Mellow & Magnificent Maritimes: Trip Recap & Gallery

About a week and a half before Canada celebrated 150 years of confederation, I found myself travelling to the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick for the first time. Had I not met my boyfriend, who knows when I would have taken the time to visit the eastern side of the country. After all, it’s usually less expensive to fly half way around the world than it is to make your way from one end of Canada to the other.

But, we had good reason to go. We were off to visit his family in Dalhousie, New Brunswick with plans for stops in Charlottetown, P.E. I. and Halifax, Nova Scotia. With no set itinerary in place, each day ended up being a surprise. I’ll recap everything as best as I can. Should anyone be interested in more details about sights or activities mentioned, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me through the comments below.

P.E.I.

We took a red eye flight from Edmonton to Halifax. Early the next morning, as soon as we deplaned, we picked up our rental car and drove straight to Prince Edward Island. Along the way we grabbed photos with the giant blueberry in Oxford, Nova Scotia and the friendly potato statue in front of Blue Roof Distillers (tours and vodka tastings are available) in Malden, New Brunswick.

The Confederation Bridge

A few hours later, we eventually made it to the New Brunswick side of the Confederation Bridge. We took a quick break there and walked up to a viewpoint to snap a few pictures of the 12.9 km bridge. I wasn’t aware of the fact that it’s the longest bridge in the world to cross over ice-covered water, and the sheer length of it didn’t actually hit me until we were driving the full distance. From a construction standpoint, it truly is a feat of engineering.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we set foot on the other side of the bridge, we decided to pop into the information centre. There, we picked up a pamphlet called “The Lighthouses of Prince Edward Island.” It just seemed like the appropriate way to spend our time in this province. I immediately recognized one of the photos from my research before the trip, so we headed there as soon as we’d gotten a scoop of Cowconut Cream Pie ice cream in a fresh waffle cone from the Cows shop.

As we continued, we paused for pictures of the cheeky signs at the Kool Breeze Ice Cream Barn and we also picked up some much needed sustenance from the Da Mama’s Kitchen shack.

West Point Lighthouse

The drive from the visitor centre to the West Point Lighthouse was about an hour and a half. The 69 foot tall navy and white lighthouse was built in 1875 and manned until 1963. It is one of the most recognizable spots on the island and it has actually been converted into an inn and museum. Those who are keen to stay the night there have the option to do so. From the lighthouse is easy access to the beach and boardwalk.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When we were done exploring the area around the lighthouse, we made our way back to Charlottetown. We’d booked a room at the new Sydney Boutique Inn & Suites. Recently opened, a portion of the building and grounds were still under construction, but that didn’t take away from the charm of the place. Unique touches from the converted 1857 Notre Dame Convent still remain alongside the updated, luxurious rooms. Shortly after checking in, we washed up and took a quick nap before returning to our adventures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Charlottetown is fairly small, so it’s easy to walk to most places. My boyfriend led us to The Gahan House, which is both a brewery and restaurant. On a Thursday night, it was full of people. However, we lucked out and snagged a comfortable window-side table that overlooked the patio and the street. We shared some beer tasters and ordered a much deserved dinner. While I have to say that my Lobster Gnocchi seemed to lack in the lobster (and rock crab) department, it was still pretty delicious. Yet, the definite star of the show was the Big G Burger. Stacked with beef, Cows white cheddar, maple stout pulled pork, Sriracha slaw, bacon and apple chutney, it was phenomenal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We ended the evening with a stroll along the waterfront where it looked like the city was gearing up for Canada Day celebrations.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next morning, before we left, we checked out Prince Edward Battery in Victoria Park. Then, on the drive out of Charlottetown, we spotted the flagship Cows Creamery that advertised factory tours. The tour itself is self-guided with a video introduction at the beginning and video screens as you move throughout the glass-protected areas of t-shirt production, ice cream making and cheese aging. No visit to a Cows shop is complete without a cone.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Halifax

Welcome to Nova Scotia

With Charlottetown in our rear view mirror, we were on our way back to Halifax for the start of the weekend. It’s a must to take a photo at the beautiful “Welcome to Nova Scotia” sign with it’s miniature lighthouse and pretty landscaping. We also noticed wind turbines galore as we drove down the highway.

