Category Archives: Personal Interests

Coastal Splendors: Galveston Versus Corpus Christi

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Photo credit: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

Your Pick: Galveston or Corpus Christi?

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Photo credit: Visit Corpus Christi’s Facebook page

Along the Gulf Coast, the Texas cities of Galveston and Corpus Christi are blessed with natural wonders such as miles of beaches or a plethora of parks. And while man-made structures have come into the scene, they’re serving as an addition where visitors and locals can enjoy the sights and tastes of nature’s bounty.

Here’s where you can explore the coastal splendors of both Galveston and Corpus Christi.

Seawall Beach Expansion May 2017

Photo credit: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

Galveston’s Beaches and Parks

With beaches, Galveston’s got quite the range, with them being doubling as state parks. On the island’s west end, Galveston Island State Park puts you right near the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay and also near wildlife. It’s coastal refuge for birds, so birdwatchers can put their binoculars to good use, and it also provides opportunities for taking in its waters and lands. Visitors can swim and fish in certain areas, and also hike or bike along four trails encompassing different habitats.

The 10-mile Seawall Urban Park provides a leisurely stretch along its boulevard, along with much beach, restaurants and tourist attractions including the amusement park, Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.

Stewart Beach is quite family-friendly with amenities like restrooms and chair and umbrella rentals, while East Beach can draw a bit more of a livelier crowd.

Moody Garden Aquarium

Moody Gardens/Credit: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

Galveston’s Waterside Spots

Galveston’s got some major waterside spots too. Its best known attraction of this kind is Moody Gardens, a part-amusement park and part-leisure/wellness stay with various restaurants and an on-site hotel. Its latest addition is the Aquarium Pyramid, which holds exhibits such as a Jellyfish Gallery and habitats encompassing locations ranging from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, to the South Pacific and North Pacific.

Based on Pelican Island, Seawolf Park has a fishing pier, picnic spots and a playground, but is most noted for being the home of a World War II submarine, USS Cavalla and a destroyer escort called USS Stewart.

Then there’s the Texas Seaport Museum, where visitors can climb aboard ELISSA, a preserved 19th-century tall ship and see an adjacent museum and theater. Plus, Galveston contains a concentration of Victorian homes within its downtown area; they date from the mid to late 1800s. Must-see houses include the Ashton Villa, an Italianate villa that was the first mansion built in Galveston, and the prominent Bishop’s Palace, which reminds you of a castle due to its stained-glass windows, bronze sculptures and exquisite fireplaces.

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Corpus Christi’s Beaches

As for Corpus Christi, this city in the South Texas Gulf Coast is also plentiful in sand and surf. Let’s start with beaches. Along the Corpus Christi bay, McBee Beach gets all ages of beachgoers but is still picturesque with calm and clear waters.

Locals appear to flock to Whitecap Beach, noted for its white sands and one entrance to the Padre Island Seawall, a mile-long pathway serving bikes, joggers, and walkers. Then the Padre Island National Seashore is cited as the world’s longest, undeveloped barrier, with its residents being a multitude of bird species.

Named after the wild horses that once roamed here, Mustang Island is 18 miles of beautiful coastlines, beach area, and various fish and waterfowl. It’s also the neighbor of Mustang Island State Park.

 

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USS Lexington / Photo Credit: Visit Corpus Christi’s Facebook page

 

Corpus Christi – Waterside Attractions

Located just across Corpus Christi’s Harbor Bridge, North Beach has two top city attractions: the Texas State Aquarium and the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier turned museum. North Beach also has a good variety of places to eat and drink and bayfront views, with the cities of Aransas Pass, Ingleside and Portland offering waterside opportunities like, fishing, boating, sailing, and kite surfing.

Corpus Christi’s Northwest side offers some of the best bird watching opportunities for bird lovers such as Hazel Bazemore Park, where each spring and fall people gather to watch thousands of hawks fly overhead. Labonte Park, at the city’s entrance, offers great views of the Nueces River as well as fishing and kayaking opportunities.

On Corpus Christi’s Southside, the South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center provides some urban serenity with floral exhibits and gardens and trails that could lead to birds and butterflies. And downtown’s Marina Arts District co-mingles boat slips, restaurants, and artisans together.

So, which Texas city would you like to see first: Galveston or Corpus Christi? To get your trip planning started, choose from these Trip.com recommended lists of Galveston and Corpus Christi hotels.

This post is part of Trip.com’s Underdog Cities program.

Exploring Philadelphia’s Old City District

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Last week, Philadelphia welcomed in a new museum that’s really fitting for its location in Old City district – the Museum of the American Revolution. For work, I got to see a pre-opening preview of the museum and spent some time revisiting locations significant to our nation’s founding.

During our country’s Colonial days, Philadelphia was a big deal. In what’s now the Historic District, which Old City belongs to, there are buildings still standing from that era and plaques marking areas where once located structures once have their respective ties to our legacy. But it’s not all history here in Old City. This neighborhood’s present-day scene is really buzzing with restaurants, nightlife, and galleries.

Here are my suggestions for exploring Old City.

First, check out these museums and attractions.

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Museum of the American Revolution
As a 2.0 American history lesson, this redbrick building goes beyond dates and facts. It’s designed to bring visitors directly into the growing conflicts that would have the 13 British colonies deciding to break away from English rule and develop a new republic. And, of course, there are many sides to the story. In a chronological format, the museum delves into not just the main characters like General George Washington, but also other individuals whose voices often may be overlooked – women, freed and enslaved African peoples, and the Native American Oneida nation. Artifacts are on view too. In particular, see Washington’s headquarters tent that’s enclosed in a glass casing – where he made crucial battlefield decisions.

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The President’s House and Liberty Bell
Maybe you know this already or you don’t. Before the White House was built in and D.C. would become our nation’s capital, our country’s first two Presidents George Washington and John Adams resided in Philadelphia. While their presidential home – known now as The President’s House – is long gone, an outdoor display marks its spot where you learn about the African Americans who served Washington and his family. Adjacent to this area, take the time to view the Liberty Bell. It once was a working bell, before getting its now signature crack, and has become a symbol for civil rights.

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Benjamin Franklin Museum
Most of what we think of this Founding Father is from his later years in life. But he’s got his place in our history, and it’s definitely noted. With fun videos and well-described objects, this museum is based on a lower level of a building and tells overall about his life story. For example, Franklin is actually not originally from Philly, came to live here at a young age and went on to be prosperous and influential. Afterward, head to Christ Church Burial Ground, where he’s buried and find coins placed on top of his tombstone.

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Independence Hall
You need to walk over to the Independence Visitor Center first to get your timed entrance ticket to visit the interior of this landmark and step into the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. While waiting in line for your turn inside the East Wing, go visit the West Wing to view original copies of documents like um…. the Declaration of Independence.

Now, as for dining, here we go. My picks include:

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– 2nd Story Brewing: This brewery/restaurant/ bar was started by a local farmer (who still owns it) and her beer-brewing son-in-law, with bar grub that’s healthy too (as shown here).

– The Little Lion, located right across from the Museum of the American Revolution, centers on fine, Southern-inspired comfort food with brunch, lunch, and dinner selections within a casual setting.

– Zahav, an Israeli restaurant featuring small plates, tasting menus, hummus and other traditional dishes with a modern twist, and an at-the-bar happy hour specials like half-off on hummus.

– Khyber Pass Pub: This dive-looking, dark wooden interior bar with a side gastropub is touted for its Southern food and beer selection plus has vegetarian-friendly options. Some unique choices include popcorn that can suit vegans or carnivores (the latter version features bacon grease).

– Han Dynasty: The Old City location of this chain does a contemporary yet still authentic take on Sichuan cuisine. One of their best dishes is their Dan Dan Noodles, and you’re given a choice on the spice level by calling out a number.

