Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ladycation in Seattle: A Reunion Weekend

Gum wall. The name pretty much says it all, but I'll paint a more vivid picture. Millions upon millions of gum wads stuck to a brick wall, creating a mosaic of fading color. But it doesn't stop at the wall. The gum covers window sills and hangs from drainage pipes, as if they were oozing bubble yum. Words are spelled out using chewed gobs of Trident and Extra, leaving personal messages for all to see. The whole scene is surprising and different, at first, until you realize that gazing at a wall of used gum is actually kind of disgusting.

Steph and Em in front of the gum wall

The Market Theater Gum Wall is a landmark in Seattle, located in Post Alley in Pike Place Market. The tradition supposedly began back in the early 1990s when patrons of the theater stuck gum to the wall and placed coins on top. For years gum collected on the wall, despite a couple attempts from theater employees to scrape it away. In 1999, it was deemed an official tourist attraction and people have been leaving their mark--or gum--there ever since. And a couple weekends ago, my friends and I joined that special group of people. We each chewed a piece of gum and strategically placed them in the form of two letters and an exclamation point: "GC!"

This was our calling card in high school, and remains our personal title whenever the seven of us get together. It stands for Glue Crew, because we were always together. Now, almost 10 years after graduating, four years of college under our belts, various years in post-graduate education, two engagements, one wedding, and countless life-changing events, we are still together--at least in spirit. We live all over the country, spanning the nation from East Coast to West. But once a year, we all descend upon one location--which takes a long time to figure out--and spend a weekend together, where we laugh, cry, reminisce, catch up, and drink way too much.

This year, we journeyed to Seattle, where Christi lives with her husband Matt--whom I personally want to thank for tolerating the takeover of his apartment for three days. This was the first time to the Emerald City for a few of us--myself included--and we were ready for a weekend packed with touristy activities, delicious food, and plenty of good times.

We all arrived at various times on Thursday, although some later than others due to some major weather delays on the East Coast. For those of us that made it at a reasonable hour, Christi took us to dinner at an eclectic Mexican restaurant called Pesos, where we enjoyed some uniquely blended margaritas and cocktails, and delectable traditional dishes that spent very little time on the plate before being scooped into our mouths. After dinner, we made our way downtown via the Monorail, a one-mile transportation system that connects the Seattle Center to downtown. It takes less than five minutes to make the journey and will cost you $2.25 one way...a little pricey, but a fun way to see a view of the city. We headed to the Hard Rock to enjoy their rooftop bar, since it was a relatively nice night. It was there we were joined by the last two members of our group, Emily and Hannah, and we took a Washington Apple shot in honor of us all finally being back together.

We woke up early the next morning and took a walk along the sound to grab some coffee at one of the nearby piers. Christi's apartment, located in Queen Anne, is right next to the water, making it super convenient. She also has a pretty killer view from her rooftop. After sucking down some much needed caffeine, a few of us headed to the local Safeway to grab some essentials for breakfast and the rest of the weekend. We cooked up some egg sandwiches and then got ready to see the city. At this point, Sari introduced us to an interesting game, I don't think it actually has a name. The idea is to clip a clothes pin to the front of someone's clothes, without them noticing, and see how long it takes them to see it. You cannot clip it to the back of them, because that's just easy. Once they realize they've been pinned, they then have to pin someone else. And then the cycle continues. Needless to say, clothes pins showed up in all sorts of places during the weekend, creating yet another GC tradition.

Our first stop, Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle and numerous other attractions, including the International Fountain; the Center House, which features the Center House Theater and the Children's Museum; The Experience Music Project; the Mercer Arena; the Pacific Science Center; the Fisher Pavilion; and the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum--one of the main attractions on our list. The museum recently opened in May 2012, and showcases the work of Dale Chihuly, a talented and gifted artist who created inspiring pieces that seem to come alive right before your eyes. Since it was still pretty cloudy, we decided to visit the museum first in the hopes the sun would burn through by the time we were ready to go up the Space Needle.

All the intricate glass pieces were visually stimulating with all their bright colors and hidden details. I could try to describe it, but I think the pictures say more.

The sun still hadn't managed to peek through the clouds as we made our way to the elevator that would take us up to the observation deck, 520 feet above the ground. The elevator sped us up at 10 miles per hour, and took 41 seconds to reach the top. They try to squeeze a decent amount of people in, and it can feel a little claustrophobic, so it's a good thing it's a quick ride. From the top, we were treated to unmatched views of downtown, the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, and impressive Mount Rainier, which was still slightly hidden by the clouds.