Upon entering Halifax, my boyfriend gave me a quick tour of the city by car; he showed me where he used to live in the city and then he pointed out the Dalhousie campus where my dad went to university for architecture. Afterwards, we quickly checked into the Hampton Inn by Hilton Halifax Downtown, which provided us with a comfortable two-night stay and free breakfast in a revitalized part of the city. Parking along the street was free over the weekend, so we found a spot for our rental and hoofed it the majority of the time.

As we wandered around Halifax, we noted an abundance of new development towards the waterfront and major construction down the usually busy Argyle Street. The latter was a bit of a disappointment as my boyfriend was hoping for me to experience the usual lively atmosphere found at the bars and restaurants along that stretch. No matter though. We made the best of it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Late reservations were made for dinner at The Bicycle Thief, which meant we had some time to kill before we ate. Therefore, a good chunk of our evening was spent at the Public Gardens. The grounds are pristine, green and lush. Each space felt inviting. Had the weather not taken a turn, we could have lingered a lot longer. Unfortunately, the wind started to pick up and the sky became cloudy and we needed to find an alternative venue. As fast as we tried to book it towards the waterfront, we still got caught in the rain. Thankfully, we were able to take cover under a doorway until the downpour subsided and we remained minimally wet.

With the storm quieted, we sprinted down the street and, in a split second, we opted to pop into what turned out to be Shuck Seafood & Raw Bar. Had we not already made plans for supper, I would have just stayed here instead. But, since we only had about half an hour to fill, we stuck with drinks only. My boyfriend kept it simple by ordering a pint of beer. I, on the other hand, asked what kind of non-alcoholic beverages they had. To my amazement, they were very attentive. The bartender came over to find out more about what flavours I like in my drinks and then he went back to his station to whip something up for me. What arose was a concoction that included mango puree, peppercorn flower, grenadine and pineapple foam. When the bartender dropped it off, he told me that if I wasn’t happy with it, he’d try his hand at creating another mocktail to my liking. That wasn’t necessary though. It was just slightly sweet and finished off with a sour note, and that was good enough. The best part was that my drink only cost $4. Not too shabby for an impromptu drop-in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Finally, it was time for dinner. The Bicycle Thief (paying homage to the classic film of the same name) is a happening Italian restaurant situated right along the waterfront. Despite the chilly weather, a few guests braved the cold by sitting out on the patio. We, however, we sat inside. My first impression of the place was that it was incredibly crowded and loud. Then, when we were brought to our seats, I observed how out of place this particular table was. It was angled oddly at a sharp corner in the restaurant and my chair backed into the couple next to us. Yet, the place was full, it was late and we were hungry, so we settled in and perused the menu. I will say that the complimentary focaccia bread and butter provided at the start of the meal was soft and fresh. The pasta dishes were so-so though. We didn’t feel that they were anything special; the Spaghettini ‘Aglio e Olio’ in a fresh herb and lemon gremolata with jumbo shrimp, scallops and mussels fared better with a decent amount of seafood and punchy flavours, but my boyfriend said his Linguini Fra Diavola was bland. Paired with the fact that our table was jostled by passing staff on a couple of occasions (it actually slid away at one point), our experience was severely dampened. We politely mentioned our feelings to the server and she promptly spoke with management about the situation. When she returned, she offered us free dessert, which we accepted (the chocolate cake was wonderful), and we saw that the staff was actually taking our complaint seriously by making arrangements to have the table removed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On our second morning in Halifax, we took a drive to Peggy’s Cove. Heavy fog enveloped us almost the entire way there and didn’t dissipate as we arrived at the lighthouse. A biting wind also deterred us from staying longer. The misty air provided some interesting photos, but it’s nothing like what I imagine it would be to see the place on a clear day. Maybe next time.

