Bicycling just beyond New York City

July 12, 2014

Thanks to Adventure Cycling’s “Bike Bits,” an electronic newsletter filled with tidbits for folks who love bicycle touring and sightseeing-oriented riding, I learned about a couple starting up overnight bike/camping tours from New York City. The three-day outings are geared toward city-dwellers, but anyone can participate. They make things as easy as possible for newbies, which I think is key. If I hadn’t had my pal Alice Charkes, a long-time Adventure Cycling leader, showing me the ropes almost 20 years ago, I’m not sure I would have tried bike touring. Thank you, Al!

I thought Gotham Bicycle Tours would be a great item for In Transit, the New York Times online and print travel feature I regularly contribute to. My editor agreed, and here’s my little item, which ran in June:

By Diane Daniel

Lukas Herbert takes a break during a bike ride through the Harlem Valley. The route is now part of the the Hudson Valley tour. (NOTE: this was taken a few years ago before the tours). Photo by Eric Wilson

Lukas Herbert takes a break during a bike ride through Harlem Valley, part of the Hudson Valley tour. Photo by Eric Wilson

As passionate cyclists and campers, Bronx residents Lukas Herbert and Laura Willis have introduced friends to their avocation and hope to see their fellow city riders discover the joys of multiple-day bicycle touring. But they know an impediment exists.

“While bike riding is becoming hugely popular here, a lot of people do not have access to personal vehicles, which poses a major obstacle for doing a bike tour,” Mr. Herbert said in an email.

Enter Gotham Bicycle Tours, which the couple started this spring to offer three-day, two-night bike tours just outside the New York City metro region.

“Fortunately, we have a mass transit system that permits bikes, so we are setting up these tours with 100 percent access to mass transit,” said Mr. Herbert, an urban planner with Westchester County, specializing in bicycle and pedestrian work.

“The idea is to remove as many barriers as possible to get people out on a bike overnight,” he said. “Then, if they do our tours, maybe they’ll graduate to a bigger, longer tour or strike out on their own. Regardless, the goal is to increase bike traveling, which is a good thing.”

Some of the cycling will be on car-free paths, including the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. Photo by Lukas Herbert

Some of the cycling will be on car-free paths, including the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. Photo by Lukas Herbert

Four tours are scheduled, two that traverse the Hudson Valley ($275 a person) and two along eastern Long Island and out to Montauk ($295 a person). The trips start at commuter rail stops outside the city.

Aside from not doing the actual pedaling, Gotham is making the outing as easy as possible for travelers by mapping scenic routes, planning meals and arranging accommodations (bed-and-breakfast options are sometimes available for noncampers).

Gotham staff will shuttle riders’ gear and even the cyclists themselves if they get too tired. Technical assistance is available for everything from a flat tire to tent setup (tent rentals are available too).

What if you try it but you still don’t like it? Push the “panic button” and Gotham promises to put you back on a train or bus to return home.

The dish on visiting Replacements in NC

May 24, 2014

I’d always wanted to do a story on Replacements, but had no idea it would be sooooo much fun! Here’s my article, which originally ran in the Washington Post on April 27, 2014, and has since been reprinted in several other newspapers. Details for visiting are below the story. The kicker: I was cleaning out the basement after this ran and discovered yet another box of inherited crystal, worth enough money to warrant a return visit. This time I’m making a point of meeting owner Bob Page. Can’t wait!

By Diane Daniel

Replacements’ 12,000-square-foot retail store and museum near Greensboro, N.C., is open to the public, with free guided tours through the warehouse

Replacements’ 12,000-square-foot retail store and museum near Greensboro, N.C., is open to the public, with free guided tours through the warehouse

When Laurie Oliver, running the sellers’ counter at Replacements, Ltd., said that it might take 90 minutes to process my six plastic tubs of china, silver and crystal, my first thought was, I’m pretty sure I’ll need more time than that.

For years, I’d driven past the gigantic showroom and warehouse (“the size of eight football fields!” according to the Web site), visible along Interstate 85 just east of Greensboro, N.C., thinking that I wanted to drop in. Not because I like to shop (I don’t), but because the scale and mission of the place fascinate me. The aptly named company maintains the world’s largest inventory of old and new china, crystal, silver and collectibles – some 12 million pieces representing more than 400,000 patterns. Broke your Margarete Bridal Rose salad plate? Look no further. Want some cash for your Spiegelau Aida water goblet? Step right up.

