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Josh Noel: Where Is The ‘Perfect City’? The Experts Check In

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who love Barcelona and those who haven’t been there yet.

Barcelona is as close to a perfect city as there is and an obvious destination for most any kind of traveler: warm, sunny, kissed by Mediterranean breezes, full of nice-looking people and quality restaurants, rife with history and beautiful architecture, safe and with plenty of English spoken. Barcelona is about as mainstream and predictable as travel gets in 2015.

But less than 30 years ago, Barcelona might as well have been the South Pole to most travelers. During a recent trip to Spain’s second city, I was told again and again that the city got very little tourism before hosting the Summer Olympics in 1992. Since then, tourism has become the city’s economic engine.

And that got me wondering what the next Barcelona might be. That is, what cities (or countries or regions) currently hovering under the radar will be mainstream destinations in another 20 to 30 years? I asked some seasoned travelers for the answer.

—Cameron Hewitt, guide book author for “Rick Steves’ Europe”

“This is one of my favorite topics, and a lot of those places are in Eastern Europe. Krakow has become popular. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a gem; the only reason people aren’t flocking to it is a lack of awareness. Sarajevo is an amazing city. But I’ll go with Budapest. It’s a magnificent city that my European friends, who are ahead of me on this stuff, all love. It’s always been a fascinating city, and during the last five or 10 years, it has been cleaned up and become much more inviting. It has some of the best nightlife in Europe with great food and wine culture.”

—Katie Aune, travel blogger (www.katieaune.com)

“Tbilisi, Georgia, is already on the radar of food and wine aficionados, hosting the International Wine Tourism Conference in 2014, and it won’t be long before it goes mainstream. This former Soviet capital features a charming old town, bustling nightlife and centuries-old churches, all sitting in the shadows of the Narikala fortress, now accessible by an aerial tramway. Though a destination in its own right, Tbilisi also provides a great base from which to explore the rest of Georgia, including wineries, ancient monasteries, scenic mountains and beaches along the Black Sea coast.”

—Chris Cohen, associate editor, Outside magazine (www.outsideonline.com)

“I’m not sure it’ll ever rise to the level of a Vail, but Silverton, Colo., has been the coolest domestic ski destination lately. It’s a cool (if tiny) town, the mountains are unbelievable for skiing in the winter and hiking or jeeping in the summer, and things like the Silverton Mountain ski area or Hardrock 100 endurance run are bringing more exposure — at least, to a certain adventurous set. This is less of an Outside magazine type of pick, but my gut also tells me Korea will be big. Everyone loves K-Pop and bibimbap, but the country gets very little tourism. It’s also underrated as a beautiful, mountainous country. Maybe the 2018 Winter Olympics will change that!”

—James Kay, online editor, Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com)

“Shanghai. It’s already a financial powerhouse but never mentioned in the same breath as London, Paris, Tokyo or New York. But as the center of the world moves east, direct flights become more frequent and faster, and China morphs into a viable destination for casual, short-term travelers, a visit to this megalopolis will become as routine as a visit to those other urban superstars.”

—Tom Hall, editorial director, Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com)

“Iceland, I think, is almost there. Halfway between Europe and North America, it boasts strange and unique scenery, great food and drink, wildlife, home comforts, spas and lots more.”

—Lee Abbamonte, travel blogger (www.leeabbamonte.com) who claims to be the youngest American to visit every country in the world

Any of the Caucasus countries; it’s an awesome part of the world to visit, and it’s my No. 1 area to go back to. I’d single out Georgia. It has good infrastructure, all levels of hotels and both ruins and modern history. Tbilisi is one of the coolest cities no one has been to. There’s a lot of culture to absorb, and the food is phenomenal.”

Julia Cosgrove, editor-in-chief, Afar magazine (www.afar.com)

“Portugal has something to prove to the world next year: It’s done being overshadowed by its neighbors. There’s a great up-and-coming food scene in Lisbon, between restaurants and the recently renovated Time Out Mercado da Riberia, where travelers can discover Lisbon’s best artisanal food purveyors. In terms of infrastructure development geared to travelers, there’s a new cruise terminal opening in the city next year, as well. You heard it here first: Lisbon is the new Barcelona.”

A new Barcelona? Lisbon, here we come!

©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

 

Memphis Enlivens Old Dead Spots For A Mega-Makeover

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune(TNS)

MEMPHIS — I woke at 8:30 one Friday morning in a pitch-black hotel room, slipped on a robe, pulled back the curtains between me and my balcony and stepped out for a stunning Memphis view: hundreds of people ambling through the aisles of a Bass Pro Shops store.

It wasn’t just any Bass Pro Shops outlet. It was the world’s largest, and the only one housed in a big, shiny pyramid along the Mississippi River where the floor is packed with things such as fishing poles, guns, sunglasses, boats floating in water, fake cypress trees, real alligators, the tallest free-standing elevator in North America and, of course, camouflage for men, women and children of all shapes and sizes.

And, literally, my hotel balcony looked onto this teeming mass of shopping humanity. That Friday morning, as I relaxed in a wood rocking chair and sipped a cup of room-brewed coffee, a woman in culottes and a flowered shirt browsed the T-shirt selection just below me. About 50 yards away, a young family boarded one of the boats parked at the dock built within the Bass Pro ecosystem. Fortunately, the gun counter was beyond my view.

The unlikely, if slightly surreal, hotel experience was the culmination of a Memphis makeover that has caught fire in recent years and brought fresh life not only to the city’s long-dormant Pyramid but to Memphis itself.

Tennessee’s largest city long has been a destination: Elvis’ Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum (which previously was the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), the 90-year-old Peabody hotel, the tourism magnet that is Beale Street, a rich barbecue landscape and the Sun and Stax record studios.

