In normal times, we cast upon a new shore and immediately get to exploring. usually, we don’t have much time to waste, a sailor must sail on. With all this indecision and uncertainty playing into our lives, I find it hard to focus on exploration. It seems out of context and strange to do. I don’
Source: Pigweed and Other Delicacies
Sintra is a sort of glorified village not far outside of Lisbon. It is where we got what Tami called the best meal we ate on this trip (it was good.) Sintra is s lovely town, with two, count ’em, two castles! One is a Moorish castle that is in ruin, and in the process of being partially restored. The other is Pena castle, built by King Consort Ferdinand in the 19th century. We visited the latter one. That sleeping goose above lives there, on one of dos lagos (the lakes.)
A short aside on the Portuguese language. It is not Spanish. For instance, while there are two lakes, that is not what the “dos” in “dos lagos” means. The number two is “dois,” “dos” is the plural masculine article. Also note that the castle is named “Pena.” There is no “ñ” in Portuguese. If they wanted to indicate what sounds like Paynyah, they’d spell it “Penha.”
We parked across the road from the place where you buy tickets to the castle. The walk is about 640 meters, per the signs. Of course, the signs don’t mention that 600 meters is at a 20 or more degree slope upwards.
You could say that it took us a while to get there. But, there were diversions. The geese and ducks, for instance. A faux mosque like structure. A hothouse. And a moss green couch made of stone.
There is a train up and down, but not from where we parked. If you’re ever in Sintra, go to the upper parking lot and take the train. Eventually, we did reach Pena Castle, in all it’s glory. The story is that the King Consort was bored, as his job was if anything less important than our own Vice President’s. He amused himself by designing and building this playhouse of a castle. Once inside, up on the ramparts, you can get a decent view of the real, Moorish, castle across a valley.
That Moorish castle features genuine arrow slits, spiral staircases, all that good medieval defense stuff. Pena, not so much, but by golly he made it look nice, he did! Here are some highlights, including a view from the top.
Eventually, we walked back down. It’s an interesting place to visit, and lovely views make it even nicer.
When we arrived in Sintra there were what looked like about a gazillion scouts (girls and boys) in uniforms with the neckerchiefs and patches and scout leaders and all, clogging a place where we’d thought maybe we could park. (Just after that we saw a sign for the castle.) When we drove back down we had to drive around what now looked like a couple of zillion scouts on their way back to wherever they came from. Looked like what we used to call a Jamboree, back in Troop 471. Whatever it was, it was impressive to watch. And now, with the scouts no longer blocking the way, we could get to downtown Sintra. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find parking, but we found it, in a park full of art.
Then we ate what Tami says is the best meal we had on this trip. I had spaghetti, she had risotto. Both were excellent. We also drank Sangria. Italian and Spanish food in Portugal. Well, why not? I leave you now with a picture of this, our yummiest meal.
Like French Polynesia is the place for people from France to get away to somewhere tropical, Rarotonga offers a getaway for the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York and their growing brood. Day after day we are asked: “Are you here on holiday?” “Yes, sort of; only I must climb a tire every morning.” Rarotonga has some tantalizing “holiday” options: kite surfing camp, scuba diving, snorkel tours, bicycle tours. Stand up paddle boards (SUP) seem to be all the rage. Your options range from a simple SUP rental to SUP Yoga. (Sure, you can paddle while standing up, but can you paddle while lighting your throat chakra in triangle pose?) You can even rent a Night-SUP with cocktail service complete with disco lights installed in the bottom side, to light the lagoon beneath you. I wish we could give you the full tour of these exotic options, but we did our six month budget assessment and found we are running approximately $200 over each month. So, no Disco-SUP-Cocktail night for us. (More on the budget in a boring follow-up post for those of you who care.) We enjoyed the cross island trail that took us from one side of the island, to the top of the “needle”, through a jungle with giant ferns, ending at a waterfall pool with crisp cold water and a hive of mosquitos. We met the Trail-Rooster, who is apparently always there, and I named him Ned. I hope it sticks. We circled the island many times on our scooter with its rear tire continuously leaking air. Where we found baby pigs, beautiful scenery, and the Prison Craft Shop. No “holiday” would be complete without stopping in