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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Explore a City Like a Local Using Smartphone

This app costs $3.99 per city (67 major cities are available worldwide), while the others are, for the most part, free. But you get what you pay for: this was the most well-rounded of the three I tried. One of its many perks is that it runs entirely offline, so you do not need to stress about data usage.

Like all of these apps, Spotted by Locals provides recommendations submitted by actual local residents on where to eat, shop, be entertained and more. The idea is to keep you away from tourist traps and steer you toward hidden gems.

I used it to explore a neighborhood where I used to be a local (Astoria, Queens) to see if it could deliver. The fact that it included a wide assortment of suggestions in a borough not named Manhattan was impressive enough, compared to the other apps I tested, but the recommendations themselves were also spot on.

For example, Astoria’s popular Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden was rightfully featured, but so was SingleCut Brewery, a lesser-known, but worthwhile, beer spot.

The advice for each location is the perfect length — detailed but not overwhelming, and the “Nearby” tab on the map makes it easy to scope out places wherever you are.

Cool Cousin

This app scored points for originality as well as its practicality, and is perfect for travelers who don’t have any cool cousins of their own.

Cool Cousin gives you access to contributors in 40 large cities around the world. Each “cousin” has a profile, with name, age, photo, occupation and a lot more information. The idea is to add those to your network who seem to have similar tastes to your own. After each add, the cousin’s recommendations are added to your map and broken down into eight different categories, such as food, coffee, night life and outdoors.

The app seems geared toward younger travelers — it feels like a cross between Facebook, Tinder and Foursquare — and most of the cousins themselves have an appropriately hipster look. For New York, this leads to a higher concentration of recommendations below 14th Street in Manhattan and several in Brooklyn (very few in Queens), and heavy in the food and night life areas.

But the app itself is easy to figure out, and the map includes the option to download and use offline (for free). No matter where you are, just hit the location arrow to see what’s nearby.

The recommendations themselves are solid and are written casually — think Yelp, minus the negativity. I added 26 of 55 available cousins in New York and was impressed with what was revealed, including free public gardens and lesser-known art galleries, as well as a wide variety of intriguing bars and restaurants.

Your new cousins will even message you through the app to say hello, and you have the option of writing them back to ask for more tips. You will also get a push notification every time you receive a new message, which you can turn off by adjusting your settings. After asking two of my paired cousins, I received additional restaurant recommendations.

Like a Local

Well-designed and easy to navigate, Like a Local has fewer contributors than the other apps (28, providing 197 tips for New York at the time of writing) but it is in more cities than the others (over 300) and best functions as a complementary tool.

The recommendations are detailed yet concise, giving an excellent general overview and a “special tip” for each location. For example, at the Brazilian restaurant Beco in Brooklyn, Kelly advises: “Come early because the restaurant’s seating space is limited. CA$H ONLY.”

You don’t have to sign up to use the app, so you can dig right in and explore — though if you want to use the app offline, you have to pay $1.99 per city.

There’s also an option to “ask locals,” which works like a message board. I asked for Upper East Side restaurant recommendations (it is a neighborhood not represented well on any of the apps) and after a week had yet to get a response.

The recommendations included mainstream spots like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Central Park more often than the other apps did. These are not underappreciated landmarks, but not necessarily bad places to check out if you’ve never been.

A Vacation Paradise

 The staff of Mamba Point Hotel threw an impromptu going away party for my 6-year-old nephew, Cooper.

The kid had already been spoiled shamelessly during our two-week stay. He had cleared Mamba Point’s sushi restaurant of all its edamame, and had devoured, by my count, more than 65 eggs, scrambled carefully for him every morning by the breakfast chef Leroy Blehsue, (one morning he consumed eight).

This was over the holidays, and the hotel was empty since tourists don’t go to Liberia. For Cooper, that meant a huge edifice to explore. He swam in the new pool. He explored the corners of the hotel casino. He sprawled on the couch in the bar playing Minecraft on his mom’s iPad. He heckled the doormen by running in front of them to open doors for ladies as they came in, before saying between giggles: “I’m doing your job.”

