Thursday, October 25, 2012

Take me out to the Ballgame - My Ballpark Experience

There is nothing like watching baseball on a nice summer night, in the presence of close company, with an overpriced beer in hand, and the smell of hot dogs permeating in the air. Some of my earliest excursions out of state involved hopping in a car with great friends and driving to baseball cities in the Midwest.

The Midwest has a wealth of incredible stadiums, which is where all but one of these reside. Every stadium varies significantly in architecture and its reflection of the local area. Growing up with a team playing indoors, I feel I was enlightened the first time I witnessed outdoor baseball. I tried my best to put these in order, but truly loved them all. One or two games does not allow a full comprehension of the finer aspects of each stadium, so if you have been to these or others, please add your thoughts.

Target FieldTarget Field - Minneapolis
Yes, my favorite team is the Minnesota Twins, but even so, this pick is legitimately objective. Trust me, if the Twins still played in the Metrodome, it would  be at the bottom of the list. But if that doesn't sway you, the park also has been ranked the #1 "Best Stadium Experience" in 2010 by ESPN, and in 2011 “The Sports Facility of the Year” by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Sports Business Daily. It is only the second LEED certified park, and its crisp video board is the 4th largest in the league.

Target Field is a gem of the Twin Cities. Nestled cozily into a tiny overall footprint in downtown Minneapolis, there is not a bad seat to be found and almost half of the seats fall within the infield box. The urban setting has bar, restaurant, and lodging options galore. Almost museum like, the stadium thoroughly celebrates its team's history and legendary players. Make sure to grab a Juicy Lucy at  the Town Ball Tavern and scan pictures of the little league parks from around the state, where locals may recognize a place they played growing up. It is MN still, so be prepared to wear ski gear for early season games, and I wouldn't want it any other way!

Target Field
My sister and I hanging out with Rod Carew in the Legend's Club!

Wrigley Field - Chicago
Wrigley Field
Welcome Sign - Link to original picture
Wrigley gets bonus points for its history and iconic reputation, and it comes equipped with "bleacher bums" and a hand operated outfield scoreboard. America's second oldest ballpark, it does not have modern amenities and can feel cramped, but the outfield walls covered in ivy and fans seated on neighboring rooftops make this a must visit for baseball fans. Centered in Wrigleyville, the stadium is surrounded by places to get pre or post game food and drinks. Nowhere else have I seen an area become so lively on game day. Go to a Cubs game, and you become a member in the community of Wrigleyville.

Busch Stadium - St. Louis
St. Louis has the benefit of housing a proud, educated fan base. When building a new stadium for a team with a rich history, designers have a tough task of combining modern amenities while keeping the feel of a storied franchise. It was extraordinarily successful here, while adding majestic views of the famous Gateway Arch. Visit bars before or after the game to get into animated discussions of baseball with passionate fans, and you can walk to and from the game from downtown area hotels. While I tend to prefer infield seating, we sat in a covered area in left field that had a full bar and lounge area behind us. Very nice for a day that was nearing triple digits and sunny. Only downside to me is a facility with a beer name as its title is going to be lacking of local craft brews.
Busch Stadium - Arch
A sea of Cardinal red and Arch view - Link to original picture

Kauffman Stadium - Kansas City
Kauffman has the intimate character of a smaller park, and the jewel of this stadium is the outfield. It is lined with picturesque fountains and centered by a dazzling, crown-topped 84' x 104' HD  video board, the largest screen in the league. This combines the comforts of its older design with modern amenities to create a truly unique feel. Strictly from a design perspective, there is not a stadium with better non-skyline visuals in my opinion. The stadium sits outside of downtown, so there is ample parking but not much within walking distance.

Kauffman Stadium
Fountains and big screen view at night - Link to original picture

Safeco Field - Seattle
I love when a stadium reflects the atmosphere of its surrounding area, and Safeco excels at this. It is a well organized stadium focused on providing an interactive fan experience. A high tech retractable roof keeps the rain out but still is open on the side to allow airflow through the stadium, acting like an umbrella to ensure play continues but maintains the outdoor feeling for rainy days. The exterior design of the park is the best I have seen, and views from inside highlight the Seattle skyline. We drove to the game and did not check out the area surroudning the stadium, but I have read that it is stellar.
Miller Park - Sausage Race
Sausage Race - Link to original picture
Miller Park - Milwaukee 
Extremely reflective of the surrounding area, Miller Park recently won a fan based "battle of the ballparks" tournament featured on ESPN.  The poll results emphasize the stadium's fan friendly atmosphere, that includes a huge parking lot for tailgating and a highly entertaining sausage race. The one of a kind retractable roof is amazingly fast to close, and there is even a slide in the outfield for the mascot to use for home run celebrations. Similar to Busch Stadium above, a monopoly on the beer served in the area is not necessarily a positive in providing variety.