The bulk of the company’s dealings, both buying and selling, occur online, on the phone, and through parcel delivery. But for more than 55,000 annual visitors, Replacements transforms into much more than a center of commerce. I experienced it as a dog park, a gay rights center, an inventory-handling machine, a tableware museum and a place of worship – or at least profound appreciation – for benevolent leader Bob Page.

The rainbow flag flies under the Replacements logo. Owner and founder Bob Page is known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide.

The rainbow flag flies under the Replacements logo. Owner and founder Bob Page is known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide.

I started my unofficial tour in the back parking lot (non-selling visitors typically use the front door). I’d dutifully made the recommended sellers’ appointment and had identified my inherited china patterns. But I’d also brought a hodgepodge of indeterminate crystal and items that I hoped were actually silver. (Prices are based on supply and demand.)

The first thing I noticed was the tall pole holding two flapping flags – one stamped with the Replacements logo and the other covered in rainbow stripes, the universal gay symbol. Owner Page, once closeted, is now known as a gay rights leader locally and statewide, a bold proclamation for a mainstream business owner in these parts.

As I was unloading my boxes onto a cart, two employees passed by, one walking a black Lab and the other a Pomeranian, lending truth to the sign on the door that reads, “Well-behaved pets welcome.” Staffers told me that though dogs rule, visitors have also brought cats on leashes and even a pot-bellied pig.

After Oliver explained the drill, she cut me loose to play. I followed the yellow tape on the floor down a long corridor in a warehouse toward the retail showroom, passing row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with china, crystal and some collectibles. (Hummels, anyone?)

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Partners of mountain bikers, this trip’s for you

April 29, 2014

This is one of those “why didn’t people think of this before?” ideas.

Sacred Rides, a Canadian-based outfitter known for its serious singletrack mountain bike tours for experienced riders, has launched a line of Bring-Your-Partner Rides that mountain bikers and their non-biking companions can enjoy together.

 If I were with a mountain-biking partner, I’d love this. The destinations are great and I like outdoors activities and road riding, so I think I’d like to come along, thank you!

The new partner trips include hiking, yoga, hot springs, spa time and introductory mountain bike lessons for the companion, while the mountain biker will enjoy single-track cross-country riding on moderate to challenging terrain in Fernie, at Nipika Mountain Resort and Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country. Activities for couples to do together include hikes, yoga (pictured here) and paddling on the Kootenay River. More locations are expected to be added to the partner program, in North America and beyond.

Personally, I‘ll skip the mountain-bike lessons. Been there, bruised that. I’m sticking to the asphalt, because nothing bad can happen there. (Kidding!)

Sacred Rides owner Mike Brcic told me, when I first contacted him for my little New York Times item, that idea for the trips came from conversations with more than 100 clients, the majority of them male.

“Most of them are longtime mountain bikers with high incomes, but who have partners that don’t mountain bike,” he said. “With limited vacation time, it’s hard for them to get away on the mountain bike trips they dream of doing. So being able to bring their non-mountain-biking partner along is a win-win for everyone.”

Makes sense to me, Mike. All in all, though, I’m just grateful that my partner and I love doing the same things. Makes life easier!

Dutch to celebrate first King’s Day in style

April 21, 2014
The Prinsengracht canal is jam-packed with boats, most blaring dance music

The Prinsengracht canal is jam-packed with boats, most blaring dance music

It’s a big week in the Netherlands, where the country celebrates its first King’s Day (Koningsdag), after a long run of Queen’s Days — since 1890. I wrote this little ditty about it for the New York Times. The change came after Queen Beatrix abdicated her post to her son Willem-Alexander, who now heads the House of Orange. He changed the holiday to his birthdate, April 27, but because that falls on a Sunday this year, the debut party was moved up to April 26. Willem-Alexander, btw, is Europe’s youngest monarch — he turns 47 on Sunday.

Friends entertain the crowd at Vondelpark

Friends entertain the crowd at Vondelpark

Not much will change for the visitor. In Amsterdam, you’ll still see hundreds of thousands of Dutchies covered in orange, sidewalk sales, open-air music and dance, and family activities (go to Vondelpark for those). The craziest site is the canals, so clogged with revelers on boats that sometimes you can’t even see the water.

The second-largest King’s Day celebration is historically in Eindhoven, to the south. So if you’re looking for a smaller sea of orange, but  still with plenty of activities, consider checking out the action there.

