Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Monday, December 15, 2008

China, October 2008

We didn't write about it, but there are pictures from our China trip in the sidebar..

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Quebec, August 2007

On this quick trip, we wanted somewhere a) new and interesting; b) with last-minute frequent flyer flight availability; c) not too far; d) with Starwood hotels where we could stay for free. An exhaustive search led us to Quebec, so we booked flights, hotels, and car for Montreal, Quebec City, and Tremblant just 36 hours before we left. Advised by the Lonely Planet book and some hastily browsed blogs, we decided to spend 3 nights in Montreal, 2 in Quebec City, and one in the mountain resort city of Tremblant. Details follow.

Quebec, August 9-10 - Tremblant and Montreal

We were sad to leave Quebec City so soon, but today we drove along the St. Lawrence river to Tremblant, a mountain resort town next to a "national" park. (It is a provincial park, but the Quebecois don't refer to it that way.) This drive was more scenic than our venture through the Cantons-de-l'Est, with a lot of quaint small farms on the riverbanks.

The inaccuracy of the Lonely Planet book was a running joke with us. It neglected to mention overcrowding at popular Montreal sights, got hours of operation wrong, loved the park that we considered boring, had some very outdated information, and shortchanged Quebec City relative to Montreal. So we took it with good humor that their "fairy tale village" of Tremblant was in fact an overcommercialized, overpriced time-share tourist trap without even any history or interesting architecture. David checked the bottom of our expensive pizza to see if it bore any straight-off-the-truck Sysco markings. At least our hotel was pleasant, and our room even had a fireplace.

Friday morning we escaped our favorite "fairy tale village," took the gondola to the summit of Mont Tremblant, and hiked back down through lush forests, alpine meadows, and past a pond and beaver dam. The weather cooperated beautifully, and ripe raspberry and blueberry bushes lined the trail in several places. After swimming, we headed back to Montreal for dinner at Malhi Sweets, a completely unobtrusive Indian restaurant with a menu touting the fact that Catherine Deneuve once celebrated her birthday there. The malai kofta and lamb korma were excellent, and dinner for two cost less than some single sandwiches in Tremblant.

Just like that, our trip was basically over. (Little did we know we'd spend 11 hours waiting in airports for cancelled and delayed flights the next day, but we were home again soon enough.)

Quebec, August 7-8 - Quebec City

We took a scenic drive to Quebec City on the 7th, through the Cantons de l'Est. It was pleasant, but not the pastoral paradise we imagined, and the guy at the tourist office was clueless. Lunch at Tim Horton's, the quintessential Canadian chain restaurant, was also a Denny's-like letdown. But Quebec City itself was fabulous - many beautiful old buildings on cobblestone streets, dramatic city walls, pork burgers with brie, and the Chateau Frontenac looming above it all. We walked up the hill to the famous hotel, then took the Governor's Walk across along and up the Upper Town wall and into Battlefields Park before calling it a night.

Under rainy skies Wednesday, we chose another gastrotourist option and had a chef's menu lunch at Ralph et Laurie featuring rabbit and foie gras terrine, guinea hen salad, and carrot cake. The cake was ordinary except for the mandarin orange and grapefruit and pepper on top of the frosting - delicious!

From there, we walked to Quartier Petit Champlain and Old Lower Town, where we went on an interpretive tour and watched a glass blower in action. Place Royale was as touristy as Old Montreal, but somehow more atmospheric. Our tour guide delighted in telling us about details like the 27 vaulted cellars still preserved, Samuel de Champlain's 23 crossings of the Atlantic, the difference between voyageurs and coureurs des bois, the two miracles of the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, and buildings with rounded corners so carriages could turn tightly around them.

The highlight of the day was the finale of Les Grands Feux Loto-Quebec international fireworks competition. With some trepidation, we avoided the expensive tourist tickets, booked General Admission tickets and resolved to take public transportation to the competition site. Rain clouds gathered as we picked up some takeout KFC (actually, PFK: Poulet Frit Kentucky) and got on the bus, but the clouds parted just in time for the show.

The show was held in a unique natural amphitheatre at Montmorency Falls Park, just east of Quebec. We found a perfect vantage point on a footbridge opposite the central waterfall and all of the launch points. (Well, almost perfect -- those who kayaked or waded to the tiny island in the river got a better view. But it was clear that the whole show was designed to be viewed from our direction.) Portugal, China, Canada, and Spain all gave brilliant performances set to music. The natural setting, the carefully designed color palettes, and the contrast in national styles made it stunning. We both agreed that it's the best fireworks show we've ever seen. Thanks to my bad French, we still don't know who won, though.