– Fork: This sophisticated New American restaurant that’s said to have jump-started Old City’s restaurant scene about 15-20 years ago. With an elegant interior and a push for seasonal ingredients, lunch/dinner choices can feature handmade pastas and high-end starters.

– The City Tavern: Yes, it can seem touristy with the wait staff dressed in historic attire, but it provides a fun intro to what the Colonials ate and drank with choices based on authentic period recipes.

– The Franklin Fountain: An ice cream parlor bringing you back to the time of soda jerks with bow-tied waiters and quite the list of flavors.

Have you been to Old City? What do you recommend?

Have you been to Old City? What do you recommend?

Why I (Might) Eat at McDonald’s When Traveling

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Due to broadening my palette and getting more food writing assignments, I’ve made a vow to try as many local dishes and dine at non-chain restaurants as I can while traveling.

However, it’s a promise that I can’t always keep.

Part of that reason is because I travel about once every two years with a relative of mine who is strictly a meat and potatoes person. When traveling, his go-to meal plans often involve heading to the famous Golden Arch. I follow along, but I cringe. I rarely, if any, eat at McDonald’s at home (okay, maybe Wendy’s or a good fried chicken joint instead). But I join him, and I place my order. And at times, under certain circumstances, I find myself doing the exact same thing.

Though I do make eating locally a priority in my travels, going to a fast food or chain restaurant is acceptable. Here’s why it’s okay to eat at McDonald’s (or insert your favorite place here) while traveling.

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Menus can vary.
When glancing at the menu at a fast food chain location overseas, you might be surprised to see some items. Depending on tastes, diets, and even government regulations, menu offerings can look different. There are similarities – fries, sodas, ketchup – but you’ll probably find a few twists. With McDonald’s, I’ve seen fried shrimp in Amsterdam; jalapeno poppers in Stockholm; and a chicken sandwich with what I swear was oregano or some other kind of herb on the bun in Windsor, England. In Lucerne, Switzerland, I saw what was claimed to be an All-American burger, a Californian style (I’m not big on burgers, so I didn’t validate that claim.). In Prague, a small can of pilsner came with my combo meal, and I saw one guy there having what was called a McBox. Yes, in a box. Likewise with Starbucks, I tried smores-flavored lattes in Stockholm, matcha-flavored ones in Kyoto. Both were different.

It can save you money and/or time.
Fast food is, well, fast food. Maybe you’re arriving right before the doors close or have to grab and go to get to your next stop on time. Though the level of service can vary, one good thing about fast food chains like McDonald’s is that you have a sense of what you’re ordering, and what it costs. When I was Lucerne, a few days after my wallet was stolen in Cologne, I was forced to curve my spending. I had to stretch out my Swish francs, and food became one budget area that required some wiggle room. Plus, if you know Switzerland, you know it can be a pricey destination. So for my remaining two days in Lucerne, I was able to get a sandwich and a small drink from McDonald’s for breakfast and lunch or dinner.

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Getting help if you need it.
Like at home, fast food chains are where locals and even visitors go. So if you need directions or have a question that a native might know the answer to, these chains might be where to turn. Although it’s presumptuous to assume that workers behind the counter may be fluent or conversational in English or another language, chances are that they can understand and answer your questions. Or at least try to help. If not, there could be a customer who can assist you. One more thing: if you have food allergies, fast food is more than likely a safe bet. Also, based on my experience, these fast food chains might provide free Wi-Fi, which you can access while having your meal or drink. Log-in registration may be required.

Sometimes you want a taste of home.
From fries to ice cream sundaes, familiar food can be comforting. Like I wrote before, for the most part, you know what you’re ordering from a fast food restaurant. Menu boards are also pictorial, so you can have a better understanding of what’s available. Also, if you’re close to being “hangry,” you probably want to get something to eat. Or maybe it’s what you feel comfortable with eating at that moment. On the final morning I had in Tokyo, I couldn’t venture too far in search of breakfast. Luckily, there was a McDonald’s right around the corner from my hotel, where I was able to order a McGriddle Cake combo. I was able to sit and eat there with enough time left over to run back, shower, pack and check out. Plus, I had extra yen left over to get my final sushi meal at Narita Airport before heading back to the states.

