Monday, November 7, 2011

The coolest place you've never thought of as cool: Boise, Idaho

A stop along the Boise River bike trail
There is a place where you can throw on a floppy sun hat, go for a bike ride along the river, hit up a bustling farmers’ market and have a leisurely lunch featuring fresh-caught fish, locally brewed beer and local wine.

And it’s not California. It’s Boise - as in Idaho.

Let’s compare this small western outdoor mecca to its more well-known and oft-touted like-minded cities across the country.

Boise is like Boulder, Colorado, but less expensive. It’s like Asheville, North Carolina, but more sunny. It’s like Bend, Oregon, but less touristy.

I recently visited Boise with my husband as a launching-off point to explore the beautiful, wild Sawtooth mountains, and we were won over by the city’s charms. Here are a few of my favorite things about Boise:

Bicycles parked in downtown Boise
  1. Breakfast at Goldy’s – It’s yum times six – six for the number of potato selections you have to accommodate your fresh omelet. The red flannel hash is a mish-mash of beets, bacon and potatoes. It’s a fantastic and hearty breakfast to kick off a day of outdoor exploring. One mimosa on the side never hurt anyone.
  2. Bikes galore! – This is one bicycle-friendly town. Families, teenagers, seniors, kids: Cycling around town is not a hip or earth-conscious thing to do. It’s just a way of life. Bike lanes abound and drivers are accustomed to sharing the road. We rented bikes at Idaho Mountain Touring, which is also where I got my flowery floppy sunhat for frolicking around town.
  3. Outside dining – I love sitting outside under the sun eating food from local farms and rivers and people watching. Boise has an abundance of restaurants with outdoor seating all lining pedestrian-friendly streets bustling with perfect people-watching characters,
    People watching score: roller derby team in Boise
    especially on a Boise State football game day. At Bittercreek Alehouse and Red Feather Lounge, you get a taste of the local cuisine and your pick of local craft beers and wines from Idaho, Washington and Oregon. I found some eateries in Boise to be a little behind the times on my dining handicap – gluten free – but it seems to be trending in the right direction. One good option is new restaurant Fork, as in farm to fork dining. Gluten free beer on the menu and tasty food.
  4. Boise Co-op – Scrap the above-mentioned gluten awareness problem, because it does not apply here. This adorable green grocer is teeming with organic, sustainable, local foods and it has one of the best selections of gluten-free beer I’ve ever seen. I finally got to try the pale ale from Boulder-based New Planet Beer.
  5. Foothills – Imagine cool rolling foothills with colorful wildflowers and far-reaching views of western terrain. Perfect for trail running or mountain biking in the morning and hiking with dogs and kids in the afternoon. And it’s right in Boise’s backyard.
Miles and miles of hiking trails start from this Boise park.
Bottom line, Boise is an awesome, affordable trip and a perfect base camp for exploring the Sawtooth mountains or launching a road trip adventure to unbeatable destinations like Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons in neighboring Wyoming.
One warning: Be prepared for seriously friendly people in Idaho. Like airport security officers striking up conversations about football (with my husband who knows nothing about football) and skateboarding teenagers stopping in a parking lot to ask how your trip was and where you are from – without a hint of irony or sarcasm.
Like I said, a charming place.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I heart Idaho and so should you

Hidden Shangri-La, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Though its license plates ridiculously tout “Famous Potatoes,” Idaho has way more to brag about than its tasty taters. Let me make my pitch: Idaho is one of the wildest, most jaw-droppingly gorgeous locales I’ve encountered in my travels to wilderness destinations in the United States. And it's a seriously affordable trip.

The jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range, part of the Rocky Mountains, cut across a blue sky and go from pale rocky slate in the daytime to orange-hued behemoths as the sun sets. The alpine lakes that dot the Sawtooth backcountry are almost Caribbean turquoise in color and provide countless opportunities to take Ansel Adams-esque photographs.

Alpine Lake campsite, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho
Nature is a total bargain. For a backpacking trip into the Sawtooth mountains, one night’s stay on a rocky perch overlooking a placid lake surrounded by picturesque mountains will run you about… nothing. Wilderness permits are free, though you do need a tent, sleeping bag and a few other camping supplies. And you may need to pay a fee to park at the trailhead. Still far cheaper than one night on the town in New York City or a day in a Caribbean resort. 

Be forewarned, when people ask you where you are going on vacation, and you say in all seriousness and with a straight face, “We’re going to Idaho,” be prepared for funny looks, polite and confused nods and, in the case of my editor, retorts about Idaho being a horrible state for allowing near-limitless wolf hunting. Which is kind of horrible.

