Kiwi Cool: New Zealand For The Un-Adventurous

Kiwi cool New Zealand pub
I just spent a month in New Zealand and I don’t ski, snowboard, climb mountains, or bungee jump. I don’t like “extreme” anything and I’m not sure why anyone would participate in something called “zorbing.” In the midst of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s too cold for beaches or swimming but too wet most days for a pleasant hike. Instead, I explored museums and galleries, sipped multi-layered wines and single-origin coffee, and discovered fashion designers and weekend markets as exciting and innovative as New York. There’s no doubt New Zealand has some of the most peaceful yet jaw-dropping nature on the globe, but is there a New Zealand for travelers who aren’t interested in adventure, extreme sports, or rural pursuits? The country may not be known for its cities, but there’s more to Kiwi culture than “Lord of the Rings” tours and “Flight of the Conchords” songs.

Stay tuned for features on finding “Kiwi cool” here, such as why Auckland is worth more than a stopover, how Wellington may be more hipster than Portland, and who is helping Christchurch get its groove back. The South Pacific nation has plenty to offer the urban explorer year round, even if you want to travel without a car (as I did), a tour guide, or special gear. You may go to New Zealand for the great outdoors, but find lots to enjoy indoors as well.

Photo from the awesome Free House pub in Nelson on the South Island.

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
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Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Five things to do in (and around) Dublin, even in the rainy winter

things to do in dublin

Ah, Dublin. Home to Guinness, a Leprechaun museum, an absurdly tall spire and the famous / infamous Temple Bar quarter. It’s also home to around 300 days of cloudy or rainy weather, which begs the question: why are you fixing to fork out hundreds, possibly thousands more just to visit in the summer? There’s no question that the weather in Europe is far more palatable in the spring and summer months, but it’s also shockingly expensive. A flight to anywhere within the EU jumps up by orders of magnitude as soon as you select June, July or August as your departure date and in the case of Ireland, there’s really no need to hand over extra to an airline when you could be spending those dollars Euros on attractions, pub food and better hotels. I’ve always been a fan of visiting places in the off-season, and Dublin’s no different. Read on to learn of five slightly off-the-wall things to do in (and around) the Irish capital.

%Gallery-117267%Visiting U2’s former recording digs: Windmill Lane Studios

things to do in dublin

A good part of the entire world knows that U2 hails from Ireland, but if you’re a hardcore fan, you owe it to yourself to see where things began. The (now-defunct) Windmill Lane Studios is where the group recorded Joshua Tree, War and Boy, and while the studio itself has now relocated to a different section of Dublin, the prior building still stands as part of the Rock ‘N Stroll history trail. It’s covered in graffiti, and you’ll know you’re near the entrance when you start seeing loads of U2 shout-outs from tourists around the globe. Feel free to pack a Sharpie and leave your token of appreciation (and hometown) behind. Directions to the studio are here — this is one time where you’ll need to read up rather than trusting Google Maps.

A dainty stroll through Powerscourt Gardens and The River Walk

things to do in dublin

What’s a trip to Dublin without a trip out of Dublin? The Powerscourt Estate sits just 45 minutes south, within County Wicklow, and it’s a slice of age-old paradise. The House & Gardens are well worth exploring — it’s some of the most beautiful grounds these eyes have ever seen — and since it’ll tough to return after just a day, I’d recommend an overnight stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt. You’ll get free cycles to rent, a free pass to the absolutely stunning River Walk and pampering that you’ve always dreamed of. The only problem? It’ll make your city center digs seem downright plain. Read more on our visit here.

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Pub hop on O’Connell Street and the Temple Bar area

things to do in dublin

If you’re coming to Dublin for the first time, there are two names you really need to know within the city center: O’Connell and Temple. The former is dotted with a massive spire and includes a number of famed pubs and shops, while the Temple Bar area is just across the bridge (look for the giant Heiniken sign, and turn right). There, you’ll find budget accommodations (hostels galore), and more pubs than any lightweight could ever visit in a night. The Auld Dubliner is a personal favorite for grub and drinks, and the live musicians that show up there are tremendously talented. Oh, and make sure you order Guinness. Anything else just wouldn’t be Irish enough.

Venture west to the Cliffs of Moher, The Burren and Bunratty Castle

things to do in dublin

The east coast is gorgeous, but the west? Doubly so. Paddywagon Tours offers a 12 hour day trip to the west of Ireland, hitting County Galway (and the Bay), Corcomroe Abbey (a gorgeous church left in ruins), Poulnabrone Dolmen Portal Tomb (a standing monument from 4,000+ years ago), The Burren (a totally unique and mind-blowing rocky landscape), Doolin (Ireland’s unofficially official Irish music capital), the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher and finally, Bunratty Castle. At around $70 per person (admission to the Cliffs inclued), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value when it comes to gawking at the highlights on the opposite side of the Republic. Try to peek the forecast ahead of time and lock down a day with a lesser chance of rain, but even if it pours, take a raincoat and soak it all in — Ireland wouldn’t be as green as it is without nature’s tears, you know!

