Hong Kong 2017 – Day 3

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 to  do 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. There 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.

 

Really interesting display 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 sat us right away and gave us the dim sum menu (which works very much like ordering sushi in the states). My major criteria was that it had to be cute. We succeeded admirably.

Spicy minced pork & shrimp with assorted vegetables buns in sichuan style

Doggy Sausage Rolls

BBQ Piggy Buns

So cute!

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!

I particularly liked the potato puree in the amuse-bouche, the scallop, and the tilefish (complete with scales).

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 2

Early morning thunderstorm

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.

Cartoon of how Swiss sauce got its name

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.

Noodle shop

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).

Dolling out personalized medicinal tea blends

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.

Exploring Graham Street Wet Market

Shop cats in a dry goods store

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!”).

Colorful wares

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.

The bamboo scaffolding is strong but bends in the wind (unlike steel) so it’s good for typhoon season

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!).

This is the pork butcher

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 explains how Taoists burn incense in groups of three

Incense should be burned in threes

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.

You can make out the inscription above the door, “Young Men’s Christian Association”

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.

Row of abandoned tenements

Looking at abandoned tenements

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 5 or 10 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 and then TAI Cheong Bakery, which 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 British candy shop and a line down the block for egg tarts at TAI Cheong Bakery

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 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.

Main entrance

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, infecting 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.

Incense coils against a backdrop of bamboo scaffolding and tarps inside Man Mo Temple

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.

An interesting juxtaposition of old and new architecture

Wall trees grow in the most unlikely places here

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.

For dinner, we stayed in the hotel, but sampled the Cantonese restaurant. It’s beautifully decorated and had mirrors everywhere (including the ceiling).

Self portrait

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.

It was a VERY large table

The menu offered half portions, which were 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.

Check out the day’s snap story here: https://youtu.be/05oBiEF-g18

And here are some more miscellaneous pictures:

So fluffy, so sleepy

Brief rain shower

A leprechaun door (a twist on the local Door Guardian shrines)

The tiny door at the bottom left is a Door Guardian shrine.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 0

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.

She looks like she’s ready for vacation.

Flying coach, I ate a salad out of a plastic container at the gate.

Slightly less fancy

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.

Business class versus steerage

 

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.

Looks like a prison tray, tastes like a frozen dinner.

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.

Slightly grim mid-flight snack: turkey and cheese sandwich with M&Ms

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!

If you look to the right hand side, there’s a REALLY long bridge that disappears into the distance

Approach into Hong Kong at sunset

Very dense!

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 first 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 entry way 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.

Tasty tile fish, and fantastic chicken chili fries

Day 197 – The Grand Canyon

This morning began with a 6am wake up call, bags out at 7am, wheels rolling at 8am.

On our drive out of Phoenix our guide, Julie, talked about a variety of things including: Arizona sports teams, Saguaro cacti, local flora, history, and geography.

We made a quick stop at Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed by previous explorers (Montezuma never built anything in this part of Arizona). There was a walking path that made a circle around the cliff wall so you could see the impressive (somewhat impractical) structure. Julie gave everyone on the bus a “Passport to the National Parks” with blank pages for stamping each time you visit a national park or monument. We got four stamps at Montezuma’s Castle alone! One with the date, one for the park, one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the visitor center’s “new” building, and one with Teddy Roosevelt’s face on it.

Dad in front of ancient cliff dwelling

Squirrel

After that we headed into Sedona for lunch. We were dropped off on a touristy yet charming main street area. I actually suggested a Mexican restaurant for lunch, Taos, which turned out to be quite tasty. I had fish tacos with mango salsa that were really delicious! I didn’t touch my refried black beans though…

The weather has been quite changeable on our trip so far but I don’t mind at all. The intermittent rain is keeping the temperature down and my Chicago skin from instantly crisping in the sun. It rained heavily for about three minutes during the first part of our lunch but by the time we had paid the sky was completely clear again. I bought a couple of postcards and we admired the red rock formations while waiting for the bus to pick us up.

After lunch we continued the drive toward the Grand Canyon. The scenery changes quite rapidly with the changing altitude. It is amazing how there seems to be an invisible line above or below which certain plants simply do not grow.