Not ready to head straight back to the city, we made a detour to Fisherman’s Cove. The fishing village has been in existence for 200 years and has since been restored to house several shops and studios along the boardwalk. The tide was low while we were there, so it was also possible to step off of the walkway and right onto the sandy beach.

A drink at 2 Crows Brewing Co.

When we got back into the city, we made our way to a friend’s home for dinner. Then, before calling it a night, we capped off our evening with a drink at 2 Crows Brewing Co., conveniently located right next door to our hotel. The space is awesome as the brewery is completely open and in view of patrons as they sit and drink. There’s also an expansive outdoor sidewalk patio that would be lovely on a warm day.

A gorgeous day out at Point Pleasant Park.

The following morning was our last in Halifax. Prior to leaving, we trekked through some of the wooded paths and along the water of Point Pleasant Park. On a sunny, blue sky day, it was an excellent way to finish our time in the city.

Shediac, NB

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Shediac is known as the lobster capital of the world. Hence the World’s Largest Lobster that greets visitors. It’s a cute place with pretty beaches. Yet, we simply stopped through for the photo op and some lunch. We took a chance on Kuro Sushi. The online reviews were top notch. Since it was mid-afternoon, the place was empty. My boyfriend ordered the California roll and tempura shrimp roll. The latter was fine, but the California roll left much to be desired. The issue with his and mine was that the avocado was nowhere near ripe enough, but they served it anyway. My combo also included six pieces of sushi (salmon, tuna and white tuna). Those were fine. The fish was thinly sliced on top of the rice, but it tasted good.

Dalhousie, NB

Inch Arran Beach

Our main stop on the Maritimes tour was Dalhousie, New Brunswick. This is where my boyfriend’s parents live. The town has lost a couple of its largest employers over the years, so the majority of residents are often retired or live there part-time during the summer. It’s small and charming with many properties that overlook the water and provide views of Quebec across the way. There’s a great gift shop in town that offers visitors a chance to purchase handcrafted items made by local artisans. My favourite thing? The Bon Ami ice cream shop where I went three times during our week there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The day after we arrived, we ventured to the Inch Arran Lighthouse and followed the shoreline as far as we could go before turning back towards town. There are an abundance of mussel shells scattered along the beach by birds. But, if you look closely enough, you may find tiny crabs and seashells as well as coveted sea glass.

One of the things I looked forward to most while there was lobster dinner. The family had ordered 20 pounds of fresh fished lobster for a mid-week supper. They boiled the lobster and then let it cool for about 15 minutes in salted water. When they were served, the meat was still warm and juicy. The lobster was succulent and flavourful with absolutely no need for anything like garlic or butter. My only qualm is that it makes for a messy meal. Yet, the divine and filling meat is worth it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I also loved our day canoeing. The weather cooperated and plenty of sunscreen had to be slathered on in preparation for time out on the Restigouche River. This was considered a beginner-level run on the water and it was very easy going. All of our boating equipment (canoes, kayaks, paddles and life jackets) were rented from Nature Adventure out of the village of Matapédia in Gaspésie, Quebec. For the day it worked out to $50 per person.