We were all pretty hungry by the time we got back down, so we hopped on the Monorail and headed downtown to a local restaurant chain Christi absolutely loves, Blue C Sushi. I was definitely craving some quality sushi, since Seattle is known for it. The restaurant had a conveyor belt covered with different items that you could grab as they scooted past the table, and we wasted no time picking what we wanted--Spicy Tuna, please!! With seven girls, it was inevitable the plates would pile up, but I think even we were surprised at the damage. As fun as these systems are, it is easy to go overboard and grab a lot--and with four orders of sake and seven Sapporos--it can add up quickly. But we were on vacation, so it was only right to indulge a little.

The sun finally came out after lunch, so we walked around the shopping district of downtown for a couple hours before heading back to the apartment to get ready for our night out. We had reservations across the bay in West Seattle, so Christi wanted us to take the ferry to get a different view of the city and experience the commute many people do everyday. Naturally, it took a little longer than expected to get ready--and our taxis getting confused and lost didn't help--so we missed the first ferry, making us a little late for our reservation. But it didn't dampen spirits at all, because we can mini bottles of Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored whiskey Christi gave each of us upon arrival in Seattle. We enjoyed these as we waited for the ferry and mingled with some locals who were fascinated that we were high school friends who still managed to get together every year.

We arrived in West Seattle and headed to Salty's, a seafood restaurant with the best view of Seattle. Our table was perfectly situated right next to the windows, allowing us to enjoy the cityscape as the sun went down. The cocktails were very interesting, and we each sampled one another's happily. The food was also delightful, especially the "World Famous" seafood chowder and the crab mac 'n' cheese. I ordered the Alaskan Ling Cod Oscar, which is topped with crab, grilled asparagus, and tarragon-infused hollandaise.

After we cleaned our plates, the evening took a sentimental turn. It was time to reminisce the past year of our lives, since we hadn't all been together since August 2012. We went around the table sharing our highs, lows, crushes and surprises over the last few months. Tears were shed, for sure, as many of us definitely had some intense life-changing experiences. For the most part though, we smiled and laughed about everything we had been through, not just in the last year, but since high school. We've come a long way, and it's amazing that we still have one another to share it all with.

Since we took the ferry over, we were eligible for free dessert or a discount on our tickets back. So, of course, we went for dessert. We chose Salty's Famous White Chocolate Mousse Cake and the Vanilla Creme Brulee. The waiter also brought us the Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Terrine and the Rhubarb Custard Tarta, because he insisted we needed to try them, and who were we to object?

As we waited for our cabs to pick us up, Christi decided we were in need of another Washington Apple shot. While I'm not the biggest shot taker anymore--waved goodbye to that pretty shortly after college--I gladly took it in honor of my time with the girls. We headed back into Seattle to a neighborhood called Belltown, just north of downtown. Our first stop was Rabbit Hole, where we hoped to play skeeball, but sadly the line of people waiting was pretty long. So we just grabbed drinks and hung out while we waited for Christi's husband and his friends to show up. We were joined by a few of Emily's old Boston buddies who had moved to Seattle. After a while, we left and went to a different bar a couple blocks away, which is where we ended the night around 1:30.

Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day--not such a rarity in Seattle, I came to find--so we walked along the water over to the Public Market, which is where we came across the gum wall. Walking along the wall, I couldn't help but feel a little disgusted by it. People leave gum all over this country, and no one looks twice if a few wads happen to be next to each other, why was this so special. The scale of the wall is certainly impressive, but that doesn't change the fact that its used gum. Still, we felt compelled to snap pictures and add our own gum to the collection, in our own form.

The market was incredibly packed with tourists trying to see the Pike's Place fish throwers in action, sampling fresh produce, buying all kinds of souvenirs and food items. We could only last about an hour, but not before we tried some cheese curds from a local store Christi raved about--and they were quite delicious. We ended the touristy activities with a ride on the Ferris wheel. The Seattle Great Wheel, built less than a year ago, is the largest observation wheel on the west coast at 175 feet tall. Christi has a fear of heights, but she refused to let that stop her from hopping into the gondola with us, even though she had some moments of uncertainty. We enjoyed a quick ride on the wheel, which took us well beyond the end of the pier over Elliot Bay, and gave us yet another unique view of the city.

After that, we made another trip to Safeway to buy food for an afternoon grill out--not what they call it in Seattle--on Christi's rooftop. The weather was perfect as we sipped our drinks. Two of the girls--Steph and Elise--just finished graduate school, so we gave them their gifts before everyone else arrived for the party. Once again, there were a few tears of appreciation and happiness, but that was to be expected. The rest of the evening was a blur of food, drinking games, hockey games, and way too many clothes pins. We took over the rooftop for most of the night, welcoming anyone who came up there to join the party.