U.S. Cellular Field - Chicago
If I was rating these based on game experience, this makes the top two. Sorry White Sox fans, but we were here for back to back Twins final inning wins that put us in a wild card lead that was never relinquished! It was my first time cheering for the road team, and it was unforgettable! The fans were incredible, and at the games and walking around the city in Twins gear, we chatted baseball in an educated, friendly manner with numerous locals, supporting Chicago's reputation as a great baseball city. However, you need to drive to the stadium or take a taxi, and the location is not up to par with those above.

My goal is to see them all, but a few highest on my list are:
AT&T Park - San Francisco
Fenway Park - Boston
Camden Yards - Baltimore

Thursday, October 18, 2012

New Ulm Oktoberfest - Roll out the Barrel!

New Ulm is a small town in southern Minnesota, with traditions deeply rooted from the German immigrants that formed the city in the 1854. However, there is nothing small about the party that takes place two weekends a year, as the German heritage erupts into Oktoberfest. In fact, it was featured in a USA Today article as one of the 10 great places to celebrate Oktoberfest in North America. 

Get ready to Polka at the Holiday Inn, the main hub of activity for the weekend. It was obvious from the start that there were numerous veterans of the event, and the polka dancing expertise was intimidating. No way we were holding back though, and we let the authentic live music propel us around the dance floor. Though I was never sure if our "polka" (quotes because I am not sure what I was doing can be truly called polka) was interrupting the flow of carefully planned choreography, or if the tremendous energy in the movements can look natural even for a novice. Either way, no one dancing had anything but a smile.

Schell's Brewery
Progressing around town, the sound of clinking glass highlights the cheery beer drinking atmosphere at the second oldest family owned brewery in America, Schell's Brewery (Yuengling is the oldest). It was founded in 1860 by German immigrant August Schell. Operating now with its fifth consecutive generation, the brewery reflects the character of the town.

The Oktoberfest party was in full swing here with a massive tent housing picnic tables, servers in lederhosen, live music, and an abundance of beer and brats. The brewery tour itself is exceptional. The area you tour is the original grounds that are now a museum, employee workspaces, and used for showcasing only, as the actual beer is brewed in newer facilities nearby. It is an informative tour covering both the history of the company and the beer making process, and hosted by an entertaining, passionate guide. The sampling portion is no slouch. With numerous options to try and a full beer at the end, you definitely want to come thirsty. There is also root beer on hand for non drinkers and children.
Schell's Brewery

Downtown is the final site of Oktoberfest happenings. This is the best location to eat, with my favorite being the traditional German fare at Veigel's Kaiserhoff, another establishment with long family ties. Local bars have fresh Schell's on tap and some drinks with unique German twists, such as a Sauerkraut margarita that I found quite satisfying. Most people have cringed when I mention this, but it is much more like margarita flavored sauerkraut vs. a sauerkraut flavored margarita. One of those things that you have to say you tried!

Other festivals take place throughout the year, and most tend to focus on music, beer, and food to celebrate the city's German culture. I highly recommend a weekend here for one of these events, as the drive is less than two hours from the Twin Cities and costs are inexpensive.

Quoting the New Ulm website (, as they describe the city better than I could. "Settled by German immigrants four years before Minnesota became a state, today this community 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul offers something for everyone, from one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants to important historical sites, inviting bed and breakfasts and a steady stream of live music and lively conversation. Most importantly, it’s still a place where friends old and new are greeted with a warm welcome."
Now hopefully, this was just practice for when we do this in Munich! Cheers!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Two legs of the Historic Triangle…and Rollercoasters!

Our recent trip to Williamsburg was phenomenal! Seven days within America’s Historical Triangle was a distinctive vacation experience. Previous destinations have possessed a robust history, but none have come alive to this degree. The area has a wealth of activities for all ages and is linked by the pristine Colonial Parkway.

