Monday, December 12, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Four

My last day in Atlanta started pretty much the same as the last three.  Only difference being today I had to check out.  I left my luggage with the able-bodied concierge and off I went.  My goal was to be at the zoo at opening and hope that my panda pals were awake and entertaining visitors.  I would not be disappointed.

Once again I walked to the Civic Center bus stop and ran for the #32 bus, only to find it was going to sit there for about 20 minutes before leaving.  That always makes me feel silly for running for it, but hey, I burned off half a waffle doing that run.  Maybe.  The bus ride out only took about 20 minutes this time and now I  knew where to pull the cord to request the stop.  I was an old pro at this.  I walked over to the gate of the zoo and realized it opened at 9:30, not 9:00, so instead of being 20 minutes late, I was 10 minutes early.  I spent that time shivering in the cold (41 degrees) Atlanta morning.

After relinquishing my last CityPass ticket (I had used all five), I did some speed walking right to the panda area.  In the first outdoor enclosure was a male panda, but I wasn't sure who, either Yang Yang or Xi Lan.  It turned out that it was Yang Yang, who had very little interest in anything but munching bamboo much of the day.  Xi Lan was such an utter flirt and camera hog on Friday, it was sort of a bummer to learn his dad isn't the same.

But my reward was in the next outdoor enclosure, where I found mom Lun Lun and baby Po out and about.  Lun was eating and Po was wandering around.  For the next 90 minutes, I had these two all to myself, with the exception of a very nice and chatty volunteer.  I moved to the enclosed part of the panda area, and sat up against the glass of the outdoor enclosure.  When Lun and Po started walking around, they were literally on the other side of the glass.  I was lucky enough to have them pass close by (close enough to touch...well, but for the glass!) and both even stopped to look at me looking at them a couple times.  It was fabulous.  I learned a lot from the volunteer about this particular panda family and shared some of what I learned in China.  Finally around 11 or so, Po settled down for a nap, then Lun did too, so I moved on to visit other animals.

The tiger cubs were up next and they were really putting on a show.  As I approached their enclosure one of them was right at the glass and was licking it.  I caught him mid-lick and he put his paw up against the glass like he was saying hi.  He let me get pretty close before running off after his sister.  I am thrilled with my photos of them as well.  For a non-photographer, I did pretty well.

At 12:45, I ascertained that most of the other animals were inside and even papa panda Yang Yang was asleep.  There was no sense standing out in the cold waiting for animals to wake up, so I returned to the downtown area.  I was cold and hungry with lots of time to kill, so decided to have a big meal now and something smaller at the airport.  I got off the metro near Fox Theater and walked to Mary Mac's Tearoom, which Frommers calls and Atlanta institution. 

Mary Mac's is is a bit dated in decor but also in menu prices.  My meal was a whopping $11.  I had meatloaf with fried green tomatoes and sweet potato souffle and sweet tea.  I'd read about the sweet tea and decided to try it despite the fact that I don't actually like iced tea.  It was quite good, very sweetened (sugar!).  The meatloaf was fairly good, the fried green tomatoes were a bit weak but the highlight was the sweet potato souffle, which had marshmallows and brown sugar on top.  NICE!  My dessert choice (peanut butter pie) had just run out, but I was full, so I paid my tab and moved on.  I'd pass on Mary Mac's if I were to return to Atlanta.  It just paled in comparison to the other meals I'd had on this trip.

I really struggled deciding what to do with the rest of my day.  I had about 3 1/2 hours until I had to head to the airport.  Ultimately I paid another $26 to return to the aquarium.  I spent half my time watching the whale sharks in the big tank and the other half watching the belugas.  I stored up mental images for those times I need to relax and think of something zen.  These underwater beauties will do it.

At 5:15 I took the Metro back to the airport and was all checked in and eating a salad at my gate by 6:30.  Take off was at 7:30 and we had an early arrival back in Boston at 10 p.m.