That same evening, we waited until dark to set off fireworks, which were also purchased from the reserve in Quebec. They sell huge packages of fireworks at a more reasonable cost (although smaller boxes could be found at Walmart or even at the local Bon Ami). Although the fireworks didn’t go as high as the ones set up by professionals, they were still impressive and just as sparkly. These also served as our own early Canada Day celebration.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If anyone is interested, we also took a couple of drives out of Dalhousie to neighbouring villages and cities, including: Charlo, Campbellton and Bathurst. Charlo was passed by a few times during our visit, but the best stop we made while there was for a freshly baked pie from Le Moulin a Café. They’ve won numerous accolades for their food and baking. In Campbellton, one will find Sugarloaf Provincial Park. While there, my boyfriend and his brothers climbed Sugarloaf Mountain. Admittedly, I did not join them at the top. I let them do their thing. I was not equipped with the proper footwear and it’s my understanding that it gets a little perilous towards the peak. I did see the photos of the view from the apex though, and it looked spectacular. Bathurst was more of an excuse to take a scenic drive, but we found ourselves at Nectar for lunch. It’s situated right next to the Bay of Chaleur, so there is a pretty vista while dining. Our one complaint was with the portion of meat in the sandwich my boyfriend ordered (four ounces of chicken barely made a dent in the pretzel bun). Otherwise, the food tasted decent and the prices were fair.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When our vacation was all over, we had to drive back from Dalhousie, New Brunswick to Halifax. There was break for food at Joey’s Pizza & Pasta in Sackville, the town of my boyfriend’s alma mater, Mount Allison University. They make some great pizzas and garlic fingers with a super fluffy donair sauce.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If I could sum up our holiday in five words, they’d be: quaint, relaxed, picturesque, welcoming and lobster. This type of trip is essentially the complete opposite of what I typically do when I’m away from home. Most days in the Maritimes were extremely laid-back. We spent them ambling to the ice cream shop, hanging out along the waterfronts, driving about town or down the highway just for the sake of exploring and sitting by the fire pit at night. While it may not be the ideal trip for someone as antsy as me, it’s certainly perfect for those who really want to get away from the hustle and bustle and just unwind without a care in the world.

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.

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.

The State of Things: A Nevada Photostream

IMG_20160229_195058

A trio of landscapes from Death Valley.

It seems that I go to Las Vegas, travelling through the state of Nevada, so often that there wouldn’t be anything left for me to do or see. When it is taken into account that I was just there in November for my 30th birthday, one would wonder what the point is of going again so soon. Partially, I needed a getaway from work. It also turned out to be one of the less expensive options at this time of year, despite the terrible exchange rate at the moment. Lastly, even though we’ve had a much warmer winter than typical of Edmonton, the mid-twenty highs in Las Vegas were still a welcome change.

On this occasion, aside from a couple of shows, my friend and I avoided the Strip. This time we stayed downtown. About a block from Fremont Street, it was a completely different experience from the Strip. With many independent restaurants in the area, it was great to see another side of Las Vegas. My only qualm is that there is live music played every single night on Fremont, and it’s loud. The sound was manageable after the weekend, but, Saturday night, the music was so amplified that we could hear it loud and clear through the shower in our hotel room. The music was also relentless, being performed until at least 4 o’clock in the morning. Thank goodness for the earplugs that the Downtown Grand Hotel supplied to us.

Otherwise, this vacation was really relaxing. We sampled food from some new places, went to play games at the arcade and ventured all around Nevada. As usual, I’m sharing my photographs here in the hopes of inspiring others to branch outside of the familiar in Vegas and to travel, in general.

To read past posts about Vegas and Nevada, please check out the Travel category or do a search on my blog.

A mix of things seen on the trip.

A mix of things seen on the trip.

Food

Le Thai

A bowl of the spicy eggplant with tofu.

A bowl of the spicy eggplant with tofu.

Affordable meals, particularly at lunch time. We actually missed the lunch specials, but the prices are still good. My friend and I probably could have split one dish and it would have been enough to comfortably fill both of our stomachs.

Portofino

This was a great find on the myVEGAs app. Redeemed for only 9,000 points, we received a voucher that gave us one free entree with purchase of another. The cocktail we each ordered was refreshing. The pasta was delicious, but very rich, and it was a struggle for me to finish my dish, although I still managed to do so. We were surprised that we didn’t know of the restaurant’s existence since we actually stayed in the Mirage hotel on our last holiday in Vegas.

