With Dani and Trish moving to Vancouver, we decided to sell our condo in Chicago. So Linda and I flew to Chicago to cat sit while the girls explored Vancouver for a week, then we loaded up a rental minivan with items we wanted from our condo and bid it farewell, as we headed out.
There were some stops Dani and I had missed on our previously shortened road trip, so we set out in completely the wrong direction, heading east through Iowa, then south to Kansas City. These stops turned out to be the highlight of our trip, so I’m glad we did so.
Here are a few notes and photos. You can find photos and reviews of all the restaurants on my blog at forkingorlando.com
June 3, 2023
Start Chicago, IL
1 La herradura mexican grill 540 N Cody Rd, Le Claire, IA, US
Picked at random, it’s in the cute touristy town of Le Claire, overlooking the river. It was pretty good.
2 Antique Archaeology 115 Davenport St, Le Claire, IA, US
This is the shop run by the people on the TV show American Pickers. Pretty much what you’d expect, plus a lot of American Pickers merch. Friendly staff.
3 Iowa 80 Trucking Museum 505 Sterling Dr, Walcott, IA, US
I’m not into cars or trucks, but this was a great spot, with hundreds of vehicles brought to life by interesting signs about their histories. Highly recommended.
4 Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum 210 Parkside Dr, West Branch, IA, US
Terrific museum! This really brought the man to life. I had no idea about all his great accomplishments because he got stuck being associated with the Depression. He did so much during his life. A must-see stop!
5 The Voyage Home Museum 361 E. 1st Street, Suite 2, Riverside, IA, US The Voyage Home Museum
This seedy little store is worse than I expected, definitely not worth an hour detour.
6 Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk 60 Greene St, Riverside, IA, US
Just a photo stop in a town that cleverly linked themselves to the fanchise. Skip it.
7 Surety Hotel 206 6th Ave, Des Moines, IA, US
Okay hotel in a very sketchy downtown.
8 801 Chophouse 801 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA, US
Good and popular steakhouse.
June 4, 2023
9 Betty’s Place 4766 State Hwy Pp, Holt, MO 64048
Yelp says it’s closed, but Google listed it, and it was a good dive diner. They have no phone service, so no credit cards, so maybe it is sort of closed. Still, the over-seventy after-church crowd packed the place!
10 Arabia Steamboat Museum 400 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO, US
This is a stunning museum about a steamboat that sank in 1852 and the team that unearthed it from 45 feet under a cornfield 150 years later. The entire cargo was perfectly preserved, and is on display. It’s a stunning glimpse into luxury goods of the time in brand-new condition. The presentation and flow of the museum is among the best I’ve seen. Well worth the trip to Kansas City.
11 The Raphael Hotel, Autograph Collection 325 Ward Parkway, Kansas City, MO, US
Fabulous service at this historic hotel. Every member of the staff was just so darned glad we were there! Best Autograph Hotel I’ve stayed at. Right on the “creek” in the center of Kansas City’s beautiful Plaza district.
12 Gram & Dun 600 Ward Pkwy, Kansas City, MO, US
Funky, almost Googie architecture and right on the “creek” through Kansas City’s Plaza district. Good small plates.
June 5, 2023
13 Aixios French Bistro Kansas City, MO
Found at random, this French bistro is the real deal. Located on a charming upscale street across from the park.
14 The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures 5235 Oak St, Kansas City, MO, US
Wow, I went for the toys, but it was the miniatures that blew me away. We could have spent all day here.
June 6, 2023
15 Rama Thai 1129 E Walnut St, Springfield, MO, US
Random stop for lunch. Located in a historic house that has likely been many things. Decent Thai food, friendly service.
16 Hotel Napoleon, Ascend Hotel Collection Member 179 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN, US
What a dump! I need to stop making reservations at Hilton affiliates. No bathroom door. That was a first. It had apparently broken and simply been removed. The towel hook fell off the wall. No bellman, no valet, no one at the front desk for ten minutes. Seedy neighborhood (well, it’s Memphis). Would recommend to my enemies.
17 Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar 39 S Main St, Memphis, TN, US
We’d been here before so it’s why we stayed nearby. Interesting concept where everything comes in threes, whether wine, appetizers, or even entrees. As good as it was the first time. If you need to be in Memphis, eat here. We also walked to the nearby Peabody for a drink in the lobby. We stayed there before, but it’s not a great hotel. Dani and I stayed at an airbnb in Memphis in the suburban gayborhood, which is a much better approach.
June 7, 2023
18 Old Town Mexican Grill 116 Commercial Pkwy, Canton, MS, US
Okay Mexican food conveniently located next to a Love’s travel stop.
19 One11 Hotel 111 Iberville St, New Orleans, LA, US
Probably the last new hotel to ever open in the French Quarter due to zoning, this is a very stylish remodel of a historic sugar warehouse. Neat room design.
20 Batture Bistro and Bar 111 Iberville St, New Orleans, LA, US
The hotel’s cafe serves pre-prepared cold plates in the evening, and a continental breakfast. Okay if you’re staying there, but otherwise you can do better.
June 8, 2023
21 Curio 301 Royal St, New Orleans, LA, US
This corner cafe in the French Quarter offers something we haven’t seen anywhere else in New Orleans: a tasting sampler of all the standards. It was great to taste étouffée, red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya, side by side. My favorite was the étouffée, although the red beans and rice are also excellent. They also make a good shrimp Po’boy sandwich.
22 Restaurant R’evolution 777 Bienville St, New Orleans, LA, US
We had been impressed by this upscale restaurant on a visit quite a few years ago, and it continues to be outstanding. 10,000 bottle wine list!
June 9, 2023
23 DoubleTree by Hilton Tallahassee 101 S Adams St Fl 32301, Tallahassee, FL, US
Another Hilton-affiliated dump. The lobby looks like a cross between a bordello and a third-grade classroom decorating project. Dingy.
24 Savour 115 E Park Ave, Tallahassee, FL, US
Adjacent to the hotel, so convenient. The food was overwhelmed by an obnoxiously loud six-top next to us.
Date: June 10, 2023
25 Sensei Asian Bistro Gainesville, FL
We were headed for a sports bar, but it was packed, so we went to this place next door, which was empty. It was empty because even at dinner it would be expensive, and at lunch that makes it outrageous. That said, it was good. Lots of fresh sashimi (although no soy sauce was served, which was a bit odd). The lobster fried rice was the best I’ve ever had. it was also $37.
For our first post-pandemic trip out of the country, we decided to book a Tauck river cruise on the Danube. It would allow us to visit several cities and countries we hadn’t been to before.
To allow us time to get on schedule I booked several days in London beforehand.
We began our travels Sunday evening, April 23, flying out of the new Terminal C at Orlando International Airport. It’s a beautiful terminal. The first-class lounge is okay, nothing spectacular, but it has a great kids’ area designed to wear them out before they get on the plane. Brilliant.
I had found some great deals on business-class flights using Chase membership miles, so we have a weird assortment of airlines. Our first was Iceland Air, connecting through Reykjavik. (In retrospect, none of them except the final Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando was what you would expect from business class, but that was the most important one.)
The trade-off for the great price was a tired 757 with no beds in first class, but the flight to Iceland was only seven hours, and the views of the Greenland ice cap and the Aurora made up for it.
Keflavík Airport is the largest airport in Iceland and the country’s main hub for international transportation. The airport is 50 km southwest of Reykjavík. It’s an okay terminal, but the planes don’t pull up to gates, and the connection by buses on the tarmac is a bit inconvenient. I have no idea what they do with wheelchair-bound passengers.
After a short layover, the flight to London (on a much newer 737 Max) was only two hours. Aside from the mile walk from the gate to immigration, Heathrow Airport was a breeze. Immigration is now all electronic, with passport and face scans, and in no time we had our baggage and met Eddie Manning, our long-time driver while in London. We’ve used Eddie for about ten years now, and I highly recommend him.
The trip into London was slow, as always, complicated by road closures left over from the previous day’s London Marathon.
We tried a new hotel this trip, The St. Martin’s Lane Hotel, and it turned out to be great. It’s ideally located a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Leicester Square tube station. Our room was one of two large ones in the hotel, in a very utilitarian U shape. It wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, so we hung out in the downstairs cafe, which was a bit weird–my Caesar Salad was more like a bowl of Caesar dressing with a head of lettuce in it!–but tasty enough.
Once our room was ready we got several hours of much-needed sleep, then walked a few blocks to our favorite restaurant in London, Clos Maggiore.
What a meal! Probably a top ten of all time. We sat in a room we hadn’t been in before, an intimate upstairs space with a cozy fireplace. Not a tasting menu, but just two stellar courses that couldn’t have been better. My scallops starter and white asparagus entry were simply stunning. But the real show-stopper was a sublime Grand Cru Burgundy: 2005 Clos de la Roche from Nicolas Potel. I don’t think we will be able to top this meal on the trip!
Tuesday we slept in, and had a lovely traditional French brasserie lunch next door to the hotel at Côte.
After lunch, we walked over to Covent Garden to check out the London Transport Museum. It does a great job of interpreting the history of transport from horses through the latest tube extensions. The signage is just right, interpretive without being overwhelming, and for kids (of whom there were many) there are lots of things to climb on and buttons to push.
Then after another nap, we headed to dinner at our other favorite restaurant, the Michelin-starred Pied a Terre.
Perhaps it was just memories of the night before, but the ten-course tasting menu didn’t really stand out. However, the thing we really love about this restaurant is that they will serve the wine pairings blind and let you guess. So between one standard pairing and one reserve pairing, we had 18 wines to identify!
We did fairly well with varietals (at least the Sommelier said he was impressed) but not so much on regions. It was hard, though–Mourvedre from Greece, and Riesling for Marlborough? Who knew?
Wednesday didn’t quite go as planned.
We slept in and then went to lunch at another charming bistro, Le Garrick, just off Trafalgar Square.
In the afternoon we had a short nap in preparation for seeing The Play That Goes Wrong, one of the funniest things we’d seen in the US from a touring company, and still playing in London at the original theatre. But just as we were about to leave for the show, I got an email from Air France saying our flight Thursday from London to our Paris connection had been delayed. Then I got another email saying they’d rebooked us on another flight at 6:20am so we could make our connection. This meant getting up at 3:00am! Yikes. So I gave our tickets to the concierge at our hotel in the hopes that someone else could use them. Fortunately, shows are much cheaper in London, and these tickets (I had somehow gotten fourth-row center in a fully booked theatre) were only 50 pounds each. Ah well. After a quick light bite at Côte, we went to bed.
To no avail, for me, anyway. Knowing we had a flight in just a few hours, I just couldn’t get to sleep. Oh well.
Eddie Manning dutifully picked us up at 4am, and we headed to Heathrow.
It took only 37 minutes to fly to Paris, and another two hours to Krakow, but with the now almost five-hour layover, we arrived just in time for our 5pm welcome dinner in the salt mine.
There are nine levels to the mine, but our dinner was only on the third level down, at about 400 feet. The elevator was quite fast, a good thing given how we were squeezed in!
This was not a working mine, it is historic, and was clearly hand carved.
Quite a few spaces have been carved into rooms and chapels.
Dinner was really quite good, and it was nice to get to meet some of our fellow travelers. While the river ship can accommodate over 120, we learned there are only 42 on this tour. Perhaps starting in Krakow seemed too close to the war in Ukraine for some, although it’s hundreds of miles away.
It was nice to finally get some sleep after 36 hours!
The next morning we met for a walking tour of the old city, making our way from the hotel to the market square.
It is tradition to play a tune on a bugle in all four directions from one of the towers, every hour, even all night (so don’t stay in a hotel on the square!) The fourth time, the tune ends abruptly to commemorate a bugler who was shot in the throat while warning of an attack.
They serve only breakfast until noon at the restaurant in the square, so I had French breakfast and coffee, and then Linda got a tuna sub from Subway on the way back to the hotel.
In the afternoon we took a 90-minute bus ride to Auschwitz, the first of the Extermination Camps built by the Nazis. It was not what I was expecting, as it is not a wooden stalag, but rather brick buildings constructed as Polish army barracks prior to WWII.
Until 1942 it was a concentration camp mostly for non-Jews, with the intent of killing Russian prisoners and anyone else who couldn’t work in the nearby factories, (which was almost everyone). After that it was a place to gas and cremate as many Jews, Poles, and gypsies as efficiently as possible, 1.4 million in all.
I chose not to take any photos inside the camp.
In the evening we had dinner at the hotel. We chose to sleep in on Saturday, skipping another walking tour, and spent the day at the hotel resting up.
Sunday was the all-day bus ride from Poland through Slovakia to Esztergom, Hungary to board our Danube River cruise boat, The M.S. Joy. The drive through the Carpathian mountains was really beautiful, with many villages, meadows, and mountains still encrusted with a bit of snow. Our lunch stop was at a ski resort near the top of the pass.
The ship is lovely, with large cabins and bathrooms, a Panorama lounge, Compass Rose dining room, and Arthur’s informal all-day dining room. Since we are at 1/3 capacity, there are almost as many crew as guests! The staff is wonderfully welcoming.
Our tour guide said in case the ship sinks, just go up on the sun deck. The river isn’t that deep!
Dinner was a bit disappointing. Not bad, but certainly not Oceania-level dining. And despite the large number of dining staff, some experience and further training are needed.
As usual, I got a cold shortly after the trip began, but have been muddling through. My first night on the ship was pretty restless, and we were both tired after all the travel. Also, May 1st is a holiday, with most shops closed, so we decided to skip the walking tour of Bratislava and have a quiet day.
One thing different about river cruises from ocean cruises is the view when docked. The ships dock side by side, so your view is likely to be of the ship next to yours. In fact, the passengers must often pass through other ships in order to get to and from the port! (This was actually the only time that happened on our cruise.)
In the morning Linda went on a tour of a palace in Vienna, and took a selfie. It might be her first!
In the afternoon she toured the ship’s helm.
We’ve been eating dinner in Arthur’s at the rear of the ship. The server there, Alex, is fantastic. The food is actually better and fresher than in the main dining room, and there’s almost no one there, so it’s like a private restaurant.
Well, Linda got the sniffles just as I was recovering, so I headed off to the Tauck dinner in Vienna on my own. It was in a beautiful palace. The seven-piece chamber orchestra, four opera singers, and two dancers were all extremely talented. The music consisted largely of waltzes, most by people named ‘Strauss’ which means ‘bunch’, so a bunch of bunches. There was a lot of opera. So much opera.
The next day I went on a short morning excursion to Krems, an old town with a population of 25,000. There is a single main street in the old part of town, which is mostly tourist shops now.
We visited an ornate church, and an eclectic museum in an abandoned abbey.
In the cellar they had some beautifully carved old wine barrels, one of which had a carved cat on it.
The story was that the cellar cat would sit on the warmest barrel, which due to its high sugar content was the most prized wine, so that’s the one people wanted to buy. Of course, before the buyers arrived the winemaker no doubt put the cat on the barrel he wanted to sell!
Back at the ship, we went to lunch in the main dining room. Wow, the food is uninspired there. Not sure why it’s so poor, but that’s why we’ve been living on pub food at Arthur’s at the rear of the ship.
We cruised up the river to Spitz where I took a short drive to Weingut Christoph Donabaum, a small 2000-case winery, for a wine tasting hosted by the owner and his girlfriend. We had two 2022 Grüner Veltliners and the tartest Riesling I’ve ever had.
We had dinner at Arthur’s, which we again had to ourselves, with our delightful server Alex, who has been the highlight of our trip. Arthur’s looks out the rear of the ship, so we got to watch as we passed through a lock.
Friday Linda was still sick, so I did the trip to the lakes region of the Austrian Alps solo. This is the area Americans associate with The Sound of Music, although Austrians aren’t into that movie. We took a boat ride across one long lake, then reboarded our bus and drove to another lake and the town of Saint Wolfgang. He’s a saint because he decided to build a church there 1000 years ago, and also struck the ground with his staff and water bubbled up that magically cures your eyes, yada, yada, yada.
The town is very good at monetizing things. You can buy holy water, salt, salami, fake leather purses, and cuckoo clocks, all within feet of one another.
We’ve been seeing these things in every town:
They’re not cell towers. They’re Maypoles. They’re put up the last day of April (by hand) and then guarded for a few days. If the neighboring town manages to vandalize it, you have to buy them drinks. Or something like that.
We had lunch at Dorf-Alm zu St. Wolfgang, a decent meal of sauteed perch and boiled potatoes. I liked their barstools.
Lunch entertainment was provided by our guide’s husband, as this is the town they are from (or close to it). She had traveled by train to meet us in Linz this morning, and will need to go back tonight. It’s about 1-1/2 hours by train, but the cost is essentially free, since you pay 1000 Euro a year for all transportation. The bus ride back to the ship was mostly on high-speed highway, and we were back before 5pm.
The chef’s “signature dinner” was at 7pm in the dining room for everyone, and was actually pretty good.
Saturday Linda was still under the weather, so we skipped the walking tour, and after lunch at Arthur’s, I went for a short walk around Passau, Germany.
Sunday we said goodbye to our ship and took the bus to Regensberg, perhaps the most interesting of the cities we’ve visited on this trip.
The city has a long history, and you can easily spot the Roman fortifications on which the central part is constructed.
Monday morning we should have gone to breakfast earlier–it’s fantastic, with several rooms of buffet including Champagne and caviar! We did a short walking and driving tour around Central Berlin. Our hotel is really near the Brandenburg Gate (it’s outside our window) and it’s really interesting to see all the vibrant new buildings that stretch through the center of the city on the former no-man’s-zone or killing ground where the Berlin Wall was. There’s little trace of it any more, save for some different colored paving stones.
We visited a few of the locations of Nazi bunkers and such, but there is nothing left, as they have been intentionally erased. We also visited an excellent museum about WWII, Topographie Des Terrors, and I ordered a book that contains everything in the museum to look through at our leisure. We also passed tourist spots such as a reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie, and the place where Kennedy delivered his address.
It’s no longer obvious where East or West Berlin was, as there has been so much modern development. The city is obviously thriving, and is really quite attractive.
After a restful afternoon we walked a few blocks to the two-Michelin-starred Facil for a lovely dinner.
After another amazing breakfast buffet at the Hotel Adlon we took a short bus tour around the city again and spent a couple hours at the Pergamon Museum.
It’s like a tiny version of the British Museum, filled with things stolen from elsewhere.
We split off from the group’s German lunch and wandered back through the Brandenburg Gate and had lunch at Mama Trattoria, across the street from our hotel.
Today is May 9th, traditionally Victory Day, which commemorates Russia’s defeat of the Nazis in WWII. However this year, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin actually tried to ban the display of Russian flags. That didn’t go through, so both Russian and Ukranian flags are on display, but celebrations are muted and there is a large police presence everywhere.
The most likely thing to disrupt traffic in Europe this year, which we encountered in Vienna and Berlin, is protestors gluing their hands to the pavement in intersections to protest climate change. I’m not sure how tying up idling cars for hours improves the climate, but whatever. Because it’s very good glue, the authorities have to cut the chunk of pavement out with their hand still attached, and then send them a bill for repaving. Meanwhile, in Paris, they are still protesting raising the retirement age from 62 to 64! Also while on this trip Charles II was crowned in London. Glad we missed that by a week!
We finished our tour with a lovely visit to the Reichstag, with a view overlooking all of Berlin, and a lovely farewell dinner. A talk by a former escapee from East Germany was the climax.
Then it was back to the hotel for some sleep before our early wake up call to fly home on Aer Lingus via Dublin to Orlando.
In all, an interesting trip with some good highlights, a great group of people, and the usual Tauck professionalism.
In June 2022 Dani and I flew to LA and rented and SUV to bring some keepsakes from Grandma Marjorie’s house back to Chicago. We wanted to take our time and visit interesting attractions over a two-week drive. The original idea was to follow Route 66, but using Roadtrippers I found there were lots more interesting stops if we made our own route.
After loading two wooden trunks of china and a few boxes of antique curios into the car we headed for our first overnight stay, in San Bernardino, at one of the two surviving Wigwam motels. The room was actually a lot nice than we were expecting, and it was, indeed, neat to sleep in a teepee. Most of the rest of our accommodations would be Airbnbs, and all were really nice.
We made a quick stop to admire some dinosaurs in Cabazon.
Then we made the long drive across the desert to Phoenix, arriving early enough that we had time to spend the 106-degree afternoon at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium.
On the way to Sedona we stopped at a couple of wineries and followed the recommendation of the pourer at Chateau Tumbleweed to visit the cute mountainside town of Jerome. Sedona is a pretty setting, but the town is just a tourist trap.
About twenty miles outside of Flagstaff you’ll find Twin Arrows… if you hurry. They’re already down to one arrow.
Continuing across the desert we stopped at the spectacular Meteor Crater, which I remember being impressed by in my childhood.
Then it was time for lunch and a photo op on the corner in Winslow Arizona made famous in the Eagle’s Takin’ It Easy.
We drove through the petrified forest, and on to Albequerque. We’d hoped to stop at a lava tube ice cave(!) but forgot about the time change.
The next day we spent quite a bit of time in the excellent National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and then took the Sandia Peak Tramway up to 10,300 feet, and a panoramic view of very flat Albequerque. That may sound high, but it’s worth noting that much of this trip was at six to seven thousand feet. It’s easy to forget how high the high desert is.
We took the scenic route to Santa Fe, stopping at the fascinating Tinkertown, one man’s life’s work of building miniature dioramas and collecting… well, just about everything imaginable. He has passed away, but his wife continues to run the place, and I highly recommend it as a fun and funky stop.
Santa Fe wasn’t terribly interesting, but we happened to be there during their Pride Festival, which was fun to walk through. I had intended to visit the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, but hadn’t made reservations, and didn’t want to wait, so we headed for Taos by scenic backroads.
We spent two nights at Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa in Taos. After all the driving, I figured it would give us a chance to relax, and that was indeed the case, although in a somewhat unexpected way. Our two-bedroom suite was beautiful, spacious, and decorated in a Japanese style. It was the perfect place to hang out when it started to monsoon for both days!
Unfortunately, its perfection didn’t extend to the roof, and I was awakened early in the morning by water dripping onto my head. I don’t think rain is that unusual this time of year in Taos, but the roof was leaking like a sieve. I called maintenance, and a very young kid said they couldn’t fix it, handed me two buckets, and left.
So that’s how we moved to Texas. The Texas-themed room, I mean. Which was identical except for Texan decor (I use antlers in all of my decorating) instead of Japanese, and the absence of a hole in the roof. Despite the steady rain, our stay was quite pleasant. We enjoyed relaxing in the room and grazing in the bar.
Now a week into our trip, we turned North and headed for Colorado Springs, stopping at the bizarre Bishop’s Castle on the way. The work of one crazy, antisocial guy, this very-not-OSHA-approved flight of fancy is still under construction. It’s definitely Colorado’s most unique roadside attraction, and well worth taking the scenic route to explore it.
I’ve always wanted to visit Michael Garman’s Magic Town, and the northern trajectory of our trip was designed specifically for this. Dani and I missed it on our previous Colorado road trip, and it’s definitely something you don’t want to miss.
It represents over forty years of the artist’s life, with intricate and evocative carved people, detailed buildings, and great use of mirrors and Pepper’s Ghost effects to create an entire walkthrough miniature town. It’s hard to convey just how neat this is.
Kansas has more cool attractions than I would have guessed. The Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City is one of the best I’ve been to. It features a large new building with great use of audio/video displays to present historic figures telling their stories in period settings. Then you have a chance to walk through a street of interconnected shops filled with historical displays and costumed performers acting as shopkeepers, bartenders, and other characters.
It’s also worth spending the night in quaint Hutchinson Kansas to afford plenty of time to see the Kansas Underground Salt Museum (STRATACA). You descend 650 feet into a working salt mine to see the process and explore its history. There’s an informative tram tour and a train that runs on the original tracks. The mine is also used for records and artifacts storage of Hollywood films and props, so there are exhibits devoted to that as well.
We had more stops planned for St. Louis and in Iowa, but Dani was getting a sore throat, so we decided to catch those later, and made a 733-mile beeline from Kansas to Chicago, arriving three days early. We’ll go back and pick up the rest of those stops on some future mini-road trip.
Total distance traveled: 2660 miles in 10 days. Here’s our complete itinerary including our stays and restaurants:
This was a delightful 12-day trip around Washington State and part of Oregon. Dani and I initially planned it, but I was able to talk Linda into going, too. It was so much fun to have the whole family traveling together!
I’ve embedded the best travel photos, but for photos of the meals and wineries, click on the links to my Yelp reviews.
Monday, August 2, 2021 — Seattle
Linda and I flew in to Seattle from Orlando, and Dani flew in from Chicago. First class makes the 6-hour non-stop trip on Delta much more pleasant. Covid meant the fares were cheaper, but it also meant that first class service consisted of a box of junk food!
We picked up our SUV from Alamo at SEATAC. Since we wanted to bring back wine, we had a couple of wine case pieces of luggage, so we needed a pretty good sized vehicle. When they offered us an upgrade I took it, but we were a bit startled at the massive size when we saw it. One thing’s for sure, we never had any trouble fitting in our luggage!
Since it was just past noon we had some time to kill before check-in, so we drove north of downtown to Sisi Kay Thai Eatery & Bar, where we had a delightful lunch, dining all by ourselves. A few blocks away was our first tourist stop, the bizarreness that is Archie McPhee!
Because our itinerary happened to take us to the major cities of this trip (Seattle and Portland) on Mondays and Tuesdays when lots of places are closed, it was a little tricky getting into some of the restaurants I was most interested in. The pandemic has also created some irregular operating times and staffing challenges for them.
But we were lucky and the new Loupe Lounge at Seattle’s Space Needle was open, and I’d managed to book a table. This was a fantastic experience involving lots of liquid nitrogen cocktail making, a whiskey flight, and endless pours of Taittanger Comte Rose Champagne, along with plentiful bites of gourmet foods to accompany everything. For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip.
Next stop was our condo on the waterfront just north of downtown Seattle. This was our first of four Airbnb stays on this trip, and all were lovely in their own ways. This one was a two bedroom condo on the 16th floor with a view of the bay and Puget Sound.
Tuesday, August 3, 2021
We walked back to the area around the Space Needle (which is on the World’s Fair grounds from 1962), stopping at the Artisan Cafe for excellent Bahn Mi sandwiches, which we ate on park benches. Then we visited the Museum of Pop Culture. This used to be The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame started by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, but its theme has been broadened. I was a bit disappointed that there was more pop culture in the gift shop than in the somewhat limited exhibit spaces, although there was a good LGBT history exhibit, and a few interesting bios in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
We took the monorail back to downtown (a two minute ride!) and sampled some just okay tacos off the Solamente Pastor taco truck. Later, for dinner, we walked to Wann Japanese Izakaya, probably Linda’s favorite meal of the trip.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Dani and I got biscuits for breakfast overlooking the waterfront at Honest Biscuits. My shoes were falling apart, so we walked to Nordstom’s Rack and I got some new loafers. Then we rode motorized scooters back! Great fun, but we should have ridden them UP the hills to Nordstrom’s, too!
For lunch we walked downtown for sandwiches at Cherry Street Coffee House, then went next door and down Beneath the Streets for a tour and history of Seattle’s past. I highly recommend this, as you can see how the city was built up and elevated a full story after being destroyed by fire.
I really wanted to see the spectacular new tiki bar Inside Passage, and this was our only time slot when it was open. You enter through a hidden door from the adjacent bar, Rumba (I think this space was previously a speakeasy theme). This was the only place on our trip where we were asked to show proof of vaccination. Bravo!
Inside Passage did not disappoint! I wish we’d had more time to spend there. Had I known how much food they offered I would not have made a dinner reservation elsewhere. The space is absolutely spectacular, with wonderful nautical decor, a beautiful bar, and cozy booths. But the most spectacular aspect is the giant octopus that looms overhead!
Dinner was a tasting menu at Art of the Table. It was very good, but we were still talking about Inside Passage.
Thursday, August 5, 2021
We checked out and headed for wine country. Dani wisely suggested we take a detour over the mountains, which was a great plan, since much of the road to Walla Walla is pretty desolate. A scenic drive took us to Snoqualamie Falls and then Leavenworth, Washington, a Bavarian themed tourist town that reminded us of Salvang, California.
We had German food at Colchuck’s and then continued south to Gard Vintners Wine Tasting Room in Ellensburg. I was familiar with Gard from wines I’d purchased on Casemates, so I wanted to try their other offerings. This was the first of many wine clubs I joined along our route!
We arrived in Walla Walla after 8pm, so dining options were limited. We had okay Mexican food at the incredibly brightly lit El Sombrero. Then we checked into our Airbnb, a cute two bedroom home built in the 1920s, and right across the street from Pioneer Park, with its lovely lawns and big trees.
Friday, August 6, 2021 — Walla Walla
Our Walla Wala Airbnb had chickens in the back yard, so Dani and I had fresh eggs every morning!
Friday was our big day for Walla Walla wine tasting. We followed recommendations from the wine club director we met the previous day at Gard Vintners. Our first stop was at L’Ecole No. 41, housed in a gorgeous historic schoolhouse. The wines were good, but not something we wanted more of, so we actually bought a bottle of something we hadn’t tasted.
At some wineries there is a tasting fee, so if we don’t like the wine we don’t feel obligated to buy. Other times the fee is waived for a certain purchase, or if you join their club. But if there is no fee, we always buy a bottle of something as a thank you.
Our next stop was Woodward Canyon, a nice facility, where we had a relaxing outdoor tasting. The wines were good if not spectacular.
Our best discovery was Reininger, where we tasted their wines under a big shade tree on their lawn. We loved the way they served the wines all at once, in essentially shot glasses, along with big wine glasses, making it easy to share and to compare. We joined their club, which gives us the flexibility of picking our wines each quarter.
Back in downtown Walla Walla, Kontos had a spacious tasting room but few customers, and the wines were not inspiring. We had a wonderful French lunch at Brasserie Four. It was so good we considered going back for dinner!
Our final tasting stop for the day was at The House of Smith, a barn-like facility in downtown Walla Walla where you can try all of crazy man Charles Smith’s wines, including our favorite offerings from K Vintners. Again, the wines were served in flights. We joined this club, too.
Dinner was at The Kitchen at Abeja. This restaurant, located in the tasting facility of Abeja Winery, had only been open three weeks, but they served an ambitious tasting menu under the direction of a young chef who interned at two Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Her food definitely shows promise, and it will be interesting to see how this restaurant evolves.
Saturday, August 7, 2021
Saturday we went for a walk in the park across the street. They have a very large aviary with many birds, especially various types of pheasant. It’s a great town-supported feature.
Our final Walla Walla wine tasting stop was at Alton Wines. It’s a gorgeous new facility with a stunningly modern tasting room. I’d guess it is a rich entrepreneurs passion project. It was a bit odd, because they were out of most of their wines, and their club is on a waiting list because they have only limited wines. The only wine we really liked was a Sangiovese which—you guessed it—they were out of. They were only planning on being open one more weekend this season, and I can see why!
We went to lunch at the historic Ice-Burg Drive-In, which was very slow, and more historic than good.
Dinner was far more successful. We ate upstairs in the loft a TMACS in downtown Walla Walla. Our waiter, Caleb, was one of the best we have ever had, and this was one of the best meals of the trip. The restaurant was dimly lit (upstairs, anyway) and quiet enough for good conversation—an oasis from the lively bar directly below.
We were surprised, in retrospect, by Walla Walla wines. My expectation was that the Syrahs would be the best, since I’m most familiar with Charles Smith’s fruit bombs such as BOOM BOOM Syrah, and Troublemaker. But he has sold those brands off, and his focus (and that of all the other wineries we visited) is on a much wider range of varietals. Overall, I think it was the Bordeaux blends that most impressed us.
Walla Walla is actually split by the Washington/Oregon border, and there are different micro climes in different areas. It’s also worth noting that many of the best wines we had from Walla Walla wineries were actually made with grapes from the Columbia Valley.