All in all it was a great trip.  I'd definitely return to Atlanta for the zoo, the aquarium and the food.  Had I only visited the zoo and the aquarium once, the CityPass would have been a huge savings (I paid $69 for admission to sites that would have been $96 individually).  Sure, I may not have visited World of Coca Cola otherwise, but sine it was nearby and essentially free, why not?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Three

Another night of solid sleep makes me wonder if I was running at a deficit or am just starting to unwind? Anyway, up at 8:00 and today I exercised some restraint at breakfast. I had the chef whip up some waffles and I had strawberries and pineapple, one cheese blintz, OJ and coffee. Miraculously, another carb-laden breakfast lasted me until well after 1:00. Those waffles were delectable. Very light and fluffy.

I headed out into a very cold Atlanta morning. Hey, I left Boston thinking it’d be warmer, why am I wrapping a scarf around my neck and hunkering down against the wind? I took the MARTA to Five Points and switched to the Blue Line to take me to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, which is on Auburn Avenue where he was born, preached and was buried from (and is still buried today). I went to the National Park Service’s information center, which had some interesting exhibits on his life and sermons. There was a LOT of video and photos I’d never seen before, as well as a theater that ran movies on his life. On the corner is the new Ebenezer Baptist Church which is across the street from the (now non-functioning) original. Next to that is the King Center where King’s and his wife Coretta’s tomb is outside. Up the street about a block is his birth home. This is the second time recently I’ve visited sites with the National Park Service (Philly was the other) and I’m impressed by how friendly and informative the rangers are. This was a good experience on its own. But something told me to go to church.

So just before 11 I headed into Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I was welcomed by a member. She handed me the program for today and asked me to complete a visitor’s card. I was led inside and I had my pick of seats among the congregants. Everyone made eye contact and smiled and welcomed me. I was quite obviously a visitor. The service started with lots of music and people standing to sway and wave their arms. The music was amazing, really very uplifting. Very early in the service, a member of the congregation stood at the mic and read out the names and hometowns of visitors. Oh good lord, there was a reason for filling out that card? When visitors heard their names, they were asked to stand and remain standing. Once all visitors were standing, the music started up again and the regular members all walked and greeted each visitor with a handshake and “God bless” or “Hallelujah” or “Happy Holidays”. I was blown away. Here I was, miles from home in a church not my own and I was made to feel welcome right away.

The pastor was energetic and inspiring. His sermon was based on a reading from Matthew where Joseph was told to take Jesus and Mary and flee from Bethlehem. If he had stayed in one place, Jesus may not have lived. The pastor wove that story into the moral that we must step outside of our comfort zone, that in order to fulfill our destiny we have to move on, but bearing in mind that however small it feels where we are now, from something small, something big can grow. Like Jesus growing from the animals’ trough in the manger to the cross. Those of you who know me know that I don’t consider myself terribly religious but for some reason these words rang true. After a few more songs and a benediction, the service ended, a very quick 2 hours later. I was glad I followed my whim, that was a memory made for certain.

I took the MARTA to the High Museum of Art, which I was hoping would have some of my favorite Impressionists on display and I was planning to pop into the Picasso to Warhol (from MOMA in NYC) exhibition. Alas, I only found one Monet and it was a canal view from Zaandam in Holland. I really should have remembered how much I cannot seem to appreciate modern art, because while I’m sure the exhibition was good – 14 artists selected by MOMA to be shown together in the south – I felt like I was drowning in art I just couldn’t “get”. I was also reminded how blessed we are in Boston to have the MFA with such a stellar collection.

