Friday, December 21, 2012

Catalina Island

Located just 22 miles from Long Beach – a trip to Catalina Island is practically a staycation. 

In 1924, 14 buffalo were brought to Catalina for a movie shoot. When filming was over, the buffalo continued the roam. By 1969, there were about 400 of them on the island until the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy began monitoring. Today the buffalo population hovers around 150. Stop and take a selfie with one, just watch out for poop.

Golf carts! They're the only mode of transportation here. Though, rental isn’t cheap - $80 for 2 hours. If you’re sticking around Avalon, the port town, you really don’t need one, but they're convenient for things further away like the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens.

William Wrigley Jr. (chewing gum king and owner of the Chicago Cubs) bought Catalina Island for a cool $3 mill in 1919. So from 1921 – 1951, Catalina was home to the Cubs’ spring training. (Hence, all the Cubs gear for sale.) Before Wrigley, the island was undeveloped. He attracted tourists to Catalina by building hotels and the Avalon Grand Casino - which isn't what it sounds like. It gets it's name from the Italian word "casino" which means "gathering place." Disappointed? Check it out anyway. The building is historically beautiful and right on the water. Now, it functions as a movie theater and ballroom for events.  

The Catalina Cubbies. Hmm...nope.  

There are a handful of hotels in Avalon. Most are decorated like your grandma’s house, but if you're looking for something a little sleeker, Aurora Hotel & Spa is just that. The rooms have a minimal, modern interior. They're on the smaller side, but come equipped with a flat-screen & cozy robes. Our room had an absolutely beautiful view of the harbor. And the hotel is in walking distance of all the shops, restaurants, bars, bowling alley, docks, everything. I had a little spill on my bike while here and Kathleen and the Aurora staff could not have been more accommodating - making sure I had enough ice and checking in on me. Ask about specials on a cruise/room packages from Marina Del Rey or Long Beach.

Top: Aurora's lobby and hotel room  // Bottom: Gorgeous view from the room's balcony 

If your adrenaline is looking to get pumped (that's weird, sorry) check out the Zip Line Eco Tour at Descanso Beach Club. Alex and Lorenzo were our guides along the 5 zip course. 

Catalina's not cheap. Expect to pay more for all imported goods – that means everything. Food. Drinks. Tourist traps. If you're on a budget, camping is a good alt and bike rentals are available for a fraction of the price of a golf cart rental.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summertime in Chicago

My tan is fading by the second. Summer is officially over. No more bikinis, outdoor music festivals, or movies in the park for another year. I was lucky enough to spend this summer working on a freelance project in my beautiful Chicago. It was kind of like high school days, but with drinking at bars.

I'm bias, but Chicago is one of the best cities to celebrate summer in. Just chilling outside with a double scoop of mint chocolate chip on a steamy night after a long day of swimming at the beach with the city's skyline all around you. Or playing bags with friends over a Summer Shandy with a serenading chorus of crickets. Seriously, what could be better?

For most of the U.S. this summer was record breaking HOT. If you’re not lucky enough to have a friend with a pool, you most likely melted to the ground and slithered to the beach - Alex Mack style. There are actually dozens of beaches along Lake Michigan - Montrose Avenue Beach, Oak Street Beach, 12th Street Beach. Some are better for certain things than others. North Avenue Beach is great for working out, equipped with a Crunch Fitness mini gym, bike & running paths, and is the best viewing spot to watch the annual Chicago Air & Water Show. Belmont Harbor is known as the “dog beach.” Loyola beaches are known for being kid-friendly with a park and concessions. Though, my favorite beach is an hour outside of Chicago at the Indiana Dunes. It’s 15 miles of sand dunes that range from giant 125 ft hills to flat east coast prairie style beach to wooded hiking trails. After you sweat it out on the trails, you can BBQ on the grills. Go bird watching, fishing, camping - if that's your thing. My friends and I prefer to let the waves beat the crap out of us. Bruises - literally. After visiting for the first time since I was a kid, it was nice to see that this place hasn't changed that much. Or maybe it's just equally awesome as an adult. Or my maturity levels peaked at age 12. Or all of the above.

View of Chicago from across Lake Michigan in Indiana. 

So have you ever noticed that summer always flies by because there’s more sunlight? And more sunlight means more time for fun. And more time for fun means more illegal fire hydrant tapping. And more illegal fire hydrant tapping means…I don’t know where I was going with this. 