Sunday, August 8, 2021
The drive along the Columbia River is not particularly scenic until you get close to Portland. Multnomah Falls is really the first photo op. I reminded us of Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, but that might be because of the drought the whole Pacific Northwest has been experiencing. We were lucky that none of the resulting fires affected our trip much, although we often smelled smoke.
We picnicked along the river, watching the hundreds of kiteboarders taking advantage of the constant, strong winds that blow up the valley.
The one thing Portland is known for that was a must for Dani: a stop at Voodoo Doughnuts! They were as good as they look, although I must say that Chicago has become quite a donut town, and I think you could find their equal there, with a little work.
Since we were early, we drove on past our accommodations and visited Carlton Winemaker’s Studio. This is a neat concept that offers tastings of the wines of fifteen different wineries. We had a lovely afternoon sitting on the patio tasting wines and munching on charcuterie from their charcuterie vending machine(!)
In the evening we checked into our beautiful Airbnb in Dundee, about 20 miles west of Portland, and in the middle of Willamette Valley wine country. This home was gorgeous, two stories, with three bedrooms and a professional decor. Dinner was just down the hill at Tina’s, a charming restaurant where Linda ordered the winning dishes.
Monday, August 9, 2021 — Willamette Valley
Our winery day in the Willamette Valley was somewhat limited by it being a Monday, and we had to plan ahead because nearly all the wineries here require 24 hour advance reservations. But we made good choices. We started at Archery Summit, with a tasting on the patio overlooking the vineyards. While a few different wines are produced in this area, pretty much everything that impressed us was Pinot Noir. That ws the case here, and we joined their club, which allows you to custom select your wines.
Our next stop was Domaine Serene, easily the most beautiful winery I’ve ever visited. Looking more like a Four Seasons Hotel, it’s perched high above the Willamette Valley, with expansive views in all directions. In addition to Oregon wines, they also own two properties in Burgundy, so they offer both an Oregon and a Burgundy club. We ended up joining both! They also serve food, so we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of wine, charcuterie, cheese, and bread. I’d never heard of this winery, but it was clearly the highlight of our wine tour.
Linda had hit the wall, so we dropped her off at our Airbnb and then Dani and I continued on to Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton. They produce a myriad of pinot noirs, but they seemed clumsy after the wines at Domaine Serene, and they weren’t particularly cheap. Linda made the right call.
On the way back to the Airbnb, Dani and I detoured to Honey Pie to pick up pizzas. They were good, and also provided useful leftovers for later picnics.
I’ve never thought Oregon pinot noirs lived up to the hype from the 80s and 90s. As a Burgundy fan, they have always struck me as lacking the New World fruit of California pinot, yet rarely developing the earthy complexity of true Burgundy. But perhaps the problem has been that I’ve been unwilling to pay enough for them. At Domaine Serene, where we tasted $90 Oregon pinots against $90 Burgundies, they were quite comparable. Of course, these are wines made under the same management. Still, it will be interesting to see what Oregon pinots show up this year from the clubs we joined. Perhaps a reassessment is in order.
Tuesday, August 10, 2021 — Oregon Coast
You can’t go to Oregon without experiencing the dramatic Oregon coast, so we headed out on a big circle, taking us from the vineyards through the forests to the rocky coast, and then back again.
The aptly named Haystack Rock was our first scenic stop, and Dani got a chance to dip her foot into this side of the Pacific Ocean (she’d already done the other side in Australia). The we stopped at Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House (also known as the Screw and Brew) for fish and chips. Yes, it really is a hardware store.
We’d intended to stop at the Tillamook Creamery, but the acres of parking lot were packed and there was a Disney-like line to get in.
Dinner was an elaborate, 20 course affair at Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon. They have the world’s largest cellar of Oregon Pinot Noir, with 800 selections. The food emphasizes mushrooms in most courses, so it perfectly matched a well-aged 2004 pinot from Beaux Freres.
Wednesday, August 11, 2021 — Enchanted Forest
Justin told me I’d like Enchanted Forest, and he was right! It’s a mom and pop theme park located about 50 miles south of Portland. I loved the charming walk-throughs, and the way it engages childrens’ imaginations. This is my favorite kind of theme park. We went early, saw most everything, and were on the road north by lunch time.
Lunch was a quick stop at Republica in Portland. This is an interesting take on Mexican food, with a menu that changes daily. It’s probably more interesting at night, when they have a tasting menu. But with counter service and only two tables inside, it’s a bit hard to imagine how that works.
The drive to Mount Rainier National Park was quite scenic, and we arrived at our Airbnb lodging right on time. It’s called Knot-a-Care-Cabin, and it’s as cute as the name implies, with every little detail decorated in bears and other rustic motif.
A deer welcomed our arrival. The bedroom is a loft, high in the peak of the roof, accessed by a ladder—but Linda and I managed it without incident!
Dinner was the oddest, and in many ways one of the best, of the trip. We ate at one of the only places around, Wildberry Restaurant in Ashford. It is owned by a Himalayan sherpa who holds the record for fastest ascent of Mount Everest, and who has scaled that mountain ten times. The servers are also Himalayan, and our waiter was quite frenetic. He spoke in a high-pitched, almost hysterical voice. But the service was very efficient, even though their tent-covered patio was completely full. It turns out Himalayan food is very similar to Indian food, and it was very tasty.
Thursday, August 12, 2021 — Mount Rainier
Our day of sightseeing in Mount Rainier National Park made us realize how lucky we had been during the rest of our trip, as the smoke from the California, Oregon, and Washington wildfires really settled in. We were glad we had our masks. Still, we hiked a couple of scenic trails, saw some dramatic waterfalls, and circled all the way around Mount Rainier on our way back to Seattle.
We spent the night at the gorgeous Cedarbrook Lodge right next to SEATAC airport. It’s hard to believe you are near the airport in this bucolic setting. Before dinner we had a drink at the bar and the unique bartender introduced us to Amaro Amorino Riserva, made by a local distiller, which we liked very much. Dinner was at their Copperleaf Restaurant. The food and server were very good. And our server owns a timeshare in Orlando, which sort of brought the trip full circle! Then it was time for our early morning wakeup and our Friday the 13th trip back home.
It was a great family trip, and I’m so glad all three of us could do it together. Perhaps next time Trish will be able to join us, too!
In June of 2021 I sold the Lexus Ls460L to Dani and we took a road trip to transfer the car from Orlando to Chicago. It was our first trip since the Pandemic began in March 2020, so we started out rather gingerly, with AirBnB’s booked along the route, wearing masks, and only dining outdoors. But after traveling through Georgia and spending a lot of time in Tennessee, we got used to the laissez-faire attitude prevalent everywhere and loosened up. By the time we reached Chicago, all mask mandates had been lifted, and life was starting to return to normal.
Here are photos from our trip along with a chronology.
The longest drive of the trip was from Orlando to Atlanta, so we wanted to get it over in a hurry. We stopped along the way for a good hamburger at Espresso 41 Coffee Roasters in Tipton, GA.
We checked into the Atlanta Lama Luxury Cottage, and AirBnB at a small llama and alpaca rescue farm owned by two women, one of whom it turned out knew Linda from WDI days! It’s to the southeast of Atlanta, in a nice area of wooded rolling hills. Lovely cottage.
Arrived in time to host the weekly Wednesday AMI Wine Zoom (we brought the wines for the next two weeks).
Fed the llamas carrots, and had dinner at a nice place they recommended in the gayborhood, Argosy.
Visited the Georgia Aquarium. Dani wasn’t expecting much, since she grew up at SeaWorld, but when we entered the tank with three full-size whale sharks swimming overhead, her jaw dropped.
Visited the Cocal Cola museum, which still gives you the ability to taste the more interesting soft drinks they make in other parts of the word, but unfortunately doesn’t offer them for sale. Beverly from Israel is always my bitter favorite!
Visited S.O.S. Tiki bar. It’s neat inside, but we had drinks on the patio.
Picked up some sandwich makings at Public and headed for Gatlinburg, TN. Stopped at Tallulah falls along the way. The visitor center and view were just meh. Had a picnic in the car.
Beautiful drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stopped at an interesting mill and other abandoned cabins. Dani got an audio guide that provided interesting GPS-triggered narration as we drove.
Gatlinburg was a hell-hole. Traffic inching along the only road through town, and hordes of unmasked people packing the sidewalks. Nothing but tacky tourist chains–not the charming kind of home-grown tacky, just mass produced tourist traps, half of the seemingly owned by Ripley’s Corporation.
The AirBnB was fine (we had to bring our food in from the car because of bear warnings) but the traffic was so bad we just ordered really mediocre Mexican food delivered.
We decided to abandon our AirBnB a day early and I booked a night at The Tennessean Hotel in Knoxville.
In Gatlinburg we road the chairlift to the top of the mountain and walked across the glass Skybridge.
We got a cheap discount on a photo package with our tickets (well worth it), then another company tried to sell us different photos at the top!
We finished our Great Smoky Mountains audio tour outside of Gatlinburg, then drove through Pigeon Forge–another hell hole of tourist tacky, but more spread out than Gatlinburg.
The Tennessean is right next to the old World’s Fair site, the only obvious remnant of which is the Sunsphere. Nearby there’s a nice square with lots of restaurants, but it was bustling, and the good ones were all booked. Dani got a kick out of posing on Gay Street!
We had a lovely dinner at the hotel restaurant/bar, and also had breakfast there the next morning. Very gracious service and good cocktail mixology.
On the way to Chattanooga we stopped at Lost Sea Adventure, a neat lake in a fairly deep cave. It’s a nice cave walk, because there is less elevation change than you’d expect, since you enter from the side of the mountain. The lake is stocked with trout, and you go on a short boat ride to watch them being fed. Pretty cool.
Another nice AirBnB across the river from Downtown. We ate at a big outdoor place called State of Confusion.
Just a bit outside of Chattanooga is Ruby Falls, a very deep cave you need to take an elevator to access. This is a very well-developed site, and they use Alcorn McBride equipment to tell the engaging story of the caves discovery, and to put on a beautiful light show of the very tall waterfall at the end of the path. There are a few tight spots and low ceilings, so not for the claustrophobic.
Lunch was outside at Main Street Meats, and excellent deli. Then back to the AirBnB for the Monday Wine Club Zoom.
An OK breakfast at Ruby Sunshine, a local breakfast chain, and then on to Nashville.
We stopped at Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, which has a decent visitor center, and a pleasant walk on the river, but there are really no runs to see here, just some mounds.
The Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour was excellent. Great visitor center, and we had an excellent guide who took us on a tour and conducted a tasting of four of their whiskeys. It was really interesting to learn that their whiskeys are all the same as far as production, barrels, and aging. The only difference is how high (and therefore hot) the barrels have been stored in the warehouse prior to bottling.
Our place in Nashville is the top level of a four unit townhome near the college. Quite nice to be a bit out of downtown. It was an easy walk to dinner at a tapas place, Barcelona Wine Bar, where we ate outside.
Lunch was downtown at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which was better than when I ordered it shipped during the pandemic, but not life-changing. I think I am over Nashville hot chicken.
We spent an hour at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which neither of us were interested in, but you have to in order to tour RCA Studio B, which was quite interesting. It’s where hundreds of hit records have been recorded, including most of Elvis’. It was fun seeing all the old recording equipment, having used much of it myself, and also interesting to get a peek into the still-operational modern control room.
Chopper is a great tiki bar! It has a giant robot over the bar, and robot-shaped tiki mugs. I had a tiki drink with coffee in it that I really liked. Here’s my approximation of the recipe:
Dopamine Tiki Drink from Chopper Nashville Bourbon 1-1/2 oz. Demerara rum 1-1/2 oz. Coffee 1-1/2 oz. Coconut Syrup 4 pumps (about 1 ounce) Lemon 3/4 oz. Cinnamon
We had a nice dinner at Butcher & Bee, recommended by one of Dani’s friends who went to Nashville for graduate school.
After an okay breakfast at nearby Fido we headed for Memphis.
The Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, TN does a great job of presenting the history (and mythology) of that famous train wreck.
Our AirBnB in Memphis was in a particularly nice area, obviously the gayborhood, and walking distance to lots of restaurants. For dinner we walked to Alchemy and had a nice meal and cocktails on the sidewalk.
Another excellent restaurant was right around the block, so we had lunch outdoors at Central BBQ. Yum.
For me, one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Following a path through 25 very well-interpreted display rooms, you find yourself looking through a glass wall into the room where Martin Luther King was staying when he was assassinated. Seeing his everyday belongings scattered about the room really brought the reality of it home.
We stopped for a flight of bourbon at just a few blocks away, at Max’s Sports Bar. Max’s is owned by a couple who owned a condo next to our in Chicago, and they kindly invited us to drop by. At their suggestion we had the BBQ nachos, which were amazing, actually better than lunch at Central BBQ!
We drove along the river and stopped for ice cream at A Schwab, a vintage pharmacy selling tourist junk on tourist junky Beale Street.
After an excellent to-go breakfast from the very busy Cafe Eclectic, we headed for Branson.
Our first stop was at the Sultana Museum, right after crossing the river into Arkansas. The Sultana was a steamboat that sank, killing 2300 or so Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war and were being returned to the North at the end of the Civil War. It was the largest maritime disaster in US history, but hardly anyone has heard of it because it happened the week after Lincoln was assassinated. The museum was hosted by a very sweet, knowledgeable woman who gave every visitor a self-guided tour of their many displays, photos, and artifacts. Highly recommended.
Trying to avoid the interstate, our lunch stop was at Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant, which was still pretty much in pandemic mode, with almost no tables, and ordering at a desk. A lot of fried stuff, not that good.
At Justin’s suggestion, we stopped at Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail for a fun golf cart journey through a beautiful (but man-made) journey through rock work, waterfalls, a cave with a tiki bar in it, and an expansive view.
Then we made our way through Branson to our condo in a luxury resort, which involved very confusing directions and an odd, after-hours check-in procedure. But the room is beautiful. We ordered pizza delivered for dinner.
This is the day that desensitized us to pandemic crowds. We went to Silver Dollar City, and the place was packed. We started with a false sense of security on the Flooded Mine ride, which we had to ourselves. It’s a charming and nonsensical boat ride / shooting gallery through animated scenes of prisoners trying to deal with leaking water.
We didn’t have such luck at Mystic River Falls. It LOOKED like a reasonable line. 2-1/2 hours later(!) we boarded our river raft. I must say, though, that it was a great ride. And we got soaked.
I’m not sure why the throughput on that ride is so slow. It seemed like it could have handled a lot more boats, and some went through empty.
After a truly horrendous BBQ bowl and a cinnamon role to recover we headed to Walmart for dry shoes, Dinner at the nearby El Lago Mexican restaurant was surprisingly good, and the GIANT margaritas were great.
Before leaving Branson we stopped at the WORLD’s Largest Toy Museum Complex. They aren’t kidding. This is a highly recommended stop, with buildings full of every imaginable toy, curated by type and vintage. An hour was not nearly enough time to explore here.
I was surprised that I liked Branson. It’s tacky, but my kind of home-grown tacky; the roads are laid out on the ridge lines, so there are great views; and there are lots of alternate routes, so the traffic isn’t as bad as in some tourist areas.
We had lunch at the Funk Yard in the gloriously tacky Uranus, Missouri, where every employee is in on the pre-teen joke (“The best fudge comes from Uranus.”)
We made a brief stop at t. James Winery, which has been a long-time supporter of the Florida State Fair Wine Competition where I’ve judged for the past 30 years. Typical of hot, humid states their wines are mostly really sweet. I bought a Pink Catawba and a Concord, both of which ended up being enjoyed as mixers during the following week.
Our last night was spent at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis. Road construction made it so difficult to get to this hotel that we just had dinner in the lobby at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
The drive from St. Louis to Chicago is almost as tedious as the one from Orlando to Atlanta. We stopped at 217 Roadhouse Bar and Grill, where the hamburger was a lot nicer than the server.
And then, by late after noon, we arrived at out condos, and Dani was reunited with Trish.
Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico in 12 days and 2600 miles
In July 2019 Dani and I set out on a 2600 mile, 12-day road trip of the western states. We had a bucket list of places we wanted to see, including Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Four Corners, and Mesa Verde. We flew from Chicago to Denver and rented a car, and with no further planning set out on the grand, counterclockwise loop.