at the Prison Craft Shop. We enjoyed art galleries, the company of strangely colored lady bugs, and strangely shaped coins one of which has Queen Elizabeth on one side and a Tiki with a penis on the other. Every other day or so, we would find ourselves with our toes in the sand and a ginger beer in hand enjoying beautiful snorkeling, warm sun or a beautiful sunset. We joined the locals at the Fisherman’s Club to watch the All Blacks New Zealand Rugby Team clobber the Austrians. By this time, Phil and Laura had departed for a new location, leaving us to try to understand rugby all on our own. Try as we might, we just couldn’t figure out the purpose of the “Scrum.” Every now and then two groups of thirteen men pile together, some with their heads squeezed between their buddies thighs, to engage in what seemed like a group version of “bulldozer.” Eventually, the ball pops out from the middle of this pack, and everyone carries on trying to score their “try”. At half time, Andrew sidled up at a table next to some folks cheering voraciously for New Zealand: “Do you know anything about rugby?” The man and woman turned to Andrew, mouths agape, as though he had just insulted their mothers. Indignant, they gasped, “Uhg, Yes!” “Well, I’m American…” and before Andrew can say another word, I hear our new friends say “Ohhhhh!” suddenly understanding Andrew needed help. Our friends start with the basics, explaining it is called a “try” when a team scores points. They explain the Scrum is a sort of penalty situation. (Yeah, I would feel penalized having to put my face between my teammates sweaty thighs.) They explain how turnovers happen, and why they kick away sometimes, but not others. They explain why the man who is squashed under a vicious tackle (wearing no manner of padding at all) struggles to stick his arm out with the ball out for the picking until his teammate grabs a hold and runs away. Etcetera. The All Blacks were fierce Rugby endurance machines and outlasted their opponents through the end. I like watching Rugby, but my favorite part was watching the All Blacks scare the pants off the Austrians with their Haka (the Maiori war cry/dance) at the beginning of the match. Rugby players shouting, stomping, throat slashing, and sticking their tongues out in unison, just like the Islanders who threatened Captain Cook and his merry band of sailors hundreds of years ago. Fierce. And scary. Instead, we saved our budget for the fun that sets Rarotonga apart: the food. Now, I don’t want to complain, French Polynesia was beautiful, but for being related to a country that is so serious about it’s food, French Polynesia is like the red-headed food step child. In French Polynesia, the menu always includes the following options: Steak and Frites (with thin, undercooked, chewy steak), Chow Mein, Chicken breast with vanilla sauce, Fish with vanilla sauce, a baguette filled with Chicken Chow Mein or if you prefer, ham and cheese. Their pizzas are always made with baguette dough, making them a bit mushy, and their hamburgers were also made with baguette dough, making them so chewy that the hamburger would spit out the backside. I’m sure at the fancy resorts you could get a sala
Cafes are all the rage, here. Each cafe boasts that they have Rarotonga’s best “this” and world famous “that”. It all seems easy enough, until you step up to order. Exploring town, we sauntered into one of only three remaining original buildings on the Island. A cement, one story structure with arched windows and doorways, it housed a high priced souvenir shop, TAV clothing (the island style preferred by Duchess Kate) and a cafe. The cafe had an open air rooftop, a record player spinning 50’s American Jazz, and a man and a woman working an impressive looking espresso machine (not to be confused with “expresso”). A newspaper article about the cafe and its owners hung on the wall, interviewing the very man and woman who hustled around the little galley, grabbing white cups and filling them with all manner of dark, bitter liquid. As I approach the countertop, I panic a little bit because I see no menu for coffee. Muffins, cakes and cookies look tempting on a bookshelf behind the counter, and a food menu tantalizes customers with options like egg and ham “toastie” with chutney sauce or a smoked salmon on cream cheese bagel with capers and purple onion. But, I wasn’t in the market for food, just a coffee. No matter, I’m a purist at heart, so I order a black coffee. “Black coffee?” The man behind the counter asks me, looking puzzled. He stared back at me as though I had just landed from Mars and asked for a moon-cake. “Yes, just black coffee.” I respond. He doesn’t move, instead looks at me as though I am daft. “Well, what kind of coffee do you have?” I ask. “Just espresso.” He says. Now, I look around at the handful of customers sipping from their cups around the cafe. Some of them are the traditional, miniature espresso cups I am familiar with, but