Iceland & Munich: Scenery, History & Breweries

Diamond Beach in Iceland

My boyfriend and I recently returned home from a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Munich, Germany. While we were away, we spent three days exploring the various landscapes of the northern country of Iceland as well as another six days or so taking in the history and breweries of the capital of Bavaria. I’m going to try to keep this as short and simple as possible by sharing a quick daily recap as well as some photos. I hope you enjoy. Please also feel free to share your experiences of these two places in the comments below.

Day 1 – Reykjavik

Entering the city centre of Reykjavik.

At about 6:30am in the morning on our first day in Reykjavik, we hopped onto a shuttle bus that took us to the nearby Sixt car rental location. There, we picked up our vehicle, which we had rented for the next three days in Iceland. (TIP: If you already have car insurance built into your credit card, don’t worry about paying for extra coverage. As long as you don’t intend to go off-roading, it’ll be fine when you take the rental back. Just beware that they will put a hold on your card equivalent to about 1,500€ until they see it’s in good condition upon return.)

It’s about a 45 minute drive from Keflavik airport into Reykjavik. Since we couldn’t check into our hotel until the afternoon, we decided to meander around by car. With a stop at the Perlan Museum, a coast along the harbour, a visit into the Hallgrimskirkja Church, a stroll around the city centre (tons of street art and Instagrammable walls; I sadly watched as an amazing piece was painted over), a midday snack at ROK, and an evening walk not too far from our accommodations, CentreHotel Arnarhvoll (not worth the money for what you get and the rooms have no air circulation), we fit in as much as we could in a single day.

Best of all, we drove out of the city to a dark spot to watch for the northern lights. Neither of us had ever seen them with our own eyes, but we lucked out on this occasion because the sky lit up for us. It was magical, to say the least.

The Aurora Borealis

Of note:

  1. We noticed that there is a ton of construction happening in Reykjavik, which is great. There economy is obviously doing well, likely boosted by the upsurge in tourism in recent years.
  2. It’s expensive in Iceland. Small sharing plates at ROK cost about $20 CDN each. Although the food was delicious, our money didn’t go that far there. Drinks are especially marked up. I would recommend picking some liquor up at the duty free shop before leaving the airport. Lastly, gas was our largest expense at over $2 per litre. While the car we were given was pretty economical, we did a lot of driving and every fill-up was a hit to the wallet. Make sure to budget in advance.
  3. Most of the restaurants close relatively early in Reykjavik. Some bars do stay open later, but they may not serve true meals, so plan to eat a bit earlier.

Day 2 – South Iceland

Öxarárfoss in Iceland

On our second day in Iceland, we opted to hit the road and venture south. In the morning we went to Öxarárfoss, one of their famous waterfalls. It’s situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir National Park, which we took some time to walk through as well.

Back on the highway, we needed some sustenance, but we didn’t have a lot of time to stop for a sit-down meal. After all, we were chasing daylight. So, where did we go when we reached Selfoss? Domino’s. Now, I’m not going to knock the pizza chain. The food hit the spot. Even though it was super greasy, I could not get over the brilliant option of having fresh garlic added into the cheese for free. Game changer. We need that in Canada.

Before it got dark, we made it to Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. It’s worth a stop, and with good shoes it’s possible to walk right up to the falls.

That evening we stayed in the countryside at the quaint Country Hotel Anna. It’s got a vintage charm to it, but it’s quite well-equipped. They even offer a free breakfast in the mornings (as did the other hotel in Reykjavik). Once it’s dark out, head out a little ways from the building. It’s the perfect spot to stargaze.

Day 3 – South Iceland

Glacier lake in Iceland

We were on the road the longest during our third day in Iceland. It took much longer to make it from Vik to Jökulsárlón, a large glacial lagoon on the southeast side of the country. Just across the highway from there is Diamond Beach. Covered in black sand and small icebergs, it’s absolutely gorgeous on a sunny day. I’m so glad that we pushed ourselves to get there because the visuals were spectacular. This was one of my favourite spots.

On the way back towards Keflavik, we also took in the Laufskálavarða, a lava ridge that is surrounded by a number of stone cairns. The stacks of rocks are a tradition meant to signal good fortune on the journey.

Finally, as we reached the village of Vik once more, we stopped at Reynisfjara, a unique black-sand beach surrounded by huge basalt stacks that form an otherworldly looking cave. I have no doubt that on nicer day, this would have been an amazing site. Unfortunately, it was incredibly windy (I could barely stay standing) and cold, so we got a few photos and then we left.

That evening, we checked into the Bergás Guesthouse in Keflavik. It was run by a friendly husband and wife. In all, I think we spent only about eight hours in the room. Ultimately, it met our needs though. It was very close to the airport for our early morning departure, and it was spacious and clean.

Of note:

Iceland has a very diverse landscape with rocky mountains that reminded me of the Nevada and Arizona desserts, fields of lava that are now covered in bright green, squishy moss, snow covered peaks as if we were in Switzerland or Whistler, and pools filled with the icy remnants of a glacier. Account for the time it actually takes to get to each place, and then tack on an extra hour or two for all the abrupt halts that will be made to snap photos.

Day 4 – Munich, Germany

The view from our apartment in Munich.

I just want to make a quick note about the Reykjavik airport. It’s not a fun place. The check-in area is a complete gong show in the morning with people everywhere you look. There also didn’t seem to be great signage indicating where to head to for security. As it turns out, there’s only one spot and it’s upstairs. Security was quick to get through though (they have a machine that feeds out the bins; I’ve never seen that anywhere else). After that, it’s kind of a nice looking terminal, but past the food vendors and shops, it becomes cramped and it feels like all the passengers are just cattle. There’s no sense of organization and they never seem to make announcements about flights boarding, so we really had to be aware of our gate and watch for movement in the lines.

In any case, we made it to Germany! The S-Bahn train (S1 or S8) took us to the closest station near the apartment we booked through Airbnb. The neighbourhood of München-Neuhausen was wonderful. It seemed to be a wealthier area of town that was very family friendly and safe. From there, we were able to walk to a lot of the popular spots in Munich.

Since we arrived mid-afternoon, we settled into the apartment and then we went for an amble around the nearby blocks. We also took advantage of the suggestions made by our Airbnb hosts, trying out a restaurant called Holy Burger. They specialize in organic ingredients. The burgers were delicious; however, the side of veggie fries — made of carrots, beets, and a vegetable that our server didn’t quite know how to translate into English — was tasty, but lacking in portion size. Plus, it was costly. For two burgers, the shared side, a beer, and a hot chocolate, we paid 45€.

After supper, we wandered further and came across one of the grocery stores, Rewe Dien Markt. My boyfriend picked up three half litres of beer for less than four Euro, a total steal compared to what we pay for drinks in Edmonton, Alberta.

Day 5 & 6 – Munich, Germany

So many beer steins!

I’m not sure what it was about being in Germany, but we really slept in almost every single day. I’ll chalk it up to a lack of sleep during our few days in Iceland. I also think I was a bit under the weather. Regardless, it was a lax couple of days after our arrival.

When we woke on our second day, we went back to the grocery store and stocked up on meats, cheeses, eggs, bread, condiments, and beer. With access to a kitchen, our plan was to make ourselves breakfast each morning. We spent the rest of the day just putting together an itinerary for the remainder of the trip. We did eventually leave the house to grab some dinner. Our intention was to try another recommendation from our hosts, a pizza place called Neuhauser. We arrived to find it absolutely packed full of patrons. There was no order to anything in terms of getting a name down for a table, so we ended up ordering food to go. It turned out to be quite tasty and we got a lot for our money (22€ for both of us).

Our third day was quite uneventful until the evening. A friend who is living in Munich was able to meet up with us for dinner and drinks. We arranged to connect at Marienplatz under the tower of the New Town Hall (don’t confuse it with the Old Town Hall even though it looks like the older one). He took us for a walk and then he whisked us over to Augustiner Klosterwirt for a delightfully “refined” meal of traditional German food. We shared a mixed sausage platter (so much sauerkraut) and the veal schnitzel. I was happily full by the time we left. Not to mention, the beer is fantastic (the radler — lager with Sprite or 7-Up — is my go to). The Augustiner brand is a local favourite because it’s almost exclusively found in the city of Munich.

After our filling meal, we trekked back the way we’d come. Ending up at Augustiner-Keller, another branch of the brand. This location is home to a huge outdoor beer garden during warmer weather. Plus, inside the building is an awesome underground bunker that’s now used as a beer hall.

On our way home, our friend led us to the München Hauptbahnhof (central station) to show us how to buy our train tickets to Salzburg. For just 31€ for the two of us, we could do a round trip past the border into Austria.

Day 7 – Munich, Germany

The immaculate upper church inside the Bürgersaalkirche.

We explored much more of the city on our fourth day. Again, we went on foot towards Karlsplatz (Stachus) and Marienplatz. It was incredibly busy with tourists, which I didn’t love (even though I was a tourist as well). But, it was still a great experience.

