Wednesday, March 28, 2012

All signs point to Berlin

If you've read this blog with any regularity, you'd know that not too much time would pass after my last trip before I'd be looking to nail down the details on my next one.  I'd kicked around a few different ideas but the one that kept coming back and settling in nicely is Berlin.

Ideas like this need to not just feel right but need to get me excited.  It's like lighting a pilot light on a stove.  It ignites, percolates a bit and then really feels like it will work out well.  Berlin has done just that this time.  I've already pawed through a guidebook and made lists of sights in and around Berlin, clustering them by geographic area to get a sense of how much time I need.  So far I'm thinking at least 7 days on the ground in Berlin.  I am contemplating an overnight in Dresden, and also 2 days in Dublin on the way home.

Dublin? you ask?  Well, I haven't been since 2005, I think, and the best airfare to Berlin I'm finding right now is on Aer Lingus (a full $300 cheaper to Berlin via Dublin).  Stopping on the way home wouldn't be a hardship.  It'd be nice to see the city I first traveled to in 1993 (and on 10+ trips thereafter) as well as see the Vermeer in the National Gallery and perhaps crash at U2's hotel The Clarence.

We'll see...but can you feel how it's all taking shape?

Monday, March 12, 2012

San Diego -- Day Five

Given that we were all of 5 minutes from the airport, we left at 6:15 a.m. for my 8:30 flight.  Had to return the rental car first, and who knew that that would only take about 5 minutes itself.  We arrived to check in at the correct terminal with time for breakfast, thankfully.

United delivered me home via Houston in good form.  As a new United Chase credit card holder, I got the early boarding and free checked bags to which I was entitled, with no argument.  This was also the first time I had done paperless check-in and boarding passes, and it all worked very smoothly with the United app on the iPhone.  And this being a mere 5 days after the Continental/UA system merger!

One foodie note, the restaurant Cat Cora's Kitchen in terminal E at Houston airport is wonderful.  The servers were very attentive and when I told them I was trying to kill a 3 hour layover, they stretched my meal out for me quite nicely.  I had the avocado hummus, the chimmichurri chicken sandwich and the chocolate molten lava cake, along with two glasses of a nice white wine.  This was a quiet and luxurious way to ease myself back home, as much as I didn't want to go back!  I highly recommend this as a stop if you have a layover at IAH!

San Diego, I'll be back....

Sunday, March 11, 2012

San Diego -- Day Four

Today was the first day during our stay that the weather did not dawn a perfect California day.  It was cooler and completely overcast.  I opted for long pants rather than shorts and, because we were headed out on the open ocean for a whale watch, wore a fleece jacket too.

Back to The Broken Yolk for breakfast, where I uncreatively enough had the same breakfast as yesterday (french toast and scrambled egg with an enormous glass of OJ).  Hey, why mess with perfection.  That breakfast lasted quite a while for me.

Having never been that far offshore before, I loaded up on CVS brand Dramamine, just to ensure that breakfast stayed with me.  We boarded the ship at 9:15 and set sail around 9:45.  The trip through San Diego Bay was pretty placid but once we got out on open water the rolls set in.  I picked the spot at the very point of the bow to stand (or rather, plant myself with a death grip on the railing) while we traversed the peaks out toward where they thought whales might be.  Now mind you, I have never done a whale watch, which seems odd given that I'm about 4 minutes from Gloucester, MA, the whale watch capital of Massachusetts, but I have seen whale encounters on tv.  Let me just say I was more than a tad disappointed.  In my head I had visions of whales surging up out of the water and landing with a crash so that I actually had the feeling I was seeing a whale.  I was first to spot a spout of water off the bow and yes, that was a whale.  I was a bit confounded by how excited the other tourists got by seeing these spouts, which were the only sign we had that we were seeing something.  Then the whale might dive under and we'd see a part of its back.  And twice the/a whale fluked, which meant we saw tail.  But that was it.  I sort of felt like the whale (or whales, who knows for sure) was wearing a burqa and tantalizing us with little glimpses of flesh.  The naturalist who was narrating our trip really tried to do the after-sell on our way back to shore:  "You have just had an amazing experience with three grey whales!!!"  Really?  You had me fooled.  Perhaps others have had better experiences, but for me it was sort of a non-starter.

What was pretty cool though was seeing the harbor seals floating around and lounging on the larger buoys on the way in and out of the bay.  And on the way back in, a pair of dolphins raced the boat, swimming right below me at the bow.  That was pretty neat to see.