So tell me: what’s the most interesting fast food meal you’ve had while traveling?

5 Surprising Things about Cincinnati

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Before my visit in Cincinnati, I didn’t know much, if anything, about it. After spending a recent weekend here, I learned a few interesting things about this city near the Ohio River. Here are five of them.

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1) Flying into Kentucky
On a flight to Cincinnati, you might be surprised to discover that you don’t actually arrive in Cincinnati. Actually, you land in Kentucky, specifically at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which is about 15 minutes or so from Cincinnati. Instead of heading straight there, make a stop in nearby Covington, Kentucky. Its MainStrasse Village has German roots with a Main Street, U.S.A. feel. Its center square is the location for various festivals such as an Octoberfest and it’s lined with shops and restaurants housed in buildings from a past era. Good eats picks include Otto’s, an American bistro known for its fried green tomatoes and twist on the native dish, Kentucky Hot Brown; Frida 602, a mezcal and taqueria with décor inspired by artist Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City; and Bouquet, a farm-to-table restaurant whose menu is dictated by what ingredients are in-season.

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2) Over-the-Rhine
Cincinnati has 52 neighborhoods, with one of its oldest being Over-the-Rhine. When the first wave of German immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1830s, many settled and founded in early Cincinnati neighborhood, so much that their native language became the spoken word and their culture thrived. Over-the-Rhine’s name comes from this legacy. Workers lived north of the Miami and Erie Canal and nicknamed it “the Rhine” after the German river, so their settled area was like going “over the Rhine.” Breweries and drinking establishments flourished here up until Prohibition. As residents moved out, and the Over-the-Rhine faced hard times. its revitalization began in the mid-2000s with a wave of artisan restaurants being ushered in. Find many of them along Vine Street. This section has become hotspot, with a medley of eateries, shops, and bars. Stand outs include: Taste of Belgium, for a great waffle fix; Senate, with the most amazing gourmet hotdog combos; The Eagle, for delectable fried chicken; Graeter’s, a hometown ice cream shop known for its Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip; and Holtman’s Donuts, for their maple bacon option. While Vine Street is about food, O-T-R’s Main Street has its share of finds such as Gomez, for innovative Mexican fare; Japp’s Since 1879, once a hair store but now a hip nightspot; and contemporary art murals created as part of ArtWorks Cincinnati.

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3) Quite a Beer Legacy
Speaking of German beer, by the late 1800s, Cincinnati was producing a serious amount of suds in Over-The-Rhine, so much that there was no need to export it outside of Ohio. By 1890, the city was the third largest beer producer per person in the country. Prohibition severely changed that, causing many breweries to shut down for good. Yet it wasn’t entirely over. In 2009, this legacy began its comeback with the resurgence of the brand Christian Moerlein. Now, over a dozen craft breweries and micropubs are in operation. Among them, Rhinegeist Brewery is housed inside the original Christian Moerlein bottling facility. In a sense, it’s a 21st century beer garden with long picnic style tables and cornhole, ping-pong and other games going on. Another brewery is Taft’s Ale House, named for our 27th President and Supreme Court Justice, William Howard Taft. It’s located inside a former church and features items relating to Taft and his wife, Nellie. Yet Cincinnati’s brewing past still lingers. Plus in recent years,an underground network of abandoned caverns used for cooling German lager have been discovered. See one of them on an escorted tour with American Legacy Tours.

