to be the only footprints on the Kelso Sand Dunes as coyotes serenade your arrival.
If there are three must do's in the park they are as follows:
1. The Kelso Dunes. Rising 650 feet above the surrounding desert floor they are California's Namibia doppelgangers. Under the right conditions they sing...if you get the sand sliding they make a haunting humming sound. I don't know what they do under the wrong conditions because I can't imagine any. At sunrise the whole area is other worldly and mid week there is really not a soul there. I had the dunes to myself for hours...pouncing, sliding, playing, staring into space. I went in March and the sand was so cold I couldn't go barefoot and several weeks later I still have purple toenails from the sand pressing into my shoes. I call it a memento. Maybe bring socks and walk in those if you go when it's cold. Let me know how it works out and points in advance for style. I want to go back when it's warm and spend the night on top of the dunes under the stars.
2. The Lava Tubes: Five miles down an unmarked dirt road...that is supposed to be 4x4 only but Prius made it just fine...you enter a real, honest to goodness lava tube. Formed when the surface lava flow cooled and hardened while hot lava continued to flow underneath, these tunnels are pretty damn spectacular. A few holes in the roof of the tube allow in shafts of light that beam at you like something out of Star Trek. The light is perfect between 11am and 1pm to take great pictures and just hang out...I mean, how often do you get to hang out in lava tubes. As you saw in the video, throwing a bit of dirt into the light shafts makes for a great photo...just keep your eyes closed.
3. The Rings Trail and backroads: The park is full of dirt roads of varying degrees of difficulty. I have a Prius. I took it in places it should not go and sweated profusely a few times while flooring it through sand traps thinking that a new bumper was a solid alternative to walking ten miles to the nearest spot where other humans might eventually venture past. Don't do that. I was like an after school special where the character does exactly what they shouldn't and then calamity strikes...except I evaded calamity and did it again the following weekend. To be safe, get a good map or road atlas, a full sized spare tire, loads of water and then go exploring. You really do feel a million miles away in places.
The Rings Trail is a fun little walk with some low level adventuring. You have to climb down and back up the trail via a series of rings. It's not scary or dangerous unless you have problems navigating street curbs, but it is a bit of fun and the terrain is really gorgeous. By the looks of it it could have inspired the Flintstones.
For everyone who asked on my social media, "How do you shoot these if you're by yourself?" I always bring a small, light tripod (you can get on for less than $20 on Amazon) and I roll video. So, I get all the shots I want and I also get to play and enjoy without obsessing over getting a cool photo. Then I screen grab from the video. I also slept in my Prius (super cozy for one) to be close to the locations I want to visit. In the mornings I turned on music...Shakey Graves, Strurgill Simpson and Griffin House...and danced while brushing my teeth to get warm. It was low 30s at night in March but the days were gorgeous.
A Solo Adventure to Alaska...As printed on The Wayward Post, December 2016
I live in Los Angeles. Yet something in me is genetically programmed with a higher probability of booking a last-minute trip to Alaska on a Friday night than making it to dinner in Hollywood. I’m okay with that.
I picked Juneau as a four-day solo getaway at the start of October 2016 rather spontaneously because of its reputation as the prettiest city in Alaska with excellent hiking, wildlife and proximity to water. I was also fascinated by the fact that Juneau is unreachable by car so it’s a rather self-contained destination unless you're coming by air or boat. A place has to offer quite a dose of something special if it’s that hard to get into…or out of.
Solo travel is nothing new for me. I’m actually an outspoken advocate of everyone, especially women, doing a good amount of adventuring on their own. It’s good for the soul and helps sharpen the senses—by that I mean everything from sense of direction to sense of comfort eating alone to sense of knowing when it’s time to hightail it out of a situation. All good things to have.
These days it's not uncommon to meet solo female travelers but the reaction to them varies significantly by region. In Southeast Asia it's quite normal to see women backpacking alone even though you might still get tossed in the Eat, Pray, Love bucket. In Alaska...it's a tad less common. Possibly you’re escaping something. A boyfriend, a job… or the law. The good news is that Alaskans don't really care. Felony shmelony. I did find that I was a bit of a curiosity when I emerged from the woods at the foot of a glacier and announced that I had hiked alone for two hours. After a few follow-up questions to assess my mental sanity and lack of homicidal tendencies, I was embraced as a respected adventure traveler…. until I took a selfie with bear poop and then my sanity was again in doubt.
On all trips, but solo ones in particular, I like to keep my lodging options open so I generally only pre-book the first night. In modern travel, Airbnb is a total game changer. It’s not just the cost that’s attractive, it’s also the conversation. I do my research beforehand looking for longtime residents of the area with good reviews from other visitors. I particularly like to hear that the hosts had good suggestions on what to explore. No guidebook will ever beat local advice.
