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Monthly Archives: November 2016

7 Tips For Tackling Your First Bike Tour

Save the date and start planning

Deciding to go really is the hardest part. Setting the date (and having a rough idea of duration) helps concrete your trip, giving you a deadline to work towards. First-timers should head off during the warmer months and – unless you’re keen to channel Sir Ranulph Fiennes – pick an easy route for the first week or two. Training before your tour helps, but it’s not imperative – you’ll get fit on the road.

Buy the right kit

Invest in the essentials: a good free-standing tent, a decent touring bike, waterproof panniers (bike bags) and a cooking stove. Opt for a sturdy, steel-framed touring bike with steel front and rear racks to hold your panniers. Your bags should be hard-wearing as they’ll carry everything you need such as the tent, stove, sleeping bag and mat, electronics and clothing.

Every gram and inch counts. Opt for lightweight gear and use dry bags to compress your clothes. Resist the urge to overdo it and blow your budget on gear that might not last; real kit gems such as baby wipes, mosquito spray and chlorine tablets often cost virtually nothing.

Plan the right route for you

Wherever you’re planning to cycle, consider ditching main roads as they’re busy and often uninspiring. Countries such as the Netherlandsare renowned for their flat and bike-friendly trails, while thrill-seekers tend to make a beeline for the likes of Tajikistan and Patagonia.

Tap into regional resources and infrastructure such as Europe’s Eurovelo bike routes (eurovelo.org/routes) which offer excellent off-road rides. The USA’s Adventure Cycling Association (adventurecycling.org) and England’s Sustrans network (sustrans.org.uk) print terrific maps with alternative routes and amenity lists.

Avoid unnecessary detours

Once upon a time a wrinkled, dog-eared, hard-copy map was the ultimate bike tour companion. Now, it’s a reliable GPS or navigation app. Opt for a durable and multi-use GPS product designed with adventurers in mind.

Smartphones are also a fantastic option if you’re likely to have regular access to electricity and the internet. You can download maps that don’t just show you the best roads, but the best off-the-beaten-track routes for cycle touring. The Maps.me app is detailed, easy to use and now shows the route elevation on the bike option in most countries.

Create a budget and start saving

Bike tours can cost very little; if you’re willing to live on rice and porridge and wild-camp at every opportunity, then a budget of a few US dollars a day is achievable.

Visas, hotel stays and restaurant visits add up, but if you’re hoping for a happy medium (a lean food budget and plenty of low-cost or free accommodation with occasional splurges) then expect to spend about $15-$20 USD a day depending on the country. Factor in travel insurance and emergency money for bike repairs and kit replacements.

Set your own personal goals

World cyclist Jonathan Kambsgaro-Bennett says the question he gets asked most is how far he pedals in a day. His answer? ‘It depends on the hills, the wind, the road and about a million other things… Especially the wind.’

Setting daily distances can be tough but having a rough idea of what you want (and are able) to achieve will help you plot an itinerary. Many bike tourers average between 60km and 80km per day, depending on conditions, while those just starting out may aim for much less. Besides the weather and quality of the roads, your personal goals should also influence the decisions you make along the way – and will often push you to keep going.

Become a camping pro

Pitching a tent in the wild after a long day in the saddle can be stressful. Fortunately, fatigue often overrides fear – and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Some places welcome wild camping as long as you’re out of sight (Scotland, Iran, Japan) while others forbid it which makes a stealthy camp much tougher (Switzerland, Australia and the USA) – it’s worth being aware of the laws wherever you choose to cycle.

While a nice, secluded, flat piece of turf near a river is the goal, anything can make a fine camp spot and the key to overriding those initial fears is to keep well hidden and off private property, or to simply ask the landowners for permission to camp. Locals are often keen to help – and if you have their blessings, you’ll sleep like a baby. Check out world cyclist Tom Allen’s top tips on how to wild camp.

Explore Alexandria’s Civil War history

Indeed, this fascinating period in Alexandria’s history has been captured by the PBS drama Mercy Street (pbs.org/mercy-street), now in its second season (it airs at 8pm on Sunday nights). The story centers on two volunteer nurses – one a staunch Northern abolitionist, the other an entitled Southern belle – who duke out their philosophical beliefs. Making it even more poignant, the series is based on real-life events inspired by diaries, journals and letters of Alexandrians who experienced four years of war firsthand.

Today, many of the historical places featured in the series are open to visitors to Alexandria, with Mercy Street -related special events and exhibits mounted through the year as well as walking tours organized by Visit Alexandria. In the meantime, read on for our list of seven sites featured in this drama that TV and history buffs alike shouldn’t miss.

Carlyle House

Probably most famous for Major-General Edward Braddock’s 1755 visit during the French and Indian War, Carlyle House is an elegant colonial manse. The wealthy Green family, portrayed on Mercy Street, lived there in the mid-1800s and opened a luxury hotel on the property in 1848. When Union troops seized the hotel complex, they turned it into Mansion House Hospital.

The second floor interprets period hospital rooms, and you can read some of the patients’ letters and journals, as well as see Frank Stringfellow’s original field case. Stringfellow was a Confederate spy who went on to marry Southern belle Emma Green … what better cover than to hang out in a hospital?

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Glass bottles fill the shelves of this colonial-era apothecary shop, which George Washington knew quite well. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary remained open throughout Alexandria’s occupation during the Civil War, when the Green family of Carlyle House and the Union quartermaster stopped by for everything from liquid opium (laudanum) to dental equipment to window panes.

Head upstairs to see the shadowy, ancient compounding room where prescriptions were ground, mixed and concocted. A Mercy Street exhibit showcases Civil War–era prescriptions and remedies, and a 45-minuteMercy Street tour, offered on certain Sundays, provides additional insight.

The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection

This gracious brick hotel in the heart of town (then called the Marshall House) saw the first traces of war. On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, innkeeper James W. Jackson defiantly flew the Confederate flag from the building’s roof, proclaiming it would be removed only “over his dead body.” The moment Union troops arrived, they tore down the flag, shooting and bayoneting Jackson in the process.

Today, The Alexandrian is a beautifully restored historic hotel with a modern décor that gestures to the city’s Civil War past. Wallpaper designs draw inspiration from a Civil War-era dress pattern, and military seals and uniform buttons are represented in the hallway carpet patterns.

Alexandria Black History Museum

As a Union-controlled Southern city, Alexandria drew flocks of “contraband,” or fugitive slaves, seeking safe haven, though life still was not easy – as the storyline of Aurelia Johnson, who works at the hospital laundry, reveals in Mercy Street. Though African Americans in Union-occupied Alexandria had freedom, formerly enslaved people often lived in shantytowns, where disease was rampant and death was common. The Alexandria Black History Museum offers rotating exhibits about African Americans throughout the city’s history, with special exhibits and events providing the Mercy Street perspective.

Can’t-Miss Sights During SXSW

In spite of the changes, the festival remains firmly at the center ofAustin’s best characteristics: a hub of creativity and art, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and that ongoing title of ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ Of course, it’s no secret that the festival has moved firmly into the mainstream. McDonald’s and Bud are current sponsors and former US president Barack Obama spoke at the opening keynote in 2016.

Like it or loathe it, the massive craziness that descends upon Austin for 10 days during March has all the makings of an unforgettable time. However, whether you’re there for SXSW or not, there’s plenty to see, do and eat within walking distance of Downtown Austin.

Don’t escape Austin during SXSW. Dive headlong into the frantic, fun shenanigans and embrace the good, the bad and the weird.

What to see and do

Beat the hangover with an invigorating run around the Lady Bird Lake, just south of the Austin Convention Center. If people watching is an added incentive, we’ve heard Matthew McConaughey and cycling hero-turned-persona non grata Lance Armstrong also come by for their workouts.

Another unique Austin sight is the swarm of hundreds of thousand Mexican free-tailed bats coming out from under the Congress Ave Bridge in the evening. This is the largest urban bat colony in North America and a fascinating sight to behold. Catch it from the bridge, along the banks of Lady Bird Lake or via a boat tour.

The offbeat O.Henry Museum (austintexas.gov/o-henry-museum) celebrates the life of the city’s famed short-story writer through memorabilia and knowledgeable guides. If you’re around in May, the annual O.Henry Pun Off draws a crowd with its punny comedians.

Where to eat

Austin has a great range of international food but its strengths lie firmly in two areas: BBQ and food trucks.

Round the corner from the Austin Convention Center (and a great place to hit up if you want to avoid overpriced SXSW food vendors) is Ironworks BBQ. It may not be the most famed of them all but the location can’t be beat. Pile up the ribs, grab a local microbrew and grab a seat on the outdoor deck.