others are normal coffee sized coffee cups. I am confused as to why he is confused, and vice versa, I’m sure. So, to end both our suffering, I say: “Well, great! An espresso then.” Andrew makes it two espressos, and we duck away from the countertop. We sit at a table, receive two tiny mugs of rich, strong coffee. We sip, read a newspaper all about Rarotonga dining, and then scurry off still puzzling over our coffee options. When we see them next, Phil and Laura asked us what we had been up to that afternoon. When we tell them we stopped in at a Cafe, they chittered on about having found “Flat Whites” after spending so long in tropical places that do not offer such coffee delicacies. I don’t know what a “Flat White” is, so I ask. When they describe it to me, it sounds exactly like a latte: coffee with foamed milk. I say as much, and they both vigorously shake their heads. “No no, it’s different.” Something about proportions. We had better luck at Jireh’s “Home of Rarotonga’s world famous custard squares.” They at least had a menu of coffee options, and what do you know: A Flat White is available. So, we order two Flat Whites and a world famous custard square and give them a test. Since this is my first custard square, I cannot speak as to the quality of the custard square. But does world fame necessarily mean that it is the best custard square? I don’t know. The white-flour crust is thin but dense. It did not crumble in your mouth, but instead provided a chewy juxtaposition to the thick vanilla custard sandwiched between top and bottom crust. The square was only mildly sweetened, allowing the cream, toasty flour and vanilla to be the focus of the taste. It was pretty good. The custard square was mostly gone when our “Flat Whites” arrived. I looked down at my coffee, and it looked just like a latte. (But don’t tell Laura and Phil.) The barista at our final cafe excursion provided our enlightenment. Within walking distance of Sonrisa, there is a “famed” waffle cart. The five tables seated in the morning shade are filled with groups of locals, all cajoling one another from one table to the next, reading newspapers, and/or weaving a flower crown. One remaining table was available for us. The waffle cart had a fancy espresso maker, too, but they provided a coffee menu. “Ah-hah!” I say, and then scowl. Espresso Long Black Short Black Flat White Americana Starbucks did not prepare me for this. Seeing my grimace, the woman inside the cart says “Are you American?” “Yes, why?” “Ah, you will want an Americana.” She responds. “Wait, wait, wait. Why? Can you explain these coffees to me?” She laughs and explains that an Americana is the only “filtered coffee” they have, and Americans are used to filtered coffee. I make her take me through the rest of the coffees, and I learn that all of the other coffees are made with espresso (coffee made by using high pressure steam to push water through extremely fine ground coffee beans), th
We bought dinner at the theaters to eat while watching Suicide Squad. Pizza, Mac and Cheese Bites, and a fancy cake dessert. Again, sad to say, I wouldn’t bother. They have popcorn and coke and candy, like every other theater. The movie wasn’t their fault, so I’d say it’s a decent theater (nice seats, eh?) But skip the food.
The only way to get to know a foreign country — go eat with the natives!
‘Not’HotLanta? Well, consider this photograph:
There’s nothing special in the frame; it’s just a view of the hotel’s (Marriott Northwest in Smyrna) tent like ballroom on the left, and rear parking area and driveways on the right. The rain, however, is the subject. During our time in Atlanta they received something on the order of 3 inches of rain. This led to our choosing a whole lot of indoor activities. Only the final day, the one where we left town in the evening, was sunny part of the time. That’s when we went to the zoo.
What to do indoors in Metro Atlanta? Well, the first afternoon we were confused, as one gets, by the long trip, so we went to a movie. We saw the live-action Cinderella from Disney, which is in fact a very good movie, but that’s about all we accomplished, other than that I watched Letterman through the Top Ten for probably the last time. (I fall asleep too early on the West Coast.
The next day we were out and about. Ah, yes. To wit, here is a photograph we had taken of ourselves with a familiar advertising icon:
Almost shockingly, our hotel featured Pepsi, but that was the only Pepsi I saw for sale during our stay in Atlanta. Tami kept asking at restaurants whether they had Pepsi or Coke. I don’t drink a lot of soda pop , but I wouldn’t have bothered. Coca Cola is a huge presence in Atlanta. We were just ahead of a large group of school kids in getting to see that bear, for example. The World of Coca Cola is a major draw, with busses cramming the streets surrounding the place. It’s worth a visit, even if you, however unlikely it seems, prefer Pepsi. (Some people must.)