I would not have blamed them if they had shooed him away. But they didn’t. “Hi Cooper,” Edward Quad, the second-floor doorman said, grinning as Cooper invaded his turf.

In fact, “Hi, Cooper,” had become the refrain for my family’s big trip, and for all of my inner grumbling, I was ecstatic. This was the first time my entire family — from my mom to my two other nephews to my brother-in-law to my sisters all the way to Cooper, were all together back in Liberia, the land of my birth. Cooper had never before been to Africa and, let’s face it, Liberia is Africa on steroids.

“We’ll be tourists!” I had cajoled. “We’ll go to the beach, we’ll go to Kpatawee waterfalls, we’ll go to Sapo National Park. And think of the food!”

The mention of the food had eroded their initial dubiousness. Liberian food is “sweeeeeeet” — Liberian English for “so delicious you want to cry.” We boarded the flight home with thoughts of palm butter, bitterleaf, fufu and proper Liberian jollof rice, in our heads.

The central question, though, was: Could we really spend two weeks in Liberia as tourists? Liberia had long been that fantastically beautiful place that had never seemed able to deliver on its travel destination potential: sandy white empty beaches, but with no roads leading to them; lush tropical rain forests but with no place to go to the bathroom; an open people who love foreigners but few flights to link them.

About a year and a half ago, I had stumbled on a Liberia tourism videoon YouTube that started to answer the question.

The video, set to highlife music, was enticing yet real at the same time. “Experience our Children!” a bunch of adorable uniformed schoolchildren said, laughing into the camera, which nonetheless captured the dirt roads these children walked on every day. “Experience our Culture!” was followed by a clip of a pekin (Liberian English for frisky child) with no shoes doing a complicated dance involving wide leg sweeps, accompanied by drummers. “Experience our Natural Beauty!” had a wide gorgeous smile from a Liberian park ranger showing off peaceful rain forest lagoons, tented lodges on the beach and real-life Liberian surfers cresting waves. Whoever put the video together hadn’t shied away from the tattiness of the capital city of Monrovia, which was featured in all of its dilapidated glory.

This trip was Cooper’s first visit to the Third World, and I was eager to see how he would do. In the back seat of the car as we navigated Monrovia’s traffic, Cooper was glued to the window: Market women with baskets of oranges on their heads and babies on their backs battled with young boys selling small plastic bags of ice water. At major intersections, all manner of bushmeat, fish and poultry were available for purchase by car passengers too lazy to pull over and walk to the side of the road. So sellers came to them. One guy thrusted what looked like an aardvark at us.

“Bucket,” Cooper said, quietly to himself, at one point, when we passed a woman balancing a bucket on her head. He seemed particularly fascinated by the size and weight of what the Liberian women carried on their heads, plugging into the image that more than anything else, tells the story of the continent of Africa as a whole. “Look, she’s carrying two things on top of each other!” he exclaimed.

He struggled with the heat at first — on Day 1, at a party a friend of mine had for children who had lost their parents to Ebola, Cooper, fascinated by the traditional Liberian dance and the drummer Emmanuel Lavelah, shuttled back and forth from the band to the porch to stand directly in front of the fan with a glass of ice water, looking pitiful and torn.

But I knew “Experience our Beaches!” would help that. The next day, we headed on an overnight trip to Libassa, an eco-resort outside Monrovia that came with thatched rondavels, multiple terraced swimming pools, a lagoon, and a “lazy river.” All of this was set to the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.

Libassa, run by a French and Lebanese couple on a pristine spot that they leased from local Liberian villagers who now comprise the staff, is serene by morning and frenetic by afternoon. When the sun rises, the place is peaceful, as the lagoon laps at its mangrove forest and barracuda, snapper and grouper enjoy the solitude. Overnight guests emerge from mosquito-netted beds and make their way from the porches of their rondavels to the breakfast area.

