Saturday, July 08, 2017

Time for Texas

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to be in Texas for a day on business. I decided to show up early to give myself a free morning in Houston. What fun!

I arrived at the airport around brunch-ish, so I rented a car and made my way to The Breakfast Klub  It's so popular that they've opened a branch in the airport now, but I wanted to go to the source. It's a small restaurant. You stand in line (no list to put your name on), order at the counter, then take a seat. Before you know it, delicious (and not healthy) food comes piping hot out of the kitchen and onto your table.

The chicken and waffles at Houston's The Breakfast Klub
are not to be trifled with. 

I ordered the chicken and waffles. To be completely honest, I had never had chicken and waffles before. So heavy. So starchy. Not good for you. BUT it was one of their specialties, so if I was going to have it, I may as well have it from a place that's famous for it! And it was heavy. And it was starchy. But OMG. I totally understand why so many people have diabetes now!!! It was sooooo good! I ate more of the chicken than I did of the waffle, mainly because the chicken was so good that I wanted to weep tears of thankfulness. Feeling completely satisfied, I waddled back to the car.

It was a Monday, so most of the big museums were closed. There was one place open, though, that many on the world wide web seemed to think was a quintessential Houston experience - the Rothko Chapel. This unassuming building with its quiet courtyard is nestled in the museum district and holds  14 Rothko murals. It's free, and it appear to be open nearly every day. I found a parking spot on the street and went to check it out.

It's a quiet space, rounded off not he inside, with pews and pillows on the floor for sitting. Light is indirect. Time seems to slow down inside, as the murals quietly vibrate. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, so I can't share that with you. However, it's a very unique place, and I recommend stopping in for some quiet reflection. 

The Rothko Chapel is the perfect place for quiet reflection.

By this time, my hotel room in The Woodlands was ready, so off I went. I checked into the Westin at The Woodlands there, and found it to be comfortable and VERY centrally located. I'd never visited The Woodlands before, and I found it fascinating. It's a master-planned community, with clusters of neighborhoods clustered around the city center. The city center features a mall, an outdoor mall, several main streets lined with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters, and a man-made waterway and pond dotted with water taxis and kayakers. Though most of my time in The Woodlands was spent on business, I did enjoy the times I was able to get out and walk around, as it's a very walkable community. I did a bit of window shopping, enjoyed some of the outdoor public spaces, and ate in a few of the restaurants before it was time to head back home.

Until next time, Texas!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Lombard Street
Day 5

On our last full day in the city, we'd planned to hike Land's End for amazing views. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. That day dawned chilly, windy, and cloudy. Pivoting, we figured we'd start the day by hitting some tourist attractions in the hopes that the sky would clear for an afternoon hike.

Our first stop was Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America. We watched a couple of truck drivers gingerly make their way down it, and we also enjoyed the city view at the top. Then, we headed for San Francisco's painted ladies, down near Alamo Park. We admired the intricate detail work on these beautiful Victorian-style houses while humming the Full House theme song. We also walked around Alamo Park a bit, as there are interesting houses to see on every side.

Laura, Grace, and the painted ladies!

After that, we walked to Golden Gate Park. (There were parts of this walk that were a bit sketchy. That, combined with the poor weather, made me wish we'd taken a cab for this portion of our jaunt.) Once there, and needing to warm up, the park's Conservatory of Flowers beckoned to us. What a great stop! We ducked into this historic landmark, which is the oldest wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. We were transported into a world filled with orchids, cycads, aquatics, and other fantastic plants. We particularly loved the butterfly room, where the delicate creatures fluttered all around us. (One even lighted on Laura's shoe!) This was a great place to slow down, take a load off, and warm up.

Butterfly at the Conservatory

After our visit to the conservatory, the weather was still poor. We sadly decided to bag our Land's End hike and take refuge in the deYoung Museum, which is also located in Golden Gate Park. Once inside, we first visited the cafe for some filling and very reasonably-priced lunch. Then, we lost ourselves in a world of American and contemporary art. They had some very interesting Dalis, and a Modigliani or two. They also had a large gallery where they paired paintings with descriptive poems written by students. Love that exhibit. We also enjoyed their African and Oceanic collections. Though the museum is sizable, it's easily covered in a day or a long afternoon, and there's plenty to keep you occupied! We spent the rest of the afternoon here, then caught a cab back to the hotel.

Dali at the deYoung

We had a special treat planned for dinner. One of my high school friends lives in the area, and she'd agreed to meet up with us! We started out at Barbacco Eno Trattoria for drinks and snacks, then made our way to Wayfare Tavern, where I chose the amazing fried chicken with whipped potatoes and a sparkling glass of brut rose. Lawdhavemercy! The food was delicious, but the company was even better! We chatted and laughed and gabbed and whooped and vented and just had the best time!! I was so glad to reconnect with her!!

After dinner, we blissfully sank into bed.

Day 6

We had plane tickets for early afternoon, so we didn't do much on our last day in town. We found a shipping shop where we mailed our wine back home. We also had a fantastic breakfast at a little spot called Homage, which uses the product of several local farms to offer a small but excellent menu. Then, it was pack-airport-plane-home!