Baron Lakes, Sawtooths

I didn’t see any wolves on my trip, or grizzly bears for that matter. Wolves and grizzlies stick to the eastern side of that state where it borders Wyoming and turns into Yellowstone Nation Park. So good news, the Sawtooths are grizzly-free, though the black bears are common. Just hang your food, don’t sleep with macaroni and cheese in your tent and don’t go messing with mama bears. I only saw one bear on my trip and it was inside a metal bear trap back at the Redfish Lake campground where too many careless people left food out. The rangers lured the bear into the trap with a piece of cake and some watermelon rinds. It was a humane trap and the bear was carted off to some more distant location to return to the wilderness, probably in search of more tasty cake and watermelon.

Wine at 8,500 feet, yum.
Once in the wilderness, the possibilities are endless: hiking, rock climbing, games of cards by the campfire, mountains to climb, frigid lakes for swiming, hearty lentil soup to cook, wine to drink if you lug it up the trail (which of course we did.)
Cooking lentil soup

And when you’ve had your share of breathtaking mountain views and impossibly starry nights, pack up, head out and treat yourself to a luxurious and incredibly inexpensive weekend in the way cool, totally under-rated small town of Boise. (Stay tune for my next post about this awesome bike-friendly, walkable college town with a river running through it.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A call of the wild not to fear

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
It’s been a summer of wild animals. A mountain lion in Greenwich. Two grizzly bear attacks – one on a group of teenage boys on a wilderness trip in Alaska, another that killed a man in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. And now it’s the Discovery Channel’s infamous Shark Week, sure to coincide with an actual shark attack somewhere in Florida or Australia or New Zealand. 

Now I’m planning my backpacking trip to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho – a giant swath of mountainous, wildflower-strewn, snow peak-dotted backcountry that is home to hundreds of species of wild life. Idaho has grizzlies, but mostly in the part of the state that borders Yellowstone. Still, the Sawtooths are home to plenty of other awesome animals, from mountain lions and black bears to the more harmless mountain goats and elk. I’ve camped all over – up in the mountains near Aspen by Conundrum Hot Springs, in the eastern Sierra, down in a swamp in Louisiana scared of creeping alligators. (I should have been more worried about mosquitoes and ticks, which got me plenty.)

Conundrum Hot Springs trail, near Aspen, Colorado
I always get a little nervous at night, curled up in my sleeping bag with only the nylon wall of my tent separating me from the great outdoors and all the creatures that roam there at night. Thinking that at any moment a black bear is going to tear through the tent and….

But most likely, it’s not gonna happen. Despite all the hype surrounding wild animal attacks, the chances of actually having a dangerous run-in with a bear/lion/shark/rattlesnake/swarm of killer bees is actually quite low.

Consider the odds.

In 2010, there were 79 shark attacks worldwide, with six fatalities.

In the past 100 years, just more than 50 people died from black bear attacks in North America.

Mountain lion
Since 1890, 23 people in North America were killed in attacks by mountain lions.

In the past 60 years, there were 22 people killed in unprovoked alligator attacks in Florida.
Then consider:

In 2009, more than 30,000 people died in car crashes.

So it’s totally safer to get out of your car, hike into the wilderness and camp out under a canopy of treetops and twinkling stars. 

But it's never a bad idea to bring some bear repellent spray. 

By the way, congrats to David Streever for winning a free FroyoWorld gift certificate on last week's giveaway! (And big thanks to FroyoWorld for the generous offer!) No prizes this week, but would love to hear your wild animal encounters.

Friday, July 29, 2011

This weekend: Get lost in a field of sunflowers

It’s the Lyman Orchards sunflower maze. Follow the path as it meanders through three acres of butterfly-friendly big-faced yellow flowers. Think autumn corn maze except at the end you pick blueberries or peaches instead of pumpkins and apples.

Admission to the maze is $10 for ages 13 and up; $5 for ages 4 to 12; free for children 3 years and younger. If you get there early, $5 gets you a ride up in a hot air balloon for a bird’s eye view of the maze. (Just this weekend for the balloon.) And all proceeds from the balloon ride go toward a good cause, the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

More information about the maze here and map to Lyman Orchard below.

Oh and still time to enter the contest for free FroyoWorld goodness! Check out my previous post... ends today!

View Lyman Orchards Sunflower Maze in a larger map

Friday, July 22, 2011

Beat the heat -- And win tasty, cold FroyoWorld goodness!!

OK, so this blog is all about going outside and being active and doing fun things. But sometimes – like when it’s 95 degrees outside and there is a soupy layer of asthma-inducing ozone invading the area – you’ve got to take it inside.
Luckily, there are plenty of fun and active (or semi-active) things to do in doors around here. These are my ideas for getting OUT of the hot sun and IN to the air conditioning for some good times.

  1. Hit up the climbing gym!
There’s one right in New Haven, guys. It’s called CT Rock Gym. And there are a couple in the area – Prime Climb in Wallingford is awesome too. You can rent shoes and a harness, take a lesson and get on the walls. It’s safe. It’s fun. And it gets you pumped. And there is no need for bug spray.