We came across the Bürgersaalkirche, a historical building that is split into an upper church and lower church. The one on the second floor is a stunner and was quite a surprise. Eventually, we made it to the Munich Residenz where we went through the Museum. I would also have liked to visit the theatre and treasury, but we didn’t have enough time to fit that in. At the end of the day, we stopped at Odeonsplatz. It’s mired in the history of World War II when Munich became a Nazi stronghold and one of Hitler’s main bases of operation. Seeing these spots where such darkness took place was sobering and also somewhat enlightening. Today, the people of Munich and Germany teach their youngsters about what happened, so that they can learn from the past. They’re not hiding it. It’s too important a lesson to shy away from.

Dinner on this night was had at Bollywood, a cozy Indian restaurant that made an amazing mango lamb dish (using real pureed mangos). It was probably one of the best meals we had on the entire trip.

Day 8 – Salzburg, Austria

Love locks on a bridge in Salzburg, Austria.

In Munich, Tuesday, October 31 was considered a holiday. I believe it was the 500th year of Reformation. Therefore, all shops and stores would be closed. Save for main city attractions, there wouldn’t be much to do except eat at a restaurant or drink at a bar. I checked and Salzburg, Austria was not celebrating the same holiday. I deemed it the ideal day to check entering another country off our list. It took about two hours to get there by train.

I’ve actually been to Salzburg before. I remember it as the birthplace of Mozart. But, beyond that, I can’t say I recall too much of it. It’s not very big, so it’s incredibly walkable. Granted, I couldn’t talk myself into trekking up the steep path to the castle, nor did I want to wait in the long line to get into the building. It seemed that a number of tourists thought this was also a great day to visit this city.

There are a number of gypsies begging for money in Salzburg, which is something we didn’t see much of in Munich. One sat outside the Stiftskirche Sankt Peter Salzburg as we entered the church. Behind that spot is Petersfriedhof Salzburg, a peaceful cemetery — the oldest in the city — where it seems whole families are laid to rest.

Prior to leaving, we also visited the Salzburg Cathedral (the Dom). It’s a much busier church that all the tourists go to. The door is monitored and there does seem to be an expectation of some sort of donation as one leaves.

We were in Salzburg for all of about four hours. It’s plenty of time if you’re not going through any museums or stopping for food or drinks. We made it back to Munich in the early evening. It’d been a pretty long day of travelling, so we opted to stick close to the apartment for dinner. Just around the corner from where we were staying is a pub called Hirschenwirt. The beer was fine, but the food was so-so. What made up for mediocre meal was the hospitality of the owners. The woman who served us was also the cook. As soon as we gave her our order, she opened the door to the kitchen, flicked on the lights and got going. We could tell it was the neighbourhood hangout full of regulars and that made it fun.

Of note:

On holidays, shops and grocery stores will be closed in Munich. The exception to that is at the central station where groceries can still be purchased and a number of food vendors will be open. It can be a lifesaver, if one forgets to stock up beforehand.

Day 9 – Munich, Germany

The interior of Nymphenburg Palace.

This was a wonderful day! We walked the 45 minutes or so from our apartment to the Nymphenburg Palace and Park. I’d love to see it in the summertime with the greenery and everything in full bloom.

When we finished there, we headed back towards our neighbourhood. My boyfriend wanted to check out the McDonald’s. He was so impressed with the separate McCafe side of the shop. I’d already seen that split in Hong Kong, so I wasn’t as enamored with that, but I was excited for the desserts as we don’t have them available at home (chocolate cake, cheesecake, and apple crumble). They were all much better than I expected. Fresh, moist, flavourful, and not overly sweet.

In the evening, we met our friend and his classmate for supper at Paulaner Brauhaus. It’s another Munich Brewery. Food-wise, it was still German cuisine, but it was elevated. The presentation and the preparation was just a lot more highbrow than Augustiner (and that was already supposed to be better than other places). I’d go back there in a heartbeat. I also learned here that schnapps are to be slowly sipped and not downed like a shot. It’s a strong liquor that isn’t sweetened to death like it is in North America.

As this was still a holiday in Munich, it was pretty difficult to find places open late in the evening. However, we found a haunt by the name of Neiderlassung for a nightcap. It was a laid back spot that played toned down versions of recent pop hits; quiet enough to actually have a conversation with friends. They also make a spectacular sloe gin.

Late at night, we were back at Marienplatz. Everything was closed and the square was empty. It’s a bit surreal to see it that way, but I highly recommend going there when it’s quiet.

Day 10 – Munich, Germany

The 1979 BMW Art Car seen at the BMW Museum.

This was our final full day in Munich (we had to leave the next morning for the airport), and we decided to spend it at the BMW Museum and BMW Welt. The Welt is free to enter. It’s basically a showroom for all of their products and there are a few cafes and restaurants inside as well. The BMW Museum cost 10€ per person. I didn’t know what to expect. I’m not a car person per say. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the craftsmanship of some vehicles, and I have to say that this was an incredibly well-designed building and the exhibits were put together with care and precision. We really enjoyed ourselves here. My only wish is that I had also gotten to do the tour of the plant. Unfortunately, the plant was closed for holidays until a week into November, so we didn’t get to do that this time.

In the evening, while we were back in Marienplatz, we couldn’t decide on where to go for dinner, so we paused to buy a sausage in a bun from a vendor. It was alright. I would have preferred a bratwurst.

No matter though. We chose to finish off our trip with one last visit to Augustiner Klosterwirt. We imbibed in some more local beer, sausages, pork shoulder and spinach dumplings. It was warm, comforting food, and I couldn’t think of any better send off.

Advertisements

Travel Roundup: Hong Kong, Macau & Japan 2016

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

It’s a brand new year, and four weeks in, I find myself looking back at 2016. It was quite the whirlwind, and I’m reminded of just how lucky I am, especially when it comes to travelling.

This past November was a big month for me. Not only did I spend another birthday in Vegas, but I was also able to take a fortnight off from work to do some exploring with friends in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.

Admittedly, I was slightly worried about being the so-called “guide” for our trio in Hong Kong. When my friends suggested that I go with them because my family is from there and I’ve been several times before, I smiled and agreed. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I could totally disappoint them. Sure, I’d gone in the past, but I was no expert. My trips to Hong Kong were always oriented around plans with relatives, often leaving very little time to be an actual tourist. They trusted me though, so we forged ahead with putting together a holiday.

What I originally thought was going to be a break primarily situated in Hong Kong ended up including a mini trek across Japan. About eight months before we travelled, the YEG Deals website flagged a round trip flight from Edmonton to Tokyo for a fantastic price and we opted to go for it. This was much to my mother’s dismay. My mom kept telling me that we would have saved money had we booked connecting flights from the start or if we waited for a special on a direct flight to Hong Kong. It was too late to change the booking though and we were determined to make it work.

When November rolled around, I wouldn’t say we were exactly ready. Personally, I felt slightly discombobulated because, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t leaving for a holiday with any sort of itinerary in hand. We did pull it together enough to make sure we had accommodations in all of the cities where we’d be staying. We also found comparatively affordable connecting flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Hiroshima through discount airline HK Express before departing Edmonton. The three of us weren’t totally winging it, but this was unusual for me. I was out of my comfort zone with no clue as to what we were going to do on a day-to-day basis.

Thankfully, our trip happened to coincide with my parents’ holiday to Hong Kong, which means we had a good support system, if necessary. The day we flew into Hong Kong (dead tired from 30 straight hours of travel), they actually met up with us upon our arrival in Causeway Bay. My relatives were gracious enough to let us stay in an extra apartment that they own, and my parents were there to let us into the unit. Although we experienced a few hiccups on the first night of our stay, all issues were remedied by the following day. Our adventure had begun.

I have done a previous post (in photo format) about Hong Kong, so feel free to check that out in addition to what I have to say here. Also, I will say that I’m so pleased that I finally got a chance to explore this territory with minimal family obligations required. Being able to see the city from a different perspective with friends who have never been allowed us to take full advantage of what was on offer. We went at our own pace and it made me feel like this was truly a locale to visit (outside of the usual family reasons).

Accounting for all of the travel time between destinations, we really had to make the most of our days at each destination. Hong Kong was our initial stop, and aside from indulging in all of the food, we thought we’d take in some of the highlights.

Day 1 – Hong Kong

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day one consisted of a bus ride to the top of Victoria Peak where we got a panoramic view of the city below. We also rode the MTR (one of the best city train systems I know of) to the Kowloon side. There, we waited to see the nighttime laser light show that took place across the water. When it was over, we hoofed it to Dim Dim Sum Hong Kong in Jordan. Named one of the world’s 101 best eateries by Newsweek, we wouldn’t relent until we sought it out. Two words: soup dumplings.

Day 2 – Hong Kong

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

Dim Sum at the famous Din Tai Fung. Truffled xiaolongbao!

