Friday, September 21, 2012

Live from Williamsburg

Starting this blog has been extremely rewarding and done a tremendous job keeping the travel itch relaxed and at bay. However, I still need to get on a plane and go!

The blog will collect some dust over the next week, as I am not one to bring a laptop on vacation. No posts until I return, but the ease of Twitter will broadcast a stream of updates and teasers for future posts.
Our place in VA - Save those two chairs for us!

The best way to follow will be on Twitter and Facebook, but even without an account to either, you can read and access everything using the Twitter feed to the right. 

Bon Voyage! Super excited  to take a step back in time exploring early American history. Also, a day at Busch Gardens, high 70's sunny weather, and a fantastic townhouse unit with multiple large pools isn't too shabby!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Reading Immersion into America's Historic Triangle

Some generic advice I have is to learn about places you go in advance. It ultimately leads to a more fulfilling experience. Fundamentally understanding something about the people, history, or culture of a destination can foster a greater appreciation of the unique qualities that exist anywhere you travel. There are also great books on tape, TV shows, or movies that can provide a sense of attachment to a place you visit. Saying that, there is no need to learn about the sand structure of a beach I plan to park on with a cooler and Ken Follett novel!

However, if you are venturing somewhere as history rich as Williamsburg, VA, don't decide only one month in advance like I did to absorb everything possible. While reading a Williamsburg guide book, I vowed to buckle down and engross myself in early American history. So, after taking home more books from the library than I have since elementary school, here is a synopsis.

The reading sprint began with The American Revolution: A Concise History, written by Robert Allison. This is an easy introduction. Brief (less than 100 pages) and well paced, this covers the key characters and events of the revolutionary war. It was effective in helping me decide what else to pursue.  

Along came 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, written by Robert Tonsetic. This is a tactical analysis of the battles that took place in 1781, culminating with Yorktown (which is not the end battle of the Revolutionary War as some perceive). Interesting take on the internal politics of British General's Cornwallis and Clinton, and on American General Nathaniel Greene, who according to this book brilliantly campaigned in the southern theater against Cornwallis.
Jamestown, the Buried Truth
Completely changing gears, next was Jamestown, the Buried Truth, written by William M. Kelso. This chronicles a recent archaeological dig at the original Jamestown site, the first English settlement in America. The book unfolds like an investigative case, detailing how they approached the site, used past findings, analyzed original documentation, and connected them with new discoveries to vastly increase the knowledge out there of Jamestown and its original inhabitants. Amazing how much can be learned by combining modern scientific functions.

Realizing I was down to the wire, two books still remained. First was An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783, by William M. Fowler Jr., about the tumultuous period after Yorktown. This details how England refused to surrender after Yorktown and the monumental effort of George Washington to keep together a disillusioned army and maneuver a mostly ineffective Congress. Interesting material, but it got too tedious for my hyper research needs, so I stopped about 100 pages in. 

Moving on to The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, written by Gordon S. Wood, this was the most thought provoking. More philosophical, it really gets into interesting discussion on the framework of early America and how early ideas continue to interact with current political and social thought. This book is about the ideas of the revolution and interprets the era without focusing directly on the characters, while narrating the unpredictable flow of events that were unfolding.

Preparation complete, now it is time to take the trip and see this all in person!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Victoria - A Charming Garden City

About one year ago, we were celebrating our first wedding anniversary in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and located on Vancouver Island. An incredibly quaint, old fashioned, and ultimately romantic city, the low key pace and friendly people were ideal for an anniversary celebration.  
Beacon Hill Park
Beacon Hill Park

Victoria has an especially British feel, evident by the popularity of high tea at the Empress Hotel. The British influence can also be found in the city’s gardening style and shopping. A great city to explore on foot or by bike, there are beautifully manicured parks and more flowers per square foot than I have ever seen.

Another aspect of the city adding to the European flair is street performers entertaining large crowds at the Inner Harbour. We lucked upon a hilarious act the first night there.
Street Performer

Totem Pole
Totem Pole
However, it is Canadian all its own, wholly celebrating the history of the area.  Worthy of checking out is the Royal BC Museum, an incredibly informative, easy to navigate series of exhibits. A natural history museum that includes past, present, and future looks at the history of the area, this is the museum to see if you have only one choice.
Downtown is easily walkable (we never entered a motorized vehicle) and filled with unique architecture, entertaining cafes and restaurants, and diverse shopping.  Victoria’s majestic scenery bestows a lot of relaxing views. One of the top activities is going on a whale watching excursion in the surrounding water. We didn’t venture off the island, but while eating fish and chips on a pier teeming with colorful house boats, one of the many friendly island inhabitants introduced themself.

Fisherman's Wharf
Our friend from Fisherman's Wharf
 You know I like my food and drink, and Victoria flourishes here. The city has an International food vibe, with a palate consisting of fresh seafood and cuisine from all over the world. One extraordinary dinner was at Tapa Bar, a gem of a restaurant tucked intimately away in an alley. Microbrews and local beers are also easy to find, including Swans Brewpub, where a seasonal vanilla stout nicely quenched my thirst after a long day of walking.

