Archive for February, 2009

9 Things I Learned At Mardi Gras

February 27, 2009

mardi-gras-2Having lived in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I’ve been to my share of Mardi Gras parades.  That said, I just came back from the biggest Mardi Gras weekend since Hurricane Katrina blew through The City That Care Forgot and I have to admit that I learned a few things (or at least remembered some things I’d forgotten).  In no particular order they are:

1.  New Orleans is back as a world-class destination.  While there are still many neighborhoods that remain devastated, all the things that make this town such a great place to visit—the food, the music, the friendly people—are still here and as enjoyable as ever.

2.  Everybody you meet during Mardi Gras seems remarkably happy.  If we could just find a way to bottle this joie de vivre, no one would need antidepressants.

3.  Try to explain Mardi Gras parades to someone who’s never been there (like my friend Pasquale, above) and they’ll look at you like you’re insane.  Better to just take them to New Orleans and let them experience this wonderful madness for themselves.

4.  It doesn’t matter how old you are:  The moment that first parade float rolls by you’ll be instantaneously transformed into a 10-year-old kid as you beg float riders to throw you cheap plastic trinkets.

5.  While many Mardi Gras krewes (the organizations that put on the parades) are essentially closed to outsiders, there are several that offer memberships that allow out-of-towners to ride aboard their elaborately-decorated floats.  Two of the biggest are the krewes of Orpheus (the parade Pasquale and I rode in) and Zulu.

6.  If you end up riding in a parade and need throws or are just looking for cool Mardi Gras souvenirs, go where the krewe members go: Beads By The Dozen.  Their elaborate showroom in suburban New Orleans is filled with all the cool trinkets you would have caught if it wasn’t for that 13-year-old’s quicker reflexes.

7.  Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, which is filled with parade schedules and other useful information, is a must-have reference.  Pick one up at various locations around town or order your copy online before you go.

8.  As far as I’m concerned, the 479-room Intercontinental New Orleans—which is located right on the route of many of the biggest parades and just two blocks from the French Quarter—is the place to stay during Mardi Gras.  The fact that the hotel also has comfortable grandstands out front to watch the parades is an added bonus. 

9.  The crews that clean up after the parades are amazing—you go to bed with streets littered with every imaginable form of refuse and POOF! you awake to find the place looking like nothing ever happened.

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Pachyderm Polo?

February 21, 2009

elephantpolo2Of all the mementoes hanging on the walls of my office, a simple black-and-white 8-by-10 of me riding in a celebrity elephant race many years ago is still among my favorites.

What I love about this image is the details, especially the elephant’s handler caught in a full sprint alongside my four-ton mount as we crossed the finish line.  You see, that was the day I learned that—sufficiently motivated—an elephant can outrun your average human.  To say it was an exciting ride is something of an understatement.

Which may help explain why I think the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament sounds like such an extraordinary experience.  This must-see spectacle takes place on the grounds of the Anantara Resort in Thailand’s Golden Triangle region from March 23-29, with all proceeds going to benefit the country’s National Elephant Institute.

In addition to players from more than a dozen countries chasing a white ball up and down the field with 12-foot-long mallets, the festivities include a blessing ceremony by Buddhist monks and a parade of brightly-painted pachyderms.  There will also be cultural demonstrations including traditional costumed dancers from members of northern Thailand’s hill tribes. 

To get a feel for the event, check out the video here.

Shuttle Launch Sideshow

February 19, 2009

Space Shuttle Payload Specialist Roger Crouch

Me and Space Shuttle Payload Specialist Roger Crouch

It’s one of the fundamental principles behind XTRORD.com: When it comes to extraordinary experiences, we figure you’d rather hear about them from someone who’s been there and done that

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to score a ride into outer space (not yet, anyway) so I can’t tell you what it’s like.  But I found some folks who can on a recent visit to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. 

Besides some tasty grub (thankfully not the freeze-dried stuff they feed real astronauts), the hour-long Lunch With An Astronaut program serves up a light-hearted video presentation that should answer just about every question you ever had about life aboard NASA’s space shuttles and the International Space Station.  For instance, I now know how one answers the call of nature in zero gravity (if you’re equally curious, click here).

The best part, however, is the chance to meet a real-life astronaut and hear first-hand what it’s like to go from 0 to 17,500 miles-per-hour in about six minutes.  After lunch, take a ride on the Visitor Center’s Shuttle Launch Experience simulator and you’ll have a pretty good feel for what the crew of Discovery will go through when they finally lift off from Cape Canaveral later this month.

Way More Than A Hotel

February 13, 2009

lagoon-touch-up

As someone who spends a lot of nights away from home every year, I admit I’m a little jaded when it comes to hotels.  Whether it’s a Four Seasons or a Motel 6, to my mind they’re all pretty much the same—a rectangular box with a bed, shower, and cable TV. Which makes it all the more surprising how impressed I am with the Nickelodeon Family Suites here in Orlando. 

The 777-room property is unique in a number of ways.  Not the least of which is the fact that—as far as I can tell—it’s the world’s only hotel with a theme based on a kids television network

For starters, all of the property’s rooms are suites.  While all-suite hotels aren’t that unusual, the two- and three-bedroom KidSuites that allow parents and kids to have their own space are a truly brilliant idea I’ve never encountered before.  My 10-year-old son went wide-eyed when he saw his room included bunk beds, a six-foot-tall mural of Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron character, and his own television and video game system.  As parents, my wife and I appreciated the small refrigerator, microwave, sink, and flat-screen TV in the living room, and the way the whole place looks bright, cheerful, and super clean.2-090_king_suite

As you might expect from a network that’s all about keeping kids entertained, there’s no shortage of amusements here.  Outside there are two humongous family-oriented pools that are actually mini- waterparks, complete with countless ever-watchful lifeguards and more than a dozen really cool waterslides (I admit I actually enjoyed these almost as much as my son).  There’s also a central “mall” area with kid-friendly eateries, a huge arcade, and entertainment ranging from 4-D movie theaters to family karaoke.  There’s even a “Kids Spa” where young’ns can be indulged with everything from elaborate hair braids to temporary tattoos.

