Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Escaping the city while staying within its limits

Often times I want to leave the hustle and bustle that makes New York City "the city that never sleeps". It doesn't have to be long, as a typical weekend for a 9-5er like me usually doesn't allow for extended travel. A road trip to the beach or the country for a hike perhaps in another state is always nice. But on days when I want to escape without actually leaving the 5 boroughs I visit Red Hook.

Red Hook is a "coastal" Brooklyn neighborhood with a relaxed vibe and numerous local hangouts. Many Brooklynites make the venture east of booming Park Slope to roam around the giant shopping options in the area such as Ikea and Fairway. While these are valid reasons to make the trip, it's the peace and quiet, delicious local eats, friendly faces and awesome views that keep louring me back over.

Here are a few of my picks for how to spend the day in Red Hook

Lunch at the ball park food trucks while watching soccer.

By far my favorite thing about Red Hook, the ball park food trucks are a summer staple to satisfy the loyal soccer lovers who come out to the park to root their local teams on. The trucks, lined up along Bay and Clinton street offer numerous delicious Latin American specialties. My ideal meal is a pork pupusa with a side of fried plantains covered in sour cream, a grilled corn and a pineapple juice. The prices are extremely reasonable, with this mammoth of a lunch costing around $16. There are picnic tables nearby in the park where patrons comfortably chow down while enjoying the game. I found out the hard way that the trucks are only here on the weekend.

Enjoying city views in peace and quiet

Situated directly on the East River, Red Hook boasts sweeping views of the city. Look one way you see the Statue of Liberty. Turn your head to the left and you see the Verranzano Bridge jetting across into the flatness of Staten Island. Turn your head to the right and admire the downtown Manahttan skyline. The best part about these fantastic views is that they are yours to enjoy with minimal distractions. There simply aren't many people around. Walk behind the massive Fairway, past the ferry dock there is a small park with a couple of benches to sit and enjoy in peace.

Eating my way down Van Brunt Street

The food scene in Red Hook is booming and Van Brunt street is home to a couple gems. The first is the Red Hook Lobster Pound. This small shack has plenty of fresh lobsters chilling in their tanks waiting to be served in a few different ways. The lobster roll, served either hot with butter or cold with mayo is my snack of choice here. Generous chunks of juicy sweet claw and tail are piled onto these bad boys and go best with a Maine soda & chips. The friendly family owned atmosphere is extremely welcoming and they have an awesome indoor space next door with large picnic tables.

A few blocks further south on Van Brunt lies Red Hook Mercado which I stumbled into. The "market" is an urban courtyard transformed into an inviting local hangout with different options for the average hungry passerby. The vendors inside change weekly, with specific ball park trucks represented. The weekend I visited there were also local cupcakes and beer to choose from. It quickly became clear to me that this was a spot where everybody knew each other and almost felt like a backyard family barbecue. Like the ball park trucks, this place is only open on the weekend.

Neighborhood Flea Markets

The reason I stumbled upon Red Hook in the first place was because of the first ever neighborhood flea market. There were vague guidelines, but with some strong social media advertising word quickly spread about a range of streets participating in the event. It was a great way to force myself to walk down unassuming streets I probably would have quickly driven by. I didn't buy anything, but it was nice exploring and talking with residents of a neighborhood I was quickly becoming fond of.

What is your getaway within your own city limits? Please share in the comments section!! :)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Photo Essay: Eating with the locals in Manila

During my 2 week stay in Manila I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chow down on some amazing authentic Filipino cuisine, snacks and drinks. Here is a photo essay highlighting a few of my favorites through out the journey:

Mister Donut, a nice cheap snack found in the neighborhood Quezon City supermarket.

Delicious home made pork & chicken fried Shanghai (Lumpia). I always smiled when I saw this tasty treat coming out onto the table.

Mini keg of refreshing San Miguel Light, the beer of choice through out Manila.

A little Buko Pandan from Max's to cleanse the palate after a large meal.

This dish was awaiting us as a welcoming to our new living quarters, awesome home made stuffed crabs.

Some more San Mig light, in a different form. Manila loves to drink beer and party!!