But recent years have been good to Memphis and made it a city worth visiting for much more than barbecue and Beale: restaurants, breweries, bars, art galleries, two new music museums and, of course, one of the world’s largest pyramids, refashioned into a massive outdoors emporium.

“I can’t believe how different it is,” said Jake Hall, 29, whom I met at the coffee shop near downtown where he worked. He described himself as a “die-hard Memphis guy” who moved away for college, then came back to a city that was in the midst of slow change. In recent years, that change has accelerated.

“It’s totally a different place,” Hall said. “It’s crazy how much more open-minded things feel here.”

The first thing he cited, when asked where he saw the change, was safety. A rejuvenated downtown has mellowed the streets, he said, and newer bars and restaurants have brought stability. Attitudes have become looser and more progressive; Hall cited a more vocal and vibrant LGBT community and businesses thriving that, 10 years ago, wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Construction and rehabilitation projects are dotted through the city, like the long-abandoned 1.5 million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building, which sits just east of downtown. Hall said he and his buddies would break into the building during their high school years just for something to do. As an adult, he’s thrilled to see it finally being put to use.

Long-depressed neighborhoods are getting jolts from new businesses, especially restaurants that boast menus full of fresh and locally sourced ingredients. The ghosts of old Memphis still hang over the city, in the weathered and lovely brick buildings that fill downtown. But these days, they’re home to restaurants with fresh ideas, such as Tamp & Tap, which pours cold-brew coffee from a tap and has a menu geared more toward “fresh and local fare” than, say, fried okra.

The changes managed to lure brothers Davin and Kellan Bartosch home. The brothers were raised in Memphis, and both left to work in the beer business (in Chicago and Las Vegas, respectively). But when they decided to open their own brewery, which they named Wiseacre, they came home. Wiseacre quickly has garnered a national reputation, and the taproom fills up swiftly after it opens Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons.

Wiseacre sits on a stretch of Broad Avenue in central Memphis, where the Bartosch brothers admit they never would have guessed that they would own a business. Kellan Bartosch called it “a post-apocalyptic wasteland” when they were kids.

Now it’s home to Wiseacre, a hip new coffee shop called City & State and one of the city’s most buzzed-about new restaurants, Bounty On Broad.

Overton Square, about two miles from Broad Avenue, has seen a similar revitalization. One of the city’s more popular areas in the 1970s, Overton Square fell into several decades of disarray before bouncing back during the last couple of years with new restaurants (brand-new burger spot Belly Acres is a gem), a yoga studio and a wide concrete court where people are free to play cornhole (or “bags,” as it also is known) throughout the day.

“There’s definitely a feeling of the youth taking back over,” Davin Bartosch, 36, said. “And I’m kind of old to be saying that.”

“People we grew up with are opening great restaurants,” Kellan Bartosch, 34, said. “It’s taken a while, but people are very excited about what’s happening.”

As several other locals did, the brothers attributed a piece of the city’s revival to the presence of the Memphis Grizzlies, a National Basketball Association franchise that moved from Vancouver in 2001 and has been one of the league’s better teams in recent years. Davin Bartosch admits he thought the team wouldn’t last five years in Memphis; the city couldn’t, and wouldn’t, support a professional sports franchise, he figured. Instead, the team added a new reason for people to spend time downtown and offered a cause to rally around.

“I was totally wrong,” he said. “And now I love the Grizzlies. I’m up at 12:45 a.m. watching them when I know I need to be at the brewery at 6 the next morning.”

And then there is that pyramid. Excitement, or at least curiosity, about the project was palpable during my visit to the city. Every time I gazed down at the shopping floor from my room, there was at minimum a healthy number of people milling about, and at most a storm of eager shoppers.

The second Saturday afternoon that the store was open, the aisles were an absolute madhouse, not unlike the anthills we can stare at endlessly as children. As I exited an elevator that’s open only to hotel guests, a woman asked in a thick drawl, “How are the rooms?” When out and about, I mentioned to a local that I was staying in the Pyramid. “The one that opened eight days ago?” he asked with awe (as if there could have been another option).

Perched at the intersection of Interstate Highway 40 and the Mississippi River, the Pyramid opened in 1991 as a basketball and concert arena. Along with the occasional graduation or religious events, it continued to live that life until the city opened a new downtown arena for the Grizzlies in 2004. The Pyramid sat largely dormant for the next decade.

There was discussion about turning it into a casino or a theme park. There was talk of knocking it down. And there was chatter about turning it into the world’s largest Bass Pro Shops store. After many false starts–and tens of millions of dollars kicked in by taxpayers–the Bass Pro outlet opened at the end of April.

There has been plenty of criticism of the project, and questions have been raised about whether it is well-spent tax money; The Atlantic magazine’s CityLab website asked in December, “Is Memphis Making (Another) Massive Mistake With Its Pyramid?” and concluded mostly in the affirmative.

But mistake or not, the refurbished Pyramid has landed. In addition to the massive shopping space, it includes a bowling alley, gun range, archery range, two restaurants, an observation deck at the top of that 36-story elevator and the 103-room Big Cypress hotel, where most of the rooms don’t face out–they face the retail.

As I toured the hotel during the first week it was open, I asked the manager, Lana McDonald, to describe the target audience. I confessed that I didn’t know many people who would want to spend at least $259 a night (that’s the starting cost) for a hotel room that looks out onto a Bass Pro Shops store.

“The target audience is the extreme outdoor enthusiast and families who want to have fun,” McDonald said.

Wouldn’t that cost put off some extreme outdoor enthusiasts? McDonald said the cost reflects more than a hotel room: It’s an immersive shopping experience crossed with the handful of activities. Sort of like a theme park, I suggested. Exactly, she said.

