Smith Island Cake, Maryland’s Official State Dessert, Is Better Than Your State’s Dessert

h-SMITH-ISLAND-CAKE-MARYLAND-488x239Blueberry pie in Maine.

Boston cream pie in Massachusetts.

Ice cream cones in Missouri.

All fine and decent dessert choices but if you want a state dessert that really captures the history of the place, plus gives you more layers-per-bite than any other dessert option, head to Maryland.

Better yet, head to Maryland’s eastern shore and take a ferry to tiny Smith Island (population: 240).

Inhabited since the 1600s and accessible only by boat, historic Smith Island boasts both its own distinct dialect and Smith Island Cake, a 10-layer confection of yellow cake and chocolate fudge icing that was designated the official dessert of Maryland in 2008.

Today, the cake is available in a plethora of flavors (“My favorite is banana,” one local said) and the number of layers ranges from six to 12; Frances Kitching, a lifelong Smith Island innkeeper and cook, is credited with creating the traditional 10-layer cake.

It’s worth noting that the cake is available on the mainland. But much like eating Prantl’s burnt almond torte anywhere but Pittsburgh (sure, you can get it mailed to you but why would you?), such is the case with the authentic Smith Island Cake experience.

Here’s a basic recipe if you want to try your hand at whipping one up at home. Otherwise, start planning a visit to Maryland’s eastern shore.

The 3 Magic Words You Need to Know Before Traveling Overseas

There are three words that every traveler should know in any foreign language when traveling overseas. They may not get you mistaken for a local, but it’s amazing how far they will take you.

What are these three magic words?

Simply “hello,” “please” and “thank you.”

I know, I know: This all sounds basic. And it is. But you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be!) by how many people travel abroad without learning a single word of the language native to the country that they are visiting.

While it’s true that English is widely spoken around the world — around one in four people worldwide speaks English “at a useful level,” according to the Harvard Business Review — that still leaves three-quarters of the global population speaking a different language. Not to mention the fact that you’re in a foreign country where there shouldn’t be a reasonable expectation that people will speak the same language as you.

In South Korea, shop owners were so excited when I used a word or two of Korean that they’d often gift me small trinkets or a piece of candy. (I’ve found that using these same magic words in Korean restaurants in the United States sometimes results in extra dishes appearing at our table, “service” [free].)

The four-year-old daughter of my host family in Nicaragua didn’t care that I couldn’t speak much Spanish beyond, “Thank you. Delicious!” She was much more occupied with playing house with her dolls and teaching me songs from school.

Stepping into a tiny bakery in Salzburg, Austria, the language barrier didn’t seem so large once I pointed out the slice of Sachertorte I wanted, “bitte,” followed by a “danke” when leaving.

Here’s a tip: If you’re traveling with a notebook or smartphone, jot down the local words for “hello,” “please” and “thank you” in an easily accessible place. While most of us can easily remember “gracias,” the Thai “khob khun ka” may be a little less tip-of-the-tongue.

When in doubt, simply being nice also works like a charm.

P.S. As someone who lives in a city popular among tourists, I’ll let you in on a little secret: A dash of kindness will get you far here in the U.S. too.

The 5 Weirdest Things I’ve Eaten While Traveling

Let’s say this first: What’s weird to some is everyday to others. Take balut, a Filipino delicacy in which a fertilized egg is boiled and eaten in the shell, and haggis, a Scottish sausage containing sheep parts and spices, which are then cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. For the record, I wasn’t brave enough to try balut while traveling to the queen vic market melbournePhilippines but have fallen fervently into the pro-haggis camp in Scotland.

While some people love to gag over the “grossest” foods on a foreign menu, I’ll try (almost) anything once — without judging whether it’s “normal” or not.

There are some foods, however, where once was enough. These are five of the strangest things I’ve encountered. (After reading this io9 roundup, though, I clearly need to start eating some weirder foods.)

1. Live termites: While hiking in Belize, our guide pulled down a tree limb covered with crawling termites and asked if anyone would try one — it’s protein, after all. As the rest of the group hesitated, I volunteered to take a bite. The verdict: a little grassy but goes down without having to chew.

2. Duck heart: One of the “fancy” restaurants we frequented in Seoul was Mercado, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse. Besides every cut of the cow imaginable, the restaurant also brought around an assortment of uncommon animal parts, duck heart being one of the most unusual.

3. Durian fruit: Yes, it smells as bad as everyone says. Yes, it leaves a rancid residue in your mouth. No, I’d never eat it again.

4. Emu burger, kangaroo steaks and crocodile nuggets: Ostrich isn’t so strange — I used to visit a vendor regularly at Borough Market in London that sold incredible ostrich burgers topped with arugula and cranberry sauce — but its cousin, the emu, is a little more unusual. This trio was part of the ultimate Australian tasting plate at Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.