Nothing like coming home to some fresh squid after wandering around Quezon City.

When roaming around Manila on an empty stomach a stop at a local Dampa is necessary . A Dampa is a fresh seafood market with an attached restaurant. Customers select their desired seafood and tell the staff how they would like it prepared. Here are a few shots of our lunch at a Dampa located in the Baclaran section of Metro Manila.

Fresh fish waiting their turn to be chosen and served to hungry patrons.

Starting off with some cool green mangoes. A perfect first course during this hot November afternoon.

Buttered prawns. These peel and eat delights were worth the mess.

My favorite dish of the afternoon, clam soup.

The entire family enjoying lunch. Sweet and sour fried Lapu Lapu fish in the center of the table.

Full stomachs after this hearty meal.

Hopefully you won't be starving after reading this post. Have you ever tried Filipino food? If so, what are some of your favorites???

Monday, April 5, 2010

Discovering Local Boston Eats

A mere 3.5 hour drive from NYC, Boston is a charming little city with a lot of activities to offer tourists. The question I wanted to answer with a hands on approach was, where can I find some good freaking food???

My travel mate who joined me during this trip, Josh, is a native "Cambridgian" (my unofficial nickname for Cambridge residents), whose family was nice enough to house us for our weekend visit - woohoo!! More $$ to spend on the eating situation!!! It's always a pleasure to explore town with a local, as getting lost on the "T" subway system was no longer a concern.

This trip was a quick one due to time constraints thanks to my 40 hour work week lifestyle. Arriving Friday night at Midnight and staying until Sunday evening, time was somewhat limited. Luckily wandering around new surroundings makes me hungry, and allowed me to indulge in some local Boston eateries.

Saturday started off deliciously, as Josh's parents whipped up an amazing hearty breakfast consisting of large buttermilk waffles, scrumptious crispy home fry style potatoes and yummy bacon. Talk about the good life! I personally enjoy breaking up the bacon into pieces on top of the waffle. There's something amazing about those crispy, porky and syrupy bites that wows my taste buds. With a full and happy stomach, I was off to explore Beantown.

After a surprisingly fast and simple 3 transfer train ride from Cambridge via the T, we arrived in downtown Boston. The first stop was spending a few hours at the popular New England Aquarium, which lived up to its high expectations, but looking at all of the seafood - um I mean sea creatures was making me hungry! It was time for a lobster roll.

Quincy Market was a short walk from the aquarium, and a nice way to avoid the bitter weather to enjoy some indoor eating. The specific part of the market we entered had tons of choices as we passed pizza, Chinese food and steak sandwiches among others, but my growling stomach passed the memo to the brain that Lobster roll was the way to go. I decided to try New England Chowda Co. as they had a great special offering their large lobster roll along with a small soup & soda for $15. Within a minute I was presented with the entire plate of seafood. It certainly looked large at first glance, but I quickly noticed that the "roll" took up a lot more space than the chunks of lobster inside of it.

The meat had decent flavor, but was heavily coated with excessive mayo through out. There was also a couple lettuce leaves on the sandwich which I instantly removed. Each bite had too much bread to lobster ratio for my liking. Oh well, not every place in Boston is going to make an amazing roll. The Lobster Bisque on the other hand was tasty. I should have been a little weary with the emphasis placed on "Chowder" in the name. When it was all said and done I finished the entire roll without problem. I mean come on its lobster on a bun, how bad can it get???

Later that night it was off to Somerville, a 10 minute drive from Cambridge for a barbecue adventure at Red Bones, one of Josh's favorite local spots. This place was popping! We arrived around 8:30 and were placed on the waiting list where our party of 7 found ourselves with 90 minutes to kill. Luckily Davis Square, which was the area of Somerville we were in had plenty of bars and cafes on its strip. We chose the laid back Diesel Cafe to sip on some coffee and shoot some pool for the fair price of $8 an hour.

The time passed by fast and before we knew it our table was ready to go. We sat downstairs where a pretty big and loud crowd was drinking, double fisted style at the bar and an equally large amount of people were chomping on ribs at their picnic style tables.