The lovely couple I stayed with didn’t disappoint. Within an hour of my arrival I had all four days planned with hikes, places to eat, best spots to see bears, an app for spotting the aurora borealis and all the local history, insights, tidbits and politics I could want. My favorite story they shared was that of “China Joe,” a Chinese-American merchant who opened Juneau’s first bakery in 1881 during the gold rush boom. He was known for his kindness and generosity in feeding down-on-their-luck miners and children.
When anti-Chinese sentiment turned ugly and people were harassed and forced to leave, Joe was protected by the pioneers he had spared from starvation and despair. Armed men stood in line in front of his shop to defend him. “China Joe” remained in Juneau as the only person of Chinese descent. If you’re thinking this would make a historically accurate, tearjerker of a movie, I agree. As would the tale of Romeo, Juneau’s friendly black wolf, who lived side-by-side with residents and their dogs for six years. Stories are what make the world go ‘round, and when you sit at someone’s breakfast table with their cat and black lab…you get them in spades.
First on my agenda was the gem of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier. During the tourist season (May-September) you can helicopter right onto the ice, kayak up to it or take a guided hike. In the off-season, your only option is to hike in yourself. It’s about a four hour round-trip on the West Glacier Trail, which reviews label as “dangerous” and “unmarked.”
An ominous sign at the head of the trail states that around 12 people a year have to be rescued after getting injured or lost. That might be true, but you can probably avoid the discomfort and embarrassment of being a statistic with a good dose of common sense. You're in the wilderness so be prepared. If you’re fit, have good shoes, a few layers to keep you warm, plenty of water and flags for marking the trail, you shouldn’t have a problem. It does get steep in places, you do have to climb some rocks and towards the end you make a rather aggressive descent down loose rock to the glacier itself…but as evidenced by my writing this article, it’s survivable.
I suppose that, on the bright side of getting lost, the views from the search and rescue helicopter must be unbeatable.
The trail winds through gorgeous primeval-looking temperate rainforest; it follows Mendenhall Lake and then climbs upward offering rather ridiculously sweeping views of the expansive 13-mile long glacier. If you’re alone the trick is to bring a light tripod and roll video on your phone so you can later take screen grabs making it look like you had a professional photographer tagging along.
The glacier itself is otherworldly. This is where I will place my own disclaimer. Entering the ice caves is an at-your-own-risk activity. The ice can collapse and large boulders can fall, but I’ll tell you this: standing in a glowing turquoise cave of frozen water is one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve done… and I’ve done a lot of traveling.
The blue light filtering through the ice caves is surreal and you have a sense of timelessness knowing that the water captured in that mound of ice over your head has been there since the last ice age. A fun fact to impress your friends: a glacier’s striking hue is the result of dense ice absorbing all other colors of the spectrum, reflecting only blue. Who’s the smartest one in the room now, eh? This Smurf-colored wonder is also a sobering example of climate change confirmed by the date markers showing the glacier’s location going back to the early-1900s. Find the year you were born and see how far the glacier has retreated since. Sadly, Mendenhall Glacier and its ice caves might need to work their way up your bucket list before they disappear.
The wildlife in Alaska is out of control. In my first 24 hours I encountered three bears, a porcupine and 12 bald eagles. I stopped counting at 12. By the end of the trip I was a professional porcupine street-crossing guard, a trained bear-at a-safe-distance-observer and bald eagles got about as much notice as seagulls.
You can’t drive out of Juneau but you can drive about 40 miles north of town to the end of the road. Literally. There’s a sign that says END riddled with bullet holes. Food for thought on if it’s target practice or frustration at not being able to go further into the majestic Tongass National Forest. The drive on Glacier Highway takes you past Auke Bay, the ferry terminal, the lovely Shrine of Saint Therese, along the channels and by countless coves that make you want to take up landscape painting. It also takes you past a little hole in the wall yet super-hip eating establishment called GonZo, which happens to make the best Banh Mi sandwich I’ve ever had. What a kick-ass Vietnamese sandwich is doing in Alaska I don’t know, but eating it is a must.
11806 Glacier Hwy #1f
Juneau, AK 99801
What’s truly delightful about Alaska is that you can camp and have a fire just about anywhere. This information to a girl from LA, where street parking is regulated like Homeland Security, was like the opening shot of the Oklahoma Land Run. I raced to the store—grabbed sausage, bread, wine and matches—and canvassed every cove until I found my perfect spot for a beach bonfire.
My selection was Sunshine Cove for its perfect crescent-shape and little accompanying island. Locals mentioned, and research confirmed, that it’s also a great scuba diving spot, but you have to draw a line at what you’ll do solo and that’s on the more-than-calculated-risk end of mine. Instead, I sat in solitary bliss roasting Polska Kielbasa, sipping wine straight from the bottle, playing music and watching the sunset over the water. ALONE. Honestly people, it gets no better than this. Woman builds fire, woman roasts meat, woman has stupidly stunning Alaskan cove to herself without a care in the world… until it gets dark.
Every outdoor enthusiast is ingrained with the knowledge that dusk and dawn are prowling times of predators—bears, sharks, vampires, creepy humans… So like any properly paranoid individual, I stomped out my fire, left no trace and ran to my car like a cartoon character kicking up dust. Ironically, the only bear I encountered that night was the huge black bear waddling across the street next door to my bed and breakfast… which reminded me to take the sausage leftovers out of the trunk.
Best Western Grandma’s Feather Bed
2358 Mendenhall Loop Rd
Juneau, AK 99801
The Best Western Grandma’s Feather Bed is a steal in the off-season with a tasty breakfast and comfortable beds. I soaked in the tub and mused over how lovely it is that in this prodigious state people can be afforded such freedom to roam and enjoy the resources without destroying them. Even though Juneau sees an influx of visitors during tourist season, every trail, beach, park and street was pristine.
A full-day hike took me up Mount Juneau. It’s not that the hike is long, it just happens to be up the steep face of a mountain. So steep in fact that if you have a fear of heights it might give you the heebie jeebies. It did me and I eventually waited for a friendly hiker to come down so I could walk with him and take my mind off the swirling in my head. The views of the city, surrounding mountains and Gastineau Channel are exceptional though so even if you have to creep along at a snail’s pace, stop to eat blueberries along the alpine meadows and sing loudly to avoid surprising bears, it’s worth it.
When The Saints Go Marching In is my go-to fear song so the local wildlife was treated to four days of serenading. Needless to say, no bears invaded my personal space. It’s worth mentioning that Alaska is both black bear and grizzly country so carrying bear spray and wearing bells to make noise are good ideas. Locals advocate bear spray over guns with the argument that it’s more effective, humane and easier to use. I didn’t test the theory but it sounds logical.
On the opposite side of the valley from Mount Juneau is Mount Roberts. A beautiful five-mile hike through tall, moss-covered trees to the top of the tramway… which stops running September 31… so feet are your only option in the off-season. You can rest on the platforms overlooking the city and decide if you want to keep going along the ridge or head back to town for some lunch at local favorite Pel’meni for some Russian dumplings. Mount Roberts also offers a great perspective of the Mount Juneau hike, so if you did that one first you will have your “Holy crap, I can’t believe I did that moment.” If you plan to do it after, you might think twice.
2 Marine Way
Juneau, AK 99801
Besides the world-class hiking, there is plenty of history to explore. At the start of the popular Perseverance Trail you can investigate old mining ruins that at one time were among the world’s largest gold producers in the world. On the south side of Douglas Island are the historic Treadwell ruins, a complex of fern-covered structures that not long ago housed four separate mines, workers and their families.
Equally fascinating to the history of the mining era is the visual reminder that nature readily takes back her space as soon as our footprints have faded. Alaska is wild. It says so right on the license place… the last frontier.
Its nature and emptiness are so striking that if you stay long enough you might disappear into the forest and forget about your old life. There really is a call of the wild that exists in places like this. The last bastions of pristine wilderness. It draws you back. Something very primal and stirring. It beckons to the fierceness and instinct in all of us. I contemplated trading in my condo for a campervan and living off the land. Not the worst idea I’ve had. The history even feels more recent, more vivid here. In Alaska, you sense it in the people.
Finding old-timers to talk to when traveling solo is the holy grail. Generally, unless they are particularly ornery, they are delighted for the company and swapping of stories. For me, there is no better source of local history and flavor.
Hangar on the Wharf
2 Marine Way #106
Juneau, AK 99801
My old-timer came with a bowl of clam chowder and a window seat… as most restaurants won’t seat you in the prime window booths if you're alone. This is usually a great point of irritation to solo travelers, but in this case it worked out in my favor since I was seated next to Tom. Tom was a delight and a gentleman. He has lived in Juneau since before Alaska became a state in 1959. He eats at Hangar on the Wharf three times a week, where he brings his own peanut butter to add nutritional value to his burger and a full bag of candy for the employees who know him by name. He came to Juneau as a civil engineer when the streets were still dirt and there was a solid red-light district on one end of town. He told me stories about the good time girls who would pay the young men to do their shopping for them since they weren’t allowed in stores for reasons of decency. He also told me about all the recent bear attacks, where the float planes used to be serviced and where to buy the freshest seafood.
These days the streets in Juneau are paved and the red light district is gone, but the flavor of a former mining-town-turned-seasonal-tourist-destination and home to hearty nature-loving citizens is in full bloom. The heart of the city is tucked between the mountains and the channel, offers enough saloons for good drinking, enough tasty spots for good eating and doesn't yet feel like the cruise ship industry has turned it into a snow globe version of itself. That dose of something special I was looking for? I found it. A place to be still. Even when hiking 20 miles in four days. I got to be a wild thing again. It’s invigorating to remember how that feels.
I understand why Alaska’s people love their state. It’s wild, it’s pristine, it affords a sense of freedom as rare as the silence that comes with it. Best of all? It’s delightfully unoccupied.
Flexibility and rolling with the punches...
I had a four hour dinner with one of my best friends the other night. One of those friends who you can discuss life with, find joy and comedy in the ups and downs and laugh at the shmutz that gets thrown at you sometimes…or as we call it “stumbling into a patch of stinging nettles.” Both of us, as avid travelers, discussed life in terms how we approach travel….with as much grace, flexibility and going with the flow as we can muster.
When you travel you are tested and tried, things don't always go according to plan, there are good and bad surprises around every corner; you can be thrilled, excited, disappointed, crushed, frightened, hurt and redeemed all in one journey….and that’s what life is isn't it? A journey. Pretty much ever philosophy, religion and personal fitness plan teaches flexibility and non attachment… you don't want to be the reed that breaks. Rigidity is not natural. Trees sway with the wind, birds soar on air currents… flexibility is survival. The moment you hang on too tight, you attach yourself to an outcome or you don't allow yourself to let go and move past certain situations you upset the natural balance of things and make life infinitely harder on yourself.
I’VE TRAVELED WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT PHASED BY ANYTHING:
THE CAR BROKE DOWN AND WE HAVE TO WALK TEN MILES…OK, LETS GET WALKIN'.
THE PLAN HAS GONE OUT THE WINDOW…FINE, WE'LL MAKE A NEW ONE.
HOTEL IS FULL, IT’S RAINING, SPIDERS EVERYWHERE, FERRY JUST LEFT, MONKEY BIT ME…NO PROBLEM.
AND I’VE TRAVELED WITH PEOPLE WHO SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF IN A BIG WAY:
THE CAR BROKE DOWN AND WE HAVE TO WALK A MILE...PANIC.
THE PLAN CHANGED...PANIC.
PANIC. PANIC. PANIC. PANIC. PANIC.
So the point to remember is that the missed flights of life are not the end of the world…sometimes they are actually the beginning of another adventure. We WILL get rerouted, we WILL lose our luggage, we WILL encounter bouts of Montezuma’s Revenge…so how will you handle it?….with panic or with grace? In the end, it’s up to you.
Isn't it magical to think that it really IS up to us? I don't mean to get all deep here but I'm gonna... we have a finite amount of time here. Moments and experiences should be valued above everything else...how you spend your time, who you spend your time with, what you think about, what you talk about, what you allow to affect you. Use your time wisely. Learn to relax, enjoy the ride and realize that we are all where we need to be...
Plantains...Cubans just get it...
Ahi nama! Sometimes, simplicity is key. It's true for makeup, architecture, relationships, and food. It's less true if you are a drag queen, Gaudi enthusiast or DMV employee...but rarely is anything universally valid.
Rice, beans and PLANTAINS. What's complicated about that? Nothing. What's wonderful about that? Everything.
Gwen Stefani probably should have sang the praises of these mouth watering bringers of joy and love, but I understand that P-L-A-N-T-A-I-N doesn’t sound as hip-hoppity fun as B-A-N-A-N-A. None the less, I have written her people to correct the wrong.
PLANTAINS are a staple of diet in the Caribbean, South and Central America, several African countries, India and my kitchen.
By simple default of having eaten their version the most, Cubans get full credit for the best plantains I’ve had... and since I rarely order PLANTAINS alone, it's important to note that part of their appeal is how they compliment the meal. The fabulous versatility of this humble relative of the common banana is that it CAN be just dessert, but why leave it at that when you can mash them into your black beans and rice or on top of your garlic chicken. It works everywhere! You can't do that with cherry pie! Try as you might, pie + meat loaf will "no doubt" send you to a p-o-r-t-a-p-o-t-t-y faster than you can say bad joke.
How you like your PLANTAINS cooked is personal preference. Some like them a bit more firm and less sweet. I call those people wimps. I want mine as soft as possible (saves me the work when I'm mashing them into my beans and rice) and well coated in sticky, buttery sweetness.
My personal favorite Cuban spot in LA is El Cochinito. It means little pig... which is misleading because every time I go I am in fact a big pig. There are blog wars fought in LA over whether El Cochinito's down home charm (by charm I mean hole in the wall in a strip mall) and excellent food out weights Versailles more well known fare. Honestly, both are good. If I had to create the perfect LA-Cuban plate I would take Versailles garlic chicken (with extra sauce) and an order of their PLANTAINS and El Cochinitio’s black beans and rice along with their PLANTAINS. I'd also order the lechon asdado from both spots....but I digress.