We began day two with dim sum at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with locations worldwide. Two of their branches in Hong Kong, including the one in Causeway Bay, were awarded one Michelin star each. More expensive than the dim sum we ate the night before, it was absolutely worthy of our money. Again, the soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) were the way to go, but I’d praise the wontons and buns, too. I also love that you can watch the staff in the kitchen. Through the windows, at the entrance to the eatery, we could see them making all the little dumplings and wontons by hand, so we knew the food was fresh!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When we had our fill, we worked our way to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Missing the sign directing us there, we wound up getting a little sidetracked. We spent some time climbing the steps of what looked to be a memorial before we gave up and went back down to level ground. That’s when we happened upon the correct entrance. As we scaled our way up the steep hillside on a particularly hot and muggy day, we took in all of the golden gods lining the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! It’s a beautiful little space filled with colourful statues. Despite the somewhat challenging ascent and the vertigo inducing descent, this off-the-beaten-track spot is one to see.

Next, we stopped in Diamond Hill to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. This is actually one of my favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Located in Kowloon, it’s a surprising respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle just outside of the garden walls. The nunnery is also a quiet area that magically reverberates with the soul piercing sounds of chants from those who pray within.

Our second evening consisted of barhopping in Central. 001, a “secret” speakeasy with stylish décor and fancy cocktails, kicked off our plans. We then skipped to Brewdog, Tipping Point SoHo and Shack Tapazaka back in Causeway Bay.

Day 3 – Hong Kong

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day three was sort of a write off when it came to being a tourist. I had lunch with my family at the Crowne Plaza near our apartment, so we spent much of the morning wandering until about one o’clock when we split up for a few hours. When my friends and I reconnected, we chose to take the bus to Stanley Beach. It’s a tranquil site in Hong Kong with sights of the water and a number of restaurants. After we walked the pier and the boardwalk, we settled in for dinner and drinks at Beef & Liberty (suggested to us by the owners of Moonzen Brewery). For a burger joint, they did that type of food really well. The only downside was the slow service, so it’s a good thing we weren’t in a rush.

Day 4 – Macau

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

A pretty building by Senado Square in Macau.

On the fourth day, we ventured to Macau on a TurboJET ferry. Now, most of the hotels in the coastal city offer free shuttles to and from the ferry terminal. It’s simply a matter of finding the right bus. To save a little money and allow ourselves two rooms for our one night stay, we opted to book at the Crowne Plaza. The accommodations are awesome – modern in both style and technology – and, built in 2014, the hotel itself is relatively new and affordable. Unfortunately, the shuttle doesn’t come by to pick up guests as often as some of the larger resorts and it’s also a little further away from the main attractions. In fact, the cabbie who dropped us off at the end of the evening gave me a talking to; he stated that it was too far and we shouldn’t have booked there. That’s just his opinion though. The location certainly isn’t that bad.

Regardless, we had a good time in Macau. Senado Square is an open gathering spot that constantly looks as if it’s filled by a giant mass of people. With its Portuguese origins, the architecture is colourful with intricate details, but it has become pretty commercial. From there, we followed the signage that led up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The façade of the old church made a nice backdrop for all of those who were taking selfies on the steps. I quite like the Fortress of Macau. The vantage points at the top of the building allow visitors a sprawling outlook over the city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since Macau is the Vegas of China, we also made a point of checking out the major hotels and casinos. That included the Grand Lisboa (I’ve stayed here previously), Wynn and MGM. Interestingly, most of the gamblers weren’t drinking or smoking; this was a total 180 from our observations in Las Vegas.

Dinner and drinks were had at Heart Bar. I had read about this location in a brewing magazine back at Brewdog in Hong Kong and it pretty much materialized in front of us. The pizzas were okay, but the cocktails were stellar and so was the bartender. He happened to be the one who seated us, and he had excellent recommendations. We completed our night by working off those calories as we searched for a way to get to the lighthouse on the peak (Guia Fortress). Venturing towards it, we finally found a route that led us to the structure. We weren’t able to enter it though, so when we were done, we worked our way back to the main part of town. Not ideal in the dark, but we ultimately made it to a more populated area without having to take any pitch black, narrow staircases down the hill.

Day 5 – Macau & Hong Kong

Lunch at North

Lunch at North

Our fifth day was scant in terms of sightseeing. We stopped at the Macau ferry terminal in the morning to book our tickets back to Hong Kong. Knowing we had some time to kill before our boat departed, we jumped onto the shuttle to the Venetian. It’s very similar to the resort in Vegas, so it was somewhat old hat for us. Although, I would argue that our lunch at North – specializing in northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine – was a great way to end our time in Macau.

When we returned to Hong Kong, we dropped our bags off at the apartment and then we immediately set out for our most indulgent dinner on the trip. Tate Dining Room & Bar, run by Chef Vicky Lau, is another restaurant that has earned its Michelin star. At 980 HKD (approximately $170 CDN) for a 6-course meal – drinks not included – one has to be willing and ready to appreciate the flavours and the visuals. We loved it. From start to finish, this was a dinner that surprised and gratified us.

Day 6 – Hiroshima

The following morning we commenced our journey to Hiroshima, so it was chiefly a travel day. By the time we arrived at the Japanese airport and bused into the city, it was quite late. Another long day of travel exhausted us. Arriving in Hiroshima, we wanted to freshen up. Our apartment was easy enough to find and we had no problems getting into the place; however, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Essentially a micro unit, this apartment was ideal for one person, two at the most. Advertising the place as able to accommodate three people was surely pushing it, but we managed. Otherwise, it was clean and well-appointed. We finished our evening with a satisfying supper at Orenokushikatsukuroda Hiroshimaminamiguchiekimaeten (what a mouthful) where we stuffed ourselves silly with a bunch of deep fried veggie, meat and cheese tempura battered skewers.

Day 7 – Hiroshima

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

The ferry from Tadanoumi to Rabbit Island.

Day seven marked a full week of vacation and our second day in Hiroshima. It actually brings up mixed feelings for me. My morning consisted of attempts to exchange my Hong Kong Dollars for Japanese Yen. I wasn’t able to find a nearby money exchange, and the first bank didn’t accept my cash. The second bank did, but at a hefty fee. Since I didn’t have the option to go elsewhere, I went ahead with the transaction.

When that was completed, we rode the train to Tadanoumi. From there, we caught a ferry that took us to Rabbit Island (Ōkunoshima). This was the single reason why Hiroshima was tacked onto our itinerary. My friend has a pet bunny and is basically obsessed with rabbits in general, so when she learned of the isle’s existence, there was no question we were going there. All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time. The bunnies that have somehow occupied the landmass (they’re apparently not the ones from the old labs that used to be there) are very friendly and will approach if there’s food. Indeed, they can be extremely excitable. One rabbit, found in a more secluded area, came up to me, and upon being fed, was so thrilled that it not only did a full 360 degree leap in the air, but while doing so, it also managed to pee itself at the same time. That urine struck me square in the right arm and leg. My jacket and jeans ended up moderately soaked. So, cute as these rabbits were, it ended up being a damper (pun intended) to the visit for me. Thankfully, my clothes dried quickly due to the windy conditions on the island and there was no stench. I was able to last the rest of the day without needing to detour for a change of clothes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For me, the day was saved with a meal at this amazing little ramen shop called Ippeiya. We learned of the joint through a Google search, and wow. The scrumptious bowls served to us were absolutely worth the chilly walk. I’d even go as far as to say I’d fly back to Hiroshima just to have another helping of their curry ramen.

Day 8 – Hiroshima & Kyoto

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Week two started with our last day in Hiroshima. Once we stored our luggage at the train station, we used our last few hours before departure to amble over to Hiroshima Castle, and, in fairly ominous fashion, we also took in the remaining ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and Peace Park. Oddly, this was a rather fitting place to be seeing as how, just the day before, we had witnessed the results of the U.S. Presidential election and Donald Trump’s victory. The location isn’t without its beauty though. I’m glad we stopped there to stand in the presence of history.

Once we had perused the whole park, we realized we had better hoof it back to the station. While we missed the bullet train for the hour we booked (they are super punctual), our seats were non-reserved, so we were able to catch the subsequent one without any penalty. Approximately three hours later, we were in Kyoto. Our Airbnb here was more than we expected, mainly in comparison to the accommodations in Hiroshima. This place was huge! It was an open concept apartment with six single beds, a big closet, full kitchen, a large shower room, separate toilet and in-suite laundry (desirable after the rabbit incident). The only difficulty we encountered was the terrible portable Wi-Fi. Other than that, we couldn’t have asked for more.

My one travel companion knew someone in Kyoto, so we got a hold of this friend who graciously took us out on the town. The three of us were dying for some kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, so he drove us to one where the majority of the plates are 100 yen each (roughly $1 CDN).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If I’m correct, the one we went to was called Muten Kura Sushi Kyotogaidaimae. It was amazing. Not only was there a constant stream of plates running by at table-level (although, we did see a very rare crash on the course, which stalled things), but there was also a second conveyor belt that was used specifically for dishes we ordered through the tablet. Whenever we had a craving for something that we didn’t roll by ready-made, all we had to do was press a few buttons and it’d be there in minutes. Plus, for every five plates returned through a slot at the far end of the table, a game would be triggered on the tablet, providing diners with a chance to win a prize from the machine located at the top of the conveyor shelf. We only got one toy after giving back about thirty plates, so the system may be rigged. That’s okay though. It was still a lot of fun, and everything was delicious and fresh.