The cliche, “We have something for everyone,” is usually grounds for letting your attention drift elsewhere, but when McDonald said it, she followed with, “You can spend a relaxing day in our spa or bring your gun and shoot in our shooting range!” And that seemed to make the notion somewhat true.

There still were a few kinks to be ironed out when I visited. When Memphis was hit with a heavy storm, a drip emerged on the roof of my porch, presumably coming from a crack somewhere in the Pyramid wall. (Patching a leak in a pyramid must be one of life’s worst home fix-it jobs.) Traffic could be fierce, and parking was like a competitive sport (though there seemed to be plenty of spaces). Though I self-parked, I later learned that the hotel doesn’t allow self-parking and that a guest’s only option is to spend $20 per night for valet service. (I’ve never heard of such a practice before, and the hotel should drop it.)

But all in all, designers seem to have succeeded in the task of converting 535,000 square feet into an unlikely retail and hotel space. The store itself has been made to look more or less like a big cypress swamp, with 80-foot (fake) oak trees towering about the floor. It is a dim space, with bridges connecting the store’s various pieces over waters that include fish and two alligators (there were four, but two didn’t take to Pyramid living).

The chaos that is hundreds of people shopping in a massive open space has been reined in admirably and turned into a moderate din of white noise that is pierced mostly by the occasional shrieking child or duck call (emanating from the waterfowl department, naturally).

Designers also paid admirable attention to detail in the 103 rooms. They’re appointed with rustic wood touches and trim throughout and include at least a couple of pieces of taxidermy on the walls. The hotel notes with a card placed in every room that “the mounts on display have been acquired through generous donations and from existing private and museum collections.”
In other words, no animals were harmed in the making of this hotel–this very large and very unlikely hotel in the heart of Memphis.

IF YOU GO

Stay: Rates at Big Cypress (1 Bass Pro Drive, 800-225-6343, http://www.big-cypress.com) begin at about $259 per night, though that includes a $40 per night resort fee, which includes mandatory valet parking. Other hotel options include The Peabody (149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000, http://www.peabodymemphis.com), where rates start at $219.

Eat: The food scene in Memphis has blossomed in recent years. Highlights include Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen (712 W. Brookhaven Circle, 901-347-3569, http://www.andrewmichaelitaliankitchen.com)

Hog & Hominy (707 W. Brookhaven Circle, 901-207-7396, http://www.hogandhominy.com) and Porcellino’s Craft Butcher (711 W. Brookhaven Circle, 901-762-6656, http://www.porcellinoscraftbutcher.com), which are next to one another and have the same owners.

Others worth checking out include Bounty On Broad (2519 Broad Ave., 901-410-8131, http://www.bountyonbroad.com) and Tamp & Tap (122 Gayoso Ave., 901-207-1053, http://www.tampandtap.com), which serves fresh, quality meals all day long downtown.

Do: In addition to the old musical standbys such as Graceland and the Stax and Sun recording studios, Memphis is home to two new music museums: the Blues Hall of Fame (421 South Main, 901-527-2583, http://www.blues.org), which opened in May, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (http://www.memphismusichalloffame.com), which opened in June.

The National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., 901-521-9699, http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org) was given a large renovation and provides a stirring look at this nation’s complicated history with race.
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St. Augustine Is Feeling A Lot Younger Than 450

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

For the oldest town in America, St. Augustine has sure come a long way in recent years. The town of 14,000 on Florida’s northern Atlantic coast celebrates its 450th birthday in late summer, but locals mostly have been rejoicing over the town’s cultural growth.

“St. Augustine has seen a lot of change during the last five years,” said Greg Goldstein, a bartender at the newly opened Ice Plant Bar and Restaurant, which symbolizes the recent leap as much as anything.
The two-story, concrete-walled building opened in the early 1900s as a power plant.

It soon became an ice plant, which it remained for 50 years before being shuttered. Last year it reopened with dual trendy purposes: on one side, a sleek restaurant/bar with a Prohibition-era feel. On the other side sits a distillery with ambitious growth plans. The town is abuzz over its old ice plant and all that it means: high-concept food and cocktails available until 2 a.m., made with spirits distilled under the same roof and all in a stunning old building.

The Ice Plant is a notable development in a town best known for its past but increasingly embracing the present. To be sure, history remains a prime attraction in St. Augustine, just as it is in neighbors such as Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.The historic district includes ample buildings dating back hundreds of years, but mixed in with all the yesteryear are late-night cocktail lounges and beer bars, an eclectic food scene and a chain of gourmet popsicle shops.

St. Augustine is home to Flagler College, a small liberal-arts college that lends the town a young and active vibe. Crossed with its intersection of lively modernity and fascinating history, St. Augustine makes for a well-rounded destination on its 450th birthday–even if you skip the formal celebration.)

To do

With so much diverse tourism–you’re likely to overhear any number of international languages–St. Augustine has the feel of a town several times larger than it is. (It’s also large geographically speaking.) The city is tourist-friendly, with hop-on-and-off trolleys snaking through the tidy streets and the kinds of things vacationers want: T-shirt shops, ghost tours, and restaurants and bars open into the evening, often featuring some guy with an acoustic guitar singing Beatles songs into the night air.

But there also are the newer, more innovative offerings, like the Corazon Cinema and Cafe, a recently opened art-house movie theater that serves sandwiches, wine and beer. Or St. Augustine Distillery Co., which opened last year and, as of this writing, makes gin and vodka, with rum and whiskey to come. Free tours are given every half-hour and include mini-cocktails mixed on the spot.

The distillery opened in March 2014, and already, the tour has become a staple of visiting the city; I attended one in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, and it was nearly full.