Victoria is a feast for the eyes, with beautiful weather, waterfront views, and gardens galore, it has been difficult to describe with a few words. It can feel cosmopolitan at times when dining, yet has quaint shops and antique stores. There is an almost wild arrangement of things to do in Victoria. We spent 3 days there and chose to stick to the downtown area, easily filling our time and still relaxing (knowing we did not see several fantastic sights).  I highly recommend this trip, especially to pair up with a longer vacation to Seattle or Vancouver.

Parliament Building
Parliament Building

Due to the anniversary, we splurged a bit and stayed at the surreal Albion Manor bed and breakfast. One paragraph to describe this place would be insufficient, and this will be included in a future home away from home post.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Discovering Craft Beers - Fulton Brewery

I have already blogged twice about food and dubbed the topic Happy Belly. However, I feel I have slightly ignored the other vital companion to the taste buds, the beverage. With a seemingly never ending supply of breweries, brew pubs, and wineries, this is another way to explore an area. Therefore, I will be writing about this too, as the whole food and beverage world resonates with many. Not sure yet if this will link in with Happy Belly or branch out to its own niche. I probably just need some creative inspiration for a cool name to convince me one way or the other.

So, in the inaugural beer post, I will focus on a newer brewery from downtown Minneapolis, Fulton. One of those awesome stories of four guys that started brewing beer in a garage and were able to transform their hobby into a winning product in the rapidly growing craft beer market. The About portion of their website has a great writeup.
I love the atmosphere in the brewery's tap room, opened in March 2012, and the first in the Twin Cities due to some new legislation supporting micro breweries. Cement floors, the lingering scent of yeast and hops from the adjoining brewery (about 50 feet from where you sip), and a variety of seating, it is a great place to hang out. During busy times it invokes a mingling tone, as striking up conversation with those around you seems common.

Of course, a brewery is still only as good as the beer, and Fulton's passion for brewing is reflected in the quality of the product. I am guessing the limited options reflect their smaller scale, but it could also be an outcome of focusing on quality not quantity early on. Sweet Child of Vine is my favorite and their staple product, and the easiest to find on tap or bottled. I have high standards when it comes to an IPA, and this has entered my regular rotation when found on tap. The Ringer is an American Pale Ale, a bit lighter, but still with substantial flavor. My wife really enjoyed it, and she is not an avid beer drinker. They also offer Lonely Blonde, an American blonde I have yet to try. I see wheat beer and shy away, though it looked to be ordered at an equal rate as the others.

They also experiment with their beers in creative ways. I tried War and Peace, which is their Russian Imperial Stout with Peace Coffee. This one hits you pretty hard. You probably won't order this unless you enjoy very dark beers, but it was highly drinkable and expertly masks its near 10% ABV.

Fulton is an up and coming local business that gives you a sense they truly love what they do (which is always a worthy cause to support). I highly recommend checking them out if you are in downtown Minneapolis. Tours and growlers are offered as well.

There is also a food cart just outside where you can pick up some grub and eat inside the tap room. I ate at the Fork in the Road last time and had the BBQ pulled pork grill cheese sandwich with caramelized onions. Oh my, was that a tasty match to the beer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Home Away from Home - Our Place in Maui

We attended an incredibly fun wedding over the weekend and sure as anything, conversation with new friends at weddings always leads to talking about wedding experiences. Then, if you are sitting with me, it goes quickly to honeymoon travel!

Fair warning for readers, but at times this blog will be a sales pitch for Maui. I am not affiliated with the island nor do I profit from this other than hoping I can convince someone to go. It is absolute paradise, and the balance of activity and relaxation is perfect. There is so much to do, yet it is still the ideal place to do nothing but relish in the natural surroundings and a good book.
aston mahana

My wife and I stayed at the Aston Mahana for our honeymoon and will unquestionably go back. Astonishing views of the ocean and surrounding islands. If you can get a higher floor, try to do so. We were on the 8th floor and putting your feet up on the lanai while listening to the waves is pure bliss. This was our view every morning as we enjoyed fresh kona coffee. 
Maui Ocean View
An easy ten minute walk south on the sand gets you to excellent swimming and snorkeling options. A bit farther and walkable (but easier to drive and park) is Black Rock and Kaanapali Beach, both reasons why this part of Maui is so popular. I won't even get into snorkeling details or show a picture of our daily sunset. That is being saved for future brainwashing sessions on why you must go!

Comfortable bed, thorough daily cleaning (we dragged in sand from the beach everyday!), ocean waves constantly crashing against the shore, and a fun island vibe to the room all made this the perfect place to stay. It is so close to the ocean that you can't even see the beach without looking down. Combine that with a full kitchen to enjoy private dining on the lanai (and frankly, dodge a few expensive Maui meals), and I have never felt more at home while on vacation.