Next, we were taken to Shogun-zuka Seiryu-den Temple where I attempted to snap dozens of photos of the temple, grounds, red maple trees (still in the midst of the transition from summer to fall) and city in the dark. Inside the temple is a replica painting of Aofudo (Blue Acala). Considered a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art, the actual piece is enshrined out of sight. The temple also has a huge observation deck that provides views of various Kyoto landmarks.

Our new Kyoto guide then led us to his friend’s bar, Loop Salon. There, we spent the rest of our evening imbibing on some refreshing cocktails (I NEED that bottle of FAUCHON Paris tea liqueur!), gin from the fairly new Kyoto Distillery and gyoza that we had delivered as a late night snack. A few hours passed and we determined that it was time to hit up a 7/11 before heading home.

Day 9 – Kyoto

Ramen at Kobushi

Ramen at Kobushi

When the four of us awoke in the morning, we didn’t have to go too far for food. Within a block from our apartment building, on either side, were several eateries. Failing to get a table at the first place we selected, ramen felt like an excellent second choice, so we opted to try Kobushi. With fish broths, we were taking a bit of a chance since my one friend is allergic to shellfish, but we managed okay having a local there to ask questions for us. The restaurant itself is tiny and all the table/counter space is shared. Rather than going with a soup ramen, I went for an oil-based dish instead. I appreciated trying a different take on this Japanese staple, and I’d undoubtedly eat it again.

Once we ate enough, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinjaju-ji or Rokuon-ji). What a gorgeous and bright day to see this National Special Historic Site. The sunlight reflecting off of the pavilion and the water was picturesque. Following that, we rode another bus to the Ryōan-ji Temple. Known for its large rock formations in the Japanese Zen garden, I found this to be an interesting locale. Maybe I’m a little too restless for a place like the garden. Nevertheless, the land was lovely with its large pond, unusual landscaping and colour-changing trees. Our last stop on the historical tour was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Regrettably, we got to the grounds a tad too late to make the last entrance.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With nothing more to see in the area, we went back to downtown Kyoto where we picked up some alcoholic beverages from a shop, cracked them open (yes, you can drink in public), and then perused the Nishiki Market. Basically a long, narrow alleyway filled with stalls and storefronts, it was a lot of fun to see all of the different trinkets and traditional Japanese food available for purchase. For supper, we went to Yamachan for maboroshi no tebasaki (deep-fried chicken wings). These were ridiculously delicious. Complete with instructions on how best to eat them, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and these wings satisfied any salty cravings we may have had.

Dessert followed at Saryo Tsujiri Gion where we ordered fancy parfait glasses filled high with matcha flavoured ice cream, mochi, cake and whipped cream. We then investigated the maze-like streets, which led us to the Hokanji Temple and Yasaka-no-to-Pagoda. The structure was subtly lit against the backdrop of the dark sky, making for a striking image. We then returned to Loop Salon for a second low-key evening of drinks.

Day 10 – Kyoto

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The gates into Fushimi Inari Shrine.

On day three in Kyoto, we ventured out as a trio and made our way to the train station where we had soba noodle set lunches at Kyoto Tagoto and dessert at Mister Donut. Afterwards, the train took us to Fushimi Inari Shrine where we climbed Mount Inari. It’s no Mount Fuji, but it was enough of a workout for me. The higher you go, the quieter it gets though. I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile hike.

To-ji Temple was next on our list. There, we saw the pagoda and exhibits featuring Esoteric Buddhist art. Getting a chance to go inside the main floor of the pagoda to see the interior was neat. All of the detail was spectacular. Some of the larger statues are also very remarkable when seen close-up, especially the statue of Yakushi (circa 1603) found in the Kondo.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Done with the temple, we wandered to Kyoto Brewing Company where we had a few drinks on their makeshift patio. Complete with a food truck to feed the masses, it’s a cool venue to hangout for an hour or two.

Beers were followed by some shopping and sustenance at Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We tried everything from fondue chicken to beef tongue and pork belly to horse meat tartare. The flavours were delightful and the cuts of meat were easy to cook ourselves.

Now, I’m certain that our local friend picked Gyu-Kaku on purpose. Situated on the second story of a building, the main floor housed part of Club World. We’d heard stories of the latter throughout our holiday, so it seemed fitting to the guys that we should go. My girlfriend and I reluctantly went in with them. Although we had our reservations, it turned out to be a blast. The main space of the nightclub is much smaller than we expected, meaning it got cramped. But, the other room, where a different DJ was playing, had a lounge-like atmosphere that we appreciated for a good chunk of the evening. Festivities for our last day in Kyoto ended with the worst bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Apparently, the food at this one shop only tastes okay if you’re drunk. I guess I didn’t get near that point because I couldn’t even eat it. Those noodles were just too undercooked.

Day 11 – Tokyo

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Chicken wings at Kawara Cafe.

Day 11 consisted mostly of travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo. When we arrived in Tokyo, our Airbnb in Shibuya wasn’t available for another couple of hours, so we hunkered down at Kawara Café & Kitchen for a late lunch. Once we were able to drop off all of our stuff at the apartment (also wonderful with a small kitchen, two beds in the living room, a separate bed room, full bathroom and laundry), we went back out to explore the neighbourhood.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To satiate ourselves, we combed the internet for sushi places and came across Uobei, another conveyor belt restaurant that is actually owned by the Genki Sushi chain. Rather than having plates that constantly make their rounds, diners are actually seated in rows where each line has their own belts. A tablet assigned to an individual is used to place orders of up to three items at a time, ensuring that every plate comes fresh from the kitchen. To avoid any wait, the belts are stack three high, so food can be delivered on multiple levels. Admittedly, the atmosphere does make one feel as if they’re part of a weird assembly line; however, it’s efficient. I also loved that the tablet had buttons that provided multiple options for each sushi order (i.e. no wasabi). Plus, it’s affordable.

Day 12 – Tokyo

Good Town Doughnuts

Good Town Doughnuts

A dozen days into the trip and it occurred to us that our vacation was coming to a quick end, so we packed it in on our last full day in Tokyo. We started off by seeking out the Good Town Doughnuts shop (I read about it in a Japanese magazine). Since we kind of ambled and popped into other stores along the way, by the time we got there, our snack ended up being our lunch. What a treat though. I’d say their fluffy pastries are the closest rival to Lucky’s Doughnuts (in Vancouver) that I’ve managed to find. Turns out I just had to travel half way around the world to do it.

Eating completed, we strolled to Harajuku (Takeshita-dori) where we did a bit of shopping. Towards the end of the area, we made a turn down a narrow street where I found a stall selling some clothing, including the now ubiquitous bomber jacket. Instead of a satin one, as seems to be very popular, I noticed one hanging there made using black velvet. Decorated with appliques of embroidered flowers and tiger heads, it was the best one I’d seen. I didn’t think it was my size, but the vendor had already pulled a mirror out, so I could see how it looked on me. It fit like a glove and I adored it. It was also a steal at about $60 CDN. That’s about half of what I would have paid at home for something similar and of the same quality. Looking at Wikipedia as I wrote this post, I learned that some of the stores in Harajuku are known as “antenna shops” where manufacturers provide prototypes as a way to test the market. That’s really cool because that means one can walk away a trendsetter and not even know it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We continued our walk by heading to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower (Tocho) in Shinjuku. There, we were able to take the elevator up, free of charge, to one of the observation decks on the 45th floor. My friend said that on the other side of the block is where he remembered seeing the homeless cardboard housing, and that’s something I had wondered about. As a child, I had been to Tokyo, and I distinctly remember seeing dozens of large cardboard boxes lined up outside the train stations. Those were people’s homes. They probably still exist, but we never saw them during our holiday.

Ready to head back to Shibuya after a long day, our quest for a good spot to dine turned into our goal. It was raining out (the only time during our whole trip), so we didn’t go too far from our apartment. Yet, we still lucked out when we stumbled upon a dining room called Jibieno Hut (I found the site by Google translating while in Tokyo, but it eludes me now; if you’d like the logo/Japanese name, email me for a photo. I found the website again!), specializing in wild game. Our night was completed with shopping at Loft department store and one last ice cream bar from 7/11.

Day 13 – Tokyo

The final day of our vacation crept up all too fast. We had to be out of our apartment pretty early, so we stored our luggage in lockers at Shibuya train station first thing in the morning. With our few remaining hours, we decided to take a look at what was on the other side of the building (not a whole lot). We did, however, get to use a vending machine that dispensed tickets, which we gave to the restaurant cook who then whipped up a fresh order of food for us. That was different. We don’t know how to read Japanese, so we relied on the photos. If there are no pictures and only text on the buttons, it’s a chance one has to take when making their selection.

A bit more shopping at UNIQLO and 109 Men’s, a snack at Uobei Sushi, a ride on the Narita Express train, and then we were back on a plane to Edmonton. Just like that, it was over.

I’m so happy to have had this experience. I know that my travel companions are people that I can get along with for a prolonged period of time and I made a new friend in Kyoto. My single disappointment is that my passport is only one “stamp” fuller as Hong Kong and Macau no longer issues them. Japan was the only place where I received a sticker. My one regret is that my boyfriend couldn’t join us this time. The upside is that I know I’ll be going on more adventures, so there will be more chances in the future.