The menu was huge and had so many tasty sounding items for all meat lovers to choose from. I decided to go with a special 1/2 order of Memphis style ribs and 1/2 order of St.Louis style ribs with sides of coleslaw and onion strings. Memphis and St. Louis were two towns that I couldn't argue with when discussing ribs, thus making my choice simple.

We started out with some cornbread, to warm up our jaws for the excessive amounts chewing that was about to come. A sweet offering and well deserved after an hour and half wait.

In a few short minutes the waitress came out of the kitchen with piled high plates of meat, and was heading in our direction. My smile grew bigger and bigger with each step closer she walked. $19 bought me a HUGE plate of ribs along with generous sides. I was very glad I ordered 1/2 of each kind which allowed for variation. 4 types of bbq sauce accompanied the meal - bold, hot, sweet and a strange looking fourth that I stayed away from. The Memphis style were bigger and meatier and went great with the bold and hot sauces. The St. Louis were a bit smaller with a dark and delicious coat of smoked goodness on top. Alternating between the two allowed me to have the best of both worlds. The big pile of napkins to my right became my best friend, as my face was smothered with barbecue after each rib.

The coleslaw was a great refresher in between meat and fried onion bites. The onion strings themselves were an amazing complement, sliced ultra thin and battered just right. I made the mistake (which I felt later on) of over stuffing myself with Red Bones' goodness. As the pictures tell, this was an enormous plate of food. I finished all but 3 ribs and left a little coleslaw underneath. I happily finished my leftovers for dinner the next day. Red Bones is a must stop for any rib lover wandering through Boston. I know I will always go back if in the area.

Sunday morning ... err afternoon we decided to stay local in Cambridge and walked down to bustling Harvard Square. Vietnamese was on the agenda for lunch, and Le's restaurant in the center of the square came highly recommended. Le's was a spacious place with plenty of room left for the straggling early Sunday afternoon crowd. For some reason I do not often eat Vietnamese, which is something that should change!!! For appetizers the table shared spring rolls, both crispy fried along with the healthier alternative, summer.

I only sampled the fried rolls, which had a perfect crisp to them with the standard pork and vegetable interior. As far as the entree, my brain appeared to think much larger than my stomach, as I boldly ordered the large Pho Ga (Chicken Noodle Soup, as the menu read). A no frills choice, I know ... but it's good for the soul, right??

Le's does not mess around when they say large! This bowl was enormous, and filled so high with broth that it hid the noodles deep below. I was very satisfied with my super-sized portion of Pho Ga. I mixed a couple of the bright red hot sauces from the center of the table to add a little flare and spice to the dish - which after a couple of coughing chokes was successful. I tried really hard, but could not finish the entire bowl. Next time I will order the medium. We took a couple of addicting Vietnamese Ice Coffee's to go which served as a sweet little dessert to take around town. Beware though, you will crave these suckers after a few harmless first sips.

Even though I hate the Red Sox, Bruins and Bill Belichek's Patriots I have to admit I really like the city of Boston. Smaller, cleaner and less crowded then my beloved NYC, Boston packs a lot of personality to go along with its good food. As always the case, traveling around with locals is the best way to find good eats and hangouts and this experience was no different.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jet Blue gives back to their Twitter followers

To celebrate their 10th birthday, popular airline Jet Blue decided to give back to some lucky fans this week. Their first "gift" was offering $10 flights from JFK to its original 10 destinations. This deal offered flights to cities such as: Oakland, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Tampa. Of course the deal offered this past weekend had a catch, you had to fly out on Monday, March 8th or Tuesday, March 9th. Nevertheless I'm sure this deal saved many customers a lot of money.

Today Jet Blue sweetened the pot and decided to give away nearly 1000 tickets scavenger hunt style around Manhattan. The company cleverly posted updates on twitter, stating their location and instructions on specific items to bring in exchange for free tickets. With San Francisco, Vegas and Chicago on my domestic travel list I decided I was going to join in the festivities and try my luck if the location was near my job.