Check out the city from above at the Skydeck atop the Sears Tower. (I’ll never get used to calling it Willis Tower, but I haven’t really tried either.) Walk out onto the glass that suspends 103 floors above the ant cars below. Look down. Then, look around at everyone else’s face who’s doing it too.

Taste of Chicago is one of my favorite holidays. Every July, Grant Park becomes one giant food festival where people sample stuff their faces with yummy dishes from restaurants around the city. Try foods like Sabor Latino’s pork filled banana dumplings or Chicago staples like Billy Goat Tavern’s cheeseburger or Rainbow Cone from the city’s Southside. Come hungry.

Buckingham Fountain, at the center of Grant Park where The Taste is held annually.

Chicago is known as the improv capital of the world. While Second City is the most famous venue with alum like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler (ugh…my favorite), Martin Short, Steven Colbert, Bill Murray, and so many other funny heavy hitters, don’t overlook some of the lesser-known (and usually cheaper) spots to get a laugh.

Chicago Improv

If you're in the Lakeview neighborhood, dine at Wilde then walk down the block to Bobtail Ice Cream Company for dessert. I think Chicago might be the ice cream capital too. So many good places to get fat from. Check out Southside legend, Rainbow Cone, where you get Orange Sherbet, Pistachio, Palmer House (New York Vanilla with cherries & walnuts), Strawberry, and Chocolate ice cream scoops all on one cone. Sounds weird. Tastes delicious.

Lincoln Park Observatory – pretty plants, pretty plants.

Eat carrot cake waffles at the punked out Bleeding Heart Bakery and Café. Get an Arnold Palmer cupcake or Monster Donut to go.

Set sail on the Tall Ship Windy. Get an architectural & Chicago history tour from a pack of singing pirates. Keep a look out for Groupons, matey.  

Before you dive in…

Lake Michigan is more of an inland sea than a lake, creating waves big enough to surf on. That said, watch out for the rip currents, tides, and waves (up to 35 ft.) and check the bacteria warnings before heading in.

And if you’ve never seen it, google “Lake Michigan waves.” Oh! Oh! Better yet. “Lake Michigan waves knocking people down.” 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mommy, Where Does Coffee Come From?

Well, curious little one, think back to your last great cup of coffee. Mmm, that’s smooth. Now, think back to what you were doing 5 years ago. *Queue the dream sequence* While you were busy doing that, somewhere far, far away on a magical farm in Quindio, Colombia, a little coffee bean was being planted in hopes that one day it would grow up to be the best pot o’ joe in the world. The coffee making process is a painstaking one, taking 4 to 5 years from seed to brew. So I hope you took a moment to wake up and smell the sweat and tears in that last great cup! It’s ok if you didn’t, how could you have known? Who’d have thought?! Next time…     

Here’s a visual breakdown of the extensive process.

My sister, brother-in-law, and I fly from Bogota to coffee’s heartland, the department of Quindio, Colombia. We put our sleeping masks on, take a deep breath, and prepare for landing. The flight is barely half an hour from Bogota to Pereira, yet the geography and climate is completely different. (Colombia makes up .8% of land in the world, but ranks #3 in biodiversity. From jungles to snowy peaks to beaches, there’s a little bit of everything.) A driver picks us up, which is included in our hotel arrangements- highly recommended. This region is pretty rural and convenient public transportation would be near impossible.

It’s 8 a.m. and reggaeton is bumping on LA f.m. Weaving it & out on the corkscrew roads, we pass beautiful rolling hills of plantains, avocado, corn, guava, orange, sugarcane, tomatoes, pineapple, yucca, and of course the reigning crop of this area - coffee. There’s also a bamboo tree everywhere called Guadua that most of the buildings and bridges are constructed with.     

We arrive at Panaca, a large farming theme park set amidst coffee fields that emphasizes the importance of farming and agriculture. The entrance sign reads “Without the country, there’s no city.” Beef and pork are in almost every Colombian dish. They actually just call it ‘meat’ here. “Do you want chicken or meat?” So it makes sense to educate people on what they're eating. Overall, there are over 4,000 species of animals in Panaca. Live animal shows with a bit of comedy run all day throughout the park: pig races, cattle shows, dog shows (no, they don’t eat dog), and an UNBELIEVABLE horse show to top it all off. Really. Do not miss this. Stunts only seen on TV. Peep some memorable moments in the video below. Feed a goat and milk a cow at the petting zoo. Hold a little, wittle piglet, omgooosh, they’re so cute, soo precious, my baby voice is on, can you tell, ohhh can you?