Upcoming Event: 124 Street Red Shoe Crawl on Sept 10

Tiramisu Bistro on 124 Street. Photo from: 124street.ca

Tiramisu Bistro on 124 Street. Photo from: 124street.ca

I was recently told about the upcoming Red Shoe Crawl taking place in the 124 Street District of Edmonton on Saturday, September 10. From what I’ve learned, this is the second year where 124 Street will play host to the event.

If you’ve never heard of the Red Shoe Society, it consists of a network of community leaders who band together to volunteer for and host events where they raise funds for Ronald McDonald House Charities Northern Alberta (RMHCNA).

Registrants who purchase a $35 pass ($15 kids tickets and adult 4-packs for $120 are also available) will be welcomed at about two dozen participating businesses along 124 Street. Culinary delights will be served at each venue, allowing patrons to snack while they explore. The various shops and restaurants in the area may also be offering special one-day deals. Passports will be handed out to everyone to ensure they don’t miss any of the vendors, including Duchess Bake Shop, Carbon Environmental Boutique, Miss Boss Handbags & Accessories, Table Top Cafe, Ascendant Books and many more.

In addition, tickets for raffle prizes and a 50/50 draw will be sold.

Not only is this a fantastic way to support the RMHCNA, but it’s also an excellent opportunity to shop local. 124 Street has had a tough go over the last couple of years. With the temporary closure of the 102 Avenue bridge cutting off one of the main entry ways into the area, the majority of businesses saw a decline in visitors. Now that the bridge is once again open and the Red Shoe Crawl will be raising money in the district, there’s really no excuse not to go.

Tickets for this event can be purchased here: http://rssnaredshoecrawl.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1162884.

Get excited by checking out a video of 2015’s Red Shoe Crawl below!

Chasing the Chicago Skyline: Trip Recap & Gallery

Lurie Garden at sunset

Lurie Garden at sunset

It used to be that I wanted to visit Chicago to see Oprah at one of her live show tapings. You never know. Maybe I would have walked away materially richer due to her famous giveaways. Alas, I didn’t have the chance to do that. Oprah has long since retired from her talk show, and, unlike New York City, there are few other internationally renowned hosts that film in Chicago. So, on my recent trip to the Windy City, celebrity and television were the last things on my mind.

Instead, my parents and I set off from Edmonton, Alberta to Chicago for a week’s vacation. Staying in the downtown area, we were able to walk to all of the sights and attractions that we planned to see. Our days were filled with activity and the nights were relaxed. We lucked out with fantastic weather. Chicago lived up to the “Windy City” name (although, the moniker really is politically based) our first full day there with strong breezes and cooler temperatures, but it warmed up immensely, hitting highs in the mid-thirties (degrees centigrade).

For those who have been to Chicago before, hopefully this brings back some great memories of your time there. If you haven’t been, perhaps this post will serve as a bit of a guide or a glimpse into what you can do (and eat) there. Enjoy!

Accommodations

The Godfrey Hotel

Situated centrally from everything on our itinerary, this River North hotel was the perfect home base for our trip.

I will admit that things got off to a slightly rocky start though. While the hotel was accommodating in upgrading us to a room with two queen beds versus one king bed upon arrival, there was only the one unit available. Made to be handicap accessible, it really wasn’t the nicest of their rooms (and I have to say that the placement of certain items didn’t make sense in a room for the disabled). It was also on the fifth floor right next to the elevator, and we knew ahead of time that the lounge on the fourth floor of the hotel could get very noisy on the weekends (it seems to be a really popular spot for party goers), which is something we were hoping to avoid.

Thankfully, the next morning, the hotel was able to switch us to a vacated room on the top floor of the hotel. With a beautiful view and much quieter surroundings, it ended up being a clean and comfortable respite from our adventures for the remainder of our holiday.

Food

Anyone who has read this blog knows how much I love food. Naturally, I tried to seek out a variety of offerings while in Chicago. Although I really wanted to try the food at Alinea – one of only two Michelin 3-star restaurants in the city and considered to be one of the top in the world – I couldn’t get a reservation, nor could I justify the cost when our Canadian dollar is doing so terribly. Therefore, rather than pre-planning our meals well in advance as I have in the past, we either attempted to search for whatever was best nearby whenever I was able to sign onto Wi-Fi, or we left it to chance. These are the places we tried. They’re listed in chronological order.

Troquet

Troquet's French-inspired menu and atmosphere.

Troquet’s French-inspired menu and atmosphere.

Literally down the block from the Godfrey Hotel, we happened to catch Troquet on a particularly jovial evening. Live music was spilling out from the French-inspired restaurant out into the street and they had a sweet Wednesday night deal of a croque-monsieur and a bottle of Kronenbourg 1664 for just $12. Both my parents ordered the special and I actually went for a burger. French comfort food all the way, it was the atmosphere that really made this place seem like such a gem. With a piano pushed up near the open window and the performer celebrating his birthday, it was as if the pianist knew everyone there. Guests had prepared songs to sing and others walked around sharing chocolates from baskets that they had brought. It was a fun affair and a great way to start our first official hours in Chicago.

Billy Goat Tavern & Grill

The fast food version of Billy Goat Tavern & Grill at TheMART.

The fast food version of Billy Goat Tavern & Grill at TheMART.

This is the fast food version found at Merchandise Mart. I’m not one for onions or relish and stuff like that on my hot dogs, so I had a very simple polish dog on a sesame bun. It was juicy and flavourful without any condiments on it. I could have had another, no problem.

Labriola

Deep dish pizza at Labriola.

Deep dish pizza at Labriola.

Deep dish pizza joints are abundant in Chicago, and there are a few that tend to get mentioned. Yet, somehow we didn’t eat at Pizzeria Uno, Gino’s, Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s. Rather, we found ourselves sauntering towards Navy Pier when we came across Labriola. Voted the best deep dish pizza in Chicago by ABC 7’s Hungry Hound, we figured it couldn’t hurt to try it. Warned that the pizzas take about 45 minutes to prepare and cook, we settled in for a bit of a wait. When the pizza arrived, it was piping hot, and there was cheese and toppings galore. We shared a 12-inch meat ball pie between the three of us, and I honestly wish that they came in smaller sizes. Delicious as it was, there was just too much. We left with a quarter of the pizza to go.

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

The name really speaks for itself. If you enjoy doughnuts as much as I do and you also like fried chicken, you’re going to love the Erie Street location of Do-Rite. They had the best doughnuts I sampled during the trip and they have the gall to combine a fresh glazed doughnut with a breast of fried chicken, calling it the Sweet Heat sandwich. Even though a neighbouring diner was chastising one of her companions for ordering the same thing (she said it’s a heart attack waiting to happen), I don’t think you can walk into Do-Rite and not get one of those, right? The chicken was perfectly crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside; the glazed doughnut acting as the perfect shell with added kick from the spicy maple aioli. Awesome.

The Signature Lounge

Look at that view!

Look at that view!

We were told that the lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building was a good way to get spectacular views of Chicago. The side we wound up sitting on allowed us to overlook the north side of the city. But, as it turns out, if you walk around the rest of the floor, you can get almost a 360 degree view. The women’s washroom even had huge windows that looked out towards Navy Pier and the east side of Chicago. As for the food, we didn’t have any. The drinks were fine, but extremely overpriced. Essentially, you’re paying for what you can see, not what you’re ingesting.

Sprinkles

Oh, my beloved Sprinkles. I do think that my love of a good doughnut has now surpassed my love of a good cupcake, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to pass up Sprinkles if I pass it by. It was a total fluke that we ended up across the street from the Sprinkles on Walton. I picked up one strawberry and one banana cupcake to go. Had I time to go back later in the trip, I would have. The receipt I got after my purchase had a 2-for-1 deal on it for Father’s Day weekend, and I’m kind of sad I didn’t take advantage of that.

Chicago q

Mmmm, BBQ! Those fresh potato chips were amazing!

Mmmm, BBQ! Those fresh potato chips were amazing!

Wandering around on night three, we had no idea what we felt like eating or where to go, but it was a Friday night and the streets all around us were bustling with activity. As we continued walking, we found ourselves on Dearborn street facing an adorable white brick building with a sign that simply said, “q.” After determining it to be a BBQ joint, we head inside and we were lucky enough to get a table in the lounge. What I liked most is that you’re offered complimentary pickles (not my thing) and fresh homemade potato chips (we had three bowls). The food was pretty fantastic as well.

My dad said his pulled chicken sandwich was just so-so, but I loved all of the barbecue sauces that came with his meal. Both my mom and I ordered the mac and cheese with two meats – she got the brisket and pulled chicken and I ordered the brisket and pulled pork – and we were wowed by the portion size. We could have shared one skillet and it would have been plenty. However, I will say that the value is tremendous. A plain mac and cheese without any meat sells for $12, but for an extra $4, you get your choice of two meats, and they definitely don’t skimp out. I’d definitely recommend this place if you have a hearty appetite.

