Sunday, August 30, 2015

Stinson Beach and Point Reyes National Seashore, CA (United States)

Feeling a little peckish, we stopped off in Stinson Beach in Marin County. The west coast town reminded us of our favorite Ocracoke with its art galleries, beach-themed shops, and daytrippers headed out to the sand. Lunch was fine, if a bit pricey, and we were pleasantly surprised by the live music. The older gal in flounced skirt, cowboy boots, and black stetson, chatting and making the rounds on the deck, ended up being the frontman of the band. We abandoned our misconceptions when they launched their set. A penchant for Serge Gainsbourg manifested itself in a charming style they were calling “Francobilly.”

Wandering back and forth in a GPS-dead zone, we eventually found Duxbury Reef. The marine protected area is one of the largest shale reefs in North America. We had intended to spend a few hours indulging in a pastime of Rich's childhood that I had never experienced: exploring tidal pools for urchins, starfish, and other sea creatures. Sadly, our delays meant that we arrived to find the tide was up, and there would be nothing to see for hours.

We caught a feel for what we missed in the exhibits at the Bear Valley Visitor Center of the Point Reyes National Seashore. There was even a display of nudibranches, the psychedelic-colored mollusks found at the reef, albeit crocheted versions from some local crafter.  How twee! There are 150 miles of trails at Point Reyes, but we only managed the Earthquake Trail on our brief pit stop. Interpretive signs about plate tectonics and its related damage dot the trail since the park is located on the infamous San Andreas Fault. Blue posts mark where one section of fence jumped 16 feet away in the devastating 1906 quake, which begs the question, "Where is The Rock when you need him?"  

Friday, August 21, 2015

Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods, CA (United States)

We figured the payment for a red-eye flight would come in physical discomfort rather than our wallets. What we didn't bargain for was the additional 1.5 hours in line in the middle of the night at the rental car office at the San Francisco. Why did we even bother making reservations if walk-ins were in the same queue? Their slogan should be “Thrifty - You Get What You Pay For.”

After a few hours of shut eye, we got back into the rental car and headed north. This route actually put us driving onto the Golden Gate Bridge. This icon of San Francisco, of California even, has spanned the 3-mile-long channel between the bay and Pacific Ocean since 1937. The bridge is popular with photographers (of course), pedestrians, bicyclists, and sadly, jumpers. This once longest suspension bridge in the world can also lay dubious claim to second most popular for suicides, since, if impacting the water at 75 mph didn't kill you, the hypothermia will finish the job.

On the other side of the bridge, we observed self-induced personal anguish. Road racers were pedaling up the punishing hills of Marin county. Sure, the scenery was ace with glimpses of the crashing waves on rocky coasts and evergreen forests. But you're still on scorching pavement, being passed none too gently by impatient SUVs and Route 1 convertibles, and going steadily - or more often, very wobbly - uphill. Just witnessing the Sisyphean struggle was akin to the pangs I feel watching those miserable sods who ski cross-country on TV, and those are Olympians!

Muir Woods National Monument - named after naturalist John Muir - was our opportunity to see the old-growth coastal redwoods. We weren't the only ones. The parking lots and subsequent shoulders of the road were packed, and we heard German, Japanese, Spanish, and French in the visitor's center. Amazingly though, most of the crowds heeded the signs for respectful quiet on the trails - even the Filipinos! Of course, there is always that one guy, and curiously enough, tonight's role was played by a Canadian sports fan loudly pontificating on his team's prospects for the season. Aside from this minor disturbance, peace and tranquility reigned in the Bohemian and Cathedral Groves. In the latter, there is even a plaque commemorating an earlier visit from international folks – delegates in town to draft and sign the United Nations Charter - to honor President Franklin Roosevelt, who died shortly before he was to open the conference.

The majestic Sequoia sempervirens can grow up to heights of 115 m, roughly 380 ft, and the trail along the ridgeline offered an interesting perspective. For most trees, it would have been high enough to down onto them, but since these are redwoods, it just meant the neck strain looking up wasn't quite so severe. The cool temperatures under the canopy were such a nice respite from the brutality of a North Carolina summer, and the forest floor was covered in a riot of ferns and clover with leaflets the size of quarters. Maybe it's the jet-lag speaking, but we felt like even the fresh air had a different quality to it, positively exhilarating with all of that photosynthesis pumping oxygen into the environment. The coastal redwoods can live 1200 - 1800 years. It's crazy to think that the entirety of our nation's history could be reduced to only a fraction of their tree rings. Not so crazy – and maybe this is the O2-mainlining talking – to imagine these giant inhabitants as ents from the Lord of the Rings.