The flight from Hong Kong to Sydney is overnight, and takes about nine hours. Dani had a rough night in coach, with three infants nearby, but Linda and I were able to get some sleep in business (thank you frequent flyer miles) and arrived fairly refreshed.
We checked our bags at the Quay West Suites and walked around downtown Sydney, getting Dani some wake-up coffee, and eventually ending up back at our old favorite place in the Westfield Mall, Chat Thai, for some delicious no-frills Asian food. We also picked up some glassware so we could have a proper cocktail hour in our room with Pamela, and picked up a bottle of her favorite scotch and some Champagne at a vintage wine shop.
Back at the hotel we checked in and discovered this room, number 3601, was even bigger than the one in Hong Kong, with two full bedrooms and an office! The view also rivals that in Hong Kong. I highly recommend Quay West Suites for all Sydney visitors, because of its location and rooms.
You can see the Opera House during the day, and fireworks on some nights. From Dani’s room you can also see the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
For dinner, Linda found an Italian restaurant called Intermezzo that was quite good.
The next day Pamela arrived, and we had a nice time catching up with her. We had a simple lunch as Creperie Suzette and then walked around Circular Quay, bought Opal cards for the ferries and busses, and got Pamela checked into the Four Seasons across the street.
For dinner we walked to Quay, at the end of the quay, overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Dani and I went here six years ago and weren’t very impressed by this supposedly three-star Michelin restaurant. My opinion is unchanged, but it has a great view!
Of course, the first thing we needed to do in Australia was pet a kangaroo, so the next day we Ubered to Featherdale Wildlife Park (our third visit since 2001). It seems like since our last visit you are a bit more separated from the animals, which as I recall were often climbing into your jacket, but there is still lots to see and do.
We had a forgettable lunch on the way back to Syndey at George’s Gourmet Pizza. For dinner we tried a new place, The Gantry, which is around the end of the point, still in walking distance. They don’t really have much of a view, but the five-course tasting menu was terrific, and about a third the price of Quay!
The next day Pamela checked out to get ready for a lunch she was hosting for us at her country club, and we headed for the Australia Museum. We wanted to take a photo in the same spot as on our previous two visits, to show how Dani has grown, but unfortunately about half the museum is closed for rehab, and we had to settle for a picture in front of the giant sloth.
On Sunday we took the ferry up the Paramatta River to Breakfast Point. It was an absolutely gorgeous day on the river.
We had a delightful lunch with Pamela and her family at the country club, and then stopped briefly at her condo so Linda could see it.
We stopped briefly at her condo, and then took a car back to the city for a pleasant dinner nearby at Sake.
The next day I was ready for a rest and to get caught up on the computer, but Linda and Dani went on a wine excursion to the Hunter Valley.
I’ll let Linda describe that:
Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Private Tour
It was a memorable day but not in a good way.
We had arranged for a 12 hour private wine tour. Our guide turned out to be a well educated, well traveled wine marketing consultant who also could be described as an Alpha Male, opinionated curmudgeon with decidedly misogynistic tendencies. He was well versed in the nuances of the wine industry and had a very good grasp of future emerging markets, new planting strategies with respect to global warming, and a somewhat solid understanding of future consumption projections.
But he was terrifyingly inept at true wine appreciation coupled with an unwavering belief that he knew it all. For those of you who love wine, the following narrative requires no further explanation:
WINE TASTING TECHNIQUES
Don’t smell it first! Just take a small sip and spritz it around in your mouth for 10 seconds sort of like mouthwash to shock you palate. At this point don’t try to think about what it tastes like (I’m not making this up) but just try to make associations (brunch appropriate, light, elegant, etc.).
Then jump to the next wine and do the same thing.
Then you do what any sane person does in the first place. Swirl the wine in the glass and inhale. But do that 3 times. We might have been instructed to do this intermittently with the second wine but I have blocked this out.
I was however chastised for sniffing before I tasted – apparently this interferes with your initial assessment.
The current market buying trends define the market. If you do not agree you are wrong.
Chardonnays and Cabs were popular 20 years ago. If you still like these and particularly if you like these the way they were produced 20 years ago you are really wrong – you are an affront to the new marketing strategies. American oak barrels and malolactic fermentation are so declasse.
Wines are being made better and better every year due to emerging science. So why would you want to drink older wines? If you hang on to them you lose the varietal characteristics and after several years you just end up with “old red wine” (I kid you not). I specifically asked if he would drink the $45 2015 Cab I was guilt buying tonight or if he would he age it for 5 or 10 years – the answer was tonight.
WINE AS AN INVESTMENT
In spite of our friend’s substantial success in out performing the stock market for many years our guide assured us the only way to make money was to buy $10M of a specific wine and to control the market.
On the other hand this guy is 70+ and driving a tour bus and RS is traveling on Emirates first class…
We had to check out of the hotel at 1pm, but our flight to Sydney wasn’t until almost 9pm, so we had a whole day to spend in the city. The only problem was we didn’t want to get super sweaty before a 9-hour flight to Australia.
Dad decided to stay in the hotel lounge and catch up on his computer work. Mom and I contemplated going to some antique shops we’d passed earlier in the trip, but ultimately decided to check off one more touristy item from our list and take the funicular tram up to The Peak for a last view of the beautiful city.
The tram has been running since the late 1800s but has gone through a few refurbishments over the years. The last round returned it to a retro look.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long in the queue even though the weather was clear. The journey up is so steep the floors are slanted to help people keep their feet. We sat, but it was still pretty extreme! I used the level function in my phone to estimate the incline and the steepest part was about a 30-degree angle.
The top was a touristy mall that we basically ignored. Instead, we crossed the street to have lunch at a lovely restaurant called The Peak Lookout. It’s been serving refreshments since 1947 and has an eclectic menu to please any palate.
We ate nachos and tandoori chicken and drank Australian chardonnay in an English tea garden on top of a mountain in Hong Kong. It doesn’t get any more international than that! Lunch was delicious and very pleasant (except for a butterfly that got trapped in the solarium with us and terrified Mom).
After lunch we went for a lovely amble along a flat and shady path on the side of the mountain. We couldn’t see how far down the trail went after it started to descend, but we suspect it might have gone all the way to the bottom.
We went up onto the 360-degree viewing platform on top of the mall that was included in our ticket (it was hot and not very inspiring).
We descended via the funicular and again struggled to get a cab back to the hotel to meet up with Dad. Eventually we made it and collected our bags.
A nice driver loaded us and our luggage into a van and took us to the airport. The Hong Kong airport is enormous. There are literally hundreds of gates spread out over miles of hallways.
The super duper lounge my parents were entitled to was on the other side of the airport, so we all made do with the regular lounge our American Express cards get us access to. They served food and I had a decent bowl of noodles (just in case the flight didn’t include dinner).
Though sad to leave Hong Kong, I felt like we’d seen a lot of stuff during our stay. I’d been keeping a little black notebook of interesting sights gleaned from my review of the guidebook on the flight over. We crossed many of them off!
Today we were tourists doing touristy things on Lantau Island. Many companies offer guided tours but we decided to roll our own adventure based on the sights/activities I read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
Po Lin monastery and the Buddha statue are located at the top of a mountain on Lantau Island. It turns out getting there is more than half the fun.
The most scenic way to go is to take a 20-minute cable car journey from Tung Chung (a city near the airport) up to Ngong Ping (a touristy village with souvenir shops).
The views were stunning.
We sprang for the “Crystal Cabin” which had a glass floor. It was neat to be able to see through the floor but it actually didn’t inspire much vertigo, perhaps because we were seated on regular benches.
We also downloaded their guided narration to accompany the journey up. A dry English narrator imparted a few interesting facts about the construction of the cable car towers.
It was quite a feat of engineering. Donkeys were needed to cart supplies up the mountains, since many places are not accessible by vehicle. The number of towers was also reduced to lower the environmental impact. That’s also why there’s a funny turn on airport island instead of a tower built in the water.
The cars weren’t air-conditioned, but they had air vents built into the sides and top which funneled a lovely breeze through the cabin and kept things nice and cool. Below our feet, we could see a long trail winding up and down, populated by a few brave hikers trekking up to Ngong Ping on foot. The most impressive sight was the Big Buddha in the distance as we approached the top.
Close to the terminal, Mom looked through the floor and said she could see a “ball,” or maybe a “bowl,” but I didn’t figure out what she actually saw/said until a bit later (see below).
Ngong Ping was (as expected) a tourist trap. But it was a nice tourist trap. We had an incredibly oily lunch before heading to the monastery and the Buddha statue.
On our way out of Ngong Ping we saw a cow in a planter! All that time Mom had been saying she’d seen a “bull.” And then we saw a whole herd of cows resting by the side of the path. They must belong to the monastery and appear in thousands of selfies a day.
Mom and I decided to hoof it up the 260 steps to see the Big Buddha up close. We tackled the 16 flights a few at a time, pausing frequently to let Mom (definitely Mom, not me) rest.
We made it to the top (eventually). We discovered stunning views of the South China Sea and a cool ocean breeze that felt heavenly. There were many tourists taking selfies, but there were also a large number of people praying.
The Big Buddha was quite impressive and an engineering marvel. It took almost 10 years to complete, and ended up made of thin bronze sheets cast to fit over a framework. Artisans overcame numerous obstacles to cast the Buddha’s face as one sheet so no seams marred his serene visage. He did look very peaceful.
We headed back down and rejoined Dad to explore Po Lin monastery.
Mom observed it was fascinating to study the architecture because it’s in a style we’re used to seeing only shiny and new at a theme park or old and behind glass in a museum. This was a real, working monastery (evidenced by the chanting we heard drifting from a private building towards the back).
After wandering around for a bit, we headed back to the village and discovered one of the cows wanted to go shopping (aka stand in the shade). A local lured him out with an apple.
We got cold beverages with the most appetizing names.
The Pocari Sweat was basically just Gatorade. The Jelly Grass Drink wasn’t terrible. It was a bit earthy and there really were cubes of gelatin in the bottom (which made for an interesting consistency). It reminded me of an aloe drink I had once.
Mom and I indulged in some retail therapy and purchased a few souvenirs and gifts. Before we left, we ordered egg waffles (made to order) to try out street food Dad was interested in. Mine was chocolate and I was a big fan.
We were all a bit touristed out so we decided to skip Tai O fishing village. Instead, we took the cable car back down the mountain.
We made great time on the MTR back to Hong Kong island, but then waited fifteen minutes for a bus that runs every seven minutes, only to have it skip our stop. Then we had incredible difficulty finding a cab. We stood at a cab stand for more than 30 minutes watching cabswith “out of service” signs whiz by. We were cutting our 7pm dinner reservation at Pierre pretty close since we all needed to shower.
Fortunately, they didn’t mind pushing it back for us.
Unfortunately, the meal was terrible.
Here’s Dad’s Yelp review of the experience (I’ll let him eviscerate it in his own words):
Pierre offers a lovely room with a great ambiance and view. It’s the kind you’d expect to find in a top rated restaurant. Unfortunately, the view is about the only thing that is top rated about it.
At a price equal to or above the nearby Amber and l’Atelier, it’s hard to imagine anyone returning to Pierre for a second visit. The six-course tasting meal we had was, frankly, poor. There wasn’t a single stand-out course, and no one in our party had more than a taste of the grouse entree, which had a very unpleasant bitter taste. Mine even still had a piece of lead birdshot in it.
They’ve tried to make up in quantity what they lack in quality, with a half dozen small plates bearing amuse bouche at the start, and another half dozen plates of dessert at the end. But not one of them was truly good. It’s as if they’re firing scattershot, to see if they can hit anything.
Service was also hit or miss, with the wine list not even offered until the food began showing up, and empty water glasses sitting for long stretches of time.
At about $10,000HKD for our party of three’s food alone, this must be one of the worst buys in the city. And the wine prices are just as unreasonable.
We started our day with a leisurely breakfast upstairs and debated what we should do for the day. Yvonne warned us Sunday would be very crowded. Despite that, we briefly considered going up to The Peak, however it started to pour while we were still at breakfast so we thought better of that plan.
Instead, we decided to relax and hang out in the room for a bit before venturing out for lunch.
Originally, I was interested in visiting a rabbit cafe, which is exactly what it sounds like: a cafe where you can hang out with rabbits. But a quick Google search revealed they were currently engaged in a legal battle over their lack of having a food license. So we scrapped that plan too.
Finally, we settled on The Cat Store, a cat cafe located near a part of town called Times Square. The rain stopped around lunchtime, so we grabbed a cab and headed out. The cab driver said that since it was Sunday some of the streets around our destination were closed to vehicular traffic, but that he could drop us of nearby and point us in the right direction.
The drive took us east into Wan Chai, which didn’t seem dramatically different from Central. The Times Square area was quite busy with tourists and locals alike, but the cab got us within spitting distance.
The Times Square neighborhood was fascinating. It was different than any city we’ve been to because, block by block, it fluctuated between high-end designer stores in sleek modern buildings and much more modest (even decrepit) buildings with a mix of commercial and residential.
The address of the cat cafe led us to a six-story building in the middle of a short block. Having learned our lesson at Yum Cha, we realized the address was on the 3rd floor, though it was strange that the building seemed to be mostly apartments.
The entryway to the building, the hallway, and elevator did not inspire much confidence. They were somewhat less than glamorous. Seedy is the word that came to mind.
But we persevered and found the door to the cat cafe, which turned out to be a charming little shop. It was cozy, tidy, and packed with people. All the tables were taken but the hostess said we could come back in about an hour and a half and she’d reserve us a table.
To kill time, we wandered around the shops nearby for a while, ultimately ending up in a mall across the street. We could actually see the cat cafe’s window from over there, so when it looked like there were empty tables we repeated the journey through the world’s strangest elevators and returned to get our dose of fur therapy.
We only saw one cat curled up asleep when we arrived. Understandably, the cafe has signage requesting that patrons refrain from bothering sleeping or eating kitties. Patience was required.
We ordered some food; again the criterion was cute things shaped like cats. I chose garlic toasts, toast with chocolate sauce and sweetened condensed milk, and cat-shaped butter cookies. I mean this as a compliment, but Mom grills leftover hot dog buns in butter and the garlic toasts bore a remarkable resemblance to that. The butter cookies were excellent.
Dad had homemade caramel ice cream with apple and graham cracker dust. Mom had a smoked salmon pizza (with corn?!).
While we waited for the cat to wake up, we enjoyed going through the literature on the table. All but one of the cats were rescues, and in case you’d never seen a cat before, there was a handy-dandy guide about how to pet them.
Most of the other patrons were families there with their daughters, so we fit right in. Of course, the other girls were all about 6 years old, but so what?
At long last, a cat emerged from slumber and joined the party. His name was JJ and he liked to talk. He had a raspy little mew and though he complained a lot was very patient with the little girls (including me).
His activity spurred lunchtime and the opening cans woke two other cats. The cats are permitted in the kitchen, which horrified one table of guests, but I figure there’s been at least one cat in the kitchen at home my whole life and it hasn’t killed me yet. Plus I got to pet kitties.
We headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Though it wasn’t raining anymore, the clouds continued to whiz by. I took the opportunity to film some time lapse of Victoria Harbour.
After a couple hours we dressed for dinner and headed to Amber, which was recently ranked the 24th best restaurant in the world. It lived up to the hype!
Our table was lovely, nestled in the back corner of the restaurant with plenty of elbow room.
The food was exquisite and the wine pairing was incredibly educational. It included six wines, all from Burgundy.
The only problem is I never finish a wine pairing, and apparently in this culture leaving wine on the table is even worse than leaving food on your plate. But since all six glasses totaled up to more than a bottle of wine, I would have been on the floor if I tried to drink it all. Other than the worried looks that caused the staff, it was a lovely meal and managed to top L’Atelier (which I wasn’t sure was possible).
Hong Kong is perhaps the easiest city in Asia for English visitors. Its more than 150-year history has left a legacy of English signage everywhere. Most people speak some English, and many speak it fluently (the exception seems to be cab drivers!)
Hong Kong is both a province and an Island. The island itself is where most of the tourist hotels and sites are, and the Central area is only about a mile square, so it is compact, to say the least. Most of Central is very walkable. A lot of it is built on land filled into the bay in the past 100 years (much of it recently) so that part is flat. The more historic area rises steeply up the hillside, but there are steps and even a very, very long escalator.