What an amazing city San Francisco is! I can't wait to go back! And I can't wait to go on vacation with my sisters again!!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Dragon Gate in Chinatown
Day 3

The next morning, we were back at Cafe de la Presse for breakfast. (What can I say? Morning is a tender time. When I find a place I like, I tend to return there!) On this occasion, I had the lovely eggs benedict. (In a twist, I requested that they serve it on a split croissant. Soooo much better than a sad English muffin!) The three of us sat at the bar and thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Then, it was off to explore Chinatown! We decided on a self-guided tour, and selected this walking tour from National Geographic. What fun! It was still early yet, so nothing was crowded. The tour begins at Dragon Gate, which is conveniently right across the street from the cafe. We browsed curio shops in the area, admired St. Mary's, poked through a kite shop, and gasped at the painted balconies at Waverly Place.

Then, we climbed three narrow flights of stairs into another world, the Tin How Temple. This small space is the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S., and it's fantastic. Bright red paper banners hang from the ceiling. A large shrine dominates the room. I decided to offer a $5 donation. For this sum, the sweet Chinese lady who mans the temple guided me through lighting incense and inquiring about my future. (Her advice to me? If you have a sore spot in your life, "Don't poke at it! Let it be.") She also gave me a packet of lucky tea to take with me. This was a stellar stop, and I'd recommend it to anybody. Unfortunately, they don't allow photos inside, so I can't show you what a beautiful and exotic space it is.

Three goofy sisters in Chinatown!!

We stopped by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company and sampled crisp, warm wafers fresh from the cooker. Then, we picked up hot cups of tea at the Ten Ren Tea Company. We sipped them a block or so down the street at Portsmouth Square. I LOVED our tour of Chinatown and highly recommend spending some time exploring this part of town while in San Francisco. So unique.

After our tour, we were jonesing for some good dim sum. According to the internet, Yank Sing had a stellar reputation. We found it on Stevenson Street, and we were seated after a short wait. The place was PACKED! We got a table in the outdoor section, then selected all kinds of delicacies from the carts that rolled by - soup dumplings (OMG), scallion prawns, Peking duck, potstickers, and more. It was a delight! When we were done, we fairly ROLLED out of the restaurant! I'd give this place four stars for the food, but maybe only 2.5 for the service. The restaurant was very busy, and because we were in the outdoor seating section, the carts didn't come by as frequently. (I think it was pretty easy to forget about us out there.)

Waverly Place, with its lovely painted balconies!

Now, at this point, I begged my sisters to catch a cab with me to Fisherman's Wharf, our next stop. But they wanted to walk, and they were having none of it. I sighed and complied. So we set out on foot. As we made our way to the main tourist drag, we passed by a stairway to Coit Tower, which stood head and shoulders above the city and promised amazing views. On a whim, we decided to climb.

Oh. My. God. So many steps! We hoofed it up about 400 steps to the top. After a morning of walking (in LOAFERS, no less!) and a big lunch, this may not have been the best idea. Whew! BUT we made it! We were rewarded at the top with sweeping views of the city and the bay. Now, once you get to Coit Tower, you can also go up into it. However, there was a loooong line to do so, so we just bagged it. (Back down the 400 steps we went! Lawdhavemercy!)

Cont Tower against a blue, blue sky
At last, we made it to Fisherman's Wharf. I insisted on a quick break on a bench to rest my feet for a moment. That done, we saw the sea lions, browsed the shops, and danced across the musical staircase. A word - we visited Fisherman's Wharf on a Sunday on a holiday weekend. It was a veritable sea of humanity. Don't make the same mistake! We'd wanted to visit Ghirardelli and take the cable car back, but lines were long, and every place we looked was packed. (Plus, after a day of walking and climbing, we were tired.) After checking the area out a bit, we took a cab back to the hotel.

Day 4

Wine country day!! From the beginning, we'd all known we wanted to spend a day in wine country. After much wrangling on how best to accomplish this, we decided to book a private guided tour. Knight Wine Tours had an excellent reputation online, so we called Stan Knight, told him a little bit about us and our trip (what kinds of wine we liked, etc.), worked out a date and a time frame, and called it done.

That morning, we had a light breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Stan picked us up from the Omni at around 10 a.m. in a comfortable SUV. He had provided some literature, and on the 1-hour drive to Napa, we all chatted and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Though it was still a bit chilly and windy in San Francisco, Napa was balmy, sunny, and in the low 70s. Our first stop was downtown Napa. We checked out the visitors center, talked to some of the tourism professionals there, and browsed the cute shop. Then, Stan took us to the gorgeous Trefethen Winery. This family winery is large and lovely, and the tasting room is in a fully restored building that's more than 100 years old. We admired the courtyard area for a bit (think fountains, arbors, benches, and roses), then went in for our tasting.

Trefethen Winery, with its historic facilities and lovely courtyard

The tasting room is lovely, and Michael, who was helping us, was so knowledgeable and friendly! His family owns the vineyard, and he's been working there his whole life! He was a veritable fount of information, and so charming. We enjoyed our flights, purchased a few bottles, and then Stan collected us for our next stop!