They have a room full of memorabilia from the past century and a half, a movie that is guaranteed to make a turnip feel good, then you can meet the bear, and finally you’re free to roam exhibits including a slow bottling line (from which they give you a bottle as you exit) and a place where you can design your own Coke bottle. Yes, really. Here’s mine:
*** By the way, all of the photos on this post were taken with a Droid Maxx. Apple, as usual, lies by omission. It isn’t so much the camera as how you process the image afterwards that makes it good or bad. ***
I barely got that photo taken because somebody else sat down as I stood up, but I got it. There is a room where they screen ads from all over the world (kind of a yawner after a couple of minutes, to be honest) and at the end a tasting room where you can sample any of their products from anywhere. The best were a couple of apple-flavoured sodas (from places where they spell that way) and the worst, by miles, was a bitter drink from Italy. It took several hits of other beverages, finishing up with a Sprite and a Coke, to get that awful taste out of my mouth. I never saw the stuff when we were in Italy. If I ever do, I won’t buy it. Yoiks!
Sharing a plaza with World of Coca Cola is the Civil Rights Center (not included in our Atlanta City Pass so I haven’t seen it) and the Atlanta Aquarium. It’s a nice aquarium, but the screeching of the small kids got to us in the end and we ran away. Tami took all of the pictures there, but it was the usual stuff: sharks, rays, colorful fish, river displays, you know, aquarium stuff.
That evening we ate at a place called Sugar Cakes Patisserie in Marietta. I’ve never tasted better bread. The rest of the food is also excellent. If you’re ever in that area, I highly recommend the place. It’s right on Marietta Square, same side as the theater.
Saturday Tami gave an all-day workshop and I wrote. We ate at an Italian place in Smyrna, the name of which I’ve forgotten, but it was good, and authentic.
Next day we found the art museum. It’s a nice museum, formally called the High Museum of Art. It seemed fitting, somehow, that the most prominent temporary exhibit was devoted to the 100th anniversary of the first iconic Coke bottle. Yep, more Coca Cola. (Kudos to the person who sold our hotel on Pepsi.) Here are several of the things we saw there, by no means all.
They have a large collection of mid-century items, some of them simply furniture, but all of them lovely. They have some contemporary art that is interesting, as well as some of those items that look as if the artist is just screwing around trying to see if he can get people to pay for trash. DuChamp could get away with that, people. You need to come up with something fresh!
Monday was the day we came home, but not until 8 pm. Prior to that we visited the zoo, It’s a nice little zoo, not too big. Took us a couple of hours to see it all. Animals, you know. Here’s a photo of a pensive one:
We’ll never know, I suppose. He held that pose for quite a while. The cutest things were their pandas, including two young ones born in 2013.
After the Zoo we went to the Atlanta History Center. Apparently, I took no photos. I did have an excellent sandwich in the Swan Carriage House restaurant. There are two historic houses, one built on site, the other a relocated farm built in the 1860s. The museum houses various exhibits, the most moving of which is about the Civil War, particularly how it affected Atlanta and the rest of the South. Like all wars, it’s more sad than anything, but of course Atlanta is famous for having been utterly destroyed by Sherman. They did rebuild, though, so no worries these days. It is, in fact, a beautiful city and well worth a visit. I expect that you’ll like it better, though, if you decide to drink Coke. 😉
We were in Mexico for five days total, including travel to get there, so I’ve already described what we did. Our first full day we shopped and ate and such things, and it’s the eating that I’d like address now. First, Mexicans do eat tacos and burritos and other items we call “Mexican Food,” but they aren’t like the ones you buy around here, unless that is you go to a local Taco Bell or something. I mentioned before that you do not have to eat any exotic or unfamiliar foods if you don’t want to. Not in Cancún, anyway. But you should.