From the whale watch, we hopped in the rental car and drove up to Carlsbad to visit the flower fields.  The fields are made up of 50 or so acres of ranunculus, only about 10 acres of which was in full bloom the day we visited.  That is a pretty substantial patch of flowers, but bear in mind I've had the mothership of all flower experiences at the Keukenhof in Holland during tulip season, so it was tough to beat that.  By now the day had cleared up and was warmer and sunnier, so it was nice still to be outside.

We decided to drive the Pacific Coast Highway back to San Diego.  It was a gorgeous day to do it and we stopped at a few of the state beaches along the way for the requisite photo opps.  We don't have a whole lot of open, long unencumbered beach like that at home so for me (a water sign) it was really relaxing.  It would have been nice to either throw the top down or roll all the windows down and crank some tunes, but it was a might bit cool for that.  I was ragingly jealous though at all the cyclists I saw enjoying their bike lane the whole way (Massachusetts readers, a bike lane is dedicated space for cyclists on the road. IMAGINE THAT!)  I was seriously hungry for a ride outside by the end of the afternoon.  I can't imagine riding with that view every day...

By this point I was seriously suffering from the lack of exciting animal experiences today (I mean, really, did you read days two and three?) so I used the electronic gadgets at hand and managed, somehow, to find the cove in La Jolla where all the seals hang out.  That was worth the effort and aggravation and the near arrest for texting/using Suri while driving.  These seals just hang out on the rocks right along the sidewalk, barking loudly, fighting for sleeping space and surfing the waves coming on shore.  That was cool.

Now we were hungry, so again with the gadgets (iPhone and Garmin GPS haven't let us down yet!) and we found a user-rated 4 1/2 star Mexican restaurant in La Jolla.  Lots of locals, off the beaten tourist path.  Su Casa Mexican Restaurant felt like an institution when we walked in; you know, the kind that hasn't been updated in years but is still in business because the locals keep going back.  I had a very nice margarita (the kind that comes in the shaker and you actually get two drinks out of) and the combination platter with a chicken enchilada, taco and chile relleno.  I was pleased but felt that the Old Town Mexican cafe did it better.  We were denied the opportunity for dessert by our server (that would be why you didn't get a 20% tip, my dear) so we had Baskin Robbins after we refilled our car ($4.85 a gallon?  REALLY?) on our way back to the hotel.

The plan had been to pack and watch the Amazing Race and The Good Wife, but I managed to pack before falling fast asleep.  All the fresh air and sun were catching up to me and I had an early wake up call on Monday.  Another day well spent....

San Diego - Day Three

Today we just couldn’t stomach the youth hostel feel of the included hotel breakfast. It isn’t that it was bad but we are used to a little better. So off we went to The Broken Yolk, which we had seen on Food Network or Travel Channel at some point as really good breakfast food in San Diego. Suffice to say, damage was done and it was delicious. I had the French toast with scrambled egg on the side and it was wonderful, just perfect, and it lasted me well through lunch time at the Safari Park, which was an added bonus. Plus cheap…OJ plus entrée was $15. Very nice. We grabbed an iced coffee at a nearby Starbucks (thank you Starbucks app for “Find a Store” functionality!) and off we went, at the mercy of my GPS Guy, to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

We had another gorgeous day here, bright blue sky and bright sun and at 9:00 a.m. already 60+ degrees. Smartly for once I really covered up with sunblock just so I would not suffer needlessly with a burn. The Safari Park is unforgiving in terms of shade. Seriously, once you’re out there, you’re out there…there’s no hiding from the sun. It got sufficiently warm that I was glad I brought shorts and was comfortable most of the day.

The way the park is set up is that there are a few large areas, like for Africa and Asia, that you can see from viewpoints within the park but the animals are quite a ways off (like rhinos and giraffes) and you can’t get closer on foot. Then there are some enclosures where the animals are moderately close (like gorillas and lions) and some enclosures where the animals are between way off and moderately close but hard to find (like tigers). So at no point are you ever really close like you might be at a zoo. I mention this only because it is obvious that this is not really meant for little kids, who surprisingly, are being forced into strollers and pushed through a park for a day where they can see very little that they might enjoy.

We headed straight for the lions, as I am a big fan of the big cats. It was no surprise that they were sound asleep. They had two females and a male and all were out cold already that early. I would also find the cheetahs asleep as well as most of the gorillas. But if there is one thing I’ve learned in all my following animals, it is that they are not predictable and you can’t count on them for anything. Whatever happens, happens. We also walked a ways to find the tiger enclosure, and the one tiger we could see was so far off, it was even hard to see him with the zoom on my camera. Again, I’m happy at his living conditions, but disappointed a bit as a fan of the cats.

