Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travel (& other) Highlights of 2009

I rang in 2009 in Scottsdale, AZ alone in my hotel room. The almost perfect end (would have been nice to share it with someone special) to a wonderful last minute vacation to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. I had gone to bed after watching the ball drop in Times Square on tv at 10pm local but was awakened by fireworks at midnight. I stood in my robe and watched from my balcony as they exploded and the light shimmered on the lake, so close I could smell them. A few hours later, I was on my way to the airport for the flight back to NYC. An auspicious beginning to the year for a traveler, spending 01JAN on an airplane! Later in January, I was in Nashville to celebrate my step-dad Ronnie's 50th birthday. With little advance notice, I invited some old junior/high school friends to get together for a so-called mini-reunion inspired by our reconnection on Facebook. Only a handful showed up but we had fun reminiscing and catching up anyway. Plus, I "re-met" Greg LaRowe face-to-face for the first time in almost 17 years and we hung out with more old friends until 3am. Most of you know the rest of the story; if not, keep reading... I got a last minute opportunity to go to the Grammy's in Los Angeles in early February and managed to book flights & hotel for a reasonable price one day prior to departure. I invited Greg to come, too (what an awesome first date right?!?!) but he couldn't get off work. Still, I had a great time hanging out with my Nokia buddies, going backstage, to the big after party, and to an exclusive after-after party in a big stretch limo. Greg came to NYC to visit me (& the city) for the first time on 26FEB, which also became the official start date of our relationship. It was just for the weekend but we made the most of it and it even snowed the night before he left. Very romantic! My maternal grandmother's 80th birthday was in late March, so I flew to Nashville to celebrate and see the Patterson family all together for the first time in many years. It was the perfect opportunity for Greg to meet everyone as well. The next day, my best friend Amy & I left for a week-long girls vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had a wonderful time despite having to purchase warmer clothes for the unexpectedly chilly weather. And we went hot air ballooning over the Rio Grande! Upon returning to work, I started the wheels in motion for my eventual departure from my job as well as from NYC. I had been planning this for years, but finally reached a point mentally & financially where I was ready to take this gigantic step without regrets. It took several weeks to iron out the details, but I was fortunate to be able to stretch out my employment for another 4+ months under very agreeable circumstances. To seal the deal, I also decided to have my hair dyed back to a more manageable natural brunette (from high maintenance rock star platinum blond!). Greg was able to work remotely for several weeks in April, so he came to stay with me in NY and truly experience life in the big city. We went to a movie premiere (Woody Allen's "Whatever Works"), a Late Show with David Letterman taping, the final Knicks (v Nets) home game of the season, and both a Yankees game at their new stadium and a Mets game at the new Citi Field. Of course we also just explored the city, with outings to Brooklyn, Harlem, Central Park, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and more. In May, I flew back to Nashville so I could accompany Greg on the annual Hermitage United Methodist Church trip to Mt LeConte Lodge, accessible via hiking trails only. We took the 6.5 mile Trillium Gap trail to the summit (6593' elevation) and overnighted at the lodge then hiked down the next day and stayed in a B&B outside of Gatlinburg for a couple of nights. Greg came to NYC for the last few weeks in June to help me say goodbye to my beloved city. We had plenty of adventures -- a second helping of Yankees & Mets games, special meals at great restaurants, fun get-togethers with friends & coworkers, and visits to the big museums and tourist attractions that we hadn't covered in April. I also spent a lot of the month packing, selling or otherwise getting rid of excess stuff. My one way flight to Nashville was scheduled for 30JUN but just as Greg & I were about to call a cab we both received calls from the airline that our flight was canceled and we were rebooked on completely different itineraries THE FOLLOWING DAY!!! Once I got it all sorted with an agent we ended up rebooking for 02JUL and had a couple of extra nights to say goodbye. Of course, this was actually a bit traumatic as I had made my peace with leaving and was then confronted with the reality of it all over again. But we had a good couple of days and even volunteered to give up our seats on our oversold flight on the 2nd in order to get $300 travel vouchers (each). I spent most of July acclimating to life in Nashville. I was still working full time, albeit remotely. Greg & I had some fun nights hanging out downtown and I enjoyed visiting with family & friends. I also turned 35 (what I consider to be about the halfway point in life), bought my Acer netbook which I absolutely love, and finally started this blog! Wanting to take advantage of Greg's & my ability to work remotely, we decided to "live" in Seattle for the month of August. You can read more about our adventures in the Pacific Northwest in archived posts but suffice it to say that it really persuaded both of us to move to Portland, Seattle, or somewhere in that vicinity whenever we do settle down together. The beginning of September marked my last day of employment. It was with a big sigh of relief that I shipped all of my work stuff back up to NY, not because I don't love the people I was working with (truly the best work experience I have ever had!), rather I just needed to make a clean break and start my "new" life. It was also the perfect time for an extended vacation, so Greg & I went to Eastern Europe (Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Auschwitz, Budapest) for a couple of weeks over the end of September & early October (see archived posts). Always wanting to live life to the fullest, Greg & I had already booked an apartment in Waikiki for one month starting in mid-October, again taking advantage of his ability to work remotely. We had such a good time (see archived posts) that we extended our stay another full month and did not return to Nashville until 14DEC. Highlights include our weekend trips to the Big Island and Maui, using our Honolulu Zoo membership (one of my 36th birthday gifts to Greg), and skydiving from 14,000ft while my mom & Ronnie were visiting. Since returning to Nashville, we have spent most of our spare time visiting with friends & family over the holidays. We managed to divide Christmas pretty evenly between our two families, seeing everyone that lives in the Nashville area in the days leading up to & on the 25th and then traveling to northeastern Indiana on the 26th to spend a long weekend visiting Greg's extended family and enjoying the snow. We are leaving tomorrow morning for the New Year's Eve Chick-fil-A college bowl game in Atlanta and will return to Nashville on the 2nd. So, as my year started, it will end, on the road again! I would be remiss not to mention a few of the things I was most thankful for in 2009, some of which really need to be expounded on, but will keep it brief here. In no particular order they are: Facebook, friends & family, good beer, good health & health insurance, a good job, financial security, and that I am now also part of We. :) Happy New Year everyone! I'm looking forward to sharing my adventures around the world in 2010!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Notes on living in Waikiki

As we're wrapping up our final day on Oahu, I thought I'd comment on what I think are the pros & cons of living in Hawaii, but more specifically in Waikiki. In no particular order, here are the LIKES: - reading by the pool - an annual zoo membership for two people only costs $30; we lived walking distance from the zoo (about 1 mile) - sunsets on the beach - drinks at the beach bars (Tiki Grill, The Banyan Court at the Moana Surfrider, Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai Bar) - drinking coffee & reading the newspaper on our lanai - happy hour at Yard House (over 100 beers on tap!) - watching live football at 7:30AM and still having the afternoon free - Chinatown for browsing the markets (all kinds of seafood, every part of a pig or a cow, whole roasted pigs & ducks, cheap vegetables, trinkets, etc.); cheap haircuts & pedicures; yummy restaurants (dim sum at Mei Sum and Legend, Little Village Noodle House) - the Waikiki library; again walking distance from the apartment and a 3 month visitor card was only $10 - the North Shore for big waves, good food (shrimp trucks, roadside produce stands), and SKYDIVING! - Kailua Beach Park & Lanikai Beach for beautiful views, turquoise water, and good activity options (kayaking, wind surfing, swimming, snorkeling, etc.) - Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina for $3 pints at happy hour and tasty pizzas - walking/jogging around Kapi'olani Park - fresh POKE! (ahi/tuna, shrimp, mussels, etc.) - public transport via bus for $2.25/ride; it's slow, but gets you anywhere on the island - recycling bins next to trash cans pretty much everywhere - the multitude of restaurants at all price points and offering every kind of food imaginable - the climate!!! - the flora (hibiscus, plumeria, bougainvillea, palm trees...) And the DISLIKES: - large homeless population although panhandling is not aggressive - traffic & related noise - high prices and overall cost of living - distance to anywhere else (in the U.S. or world!) - the shopping mall that is Waikiki's Kalakaua Ave In conclusion, Honolulu/Waikiki offers many of the advantages & disadvantages of living in a big city with the added bonus of almost guaranteed beautiful weather year-round. After two months here, this really feels like home and I'm quite surprised at how much more open-minded I am about considering a place like this for a permanent residence. I'm honestly not sure if I would be quite so enthusiastic if I had to work every day, especially if I was commuting by bus or by car in rush hour traffic. The high cost of living would also take its toll, especially if I could not earn comparable to what I was making in NYC (and I suspect that would be the case). But it's sure nice to know from experience what options are out there, and this little "living experiment", much like our month in Seattle, has really brought Greg & I closer as a couple and given us some insight as to what each of us wants & needs both in our relationship as well as from the place we live.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oahu in Four Days

Greg and I are still living in Waikiki, but will be returning to Nashville in a couple of days. My mom and step-dad came to visit last week, which gives me a good excuse to update the blog. Of course, it's not really possible to see ALL of Oahu in 4 days, but with some pre-planning and great weather, we managed to hit most of the highlights.
view of the full moon from our lanai in Waikiki
Mom and Ronnie arrived at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 1. I had rented a car for the entire week; there's a Dollar location a few blocks from our apartment and they offered a great "City Breaks" rate of $100 for 7 days (with tax/fees = $129). The best rate at all other companies in the area was $40+/day. Greg and I greeted them at the airport with silk flower and shell leis. We came back to the apartment and gave them a chance to settle in, then had dinner at Perry's Smorgy, a budget buffet place. The food was predictably cafeteria-grade, but offered lots of options for our diverse tastes. We stepped it up a notch for after-dinner drinks at The Banyan Court at the Moana Surfrider on the beach, with Mom enjoying a "Tropical Itch" complete with wooden back scratcher!
After a good night's sleep we were all up and ready to start sightseeing on Wednesday morning. Greg had to stay home and work, but I took Mom and Ronnie to Diamond Head crater to hike. We stopped at Safeway to stock up on groceries for the week and came back home to make sandwiches for lunch. The afternoon was filled with more hiking -- the nature trails at Lyon Arboretum and the more challenging Manoa Falls. We cooked steaks on our poolside grill for dinner.
Manoa Falls
Thursday morning was perfect for a trip to the zoo. It also meant more hours on our feet but we enjoyed visiting the animals; only the cheetahs and warthog remained hidden from view. We again returned to the apartment for lunch and then Greg and I rested while Mom and Ronnie went for an afternoon walk on the beach and around Waikiki. We went to Ono Hawaiian Food for dinner -- a hole in the wall local place which consistently gets great reviews. While the food was pretty good and interesting, the restaurant is pretty shabby and seemed a bit unclean. I'm glad we tried it, but at the same time am sure we would have enjoyed other local restaurants a lot more.
Greg & I bought season passes to the zoo
It started raining that evening and continued to rain during the night, but had cleared off again by Friday morning. Which was good, because we got up early to go to Pearl Harbor and try to beat the lines. We arrived around 7:15 a.m. and were given tickets for the 8:00 a.m. movie. This gave us time to browse around the visitors center and memorial area, which is currently undergoing a big renovation (scheduled to be complete by this time next year). We enjoyed the 20+ minute film and then took the boat across the harbor to the Arizona Memorial, where you can spend about 15 minutes before catching the return boat.
Our next stop was Chinatown for a quick walk around the markets and a delicious lunch at Little Village Noodle House. Then we drove up to the Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) where we spent a couple of hours touring the memorial and enjoying the views of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. We drove the Pali Hwy to Nuuanu Pali Lookout where it was quite windy and much cooler but still offered beautiful views of the windward side of the island. Then we continued heading east to Kailua Beach Park with a scenic loop around Mokulua Drive to Lanikai Beach. From there we drove south along the Kalanian'ole Hwy, stopping at the Halona Blowhole and a few other scenic spots. Finally it was time for happy hour at the Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina where we enjoyed $3 pints and mixed drinks, a half-price hummus appetizer, and a delicious "Captain Cook" pizza. It was a great day, but we were exhausted so headed home to get some rest.
Nuuanu Pali Lookout
Saturday required another early start. We left the apartment by 7 a.m. so we could be at Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore for our 8 a.m. scheduled skydive. Greg and I were the only ones brave enough to make the 14,000+ foot jump, but Mom decided to ride in the plane as an observer and Ronnie took photographs from the ground. Check out Facebook for photos and watch the YouTube video embedded below to see more of this amazing experience! Despite being the first ones to arrive, Greg and I were assigned to the third group/planeload, which means we did a lot of anxious waiting until our turn. We also had made a point not to eat or drink anything prior to the jump "just in case", so we were all quite ready for some food when we finished around 10 a.m.
We drove into Hale'iwa and had breakfast at Breakers in the North Shore Marketplace. Then we doubled back to the Dole Plantation for a quick look around before getting caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Kam (Kamehameha Hwy) due to sightseers flocking to watch the projected 20+ ft waves. After sitting in traffic for 30 minutes or more, we were ready for a break, so we turned off into Waimea Valley and enjoyed a leisurely hike through the botanical gardens and back to the waterfall.
Ready to brave the traffic once again, we continued on the Kam to Sunset Beach and stood in the sand for quite a while ogling the huge waves. Knowing that we still had a long drive ahead of us, we continued driving east then south, stopping at a roadside stand in Kahuku to buy a fresh pineapple and at Kualoa Park to watch the sunset. Realizing it would be a bit late for dinner by the time we reached Waikiki, we decided to seek out the Hale'iwa Joe's restaurant in Kane'ohe where we enjoyed the outdoor setting and tasty food. A great ending to another wonderful day!
sunset at Kualoa Park
Mom and Ronnie's flight to Maui was at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, so we spent the morning doing laundry and getting them ready for the next segment of their trip. Greg and I dropped them off at the airport at 11 a.m. and spent the rest of the day watching football and generally relaxing at the apartment. As you can tell, these 4+ days were pretty packed with activities and not much, if any, time for just sitting on the beach or by the pool relaxing. I had discussed this with my mom in advance and had given them the option of choosing how much or how little they wanted to see and do. One big advantage for them was having Greg and I to chauffeur them around, with me driving and Greg providing commentary and/or answering questions. This is much less stressful than it would have been if they were driving themselves, completely unfamiliar with the island, and it provided much more flexibility and saved money versus the various tour options or taking the public bus. Note that while I did drive them around downtown briefly, we did not stop at the state capitol, Iolani Palace, or any of the historic sites in that area. This was simply a matter of time and overall preference of what they wanted to focus on seeing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Maui in 2 days