The calm remains until around early afternoon, when the secluded oasis turns into a water park, as families show up to play in the lazy river, letting the current jets do the swimming for them. It’s a total scene, amplified by Liberia’s strange breed of cultural quirks: We generally don’t swim well (maybe because the country’s tropical coastal location gives the ocean a fierce undertow), so Libassa’s lazy river was full of young Liberian couples on dates in which guys were supposedly teaching young women how to swim.

When we were there, the floating deck on the lagoon that had been so peaceful in the morning was crammed by afternoon with Lebanese expats smoking hookahs in gender-segregated groups. We even got to see a fight, when a group of Lebanese women started demanding loudly of their men why they were in Liberia for Christmas instead of Rabat or Casablanca. Then the women got up en masse and stomped back up to the resort’s restaurant area.

Still, my quest to experience Liberia as a tourist was going well. What to hit next?

“Experience our wildlife!” O.K., so about that. Listen, this is West Africa, not East Africa. So instead of lions and cheetahs,

we’ve got Monkey Island! Actually, we have six of them. And surely six islands, inhabited solely by chimpanzees (which does not stop Liberians from calling the islands Monkey Island) is something.

Rain kept the crowds away at a beach in Robertsport. CreditCarielle Doe for The New York Times

The Monkey Island story is typically Liberian — foreign exploitation, war, disease, redemption, all rolled into one. For 30 years, the New York Blood Center used a colony of chimpanzees in Liberia for medical research. That finally ended in 2005, and the chimps and their children were given free rein on the islands, on the Farmington River just outside Monrovia. In 2015 the blood center said they wouldn’t pay to feed and care for the chimps anymore. A public furor ensued, and eventually the Humane Society and other donors stepped in to continue the feeding and care program.

The chimpanzees now live on the six islands on the river. There are around 50 of them altogether. One morning we paid some local fishermen $25 to paddle us an hour each way through mangrove forests to the islands. We saw the chimpanzees’ caretaker toss them bananas from his canoe. (Because people don’t set foot on Monkey Island, it’s solely for the chimps.) The most famous one, Bullet, was shot in the arm during the civil war so only has the use of three appendages, but he, like his Liberian compatriots, has proved himself pretty resilient and is one of the dominant chimps. There are no organized tours, but going with the local oarsmen is a great way to help the local economy.

For Experience our Natural Beauty! day, we headed to Robertsport, in my opinion the coolest of all of Liberia’s, um, resort towns. Robertsport is where the ship the Harriett landed, carrying my great-great-great-great grandfather Randolph Cooper and his four brothers, all freed American blacks who boarded in Norfolk, Virginia, back in 1829. They and other black people were sent to settlements in West Africa that became Liberia as part of an effort by the American Colonization Society to rid the United States of black freemen. A lot of Liberia’s recent political turmoil, including the civil war, can be traced back to its tortured history that is rooted in American slavery.

Even in Portland

Even in Portland, Ore., where marijuana was legalized for nonmedical cultivation and use in 2015, it’s still illegal to just light up on the street, as well as in most hotels. So, as a traveler in search of a good high (for reasons purely related to research for this column, of course), I had a bit of work to do to craft my perfect Northwest cannabis-tourism getaway. Once I did, though, I found the east side of the Rose City the ideal place to spend an inexpensive vacation — full of great food, shopping, comedy and, naturally, some of the best kush the country has to offer.

I’ve been fairly indifferent to pot most of my life, and smoked only a handful of times in high school and college. Having had a couple of experiences with some truly lousy weed, though, I will agree with the consensus: A regulated industry produces a cleaner, more consistent and relatively safer product than what you would get on the street. Marijuana is also taxed heavily in Oregon (20 percent in Portland), generating an enormous amount of money for the state (40 percent of which is earmarked for education).

But if you’re from out of town, how do you go about enjoying it? No big-name hotel is going to allow you to consume on their property. Even hipper boutique hotels — like the Jupiter Hotel, which specifically targets marijuana smokers with a “420” package — prohibit the actual use of cannabis on their property.