He took us to V Marketplace in Yountville. What a delightful series of shops! We browsed (and bought) artisan jewelry and gourmet chocolates. (The selection of goodies at Kollar Chocolates look like little jewels!) Having satisfied our shopping yen, Stan took us to our next stop - Bell Wine Cellars. Here, he'd arranged for us to have both a tasting and a full tour. We started in the tasting room, where we met winemaker Anthony Bell and saw the big vats that they use to create wine. We learned about the history of the vineyard and sipped some of our first selections. Then, it was off to the vines! Outside, we learned about vine health, soil quality, and companion planting. We also saw some of the machines used to process grapes. (More sipping.) Back in the winery, we marveled at the tall rows of barrels where the wine is aged and discovered the types of wines and grapes that produce the delicious wines they sell here. (Another taste.) We finished up by purchasing a few bottles, including a fantastic port that I've been sipping while eating squares of dark chocolate since I've returned from California. FANTASTIC!

Vines stretch out to the mountains in Napa Valley.

Now, as a rule, we are pretty cheap drunks. By this time, we'd drunk far more (and on fairly empty stomachs) than normal. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being heartily buzzed. But luckily, Stan was already a step ahead of us. Before dropping us off at Bell Wine Cellars, he'd provided us with menus and taken our lunch orders. Once our tour was complete, we arrived to find a lovely lunch set out for us on the terrace of the winery, overlooking the vineyard. What a delight! We'd chosen big, bready gourmet sandwiches (the better to soak up all that alcohol), and they were delicious! Stan joined us for lunch, and we took our time eating, enjoying the yummy food and the beautiful setting!

After this tour, we had one more winery left to see - Goose Cross. We arrived late in the day, but the lovely English gentleman in the tasting area fixed us right up with glasses of rose. He then invited us out onto the positively magical back patio to sip and rest. The vineyard stretched out all around us, and mountains rose around us and the valley. The weather was perfect, with a light breeze. The vineyard's little garden surrounded us. We drank and laughed and talked and sighed and just felt lucky to be alive.

Wine happiness. That's what you see on our faces.
After this stop, Stan offered to take up by one more spot (Oxbow Public Market), but we were so blissed out and drowsy that we opted to head back to the hotel. He drove us there, dropped us off, and after tips and hugs and promises to keep in touch, returned the to valley.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that engaging a private tour guide to plan and drive for the day was cheap. It was a splurge. But, goodness, it was so worth it. We had such a fantastic time, and we didn't have to worry about a single thing. Stan handled everything, and he was a joy to spend the day with. Highly, highly recommended.

More to come . . .

Sisters in San Francisco

As an adult, I've been on a few trips with my extended family - the beach, the lake, etc. These trips are rather involved, complicated affairs, as we have a group of 12 that ranges in age from 3 years old to up in the 70s.

Recently, my two sisters and I convened to plan another one of these complex outings. As we banged our heads against the wall to find a destination, lodging, timing, and activities that would appeal to such a large, varied group, my older sister, Laura, all but whispered, "What if the three of *us* just went somewhere fun, and left everyone else at home?"

Grace and I were silent for one moment of guilt. Then, we hastily agreed. So began our sisters' trip to San Francisco. While both Laura and Grace had visited the city before, I never had, and I. Was. STOKED!! We immediately set about planning, mapping out must-see attractions, dining, and more.

Anguish echoes quietly off the walls
in cell blocks at Alcatraz.

Day 1

When the big day finally arrived, I got to town the earliest, around lunchtime. (Laura wouldn't arrive until that evening, and Grace the next morning.) First things first - I checked into our hotel, the Omni San Francisco. I booked this hotel because it got great reviews on Trip Advisor and also because the location is very central. The lobby is gorgeous, the staff is helpful, the rooms are comfortable (though we did hear quite a bit of street noise), and two on-site restaurants make a quick bite easy. After dropping off my bags, I hopped a car to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'd pre-booked an afternoon ticket to tour Alcatraz! Both of my sisters had visited the storied prison on previous trips, so they weren't interested in seeing it again. I, however, couldn't wait to snoop through the place. As I didn't have much time for lunch, I grabbed some snacks at Pier 33, boarded the ferry, and was off!

The ferry ride both to and from Alcatraz is a lovely experience in itself. You get great views of the city and enjoy the sea air. The ferries from the pier to Alcatraz (and back again) are large boats, and they are frequent. After a 30-minute ride, you arrive on the island. You're ushered toward a park ranger, who provides some general announcements to the group. (It's a good idea at this point to take a quick photo of the ferry schedule for the day. That way, you can be sure you catch the boat back at the most convenient time.)

Alcatraz feels like the island that time forgot.
The island Alcatraz sits on is actually quite lovely, and the former prison, employee housing, and other facilities spread across it. There are lots of gardens, many of which were in full bloom during my visit. The other thing that the island displayed in abundance during my trip were birds - hundreds and hundreds of gulls, cormorants, and other species. It was nesting season, and they owned the place - like a giant rookery! In many ways, Alcatraz is like the island that time forgot. It's largely taken over by flora and wildlife.

I took my time making my way to the spot where you pick up your audio tour. (This ensured that later, as I walked through the tour, I wouldn't be straining to see over the heads of everyone else who arrived on the same boat as me.) There's a quick orientation film that I stopped to view, which provides historical background on the island and is a nice introduction to all you're about to see.

I admired the gardens and views as I ambled to where the audio tour, which routes you through the cell house,  begins. On the tour, you see cells, learn about famous escape attempts, observe the warden's offices, and see where prisoners ate meals and received visitors. It's chilling. The cells are so tiny. It's hard to imagine the whole place chock full of desperate men. The anguish echoes off the walls a bit, and the solitary cells are positively frightening.

