Friday Photo: What Lurks Beneath North Dakota

Last summer, I went to the badlands of North Dakota in search of ancient fossils for The New York Times. I came back with more dinosaur knowledge than an entire Boy Scout troop, a renewed love of wide open spaces and an existential appreciation of our fleeting place in time. You can read all about the state’s public fossil digs and how you can play paleontologist for the day on the cover of this Sunday’s travel section.

Friday Photo: The Northern Lights

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Arctic on assignment when someone casually announced to an entire restaurant that the Northern Lights were outside. Everyone in the restaurant bolted, which was no small feat when dozens of people have to put on special snowsuits, boots, hats… and rifles, to scare off any prowling polar bears.

Outside, mesmerizing streaks and swells of bright green lit up the pitch black sky, morphing and flowing into different shapes. They were gorgeous. Every few minutes, they’d disappear and the whole world would go dark. Sometimes they’d come back, but eventually they all faded away.

I’d never seen the Northern Lights in person, so I didn’t realize that this was a particularly spectacular showing. Over the next week, I met plenty of people who woke up in the middle of the night to wait outside in sub-zero temperatures just to see more lights. They never came back, outside of a small whisper one evening.

Here’s the thing about the Northern Lights: they’re usually there, but you can’t see them unless the conditions are perfect, so they’re considered rare. Humans are funny creatures. It’s hard for us to trust that there’s something amazing right in front of us when we don’t have proof, but once we experience something spectacular and it goes away, we can’t believe we didn’t know what we had the whole time.

Miles and Miles: 2016 Year in Review

I’m not on the “I hate 2016” bandwagon. It was definitely frustrating at times, but in my personal and professional life, 2016 was great. I have a lot to be thankful for and I achieved several bucket list goals – but you’ll have to wait awhile to hear more, because I’m superstitious and I don’t want to jinx any of it.

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The year started out with a 2,600-mile road trip from NYC to Natchez, Mississippi and back (so Seamus could come along, of course) which set the tone for the next 12 months. A serious knee injury (and a rigorous 3x/week physical therapy schedule) grounded me for several months this year, but then fate stepped in and sent me on a crazy amount of long-haul flights for work.

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In 2016, I flew 84,627 miles across five continents. My longest flight was 16 hours, on one of the world’s longest routes (JFK to Johannesburg). My shortest was 10 minutes (on a tiny little bush plane in Botswana).

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In short, here was my year by the numbers:

Continents visited: 5

Countries visited: 8

New countries visited: 6 (Philippines, Botswana, Netherlands, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Chile)

States visited: 14

New states visited: 2 (Oregon, North Dakota)

 

Here’s to an amazing 2017 for everyone.

Matilda, the Algonquin Cat

At Christmastime, The Algonquin Hotel is as glittery and festive as the rest of the city, with its ceiling-high Christmas tree, champagne flutes, jolly revelers and decorative garlands. However, there’s a little reminder of summer etched onto those historic walls if you look close enough.

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It all started back in August, when Matilda became the star of her very own children’s book, Matilda, The Algonquin Cat. The three-year project was announced at Matilda’s annual birthday party gala, where I met the author Leslie Martini.

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What Eloise is to The Plaza, Matilda is to The Algonquin – except Matilda is a real-life glamour puss who currently lives on the property (and occasionally acts as the hotel concierge). The Algonquin has had a cat in residence since the 1930s, when a stray wandered through the hotel doors and made himself at home. The current famous feline, Matilda, has been living in the hotel since 2010. The book takes readers along for a day in Matilda’s life exploring the hotel. There are some nods to notable past guests – like the Texas real estate mogul who proposed to his girlfriend with the hotel’s famous $10,000 martini – and some odes to famous regulars – like Al Hirschfeld and John Barrymore.

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The artist, Massimo Mongiardo, styled his illustrations based on the very first issue of the New Yorker. (The Algonquin was a favorite destination for the magazine’s writers.) This is the coloring book version, a favorite of adults even more so than kids. There’s also a hard cover and a soft cover book for sale at the hotel.

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The books were some of the many prizes auctioned off at Matilda’s birthday, helping to raise over $10,000 for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Matilda’s birthday gala. You might recognize some fur-miliar (sorry, had to) faces from last year. The theme this year was “Through the Decades,” an ode to some of The Algonquin’s most famous celebrity regulars and some notable children’s book characters.

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There was Al Hirschfeld, Michael Feinstin, John Barrymore, Robin Hood and more.

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Hamlet took the “not to be” to heart and had a nap, while Joe DiMaggio only wanted to be petted.

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Some humans even got in on the act.

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It coincided nicely with the Broadway revival of Cats, which is just around the block.

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Leslie got her inspiration for the book from her childhood experiences at the Algonquin. Her mother used to take her to the hotel when they visited New York so they could see Matilda. She now has ragdoll cats of her own. The idea for the book came from her daughter, who commented once when her cat was being cranky that she must be mad that she’s not Matilda who gets to live in a hotel. For three years, the book was shuffled to different editors and publishers who insisted that Leslie create a different story arc so it would be more fantastical for children. She stayed true to her vision, portraying the whimsical (but true) days in Matilda’s already fantastical life, and it worked out perfectly.

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In October, the illustrations went up on the walls. One of Leslie’s favorites shows the special bond between Matilda and Hadley (who is really Alice, the dedicated Chief Cat Officer of the Algonquin).

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I like this one, because if you’ve ever lived with a cat this has absolutely happened to you at some point. I also love the illustration of Matilda consulting with the hotel chefs. They cook her special meals on holidays – and of course, Christmas is just around the corner.

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Friday Photo: Beneath the Andes in Chile

I spent the past week biking a few hundred miles around Chile, going from Santiago to the Pacific coast and then into Valparaiso and the wine regions. I’ve done plenty half-day bike tours but this was my first long-term biking experience of any kind. (I don’t even own a bike, and the last one I owned had rainbow streamers on the handles.) I met some passionate and inspiring people, learned a lot, ate endless amounts of avocados and even blended my own wine at one of the country’s oldest vineyards.

I only saw the middle part of the country yet I still can’t pick a favorite area. The coast is naturally spectacular, but its swanky mansions make it even more intriguing. Santiago has beautiful colonial architecture, while Valparaiso has street art at high altitudes. Then there’s the countryside, with its eucalyptus forests, beautiful horses and well-dressed farmers.

I chose this photo because Chile wouldn’t be Chile without the towering Andes Mountains, which are so massive that they barely show up in photos. Everywhere I went, the ghostly Andes were off in the distance, taking it all in.

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Discovering the Tartan Day Parade

Several years ago, I lived in Williamsburg with my Scottish roommate, Shona. We pottered around the city every weekend, checking out shops and museums and whatever else was happening.

One April, we were on our way to Central Park when we spotted a group of bagpipers in kilts hanging out on a cross street. This got our attention, but bagpipes and kilts aren’t as strange as you’d think in New York. Then we noticed that the police had barricaded part of Sixth Avenue. With street fairs happening every weekend, this isn’t that unusual. It was only when we noticed people waving Scottish flags and a band of terriers waddling around that we had to stop and ask some questions.

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It was the Scotland parade, which is officially called the Tartan Day Parade – but I call it the Scottie parade… for obvious reasons.

Once you see a group of Scottish terriers waddling down the street in unison, their little legs scurrying as fast as they can go beneath their furry skirts, you won’t remember anything else.

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Tartan Week, New York City’s annual celebration of all things Scottish, has taken off in recent years – but the parade remains completely manageable (for now). That first year Shona and I went, there were so few spectators there that we could pet the dogs while they took a break and the bagpipers stopped mid-parade to invite us to the pub. There are crowds now, but not the normal crush of people.

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Plenty of spots to stick your nose out through the bars, if you so choose.

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This year, Seamus and I hung around the side street line up – which happened to be outside of the pet-friendly Algonquin Hotel. It was a typical Scottish day weather-wise (read: rainy) so I’ve mixed in some sunny photos from last year. The Westies started turning brown from mud, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. (And it didn’t stop a crowd from trying to catch a glimpse of the cast of Outlander outside the hotel.)

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I bring Seamus in to watch the festivities each year. It has three things he loves: other dogs, parades and bagpipes. Yes, dogs hear two times the frequencies as humans and this guy somehow loves the sound of bagpipes wailing at him. I guess it’s in his blood.

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He’s quite the little ambassador, greeting strangers and posing for photos. (Does Tartan Week need an ambassadog by any chance?)

I’m biased, but I think they’re the highlight of the parade. I’m not alone in my Scottie and Westie obsession – when the dogs start prancing down Sixth Avenue (rarely in a straight line and rarely without getting distracted), you can hear a collective “Oooh!” from the crowd followed by pointing and hysterical laughter. They are truly funny little creatures.

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Every single day of Seamus’s life, a stranger has stopped to see him. He stars in every AirBnBer’s photographs. People will actually pull their cars over to ask questions about him and pet him. I can’t confirm this, but thanks to one particular group of exchange students I am positive that he’s big in Japan. Every week, like clockwork, the street cleaner yells out, “How could anyone ever be sad looking at that face?” I agree, of course (because he’s the best), but most of the time I see Seamus from high above so I don’t quite get the full effect. Watching the terriers waddle and scurry down Sixth Avenue like little furry bumper cars on a mission is truly a sight to behold.

Have you ever been to the Tartan Day Parade? Will you go next year?

 

 

 

Friday Photo: The Badlands of North Dakota


Hello from western North Dakota, where I’ve spent the past week exploring. If you were one of the many people who thought North Dakota was flat and full of fields, this photo is for you. The landscape throughout this part of the state is grand, jagged and rolling. (Make sure to enlarge the photo so you can get a good look at the details.)

Friday Photo: Reflections from Xugana Island, Botswana

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If you follow me anywhere online,* you know I just got back from Botswana. I have never been so excited to write about a country. Every day was an adventure full of unbelievable animals and some of the nicest, smartest people I’ve ever met while traveling. I have a ton of photos to share, but I wanted to start with this one, of Xugana Island.

Sometimes, as a photographer, you just really love a photo even though it won’t have the most mass appeal. This is a silhouette of the island in the Okavango Delta right after sunset. The waters of the delta are bursting with life – some of it expected, like giant crocodiles, and some of it very bizarre, like aquatic antelopes. Even so, this part of the delta gets very, very still. During the day, the sky reflects off of the surface like a mirror, creating very surreal alternate universe where everything is upside down.

Botswana is a lot like this photo: dramatic, beautiful, otherworldly, quiet. Communing with lions and elephants out in nature, with no other humans around, makes you question reality every so often. And that’s why I like this image: it is calming and serene, but you can’t quite tell where life begins and ends.

*(Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)

Friday Photo: A man and his dog in the Arctic Circle

I mentioned this man in a recent article for the Boston Globe, and here’s the proof that he exists. I can spot a dog from a mile away; I noticed the Norwegian man and his dog from the ship’s balcony. As soon as we docked in Finnsnes, I went to check it out.

I wound up with way more questions than answers. How does someone find a pink dog helmet in the Arctic Circle? Why does a motorcycle company make pink dog helmets in the first place? Does the dog like her goggles? Does she like the motorcycle? Is that a cape?! Why is this man so impeccably groomed? Are they going somewhere afterwards?

He wasn’t much of a talker, but he did mention that he does this every time the ferry docks because the dog enjoys it.

If you lived in the Arctic Circle, this would all make perfect sense.

Finnsnes man and his dog Arctic Circl

 

 

Friday Photo: Rainbows in Innsbruck

I have gotten caught in more rainstorms than I can count. When it started to pour high up in the Alps of Innsbruck, Austria, I ducked into a shopping center that had a top floor bar with an observation deck. At one point, the whole bar abandoned their drinks and rushed outside to the deck, where we were greeted by the most spectacular double rainbow I’ve ever seen.

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Definitely worth getting caught in the rain.

 

Happy Fur-th day, Matilda

Normally, when the cops show up to a birthday party, it’s time to go home. Then again, normally the birthday girl is a human.

If you were out last night in Times Square, you might have noticed an eclectic crowd of cats and cops wandering into the Algonquin Hotel to celebrate Matilda’s birthday.

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Matilda, the Algonquin’s resident feline, is arguably the most famous cat in New York. Her annual birthday bash is a highly coveted ticket – general admission sold out in a day, with 100% of the proceeds going to the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals.

The story of “The Algonquin Cat” is a New York legend. Back in the 1920s, a tabby cat wandered down 44th Street into the Algonquin Hotel lobby, where he stayed. Ever since “Hamlet” set up shop, the hotel has had an in-residence feline mascot.

Matilda came from the North Shore Animal League, so she very generously uses her birthday as a chance to give back to her less fortunate fellow felines.

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This year, Matilda awarded four members of the NYPD’s new Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad for their work saving New York City’s cats. This new unit took over cruelty investigations when the ASPCA shut down their New York City law enforcement branch. Each officer had a special cat rescue story.

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Right before a huge snowstorm this past winter, Detective Lisa Bergen got a call about a cat and her newborn litter of kittens living precariously underneath a building. It took several hours in freezing temperatures, but she successfully coaxed all of them out.

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Officer John Passarella made headlines when he rescued a Brooklyn kitten trapped in a car engine this past June.

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Also in June, Officer Sean Ryan spent an hour under a Queens tow truck trying to dislodge a kitten. (June was a rough month for cats.)

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Last but not least, Officer Andrea DiNella had a very Algonquin experience when a cat waltzed into her precinct and “turned himself in.” The cat, who she named Frankie, refused to leave the office so she took care of him until he could be placed for adoption.

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In keeping with the theme, Matilda’s friends put on a truly epic fashion show. (What’s a party without models? Or, as they preferred to be called, mew-dels.) Ada Nieves, a certified animal fashion designer from FIT, staged “A Feline Salute to NYC’s First Responders” in the Algonquin’s Oak Room.

Each cat wore a custom New York City uniform.

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There was Aodhan, the cutest member of the MTA.

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Zeus, the FDNY fire chief, had the best accessories.

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Milo, the dog catcher, brought his favorite pug toy.

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Thunderfolds, the Red Cross nurse, had a moment with Toaster, from FEMA.

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Q, the doctor, likes to go for a leash walk every day. At the end of the night, he waltzed through the Algonquin’s doors to a round of applause.

These surprisingly calm kitties all took a cat nap at some point, but Aodhan may have partied a little too hard.

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There was the NYPD cat, who made a brief-yet-show-stopping appearance in his miniature uniform.

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Outside in the adoption van, several “little New Yorkers” found homes with bigger New Yorkers before the end of the party.

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The guest of honor, Matilda, was a bit camera shy, but in true hostess fashion she popped in every now and then to check on everyone.

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Beach Hopping on the Paradise Coast

Some people might question the logic in leaving for a flight at 4am the morning after a big New Year’s party. To those people I say: You clearly don’t know me at all.

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I kicked off 2015 bright and early, with a flight down to Florida to attend my college friend’s wedding on Marco Island.

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A three-hour drive through Florida in January called for one thing: a beach-hopping road trip on the Paradise Coast.

The tail end of 2014 was dark. Literally, not figuratively. Our normally frigid temperatures with bright sunshine had been replaced by a dark, wet, and at times freakishly moderate climate. It was the kind of weather that guarantees a slow descent into madness. (Madness, I tell you. Madness.)

I stood in the airport rental car area of Tampa like winter refugees from Newark, positively giddy as the 85-degree heat belted us in our black down jackets, jeans, and boots. Tanned employees sauntered by in brightly colored polo shirts and Ray-Bans. A Chicago family in line with me practically exploded like vampires when the first Florida sunbeams hit them.