Of course, the best way to soak in any town is to walk, and that’s especially true of St. Augustine’s old town. Those historic brick streets date to the 16th century; the first construction was about 50 years after Spanish explorers landed on the coast, in 1565.

Today it is a charming patchwork of narrow streets that evoke a PG-rated version of New Orleans’ French Quarter with worn, stucco buildings and balconies jutting above the pedestrians.

Although there are no original buildings because of a fire that leveled much of St. Augustine, there is plenty of history: three-block Aviles Street, which the town claims as the oldest street in America; Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States (it dates to the 1600s and was controlled both by the Spanish and English before passing into American hands); and the oldest Catholic parish in the nation.

The Lightner Museum is another historic gem, housed in an old hotel built in 1887 that is home to wondrous gems collected during the Gilded Age: a fossilized dinosaur egg, an 1870 grand piano that belonged to an Italian opera singer and a stuffed lion given to Winston Churchill to commemorate his “magnificent victories in North Africa.” The museum also features what was the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, though today it is a restaurant.

Spending all your time looking at old things, however, misses one of the joys of the Florida coast: the coast. St. Augustine is lined with miles of wide beach. At the northern edge sits Anastasia State Park, 1,600 beachfront acres that for me included a unique little hike through what once were beachfront dunes but have become a thick forest marked with oaks and evergreens.

To dive even deeper into nature, check out St. Augustine Eco Tours, which offers kayaking and bird-watching among other activities.

Of course, the ultimate local experience is zip-lining over a pit of alligators and crocodiles, and you can do that very thing at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Food

St. Augustine’s recent leap is clearest on its food landscape. You can choose from new and modern (The Ice Plant and fresh-catch fish restaurant Catch 27), old-school Southern (fried shrimp and Minorcan clam chowder rule at O’Steen’s, Aunt Kate’s Restaurant and Barnacle Bill’s) and upscale Continental (Michael’s Tasting Room serves Spanish-inspired food, and Bistro de Leon is run by a fifth-generation French chef who incorporates local produce into traditional fare).

About a mile west of the old city, Present Moment Cafe stands alone in St. Augustine as a restaurant specializing in raw and vegan food. It’s an ideal detox after all that fried shrimp–plus, the vegan desserts almost taste “real.” Also keep an eye out for the datil, a spicy pepper with a hint of sweetness that is grown in and around St. Augustine and appears on many menus in various forms.

Sleeping

St. Augustine is home to a robust hotel scene that essentially boils down to three varieties: historic, beachfront and B&Bs. Highlights include Casa Monica, which was built as a hotel in 1888, converted to the county courthouse, closed and then reopened as a hotel in 1999. Castillo Real is a boutique hotel on St. Augustine Beach that is decorated in a Mediterranean style. Those seeking modernity on a budget should check out Jaybird’s Inn, which is a couple of miles from the old city but newly remodeled and offers free bicycle loaners.

More information: http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com. For info on the anniversary Sept. 4-8, visit http://www.staugustine-450.com/celebrate450.

Photo by H. Michael Miley via Flickr

Beating Jet Lag: A Sleep Expert Weighs In

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

When he got to Yorkshire, England, on a recent trip, Robert Rosenberg began one of his standard routines: He laced up his sneakers and took an afternoon jog.

Rosenberg was, in reality, doing more than getting fresh air and exercise; he was adjusting his body to the local time zone, which was eight hours ahead of his home in Arizona. Rosenberg, a doctor of sleep medicine who runs the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, in Prescott, Ariz., was beating jet lag with exercise and exposure to the afternoon sunlight. Both are elemental to overcoming jet lag, he said.

“I know it helped me get acclimated, getting exercise and getting out there in the light, rather than sitting in a hotel room,” Rosenberg said.

Although a few lucky travelers might be immune to jet lag, most of us have suffered through that wobbly sensation of being half a world from home in a deep, disorienting exhaustion. It often is impossible to avoid because of the chasm between our circadian rhythms — the biological process that juggles consciousness and sleep — and a new surrounding where sunrise and sunset don’t mesh with what our body expects.

The challenge is particularly acute when traveling across at least three time zones, Rosenberg said; it takes about a day to adjust for every time zone crossed heading east and half the time when traveling west.

The problem for a person on a regular day/night schedule, Rosenberg said, is that the brain’s pineal gland is accustomed to producing the melatonin we need to sleep about nine or ten p.m. — but, when whisked across the Atlantic Ocean, that’s suddenly four or five a.m. in, say, Prague. Worse, we continue to get that melatonin well into Prague’s daytime. The fallout can be quite unpleasant: insomnia, fatigue, an inability to concentrate and even constipation and indigestion.

“It takes brain several days or more to change its inherent cycle and phase in with a new night and day in the new destination,” Rosenberg said. “Trying to budge the circadian clock can be hard to do.”

But it can be done. Here are Rosenberg’s suggestions:

  • Prepare: For three nights before traveling east, go to sleep an hour earlier than usual and wake up an hour earlier. When traveling west, sleep an hour later and rise and hour later.
  • Light exposure: When freshly landed somewhere to the east, don’t expose yourself to light until the afternoon. Why? “The brain is still back home; if you’re in Paris and you get up at eight a.m. and expose yourself to bright light, it is still nighttime to your brain. You want to do everything you can to help your brain adjust to the new time, so expose yourself to sunlight at four p.m., when it’s 8 a.m. back home. Just wear sunglasses until then, and then take them off. It’s about easing yourself in.”
  • Supplement: Rosenberg suggests taking 0.5 milligrams of melatonin for the first two or three nights in your destination. “It’s very safe, and it’s a great way to get through jet lag,” he said. A sleeping pill, he said, should always be a last resort. “I try to use natural methods first,” he said.
  • Don’t give in (too much): If you have to nap on the day you arrive in a far-off place, keep it to no more than two hours.
  • Scheduling: Try to arrive in your destination in the afternoon, which will allow you to go to sleep at a “normal” bedtime.
  • Go early: Business trip? Go a couple days early to adjust. “You don’t want that meeting to be on the first day you’re there,” Rosenberg said.
  • Eat smart: When you get to your destination, eat foods high in tryptophan — dairy, red meat, fish, and peanuts — which help stimulate melatonin.
  • Sleep on the plane: Obvious, but several hours of sleep en route can make a huge difference toward getting on a regular sleep schedule.
  • Exercise: It helps you fall asleep more easily.
  • The little things: Small advantages hel. Turn off electronics 90 minutes before bedtime (melatonin production is suppressed by the bright light from a mobile phone or tablet); don’t drink too much alcohol (which interferes with sleep in a variety of ways) or caffeine after about noon.

Photo: Brian Felix via Flickr

How To Take Amazing Travel Photos? Slow Down

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

I wasn’t so surprised at Dan Westergren’s reaction when I suggested that people tend to take too many photographs while traveling. He is a photographer, after all.

But when I argued that taking too many photos takes people away from actually experiencing the little moments of their travel, Westergren, who is the director of photography for National Geographic Traveler, said he was familiar with the sentiment and had even heard it from people close to him.

“For me, that’s complete baloney,” he said.

Taking photos helps center Westergren in his travel, he said. But he heard my point. And my point was this: Most of us take photos without much thought. I’ve observed it countless times and been guilty of it myself: Pull up to some iconic site or natural wonder, blink at it a couple of times, reach into the pocket for the camera and then turn to leave. As cameras have become more ubiquitous — smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to use — they have become our reflexive method of “experiencing” travel.

My advice: Slow down. Pause to savor the moment. Breathe deeply. Think about how things smells, what the air feels like on your skin, and look at what you’re seeing: the colors, the shapes, the shadows. Think about how it came to be. Share your observations with your travel companions. Listen to their observations. Look at what you’re seeing from a few different angles. And then take a photo — preferably one that you’ll be interested in actually looking at again.

Westergren’s advice also is to slow down, though in a different regard. He says to simply try to do, and photograph, less while traveling. Instead of scurrying through a laundry list of stops, have fewer but deeper experiences. While taking more time in those experiences, photograph them deliberately and creatively, in ways that center you in the moment.

“I don’t know that the issue is people take too many pictures — it’s that they have no purpose in the picture taking,” he said. “They’re snapping what everyone else does, and then moving on rather than trying to make it their own.”

Travel photography is a popular enough subject that Westergren just finished teaching a seminar on the subject to 42 people in Scottsdale, Arizona Many students, he said, hoped to be clued into a setting on their expensive cameras that would allow them to take expert photos.

“Everyone wants some really easy solution, and they think that buying a camera with a lot of knobs and buttons, that if they knew which button to push, the picture would turn out great,” he said. “It’s not the case.”

Westergren said the key is approach. And part of that approach is being a deliberate and creative photographer.

He cited as an example a recent work trip to San Francisco. He had an afternoon of down time before catching a flight home, and rather than run around to grab several iconic photos, he spent most of his free time at one place: observing the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It offers one of the most iconic views of the bridge and gave Westergren a memorable experience and a quality photo.

“It’s about fewer situations,” Westergren said. “I gave up having a picture of a bunch of other things to get that one great picture. I didn’t have to visit 15 things to check off my list while seeing San Francisco. That’s a philosophy you can extend to any trip, and any traveling.”

And there, he and I agreed.
___

IN HIS OWN WORDS: DAN WESTERGREN’S TIPS FOR BETTER PHOTOS

  • Be in the right place at the right time

You can’t get a good scenic picture in the middle of the day — you have to be out early in the morning or in the evening. The Grand Canyon is a profoundly different visual experience at those times, but most people are in bed or at the diner eating breakfast first thing in the morning. You have to reorder your schedule, and that’s regardless of whether you’re taking pictures with a cellphone or a really expensive camera.

  • Think outside the box

Maybe you don’t care to shoot the 100,000th photo of the Grand Canyon at sunrise, but you do want to show the experience your family had there. Think of a visual story line. Get a picture out the windshield of the car. Takes photos of the stop for lunch. Take pictures at the rim of your family but from different angles. Once you have the obvious pictures, take a less obvious one.

  • Don’t take a few pictures at a lot of places — take a lot of pictures at a few places

Be targeted about what picture you really want. Once you see an image you want, don’t take one or two and walk away; take dozens, and when back home at your computer, edit down to the one or two that really work. To me, editing photos is taking 10,000 photos and editing to the 30 really good ones. That’s where really good photography comes from.

  • Put people in your photos

I’m a really shy person without a camera. I would never just walk up to someone while traveling and start talking to them. But with a camera, I do it. It’s how I learn about the place that I am. I go up to the person, and say, “I’m Dan, I think you look great, and this is a great place, and do you mind if I take your picture?” Pictures are just better with people in them because they add local flavor. You can’t sneak pictures and you can’t steal them. Really good pictures are a short relationship between you and that person you’re photographing. The first picture will be posed, and if you’re patient maybe their attention gets distracted — that’s my favorite kind of picture: when you can get them back to doing what they were going to do before you showed up.

  • Don’t just let your images waste away — use them

It’s really important to do something with your pictures — like printing a book of them. That’s more practical these days than getting prints made: upload them to a website that will print a nice book. Make that book, and your grandkids will find it. In this day and age of pictures staying on people’s phones and in their computers, it’s important to make the effort of taking that next step and to make the photo album.