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4) History with the Underground Railroad
In the mid-1800s, as the debate over the practice of slavery split national opinion, the U.S. was divided between free states and slave states. Ohio’s place in this part of our country’s history is connected to the Underground Railroad, where the Ohio River Valley was a key site for freedom seekers to head up north. In downtown Cincinnati, near the banks of the Ohio River, the National Underground Freedom Railroad Center traces how slavery came to the Americas up through the U.S.’s post-Civil War Reconstruction with historical imagery and artifacts. The center also covers the effects of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

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5) A Ton of Bridges
Bridges might not sound exciting, but Cincinnati has some iconic structures connecting the city to Northern Kentucky and other locations in Ohio. Its most noted one is John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which links Covington to downtown Cincinnati. Opened in 1867, it’s a nice way to go back and forth over the Ohio River. Plus pedestrians and cars have their respective paths. Though Roebling’s name might not ring a bell, this engineer’s modern marvels are well known. Roebling was said to use this baby blue colored bridge as the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened about two decades later. For a relaxing walk, the locally-called Purple People Bridge (it has a more official sounding name) can only be crossed on foot. It connects from Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point to Newport on the Levee in Northern Kentucky.

 

 

 

Review: Fathom Cruise to the Dominican Republic

 

On their voyage to the Dominican Republic, Fathom offers shore excursions similar to other cruises, but also hosts activities focused on creating a social impact. Passengers are escorted into local communities for hands-on projects involving education, reforestation, economic opportunities, and sanitary conditions. With their booking, passengers can select about three or so impact options. In picking mine, I weighed over what I wanted to do and how I thought I could be helpful with. Or at least I felt comfortable doing.

Our options were:

  • Reforestation and Nursery (Yes)
  • Community English Conversation and Learning
  • Student English Conversation and Learning (Yes)
  • Concrete Floors in Community Homes
  • Water Filtration Production
  • Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship (Yes; I was a last minute signup)
  • Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative (Yes)

Most of what I learned about these excursions happened when our ship was en route from Miami to Puerto Plata. Passengers are divided into section groups where we meet with a Fathom Impact guide to learn more about its mission and the Dominican Republic. There were other info sessions such as a Spanish 101 lesson and guidance on practicing English with students.

On land, Fathom collaborates two nonprofits: IDDI (which focuses on transforming rural and urban communities for the better) and Entrena (whose mission involves education and training.) Their reps joined us for our activities, giving background history, and acting as interpreters when needed.

So, how do it go? Here’s my quick recap.

Reforestation and Nursery
On Tuesday afternoon, after docking in Puerto Plata, my group headed to a tree nursery where mahogany and orange tree seedlings are prepared to go be permanently planted in a hillside forest region. Our IDDI guide gave us insights about how clearing trees for agriculture led to erosion and other resulting environmental impact overtime. On the site ground relating to this project, we worked in various teams handling different tasks. Some of us dug up seedlings from existing trees and transplanted them in a shade house where they will mature a bit before being planted at their new home. At the shade house, we worked in teams to put fertilized soil into bags and then putting seedings in these bags. We found out that the next scheduled excursion would head to the forest areas where these seeds/seedlings would be placed. I worked up a good sweat, got a little dirty, and felt I played a valuable contribution.


Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative

Two days later, I visited Chocal, a women’s chocolate cooperative in the town of Altamira that provides local women with meaningful work without having to go far from their home and families. We got to meet these employees and were shown step by step of the production process. We learned that nothing goes to waste here, as cocoa nibs are also sold and discarded shells are made into fertilizer. Our work involved tasks such as making chocolate molds and sorting and separating good beans from bad ones. With the latter, I wasn’t sure if I was picking the right ones or the wrong ones – our guide was pretty quick with going through her pile – but hoping that I didn’t make extra work for Chocal. We were mainly given about 20 minutes or so per project, but it seemed our contributions helped lightened their load.

Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship
With this excursion, I met the women who work for RePapel, a co-op which recycles discarded office paper and turns it into products such as sheets and greeting cards. These ladies were lovely, greeting us with a lively introduction, and breaking out into singing while we worked. At each station, they showed us to process from A to Z. We saw the salvaged office paper get shredded by hand (literally, these women rip paper apart), and then scraps get mixed with water to form a pulpy solution. The solution goes into a container that gives the paper its base. Once it dries out, it gets flatter. Our assembly line was going quickly, but I got to work on a few sheets. RePapel also produces handmade coasters and jewelry, but our allotted time and my slow hands didn’t get me far on this end. But the enthusiasm of the ladies of RePapel made our experience a fun one.