Quebec, August 5-6 - Montreal

Montreal greeted us Sunday afternoon with a perfect day. After an infusion of coffee at an outdoor cafe near Rue Ste. Catherine, we set off to explore the city on foot. First we headed east toward the Latin Quarter and the Village. This part of Montreal seems like a Francophone version of any American city, but with more ethnic food businesses, and more murals.

Summer is festival season in Quebec, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the middle of the last day of the FrancoFolies Francophone music festival, watching Pierre Lapointe rehearse for his headlining concert. A few blocks later, we found ourselves at the Divers/Cite gay music festival, where we met a unique Toronto Dominion advertisement: a man wearing nothing but glitter, a body paint logo on his chest, and some green short shorts. He was happy to pose for a picture.

We picked Au Pied de Cochon, based on amazing internet reviews, for an early dinner. In our foie gras poutine appetizer, the foie gras blended nicely with the french fries (cooked in duck fat), gravy, and cheese curds. For our main, the "pied de cochon" lacked exoticism (no hoof) but was incredibly tender and swimming in a tasty oniony, garlicky, mustardy sauce.

After dinner we strolled through Little Italy and Mont Royal the Plateau and turned in for the night at the W downtown.

In the thunder and rain of Monday morning, we explored the shops and disorienting walkways of the Underground City looking for a store selling umbrellas. By the time we had breakfast, bought the umbrella, and emerged, the rain had stopped. Fearful of more rain, we took the subway to Olympic Park and the Biodome, a sort of indoor zoo, but found the Biodome too crowded to get into. So we set out on another food expedition, this time to get fresh wood-fired Montreal Bagels, known for their flatness, and to stop by the venerated Schwartz's Charcuterie.

The Fairmount Bagel bakery in Mile End was a longer walk and a smaller business than we had imagined. We waited in line in the tiny room, ordered our bagels from the counter overlooking the kitchen, and ate on park bench outside. The garlic bagels had about ten times the amount of garlic that we expected, and the insides were deliciously warm and fluffy. An analogy: fresh Fairmount Bagels are to ordinary American bagels as fresh Krispy Kremes are to old grocery store doughnuts.

Schwartz's was so crowded that we moved through about 5% of the takeout line in 15 minutes, so we gave up on them. At least we have the souvenir photo. Determined to make the most of our subway passes, we next visited Jean Drapeau Island, a large, empty, and underwhelming park featuring an EPCOT-like sphere from the 1967 World's Fair and a Formula 1 racetrack. We climbed the grandstands to get a good view of the city over the St. Lawrence river and amused ourselves chasing down the dense marmot population.

We saved the biggest tourist attraction for last, visiting Vieux Port and Vieux Montreal in the afternoon and evening. The buildings were attractive, and the antiquated 1900-era financial district interesting, but the throngs of tourists and souvenir shops made for an inauthentic ambiance.

Tonight's dinner was french: duck with orange risotto and buffalo steak with anchovy sauce. Mmmm.

By chance, we walked by a fountain and park behind our hotel at the right time and saw an amazing show of mist and fire. It became our favorite Montreal attraction. (Take a look at the pictures.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kauai - May 2007

We had a beautiful week in Kauai in early May. The weather was pleasant the whole time, and we had a great hotel room right on Kiahuna Beach. We snorkeled, hiked, visited waterfalls and canyons, and even took an island helicopter tour. And Elizabeth finally got to try surfing! It was hard to leave.

Monday, March 26, 2007

UK, Finland, and Sweden - March 2007

In the past few months, we've both been to Europe several times for work, but we've produced shamefully few pictures. Overcast days, early nights, and jobs are our excuses. We finally made a weekend getaway to St. Ives in Cornwall in early March, and were rewarded with a day of beautiful weather (unfortunately coupled with 2 days of constant rain). The next weekend, Elizabeth took a 2-night cruise on the Silja Symphony between Helsinki and Stockholm and lucked out with 2 more beautiful days for photography.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Los Angeles - September

Okay, here it is November, and we just got around to posting our photos from Los Angeles. Can you tell we're both employed again? Alas, this was not a proper vacation, we were just playing tourists over the weekend while we were both out there for work. Hit a few beaches, saw Jay Leno at the Comedy and Magic club, did a trolley tour of Beverly Hills, went to the Magic Castle, and did some driving around..

Friday, November 17, 2006

Canadian Rockies - August

Elizabeth for some reason didn't write a blog post about her trip to the Canadian Rockies, so you may have missed the fact that there's a gallery of her photos... but now you know.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 12th - Kyoto/Arashiyama to Austin

For our last day in Japan, we visited Arashiyama, a quiet, residential suburb of Kyoto with lots of temples and parks along a river. The cherry blossoms were starting to fall, and covered the ground like snow in places. Tenryuji temple's garden was very scenic, and so were the mist (or smoke?) hovering over the river and the bamboo forest we walked through in a hillside park. The moon bridge was huge and ordinary-looking, and the richshaw tour guides were a little bit of tourism overload.

