Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.

Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.

Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.

Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.

Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping – from a 17-story building.

I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.

Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.

Reduce anxiety
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.

I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).

Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

Where Have All The Italian Pizza Makers Gone?

Italy is in trouble. The economic crisis has had an unforeseen consequence: it seems the country is in need of some pizza makers – 6,000 of them, to be exact.

Despite the worst unemployment rate the country has faced in decades, The Telegraph is reporting it seems the majority of Italians are too proud to take on these manual labor jobs. In fact, much of the pizza making in Italy is now done by Egyptian immigrants, who are rapidly taking over jobs as pizzaioli in Italy’s 25,000 pizzerias.

And as the country scrimps and saves during hard times, Italians have begun replacing expensive lunches with pizza. For now, visitors should get tomato-and-cheese pies while they’re hot, cause before long it’ll be near impossible to eat the world’s best pizza while it’s still being crafted by the people who invented the stuff.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cyclonebill]

Adventure Guide 2013: Crested Butte

Crested Butte
features incredible backcountry and extreme opportunities in a remote and captivating package. It’s also got more lift-accessed extreme terrain than anywhere else in the nation. You may need to purchase a ski-pass, but it’s all avalanche-controlled (what’s known as sidecountry, rather than backcountry). Few are the powder hounds who miss the constant threat of imminent burial under several tons of snow.

If you’re experienced at off-piste skiing, take the lift up, and hightail it into the sidecountry. If you’re experienced at backcountry, the Crested Butte region has no shortage of terrain; for an overnight, try booking one of the two huts in the neighboring historic mining town of Gothic through the Crested Butte Nordic Center. And if you want to get hardcore, hire the very excellent Crested Butte Mountain Guides to take you off the grid (they offer two-day backcountry clinics, avalanche classes, ice-climbing clinics, and mountaineering, as well as personalized and private half- and full-day trips).

Need more reasons? Crested Butte is one of the few surviving authentic ski towns left in the West. If funky former mining shacks-turned-pizzerias, snow tire-outfitted cruiser bikes and lopsided saloons (all in a three-block radius) are your thing, CB is sure to steal your heart.
Looking for something less extreme? Explore the 55-kilometer trail system put in by the Nordic Center. It has varied terrain and accommodates both cross-country skiers and snowshoers. You’ll need to purchase a pass from the center (an adult one-day pass, $15).

Competitive types will also love CB’s wacked-out winter festivals such as the Alley Loop, a 21k costumed Nordic race through the town’s back-alleys and trails, and the Grand Traverse, which takes competitors over the Elk Mountains from CB to Aspen (also a great option for backcountry enthusiasts).

In your recovery time, there are seasonal moonlight Yurt Dinners (ski or snowshoe in), as well as horseback riding, dogsledding and Snowcat driving lessons (seriously!).


Crested Butte refers to the small, historic former mining town; Mt. Crested Butte, where the resort is located, is three miles away. There are amenities in both places; where you stay depends upon your needs. If you want ski-in access, luxury accommodations, or don’t care about nightlife, stay on the mountain. If you’re on a budget, looking to tear it up both on the slopes and in the bar, or want a more “local” experience, opt for town lodging. There’s a free Town Shuttle (look for the groovy, multi-colored, hand-painted blue and white buses) that runs until around midnight. After that, you’ll need to call Alpine Express shuttle service. Whatever you choose accommodation-wise, CB has lodging for every price point and taste.

Crested Butte International Hostel: Clean and quiet, but lacking in personality as hostels go, this is nevertheless a safe, inexpensive place for solo travelers, couples and families to stay. It’s right in town, and offers plenty of free parking. From $39.
visitcrestedbutte.com 615 Teocalli Avenue

Nordic Inn: This remodeled chalet-style property just reopened on December 15, under new ownership. The longest-operating lodge in Gunnison County, the 50-year-old Inn is just 500 yards from the slopes, and has a mellow, welcoming atmosphere, thanks to the friendly staff and roaring fire in the lobby. Half of the 28 rooms have been renovated, and come with plush down pillows and comforters, high-thread count sheets, boot dryers and rustic, Colorado beetle-killed pine ceilings. The remaining rooms, also slated for refurbishment, are an ode to ’80s grooviness, but are comfortable, bright and spacious. There’s also free shuttle service, continental breakfast, and Wi-Fi; pet-friendly and handicapped-accessible rooms also available. From $169. nordicinncb.com 14 Treasury Road