The best solution I found was on Airbnb. I looked through listings for indications that the owner of the property consumed cannabis themselves or was amenable to it (“420-friendly” is usually a good sign, though note there is not an official search filter on the site). Then, I sent a follow-up message explicitly asking just to make sure. I was able to find very a comfortable room for $79 per night on Southeast 57th Avenue that had no problems with outdoor cannabis consumption.

The one challenge was getting around: Portland’s MAX light rail is not particularly useful in the Southeast. I relied on the bus — not ideal, but made much easier with the PDX Bus app, which maps routes and, most importantly, provides real-time updates for bus arrival times. It was very useful for minimizing time spent standing around at the bus stop. (I bought a seven-day pass for unlimited use of bus, rail and streetcar for $26.)

I was able to hop two buses and make my way to the Northeast restaurant Han Oak, where it was dumpling and noodle night (every Sunday and Monday). The chef, Pete Cho, lives on the premises with his wife and family, and the indoor-outdoor setting of communal tables festooned with strings of patio lights provides a welcoming, homey atmosphere. After stuffing myself on some excellent pork and chive dumplings (four fat dumplings swimming in a black vinegar and ginger broth for $9), I asked Mr. Cho if he had any thoughts on Portland’s marijuana scene. “You could check out Serra,” he said. “It looks like … the Apple Store.”

The comparison is not a stretch. Serra, which has two Portland locations, is a bright, clean and well-designed showroom, with individual marijuana strains clearly labeled and displayed under glass, like insect specimens at a museum. After showing my driver’s license, I waited for another couple of shoppers to leave the nearly empty store before being allowed in. One of the employees explained to me that they like to keep the employee-customer ratio at one-to-one to provide better service.

Having an employee totally focused on you also discourages lollygagging and casual browsing, and I found it slightly unnerving. I told Tim, one of the employees, that I didn’t know much about marijuana and could use some pointers. He laid out a few general concepts, the primary one being the difference between the strains sativa and indica. Sativa is a little more active, he explained, and lets you go normally about your day. Indica gets you more, well, stoned. “Sativa is going to be more like coffee,” he said. “Indica is more for your evenings.”

I told him that weed generally tended to put me to sleep. “Sounds like you want a sativa hybrid,” he said, directing me toward a prerolled joint containing one gram of Cookies ‘N’ Cream (other names I encountered: Qrazy Train, Bruce Banner, Dawg’s Waltz and Ultimate Urkel). Prices were not cheap, but you get what you pay for. I spent $12 for the joint, and $6 for a bottle of CBD-laced water (cannabidiol, or CBD, in contrast to THC, is a non-psychoactive component of the plant and is used by some as an anti-inflammatory and pain relief).

A couple of pointers if you’re planning to partake in one of the eight states that has legalized recreational marijuana in this country. If you’re headed to a dispensary, bring your I.D. as well as cash. Don’t call it weed — the preferred terminology is cannabis. What you may know as a joint is now referred to as a preroll. Don’t say bud, say flower. Most importantly, understand that once you step from the head shop back out onto the street, you’re not supposed to consume in public (This applies to other states as well — you can’t just light up on the sidewalk).

Back at my Airbnb, I downed the CBD water and fired up my preroll. I couldn’t even come close to finishing it — a gram of marijuana makes for a very fat joint — then went for a walk over to Mount Tabor Park. I was certainly feeling the effects, but Tim was right — I wasn’t feeling knocked out like I usually did. The sensation was relaxed and tingly, rather than a heavy stoned feeling — perhaps the CBD water helped. (Thanks to recent wildfires, air quality has been poor — though improving — so exercise caution.)

on of legalized cannabis and easy access to the outdoors is one of the draws of pot tourism in the Northwest. The spacious, forested Mount Tabor was the perfect spot for my stoned outing. I went for a long walk on one of the many trails before finding myself at the northern tip of the park and stumbling upon a free concert by the music ensemble Conjunto Alegre, part of a series of free concerts sponsored by the city. Hundreds of people were picnicking, lounging and dancing to the salsa and cumbia music. I recommend bringing your own food if you attend one of these concerts — the lone taco truck there was so overwhelmed it stopped taking orders.