Congested Parkway at rush hour, yes we are stopped!
The Colonial Parkway is managed by the National Park Service and provides scenic access to the main sites of the Historic Triangle (nothing is more than 20 minutes apart). It is paved to present a historic charm and lined with tall, lush trees that occasionally act as natural tunnels. It passes under old, red brick bridges, and edges along many bodies of water. Traffic is almost nonexistent and frequent turn outs provide excellent viewpoints. The drive is a site in itself.
We decided to start day one fast (literally) and went to Busch Gardens. Short lines meant we could move from coaster to coaster in about the time it took us to ride each one. The Griffon was wild and the only one we needed to hop back on for a second run. The initial drop and speed of the plunge is unforgettable! We soon figured out though, we are no longer impervious to being constantly flung in all directions at super-fast speeds. Completing the roller coaster marathon before lunch, the afternoon required a mellower vibe to keep our heads on straight! 


 Like everything else in Williamsburg, Busch Gardens is strongly committed to its theme, which is divided into numerous European countries. For example, in Germany, there is an Oktoberfest building, and the roller coaster puts you in a car on the Autobahn that takes you careening through the Black Forest. They even have animal exhibits including an Eagle rehabilitation program and an aviary where friendly exotic birds will hop right on your shoulder.
Williamsburg -  Busch GardensAs an added bonus, Howl-O-Scream was in full swing. At 6 pm, the park becomes a frightful domain for all kinds of evil (insert maniacal laugh here). Creatures roam the park, hiding out in bushes and leaping out of the mist. Fully detailed costumes and an original ensemble of creepy music added to the scary atmosphere. My wife is not a fan of this in general, but amazingly toughed it out through 3 of the horrifying haunted houses. My fingers only got slightly crushed in the vice grip she had on them!
After a day of thrills, we started our tour of the Historic Triangle at Jamestown. Born here are the exaggerated stories of John Smith and Pocahontas and the sometimes mysterious happenings of the first English settlement. However, its history recently gained added clarity as an extensive archaeological dig began in 1994. This lead to numerous discoveries about the original colonists and the struggles they faced. A vast collection of relics has been found and are now housed in a newly created museum. As we walked along the water on a perfect day with clear blue skies, it was hard to imagine the documented hardships that took place on this land.

Site of the original James Fort

Not far down the road from the original site is a gallery and living history museum dedicated to Jamestown. An Indian village and the original James Fort have been replicated, with interpreters demonstrating how they cooked, hunted, washed clothes, developed armor, and fired muskets. Docked on the water are replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, the three ships that transported the original 144 settlers from England. Cramped with people and supplies, our current need for space feels silly when you realize that for the entirety of the four and a half month voyage, 105 passengers combined on the three ships squeezed below deck like sardines, with another 39 crew sailing the ships.
We wanted to visit the sites in their chronological order, so Colonial Williamsburg was next, which I covered in detail here.
The final leg of the historic triangle is Yorktown, the site of the decisive American/French victory over Lord Cornwallis’ army in 1781. The Yorktown battlefield is a national park, offering tours from park rangers. There is a self guided driving tour that takes you along each of the American and French siege lines, the woods where the American troops camped, and the field where the British Army surrendered. Also visible are redoubts #9 and #10, the last strongholds of the British outer line that were taken during daring night raids of vicious hand to hand combat. All of the other history we witnessed is inspiring in its own way, but there is something about standing on ground where people sacrificed their lives. It carries a powerful impression that I can't adequately describe.

Yorktown waterfront
 The waterfront city of Yorktown is a heap of personality. The white sand beach stretching alongside the York River is gorgeous, while fun shops and restaurants line the waterfront. Here, we toured the house of Thomas Nelson, Jr., one of the more unknown signers of the Declaration of Independence. Architecturally, the brick home would be worthy of a visit, but as a residence occupied by British leaders during the war, it still shows original cannon damage from the siege. Also located in town is the Yorktown Victory Monument and Victory Center, a museum on the Revolution.
A week in Williamsburg was almost not enough. Each day of the trip, we accidentally found more things to do than we had previously thought possible (and we read A LOT beforehand). We still stuck to our convictions, and relaxation was prevalent as we spent two afternoons at the pool, slept ten hour nights, and watched the entire third season of Modern Family! However, if you like staying busy there are day trip options galore. Virginia Beach, Monticello, Charlottesville, and Civil War sites can be seen without an overnight.