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Florida road trip

There is no state more perfect than Florida for beach hopping. I’m used to doing this kind of road trip to Florida, so this long weekend seemed extra short. But, as I found out, you can do a lot on the Gulf Coast in a short amount of time.

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I spent the day cruising around Cape Coral and Naples. This is the start of the “Paradise Coast,” a moniker I just heard for the first time through work. Bonus points for branding, Florida tourism.

The Paradise Coast consists of the Southwestern part of Florida along the Gulf. It includes Naples, Marco Island, Everglades City, Immokalee, and Ave Maria.

Toes and Seashells

Since it was approaching the single digits at home and beach season was still another six months away, I shamelessly did the tell-tale tourist things – like requesting outdoor seating at a restaurant and pointing out every single stretch of sand along the ocean. While people at home were doing the Polar Bear Plunge, I opted to jump right into the unheated hotel pool. (Brave by Floridian standards, I’m told, but actually not brave at all.)

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Marco Island Beach

 

The next day, I checked in to Marco Island for the wedding, catching some mid-morning beach time pre-ceremony. Then we all danced the night away … and a random woman on her tenth-floor hotel balcony who rocked out so hard to the wedding deejay’s songs.

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Nutcracker Marco Island

The Christmas spirit was still alive and kicking in Florida. While a hot Christmas will never, ever make sense to me, I loved the Floridian twists on tradition in our hotels. I was on the hunt for a palm tree wrapped in white Christmas lights or a lawn flamingo in a Santa hat. I finally found the palm tree at my third beach hopping stop… but it wasn’t plugged in.

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After Marco Island, I cruised up to Pinellas County and spent the day at Indian Rocks Beach, a beachy little town on a barrier island. I passed the usual Florida suspects on our search for dinner: the open-air seafood place with the live band and a parking lot full of pristine Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the karaoke joint with an oversized bouncer, a suspiciously empty Italian restaurant, an ice cream parlor, and a bunch of restaurants that closed before 7pm. (It’s not New York City, guys.)

Crabby Bills Indian Rocks

Crab shack

The newest restaurant in town happened to be a Chicago brewpub. The owner of Chicago Jaqx Pizzeria and Taphouse brought his native deep-dish pizza to the coast, along with a carefully curated selection of craft beers. Pizza and beer right off the beach? Well, it is vacation, after all.

Chicago Jaqx

I chatted with the owner for awhile. When my pizza came, he brought out a bottle of honey and rather mysteriously told us to save our pizza crusts for later. As it turns out, he once saw someone dip pizza crusts in honey at one of his previous restaurants. He loved the idea so much that he encourages people to try it for dessert. I once watched a table nearly come to blows in a New York City pizzeria over the concept of dipping pizza into cups of ranch dressing. Honey on crusts seems much more logical, somehow.

Surfboard lifeguard Florida

The next day, I left the Paradise Coast for the afternoon and drove to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. It’s not officially “Paradise” but pretty darn close.

Clearwater Beach

One giant cloud cleared everyone off of Clearwater beach for the evening, with grumblings from the locals about unpredictable winter weather. You might say some of them were downright crabby.

Clearwater Beach Crabs

My flight was at noon the next day, so I drove up to a Greek town my dad once brought me to. They were celebrating Epiphany, so we caught some of the festivities and had lunch at a nice restaurant on the water.

Greek Orthodox Church Epiphany

Greek doorSponge diver Christmas tree

Tarpon Springs church dome

Tarpon SpringsIs this not the most perfect Greek salad? There are few things in life that a giant brick of cheese can’t improve.

Greek salad

A few hours later, I were halfway up the East Coast and headed home. It was dark and the forecast called for snow. We would go on to get more snow this winter than we could ever have imagined, but in the meantime I unpacked the seashells that made their way into my suitcase. I ordered Greek food and blasted the heat inside in an effort to extend vacation a little longer.

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