We made a few last-minute purchases here (a small ceramic vase and a final round of Japanese sweets, including sakura mochi), got lost walking through a nice residential area, then went to Kansai airport for our trip home, frantically spending our final yen on airport trinkets.

Although the cold and daily rain weren't best of travel conditions, they did mean that the tourist sites we saw were less crowded than they are at their peaks. We saw a lot of different places, and amassed an impressive stack of JR seat reservation tickets along the way. We both had a lot of fun, and this felt like a last hurrah after our round-the-world trip. And we found the key to paradise. What more could we have asked for?

Japan, April 11th - Osaka and Kyoto

Our first activity on Elizabeth's birthday was a "private" (~50-person) tour of Sento Gosho, the emperor's retirement palace and gardens. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time, but the gardens were, I think, more beautiful than Kenrokuen park and the imperial palace itself. There wasn't much to the residence since it had burned down so many times they eventually gave up on rebuilding it. But we did get to walk through one of the garden teahouses and traverse the winding paths and bridges of the garden itself. A heron poised by the central bridge made the scene particularly poetic.

Special activity #2 was a trip to Miyako Odori, a lavishly decorated traditional spring dance play performed by the maiko (apprentices) and geiko (geisha) of the Gion Kobu district in Kyoto. After our fairly negative experience with Kabuki, we were afraid that the performance would be so stylized as to be arcane, but the dancing was spot-on, the costumes and sets were beautiful and vibrantly colored, and the overall performance totally accessible. A few acts involved dances celebrating the seasons, and another told the folk talk of Urashima Taro, a boy who returns a turtle he caught back to the sea and is rewarded with a turtle-back ride to an underwater palace. It felt special to see some of the few remaining authentic geiko and maiko in action.

In the evening, we walked around Gion and visited Maruyama Park, known for its enormous drooping cherry tree on a pedestal, as well as its pretty landscaping and other cherry blossoms. Only a few cherry-viewing parties were going on, in makeshift tents, because of the rain, but the big, illuminated cherry tree was still surrounded by hordes of photographers, capturing what is probably its last day of full blossoms this season.

For dinner, we sought out okonomiyaki, Elizabeth's favorite dish. After lots of fruitless and wet walking, we were one shop away from the department store where we had conceded to eat when we found an okonomiyaki shop. Elizabeth ordered the standard pork pancake, covered with ginger, dancing fish flakes, dried fruit-based barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise. David made a more unconventional choice of a "2-ply" okonomiyaki that contained potatoes, corn, eggs, and cream sauce. It must have been the foreigner's okonomiyaki, because they served it to him with an American flag toothpick atop it.

For dessert, we found a bakery restaurant, and Elizabeth had a bowl full of mochi, jellies, green tea ice cream and adzuki with molasses syrup and green tea. David had a choco-banana parfait. We stayed at a Japanese-style inn for the night, and slept like logs.

Japan, April 10th - Osaka and the Kiso Valley

Our hotel in Osaka was next to the Umeda Sky Building, an enormous two-column skyscraper connected at the top with an observatory with a circular hole in the middle. The escalators to the observatory cross the gap in the middle, offering views of Osaka from both sides. We gazed up on it from below, but decided not to shell out the money to ascend to the observatory, since our corner suite in the hotel already gave us views aplenty, and Osaka is not particularly scenic.

Today we travelled to the old Nakasendo Road in the Kiso Valley. There's an 8km section of the Edo-period postal route between Tokyo and Kyoto there that is known for being well-preserved and scenic. We took a combination of train and bus there and embarked on the hike from Magome to Tsumago. Magome was tiny, ascending the hill at the beginning of the trail, and its noodle shops, inns, and traditional craftsmen were mostly closed on this blustery Monday. It was a 2km walk from Magome to a mountain pass, then 6km downhill to Tsumago. Although there were a bunch of German hikers on our bus, we only saw two other hikers on the trail. But it wasn't as scenic and isolated as we had hoped; the path took us across and along multiple roads, wasn't really landscaped, and didn't have any cherry trees. It is known for a couple of waterfalls said to represent the male and female, but we somehow missed them, and the ruins of a former checkpoint, completely.

Tsumago was very well-preserved, but not as neat and clean as the geisha districts of Kanazawa or as big as the old section of Takayama. And it had a few busloads of Japanese tourists ambling around, as well as a busload of bored-looking tour guides in training. We took a few pictures of the narrow main road and some cherry trees arching over it, then headed back to Kansai for the night.