Latinicity Food Hall + Lounge (Block 37)

Inside the Latinicity food hall. Pretty good tacos!

Inside the Latinicity food hall. Pretty good tacos!

Created by world-renowned Chef Richard Sandoval, this is essentially a glorified food court with a fancier name, but I actually really liked it. Every entrant is given a swipe card that can be used at any vendor within the hall. Whatever you order is recorded as data on the card. When you’re ready to leave Latinicity, the cashier will tally up your total and you pay right there at the exit. It works well, and the food was decent. The sushi vendor was questionable though. It’s nowhere near Latin-inspired and the rolls that my dad bought were not that fresh. However, the tacos I got were much better than expected and the pork al pastor had wonderful flavour that reminded me of what I usually eat at the best Mexican restaurant back home in Edmonton. It was also pretty quiet there for a Saturday (probably because it’s in the middle of the business district), but I enjoyed that it wasn’t crowded.

Cafe Iberico

Seafood paella at Cafe Iberico.

Seafood paella at Cafe Iberico.

This tapas restaurant was recommended to us by the Chicago Greeter that we were matched up with while on our trip. It was just a few blocks from our hotel. After a long day, we were starving and we decided to give it a go. The food was quite tasty. We did fill up on an awful lot of complimentary bread, but the beef skewers, mussels and the seafood paella were great. The paella was a particularly good deal as the portion size was large and there was plenty of seafood – squid, clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp – all cooked until perfectly tender. My only qualm is that we were seated in, what I’m guessing is, the lower-level of the restaurant just off to the side from the deli. It felt cramped and was extremely noisy. I assumed that was the only space in the restaurant, but when I Googled the restaurant later, I found numerous photos of a more open space with much better decor and high ceilings that would have felt much more comfortable, so consider that if you ever find yourself dining there.

The Vig

The fantastic food at The Vig and a hipster bartender to boot!

The fantastic food at The Vig and a hipster bartender to boot!

Situated in the middle of Old Town, this was a bustling place to grab brunch on Father’s Day. It’s supposedly a sports parlour, but even with some TVs strategically placed around the space, The Vig managed to feel more elevated than that, likely owing to the 1950s style and decor. Fun touches like their drink “bible” (pages and pages of beer, wine and liquor listings) took it up another notch. The food wasn’t too shabby either. My dad decided to go a bit healthier that day and he opted for a salad. The veggies were piled high and the chicken was nicely seared. The whole dish tasted really fresh. My mom went for the skillet cinnamon bun, which was generously smothered with cream cheese icing. Because it wasn’t a high-rise bun, it didn’t quite have that fluffiness, but it still had that slight doughy quality that I like. I also dabbed some of that cream cheese frosting on my dish – chicken and waffles – to give the sweet side of my meal a twist over the usual maple syrup. The combo of the icing on my waffles with my juicy crisp chicken and their homemade hot sauce was spectacular.

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar

Our spread at Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar.

Our spread at Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar.

Another completely last-minute choice while we were in Chicago, Union Sushi was a happy surprise. Located on the corner of Franklin and Erie Streets, the restaurant has a very urban vibe with concrete walls covered in colourful graffiti. The service was top notch with our server providing some great recommendations and the manager even providing a complementary ice cream sundae for my dad since it was Father’s Day. My parents and I ended up sharing a handful of dishes, including the truffled tuna, buffalo duck wing, uni alfredo soba, barbeque king crab legs and the pacific coast rolls. The rolls I could probably skip on another visit, but everything else was top notch. I liked that the dishes veered from the traditional and were a bit more adventurous. Before we left, I had to try some dessert and after a nudge from our server, I was sold on the pumpkin mochi cake. The cake itself really did have that sort of chewy consistency of a rice paste ball, but it was a bit more dense, and the combination of the cream cheese ice cream, caramel and pumpkin seed brittle was worth all the calories.

Dolce Italian at The Godfrey Hotel

The cool interior of Dolce Italian and our continental breakfast.

The cool interior of Dolce Italian and our continental breakfast.

The interior of the restaurant is quite nice and they also have a nice patio area outside. However, I would say that the breakfast menu is lacking somewhat. Although, I shouldn’t complain so much considering we didn’t have to pay for our meal here (this requires a long story about weird thumping sounds above our room that went on all night). We each ordered the continental breakfast, consisting of self-serve pastries, fruit plates, yogurt, granola and juices. For an additional cost we were able to add any of the main breakfast entrees. We all chose the smoked salmon, which was served with a side of tater tots. The salmon was really good, but minimal. If we had paid full price, I don’t think the few slices of smoked salmon would have been a good value at all. Service was also slow and inconsistent. It took a while for us to get any condiments at our table and when we asked for extra cream cheese, the server forgot about it. All-in-all, it was alright for free. Perhaps their brunch, lunch or dinner menus are better.

Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge

Dinner at Niu Japanese Fusion.

Dinner at Niu Japanese Fusion.

After a long afternoon of me wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago and my parents exploring The Loop, we were in need of some sustenance. While we were resting for a bit in the Hyatt Regency, I started searching for nearby restaurants on OpenTable. After flip flopping between a couple of choices, we finally decided to give Niu a go. Just a short walk away, this place had that mood-setting dim lighting inside, but it looked nicely decorated and it was busy. We perused the menu for a bit, and eventually we made up our minds. I placed our order and asked our server if he thought that would be enough to share. He said it would be plenty. To start off we got the classic spider rolls as well as one of their current feature rolls. Both were fresh and excellent, although I’d probably lean more towards the spider as my favourite of the two. We also shared a couple of noodle dishes, one a spicy seafood noodle soup and the other, pad Thai. Those were much larger portions than expected and we had no problem filling up with them. The best part is that the food came to the table nice and hot, which my mom definitely appreciated. Dessert was spectacular, too. The matcha creme brulee was good enough to rival my favourite from Japonais Bistro at home in Edmonton, and the black sesame ice cream is just something that isn’t very common in north America, so it was great to give that a try as well.

Doughnut Vault

Doughnut Vault's adorable space.

Doughnut Vault’s adorable space.

I actually heard about Doughnut Vault at the beginning of the trip and I knew it was close to Merchandise Mart, but we missed passing it by on our first visit to MM, and it ended up being left to our last day. It’s a cute little shop with a blue door, a vintage cash register and a mail slot that welcomes both love letters and hate mail. Plus, they sell doughnuts. I’m the type that likes the really fun flavours and fillings that are starting to pop up at specialty doughnut shops. This place seems to go with the more traditional. We ended up getting an apple fritter, a blueberry glazed cake and an apricot jelly. The latter was by far my favourite (although, it was also the messiest) because the tartness of the jelly balanced the sweetness of the glaze, and the jelly helped to keep the doughnut moist. The blueberry glazed cake doughnut was okay, but I’m not typically a fan of the cake variety, anyway. I just thought I’d give it a try. The apple fritter was, honestly, a disappointment. It didn’t feel like it was soft or fresh enough. It had that greasy taste to the dough like they’d been left in the fryer too long, which is unfortunate. If it was fluffier, it could have been great, especially since they thought to dust them with powdered cinnamon, which I thought was a nice touch.

Glazed and Infused

Glazed and Infused doughnut shop.

Glazed and Infused doughnut shop.

While we were sitting on the sidewalk patio of the Vault, another patron told us about Glazed and Infused, so when we entered Merchandise Mart, I immediately used their Wi-Fi to find out exactly where it was located. Not too far away, we figured we could make it there before our lunch reservations. I guess Glazed and Infused is actually known for their chocolate dipped long john doughnuts with a strip of bacon on top of it. That may be their signature, but I didn’t opt for it. Instead, I ordered the PB & J and the mango pineapple to go. I split the mango pineapple donut with my parents when we were waiting at Chicago O’Hare for our flight home, and it was good. The glaze actually had little bits of mango or pineapple mixed into it, so you got great bursts of flavour. The PB & J I saved for breakfast at work the next day. I probably should have eaten it when it was fresh though. The dough was already a little firmer and the glaze had sort of melted. It was decent, but nothing compared to Vancouver’s Lucky’s Doughnuts.

Mercadito

Mercadito's Mexican offerings and interior.

Mercadito’s Mexican offerings and interior.

I took to OpenTable to find a place where we could enjoy a last meal in Chicago. Mercadido fit the bill. It was within walking distance from our hotel and Merchandise Mart and it served Mexican fusion food, one of my favourites. Again, we shared all of the dishes, including the trio of guacamole (traditional, mango and beets), blackened swordfish tacos, mac and cheese and fried plantains. Of the guacamole, the beets was unexpected and so tasty. I wish I could have had more of it. I actually loved the tacos. The swordfish was nice and thick and the cabbage-jalapeno slaw with the spicy aioli was a great accompaniment. My only dismay with the dish is that there was, in fact, cilantro on it, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the description on the menu (other items did list cilantro, so why the inconsistency in the write-ups?). The mac and cheese was alright. However, I thought they could have sized that up a bit. For over $7, it was quite a small plate. I’ve never had fried plantains before, but these were awesome. I love bananas, and these were crispy on the outside, but not battered, which I appreciated, and the ginger-jalapeno sauce was the perfect dip.