If you live in LA, great. Try El Cochinito and Versailles and decide for yourself. If you live elsewhere, go mash some local PLANTAINS into local beans and rice and enjoy. If you live in Cuba...well done my friends, well done.
Thanks Dee for turning me into a not so little pig.
There is one thing at the tippity top of my travel essentials list: Chapstick...
Dry air on planes, cold weather climates and dehydration all wreak havoc on our lips. “I want my lips to be more cracked and dry,” said no one ever.
Chapsticks are a must. They are also expensive... a nice organic chapstick will set you back between four and twelve dollars. At my rate of consumption that equals out to a compact automobile every few years.
So here’s the DIY version….organic, fast, plentiful…and makes great gifts.
Ingredients (I buy on Amazon. Use organic):
*1 part beeswax (1 tablespoon. Add more if you like it firmer)
*2 parts shea and/or cocoa butter (2 tablespoons)
*2 parts coconut oil (2 tablespoons)
10-20 drops of essential oil of choice (optional)
1. Put about an inch of water in a small pot. Turn on medium heat.
2. Place a small glass jar in the water. Don’t splash water into the jar.
3. Place all ingredients except the essential oils inside the jar and slowly melt. Stir occasionally.
4. When all ingredients are melted turn off heat. Keep the jar in the water to keep it warm.
5. If you want to add essential oils, drop in 10-20 drops.
6. Use a glass dropper to fill the jars or tubes. (I use a dropper from face serums).
7. The chapstick will settle so top it off after a few minutes.
8. Hand out to friends, hide under your pillow, throw in your purse.
Chouquette...you rocked my breakfast world...
When it comes to breakfast, I’ve always been more of a breakfast burrito girl. A pastry feels like dessert and that just seems like the gateway drug to my eating a Snickers bar with my coffee... and calling it the breakfast of champions. My morning cuisine world was rocked however when I met the humble CHOUQUETTE. It’s the French equivalent of the doughnut hole…except the French have the class not to use the word hole in their pastry of choice. Basically, it’s a flaky, buttery, puff pastry baked to golden perfection with nuggets of course sugar on the outside. Funny how so many delicious things have a simple ingredients list. The CHOUQUETTE boasts little more than flour, butter, salt, sugar, eggs and milk. There is nothing on the inside as not to spoil its simplicity. It’s a delicate, melt in your mouth treat served up in French bakeries in little paper sacks (to make it even more freakin’ cute). The correct pronunciation is Shoo-ket…but I just usually go with the standard classless “Ill have that” while pointing my finger at desired food item. The French also realize that something this good should not be relegated to one specific category such as breakfast. They eat it whenever they want and, as the French baker who introduced me said, “we eat them like you eat popcorn.” I immediately purchased a ticket to France, bought a summer home in the countryside and opened my own bakery…in my head.
I was introduced to the CHOUQUETTE in Portland’s Saint Honore Boulangerie, but they are popular in most French bakeries…and if you are a jet setter…in France. In doing my research, I did find several blogs arguing which bakeries in Paris serve excellent CHOUQUETTES, and which are to be spit upon (the French like to spit). Investigate appropriately as I would be devastated if an imposter ruined the experience for anyone. Also, don’t get the ones in plastic bags,…they’re bad for the environment. Free with purchase of each paper sack of CHOUQUETTES is a visual of yourself in a French café sipping espresso and watching the sun dapple the side of some awe inspiring architectural gem…or… an American tourist in white Reeboks and a fanny pack being berated by a French waiter for ordering the local delicacy, French fries. All beautiful.
Life is a whirlwind. A short whirlwind… and sometimes we blaze through the beauty of it so set on our next destination that we truly miss the details of the journey…and let me assure you, the magic IS in the details...
I have traveled extensively in my career and personal life, yet every time I get on a plane and it breaks through the clouds I stare out the window in wonder and must look enchanted enough that I have been asked on a number of occasions, “Is this your first flight?” Well, no actually…I’ve just added new pages to my passport, lapped the globe several times and worn out numerous sets of luggage…but that’s beside the point. Every time I hear that question I take it as an immense compliment. My eyes still see the magic in everyday experiences. One of my greatest accomplishments is that I have trained my brain to be as present as possible, to still react with childlike wonder to what many adults pass by without a glance.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.” - Paul Hawken
I recently met a a woman at a ranger station who was playing the didgeridoo…an aboriginal Australian instrument with a resonating, booming sound that is difficult to ignore. She was playing it in Ojai, California so it was even more unusual. I beelined for her and had a chat. She smiled and told me that part of the fun of playing is to see who responds. Children flock to her in amazement and want to hold the instrument and feel its vibration. Most adults float past as if she wasn't even there…except for the occasional soul who pays attention.