Anyway, there is an African Tram that is included with the price of admission, which will take you around some of the nearer parts of the Africa area so you might reach the further edges of the areas you cannot reach on foot. That was pretty cool. It is obvious that the animals are in a very natural and very spacious environment here that at least attempts to more closely replicate their natural habitat and living conditions, minus any pairings that might lead to some sort of predator-victim type situation. That would not be good for business, I wouldn’t think. I enjoyed the tram well enough, but did wish for a bit more up close and personal like we had at the zoo. The Caravan Safari that we did was just that.

For a somewhat steep extra fee, we climbed on to the back of a safari truck with 12 others and went with our guide right out into the middle of the Asian and African areas of the park. This was very exclusive access only for those crazy enough to pay for it. The safari went off road and thrust us right into the animal world. The big draws though were the chance to feed giraffes and rhinos. One of the first stops was in the midst of a group of giraffes. The guide called to a few of them and showed them a bucket of acacia leaves. One by one, each of us went to the back of the truck and got to hand feed the leaves to the giraffe. Its big purple tongue would wrap around my fingers as I fed it leaves and its beautiful, long-lashed eyes looked right at me. I had no idea how tall a giraffe is until I was standing at the back of the truck and it STILL towered over me! They are just such gorgeous creatures, I’m sure I have never properly appreciated them until now. Very cool.

Jeanne, our guide, was very passionate about conservation and the park, but also the rhinos. She was so passionate that she managed to inject a little of that into each of us. We spent quite a bit of time with the rhinos, and she called to them as well and we hand fed them slices of apple. Today wasn’t nearly as messy as yesterday, I think because we got to throw it into their open mouth rather than push it into their upper lip like we did at the zoo. It was pretty neat though. And Jeanne seemed to know all the stories and “dirt” on the rhinos, like which female mated with a male when she first saw him and who is pregnant now and who is grouchy and who isn’t. It seems to be just like with any animal, I suppose.

Along our way, we saw some territory disputes both within and between species. One between a buffalo and wildebeest early this morning was very dramatic. Others between smaller deer were more persistent but not as dramatic. There were some signs of mating behavior, with males chasing females. With all this going on, this must really be a neat place to work. Yes, I’m jealous.

After two hours of roaming about with the animals up close and personal, we were ready for a quick snack. It was already 2:30 and we were about safari-ed out. We got a quick bite to eat in the park and then hit the road again. We decided to stop at a vineyard, Orfila, that we saw on the way to the safari park. For $10 the winery let us pick six of their wines to taste. Surprisingly, I fell for two whites and none of their reds, which is very unlike me. Unfortunately they cannot ship to my home state, so I bought one bottle of the white and will hope for the best with it in my luggage on my way home.

The drive back to San Diego was quick and painless and we got here in time to make a quick shopping stop at Hard Rock Café and have a margarita at a nearby bar. Our reservation tonight was at Bandar, a Persian restaurant in the Gaslamp District. The restaurant was pretty nice overall. I was unsure what to expect never having had Persian food before. We had hummus as an appetizer which was ok. My entrée was fabulous though. It was 8 large chunks of chicken that had been marinated in some citrus, it seems, and served with black cherry rice. It was really very good. I followed it up with a sinful triple fudge cake. Woo.

Friday, March 9, 2012

San Diego - Day Two

After a somewhat raucous night of the odd middle of the night plane landing and the rowdy houseguests returning home at 2:20 a.m., I was up at 5:30 bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t make it even through 30 Rock last night, so I know I was asleep by 8:30. Argh, jetlag! Never the mind, Bev was up too and we ate breakfast at 7:15 and were on the road by 7:40. With time to spare before the San Diego Zoo opened, we zipped back down the I-5 to Coronado, which Bev didn’t get to see yesterday. I had spotted a Starbucks on the main street, so we picked up coffee and went back to the cul de sac I found yesterday and walked the beach for a while.

Figuring that even in rush hour traffic it would take a while to get to the zoo, we headed to the zoo around 8:30. It shouldn’t surprise you that we were there and looking for parking by 8:50. Incredible how close everything is here, despite looking so spread out!