Just when I thought we might turn in--since we'd been drinking since 3--Christi's husband Matt rallied us and took us to a local bar called Ozzie's, where someone you know always gets kicked out for no reason. In our case, Matt's friend Nick was thrown out for appearing too drunk, but we managed to get him back in. Ozzie's is basically three bars in one. There's a more relaxed sports-bar in the front, with a few booths and tables. Off to the right is a karaoke bar, where more of the older crowd hangs out. And in the back is the dance floor, where we spent the rest of the night. Around 1 a.m., we left Ozzie's and made our way to Dick's Drive-In, known for its hamburgers, which only cost around 60 cents. The perfect late night meal. I wasn't super hungry, but I was told I had to try Dick's, and I'm glad I did.

It was rough waking up Sunday morning, but I knew I needed to pack up my stuff and get over to the train to catch my flight. Luckily, it was a little later in the afternoon, so I was able to sleep in a little, but it wasn't nearly enough. After three nights of staying out until past 1, I was exhausted. And yet I expected this to happen. Because when we get together, we try to savor every moment we can with each other, so sleep is usually sacrificed. As I zipped up my bag and hugged all the girls goodbye, I felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience Seattle with all of them. I was also incredibly grateful to have them in my life. No matter what happens, I know they'll be there for me.

Just like the wall of gum that seems to keep morphing and changing with each new wad, our lives will transform with each passing year, story, experience, challenge. But our GC! gum will hold strong to that wall through it all, and it seems pretty clear that we will stick together, too. We are the glue crew, after all.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Quick Travel News Update

As most of you know by now, I'm on the internet pretty much all day looking at news stories. So, naturally, I see a lot of intriguing travel stories. And it is only right that I pass on these little nuggets of information to all my loyal readers, so they are aware of what is going on in the industry.

United adds requirements for elite flier status

I received an email today from United informing me of changes to qualifications for the MileagePlus program. Turns out, United added a minimum annual spending level that passsengers have to meet in order to qualify for elite frequent-flier status. At this point, I think I'm still on the low-end of the spectrum (think it's silver, but I'll have to double check), and that won't be affected this year. But starting in 2014, United fliers will have to spend at least $2,500 a year on tickets to qualify for the lowest Premier Silver status in 2015. The company kept the rule requiring passengers to fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments in a year to qualify for Silver. Of those 30, at least four have to be paid flights on United, United Express or Copa Airlines.

For Gold Status, you must spend $5,000 and fly 50,000 miles or 60 segments; while the Platinum level requires $7,500 and 75,000 miles or 90 segments. For the highest level, Premier 1K, you must spend $10,000 and fly 100,000 miles or 120 segments (a pretty steep requirement, if you ask me).

This is United's way of making elite status harder to attain, especially for fliers who purchase inexpensive tickets just to get miles. It is also a way to offer better access to benefits for customers who truly fly and spend the most, considering these customers are the ones that bring in the most money for airlines.

Planes could move to touch-screen controls

At the Paris International Air Show, new designs for touch screen controls were unveiled, and could appear in planes before the end of the decade, if the technology is implemented quickly. The tablet-like displays would make airplane controls more intuitive and user-friendly. The idea is that pilots will be able to perform basic commands, such as changing course or controlling the engine, by tapping or dragging icons on a screen. They will be able to expand navigation charts on the same screen, incorporate messages from air-traffic control, and troubleshoot malfunctions. Pilots would most likely still use a joystick to drive to perform flight controls, but other tasks could be done on the touch screens.

The new concept from Thales SA is called Avionics 2020 and was showcased at a mock-up cockpit at the Air Show, as it seeks to sign deals with aircraft manufacturers to install the technology in future planes. Honeywell said it won a contract to supply a limited system on the newest commuter jets from Embraer SA. Rockwell Collins Inc., also very aggressive on the benefits of touch screens, hopes to capitalize on the potential market.

Of course there are concerns about changing cockpit technology to touch screens. Some experts are worried about the difficulty of using the screens during severe turbulence. There are also questions about emergency commands getting lost in various menus.

International Travelers to the U.S. hit record spending in April

Spending by international visitors to the U.S. totaled nearly $14.5 billion, an increase of more than 5% from the same month the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Between January and April of 2013, international tourists have spent about $57.9 billion on travel related services in the U.S., up 8% from the year before. Purchases of travel and tourism related services in April totaled $11.2 billion, this includes food, lodging, recreation, gifts, entertainment, local transportation and other items. U.S. carriers received $3.3 billion in fares for the month from international travelers.