The weather in late September was superb, with temperatures ranging from the low 70’s to mid 80’s with a lot of sunshine. Crowds were minimal and we did not need to wait for any tour, event, or lunch/dinner seat, and we went to some of the more highly rated places to eat. This was another ideal shoulder season trip. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Colonial Williamsburg - The Revolutionary City

Colonial Williamsburg is a step back into the 18th century. The capital of Virginia from 1705 to 1779, it is presently a living history museum. Strolling along Duke of Gloucester Street, which FDR called the “most historic avenue in all America,” you may meet a slave pondering his post-war life, a young couple whose romance is in peril due to families with clashing political allegiances, or George Washington rallying his troops before the march to Yorktown. All this accompanied with the rhythmic clopping of horse hooves pulling carriages. The authenticity of the world you step into is spectacular!

Colonial Williamsburg
Taking a cab

There are daily programs of tours and reenactments based on specific topics. An example was “The Old Order Collapses, 1775 – 1776.” The day began with a group of angry townspeople gathered outside Royal Governor Dunmore’s palace in response to stolen ammunition. Calmer heads prevailed, but as we took a tour of the residence, a housekeeper was distraught as Dunmore had fled during the night. Throughout the day, tensions were apparent as news spread of British aggression in the north and Patriots radically attempted to squash Tory loyalty. The day concluded with a live reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by a fife and drum march, musket shots, and cannon blasts.

Troops rallying at the courthouse

Throughout town, you can enter buildings and see live demonstrations of colonial trade craft. Some of the trades we witnessed were a wig maker, blacksmith, gunsmith, cabinet maker, shoe maker, and weaver.

Most of the jobs required a 5 to 7 year apprenticeship. With no scientific measuring, experience was needed since work was all look and feel. The gunsmith would not know what temp was needed to shape barrels, but instead when it turned just the right “white hot” color.

Cabinet maker
Building piano keys

Wood working also required extreme precision. Most of the original chairs were so complex that x-rays were necessary to understand how to assemble the elaborate designs when developing replicas. The high cost of antiques suddenly made sense!

Looking at pictures and paintings of colonial figures often shows a prominent head of hair. Well, that is most likely fake as wigs were worn to show status, and the larger, more detailed the wig, the more expensive it was and more status it represented. Wigs worn by the most elite would sometimes take 4 to 5 weeks to make and could easily cost more than the average annual wage! A large reason for the expensive nature of the wigs in Colonial America is because a lot of the hair had to be imported, since the humid weather in Virginia dried out hair that was not conducive for wig making. 

Imagine this now, a lot of what you see touring Colonial Williamsburg was made internally, using these techniques! A carriage could take several months to produce. Not like the factories today.

Colonial Williamsburg
The restored area is not entirely a tourist playground though. Some of the homes are private residences, which comes with a commitment all its own. TVs must not be positioned to be seen through windows and any modern toys must be carefully stored or hidden from views. Most often, we saw blinds remain closed so as not to show off any element of the modern world.

Another facet of colonial life we experienced was the tavern culture. They were popular spots to gather, converse, and maybe even conspire a little. If only those walls could talk! A couple of ales are brewed locally and only for sale in the historic part of town and drinks such as the rummer (dark rum, apricot brandy, and peach brandy) were original colonial concoctions.

Colonial Williamsburg
Outside Raleigh Tavern

King’sArm Tavern was easily my favorite. We were seated in the green room, where high profile politicians ate and apparently where Thomas Jefferson liked to gamble (the tavern owner stopped by to share local gossip and news). The menu was traditional colonial food and drink, and we ordered absolutely savory beef pot roast and chicken pot pye. Though I am guessing these foods have evolved a bit compared to 1780.  

So how does this colonial city exist in its current form? Thanks primarily to Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr., it began in the early 1900’s with the quiet purchase of a few original properties. A monumental effort followed as hundreds of modern buildings were destroyed and the historical area reconstructed as accurately as possible. This devotion to recreating the past is a much longer story that is worth reading about. 

Outside of the main historic area are several other things to do. There is a modern shopping/dining area, with some great restaurants including the delightfully inexpensive and gourmet The Cheese Shop. The campus of William and Mary is also right there and worth a walk through its beautiful campus. 

Many early American ideas and historical icons took root in Williamsburg and its motto is “That the future may learn from the past.” It is an incredibly engaging immersion into the tumultuous early years of America. This is a destination for all ages if you enjoy this kind of history. Logistically, everything is close enough to walk, but a convenient trolley circles the historic area if needed. We stayed about 10 minutes away (nothing is far apart in this area) and ended up here for about 3 days of our trip, making it a highlight of the vacation for me.

Possible Christmas card this year???

Next post will cover the rest of the trip, including Jamestown, Yorktown, and Busch Gardens!