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Posts about U.S. travel

Accomodations on the cheap for your next trip

Posted by: Sarah Johnson Updated: February 13, 2015 - 4:01 PM

Oh, that pesky budget – when I’m planning a trip, it has a discouraging way of reminding me that it’s all about the benjamins. I like to be out and about sightseeing all day and use my accommodations only as glorified sleeping quarters. If you value experiencing new places more than having luxurious thread counts while on the road, here are a couple of alternatives to spending hundreds of dollars on a hotel room.

In 2011, I made my first trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York for former Twin Bert Blyleven’s induction. Although I started researching lodging options six months ahead of time, I quickly realized I was too late: the two main choices for visiting this small town of 2,000 were to drive more than an hour each day to stay somewhere less expensive or pay more than $200 per night for a nearby motel.

Since I like to have a roof over my head (for me, “roughing it” doesn’t extend to sleeping in a tent, although that’s another viable option if you are so inclined), I initially dismissed the KOA located a mere ten miles from Cooperstown. When I double checked their website, I discovered they had “kabins,” very reasonably priced bare bones cottages (mine was about $75 per night). Just bring your own sheets, a towel (which can double as a pillow), some trail mix for breakfast and you’re good to go. The rest of the day was spent hanging out with baseball fans from around the country.

When I met a mother and daughter staying with me at the Apple Hostel in Philadelphia, I remember thinking how ingenious it was that they had discovered a way to travel together and make inexpensive but lasting memories. Who needs those fancy lotions and shampoos anyway? Long seen as the domain of the thrifty youngster, hostels should appeal to anyone looking for a convenient jumping off point for a day’s sightseeing as they are frequently located in or near a town’s center. (The Apple Hostel, for example, is in downtown Philadelphia, a mere four blocks from Independence Hall and easily reached from the airport by public transportation. My selection was a female only dorm for about $35 per night.)

While it may not be the most restful place in the world (can’t I catch up on sleep when I return to Minneapolis?) or have the most stunning décor (at the Flying Pig Hostel in Amsterdam, you’re greeted by a brightly colored mural of a monkey holding a joint), it does often provide some of the same amenities as a hotel including laundry, wifi and access to a refrigerator. And techies that need to be plugged in at all times can be comforted in knowing that every hostel I’ve stayed at has its own electrical outlet for charging all of your digital necessities by each bunk.

Eclectic ideas can lead to memorable travel experiences – I won’t soon forget the foosball table at the Flying Pig Hostel with a bumper sticker reading “I closed Wolski’s! Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” Some of the most fun I’ve had exploring the world involves breaking from the norm…with the added bonus of returning home a few bucks richer. A perfect amount to start planning my next adventure.

Gluten Free Traveling

Posted by: Sarah Johnson Updated: January 9, 2015 - 4:44 PM

You know the Boy Scout motto “be prepared”? I feel like adopting that when I travel since I follow a gluten free diet. Venturing away from home when you have special food requirements may seem overwhelming, but I haven’t let it stop me from seeing the world and have adopted some tricks to make it manageable.

Research your destination ahead of time - most restaurants now have menus posted online. I’ve found that if you call when they are not busy they are happy to suggest some options. You can also print gluten free dining cards that are available in more than 50 languages online for free.

Even if you don’t check your bag, there are some things you can bring through security - apples, bananas and oranges hold up well, don’t need to be refrigerated and are easy to eat on the go. Individual packets of nut butter are smaller than three ounces and provide some protein. Live by a grocery store that has a bulk section with the ingredients listed on the bin? It’s fun to make your own trail mix.

If you’re traveling internationally and will be served meals and/or snacks on your flight, call the airline ahead of time and request a special meal. When I went to Germany, the gluten free meal was chicken with broccoli, carrots and rice with a fruit cup and salad. (The snack before we landed was a banana with an Udi’s gluten free chocolate chip muffin, which was much more appealing than the processed egg sandwich everyone else was eating.) I try not to worry about leaving my comfort zone - sometimes it’s easier to find gluten free food in foreign countries. In Peru, the standard side dishes are potatoes and rice and one of their specialties is pollo a la brasa (similar to rotisserie chicken).

Not only can visiting a farmer’s market or going to the grocery store in a new place be a good way to find real food, it can also be a great free sightseeing option. (At a grocery store in Amsterdam, I saw drinks with Hello Kitty and Spongebob Squarepants on them.) If your hotel offers rooms with a refrigerator, Greek yogurt with fruit or string cheese with gluten free crackers are good snacks with some protein that don’t need to be cooked.