Priced well below other options we researched, this does not have the fancy amenities of other resorts and is slightly north of the "main drag," but I am guessing the value is second to none with these views. 
Rainbow in Maui
View from the non ocean side

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Food Journey in Spain

**Warning, do not read if you are hungry and not able to immediately eat.

Earlier, I introduced Happy Belly, highlighting the prominence of food as an aspect of travel. Nothing was more of an inspiration for this than the delectable Spanish cuisine. Our taste buds reveled in the plethora of flavors they explored while visiting the country.

Eating in Spain is an integral trait of the culture. You sit, you chat, you slowly enjoy multiple courses, you chat some more, all while sipping on a smooth Spanish red. Dining resembles an event, and the expectation is hours, not minutes of enjoyment. You are left alone if engrossed in conversation and not herded through the meal to turn the table over for the next guest. We felt very welcome and comfortable everywhere we went, even with limited Spanish speaking on our part.

As we ate in Spain, there was such a positive aura of sharing, reflecting, and bonding during a meal. It  is a lesson in appreciating time spent with others. Lunch takes place in the afternoon and is the main meal of the day. Then comes the late night snacking that Spain is famous for. We often tried hard to wait as late as possible to eat at night and still couldn't cut it with the locals.

Tapas - Sampling small plates (tapas) is my new favorite way to eat. The food is light, you can try different food without committing your whole meal, and tapas bar hopping is a blast. The beauty here is even if you order the same thing at multiple places, each chef adds their unique spin. The preparation and presentation of tapas is an art form mastered by Spanish chefs.
Tapas tour in MadridI have to confess that we had a little, OK, A LOT, of help on this topic. Our second day in Madrid, we took a tapas tour with Insider's Madrid, run by Joanna. Check out her site here and for more details, here is my review on Tripadvisor. She is phenomenal and the perfect resource to give you that slight expert edge to navigate Spanish tapas.

Another way to eat is by taking advantage of Menu Del Dia (Menu of the day). It is generally a 3 course fixed meal with a drink. This is how you can afford Europe. Describing how much food we ate for how little money is easiest by sharing a memorable experience at Nueva Galicia. The food was exceptional and the atmosphere low key, filled with plastic chairs, one server, and no fancy upgrades. We somehow had a conversation with guys at the table next to us (us in limited Spanish, them in limited English). They first thought we were British because of the soccer game that was on. When we explained we were from the States, they decided to give us their whole bottle of wine since they worked the next day. In all we both had a full appetizer, entree, and dessert, along with two bottles of wine. For 18 euros total! Only in Spain - and we just had to venture a few blocks from the main tourist zone.

 I could not come close to doing justice to all the food we tried, but here are a few of my favorites bites.

Tapas - Jamon Iberico
Cava and Jamon Iberico

Jamon Iberico - I rarely use "meat" and "melts in your mouth" in the same sentence, but this calls for it. These are thinly cut pieces of dried ham. However, to wield the Iberico title, the meat must come from free range pigs with an acorn only diet. The diet and their ability to exercise contributes to the flavor. From what I heard, the regulations are strict if you want the Iberico label, and the premium cost reflects the superiority. Jamon Serrano is also available and while still good, splurging for the higher quality Iberico is well worth it.  

Jamon Croquettas - Croquettas can contain jamon, chicken, or fish. Sauce is added in the middle and they are rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. The outcome is a bite sized portion I would most compare to a cheese curd in terms of look and texture. These were staples at every tapas restaurant we went to and also somehow ended up being ordered almost everywhere we went too! Never the same, I feel like the great recipes for these are closely guarded secrets that pass from generation to generation.

Chocolate con churro - Just look at the image below and not much more explanation is needed. Churros to dip in thick, hot chocolate. More prevalent in Madrid, the Spanish do not mess around when it comes to their chocolate. We went to several places solely dedicated to this.
Chocolate con churro
Bunyols - Basically just donut holes, but so scrumptious we stopped at a great local cafe every morning in Barcelona to get these freshly baked.
Paella - If we were not sampling tapas, this was what I sought. Key ingredients are rice, saffron, olive, oil, vegetables, and whatever medley of meats the chef desires. I prefer ones interspersed with seafood.

Sangria - Throwing in a non food, and I am being cliche listing this one, but the reason things are always talked about over and over again is because they are AMAZING. Sangria is another recipe that can be played with extensively. Wine and some mixture (we use lemonade at home), served with chopped fresh fruit and over ice. Yes please! Very refreshing summer drink for the patio.

I highly recommend seeking out some great Spanish recipes, but understand, the Spanish have perfected them. They are not easy to replicate, and the freshness requires a lot of ingredients best cultivated in Spain. We smoked out our kitchen trying to make croquettas, and a recent paella order at a restaurant was sub par compared to our now snobby taste buds. Going to give home-made paella a shot in the near future, but the often overwhelming instructions and ingredients have prevented us from trying it yet. Maybe our solution will be to just go back to Spain!