Photo: rickz via Flickr

Does Craft Beer Have A Sexism Problem? Binny’s Rejects Happy Ending

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Co. began distributing beer in Chicago this week, but its most notable beer at the moment might be the one that’s missing.

The Binny’s Beverage Depot in Lincoln Park has declined to stock SweetWater’s Happy Ending imperial stout due to what the store’s beer manager called the “sexist, borderline racist” artwork on the bottle.

Happy Ending (a reference to male sexual climax, presumably after a massage) features images on its bottle that include a box of tissues, the face of a man achieving what looks to be the pinnacle of pleasure and the silhouette of a geisha. It all added up to a bit more than the store’s beer manager, Adam Vavrick, was comfortable putting on shelves.

“This label is about a female Asian sex worker manually masturbating a man…and cleaning up…with tissues,” Vavrick said. “Why is that appropriate on a beer label?”

It’s a question that has been increasingly asked in the rapidly growing craft beer industry. Responding to various labels construed as sexist — usually showing women in various states of undress or in suggestive poses — Time Out Chicago published a piece last year beneath the headline, “Time to grow up, breweries.” Chicago-based blog Guys Drinking Beer asked, “Why does craft beer suddenly seem to have a problem with women?” And the founder of Twins Cities beer shop The Four Firkins published a blog post in February called, “Let’s talk about sexist beer labels.”

Though mostly just chatter until now, Vavrick sending back three cases of Happy Ending — 36 large-format (22-ounce) bottles — is among the rare instances of a Chicago store declining to carry a beer due only to its label. According to SweetWater’s Chicago distributor, Lakeshore Beverage, no other store, in the Binny’s chain or otherwise, refused to stock the beer.

Vavrick said he became aware of the label when SweetWater beer arrived in Chicago this week, and a “visibly upset” male employee brought it to his attention. Vavrick said he polled three more Binny’s staff to gauge their feelings.

“They all felt the same way — it’s gross and it has no place in here,” Vavrick said. “A female employee said she wouldn’t be comfortable recommending that beer to anyone.”

Vavrick announced his decision this week on social media: “Breweries: One thing I simply do not tolerate in my department is sexist or racist beer labels. I demand better and will not carry them,” he wrote on Twitter. (With more than 100 “favorites,” Vavrick said, the tweet was his most popular ever.)

Lakeshore Beverage picked up the three cases of Happy Ending the next day. Vavrick said he never considered blackballing the brewery entirely; at least four other SweetWater beers, including its popular 420 Extra Pale Ale, are on the shelves.

In an interview this week, SweetWater founder Freddy Bensch said he has never heard a complaint about the artwork on the eight-year-old beer that until now has been available in mostly Southern states. It was simply intended as a joke, he said.

“No harm was intended,” Bensch said. “We maybe didn’t think this all the way through.”

He said the brewery would take corrective action regarding the Happy Ending bottle, though he didn’t specify what that might be.

“We’re going to be thoughtful about it and make it right,” Bensch said.

For Vavrick, and others who have claimed offense, the blowback was exacerbated by two factors: The text on the bottle describes the beer as “sporting a huge dry hopped stiffy resulting in an explosive finish!”

And the other was a promotional video uploaded to the Internet two years ago by the brewery that shows a man standing behind a bar taking a sip of Happy Ending, then staring into the distance and exclaiming, “Oh, god, that’s good!” A woman dressed as a geisha then rises from behind the bar, fans her face, offers a suggestive look, then descends back below the bar. Bensch, who said he was unaware of the video until this week, said he had it taken down.

Jason Alvey, founder of The Four Firkins, which has sold craft beer in the Twin Cities metro area for seven years, said he has declined to carry “about five” beers during the last seven years due to “objectification of women or crass, lowbrow sexual innuendo humor.” One of the offending breweries, he said, he refuses to carry at all because it showed no contrition when he raised the issue. He declined to name that brewery.

Alvey said he doesn’t object to a “respectful portrayal of a pretty woman” on a beer label, but acknowledged that one person’s respectful can be too far for someone else.

“It can be a difficult topic,” Alvey said. “We’re trying not to get carried away with this and we’re trying to be realistic. The ones we’ve said we’re not going to carry are generally blatantly obvious.”

The issue of sexist beer labels has only become more pronounced as more breweries open, Alvey said. Since 2012, more than 1,000 craft breweries have opened in the U.S., bringing the national total to 3,418, according to the Brewers Association, a craft beer industry group.

“We’re getting more little breweries that don’t have any training or professional experience in marketing, and they think this kind of thing will get them attention or is funny,” Alvey said. “A lot of new breweries forget their customer base isn’t just young males.”

When a questionable label pops up, he said, he’ll discuss it with his staff of 16, and put the matter to a vote. SweetWater is not distributed in Minnesota, but Alvey said he wouldn’t carry Happy Ending.

“It’s juvenile frat boy humor,” he said. “If I see something damaging to the industry as a whole and insulting to women, I’m not going to carry it.”

The Chicago area saw a similar blowup last year when Rockford-based Pig Minds Brewing Co. released a beer called PD California Blueberry Ale — the “PD” standing for “panty dropper” — featuring a label that showed a pair of female legs jutting from a short skirt and underwear hitched down to just above the ankles. Beer bloggers and social media took Pig Minds to task, accusing the brewery of promoting anything from sexism to date rape.

When the summer-seasonal beer returns, it will be rebranded as “Happi Daze California Blueberry Ale,” and with a new label featuring smiley faces, said Pig Minds’ general manager and brewmaster, Carson Souza.