An added bonus to bringing my own snacks means less time spent sitting in restaurants waiting for food and more time (and money) I can devote to maximizing my sightseeing time. I can’t wait to discover more tricks.

Belly up to the bar in Napa

Posted by: Updated: July 10, 2014 - 2:09 PM

Like many others, I first went to Napa for the wine and came away wowed and dazzled by the food. Great restaurants use an astonishing array of fresh ingredients to create wonderful dishes, usually of the simple, vibrant ilk. Every return trip has meant exciting new (to me) venues, including Solbar in Calistoga and Morimoto in the town of Napa last month.

And as swell as it is to savor this gastro-utopia at a table, I actually prefer to eat at the bar, at least when there are just one or two of us. The full menu is available without fail. It’s generally a great perch for people-watching. The person behind the bar is usually a seasoned pro in food service — someone who has made this his or her profession, not the “I’m just doing this until I get enough acting/modeling gigs” types encountered at all too many restaurants. Plus they almost assuredly know how lucky they are to live in such a fabulous place and work at such a cool eatery.

But the big bonus is that this is where the people who do the truly important work in Napa tend to hang out. While the nouveau riche winery owners are regaling one another in the main dining area, the winemakers, vineyard managers and cellarmasters often are just enjoying a nice meal and a beverage (often a beer; as the saying goes, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine”) at the bar.

I’ve had particular luck meeting such folks at two of Twin Cities native Cindy Pawlcyn’s superb restaurants, Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. But I’ve also encountered cool Napa-ites at Press, Bistro Jeanty and downstairs in the atmospheric bar at Goose & Gander.

Oh, and most recently, the octopus seemed a little more tender and the sake a touch sweeter at the convivial sushi bar at Morimoto.
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A rosy view of Portland

Posted by: Updated: June 13, 2014 - 8:28 AM

People tend to go to Portland for one reason above all others. But that reason varies mightily. It might be the wonderfully wide-ranging restaurant scene (from countless food carts to the don’t-dare-miss-it Thai treasure Pok Pok); the country’s most revered big bookstore, Powell’s Books; the hipster vibe, or as a gateway to Pinot Noir Heaven, the Willamette Valley 30 miles to the southwest.

But in summertime, there’s no better impetus to go than the clunkily named International Rose Test Garden.

Tumbling down a hillside in Washington Park, the garden boasts killer views of the city and Mount Hood. But all eyes should be trained on the myriad blooms. Who knew there were so many shades of orange, pink, red, yellow and violet? Or so many ways to use white to punch up said colors in multi-hued eye-poppers?

The name is actually accurate — new hybrids have been tried out there since 1917, making this the nation’s oldest continuously operated rose test  garden. But there’s also a casual feel to the endless tiers of shrubs and vines, and visitors’ reverence for roses tends to make for peaceful strolls. 

The lone downside for Minnesotans: You’ll never look at that perfectly nice rose garden on Lake Harriet’s east side the same way again.

Get with the 'Inn' crowd

Posted by: Updated: May 15, 2014 - 11:16 AM

George Washington slept here, or at least in the vicinity. But the reason to go to the Inn at Little Washington is to eat one of the best meals in the country. In a still-teeny-tiny town that was mapped by a young surveyor named George Washington in 1749, the inn does of course have lodgings ($460 and up), but it’s an easy drive from “Big Washington,” not quite 70 miles to the east.

When it opened on the site of a former gas station in 1978, the closest restaurant was 40 miles away. Before long, the $4.95 dinners got fancier and tastier. The Inn at Little Washington was the first establishment to be 5-star Mobil and 5-Diamond AAA designations.

Today, Patrick O’Connell turns out stunning, thrilling dishes using the freshest local ingredients, from seasonal vegetables to country ham. Our meal started with, technically, our names printed on the menu, but the food included a crabcake “sandwich” bounded by fried green tomatoes with a tomato vinaigrette and prawns with charred onions and mango mint salsa.

It got better from there, capped by a ridiculously cool cheese cart: Faira, a wooden cow on wheels with a bountiful array of selections in a tray on her back.

The late, great New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called this “the most magnificent inn I’ve ever seen, in this country or Europe, where I had the most fantastic meal of my life.” No argument here.

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