Greg & I flew over to Maui for two days last weekend. Inter-island travel is easy & affordable due to the competition between Hawaiian Airlines and Go!Mokulele. With advance purchase, a round trip ticket from Honolulu to any of the other islands is $110. Although I'm a member of all the major car rental company's rewards programs, I often find the best rates on In this case, I had booked a compact car for 2 days for a total of $78. However, when we arrived at the Hertz counter, the agent noted my Gold member status and mentioned they had a weekend special to upgrade to a Corvette convertible for $40. After clarifying that it would cost an additional $80 total for the 2 days, we were going to stick with the compact car. But then the agent asked if I had any other memberships like AAA. I do, and carry all my membership numbers in a Travel file on my phone. So I provided my AAA number and voila, a red Corvette convertible was ours for the weekend for only $40 more than the $78 I had already paid for the rental. I mention the convertible because I think it really made a difference in our overall enjoyment of the weekend. With only two days to cover the entire island, we spent A LOT of time in the car. The convertible gave as unrestricted views of the scenery we passed, a lot of which was overhead and we would have missed in a traditional enclosed vehicle. The only negative, if you want to call it that, is that the car had low ground clearance. Many of the most scenic roads (Hwy 36 to Hana and the Kaupo Road) were narrow and rough. Taking a Corvette off-roading definitely added to the adventure! So here's a summary of our whirlwind tour of the island... After picking up the car at the airport, we made a quick stop in Pa'ia to pick up sandwiches for the road. We lucked out and did not encounter too much traffic on the road to Hana. While the road is only 53 miles from Kahului to Hana, the drive can take up to 3 hours each way due to the narrow, winding road and one lane bridges. Plus, it is quite scenic, with frequent pull-offs to view waterfalls, tropical rain forests, or the Pacific Ocean. While we were not in a hurry, we did not try to stop more than a couple of times as we felt we could see plenty from the car. I think it took us about 2 hours to reach Hana and that's with a stop for a picnic lunch at Kaumahina State Wayside Park (one of the few places with basic facilities on the route). In Hana, we enjoyed a tropical beverage at the Hana Ranch Restaurant before continuing south to the natural pools at Ohe'o Gulch. They were closed to swimmers due to high water levels, but we still enjoyed hiking down to the ocean for the views. Our next intended stop was the grave of Charles Lindbergh. However the road was not well marked and we missed the turnoff. At that point, we were already on a narrow gravel/dirt road, so instead of turning around we decided to attempt the remainder of the remote and often impassable Kaupo Road. This turned out to be a great choice, as the ranch-land scenery on the back side of Haleakala was really beautiful. Of course, we would have been in a bind if something happened, because there is no emergency assistance available, no rest areas, no cell phone coverage. But my mind was more at ease after we saw a few tour vans on the road, so I knew we were not completely alone. As we headed inland on the Kula Hwy, we realized it would make more sense to go ahead and drive to the top of Haleakala for sunset, instead of trying to get up at 3am the next day to make the drive up for sunrise. The only problem was that it was fast approaching 5pm and the sun sets just before 6pm now. So we put the Corvette's V8 engine to good use and zoomed up the winding road to the summit (with a quick stop to change into warmer clothes and put the top up as the temp quickly dropped from the 80's to the 40's). We made it just in time and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from 10,000ft. After so much driving we were ready to check into our hotel and relax, but still had to make the 1.5hr drive back into Kahului to the Maui Seaside Hotel (see my review on TripAdvisor). We had a good bento box meal at an Asian restaurant walking distance from the hotel and quickly called it a night. For the first time in weeks we slept in (until 7:30am). After breakfast at the hotel's Coconut Grill restaurant, we headed west to Lahaina. We picked up a free copy of the Lahaina historical sites walking tour map at the courthouse and used it to do a self-guided tour of the area. We continued north to Ka'anapali beach, which is lined with fancy resorts. This is a great place to have a nice stroll along the paved Beach Walk which covers most of the 3 mile white sand beach. We particularly enjoyed a detour through the Hyatt Regency Maui's lobby and grounds, which are filled with expensive artwork and exotic birds. We then rewarded ourselves with a refreshing beverage at Leilani's On The Beach in Whaler's Village. We continued our west side tour by making a quick loop north to Kapalua, site of the luxurious Ritz-Carlton resort. We then back-tracked south to the beaches of Kihei, primarily because I wanted to visually compare the South Shore to Ka'anapali. The fancier resorts are further south, while North Kihei has lots of condos and more restaurant and grocery store options. My overall impression is that if you want an effortless, pampered vacation on the beach, I would choose a Ka'anapali resort, but if you want a more down-to-earth, do-it-yourself vibe, I'd stay in a condo in Kihei. Our final stop was at a sports bar/restaurant in North Kihei to have a late lunch and a few beers (happy hour - yay!) while watching football before driving back through the sugar cane fields to the airport. It was another great weekend and I can now say I have thoroughly explored all of the Hawaiian islands except Lana'i. Of course, I will continue to explore Oahu for the remaining 4 1/2 weeks we're here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Living in Waikiki; The Big Island in 3 days

As those of you who follow me on Facebook already know, Greg & I are living in Waikiki for two months. We arrived on 16OCT and quickly settled into our one bedroom apartment about midway along the Ala Wai Canal (found through It is convenient to everything -- grocery store, restaurants, shops, the beach; and we have a wonderful lanai overlooking the canal and the inland valleys to the north. We either walk or take TheBus ($2.25/ride) everywhere. Greg works during the day, but we generally spend our free time reading, swimming in the salt water pool, exploring the area on foot, or sightseeing in Honolulu or further afield. On Friday morning, we flew to Hilo on the Big Island and picked up our rental car. Using the Fodor's Hawaii 2010 guidebook that I borrowed from the local library and a map I picked up from the tourist information center, Greg & I had already planned out our weekend. I definitely recommend doing your research before you come, especially if your time is limited, as the Big Island is huge and all the sights are quite spread out (ie, hours drive apart). We started by driving Saddle Road, which is the only road across the middle of the island, to Mauna Kea. Note that rental car companies prohibit you from driving this road, not because it's particularly dangerous or in disrepair (it appears to have been widened and repaved fairly recently) but because it is so remote and they do not want to have to come get you if you have car trouble. Also, the road up to the top of Mauna Kea, where you can see the astronomical observatory complex, is steep and unpaved for several miles. Of course, we defied our Hertz contract and drove it anyway, and were rewarded with beautiful scenery and 360 degree views. Keep in mind it is much cooler at the top of the mountain (13,796') and the air has much less oxygen, so dress in layers and be alert to signs of altitude sickness. Greg & I spent 30 minutes at the visitor center at 9000' acclimating before we drove to the top and I still felt a bit dizzy and got a headache. Our next stop was the small town of Waimea in the northwest ranch lands. We had lunch at the local coffee shop and then continued our drive down the Kohala Coast to Kailua-Kona. There are many large resorts along the Kohala coast, but note that Hwy 19 runs just inland, so in order to see the coastline up close you would need to turn off at one of the resorts and drive further west. We arrived at the Kona Tiki Hotel (see my review on TripAdvisor) in the late afternoon and dropped off our bags before driving further south on Ali'i Drive to Keauhou and back. We drank a beer at the Kona Brewing Company and had dinner at a nice sushi restaurant along the well-touristed strip of Kona. We got another early start on Saturday, driving south through coffee country to Kealakakua Bay where we watched snorkelers & kayakers interact with a group of spinner dolphins. We stopped at St Benedict's Painted Church (1875) and toured Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. From there it was about an hour drive along Hwy 11 to the turnoff for Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States. After one more hour we finally reached Volcano Village where we checked into My Island B&B (review on TripAdvisor) and based on current eruption information we put together our sightseeing plan for the remainder of the afternoon/evening. But first we had a filling lunch (panang curry chicken & green curry tofu) at Thai Thai Restaurant before driving east to Kea'au, south to Pahoa and out to Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse. I do recommend following the scenic one lane coastal road until it dead ends but the lighthouse is skippable (it's just a metal frame structure with a light on top, only remarkable for being untouched by the 1960 volcano eruption that destroyed the nearby town of Kapoho). The lava is currently flowing into the ocean at two locations west of Kalapana. The state has bulldozed a road which ends approx 1 mile from the site and the area is open for viewing from 5-8pm every night. This requires parking your car and walking across a lava field over 1/2 mile to a viewing point along the coast, which places you approx 1/2 mile from the lava flow. The scene was spectacular at sunset and as it got darker the explosive force of the red lava hitting the dark ocean and creating huge plumes of steam was pretty amazing. Note that you need well-soled, sturdy shoes for the walk as well as a flashlight to find your way back along the lava field. Having eaten a late lunch, we stopped at a grocery store in Pahoa and picked up sandwiches to eat for dinner when we returned to our b&b. We entered Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Sunday morning and spent the first half of the day driving the small section of Crater Rim Drive that is still open (most of it is closed due to Kilauea caldera venting), walking near the steam vents and hiking the Sulphur Banks trail, then hiking the Kilauea Iki trail. We stopped for lunch at the Kealakomo lookout on Chain of Craters Road, but it was so windy we had to eat in the car. We finished the drive to the end of the road, near Holei Sea Arch, and hiked to where the road has been overtaken by lava flows. We spent the remainder of the afternoon driving back to Hilo with a short detour north to Akaka Falls, then having no luck finding a sports bar or any suitable place to drink a beer and watch football, we checked in early at the airport and watched the World Series in a bar/cafe there. Overall this made a great long weekend trip from Honolulu, if you don't mind a lot of driving.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Europe trip summary & notes