Diane celebrates Queen's Day in Amsterdam in 2010

Diane celebrates Queen’s Day in Amsterdam in 2010

Lina and I joined the Amsterdam fray in 2010 and it was one of the most joyous occasions I’ve witnessed. The key is to leave before the rowdies come out early evening, unless you’re of ‘em. Then have at it! If you’re coming from afar, make sure to visit a bargain store for some orange-colored clothing, like I did. Lina got the inflatable crown for me — someone was handing them out on the street.  Quite fetching, don’t you think?

Carlton Ward frames Florida’s wild side

March 22, 2014
An Ogeechee tupelo tree on an island in the Suwannee River (photo Cartlon Ward)

An Ogeechee tupelo tree on an island in the Suwannee River (photo Cartlon Ward)

One of my favorite nature photographers, eighth-generation Floridian Carlton Ward Jr., recently opened his first public gallery. Hooray!

The Carlton Ward Gallery in Tampa, where Carlton is based, displays about 30 of his award-winning fine-art prints from assignments and adventures around the state. Carlton is known for his striking environmental photographs, which have been seen in Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. Now you can see them up close and personal, in frames!

When I visited the gallery, photo locations included the Everglades, Gulf Coast, Tampa Bay, Florida cowboys, and his most recent project, the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Carlton brings out the best of Florida, and is quite the intrepid adventurer. You’d have to be to get the shots he does.

For the Wildlife Corridor project, in 2012, Ward and two scientists trekked 1,000 miles from the Everglades to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia to document the state of wildlife habitats, watersheds, and ranches. “The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition” book and DVD also are available at the gallery.

Here are the basics: Carlton Ward Gallery, 1525 West Swann Ave. (in Hyde Park), Tampa. 813-251-0257, http://www.carltonward.com

Paradise found at Florida park

February 2, 2014

I wrote this article, which ran on Feb. 2 in the Boston Globe, after a summer visit to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Florida’s Panhandle. It’s a super-special place and while it’s not really a secret, it kind of still is because it’s out-of-the-way location keeps the number of visitors down. Read on…

By Diane Daniel

The State Park includes 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes

The state park includes 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes

CAPE SAN BLAS, Fla. — Initially, Youngra Hardwick appeared eager to share her wisdom. She had succeeded where I’d failed by snagging a waterfront cabin at T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, and I wanted in on the secret.

“There are some tricks to it. Every day different spots come open. So you have to get up really early in the morning.” Just as she was advising me about opening several internet browsers, she stopped.

“Wait! I don’t even want to talk to you about it,” she said. She was laughing, but she meant it.

View of St. Joseph Bay from the Maritime Hammock Trail

View of St. Joseph Bay from the Maritime Hammock Trail

Hardwick, who traveled here from Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two daughters, first stumbled upon the park, in Florida’s Panhandle and about 105 miles southwest of Tallahassee, while searching online for budget-friendly coastal stays.

“I look for places that are remote and isolated, and this sounded like paradise,” she said. “I was right.”

Many visitors, it seems, treat their time at St. Joseph as if it involved password-protected admission. During my three-day stay, several people asked how I had discovered the park. Check online travel forums and you can find users jokingly trying to dissuade others from visiting.

The real treats are the eight furnished cabins with a view of St. Joseph Bay

The real treats are the eight furnished cabins with a view of St. Joseph Bay

It’s not surprising that folks want to keep this spot along Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” to themselves. St. Joseph’s natural amenities include an unheard of (at least in Florida) 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes, along with maritime forests and wildlife. The park’s 119 tent and RV camping sites are fairly standard, but the beach is just a short walk away over the dunes. The real treats are the eight furnished “cabins,” which look more like resort condominiums minus the television. And who needs TV when your back yard looks out onto the wide expanse of St. Joseph Bay?

Luckily for the non cabin-dwellers, water views are everywhere in this 2,716-acre playground. It sits at the tip of narrow Cape San Blas and is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico and the bay, giving visitors the opportunity to see sunrises and sunsets — only a few yards apart in some spots. Although the park has been anointed a “best of” by “Dr. Beach” and is frequently mentioned in national publications, its out-of-the-way location keeps traffic relatively low.