We stopped at a National Geographic center to watch an Imax presentation about the Grand Canyon. They had popcorn that smelled sooo good, but I managed to refrain. Their popcorn condiments included a lot more flavors than I have ever seen on display before. In addition to salt, butter, and day-glow cheese they also had chocolate marshmallow as a flavor spread. The Imax movie was quite well done, although I would not have wanted to be one of the stunt men in that teeny boat going through those rapids…

We arrived at the Grand Canyon at about 4:40. Dad and I planned to hike along the eastern trail before dinner and take photographs with my shnazy SLR. We threw our stuff down, rushed outside in time for 10 minutes of beautiful weather, and then the sky opened up, soaking us (though thankfully not my camera) with cold rain that felt like it had recently been hail. We took refuge in the Hopi House and did a little shopping. Having only made if about 50 yards we returned to the room and exchanged our wet clothing for dryer stuff and started our hike again.

Grand Canyon Sunset


It was very pleasant. The sun was going down, turning all the rocks and formations bright interesting colors with lots of contrast. The rain cooled things down a bit so it wasn’t too much of a strain to hike in the thin atmosphere. We went about two miles and then caught the shuttle back, just in time for dinner at the El Tovar.

We had a lovely table next to a widow. Through it I could see the forecast thunderstorm approaching. We shared salmon and trout croscanti that were really excellent. I felt like our roles were reversed however when I had salmon and Dad had a Filet Mignon. Our waiter was an interesting fellow. He was an excellent and professional waiter but he had studied Physics in college and knew all about Niels Bohr and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and had even visited Copenhagen to see Bohr’s Institute. We exchanged reading recommendations. I recommended the play “Copenhagen” to him and he recommended “Copenhagen and Faust” to me. I will have to check it out when we get home!

When we left the El Tovar to go back to our room we discovered a large herd of Elk grazing on the El Tovar’s nice irrigated lawn. They seemed incredibly unconcerned by the tourists and the flashbulbs going off…

El Tovar Elk

Day 195 – Phoenix, Arizona

Today Dad and I jetted off for the beginning of our out west adventure. We had an uneventful flight from Chicago to Phoenix and I can guarantee no one on the plane was superstitious (today is Friday the 13th) and the flight was, surprisingly, full.

We landed twenty minutes early only. Oddly, it had rained just before our arrival, unusual for this time of year, and the rain cooled things off significantly. Today it was actually cooler and wetter in Phoenix than it was back in Evanston!

We’re staying at the Four Seasons hotel in Scottsdale. Our room is on the ground floor and has a nice patio. I’m not sure if it was the rain that brought all the critters out or if there is just lots of wildlife here but in a few minutes outside I saw a multitude of birds, four horny toad lizards, and two jack rabbits. I dusted off my camera and took some shots of the desert plants. The picture of the day is of some prickly pear blooming outside.

We had a quiet afternoon and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Talavera, which is quite fond of using ‘quotation marks’ around their ‘menu’ items. Dinner was tasty. Dad had a vegetarian ‘wellington’ and I had sea bass (probably not locally caught – excuse the desert humor). Tomorrow we meet up with our tour and begin the trip in earnest!

Day 83

The air-conditioning guy came this morning and fixed the AC unit in the beach house! Yay! Although I have to say, that at 79 degrees with a cool sea breeze through the house, we weren’t suffering too badly. I believe in my head it feels like summer, and I suppose that if all summer felt like this it would be wonderful in Florida, but I keep having to remind myself it’s only March!

We lazed around while the AC guy worked. I figured out how to make tea. After the AC was cooling again we slathered on the spf 100+ and headed out to the beach. We played Frisbee, I though I would be horrible, but my aim was actually quite passable after a few practice throws. We also collected some shells. Apparently I have a thing for yellow ones, as every shell I picked up turned out to be yellow or orange.

We played by the tide-pool rocks for a while and then sat in the shade underneath someone’s boardwalk and played in the sand. Sam is quite artistic and crafted quite a monster.

Needless to say I spent the whole time taking photos. The grand total was 675 photos. I expected there to be only about 7 truly remarkable photos but was pleasantly surprised to find there were a lot more. I’m not sure if it’s a testament to my photography skills or just that I had highly photogenic subjects who were willing to pose for me (I’m looking at you, Sam!).

After a couple of hours we headed back to the beach house to hose off and get ready to depart. We grabbed lunch at a beach bar dive, threw our sheets and towels in the dryer, and headed for home.

The drive back to Orlando was as painless as the drive out. Sam kept us entertained with her music selections. I dropped everyone off at Daniel’s house but had to dash out because my parents (who I think are enjoying the fact that I’m 21 far more than I am) were taking me to a wine dinner that night at the Everglades Restaurant.

The evening was quite fun (especially since I wasn’t sunburned, thank you spf 100+). The guest of honor was a master sommelier in training, DLynn Proctor. He was of course knowledgeable and quite affable. He gave excellent notes about the wines we were drinking and communicated his passion for the subject with great enthusiasm.

