Mud Season Escapes: Where Ski Towns Go After The Snow

sayulitaThe countdown has begun; most ski resorts will be closing in roughly three to four weeks, and then they’ll temporarily become ghost towns. Welcome to mud season, the bi-annual, post-season time when businesses shutter and residents escape to hotter climes – usually (die-hards head to South America to chase the snow).

Be they lift op or millionaire, most locals have their favorite vacation spots – most of them affordable and south of the border. I’ve lived in my share of ski towns (and thus enjoyed mud season exodus), and there’s just no avoiding the fact that certain destinations are southerly extensions of the mountains. What can I say? Ski bums have great taste.

The following are some of the most popular places locals flock to for mud season. The good news is, you don’t need to live in a ski town, or even be a skier, to appreciate them. Book your tickets!

Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico
Also known as “Telluride South.” There’s just no escaping your neighbors, clients and customers, but this sleepy fishing village has managed to retain its charm, despite being less than 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta. Main activities: slurping ice cream, scarfing fish tacos, reading on the beach and watching the sunset.

Costa Rica
Crested Butte loves it some CR, especially a specific treehouse community (started by former locals) called Finca Bellavista. Tamarindo, Jacó and Mal Pais are also popular beach getaways for the off-season ski crowd. What better place for winter thrill-seekers to transition to warm weather pursuits such as whitewater rafting, surfing and volcano bagging?sea turtle
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Formerly known as the jumping off point for the ferry to Cozumel, Playa has become a bona fide resort, popular with families, couples and singles who desire a bit of luxury minus the crowds and squalor of Cancun.

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Located close to Playa, this buzzy village is better known as the home of some of Mexico’s most spectacular Mayan ruins. Popular with the backpacker crowd thanks to beachfront bungalow and palapa accommodations (alas, camping isn’t as prevalent or permissible as it used to be); Tulum is now a target destination for food lovers making a pilgrimage to Hartwood Restaurant, a solar-run operation that specializes in locally-sourced, contemporized regional cuisine (note it’s closed March 18-April 3 for annual maintenance). Also, don’t miss the cenotes, or sinkholes, that dot the countryside; you can swim in their crystalline waters, or even explore them via scuba.

Caye Caulker, Belize
Both diving and hammock enthusiasts are drawn to this laid-back island in the Caribbean Sea. Lobster at 9,000 feet can’t compare to freshly-caught.

Hawaii
A popular destination for trade wind-craving ski town refugees, especially Oahu, Maui and Kauai, depending upon budget and inclination. The diversity of outdoor adventure and relative ease of getting there is the draw.

[Photo credits: Sayulita, Flickr user waywuei; sea turtle, Flickr user -NINETIMES-]

I Can Has Perfect Hotel? With New Personalized Hotel Search Engine, Yes

personalized hotel search engineImagine a personalized hotel search engine that knows what kind of traveler you are (savvy bargain hunter), what kind of vibe you go for (boutique and unique) and what kinds of activities you enjoy (culture and wine, please) and then uses those preferences to predict the perfect property for you.

That’s the aim of SimpleHoney, a new travel start-up from I Can Has Cheezburger founder Eric Nakagawa and GigaOm TV co-host Joyce Kim.

The premise is, dare we say, simple. Take a quick test to determine your “traveler type,” then type in where you’re going and when. The site will generate results and offers that fit your preferences, then direct you to the hotel website so you can book your room.

The SimpleHoney website, which was built on a beach in Oahu, is still in “beta,” which means that not all features are active yet. At the moment, the site only lists properties in San Francisco and Hawaii, and the “traveler type” profile quiz is basic at best. Sign-up is free for early adopters, though a $100 membership fee – for “access to amenities, perks, experiences, and rates” – will go into effect once the site is further along.