So what’s the trick? Do we all need to run for the Dali Lama to see if he can train our minds to look with wonder at that which is before us? Well, I’ve never met the Dali Lama (although I hear excellent things), but I did have a fantastically creative producer on my Travel Channel projects who took great care to ensure that we captured the true sense of place in our pieces. He would encourage me to do the five senses exercise before our shoots. He would have me describe in detail what I saw, smelled, felt, tasted and heard. I instantly felt more present. More connected. More in touch with what's around me. It became such a fun activity that we turned it into teasers for the show.
Nantucket Five Senses Exercise:
Now I use that same exercise on a daily basis when I want to check back in to the present moment.
This morning I did a hike in Malibu. I stopped every five steps to notice the beads of rain on leaves of various plants. Holy moly it was pure art. I do that hike nearly every day so I could have just hurried past, fixated on getting a workout in. Glad I didn’t. I would have missed the beauty in the details of a dewy morning.
I paused and did the five senses exercise. I noticed the softened color palate from the foggy morning air. I paid attention to the yellow mustard flowers and the vibrant green grass. I smelled wet earth and sage. I felt tiny raindrops hit my face and noticed their coolness on my skin. I heard rain hitting leaves and waves in the distance. I could taste a heavy damp air laden with fragrance.
It's like an internal reset button. It slows you down and helps you focus. Give it a go...The Dali Lama would be proud.
Japanese Chicken Meatballs...delicious wobbly bits...
Meatballs are like hot dogs. No one really knows what's in them, but they are so tasty that we ignore the unsettling feeling they might be made from the wobbly bits of various critters. Yakitori is Japanese grilled, skewered chicken. What I like about the Japanese is that they own their wobbly bits and proudly list them on the menu. At Nanban-Kan the CHICKEN MEATBALLS are delicious and one might safely assume that they are made from the non funky pieces of chicken. How do I make this sleuth like deduction? Because the funky pieces of chicken are listed all on their own. You can order skewered chicken skin, chicken tails, chicken neck, chicken cartilage and chicken liver (other creatures of land and sea are available in tasty skewered form as well). So, my point is that if all those lovely parts are being used in their own right, then the CHICKEN MEATBALLS are probably made with the boring ole leftover white breast meat. Here's a confession....I was eating with a friend who might not be used to my odd eating habits, so when I saw chicken tails on the menu (my favorite part of a chicken) I desperately wanted to indulge, but was embarassed. My loss. I'll have to go back and dive right into the funky stuff. Wobbly bits are generally my favorite bits.
Everything we ordered was very tasty (the lamb was also excellent), but I chose the CHICKEN MEATBALLS for blogging purposes because they were the standout favorite. The fact that everything on the menu is between $4 and $9 is pretty good too. Portions are small, but that gives you more opportunity to try a variety. We ordered up a storm between the two of us and our bill was under $60. Nice.
Thanks Julie for the recommendation and thanks Jenn for testing it out with me! Next time I hope you are up for chicken tails.
Badminton Cup...I'm so glad I was driven to drink so I could find you...
I don't drink. I haven't in years. The fun thing about not drinking is that when you tell people you don't drink they look at you funny, and, if they're brave, they ask "Oh, did you have a problem?" My answer is "Yes, yes I did. It made me fat." Truth is, I rather eat a slice of cake than suck down the same amount of calories in a cocktail. All this brings me to how I found the great and wonderful BADMINTON CUP. My last job taught me the meaning of the term 'driven to drink.' I found myself working on a project that was such a disaster, people, with genuine concern, said to me "Kinga, be careful. This might be a reality show. Maybe they are trying to see what your snapping point is."
Just short of that snapping point we found ourselves at The Slanted Door in San Francisco. God bless that place. We made them furious, were totally unprofessional and yet they still took wonderful care of us. At one point I found myself face to frosty glass with a beautifully presented cocktail... The BADMINTON CUP. I stared at it for a moment, mesmerised by the perfect sprig of mint blossoming from the fresh slice of cucumber; the drink itself, opaque in a way that implies a subtle sweetness with tart undertones; and a dimly lit atmosphere complete with sad music (playing in my head)...then I reached out with the desperate gesture of a person grasping at something that will slow their decent into madness and acts of violence... and without a second thought, sucked half of it down. Now, I might not be a drinker, but I do know a good drink. This one was magical. It was delicious. It was sweet, but not too sweet. It was just tart enough to hit the taste buds with enough force to activate the salivary glands, with a hint of mint that tied it all together and at once complimented each individual ingredient...a perfect blend of Plymouth gin, lime, mint and cucumber, served long. Most importantly, it kept me from doing something drastic...like going back to my room and ordering $800 worth of room service dessert.
