My feelings exactly.

My feelings exactly.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leapin' Lizards! It's the New York Reptile Expo

Right this second, grab your phone and see if you've got anything going on Sunday, November 28. If not, and you live in the New York area, have I got a kooky family outing idea for you.

It's the New York Reptile Expo out at the Westchester County Center in White Plains. I know. You don't want a pet iguana. And reptiles aren't exactly cuddly cute little critters that make darling little children like yours swoon. So why on earth would you schlepp the family out to White Plains to look at hundreds of these scaly things, for Pete's sake? I was wondering the same thing when my friend Leila Loring--a fellow mom of boys--swore to me that the Freundlich clan would dig it big time. "No purchase necessary! You can just go and look!" swore Leila...though she admitted she did come home with a four-foot lizard that proceeded to terrorize her household. No doubt, I was about as interested in that prospect as I was about about having more frequent colonoscopies. But there was something alluring about having something somewhat amusing to do on a gray November Sunday, when it's too darned cold to run around outside, most Fall sports are done for the season, and my kids are hooked up to the Playstation as if they're on life support.


So, on the day of the big show, I packed up my extremely perplexed family and hauled them out to White Plains. What we walked into was an alternate universe--a place where latter-day Eves in tight jeans and suede booties swooned over slippery snakes that were longer than my own torso. Where children begged mommy to buy them pets that looked, essentially, like fish with legs. Where food stands didn't dish up hot dogs and hamburgers, but zip-lok bags full of frozen rats and mice.


Truth be told, the kids--and especially my husband Paul--were at first horrified. When Ben spotted the expo model wrapped in nothing more than skanty lingerie and a boa constrictor, I thought he was going to have a stroke. I was, however, smitten with the whole scene right from the start. I couldn't help eavesdropping on handholding couples as they strolled from one stand of creepy critters to the next as nonchalantly as if they were perusing sweaters at Bloomingdales. When I actually started to chat up vendors and shoppers, I was utterly hooked. "This one is a real mush. I hang him from my swing set and he swings along with the kids," gushed one burly guy, as he showed me a snake he had hidden in his backpack. "This one is the love of my life," said one middle-aged blonde as she flashed a snapshot at a vendor. "I couldn't bring myself to bury him when he died so I paid a taxidermist to stuff him. He's hanging in my apartment now." Part zoo, part sideshow, part anthropology expedition...how could anyone NOT love this place!


By the time I rounded up the rest of the Freundlichs, Paul was pretty pale. Ben wanted to get the model's phone number (just kidding). And Noah was begging, pleading, insisting upon getting a painted dragon. We left, thankfully, reptile free. And by the time we got home, Noah's sudden, desperate need for a pet reptile was easily supplanted by our fuzzy, cuddly decidedly nonreptilian dog Ringo. Next year, I fear, we might not be so lucky.

Wanna Go? Need to Know:
When to Go: The next New York Reptile Expo is Sunday, November 28, from 10 AM-4 PM. If you miss that date (or just can't get enough), there are additional NY shows in April, July, and September. The Expo also travels to New England and Long Island. Log on at http://www.reptileexpo.com/ for locations, dates, and further 411.


Getting There: If you're coming from the Montclair, NJ area, you can take the Garden State Parkway North to the exit for 287 East. Cross the Tappan Zee Bridge and proceed from there. This is a pretty trafficky drive so be prepared. I think it took us over an hour. Click here for specifics: www.reptileexpo/nydir.htm


What to Bring: An agreement in writing (just kidding, well, kind of) as to why you are going (sightseeing, pet shopping) and what you intend to bring home (nifty memories, scary lizards, lacerations). Bring lots and lots of antibacterial gel for your hands. Other bringalongs: Camera. Smelling salts.


Costs/Services: Admission charge is $10 per adult, $4 for kids 7-12, kids under 7 are free. There may very well be more than rats for snacks at the Expo but, I dunno, do you really want to eat in a giant reptile house? We pit-stopped at a diner on the way in.

Fear Factor: Shoppers are allowed, to some extent, to handle the reptiles. I guess you or your child could get bitten or strangled. At the very least you could get a nice case of salmonella. As you can see from the photos, I did get up close and personal. What can I say, it's as close as I'll come to living dangerously at this point in my life. Do what feels right for you.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Belize Part III: Luxe Lodge, Hidden Bargain

Last post left you at Lamanai Outpost, a jungly river retreat adjacent to the ancient Lamanai ruins in Belize. Up Next: Three nights at Chaa Creek, a "wildly civilized" nature lodge located in the cooler, mountainous Cayo District further to the south. Here's the scoop:

Getting There: You can shell out big bucks (and pop a few sedatives) if you want to puddle jump it to the tiny airport near Chaa Creek. We played it safe and cheap with a return boat trip down river and a van back to Belize International, where we were easily handed off to our Chaa Creek driver. From there, it was a two-hour drive to the mountainous south, a clearly more prosperous region, replete with horse and cattle ranches. The last couple of miles along a jangly dirt road led us finally to the lodge.