One tricky thing is that some of the main roads are impossible to cross at ground level, so you may have to look for an overhead walkway to get where you’re going.
In addition to Hong Kong island, the other major areas of interest are Kowloon, a business district right across the bay, and Lantau island, the next island over, where the Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland are located.
All of the islands are connected by bridges, tunnels, and ferries.
Transportation in Hong Kong is very easy and very inexpensive. The cabs, which are red, are readily available anywhere there isn’t a double yellow line along the curb, and particularly at the many taxi stands.
Taxi fares are incredibly cheap. The base fare is $24HKD, which is $3USD. You can get most places within Central for just this base fare. Even going to Kowloon is less than $10USD. A taxi ride all the way to Disneyland or the airport on Lantau is only about $50USD.
Even more economical is the MTR, Hong Kong’s version of London’s tube. The trains are ultra-long, new, sleek, clean, and run on time. Train fare is incredibly cheap. Hong Kong to Lantau is under $3USD.
There are several main lines, red, orange, green and blue being the most useful to tourists. Navigating the system using Google Maps or the very clear signage is easy, and signs in the train show you where you are graphically, and how you can connect.
You use the MTR Octopus card to ride the MTR. Just load it with funds from your credit card. It’s best not to get the tourist day pass, as that is overpriced and doesn’t work everywhere the real Octopus does.
You tap your Octopus card on the way in to the MTR, and again on the way out.
The card also works on the buses (which are all clearly numbered) and the double-decker electric trams that run on the major streets in Hong Kong island. It even works on the Star Ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon. The Ferry fare is about 30 cents!
The best place for tourists to stay is near Central Hong Kong. For example, the Landmark Mall is in the midst of things, and has an attached Mandarin Oriental. There is also the original Mandarin Oriental just two blocks away. Don’t mix them up! There are also many other nearby hotels, including the Marriott and Shangri-La. We loved our room at the Grand Hyatt, but it is attached to the Convention Center, about a mile away, and is a short but arduous multi-level walk from the MTR station and bus lines.
Many of the best restaurants are also in the area. One of the top restaurants in the word is Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. l’Atelier’s Hong Kong location is also at Landmark. (We hated Pierre, at the other Mandarin Oriental.)
Of course there are lots of places to sample the local Cantonese food, which you will find fairly similar to Chinese restaurant food in the US. The dim sum is probably the best bet.
Here are some good prospects:
Things To Do
A walk through Central, especially climbing the steps up to the mid levels, will reveal lots of local fruit, vegetable, and meat markets. Check out the Soho district, south of Hollywood Boulevard, and all the antique shops along Hollywood.
Take the ferry or MTR across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui for views looking back at Hong Kong Island.
Take the MTR to Tung Chung on Lantau Island to ride the cable car up to the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping. The view on the way up is spectacular.
Another good view, right on Hong Kong Island, is achieved by taking the Peak Tram funicular to the top of Victoria Peak.
If you think Orlando is hot and muggy, you haven’t been to Hong Kong! It’s that and more. We saw lots of locals walking around holding a personal fan under their chins! You don’t want to be in the sun, so bring an umbrella for both rain and shade. Better yet, visit in January or February when the temperature (but not the humidity) is much more pleasant.
This morning we had a leisurely breakfast upstairs. Dad had avocado toast with a poached egg, Mom had smoked salmon (as always), but I went rogue and tried all the unusual dishes, including chicken bao (with mustard) and congee (a rice porridge with various ingredients and toppings).
Yvonne told us many people work a half day on Saturday so it actually isn’t a bad day todo touristy things. Sunday, however, should be avoided at all costs. Given that, we decided to venture out to the Hong Kong History Museum in Kowloon.
Our taxi driver had to take a very roundabout route to get there (imagine trying to get from 4 o’clock to 2 o’clock but going the long way round). We also ended up on the opposite side of the building from the entrance, but once we did manage to get inside it was blessedly cool.
It’s a wonderful museum. Their exhibits are arranged in chronological order, starting with the beginning of time with the formation of the islands from shallow seas to volcanos to all the various types of rock formed along the way. The ground floor also covers pre-historic Hong Kong, the earliest people to live in the area, and the ebb and flow of various peoples throughout the early dynasties of China.
The aesthetic design was lovely. They created numerous environments to give you a flavor and general impression of what the time period in that particular exhibit was like.
We saw lush jungle forests, sandy beaches, grocery stores, sailing ships, rice paddies, and towers of buns.
The exhibits were very interesting, and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words syndrome (again, perhaps because everything has to be presented side-by-side in two languages).
The museum flow allowed you to wander at your leisure but provided directional signage suggesting a chronological path. It was fairly easy to focus on the things that piqued your interest and gloss over those you found boring.
The ground floor was enormous. The exhibits just kept going and going and going… And then we discovered there was another entire floor dedicated to Hong Kong’s history since the British took over.
There was a really interesting graphic about land reclamation in Hong Kong
Toward the end of the timeline, my parents began to encounter items they recognized from their childhoods’ (many toys in particular, like slot cars).
By the time we finished going through the museum it was past lunch time and I was quite hungry. We had dinner reservations that evening but definitely needed a light bite. I pulled up Google Maps and discovered that Yum Cha, a dim sum place famous for their cute buns, was quite close. Though not big dim sum fans, my parents indulged me and we set off.
The walk was relatively short, but we had some difficulty finding the place. The map told us we were right on top of it, but it was nowhere in sight. Eventually, we deduced it was on the third floor and found an elevator.
Despite not having a reservation, they seated us right away and gave us the dim sum menu (which works very much like ordering sushi in the states).
My major criterion was that it had to be cute.
We succeeded admirably.
I liked everything.
Dad did not.
After our mid-afternoon snack, we took the train across the harbor, but couldn’t quite figure out how to walk to our hotel through all the various levels and construction sites, so we cheated and got a taxi.
We relaxed in the room for a few hours and then headed to Joël Robuchon’s Hong Kong outpost of L’Atelier.
As always, the meal was phenomenal, each dish a delightful combination of flavors and textures. Dad also ordered excellent wines!
A rather impressive thunderstorm woke me up early. The rain drops clattered against the window and there were several long rumbles of thunder. I’ve always thought thunder sounded different in Orlando and Chicago. In Orlando, it’s deep and rumbles and rolls for a long time. In Chicago, it’s more of a crack and it dies down quicker. I’ve always thought it had to do with the tall buildings and large body of water reflecting the sound in Chicago. But here, thunder sounds more like it does in Orlando. So perhaps it’s the air temperature that has more of an effect. It was a muggy 85 already at 6:30am.
Fortunately, the forecast predicted the weather would clear up by 9ish, which is when our walking tour with Little Adventures in Hong Kong started. This company offers small private tours (capped at 3 adults) that can be tailored to your interests.
We asked for a mashup of their “Essential Hong Kong” history tour and the street food frenzy, “Won-ton-a-thon.” In my initial communications with them, I tried to emphasize a focus on food over history. The end result turned out to be reversed, but that was just as well (which I’ll explain in a bit).
We took a cab from our hotel to the lobby of The Pottinger hotel where we met our lovely guide, Yvonne. Her life story is incredible. I’m not sure where she was born, but she went to boarding school in London, college in the US, lived in Wisconsin and Philadelphia, lived in East Africa working at a museum, traveled extensively, and settled in Hong Kong about 10 years ago. She studied anthropology, worked at several museums, but also worked as a film editor and a journalist. It was hard to keep track!
She was incredibly knowledgeable about the history and layout of the city. We explored a few areas of the Central district, including Soho (south of Hollywood street) and the Mid-levels.
Since we hadn’t had anything to eat yet we headed off for food.
Along the way, we stopped to admire the menu of a Cantonese restaurant, that wasn’t open yet. We stopped for a couple of reasons. First, history. The sign said they had been proudly serving since 1860. However, Yvonne explained they hadn’t been serving that long in Hong Kong. They were refugees from China.
The history of Hong Kong is punctuated with waves of refugees from China, fleeing from communism in the 50s, and then from Mao and the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s.
The second reason we stopped was to hear a funny story about how this restaurant’s signature sauce became known as “Swiss sauce.” An Englishman came into the restaurant and ordered chicken wings in sauce, which he really loved. He asked the waiter what the sauce was called. In an east meets west misunderstanding, he heard “Swiss” though the waiter was trying to communicate that it was a “sweet sauce.” It would have ended there, except the Englishman settled nearby and continued to return to the restaurant ordering the chicken wings in “Swiss sauce.” Eventually, it stuck.
Our first bite on the tour turned out to be more of a gulp. We went to Tsim Chai Kee, a noodle shop. The owner insisted we take a nice booth in the back of the restaurant because it was cooler. She was very friendly and chatted away with Yvonne in rapid-fire Cantonese.
Yvonne ordered us three types: beef brisket, fish balls, and shrimp (or prawn in this part of the world) wontons. The bowls were enormous!
The large portions were the result of a rivalry. This restaurant opened its doors across the street from a famous noodle shop, Mak Noodles (which only opens later in the day). Mak serves traditionally sized (i.e. snack sized) wontons. Tsim Chai Kee attracted customers by serving very large portions.
The bowls were packed with noodles and protein. Each broth was different and incredibly flavorful. The noodles were perfectly al dente.
The wontons were the most familiar. The mark of a good wonton is the thinness of the wrapper. A delicate wrapper is more difficult to cook, so it means you really know what you’re doing. Thick wrappers and the mark of an amateur. That bowl had the lightest broth.
The beef brisket’s broth was more savory and had a bit more umami flavor from the beef fat. The way the meat was cut is a bit different than what you get in the states if you order brisket. This was thinly shaved pieces of beef that didn’t fall apart.
The fish balls were the most foreign to us. The best way to describe the balls themselves is like a cross between a fish sausage and a fish meatball. Dace is ground up and mixed with herbs. They’re shaped into amorphous blobs and cooked (I presume in the broth), which was salty and herbaceous.
Yvonne also ordered us a side of steamed bok choi with oyster sauce. It was very delicately cooked and quite refreshing.
I enjoyed sampling each dish. In the US, we would have tried a few bites of each but left most behind to save room for other food down the road. But it turns out the downfall of a food tour in China or Hong Kong is that it would be very rude to leave food uneaten. It would be an insult to the chef’s cooking.
So I ate the fish balls, Dad ate the brisket and half of Mom’s noodles, and Mom ate the wontons. And we were stuffed. So it’s a good thing the tour was mostly about culture and history!
There’s no tipping in Hong Kong, so we simply told the owner how delicious the meal was (but since she didn’t speak much English, that mostly meant smiling and nodding a lot).
We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and ambled uphill.
We passed a Chinese herb shop and saw someone wrapping custom blends of medicinal brews in brown paper packaging.
We turned off the main drag and passed a couple of dai pai dong (street food stalls). These used to be incredibly common in Hong Kong but are now endangered. The government didn’t think they looked modern enough and it was difficult to enforce health codes, so they passed a law that said you could only transfer the license to a blood relative. That meant if your son or daughter didn’t want to continue the family tradition, the stall died out. There are fewer than 20 food stalls left in Hong Kong. They used to be exclusively patronized by old people, but now that they’re in danger of disappearing completely, there’s renewed interest from the younger generation.
One stall we passed serves breakfast sandwiches made of shredded cabbage, peanut butter, and condensed milk. Dad and I would totally have tried it if we weren’t so stuffed and there were any tables available.
Yvonne had some interesting insights about the health and safety of the street food stalls. She said if you see locals eating at them you know they’re safe (and probably delicious) because these people are feeding their friends and neighbors. If they poisoned anybody they’d be out of business! Also, everything is bought fresh daily and cooked to order, so nothing sits around spoiling.
To emphasize her point, we turned the corner and were suddenly in the middle of Graham Street Market, one of the few remaining wet markets in Hong Kong (named that because their streets are often very wet). These markets are a mishmash of vendors selling fresh fruits, tofu, eggs, and other ingredients. Some things we recognized, others we didn’t at all.
The market was a colorful jumble or organized chaos. The patrons were mostly locals. Yvonne told us this market was more tourist/camera-friendly than some others because they’re currently fighting to remain open. That said, we were obviously tourists, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly welcoming, more neutral. I suspect the locals felt about me the same way I feel about tourists when I’m trying to carry groceries on Michigan Avenue (“You may make the economy go round, but for the love of God don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk!”).
Mom had a brief run-in with a cantankerous old lady when she tried to tie her shoe on the edge of her stall. In fairness, it was pretty decrepit and didn’t look like it was occupied.
Bamboo-scaffolding sprouted around construction sights all along the street market. That’s one of the reasons they’re fighting to stay open. Much of that area is being torn down and replaced with high rises, threatening to push them out. So far, they’ve dug in their heels and the local community seems to be supporting them.
At the top of the market, we turned to the right and walked along the meat and fish stalls. Each stall specialized in butchering only one kind of meat. The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).
The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).
After the markets, we passed a small Taoist shrine tucked in a steep alleyway amidst a jumble of residences and shops.
The incense coils burn slowly with prayers attached.
You can also light incense sticks and place them in bowls of sand. These should be done in groups of three, as prayers are sent up to heaven, earth, and humanity.
Yvonne led us through many side streets we never would have found on our own. We passed the historic YMCA. It’s a western-style red brick building, but to make it more inviting to the Chinese the roof tiles were made of green ceramic shaped like bamboo.
Many of the building had Door Guardian shrines, where offerings are placed. If the occupants move, the Door Guardian remains with the building.
We also passed run down or condemned tenement houses, another endangered Hong Kong sight. There’s a very large bias against old things in this city. The tenement style houses are very unpopular with the locals because of their age and lack of elevators. So many have been torn down and replaced with high-rises that there is only one row of livable houses left in all of Hong Kong! A small indie film made a few years ago (actually set in 1940s Kowloon) had to film on this particular street.
One reason these tenements still survive is that until fairly recently this district was a very undesirable location. Hong Kongers are a superstitious lot, and this sector was associated with death because of the plague outbreaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Locals feared ghosts and bad luck permeated the region. As a result, only things associated with death ( like coffin shops and antique shops – because antiques are dead people’s former possessions) populated the area. And the only people who lived there were poor. That history is slowly being forgotten and the neighborhood is in the process of being gentrified (hence all the construction). It will be interesting to see what the city is like in five or ten years.
Along the way, we did sample some more food (in smaller sizes). We had chilled sugar cane juice (refreshing but very sweet) and chilled five flowers tea (incredibly delicious and very floral).
We visited a British Candy Shop.
TAI Cheong Bakery is famous for their egg tarts. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before it was turned over to China in 1997, loved these tarts so much he acquired the rather unflattering nickname of “Fatty Patten.” The tart was delicious, served warm in a buttery flaky crust with smooth eggy/lemony custard in the center. Ten out of ten would eat again.
Lunch hour is officially 1-2pm in Hong Kong, but restaurant lines become ridiculously long starting about 12:40pm. Since we still hadn’t quite digested all the noodles, we opted to finish out our tour in an air-conditioned English pub (which is actually very Hong Kong, given the colonial influence).
I had a Hong Kong summer beer, Yvonne had a traditional British witbier, Dad had an alcoholic ginger beer, and Mom had a virgin Bloody Mary (most importantly, with ice).
Yvonne gave us some recommendations for the rest of our stay. I decided to stick around and explore the area a bit more while Mom and Dad headed back to the hotel via tram.
Yvonne left me with directions to the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science and deposited me onto the outdoor escalators that carry you up from Central to The Mid-levels. The escalators are about one story up, so you have an interesting perspective on the shops and restaurants you’re passing.
I was able to follow her directions right to the museum. The building was very similar to the YMCA in layout and design. Originally it was the Bacteriological Institute, Hong Kong’s first public health laboratory, founded in 1906 because of the plague outbreaks. The governor of Hong Kong pleaded with Britain to send an infectious disease specialist. Eventually they did, and the Institute was founded in 1906.
It was well done and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words (a problem many exhibits have). Possibly this is because every sign had to be in Cantonese and English.