Panaca is home to the highest zipline in Colombia. It is AMAZING. Ziplines are always exhilarating, but this particular one is a once in a lifetime experience. I hear there are higher in Brazil, to be honest, I can’t even imagine. Flying hundreds of feet over lush jungle and coffee fields while my sister floats by on the line parallel to mine - so surreal. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed on this one.  You’ll have to experience it for yourself.

Another great attraction nearby is Parque Nacional del Cafe. Another theme park, this time celebrating coffee. Walk through the process of how coffee is grown and produced amongst varieties of coffee plants from all around the world. See the “coffee show” which features outstanding singing and dancing representing all the diverse districts of Colombia. Ride horses around the perimeter of the park or cool off on the water rides and roller coasters. The huge park is nestled on the side of a mountain, so expect lots of walking. Conveniently, there are a lot of coffee beverages available to keep the energy up.

Hire a driver to take you to the nearby town of Filandia to peruse the town square consisting of shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, a picturesque church, and cafes. One would assume that the coffee in the coffee capital of the world would be delicious. And one would be absolutely right. It’s crazy fresh. Drink up.

Keep driving to the Valle de Cocora, a lush tropical valley lined with rail thin wax palms. Due to the altitude and position of the valley, it rains a little everyday creating a humid climate and mysterious fog amongst these towering stalks. Beautiful. To prevent the extinction of the wax palms (mainly due to Palm Sunday Catholic celebrations), the government declared the valley a preserved wildlife sanctuary and the wax palm became the national tree and symbol of Colombia.

Nearby Salento is a busy tourist town full of really unique artisan shops and cafes. Indulge in locally grown macadamia nut ice cream (the nuts, that is, ice cream trees only grow in my dreams.) And all of the buildings are brightly colored, perfect for photographing.

El Tipos and Factos:

1. Colombia produces 10% of the world’s Arabica coffee, second only to Brazil. 90% of it is exported.

2. An all-inclusive hotel with transportation included would definitely be the way to go in the coffee region. Decameron Panaca would be really convenient if you plan on visiting the parks. The resort’s design is pretty modern and there is entertainment nightly. If you’re looking for more rustic, home-y accommodations, I would definitely recommend the hacienda we stayed at, El Bosque Del Saman. It's not very glamorous- no air conditioning or flat screen, but yummy homemade meals are included and the beers are cheap. Though the biggest benefit of all is that it actually sits in the middle of a coffee farm. Walk through the fields with a guide, pick coffee beans, put them in your basket, grind them, roast them, and what comes out is the freshest coffee you will ever have in your whole life. Guaranteed. The resort also has a zipline with 7 tracks running high above the fields with a great view of the mountains and a Survivor-type obstacle course to test your athletic strength. Whoosh.* Danielle came and conquered. Juan Carlos and I drank beers and cheered her on.
Whoosh.-Colombians say this a lot, especially when watching futbol. An entire stadium will say it in unison, usually when something is a close call.

Sunset at El Bosque Del Saman

3. Out of 9,000 bird species in the world, Colombia has around 1,800 of them.

4. Colombian people have nicknames for each other according to what district they live in. People from the coffee region are called Paisa. If you’re from the coast, you’re a Costeno. People from Bogota are called Rolo or Cachaco. Colombians from Huila and Tolima are Opitas. You’re a Llaneros if you’re from the plain region of Llanos. 

5. Trout served with plantain is a very popular dish in this region. It’s really fresh, delicious, and healthy- a welcome break from heavy red meats.

6. Driving around parts of Colombia, you will see military standing along the side of the road giving the thumbs up as you pass. They are just letting you know that everything is all good on the road ahead. The government started doing this when the countryside of Colombia was more abundant with guerillas back in the 90’s. It is customary to give them the thumbs up back to let them know all is good in your hood too.