Like SweetWater, Souza swore there was no intention to offend with PD California Ale. The beer had been on draft at Pig Minds’ brew pub for two years — with the same artwork on the tap handle that appeared on the bottle — with no complaints. The owner of the brewery, Brian Endl, drew the artwork, which was sold as an aluminum placard that became popular with both male and female customers.

“We never had one person sit there and say ‘That’s terrible, you should take that down,'” Souza said. “Quite the contrary — they said how much is that placard? That’s cool.”

But he acknowledged that as breweries grow and reach wider audiences, the ability to offend increases. And in the era of social media, it can take mere hours for a beer label that barely raised an eyebrow for two years in a Rockford brewpub to incur the wrath of the Internet. The Guys Drinking Beer website, which publishes the Chicago-area beer labels approved each month by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, called PD’s art “the worst beer label ever produced” after it was approved last August. The Internet quickly agreed, and the “PD” label became a hotly discussed issue on Reddit within days.

Souza said the label was part light-hearted joke, part homage to beer history (think of the standard Oktoberfest dress, he said) and nod to a certain reality.

“Let’s face it, when people drink, they get laid — that’s both men and women,” he said. “It was just a joke. It takes a twisted mind to say that (the label) has something to do with rape.”

Though Souza said he was conflicted about changing the label, “the best business decision was to let PD subside.”

“We are not misogynistic and we are not sexist by any means,” he said. “We’re husbands, we have daughters and we are artists. But it was time to say goodbye to it. We offended too many people, and we don’t want to do that.”

Claudia Jendron, brewmaster at Evanston’s Temperance Beer Co., and one of the relatively few female brewmasters in the U.S., said that in her experience, the industry has no trouble accepting women. At beer festivals and public events, Jendron said, she feels just as respected as any male brewer.

“But this doesn’t help,” she said. “It puts women in a position that we have to fight a little bit harder to get back to the same level (as men).”

Marie Cummins, who blogs about beer and is a moderator for the Chicago Craft Beer Enthusiasts Facebook page, said craft beer is clearly becoming inclusive of women. Overwhelmingly male just five years ago, beer festival crowds have become about 40 percent female, she said. And while she takes offense at the Happy Ending bottle because “it’s so apparent that they’re saying this beer is really for a certain segment of the population that’s not me,” she doesn’t want to see the judgment of beer labels become too weighty.

“When you go over the line, as some of them have, it becomes obvious,” she said. “But you can’t get offended at every little thing. The moment you become too politically correct, you take some of the passion out of it.”

Photo: Pig Minds Brewing Co. via TNS

You’re Drinking Your Beer Too Cold, And Here’s Why

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

I have a drinking problem, and it makes me order two beers at a time in bars and restaurants.

My problem is this: We drink our beer too cold, America.

Beer typically flows from taps and your fridge at a frigid 38 degrees, an ideal temperature for the mass-produced brews designed to be refreshingly easy to drink while obscuring the cost-saving ingredients within.

But for beers aspiring to some degree of nuance — arguably the definition of craft beer — 38 degrees is the equivalent of plastic wrap around a Kandinsky: It obscures all the beauty within. Sipped too cold, most craft beer is a shadow of what its maker intends, with layers of flavor lost to a palate-chilling cold.

The ideal minimum temperature for most craft beer is in the low to mid-40s. For hearty yeast or hop-forward ales, a bit warmer. For even more adventurous styles, such as lambics or imperial stouts infused with flavors of oak, bourbon, chocolate, coffee, or vanilla, warmer still — arguably as high as the upper 50s. When you’re trying to meld an array of intricate flavors by pairing beer and food, proper temperature becomes even more important.

In the best bars, I therefore often order two (or more!) beers at a time: one that doesn’t mind the cold to sip immediately and one that’s higher alcohol, more complex and best served by 20 minutes of slowly warming. A double order sometimes furrows the brow of a bartender or companion — as if my drinking problem is far more serious — but of all the factors that influence beer taste, temperature is one of the easiest for a drinker to control. And so I do.

The idea of “cold beer” remains intact as ever, thanks mostly to the millions spent by Bud, Miller, and Coors to show us slow-motion pulls of glistening bottles from teeming buckets of ice. It reaches in every direction, from the innocuous (bars proudly trumpeting their “cold beer”) to the egregious (bars serving beer in chilled or — heaven forfend — frosted glasses). Though to be fair, sometimes, cold is exactly what a beer requires.

“If I’m drinking a (Miller) High Life, I want it to be cold because I don’t want to taste it,” says Gary Valentine, a beer consultant and educator, who has worked on the beer lists at Girl and the Goat and Little Goat in Chicago, among other restaurants. “Otherwise, if you have a beer you want to taste, it should be above at least 43 degrees.”

That means being a proactive beer drinker: dual ordering in a bar or restaurant. If served a beer in a chilled or frosted glass, request a room temperature glass and make a careful transfer. At home, pull a beer from the refrigerator for 10 minutes to an hour before opening it. Or, if you’re Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone beer education program, stick a beer in the microwave.

“Ten seconds takes that frosty edge off,” Daniels says. “I used to do it pretty regularly.”

The Cicerone program, which has certified the beer knowledge of 50,000 people worldwide, spends ample time discussing beer style, storage, tap line maintenance, and glassware but relatively little time on temperature “because of the practical challenges for making that happen and because there are so many other dragons to slay,” Daniels says. But as a consumer, he is acutely aware.

“It has a big influence on your perception of flavor,” he says. “That’s undeniable.”

Though Daniels no longer microwaves his beer — “I’m not that impatient anymore” — he does make a habit of wrapping his hands around a fresh-from-the-tap beer to warm the glass before taking a sip.

The issue is a beer’s volatile organic compounds. Bad for smelling when it comes to paints and cleaning products, VOCs are everything to beer, releasing the aroma and flavor (which combine to create “taste”) as they warm.

