The Best Passports For Travel Access

US Passport
Clappstar, Flickr

Applying for visas and dealing with travel-related bureaucracy can be a tedious, irritating process, but the good news is that U.S. passport holders have fairly unrestricted access when it comes to foreign travel.

The Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index ranked countries around the world based on how freely their citizens could travel with just a passport. The United States came in 2nd place, tying with Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg. American citizens can enter 172 countries without having to worry about red tape, according to the study.So what is the best passport to have? A British, Swedish or Finnish passport is as good as it gets, giving passport holders access to 173 foreign destinations visa-free. In general, being a member of an EU country helps a lot if you want to travel spontaneously, with nine out of 10 of the top countries all part of the European Union.

Some countries however, are not so lucky, with citizens in Lebanon, Nepal and Pakistan finding themselves towards the bottom of the list. Iraqis, unsurprisingly, are expected to jump through a lot of hoops to travel abroad, and have access to just 31 countries visa-free. And the country with the most restrictions? Afghanistan, whose people have passport-only entry to 28 nations around the world.

Mar Mikhael: Beirut’s Shopping District

Mar Mikhael

Beirut‘s Mar Mikhael (Saint Michael) looks at first glance like a pretty quiet neighborhood, a place where the sounds of machinery coming out of auto repair shops emit the only real noise of note. Scratch the surface just the tiniest bit and it becomes obvious that Mar Mikhael has gone the route of many other neglected urban corners. In between the exhaust and the whirring motors, the neighborhood boasts lots of innovative shops. Taken together, they offer the perfect antidote to the much-hyped Beirut Souks shopping center with its Beverly Hills-in-Lebanon glitz.

Here is a clutch of exciting stores for shoppers and culture browsers in Mar Mikhael.

1. Papercup (Agopian Building, Pharaon Street) is a bookstore/café, the obvious place in the neighborhood to launch or conclude a Mar Mikhael shopping adventure. It’s well lit, has a community bulletin board, serves very good coffee – try the Vietnamese espresso! – and stocks an impressive selection of magazines and books, some keyed to current museum exhibitions around the world.

2. Tan (Alexandre Fleming Street) is conceptually geared to the current financial moment. Partners Ghada Rizk and Rima Sabbah decided that the global recession was a good moment to start a business and proceeded to start a label of affordable clothes for women: “We can’t afford to pay $500 for a dress, and neither can our friends,” they told me. Sensible. Their signature item is a lovely versatile tank top, good for work and going out both, priced at $80. Tan set up shop in Mar Mikhael in October 2011.

3. Plan Bey (Armenia Street) is to my mind the star shop of the neighborhood. It is an extraordinary bookshop and exhibition space that also sells music, photographs and various little objects. Owner Tony Sfeir has curated an appealing selection, and is exceptionally friendly. When I visited, Ethiopian jazz was playing and the star products for sale were super seasonal jams and oils from Syria. I didn’t leave empty-handed.

4. Nayef Francis (Armenia Street) opened in December 2011. The store sells Francis’ own very expensive mirrors, furniture, aluminum cups and lamps. Everything is beautifully finished and made in Lebanon.

5. Some great mid-century modern furniture pieces, plus some one-of-a-kind vintage signage and other industrial cast-offs can be found at Studio Karim Bekdache, a vast space on Madrid Street. Some of architect Bekdache’s original designs are for sale here.

6. Find jewelry nearby at Rania Choueiri’s L’Atelier Fanfreluche (Madrid Street). The shop doubles as an exhibition space. Last year saw an innovative exhibition of buyable upcycled goods, including furniture and lamps.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

My Year In Adventure Travel: A Look Back And A Look Forward

adventure travel, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’re approaching the end of 2012, so it’s a good time to assess what we’ve done and where we’re headed. There’s a whole year of adventures and opportunities awaiting us in 2013, despite what the New Age crystal clutchers say. The world is not ending and that’s a good thing!

I’ve had some interesting adventure travel this year. My family and I spent a week on the rugged Orkney Islands north of Scotland. We visited Neolithic stone circles, a haunted island, and I had my first (bad) experience driving on the left.

I really clicked with Orkney. The people are wonderful and the scenery is breathtaking. I’m thinking of going back to do a writer’s retreat there sometime if I can afford it. It’s an interesting culture with its own distinct traditions and music and I bet it would provide lots of inspiration.

The big trip for this year was a 17-day tour of Iraq. This was the culmination of a lifelong dream for me and I loved almost every second of it. Nearly getting arrested wasn’t too cool, but I got to visit the world-class National Museum of Iraq, archaeological wonders such as Ur and Babylon, see an Iraqi amusement park, and take a solo stroll through Baghdad.

Of course I wasn’t the only Gadling blogger to have adventures. The ones that made me most jealous are Anna Brones’ trip to Afghanistan and Dave Seminara’s ongoing anecdotes about life in the foreign service.

So what’s coming up in 2013? I’ll be seeing that year in with my wife on a brief getaway in Tangier, but beyond that I have no set plans. I’m probably going to hike the Great Glen Way in Scotland this summer. There are some other possibilities too. Here are the three major contenders:

Sudan. I’ve always been intrigued by this desert nation. Sudan has its own pyramids, medieval Christian sites, and a beautiful desert landscape. An English teacher I know in Khartoum has nothing but good things to say about Sudan’s capital.

Iran. I went to Iran back in 1994 and I’m interested in returning to see how things have changed. One of the sites I didn’t get to see last time was Alamut, the fabled castle of the Assassins. My archaeology contacts have told me that Iran’s government is restoring the castle in the hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction. My wife is interested in coming along on this trip and so we’d get both a male and female view of life inside this strictly Muslim country.

Lebanon. This nation on the Mediterranean is doing better than it has in many years. Lebanon has a wealth of archaeological sties, great nightlife in Beirut, and from what I’ve been told the best cuisine in the Middle East. It’s also right next to Syria, allowing an insight into that country’s bitter civil war.

So which country would you like to read a series about? Take the quiz and tell me!

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[Photo courtesy Rob Hammond]

Tawlet: Lebanese Locavore Love

tawlet

On my first visit to Beirut’s Tawlet, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper directions. “Tawlet?” she verified. I nodded. “C’est très bon,” with a delicate flutter of the fingers accompanying her très, before she pointed me in the right direction. I’d heard great things about Tawlet for quite some time. The shopkeeper’s gesture was the icing on the cake. I knew the way I know my own name that this meal was going to be exceptional.

I found Tawlet at the rather inauspicious end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an exciting slate of new shops, some of them quite innovative.

It was still on the early side but I couldn’t wait. I walked into Tawlet before the restaurant opened for lunch and sat patiently for the wait staff to finish setting things up. A Saudi television crew was taping interviews of the day’s chefs. Just when my hunger had reached epic proportions, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer, a distinguished looking man approached me in English and told me I could begin to eat. He carried himself like a proprietor. And as it turned out, he was Kamal Mouzawak, the head honcho. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.

Mouzawak has pioneered and tended a food revolution in Lebanon. Souk El Tayeb is the umbrella organization behind his efforts. It has spawned the Beirut Farmers Market, founded in 2004, Dekenet, a farmers shop, established in 2006 and regional food festivals, which followed in 2007. Tawlet, interwoven into the other Souk El Tayeb endeavors, opened its doors in 2009.The restaurant is an emporium of fresh, organic, and very local food from all over Lebanon. It is set up essentially as a farmers table. Different individual chefs or cooperatives host the buffet every day, working with a few permanent kitchen support staff. The result is essentially home-cooked food that reaches a clientele far wider than most home-cooked food tends to do. The presence of different chefs means that every lunch is different. (I didn’t think twice about returning for a second lunch the day following my discovery.) Including VAT, the buffet costs 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). Water and dessert come with the meal. Not included are regional wines, some very good.

The chefs-for-the-day come from all over Lebanon, bringing local variations in recipe and ingredients to the attention of a wider audience, elevating local regional culinary traditions to national attention. Tawlet publishes weekly menus online, which detail upcoming menus and chefs. On occasions Mouzawak himself does a turn as guest chef. Tawlet also offers brunch on Saturday.

What Mouzawak has done with Souk El Tayeb has major far-reaching implications. He has established a blueprint for encouraging and supporting local food traditions, for transforming vernacular food into recognition-deserving “cuisines” and for giving a wide range of cooks and chefs exposure to larger markets. This blueprint is broadly applicable to other countries and territories. It is a model for championing sustainable local food traditions.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

Hayete: Beautiful Budget-Friendly Beirut Guesthouse

Hayete

Hayete, a budget-friendly guesthouse in Beirut, is a rare bird: stylish, in a fantastic location, and relatively inexpensive.

Budget-minded travelers who also enjoy a bit of style are usually out of luck when it comes to accommodations. Budget-friendly options generally consist of hostels, folksy guesthouses, smarmy bed & breakfasts and budget hotel chains – all honorable and fine, but only rarely stylish.

There are very few super stylish rooms in in-demand cities with rates in the $100 per night territory. Boutique and art hotels charge several times this amount in most buzzing cities. Budget hunters usually have to rely on the occasional off-season rate dip to enjoy anything approaching boutique style.

hayete Hayete, located in Beirut‘s exciting, intrigue-drenched Achrafieh neighborhood, provides an exception to the rule. The place looks and feels like the setting for a photo shoot in an underground European style magazine. It occupies an old classic building, built in the early 20th century, with original detailing intact. The tiled floor is particularly beautiful.

On the walls here are several huge photographs of color-saturated Russian landscapes by Liza Faktor. The design template is clever and very contemporary, capturing several impressions at once. There is the breezy feel of the carefree 1970s in several pieces alongside a fussy mid-century sitting room aesthetic, itself unsettled by contemporary upholstery. Throughout, there’s a strong sense of place.

hayeteThe location is right in the thick of the Achrafieh action. Guests breakfast on a communal balcony that sits above a lively intersection, just beyond the main lounge’s enormous antique aviary with its live, singing inhabitants. From the balcony, guests can spy morning traffic extending through narrow streets, old mansions, and the noises and sights of construction and renovation projects. The Lebanese breakfast (labneh, pita bread, juice) provides a pleasant, if light, start to the day.

Hayete has just four rooms. Two, with shared bathrooms, run $105 per night for a double (or $75 for single occupancy.) Two en suite rooms start at $125 (or $95 for a single). The rate includes breakfast, tax, coffee and tea from a shared bar, Wi-Fi and use of a communal refrigerator.

These nightly rates are particularly impressive in light of Beirut’s hotel rate index, which is not generally easy on the wallet. While Hayete is not an extreme budget pick, its nightly rates put it in an all-too-slim category of reasonable, stylish hotels. For this alone it deserves to be championed.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]