Firecakes

Check out all those doughnuts!

Check out all those doughnuts!

We passed by Firecakes on our way to Mercadito from Glazed and Infused, and I wasn’t satisfied leaving Chicago without trying a doughnut from here, too. So, before we headed back to our hotel after lunch, we made a short pit stop. This shop was really cute and they had a lot of flavours to choose from (way more than Doughnut Vault). I glanced back and forth at all the doughnuts on display and the price of each and, although, some caught my eye, I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that, for almost the same price as the giant vanilla glazed doughnut, some of the other options were much smaller. There seemed to be very little consistency between the pricing and sizing of their products. I did eventually pick the coconut cream. Because of the way it was bagged, I made sure to eat that one as soon as we returned to our hotel room. When I bit into it, I was slightly taken aback. Turns out it was a cake doughnut, not a yeast doughnut as I expected. But, thankfully, it was a really moist and fluffy (not dense) cake doughnut and it was much better than I would have thought.

Sights and Attractions

Chicago is a city with a lot of history. In fact, it has two histories. The one before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the one after. It’s known for it’s architecture and the river that runs through it, so there was a lot to see in a week and we managed to cover most of the main sights and attractions.

TheMART (Merchandise Mart)

This is an interesting building because it is open to the public and there are some neat designs for seating tucked throughout the main floor as well as some stores that are accessible to anyone. However, the majority of the building is relegated to professionals, so you’re not really able to see anything past the first and second stories. However, there are free design and architecture magazines galore, if you’re willing to carry them all. Still, it’s worth a visit. The building was created by Marshall Field & Co. back in the 1930s as a central marketplace for retail buyers, so it has a pretty long history in Chicago.

Chicago Riverwalk

Okay, so we didn’t quite make it down to the riverwalk, which is quite expansive. But, we did follow the river on street-level and I was able to see quite a bit of the riverwalk below. The river goes right through much of the Chicago’s beautiful skyline, so combined with the water, their riverwalk is quite the sight. There is currently construction happening along some areas of the river where they’re expanding the riverwalk, so pedestrians can continue all the way down. It should be pretty great when everything is done.

Wendella Boats

Our tour guide and some of the sites along the cruise.

Our tour guide and some of the sites along the cruise.

Wendella has been family-owned and operated since 1935. They claim to be the originators of Chicago’s architecture tour, and, if they are, they’re still doing a pretty fine job. We signed up for a river cruise on our first full day in the city (the coldest one during our week there), and for 75 minutes, I almost forgot about the chilly wind because our guide was just pumping out information and history non-stop. It was extremely educational and there were some amazing views of the Chicago’s skyline from a number of angles as we moved up and down the river. I’d highly recommend their tour.

Navy Pier

Celebrating it’s 100-year anniversary in 2016, Navy Pier was a must-see on this trip. There are some shops and restaurants as well as rental venues located at the pier. There is also the Children’s Museum as well as a few rides like the ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. The best thing about the pier is the spectacular views you’ll see of Chicago’s skyline and the water. If it wasn’t so cold out that second night in the city, it would have been a nice place to sit and stare out at the landscape.

Magnificent Mile

The best way to describe the Magnificent Mile is to liken it to NYC’s Fifth Avenue. It’s a 13-block street of high-end shops, most of which we skipped on this trip since it was never our intention to go on a spree. We did, however, walk this area often because it was usually busier than the streets that ran parallel, especially at night, and because many of the more well-known buildings that my dad wanted to see were situated just off the Mile. If you’re looking for some hustle and bustle, this is the place to be.

Museum of Contemporary Art

This is one of the more affordable museums in Chicago and they seemed to have some interesting exhibits, so we decided to stop by and check it out. My favourite current exhibition is from The Propeller Group, which runs until November 13, 2016. Their pieces are tactile and visual and a couple have definitely stuck out in my mind after seeing them. Their short film, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music was especially enthralling. I’m not sure what’s the museum will be showing in the future, but it’s a decent one to visit if you have a couple of hours to kill.

Chicago Water Tower

Passing by the Chicago Water Tower.

Passing by the Chicago Water Tower.

One of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, we really just passed this one by as we walked the Magnificent Mile. We simply viewed it from outside. But, I guess they actually have free exhibits inside the building, so it’s too bad didn’t realize that at the time.

John Hancock Center

This is an iconic building in Chicago known for it’s striking industrial design. Mainly allocated for business use, it also houses the 360 Chicago observation deck and the Signature Room restaurant and lounge.

Chicago Cultural Center + Chicago Greeter Tour

The Chicago Cultural Center was previously known as the first Chicago Public Library. Even though the facade of the building still hints towards its history, its purpose has changed immensely since it was completed in 1897. Prior to it being established as the nation’s first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue in 1991, it was actually sitting neglected before it was named a city landmark and the space was restored. Now, it’s home to rotating exhibits and performances throughout the year, and you can still see the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome on the south side of the building as well as another renaissance patterned glass dome designed by Healy & Millet on the north side of the building. Chicago Greeter also has a desk in the lobby of the building for last-minute InstaGreeter tours around The Loop and Millennium Park. We pre-registered for a Chicago Greeter tour prior to arriving in the the city, so we were paired with a guide who asked us about some of our interests and she created a 2-hour tour of public art (Did you know that Marc Chagall created a mosaic mural or that Pablo Picasso designed a giant metal sculpture for the city? Or, that inside the Marquette Building lay hidden for years some gorgeous mosaic tiled murals?) around Millennium Park and The Loop for us.

Chicago Design Museum

Located inside Block 37 on the 3rd floor is the Chicago Design Museum. Limited-engagement exhibitions rotate through the small space. The one we happened upon is called Unfolded: Made with Paper and it is running until the end of July 2016.

The Palmer House Hilton

Some of the opulence found in The Palmer House Hilton.

Some of the opulence found in The Palmer House Hilton.

A famous and historic hotel in Chicago’s Loop. This is a lavish building that has been built and rebuilt on the same site three times. With intricate details and design, it’s considered to be another iconic Chicago landmark.

Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain)

It had been a long day by the time we made it to Grant Park, so we pretty much just went straight for Buckingham Fountain. At first we were worried we wouldn’t get close to the fountain since there was some sort of craft beer festival taking place on the grounds, but once we circled around all of those tents, we managed to see the famous fountain. It’s definitely pretty, especially with the skyline behind it. Sitting on the benches that surround the park made for a lovely view.

Maggie Daley Park

The giant rock climbing wall.

The giant rock climbing wall.

Created as a kids park, I think it is equally enticing for adults. Granted, we didn’t quite venture far enough into it to be overwhelmed by children, but it’s pretty sprawling with lots of green grass and a giant rock climbing wall. It also links, by bridge, to Millennium Park.

Millennium Park

This is where you’ll find the famous Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate) and Crown Fountain. It’s also home to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry), which played host to the Grant Park Music Festival and Flight of the Conchords while we were there. Unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy the latter, but it is a fantastic outdoor venue that reminded me of a more upscale version of the concert pavilion in Hawrelak Park in Edmonton. Last, but not least, was Lurie Garden, a 5-acre space that pays tribute to Chicago’s marshy origins.

Old Town

I quite enjoyed walking through Old Town Chicago. Of course, it’s now full of fun independent stores, coffee shops and eateries, but it still has some of that historic vibe going on. Strolling down the main street of Old Town, plaques will become apparent. Stop and read them to learn more about the area and what efforts the city is making to revitalize the neighbourhood.

Chicago History Museum

We popped inside this building to take a peek, but we didn’t pay the entrance to go through the whole thing. What I was able to see in the front entrance, I liked, and I suspect it would be a really interesting museum to poke around. There was also an excellent cafe-style space that was accessible to the public called Chicago Authored. It’s a multimedia-based gallery with a crowd-sourced collection of works by writers from the past, present and future that define the character of Chicago. Patrons are asked to bookmark pages that they feel speak to their idea of Chicago and to also fill out postcards about their Chicago experience. It was fun and interactive. The museum also has a cute little gift shop where I found a great pair of glass earrings, which I saw at another store later on for almost double the price.

Lincoln Park

It was scorching hot when we decided to wander through Lincoln Park, but it’s very picturesque, and if you follow along the boardwalk, it will eventually lead you to the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lincoln Park Conservatory (both free for everyone all year-round).

Rock N Roll McDonald’s (River North)

We passed this McDonald’s by numerous times during our trip. It was located just a couple of blocks from our hotel and you really cannot miss it. Considered as one of the flagship McD’s, it’s a large, 2-story building with the top floor created using floor to ceiling windows and a 360 degree view of its surroundings. The rear half of the second floor also has a museum with memorabilia that dates back to the 1950s and spans all of the following decades since. Each section of the restaurant directly next to that decade’s display is decorated to look like that time period.

Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

A small, but interactive museum, my dad loved it. It’s all to do with American currency and its history. There are various iterations of $1,000,000 throughout the museum, so you can imagine what it’d be like to have all that money in your account, and you can even leave with about $370 US in cash (shredded, of course). NOTE: To enter the museum, you will be led by security through a metal detector and your bags will be checked. Photos can be taken once inside the museum, but not within the lobby of the Federal Reserve building.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Founded in 1879, this is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States. This was the last major attraction I saw on this trip, and I spent over four hours perusing the museum’s galleries. Having been to The Met in NYC and The Louvre in Paris, it’s difficult to say which is the best. They all have their strengths. At the Art Institute, they really do have an amazing collection of impressionist artwork though. There was also a great temporary exhibition of American Art in the 1930s. I snapped many photos of pieces I wanted to remember as I walked through the whole museum as a lot of them spoke to me or intrigued me. The Thorne Miniature Rooms collection was also quite fascinating for the novelty of it.

Overall, Chicago turned out to be a wonderful city. Sure, it can be gritty and the streets are populated by a lot of homeless beings, but the people we came in contact with were often friendly and helpful, and we had no problem filling our days. However, should I ever go back to Chicago, there’s still plenty left for me to see and do.

I didn’t make it to the Adler Planetarium or to Wrigley Field. Granted, I’m not much of a baseball fan. Hockey is more my thing. Maybe next time I can see a Chicago Blackhawks game. My boyfriend would probably like that, especially if they’re playing against his team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like the High Line in NYC (one of my favourite places in that city), the 606 is an elevated urban park that combines public art, bike trails and landscape design while connecting a number of trendy neighbourhoods. It’d be interesting to compare the two. Plus, there are definitely more doughnut shops for me to visit.

For the time being, I’ll have to be content with this first experience, and, don’t worry, I certainly am. I’m just always thinking ahead. So, until next time!

Vancouver & Whistler 2016: Trip Recap and Photostream

The camp/cabin spot also had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers. I had to stop for photos.

The camp/cabin spot across the road from Shannon Falls had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers on the grounds. I had to stop for photos.

Towards the end of April, I finally decided to book a trip to Vancouver during the month of May. A bit of a whirlwind, I convinced my boyfriend to join me for an extended weekend that would also encompass an overnight jaunt to Whistler and Squamish.

The majority of the vacation was quite low-key; there isn’t a whole lot we did that most who’ve been or have researched anything about Vancouver wouldn’t already be aware of. But, I always like to share my adventures with those that may happen upon this blog, and a big part of that is having a chance to showcase some of my favourite photographs from my holidays.

So, armed with a small duffle bag of necessities and my camera, we set off for four days of visits with friends/relatives, food, shopping, nature and a whole lot of walking.

Day 1

We arrived in Vancouver by 7:30am, and our Airbnb wasn’t going to be ready until about ten o’clock. Making our way from the airport to Main Street, which is where we were staying for two nights, took a little while. The rest of our time was killed at a coffee shop just down the block from our rental and at the grocery store where we picked up some food to cook breakfast after check-in.

Once we settled into the apartment (it was an excellent unit and location, by the way), we met up with my friend at El Camino’s on Main Street for brunch. The Latin American food was so flavourful. I also liked that they were playful with the eggs benny dish I ordered – corn bread replaced the usual English muffin – and the house made hot sauce is awesome.

I couldn’t start my trip off without some doughnuts from Lucky’s. After brunch, we headed north down Main to 49th Parallel to pick some up. They were just as good as I recalled. No word of a lie, I’d been thinking about these desserts masked as breakfast staples for more than a year, and attempts to have them mailed to me or brought home for me were thwarted time and again. Every calorie eaten from Lucky’s Doughnuts was worth it.

With our early rise to get to Vancouver, we took it easy in the afternoon. Following a short cat nap, we strolled to Queen Elizabeth Park, which was about five minutes away from our Airbnb. The gardens there are lovely and the park provides wonderful views of the city’s downtown.

We finished off the night enjoying a meal and drinks with friends at Rogue, and then we ambled through Gastown for a bit before a nightcap of dessert and beer at the Flying Pig.

Day 2

Compared to the first day of the trip, this was a relatively relaxed Sunday.

At my boyfriend’s recommendation, we started off with lunch at Jinya Ramen where my cousin and my friend joined us. Sometimes people question ramen as a dish to be appreciated, and I get it. The resemblance to a bowl of instant noodles is uncanny. However, ramen noodles that are made well have a bite that is springy, and the broth should be tasty, yet not overly salty. Jinya Ramen fit the bill. I could have gone for seconds, and I would have, if anyone else was willing to join me. Alas, there were no takers.

One of the best surprises during our holiday was getting to visit with artist Jon Shaw. My boyfriend wanted to catch up with him while we were visiting, and Jon was gracious enough to invite all of us to his studio. Jon had just presented seven Star Wars inspired pieces at a show in his apartment/studio the week before we arrived, so most of them were still up on the walls. I had seen Jon’s work on his website prior to meeting him, and his talent is impressive. In fact, the images online don’t seem to do his art justice. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to own one of his originals some day.

The rest of our afternoon was spent walking around downtown and then back on Main Street. On Main, I did some more shopping at one of my favourite stores, Front & Company. The shop stocks fantastic pieces of jewellery, and I’m never able to walk out without at least a few items (or ten). I also popped into Barefoot Contessa where I found a couple of other whimsical accessories to bring home with me. The best part about buying jewellery is that the pieces are small enough to fit into your luggage when all you’ve got is a duffle bag smaller than a carry-on suitcase.

Personally, I love Main Street because it’s a quiet neighbourhood that has plenty of coffee shops, food establishments and many shops (tons of antique stores, if that floats your boat) to peruse. It’s sort of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Vancouver’s true downtown, which I really appreciate.

Later in the evening, we met up with more friends for dinner and drinks at Portland Craft, located on Main between 22 and 23 Avenues. This place was chosen on a whim because we happened to be waiting for a bus right in front of the pub’s doors earlier in the day. They have late night happy hour that runs for two hours before close from Sunday to Thursday, and the prices are reasonable. In fact, the pizzas that were served at a mere $8 each were phenomenal. But, honestly, all of the food exceeded my expectations.

Day 3

Since they would make for a good snack on our road trip to Whistler, we started the day off right with some more doughnuts from Lucky’s. Then we went for a quick drive through Stanley Park before we were off on the winding Sea to Sky Highway (a.k.a. BC Highway 99, north of Vancouver).

In Whistler, we were ravenous, so we hunkered down at BrewHouse for lunch. The pizza I had hit the spot. When we were done eating, we wandered around the shops (my favourite was Ruby Tuesday Accessories) and took photos by the Olympic rings before taking our leave.

With beautiful views on the way to Whistler Village and even more breathtaking ones on the way back as we headed to Squamish for the night, it was a lazy, yet, somehow, tiring day.

Day 4

Fresh from a deep slumber, we woke up to the sight of The Chief through the window of our room at the Sandman in Squamish. We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel for fuel, and then we took the show on the road. We made a few stops between Squamish and Vancouver, the best of which was Shannon Falls. It’s definitely a tourist spot since a lot of buses were parked and waiting. But, it wasn’t overly crowded and it was a nice sight. More photo opportunities were found across the way in the camp/cabin area as well. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s literally right across the road from the entrance to the Shannon Falls ramp.

When we got back to Vancouver, my boyfriend drove us up to a viewing spot on Cypress Hill where we were able to get a view of the entire city. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly clear out – it was quite smoggy – but I definitely saw the appeal of the location. On a day when the visibility is good, it’d be the perfect spot to grab some panoramic shots.

With time left for lunch, we decided to try a Mexican restaurant that a friend of ours recommended. Sal y Limon is a casual dining establishment where you order at the counter, you’re given a number and they’ll bring the food to you when it’s ready. I felt like having quesadillas. The woman working the till said they weren’t large, so I ordered two: vegetarian and al pastor. Well, they were each a pretty darn big ten inches, and my stomach was more than full by the time I finished them. My boyfriend tried one of the tacos (actually sold individually) and also a torta. He said the taco was great, but the torta was a bit underwhelming. The food didn’t live up to my expectations either. Maybe I’ve been spoiled at home over the last few years. Considering Edmonton is home to Tres Carnales, which has been named one of the best restaurants in Canada, I was kind of comparing the food at Sal y Limon to the flavours there. The al pastor was just very different in taste, but still decent. Surprisingly, I quite enjoyed the vegetarian quesadilla though. I think it was the zucchini and all the cheese.

One more visit to Lucky’s Doughnuts on Main was on the agenda. It was my last chance to have them in who knows how long again. I bought a half dozen to take home with me, and believe me, I carried those things all the way back home like the box was my baby or something. I will say that, apparently, I wasn’t the only one. The attendant who checked me in for my flight back to Edmonton told me I was the fourth person she’d seen that day carrying a box of doughnuts home. It also sounded like mine were the first she’d seen from Lucky’s, so now it may be my mission to find out where the other ones came from. Doughnut taste tests might have to be part of my next trip to Vancouver.

Anyway, a final drink was had at Colony prior to leaving Main and dropping off our rental vehicle downtown. This place has some great daily specials, and it’s a chill spot to hang out for a while.

As always, I hope that those who happen upon these travel posts enjoy my photographs and may also benefit from some of the information shared about each city.