The first location was posted on Twitter at noon explaining to bring a birthday card for Jet Blue to Broadway & Dey street in the financial district. This was too far from my office, but I stayed glued to twitter for updates on the next location.

2 hours later the second location was posted, this time the free tickets were on 11th st and University place and you had to bring something airplane related. I borrowed my co-workers' frequent flyer card and ran out thinking I would be one of the first ones to arrive.

There was a gigantic line bending around the block filled with young people carrying peanuts, headphones, ticket stubs and anything else airline related. I knew I wasn't going to win but decided to hop on at the end of the line. There were a few hundred people in front of me and literally a minute later a Jet Blue representative came down the line to kill our dreams by announcing that they had ran out of tickets for this location.

The representatives hailed down a couple cabs to head to their next destination. The mobs of hopeful people swarmed around them, some begging for tickets. It was quite a scene as the reps smiled while dodging through the crowd. It reminded me of a movie star leaving a shoot trying to avoid autograph seeking fans. Despite the herds of desperate travelers there was a fun atmosphere happening here. It was an excuse for friends to hang out and try their luck to possibly score free tickets, right before spring break for the college crowd.

I applaud Jet Blue for thinking outside of the box and coming up with this fun and creative marketing plan. The execution via social media was extremely efficient and hit the young college demographic head on. They proved to the community that they are generous, and will possibly gain market share in the process thanks to word of mouth. The airline industry often lacks personality, so it was nice to see Jet Blue reach out to their fans in a creative way. 2 Thumbs up!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ben's Chili Bowl ... The Real Deal???

Washington DC is a great weekend trip for New Yorkers looking for a change of scenery without sacrificing the city lifestyle. I drove down to Maryland with my friends Chaz and Vikky where we were lucky enough to have housing accommodations and were meeting with our other friend Suzy, a DC native to show us around town. After wandering around landmarks it was lunch time and Suzy instantly recommended Ben's Chili Bowl on nearby U street. Ben's is one of DC's most famous establishments, as I have seen it on various travel and foodie television shows discussing its rich history. It was the moment of truth, and I wanted to see if the food at Ben's Chili Bowl lived up to its hype.

After a short ride on the efficient Metro system we arrived and quickly spotted the bright red, yellow and white building. To no surprise there was a line out the door. Thankfully it was a beautiful March afternoon and we did not mind the wait. The line moved quickly though and after 1o minutes we were ushered inside to another line. Suzy and I quickly grabbed a corner table while Chaz and Vikky ordered. The place was packed, but had plenty of seats. A few booths and tables occupied the front of the restaurant along with some stools right next to all of the cooking action. In the back was a larger seating area that catered to parties with 6 or more people. The ordering process was organized and turned out to be very efficient. The outdoor crowd is brought in slowly, which is a smart way to avoid chaos inside. After ordering the staff notices where you are seated and brings your order over to the table. The overall process is stress free and faster then it originally appears.

The bustling atmosphere inside Ben's was great. It was packed with what seemed like a mostly tourist crowd of families, friends and couples. In the background soulful music was loudly playing, as well as hard working staff members shouting out orders.

Okay, decision time!!! I went simple and ordered the classic chili dog with a side of fries.

The chili dog was a standard size but smothered with flavorful chili! Only a tip of the hot dog was showing. The generous portion of chili on top was very smooth and had lots of tasty spice. It all came together very well once combined with the hot dog, mustard and finely chopped onions. I finished it in about 5 bites and managed not to spill any, but make sure to have napkins nearby in case of chili overboard!

I made the bonehead decision to accompany my dog with a side of regular fries but got to sample my friends' orders of chili and chili-cheese fries which were both very good. I personally enjoyed the chili fries the best, as the addition of cheese made the fries a little too heavy - but were great for a couple of bites. Definitely be prepared to eat these fries with a fork!

I was representing my New York Rangers in DC by wearing my jersey (the game was later that day) which caught the attention of one employee walking by. This dude was big, and looked pissed off! He asked each of my friends individually:

"Is this guy with you???" with a very stern tone.

We laughed as he explained that this was "Ovi's town which means no Rangers, No Penguins, just Caps!"