After turning in my audio tour guide, I explored more of the island, inducing the warden's house, some of the industrial buildings, the morgue and the bookstore. The parade ground was literally covered with birds. Amazing.

I caught the ferry back, sitting on the open, upper deck to enjoy the ocean for a bit. After I arrived back at the pier, I decided to walk back to the hotel to orient myself and see the city a bit. On the way, I stopped at Bocadillos (a Spanish wine and tapas bar) for a delicious dinner - a lamb burger with a side of Catalan spinach, washed down with a bit of red wine. I completely stumbled over this place, but it was a great choice! I sat at the bar and service was prompt and friendly.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge with my sisters!

Then, it was back to the hotel for a rest! Laura arrived from the airport late that night, and we both slept gratefully.

Day 2

The next morning, we were both hungry! We decided on an indulgent breakfast at Cafe de la Presse, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Yum! I chose the oeufs en meurette, a decadent concoction of eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and wine sauce. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! It was delicious and very filling! Laura had the spinach, feta and tomato omelette. Laura and I chatted, laughed, and drank our coffees. But this time, Grace was arriving in town. She dropped her bags at the hotel and met us at the restaurant, where we'd ordered her a filling breakfast sandwich to start the day.

I hadn't seen Grace in a while. She lives in Portland, Oregon, so we rarely get to visit. This is going to sound corny, but watching her smiling face come bobbing into the restaurant made me so happy! The three of us were together again, in a fun city! I gave her big hugs and kisses, and tears sprang into my eyes because we were beginning an adventure together.

Once Grace had a chance to eat, we were off on our first exploration. For that first day, we'd decided to bike the Golden Gate Bridge!! We walked down to the piers and found San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, which had gotten great reviews online. We'd pre-booked three reservations. The kindly staff there fixed us right up with bikes and helmets for the day (around $35 per person), and we were off!

It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. During our ride, we discovered that we were biking the bridge on the very day of its 80th anniversary! So cool! And because we were biking on the weekend, the ocean side of the bridge was reserved for cyclists. This meant we didn't have to dodge walkers and other tourists as we rode.

We happened to be biking the Golden Gate Bridge
on the 80th anniversary of its opening! Cool!

I cannot recommend this experience enough. The bike can be challenging (There were three big hills that we had to stop and walk up along the way.), but it's easily doable for someone in reasonable physical shape. There are lots of places to stop for a rest if you need one (including a great little park station just before you cross the bridge; we bought bottled waters there). And the ride to Sausalito isn't far - about 8 miles. You ride on designated bike paths for most of the journey, so it's pretty safe, too. On a lovely, sunny day, with my sisters with me, it felt like an iconic California experience.

We took our time on the ride, stopping to take goofy selfies and photos of the amazing views. (The Palace of Fine Arts was amazing, and piers/parks on both sides of the bridge give you gorgeous shots of the bridge.) When we got to downtown Sausalito on the other side of the bridge, we found a service that allows you to drop your bike off. For a $10 fee, they'll return it to the shop you rented it from, allowing you to enjoy your day in Sausalito (and your trip on the return ferry) bike-free. Sold!

After taking care of our bikes, we had a lovely late lunch at The Spinnaker, a seafood restaurant situated out on a pier and boasting lovely views through its giant picture windows. We started with a scallop and mussels appetizer, which was delicious. Then, I chose the angel hair pasta with rock shrimp, washed down with a beautiful glass of cabernet and plenty of water. (After the bike ride, we were all starving and thirsty!!)

Amazing views!

Our tummies full, we decided to explore Sausalito a bit. We ambled through the sweet little downtown, poking our noses into shops and people-watching for a bit. We picked up coffees and made our way back to the pier for the ferry to San Francisco. Because we didn't have bikes with us, it was easy to get a quick ferry ticket back to town, so we hopped on one. On the way back, we took amazing photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from the water. A quick walk, and we were back at the hotel, where we gratefully took a load off.

More to come . . .

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Toe-tapping in the Windy City (cont.)

Sunday - Day 3
The show room at Lincoln Park Conservatory
On Sunday morning, we decided to wake up with the flowers at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. After a filling breakfast, it was off to see what Chicago's green thumbs had wrought. We arrived shortly after they opened at 9 a.m. Admission is free, and there's plenty to see! The first large,  interior space is warm and humid, suitable for tropical plants. There's a nearly obscene-looking sausage tree there, in addition to tons of cycads (some older than the city of Chicago itself). We strolled through ferns and koi ponds, hunting for the tiny plastic dinosaurs placed strategically among flora that might have been around during prehistoric times.

After enjoying the lovely orchid room, we gasped at the giant blooms in the show room. This large, light-filled space boasted mounds of colorful hydrangeas, azaleas, hyacinth, lilies, and other flowering plants, nested amongst paths and small pools. Giant hanging baskets dripped flowers from the ceilings, as well. Loved, loved this space.

Amazing entryway at the Driehaus Museum
Still jonesing for more to do, we decided to check out the Richard Driehaus Museum, a private home that was purchased by a wealthy art collector, restored, and then opened as a museum to showcase some of his collection. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! Ok, Richard Driehaus is a very successful investor who has obviously amassed an incredible fortune. He's also a passionate arts and architecture  enthusiast. He MUST have more money than God, because this place is exquisite. Heavily ornamented and fully restored, much of the house features gorgeous surviving furnishings. Some of Driehaus' personal art collection of extremely fragile French posters (think Toulouse-Lautrec), hang in exhibits on the second floor, in what would have been the family bedrooms.