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North America

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Chicago, IL (United States)

Growing up in the Midwest, Chicago was the big city. There were regular trips as a child, though most of my memories seem to be of buying in bulk at the Asian grocery stores and bakeries of Chinatown. It's quite a ways from us now, but I still have a fondness for it ...and even better, a free place to stay with family.

Having enjoyed one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's river cruises in the past (well-worth it but bring sunscreen), we were pleased to hear they also do walking tours. After living in a city popular with tourists for its own distinct architecture, Rich was a little embarrassed to be part of one of those groups with earphones and blocking up the sidewalks. But he got over it, since the opportunity to view skyscrapers in the city of their birth, with a knowledgeable docent explaining what's what, was too good to pass up. Plus, we were a drop in a bucket on the streets, compared to the 70,000 in town with tie-dye shirts and a lingering cloud of marijuana to celebrate the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary 3-day festival.

On the tour, we learned a bit about the Chicago School style, which incorporates large windows for retail at the ground level, then offices in the mid-section with typical 3-part "Chicago windows," and finally, the highest levels capped with a cornice. In the early days, the architects occupied these spaces, and not because they were the luxurious penthouse. Because the public didn't trust that being so high up - say, 10 or 15 stories - was safe! It was surprising to walk around these very functional exteriors and then step into jaw-dropping lobbies of glamour and excess. With elaborate mosaics, Italian marbles, and shiny metal work, the object was to impress clients and investors. The docent pointed out the chandeliers that look like upside-down wedding cake, marble veneers cut so that the corners create diamond patterns, and the motifs so common in Art Deco: owls or eagles with big ol' beefy knees.

The Monadnock, at 17 stories high, was the tallest building with load-bearing masonry walls ever constructed, evidenced by the windows set deep into the 6-ft thick sides of the ground floor. I thought the funny name sounded familiar, only to realize later that my friends moved their offices to it (check'em out here if you are looking for a lawyer).

Our favorite by a landslide was Burnham and Root's Rookery, built in 1888. When we were headed in that direction, my relative said, "Hey, I think we're going to my eye doctor's!" Though there is an optician's, there are plenty of sights to make your eyes open wide. There are crows and pigeons and all manner of ornamentation in the exterior facade of terra cotta, marble, and brick. Frank Lloyd Wright did the redesign of the lobby in 1905, and the effects are breathtaking. Dominated by a courtyard of white marble and a Persian-style filigreed roof, it is filled with natural light. It came as no surprise that many people are interested in renting it out for weddings and special events.

For a walk only slightly less urban, we tried out the new 606 trail. An old train line was converted for walkers, runners, and bikers. Parts of the landscaping had been only recently installed, but the 606 was already becoming very busy. As an elevated path, it was interesting to be able to look at the different houses and peek into backyards. We weren't the only people taking snaps of the neat rows of celebrity chef and Mexican cuisine restaurateur Rick Bayless's beautiful kitchen garden.

My family really likes food. Our short trip to Chicago still afforded many occasions to engage in our collective eating-as-bonding experiences. Comedian Aziz Ansari's raves drove us into the long line at one of the city's 2 locations of Shake Shack, the burger chain New Yorkers go wild over. Boasting fresh ground Angus beef, it was a tasty burger, although the bun may not have quite stood up to the one we picked - topped with a kind of Yankee version of pimento cheese. The dog featured a Publican pork sausage, a local nod to the Second City. The real winner was the caramelized peach shake, which we grudgingly admitted beat out North Carolina's own Cook Out Creamery. Fancy dinner was at Girl & the Goat, reservations at which we had tried to get several times over the years. Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard makes an awesome kohlrabi and fennel salad, delightful stuffed squash blossoms, and a truly refined pan-roasted halibut. There were a few misses among the small plates, but the server was correct that the miso-butterscotch budino (butterscotch pudding, sponge cake, all creamy and crunchy and foamy light) was among the best desserts we've ever eaten. We finished up with that urban favorite: brunch. We got "Dutch babies" in the Gold Coast. The savory version of the German pfannkuchen derivative came filled with veggies and cheese like a quiche and the sweet with strawberries or apples embedded. Yum!

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North America

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Savannah and Tybee Island, GA (United States)

Earlier this year, we decided on a whim to drive the 5 hours south to Savannah for the weekend. We'd never been to this city, the oldest in Georgia and featuring prominently in the bestselling book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Southern charm oozes on the streets lined with live oaks, artistically draped with Spanish moss, and any one of the 22 squares in the historic district. These quiet greenspaces are pleasant to walk around, and we even stumbled into some kind of Polish remembrance parade, complete with traditional costumes and brass band around the Casimir Pulaski Monument in Monterey square. In the much larger expanse of Forsyth Park, volunteers were setting up or tearing down the starting line to a 5k race, couples were picnicking and playing frisbee with their dogs, and families were buying fresh vegetables and cheeses in the morning's farmer's market.