The ground floor had exhibits on the human body, reproduction, and an interesting oral history of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Upstairs had historical displays and a well done video presentation about the plague outbreaks, which lasted almost 30 years (1894-1923). Senior medical students were tasked with dissecting rats to monitor the spread.
After the plague crisis, the Institute continued to test water, dairy products, and other sources to help prevent food poisoning. After the discovery of vaccines, they produced vaccines for several diseases (including smallpox).
Making smallpox vaccines was not very glamorous work. It involved strapping down a calf, shaving its belly, infected it with cowpox, and then taking samples.
After the museum, I went to Man Mo Temple, dedicated to literature and war. The temple is famous (basically, if you see a movie and there’s a Taoist temple, it’s probably this one). It’s being heavily renovated right now, which made for an interesting experience. The outside is completely covered in bamboo scaffolding but it’s still open to the public. The inside is also being renovated (though not quite as heavily). This means construction workers, tourists, and people praying are all jostling elbows.
After the temple, I headed back to a street we had walked along with Yvonne. I stopped at a local Hong Kong Chain, G.O.D (Gods of Desire), that sells locally made products: clothing, kitchen goods, and souvenirs. Then I started wandering back towards the hotel.
Google maps told me it was only about 1 mile, but I sorely missed Yvonne’s guidance about which streets slope up versus down, where pedestrian over- or under-passes are located, and how to navigate crazy intersections. This city was definitely not designed with pedestrians in mind and it would be a terrible place to be in a wheelchair.
It was a fascinating walk, though. The transition from old Hong Kong, with shabby local establishments, street stalls, and crumbling architecture, is replaced suddenly and sharply with gleaming towers of shiny glass and steel. You’d never guess the other part of the city existed in one place or the other.
There are also lush parks that mask the city.
I wandered through one past the Former French Mission Building and St. John’s Cathedral. At the edge of that park, a right turn would have taken me towards Hong Kong Park and the Peak Tram, but a left turn took me towards the hotel (sort of).
It took about an hour, but eventually I wound my way through a maze of streets, overhead walkways, and buildings (blessedly air-conditioned) and found the hotel.
I found both my parents conked out napping. They had taken the tram home, but also had a long and complicated walk to get from the tram stop to the hotel.
For dinner, we stayed in the hotel, but sampled the Cantonese restaurant. It’s beautifully decorated and had mirrors everywhere (including the ceiling).
We didn’t have a reservation, so we ended up at a giant table with a large Lazy Susan. That actually made it very easy to share dishes.
The menu offered half portions, perfectly sized for us to sample several dishes. I don’t think I’ve ever been someplace where the portions were larger than America before!
We had a bbq meat sampler (with honey bbq pork and crispy chicken skin), prawns with chili roe sauce, tilefish and pea sprouts, crispy chicken, asparagus, and wagyu foie gras fried rice. Everything was very tasty (even Dad liked most things). We also had a fantastic bottle of wine, a 2010 Clos de Vougeot de la Vougeraie that Dad was extremely pleased with.
After such a full (and hot) day, I crashed as soon as we got back to the room.
Our first morning in Hong Kong dawned sunnily but with some ominous dark clouds on the horizon. After a fairly restful night’s sleep I felt pretty much on schedule.
I decided to shake off the lethargy of sitting in one place for 16 hours and went to the fitness center to run on an elliptical. It felt good to move all those muscles! I also discovered the wi-fi was good enough to stream DS9 on Netflix while I sweated.
I had the best shower of my life (OK, only shower in two days) and still had time to grab some delicious wok-fried turnip cakes from the complimentary breakfast upstairs.
Our first stop in Hong Kong was (drumroll please): Disney.
Our taxi ride out to Hong Kong Disney essentially reversed our ride from the airport the night before. In daylight, it was much easier to appreciate how the islands connect to one another. There are some pretty spectacular city views along the way.
The ominous clouds from the morning did let loose a short deluge, though it was still sunny. That, combined with the heat and humidity, made it feel just like Florida. We weren’t sure how long it would take to find a taxi, so we played it safe and arrived very early for the backstage tour Dad arranged through some unique attractions.
Our guide Todd was a connection made via the former head of the French AMI outpost, Henry. Even better, we were able to add Glenn Birket to the tour (he arrived on time, being very familiar with the local transit options). Glenn is an old friend of Mom and Dad’s from Epcot days. He’s also my Godfather, though this was really the first time we’ve ever had a chance to get to know one another.
The park seems a bit small compared to other locations, but it is incredibly lush and tropical. Todd was a gracious host and spent several hours with us, walking us through the park and sharing some insider trivia.
Fun fact #1: The park was vastly over-planted, so every time a typhoon comes through and knocks down some trees, they just drag them out and turn them into firewood. They haven’t replanted a single tree since the park opened (and it’s still densely forested).
The park wasn’t crowded, in fact, it seemed rather empty. We thought perhaps it had to do with the threatening clouds and brief downpour, but it turns out…
Fun fact #2: Hellaciously hot September and October are slow months for HK Disney. But although Halloween is not a particularly big event in Hong Kong, it is a huge attendance draw (especially in the evenings and on weekends).
We saw that the park was already decked out with pumpkins, fall leaves, and trick-or-treat stations for the kids. It was also hot. Really, really hot.
Todd kindly lent us umbrellas since it was still drizzling when we arrived. However, by the time we entered the park the sun was out and steaming things up. I finally understand why people use umbrellas for portable shade. They help a surprising amount.
Our first stop was Mystic Manor (an attraction with some similarities to Haunted Mansion). The story follows Lord Henry Mystic and his pet monkey, Albert. Their story ties into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers from Tokyo DisneySea. Todd pointed out the real life designers, engineers, and composer who were featured in the pre-show “sketches” chronicling Lord Mystic and Albert’s adventures.
The ride starts when Albert opens their latest treasure: a music box. Legend says the box can bring inanimate objects to life, which of course it does, to disastrous results.
The ride vehicles are trackless, meaning they can go all over a room, including in circles, over and over again. This leads to a very interesting ride experience where your attention is sharply focused on particular elements at particular times. The show was cute and made excellent use of the ride vehicle’s capabilities.
We ate lunch at the attached restaurant, which served Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Cantonese dishes. Dad and I opted for the Indonesian vegetable curry. It was decent (by theme park food standards), but the roti were a bit indestructible. I did enjoy my watermelon juice (which would be called a watermelon fresca in the states).
After lunch, we continued our tour of the park, including a brief stop at an optical illusion that managed to make Mom look taller than me. That’s quite a feat of forced perspective!
Our final stop was the Iron Man simulator ride. The pre-show would be good for hard core Marvel fans because there are some cool movie props on display. Stan Lee also makes a cameo appearance in the safety video (which ran twice, once in Cantonese, once in English). Unfortunately, Stan Lee’s cameo distracted from important information both times!
The story is a bit thin for the 3D simulator. Like with all simulators, you’re there to watch a demonstration, something goes wrong (bad guys want to steal Tony Stark’s new arc reactor) and you have to help stop them and save the world (Hong Kong at least).
Mom and Dad got more of a kick out of the equipment room we visited after riding.
We elected not to stay in the park. Instead, we headed out with Glenn, who is very familiar with Hong Kong, so he could show us the ropes.
He showed us how to take the MTR, a train system that feels like a CTA-tube hybrid. It’s very convenient and reasonably easy to navigate (once you know the ropes).
We stopped briefly at Glenn’s office so he could introduce Dad to a few folks.
Then, we went on a mission to obtain a specific selfie-stick and micro-SD card for Dad. This involved a visit to Sham Shui Po, a district with a vast collection of merchants selling any electronic gadget, piece, or gizmo you could ever want. There’s an outdoor market, but we opted for the four-story indoor (and more importantly air-conditioned) option.
Dad found both items fairly quickly, though the sheer amount of stuff (and people) packed into the teeny tiny hallways was incredible. The experience reminded us a bit of Akihabara, the electronics district in Tokyo.
Mission completed, we hopped back on the train and headed to Kowloon (the island to the north of Hong Kong island). We walked down Nathan Ave (a shopping street) and past the famous Peninsula Hotel (sadly, we did not stop for tea).
As we went, Glenn shared some very interesting Hong Kong history and facts. A few memorable items included:
All toilets in Hong Kong are flushed with salt water – though it requires separate plumbing, this drastically reduced their water shortage problem, even as the city continues to grow
The construction scaffolding is often made of bamboo. There are special classes and certifications to make sure people know exactly how to use it, but when done properly, it can rise many stories and is very strong.
The district Glenn’s office is in used to be factories (from a time when everything was made in Hong Kong). After everything switched to being made in China, the buildings were repurposed into office buildings. Now, a global toy distribution company occupies many of the buildings where the toys used to be made.
We made it all the way to the tip of Kowloon and walked along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, which is directly across the water from our hotel.
The view of Hong Kong island was stunning.
We took the famous Star Ferry across the water to the convention center attached to our hotel. The sun was setting as we sailed across, and it made a striking back drop for the skyline.
We relaxed at the hotel for a bit before going to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel for dinner. We had a nice dinner, which included a delicious lotus root and sesame oil amuse bouche, crab and seaweed salad, some kind of broth with a dumpling, 5 pieces of sashimi, wagyu, tempura, and a mini matcha bunt cake for dessert.
Mom and Dad had access to a deluxe lounge in the airport before our flight to Hong Kong because of their business class tickets. They indulged in such wonders as buffet snacks, a full-service kitchen, and free-flowing champagne.
Flying coach, I ate a salad out of a plastic container at the gate.
Once aboard, though my accommodations for the next 16 hours were not as swanky, I was pleased to discover the middle seat next to me was unoccupied. This meant extra leg room (albeit on a diagonal) and a place to put stuff other than my lap.
Though it looked a bit like a prison tray, the lunch of teriyaki noodles with vegetables and a side of couscous was actually pretty palatable. I stockpiled the bread and butter for a mid-flight snack. I took an afternoon (Chicago time) nap for a couple of hours. After I woke up, I finished going through the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Hong Kong and watched a movie.
At this point it was time for another afternoon nap (this time on Hong Kong time). Mom offered to lend me a nifty contraption that converts between a square pillow and a neck pillow. It was actually pretty comfy and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. When I awoke the second time, I was pretty able to convince myself it was late afternoon… until they served breakfast. Oh well.
I had a window seat so I got to observe the mountainous islands that dotted our approach. One bridge was so long I couldn’t see the end!
After landing, our trip through immigration and customs was painless. Plus, the “priority” stickers a nice young man put on our checked bags in Chicago (thanks business class!) did their job and our bags were the first off the plane.
A limo driver from the hotel met us and stowed our bags away. In all that guidebook reading it never occurred to me they would drive on the left side of the road here! But it makes sense, given the British colonization.
The drive from the airport (at the end of Lantau) to The Grand Hyatt in Central (on Hong Kong Island) was a bit mysterious due to the gathering darkness. By the time we approached Kowloon and Hong Kong we could see the elaborate lights on many of the high-rises.
The lobby of the hotel was palatial, which is particularly impressive given that real-estate is so scarce in Hong Kong. Dad booked a beautiful suite with a killer view of Kowloon’s skyline. There was an entryway, sitting area, dining table, bedroom, and large bathroom (with an opening into the bedroom… I guess so you can admire the view while you shower?!?). Mom also discovered a small bathroom and closet off the entryway that just looked like part of the wall at first. There were an incredible number of doors in the room (six, not including the shower door).
The package also included free minibar snacks, drinks, some extra goodies delivered in very nice cookie jars, and a bottle of 2015 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes-du-Rhone (too bad it wasn’t the 1982 Petrus Mom and I saw displayed downstairs).
We ate dinner (or possibly second dinner) in the hotel’s cafe and then crashed.
Everyone has seen photos of partial solar and lunar eclipses, and they look surprisingly similar. In person, the experience is somewhat different, because one happens during the day, and the other at night, but it’s not that much unlike the photos.
However, there is one experience that is completely different, and isn’t at all like the photos. A total solar eclipse is the event of a lifetime, really impossible to capture in photos or video, and just as impossible to describe, although I’ll try.
On August 21, 2017, for the first time in a hundred years, a total solar eclipse traveled across the United States. For a few days it was the talk of the media, but many months before we’d made a plan to put us in position. Since we’d been staying in Chicago it made sense to stop in Nashville on our way home to Orlando. Nashville was one of the largest and certainly the most interesting city in the path, so there were 90,000 other people with the same idea, but we flew in a day early to avoid any travel issues, and encountered no traffic.
On the day of the eclipse many people went to the stadium, which baffled me, because you want to be somewhere out in nature, and where you can see the horizon. You also want to be mobile in case of clouds.
So we had arranged to rent a car, and at 10 am Linda, Dani and I began our drive about 90 minutes east, to place us near the centerline. This would increase the time of totality from just under two minutes to two minutes 39 seconds.
We had no preset plan, and looked for good viewing places along the way, and also monitored the weather, as clouds were likely to boil up in the afternoon. In the end we ended up in Carthage, Tennessee, which was almost on the centerline.
As we had lunch in a small Mexican restaurant, I searched online for someplace to buy a lighting cable, since Dani’s phone was out of charge. It turned out there was a nearby Walmart where we could get one. As we sat in the parking lot charging the phone we realized it was nearly a perfect spot to wait for the eclipse, assuming the circling clouds stayed at bay.
The eclipse had begun while we ate lunch, but we knew it would be almost 90 minutes before it got really interesting. As we waited, we could see through the special glasses that the sun was turning into a crescent, but surprisingly it wasn’t particularly apparent that it was getting darker. This continued to be the case almost until totality.
A comment on the radio about light pollution made me realize that the Walmart parking lot lights might turn on during totality, so we moved to a nearby field.
As the minutes counted down we got out of the air conditioned car and began to observe. In the last couple of minutes it started to get quite dark, and the temperature began to drop a bit from a muggy 95 degrees.
Then, as the last sliver of crescent sun disappeared, everything suddenly changed.
This is the part that is hard to explain. Suddenly, you can’t see anything through the glasses. You take them off, and above you is a pitch black rocky ball surrounded by irregular rays of cold, white light.
The temperature plunges ten degrees in a moment.
All around you it is sunset on every horizon — a 360 degree late evening.
Venus is suddenly there, brighter than you remember, and also a few other stars.
Crickets begin to chirp. A night bird sings. Otherwise it is very, very quiet.
Most of all, you are intensely aware that you are in space. You are standing on a giant rock, and above you another giant rock hangs, and behind that a great fiery ball is obscured, but its gasses stream out in all directions. There is
There is no up or down. You are in space.
And then, suddenly, a red dot erupts from the trailing edge and you slap on your glasses. As fast as it came, it is over.
The light has a cold bluish cast, and quickly swells back to daylight, taking only a couple of minutes to seem almost back to normal.
It will be 90 more minutes before the eclipse ends, but you will remember that two and a half minutes the rest of your life.
For the first time, Linda and I both were able to spend a month in Chicago together this summer. It was fun to kick back and chill in River North. A bum left calf and foot kept me from walking all around town like I love to do, but we were able to use Lyft to explore many new restaurants. Our favorite discoveries were the Cherry Circle Room, BLVD and Mexique. Biggest flops were mfk, Tavern on Rush and Proxi.
The highlight of the trip, and the event I planned the schedule around, was Paul McCartney playing at Tinley Park. It’s a bit of a hassle to get to Tinley park, which is in the suburbs about an hour away, but we rented a car and it was definitely worth the trip.
It was hard to believe Sir Paul is 75 years old! He played an energetic set without a break for two and a half hours, then came back and did a thirty-minute encore. The sound and staging was great, and often spectacular:
McCartney played nearly forty of his best songs, ending with my all-time favorite Beatles suite from Abbey Road:
Full setlist for Paul McCartney at Tinely Park Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, July 25, 2017:
A Hard Day’s Night
Can’t Buy Me Love
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling / Hendrix Jam
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
We Can Work It Out
In Spite of All the Danger
You Won’t See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
The Fool on the Hill
I Wanna Be Your Man
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Hi, Hi, Hi
Carry That Weight
Every year, in preparation for their annual Bordeaux auction, Hart Davis Hart hosts a comprehensive Bordeaux tasting that offers an opportunity to taste two different vintages of nearly all the first and second growth Bordeaux, side by side.