Three unexpected treats on Oahu’s North Shore

Last October, when my wife and I visited Oahu for a week, we spent the first few days happily exploring the attractions and activities we’d plotted before the trip: the artfully educating exhibits at the Bishop Museum; the snorkeling splendors of Hanauma Bay; the tranquil and transporting Byodo-In Temple; Chef Ed Kenney’s acclaimed organic cuisine at Town restaurant; and the then-just-opened Japengo restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, which promised – and as it turned out, delivered – a palate-expanding fusion feast (three faves: the Tootsie maki with crab, avocado, shiitake and lobster; the scallop butter yaki; and the coconut crème brulee). I’ve already written about two other highlights from those first few days: a night of multi-course culinary magic at Alan Wong’s restaurant in Honolulu and a visit to life-changing MA’O Organic Farms in Wai’anae.

But a quarter-century of serendipity has taught us that some of the most memorable on-the-road experiences come from listening to residents after you’ve landed in a place, and on this trip again three of our finest discoveries – all on Oahu’s less-visited North Shore – came from locals’ impromptu advice. If you’re going to Oahu, here are three North Shore sites we’d recommend you add to your own must-do map.

1. Waimea Valley: This 1,875-acre valley preserve on the outskirts of Hale`iwa, near Waimea Bay, doesn’t billboard its wonderfulness. In fact, that’s one of the many things we loved about it: how humble and low-key it is, despite– or perhaps because of? – its riches.

Waimea Valley comprises one of Oahu’s last examples of the traditional land use system called ahupua’a. In this system, the islands were divided into wedge-shaped slices of land, ruled by a local chief and often overseen by a priest, that ran from the mountains to the sea and incorporated all the kinds of topography and resources residents needed to thrive. You can learn much more about the ahupua’a system here.

If you have time, Waimea Valley offers a many-layered immersion in traditional Hawaiian nature and culture, with daily activities that teach Hawaiian games, stories, hula-dancing, lei-making and other creations, special events such as the Kanikapila celebration of music, and guided hikes that range from 2 to 7 miles and take visitors through streams, into forests and up ridges for spectacular views.

Waimea is so inexhaustible that you could easily spend a few days here or make multiple visits – and amazingly, 80 percent of the valley is still virtually unexplored — but even if you have only part of an afternoon, as was our case, it’s still a thoroughly edifying and enchanting place. All we did was walk along the path that has been thoughtfully paved through the cultivated part of the preserve. The three-quarter-mile trail wanders through a luxuriant profusion of plant life: thick ferns slick and shiny as green rubber, flaming red ginger plants, sun-burst yellow hyacinth, cloud-white lilies and flamboyant festoons of purple bougainvillea. The world we wandered through was so lush and bright that it was as if the preserve had removed the filters from our eyes.

The best thing about Waimea Valley for us was this: Even though we weren’t machete-ing our way through dense underbrush, those paths seemed to lead us ever deeper into a wonderland of tropical flowers and plants, so profligate and prototypical that they became a splendid synecdoche for wildness, and ended in the Edenic sight of a deep green pool backdropped by plunging Waimea Falls. While we never had to worry if we would make it back in time for our sunset horseback ride, by the end of our afternoon visit, we felt cleansed, renewed, in a way that only wilderness can confer.

2. Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck: When we told locals we were going to spend a couple of nights at Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku, they told us we had to save one meal for Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck, located a few miles away just off Kamehameha Highway.

So as soon as we checked in and got settled, we meandered down the road, past a few other trucks advertising Kahuku shrimp and other fresh-caught seafoods, until we spotted the sign “Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck” and the gloriously graffiti-covered vehicle itself. We splashed into a muddy parking space and made our way to a roofed and paved pavilion area with perhaps twenty picnic tables and benches. Half a dozen people were waiting in line at the truck, where the menu was posted on the side.

We chose the classic “Shrimp Scampi” combo plate: a dozen grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, fresh chopped garlic, and lemon butter, served with two generous scoops of rice, and the whole drizzled with lemon garlic butter and flakes of carmelized garlic.

