Monday, April 20, 2015

Escape to Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Despite my incredibly youthful looks, I lived a childhood created for someone 20 to 30 years my senior. It originated from my obsession with programming featured on Nick at Nite and TV Land. Don't get me started on my love for old television shows like Petticoat Junction or Green Acres (best theme song ever, second only to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air). If my life plan works out, and I'm on Jeopardy kicking the shit out of a 77-year-old Ken Jennings in an all-stars tournament, I'll be sure to dominate the category "Groovy Movies from the 60s." 

As a kid, I fell in love with a 1968 book called Escape to Witch Mountain, which involves a pair of orphans with supernatural powers who run away to Witch Mountain to uncover the mystery of their past. The book was followed by a tremendously wonderful and campy film version starring Kim Richards, best known for her Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame. No idea if her current rehab battles are related to the emotionally-wrenching performance in the movie, but I like to assume that's precisely the case. 

The movie resonated with me because it was about taking an adventure to connect and rediscover your roots -- that, and trying to avoid getting sold into the child sex trade by a creepy millionaire. So when Spencer and I decided to leave our home, sweet RV in Whistler and take a getaway to Vancouver Island, I jumped at the chance to recharge my batteries and embark on a different type of adventure than the one that occupies our "normal" lives. 

We packed up our Volkswagen Golf R, drove to the ferry docks and embarked on our cruise to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. 

Although big rigs like ours can squeeze on the ferry, it's outrageously expensive. It's very un-American in that the bigger your motorhome, the more it costs. Hello, our RV obviously has an overeating disorder and she can't afford diesel bypass surgery. After we weighed the financials, we decided it would be significantly cheaper to book Airbnbs for the week. I even found pet-friendly rooms so Ellie could join us! Note: Ellie was actually looking forward to a weekend alone to get into some trouble a la Risky Business

Despite the windy and gray morning, the boat ride to Victoria was still eerily gorgeous. 

Our Airbnb was right in the James Bay neighborhood, a stone's throw from the water and lush Beacon Hill Park. 

The neighborhood is adorned with charming Victorian dollhouses on every street. Here's a beautifully restored home that used to belong to Canadian author and artist, Emily Carr. It's now a museum and a historical site. 
Emily Carr house in James Bay
Since our getaway coincided with Spencer's birthday, we decided to splurge on a whale-watching cruise with the hopes of spotting some orcas. 

Not only did we see a pod of orcas, but I coincidentally forgot my camera so I couldn't capture any amazing photos. Not to worry: This is nearly a spot-on artistic representation of what we saw.
Warning: Artistic rendering. This is not an actual orca. 
We also got to see Spieden Island, once owned by John Wayne in the 1960s as a big game preserve. Yes, money and fame will make you do crazy things. Today, it houses various types of deer and sheep. Friendly sea lions like to swim along its rocky shores. 
Look closely and you'll spot a sea lion poking up to say hello.
After we got out land legs back, we took a stroll around the wharf, which is home to floating houseboats and restaurants. 
A quick tour of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings was also in order. Built at the turn of the twentieth century, the government buildings are a breathtaking example of Baroque Revival architecture. 

Victoria is a city that will pique any architecture junkie's curiosity or any Disney-obsessed princess-wannabee. Did I mention there are castles?
Craigdarroch Castle
Hatley Castle

Built by a father-son duo named Robert and James Dunsmuir, who clearly had no delusions of grandeur, these castles are open to the public to tour. Hatley Park is actually an administrative building for Royal Roads University. They remain shining examples of moments in history when rich people had more money than sense, and when being heir to a coal empire was equivalent to being employee no. 8 at Facebook pre-IPO. 

If castles aren't your thing, plebeian, you can always practice your Cockney accent and drown your financial shortcomings in a spot o' tea. 

After that caffeine indulgence, Spencer and I were recharged to visit Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse, a national historic site along the coast. Be forewarned: You may soon envision yourself owning a charming bakery in Maine with Amy Schumer. 

Eventually it was time to move on from Victoria and begin our route to Tofino, a surf town along the island's western coast. Spencer and I stopped throughout the scenic Cobble Hill region, which is known for its wineries. Our first detour was the beautiful and unique Merridale Ciderworks, famous for its ciders. 
Merridale Ciderworks
We also popped into Cherry Point Estate Wines, where we sampled some delicious dessert wines and chatted with one of the owners. 
As we continued driving, the route grew more winding, isolated and magnificent. Sure enough, we spotted a black bear grazing along the road. 
He was just as startled to see us, as we were to see him.
Once we arrived in Tofino, Ellie was over-the-moon that the beach was right across the street from our suite. Tofino brings surfers and storm-watchers alike to its shores to ride and witness its killer waves. 

