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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Naked Truth: Undressed to the Neins-Part 1

In retrospect, it all started with a conversation I had two days before leaving for Germany. During said conversation, a friend revealed a secret past that included a nude streak in some California canyons back in the late 1960s (you know, the Age of Aquarius). As a member of a slightly younger and more prudish generation, this revelation left me feeling a bit disconcerted. Little did I know that just weeks later, I would be the one letting my hair down and letting the sunshine in (so to speak).

The foreshadowing began in Berlin. As I was on a mission to investigate the remnants of the Cold War in the once divided city, I visited the DDR Museum, devoted to all things East Germany (DDR is short for the Orwellian Deutsche Demokratische Republik). Among the exhibits was one on naked tourism. Yep, those East Germans may not have had any political freedom, but they sure let it all hang out on vacation. The exhibit was marked by what Americans would deem illicit photos (full frontal images of an unclad Mom and Dad swinging bare naked Junior through the sea) and a lovely diorama depicting all of the things East Germans did on nude beaches (I will spare you the details).

The next harbinger of things to come happened in Bad Kissingen, when I was given a rubdown with hot, oily balls by Stefan, a masseur half my age (you do the math). Mind you, I've been kneaded by many a male massage therapist, including Dan the Man the Romanian Rubber and Bud Light. But the combination of Stefan's youthful appearance and the lack of a modesty towel or sheet did give me pause.

But my dalliance with Stefan rated a mere PG-13 when compared to what happened in Bad Fussing. Now, normally, what happens in Bad Fussing stays in Bad Fussing. But this tale is too good not to bare.

To Be Continued...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Vacation Ideas

Pondering where to go on your next adventure? U.S. News offers advice from top travel pros, including me. Bon voyage.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Soap Opera Bar None

I haven’t bought a bar of soap in years. No lye. No, I don’t stink (I think), and no, to beat any snarky commentators to le punch, I am not French. Nor have I had my sweat glands removed or Botox-ified.

Rather, my name is Laura and I am a soap-oholic. Or to be more specific, I have a zest for checking out with hotel soap. There’s nothing that can safeguard those pristine bars from my little paws. And yes, sometimes I do coast by the unattended housekeeper’s cart and lift a hunk or two. I can’t help myself. Those little pieces of wrapped ivory are as tempting to me as the ebony washboard abs of the new Old Spice Man.

Now, mind you, I am particular. I don’t do Cashmere Bouquet nor other tiny soaps exsiccated to the point of flakiness (you know, the ones that seem to be de rigueur at chintzy hotels worldwide). Nor do I pry the ever-more-present (green) soap dispenser from the wall. But dial me up a lovey-dovey bar of Gilchrist and Soames, Crabtree & Evelyn, Caswell-Massey (so many soap names seem to come in pears**), and other lux brands, and I’m in a lather. And if I stumble upon Hermes or Kiehl’s (the former stocked in a mere two dozen American hotels; the latter in fewer than 10)…well, that‘s a rarity in life, buoy or buoy.

I used to be addicted to hotel shampoos and lotions, too. (I have never had much use for bath gel, which, although soap in definition, doesn’t meet my bar). But now that one’s liquids are on full frontal display at security, well, it’s simply not suave to have one’s one-quart plastic bag stuffed with dozens of two-ounce elixirs. Even when traveling with a checked bag, the notion of lotion caressing one’s DWF wrap dress leaves me feeling unctuous. So, clearly, I have been cured of my liquid predilection. Olay.* But, alas, I believe my soap opera is to be continued.

*In the name of full disclosure, I must parenthetically add, dear reader, that yours truly was once a spokesmodel for the Olay brand.

**For the soap-pun challenged, please note that all misspellings are intentional.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Let's Make A Deal/Exchanging Your Home

For those of you who listened in today on Morning Living on Martha Stewart's Sirius radio channel, this is for you. Hope you enjoyed the segment.

The home exchange concept started in the 1950s. That's when some teachers, faced with free summers and low salaries, figured out this way to travel far and wide without spending a fortune. Two current exchange companies, Homelink and Intervac, date back to that decade.

To describe what home exchange is, it is first necessary to discuss what it is not. It’s not a homestay, where you reside with a family. It’s not a home rental, where you pay to stay at someone’s abode. And it’s not couch surfing, that favorite activity among international budget travelers. Instead, home exchange is a trust-based transaction, where two dwellings are swapped without payment for a mutually-agreed upon period of time.

If you don't have friends living in desirable vacation destinations, your best bet for home exchange is signing up with an international agency. Most are now online. When looking for an online agency, though, do consider its history, references, mentions in newspaper and magazine articles, and its number of members (the more members, the more flexible the exchange). Most of the big guys charge a subscription fee in the neighborhood of $100 a year. For that C-note, you’ll get access to an online directory complete with comprehensive listings of who wants to exchange what, where and when. Beyond the home, the exchange may even include pets and cars (that is, if both parties agree).