Dessert was a wonderful duo of cheese (Reypenaer 1 year aged Gouda and Petit Basque) as well as an Engadiner Nut Torte, which I definitely plan on attempting to duplicate.

After dinner there is always a raffle, which my parents never win. Tonight, with beginner’s luck, I won a bottle of 2009 Beringer Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, which should be excellent to drink… in fifteen years or so.

Official Photo of the Day

Sam modeling for me

Runaway Frisbee

Daniel Contemplating the Ocean

No trip to the beach is complete without a piggy back ride

I call this Sam's "Movie Star Look"

Daniel demonstrating his marshal arts moves

Sam uses her District 9 inspired hand to grab Daniel

Daniel works on the sand sculpture

Self-portrait of Daniel in Dani's sunglasses

Day 82

Today Daniel, Sam, and I drove up to Crescent Beach near St Augustine to spend the night at the beach. Daniel’s family has a beach house up there that is literally 30 feet from the ocean at high tide. We ended up taking my car because it had an iPhone/iPod connector hooked up to the sound system. I always think the drive is going to be longer than it is but most of it is in a straight line so it’s a very easy drive.

We left Daniel’s around 3pm and were installed in the beach house by about 5pm. We went for a very nice walk on the beach (after applying spf 100+ sunscreen, at least for us northerners).

Dinner was a the Oasis, a sports bar/seafood shack farther up A1a. Daniel single-handedly polished off a pound of snow crab, although Sam and I got a head start on our sandwiches because apparently the Oasis only has three pairs of crab claw crackers! How can a seafood restaurant only own three pairs of claw crackers?

It was dark by the time we returned to the beach house and the stars were coming out. We decided to wait to go stargazing until later, when they’d really be bright. In the meantime we watched District 9, which I’d never seen before. It was directed by Peter Jackson but didn’t have very much in common with Lord of the Rings or, as the back of the box seemed to suggest, Bladerunner. Definitely not sure where they got a Bladerunner comparison from. Still, it was an interesting movie and we enjoyed it. We also ate s’mores during it, although they were raw due to a lack of cooking appliances.

After the movie we went outside and stargazed, discovering that we all had a deep love of space as children. Sam had an app on her phone that you could point at the sky and it would show you what constellations you were looking at. We found Orion, the Big Dipper, and Cancer, as well as Mars and Saturn.

Around midnight we took towels out to the beach and lay on our backs. Daniel told ghost stories. He’s really good at it!

After about an hour we were getting cold and a little sleepy so we went back inside and called it a night. There’s nothing like ocean air for a good night’s sleep!

Official Photo of the Day

Sam!

Daniel!

Australia 2011: Day 23 (and a half)

This morning began the long process of returning home. I got up, finished packing, and showered at the last possible moment so I would clean as long as possible. Dad and I managed to repack our suitcases underweight. Our only crutch was one small duffel bag stuffed with some dirty laundry and leftover toiletries.

Delta said we needed to get to the airport three hours in advance of our international flight. Murphey’s law dictated that we made it through check-in and security in record time (maybe 15 minutes).

But, the good news is that Australians apparently like to shop while they wait for their planes (or maybe when they get off the plane and buy stuff duty free…). I had $25 Australian dollars to spend and I managed to use it all up on a couple of stylish coffee mugs for Evanston.

We got to chill in the Air New Zealand crown room after that. It was so nice! They had a hot breakfast buffet set up AND (more importantly) free wifi that was faster than anything we’d paid for on the trip.

I was feeling a bit peckish so even though we’re probably going to be fed at least 6 times in the next 24 hours I had some toast and a piece of kiwi-fruit (because it just doesn’t taste the same in the states).

We were on exactly the same kind of plane going out of Australia that we were coming in, so the seats were definitely fantastic. And because we were flying through what I considered day-time I was awake to use more of the media features.

In fact, I used most of the trip catching up on all the media events I’d missed out on in the last couple of years. I watched a couple of movies, LOTS of movie trailers, some music videos, and listened to several Delta radio stations, learning that Kristin Chenoweth has a new album called Some Lessons Learned that is fantastic!