5. Sweetbreads: Okay, once actually isn’t enough for sweetbreads (calf or lamb internal organs) and you don’t have to travel anywhere exotic to try them — plenty of places in Washington, D.C. and its nearby suburbs serve the savory dish. Once you push aside the mental image of what you’re eating, sweetbreads are actually quite delicious. Never had them? Check out Trummer’s On Main, where bourbon-glazed sweetbreads are on the bar menu and taste like any other sweet and crunchy bar snack.

Travel Around the World Without Leaving the Country This May In D.C.

Over the span of one weekend, I watched traditional dancing in Nigeria, shopped in a Pakistani market, browsed Bangladeshi art, drank a cup of Ethiopian coffee… then went to sleep in my own bed that night.

Time travel? Super-fast jet? Nope.

In Washington, D.C., May means the unofficial start of festival season; from May through September, almost every weekend in the Nation’s Capital is filled with a special event guaranteed to appeal to someone — book lovers, film aficionados, wine drinkers, meat heads, gardeners… of the most popular annual events is Passport DC, an around-the-world experience in which more than 70 embassies around the city open their doors and welcome guests with food, entertainment, tours and fun. (It’s a free event. Welcome to Washington.)

If your international experiences are limited to western Europe, make it a priority to attend the Around the World Embassy Tour (May 3, 2014). You’ll encounter cultural experiences from more than 50 nations, from popular tourist destinations like Thailand, Australia and Mexico to less visited countries like Guinea, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

The following weekend is Shortcut to Europe.(May 10, 2014). Get a photo op with a David Cameron cardboard cut-out, drink Croatian wine, see Polish art and try your hand (feet?) at Slovakian folk dancing.

Overseas travel can cost big bucks. If you’re in D.C. during May, consider taking an international trip without picking up your passport or cramming into coach.

Maryland and Virginia Make Great Wine. Here Are Five Favorite Wineries a Day Trip From D.C.

Crow Farm and Vineyard
Crow Farm and Vineyard

When you think of fine wine, what regions come to mind? France, of course; California, yes; Australia and New Zealand, delightful.

How about Maryland and Virginia? Although wine has been cultivated in the area since the 17th century (it was particularly a passion of Thomas Jefferson), it’s only over the past several decades that Maryland and Virginia wines have begun getting the respect they deserve.

Here’s a completely subjective list of my favorite local wineries, all an easy day trip from Washington. Breweries are booming in D.C. but we have to go to the suburbs for superb local wines.

Crow Farm and Vineyard, Kennedyville, Md.

Stop by a farm event for fresh-as-it-comes food along with great Eastern Shore wine; my summer favorite is a fruity Chardonnay.

Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, Va.

Barboursville looks fancy but step inside and you’ll encounter country comfort in the tasting room.

Sharp Rock Vineyards
Sharp Rock Vineyards

Boordy Vineyards, Hydes, Md.

The first commercial winery in Maryland, Boordy boasts 40 acres of grapes planted for “quality, not quantity.

Barrel Oak Winery, Delaplane, Va.

Bring your furry, four-legged friends along for a taste test at Barrel Oak Winery; leashed dogs are more than welcome — they’re encouraged!

Sharp Rock Vineyards, Sperryville, Va.

When you pull up at a winery and a few huge, shaggy, slobbery dogs immediately come over and want to cuddle, you know you’re at a laid-back place for a picnic and a bottle of Virginia vino.

Other favorites include Veritas Vineyard & Winery, Molon Lave Vineyards and Black Ankle Vineyards, and I definitely have plans to do more extensive research — after all, I keep hearing whispers of “wine slushies.”

How to Take a Royal Tour of Australia and New Zealand Without Having a Royal Budget

Has Prince William and Duchess Catherine’s royal tour Down Under inspired you to plan your own vacation to Australia and New Zealand?

You could shell out £341,000 (about $573,357) per couple for a month-long luxury tour of Australia that includes a $17,150 diamond pacifier and behind-the-scenes tours. (The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s trip was estimated to cost New Zealand taxpayers $1 million per day.)

Or… plan your own trip for a fraction of the price. Here’s how to do it without breaking the bank or skimping on the sightseeing.

sydney harbour


Royal tour: Fly between cities on Royal New Zealand Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force planes.

Budget tour: Buy a multi-stop bus pass. If you have several weeks to explore multiple cities, Greyhound’s Mini Traveller Pass from Sydney to Cairns (one-way only) allows unlimited stops over a 90-day period for $475.70 AUD ($444.11 USD). Only have a week or two? The $95 Sydney-to-Melbourne pass includes a stopover in capital city Canberra as well.

New Zealand has similar options, whether you’re looking for a fixed itinerary or more flexible hop-on, hop-off alternatives; InterCity has multiple travel passes available.