In no particular order, here are my & Greg's takeaways from our two week European vacation:
We encountered more of an English barrier in Berlin than in Prague, Krakow or Budapest. There were virtually no English announcements on public transit or in the train stations or written on directional signs, so we really had to be intuitive and work together to figure out how to get from A to B. In terms of tourist friendliness, all cities had good and reasonably priced public transport. The challenge for any traveler is having to be constantly alert to schedules/changes, getting on a train/tram/subway going in the right direction and stopping at the needed location. Greg & I misread a regional train schedule modification in Berlin and wound up way out in the suburbs late one night with no way to get back to our stop until the next inbound train was coming through almost an hour later! Overall, we agreed that Prague was the most tourist-friendly city we visited. It was compact and nice for walking (beware the cobblestones and always wear well-soled walking shoes), everyone spoke adequate English, there was good food & cheap beer, and interesting attractions.
Bottom line, I have traveled extensively and I felt more secure (i.e. less threatened by pickpockets, scam artists, etc.) in the cities we visited versus Paris, Rome, Barcelona and other western European capitals. But I just want to point out, and this really has nothing to do with safety, that there are sex shops everywhere in Eastern Europe. A streetscape might look something like this: convenience store, restaurant, tobacco shop, sex shop, fast food place, bank, pharmacy. A note on children's independence: We saw kids as young as 4 or 5 taking the subway/tram by themselves. I also observed this in NYC, but it's pretty rare outside of major cities.
One inconvenience was having to handle so many different currencies. Yes, we were prepared and had printed's currency converter wallet-size cheat sheets in advance, but having to calculate how much cash we should withdraw from an ATM in each city (and incur a fee each time; many attractions, restaurants, etc. did not accept credit cards) was a nuisance. Even worse, if we had leftover money and had to convert at an exchange desk, we lost on the poor rates. I traveled to a total of six countries on my trip and had to deal with six different currencies! True, the Eastern Europe countries will probably all convert to the Euro within a few years. On the subject of credit cards, both Greg & I applied for and received Capital One cards prior to our trip. There is no annual fee nor do they charge a foreign transaction fee unlike all many other card companies.
Miscellaneous Expenses
Paying to pee: Yes, I mention this because even at some restaurants and tourist attractions (where you've already paid an entry fee or your food bill), you have to pay to use their restrooms. Typically less than $1, but still, this adds up fast! Where it was most annoying -- Berlin's Tegel airport! Come on people, where else are you going to go?!?
Environmental Awareness
As with pretty much anywhere in Europe, the majority of people take public transport to get around, or even better, walk or ride bikes. Cars are smaller and get better gas mileage. With the exception of Krakow, everywhere we went there were recycling containers every few blocks. Many places don't have air conditioning (although all the tourist-oriented ones do). Toilets are dual flush (you choose how much water is needed to clear the bowl, less or more).
Overnight trains are a great way to travel between cities without the security hassles and luggage restrictions at airports. Plus the cost includes transport & accommodation so you can save money by doing two things at once. I've previously traveled in coach sleepers, whether in a compartment with seats that pull out to form beds (and thus you are very cozy with the strangers sitting next to you) or in a 6-bed mixed sex bunk configuration, all with shared baths at either end of the car. Greg & I purchased our tickets in advance through Rail Europe and the price of a first class sleeper was only a few dollars more than coach. For our two overnight rides (Prague to Krakow; Krakow to Budapest) we had a private but still tiny compartment with three bunks on one wall (with one folded up to create more head room) outfitted with nice quality sheets, pillows and blankets. There was also a small sink and a place to hang some clothes. Bathrooms were still shared, but were a step up from the coach version. Be sure to bring water -- it's not potable on the train and many overnight trains do not have cafes or dining cars, although the first class concierge had a tiny kitchen and sold drinks and snacks.
We stayed at small pensions or B&B's in areas just on the edge of the city centers, preferring a more localized experience to the mass market/chain hotels. We also stayed in one hostel in Krakow. A cold breakfast was included in our room rates and since a typical European breakfast includes meat, cheese, and bread, along with fruit, cereal, yogurt, coffee/tea, and sometimes boiled eggs, this is a great way to decrease your food costs by eating a large breakfast then skip lunch and eat an early dinner.
More food/drink notes
Meals were heavy on the meats & starches while vegetables were almost impossible to find much less order. Tap water was drinkable everywhere, although you always have to ask for it. Bottled water or sodas cost more than beer or wine. Needless to say, we drank lots of beer! Here's a list of all the variations we tried: Berlin - Lowenbrau, Berliner, Schultheiss, Freibergitch Prague - Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Staropramen, Krusovice, Budvar, Kozel, X33 (world's strongest beer - delicious and similar to a brandy or something you sip on after dinner) Krakow - CK Browar, Zywecz, Tantra, Warda, Okocim; I also had a Ukranian beer and we tried the famous bison grass vodka (Zubrowka) in a cocktail mixed with apple juice, and a different cocktail "Mad Dog" made with vodka, raspberry liqueur, & 3 drops of Tabasco. Budapest - Dreher, Soproni, Borsodi, Borostyan. Greg forced me to eat at McDonald's under the premise that it was for historical purposes -- it was the first McDonald's ever opened behind the Iron Curtain (in Budapest). One of our most authentic dining experiences was at a Polish milk bar where no one spoke English nor was there an English menu, there were no tourists, and the food was tasty with generous portions and very low prices. The milk bars (bar mleczny) are a government-subsidized holdover from the communist era.
This trip truly was an eye-opener and an educational albeit sobering experience in terms of the devastation wrought during World War II and the human toll of both Naziism and Communism. The question Greg & I kept asking ourselves was "how could it happen and why did it take so long to stop it?" Without the instant and expansive reach of the communication methods and technology available today, the repression, forced labor, and extermination of millions of people was able to take place almost without notice. After our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Greg & I both wanted to re-watch Schindler's List, which we finally did last weekend, along with The Pianist. It is truly a testament to the human will to survive and thrive that there are today so many descendants of the persecuted.
While I did some background research prior to the trip using DK and Frommer's guidebooks, we only carried one book with us. Greg declared Rick Steves' Eastern Europe as the MVP of the trip. It provided the background/context for the places we visited, the food we ate, and the language we heard. I also recommend as pre-trip reading Rick Steves' Europe Through The Back Door and his Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler.
I've been carrying my Eagle Creek backpack and toiletry kit since my first extended trip to Europe in the late 90's. Greg recently purchased a Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On and small hanging toiletry bag. I use eBags packing cubes to keep my clothes neat and organized. During the day, I carried a PacSafe CitySafe 200 purse and Greg carried an REI Boarding Bag. My backpack weighed only 19 lbs, but my 2nd bag weighed almost 14 lbs when filled with all of my electronics, including my Acer Aspire One laptop. Luckily, since we were staying in secure locations, I could leave the computer and other items at the hotel during the day. Greg's bags weighed 25 lbs total, which is really the max you want to carry, no matter the duration of your trip. I sent Greg a detailed packing list in preparation for this trip. Note that we did not check any bags, so everything had to be suitable for carry-ons.

If you'd like to see all of my photos from this trip, here are the links:
Auschwitz & Birkenau

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Roaming around Europe

Today marks one week since I started my Europe trip. I am writing this on the train from Berlin to Prague -- right now I’m somewhere between Berlin and Dresden. The weather has been beautiful for the most part. It only rained briefly while I was in Copenhagen and has otherwise been sunny to partly cloudy with highs in the mid to upper 60‘s and lows in the low 50‘s.
17th century Nyhavn
I arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning as scheduled. I thought I lucked out and got the last first class seat from Atlanta to Copenhagen, but then, right as they were closing the airplane doors, I was asked to move to coach because the gate agents made a mistake and put someone on a higher standby priority ticket in coach. Since I was the lowest priority ticket in first class I automatically got bumped. Not the end of the world of course, but I sure was looking forward to being pampered in first class!