(You can also “house swap” via Craigslist, but that can be more of a crapshoot (as it is when responding to any Craigslist listing). Potential exchangers on Craigslist also tend to be very specific about their desired destinations).

When listing your home on most sites, you will be asked to describe its features, your guest requirements (kids/no kids; maximum number of guests, etc.), local attractions in your area, and other matters that may make your house unique and interesting to out-of-towners. Photos are also a requirement.

Once you pick your exchangee, the online agency wanders out of the picture, leaving the two of you to discuss the exchange between yourselves. When you are talking, ask about anything that may be an issue. If you are allergic to smoke, down, or pet hair, ask about it. If you don’t drive and need to be by public transportation, ask about it. If you are a clean freak and need to take six showers a day, ask if that will be okay.

When you are planning an exchange, it’s generally best to start at least six months out, particularly if you are looking to travel to a desirable vacation destination during peak season. Note that Australians and New Zealanders like to set up their exchanges about a year ahead of time, in order to get cheaper overseas airfares. So, if you want to trade Down Under, work it out far ahead, mate. Similarly, if you want to be somewhere for a special event, say, London during the 2012 Olympics, start arranging things this very minute.

That said, there are also opportunities for last-minute rentals. The aforementioned CraigsList is a last-minute option. And many agencies do send members shortlists for 11th hour exchanges.

Speaking of lists, let's consider one. Here are some pros and cons of home exchange versus a standard hotel vacation.


  • It's cheaper.
  • You get more of a feeling of living in the place.
  • There's more room.
  • You can probably pack less, particularly if you are traveling with kids, since the exchange might include games, toys, and other items you would otherwise have to bring along.
  • Someone will be occupying your home when you are away.


  • There's a huge trust factor. If you are paranoid, forget about it.
  • There's no hotel staff (housekeepers, bellmen, concierges) upon which to rely.
  • You have to clean your home before going on vacation.
  • You have to clean your vacation home before going back.
  • Choice of exchange destinations may be limited.

General Tips:

1. Put terms of exchange in writing.
2. Buy trip cancellation insurance.
3. Find exchangers with similar lifestyles.
4. Start looking at least six months in advance if you plan to exchange during peak seasons.
5. Consider local standards. An average house in Sofia, Bulgaria may be quite different from an average home in Manhattan.

Questions to Ask:

1. Are there pets? If so, and even if the pets are not going to be in the home while you are there, consider allergies for cat hair, etc.
2. Are you actually exchanging pets? If so, what is the care regimen?
3. Does the house smell? Ask this question gently. But do remember that scents like smoke get engrained over time, and often are forgotten by the residents. Similarly, if the home cook likes to use onions or pepper on a frequent basis, the aroma in the kitchen may reflect that.
4. Ask about the car exchange. If you do exchange cars, make sure yours works, and that insurance covers guest drivers.
5. If your exchangees are traveling with kids, find out how old (messy) they are.

Things to Do for Visitors:

1. Leave a complete list of instructions for operating appliances, television sets and other equipment that normally comes from the store with a manual.
2. Leave local contacts/neighbors, etc. and emergency numbers.
3. Make a list of stores and attractions in the area.
4. Provide a welcome goodie, perhaps a bottle of wine (and corkscrew) and a snack plate.
5. Stock the refrigerator with a few general provisions (butter, eggs, soda) to get guests going.
6. Let guests know what they have access to (bikes, certain dishes, computers, etc.) If you want to guarantee non-use, put off-limits items in a separate locked room.
7. Set house rules.
8. Arrange for a family member, neighbor or friend to come by and welcome your exchange partners when they arrive.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Viva Sun Valley

For all who listened to the segment on Around the World Radio starring me and Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, let me shed further and uninterrupted light on the wonders of Sun Valley.

The Sun Valley area encompasses the Sun Valley Resort, the town of Ketchum (the area's "big" city), and Hailey (home of Bruce Willis). Visitors usually spend most of their time in Sun Valley and Ketchum, which are only a mile or so apart (and connected by a free shuttle).

Historic Sun Valley is America's first destination wintertime resort. Shortly after the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics introduced winter sports to the U.S. on a large scale, demand for snowy playgrounds started developing. Millionaire W. Averill Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, sensed this demand while at the same time looking to increase ridership on his trains.
He built the Sun Valley Lodge in 1936, and what was to become the Sun Valley Inn in 1937. The resort's ski mountain housed the world's first chairlift (circa 1936).