Royal tour: William and Kate have stayed in some swanky digs while Down Under, including the five-star Matakauri Lodge and Admiralty House, the official Sydney residence of Australia’s Governor-General.

Budget tour: Both Australia and New Zealand have fantastic hostels ranging from 12-person shared rooms with bunkbeds to private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Some hostels offer meal options; others have full kitchens so guests can cook.

It’s often not necessary to book ahead of time but if you’re picky or you’re looking for something specific, do some research. I picked one hotel, Dorset House in Christchurch, because its exterior was so charming; another, The Arts Factory in Byron Bay, piqued my interest by offering classes and evening activities.

To combine accommodations and transport, look into renting a camper van. You’ll see these all over Australia and New Zealand, but check posted regulations before parking overnight.


Royal tour: It’s pretty safe to assume the royal couple are dining deliciously during their trip. Among their official engagements have been a dinner with the prime minister of New Zealand and a tea party in Sydney.

Budget tour: Fair warning: Food and drink can be very expensive Down Under. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat in restaurants at all, but pick and choose. Stop by a grocery store or farmers market to stock up on meals; if you’re hiking during the day, pack a lunch ahead of time rather than buying something on the road.

Both countries have great wine that should absolutely be sampled. Planning your own self-driving wine tour (with a designated driver!) rather than taking an organized wine tour can be a money saver.

tongariro alpine crossing


Royal tour: See everything, do everything. From a boat race in Auckland Harbour to touring cathedrals, observing the beauty of the Blue Mountains to getting up close with animals at Taronga Zoo, William, Kate and Baby George are taking full advantage of traveling so far from home.

Budget tour: The same! There is so much to see and do in New Zealand and Australia that no matter how much time you’ve set aside for your trip, it won’t be enough. (That just means you’ll have to come back…!)

If you’re a child, student or senior citizen, ask if an attraction has concessions (discounts) available. Also look for ways to do paid activities for free: You can pay $198 to $348 to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb… or you can walk across the bridge for free. You can pay for a sightseeing bus in the Blue Mountains… or you can craft your own hiking and sightseeing itinerary for free.

Of course, you don’t want to scrimp and save on everything. Choose a few sights that you simply must see during your time Down Under and do them! You won’t regret money spent in Australia to explore The Whitsundays, dive or snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, drive along the Great Ocean Road or ferry out to Fraser Island to see wild dingoes.

In New Zealand, participate in adventure sports in Queenstown, float down the glow worm caves in Waitomo, take a trek or, if you’re a huge Lord of the Rings fan, sign up for a guided tour of Middle Earth.

If you’re feeling particularly flush, spring for a trip to the sacred spot Uluru; it’s an expensive excursion to the center of Australia but one that attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually.


Royal tour: A reception at the Sydney Opera House was just another day at the office for Great Britain’s royal couple, while a Maori powhiri provided local color.

Budget tour: Check at the box office on the day of a performance you’d like to see to find out whether discount tickets are available. There are also often free public performances in parks and plazas; I’ve stumbled onto concerts in Dunedin parks and outdoor movies in Melbourne. See what’s happening in town while you’re visiting.

It’s clear that Prince William, Duchess Kate and Prince George have had an unforgettable time in New Zealand and Australia but most of what they’re doing, you can do too… at a fraction of the price.

Have you been to Australia or New Zealand? What was your favorite activity there?

great ocean road

5 Easter Celebrations Around the World Worth Traveling to Experience

easter in washington

From a potluck brunch in Seoul to a small-town church service in Dunedin, New Zealand, I’ve been fortunate to observe Easter in several countries outside of my own. Here are a few more destinations worth adding to the Easter exploration list:


You’d be forgiven for confusing Halloween with Easter while celebrating in Finland, where children dress as witches and go door to door to scare of evil spirits.  Feast on mämmi, a traditional Finnish dessert, and pasha, a white pudding made from cheese curd.


Holy Week is a solemn season in Poland but come the weekend, families prepare baskets stuffed with eggs, cakes and other assorted foods for Święconka, the traditional blessing of the Easter food. Easter Monday is known as “Wet Monday” — Śmigus-Dyngus –as celebrants drench friends, family and strangers with buckets of water.


There may be no holier place to observe Holy Week than Israel, where religious observances include the Holy Fire ceremony at Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a sunrise service at The Garden Tomb, believed by some to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection.


Easter takes a dramatic turn on the Italian island of Sicily, where both Trapani and Prizzi hold massive celebrations popular among tourists. In Trapani, the 24-hour Procession of the Mysteries tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with life-size statutes; Prizzi‘s observance includes the Devil’s Dance, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.

Washington, D.C.

If you have kids, come to the Nation’s Capital to participate in the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Easter Monday. The 136-year-old tradition attracts more than 30,000 people to the South Lawn of the White House for a morning of egg rolling, cooking demonstrations and fitness activities.

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