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Leave the country… by car

things to do in dublin

If you’re brave enough to take the wheel while situated on the passenger’s side of the car (not to mention remembering to keep your motorcar on the left of the road), you can head straight to Northern Ireland via road. And you’ll be there in under two hours. Belfast and the surrounding areas offer some pretty extreme outdoor activities, and while it may be a bit chilly and rainy in the off-season, you’ll be fighting fewer crowds all the while. If you aren’t so adventurous, the lovely lads at Paddywagon offer another day trip to Belfast, and we can personally attest to their adeptness at handling reverse traffic.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

All of these activities were enjoyed during the height of the off-season in Ireland, and I’d obviously recommend ’em to anyone. Pack a few warm layers and a solid raincoat, and head out with a mind to enjoy yourself no matter what. If you have any other off-season Dublin must-dos, toss ’em into the comments section below!

Tips for traveling to Costa Rica (or anywhere) in rainy season

When I heard that flights from Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica were going for just $260 per person this Fall, I immediately called my husband and asked if we could go for Labor Day weekend. Despite the fact that neither of us has ever expressed a burning desire to go to Costa Rica, he agreed. What can I say – we’re suckers for a deal.

We knew that prices were so low for a reason. May to November is rainy season in the country, but we figured “rainy season” just meant a few showers each day. We also assumed it would mean not just cheap flights, but also cheaper accommodations, deals on tours, and fewer tourists. In some ways, our assumptions were right on. And in others, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider a trip to Costa Rica, or anywhere for that matter, in rainy season. Just take into account these tips to make the most of your time during wet weather.

Know That It’s a Crap Shoot
You could be there during one of the weeks when the rain is unseasonably light or perfectly predictable, with light showers covering the area each day in the afternoon like clockwork. The week before our trip (and, as this video shows, the week after), we were told, the area we stayed in (the small town of La Fortuna, at the base of Arenal volcano) enjoyed near-constant clear skies, warm temps and low humidity. For the three days that we were there however, it rained several times each day. It rained in the morning, it rained in the afternoon, it rained at night. Just when we thought the clouds would clear completely, they would descend again and obscure any traces of sun. One day, powerful thunder storms shook our hotel and we watched lighting illuminate the darkness through our skylight for hours before the rain finally reduced to a slight drizzle that lasted until 10pm. You might be there for a week of perfect weather, or you may wind up getting soaked like we did. More likely, you’ll experience a bit of both on your trip.

Rent a Car
With such a short amount of time in the country, we couldn’t rely on public buses or shuttles (though they are normally a great budget option). And since we’ve given up our credit cards (a move we only regret one the very rare occasion when we want to rent a car outside of the US), our options were to hire a private driver as we did, or to fly from San Jose to Fortuna. Given the torrential rainstorms we saw, I was very glad that we didn’t opt to fly on Nature Air. We would have spent hours waiting for the weather to clear for our flights or, even worse, had to fly through the downpour.The small prop planes are scary enough to me. Renting a car is the best option, especially if you choose to stay in a small town like Fortuna. There’s not a whole lot to do in town and if you don’t have a car, you’ll need to book organized tours to do most activities, many of which may be a bust due to the weather. Which brings me to my next point. . .

Don’t Book Activities in Advance
We only had three days in Costa Rica, and we wanted to make the most of it, so we opted to book some of our tours in advance. We really shouldn’t have bothered. By my rough count, there are at least three tour operators for every house in Fortuna. There was a tour agency on every corner, in every hotel, at every restaurant. And most offered the exact same services or trips to the exact same places at the exact same prices. And every single one wants your business. Waiting to book activities until we had arrived might have given us the chance to negotiate prices, and it would have allowed us to change plans when the weather didn’t cooperate.

One night, we’d booked an evening tour to Arenal, our chance to see the lava flowing against the darkened sky. As we hadn’t seen the top of the volcano for more than five minutes (on our first afternoon in town) in three days, we should have known the tour would be a bust and tried to cancel. Instead we held out hope. Maybe the sky was clear on the other side of the volcano, where the lava flowed. Maybe the clouds would part just in time. Maybe the tour guides knew more than we did, and knew that every night at 7pm the clouds did lift and Arenal was visible from the one place we’d be. As it turns out, the guides did know better than us. They knew that there was no chance in hell we’d see lava but that we didn’t know that, and would still pony up $30 each to go look at a volcano shrouded in gray. After standing there for 40 minutes among a crowd of 50 people, looking at a solid wall of clouds, my husband and I were pretty annoyed. We realized that we should have just canceled the tour when we had the chance, and that if we’d had a rental car, we could have driven out there on our own.