By reaching out via I met and stayed with a really nice girl, Rikke, who lives in Sydhavn which is two quick stops on the regional train from Copenhagen’s central station. With the exception of getting back and forth to Rikke’s apartment, I was able to walk the entire city over the course of two full days. Copenhagen is a very pedestrian and bike friendly city; it is quite flat and the major attractions are centrally located and easy to find with a good walking map. One note though -- there are very few signs in English but most Danes, particularly those under 40, speak good English and didn’t seem to mind helping if asked.
couchsurfing (in this case sleeping on the floor) in Denmark
Of the things I did, some of the most interesting/enjoyable were walking through Christiania (a counter-culture/commune type neighborhood), climbing the spire of Our Savior’s Church in Christianshavn, strolling the canal in Nyhavn, and eating a delicious and very Danish meal (smoked herring, liver paste) at Restaurant Amalie near the Amalienborg Palace.
view from Our Savior's Church
On Wednesday I took an afternoon train to Malmo, Sweden (only 30 minutes from downtown Copenhagen). Malmo is a compact town with everything walking distance from the train station. After a look inside St Petri’s church and a nice stroll on the pedestrian-only street which runs through the middle of town, I decided to give my feet a break and spent the remainder of the evening in the main library catching up on email and uploading photos.
St Peter's Church in Malmo
The overnight train to Berlin bears mention primarily because, shortly after leaving Malmo, the entire train boards a ferry where it stays in the cargo hold for the long ride across the Baltic Sea. As there are no seats on the train, only sleeping compartments, everyone passes the 8+ hours lying flat. I happened to be on a top bunk in a compartment with six beds in two tiers of three beds each. I shared the tiny compartment with four other people.
a 6-berth sleeper cabin
I intercepted Greg at Tegel airport on Thursday morning. His flight from JFK actually arrived almost an hour early, but luckily I had been able to get online at the main train station in Berlin and noticed his imminent arrival so made sure to catch an earlier bus to the airport.
We were able to check into our hotel, City Pension, early which is always a huge advantage when dealing with jet lag. After a nice hot shower and a couple of hours of sleep, we were ready to make our first foray into the city by early afternoon. Per Rick Steves’ advice, we used Bus 100 for a self-guided orientation tour, then had a nice walk around Alexanderplatz and along Unter den Linden. As most museums stay open late on Thursdays and some are also free after 6 pm, we took advantage of the opportunity to tour the Bode Museum (sculpture, religious art) and then the Gemaldegalerie (European paintings). Due to a long wait for our food at a biergarten, we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 11 pm.
We switched from art to history for our remaining two full days in Berlin. Our sightseeing on Friday included the German Historical Museum, Berlin Cathedral, Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and remnants of the Berlin wall. We were on our feet the entire day so after eating a tasty Indian meal near the Friedrichstrasse train station, I was ready to get back to the hotel, take a shower and go to bed. Unfortunately, we caught a regional express train that skipped our stop and the next stop was another 10+ minutes out of the city. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except the next train returning to the city and stopping at our station was not for another hour! So much for turning in early. It was midnight by the time we got in bed, tired but unscathed.
Berlin Cathedral
Berlin is a city for remembering the past but also embracing the future (for better or worse). Thus our sightseeing on Saturday included the Victory Tower, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Intending to go underground at Unter den Linden only to have a look at one of the ghost subway stations (unused while the wall was up), we came across a Hooters sign advertising their new location by the Tiergarten S-bahn station. Due to political rallies (see below), track closures, and buses not running, it took a major effort to get to the restaurant. Then, interestingly enough, we discovered that Hooters corporate headquarters had flown over six trainers from South Carolina, Kansas, and other U.S. states to deal with the high turnover of wait staff since the location opened late this summer. The girls had been there one month and were flying back home today. I could write pages of observations about the hour and a half we were there, but suffice it to say that I’m not so sure the trainers had accomplished much!
Today is actually election day in Germany. By 8 pm tonight, the final votes will have been cast in the once-every-four-years election for members of Parliament. Since we are traveling today, we spent a leisurely morning enjoying our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, then packing and catching up online before heading to the train station. When we tried to store our large backpacks at the Hauptbahnhof, we discovered all the lockers were full and there was a long line at the luggage counter. So we opted to keep our packs with us and walked across the Spree River to the Reichstag. Not finding a suitable place to sit and relax in the shade, we backtracked to the banks of the Spree and sat in lounge chairs (this reminded me of Paris Plage but without the sand) and drank beer until it was time to go back to the station to catch our train to Prague. As I finish typing this (after many distractions including eating a sandwich and taking photos of the Elbe River towns along the German/Czech border), we are now only 30 minutes from Prague. It’s the golden hour for photographers, with the diffused light of the setting sun making the buildings glow a soft yellow/pink.
lounging on the Spree
For links to all of my photos, click below:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Planning for Eastern Europe

Ever since we returned from Seattle, we have spent most of our spare time planning our next adventure(s). As usual, everything is fairly last minute, even if we’ve discussed the options over the course of several months. Greg is actually taking two weeks of vacation (working remotely in New York & Seattle is NOT vacation!) and we’re leaving for Eastern Europe next week. Since his time is limited, he opted to pay for a confirmed ticket from Nashville, via NY, to Berlin and then from Budapest, via NY, to Nashville. The best price and most direct flights were on Delta. Since I have much more flexibility, I decided to chance it and fly standby, also on Delta. I can still travel on my mom’s passes and just pay the yield fare, which is less than half the cost of Greg‘s coach ticket. I also get to travel first class if seats are available. Both of the international flights that Greg is booked on are oversold in coach. It would be way too risky for me to try to travel with him and potentially miss the first few days of our vacation if there truly were no seats available on his flights. I have multiple options; the biggest limitation is that many flights to that part of Europe do not operate on a daily basis at this time of year. I could just go to Berlin a few days early, but I don’t want to kill time alone in a city where he and I are spending three full days together. Delta does not fly to many airports in the vicinity of Berlin plus I’ve already seen the better part of Germany during previous trips and I’d rather go somewhere “new.” So the only viable option is Copenhagen. If all goes well, I will depart Nashville this Sunday and arrive in Denmark on Monday morning. Because there’s always a possibility that something could happen and the flight could fill up, my backup plan is to fly to any European city which operates as a transit hub (e.g. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris) and to make my way by rail to Berlin. Also, for the same reason, I cannot book advance accommodations or my overnight train ticket from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden to Berlin as I would be charged a cancellation fee by the hostel/hotel and the train ticket is not refundable. So I’m going to resort to the tried & true vagabond’s method of choice: couch surfing. I can only hope I’ll find someone with a couch available prior to Sunday! But my backup plan is to carry the contact info for my first choice hostel and hope that they have a bed if nothing else works out. Greg & I are planning to meet at our hotel in Berlin next Thursday morning. As I’m carrying my ultra-portable Acer Aspire One netbook with me, I’ll be able to keep an eye on his flight’s progress and potentially even meet him at the airport (my train from Malmo gets in several hours before his flight is scheduled to arrive). We’re going to spend 3 nights in Berlin, then take an afternoon train to Prague; 3 nights in Prague, then take an overnight train to Krakow; 3 nights in Krakow with day trip to Auschwitz, then take an overnight train to Budapest; and 3 nights in Budapest. Despite Greg’s return flight already being oversold in coach, there are still seats available in first class. So I will at least plan to go to the airport with him on the 7th and hope that I can get on his flight so we can come home together. Otherwise there’s not another flight (on Delta) out of Budapest until the 10th, so I would have to take a train to a major transit hub and try to get home from there. I am not one to stress about these things, especially since I don’t have to be anywhere until the 16th. Everywhere we’re staying has free Wifi so I’ll make every effort to post on a daily basis while we’re traveling. Until then…

Friday, September 11, 2009

Seattle summary

As usual, I’m overdue for an update as I have been settling back in to life in Nashville, TN. Before too much time elapses I want to summarize my overall impressions of our month-long stay in the Pacific Northwest. We enjoyed fantastic weather throughout the month with few exceptions (we never got rained on although it did rain a few times, mostly during the night or morning hours; the highest temp was in the mid-80’s and the lowest in the mid-50’s; the majority of days were sunny & mild; only disappointment was Mt Rainier was enveloped by clouds during our day trip to the park). We missed the record-breaking heat wave by only a couple of days and the day we departed was the only time the fog rolled in and engulfed the entire city until mid-day. The temperate conditions we experienced would be enough to make a more fool-hardy person jump at the chance to move there, but wiser residents & visitors know that the rest of the year is much more predictable in another way -- cool, damp and overcast. Another wonderful aspect of living in the area is the easy access, by inexpensive public transportation, around the cities or to the surrounding regions. True, we rented a car for three side trips (Mt Rainier, San Juan Island, and the Columbia River Gorge & Mt Hood), but even those trips were doable if we had wanted to book a bus tour, or in the case of the San Juan’s, to rent a bike or hitch a ride with one of the friendly locals. Price was another positive. Our last minute high season monthly rental of a studio w/kitchenette (with 24/7 reception, gym, laundry facilities, roof deck, etc.) in an ideal location in lower Queen Anne was only $1500. Compare this to prices in comparably-sized cities in the other parts of the U.S. and I think you’d have to pay a lot more for similar amenities and conveniences. As I’ve also already written about in some detail, we were pleasantly surprised with the very reasonable cost of food & drinks, especially at happy hour. And you can’t beat the lack of sales tax in Portland! Of course, along these lines, I also have to mention the wonderful variety of craft beers, fresh seafood, and vegetables (at this time of year anyway!) available as well as the diversity of ethnic eateries in all the places we visited. I do have to include one negative observation however. In every city we visited, particularly Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, there is a very apparent and highly numbered homeless population. And while they are definitely concentrated in certain areas more than others, they were on every bus ride we took, and seemed to be panhandling on every street and congregating in every park. In New York City, where I lived off & on for the past 10 years, I certainly observed countless numbers of homeless people on the sidewalks and in the parks. But in contrast to the unruly, loud and disrespectful behavior that we witnessed in the Northwest, as well as what appeared to be a significant number of mentally ill people roaming the streets shouting and threatening, the NYC population has a less obvious presence, possibly due to more frequent, although questionably effective, roundups by local police. I do not presume to have any answers, and in fact read in numerous publications that the city of Seattle has over 30 homeless shelters as well as centrally located job placement, healthcare, counseling and other services available to those who need them. The question is simply how to better manage the more disruptive and truly threatening members of the homeless population. The bottom line is that we had a wonderful trip (maybe Greg will add his reflections after I post this), which ultimately served as a nice way for me to wrap up another chapter in my life. As of last Friday, I have officially ended my employment with Nokia. As most of you already know, this was in my plans all along. Of course, it is always difficult to leave such wonderful friends & coworkers, not to mention NYC. But often to pursue your dreams you have to take deliberate steps and substantial risks in hopes of discovering a more fulfilling path in life. As I turn another page, I hope you will follow along with me on this journey of discovery. Next stop, Eastern Europe.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Final days in Seattle