That’s not to say the food options in Portland aren’t plentiful — and excellent. The city arrived long ago as a culinary destination, and I delightedly sampled as much fare as I could stomach, particularly the street food. Hundreds of informal food carts are organized into pods throughout the city, offering varied types of cuisines at reasonable prices. Gluttony, located in a pod on SE Belmont Street, offers a superior selection of breakfast sandwiches. I got the nearly perfect Biggie Smalls ($5), with bacon, egg, Cheddar and herb aioli on an English muffin.

There’s little that improves on a delicious, inexpensive sandwich — but good music certainly does the trick. Dig A Pony, a popular spot on Southeast Grand Avenue, can overwhelm with its weekend crowds but on a Tuesday night, it was perfect. The D.J. was spinning ’50s and ’60s soul records and I had a very good $9 BLT alongside a $4 Mirror Pond pale ale. Another evening, I wandered way over to 82nd Avenue in search of a good bowl of pho. It’s not the most pleasant place to walk around — lots of auto parts stores — but I eventually landed at Pho Kim, where I slurped down a hearty bowl of beef pho tai for $8.25.

Not everything I ate was strictly for nourishment. Natural Wonders, a dispensary in the Hawthorne neighborhood, had a very friendly budtender (a term I learned while in Portland that I still can’t say with a straight face) who directed me toward some of the popular edible items, as well as the $5 pre-rolls. I picked up a lemon snickerdoodle cookie from Elbe’s Edibles for $17 and a packet of sour gummies for $10. The budtender cheerfully informed me it was “Wake and Bake Wednesday” and that all baked goods were 20 percent off.

Inspires a Travel

Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, barrels toward the mainland of the United States, some residents are evacuating more quickly than ever. Searches for “where to evacuate from Irma” and “where to go for Hurricane Irma” have been trending on Google.

By Thursday afternoon, airlines had canceled 4,000 flights to and from airports in Irma’s path. Airbnb has activated its Disaster Response Program for counties in Northern Florida and southern Georgia in which hosts can open their homes up to evacuees for free.

“As soon as I went outside, I realized how panicked people were,” Sara Milrad said of the scene at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Tuesday afternoon. The campus will be evacuated Friday.

But George Hobica, the founder of the site Airfarewatchdog, said that he did not think airlines were price-gouging, not consciously at least. “They are afraid of bad publicity,” he said. “There are times when there’s only one seat left on a plane and that will end up being thousands of dollars, but that’s directed at business travelers who the airlines assume will travel at any cost.

By Thursday afternoon, JetBlue, American Airlines, United and Delta had all capped their one-way ticket prices out of Florida ahead of Irma’s arrival, although there were still reports of price fluctuations despite the caps.

Some airlines and cruise lines have left travelers in limbo. While all cruises out of Florida set to leave Friday were canceled, some cruises scheduled to sail from Central and South Florida remain on course to depart over the weekend. Cruise companies are urging customers to check in daily as conditions evolve.

As soon as Irma appeared on the radar, Dave Kartunen, a Savannah, Ga., resident, booked a hotel room 50 miles inland. “Hurricane planning has taken a certain level importance in my family,” he said. Mr. Kartunen, a father of two, has Post-traumatic stress disorder from covering Hurricane Katrina as a news anchor.

“Evacuating is sort of a no good deed goes unpunished,” he said. “You don’t want to drive too far because it’s like going on a run – for every mile you go, you’re going to have to go back. Every mile is going to be painful.”

Eduardo Del Carmen, a Miami resident, decided to evacuate as well, comparing Irma to Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the United States, which arrived in 1992. His family evacuated for Andrew and was displaced for months.

“You can’t play around too much with a storm like this, so I think we may be waking up at 5 a.m. tomorrow to drive to Tampa,” Mr. Del Carmen said. “Last night was our first good night of sleep in a while, knowing we were ready to go. We have a place to stay and gas in our car.”

For all those who can evacuate by road or air, many cannot because of physical or financial constraints.