Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

My new hat made by Nolly Martini. (Martin Melendy)

At New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier, a park ranger provides an update on daily conditions and safety tips.

The life-size image is a cardboard cut-out, but the ranger is real. His mother told me so.

I met Nolly Martini when I visited her Willows Crafts shop in Harihari, a tiny hamlet about 40 miles north of Franz Josef on New Zealand’s South Island.

I was attracted to the hand-knitted hats and scarves, and she told me that she makes many of them from wool and Samoyed dog hair. She also sells crafts made by other local residents.

As I paid for a colorful hat made by Martini, she told me that her son posed for the cardboard cut-out when he worked for the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The proud mother pulled out photographs of Mark Martini standing next to his cardboard double. (The DOC confirmed it.)

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A visitor walks through a lush rainforest on the Te Ara a Waiau trail. (Sheryl Jean)

Sure enough, Mark Martini’s image greets me when I arrive at Franz Josef Glacier later that day. (See photo at top.) The DOC told me that his image also graces the nearby Fox Glacier.

Tourism is one of New Zealand’s main economic engines. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions, with about 1 million visitors a year.

Continue reading Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

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Will the latest Beige Book put pressure on the Fed to act next month?

The U.S. economy continued to grow — albeit at a moderate or modest pace — across most regions of the country from early October through mid-November, according to data released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve.

The latest Beige Book report combined with other strong economic data could pressure Fed leaders to raise interest rates, which have been near zero since 2008, when they meet in two weeks. Some Fed leaders are growing increasingly impatient: Two bankers dissented at the last Federal Open Market Committee meeting on Nov. 1-2 because they wanted to raise the federal funds rate by 0.25 percent.

The Beige Book is based on economic, employment, wage and price reports from 12 Federal Reserve banks nationwide. The San Francisco district, which covers seven western states plus Alaska and Hawaii, reported moderate economic growth. Inflation remained at bay, with slight upward price pressure in most areas.

Here’s some key economic data for the nation and the San Francisco district:

Real estate and construction: U.S. residential real estate activity improved across most districts, including San Francisco, with more single-family construction and higher home prices. The real estate market was particularly strong in the Intermountain West. Commercial construction increased in seven districts, including San Francisco, but shortages of labor and materials dampened growth in some parts of the western district.

Continue reading Will the latest Beige Book put pressure on the Fed to act next month?

Finish this sentence: The U.S. gig economy is growing faster than …

That might be a difficult task due to conflicting data.

Two government agencies plan new research to more accurately count the companies and workers in the so-called gig economy, which also has been labeled the on-demand economy, and better understand trends of that realm.

The “share of U.S. jobs without a formal employer-employee relationship is large and growing,” but some data shows the opposite, Jim Spletzer, an economist for the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies, wrote in a recent government blog post. Jobs in the so-called gig economy include freelance and contract workers.

Continue reading Finish this sentence: The U.S. gig economy is growing faster than …

How to stay healthy while traveling

When I arrived home last week after an extended trip, my snuggest pair of jeans still fit.

While I don’t suggest losing weight as a holiday goal, I advocate staying healthy and active while traveling.

One of the great joys of travel is trying new things, whether it be food, drink or experiences. And people are apt to splurge while on holiday. So, go ahead and enjoy that German Schnitzel or trifle, just balance it with some vegetables in between.

The winter holidays bring special challenges because most of us eat more — and perhaps richer — food than we usually do. It’s important to stay active while spending quality time with family and friends. Take group walks before eating dinner and after dessert. Plan group outings, such as hiking, ice skating or sledding.

The fruit option for breakfast on a recent Qantas Airways flight from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco. (Sheryl Jean)

Here are some of my tips to help you stay healthy while traveling any time of the year:

Stay hydrated: Drink as much liquid — preferably water — as possible to stay hydrated o a plane and on the ground. It’s good for your skin and aids in digestion. Avoid caffeine.

Make smart in-flight food choices: Bring or buy healthier food, such as fruit, salad or hummus, on U.S. flights. On international flights, choose fruit instead of the egg-sausage breakfast and skip dessert. Avoid salt and salty snacks, which will help your body retain water.

Continue reading How to stay healthy while traveling

Is it crayfish or lobster in Kaikoura, New Zealand?

Crayfish and whitebait fritters, and a half crayfish at Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Fritters are served as a sandwich or on top of rice with salad. (Sheryl Jean)

This post is a homage to the people of Kaikoura, which suffered a 7.5-magnitude earthquake about two weeks after my visit. I was writing this blog post in the wee hours of the morning  the earthquake and tsunami occurred.

The little beach town of Kaikoura is known for whale watching, swimming with dolphins and fur seals, but it’s also the crayfish capital of New Zealand.

Kaikoura means “eat crayfish” in the native Maori language. However, these crayfish aren’t the small critters you find in New Orleans, but what Americans call lobster.

New Zealand salt-water crayfish is a spiny rock lobster. It has a sweeter, more subtle flavor.

Drive or walk down Kaikoura’s Beach Road to nearly the end and you’ll see a road-side trailer called Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Stop!

The snow-capped mountains descend straight to the South Pacific Ocean in Kaikoura.

You’ll find crayfish sizzling on the grill as well as fritters (like pancakes) filled with crayfish, whitebait (another local delicacy) or other ingredients. It cost $15US for a half crayfish to $27US for a whole one, but prices elsewhere can be twice as much.

