Hidden Travel Treasures with J, the Travel Authority

Hidden Travel Treasures with J, the Travel Authority

While the team at STE are the authority on the travel more lifestyle, there’s another travel authority out there. Her name is Jeanine, and she knows exactly what she’s talking about when it comes to hidden travel treasures and off-beat travel. Let me introduce J, the Travel Authority…

 Hidden Travel Treasures with J, the Travel Authority

Let’s start with a bit of an introduction?

I’m a native New Yorker and, as a travel and food writer, I have a unique background. I was originally trained as a biologist and I have a degree in nutrition/exercise physiology. But, unlike my peers, instead of going into clinical practice, I decided to become a journalist who wrote for all the major men’s, women’s and general interest magazines on health and nutrition. I did that for a few years. Because I’m a vegetarian and I’m really into active travel (long distance cycling, hiking and cross country skiing), I switched over into travel writing. It seemed a natural fit for me. Now, aside from writing about travel, I also publish articles on food, wine, design, art and architecture. (On the vegetarian note, I’m what I call a “conditional vegetarian,” so when I’m visiting a new land or writing restaurant reviews, I do eat meat, just small portions.)

You like to write about “Hidden Treasures” – what makes something a
treasure to you? What have been some of your favourite finds?

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It’s something that’s off the typical tourist radar but, nonetheless, something that has authenticity and really provides insights into the land I’m exploring and the people I’m visiting. If I’m preparing for a journey and I find out about the major tourist venues, I always look for what’s not so obvious or what’s less visited. You’ll often find me trekking down narrow lanes in villages, prowling around parks and gardens, biking in the countryside and always talking with locals to find out about interesting venues to explore. Some of my favorite hidden treasures include:
1. Visiting Iceland’s Westmann Islands where I took a guided hike to Eldfell, an active volcano. There I ate warm rye bread with butter that my guide had baked in the steaming earth. (A natural oven of sorts.)

2. staying in a centuries-old monastery in a room that faced a Gothic cloister in Guadalupe, Spain (in the less-visited Extremadura region). There I had a peaceful lunch of partridge salad and truffles with two Franciscans.

3. sampling freshly-made cheeses in tiny artisanal shops in the village of Serpa in Portugal’s Alentejo region and talking with the cheese producers.

4. walking a trail around the eerie black lava stone walls protecting the vineyards on Pico Island, one of the nine Azorean Islands. All the activity paid off when I trekked to the island’s Wine Cooperative and sampled a handful of fine varieties, including Lajido that’s similar to a port.

5. bicycling on Turkey’s Bozcaada Island where I pedaled through a dense pine forest that appeared out of nowhere and found a series of wind turbines that provide the majority of the island’s power.

6. hiking through the surreal landscape of Turkey’s Cappadocia region where I hired a private guide to search for the less-known cave-carved churches and where we also foraged for tasty berries in this land noted for its curious monoliths.

7. island hopping in Croatia where I found some unspoiled lands covered by thick pine and cypress forests that often hide old chapels, fortresses and pre-Romanesque churches.

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Andy’s Note: WOWOWOWOW! My bucket list just got ten new items. Holy…these are some AMAZING tips, Jeanine. On behalf of the community – thank you!

You are known to be an Israel expert. Many consider this an unsafe destination, and nearly everyone overlooks some of the amazing bits of Israeli tourism. Beyond floating in the dead sea, what are your top tips?

I haven’t experienced any security concerns. Each time I’ve visited Israel, I’ve roamed about day and night (often alone) visiting spas, restaurants, art galleries, wine bars and clubs, as well as biking various trails in the desert, and walking along the beach in Tel Aviv and I’ve never felt unsafe. To me, being in Israel is no different from being in New York City in terms of security concerns for the tourist. In fact, I have to admit that I actually feel safer in Israel because I think they take security more seriously on a daily basis than I often see at the hotels, bars and clubs on my home turf.

And while most tourists spend time focusing in on the perceived security issues or on Jerusalem, I’ve made a lot of cool discoveries:

1. An immense garbage dump (Hiriya Garbage Mountain) is being turned into an eco-center complete with a green park webbed with a network of hiking and biking trails.

2. Every May in Tel Aviv is the Houses from Within tour where you can get a peak into some very interesting properties that’d you’d otherwise never know about. They’ve featured curiosities like the city’s narrowest house, a mere 10 feet across!