Tired and cold, I headed back to the room to blog and email and warm up with a cappuccino. I canceled my pre-existing reservation for tonight to hopefully get into Pitty Pat’s Porch, a very popular Southern restaurant nearby. Here’s hoping…

Editing to add: I actually did make it to Pitty Pat's Porch.  They weren't very busy yet at 5:30 when I went by.  I thought for sure I'd be fighting to get in.  The server here was phenomenal too. I'm starting to think it's "just" southern hospitality and not that they're great servers!  Anyway, I started with a peach margarita which was fabulous and apparently bottomless and very strong on the spirits.  I had the fried green tomatoes (as usual, but I love them!) and a couple of wonderful, warm sweet potato muffins that came with the meal (instead of corn bread which I'd been expecting).  I had the Savannah crabcakes over grits, with a red pepper sauce lightly drizzled over it (can you tell this was to die for?).  With the entree, diners have access to the side bar, which is like a Southern style salad bar.  I skipped most of the salad fixings and instead tried things like macaroni salad, chicken salad and black-eyed peas (which seem more like beans?)  I managed to save enough room for a heavenly bowl of hot peach cobbler with cinnamon ice cream.  Sinful!  All this well worth the expectation!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Two

I slept like a rock last night. I think the long weeks at work, the early wake up yesterday and all the activity outside yesterday ran me down. I woke at 7:45 and had my free breakfast downstairs in the hotel restaurant Sear. Let’s call it Carb-Fest 2011. It consisted of a cheese blintz, a sticky pecan roll, a buttermilk biscuit, oatmeal with maple syrup, one “high protein turkey sausage” and a bowl of strawberries and red grapefruit. I had two glasses of OJ and a cup of coffee. I didn’t think all the carbs would stick with me but I would manage to make it from 8:30 to 1:00 without feeling hungry at all!

I walked about 10 minutes from the hotel to Georgia Aquarium. I was looking forward to this but I had no idea that I would enjoy it as much as I did. The aquarium opened in 2007 (I think) and is really well laid out and executed. There are 5 areas you can visit: Ocean Explorer, River Scout, Cold Water Quest, Georgia Explorer and Tropical Diver. There is also a dolphin gallery where visitors can walk up to the side of a large tank to see a pair of dolphins swimming at eye level. This is in the same gallery as the Dolphin Tales show. Since I bought the City Pass, I got a free Quick Dip tour and access to the 4-D movie (which I skipped) and I paid extra for the Dolphin Tales show.

I started in River Scout, which was interesting with its albino alligators, piranha and otters but also because there was a running river overhead for most of the exhibit with river-dwelling fish, which was cool. I then went to the next gallery which was the Cold Water Quest and there I saw four beluga whales. I think I’d seen some at Mystic before but these were just exceptional. I love to be able to walk up to the side of the tanks and the animals are just swimming right by me. Or in this case the belugas were hanging out (literally) right in front of me. The volunteer guide there was really nice and we talked about the beluga. He said one female was pregnant for the first time, due in the spring. I found them just so zen to watch, the way they move so slowly, deliberately, like one large muscle contracting its way with the flow of the water. I came back to the beluga at least three times, I was that fascinated by them. In the same cold water exhibit were penguins and sea otters. The penguins were pretty cute, as they are.

The Quick Dip tour was worth it if only to get to the top of the Ocean Explorer tank and see how it works, how it’s filtered and how the giant whale sharks are fed. It was just fascinating. It also took us atop of River Scout, so we saw how the overhead river was designed and maintained.

Walking through the Ocean Explorer is really cool. The whale sharks are up to 24 feet long and just massive. They are so big that they cannot be taken out of the water because they rely on the buoyancy of the water to keep their body weight from crushing itself. Sort of freaky. I timed it to be there for the feeding of the whale sharks, during which the feeders get into rubber rafts with colored buckets on the end of poles. The whale sharks know “their” boat and the color of their bucket so they start flocking to them, as do hundreds of little fish. Believe it or not, an animal as big as the whale shark has a throat only the width of a quarter, so the feeders pour crill (really fine plankton, shrimp and chopped sardines) into its mouth, where the whale shark filters the water out and swallows the crill material. It is sort of a non-sequitur that an animal that big can’t eat anything bigger. I was really impressed.