The Spot: Chaa Creek's got that whole "cushy wilderness resort thang" down: Neatly pressed staff trade cool drinks for dust-covered luggage when guests arrive. Artful thatch-roofed cottages nestle among riotous blooms. Stone, iguana-dotted paths lead to civilized perks like a freestanding spa, butterfly garden, and a breezy white tablecloth restaurant. And yep, there's a drop-dead gorgeous infinity pool, flanked by canopied massage tables and crisply clad chaise lounges.

Before you go rolling your eyes, let me tell you what makes this place truly likeable--and downright doable--even for us non-investment bankers: First, as gorgeous and extravagant as it is, Chaa Creek happens to also be a pioneer in sustainable eco-tourism. The owners--an American and a Brit--are long-time champions of the cause and stick by their commitment, creatively recycling waste on property and milling much of their own furniture with the help of local labor. So if you choose to indulge, you can actually feel good about being there.

Second...and this is my favorite part: While staying at the main resort is a kick-ass awesome experience for sure, there's a far-less-publicized, and more affordable alternative just a 10-minute walk down/up river along a well-groomed trail. Called Macal River Camp, it's basically 10 treehouse-like casitas clustered around an immaculate central bathhouse, convivial bonfire pit, and a rustic Belizean dining room. Since Macal River Camp is owned by the Chaa Creek folks, guests who stay there get to take take advantage of the resort's amazing amenities...for a fraction of what the fancy folks are paying. Granted, this option ain't for everyone. We didn't stay there because my workaholic husband puts up with my crazy camping stuff all year long and I knew he craved some comfort (and just a bit of privacy) on this go round. But if you're open to a more communal, close-to-nature experience--and want a lovely home-base in the Cayo region--Macal might be a fantastic option for you. I personally would have preferred staying at Macal because the vibe was so much hipper and friendlier than at the main resort. And, as you know, I'm just soooo hip and friendly.

The Digs: Rooms at the main resort are ripped straight from Conde Nast Traveler. Cool stucco walls, clay tile floors, double-sheeted queen and king beds, handwoven textiles, and a huge bathroom with an array of eco-friendly unguents are standard. Our digs even had a separate, landscaped outdoor shower. (Great for late-night hi-jinx when you're sharing digs with kids). Flower petals sprinkled around the bathroom and towels twisted into swan shapes on the bed had me looking around for errant honeymooners. Not that I'm complaining but it did feel a little bizarre sharing our tropical sin bin with two adolescent boys.

As for Macal--don't imagine muddy pup tents at some skeevy KOA campground. These are permanent structures, simply but prettily appointed with colorfully covered single beds (some casitas accommodate 4), private hammocked porches, and screened windows. What they don't have is plumbing, electricity (guests use kerosene lamps), Four-Seasons-caliber mattresses, or glass on the windows (any romance has to be low key here). If I had a "camp" like this in Lake George, I'd stay there year round.

Action Plan: Chaa Creek's 365-acre private nature preserve is there for you to explore and enjoy in numerous ways, mostly for no additional charge. There are guided hikes, medicine walks, canoes to paddle down the river, bird watching tours, horses to ride, mountain bikes to borrow (good luck...the trails are so vicous I ended up walking mine the entire way), and a butterfly garden and natural history center worth checking out. The really serious planning takes place each night, when guests take turns sitting down with the very official white-garbed concierge to sign up for the off-site excursions. This is where you spend real money (some trips cost as much as $100 or more per person), but this is also where it's truly worth it. We opted for a half day at the nearby ruins of Xunantunich, a half-day canoe paddle into stalactite/stalagmite riddled Barton Creek Cave, and the full-day Actun Tunichil Muknal adventure, which took us on an hours-long cave hike through waist-high water to ancient Maya sacrifice grounds. Truly, one of the all-time nutsiest adventures we've had as a family. There's also ziplining at a nearby resort (which seemed like a touristy knock off of Costa Rica); cave tubing; an excursion to Tikal in Guatemala, and more. Truly, if I could only call one place in Belize home base, Chaa Creek would be it. There really is THAT much to do.