This year’s vintages were particularly interesting, being of the same era but from very different years. 1989 produced tannic somewhat off balance wines for many wineries, while it was easy to make good wine in 1990. But in a couple of cases the 1989 turned out better than the 1990.
As in past years, among the first growths Cheval Blanc was at the top of my ratings, and Margaux at the bottom. Pamer, right next to Margaux, was significantly better than Margaux, especially in 1989, even though it is a second growth.
Here are my ratings of the forty wines:
89 Montrose 94 (remarkable balance for an 89)
90 Montrose 95
89 Cos d’Estournel 85 (bitter chocolate)
90 Cos d’Estournel 86
We saved the best for last! After several days packed with wine events, great dinners, museums and sightseeing, we had our farewell dinner at Oriole. And what a dinner it was!
Chef Noah Sandoval and Pastry Chef Genie Kwon knocked it out of the park.
Speaking of knocking it out of the park, not the Chicago Cubs won the world series this week, after a 108 year drought, so it was a really fun week to be in Chicago. But that wasn’t even the most exciting thing happening at Oriole. On Monday they learned they received four nominations for Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. Sommelier Aaron McManus was nominated for Best Sommelier and Genie Kwon was nominated for Best Pastry Chef. And the entire team was nominated for Best New Restaurant and Best Service!
But that wasn’t even the biggest news. On Wednesday the discovered that they had been awarded two Michelin stars, which is unheard of for a restaurant that has been open only seven month!
Never was an award so well deserved. This event even managed to surpass our previous dinner, which I would have thought impossible,
Sommelier Aaron McManus served the wines we brought and acted as a wonderful host.
This was the first time Oriole had guests bring in wines like these, so it was quite a treat for everyone.
Chicago is on the west shore of Lake Michigan. Much of the area along the lake is various parks, from Lincoln Park on the North to Millennium and Grant Parks on the south.
The downtown area is mostly high-rise businesses and is comprised of the one square mile of the Loop (so named because it is encircled by the Elevated train tracks). The Loop is bounded on the North and West by the Chicago River. North of the river is the one square mile River North, which is where a lot of the clubs, restaurants and residences are.
The East boundary of the Loop and River North is Michigan Avenue, and the part from the River northward is called the Magnificent Mile, because it’s where all the fancy stores are.This is Tourist Central.
The easiest and cheapest way to get from Orlando to Chicago is Southwest non-stop to Midway. Midway is a bit easier to navigate than O’Hare because it is smaller.
Uber works really well in Chicago, and is really cheap. But if you’re feeling adventurous it’s even cheaper to take the El, which is always $2.50. The El is the train system around Chicago. The different lines have colors. The blue line goes to O’Hare, the Orange line goes to Midway. The red line goes North/South and the Green line goes to the west. (The Red line is actually underground in downtown, like the tube in London.) Nearly everything converges on The Loop.
You buy a card that operates the turnstiles. You can get one and put money on it at major stations. The same card works for the buses. Google or Apple maps work well with the El
From the either airport to downtown is under an hour on the El, sometimes less on Uber (but not always).
Separate from the El is the Metra, the train that runs north to Wisconsin, but is not useful for local transportation.
There are also horse drawn carriages in the tourist area along the Magnificent Mile.
Things to Do
City Pass Chicago
If you plan to do several things, the City Pass combination ticket is the best deal. It includes:
Shedd Aquarium – VIP ENTRY
*Skydeck Chicago – FAST PASS
*The Field Museum – VIP ENTRY
*Museum of Science and Industry – VIP ENTRY OR 360 CHICAGO – EXPRESS ENTRY
*Art Institute of Chicago – FAST PASS OR Adler Planetarium – VIP ENTRY
I put an asterisk on the best choices.
Museum of Science and Industry
This is a great museum in a huge building that is the only survivor from the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair where the original Ferris Wheel debuted. That world’s fair was one square mile, and had 700,000 visitors on its closing day alone!
Must see things at the museum are the Coal Mine ride and the German U-Boat On-Board tour. These have specific admission times you select when you get your tickets. Allow at least 4 hours minimum.
There are a number of Chicago River boat tours and even a number that focus on the city’s architecture, but this is the best one, because it has a docent from the Architecture Foundation doing the commentary. Even if you’re not that interested in architecture, it’s a great way to see the city and the river, all the way from Lake Michigan past the Sears Tower.
A retired engineer and bridge enthusiast conducts these very personal walking tours of all the different types of drawbridges along the Chicago River, and you get to go into one of the control towers that is now a museum. This is often a private tour.
There’s a new Ferris Wheel on the pier that gives quite a view of the skyline and lakeshore. This is also where lake cruises depart from. The dinner cruise is nice although the food is nothing special. During the summer there are Disney-quality fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday.
John Hancock Tower
There a great view here because the building is on the Magnificent mile at the lake shore. However you don’t need to pay for 360 Chicago. You can see the same view by having a drink at the Signature Lounge.
This mansion from the guided age is right in River North, and is the best preserved historic home I have ever been in. Elaborate marble, woodwork and tiffany glass look like they were installed yesterday. They host changing exhibits, too. When we went there was a collection of original cartoon artwork from 100 year old issues of Puck magazine.
Randolph Street is Chicago’s theatre district, where many shows open before going to Broadway, and where the touring productions come. The major theaters are the Oriental, the Cadillac, and the Goodman. To the north is Steppenwolf, and on Navy pier is the Shakespeare Theatre. There are also dozens of smaller theatres.
About 30 minutes to the west of Chicago is Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd write built his own home and studio. It’s very extensive, and the tour shows how his work evolved over time. Be sure to book your tour in advance. There’s also a walking tour of the homes he designed in the surrounding neighborhood, but since you can’t go in those I would skip it. You can Uber for about $30 each way, or take the Green line and be there in 20 minutes or less.
If you have a car, it’s an hour drive to Indiana Wineries. Butler makes good wine from local grapes, and Shady Creek makes good wine from California grapes. Do not go to Anderson’s Orchards and Winery.
A local entrepreneur runs some very good food oriented walking tours. I took one where the guide stayed in character as a socialite from the days of the 1893 World’s Fair. We visited a half dozen historic stops and had foods that were invented there. They also do brewery and distillery tours.
This restaurant and live music venue is also really into wine, and serves everything in Riedel stemware. The food is good, and they have different acts every night. During the summer there is also a casual outdoor version right on the Riverwalk.
This is the best Tiki Bar you will ever go to. It’s not really on Clark. Enter the alley on Hubbard and follow the neon light to the door. Reservations essential. Even neater is the tiny Bamboo Room within Three Dots and a Dash. A separate, prepaid reservation is needed here. For fifty dollars you get several custom-made tiki drinks, or can have a rum tasting. Ask to sit at the bar so you can talk with the bartender as he makes your drinks.
Chicago has a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants, but mostly I have ignored those, because they take months of planning to get into. These are some favorites by category.
Things to NOT eat in Chicago:
Deep dish pizza. You can get the same stuff at Giordano’s. When the Chicago magazine ratings come out, none of the top pizzas are deep dish.
Chicago-style hot dogs. It’s nothing special, just on a poppy seed bun with a pickle, tomato, and pepper. There are gourmet dogs in town that are better.
Mexican food. Some people like Rick Bayless’ Michelin-starred Topolobampo, or his adjacent Frontera Grill or Xoco, but I’m not impressed. Chicago really doesn’t have a great Mexican restaurant.
Best Restaurant in Town (and the country) – Oriole
The secret is out (two Michelin stars in the first 7 months) but the best place in town is Oriole. Reservations well in advance are essential. Don’t be alarmed that it looks like a warehouse and you are entering off an alley.
The most famous hamburger in America is at Au Cheval, but good luck getting in. There are a few spinoffs called Small Cheval that are more accessible. But you can also get Au Cheval’s hamburger at a salad place(!) See below.
This place has an enormous and fresh collection of salad bars, but they also serve Dillman’s famous pastrami sandwiches from another restaurant’s recipe, and the burger made famous at Au Cheval and voted best in the country. So something for everyone!
Created by the folks behind the amazing Oriole, Kumiko was selected by Time magazine as one of the best 200 PLACES in the world–not just restaurants. Craft cocktails and creative Asian food. Best to try to reserve a seat at the bar. Even more exclusive is the downstairs Kikko with an omakase served at a small bar.
Chicago q is not a joint, it’s actually a nice restaurantI’m not a fan of Midwestern barbecue sauces, I like a Southern style, which is more like wha they offer here. Try the barbecue sampler appetizer to see what you like; it comes with four sauces. They also have about 100 whiskeys and bourbons, and tasting flights of the same.
There is almost a steakhouse in every block of River North. One of the most famous is Gibson’s, but this is a new location with a dramatic view of the river. Despite the name, it’s really about steaks, not Italian food.
Famous for its Chicago Mix, which is half caramel popcorn, half cheddar cheese popcorn. It’s better than it sounds. There’s always a line, but it moves fairly fast.The one on Randolph in the Loop doesn’t usually have a lone.
Chicago has some great donut places – Glazed & Infused, Do-Rite Donuts, and Firecakes. But my favorite is Stan’s (six locations), an import from Westwood Village in Los Angeles. You want an old fashioned buttermilk. (At Glazed and Infused you want a maple bacon; you enter through the Davanti Enoteca restaurant.)
A few years ago Linda and I attended a Riedel stemware seminar while on a Celebrity cruise. The premise of the seminar was that different shaped glasses make wines taste different.
We went in very skeptical but came out completely believers. So much so, in fact, that I ordered four sets of the glasses and have conducted the same seminar for my co-workers and members of my wine group. Everyone who has ever gone through it has been amazed at the effect that even small changes in the shape of the glass can make.
So when I heard that Riedel was conducting a seminar just a block from our Chicago condo I had to sign up for it again. Why? Becuase for $90 you get four excellent wines, and can keep the glasses they’re served in!
Dani and I attended last night, and even though the venue was less than ideal for wine tasting (outdoors, noisy band nearby) it was still impressive. We also discovered a few new things I hadn’t heard in the previous seminar:
The wine smells different depending upon where in the glass you place your nose. This was particularly apparent with the sauvignon blanc, which smelled like grapefruit on either side and like yeast down in the center.
The glasses are dishwasher safe, but don’t use soap, as a hot glass absorbs the soap and becomes cloudy when it cools. Because of their height, you need to put them on the bottom rack.
The Riedel decanter that looks like a coiled cobra has an interesting property: if you turn it around at an angle once before you pour, it dispenses exactly one glass of wine.
Although The City Winery Riverwalk was packed last night, the seminar was undersubscribed, and they backfilled with random bystanders (who didn’t get to keep their glasses). This was a tactical error, because these folks weren’t really interested in the seminar, and yacked through what was already a difficult listening environment. However we did meet an interesting guy and his son who sat next to us, and talked with them at length afterward.
The wines selected for last night’s event were all superb, especially the chardonnay and pinot noir. They were chosen for their intense varietal character and winemaking style, and I would be happy to have any of them again:
We picked the right weekends to visit Chicago. The weather was perfect. We originally scheduled this trip for our Next season tickets. The Alps-themed meal turned out to be lackluster, but we had a lot of fun anyway.
We’ve had a fabulous long weekend in New York, and although the purpose of the trip was to see the new musical, Waitress, we also had a chance to visit some favorite restaurants, and try a few new ones. Here’s a recap:
We began with a dinner for two at Momofuku Ko, which I’d read about in a favorite book The Rosie Project. Dani was still flying in from Chicago when Linda and I had a delightful meal, made special by a wonderfully welcoming staff. Not every course was a home run, but it hardly mattered because everything else was perfect.
For lunch Friday Dani was still at her friend’s apartment, and Linda and I stepped back into 1962 for lunch at La Grenouille, a classic French restaurant, and the last of its kind. This is a place they talked about going in the series Mad Men, and it’s unchanged.
Dani caught up with us for our anniversary dinner at Eleven Madison Park. We’ve had two of the greatest meals of my life here, and one awful one. Fortunately they’ve returned to form, and although this one wasn’t quite as memorable, it was exceptional, particularly the service.
Despite our feelings about The Donald, we stayed at the Trump International Hotel, because we got a deal on hotels.com, and someone has to pay the unfortunates who work there. One plus is that one of our favorite New York restaurants is just downstairs. We had a lovely lunch at Jean-Georges, which—even thought the prices have doubled in the time we’ve been going—is still the best lunch deal in town, with the same food as dinner at a fraction of the cost.
A great thing about New York is that you can actually dine really late. So after the wonderful Waitress production we had an 11pm reservation at db Bistro Modern, a reliable late night choice operated by Daniel Boulud, whose high end restaurants we view with less favor.
The stunning highlight of the trip, and one of the best meals of our lives was Easter lunch at Caviar Russe, where we had the caviar tasting menu, an eight course extravaganza where every course incorporates caviar in a meaningful way. The wine list is extremely attractively priced, which just makes things better. Linda and I had one of the best meals of our lives here in 2014, and this one was even better. So of the greatest meals I’ve ever had, Caviar Russe occupies two of the top five spots. (For those keeping score, the others are two different meals at Eleven Madison Park [neither of them recent] and New Year’s Eve at Victoria and Alberts.)
We had a reservation at The NoMAD, operated by the Eleven Madison Park folks, but after such a spectacular lunch it would have been a waste. So instead we went to a local Turkish place, ABA Turkish Restaurant, which was very popular, and fine, but actually not as good as our Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in Orlando. But after that lunch, it hardly mattered!
We finished off our culinary extravaganza with a Monday lunch at Vaucluse, a new French brasserie by Michael White, owner of, among other things Marea (which we aren’t wild about). Vaucluse is a beautiful room, and the brasserie food was elevated, yet traditional. The best Salade Lyonnaise of my life is my parting memory of New York.
Quite the culinary whirlwind, and something we can only do every couple of years, but there were some truly memorable experiences that we’ll hopefully be remembering long after the Amex bill comes.
If you can just do one thing in New York, I have to say—well, see Waitress! But other than that, Caviar Russe is the place to be.
This anniversary trip to New York City features a lot of fine dining, but it started because of Waitress, a new musical based on the movie, and with a score by Sara Bareilles. Dani asked for tickets for Christmas, and I was able to get them prior to opening night.
Sara tells the story of how she became involved with the show in her biography, Sounds Like Me. At the time she didn’t know the director, Diane Paulus, was quite famous, and she hadn’t seen the movie. But when offered the job she went home and watched it, and immediately wrote the first song for it.
That song and most of the others are on an album, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, that she released last year, and which Dani and I have been listening to in heavy rotation. It’s a great album, but it’s very, um, Sara-ish. So it was with some trepidation that we went to see the show, since not many people can sing—or even play—a song the way Sarah Bareilles does.
I’m pleased to report that: 1) this cast—and especially the lead, Jessie Mueller—can sing them that way; 2) the onstage band is on top of it; 3) this is an amazing Broadway show, not just some pop songs set to a movie. In fact, the songs fit so perfectly that, having not seen the movie, I can’t really imagine it without the songs.
What’s remarkable is how polished the show and cast are given that we saw it on the second night of previews. There might have been one song in act 2 that I would have cut, but other than that I wouldn’t change a thing. The audience agreed, and was wildly enthusiastic from the moment the lights dimmed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more enthusiastic audience.
I was struck by how much of Sara’s album made it into the show, although one great song, Door Number Three, didn’t make it in recognizable form. But for the most part her album will give you a great idea of what this show sounds like, even if you can’t exactly figure out who will be singing what number.
Needless to say, we loved the show, and if I could see it again tonight, I would!
I’ve wanted to visit Momofuku Ko ever since I read about it in the excellent book, The Rosie Project, which you should definitely read. It’s very hard to get a reservation, but thanks to split-second timing last week I was surprised to be able to get in on a Thursday evening.
The layout is a bit like l’Atelier, where you sit at a counter facing the chefs and watch the food being prepared. The ambiance of the restaurant is great, with excellent music at just the right level, so it’s easy to hear your companion, but no other guests, thanks to a large gap between each pair of seats.
We absolutely loved all the personnel at Momofuku Ko. They were all warm and gracious, and genuinely glad we were there. The sommelier, Chase Sinzer, in particular, spent a lot of time with us, and helped us select a couple of superb Burgundies.