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In Amsterdam, a new skating rink

January 5, 2014
201401_01c_skating Amsterdam

Skating rink with replica of the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge)

Fans of Hans Brinker, the fictional Dutch boy who enters an ice-skating race to win a pair of silver skates, can practice their moves at Ice*Amsterdam, the recently opened skating rink in the shadows of the majestic Rijksmuseum, on Museum Square. (An aside: Hans Brinker is an American creation. The Dutch have erected statues to “him” to keep American tourists happy. Nothing wrong with that, I say!)

201401_02c_skating Amsterdam

Skating is especially magical at night

The seasonal rink, previously operated by the city and this year run by a private concessionaire, has been upgraded to include a new design decorated with custom-made mosaic orbs; the restaurant Brasserie Winters, with heated outdoor terrace and bar; and a walkway over the rink replicating the city’s most famous drawbridge, the Magere Brug, or “Skinny Bridge.” It’s especially magical at night, but a lovely spot to visit any time.  During the day you should also visit the nearby Van Gogh and the Stedelijk museums.

At the rink, you can rent skates or bring your own, and nervous skaters need not worry — you’ll see tots and adults hanging onto chairs for assistance. If you’re not a skater, you can watch from the sidelines or from the on-site restaurant while enjoying classic Dutch treats, including Hollandse snert (pea soup), stamppot (mashed potatoes and vegetables), and apfelstrudel (apple tart).

The rink and restaurant are open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through February.

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ heats Atlanta

November 15, 2013
Guests on the Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours visit Atlanta film locations, including The Swan House, staged at Presidents Snow’s Mansion. Photo credit: Courtesy Atlanta History Center

The Swan House served as Presidents Snow’s Mansion. Photo courtesy Atlanta History Center

All eyes are back on Katniss and Peeta as the sequel “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” comes out on Nov 22. A week later, Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours launches Catching Fire Tours in Atlanta, where the sequel was filmed. The same group led outstanding theme trips and tours in North Carolina, where the first “Hunger Games” was filmed. This time they’re partnering with Atlanta Movie Tours to present immersive fan tours highlighting locations used in Catching Fire.

Learn archery while touring Hunger Games sites in Atlanta, such as The Swan House, staged at Presidents Snow’s Mansion.  Photo credit: Hunger GamesTM Unofficial Fan Tours

Learn archery while touring Hunger Games sites. Photo credit: Hunger GamesTM Unofficial Fan Tours

The one-day tour costs $94 and includes location tour, transportation, lunch, and hands-on activities. Locations include: Presidents Snow’s Mansion (The Swan House at the Atlanta History Center), District 12, The Victory Tour, and the beginning of the Games – tick tock! A series of weekend experiences is planning as well. Those, costing $549, include lodging, meals, transportation to filming locations, tour guides and mentors, and hands-on activities like archery, food that your favorite characters would have experienced, and a Gala Banquet. You’ll use your newly learned survival skills to compete in your own games simulation.

To make reservations, go to www.hungergamesunofficialfantours.com or call 855-668-4332.

Anarctic cruise line adds polar snorkeling

October 3, 2013
Polar snorkeling with a seal (photo Goran Ehlme - Waterproof Expeditions)

Polar snorkeling with a seal (photo Goran Ehlme – Waterproof Expeditions)

Arctic lovers, here’s the next big thing. Australian-based Antarctic cruise operator Aurora Expeditions has added another ice-breaking adventure to its lineup of polar pursuits – snorkeling – and they say they’re the first cruise operator to offer it. Passengers who take the frigid plunge will have the chance to go on daily dips in sheltered bays, around offshore islands and near secluded ship wrecks. Along with experiencing the beauty of sculpted icebergs below the surface, snorkelers might witness penguins entering and exiting from the ice and swim near seals and other marine mammals. Can you imagine?

The polar snorkeling option joins an activity lineup including scuba diving, sea kayaking, and camping, and is operated onboard by Dutch outfitters Waterproof Expeditions, which uses dry suits, gloves, hood, fins, and masks specially designed for the 28-degree Fahrenheit water temperature. Personally, I’m sticking to Caribbean snorkeling, though maybe I’d change my mind once in Antarctica. No plans this year. It’s a pricey trip!