The Perch

A cute restaurant located in the Downtown Container Park, we were treated to a lovely, light meal. I had bought a Groupon that included a shared appetizer, two entrees, two desserts and a whole bottle of wine. It was indulgent, yet I didn’t feel overly stuffed, which is a good thing. The beef carpaccio was fresh and thinly sliced, and although there was some cilantro in the salsa verde that topped my salmon, it was a very tasty dish with the roasted Brussels sprouts and asparagus. As for dessert, the kitchen was out of everything that they would normally have had available, but they threw the chocolate dipped berries together for us.

JinJu Chocolates

The chocolate display at JinJu.

The chocolate display at JinJu.

Again, I came across a Groupon for this store, which is also located at the Downtown Container Park. The voucher I purchased included their signature box of 64 assorted chocolates. All of the chocolates are beautifully crafted, looking like little works of art. At over $1 CDN per chocolate with the deal, these are not inexpensive, but the Groupon definitely helped.

Pink Box Doughnuts

On day three of our holiday, we planned to road trip across the border into California and further north in Nevada. Knowing we’d have to be up earlier than most places were open, we sought out any place where we’d be able to stock up on snacks for a full day of driving. Pink Box fit the bill. The Summerlin location is open 24 hours a day, so the doughnuts are made fresh throughout the day. Closer to cake style, they were fluffy. However, I did find that the glazes were very sugary, leaving my teeth feeling less than ideal.

Park on Fremont

A really fun restaurant with an enviable patio space, this was a charming and quirky getaway from the hustle and bustle of Fremont Street just a block down the road. Portion sizes were large and filling.

Cafe 6 at Palms Place

One of our last meals in Vegas was at Cafe 6. Off the strip at Palms Place, they specialize in burgers, and great ones at that. I ended up with the Smoke Out, which I’m guessing is a top choice at the restaurant since they use a photo of it in much of their advertising. I can safely say that the ads didn’t point me in the wrong direction.

Attractions

Fremont Street

Although we stayed nearby, we really spent very little time on Fremont. We often went out of the area instead. I do love all the bright neon signs down the block. Old and new, they reminded me of our tour through the Neon Boneyard a couple trips back.

Graffiti Art – Downtown Las Vegas

Driving around downtown Las Vegas early in the morning, we attempted to find a bakery to pick up some breakfast before heading to Valley of Fire. The bakery happened to be closed, but we came across some fantastic graffiti art. If I knew of a walking tour, I would have signed us up as I’m curious about the stories behind some of the pieces. The pictures here don’t even account for everything within that area. Maybe next time we can explore more.

Downtown Container Park

A park that consists of shipping containers made into storefronts and restaurant spaces, this was a fun Las Vegas destination. Most of the businesses create an outer circle around a play zone that caters to children. There’s a big screen on the one end where various music videos were projected as we ate dinner at The Perch.

Valley of Fire

We’d already been to Valley of Fire in November, but we only made it through about half of the park. This time, we checked out the Seven Sisters, the Petrified Log, Elephant Rock and Mouse’s Tank. The sunny day saw that the open valley heated up quickly, so even though we started early, it was scorching hot (to us) by noon.

Lake Mead

From afar, Lake Mead looks nice enough, but, up close, it was kind of a sad sight. Other than the fact that you can see just how much the water in the lake has receded over the years, the lake is home to dozens, maybe hundreds of seagulls and very little vegetation. There’s no actual sand, and it seems unappealing to swim in the water. Granted, a lot of visitors to the beach didn’t seem to care.

Clark County Wetlands Park

For a wetlands park, we expected more water than we saw. Also, the park could do with a lot more signage. Whenever there was a fork in the road, we just made a decision and walked. Yet, we really had no clue where we were going or just how far away were getting from the parking lot. There was little wildlife to be seen, too. Perhaps it’s the sort of man made nature of the park that contributed to that sense. Otherwise, it was a quiet, peaceful place that might be better to wander through later in the spring or during the summer.