The selection of movies on the flight was huge! There must have been more than 100 to choose from. They had a little bit of everything too… Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Ice Age (1, 2, and 3), Tangled, Inception, Citizen Kane, Harry Potter 1-7a, the LOTR trilogy, Sideways, (500) Days of Summer…

I watched two full length movies, Ice Age and an old classic I’d missed out on, Tootsie. Both were hilarious. Of the movie trailers I watched the list of movies I thought looked interesting and I’d like to see included Never Let Me Go, Just Go With It, Black Swan, and Barney’s Version (note to the reader: I have not checked these out on Rotten Tomatoes yet, so if there are any duds in there I’m not responsible).

Unfortunately, because the flight was mostly during my daytime I wasn’t able to sleep much. On the way over I got almost 8 hours. This time I might have dozed through two play-throughs of a Pink! best of album. I love the noise-canceling headphones they give you though… man, do they make the flight quiet.

Also, the oddity flying this direction is that you get two Wednesdays. We left Sydney at 10:30am Wednesday morning and arrived in Los Angeles seemingly before we left at 7:00am Wednesday morning. This is a fun peculiarity, but doesn’t weird me out nearly as much as not existing for a day going the other direction.

At any rate, we arrived in LA and got our bags/cleared customs really fast. We recheck the bags with a sigh of relief and headed to the Delta Crown Room to wait for our next and final flight to Orlando. I think Dad would have gone to the El Cholo’s in the airport (even at 8am) for nachos but he decided that they probably wouldn’t be as good as the real thing, and he’ll just have to look forward to them in November. (Nachos are traditional Thanksgiving food, right?)

This crown room was not as nice, but they did have some breakfast foods out. Also, I know this is a really random thing to notice (and definitely to photograph) but they had a really nicely decorated bathroom… (jet-lag is my only defense here).

Finally, we got on our domestic flight. The seats were definitely a step down. They fed us a burger and I managed to snooze for another hour and a half or so. Oh, I should also mention that even with all the movies/music/etc I read an entire Kindle book on these flights as well. It was Forever Neverland, an interesting twist on grown-up (gasp!) Peter Pan.

Mom met us outside security at the airport and it was sure nice to see her! We got our bags in about 25 minutes (lightning speed for MCO). Mom drove home, since Dad was jet-lagged and I couldn’t remember what side of the road you were supposed to be on (seriously, I kept walking down the wrong-side of the hallway and going to the wrong side of the escalators).

By the time we got home at 7pm I was kind of on a second wind and managed to unpack, chat with mom, and putter until about 9:15. Then I went upstair, took the best shower of my life, and went to bed.

I’m writing this now at 6:45am the next morning. Jet-lag being the bitch it is, I woke up at 5:00am, managed to doze until 6:00, then finally gave up.

All in all, this has been a really great trip. I feel rested, relaxed, rejuvenated, and enlightened. What more could you ask for?

Australia 2011: Day 22

 This morning’s wake up was profoundly unpleasant. As Murphey’s Law seems to dictate whenever you have to get up early, you have trouble falling asleep…

But we managed to get ourselves and our bags downstairs by 6:00am. I was shocked to see that our ride to the airport was a personal tour bus. We had the whole thing to ourselves! It was… spacious.

It was also raining and cold in Auckland this morning. It seemed like we were getting out just in time, since the rain was supposed to settle in for the next few days.

Once we got to the airport it was indeed a blow to have to deal with all the hassles of flying commercially. As always my bag was 1kg overweight, but the person checking it in was nice and turned a blind eye. Our flight didn’t have a gate posted until about 20 minutes before it started boarding so we camped out on some chairs next to an incredibly over-priced bookstore.

The flight was uneventful. We had purchased tickets that were “The Works” so we got breakfast. Dad tried their hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, and potatoes. I decided to play it safe and stuck with museli and a muffin. I discovered I actually like museli. It was like granola in really really light yogurt with raisins, fresh peach and maybe orange bits in it. It was actually pretty tasty.

I watched Super 8 after we took off. Dad and I had contemplated going to see this film earlier this summer, but we never ended up going. We should have! It was directed by J.J. Abrahms and I should have had more faith in him, given that I love his previous work. I would really like to see Super 8 again someplace where I can actually understand all the dialogue. The kids in the movie all gave great performances. Especially Elle Fanning!

I dozed for the last hour of the flight. It was weird how empty immigrations and customs were… there were no lines anywhere and I think once we’d gotten our bags we were out of there in a minute and a half.

We took a cab to our hotel in Coogee, which is where Pamela grew up! She’s already departed on her grand tour of Australia cruise so she can’t be here to show us around, but after Dad and I checked in to the hotel, we slathered on the sunscreen and went to take a walk along the beach.