Some sweaty coffee field workers

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Don't Mess With Texas

I'm walking down a street in the historic district of Fort Worth and there’s a gray haired, leather skinned woman blatantly staring at me, with a huge smile. Crap. What’s on my face? I swipe my plaid sleeve across my sweaty cheek. It’s the first week of May and it’s 90 degrees. The occasional breeze feels fantastic. It smells like horse butt, but feels fantastic. A few steps later, a couple familiarly smiles at me like I’m an old high school lab partner. As the man opens his mouth to speak I’m preparing to break it to them. “Sorry guys. I grew up 800 miles from here, barely made it past Biology 101, and I’m probably like 10 years younger than you. You got the wrong girl.” Instead, he offers to take a photo of my friend, Wodek, and I. “Oh…sure. Actually, that’d be great! Thanks.” I’m smizing behind my aviators when two cute valet boys photo bomb the shot. Fast forward 12 hours later: one of them shows us the best late night taco spot and drives us to our hotel so we don't have to cab it. Genuine southern hospitality. Y’all, these Texan folks are friendly. Almost too friendly. Suspiciously friendly. “What’s your deal, man?” But there is no deal! That’s just how it is down here.

I've eaten THIS many ribs for lunch. 

Talk about more malls than you can shake a stick at. (I had to.) (In my head, this whole thing is narrated by an old cowboy named Maverick Atkins.) (Sorry, Mave. Continue.) The Metroplex has more shopping centers than any other major U.S. city, but if you’re looking for something a little more rustic, Cavender’s is the chain to shop at for cowboy boots. Never have I ever seen more leather. Even if the Western style isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship of each boot up close. Unless you’re digging for worms it’s generally hard to see the detail when they’re on someone’s feet. Psst, hot tip right off the saddle (that means nothing), to look like a local, opt for a flat toe shoe. I ain’t whistling Dixie ‘bout that one. (Oh, Mave.)

So hungry you could eat a cow, you say? With more than 10,000 restaurants in the Metroplex alone, you won’t starve. I'm sure some will even dish you up the whole cow if you ask politely. Dallas has four times more restaurants per person than New York City. For some authentic finger lickin’ BBQ, check out Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke. (Wish I thought of that name.) Sample a little bit of everything and have no regrets.

Dallas and Fort Worth are thirty miles apart, but joined by a sprawling cluster of towns called The Metroplex. It covers 12,000 square miles, has over 5 million residents, and is the #1 tourist destination in Texas. There’s definitely stuff to do here. Being my first time in the Lone Star State, we go for the real down home experience. When in northern Texas…

Shoot some guns at the range!

Buy a cowboy hat.

Run on the Dallas Cowboys Stadium field during the VIP tour.

Eat some real Texas style BBQ with creamed corn, collard greens, and all the fixins.

Saddle up for a horse ride. Chaps optional.

Learn the 2-step from charming locals at Billy Bob’s or the Neon Moon.

Pick up a twang, but it’ll probably just happen anyway.

Hit a few balls and play bags at Top Golf. (Ok, not Texas specific, but still fun.)

Wear plaid or denim or both.

Get where you’re goin’ by truck on Interstate 30.

Watch cowboys get bucked off bulls at a rodeo.

Visit The Sixth Floor Museum at the site of JFK's assassination in Dealey Plaza.

Chow on some biscuits n’ gravy at Bill Smith’s Cafe.

Stay out of the way as the cattle take over the road at the Fort Worth Stockyard Station.

Try a local brewed beer like Shiner Bock or Lonestar.

A car is definitely the most reliable mode of transportation in this part of Texas. Cabs are a rare breed, you can’t just walk around and flag one down. And be forewarned that Molly the Trolley in Fort Worth isn’t as trustworthy as the rest of ‘em. She let us down. So we call “Pappa Mike” the “Journey Ambassador” at the Hilton, our home for the night. (Which coincidentally happens to be the same hotel JFK stayed at before he was shot. Check out the mini memorial on the top level.) Sweeter than tea, he gives us the number for a cab. A yellow van pulls up with the cutest elderly cab driver inside. He’s accompanied by his equally cute wife who’s just along for the ride, keeping her man company. With their darlin’ drawls, they chat us up on the drive, explaining the ins and outs of southern living. “People like to take their time here. There’s no rush to do anything. It’ll all get done.” I’m no Texan, but I think they're on to something.   
Which way to the nearest waterhole, boys?