It was all in good fun as my friends and I laughed about it while struggling to finish the remaining fries . I loved that somebody noticed that I was an outsider by my jersey and it showed the hockey craziness of DC that I sometimes question.

Ben's Chili Bowl is the real deal. Great food, great atmosphere and a place to kick back with friends. If you don't believe me, you can ask this guy ...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

5 ways to save $$$ while cruising

For many travelers cruising has become a top option when needing a break from reality. The prices may seem intimidating at first, but when it comes down to crunching the numbers going on a cruise doesn't have to break the bank. Here are 5 ways you can save money on your next cruise.

1. Putting 4 people in a room

If you are traveling with 4 or more people and want to save money, it is essential to maximize the number of people per room. The default settings for most online booking sites is 2 people per room, but many rooms can sleep up to 4 people. This includes the windowless interior rooms which is the cheapest option aboard. The key is that the 3rd and 4th passengers pay a highly discounted rate. The savings occur after you split the total cost of the room 4 ways.

Let's look at an example when booking the same interior room on the Carnival Miracle for 8 nights on Expedia.com. Our room is in on Deck 1 and falls under category 4A. The price is $779 per person.

Price of the room for 2 people: $779(cost) * 2 (amount of people) + $162.74 (taxes + fees) = $1,720.74 and therefore $860.37 per person.

Price of the room for 4 people: $779 (cost for first 2 passengers) *2 + $449 (cost for 3rd and 4th passengers) * 2 = $2456 + 325.48 (taxes + fees) = $2781.48 and therefore $695.37 per person.

Sorry for all of the math! But it clearly shows that by adding the two extra people to same exact room each person saves $165.

2. Cruising from your home city (or a nearby city)

There are many departure ports that sail to various destinations both north and south. New York City and Northern New Jersey offer itineraries to the Caribbean, New England, Canada and even transatlantic excursions to Europe. Of course Florida boasts a large selection of destinations due to its close proximity to the Caribbean. Aside from the greater NYC area and Florida, here are some other US cities that offer cruises to the Caribbean:

  • Baltimore, MD

  • Boston, MA

  • Charleston, SC

  • Galveston, TX

  • Mobile, AL

  • New Orleans, LA

  • Norfolk, VA

If you live in or around any of these areas you will likely be able to enjoy more cruise bang for your buck while saving money on airline tickets and avoiding stressful airport procedures. If you want to cruise to destinations such as Mexico or Alaska, there will be plenty of options on the west coast to leave from.

3. Skip the shore excursions

When docked at its location the ship offers a wide range of activities for all ages and interests, called shore excursions which come with a steep price. While some excursions such as swimming with dolphins sound amazing, they are very expensive. Some cheaper shore excursions could include lunch in paradise at a pristine white stand beach for the afternoon. There are times, with a little pre-trip research where you can get to the same destinations as the shore excursion without paying the high bill.
For example, when my friends and I went on a Norwegian cruise in 2008 that stopped in Tortola (British Virgin Islands) there was a shore excursion that offered lunch at picturesque Cane Garden Bay. I had done my research and already knew that Cane Garden was one of the nicest and most popular beaches in Tortola. We decided to go there on our own, and only had to pay round trip taxi fare. It was well worth missing out on the lunch to save a bunch of money.

4. Take advantage of all the free eating options aboard

Arguably the best part of cruising is the all-inclusive food options on board. Amazing food is all over these floating cities in the form of sit down restaurants, buffets, bistros and bars. No matter what you're craving and what time of day it is, you are covered. The ship will also offer various "premium" eating options where each consumer will have to pay an additional surcharge. These restaurants are spread out through out the ship and can feature such venues as steakhouses and sushi bars.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure most of these restaurants serve excellent food, but if you're looking to save money, avoid them! There are so many free eating areas on the ship that serve fantastic food. Trust me, you will never go hungry & you won't have to worry about racking up the bill.