To complement that, we bought grilled corn on the cob – “picked this morning,” said the kindly farmer behind the grill — from a stand at the opposite end of the pavilion, and fragrant slices of pineapple from a third truck bordering the pavilion area. And then we dove into the greasy, buttery, corn-kernelly, garlic-shrimpily, pineapply pool. Oh man! This is how you spell DELICIOUS! For about 20 minutes, we both journeyed to a place of silent savoring bliss. For $20 apiece, we’d found Kahuku heaven.

3. Twenty One Degrees North: At the other end of the budget spectrum, we saved one final splurge for our last-night-on-Oahu meal – and it was absolutely worth it. Ten minutes by car from Giovanni’s, we ate at Turtle Bay’s flagship Twenty One Degrees North restaurant. Presided over by exuberant executive chef Hector Morales, this was the white-tablecloth-and-china yin to Giovanni’s picnic-table-and-paper-plate yang. The welcome was warm and gracious, the setting subdued and elegant without feeling uncomfortably formal. One could be equally at home here in an aloha shirt or a sportcoat, we thought. And the setting was spectacular, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked onto the beach, the swaying palm trees and the ever-swashing sea.

Even more spectacular was the food. Because we were celebrating one of the finest trips we’d had in years, we went all out and ordered a multi-course extravaganza. Our favorite dishes included the Diver Scallops, a single splendid scallop served with melted leeks in an Asian pear and poached fruit reduction; the Crab-Crusted Hawaiian Sea Bass nestled in a cannellini bean cassoulet, with spinach and roasted tomatoes; the Opakapaka, served with a savory pipikaula risotto and an audaciously delicious pea and mint puree; the Kahuku Shrimp, Avocado and Hearts of Palm, the shrimp grilled perfectly and accompanied with buttery local avocado and hearts of palm; and the Ahi Tartare, a palate-piquing marriage of smoothly scrumptious ahi with a piquant chili mango salsa.

Our delight in these dishes was deepened by the knowledge that we had field-tested and -tasted many of their ingredients earlier in the day on a visit to Al and Joan Santoro’s wonderful Poamoho Organic Producefarm. This convivial couple, who had retired from their careers as a naval intelligence officer and computer systems engineer to become organic farmers, embodied Oahu’s inspiring new sustainability ethic, and their joyful collaboration with Chef Morales exemplified the farm-to-table spirit that we had encountered throughout the island – and that infused the Twenty-One Degrees North menu, from the shrimp and fish caught in the sea just outside the restaurant’s windows, to the fruits and vegetables harvested from family farms just down the road. Our sense of culinary apotheosis culminated in the chef’s signature chocolate soufflé – which simply and sweetly lifted us away. Overall, we felt the cuisine at Twenty One Degrees North was every bit as enlightening, delighting and delectable as the creations at Alan Wong’s – and that is the highest compliment we could pay.

As we drove to the airport the next morning, we silently thanked the locals whose tips had bestowed these unexpected gifts of Oahu’s North Shore – and began to plot how soon we could return to discover even more.

Photos by Kuniko George

Video: Oahu Island: Miracle Coast

Oahu Island: Miracle Coast on Nowness.com.

Would you like to spend a moment reviving your spirit with a beautiful video depicting Hawaii‘s Oahu Island? Oahu Island: Miracle Coast, is a gorgeous little video released on nowness.com. It’s a short by photographer and filmmaker Lyall Coburn. Through the video, he captures a summer spent idly on the island’s North Shore. The video is certainly enough to make me want to kick back in Oahu for a summer, watching locals take nerve-rattling jumps off of cliffs and maybe jumping myself. Life, for me, is much about variation and travel satiates this need I have, as well as so many others, for an ever-changing environment. Kudos to Coburn for changing his environment and spending a summer along these shimmering, lapping waves.

5 Minutes in Paradise - Oahu, Hawaii

Four top treats from my 2011 travels

Since I’ve been a travel writer for three decades, people often ask me if I don’t get tired of all the traveling and writing. After all, when you do anything for 30 years, it must get boring, right?

Wrong! I guess that’s one of the gifts of this line of work. Every trip, every place, offers something new, even if I’ve been there a dozen times before. This year I took four big trips — to British Columbia, London, France, and Oahu — and each one reaffirmed this truth with multiple unexpected treasures. Here are the top treats from each.