Amazing sculpture, fixtures, art, furniture, and architecture are on display throughout the house. This place reminded me a bit of the Frick in NYC. If you want to stroll around airily, pretending to be a rich, 19th-century banker, this is the place. As is so often the case, my only regret is that I wasn't wearing a sequined evening gown in which to be photographed on the marble stairs in the glimmering entryway. Tragic.

In the room where it happened . . . 
By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We decided to grab a bite at Cochon Volant, which was about a block from the PrivateBank Theatre (where we had tickets for the 2 p.m. matinee). As it was the weekend, the day called for brunch! I had the avocado toast and eggs, and I couldn't have been more happy with them! Large serving, delightful flavor, and completely satisfying! We savored our coffees before settling up and walking the block or so to the theatre.

Having purchased our tickets in advance, it was a quick trip to get into the PrivateBank Theatre lobby, then seated. I cannot tell you how giddy the audience was to see this show. I've been to a lot of shows. I've been to a lot of Broadway shows. But never have I seen the selfie madness that was the 20 minutes or so in the house before Hamilton! began. Everyone seemed to want to get a photo of themselves with the set in the background. Everyone was instagramming the program, the stage, themselves. In other words, folks, I had found my tribe.

The lights went down, the music came up, and for the next 3 hours or so, we all forgot every petty thing we'd been worrying about and lost ourselves in this production. It's as good as everyone says it is. The lighting is genius. The way the production uses minimal set and set pieces to greatest advantage is smart and tight. Performances are amazing. (Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr is the deft hand that guides the whole show. Alexander Gemignani as King George is an absolute SCREAM! Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson worked the crowd. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Incredible, incredible work is being done here.) I paid more for this theatre ticket than I've ever paid for any theatre ticket. And it was worth every. red. cent. Cathartic.
The lacy light court at The Rookery

After the show, we stopped back at the hotel a bit to get off our feet. Then, it was dinner at Remington's! We trekked a bit through the chill to get there, then slid into a cozy booth. I chose the delicious branzino with a glass of red wine. Then, we *may have* split the skillet cookie for dessert.  Perhaps. Then, bed!! Aaaahhhh!!!

Monday - Day 4
On our last full day in the city, we took our time getting ready in the morning. We had a late breakfast at the hotel, then made our way to The Rookery for an 11 a.m. tour. I'd been wanting to tour this space ever since I read Devil in the White City, a riveting book by Erik Larson about the Chicago World's Fair and the calculating serial killer who worked its edges. If you do much touring around Chicago, you'll see this book pop up in all sorts of gift shops, and I highly recommend it. Fascinating. (FYI - I read a while back that Scorcese and DiCaprio have optioned the tome's film rights. We shall see . . . )

The offices of Burnham and Root
At 11 floors, The Rookery was one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago. Its architects, Burnham and Root, put their office space on the top floor to demonstrate that it was safe. The two architects went on to design and build all of the buildings for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. During the tour, you learn about the building's history, including Frank Lloyd Wright's renovation of the building's light court entryway in the early 1900s. The knowledgeable guide talks you through subsequent renovations and restorations, and the tour ends in a restored office space of Burnham and Root's on the 11th floor. I loved this building and our tour, and you could tell our guide did, too! Such an amazing piece of Chicago history. The Rookery is still being used as an office and commercial space today, and I'm glad it's being preserved and enjoyed all these years after its construction.

We decided to go old-school for lunch, stopping at The Berghoff for weiner schnitzel! Service was quick, prices were reasonable, and we left with full, satisfied tummies! And we were going to need the fuel. Our next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago, and it takes stamina to explore a museum of such size.

After paying admission, we had about four hours to devote to it. Because we enjoy different types of art, we split up to maximize our time. I headed straight for the Thorne Miniature Rooms on the lower level. Such detail! Such craft! So unbelievable! While there, I also explored the shimmering paperweight collection.

Chagall's America Windows
(the theatre panel)
Then, it was off the the first floor, where I took in the Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan collections before tracking down Chagall's America Windows and testing out the acoustics in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (which I had all to myself). I admired the Greek, Roman and Byzantine art spaced around McKinlock Court (Hellooooo, Bust of Antinous as Osiris!) and tried to be really, really quiet in the Ando gallery before heading to the second floor.

Must-sees for me on this trip were Hopper's Nighthawks (contrasted with Motley's Nightlife, which hangs nearby), Whistler's Mother (which wasn't here the last time I visited), and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. There was a new armory since my last visit (and you know how I love fancy weapons), so I checked that out, and I also spent time in the medieval and Renaissance galleries.

I'm not much for modern art, but I did swing by there for Mitchell's City Landscape. And somewhere in here, I accidentally stumbled across a special exhibit - Helio Oiticica. There's an Eden installation there in which you take off your shoes and then walk through a series of created rooms, over sand, water, rocks, straw, all kinds of things. You encounter small, private spaces, You brush against flora. You hear birds. This is totally NOT the kind of thing I'd normally do, but I threw myself into it and LOVED it. Immersive. Unique. Interactive. Genius.