Taking a break while polar snorkeling (photo Roger Munns - Waterproof Expeditions)

Taking a break while polar snorkeling (photo Roger Munns – Waterproof Expeditions)

Aurora Expeditions voyages aboard the 54-passenger, ice-strengthened Polar Pioneer depart from the far southern ports of South America. Prices start at $7,200 a person. The snorkeling option adds $975 and is available on these trips: Across the Antarctic Circle, Feb. 10 to 19, Feb. 19 to 28, 2014, and Feb. 19 to 28, 2015; and Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, Feb. 28 to March 11, 2014 and Feb. 28 to March 9, 2015.

Greenville, SC, is a Southern surprise

September 8, 2013

Greenville’s awesome food festival — Euphoria — is coming up Sept. 26-29. This year’s version features singer Kim Carnes, a whole lotta chefs, and even more food. If you can’t make the festivities, any time is a good time to visit. You don’t even have to do any planning — just follow the itinerary from my “36 Hours in Greenville” story that ran in the Boston Globe on March 17. Happy trails!

By Diane Daniel

GREENVILLE, S.C. — This city of 62,000 halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta took a huge hit when its bustling textile manufacturing industry moved overseas in the 1960s. A decade later, then-Mayor Max Heller, a Holocaust refugee from Austria, set about infusing downtown with a European flavor, encouraging foot traffic, shops, and sidewalk cafes. The revitalization started in the 1980s with the construction of a Hyatt Regency and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the Hyatt just underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation.

Today visitors will encounter a bustling center with scores of shops and restaurants and anchored by a stunning waterfall park. Meanwhile, global employers BMW and Michelin have attracted thousands of workers to the area, while Tour de France veteran George Hincapie has lured a growing community of cyclists to his adopted hometown to play in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Day 1

3 p.m.

Park it:  Start your visit with a Greenville History Tour (864-567-3940, http://www.greenvillehistorytours.com, $12), where you learn that in 1873, Bostonians Oscar Sampson and George Hall opened the city’s first textile operation along the Reedy River.

Greenville’s award-winning Liberty Bridge

Greenville’s award-winning Liberty Bridge

In 2002, Boston architect Miguel Rosales was tapped to help revive the blighted area with his award-winning Liberty Bridge. The elegant 355-foot curved suspension bridge for pedestrians replaced a car bridge that had obscured the falls 28 feet below. When it opened in 2004, the bridge united the city and provided a stunning focal point for the 26-acre Falls Park on the Reedy (Main Street at Camperdown Way, 864-467-4355, http://www.fallspark.com).

6 p.m.

Greenville grown:  American Grocery Restaurant (732 South Main St., 864-232-7665, http://www.americangr.com, entrees $26- $37) brought seasonal Carolina cuisine here in 2007 and has maintained its status as culinary kingpin since.

American Grocery Restaurant

American Grocery Restaurant

Owners Joe and Darlene Clarke set a refined but unfussy tone in two compact rooms with exposed brick walls and dark furnishings. Dishes change weekly, but rabbit and trout are often on the menu, such as in Blue Chip Farms rabbit loin with tagliatelle pasta, marinated kale, and red pepper cream ($27).

8 p.m.

After-dinner drinks:  Restaurateur Josh Beeby bows to the brew at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria (25 West Washington St., 864-232-3706, http://www.barleysgville.com) and, downstairs, in The Trappe Door (23 West Washington St., 864-451-7490, http://www.trappedoor.com). Barley’s is bright and airy, while the Belgian-influenced Trappe is dark and squat. At either spot, you’ll find good grub and dozens of top-flight American craft and Belgian beers.

Day 2

10 a.m.

Culture corner: Originally the site of Greenville Women’s College, Heritage Green is an 11-acre swath of land downtown devoted to housing institutions of education and culture. At the Children’s Museum of the Upstate (300 College St., 864-233-7755, http://www.tcmupstate.org, $9-$10), youngsters scramble over the Kaleidoscope Climber, an elaborate multistory climbing structure. The Upcountry History Museum (540 Buncombe St., 864-467-3100, http://www.upcountryhistory.org, $3-$5) follows the area’s growth, especially its textile manufacturing past.

Satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery in former Coca-Cola bottling plant

Satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery

New Englanders might be surprised to learn that the Greenville County Museum of Art (420 College St., 862-271-7570, http://www.gcma.org, free admission) houses the world’s most complete collection of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. The newest addition on the Green is a satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery (516 Buncombe St., 864-770-1331, http://www.bjumg.org, $3-$5), which opened in 2008 in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant. Educational displays upstairs enrich the holdings.

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