1) OAHU: MA’O Organic Farms

My wife and I didn’t know what to expect as we drove on a sunswept October morning to this outpost on the little-visited Leeward Coast of Oahu. When we turned off the Farrington Highway at the Wai’anae exit as instructed, we found ourselves in a nondescript residential area of one-story stucco homes. We wound though the streets deeper and deeper into the interior until we reached the end of the road – and found the smiling face of Kamuela Enos, the Education Resource Specialist at this singular place.

MA’O’s mission, Enos told us, is social entrepreneurship through farming, cultivating organic food and young leaders for a sustainable Hawaii. MA’O stands for mala ‘ai ‘opio, which translates as “the youth food garden.” Basically, MA’O takes youngsters from the Wai’anae community – a traditionally neglected settlement of mostly native Hawaiians, beset by severe social, economic and nutritional challenges – and puts them to work on the 16-acre farm, where they learn all the aspects of running a farm, from working the fields to managing the distribution of the produce to maintaining smooth relationships with clients and consumers. MA’O also runs a variety of in-school programs at the Wai’anae intermediate school and high school and at nearby Leeward Community College.I could write paragraphs describing all the great things they do and grow here, but you can get a wealth of information about the marvels of MA’O from their excellent website. What you can’t get from the website, and what I want to tell you about here, is the brightness that shone in the eyes of the young staffers we spoke with, the electric optimism that radiated from them. A number of the staffers we spoke with told us their lives had been turned around completely – “transformed,” “saved” — by MA’O. One had been living in a car with his mom; another had been thrown out of school multiple times. At MA’O seeds of hope had been planted, and tender shoots of promise and self-worth were sprouting; they were cultivating the sense that with energy and work and determination, they could shape their own future. In a tangible sense, they were nurturing – planting, watering, weeding — their own lives. The vegetables we tasted at MA’O were wonderfully flavorful – but the hope we felt sprouting all around us was the most delicious crop of all. Our visit to MA’O pounds still in our hearts and minds; it’s an extraordinarily moving and inspiring place, and we felt blessed to experience its grace.

If you want to visit, MA’O welcomes visitors through its G.I.V.E. (Get Involved, Volunteer Environmentally) Days program on the last Saturday of each month. If you would like to attend a G.I.V.E. Day, call the office at 808-696-5569 or email info@maoorganicfarms.org; include in the text of your email your complete contact information and the number of people you will be bringing. In addition, you should fill out the Education Resource Request Form and mail it to WCRC, PO Box 441, Wai’anae, HI 96792, email it to info@maoorganicfarms.org, or fax it to 808-696-5569.

2) FRANCE: Troyes

I love France. I studied French literature (and art and history) in college, lived in Paris the summer after my junior year and again the summer after graduation, had the epiphany that changed my life there and have been back half a dozen times since. And I’ve been editing travel stories about France for three decades. So how is it that I had never even heard of Troyes until I visited this enchanting town 90 miles southeast of Paris this September?

This is still a mystery – though another long-time Francophile on my trip said the same thing – but the important point is that I unlocked the treasures of Troyes on this journey to the heart of Champagne. What was so terrific about Troyes? Where to begin? The heel-clicking cobblestoned alleyways and half-timbered, Gothic-gabled homes and shops. The flower-festooned squares and the Renaissance mansions with their chessboard brick-and-white-chalk facades. The extraordinary museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, with works by Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Rouault, Degas and dozens more – in all more than 2000 works from 1850-1950. The soul-soaring churches, among them the grandly Gothic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the church of Saint-Martin-ès-Vignes, with its stunning 17th-century stained-glass windows.