Rich found us a room in one of the historic houses functioning as a boutique hotel. Built in 1847 as a private home, the Eliza Thompson House hosts wine and cheese get-togethers for hotel guests in the formal parlour, followed later by desserts and coffee, and port or sherry left out in a crystal decanter for a nightcap. Such posh digs almost compel you to look around for the bell to ring Carson for tea!

You could likely spend a week prowling preserved homes and antique shops should antebellum architecture and history be your passion. We also visited the Owens-Thomas House, as part of our Telfair Museums ticket. Designed by English architect William Jay, the Regency-style neoclassical building functioned as a residence by a wealthy merchant family and then as elegant lodging house, boasting the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette as one of its illustrious guests. We were surprised to see large cisterns and indoor plumbing in such an old house, and even more curious, a humpback bridge connecting the two sides of the top floor! The docent-led tour begins in the intact slave quarters, where remnants of blue paint are visible on the wooden boards. In the Gullah (coastal enslaved Africans) culture, this distinctive haint-blue color was thought to ward off evil spirits.

The other two entries on the Telfair Museums ticket were for the Telfair Academy and the Jepson Center. The former is also a historic home, mostly used to display a selection of nineteenth-century portraits, landscapes, and sculpture. The Jepson Center, on the other hand, is a bright, modern space with contemporary art. On our visit, Andy Warhol was dominant in a pop art exhibit, and another gallery was inspired by jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. The accompanying music was catchy, but I had difficulty convincing Rich to thrown down some lindy hop moves with me in the middle of an art museum. The city is also home to the acclaimed Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Besides passing campus buildings, you can also take a piece home as the gift shop actually sells textiles and other items designed by SCAD students and faculty.

Most visitors to Savannah find themselves along the riverfront. The long stretch along the Savannah River is home to restaurants, pubs, and souvenir shops. A frequent sight among the pedestrians is what is known as “to-go cups.” You can walk up to any bar and order alcohol in a to-go cup and just take it away. No need to confine yourself to one establishment or wait for everyone in your party to finish the round. It was convenient, but as such a novelty to most people, Rich felt the result was far more displays of public drunkenness. At times, the atmosphere could give you flashbacks to college keggers on the lawn.

Amid the candy barrels and demos of how to cook pralines in the brick-and-mortar stores, the riverfront also happened to be the site for a festival of sweets the weekend of our visit. Booths popped up to ply their wares of fancy chocolates, taffy, ice cream, and different honeys. As one charity - leading a small pig in a dress - took the mic on the mainstage, only we seemed to notice the irony of trying to raise awareness for diabetes amidst such sugary sales.

On our way out of town, we stopped off at a couple of places. In Bonaventure Cemetery, ornate Southern Gothic tombstones, statues, and mausoleums are laid out in winding paths on a bluff of the Wilmington River. Famous inhabitants include poet Conrad Aiken, lyricist and Capitol Records founder Johnny Mercer, and - temporarily - naturalist John Muir, who apparently camped out on the graves for several days in his Thousand Mile Walk. Lunch was on Tybee Island, a popular getaway for Savannahians. Enjoying a low country boil of mussels, crawfish, crab legs, shrimps, sausage, corn, and potatoes was an excellent end to our little holiday. 

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North America

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Deep Sea Fishing in the Outer Banks, NC (United States)

We returned to our old haunt in the Outer Banks to try our hand at deep sea fishing. There are several boats available for charter that dock in Silver Lake Harbor on Ocracoke Island. We opted for a half day charter on the boat Drum Stick, which included the licenses, crew, and tackle. To get in the spirit of things, we all got anchor tattoos on our arms... at least, temporary ones. Arrrh, me hearties!

The captain handled the steering and locating the fish, using sonar and radioing with other boats out for the day. The first mate showed us how to cast and baited the lines. The Outer Banks coastline is littered with old shipwrecks, and our first stop was over a wreck where a school of black sea bass had been spotted. Each rod had 2 hooks baited with large chunks of an oily fish that the fishermen deemed only good for bait. As soon as the sinker started dropping into the water, we could feel the fish starting to nibble. Reel in, cast out, reel in, cast out... The fish were biting so quick that Rich's stepdad pointed out there was hardly any sport in it. The limit is 5 black sea bass per person, and we easily caught 3 or 4 times that many if you count the small ones we had to let go. My first keeper (i.e. the sea bass must be at least 13 inches long) actually came as I kept the line dangling in the water, waiting for the first mate to unhook and release a piddly one. Suddenly, a big bass surfaced to gulp down the chunk on the other hook, and I hauled in my first real catch. It wasn't long before we caught our limit... though not before tiring out our arm and shoulder muscles.