Another recap of our wanderings of late… Last Thursday we embarked on a Capitol Hill exploration which involved taking the bus up the hill then strolling along 15th Ave to Volunteer Park. I took pictures of the dahlia blooms as we walked north across the park. We considered seeking out Bruce & Brandon Lee’s graves at Lakeview Cemetery, but we had not thought to map out their exact location in advance and it would have taken hours to just randomly happen upon them. So we crossed the street to the Lake Washington overlook and then took the bus back to the Pike/Pine area of the neighborhood. As it was only late afternoon, the more interesting aspects of the neighborhood were much less apparent. We decided to decamp back downhill to T.S. McHugh’s Irish pub in Queen Anne. Another reason why I love Seattle; McHugh’s has happy hour from 4-6pm daily with all appetizers and draft beer for only $2.50. We ordered hot wings, peel’n’eat shrimp, chicken tenders, nachos, 2 drafts, and 2 Session bottles (at $3 each) and had a filling if unhealthy dinner for only $25 including tip. Friday could be summed up as a day of waiting. We had hoped to receive an answer from Greg’s boss by the end of last week as to whether or not he can work remotely from Europe for three months this fall. Unfortunately he never heard from her last week, nor this past week either. In fact, we are STILL waiting! Luckily we only had to wait in line 20-30min for a delicious late lunch at Salumi (Mario Batali’s dad’s place). We ordered a porchetta sandwich and a mixed salami sandwich and ate at the communal table in the back of the tiny restaurant. After so much meat, we needed to wash it down with beer, so we walked down to the waterfront for happy hour at Elliott’s. Of course, it was packed, so we had to wait 20-30min for the first available table. Our reward was pints of Pyramid unfiltered amber ($3), a vodka martini ($4) and 8 oysters (6 for Greg, 2 for me; $1 each). I mention the prices only because, compared to NYC where I lived in some capacity for the past 10 years, this is a bargain! We got up early Saturday to catch the bus downtown to King Street Station for our weekend excursion to Portland, OR. The only annoying thing about taking Amtrak on the west coast is you have to get in line to check-in and receive a seat assignment. Actually, maybe it’s not so bad because on the east coast, the Acela is open seating so it’s first come first serve. If you are traveling with a group, you’re obligated to queue up pretty early if you want to get seats together. After receiving our seat assignments, we still had time to walk a few blocks to Starbucks and pick up some coffee and breakfast to take on the train. The 3½ hour train ride went by relatively quickly; Greg watched the Star Trek movie on the train‘s overhead system and I read and looked out the window. Our first stop in Portland was at REI where Greg took advantage of a sale and no sales tax to buy some new walking/hiking shoes and more travel-friendly clothing for our upcoming adventures, wherever they may take us. From there we walked to Powell’s City of Books, which I immediately fell in love with, and spent time browsing the extensive travel literature section before I picked out a book to read on the flight home (Rolf Potts‘ Marco Polo Didn‘t Go There). From there we took a bus to the Portland International Guesthouse in the Nob Hill neighborhood. This turned out to be a great alternative to a hostel for a comparable price and set up more like a simple European B&B with shared baths. Plus the surrounding area, particularly 21st and 23rd Aves, has a multitude of shops & restaurants worth exploring. We dropped off our backpacks and headed to a happy hour late lunch at McMenamin’s Blue Moon. And I thought I loved Seattle happy hour… At Blue Moon, a large basket of cajun tots, Caesar salad, burger, and 2 draft beers was only $16 including tip. Surprisingly, there is no tax on food & drink either! Needing to burn some calories, we walked up to Washington Park where we strolled the Japanese Garden (serene, nice view) and the International Rose Test Garden (beautiful, intoxicating smell). After a few hours of walking, we thought we deserved a bus ride to Old Town and a beer at a sidewalk table at Rock Bottom Brewery. As the sun set, we walked along Waterfront Park snapping pictures of the many bridges that span the Willamette River. We had dinner at Rogue Brewery, where I had one of the tastiest beers I‘ve ever drank, their Hazelnut Brown Nectar. For our free "dessert" the waitress brought us each a large shot glass filled with half & half of the Hazelnut Brown mixed with the Chocolate Stout. They call it "Snickers” and it was heavenly. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to try another locally brewed beer, we bellied up to the bar one last time at Laurelwood, which is a pub/restaurant in a converted house in Nob Hill. We also lucked out on late night happy hour and actually laughed when we received our $6 tab. Another early alarm on Sunday had us up, packed, and eating a quick breakfast at the hotel then walking to pick up the rental car downtown before 9am. We managed to get on the scenic Columbia River Gorge highway without any wrong turns and were soon winding our way up above the gorge. Unfortunately the morning started off a bit damp and foggy so we initially had very little visibility of the gorge. But it started clearing by 11am and there was only blue sky as we stopped at some of the many waterfalls along the route. Another interesting stop was the Bonneville Dam and fish hatchery where we saw Herman the Sturgeon (a massive 450lb, 10ft long, 70-year-old fish), along with ponds of rainbow trout, and migrating fish jumping up the ladders. We stopped in Hood River to get lunch where it became a bit of an ordeal trying to find a deli and nearby street parking. The town sits above the river, so as we were driving around we were able to see all the kite surfers taking advantage of the excellent weather conditions. From there we continued on to Mt Hood past mile after mile of orchards and even some alpacas. Unlike our drive to Mt Rainier a few weeks ago, when we never saw the mountain during the entire drive south and east, we were able to see all but the very tip top of Mt Hood from every angle as we drove south and west on Hwy 26. Our final destination was the Timberline ski resort, at 6000ft (Mt Hood is 11245ft tall), where we walked around the property then had a beer in the lodge‘s Ram‘s Head bar before driving back to Portland. We street parked the rental car then walked the few blocks to the train station where we were able to get our seat assignment and board the train without waiting. The 3½ hour ride back to Seattle was again uneventful and even somewhat scenic (I saw a few deer along the way). We even timed it right to catch a bus back to our home away from home with no waiting. Monday, as usual, was a recovery day. We are now focused on eating our remaining food in preparation for our imminent departure (which means yesterday‘s lunch was an interesting melange -- I made a salad for Greg with lunch meat on the side and a concoction of packets of soy sauce, honey, mustard & some cran-grape juice as the dressing). After scavenging for lunch, we decided to treat ourselves to happy hour at Peso’s Kitchen in Queen Anne where we had two draft beers, and four large appetizers (chicken & lime soup, carnitas tostadas, steak quesadillas, bacon-wrapped shrimp). Today was another typical work day, with the exception that we took a break this morning to walk down to Pike Place Market just as all the vendors were setting up. This is definitely the best time to visit the market, when you don't have to fight the crowds of tourists just to walk down the sidewalk or to get a better look at the food and other items for sale. We enjoyed coffee from the original Starbucks while we strolled through all three levels of the market. We also purchased piroshkies to take back to the apartment for lunch, cheese from Beecher's, and fresh beef jerky. I know those of you reading this who are familiar with Seattle will laugh or scoff when you read the following: for our final dinner tonight we went across the street and got Dick's hamburgers, fries, and a strawberry shake. We're returning to Nashville tomorrow and it is not without some sadness that we are leaving the Pacific Northwest. I will try to post here again by the end of the week to record my/our overall impressions from the past month.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More adventures in the Pacific Northwest