If this entry sounds like an excerpt from my diary, forgive me, it is. It just so happens that my diary entry is about an absolutely fantastic drink. I think that's fair.
Thank you fate for orchestrating events in such a way that I was forced to find myself enjoying this delightful drink.
Find your peace on the road...tips from a travel junkie...
Travel is fantastic. It’s magical, eyeopening and inspiring. It can also be exhausting and leave you in need of a serious recharge. My goal is to help you navigate travel with some fancy footwork of fun and much needed R&R.
How you choose to let go and reboot is your own personal choice, but the secret joy of business travel is that, at some point, you will be left all alone…to do whatever you want in your precious free moments. Nap? Sure! Room service? Absolutely! Hot bath? You know it! But first…why not clear the mind with a little extra curricular activity to reset the brain from work mode to downtime.
Nature…Does a Body and Mind Good
Nature is my happy place and I seek it out like a magpie looking for shiny things. The good news is that even the most urban location has something nature oriented nearby. A park, a beach, a lake, a marina…even a small garden to pocket picnic in will do in a pinch. (Pocket Picnic is my term for any food you can successfully place in your purse or pocket and carry to a desired location.)
No matter where I’m going or what I’m doing, I always pack shoes that were meant for walking, one fitness outfit, sunblock and a swimsuit. When I find myself with a bit of extra time and in need of switching my brain from work to play, I take a look at one of my favorite websites:
Type in your location and it will provide you with a tantalizing assortment of nearby parks, natural areas, nature centers and even museums, aquariums and observatories.
If you want to add a little fitness to your reset activity, walk. Some of my greatest city discoveries have come about through the simple act of wandering. Try it. Walking is the new Uber. I might have never found the beautiful Ngoc Son Temple on a lake in Hanoi, Vietnam if I hadn’t set out to explore the city on foot.
If you're lucky, your hotel might even have bikes for you to use and explore the area on two wheels. If that's not the case, dust off those walking shoes and hit the pavement.
A Novel Idea
Ever been to New York City in the dead of winter? You probably won’t be too tempted to explore Central Park’s natural wonders unless your idea of a good time is urban snow shoeing (hey, sounds kinda fun). However, if you’re thinking a cup of tea and a good book sounds like a more relaxing way to unwind then you might be a shoe in (see what I did there) for another one of my favorite apps:
This little gem will help you locate independent book stores in your area. Yep, just like the one in Never-ending Story. Perfect location for an afternoon of reading poetry and sipping chamomile infusion.
Enjoy your travels and take good care of yourself. The better you feel, the more efficient you are in all areas of your life.
Foie Gras Burger...duck meet cow meet my mouth...
It's widely believed that making a good burger is simple. It's so ubiquitous that one is lulled into the assumption that it's easily perfected… just throw some meat on a grill, flip it over, toss it on a bun with a bunch of extras and viola! However, my little grasshopper, the act that seems so simple is in fact an art form, attempted by many yet perfected by few. I love a good burger...who doesn’t (vegetarians excluded from previous comment), but the truth is that I rarely find a burger that really makes me want to come back. The fact that there is an endless array of possibilities within the simple idea of burgerdom adds to the dilemma. A well made burger can be as simple as meat on bread, yet with the right blend of beef (or sometimes more exotic fare) and skill in preparation, it can stand its ground against any bells and whistles laden competitor. With that said, I am always a fan of chefs going out on a limb to try something new and creative. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't... but the attempt is always appreciated and admired. One such burger that I encountered on a recent visit to Seattle was the FOIE GRAS BURGER with black truffle and artichoke aiioli at Campagne. Like all food, especially of the more exotic variety, it attracts a certain palate…and a certain moral persuasion. I won’t get into the ethics of foie gras, but I will simply state that I find it delicious. If ducks found such great joy in the act of eating my liver, I could hardly blame them for doing so. Anyway, the burger caught my attention immediately. That’s a start, but by no means a guaranteed finger-licker since a jellybean andbanana burger would equally catch my eye…and then see me through to the restroom at a determined pace that you can’t mistake for anything other than someone about to be ill. The FOIE GRAS BURGER, however, arrived and delivered. The delicate Wagyu beef complimented the two slices of buttery foie gras in a way that brought out the flavor of both without canceling each other out. I was initially a bit concerned about the marinated onion overpowering the meat but the marinating Gods smiled favorably on these onions and took the whole operation up a notch. I prefer my burgers medium rare, unlessthe house recommends otherwise, and the FOIE GRAS BURGER was just as moist as it should be without creating a murder scene on my plate. Well done Campagne well done.
*This will not be my only burger post as a good burger is always worthy of a writeup.
Stress free travel tips...
1. READ...Pack a book. A real book. Technology overload can get the best of us – take a break to just read. Plus, you can dog ear your favorite pages, highlight great quotes and write notes in the margins. When I finish a book on the road, I leave it with a note for someone else to enjoy.