“So much of our sense of taste is in the sense of smell,” Daniels says. “In order to stimulate the olfactory nerves, you have to have volatile compounds enter the nasal passage and into the throat. If beer is too cold, it will release less aromatics.”

Daniels suggested an experiment: In identical glasses, pour a straight-from-the-refrigerator beer alongside a bottle that spent 20 minutes warming on the counter. Drink side by side. Voila — the joys of not-too-cold beer.

So why don’t bars and restaurants serve beer warmer? Practical concerns, mostly. Tap systems are standardized at 38 degrees for two reasons: It’s a temperature that keeps beer fresh and allows for easy troubleshooting when tap systems go awry with foaming issues.

“If everyone ran at a different temperature of their own choosing, then it would be really hard to ensure proper beer quality,” Daniels says.

That doesn’t mean breweries and bars aren’t trying to do their part. Jerry’s restaurant and bar in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood has considered serving barrel-aged stouts at room temperature, or storing them at room temperature and chilling them when ordered to about 50 degrees.

“But it takes less time to go from 38 to 50 than down from 70 to 50,” says Chris Coons, who recently left a job as beer buyer for Jerry’s to work for a beer distributor. “If I’m opening a barrel-aged stout at home that’s been stored at room temperature, I’ll put it in the fridge for about an hour to cool it to about 50.”

He called it “a signature beer geek move.”

“The general public isn’t getting into beer temperature,” says Coons at the bar one afternoon. “But they should be.”

Jerry’s general manager, Trey Elder, who spent 10 years working at three different Chicago coffee companies, chimed in: “Any extreme temperature, cold or hot, will mask flavor. At room temperature you’ll taste everything. When coffee is really hot, you won’t be able to taste that much. Coffees that are really amazing, you taste what’s amazing as they cool.”

Or in the case of beer, as it warms. The more complex the ingredients, the truer it is. At Moody Tongue Brewing Co. in Chicago, for instance, brewer and owner Jared Rouben focuses exclusively on food-driven beers — Sliced Nectarine IPA, Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter, and Dehydrated Tangerine Cacao Wheat are three recent releases.

On more than one occasion I’ve had a Moody Tongue beer at tap temperature and thought, “Eh — this is pretty good.” Twenty minutes later, the sentiment has usually changed to full-on “wow” as the complexity of the fresh ingredients emerged. Rouben professed no offense when I told him as much, and agreed that his beers are best between 42 and 55 degrees. That belief is what led him to pick a peculiar shape as the branded Moody Tongue glass used in bars: the 15-ounce Napoli grande, which, based on its design, steers a drinker toward wrapping a hand around the glass’ narrow base, which slowly warms the beer.

“In beautiful beers, all it does is open up layers,” Rouben said. “That said, I would encourage people to drink a beer at different temperatures and experience the changes.”

It’s a fair point. Beer isn’t just worth sipping at a precisely “proper” temperature, but across a range of temperatures that gradually unfold the flavor and nuance. Such an approach to beer drinking takes patience, thought and what some might consider fussing. But like wine, spirits, or anything else worth drinking, the best beers reveal themselves across a journey of sorts.

Though, if you’re in a hurry, the microwave works too.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Give Belgian IPAs A Try

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune

Ale Asylum entered the world of Belgian India pale ales gingerly.

Otto Dilba, one of the Madison, Wisconsin, brewery’s founders, had never tasted the hybrid style of Belgian-style yeast and bold hops, but he was intrigued. His co-founder, Dean Coffey, didn’t want to make the beer at all.

“Dean is a style purist,” Dilba said.

A deal was struck: Ale Asylum would make the smallest test batch possible, and only Dilba, Coffey and one other employee would try it. If Coffey didn’t like it, the beer would be flushed. End of story. Their maiden Belgian IPA finished fermenting while Coffey was traveling in Costa Rica; Dilba couldn’t wait for him to return.

“We were like kids on Christmas Day waiting to get that first pint into him,” Dilba said. “It was a fantastic amalgamation.”

Though still not Coffey’s favorite style, he couldn’t argue.

“It’s a freak show of a beer,” Coffey said. “I thought people might like it.”

He was correct. Ale Asylum introduced Bedlam! in the spring of 2009, and the beer quickly became its second-best-selling brew. It proved so popular that Bedlam! was added last month to the brewery’s stable of year-round offerings.

Such success reflects a growing ardor for Belgian IPAs, a style that barely existed five years ago, but can increasingly be found as one-off experiments at the smallest neighborhood brew pubs and year-round offerings from the largest breweries.

The mix of bright, earthy Belgian yeast and fruity-piney hops might put off some purists, but for the rest of us it adds up to a magical combination of flavors that is at once zesty and refreshing without being overly complex.

“The Belgian yeast helps turn up the volume on the hops,” Coffey said.

Bedlam! features the popular Citra hop, which lends a lush, tropical presence to the zing of the Belgian-style yeast (which actually comes from California). Ale Asylum already was known for its well-hopped beers, so adding Belgian yeast gave the brewery a new profile that resonated with drinkers.

“The Belgian-style yeast adds a presence you can’t put your finger on that you don’t get from other yeast strains,” Dilba said. “There’s just something about it that kicks the hops into the next stratosphere.”

———

TWO TO TRY

— Bedlam! (Ale Asylum): Fruity Citra hops explode with the backdrop of Belgian-style yeast.

— Maya (Une Annee): Less hop-forward than Bedlam! but still a deft blend of flavors. (Local to Chicago only.)

— Rayon Vert (Green Flash): A Belgian-style pale ale also less hop-forward, but bright and flavorful.

Photo: Doug via Flickr