Choose Your Hotel Wisely
My husband and I attempted to tough it out during much of the rain. We wandered around the town during even heavy precipitation, but when pouring rain combined with booming thunder, we retreated to our hotel, the lovely Las Colinas. I’d debated between booking a more expensive place with a pool or going for an ultra-basic hostel with little more than a bed. In the end, I’m so glad we settled on the $70 per night honeymoon suite at Las Colinas. Though we never saw the whole volcano from our deck (as the website promised), when we were stuck in our room for hours due to storms, we were so grateful for the extra amenities. We popped a few Imperial beers in the mini-fridge, pointed the TV towards the giant jacuzzi tub, and sipped and soaked while catching up on Spanish MTV and English-language episodes of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” as the storm raged outside. Had we booked the fancy hotel, the pool would’ve been wasted on us; had we gone the cheap route, we’d have been bored cooped up in our room with nothing to do. So, choose your hotel knowing that you may be spending more time in your room than you would have liked.

Pack Appropriately
I’ll be the first to admit that, while I have my city-trip packing down to a science, when it comes to packing for less urban destinations, I kind of suck. This is how I’ve ended up caving in Iceland in skinny jeans and knee-high boots, and how I found myself hiking a muddy trail in Costa Rica in 90 degrees temps with smothering humidity in jeans and running shoes. Rainy season means rain. It means mud. And it means you will get wet. Pack a rain parka, lightweight and waterproof or quick-drying pants, sturdy boots with good traction for hiking, and sandals with a bit more structure than my Old Navy flip flops. Ladies, definitely bring a dress or skirt for hot nights, but leave the heels at home. Don’t bother with a blow-dryer or make-up (your hair will frizz no matter what and make-up will just run off your face), but don’t forget extra hair ties, a hat, and an umbrella.

Do Your Restaurant Research
My tried and true method for finding a good restaurant on a whim is to look for one that is busy (and not just full of tourists). It’s a strategy that has worked well everywhere I have gone, but in Costa Rica, it failed. Not because we went to a busy restaurant that wasn’t good. But because no restaurants were busy. Every place we walked by, from the center of town to the outskirts, was dead. We never saw more than 2-3 groups in any given place at once. When we talked to the owner of Lava Lounge, our favorite bar, he said that we were there in the few weeks when the town was totally empty of tourists. He said things would pick up a little in the next few weeks, but not much. So, if you are looking for nightlife, look elsewhere. We also found that, as we’d heard, the food in Costa Rica wasn’t much to rave about. We had a few good meals, but nothing stood out as mind-blowing. One waitress we talked to said she preferred to eat at home; the food her family made was much better than anything served in a restaurant. We should have asked to come over for dinner.

Accept that You Will Get Wet
The first night, my husband and I tried to wait out the rain. We quickly realized we’d be spending our entire trip inside if we did that. Bring good rain gear and resign yourself to the fact that you will get wet. We got rained on while walking around town. We got rained on while horseback riding. And we got rained on while zip-lining. And…we survived. Actually, we had a great time. The sooner you accept the fact that you are going to get wet, the more fun you’ll have.

Resolve to Make the Most of It
This goes for a trip to Costa Rica or a trip anywhere around the world. Sometimes, trips are perfect. Most plans go smoothly, and the ones that don’t end up adding a new, and often better, dimension to your experience. But sometimes things just don’t work out the way you’d dreamed. In those times and on those trips, try to make the most of it. Sure, I would have preferred a little less on rain on my trip to Costa Rica, but zip-lining through the canopy as fat rain drops plop-plopped on the leaves around me was an unforgettable experience. And over the course of three wet days, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about traveling (anywhere) in rainy season.

Vacationing in America During Off-Peak Season

Vacationing in AmericaFor me, there are several joys in vacationing during times when most people are busy and locked into work and school schedules. First off, hotel rates and airfare are typically cheaper. That’s a huge bonus considering weather conditions may not be as favorable as you’d like and many businesses may be closed up for off-season. Secondly, there are fewer tourists which mean better pictures. Nothing bothers me more than hundreds of other tourists obstructing my view and getting in the way of what could be a great travel shot of a famous monument of what have you. I know, I know – I’m a one of those same tourists to another human eye, but that isn’t the topic right now. Let’s say those two things balance the others out, but there are ways to have your cake and eat it too even during slow travel seasons. Being on the road right now in the upper Midwest I’m finding the biggest thing to remember is flexibility. Though some places in South Dakota are quickly closing up shop for the season many remain open and are glad to assist the occasional traveler in planning. Seek out locals who are knowledgeable on open hideouts and give their rec’s a try. These two have helped me my travel companion and I make the best of what could be very gloomy times in certain areas.

Also, you may wish to check out this NewsGuide piece which notes more people are searching for off-season travel now-a-days more than ever. Why? As I said earlier, the cheaper rates are reeling them in fast. The story basically urges you to check out online travel company Escape2Play.com which helps travelers score good deals on off season destinations and may provide you with some ideas I didn’t think about, though I’m sticking by my number rule: flexibility.