For me, the pleasures of Troyes were embodied in a short walk in the old quarter, among the 16th-century half-timbered buildings that were constructed after a devastating fire in 1524. The pace of the town was relaxed, the citizenry smiling as they walked, the children licking ice creams as their mothers licked the shop windows (leche-vitrine, as the French say, so much more Gallically sensual than “window-shopping”). Seduced by a Renoir, I stepped into a closet-sized art gallery. The wildly white-haired and tweed-coated owner, who looked a bit like a professorial puppet, seized upon me and delivered a very learned 15-minute lecture that somehow interwove the aesthetics of Renoir, the history of Troyes and the best place to find andouillette sausage, a local specialty.

The day we had to leave, I awakened to 21st-century birds trilling in the 12th-century courtyard of the charming Maison de Rhodes (a gloriously restored former residence that once belonged to the Knights Templar), wandered into the town square and discovered a merveuilleux merry-go-round plunk in the middle, and just beyond that a quintessential sidewalk café. There and then, my heart was won; I didn’t want to leave and can’t wait to go back.

3) LONDON: Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields

On an August trip to London I previewed the 2012 Summer Olympic Games preparations and the transformation of the city’s once beleaguered East End, made a pilgrimage to bedazzling Buckingham Palace and explored the leafy literary lanes around the storied Langham Hotel. Wandering at will one late afternoon in the West End, I chanced upon the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I’d never seen the church before, but as a long-time listener to classical music radio stations, the name resonated like that of an old friend; for years and years I’d been enthralled by recordings of Sir Neville Marriner leading the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra.

Impulsively I stopped to see if there was by any chance a concert that night. There was! A 7:30 candlelight concert featuring works by Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. The performance was thrillingly familiar and yet not. The trappings and rituals – the searching for a seat among expectant concert-goers, the hush of the crowd as the conductor raises his baton – were familiar, and yet I was in London, in a setting I’d only stumbled on a few hours before. The whim and wonder of it were magic, as were the notes filling the stony, candlelit chamber. When the orchestra launched into “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” a familiar frisson swept up my spine all the way to the top of the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

The magic continued that evening with a delicious roast chicken dinner at a serendipitously stumbled-upon bistro called Cote, and then a long and languorous moonlit walk past convivial crowds of theater-goers and bar belles and beaux spilling into the streets, past the historic mews and views of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury where I’d wandered the day before, past the BBC bar I’d tumbled into on my first jet-lagged night, until I reached the lamplit Langham. I felt enwrapped – enraptured — by London that night.

4) BRITISH COLUMBIA: Sea Cider

I thought I knew cider. I’d grown up drinking it every fall in Connecticut, stopping at country stands to buy the murky elixir that smelled of apples and crisp afternoon slanting sunlight and falling leaves. I thought I knew cider – so when Victoria resident Cathy Ray offered to take me to a farm and ciderhouse in nearby Saanichton for a tasting, I thought I knew what to expect.

As with the best travel experiences, I was in for a big surprise. Well, many surprises. In contrast to those Connecticut roadside stands, Sea Cider looked like a winery: a gracious two-story house fronted by an expansive green orchard with long rows of widely spaced, low trees and beyond them the sparkling waters of the Haro Strait. The second surprise was that Sea Cider had fully eight different varieties of cider to choose from. When I couldn’t decide which one to taste, owner Kristen Jordan offered a flight with small sips of all eight. This brought the next surprise: Each cider was gloriously, goldenly clear – not the brownish muck I’d known as cider. And then I took a sip and discovered the best surprise of all: These were fermented!

From that moment on, the afternoon swirled and soared in a giddy ballet of sunlight, bracing fresh air, Canadian camaraderie and glorious cider. I tasted all eight, of course, and like wine, each one had its own distinct bouquet, feel and taste. What a revelation!

You can read about Sea Cider’s different ciders here. And if you live in one of these lucky places, you can buy your own Sea Cider elixir and savor it in the comfort of your home. But to tell you the truth, I suspect it tastes even better if you’re laughing and learning in the Victoria sun, looking onto shining Haro Strait. If you go to Sea Cider, say hi to Kristen for me and be sure to taste the Kings & Spies – just as I am even as I write these words, savoring one last delicious treat from my travels in 2011.

[flickr image via jasmic]