The Tropical Diver exhibit had a large coral exhibit with fish, but to keep the coral alive, they had to simulate a wave crashing over it by forcing 6000 gallons of water across the reef every 2 minutes, so as to deliver much needed oxygen to the coral. It was extremely interesting to see the lengths the aquarium went to to simulate reality.

The Dolphin Tale show was really cheesy (with singing and over-acting characters) but it was neat to see what they could make the 11 dolphins do as tricks.

I finally left the aquarium at 12:30, over 3 hours after I arrived. I really had to restrain myself from a $250 “swim with belugas” experience. Being so mesmerized by then, it would have been cool, but I thought it rather impulsive. I could have probably taken another couple passes through my favorite exhibits, but I had two more stops I wanted to make today. I picked up a quick burrito at Baja Fresh and went to CNN. This was also on the City Pass. The Studio Tour was about an hour and took the group through the newsroom and showed us how some of the technical things work, like teleprompter, green screen and how the director cues up shots and segments for live tv. A lot of the CNN personalities I’m aware of don’t actually broadcast out of Atlanta, so no Anderson Cooper sightings, but Nancy Grace and Sanjay Gupta do work there, but not on Saturdays. It was pretty cool to see the studios and get behind the scenes though.

I passed through Centennial Olympic Park, which lies in the middle of all of these attractions. There are national flags of countries in the games and the Olympic fountain. As it was pretty darn cold out there today, not a lot of people were dabbling in the fountain. That was the area that had the bombing during the 1996 Olympics. Also on the way out to the zoo yesterday, the bus passed Turner Field, which was built for the games too. I think the torch for the flame is out that way as well.

My last stop of the day was World of Coca Cola. I hadn’t planned on visiting this but it was in the neighborhood and I still had time before dinner. It was hugely cheesy, as you might expect. The tour starts with an animated movie that has some sort of non-Coke related social message that already escapes me. Then visitors are let loose into the rest of the museum, which has exhibits on bottling, Coke paraphernalia (like old vending machines and merchandise from around the world), the polar bear (man in costume that was creepily realistic). Most of this was easily skippable since I am not terribly interested in Coke, but I did enjoy the theater that ran Coca Cola commercials through the years, many of which I remember, and ads from around the world. The fun part though was the tasting gallery, which had 64 Coke products from around the world to sample. They range from vile to sicky sweet to jealously delicious. I really liked the pineapple Fanta from Greece and the candy pine nut “Bibo” from South Africa. However, trying dozens of carbonated, full-sugared flavors in a relatively short period of time left me gassy and stuck in a sugar induced orbit. Yikes.

Dinner tonight was at Fandangles at the Sheraton Hotel. I will admit that the reason I chose it when researching restaurants on Open Table was for the appetizer. Frickles and Frings was a fried pickle, fried onion string, banana pepper basket that was quite simply to die for. I had a peach martini with them which was just wonderful. My main course was chicken and dumplings in a sage butter sauce. The dumplings were sweet potato gnocchi. Really very tasty. I was too full for dessert (as much as I wanted the peach cobbler) so I had a double chocolate martini (Godiva Chocolate Vodka and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur).

Overall I am enjoying Atlanta. I am finding the downtown area where I am staying to be really empty. I’m sure some of it has to do with it being the weekend and the off-season, but there are not a lot of people around here. The people I’ve talked to are very friendly and kind. The hostess and the waiter at the restaurant tonight called me Miss Amy. I think it’s funny. One thing though is that a lot of people are very slow paced and I am not. I find it hard to slow down. Surprise.

Early to bed tonight…not sure how or when to start the day tomorrow…High Museum of Art doesn’t open until noon.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Atlanta -- Day One

Up at 5 a.m. and at the airport by 7 a.m. Left the car at Park Shuttle & Fly again (as always) and had a Starbucks breakfast…hey it’s vacation.

Flight on Delta took off at 8:30 a.m. and we had a headwind most of the way so landed at 11:25. I killed the flight watching Real Housewives of NY on the iPod and reading magazines. The trip was completely uneventful and smooth.