Sit to eat at a table facing spectacular powdered sugar-coated mountains descending straight to the South Pacific Ocean.

Another road-side trailer option is Nins Bin, about 12 miles north of Kaikoura on State Highway 1.

Killer views from New Zealand’s Bealey Spur Track are worth the climb

Today’s rain did not keep me from hiking the fantastic Bealey Spur Track near Arthur’s Pass on the New Zealand’s South Island.

It was pouring rain five hours ago, when I blogged about finding a silver lining in rain while traveling, and it’s raining again. But in between, I made the most of a few mostly rain-free, sunny hours.

The nearly 4-mile (four to six hours round trip) trail, which is mostly uphill, traverses mossy beech forests, tussocks and lots of mud today. (See photo below.) You can climb a nearly 5,100-foot hill for another 1.5 hours, but I didn’t have time for that given my afternoon start.

Once you climb out of the forest, the ridge line and top of the ridge provide jaw-dropping, panoramic views of Mount Bealey, Avalanche Peak, Mount Rolleston, Mount Aicken and other peaks, which range from over 6,000 feet to  nearly 7,500 feet, as well as the Waimakariri Valley. (See photo at top.)

Mud on the Bealey Spur Track on Nov. 3, 2016.
As a bonus I got to peek at the baches (a cabin in New Zealand) lining the private road where the hike starts. Some were rustic shacks, while others had been renovated into modern ski chalets.

Opportunity allowed me to jump ahead on my New Zealand blog posts to the South Island, but I’m not done with the North Island yet. Stay tuned!

Rain, rain go away … I’m traveling

Not too many people like rainy days on vacation — even in places known for rain.

I’m one of them.

Today, steady rain since early morning (see photo above) has scrapped my plans for a six to eight hour hike up to Avalanche Peak today in Arthur’s Pass, the highest village in New Zealand at about 3,000 feet. Arthur’s Pass is the highest and most spectacular pass  through the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. I snowed on the highest craggy peaks overnight! (It’s spring here.)

Here’s the silver lining: I can catch up on my journal writing, and with wifi, my blog posting.

This afernoon I vow to hike rain or shine!

New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing rewards the hearty hiker

Fog surrounded us like gray cotton candy.

Active volcanoes lurked in the murkiness like hulking giants, but my hiking partner and I  couldn’t see them — at least not at first.

At any moment, the ground could shake and fiery lava would paint the sky in orange streaks. The shroud of fog seemed to lessen the risk on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is called New Zealand’s best day hike.

On our first trip to New Zealand, we vowed to spend as little time as possible in cities and focus on what the country is best known for: the great outdoors. Tongariro topped the list.

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The writer enshrouded in fog at one point in the hike. (Sheryl Jean)

The crossing has it all: volcanoes, lava fields, alpine lakes, fumaroles, waterfalls and breath-taking views. It’s in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest park.

The track traverses the length of Mount Tongariro and skirts the saddle of Mount Ngauruhoe (see photo at top) — two of New Zealand’s three active volcanoes. Ngauruhoe posed as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film. (You can hike up Ngauruhoe, but now it’s still covered in ice and snow and requires technical skills and crampons.)

One of the Emerald Lakes on the the crossing. (Sheryl Jean)

The 12 miles takes about six to nine hours, depending on weather conditions, your fitness level and how often you stop. (We finished the trek in seven hours, including a lunch stop, several rest breaks and lots of photographing.)

We arranged a shuttle to take us to the start of the hike and pick us up at the end. Twelve others from the United States, Ireland and the Netherlands joined us.

We were prepared for any kind of weather, since the crossing is known for unpredictable and fast-changing weather — even in the middle of summer.

Continue reading New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing rewards the hearty hiker

10 tips to pack smarter

Whether you start way ahead of time or wait until the last minute, packing for a trip is nerve-wracking.

Do I have enough shoes? Do I have the right kind of shoes? It’s even harder if you’re crossing seasons and need cool- and warm-weather gear.

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My rolled clothes from the pile at the top of this post.

Fresh from preparing for a long trip, here are 10 tips I’ve learned over the years to help make packing easier:

1) Place everything you think you want to take on a flat surface, such as a bed, so you can see it all together. (See photo above.) You’ll see what matches and what doesn’t, and if you have too many items.

2) Mix and match clothing so items can be used interchangeably. You may find you pack fewer items. Pack fast-drying fabrics, such as silk or spandex, which can be washed in a sink.

Continue reading 10 tips to pack smarter

What are the safest countries?

With so much violence and civil unrest in the world, it’s a small comfort that I’ll soon be visiting one of the safest and most serene places on Earth, according to the latest 2016 Global Peace Index.

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Google Maps

New Zealand, which may have more sheep than people, is No. 4 out of 163 countries. It gets high marks for its lack of militarization and internal and external conflicts.

The index, which is created by Vision of Humanity, ranks countries on their safety based on factors such as the number of police officers, the murder rate and the level of political instability and terror. Here are the 10 safest countries:

  1. Iceland
  2. Denmark
  3. Austria
  4. New Zealand
  5. Portugal
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Switzerland
  8. Canada
  9. Japan
  10. Slovenia

The five unsafest countries are Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Vision of Humanity is part of the Institute for Economics & Peace.