Then the first mate baited the trawling lines with lures like shiny spoons, which wriggle and flicker in the water. We watched closely for the tip of the rod to start twitching violently, and then the game was on! One person would grab the rod out of the stand and start cranking the reel as quickly as possible. Sometimes the fish would be fighting so hard you had to jump into the chair to get better leverage and really put your back into it. We only had 2 trawling lines, but inevitably, they would both get a bite at the same time. Adrenaline was pumping all around as 2 people were hauling in the lines with all their might, and fish with razor sharp teeth were flopping around on the deck and spattering blood all over before we could get the hooks out. We caught bonita, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, and albacore. The gorgeous amberjacks had to be released as the minimum take home was at least 27 inches long. Unfortunately, some of our biggest catches and toughest fighters the fishermen told us were only good for bait.

We landed our catch - 30 beauties laid out on the deck for the crowd on the dock to admire. Most of the fish were filleted for us to take home, but we also got a few just descaled and gutted. Whole black sea bass baked in a salt crust dome made for a superb dinner!

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North America

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Final Thoughts on the Philippines

I hadn't been to the Philippines in years, and anxious that Rich should enjoy his first visit, I filled his ears with warnings and forebodings. Other than the ever horrendous Manila traffic, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that most of these dire predictions didn't come true. The shakedowns of petty corruption didn't occur, or at least, not so overtly as I recalled in the past. Most food was served actually hot in restaurants, not merely lukewarm (a pet peeve of Rich's). Squatters, beggars, and all manner of folks living in abject poverty, which before, down every alley and along every railway line, seemed as rampant as in some parts of India, were a far less common sight. Doubtless, we were staying at times in more affluent areas, but perhaps, some of the recent economic gains the country had made that my uncle described had improved their situations as well?

Rich found the the travelling around the Philippines pretty comfortable and relatively easy. The roads were in good condition, transport was easy to hail or organize, and communicating with people was simple. One difficulty, he cited, was in getting commitment out of folks. Since there is a strong cultural reluctance for telling someone, "No," he found the indirect methods - e.g., saying "Yes" to your face, but making you feel uncomfortable for your request and making it feel like a giant inconvenience - a bit annoying. He disliked the over-the-top Las Vegas-style flash, tackiness, and cheesy schtick of a few of the local tourist hotspots. But he loved that going a tiny bit of out of the way from them would land you in pristine, beautiful surroundings.

I was happy to get some of my favorite treats: warm pandesal buns with butter in the morning from the corner store; gorging on ripe Philippine mangoes, hands down the best in the world; and fresh ensaymada (brioche-like bread sprinkled with cheese and sugar on top). One of the highlights of staying at Apulit Island was the daily halo-halo bar. This concoction of candied tropical fruits (jackfruit, young coconut, sweet potato, plantain, etc.), sweet beans, and corn mixed into shaved ice with a shot of evaporated milk, topped with leche flan (Pinoy version of a rich egg custard) and purple yam ice cream, is heavenly and perfect for those hot and humid days. One slight disappointment was our limited seafood. There was one day where we picked out all the shellfish and fish we could wish at the market, but the restaurant we chose to cook them for us ignored our request. Instead of simple preparations (just grilled or steamed, maybe lemon or garlic), the cooks hammered most of it, suffocating them with cheeses, bacon, and overpowering sauce. Culinary crimes! We had better luck elsewhere with traditional dried fish (daeng) and requesting whole fried sweet-and-sour fish.

My palate has come a long way since our last visit so I tried to embrace the bizarre foods of Philippine culture. Woodworm went down. But we had to gird our loins for that most famous of Philippine delicacies. Balut is a half-hatched duck egg. Sold everywhere on street corners, my mom admitted to having a 2 baluts and a Coca-Cola daily habit as a kid. My dad picked up our specimens at the 7/11. The egg looks normal on the outside. I took one bite of the beige egg white inside, and it was oddly tough and chewy. Rich took a slurp of the grayish liquid and recalls it as "probably not disgusting." But we balked when we hit the fetus - and it is recognizably so. With tiny wings and a tiny beak. Defeated, I take great comfort that our other taste tester - Chinese and proudly proclaiming, "We eat everything!" - also didn't finish. My dad said it was a waste of perfectly good food and laughed at all of our turned up noses.

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