3. I love anything to do with great wines and when I visited Haim Gan, aka the Grape Man, in old Jaffa, I found out that he has a wine school and also offers tastings and private wine pairing dinners in an ancient stone building with a basement dating back 1,200 years. (That’s where he houses his rare private collection.) Nothing here is ordinary: the wine pairings are held in a room where the table is 200-year-old ironwood.

4. The mountain biking in the Negev Desert — with its colorful wildflowers and leafy oases — can’t be beat. Here, I followed the old Nabatean-run Spice Route, passing a fort that dates from 1,000 BC as well as the ruins of an ancient motel or caravansary.

5. Caesarea National Park is a very unique dive spot. After all, all the artifacts found here are in waters that were once part of King Herod’s expansive port.

6. When you go tandem skydiving with Paradive, you’ll be treated to a 50-second free fall and amazing views of Mount Hermon, Israel’s highest peak, Syria and the Lebanon Mountains in Jordan.

7. When you think of Israel, skiing isn’t the first activity that comes to mind. But Mt. Hermon that rises more than 9,000 feet has a small ski resort that’s worth visiting.

8. To me kosher food was never that appealing from a gastronomic viewpoint, but dining at Goshen couldn’t have been more of a surprise. Everything from the appetizers to the dessert was a delicacy and all served in an intimate atmosphere. I’m a serious chocoholic and I couldn’t believe that the tasty chocolate soufflé didn’t contain any dairy.

Andy’s Note: Guess we forgot this one on our Chocolate Travel post. Oops. And now I must contact our travel concierge because WOW – I am ready to go to Israel. Amazing.
So tell us about your most inspiring travel experience.

It would have to be hiking in the interior of Corsica, an island where most visitors only explore the sun-drenched beaches along the coast. My three friends and I hired a private guide for a week and each day was full of surprises that provided insights into the local culture. (Interestingly, Laurent, the guide, broke his arm hiking a couple of days before our trip, but that didn’t slow him down one bit.)

Here’s an authentic adventure we experienced one day: Tall cliffs rose all around us. The only way out of this narrow valley splashed with Mediterranean macchia and other scented brush was the dirt trail we were following. My guide, who never seemed touched by a drop of sweat, assured us that the metal ladder bolted into the stone wall ahead of us was the last we would have to ascend. On the horizon was a streak of iridescent blue that was barely visible above the tall grasses. Herons perched along the shore of this alpine lake that’s frozen most of the year but for the summer. It beckoned as a perfect picnic spot, except for the giant cow patties scattered about. We picked a debris-free patch of ground, unbundled our backs and mats and unwrapped our sandwiches of Corsican cheese and sausage and freshly-baked bread. Suddenly we heard a rustling in the brush, but that wasn’t unusual in this wild land. Then crackling sounds pierced our peaceful country nest. Something tore through the shrubs. We heard male voices speaking Corsican. And the sounds of animals racing through the brush. Our guide seemed unfazed, still sipping a cup of red wine and digging into his black and green olive salad. He told us to enjoy our lunch; it was just a boar hunt. Later, we hit the trail again and found the path streaked with blood. Soon we encountered three hunters dragging the bloody wild boar. Our guide greeted them with hugs and hand shakes. He’d gone to high school with these men. We ended up taking different paths back down to the valley floor where, in the evening with the sky still bright, we passed a rustic alpine cafe. The air was rich with the aroma of roast pork — no wonder: we saw a rotating spit holding the carcass of the wild boar we’d met earlier along the trail.

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What is one item you’re dying to get off your bucket list?

Bhutan is on the top of my list of places to go for a number of reasons, including my eclectic background. (My double major at Barnard College was biology and religion, specifically Buddhist studies.) So I’d love to visit Bhutan because it’s largely a Buddhist population. In addition, Bhutan is appealing because it’s little visited and has seen little in the way of the development we see elsewhere in the world. Finally, I really love hiking through fabulous landscapes and, with its soaring mountains and dense forests, Bhutan provides that as well.

Anything interesting coming up on your travel agenda?

I’m in the planning stages of several trips over the next six to eight months. These include: Israel, Cyprus, Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and maybe Wales and Norway.

Thanks Jeanine for that travel-tastic inspiration and thirst for travel more. I am so ready to get off my armchair now and I bet others are too. For more information about J, visit her website.

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