2. SLEEP...For a good night of sleep my essentials include ear plugs, eye mask and lavender oil - which is known for its power to reduce anxiety and emotional stress. I also practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique. (breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, breathe out for eight seconds).
3. STROLL...When visiting a new city, de-stress by taking a stroll – it gets the blood flowing and there’s no better way to explore. There is always a pair of flip flops in my purse.
4. BREATHE...Spot quiet spaces around your hotel, like parks or museums, and enjoy some alone time pre or post meetings.
5. SAVE TIME...Travel essential: dry shampoo – it eliminates the process of washing, heating and styling your hair on those busy mornings. It’s also a great way to freshen up after a long flight....and it doesn't count against your liquids in your carryon!
Food trucks food trucks, I love you...gyros, pierogi and Thai snacks too...
The FOOD TRUCK movement that has exploded onto the culinary scene and taken the country by storm has its roots in both a paradigm shift of entrepreneurial thinking ("think big" is now "think smart") and the economic state of things (our belts are so tight we're wearing corsets).
Once the foray of churro stands and hot dog vendors, parking lots are sprouting FOOD TRUCKS like weeds. They offer a creative environment and the freedom to be your own boss. Everyone from maverick chefs to the housewife with a great recipe repertoire has a shot at the prize...a long line of hungry customers and a writeup in notable food publications. Financially, the yearly permit on a FOOD TRUCK versus a restaurant lease is the difference between tent camping and renting out the Taj Mahal.
What does it mean for foodies? Not only does the food come considerably cheaper from a truck (my gyro from a highly touted truck in Portland cost me $7...smaller overhead = lower price) but the core of cuisine, taste, is the only selling point. The playing field is level. All the other factors that diners pay for are eliminated; ambiance, architecture, table service, posh clientele, singing waiters, location...gone, gone, gone. When 30 trucks line up in a parking lot the only competitive edge is the quality of the food they serve. Only the really tasty can survive when there is nothing to hide behind. And where have you ever seen so many options within one block...Thai, Greek, Polish, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Mexican, French, Korean, vegan, Italian.... No restaurant has to endure that much competition within, literally, a few paces. Keeps everyone at the top of their game.
What do you look for when you see a parking lot of trucks? A line. I look for the locals... construction workers, cops, meter maids...those are the return customers. This very morning in Portland (home to a thriving and fabulous FOOD TRUCK scene) I grabbed a breakfast burrito from a truck where a group of hard-hatters were doing the same. The burrito was awesome. Over 3 days I ate at Portland's FOOD TRUCKS 6 times, always looking for lines... with a 98% success rate.
So find a lot-o-trucks and remember the golden rule...if the garbage guy is there then it's probably worth getting in line...cause he's not there for the chandeliers or to be seen.
Search online for FOOD TRUCKS in your area. Most of them have twitter accounts (weird). Here are two for LA and Portland...
*FOOD TRUCKS also sometimes go by the code name "food carts." Don't let that fool you.
Funnel Cake...deep fried nostalgia...
I wish I could revise the food pyramid. It's outdated anyway so someone should. If that someone were me, it would look something like this:
6-11 servings of fried things,
3-5 servings of stuff with truffle oil on it,
2-4 servings of hot dogs...fully loaded,
2-3 servings of thai food,
And finally, use green leafy stuff sparingly.
Speaking of deep fried...there is one food item held in esteem above all others in this department...the FUNNEL CAKE. Deep fried dough covered in powdered sugar and cinnamon (I skip the fruit toppings for a more pure experience) and a native habitat of fairs, carnivals, sporting events, piers and amusement parks...it's the pegasus of fried foods. I only indulge a few times a year since regular consumption would diminish the funnel cake's magical nostalgia inducing-properties... and also probably kill me.
I like to envision Norman Rockwell creating his iconic paintings while eating FUNNEL CAKE and drinking a Coke...Oh, and wrapped in an American flag while humming "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on a freshly mowed lawn. Awkward? Not in the slightest!
I salute you oh mighty FUNNEL CAKE, oh bringer-inner of summer.
If you live in LA, your year round options are The Grove ( in the old school farmers market) and the Santa Monica Pier. If you live in the midwest, it's probably sold in your local gas station. East coast residents can most likely hit up their local pier or sea side amusement park, and boast that their region is where the mighty FUNNEL CAKE originated in the US. If it ever comes up at trivia night...or if you really want to impress a date...go ahead and throw out that the FUNNEL CAKE is part of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine with Germanic roots (I'd be impressed...but I don't know about normal girls).
If you like FUNNEL CAKE, you might also like: lemonade, the sound of cicadas, the smell of honeysuckle, golden retrievers, BBQ, muscle cars and hanging out at Wal Mart.