We both bought the combined ticket for the zoo and the safari park. The admission may seem steep ($76 for both) but believe it or not that was discounted from buying them individually! Knowing we are going tomorrow, we were fine with this.

Of course our first stop was the pandas. I had seen Bai Yun back in 2001 with her first cub (and the first successful live birth in the US) Hua Mei, who now lives at the panda base I worked at in China in September. Bai has had five cubs, which sort of makes her a legend. It turns out today, judging by her frenetic pacing and scent marking, that she is in estrus, and it may soon be time to hook her up with Gao Gao to see if she can do it again. While Bai was practically manic pacing and high strung (very un-panda-like indeed), Gao Gao was the image of bored male in his enclosure, just lying there snoozing when we first went by. Gao Gao is a much smaller bear, by about 50 pounds. He is also noted by his partial left ear, which was ripped off before he was rescued as a young panda 20+ years ago. Of all the pandas I have seen though, Gao Gao looks most likely to be picked up and propped up against the pillows on my bed, if that makes sense. He’s the perfect size and has the sweetest face. We would return to the pandas two more times today…just because we can.

Both pandas have shaved bellies and right front paws, evidence that they have been tested and evaluated medically ahead of breeding season.

From there we visited a very handsome lion pair. I mean, these animals appear exquisitely groomed, even though that is a foolish thought. We mentioned that to one of the volunteers and he said the male especially always looks so well coiffed.

Since we spent all day here, the order we saw animals escapes me now, but the highlight of the day was definitely the Backstage Pass experience, which we paid quite a bit more for, but was SO worth it. We got taken behind the scenes at the zoo and got some pretty cool access. First we met a bear cat (binturong), which we got to pet and feed by hand. What was weird is that my hand smelled like popcorn after I patted it, which is why they named the bear cat Baprang, which is “popcorn” in another language. Then we went to the rhino pen and got to pet and hand feed a rhino! This was insanely fun. The rhino’s skin was so course and rough and tough, but if you felt in the folds of its skin you’d feel that it was somewhat softer there. And hand feeding a rhino? Just take a handful of chopped carrot and stick your palm up under its upper lip! Very wet and icky, but seriously a once in a lifetime experience! A kangaroo experience had us hand feeding a female and patting her (so soft!!!). The keeper also showed us the pouch on the roo, which was interesting. We saw a clouded leopard up close (but did not feed or touch it, for obvious reasons!) and got to have pictures taken with a serval, which is a sleek, gorgeous cat.

One animal I found unexpectedly fascinating was a white arctic wolf. He looked just like a regular dog. The keepers got him to howl at us, by making us howl to him. It was really cool. But what was really very touching was when they explained that the wolf had made his keepers part of his family, and that the older, senior keeper was his “mother”. How true that was because when she walked out from backstage to him, he dropped his head (a show of respect) and started to whine. She grabbed him and hugged him and really doted on him emotionally and I could see that he just loved her so much. It was a great moment to see.

On our way to the experience, we passed the cheetah enclosure, and I flipped when I saw a white sheep dog in with the cheetah! I immediately asked the volunteer nearby and it turns out the dog and cheetah were raised together since they were very young. The dog serves as a reality check for the cheetah, which tends to be hyper-skittish. If the dog doesn’t freak out over something, the cheetah won’t. Imagine my surprise that dog and cheetah were the grand finale for the experience. We couldn’t touch the cheetah but got very close and had photos taken with the dog and cheetah. It was just incredible.

We also found the orangutan enclosure, which I often watch on the zoo’s live cams. There were a few out and about and hanging on swings. Two smaller orangutans were lying in front of the glass and I went over and got down low. One came right over in front of me, so I put my hand flat against the glass. The orangutan put his hands on either side of where my head was and gave a big lick to the glass, right where my hand was. I repeated this just to see that it wasn’t a fluke and was impressed. And blessed with all these animal encounters!

One last stop at the tigers, where we found a tiger eating a big raw thigh bone from some unlucky animal. It was really very carnal, the way the tiger was just tearing at it and crunching on it, hoping to break into the marrow. Yet it was still such a magnificent animal to see.

After we took the skyride back down to the entrance, we stopped to buy a CD of all our photos from the Backstage experience and wearily climbed into the car to leave. Literally, we spent the entire day at the zoo…from before the opening to just before closing. And we were pooped but happy.

Once again tapping the favorites button on the GPS, we were at Old Town in mere minutes, looking for the Mexican restaurant I had visited and loved back in 2001. Old Town Mexican Cafe was still there and we managed to get in without a reservation since we were there early. A long awaited margarita (or two) were on offer, along with chips, salsa and guacamole. I had the chile relleno and chicken enchilada plate, which was fabulous. This was one re-do after many years that was just as I remembered it: delicious. We split a churro and dragged our tired feet back to the car and were back in the hotel, ready for bed by 7:30. PHEW! What a day…can tomorrow get any better?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

San Diego - Day One

Somehow when I booked the flight for this trip, I thought that a 6:45 a.m. departure was a good idea. Sure, it was probably a lot cheaper but it would give me a good chunk of the day in San Diego. But 3:45 a.m. comes fast. But I was up and out by 4:30, at Park Shuttle and Fly by 5:10 and checking my luggage by 5:30.

Even with the United/Continental system merger this weekend, it wasn’t terribly chaotic at the airport when it could have been. I flew on Continental equipment out of the former Continental terminal, but at this rate a flight is a flight for me, and I was glad to just make my connection in Houston, and get here on time. I had worried that my traveling companion and fellow panda fan Bev would end up waiting for me here, but her United flights out of DC were disastrous and I beat her here by 4 hours.

So I landed in San Diego at 2, picked up the rental car (first time renting ever, can you believe it?) and was at the hotel by 3:30. I was slightly hesitant to navigate California’s freeways on my own, but it was all of one very quick exit from the airport to the hotel, it was insanely easy. Here at the hotel, I took a quick shower, donned shorts and sandals, and decided to head to Coronado, the retirement destination of my dreams. As I’d discover again and again over the weekend, what looked to be miles away on the map ended up being about 8 minutes by car. I’d hop in, pick the destination from the many favorites I had pre-programmed into my GPS, and off I’d go.

Coronado looks just as I remember it, just what I picture when I think of California, with wide, open streets lined with palm trees, blue skies and clean fresh ocean air. I was smiling as I coasted over the grandiose Coronado bridge and kept smiling as I slipped past the Hotel del Coronado. I took a side street to turn around and found myself on a cul de sac that left me right at the edge of the beach. So I parked the Ford, grabbed my camera and walked the beach for an hour before going to pick Bev up at the airport. That beach is just divine. It is a wide stretch of sand with The Del holding it down on one side and a gorgeous expanse of blueness on the other. I was in heaven, clearly, stuffing shells and sand dollars into my pockets as I made my way back to the car.

It took all of 10 minutes to zip back up the I-5 to the airport. As we were both up over 18 hours at this point, I programmed In N Out burger joint in the GPS and we had a quick yummy burger and fries on the way back to the hotel. There’d be time to eat better later.

We’re staying at America’s Best Value Inn. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is not the Del, where I spent 2 nights in 2001. But it is cheap and centrally located. And besides the odd mold smell in my bathroom sink and a dead tv in Bev’s room, it’s fine for a long weekend. But not much longer. The entertainment is that we are on the landing flight path for the airport, and we can count the rivets and the pilot’s dental fillings as the planes float by about every 90 seconds most of the day. But they stop in time to sleep. Which is good.

Friday, March 2, 2012

On the road again

It's not that I haven't been thinking about travel lately, it's just that I haven't been writing about travel lately.  It's another instance of life getting in the way and resetting priorities.

But now that I'm 6 days away from San Diego, and what looks to be 70 degrees and sunny weather, I am taking a breath to enjoy that pre-trip euphoria.  Or trying to.  It seems with the last few trips I've taken, all sort of pre-trip chaos has ensued.  Prior to China, we had my ear imploding and the cat exploding.  Prior to this get-away I have PT for my neck (and still blocked ear), the cat sick again and Dad in hospital.  I guess you could say "it's always something" but it seems to me that I'm worrying and stressing more than I need to when I'm trying to escape the madness.  Maybe it'll make me appreciate it all the more.

Weather here in Boston this winter has been milder than I've ever seen it.  In my town, I haven't had enough snow to even use the shovel.  This morning, after our first "measurable" snow of the year, I went out and started the car for 10 minutes, which was enough to melt it all off the windshields.  Nice.  I could do with more winters like that.  That's not to say I won't wholeheartedly relish the t-shirt and shorts weather I think I'm headed for!

Traveling with a fellow-panda-phile, I am planning to hit San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, Carlsbad flower fields, PCH and a whale watch.  Not to mention the Mexican food I've dreamt of since my first and last trip to San Diego in 2001.

So stay tuned.  I'll blog along the way.  Just can't wait to get out of town!