Japan, April 9th - Tokyo and Osaka

This was the first clear morning we've seen, and when we got up, we could see Mt. Fuji from the window of our room at the Westin Tokyo. The Westin Tokyo is probably the best hotel I've ever stayed at: fancy furnishings, immaculately clean, a huge marble bathroom, and great amenities. Apparently it's a popular wedding venue too, as we saw a few brides in the lobby.

We found a Sensoji temple heron dance listing in a Tokyo events list, and jumped at the chance to see a festival without rain. As always, Sensoji temple was incredibly crowded with tourists. We arrived about a half hour after the festival's scheduled start time, and once we pushed through the crowd, saw people in heron costumes ascending the temple steps. Thinking we had missed the main event, we followed the musicians' cart around a corner, only to find them stopping to clear an area for the heron dance. We serendipitously ended up with a front-row view.

The heron costumes were fabulous - white face makeup, white long-haired wigs, tall and narrow heron-head hats, and articulated feathers. The dance was slow and ceremonial, with drum and flute music in the background. Occasionally a woman who was in the middle of the dance would throw confetti-like slips of paper. Elizabeth picked one up that fell by her feet, and it said "fukuju," prosperity and happiness.

After the recessional, we pushed our way through the crowd to the train station and headed south on the shinkansen, not knowing exactly where we were going. We barely got a glimpse of Mt. Fuji through the window, and stopped in Nagoya to use an internet cafe to look for places to stay. Mysteriously, the cafe charged 300 yen per hour for men and 100 yen per hour for women. We got a cubicle with a huge cushiony floor covering, but didn't have much luck finding accommodations. So we decided to stay at the Westin in Osaka, just one more short train ride away.

Japan, April 8th - Tokyo

We went to the Tsukiji fish market Saturday morning. While I had been there twice before, the commplex is so mazelike, I don't think I ever fully grasped its scale. The warehouses seem to stretch out forever, with one small vendor after another. We arrived at its peak hour, so we constantly had to step aside for little motorized fish carts and men in rubber boots and spattered aprons. We saw some huge frozen fish and many unidentifiable creatures.

Determined to achieve the pinnacle of sushi-eating, we decided to have breakfast at one of the restaurants. Like the stalls that sell whole fish, they're all tiny and crowded, and we had to wait outside in a queue. We eventually ordered the 7-variety bowl, containing tuna, negi-toro (chopped toro with green onions), ika, ikura, uni, ebi, and egg. The raw shrimp was surprisingly good, and the other sushi was flawless, but fresh almost to the point of tastelessness.

Well sated, we headed to Harajuku for some teenage peoplewatching. Omotesando-dori was thronged with young people visiting designer shops, and Takeshita-dori was pretty crowded too, despite a rainstorm. There was of hairspray, hair dye, ripped jeans, and fancy shoes, but dissapointingly few people in costume. Apparently Sunday, not Saturday, is the day all the cosplay crowd hangs out on the bridge by the station. We did see a couple of Lolitas (girls in Victorian Bo-Peep-style outfits), and a crowd staring at three Ganguro/Yamababa girls (blonde, with dark tans and pastel makeup).

Around the corner, Yoyogi park had some better peoplewatching. A group of teenagers was doing stunts on a trampoline. We watched them dive into a thorny bush and jump into a tree. One even waded through the pond and tried to snuff out a 30-foot fountain with his rear end. (I'm sure you can find their videos on the internet somewhere.) A couple was walking their cat and dog, and girls were introducing their ferrets. People were practicing Kendo, drumming, Flamenco dancing, jump-roping, juggling, and even doing martial arts routines in Power Ranger-style bodysuits. And hundreds of normal, looking people were walking, playing frisbee, or picnicking under the cherry trees.

In the evening, we took the unmanned Yurikamome train across Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, the island entertainment complex in Tokyo Bay. We walked through Venus Fort, a shopping arcade that looks like Caesar's Palace, and checked out the cars at Mega Web, a Toyota showroom-cum-amusement-park. (We didn't get to do test drives, the electic vehicle test course, or the motion simulator, though.) We had dinner under the 115-meter neon Ferris wheel at First Kitchen, a fast food joint with a Japanese twist. Our favorite menu items: matcha green tea float, yuzu citrus breaded port cutlet sandwich with cabbage, macaroni gratin pizza, and corn-flavored French fries (curry-flavored are a close second). The flavored fries are an especially fun gimmick: they put them in a paper bag with the flavoring powder, then roll it down and shake like crazy before serving them.

We decided not to ride the Ferris wheel, and headed to our hotel after walking through a huge video arcade complete with fun houses, haunted houses, batting cages, bowling, ping pong, billiards, and rideable motorized stuffed animals in addition to the usual stuff.