Student English Conversation and Learning
On our final day in Puerto Plata, my group headed to a grade-level school about 20 minutes or so from our port. Led by Entrena, my group met with students from different grades that appeared to have had previous instruction in English. We begun with a warm-up group session where we introduced ourselves, and then begun our first lesson paired up with about two or three students. I joined two other women in going over letters and numbers with two girls, and, then after a short break, two boys. We referred to our instruction manual to guide us in the lesson, but also adjusted it to fit with maybe a word or number that needed more practice. What really helped was that the students were polite and eager to learn – we even wrote in their school notebooks a mini progress report.

Wrapping Up
Fathom’s impact activities are scheduled during the morning and afternoon daily. However, it’s good to allow yourself some downtime, to rest and see the local area. Overall, I would say that Fathom is off to a good start, but I would suggest some tweaks such as more detailed explanation about the activities and perhaps allotting more time on specific tasks as supposed to doing a mix of everything. As for the ship, the Fathom Adonia features amenities including a library, spa, gym, a buffet area, two restaurants (one with a $25 per person surcharge), wine bar, and a pool/hot tub area.

If you’re interested in taking an upcoming cruise, click here for a savings discount.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend this Fathom excursion and share this discount link. However, this review is entirely of my own opinion.

Taking a Fathom Cruise to the Dominican Republic

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All images courtesy of Fathom Travel

I’ve got some exciting news to share! Next week (May 8-15) I will be a media guest on a Fathom Travel cruise to the Dominican Republic, leaving from Miami and docking in Puerto Plata.

Having launched its ship, the Adonia, in April 2016, Fathom Travel currently offers separate round-trip voyages from Miami to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Belonging to the Carnival brand, Fathom takes a different approach to ocean voyaging with a “travel with purpose” mission. While each destination differs on this aspect, passengers will either become involved in immersive cultural experiences or participate in various community projects.

Student-English-Learning

For their Dominican Republic cruises, Fathom’s choices of impact activities may extend to:

  • Visiting a women’s cooperative that produces chocolate (it’s chocolate; how could you say no to doing that!);
  • Interacting with students and adults through helping them learn English;
  • Planting trees through a reforestation and nursery program;
  • Turning recycled paper into craft projects;
  • Building projects involving the installation of water filtration systems and concrete flooring in community homes.

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While impact travel is central to Fathom’s mission, cruise excursion options also extend to tours of certain areas and popular activities such as ziplining or snorkeling. As for their Cuba cruises, Fathom broke serious ground in making history as the first cruise to sail from the U.S. to Cuba (setting off on May 1) in 50-plus years. That’s big!

On my Fathom cruise to the Dominican Republic, I will be posting as continuously as I can through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And putting a trip recap on here too. So please do follow along!

 

EscapeMaker Opens Farm Escape Pop Up Shop

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Have you heard of the term “agritourism”? Find out more by heading to South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. EscapeMaker, a company that offers ideas for local and regional trips, has opened a pop-up shop promoting agri-tourism (travel inspired by working farms or other agricultural sties) now until April 24 inside the seaport’s historic Fulton Stall Market on 207A Front Street.

Presented by Amtrak, the EscapeMaker Pop Up Shop will be open to the public Thursdays and Fridays, from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors will find information for planning vacays that will get them out into countryside areas. Details will include ideas for farm escapes, wine and craft beer trails, apple picking locations, and local getaway packages.

Along with the shop, EscapeMaker will hold three Sunday tastings of various food and wine samples inside the market and onto Front Street. They are free and run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The schedule includes:

April 10th – Local Craft Beer, Cider & More
April 17th – Local Wine, Cheese & More
April 24th – Local Farms & Family Getaways

For more info, visit this link.