Picking up where I left off last week… Wednesday after work we walked over to the Pacific Science Center. We toured the museum, which is geared more towards children but has enough fun exhibits for people of all ages. We also watched an IMAX movie about the Lewis & Clark expedition. There was a somewhat bizarre temporary exhibit called Animal Grossology – featuring everything you ever want to know about animal & insect excretions. I enjoyed the butterfly garden, the mole rat colony, and the section devoted to Lucy, the fossil hominin discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. Thursday after work we took the bus south to the Museum of Flight, our one remaining ticket in our CityPass booklet. I was actually pleasantly surprised at the nice layout and thorough information provided in the exhibits and by the docents. Greg took a ride in the 4D simulator (I skipped this fearing it would trigger motion sickness). We also got to walk through a British Airways Concorde and retired Air Force One. We caught the bus back to Pioneer Square and had dinner at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant. The food was basic but tasty enough – I had cornmeal-battered fried oysters and Greg had spicy shrimp creole. It was another beautiful evening and we had planned to buy cheap tickets at the box office for the Seattle Sounders match. We totally underestimated how popular soccer is here! The lowest price for a single game ticket is $20, but when we showed up about 15 minutes before the game, the cheapest available seats were $45. We ended up buying ours through a reseller for $35 and were very close to field level with direct line of sight to the goal. Beer was not cheap -- $8.75 for a premium draft. We had a lot of fun – everyone was so into the match that they stood the entire time! The only unfortunate aspect of the week was that I started coming down with a cold on Thursday and by the end of the evening I was definitely sick – sore throat, sinus congestion, etc. That’s always the price you pay when you’re always on the go and not getting adequate rest. But I wasn’t about to let that interfere with our long weekend trip to BC. We got up early Friday morning and walked down to the waterfront to catch the free #99 bus to the downtown Amtrak station. I guess I’m spoiled by all the conveniences associated with taking Amtrak in NYC – Penn Station is massive and has many restaurants, delis, and other stores where you can buy just about anything. But King Street station had none of these; only a couple of vending machines. So our plan to buy breakfast to take on our 7:40AM train fell through. Luckily the train did have a cafe and we purchased breakfast sandwiches to eat at our seats. The scenic four hour ride up the coast passed quickly with the exception of lots of stops & starts once we were in proximity to Vancouver. From Pacific Central Station it was a short walk across the street to catch the SkyTrain into downtown Vancouver, and then a few blocks walk along Granville Street to our hostel. They are doing massive construction in Vancouver in preparation for the winter Olympics beginning 12FEB2010. Walking on the sidewalk involves a bit of an obstacle course, there is a fair amount of jackhammering noise and dust to contend with, and some buses are rerouted to avoid closed roads. Still, Vancouver is very much a walkable city, fairly compact and not terribly hilly. It is also very bicycle friendly, with well-marked street signs and bike lanes. After having soup & sandwiches for lunch at a grocery store café, we stopped at the Tourist Information booth for some additional maps & info and then at a drugstore so I could get sinus medication. It was another beautiful, sunny day so we walked around Chinatown, then along the waterfront facing the shipyard (where I spotted a harbor seal watching us from the water), then around to Gastown, where we stopped for a well-deserved beer. From there we walked to Yaletown (which very much resembles NY’s SoHo) and along the waterfront facing Granville Island. We decided to have dinner at Honjin Sushi, where we ordered the special “dinner for two” featuring assorted sushi, sashimi, tempura, dumplings, tofu, miso soup, and more. As we dined, a young couple was seated at the booth adjacent to our table. We didn’t take much notice of the two, but soon enough, other diners were stopping by their table asking for photos and autographs. Our dining companions turned out to be Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame. We didn’t even know for sure who they were until I was able to double check their photos online. Exhausted from a long day of travel, walking, and my dealing with a head cold, we headed back to the hostel to shower and get some rest, thankfully in a private room (but with shared bath). We got up around 7:30 Saturday morning and took advantage of the complimentary breakfast at the hostel (toast, bagels, muffins, cereal, coffee). We went ahead and packed up our backpacks and checked out, leaving the bags in storage. We had miscalculated the distance/time it would take to walk across the bridge to Granville Island, but we survived the trek and enjoyed browsing around the market. We wisened up and took a bus back into downtown and picked up our rented bikes to ride the loop around Stanley Park. This turned out to be a wonderful way to spend a few hours and we stopped intermittently to look at totem poles, lighthouses, statues, and the rose garden. From there we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags and took the SkyTrain back to Pacific Central where we boarded a coach bus to Tsawassen to catch the ferry to Victoria. The 1½ hour ferry ride was comfortable and scenic. The area we went through reminded me a lot of sections of the Inside Passage that I cruised in Alaska last year. Upon docking at Swartz Bay we hopped on the #70 bus (a double decker – Greg & I sat on the top deck in the very front) for the 40min ride into downtown Victoria. We checked into the hostel, this time in a couples dorm with 4 bunks (8 beds total). After a quick look around, we took a nice walk across the Johnson St Bridge out to Victoria Harbour where we had dinner at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub. By the end of the meal I was truly exhausted from being sick and on the go for two days straight so we called it a night. We got up relatively early again Sunday morning (7am) and packed up and were out the door by 8. We had breakfast at the oldest bakery in BC, Willie’s, where I enjoyed a delicious Pacific eggs benedict (with lox & fresh spinach) and Greg had a BLT croissant with scrambled eggs. We walked along Government Street to the Inner Harbour, reading the historic building markers along the way. We were able to take a free tour of Parliament where we learned a bit more about the architect as well as the structure of the current government. From there we walked to Beacon Hill Park, out to mile marker 0 of the Trans-Canada Highway. We walked back into town through the park, past blooming flower beds, duck ponds, a putting green, and over an old stone bridge. Then up to Chinatown and the summer Sunday market, which was really just one block of vendors selling made in Victoria clothes, jewelry, accessories, music, etc. We picked up our bags from the hostel and retraced our walk from earlier in the day as we had spotted a sign at a café advertising the #1 coffee in the world, Panama La Carleida, which they were selling for $10 per 8oz cup or $105 per ½ lb. We were treated to silver service and sipped our coffee slowly, savoring every drop (although Greg drank his as if it were Starbucks!). We then walked back along the waterfront to Inner Harbour where we enjoyed a beer outside overlooking the harbor. Wanting to continue the outdoors theme, we had a late lunch/early dinner at the rooftop beach club of a nearby hotel accompanied by a pitcher of Kokanee beer. Then it was time to check in for our boat ride back to Seattle – not on a ferry but something along the lines of a yacht with capacity for around 300 people and an interior very similar to an airplane. It was a bit choppy in the more open water around the Strait of Juan de Fuca but I fought off motion sickness with some ginger candy and just by sitting quietly and not trying to focus on anything. We docked in Seattle around 9:45PM and cleared customs then walked back “home” to Queen Anne and quickly called it a night. Monday & Tuesday were recovery days for me. Very nice to be able to work from the hotel, do laundry, cook dinner, and just rest & relax. I did make one foray into downtown Seattle to drop off a few books at the central library and also picked up a few things at the ExOfficio store in Belltown. Today Greg & I celebrated our six month anniversary. Actually, celebrated is a bit of an exaggeration considering neither one of us knew in advance that today was different than any other day. I just happened to be going through my work calendar from earlier this year and noticed that today marked six months of our being together. The time has flown by and we have crammed in a lot in those months – Greg came up to NYC to stay with me for the better part of April & June, we took some mini vacations on the beach and in the mountains, we jumped out of an airplane together, we celebrated birthdays and shared meals with family and friends in Nashville, and now we have lived in Seattle for the past month. So what did we do to fete the occasion? Took the bus to Interbay and had lunch at Red Mill, a burger joint featured on Man v Food on the Travel Channel (and the last on our list of restaurants featured in the Seattle episode). We pigged out on supersize bacon cheeseburgers and onion rings and then returned to the hotel to finish working for the day before enjoying a beer on the roof deck with a clear view of Mt Rainier. It’s hard to believe we’re down to our last week here. We really only have a few more days left in Seattle since we’re going to Portland this weekend. So we’ve been making our final list of top things to see & do before we leave. Of course, it involves food and beer for the most part!!!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