Here’s a place you can start eating real Mexican food. It’s called Los de Pescados. A quick and dirty translation of that would be “fish stuff.” Which pretty much describes the menu. What we both had was empanadas pescadas (fish empanadas.) An empanada is a small pie like thing. Think a hot pocket or a Hostess Fruit Pie. Only, you know, good. Los de Pescados has locations all over the Yucatán peninsula. The one in Cancún is on Av. Tulum, not far from the North End (KM 0) of Av. Kulkulkan, the main drag through the Hotel Zone (Zona de hoteles on the signs.) Kulkulkan becomes Av. Cobo, and the first traffic circle is Av. Tulum. Turn left (3rd exit) and then immediately get onto the frontage road. A block or so down, park in the diagonal spaces to the left and there it will be, with the best damned fish pies you could ever imagine.
There’s a picture of the menu board, but those aren’t the only selections. In fact, the corporate website doesn’t even list fish empanadas, just fish tacos, which I’m willing to believe are also excellent. Next time I go I’ll be a lot hungrier, as the total cost was less than we pay for breakfast for two at our local diner. Maybe 13 or 14 bucks. Well worth the charge.
Our first evening in Mexico we found a place in downtown Cancún called El Callejon. This time I even have the address (and only this time, I’m afraid.) It is
- SM 28 M 1 Plaza Bonita loc.G5
- 77500 Cancún, Quintana Roo
Their web presence is a Facebook page, but it’s informative. The place is owned by a gentleman from Canada. When I asked how a Canadian came to be running a restaurant in Cancún he told me that there wasn’t enough time to explain. Doesn’t matter, because the food is great! The owner recommended, and we accepted, ordering a dish that he said “my employees eat.” Not sure what it was but it had several items maybe chicken and fish, rice, and some excellent vegetables. If that’s what his employees eat, then his employees eat very well indeed. This, too was incredibly cheap.
So as you can see, it is possible to get incredibly good food in Cancún for very little money. But, if you want you can spend more. Why not? You’re on vacation! For example, at km 16.5 is Captain’s Cove. Not that they’re expensive by Vegas standards. Heck, you can spend a hundred bucks on a sandwich in this town, but it’s not incredibly cheap either. It does feature (duh) seafood, and the food was good. As was the view, which stretched all the way to the largest flag I’ve ever seen. It’s a Mexican flag, of course, right up at the tippy top of the Hotel Zone. Here’s a picture of it, taken from Captain’s Cove. Compare the size of the flag with the size of the adjacent buildings. There is no trick of perspective used in the photo; it really is that big. We saw no alligators or crocodiles (the signs use both names) but the lagoon seen here is said to be fairly crawling with them. Swell, huh?
We also ate at Ik-Kil, you remember the Cenote place. They have a really unimaginative buffet. It was okay, mind you, and reasonably priced, but it matched a place like Sam’s Town in terms of selection and general atmosphere. So, not all of the local food is to die for. Go here anyway, because you’ll want to swim in the Cenote and no mistake.
At Xcaret we had the Xcaret Plus! tickets, which entitled us to a buffet lunch that even included a free beer. There are four buffets to choose from, and we ate in La Laguna, which has a wide selection of really good stuff from all over the world, including, if you just can’t find anything else, pizza. I ate no pizza, but I did enjoy a whole lot of different dishes both of the sea and of the land, and one of the best glasses of cold beer of my life. No pictures of this place, I’m afraid. You should visit Xcaret anyway, you don’t have to eat here to enjoy it. Besides, they’ll give you a map.
We also ate broiled grouper at our hotel on the first day, and every day we had an excellent breakfast buffet. A couple of nights we were too tired to eat out so we ordered room service, which is convenient, but nothing to write home about. The only other place I’d like to mention is on Isla Mujeres. I was going to be clever and use Google Earth to pin it right down, since I never did catch the name of the place, but as it happens it is on a pedestrian only street, so Google Earth can’t go there. Well, they could, the lazy louts, but they haven’t. If you go, it’s two streets in from the ferry dock and a couple of blocks to the left (north.) I wish I knew the name because it was delicious and, yes, cheap as dirt. For the food, I could hang out in Cancún indefinitely.
I’m going to post one more post about this trip, for the benefit of our gracious hosts there along the Mayan Riviera. I’ll sum up the overall experience, the weather, driving, and maybe offer some light advice. If you enjoy this sort of thing, do check back!