26 September 2011

Nicollet Island: my secret garden

This summer, I've been working as a Segway tour guide on the Minneapolis riverfront.

That's right. I'll pause while you stop laughing--Segways are inherently humorous; no way around that.* 

Okay, giggling over? Thanks. Moving on. It's been most interesting to see the other side of the tourist experience--to be the guide showing people around my city, to be the spectacle in the tourists' viewfinders. (I figure that on every single tour, I'm in at least 100 photos.) 

More on that some other time. But one of the best things about doing the tours is that they give me a chance to show off one of my favorite places on the planet, Nicollet Island. What makes it so great? I'm so glad you asked. Here, go read this Onion AV Club article I wrote about it! 

* To answer the frequently asked questions:
1. No, the inventor did not die in a Segway accident. But the owner of the company did.
2. No, it's not that hard to ride, in spite of the mishaps you saw on Arrested Development or the Ellen show or when George W. Bush tried to do it.
3. About $7,000.

24 September 2011

Two-hour tourist: Chicago

I won't pretend that you can get any sense of a place in two hours, but sometimes that's all you've got. You're taking a road trip and have to keep moving, or you have an extended layover with just enough time to dash from the airport to the city to see one or two things.

The question is, what do you see? What one or two things are readily accessible and can be experienced in a short period of time (that is, no huge historic sites or ten-course tasting menus or all-day tours) but still offer something unique to that particular place?

Last weekend, I was in the Chicago area for my girlfriend's brother's wedding (congrats, Peter and Katie!). The day after the wedding, my girlfriend, Maren, and I took the train into the Chicago Loop and had about two hours to be tourists. There wasn't time to explore the neighborhoods. There wasn't time for a Cubs game.

For me, one of the must-sees in any city is the landmark park. They make for great people-watching, and there's something about the dichotomy of nature and surrounding urbanity that I find impossibly alluring. Central Park in New York, Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Retiro in Madrid, and so on. (Come to think of it, one of my favorite things to do in any given city is to find a pastry shop and eat my gluteny goodness in that landmark park--and I've done so in each of the above parks.)

In Chicago, the lakefront area has two adjacent parks, Millenium Park and Grant Park, which are always crowded, even on a brisk, rainy fall afternoon. We opted for Millenium, because I wanted to see the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, popularly called the Bean because, indeed, it looks like an enormous, metallic bean, fit for consumption by some Brobdingnagian robot hiding behind the Hancock Building (Jerry Bruckheimer, you're welcome to that visual for your next movie--no charge). The last few times I've been to Chicago, the Bean or the park have been closed for various reasons, and I was starting to take it personally. But this time, there it was, open, uncovered, and just begging us to pose in front of it for roughly 2,531 photos.

If I can't think of any new topics for blog posts, I'm just gonna start
posting the other 2,530 photos one at a time.
Next stop: the Chicago Cultural Center, at the suggestion of my friend Charlie. Formerly a library, the building is now, well, a cultural center, with various exhibits and a cafe, not to mention a whole hell of a lot of really cool interior details--like, for example, the world's largest Tiffany art-glass dome. For starters. And glass mosaics like you'd expect in some sort of Nero-worthy Roman villa. Except it's all free and open to the public, and conveniently located just across Michigan Avenue from Millenium Park. As Maren and I wandered around, we could hear what sounded like some sort of Enya-esque calliope music reverberating throughout the building. Eventually, we tracked down the source: a public concert, in one of those mosaic-covered rooms, of a Javanese gamelan group. There were some twenty or thirty musicians in all, some playing xylophone-like instruments, some chanting, some hitting gongs. (And, it must be said, they were all conspicuously, emphatically white--it was as though some Chicago book club read Eat, Pray, Love, then all went to Bali to soak up some Eastern Spiritual Wisdom Stuff and, having achieved enlightenment, came back to Chicago to resume life as investment bankers who got together on weekends for gamelan jam sessions, just to relive those heady, magical days in Bali. Just guessing.)

As Javanese gamelan groups go, they were the best I've ever heard. Also the only ones. We headed out after one song. Back to the train station--by way of a bakery, of course.

And, honestly, I think that was a perfect two-hour tourist itinerary--two big, unique landmarks, some good people-watching, some cultural education. Plus a doughnut.

So now I'm trying to think of what I'd recommend for a two-hour tourist in other cities I know well. 

Minneapolis: Downtown riverfront. Walk along the Saint Anthony Falls History Trail, through Mill Ruins Park and across the Stone Arch Bridge. Read the various historic markers that explain how the city grew up right here, around Saint Anthony Falls. Get some coffee or a tea-infused cocktail on the patio at the Aster Cafe or some gelato at Wilde Roast. Go out on the endless bridge at the Guthrie Theatre. 

(UPDATE) Or ... Eat Street and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Eat Street is a roughly mile-long section of Nicollet Avenue lined with restaurants of every variety; the main stretch is centered at 26th Avenue and extends a couple of blocks up and down Nicollet. It's an eclectic mix of eats, a veritable United Nations: Caribbean, Vietnamese, Malaysian, German, Chinese, Mexican ... you name it. And there's a pretty wide price range in terms of price range and ambiance--if you want Vietnamese food, for example, you can choose between the hole-in-the-wall Jasmine Deli or the swankily modern, bistro-y Jasmine 26 (which has has bubble tea cocktails, and they're every bit as fantastic they sound). So grab a bite to eat. And then walk three blocks to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I know your time is waning, especially if you lingered over your food, but the MIA is free, so don't feel too bad about spending a limited amount of time there. The museum covers a full range of important art eras--not so different from any other big-city museum, to be honest, but it's still an impressive collection--but make a beeline for section dedicated to Prairie School design (I think it's on the fourth floor) for proof positive that the sense of place here in the Midwest is every bit as inspiring as mountains or the sea. 