San Juans & more

Another activity-filled weekend has come & gone. The more time I spend in the Pacific Northwest, the more convinced I am that I should live in this general area some time in the future. On Friday afternoon Greg & I took a charter bus service up to Anacortes and then the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We picked up our rental car and dropped off our stuff at Brendan’s house (our gracious host for the night whom I found on Brendan gave us some tips on what to do and where to eat. As it turned out, the San Juan County Fair was in progress so we walked from Brendan’s house to the fairgrounds. We spent the evening observing the locals & livestock and checking out all the exhibitors and noted that the weather felt more like October than August. We got up early Saturday morning and had breakfast in town to fuel up for our whale watching trip with Jim Maya’s Westside Charters. We drove up the west side of the island to Snug Harbor where Jim’s boat was docked. It was a beautiful drive in the morning sunlight and we had nice views of farmland and the coast. Jim proved to be an entertaining host to our group, made up of a couple from Toronto, two women from Florida and Greg & I. Things started out fairly quiet -- there had been no whale sightings at the time we left the dock. But soon enough the calls started coming in and we zipped over to meet up with the orcas of J Pod. We ended up staying with them all morning as they were very active -- spy hopping, jumping, feeding, and generally frolicking in all directions. We also saw a bald eagle, harbor porpoises, and harbor seals. This is my second time to whale watch on a small, private boat (first time was in Icy Strait Point, AK last year) and, compared to the large group tours which I have also done, I highly recommend this more personalized experience. Greg & I spent the early afternoon driving around the north end of the island at Roche Harbor and we stopped at an oyster farm where we shucked and ate fresh European belon and Pacific oysters. Our final island destination was the American Camp, which was established in 1859 when the U.S. and Great Britain jointly occupied the island. It is now a National Park and offers great coastal hiking along with a dose of history. We picked up dinner in Friday Harbor and boarded the ferry back to Anacortes and from there caught the charter bus back to Seattle. All in all it was a great 24 hour getaway! We did not initially have a plan for Sunday other than to sleep in a bit (if you call 8am sleeping in!). But then Greg suggested we check another Man vs. Food restaurant off our list, so we caught a bus up to Green Lake and had breakfast at Beth’s Café. If you did not happen to see the episode in question on the Travel Channel, Beth’s is famous for being one of the best places in Seattle to nurse a hangover because they offer all you can eat hash browns. But that’s in addition to your choice of a 6 egg or 12 egg omelet! Greg & I wisely opted to split a 6 egg omelet but we did get a second order of hash browns. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was very much informal diner, and despite having to wait 30 minutes for a table, we really enjoyed the experience. Not to mention that Beth’s is ideally located a block from the north end of Green Lake, which has a great walking path around the entire lake -- perfect for burning some calories after a big meal! We did walk the west side of the lake, but then detoured up to Woodland Park Zoo for an afternoon with the animals. It was definitely one of the better zoos I’ve been to, as it has a more open plan with plenty of space for the animals to roam. This also means that visitors often won’t be able to see all the animals as they may be hanging out in an area that’s not visible from the general viewing area. For the most part we got a glimpse of everything we wanted to see with the exception of the tigers, baby snow leopards, and hippos. The weather was absolutely gorgeous -- warm (in the mid-70’s) and clear blue skies. For the first time since we landed in Seattle two weeks ago we were able to see Mt Rainier from the roof deck of our hotel. Not wanting to miss what can be a fleeting opportunity to take pics of the mountain, we used the second voucher from our City Pass (the first was the zoo) and went to the top of the Space Needle for 360° views of the city. As an added bonus, we also enjoyed the most colorful sunset we’ve seen yet. Of course it was back to work at 6am Monday morning, but now that our City Passes are activated (and only good for 9 days), we’ve been spending the late afternoons doing more touristy things. Monday we visited the Seattle Aquarium, which is small compared to some of the other great aquariums I’ve been to like Monterey Bay or the Tennessee Aquarium, but it still had some interesting exhibits and we enjoyed watching the octopus feeding and seeing the harbor seals and otters. Afterwards we sought out an authentic Mexican restaurant below Pike Place Market called El Puerco Lloron. You pick what you want off a handwritten menu on the wall, place your order with the counter staff who prep the food in front of you, and then you take your own tray to your table. The food was delicious and the price was right -- all the entrees were under $9. Yesterday we took the one hour harbor cruise on Argosy Tours’ Spirit of Seattle. But first we enjoyed happy hour at Elliott’s Oyster House, where the price of oysters starts at $0.50 at 3pm and increases by .25 every half hour. And draft beer was only $3! Not to mention we were sitting outside enjoying a view of downtown and the harbor. The cruise was a nice way to see the skyline from the water as well as get an up close look at the shipyard. And Greg was pleased that the boat had a full bar and draft beer was only $5.50. We’ve only got a couple more attractions left on our CityPass which we should be able to knock out in the next two days. The weather continues to be wonderful and is actually getting into the 80’s this week. We’re off to Vancouver & Victoria this weekend, so will update again after that side trip.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summary of Seattle Week 1

It’s hard to believe our first full week in Seattle has come & gone. We’ve been blessed with almost perfect weather since we’ve been here – sunny with highs in the 70’s or even cooler. I rarely leave the apartment without my fleece jacket! It finally rained for the first time Monday and I was actually grateful for it as I don’t want Greg to get the idea that the weather is always like this here. We’ve been enjoying walking along the waterfront to downtown, through or alongside the Olympic Sculpture Park. We’ve also pretty thoroughly explored our little neighborhood of Lower Queen Anne at this point. One of our favorite things to do is take a break from work and go up to the roof deck for fresh air and beautiful views. Last Saturday we went to Mt Rainier. Since we booked the rental car at the last minute, there were no vehicles available for pickup in the downtown area, so we took the train out to the airport and picked up our car there around 8am. The drive to the mountain was easy and took about two hours. Unfortunately there were clouds surrounding the mountain the entire day, so we never got to see the summit. But it didn’t rain, so we hiked through the subalpine meadows, and drove to both Paradise on the southwest side of the mountain & Sunrise on the northeast. It cleared up enough while we were at Sunrise that we were able to see Emmons glacier and a fair amount of the Cascades range. We dropped the car off at the airport after 8pm and took the train and monorail back home. On Sunday we went to a Mariners game at Safeco Field. From the hotel we can walk about 15min down to the waterfront (the northern end of Alaskan Way) and catch the free bus that runs all the way down Alaskan Way and then turns east to Pioneer Square and the International District. From there it’s just a few blocks walk to Qwest Stadium and Safeco Field. One thing we noticed as we approached the stadium were all the vendors set up along the street selling typical ballpark snacks (sunflower seeds, peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, etc). The difference here was that everything except beverages could be taken into the park. You could even buy a whole pizza and take it in with you! We opted instead to go to Pyramid Brewery, which is located across the street from Safeco, and ate lunch and drank beer there before going into the stadium. Speaking of beer, we were hoping stadium prices would be lower than at the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York. But a premium draft beer was still $8.75. It was a fun game and despite only paying $22 apiece for our upper level seats, we had a great view directly behind home plate and weren’t straining to see at all. The Mariners won the game 11-2 and Russell Branyan even hit a grand slam. But to Greg’s disappointment, there was no appearance by Ken Griffey, Jr. After the game we walked to the massive Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, and admired the wide variety of foods available there. We then walked uphill to the Danny Woo International District Community Gardens. This is where elderly and low-income neighborhood residents can grow fruit and vegetables. We took the free bus back up Alaskan Way and walked home, noticing the three huge cruise ships at port and the influx of tourists along the piers. On Tuesday after work we took a local bus across town to the REI flagship store. Believe it or not, we didn’t buy anything but had fun checking out the latest and greatest outdoor gear. We then walked north to Lake Union and checked out the Center for Wooden Boats. Although rain was in the forecast, it was actually fairly sunny so we walked along the piers and then had happy hour drinks at Duke’s. Much to Greg’s delight, we also came across the only Hooters in Seattle so that became our dinner destination. After a pitcher of beer and unlimited wings, we decided we’d better walk home to burn some calories. We checked our map and saw that we could just follow Mercer or Republican all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the map did not indicate that we would have to cross some busy streets with no crosswalks and concrete lane dividers. It became a bit of an obstacle course, but we made it back unscathed and went up on the roof deck to take some night shots of the Space Needle and downtown Seattle. Tomorrow afternoon we’re on our way to the San Juan Islands. We’ll only be gone one night, but are particularly looking forward to whale watching on Saturday.