Other special features of the resort include an intimate outdoor ice skating rink which has hosted championship figure skaters since the days of Sonja Henie. Saturday summer nights (through Labor Day) feature an ice capades headlined by a rotating series of stars (read Sasha Cohen, Brian Boitano, etc.) The lodge also houses a 70-year-old indoor bowling alley.

Like many Western resorts, in recent years, Sun Valley has become equally popular in the summer. Outdoor adventurers can take advantage of the temperate summer climate. For those who prefer the summer activities in more rarified air, the season is filled with cultural events and concerts. Be sure to take in a performance of the symphony at the new Sun Valley Pavilion.

But since summer is almost over for this year, let's look toward the fall. This is "between" season in Sun Valley--the summer vacationers are back to school and the skiers have yet to don their boots. Autumn offers weather warm enough for hiking, biking, golf and tennis, and a full slate of festivals.

Formerly the Food & Wine Festival, the Sun Valley Harvest Festival takes place from September 24-26. There are demonstrations by guest chefs; wine seminars; vintner dinners; and food sampling.

All's wool that ends wool at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival spanning Hailey and Ketchum. Celebrating Basque farming traditions, the towns become wild and woolly between October 8 and 10. Area chefs cook lamb (baaaaaaa!); wool artisans knit up a storm; and sheep get sheared and herded. According to the website, sheep poetry reading is also on the agenda. I assume this can't possibly mean that the sheep are actually reading poetry. But then again, magical things have been known to happen in the Sun Valley area. The highlight of the event is Sunday's Trailing of the Sheep parade. The 150-year-old tradition features Boise Highlanders, bagpipers, Basque dancers, and baa, baa black and white sheep.

http://www.visitsunvalley.com/ Information on Sun Valley, Ketchum, and Hailey
http://www.sunvalley.com/ Information on the Sun Valley Resort

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On the Radio: Delaware and Idaho

For proof that a travel journalist can be in two places at one time, please listen to my report on Delaware's Brandywine Valley while I luxuriate at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. Yes, my little spuds, it is a rough life. But I do it all in the name of serving my public. Go to the June 24th show to catch a earful of my dulcet tones.

Speaking of spuds, we next go to Idaho for a report on Coeur D'Alene (air date: 7/22). Please enjoy the vicarious hot stone massage.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Owyhee 5-0

Doesn't everyone want to spend a birthday in Owyhee? In case you question my spelling, note that Owyhee is an older English spelling of Hawaii. It was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when groups including native Hawaiians explored the Pacific Northwest.

But no, I didn't spend my birthday in our 50th state. Rather, I spent it in our
43rd. So why am I rambling on about Hawaii? Because I stayed at the Owyhee Plaza Hotel in Boise, Idaho. Said hostelry is named after the Owyhee River, discovered by those wandering Hawaiians.

There was no luau in Boise, nor did I get lei'ed there. But let me tell you, little spuds, while the Owyhee Plaza is no place to shake one's hips about, Boise isn't such a bad little place to birthday. Allow me to yammer on a bit about the Idaho state capital.

What does Boise have that other places don't? For starters, one can bask in Basque culture. Aside from hosting the only Basque museum in the United States, there's quite a sampling of food from Euskara (the region of the Pyrenees which the Basques call home). I dined on paella at the Gernika Basque Pub & Brewery and was as happy as a clam (albeit not the particular clam embedded in the rice dish).

Boise and its surroundings also provide adventure travel opportunities for weenies such as myself. Anyone can easily bike the Boise River Greenbelt, a 25-mile swath of flat pathway. The Greenbelt connects many popular sites, including the M.K. Nature Center, Zoo Boise, and 12 city parks. Soft adventurers can also play Lawrence or Laura of Arabia at Bruneau Dunes State Park, the home of the tallest sand mountain in the United States. For those who prefer aqueous adventures, whitewater rafting, waterskiing, and fly fishing options are nearby.

Speaking of fishing, my understanding is that it is now legal to fish from the back of a giraffe or a camel (just in case you had the hankering). At one time, it was illegal to cast a reel from an animal's back in Idaho. However, despite urban legend, it appears the bicameral state legislature has shelved the law. If you know otherwise, please comment.

But I digress. The Saturday Farmers Market downtown offers visitors a typical slice of Boise life. While the crowd is pretty white, at least the victuals are colorful and diverse. There are opportunities to nibble on locally-made/grown goodies ranging from mulberries to potato chips (naturally).

Speaking of spuds, I would be remiss if I didn't include a hash of potato trivia in this post (despite the state's recent efforts to downplay the exalted tuber). Yes, the potato is Idaho's state vegetable. The was first planted there in 1837. Idaho is responsible for one-third of the country's potato crop. Finally, according to a researcher in Ireland, potatoes are a powerful aphrodisiac. While I can't confirm the science, do note that the Irish know their potatoes and they are known for their large families. Just sayin'.