5. Drinking while exploring

If you like to drink and order your drinks on the boat, expect a very large tab at the end of your vacation. Think about going out to your city's most trendy neighborhood, how much would you say the drinks are? $10? $12? ... Well that's about how much you will pay for mixed drinks on your cruise. Come on, with all the free food on board the organization has to make profit somehow, and overcharging for drinks is one key way. If you must drink on the cruise, stick to beer which will probably cost $5-$7 each.
One option to score cheaper drinks during your cruise is to drink while visiting the ports. Once away from the dock area, there are bound to be cheap bars and restaurants. Why not kick back with some local residents and enjoy some ice cold cheap drinks at the neighborhood watering hole.

Cruising is an awesome way to spend a vacation, so don't be afraid if the prices initially seem high. Do your research, search multiple cruise lines and sources and follow these rules in order to enjoy this high seas without emptying your life savings.

Have any of you been on any cool cruises lately? If so, do you have any other money saving tips?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to get around Manila

The craziness of the streets in metro Manila can be very overwhelming for a first time visitor like myself. Pedestrians, passenger cars, taxis, huge buses, trucks, jeepneys, motorcycles and tricycles all come together to clog Manila roadways. All of this without the comforts of traffic lights, crosswalks and clear road lanes can turn a simple trip into an experience for an outsider. Jaywalking in busy Manhattan streets is a cakewalk when compared to navigating around Manila intersections. It's normal life for the locals, who use a "Frogger" approach to dodge vehicles in order to get across the street. After a couple of days I was getting pretty good at it - it just takes a little practice!

If agile walking does not sound appealing to you, here are some different ways to get around Manila ...

1. Jeepneys

This neat form of transportation was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived. There are a plethora of them in every neighborhood, and are often times full (with some daring riders even standing on the back). They reminded me of shuttles and are a popular and inexpensive way to get around town. They fit around 10 people and can be hailed down like a taxi. The coolest thing about the Jeepney is the individuality each one of them has. They all have a name which is clearly labeled on the front and sides.

This Jeepney is named Revelation:

They are very colorful and often times have lots of chrome and logos. Riding them can be a little frightening at high speeds, as the back is completely open. Rest assured though, there are handles to hold onto.

The inside of the Jeepney:

2. Tricycles

Tricycles are faster than walking, but overall remain a slow form of transportation. These man-powered vehicles are an effective way to travel down small streets. The driver peddles on the left while passengers relax on the right in the shaded sidecar. The sidecar is designed for 2 passengers to ride at a time, anything over that is stretching the roominess.

They are cheap and can be haggled down (but don't get too greedy). They are very easy to find, with lines of operators waiting at various locations. A good option if you need a break or feel like being lazy in exchange for a small fee.

3. Motorcycle Taxis

A convenient and faster alternative to tricycles are motorcycle taxis. They are very similar, with room for two passengers in the sidecar and space for one adventurous rider who wishes to sit behind the driver holding on for dear life. These could also be hailed down randomly in the street if vacant.
Since the motorcycle taxis are quick, they ride on major streets along with all of the other vehicles on the road. The one downside to this is the smog build up. It pays to cover your mouth and nose while riding, and I noticed that some locals wore masks over their mouth to help protect against the smog.

4. Sky Train

The sky train is often the quickest way around Manila, especially when traveling from one neighborhood to another. They are fast, clean, safe and easy to navigate. Depending on your destination you will sometimes need to take a quick taxi ride to and from the sky train station. When on the train you can clearly see all of the time you are saving, as the train shoots past the crawling vehicles on the traffic filled expressway beneath.

5. Taxis

Taxi's are everywhere and easy to flag down. The problem is that Manila's traffic is so bad that often times taxis seem unbearably slow. Nevertheless they are an essential way to get to certain places, and are inexpensive when compared to prices in the states.
Manila cabbies are often cowboy drivers, so be prepared for a wild ride with sudden stops.

It's nice to have have options when traveling around Manila. No matter what your time restraint or location is there is always a way to get around town. When traveling to nearby cities such as Batangas (about a 2 hour ride) express buses are the best way to travel. When traveling to other islands such as Romblon, long boat rides are usually the most direct way to travel. But when trying to navigate around Manila, there are plenty of choices to choose from.

So I ask the question to all of you, what is your preferred way to travel around your own city?