  1. This is going to seem out of place, but it’s not really: Free art galleries at Yale University. Yes, I said free.
Mother and Child, Picasso
The Yale University Art Gallery and Center for the British Arts are two of the best kept secrets in New Haven. Both are on Chapel Street between High and York. At the Art Gallery, you can view works by world-famous artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Hopper, Warhol. At the British gallery, check out hundreds of paintings, sculptures, prints and rare books and manuscripts. Workout-wise, you’re not likely to get the same flash pump you might get from “sending” an overhanging 5.10 at the climbing gym, but there are plenty of stairs to scale at these art galleries.

BONUS: After the galleries, stop by FroyoWorld Frozen Yogurt Lounge on High Street for a tasty frozen yogurt treat. Cool off with creative flavor concoctions like peach tea tart, kissed cherries and mango swirl. It’s right around the corner from the Yale Center for British Arts. (Read to the bottom to find out how to win FREE FroyoWorld goodness.)

  1. This one’s obvious: indoor swimming pools.
The Soundview YMCA in Branford is a great family choice. Day passes are $10 for adults or $8 for kids. Make sure to check the Soundview pool schedule for what times are best for family fun or swimming laps. Kids in New Haven can find cool things to do at the New Haven YMCA Youth Center on Howe Street. Membership to the youth center is $45 a year and gives kids access to an indoor swimming pool, indoor basketball hoops and a game room. For more information, call the Soundview YMCA at 203-481-9622 and the Youth Center at 203-776-9622.

  1. Yoga
So this one might not cool you down, because yoga studios keep it pretty toasty to boost your flexibility. But you stay out of the sun nonetheless and can get your heart rate up without choking on ozone. Here are a few local places to check out: Fresh Yoga, Bikram Yoga New Haven, Breathing Room, and Balanced Hot Yoga Studio.

  1. Last but not least: the public library.
Sawtooth mountains, Idaho
New Haven Free Public Library may not be the best place for active adventure. But it provides the next best thing: Access to hundreds of books to plan your next outdoor adventure. I plan on stopping by the library to check out some books for a backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains I hope to take this August.

Now I want to hear from you: What are you and your family doing to beat the heat this summer? And here’s an incentive, the nice people of FroyoWorld have offered up $10 worth of gift certificates for their yummy yogurt treats. To be entered for a chance to win, just comment here about your idea for summer adventure or recommend this blog on Facebook! I will pick one name at random to win the prize. While you’re at it, check it out FroyoWorld’s Facebook page and give them a friendly “like.” Cheers!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A challenge: Bike to work with me

I broke up with my bike a while back, but we are thinking about getting back together.

It’s a basic Trek mountain bike that I bought new for $250 when I was in grad school at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2003. When the bike was stolen over Christmas break that year, I bought the same bike at the same store and took it back home. 

There is a long, winding bike path that runs along Boulder Creek from the east end of the city all the way west and into Boulder Canyon, the gateway to amazing wilderness and snow-capped mountains. 

The city and its drivers are very bike-friendly. A lot of the streets have designated bike paths and drivers are pretty courteous about sharing the road with their non-motorized friends. My bike got me to class, the grocery store, my newspaper internship and the hiking trails of beautiful Chautauqua Park.

And my bike travels.

I’ve lugged it to Moab, Utah, for ungraceful attempts of beginner slick-rock trails. I’ve ridden it on the beach in Florida, to vineyards in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, along the coast of Maine.

And I still have that bike. It’s right here in New Haven, sitting in the back of my garage covered in spider webs and collecting dust. 

Shame on me.

I admit it. I’m scared of riding in traffic. It seems like there are a good number of people in New Haven who drive like maniacs, think bikes belong on sidewalks and are not of the “share the road” mindset.

But that is changing.

Thanks to the strong cycling advocacy community in New Haven, which has been working with the city to promote safer roads for cyclists and pedestrians alike, things are looking up. One of the catalysts for change is Elm City Cycling, a nonprofit bike advocacy organization with 400-plus members in and around New Haven. The city itself through its Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking is supporting the cause with its Street Smarts campaign and initiatives like the new Smart Cycling handbook.

Elm City Cycling is partnering with the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop to put on the monthly “Bike to Work Breakfast” starting at 7:30 p.m. every third Friday of the month at Pitkin Plaza, on Orange Street between Chapel and Court. The idea is to bike to work, meet some cool people, have good conversation and enjoy coffee and baked goods from Bru CafĂ©.

So I am calling on fellow bike-to-work newbies to join me this Friday in greasing up our bikes, strapping on our helmets and heading to Pitkin Plaza. Then, if you’d be so kind, I’d love to chat about our experiences biking to work and write about it in a future blog!

So join me!! If you're in, comment on this blog, email me at or tweet me @abbegsmith.

For tips on getting safely to work, check out Elm City Cycling’s “New Riders and Safety” link.