Just the Facts, Ma'am:

Dallas, nicknamed "Big D," is the 8th largest city in the U.S. and is somewhat metropolitan while Fort Worth, "Cowtown," fully embraces it’s laid back, country heritage. Since they’re only an hour apart, check out both.

I’m told "The Mixmaster" or "High Five" is what Dallasites call a spot where all the highways overlap. There can be 5 layers of road all interweaving each other. And why are they so high, you ask? Because everything’s bigger in Texas. (Ok, I'm done.)

Thanks Mike, Marcia, and Michael for being great tour guides!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dining in the Dark

“A strawberry! That was a strawberry! Omgawd, Nick! Did you taste that strawberry?! 
I love strawberries. I’m so surprised there was one in there. Wasn’t that awesome?” 
I don't normally get this excited about strawberries. But when dining in absolute complete blackness, you’re ecstatic when the food on your fork even makes it to your mouth. You can’t see your plate, your date, your hand - you can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. Besides sight, every sense is intensified x1000. You’ve never been more observant.

As if entering a haunted house, I reach out for Nick’s shoulders as he holds onto our vision-impaired waitress, Beatrice. Along with the rest of the wait staff here, she is legally blind. She guides us from the V Lounge bar, behind a black curtain, down a little hallway, into a pitch-black dining room with stale, warm air. I can tell the space is small because the conversations bounce off the walls. Beatrice guides us to our chairs as our eyes try to adjust to the blackness. Can’t help but think of an old country song by Deana Carter, “Did I Shave My Legs For This?”

The salad course is first. It is the most frustrating and difficult part of the meal. The lettuce doesn’t stay on the fork because he knows I can’t reprimand him. Half ends up on the table amongst the rose petals, a quarter in my lap, and a quarter makes it to my stomach. Barbaric, animal-style face-to-plate gestures come out because no one can see me and I’m hungry, dammit! Once I think I’m finished, my hands feel the table in search of wine. 
I take a sip. Water.

My salad plate - Before & After

Beatrice places a “chef’s surprise” in the middle of the table. Nick and I each cautiously drink it from little shot glasses. We discuss. Potato soup! Beatrice congratulates us for getting it right. The whole night is one big experiment & guessing game that I hope isn’t being videotaped with night-vision. Though, if it is - gold. There’d be men with their eyes closed and soup on their chin and smiling women with spinach in their teeth, hunched over with their legs open. Your guard is completely down in the dark. During the course of the meal, one man at a nearby table begins to sing "When I Fall In Love." Out of the blue. At first it’s a watery attempt, but as more and more people stop talking to listen he gains confidence. Eventually, he has the entire room’s attention and is belting at the top of his lungs. The impromptu serenade is followed by a thunderous applause. And at most restaurants, the wait staff is the only one singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ But here, every table enthusiastically joins in 3 times.

My main course is roasted herb chicken, sticky rice, and steamed vegetables. Smells herb-y and chicken-y. Luckily, the meat is already cut up. *High five* (Wait, try that again. Yes!) There’s a sense of accomplishment after every bite. I can’t help but think how hard this would be to do every moment of every day as all of the wait staff here must. My eyes hurt from searching for light, focusing in and out like a camera lens, and I'm so grateful that my vision will be restored moments after I walk out of here.

I hit plate, a lot. So I think it’s clean, but I have no idea how much I consumed. It may have been a chicken nugget or an entire bird. "OWWW!" While looking for his throat, Nick hit his beer hard against his teeth. We just have to make it through desert. 

After repeatedly gushing over how good the chocolate lava cake is (arguably the best part of the meal), Beatrice escorts us out of obscurity. We stumble through the curtain with full bellies, a stained shirt, possibly a chipped tooth and a newfound appreciation. Now, let there be light.

Hanging out in V Lounge before dinner

Know this before the lights go out:

1. Reservations usually fill up 2 weeks in advance.

2. Ordering the meal takes place before entering the darkroom. Here's the menu. 

3. Dining in the Dark doesn’t supply bibs. Take it from Nick’s dress shirt, bring your own!

4. It’s photo darkroom dark. If struggling to put film in the canisters frustrates you - be prepared & patient. The experience is worth it.

5. Stick around V Lounge after dinner; it turns into a club at night. It’s a great place for a group thing because there’s no cover. I had my birthday here a few years ago, super fun. This night, we tore it up to a live 80’s band. 

One more,  Nick. I think your eyes are closed.