Grub: Chaa Creek, like many upscale properties in Belize, did a diligent job of serving up the kind of fare that high-ticket travelers might want. There's just something about eating braised lamb shanks and creamy fettucini when I'm in the middle of Belize....at a wilderness lodge...that doesn't work for me. I crave local food. And therein, I'm guessing, lies the rub. Belizean food, while tasty, is pretty simple and can get monotonous. It always seems to be some type of stewed meat or poultry and rice and beans. And I guess high-end hotels don't think their guests want that. We, however, preferred simple and local and thus took most of our meals at Macal River Camp, where traditional food and local beer are served up as a matter of course and guests are happy to devour it.

The 411: Three nights at Chaa Creek was about all we could afford, time-wise and money-wise. But given our druthers, we might have stayed a little longer. The semi-all-inclusive high season package rate for our cottage, which had two double beds and a day bed, ran about $ 215 per adult per night; $55 for each child. Another option is to pay a flat nightly room rate of $300 (which includes breakfast); order box lunches from Chaa Creek ($12/pp) or pick up lunch in town en route to your excursion; and eat dinner ($12/pp) at Macal River Camp. Rates at the main resort decline considerably after May 1 and Chaa Creek also offers affordable packages. Transfers from Belize International to the resort are $ 150 for 1-4 people. At Macal River Camp, the charge is $55 per adult, including breakfast and dinner. Kids under 6 no charge; 6-11, $ 12.41; and 12-18, $ 24.63. That's right. What a deal. Could make a camper out of the best of us, huh? For info and rezzies go to www.ChaaCreek.com







Friday, October 1, 2010

Getaway on the Lagoon: Belize Part II

As promised in my last post--which detailed WHY Belize is such an easy and amazing family adventure--I'm giving you the lowdown on the three great places we stayed during our trip.

Here's the scoop from the first leg, which took us from Belize International Airport up to a far flung lodge on the New River:

Lamanai Outpost:
Getting There: A driver was waiting for us when we arrived at the Belize International Airport, quickly whisked us into his van, and drove us about an hour to a jungly but tidy landing on the New River. A way cool--and kid-pleasingly fast-- little motor boat then snaked us up the river for about an hour to the Outpost.

The Spot: Directly adjacent to the lush Lamanai ruins, Lamanai Outpost truly feels like an Outpost. About 20 thatch-roofed cabins crouch among the palms, overlooking an enormous, lake-size lagoon and acres of rustically tended plantings. Paths lacing the property lead to a beautiful open-air pavillion, where down-to-earth guests hang at the bar, eat meals, and sign up for daily activities.

Our Digs: Our woodsy cabin--hewn from local materials-- struck that perfect balance between comfort and rusticity: No A/C, TV, or shiny tiles, but good linens on the bed, screened and louvered windows, a stylish yet lowkey bathroom, and our own private little porch with chairs for reading. The coolest amenity: A troop of howler monkeys who inhabited the overhead canopy of trees. Waking at sunrise to their insane, gutteral shrieks rates as one of the most mystical and hilarious experiences we've had together.

Action Plan: Each day, we could sign up for two activities--which was generally enough to keep us busy and provide some time to just hang out at the cabin or swim and sun off the river dock. These included sunrise canoeing (think birds, birds, birds) and spotlight safaris on land or on water (think bats, scorpions, crocs). We toured the neighboring Lamanai Maya ruins in the early morning with a guide who knew just how to engage the guys and how to avoid the daily cruise ship crowds. We zipped out on an airboat in the pitch black (the guys were blown away by how cool these things are) and helped preservationists tag baby crocodiles. We took a guided "medicine walk," and learned about trees and plants that traditional Belizeans use to treat everything from anemia to athlete's foot. One afternoon, our guide walked with us into the nearby village, where the guys helped the cooks at a small restaurant grind hominy and make chicken tamales --I think the simple, Belizean meal we had there was the best we had on the trip.

Grub: Since there ain't that much else around, guests generally eat all their meals under the gorgeous thatch canopy of the central lodge. The food is okay--beats me why they're serving up heavy, American style meals in the middle of the tropics. But the waitpeople are all very accommodating and the kitchen is pretty good about whipping up something to placate picky kids and health-conscious parents.

The 411: Three nights at the lodge was plenty for us. After that, you might have to start repeating daily activities. But hey...if you like just chillin' at a remote river outpost, you might want to stay longer. All-inclusive rates--which even cover transport from and to the airport--start at about $260 per adult/$80 per kid from December--mid-April. The beauty part: From mid-April -December, those numbers drop to $149 per adult/$55 per child. A Screamin' Deal we happily took advantage during the kids' spring break. The weather was perfect. And yes, there's Internet in the main lodge. For rezzies and more go to www.lamanai.com. Or email me and ask!