Saturday, May 23, 2009

Travel social networking sites offer insider tips

Looking for travel tips and ideas from fellow vagabonds? Not surprisingly, travel-focused social networking sites are springing up all over the place.

Traveldudes is aimed at the backpacker crowd and, along with general travel tips, has numerous reviews of hostels, B&Bs and other accommodations. Members can post travel diaries as well.

Dodo is a similar site featuring travelogues, travel tips, videos and photos. Information is grouped by country, and content is particularly strong for European and North American destinations.

Both of these sites have a strong German component, but don't worry, anglophones--there are lots of English entries, too. In fact, Traveldudes has completely separate English and German sites.

One of the granddaddies of the field is Travelpod, founded way back in the dark ages of social networking in 1997, right here in Ottawa. Its main focus is travel blogs (more than 30,000 posts this week alone), but you'll also find photos and videos, too. Ottawa Business News profiled the company on its 10th anniversary.

Looking for info on your specific destination can be a bit of a fishing expedition on any of these sites. And the quality of the info varies wildly, from long and thoughtful guides to short "hey, man, the pizza here was awesome" sorts of entries. But with some patient digging, you'll probably find information that will take you far off the beaten path.

Friday, May 22, 2009

CNN Video: Joys of house swapping

CNN first aired this video on home swapping in 2005, but the tips and insights on are pretty timeless. And even though the woman profiled has a flat in Manhattan, don't think you have to have a home in a hot tourist area to swap! With a little work, you can probably find someone somewhere intriguing in the world who wants to visit your burg.

By the way, I tried valiantly to embed the video link directly into this post, but my technical skills (or the interface at, where the video is posted) failed me. Sorry for the extra step.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Recipe: Tara Farms Pecan Pie Muffins

OK, this is a first for this blog: a recipe! But when I recently stayed at Tara Farms, a bed and breakfast in Brenham, Texas, I fell in love with their pecan pie muffins (even though mine were made with walnuts, they still had a pecan pie vibe). I fell so in love, in fact, that I wrapped up the last two mini-muffins on the plate, popped them in my purse and carried them halfway across the continent so my husband could try them.

Before I jump into the recipe, though, a few words about Tara Farms.
Mia's Cottage, my home-away-from-home at Tara Farms.

Like many B&B owners in the Brenham area, Tara Farms' Tami and Troy Glasco have chosen to build a separate cottage on their 52-acre property rather than host guests in their house. "We made this decison because we like to have privacy when we travel," says Tami. It is also a handy setup for the Glascos when out-of-town relatives come to visit--in fact, they originally built Mia's Cottage to accommodate guests to their daughter's wedding in 2007.

It was my kind of place. I knew friendly help was at hand if I needed it, and breakfast magically appeared in my fridge each night, but I loved having a whole little house to myself, surrounded by fabulous gardens (the Glascos are landscapers by trade).

The view from my porch.

The homey country-style decor--china plates on the walls, white metal bedstead, and a white, pink and green colour scheme--might make some male guests feel a little out of their element, but it suited me to a T. All in all, the place was well equipped. The bathroom included both a shower and a giant soaker tub, the TV came with a decent DVD library, and the kitchenette had a microwave, sink and bar fridge.

Country-style comfort.

I had only a few minor quibbles. First, the hot water tank wasn't big enough to fill the tub. Second, there was a lovely bowl of tea bags, but I couldn't find a kettle. And third, the cottage has no phone or Internet access, although guests are welcome to use both at the main house. (Actually, the weekend getaway types from Houston and Austin who are Tara Farms' main clientele are probably just as happy to unplug for a few days.)

The Glascos also have a second B&B property in Brenham itself: a two-bedroom cottage decorated in French country style that can sleep six.

But now, yes, I promised you a recipe, and here it is. I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the muffins to go with it; to be honest, I ate most of them too fast (and the ones in my purse were a bit worse for wear by the time I got them back to Ottawa). So you'll just have to imagine how tasty they are from the ingredient list.

Tara Farms Pecan Pie Muffins

1 Cup Flour
1 Cup Light Brown Sugar (packed)
1 Cup Pecans (chopped) (you can also use walnuts)
Combine these three ingredients.
1 Egg (slightly beaten)
1 Stick Butter or Margarine (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Stir well.
Fill mini muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake at 350 for 17-18 minutes or until slightly brown around the edges. Leave in pans until cool. Makes 24-30 mini muffins.

One last note: many travel writers, myself included, do some of our research while travelling on what are known as "press trips" or "fam trips." These are trips sponsored in whole or in part by a tourism-related company: a tourist board, an airline, a hotel chain or something similar. Such trips are a point of great debate in the travel writing world, as there's always the fear that writers' objectivity will be compromised by the fact they received something free while researching their article.

I try very hard to remain objective when I'm on these trips. After all, a rave about an unpleasant place doesn't serve readers and makes me look bad. In the end, though, it's for readers to judge whether I've succeeded in remaining unbiased.

So from now on, whenever I write a post based on one of these trips, I'll include a note at the end indicating that I was on such a trip and noting who sponsored it. That way, it's all out in the open, and you're welcome to give me feedback on how well I did. And so....

I travelled to the Brenham area as a guest of the Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau.