Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen. I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet. BUT, if the end did happen, guess what? I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story. Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story. Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).
So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…
A Texas tweetup in January
January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online. At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it? But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with. So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup! There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco. Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!
Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?
Normal in February – and other months
Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February. Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year. Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen. I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St. DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore. Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.
March Madness: Mile High Skiing
The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years. The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010. Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell. The bowls of Vail where incredible: one bowl, then another one behind it, then another. It seemed to never end!
How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!
Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April
April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends. Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary. It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.
But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored: Dubrovnik, Croatia. Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me. Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro! These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.
One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro
Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago
May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile. The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything: from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob. It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.
Being tourists at The Bean
More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings
In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!). Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others. Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!): @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.
A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR
Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing. Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me. A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world. We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s! An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!
Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??
Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova. So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship. I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!
The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe. Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!
Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August
August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC! I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!
Rest in September
In September, I took a break from travel. Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!
Architecture and Wine: Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say? No, Virginia in October!
I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them. I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way. I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country. And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by! As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines. And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored! I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).
Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day
OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November
So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food! Someone STOP the madness!
I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see. And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC! The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about. I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!
Last May, I participated in the Windy City Travel Tweetup. Met some “old” friends (Lola and Leah) and some new ones (Francesca, Pola, Aaron, and Ted) – by the way, check those blogs out! As part of any tweetup, we like to hit some neat local spots and discover the unique places in a city. So, it was exciting to run into a list of the best doughnut places in the U.S. that had been published by Food & Wine as one of the places WAS in Chicago: the Doughnut Vault.
The story has been eloquently told with awesome pictures here. But I thought it’d be good to tell the story from my side…
Our fellow tweetupers, Leah and Aaron, volunteered to grab doughnuts at the Doughnut Vault and get some coffee for the rest of the gang; key word is volunteered – which made them my favorite people, of course. Not being one to pass an opportunity for yummy doughnuts AND sleep in a little, I accepted. Lo and behold, the doughnut place had a line that took our friends an 1.5 hrs to clear! Leah texted me informing me of the horrible situation (it was also raining some) they were in. I offered to join them after a leisurely shower but Leah very kindly told me to not worry so I didn’t. Now, I have to go a step further and show some evidence as I have to show my thoughtfulness… (I learned this trick from a lunatic blogger a little over a month ago…)
1st set of messages (local time 1 hr less than displayed); yellow text is Leah’s
Notice how I expressed my appreciation up there?
When they got to the hotel, we were eager to try the doughnuts. I was almost salivating looking at the doughnut and was dying to try it.
They are taunting and tempting me
As I took a bite a few pictures were taken. Leah showed the non-airbrushed picture in her post but here is my preferred shot:
Aforementioned preferred shot
OK, so I take a bite and… it was OK. Inside my head neurons start wildly spinning trying all branches of logic to see what the right statement was going to be. My programmers didn’t factor in the Leah factor…
Meltdown! Core Dump!
I was in trepidation at saying anything other than “ausgezeichnet! wunderbar! completely out of this world; I have never had a doughnut like that and will never again” yet I couldn’t lie to a friend either. What to do, what to do?? Amperes were flowing through my brain’s electrical wiring seeking the coded instructions to no avail; it was an IF statement without a proper switch for the current situation. It finally hit the ELSE statement and “it’s OK” came out of my I/O device: my vocal cords.
Aforementioned IF-ELSE statement (not the ACTUAL one in me)
Action in the room froze. I detected a slight shaking in some of those present. Leah’s eyes became red. A red that only the core of the sun has. Lightning flashed in front of her.
Aforementioned lightning strike and aforementioned Leah
Cold as Ice
And then I had a sip of my coffee. Cold as an iceberg. The heat of the glare evaporated as this not-intended-to-be-cold cold coffee worked its way down my esophagus. Now THEREIN the real crime in the morning with nary a microwave in sight.
I hope my post clarifies some of the finer points of the morning, adding to what Leah shared. Leah who so generously gave of her time (along with Aaron) so we could try those doughnuts. Further, I hope this post communicates the extreme duress I was under with the pressure to LOVE the doughnut and with having to drink that hyper-cold intended-to-be-hot coffee.
We have learned something here. We all have, dear reader, haven’t we? What have we learned out of all this? Do not trust all “”best” X lists you read and watch out for the Doughnut Vault: they don’t take cash and don’t tell until you approach the door an hour + after you get in line!
(No pets or children were harmed in the production of this post.)
I discovered a hidden gem in Chicago: The Palmer House! After the neat architecture boat tour of the city that my fellow travel bloggers and I did in our tweeetup, and after walking through Millenium Park admiring the Cloud Gate, the water statues (whatever they are called), etc., one of our local tweetuppers suggested that we headed to the Palmer House to give our legs a rest and have a drink in a unique place in Chicago.
Of course, that sounded good to all of us so we said yes not fully knowing what to expect (blessed ignorance!). We were in for a REAL treat. The Palmer House has one of the more elegant hotel lobbies I have seen in a while! Sitting there to have drinks (and people watch) was a nice break from the more visitor sightseeing we had done that day. It was elegant, magnificent, and alive – tons of people either for the wedding receiptions going on, guests of the hotel, or short-term visitors like us. It is the third reincarnation of the hotel originally built by someone rich for his bride-to-be. The first building burned down in the famous Chicago fire days after opening…
The ceiling of that lobby area is a delight to look at and, to me, the centerpiece of the place. It reminds me of the ceilings around the Vatican Museum or The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I wish I knew where exactly the building’s architect/designer got their inspiration from. I felt a little inspired myself…
… so I ordered rye Old Fashioned. No, the drink is not on the ceiling but on a mirror-top table – it made for a great contrast with the ceiling as well as for some neat pix of the folks around the table.
While it was definitely great to discover a gem like this without any research (thanks Pola from @jettingaround!), it does highlight a couple of things:
1. Serendipity can lead to great experiences - not having hard plans for every hour of the afternoon, we allowed for opportunities like this to come based on the mood of the moment; or serendipity in other cases can be just simply meandering the lesser streets in a city and pop in to any establishment that catches your eye!
2. Locals can give you some of the best insights on those places off the beaten path!
I don’t know that we found this gem. I certainly didn’t find it. But it “found” me! If you ever go to Chicago, put this on your list of places to sit at and chill – and admire.
Read more about the good times we had in Chicago and how I got to high places.
Do you know other gems like this in Chicago? Please share!
Pink macaron has Angelina Jolie lips. The purple macaron has macaron-envy. The pink macaron sticks its tongue out. Instigator. The wine glass stays out of it – so Switzerland.
From the Sofitel Water Tower in Chicago during the Windy City Tweetup.
We can all talk about Chicago food, help write the next guidebook on what to see, its architecture, or just muse about the city’s history (be it the city’s founding, Ferris Bueller, the mafia wars, or the baseball wars). But Chicago is a great “canvas for curiosities” (fun little stories or curious sights); what with its size, multitude of places to go & hang out, and colorful locals/visitors alike there can be no shortage of curiosities or good times!
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that other places can’t provide perfect backdrops for good stories (New Orleans certainly is! I could tell you stories… if I remembered them), but Chicago offers such a variety of possibilities, that it is inevitable to leave the place with good stories or good pictures.
A group of folks passionate about the experience of travels (who also share an interest in meeting like-minded folks) got together in Chicago for the Windy City tweetup in May 2012. There will be/are blog entries here and in their blogs (check them out – links below!) written about the weekend but I thought I’d devote one to the curiosities and/or the good times of the weekend as captured with my camera…
Plenty of Odd Birds
People watching doesn’t get much better than in this city with the sheer number of people out and about (OK, it does in some places but not by much more). But this strange bird caught my eye as he was sitting perfectly still in-air Or was he just watching tourists play at The Bean?
We Didn’t Start the Fire (No, Not THAT Chicago Fire)
No matter what anyone claims, we did NOT cause this mishap in Michigan Ave. Some other group of marauders must have done it. (Notice that the city kindly placed an orange cone to protect pedestrians!)
We Think We Are Having a Good Time until We Look at the Photo Days Later…
Our group enjoyed standing in front of The Bean while we all shot pictures at ourselves – we thought that was a cool idea. But the real action was taking place right next to us. Now THEY were having a good time!
Warning – Don’t Make Me Smite You Guys (or Is It “Youse” Guys?)
Well, early on, a warning seemed to have been delivered to us to NOT have too much of a wild time while at The Pump Room on our first night enjoying drinks, dinner, and the ambience. I want to say we were not affected by it but some had an odd glow all weekend. Oh, wait that could have been the boa…
The Angels Are in Town – and not the Baseball Team
Friday night, as we walked the streets in the Water Tower district, a local realized that Charlie’s Angels were in town. I took a look around me, and, oh dear, I was Charlie. Better than Bosley for sure. So, we decided that the Angels needed to do their thing. And here it is:
Spread ‘Em, Lady
Chicago,of course, can provide a rather large playground for bachelor and bachelorette parties – ALL sorts of good times. We believe that was what we ran into as we went to the Cloud Gate (or The Bean) at Millenium Park as a group of ladies kept hoisting one of their lot up in various poses… One of our guys was “had” as he heard the words of legs being spread…
And Just When You Think You Have Had a Good Time…
… the BOA enters the picture. Then all bets are off. What you thought had been fun so far, becomes childplay-fun only. We don’t know where the boa originally came from. I can’t tell you much else about it - the moment it enters the picture, the fun begins and the time for chit chat is not gonna happen… You see, the boa has a mind of its own, it wraps you within its feathers, and then… well, this is the point where I have to use that old and wise adage and give it a local twist: “What happens in Chicago, stays in Chicago… or else the ghost of Mr. Capone will make me regret it!”
Check out these folks with a great point of view and travel stories to tell!
These well-traveled eyes have seen a lot of great cities and still have others left to discover. But they can say that they have seen truly one of the most interesting and enjoyable cities in the U.S. – as long as it is not winter, of course! (OK, it still can be fun in winter as my visits many moons ago can attest though my memory cannot fully recollect…)
Chicago is vibrant, day or night. It is not the 200+ yr old charm that Philly has (Chicago burnt deep and well in the famous fire). It is not the capital of everything that NY is. It is not the power center that DC is. But it is a city that has everything that an urban area should have: unique neighborhoods, a vibrant center, a body of water (or two) running through it, great food, great hotels, diversity of entertainment options (blues clubs, skyscraper-top bars, mafia lore, shopping, people watching, and on and on), and a strong business community. Of course, it also has that required element of large cities: corrupt (or dubious) power brokers – but I digress.
But one thing it that tood out to me as if I had never been here before was the architecture. Not sure if it was the scale (as in the Hancock and ex-Sears Towers or as in the Merchandise Mart), or the contrasts between ”old” and new, or just the fact that I got see it on foot, on boat, and on a bus.
View from the Wrigley Building to the “south side” of the river
If you have any interest in learning about the city’s architecture (and you most definitely do not need to be an architect for that!), the boat tour is a great option. The boat tour we took was offered was by Wendella Boats (http://www.wendellaboats.com/ (right by the Wrigley Building on Michigan Ave.). They provide an excellent narration of the architecture of the city by cruising the river – and they help you learn why the river no longer flows into Lake Michigan… I won’t spoil it for you. They also offer you a free drink (and you can pay for more) – the Honker’s Ale was very nice. And I digress again.
Here are examples of the architecture of Chicago (more pictures on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ILiveToTravel):
The building on the left was inspired by a champagne bottle
The real and reflected skyline (at The Bean in Millenium Park)
Other stories from our tweetup:
In the first tweetup, the one in Austin, I found myself flight-delayed for the Friday night events AND also quite sick. While I greatly enjoyed the Saturday outings, I felt I had not gotten all that I had expected out of that tweetup. So the Windy City Tweetup was redemption for fate…
The journey to Chicago started, as many journeys lately for me, with Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport. Having just flown in to Atlanta the night before, I was less than excited to be doing the routine in reverse within 24 hours of landing in Atlanta… But, and it is a big but, this was for much more fun than a work trip. It was time for the long-awaited Windy City Tweetup.
Delta nicely was able to complimentarily upgrade me (both ways!) days ahead of the flights so I would avoid wondering at the gate “Will I make it?”. Thanks!
Three of us flying in were planning to meet upon arrival at ORD so I was hoping we would all be on time. Being the one to land first (by schedule, anyway), I was to make my way to the last person’s baggage claim area (of course, we ALL were flying different airlines to make it more complicated…) and also call up the car we had booked for a nice ride into town. Miraculously – the Tweetup gods must have been smiling upon us – we all landed within minutes of each other.
Our destination, the Sofitel Water Tower Hotel in Chicago we had booked a few months in advance. Sofitels are clearly nice hotels and it had been a while since I had stayed in one so I was thrilled to experience their service after a few years of experiencing others’ service.
Home Base in Chicago’s Water Tower District: My High Place
Even before the tweetup, the Sofitel Water Tower engaged with us via Twitter (@SofitelChicago). Two things: one, if you are a business and you will have a Twitter presence, it can’t be a one-way push of information. That is so 1999 web. You HAVE to engage. The Sofitel clearly knew this. That was a good sign for us that we had made a great choice.
I found out I had been placed at the 30th floor which gave me a nice view of the Hancock Tower straight ahead and Lake Michigan behind it. The room was very comfortable and inviting. A very nice spot in a high place in Chicago indeed!
The view from my high perch in Chicago – the Hancock Tower
Also, a nice treat awaited in the room: macarons! Check out the story about macaron envy…
My macaron-based welcome made me feel like a high-flyer!
We also had made plans to gather at the hotel’s bar “Le Bar“, where the hotel, once again, offered us a sampling of their appetizers of which the mini-burgers and the artichoke croquettes were my favorite. I also got to be the first customer to try their new signature drink named “Wrigleyville” which had peanut butter fluff & vodka and was served with a side dish of Cracker Jacks. I was not sure about a peanut butter flavored drink but it was actually outstanding. Kudos to the bar for the clever design!
The Wrigleyville drink and Cracker Jacks
After meeting up at the Sofitel with one of our local tweeps, we headed for The Pump Room at the Public Hotel Chicago. Though ground-level cleary a high place in terms of history, ambience and scene. A famous locale throughout the decades, I admit to only having discovered it as the tweetup was being planned. We enjoyed drinks and dinner there enjoyed the well-designed space. The bar areas were hopping with a great crowd – clearly a place to come and meet with friends in the Windy City.
The Pump Room at Public Hotel Chicago
So ended our first few hours in the Windy City Tweetup. It was a great start to the weekend and many thanks to the Sofitel Water Tower and The Pump Room for setting the right tone!