Whistler's Mother! New since my last visit!
After spending all afternoon at the museum, we were POOPED! We decided to rest our barking dogs at Russian Tea Time, where I had the lovely fruited quail (served with mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach) with a nice glass of red. I finished up with a napoleon for dessert, then we called it a day!

The next morning, it was shower/breakfast/pack/fly, and I was home! What a great trip in a great town! I can't wait to come back to Chicago (though I WILL hope for better weather next time)!

Toe-tapping in the Windy City

The gorgeous lobby at the Palmer House Hilton. 
So, anyone who knows me knows I am a HUGE theatre nerd. I love, love, love live theatre. I love being entertained and letting shows wash over me. I love thinking about the choices the director, technicians, and actors made to produce the show I'm watching.

As you can imagine, I've been swept up in the Hamilton  mania. Now, I've had NO problem waiting to get a chance to see the show. Let's face it - Broadway shows rarely make the leap off the arts page and into more widespread popular culture. I was more than happy to wait and let people who rarely go to live theatre file through, in hopes that they might become theatre devotees and help keep the arts alive.

But frankly, it was time. Around the first of the year, a work colleague reached out to me, inquiring if I'd like to make a quick trip to Chicago to see the show there. Happiness! I'd been to Chicago before and love the city, so it was an easy choice.

We added a few days to make a mini-vacation of it. Here's what we did:

Friday - Day 1
Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park
I got into town just before lunch and headed to the hotel we booked - The Palmer House Hilton. We chose this hotel because it's in a fantastic location (heart of the tourist district, nearly across the street from the PrivateBank Theatre, where Hamilton is playing) but also because my traveling companion loves history. In addition to being a lovely property, the hotel has a long and storied history that is tied tightly to the story of Chicago. The famed peacock doors and opulent lobby are a sight to behold, and the rooms are comfortable. (We chose a room with two double beds and two bathrooms, a genius selection for two women traveling together. Plenty of space for getting ready in the morning.)

I had a lovely lunch in the hotel restaurant, the Lockwood, as I waited for my friend to arrive (mushroom pasta, with creme brûlée to finish). We routinely ate breakfast at the Lockwood during our stay, as the weather was chilly and rainy. (Morning is a tender time. I'm not traditionally up for cold rain until I've got something delicious in my belly in the a.m.)

Once she arrived, we settled our things at the hotel and then headed out for a quick walk. She'd not been to Chicago as a tourist, so we had some basic sights to see. We started at Millennium Park and Cloud Gate, otherwise known as "the bean" for obvious reasons. Like every other tourist, we walked up to the bean, observed how it reflected us, the city, other people. We walked underneath it into a fun house of reflections. I've experienced the bean before, but it never gets old!

Thirsting for knowledge at the Chicago Cultural Center
We also checked out the concert pavilion and Crown Fountain. To keep our history vibe going, we took a turn through the Chicago Cultural Center to admire the Tiffany dome. After stopping for a quick drink at Tavern at the Park (We tried the CloudGate cocktail, minus the expensive jewelry surprise!), we headed down Michigan Avenue. We took in the bridge, the really cool base of the Chicago Trib building, the Wrigley building, and all of the lovely spring plantings along the Mag Mile.

We ended our short hop at the historic Water Tower, one of the only structures in Chicago to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Then, it was back to the hotel for a break before dinner. That night, we had a quick dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant - Vapiano. You go in, get a card, then order pizza, pasta, salads, or antipasti at the front. Then, they cook your food and bring it to you. It's like a deli, but more substantial food. Portions are HUGE, and prices are low. The only tough thing - it's loud and crowded in here! Nevertheless, we enjoyed our pasta (I chose a delicious, creamy chicken carbonara.) and wine and then hit the hay.

Saturday - Day 2
GIANT sculpture from Middle Eastern temples at
the Oriental Institute Museum
After another delicious breakfast at the Lockwood (spendy, but yummy, and so comfortable and easy - I chose an omelette this time), we hopped in a cab to check out the Oriental Institute Museum. I'd never been to this museum before, and indeed, I'd never even been to this part of Chicago before. It's gorgeous! The museum is on the campus of the University of Chicago, a lovely place full of brick and stone buildings, climbing ivy, and pedestrian paths. Flowering trees were already in bloom, and if the day hadn't been so gray, drippy, and chilly, I would have loved to explore this part of the city more on foot. As it was, we hustled into the museum for some interior discovering.

The museum owes much of its collection to the scholarly partnership is shares with historic sites throughout the Middle East. Students and scholars from the university participate in excavations in the region, for which they are allotted some of the items uncovered. The museum has a large collection of pots, tools, seals (I thought these were really cool.), and sculpture, in addition to some truly huge and impressive pieces recovered from temples and palaces. They also have an Egyptian collection, with a few mummies, some airy papyrus, and stone friezes. We spent a couple of hours here, taking in the collection and browsing the gift shop.

One of Wright's famous stained glass
windows at Robie House
As the weather was still miserable, we abandoned our plan of eating lunch in a nearby Italian restaurant and walked the scant block to the Plein Air Cafe for lunch. The tiny cafe was packed, but we lucked out with a table, settling in for salad and sandwiches. (I can vouch for the prosciutto and manchego baguette, served with fig jam and arugula - delish! And the vanilla latte I had with it warmed my very soul.)