Armed with an unusually sunny April day, Spencer, Ellie and I decided to visit Meares Island and hike the Big Tree Trail. Accessible only by boat, we took a water taxi to the island. 
The giant cedar, spruce and hemlock trees along the boardwalk range from 1000 to 1500 years old, making them some of the oldest living beings on the planet. 
In case you need some perspective. 
After the hike, we earned some delectable Mexican food from Tacofino, one of Tofino's many culinary gems. The ratio of good restaurants to people in this small town is seemingly 18:1. A British Columbia institution, tourists come from all over North America to devour a couple (or six) of the truck's tacos.  
It did not disappoint. 
We spent most of our time in Tofino indulging in oceanside walks and hiking in the nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Not to say we didn't spend a teensy-weensy amount of time slurping down refreshing blonde ales from Tofino Brewing Company. Like barely, though. Because we're really healthy. Didn't you read about the hiking?! 
The cause of and solution to all of life's problems. 
Before we knew it, the sun was setting on our escape to Vancouver Island. It was time to ferry back to our gypsy life, sans supernatural powers, but armed with a refreshingly new outlook on how we travel -- also, with a six-pack from Tofino Brewing Co. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beating the Hype in Austin, TX

Can you imagine the world when ice cream was just starting to become popular? Picture life before you could order pie à la mode, before Ben met Jerry, before ice cream had its own trucks and melodies, before states legalized rainbow sprinkles. It was a simpler time. Jacques Twistee had finalized his life-changing invention, which was originally intended to be an edible glue.

Slowly, you would start to hear about this utterly delicious, milky, sugary, creamy confection. All your friends would ask, "Have you tried ice cream yet? It's the best thing since sliced bread (another new invention at the time)." Your butcher, Emmanuel, would say, "Have you tasted one of those ice cream sundaes? There's a banana now so it's probably pretty healthy." Maxwell the blacksmith would tell you, "That ice cream is perfection. You can have it in a cup or a sugary wafer that you can eat, too! " Joaquin, the town crier, would bellow, "I scream! You scream! We all scream for ice cream!" followed by hysterical high-pitched shrieks. 

Even though you hadn't even sampled ice cream yet, you already hated it. You were sick of hearing about how awesome it tasted and how refreshing it was on a sweltering summer afternoon. But then, like the principled American politician you are, you caved. You decided to give it a shot. One or two licks just to prove to yourself that it was unimpressive. And then you realized, ice cream lived up to its hype. 

Austin is pretty much exactly like ice cream in this regard (also, that it's really sticky). Spencer and I have heard so many wonderful reasons about why Austin is so cool, so hip and such a fun city. We figured there was no way that Austin could live up to the hype, but spoiler alert: It's one of our favorite spots yet. 

We started our visit to this eclectic city by shopping and eating along South Congress Avenue. Known as SoCo to people that feel cool abbreviating normal words, this street is lined with a range of businesses, from a country western wear emporium, to trendy boutiques, to tasty Mexican taquerias, to pizza parlors to quirky food trucks converted from trailers. 

If anything could be made for me, it's this cupcake Airstream trailer. 
All the stores on South Congress are colorful and intriguing -- begging you to come inside and buy delightful goods! 

This TOMS store sells shoes AND coffee! What more do you need?
We indulged in lots of tasty treats while we strolled around the area, but our favorite spot was brunch at South Congress Cafe, which is known for their delectable Bloody Marys. 

After all that walking and eating, we were hungry again. We popped over to the Whole Foods flagship store, which is unlike any grocery store (or Whole Foods) in the country. At more than 80,000 square feet, this Whole Foods is downright overwhelming. From its wine bar and barbecue restaurant, to its craft beer selection and custom chocolate displays, this isn't your average supermarket. 

A perfect cowboy Valentine. 
Before the night was over, we tried to experience another weird, quintessential Austin activity: Watching the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Home to the world's largest urban bat colony, up to 1.5 million bats emerge from underneath the bridge to feast on insects during the summer. Spencer and I arrived early to stake out a prime spot to view their descent upon the city before dusk.

Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. The same must be true for bats, too. We waited, and waited, and saw a few bats fly away, but nothing like the mass exodus we were promised. Bats > tourists. 

For our next adventure, we opted for something less dependent on the season, the sunset and furry, little critters who like eluding visitors. We embarked on the Texas State Capitol, a National Historic Landmark and a beautiful example of 19th century architecture. 

It's pretty, right?
While the grounds and the outside of the Capitol are quite remarkable, the inside has some impressive features, too. 

Texas Senate chambers
Saving taxpayer money on new furniture, the walnut desks were originally purchased in 1888. However, bowing down to technology, the inkwells have been replaced with microphones. 

In case you forget where you are...
These brass chandeliers are also original to the building, spelling out TEXAS in the Lone Star design. 

You can find the Lone Star on all things Texas, including on these gorgeous studded chairs.

While Austin by day is certainly entertaining, Austin by night is twice as fun. Known as the "Live Music Capital of the World," Austin boasts a serious daily offering of live bands and musicians. Not just country, folk or bluegrass music, Austin has a flavor for everyone. Spencer and I ventured out to meet a friend to enjoy some local bands near Sixth Street, where your mood can designate which of the dozens of bars or clubs you hop to next. 