Death Valley, CA

Aside from the questionable gas fill up at the Alien Brothel on the way to Death Valley in California, this was one of my favourite days on this trip. Within reasonable driving distance from Vegas, this national park is vast with varying landscapes throughout. Unbeknownst to us, we even happened upon a super bloom year (millions of wildflowers growing in the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America due to extreme rain in the fall), which hasn’t occurred in a decade.

Ghost Town of Rhyolite

The ghost town of Rhyolite is just a minute away from the Goldwell Open Air Museum that we had on our itinerary. I’m sure that some of the building were quite gorgeous in their day. It’s actually quite sad to see what’s become of this gold mining town.

Goldwell Open Air Museum

What an oddity this open air museum is. Large scale pieces of art are scattered around a parcel of land in Goldwell, Nevada. If the art, the store, and the barn in the far distance wasn’t there, you’d assume it had been abandoned as well.

Goldfield, NV and the International Car Forest of the Last Church

The most northern location on our road trip, the International Car Forest is easy to miss. We stopped in the tiny town of Goldfield to ask for directions. Turns out the forest was simply a minute’s drive away, but somewhat hidden from the road. While wandering among all the cars that had been left behind and tagged by graffiti artists, I wondered what exactly has gone on in this place. It seemed a perfect location for middle-of-the-night raves, and is apparently the backdrop for a music video. I also questioned how exactly these cars were placed where they were and if anyone could drop their decrepit vehicle there. Needless to say, it’s an interesting vista for photographers, and it’s another random place, dotting the American landscape, for road trippers to see should they be inclined.

Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Garden

I really enjoy getting the behind the scenes look at various businesses. Whether it’s touring a brewery or a guitar factory, they’re often fascinating. Ethel M does things a bit differently with a self-guided viewing lane at their chocolate factory. Large glass windows allow you to peek into the factory at the assembly line, and there are plaques and videos that provide information along the way. While we went through during their suggested hours, the factory was actually very quiet that day. Most of the areas lay empty, save for a few maintenance workers checking out the equipment and some staff filling heart shaped boxes with chocolate. It’s still a neat concept though.

Equally as quiet was their botanical cactus garden, located just outside of the factory and store. It is not a particularly large garden, but they have plenty of variety when it comes to cacti, making for a somewhat educational visit through a colourful, dry desert space.

Pinball Hall of Fame

The Pinball Hall of Fame was one of my favourite places. From the outside, the building doesn’t look all that appealing, but once you enter the dimly lit warehouse space, you’re greeted by several rows of pinball machines that span decades. Far from the look, but don’t touch mentality of most museums, the Pinball Hall of Fame is part history, part arcade. You can read the index cards placed inside most of the machines to learn more about the origins of each, or you can play the games as the majority are still in great working condition. It took a few games to get the hang of the pinball machines, but it was a lot of fun. I was reminded of when I was a child playing arcade games at Fuddruckers back when Edmonton used to have one of those restaurants.

The Strip

As previously mentioned, my friend and I spent very little time on the Strip during this trip. The only reason we were there at all was to see comedienne Kathy Griffin‘s show at the Mirage and Canadian singing sensation, Celine Dion, at Caesars Palace. Otherwise, we likely would have skipped the area all together. However, since we were nearby, we made sure to stop at Sprinkles for our cupcake fix (peanut butter banana is still one of my favourite flavours). We also perused the stores in the Forum Shops at Caesars. Ted Baker had some beautiful pieces that were surprisingly less expensive than expected, but still not within my price range. Lastly, as a fan of the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, I was kind of excited to see some of the actual looks worn by the models being used as window displays. It’d be a dream to work for the VS Fashion Show (and try on a pair of wings). The amount of work that goes into it is insane and, although the clothes are small, the details of each outfit are intricate. It was very cool to see some of the outfits in person.