We relaxed a bit over our warm cups, then popped right across the street for our 1 p.m. tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. I'd toured Taliesin West back when hubs and I visited Arizona, but other than that, I hadn't toured any of Wright's buildings. This private home is a little gem, sheltered by trees and open to its surrounds. The tour starts in the gift shop/courtyard area, then winds around the house to the lovely front porch, and then to the entryway. The outside of the structure has been fully restored, and efforts are underway to restore the home's interior as well. Gorgeous wood paneling and stained glass, coupled with Wright's penchant for close spaces that open into large ones, make this a lovely stop.

Light, open sitting room at Robie House
After soaking in the architecture a bit, we hopped a car back to the hotel for a quick break. We wanted to be well-rested for dinner at The Gage, which I was very much looking forward to. It was a delight! I had the roasted elk rack entree with roasted brussels sprouts and a big glass of wine. I finished it off with a piece of sweet strawberry pie. YUM. Prices aren't cheap here, but you get what you pay for. My food was amazing (and the wine pour was generous), our server was attentive without being annoying, and we left the restaurant full and happy!

More to come . . .

Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Weekend in Magical Orlando (cont.)

Pasta at Vivo Italian Kitchen! 
I spent the next day in my conference sessions, learning, networking, and typing tons of notes. That night, however, after our sessions were over, I had other plans. I took a quick Uber to Universal CityWalk. And, boy, was it crowded! After going through security and navigating the sea of humanity surging through the shopping, dining, and entertainment district, I found what I was looking for - Vivo Italian Kitchen. I was seated quickly and settled in for squid ink seafood pasta and a big glass of red. Delicious! This meal totally hit the spot. It was filling, tasty, and at a very reasonable price point.

By this time, the crowd outside had thinned. (Thank God.) I ventured out and explored CityWalk a bit, snapping pics and fondly remembering our fall vacation here. Then, it was off to Blue Man Group. I had tickets for the poncho zone, and I wasn't going to miss a minute of it! I hadn't seen Blue Man Group live since my first trip to Las Vegas, about seven years ago! I scooted up to the will call desk, claimed my ticket, and headed in. In the front rows, plastic ponchos are draped over each seat. I happily donned mine (It was a bit of a struggle. Now I know how George Bush felt at the Trump inauguration.) and settled into my seat.
The blue men are so sweet! They stay in the
lobby after the show and take pics with fans!

The show cranked up, and the concept was just as fun as I remember. Three blue men played the drums, made art, and interacted with technology in a show that was surprising, disconcerting, funny, and human. There was a lot of audience interaction, which kept the crowd's interest high. Wonderful!

When the show was over, I took a cab back to the resort and settled in to bed.

The next day was another bonanza of professional development. That evening, the conference had partnered with Disney to host a networking event for us on the "beach" outside. It was so fun! Tables and chairs were set up in the sand, the food and drink were both terrific, we had a DJ, and Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Captain Hook, and Smee joined us for photos! What fun! Nobody does events like Disney, and we all felt special!

After it was over, I headed back to my little bridge for the fireworks, then sank gratefully into bed. We had half a day of coursework the third day, then myself and another conference attendee walked the boardwalk one last time, picking up slices of pizza for lunch and making a last round through the shops for souvenirs.

Disney sure knows how to paaaarrrrty!!
Then, it was pack, airport, home! Hopefully, the next time I visit Orlando, I can bring my little tribe with me. It's been four years since we went to Disney, and I KNOW there are oodles of rides that Clay wasn't tall enough to enjoy then that he'd love now. Can't wait to return!

A Weekend in Magical Orlando

The Yacht Club lobby.
Back in the fall, I won a free conference registration at a professional development event. I used that freebie to attend a conference in sunny Orlando, Florida, figuring that I'd talk my little family into coming along for some fun.

No dice. Hubs was on call that weekend back at the ranch, and I couldn't take little man without someone to watch him while I attended the conference sessions and networking events. Undeterred, I decided that *I* would still go down early for the weekend and enjoy myself.

I flew into Orlando around lunchtime and caught a cab to Disney's Yacht Club Resort. I'd never stayed at this property before, so I was interested to check it out. It's so lovely! Built to evoke a New England-style yacht club, the expansive lobby features model boats and a huge, spinning globe so you can chart your adventures. My room was a spacious double with a lovely little balcony. The resort hugs a bay, with a lighthouse pier jutting out into the water. From the pier, you can catch a free boat shuttle to the boardwalk (replete with restaurants and shops), Epcot, or Hollywood Studios. Epcot, the Boardwalk, and the Dolphin and Swan resorts are all clustered around the man-made bay, very close by and easily walkable along the resort's many trails and pathways.
The Boardwalk, lit beautifully at night!

I unpacked my things, freshened up a bit, and headed out in search of lunch.

I found it at Beaches and Cream, a cute little sandwich shop at the resort. It's retro-themed, and in addition to lunch fare, it also serves ice cream. (Lots and lots of ice cream.) I took a seat at the counter and ordered a snappy grilled cheese and tomato soup. The food came out quickly and was delicious, if a little pricey. (You are at a resort, after all.)