If you stay out too late and you crave some barbecue for your hangover, we would suggest a lengthy five-hour wait at Franklin Barbecue. Consistently rated one of the top barbecue restaurants in the country, Franklin is just as popular as it is delicious, perhaps even more so. So despite Rachel being a vegetarian, we felt like waiting for Franklin was some type of meat mecca that we shouldn't leave Austin without attempting once. 

The line was hundreds of people deep at 9:30 a.m.
If you go to Franklin, come prepared with a patient attitude and something to occupy your time. We purchased folding chairs at the local drugstore and brought our laptops so we could work. (Warning: Most people will be amazed that you have a job and aren't in college.) We were assured that we would get some type of meat, but it would depend on what was left. Be prepared to eat while you wait to eat more. We grabbed some delicious breakfast burritos at a nearby Mexican restaurant during our stay in the Franklin parking lot. After five long hours (you can't really bail after 3 hours because you're committed by that point), we finally reached the glorious counter. 

You'll have whatever's left.
Sitting down with your Franklin will make you feel like the most accomplished person ever. Move over, Malala Yousafzai. I'm ready for my Nobel Peace Prize in barbecue. 

Spencer had a few options available, since only some sides and the pulled pork were unavailable. He opted for the ribs and the brisket. 

According to Spencer, the brisket was "the best I ever had." Would we wait five hours again? Unlikely, but the meat lived up to the hype.

Oh, and don't worry about the vegetarian, I sampled some pies and earned that damn coozie. 

Even though we weren't able to see everything we imagined, Austin certainly beat the hype. We left the city with our bellies full, our ears happy and our bodies ready to tackle new adventures. We also left knowing that we would be back again. The writing's on the wall and the feeling is mutual, Austin. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Strolling Through History in San Antonio, TX

After a brief stop in Houston to see one of my best friends, catch an Astros game and visit the Holocaust museum (an extremely odd triad, I admit), Spencer and I continued on our tour de Texas to San Antonio. 

Since our visit was during the NBA playoffs, we were invading enemy territory. As much as I appreciate shoe-related mascots (alternate name options were the stilettos, the espadrilles and the clogs), as a die-hard Miami HEAT fan, I felt obliged to dislike the entire city and its people. Fortunately for San Antonio, we found a place that served "Super Tacos," and all was forgiven. A super taco is like a regular taco on steroids. Everything really is bigger in Texas. 

Not my most flattering shot, but the world must pay witness to the majesty of the Super Taco.
Not only does San Antonio have Super Tacos, it has a mission-turned-military fortress-turned-historical-monument known as the Alamo. An estimated gazillion tourists flock to this tiny chapel and its manicured grounds every day. 

Don't worry, size doesn't matter.
Built in the 1700s, the Alamo was used to aid the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity by the Spanish. But the Alamo is best known for its namesake battle, in which Texas colonists fought for their independence against Mexico during the Texas Revolution. The Mexican army's siege on the Alamo left all, or nearly all, of the Texian soldiers dead. However -- proof that you learn more from your failures than your success -- the Texians were reinvigorated by the horrible defeat. Following the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texians defeated the Mexicans and gained a new identity as the Republic of Texas. Although Texian independence lasted only 9 years before the United States annexed the republic in 1845.

In the amphitheater in front of the Alamo, we caught a performance by the United States Navy Band, singing upbeat American rock classics like Sytx. They politely ignored my requests for another American musical trailblazer, Lil Wayne.  

Aside from the Alamo, San Antonio might be best known for its river walk lined with restaurants, bars and shops. 

One of our meal highlights, aside from super tacos, was stopping for a pint and a bite at The Esquire Tavern. Not only does it have a beautiful patio location along the river, but it boasts being the oldest bar on the river walk, established in 1933. The tacos con papas and the jalapeño bean burger, along with a blonde ale from Branchline Brewing Company were a few of our favorites. 

After refueling, we continued on our journey to see the other missions scattered around San Antonio. 

Our next stop was Mission Espada, which was the first mission established in Texas in 1690. In 1731, the mission was moved to its present location near San Antonio.  

This chapel is closed to the public for restoration efforts. 
Our next destination along the mission trail was Mission San Juan, known for its fertile farmlands that led it to become a local supplier of agricultural produce. 

It's surprising to realize that most of the missions are still used for present-day church services. We actually interrupted a Sunday service here when we opened the doors to the chapel. Thankfully, Jesus forgives. 

A monk peeled off on this scooter screaming, "I've got the grace of God!" Just kidding. 
Our final stop was Mission San Jose, called the "Queen of the Missions" since it's the largest mission in Texas. At its height, about 350 people lived in the community. 

The facade on the church, the Rose Window, is notable as it's considered one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in North America. 

Our visit to San Antonio was a stroll through the evolution of Texas that also provided insight into its Spanish and Mexican occupation and the prominent missionary efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity. To understand American perseverance is to understand the slogan, "Don't Mess with Texas." Also, don't forget about those damn delicious super tacos. 
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