Things we love: "un-tours"
Next time you're looking for a city tour, ditch the confines of an oversized bus in favor of an "un-tour." These general orientation tours—led in small groups—are not cheap, but they deliver your money's worth. Instead of paying $20 per person to join a 30-person group, you pay a bit more and join a tiny group, with a local expert often at your beck and call. While "un-tours" have been around for a while, we wanted to remind you about their value as an affordable way to learn a ton about your destination's local history, art, and culture.
Last fall, we told you how one of the major providers of "un-tours" has been expanding its offerings: Urban Adventures, which provides small group, off-the-beaten-path city outings on six continents. Every trip is available 365 days a year and ranges in length from two hours to an entire day. While there is power in numbers, Urban Adventures believes too many cooks spoil the broth—the maximum size for any group is twelve people. Another plus: Only English-speaking, experts with an extensive working knowledge of their city's local history, art, and culture are hired as "un-tour" guides.
Urban Adventures is the brainchild of Intrepid Travel and the WHL Group (the largest local travel company). It's aimed at travelers who "want to get away from humdrum tourism," said Laurel Angrist, media consultant for the WHL Group. "Urban Adventures is a travel company for those who yearn for adventure."
Prices generally include tickets and admission to major elements of a tour, but tip and personal purchases are never included. And while local transportation is included in the price for some tours, more often than not it is up to you to get to and from a tour.
Geared toward a more budget-conscious traveler, nearly all of Urban Adventures day tours are under $100. One of the cheapest options, a roughly four-hour tour from $15 per person, can be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Spend the first part of the day taking in the major sights and smells through a cyclo, a three-wheeled, pedal-powered form of transportation with a passenger carriage. Then, leave behind the cyclo for a guided exploration of the Ben Thanh market. Try some "weasel coffee," which has been first served to weasels and then derived from their droppings.
On the other side of the price range, is a nine-hour Seattle adventure for $214 per person. On this walk, bike and kayak excursion, travelers saunter through historic Pioneer Square, sample the local fare at Pike Place Market, and enjoy the artistic scenery at Olympic Sculpture Park. Next, vacationers take part in a cycle around the Seattle waterfront before hopping into a kayak to explore the coves, the homes, and the breathtaking views of the Seattle skyline from the Pacific.
Secret Islands of Southeast Asia
N'awlins: Should you drop that seafood po'boy?
In some parts of Louisiana, oysters have become as rare as white truffles, as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has led to the closure of more than a third of federal fishing waters. That's sad news because oysters are a star ingredient in New Orleans' famous sandwich, the po'boy. Sure, you can order a po'boy with roast beef instead of a mollusk. But a sub made of crusty bread, mayo, tomatoes, and lettuce just isn't the same without a fried oyster—or three. So, we checked in with some of the city's most popular restaurants, to find out the status of seafood po'boys. The good news is that seafood at any commercial establishment is still safe to eat, thanks to a small army of government inspectors. But restaurants are starting to remove oysters from their menus. The Parkway Bakery and Tavern, open since 1911, now serves all flavors of po'boys, except one: Owner Jay Nix took oysters off the sandwich board in May. He'll only return them "when things come back to normal." Prices for oysters are spiking, too—up 30 percent since the spill. And some dining spots are passing along the higher cost to consumers. At Johnny's Po'Boys, prices have gone up 50 cents to $1. For example, an oyster po'boy is now $12. Other restaurants are absorbing the financial pain. Consider Drago's Seafood Restaurant, which sold 3 million charbroiled oysters last year. Owner Tommy Cvitanovich says he would take the briny mollusk off the menu before he would increase the price. Other renowned restaurants, such as Commander's Palace, are also keeping prices in check. The long-term damage to oyster beds is unclear. In the meantime, if the image of an oyster basted in crude oil curbs the appetite, consider opting for shrimp instead. Shrimp prices have stayed about the same as many chefs order alternative shipments from Texas and China. That's a controversial move among local chefs, many of whom have a U.S.A.-first attitude. The local industry has really struggled to fight off cheap imports for years. Some restaurants refuse to buy foreign shrimp, claiming they're inferior in quality. Tory McPhail, executive chef at Commander's Palace, takes a feast, not famine approach. After buying 400 pounds of American shrimp straight from the dock, he organized a peeling party, then used the crustaceans to create a $32 shrimp and pasta entree featuring Creole tomatoes, pea shoots, basil and roasted shrimp heads pureed into a stock. Sounds delish! —Andrea Sachs
Paris Controversy: Banning cars by the Seine
Ever since 2002, when the City of Lights first introduced Paris Plages—three Seine spots transformed into riverfront beaches every July 20 for a month—Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has been rallying the French capital to expand on the program's popularity for a "reconquest of the banks of the Seine." His idea? Ban cars from a 1.2-mile stretch of expressway on the left bank, reaching from the Musée d'Orsay to (nearly) the Eiffel Tower. This July, Paris's city council votes on the ban, which would go into effect in 2012. Permanent foot and cycle paths would be installed along with 35 acres of new cafés, parks, sports facilities, and floating islands—complete with palm trees. Not surprisingly, Parisian car and taxi drivers are furious about the plans. About 30,000-plus daily expressway drivers will be displaced. To test out the car-free experiment, the city has been closing the left bank expressway every Sunday for the past several years, with much acclaim from pedestrians who enjoy the respite from vehicles. What's your reaction to the possible car ban? Meanwhile, don't wait until 2012 to have some fun along the Seine. There are urban beaches to check out in late July and early August this year. MORE Up All Night in Paris: The Nuit Blanche art party Paris: Free art galleries worth visiting Budget Travel's Paris City page
San Francisco: 5 gourmet ice-cream shops
San Francisco's weather is warming up, the Fourth of July is nigh—summer is here. So what am I thinking about these days? Ice cream, of course. When you're in this city, you can forget Ben and Jerry's or Cold Stone Creamery; San Franciscans much prefer artisanal small-batch ice creams made with mostly local ingredients. Try adventurous flavors like salt and pepper, honey lavender, or earl grey tea. So far I have yet to taste a flavor that disappoints. Here are five shops worth a stop. Humphry Slocombe Creative flavors like olive oil and secret breakfast (cornflakes are among the ingredients) have garnered Humphrey Slocombe national attention from places like Food and Wine magazine and Bon Appetit. Even if those combinations sound too crazy to believe, trust the folks behind the counter—they can offer up recommendations to pleasantly surprise your palate. A local favorite is Harvey Milk & honey graham cracker, made with blackberry honey, homemade graham crackers, and carrot mango sorbet. Some people are so addicted that only a Twitter feed could sate them (@humphryslocombe). 2790 Harrison St., at 24 Street, 415/550-6971. Mitchell's A San Francisco institution, Mitchell's Ice Cream opened in 1953, making gourmet ice cream in creative flavors long before it became fashionable. Well-known for tropical flavors like jackfruit, guava, and mango, other options like avocado, Mexican chocolate, and the current seasonal—peach—are also wildly popular. But the pumpkin ice cream, served only in the fall, has a following that can only be described as cult-like. 688 San Jose Ave. at 29 Street, 415/648-2300. Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous Located in the Dogpatch neighborhood, this is the newest shop on the ice cream scene. Everything is made in-house, including the flavoring extracts and crispy cones that have a hint of vanilla. Although Mr. and Mrs. is still in its early stages, there are already eight small-batch flavors produced daily. Try the "ballpark," made with Anchor Steam beer, pretzels, and peanuts, or candied violet and tres leches, which has chunks of tres leches cake. Throwback treats like fudgsicles are expected soon. 699 22nd St, at Third Street, 415/ 970-0750. Bi-Rite Creamery If you happen to walk by Bi-Rite Creamery, just across the street from the Mission's Dolores Park, be sure to stop by. And if there isn't the usual long line, then you are obligated to stop in for a scoop (or two) of ice cream. The most popular flavor by far is the salted caramel, but others like roasted banana and brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl and classics like cookies and cream are all winners. Soft serve is also available in flavors that change daily, like balsamic strawberry and spicy Mexican chocolate. 3692 18th Street, 415/626-5600. Maggie Mudd Take note, vegans: Maggie Mudd in Bernal Heights has, hands-down, the best-tasting non-dairy ice cream. Made from soy or coconut milk, the ice cream here has a rich, creamy texture, and the impressive range of flavors include oatmeal cookie dough, lychee coconut, and rocky road swirl. There are regular dairy flavors as well, like espresso almond fudge and green tea, as well as options that have no sugar added. 903 Cortland Ave., 415/641-5291.
Documenting each of America's 10,466-plus Main Streets
There's a lot of political talk about the mood on Main Street. But what are these streets named Main really like and how much do they have in common? To find out, a team of radio producers and artists launched the multimedia project Mapping Main Street last summer and began enlisting collaborators. Amy Fichter, a drawing professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, heard about the project through NPR and immediately felt she had to be a part of it. She grew up on a farm in Iowa and told me she could relate to small towns that aren't always appreciated. On weekends for the past several months, Fichter has gone out by car with her husband and 8-year-old son to photograph Wisconsin. "On the surface, when you first pull into a Main Street, it feels very similar, with the old storefronts and banks and post office," Fichter said. "But as soon as you start going into places and talking to people, each Main Street becomes unique." Fichter doesn't do advance planning. Armed with her iPhone and an antique twin lens reflex camera, she simply shows up in a place with an eye out for what's beautiful in the ordinary. Her favorite discovery so far is Pepin, a town on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, about 45 minutes from her home in Menomonie, Wis., and 90 minutes southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul. She started driving along the residential end of Pepin's Main Street and soon noticed a brightly colored wooden sculpture in front of a gallery. "I thought, that's really cool, it was like a little treasure," Fichter recalled. Lake Pepin Art & Design Center hosts film screenings, live music, arts shows and classes, and sells quirky handmade items. It's one of 17 area galleries and art studios that participate in spring and fall Fresh Art tours. The next Fresh Art is slated for October 1-3, while October 21-24 brings the Flyway Film Festival. Main Street dead ends at Lake Pepin, where the Mississippi widens. Fichter stopped for a lakeside lunch at the Harbor View Café, which serves locally-sourced dishes such as pheasant, Norwegian meatballs, and her pick, vegetable risotto. The winsome café and a few other downtown buildings date to the 1800s, the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in a log cabin near Pepin and set Little House in the Big Woods in the area. Each fall, Laura Ingalls Wilder Days draw crowds for arts and crafts booths, a fiddle contest, and Laura trivia and look-alike contests. "When you start looking around where you live, you realize there really is stuff happening here," said Fichter. "I've learned so much about the towns around me." With photos and videos of only 593 streets submitted so far, Mapping Main Street could use some help! Find out how to get involved here, and share your stories by posting a comment below. What's your favorite Main Street?