I’ve stayed at several nearby Disney hotel properties over the years and, while they’re nice enough places, I’m not sure they can compare to the Nickelodeon Family Suites.  Based on my recent visit, I can honestly say that—for families with kids—this is one of the few hotels I’ve encountered that actually qualifies as an extraordinary experience.

A Memorable Mardi Gras

February 7, 2009

5Look over the list of extraordinary experiences I’ve had over the years and you might imagine it’d be hard for me to get really revved up about anything anymore. Well, let me tell you, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Case in point: I’m heading off to partake of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in a couple of weeks and I’m practically giddy about the experience I have planned. You see, while I’ve always had a blast being part of the crowd at Mardi Gras parades, this time around I’ve figured out a way to go from spectator to participant.

It all started when my friend Arthur Hardy (who publishes Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide,  the definitive guide to carnival in New Orleans) let me in on a little secret. While they don’t advertise it, a number of krewes (the organizations who put on the parades) offer outsiders the opportunity to ride on their floats for a one-time membership fee.

So if you happen to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, look for me on Float number 20 (pictured above) in the star-studded Krewe of Orpheus parade on Monday night, February 23rd. Or better yet, call the krewe’s offices (504-822-7200) to secure one of the few remaining spots in the parade and come join me in what promises to be a truly extraordinary experience.

The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades!)

February 1, 2009

sunglasses_stuffWhen I had Lasik eye surgery a couple of years ago, one of the side benefits was that I discovered the wide world of non-prescription sunglasses.  Not surprisingly, I quickly became overwhelmed with the number of choices out there (read about my current favorite set of shades here).

Enter my good friend Robert Earle Howells.  His new website SunglassesBuyersGuide.com is designed to provide answers to all those questions you may have had about frame materials and lens tints but didn’t know who to ask.

With warmer weather just around the corner (c’mon people, think positive here!), I asked Bob to share some tips that can help us all make sense out of the seemingly endless selection of sunglasses out there:

 Why did you start SunglassesBuyersGuide.com?

I’ve always appreciated any piece of gear that helps me better enjoy the outdoors. Years ago, as a writer for Outside magazine and the editor of the annual Outside Buyer’s Guide, I was fortunate enough to test all kinds of great gear including sunglasses. I always had a particular fondness for sunglasses—they enhance vision, protect your eyes, and make you look better than you really do. Even if they cost a couple hundred dollars, that’s a bargain.  Cataract surgery last year also renewed my commitment to protecting my eyes with great shades.

 Is there such a thing as an all-around pair of sunglasses, or do you recommend having different designs for different purposes?

While there certainly are multipurpose sunglasses, I suggest owning at least two pairs: one for active sports, another for casual streetwear. Protection is the priority for sports, while fashion and great optics take center stage for everyday sunglasses. For example, I love sunglasses with glass lenses—the good ones are optically brilliant—but I’d never wear them for sports, because they can shatter. It’s possible to get even more specific, because you might not wear the same sunglasses for, say, mountaineering as you would for mountain biking. You’d want very dark lenses for walking across snowy slopes, while riding a mountain bike in and out of the woods you’d want lighter, more contrasty lenses, or maybe even photochromic lenses that lighten and darken automatically.

 What are the most important features you’d recommend someone look for in a new pair of sunglasses?

Let’s call 100 percent UV protection a given. Next up in importance is the sheer quality of the lenses, their visual sharpness. That’s hard to judge at a glance, which is why I strongly recommend buying name-brand sunglasses. The major companies do the R&D, the lab work, the ongoing testing, to make sure their lenses are sharp and won’t cause eyestrain. Then comes aptness for the job: for example, sunglasses with a lot of wrap for sports where you need peripheral protection.

 What should someone expect to pay for a decent pair of shades?

Honestly, you’re taking your chances when you spend less than $100. Those inexpensive shades may seem good at first, and you congratulate yourself on your bargain-finding prowess. But wear them for hours at a time and they’re likely to strain your eyes. You might not even attribute that feeling to your sunglasses; you might just feel crummy or not refreshed after a day in the sun.  All that said, I have found some pretty good sunglasses for under a C-note, and you can find reviews of those on my site.

 What’s with all these funky lens tints?

A lot of what look like tints are actually just coatings that you see from the outside. They may or may not have a function other than to be, well, funky. It’s the base tint that counts here, however—what you see looking through, not at, the shades. Fortunately, there are only a handful of base tints, and each has a purpose. Gray and green are color-true and calming. Bronze and copper are high-contrast and great for a range of light conditions. Rose and yellow are designed for low-light conditions.

 There are enough brands and styles out there to make your head spin—can you name a handful of your favorite top-quality brands?

My favorites are the ones on my site. I don’t review junk because it’s generally a waste of time and money to deal with the kinds of sunglasses you find in discount stores or gas stations. And, sad to say, the same goes for a lot of designer sunglasses that people spend $300 or $400 for. You’re paying for a name and a look, not for good lenses. That’s not the case with the more expensive sunglasses on my site. When you fork out for Oakley, Maui Jim, Kaenon, Hobie…you get a great look and great lenses. So my advice is always to buy from companies that make sunglasses, not handbags.