Seattle: Pike Place Market. See the flying fish. Touristy as hell, it's true, but get over it. I, for one, will never get tired of watching those fishmongers toss massive salmons to each other like fish Frisbees, never dropping them, joking all the while. You'd probably have some extra time, though, and the surrounding areas of downtown Seattle aren't that interesting, although you could go walk around by the waterfront, even if it is rather covered up with piers and such in that part of town. 

Okay. Question for the masses. I have two hours in your hometown. Maaaybe three. Where should I go? 

14 September 2011

That *other* writer and his *other* outdated guidebook

So. This.

A new book has come to my attention. It's a humorous memoir by a writer who traveled around a continent using only "the guide that started it all." Hilarity ensues. Lessons are learned. History is explored. So much has changed. So little has changed. And so on. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Nope, that's not my book. That's some OTHER guy who did the same thing I did, but touring Southeast Asia with a 1975 copy of Lonely Planet. His name is Brian Thacker and his book came out, uh, two weeks ago. It's called Tell Them to Get Lost: Travels with the Lonely Planet Guide that Started it All. From the book synopsis on Thacker's web site:

When Tony Wheeler wrote Lonely Planet's first-ever shoestring guidebook, South-East Asia offered 'cheap and interesting travel without the constantly oppressing misery of some of the less fortunate parts of Asia'. Certain 'hotspots' in the region attracted the tourist crowds, but there were many 'untouched places' too.

So have Tony's recommendations stood the test of time? Just how much has South-East Asia changed since the Wheelers ambled through the region in flared pants? Brian Thacker decides to retrace Tony and Maureen's footsteps through Portuguese Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Burma using the original 1975 South east Asia on a Shoestring as his only guidebook.

Part of me wants to read this right now, because it sounds hilarious and insightful, etc. The other part of me ... the other part of me wants to go test the structural integrity of his wall by giving it some massive smacks with his cranium. But I presume there's plenty of room in this nascent genre for both of us.

To be clear, I'm more amused by this coincidence than annoyed. It was inevitable that someone else would also have the--if I may say so--great/bad idea to travel in this willfully-misguided way. Brian Thacker, I hope we meet someday and have the chance to swap outdated-guidebook stories. And when we do, you're buying the beers.

13 September 2011

Postcard Gallery - late summer edition

The handwritten letter revolution continues! Thanks to all of the amazing correspondents who have sent letters, cards, postcards, and aerograms. This batch features letters from Costa Rica, The Netherlands, American Samoa, and that impossibly exotic land known as the Minnesota State Fair.

Taking things left to right, in rows, from the top:
  • Top row: Corny (ha ha) Nebraska postcard from Maren; abstract art/postcard from my toddler nephews and niece.
  • Second row: letter in a sweeet map envelope, also from Maren; sockeye salmon postcard from my nephews and niece in Seattle.
  • Third row: retro postcard from the Minnesota State Fair, from my parents; meta-and-incredibly-cool Postcardly postcard of postcards, from Pam Mandel.
  • Fourth row: London postcard from my sister and brother-in-law while they were losing at a pub quiz in London; card from Gee in The Netherlands; promotional postcard for The Current.
  • Bottom row: Orkney postcard from my parents, who are obsessed with Orkney and go there roughly every three weeks (or at least once a year); aerogram (from my template!) from Erin in American Samoa, where you can apparently mail a letter to the mainland USA for just a single first-class postage stamp, which is a pretty neat trick if you think about it; and, finally, a fine-looking lizard posing for the cameras in Costa Rica, courtesy of Susan and Tom, who live on a boat there. 
Keep 'em coming, please! My address is right over there in the sidebar to the right >>. And if I owe you my own letter/postcard, it'll go in the mail today. No, seriously--they're all written and ready to send. 

06 September 2011

Six travel videos to inspire wanderlust

I know, I know. You don't come here for lists. You don't come here for videos. You can get that stuff at roughly 10,312 other blogs. All true. Nonetheless, here we are.

Of late, I've been getting itchy feet and trying to think of my next adventure, which has led to some random Googling and travel-blog-reading, plus too much time spent on YouTube and Vimeo looking at videos and feeling all inspired ... and then clicking over to the next video rather than, you know, planning a trip. So here are some of the greatest hits of the many videos out there that will pique your wanderlust.

First up: "Where the Hell is Matt?" It's an obvious choice, and everyone reading this is probably among the 38 million (!!) people who have watched it already, but this viral video of Dancing Matt doing his thing all over the world still makes me smile. Mesmerizing.

In a somewhat similar vein are these newer videos posed about a month ago. There are three: Eat, Learn, Move. Instead of following a dorky dancer around the world, though, these ones show a guy participating in each of the titular verbs around the world. Quirky, delightful, subtly thrilling--like eye candy for the traveler.

Granted, most of the above videos would be hard for the rest of us to replicate. I, for one, don't have the means to fly all over the world (forty-four countries for dancing Matt Harding, eleven for the eating, moving, learning guy) and put together epic montage videos. So in the more realistic "I could maybe do that" realm, here are a couple of others. Ironically, these more accessible-seeming adventures are, unlike the more epic ones above, entirely fictitious. They're ads for a language-learning program, so I suppose the very intent of these videos is supposed to be to make us feel like we could live out these stories--they're travel fairy tales, but still relatable.

There are also similar videos for Beijing and London.

And finally, on a more humorous front, here's my pal Darren Garnick discussing his blog Tacky Tourist Photos and showing off some of the best submissions.

Anyone have any to add? What videos make you want to hit the road?