It turned out to be a really scenic walk. There were huge waves coming in at the beach, and we climbed up to one of the coastal cliffs and clambered over rock formations. We returned to the waterfront for lunch. After a bit of wandering we ended up the Coogee Hotel’s brasserie/beer garden. Dad and I shared a Caesar salad and a cheese burger. One of the normal ingredients on burgers here is tomato relish. It was okay, but not as good as Fergburger!

After lunch we got brave and went over to the beach, despite all the things that can kill you. We took our socks and shoes off and (avoiding anything that looked remotely like a shell – stinging shells, look it up) went and stuck our toes in the water, or in my case since a wave twice as strong as all the others snuck up on me, up to my calves, splashing all over. It was cold (Dad hammed for the camera)!

We stayed for a little while, watching some boys trying to body surf on the large waves. Dad saw one really stupid person narrowly avoid getting smashed on the rocks, but since we saw his head bobbing after a few minutes, we figured he hadn’t actually managed to drown himself.

After about twenty minutes we decided to quit while we were ahead and nothing had bitten/stung/or poisoned us. We went back to the hotel for the afternoon and chilled.

For dinner we went to a restaurant called Ceviche that was diagonally across the intersection from the hotel. There was a private function going on inside the restaurant but they sat us on the balcony. The evening was quite mild and with the heater taking off the chill it was lovely.

I had gnocchi that was edible, tasty even! It was unusual, it was very large, about as long as my hand and had been stuffed with ricotta, spinach, and walnuts, and was served with a pesto sauce. Dad had tuna tartar. For our mains we both had fish, his was barimundi and mine was ocean trout served with wasabi mashed potatoes. It was a lovely evening and a great way to end the trip.

New Zealand 2011: Day 21

Yesterday’s weather blew away (literally) leaving us with one last beautiful day in New Zealand. Having fairly thoroughly explored the city, we kept things pretty low key. We decided to go check out the art museum because it just received a huge private collection as a donation. There are apparently many paintings that haven’t been seen in several generations.

We walked over to the art museum, which is near the university. It was very breezy! But beautiful and sunny.

The museum staff was very friendly. Dad got a map. He tried to hand it to me to chart our course through the museum, but since I’m only luke-warm about art museums to start with, I told him he should do it, since he actually cared about what was there.

It’s not that I don’t like art. I do, but I’m the first to admit that I know nothing about it. Certain periods (back when things were representational) intrigue me and every once in a while I find a painting I absolutely love, but I have no use for anything after impressionism and I think paintings by chimpanzees and elephants have more artistic merit than most modern art.

The museum turned out to be a fairly eclectic mix of all styles and periods. There was one gallery dedicated to New Zealand art, but most of the upstairs was for the new stuff. It was sort of haphazardly arranged I thought. There was no unity of time period or style, just a bunch of paintings hung together with statues in the middle of the room.

I found one artist I liked. His name was Edmund Blair Leighton and he painted things inspired by Arthurian legends. I loved his compositions. They all told stories. My favorite was one of a woman sitting on a window ledge tying a scarf (as a love token) around a knight’s helmet. The mounted knight is outside the window, leaning down, reaching out for the helmet. The look on his face was difficult to interpret. Was he impatient or did he love her back? Was he going jousting or was he going off to war? Did he think he’d ever see her again? I guess that’s what I think art is supposed to do. Make you ask questions and spin stories in your head.

After the art museum we walked over to the University again to go to the Relax Lounge and get another Chai Tea Latte. It was just as good as I remembered. I think what makes it better is the powder they put on top. My educated guess based on smell and taste is ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sugar. I’ll have to experiment when we get home!

We had a lazy afternoon at the hotel and went to Eight (the hotel restaurant) for dinner because everything (literally everything) else in the city was closed on Monday. Eight didn’t disappoint. We decided it would have been Mom’s favorite restaurant on the trip because the papadums were less than 10 feet away from the sushi…

I had: salad (honey mustard dressing), vegetarian hoisan stir-fry, butter chicken and garlic naan.

Dad had: salad (Eight dressing), sushi assortment, a variety of Indian dishes and garlic naan.

Dessert is the only thing Eight doesn’t seem to get. Consistently the best thing seems to be pineapple dipped in the chocolate fountain. I did manage to get a slice of pretty good chocolate cake and Dad and I discovered that we sort of like Turkish Delight (although it get’s stuck in your teeth…).

Tomorrow’s wake up call is before the crack of dawn (5:30am… 3:30am Sydney time yuk!). I mostly packed before bed so that leaving in the morning will require minimal brain power.

I sure will be sad to leave New Zealand! I had no idea how much I’d end up falling in love with this country!