Sated, I decided to toss on my swimsuit and check out Stormalong Bay, the resort's pool. I'd heard it was one of the best at Disney World, and I wasn't disappointed! First of all, it's BIG. Several swimming areas are connected, traversed by small bridges and centered around a windmill and a raised, covered patio featuring a pool table. At one end of the pool, a huge pirate ship functions as a water slide. There's also a hot tub, a pool bar, and free lockers for your things. Plenty of chaise lounges and umbrellas dot the area. (And as I discovered later, this isn't even the only pool at the resort. There's another, more standard hotel pool also on property. Not as gee-whiz, but also virtually deserted.)

Drinks at bluezoo!
I swam most of the afternoon and got some sun. I also walked a bit around the resort and took a quick turn on the free boat shuttle, just to orient myself and take in my surroundings a bit. It's a lovely area.

I went back to my room to shower and get ready for dinner. I had reservations at Todd English's bluezoo, a short walk away at the Dolphin resort. A beautiful stroll in the evening air, and I was there. I started off with a delightful sweet cocktail called the bee's knees (made with local honey), then moved on to the grouper, which was served with a rock shrimp risotto and an amazing sauce. I ate up every bite!! Delicious! Plus, the dining room is atmospheric, and the service is wonderful.

After dinner, I decided to walk around the boardwalk. I'd heard that street performers appeared there in the evenings, and I was treated to a quick magic show and a fun juggling act! In addition, views around the bay are lovely in the evenings, as all of the resorts and shops are lit brilliantly.

I'd heard that a bridge on property offered great views of the Epcot fireworks each night, so I headed over there at 9 p.m. Lovely! You can't see the low part of the Epcot show from there, but you can see all of the big fireworks. A great vantage point for a free show! After that, I walked along the "beach" and back to the hotel for lights out.

The next morning, I was up early. I had a ticket to Discovery Cove, and I was excited to get there! I decided to go to Discovery Cove instead of the Disney parks because I hate waiting in line. I happened to be visiting Disney at a really high-crowd time (spring break), and I didn't relish the thought of so many lines and crowds at the park. Discovery Cove, however, caps admission to its park. So it's never more crowded than it ever is (if that makes sense). So, a day of marine wildlife it was!

Discovery Cove is GORGEOUS!
I caught a quick Uber to the park and checked in, getting my badge for the day. From there, it was off for a full (and yummy) breakfast on site: eggs, bacon, potatoes, pastries, french toast. They had it all. You pay to get into the park, and all your gear, lockers, meals, drinks, and snacks are included. They have plenty of towels for guests and even fish-friendly sunscreen! It's nice not having to think about any of that! After breakfast, I got the lay of the land. The great thing about Discovery Cove is that it's plenty big, with plenty to do, but it's easily do-able in one day. After getting my bearings, I suited up in my free wetsuit for my first activity - a swim with the dolphins!

My group of 9 or so folks followed our trainer out into one of the dolphin pools, where we met LaToya, our dolphin for the morning. For the next hour or so, we learned about dolphins, stroked LaToya's smooth, soft skin, and watched her show off. She splashed, waved, and talked to us. She also did some jumps and other tricks. At the end, we each got to swim with her for a short distance and have our photos made with her! It was so fun! Discovery Cove has about 55 dolphins on site, and they rotate them out for guest interactions so the dolphins have plenty of time to rest and relax. When you buy your ticket to Discovery Cove, you can either include or exclude the dolphin experience. I highly recommend including it! I had such fun!

This is my sweet dolphin, LaToya!
After the dolphin swim, I checked out my free snorkel gear and headed for the Great Reef, where you get to snorkel with oodles of fish and non-harmful rays. When I first got there, there was almost no one in the water. It was amazing to swim through the "reef" alone, with fish all around you and rays gliding silently by. The reef is big enough that even later in the day, when it got more crowded, you could find pockets of solitude within it. Really, really cool.

After enjoying the reef, I headed over to the bird aviary. There are a few of them, and there are plenty of Discovery Cove employees around who can give you food to feed the birds. Birds would perch on your hand or your shoulder to eat! So fun! And there were so many to see!

Then, I explored the freshwater oasis, where you can see otters and marmosets. The otters weren't very active while I was there, but I got up close and personal with the marmosets, who were all hanging out in full view. I also stumbled on the oasis bar around this time, opting to try a mango cocktail to wet my whistle.

I wasn't yet really hungry for lunch, so I checked out Serenity Bay (a "beach" pool, with sand and a waterfall) and the Windaway River. (It's kind of like a lazy river, but HUGE, and with really deep parts. You use pool noodles to float through it. You can also snorkel through it.) I really loved Windaway River. It's gorgeous, and it wends through the aviary. I saw huge peacocks resting in the trees, their tail feathers dripping down like a cascade of jewels.

By this time, I was hungry! You can choose from a wide variety of food, with both traditional fast food and much healthier options available. (It's also all-you-can-eat!) I had beef tips with veggies and rice, then a piece of cheesecake. Yum!

After lunch, I hit the reef, the oasis, the bay, and the river all again. I also explored the resort more on foot, swung in a hammock, and got some sun in a chaise lounge before deciding to call it a day at around 4:30 p.m.

A quick Uber ride later, I was back at the Yacht Club, freshening up for dinner. I was meeting up with a fellow conference attendee for dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse. Katie and I met in the waiting area for the restaurant, were quickly seated, and then enjoyed steaks and pinot while we got to know each other and discussed our work and life. The steak was rare, the pinot was dry, and the company was great!

More to come . . .