The Ruby of Crested Butte: Located in town, this six-room “luxury bed-and-breakfast” is one of two small accommodations in Crested Butte proper. If homey rooms with both vintage and modern touches and lots of sunlight are to your liking, you’ll love this sweet little inn. Legendary hot, organic breakfasts, free afternoon wine, pet-friendly rooms, and great packages add to its list of attributes. From $129.
therubyofcrestedbutte.com 624 Gothic Avenue

Pioneer Guest Cabins: If you’ve got AWD (ideally) and like your lodging off the beaten path, stay in one of eight adorable, fully-decked-out cabins 8 miles south of town. Located in the Gunnison National Forest along Cement Creek, the only neighbors you’re likely to see are fox, deer or elk. Cabins have either two or three beds. From $119.
pioneerguestcabins.com 2094 Cement Creek Road

Eat and Drink

The word is starting to get out that CB trumps even Aspen for the quality and diversity of its restaurants. From fine dining to sandwiches, there’s a lot to choose from. As unoriginal as some of the below listings may be, they’re here for a reason. You can’t argue with success – especially when people are willing to wait up to an hour for a pizza; it really is that good.

Izzy’s: If you’ve got time on your hands – because there’s always a line, and never enough seats at this micro-breakfast/brunch spot – this is the local’s favorite. When you see the golden latkes spilling over the edges of their plates, and tricked up breakfast bagels, egg dishes and sandwiches passing by, you’ll understand why.
facebook.com/pages/Izzys/149179161784362 218 Maroon Avenue

Lil’s Sushi Bar and Grill: Super-fresh (never frozen; fish is Fed-Ex’d in six days a week), seriously amazing sushi, and shrimp tempura that will leave you licking the plate (it’s all in the sauce, baby). There’s also plenty of goodness from the robata grill, but do yourself a favor: sit at the bar, and ask chef/owner Matthew Smith for whatever’s looking good that day. Happy hour yields some insane deals, including nigiri starting at $2.50 and rolls at $3.00, plus $3 well drinks, and $6 specialty cocktails and wine. Family-friendly, casual fine dining, with a diehard local following.
lilssushibarandgrill.com 321 Elk Avenue

The Secret Stash: Girl backpacks around world, and learns about food from her restaurant-owning Sicilian relatives. Girl meets boy who works in pizzeria, and moves to Crested Butte. Girl and boy open pizzeria in old, crazy-funky-boho ski house with crooked doorways and slanted ceilings, and upstairs seating floor cushions. A line forms out the door, and nearly 13 years later, nothing’s changed. This pizza will change your life. Hurry, because The Stash is moving to a new location this summer, so they can add another pizza oven and eliminate the wait. Personally, we’re sad to see it go. Never has patience felt like such a virtue.
stashpizza.com 21 Elk Avenue

Dogwood Cocktail Cabin: If a liquid dinner with some light snackage is your plan of action, this literal cabin on a side street is a goldmine in disguise. Wash down small bites such as tostadas, soft pretzels, or the more substantial blue cheese fondue with something from the extensive cocktail menu. Be patient, because mixing these babies takes time, but the rewards are sweet (or hot, bubbly, beery, or martini, as the case may be). Sip a Rosebud (vodka, rose water, cranberry, and sparkling wine) or the Juan Connery (Scotch, Pimm’s, chipotle bitters), in a candlelit atmosphere that’s rustic, yet seductive. Love.
thedogwoodcocktailcabin.com 309 Third Street

Getting Around

Crested Butte is approximately four-hour drive southwest of Denver, depending upon weather. While it’s more spread out and isolated than most ski areas, you can still get by without a car. If you fly into Gunnison-Crested Butte Airport, you can take the Alpine Express shuttle up-valley, and there’s a free Town Shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. To get around points south of town, there’s the free, Gunnison Valley RTA bus.

Adventure Tip

The sheer volume of backcountry in this remote region means you should take avalanche safety extra seriously (then again, when should you not?). Avoid heading out on your own, always let someone know where you’re going, and equip yourself with a beacon, probe and shovel. Avalanches are common here, so be sure you check in with ski patrol before embarking on any backcountry pursuits. Don’t try to be superhuman. Just be safe.

[Photo credit: WarzauWynn]

Photo Of The Day: New York Pizza

There’s lots of good food to be had in New York City So much good food, in fact, that visitors must not forget to try one of NYC’s cheapest (and tastiest) culinary offerings: the pizza slice. Today’s photo, taken by Flickr user Mike GL, gives us a “behind the counter” look at your typical New York pizza joint. I liked the angle of the shot behind the glass, lending the shot a “slice of life” perspective. Wondering where to get some great pizza in New York? Check out this list of some of our favorites.