The meal consisted of 16 courses, mostly tiny bites, and some were spectacular. I had been expecting a very sashimi oriented meal, but actually very few courses resembled anything I’d had before. Highlights included a miniature pomme soufflé; chopped black bass sprayed with shiso mist; a nice serving of Osetra caviar (that didn’t particularly go with the accompanying sweet potato puree); the visually stunning razor clam with basil seeds (a signature dish); a roasted potato served in a delicious bouillabaisse broth; and foie gras that was frozen and finely shaved over lychee.
I must admit that not all the courses were home runs. Spanish mackerel with a runny baked egg was not particularly flavorful. Most of the hot dishes were misses, especially a tough sirloin (although the accompanying potato churro was wonderful) and the chicken pie.
Two dessert courses were pleasant and not too sweet, and at the end Chase comped us some Green Chartreuse, which we had never had before, and really enjoyed.
It was a delightful evening, and I would definitely return to Momofuku Ko.
I flew up to Chicago on Friday to spend some time with Steve and Dani. The weather is very strange this time of year – we had lunch outside yesterday and it went from very sunny to threatening to rain with the temp varying by 20 degrees all in the course of one meal!
Our view of the Wrigley Building.
Yesterday we went on a tour of the Chicago Theater which is about to celebrate its 95th birthday. It was originally built as a movie palace – outside of stunning architecture its claim to fame was air conditioning when it opened. Since films were silent then it has a massive pipe organ – the largest pipe was built of wood and was just over 33 feet long! The organ console has “special effects” buttons built in for car horns, sirens, etc. to accompany the silent films. The theater sat over 3500 folks and was actually a medium sized theater for the chain that it was a part of. When it opened there were well over 100 ushers employed all of whom had “to be well brought up young men of good character with a minimum of a high school education”. They also had to be 5’7″ tall and 135 lbs. to fit into the standard uniforms. Similar to our Disney operator signaling systems today, there were elaborate button and light panels all through this massive building so the ushers could communicate where empty seats were. Very impressive for its day!
I finished a cross stitch that I have been working on for 4 years this afternoon so we are going to take it to a framer tomorrow morning before we leave Chicago.
Our first road trip stop is in St. Louis. We are staying in a Four Seasons with a lovely view of the arch which unfortunately is closed due to urban renewal around its base. Also unfortunate is that the view of everything around the arch is a collection of decaying riverfront factories with black walls and smokestacks – no wonder they built the arch so high – perhaps the goal was to be able to see into another state!
Strangely adjacent to this nice hotel is a new casino which is quite lovely but filled with the dregs of humanity – dedicated gambler that I am even I was scared off and retreated back to the room.
Memphis was much nicer than St. Louis. We stayed at the original Peabody – what a wonderful blast from the past! And best of all the ducks are still there. It was so fun – the Duck Master comes out (sort of like a Ring Master) all dressed up in a fancy red coat and after a spiel to the crowd (of several hundred) he ceremoniously lowers red carpeted duck sized stairs and escorts the ducks to the elevator for the ride to their duck palace on the roof. In Orlando, once released from their fountain the ducks broke the land speed record to escape the lobby full of children; the Memphis ducks seem to have much more decorum and walked down the aisle with a majesty that would have befitted the Queen of England.
We ate at a restaurant called Flights. They had wine flights of course but also had food flights as well – so for example they had a salad flight consisting of (3) salads – thank goodness we just ordered one – portions were huge – I forget this is the South and all. Along those lines it is kind of telling how many billboards there are for cardiac care!
In the morning we took a quick drive down Beale Street just to check that off the list (they were still cleaning up from last night’s partying). It’s not quite as romantic at 8:30 AM!
I took my turn at driving today as we continued down I-55 through Mississippi – what a great drive! I have spent so much time driving in Florida with idiots that I had forgotten what it was like to share the road with folks who know what they are doing. And best of all there are virtually no towns en route, so there aren’t any cops either. Everyone has agreed to go 80 MPH and it’s an overall dandy arrangement. I was driving Steve’s stretch Lexus which is SO comfortable – the only bad thing is there is absolutely no feedback as to how fast you are going – I caught myself doing 90 at one point!
New Orlean’s French Quarter defies description – you have seen the pictures of course but the ambiance is kind of like the seedier part of Las Vegas mixed with the funkiness of San Fransisco’s water front with a dollop of New York street life thrown in for good measure. Walking the streets is kind of like driving in Florida – you have to assume you are going to be cut off at every pass – folks start to drink around 11 AM and it is legal to carry drinks with you on the street – so it’s a happy but directionally and balance wise challenged crowd. Bourbon Street is sort of like an exercise in natural selection – the street itself is closed to traffic but the cross streets are not – you get the picture.
Just one block over from Bourbon is Royal Street – a very different vibe. There are still many tourist shops here but there are some fine antique stores as well. We spent an hour in one that was more like a museum with price tags. It was not uncommon to find prices around $75K and there was a painting that had been sourced from the Vatican that was close to $1M. And heaven knows what they had hidden in the back! The place was huge and among other treasure they had a collection of precision world clocks from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Commander’s Palace turned out to be a dud – incredibly high wine prices, a fairly limited menu and fractured service – oh well.
Last night however we went to and absolutely fabulous new restaurant (R’evolution). Great wine list and the food was outstanding. Steve and Dani had a 1907 Madiera to finish off the meal – perfect in every way!
Halloween in New Orleans is… well let’s just say it ain’t Disney style.
On Bourbon Street one passes cigar puffing men in red tutu’s and matching bustier’s with a lot of muscles and an overall bad attitude. The young ladies in similar attire go down the street without comment. The young ladies (?) hooking for the strip clubs hang out with mostly bare tops covered perhaps by black paint at the most. They are about 15′ away from young boys tap dancing on the street in violation of every child labor law I have ever heard of. We saw a very dapper pair of elderly men (clearly well monied) with impeccable suit jackets, killer shoes and no pants save for very colorful boxer shorts. Then there was the black robed young woman with a large live snake draped around her neck. And the crazy guy naked but for black Speedo who was bragging about being both drunk and high on cocaine… And everyone else is just pretty much 3 sheets to the wind. Several schmucks had fallen by the road and were sleeping it off on the sidewalk. And this was about 5 PM last night. So what I could not get my head around was about this same time a NOLA police car was driving down the road – could not fathom what infraction they were going to go for first? These folks have taken live and let live to a whole new level!
So what I neglected to mention is the music. Music oozes from every pore of the French Quarter – they seem to be be born knowing how to play an instrument. There is nothing repetitive about it – every performance is improvised – as opposed to soul music this is music from the soul – amazing! There was a street band led by an older black lady clarinet player – the best I have ever heard! Her name is Doreen Ketchens; here is one link on YouTube but you can find others as well:
There was also a band that played in a lounge in our hotel. The room was about the same size as lounges on cruise ships and I always felt a slight rocking sensation (but it might have been the champagne…).
Yesterday we had had enough of the city and drove about an hour out of town to a riverfront plantation, Oak Alley. It was a rainy day so it was very uncrowded and it was a little easier to get a sense of what it must have really been like. It is named Oak Alley because an unknown Frenchman planted an avenue of oak trees 80 feet apart in the early 1700’s. He never lived to see them in their full majesty but now they have grown together and form a magnificent arch leading to the river. They funnel any breeze and in the early 1800’s a wealthy French officer built a magnificent home at the end of the Alley for his bride (who sounds like she was actually a pill but whatever.)
The plantation grew sugar cane and employed about 100 slaves. There was an inventory of them from the mid 1800’s and their values ranged from $25 for a very sickly older person to $1500 for a skilled self taught botanist. Morality aside, just from an economic standpoint most of them were not given sufficient food/clothing to survive adequately – they had to supplement their incomes/food by raising crops and animals in their “spare” time; seems a pennywise approach to treating your work force.
So then it was off to Biloxi and the Beau Rivage. It is kind of sad – sort of a southern Las Vegas built on the cheap for senior citizens who have never gotten the chance to travel anywhere else. The only fun fact is for inexplicable reasons it is mandated that the casinos themselves have to be built on barges. So the hotels are built on the water’s edge and the barges are seamlessly attached to them – you can’t detect the seam from the inside. And no, I cannot figure out how they deal with the tides and it’s bugging me…
Last night we had a lovely dinner in a steak house on the top of another hotel – they had a very nice wine list and also were having a 50% off special on the wine – no limits! Had some really good Burgundy at below retail – yeah! And I even won $15 at the casino last night.
Eating habits in the South – no wonder insurance rates are so high! It is just kind of sad. We went to a sushi restaurant in Biloxi and out of 40 rolls only 3 or 4 of them did not feature tempura battered something or overall deep fried or both. Yuk! Amazingly their sashimi preparations were spot on.
En route to the Panhandle I was amazed by the sophistication of Mobile, Alabama – beautiful waterfront convention center and great local restaurants.
Our final stop before Orlando was in Destin, Florida, at a kind of funky pseudo bed and breakfast with a killer Gulf view.
I am going to sleep with the doors open and the waves lapping outside.
Alinea is widely regarded as the top restaurant in the United States, but when we visited five years ago we weren’t impressed. The service seemed stiff, and there were too many directions involved in how to eat each course.
But it had been a few years, and since then we’ve enjoyed many meals at their related restaurant, Next, which changes its entire concept three times a year.
Both restaurants use an advance ticketing system, and it takes quite a bit of planning to book a table. In addition, Alinea won’t accept a booking for odd numbered parties, so we waited until Dani was out of town.
This visit immediately felt different than last time, as the waiters were much more friendly. Linda and I shared a reserve wine pairing, and that was plenty for both of us, because the wines were more eclectic than actually great, although there was an impressive 2005 Chateau Palmer near the end.
I was surprised how many of the courses were the same as five years ago, but there were also many new ones. I don’t think anything was as good as some of the things we’ve gotten at Next, but there were some fun items. These pieces of paper picture different food items, and the small tastes on top of them are designed to taste like the pictured item, even though they appear completely different.
Pretty but not remarkable.
This is an actual slab of concrete, but the concrete-like pieces on top are food.
This was several courses. The best and most interesting thing of the night was a shellfish I was unfamiliar with called Percebes. There were two on the piece of driftwood, and they were consumed by simply biting off the tiny bit that extended from the shell. All the rest of that is just decorative.
Another beautiful presentation, all edible.
There were some interesting flavors here, but again it’s mostly about appearance.
This was a new fun experience: a green apple flavored balloon full of helium, so you could bite it, inhale, and talk like Donald Duck. Just don’t get it in your hair!
This was the final course, which was the same as last time, and didn’t thrill us. They put down a mat and the chef decorates it with dessert. It’s not particularly interesting, just outre.
The menu was presented at the end of the meal. The size of the circle indicates the size of the course, the darkness of the circle indicates the intensity of flavor, and the position of the circle indicates sweetness (the farther to the right, the sweeter).
In summation, I thought Alinea was better than last time, but still not anywhere near the top of my restaurant scale. There are many places in Chicago I’d rather go, including Next, Boka, Grace, Intro and Sepia. Also, having just been to Victoria and Albert’s for Linda’s birthday the week before, it really pointed out how the experiences are not remotely on the same level.
Maybe in another five years we’ll give it another try.
We took advantage of cool weather and beautiful blue skies to drive 60 miles west of Chicago to All Season Apple Orchard in Woodstock, Illinois. From Late August until early November they have a corn maze, apple orchard, and many other attractions.
We were fairly early, and I expected to be almost alone, but there were already hundreds of cars in the parking area, and a long line to buy tickets. I guess everyone else thought is was a great day to pick apples, too. Once inside, it wasn’t particularly crowded, as the place is huge, and it was mostly families with small children playing on the bounce houses and in the corn pit.
We began by watching the pig races, which were pretty funny.
Then we ventured into the maze. Dani complained that I was looking at the map, but I pointed out that she was taking the well-trod paths, which seemed much the same thing. There was a fun “Clue” type mystery to solve by finding clues in the maze and punching your card.
Once we found our way back out of the maze we had a quick bite to eat (while dodging the bees who really liked our cider). Then we took the wagon ride to the orchard to pick apples.
We paid extra to pick Honey Crisp apples, and boy are they sweet and crisp, especially right off the tree!
I had never been in a corn maze or picked fruit before, and both were really fun activities.
At the start of the Labor Day weekend Dani and I made a quick overnight road trip to Hannibal Missouri to see Mark Twain’s birthplace. Along the way we stopped in Springfield, Illinois to checkout The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where some of Alcorn McBride’s gear is used. After a nice lunch at Incredibly Delicious we headed for the museum, parking in the underground garage to escape the 95 degree heat.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
I’m a huge fan of BRC Imagination Arts, the designers of this experience. Bob Rogers is a master storyteller, and this facility demonstrates the power of storytelling like few others I’ve encountered.
It’s amazing how much information you can retain when it is presented in a meaningful and moving context, and that’s what the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is all about.
Both of the automated shows are real blockbusters, with amazing effects and immersive narration that really draws you in.
The “Holovision” show Ghosts of the Library uses a live performer and many of the effects developed for BRC’s famous Expo ’86 Spirit Lodge Show (and Knott’s Berry Farm’s Mystery Lodge), plus some new effects that will delight even jaded theme park goers like me.
The Lincoln’s Eyes show uses multiple screens and a lot of moving scrims and impressive theatrical sound to very effectively tell Lincoln’s story in an unconventional way.
Don’t let these elaborate shows fool you into thinking this is shallow theme park-like entertainment. You’ll leave them with a truly deep knowledge of history, having learned many things you never knew you didn’t know about a seemingly familiar story.
Equally impressive to me was the way that Lincoln’s childhood and presidency were presented in two separate walkthrough exhibits. Signage didn’t overwhelm, but was just enough to invite reading and interpreting each stop. I wish all museum curators would learn how to do this.
Similarly, the displays of artifacts were perfectly interpreted, with just enough information to draw us in without overwhelming us with verbiage, yet with plenty of hard information that was easy to absorb. I certainly learned ten times as much as I expected to.
This museum is a delightful place to spend as little as a couple of hours, or as much as a full day. Highly recommended.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is at 212 N 6th Street, in Springfield, Illinois.
In the afternoon we headed west, across featureless cornfields, for Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s boyhood home, and the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal sits just across the Mississippi River from Illinois, and it’s a bit of a one horse town.
The major industry seems to be tourism along the four blocks of historic shopping that run from the Mark Twain Museum up to the statue of Tom and Huck.
We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast called the Dubach Inn, and had dinner three doors away at LaBinnah Bistro. After dinner we walked down to the steamboat landing on the Mississippi River.
In the morning we had a delightful breakfast with other guests of the hotel, who were emcees for a steampunk convention that happened to be in town for the weekend, and would provide some interesting color along the main street during our stay.
Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum
Our first stop was the Mark Twain Museum. The ground floor provides a fairly elaborate interpretation of some of Twain’s books, including Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad, and his time in the gold rush territory of California. While these displays looked nice, they didn’t do a great job of conveying their message, especially to their intended audience, which seemed to be children.
The upper two floors of the museum did a much better job, displaying artifacts and artwork from Twain’s life and books. For those with the patience to read the detailed signage, there was a lot of interesting information here.
The museum ticket is available as a package that also grants access to other buildings down the street, and that’s definitely worthwhile. You can tour the homes that provided the inspiration for Tom, Huck and Becky, and all were interesting.
At the end of the street is a statue of Tom and Huck at the foot of the path that leads up to the lighthouse.
Mark Twain Cave
After browsing through the steam punk festival’s booths, we headed three miles down river to Mark Twain’s Cave.
This cave may not be filled with spectacular stalactites and other formations, but it is rich in history, since it is the cave from the Tom Sawyer novel (and four other Mark Twain books). Walking through its labyrinthian passageways really brings the book into focus, and the guides do a great job of identify various locations mentioned in the book.
It’s a very easy cave to traverse, with flat floors, no steps, and no climbing. It’s also a cool 52 degree respite on a hot summer day, so bring a jacket!
After our tour of the cave, we headed back, stopping at Lover’s Leap for a last look at what is still very much Mark Twain’s Hannibal before heading home.