The absolute best, though, has to be Franklin BBQ, a mile north of downtown Austin. Aaron Franklin, dubbed ‘BBQ Jesus’, has been selling out of beef brisket daily since 2009. The line starts as early as 8am (doors open at 11am) but once you chow down on the melt-in-your-mouth, smokey beef brisket, you’ll understand that the hype is real. Anthony Bourdain and Obama are just some of the celebrities who’ve sampled the wares here. Not convinced? Check out Franklin’s videos.

On the food truck front, you can’t go wrong starting your day off with breakfast at the Paperboy food truck just a mile northeast of downtown. The inventive breakfast menu revolves around seasonal produce: you might tuck into sweet potato hash or goat sausage brioche sandwich.

The long wait for soft, delicious tacos is worth it at the Veracruz All Natural food truck, a mile east of downtown. Grab a refreshing, fruity, icy agua fresca while you wait.

Where to drink

Hipster, ahem, we mean specialty coffee can be found all around Austin. We dig the Arnold Palmer (the mix of cold-brewed coffee and lemonade is a great thirst quencher) at Houndstooth Coffee and the laid-back warehouse vibes at Wright Bros. Brew & Brew. At the latter, you can easily move from espresso to IPA while tapping away on your Macbook.

A Local’s Guide to Dublin’s Biggest Festival

The parade

The St Patrick’s Festival Parade on Friday is the main event for many. Starting at noon in Parnell Sq, it heads through O’Connell St and Dame St, ending at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Half-a-million people are expected, so aim to be there for 10am if you want a place at the front. If you arrive later, head towards the end of the parade route for a better chance of a prime viewing spot.

The parade lasts two hours from start to finish, but if you stay in the one spot you’ll see it all in about 45 minutes. As well as music and marching bands from all over the world, there’ll be plenty of colourful floats, dancers and costumes.

The floats aren’t always as classically Irish as many visitors expect; instead they’re colourful, carnival-style creations designed by groups from all over the country. You’ll get plenty of time to take it all in as the parade stops at various points for the marchers to show off their beats and tail feathers. When the last float finally waves goodbye, the crowd melts away, with many heading for the nearest pub.

On Sunday, there’s a free afternoon of family-friendly fun in Merrion Sq from noon with workshops, magic shows, carnival performances and music.

Let’s dance

It’s not St Patrick’s weekend without plenty of music and you’ll find plenty of spots playing traditional Irish tunes or whatever other genre takes your fancy.

The festivities kick off on Thursday 16 March at 4.30pm with an official céilí (stpatricksfestival.ie) where you can learn Irish dancing from professional dancers accompanied by traditional songs. You could carry on with a full day of dance and music in the Complex (thecomplex.ie) on Friday from 2.30pm. Brought to you by the best trad pub in Dublin, the Cobblestone, it’s a full day of lessons and music with food and drink also available. You’ll be doing the jig in no time!

Hit the pubs

Despite (or because of) its reputation, most Dubliners prefer to stay away from Temple Bar on Paddy’s Day. It’s expensive compared to other areas of the city and can get overcrowded. However, the sea of leprechaun hats is a sight to behold so why not stroll through Essex St East and soak up the atmosphere before exploring some of the best barselsewhere in the city.

Here you won’t have to battle to make your way to the bar and you’ll see a lot more of Dublin. Alternatively head to nearby Dame Ln off George’s St, where you can stroll between pubs with a pint in hand, ready to mingle.

Most Dubs leave the city centre by 6pm to retire to quieter locals or go to gigs, leaving mainly visitors to carry on the boisterous overindulgence until the bars close at 3am and the crowd spills out on the streets.

Gaelic sports and a Sunday road race

To get a glimpse into the exciting world of Gaelic games, make a date to watch the All-Ireland Club Championship finals. The All-Ireland Club Championship finals are the season’s climax, and are held in Croke Park on Friday at 2pm. Here you’ll see the most dedicated amateur athletes in the world battle it out in the ancient games of hurling and Gaelic football to bring pride to their local town. Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh won their first title last year after dominating their Antrim opponents in the first half, but since the reigning champions have already been knocked out, this year is anyone’s game.

Tickets are on sale from late February (gaa.tickets.ie) but they sell out fast so if you miss out, get close to the action and supporters inMulligan’s.

If you’d prefer not to be a spectator, dust off the cobwebs and join the 5km kilometre road race kicking off at noon from St Stephen’s Green on Sunday. You can register on the day at Mansion House or online prior to the event (msbac.ie).