I sat next to a guy who was apparently from the south and I said “huh?” or “excuse me?” when he spoke more than I ever have in any foreign country I’ve been to. What language are they speaking anyway?

It was a fairly easy but long walk to pick up luggage and then jump on the MARTA to downtown, which took about 20 minutes. I got off at Peachtree Center and it was not even a 3 minute walk to the Marriott Marquis, a massive tower in the middle of downtown. So far, so convenient. At check-in I agreed to a high floor and a $10 upgrade which will get me a city view. I ended up on the 43rd floor and am not disappointed. This is not the New York City skyline, but it’s still pretty darn nice. The room is large and the bed is huge and comfy. After a vertigo-inducing ride up in a glass elevator (yes, glass all the way up!) I find myself at the end of the hall, so this should be really quiet!

I grabbed a quick chicken salad sandwich in the deli in the lobby and ate by 1 and headed right out for Zoo Atlanta. I had to walk about 4 blocks to the Civic Center MARTA stop where I caught a bus to the zoo. For $2.50 (I bought a reloadable Breezecard for transit fares), it took about a half hour to get out to the zoo, but the bus dropped me right in front. I arrived just about 2:00 and ran to the ticket window. I bought a CityPass, which will get me into 5 sights in Atlanta for $69, but I planned to come back for most of the day Monday, so I paid to get into the zoo today too.

Of course, I ran directly to the pandas. The first enclosure had one male; it was just a matter of figuring out who it was, since I knew it was either older brother Xi Lan or dad Yang Yang. I watched him for a bit as he walked around the enclosure. The next enclosure had a sleeping panda on the play structure (who I quickly figured out was mom Lun Lun) and the 13 month old cub Po sound asleep down in the moat on the drain grate. I was so deflated. I waited so long to see him and he and his mom Lun Lun were asleep? I moved to the inside enclosure and found Yang Yang (known for the white patch on his back left paw) doing somersaults in his enclosure, which was really funny. So that meant if I was watching Yang Yang do somersaults, then the first guy I saw was Xi Lan. I went back and found him lounging against a rock like an old man in a recliner. He really responded to doting and attention. He reminded me so much of Lu Lu in China! After spending some time and taking some photos of the pandas who were awake, I went off to explore more of the zoo.

I found the tiger enclosure pretty nearby and saw the two tiger cubs born this summer. They were the size of small dogs but loaded with energy. Neither would sit still for long and they spent time chasing and pouncing on each other, climbing trees, running all around. They were just non-stop action. I also found one red panda (sleeping) and a male lion lounging on a rock. Since I plan to go back on Monday, I really focused on what was important to me now, which was the pandas and the tiger cubs.

The zoo is nice, really well landscaped and laid out. They have a nice assortment of animals and lots of snack bars and two big gift shops. But mid-day on a Friday in winter, I was nearly alone there. In fact, when I went back to the pandas, I was alone.

I finally got back to the pandas to find Po just having woken up. I couldn’t believe I was seeing my little rock star! Po and Lun were moved to their indoor enclosure, with the hammock that I see so often every day on panda cam. I sat on the floor right next to the glass and watched them both eat the bamboo and biscuits that the keepers had just left out for them. It was just amazing to be there watching them that close!

I decided to head back to downtown at 4:45. The bus came by 4:50 and I was back downtown at 5:25. I checked photos and email quickly before dinner and then headed to Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint for dinner. At first I didn’t think I’d like the atmosphere because there was live music (Duh, it is a juke joint) but I ended up enjoying having something to watch while I ate. I had fried green tomatoes for appetizer, shrimp and grits for dinner and apple cinnamon bread pudding for dessert. I also had a Texas marga-tini for a drink. It was all really good. I could eat buttery grits all day, I think.

Exhausted, I hit bed early and dozed as I wrote this…Up early tomorrow for the aquarium.