By Terry Trucco
We’re with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on this one – Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is a big, soulless barn. But once a year The New York Times Travel Show moves in for a weekend along with a big chunk of the world, and the place lights up.
With representatives from more than 70 countries and 14 states – and that’s not counting cruise ships, hotel chains and tour operators – you could travel the world without a passport this past weekend. Here’s a small sampling of what we saw.
Flee the Olympics With droves of visitors expected to descend upon London this summer, Bath and Bristol, two historic southwest England cities an easy drive or train ride from the Olympic Village, want the overflow. Their pitch: a less crowded way to see England and a change of pace when you’ve had your fill of the balance beam, the butterfly and beach volleyball. Bristol’s new M Shed museum traces 1,000 years of the coastal city’s history, from piracy to its bombing during World War II. And Bath gives you a brush with the Romans (visit the Thermae Bath Spa for open-air soaks) and Jane Austen (the historic Pump Room serves lunch) – though we’re not sure it’s less crowded than London, at least on weekends.
Go Japanese The Japan booth let visitors dress up as a samurai and pose for
a picture, and that got our attention. A year after the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, Japan wants travelers to come back. Fukushima, site of the crippled nuclear plant, is off limits. (The latest US State Department alert found low-level radiation within 80 kilometers of the city.) But Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are outside the danger zone. And so is our pick if we were going – Kanazawa, a castle town on the Sea of Japan that’s like a mini Kyoto, crammed with history, art and classic Japanese architecture. Japan remains pricey, but visitors should feel very welcome.
Go where the locals go Whenever you meet someone from a country you’d like to visit, ask where they like to travel when they’re home. So says Seth Kugel, The New York Times frugal traveler. Locals know places to weekend or for longer visits that rarely get top billing in guidebooks. But such places can be cheaper than better known haunts, have an infrastructure of hotels and roads and offer a great way to gain insights into a country and meet locals. “If a place gets only a paragraph in the Lonely Planet guide, it means it’s off the beaten path,” Kugel says.
Open on Broadway Fantasy Baseball Camp. Fantasy Rock ‘n Roll Camp.
Could Broadway Fantasy Camp be far behind? The latest experiential travel camp, so new it opened at the travel show complete with props, offers adults the chance to put on a show in an off-Broadway theater. For Smash-aphiles and lovers of all things Wicked, camp productions come with costumes, make-up, music, rehearsals – and a post-performance celebration at Sardi’s. “Some of the rehearsal studios are where the Mamma Mia! and Phantom performers rehearse,” says Lauren Class Schneider, the camp’s producer and a Broadway League member who has produced the Drama Desk Awards for 15 years. “If you use the loo, you may run into the latest Christine.” Sessions begin this summer and range from one to five days.
Slip under the radar “The Troubles” put a damper on travel to Northern Ireland for years. As peace has returned, so have visitors — but not too many just yet. “It’s less touristy than the republic,” says travel expert Pauline Frommer of the Frommer Travel Guides. Castles, green hills, festivals, historic houses and the world’s largest hedge maze in Castle Llewellan Forest Park await as does Bushmills, the oldest legal distillery in the world. To save money, ditch the hotel and rent a house.
Eat Ice Cream in Ecuador Forget cranks. Ecuadorans make ice cream by
stirring sugared fruit juice in a copper bowl – with a spatula. The recipe originated 400 years ago with the indigenous people in the highlands of Ecuador. They took a block of ice, layered straw over it for insulation and doused it in copious amounts of salt. “The salt is a conductor,” says Juan, the ice cream chef, whose ice sat in what looked like a straw-lined Container Store plastic storage box. After that, arm power takes over. The ice cream maker stirs the juice until it solidifies into a soft, creamy gelato, a process that takes at least 20 minutes. Not for wimps. And yes, the ice cream is delicious. Quito, by the way, has more than 200 ice cream shops.
Visit Cuba – legally They’re the last kids on the block, but Americans can visit Cuba legally at last. Forget lolling on a beach. But thanks to the Obama Administration’s 2011 People-to-People initiatives, Cuba is open to travelers visiting for a purpose – educational, religious, humanitarian, research, to study bird watching, dance or Cuban cuisine, you get the idea. Nonstop charter flights like C & T Charters fly from Miami, New York and Chicago to Havana (no more jetting to Cancun or Jamaica to catch a flight.) Among the licensed organizations that arrange visits are Insight Cuba and Road Scholar.
Tame the apps They’re your friends, not your master. “You never need an app to find a bathroom at the airport,” says Kugel. Look for municipal apps to learn what’s doing in a city. Airline apps are useful, too, thanks to improvements prompted by competition. But when possible, let serendipity take over and suss out a coffee shop, restaurant or food truck on your own. “Even if you later discover the place is known to everyone, you’ll have a greater time eating there because you found it yourself,” he says.