Taken any great travel photos lately? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Mike GL]

New York City’s (Mostly) Unfortunate $1 Pizza Slice Phenomenon

There was a crash and a boom from the kitchen. I was just a teenager but from my bedroom, my friend Jay and I immediately knew what had happened. “Your dad dropped the pizza,” he said to me, seconds after the noise reverberated through the suburban Los Angeles house. Yep. That’s exactly what happened. My dad, likely liquored up after an afternoon of football watching (and inspired to imbibe more by the prospect another work week was looming around the temporal corner), was cooking his “special” pizzas. And while removing it from the oven, he dropped it. We’d have to get pizza delivered instead.

Which was a good thing. Because my dad’s pizza was the worst I’ve ever eaten in my life. About one Sunday every month, I’d stroll out into the kitchen and see stacked-up containers of flour and jars of tomato paste and I knew it was one of those dreaded Sunday pizza nights. The thin crust of dad’s pizza, set nonna style in a rectangular pan, would cook wildly uneven: the edges were brick hard and the center doughy; the sauce was so thin it was hard to see on the finished product that there were even tomatoes involved in this near-inedible orgy; and the toppings always consisted of ground beef and bell peppers.

In a way, it seems hard to screw up something so simple. Pizza is just flour and egg for the dough, tomatoes for the sauce and whatever else you want to top it with. Put it in a scalding oven for 10 or so minute and ecco la! Your pizza is done and delicious.

I’ve recently found my dad’s match for the worst pizza I’ve ever tasted. And it’s right where I live in New York City. In the last few years a recent phenomenon has emerged on the city’s dining landscape: $1 pizza slices.

The phrase, you pay for what you get, very much applies here. I talked to Adam Kuban, founding editor of the website Serious Eats and editor and founder of Slice, a blog dedicated to all things pizza. “I think the recession is the big force driving the rise of the dollar slice,” he said. “I don’t know about other folks, but for me, once a plain slice started creeping up near the $3 mark, it ceased to be an automatic transaction. Two bucks? Fine. Two-fifty? Um, OK, sure. Because even at $2.50, if you’re getting two slices, like a lot of people do, it’s still an even fiver. Once you break the $2.50 barrier, though (the average price in Manhattan seems to be holding around $2.75), you start to think about the price in terms of MORE THAN $5.”

A good point. South Brooklyn Pizza in the East Village, one of the best slices in the city, in my opinion, is a whopping $4 per slice. It’s worth it, though. But, as Kuban pointed out, with that kind of pricing it’s not automatic anymore.

The pizza slice didn’t enter the American food landscape until the middle of the 20th century. Before this pizza was largely an ethnic phenomenon with newly arrived Italian laborers eating it in places like New York, New Haven, Chicago and Boston. But when American soldiers returned from Italy after World War II, pizza was on its way to becoming “American.” After the gas pizza oven was created here, allowing pizza makers to create this once-Italian delicacy cheaply and quickly, pizza spread through the rest of the country.

And so now we come to the $1 slice. There’s an extensive write up on Kuban’s blog with an excellent analysis of the $1 pizza phenomenon, claiming it’s a different genre of pizza, as most of the places – especially the increasingly ubiquitous 2 Bros Pizza and 99¢ Fresh Pizza – use a slightly different technique.

“Most of the dollar slice places … stretch the dough on an oiled surface,” said Kuban. “This means they have to use a baking screen so the oiled dough doesn’t burn on the hearth of the oven. The cooking method gives you a less crisp crust – more spongy.”

Which brings us to Percy’s. Located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, this pizzeria started out as an outlet of South Brooklyn Pizza. When the NYU students were balking at $4 for a slice, the owner took a different approach.

When I stopped in for a slice, longtime pizzaiolo Jack Bruli was shoveling cheese pizzas in and out of the gas-burning oven.

“Because we put love into our work here,” Bruli said when I asked why the $1 slice is so much better here. “And we’re trained. We know what we’re doing. At the other places, there are college students working there who don’t care about their product. We do. This is my job. I’ve been doing it since the ’70s.”

True or not, what also makes Percy’s so special is they still largely use the same technique as South Brooklyn and some of the better by-the-slice places in the Big Apple. Which is to say, they don’t adhere to the same pizza-making ways of the other $1-per-slice joints.

I sat down and bit into the slice. The crust was crispy all the way through, which already gives it a huge advantage to its competitors.

This was a pizza not worth dropping on the kitchen floor.