In 2012, international spending reached a record $168.1 billion, up 10% from 2011. This was due to a surge in visitors, with a record 67 million international travelers coming to the U.S. Canada sent the most visitors, with 22.7 million; and Mexico had 14.5 million travelers to the U.S., coming in second. The U.K., Japan and Germany rounded out the top five.

The Best Bank for Travelers

When people plan a trip, they research flight and hotel costs to find the best deals. But a travel expense that is often overlooked is bank fees. More often than not, when people travel, they go to a place that may not have their bank ATM, especially in places overseas. Using an out-of-network ATM results in a fee, usually, and those are even more at international ATMs. And using a debit card overseas can result in a foreign transaction fee of up to 3% of the amount.

But some banks are more travel-friendly than others. M&T Bank has the highest out-of-network ATM fee ($3) of 20 U.S. banks measured by Nerdwallet. The bank also has a 3% foreign exchange fee. It also has the fewest number of branches across the most traveled states. The best bank for travelers is TD Bank, which has one of the lowest fees for ATMs ($2.50), and has no foreign exchange fee, the only one that doesn't have one. It also has a decent number of branches across the country. Citibank, Capital One, BBVA Compass, and BMO Harris Bank round out the top five best banks for travelers.

TripAdvisor acquires GateGuru

TripAdvisor made yet another acquisition this week, buying GateGuru, a mobile app that provides real-time information on airports, weather, and flights. Most of that is from crowdsourcing. The deal is a direct expansion of TripAdvisor's services, especially as more people turn to mobile and social networks to get travel feedback. The team behind GateGuru will remain in New York and continue to operate the way it did before the purchase, it will just report to the GM of new initiatives and leader of the TripAdvisor Flights product and the SeatGuru brand.

TripAdvisor recently bought mobile/social startup, TinyPost, in March, followed immediately by JetSetter and then CruiseWise in May. In October 2012, TripAdvisor acquired Wanderfly.

Hampton targets Millennials

Hampton Hotels launched a new advertisement targeting Millennials. The commercial shows Millennial social media users as they stayed at nine Hampton locations and were encouraged to share their experiences on different social media platforms. The commercial follows their weekend trips through pictures, videos, check-ins and status updates. The idea is to convey that Hampton is a young brand and can relate to the tech-savvy and social Millennial generation.

Guide to Visiting Turkey

Recently, there were some anti-government protests in Turkey over the future of a park in Istanbul. It all started as a peaceful protest, but soon erupted into what some people call a "war zone," with police using violence and force to stop demonstrations. The continued government retaliation and unrest is certainly worrisome, but these events should not deter people from visiting the country. Tourists should avoid demonstrations in Istanbul and be alert to potential violence. Travelers who have been in the city or decided to keep their plans to visit said Istanbul feels safe, and most said they felt neither threatened nor endangered.

Taksim Square, where the protests are taking place, is just one location in the city, and most of the major attractions are further away from the Square, so it is easily avoidable. Still, on June 4, the State Department put Turkey on its list of Travel Alerts, which basically advises Americans to be aware of the situation, and avoid being hurt as innocent bystanders. Many unions have threatened strikes that could hurt travel, but the alert is set to expire on July 5.

This is certainly good news, since tourism is crucial to Istanbul and the whole Turkish nation. In fact, the city is one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the world. It's also positive for me, since my boyfriend and I are thinking of visiting Turkey sometime soon. We still haven't figured out exact dates or anything, but hopefully, by the time we go, the protests and rallies will have fizzled out, and we can enjoy all this eclectic, historic city has to offer.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Traveling This Summer...Here's Some Interesting News

Pricey Cities
This past weekend, I jetted off to Seattle for a long weekend with some of my closest friends. It was my first time visiting the Emerald City, and it was definitely a memorable experience. (I promise a long and detailed account of the whole trip in my next post). But one thing that did concern me a little before I left was a recent report I read from TripAdvisor, ranking the most expensive U.S. cities this summer, and guess which one made the top 10.

Yes, Seattle ranks No. 8 on the list of highest-priced U.S. cities, based on the combined costs for two for a one night stay and evening out. Adding up hotel, return taxi trip, and dinner and cocktails for two, the total cost comes to $415.04 in Seattle. (Note: I was there with seven do the math.) Luckily, we stayed with my friend and her husband, so hotel expenses were not a concern, which is definitely a good thing considering Seattle saw a 26% jump in summer hotel prices between 2012 and 2013. But there's no way we skipped out on dinner and drinks around the city--that's part of the experience--and I knew we had some day-time activities planned, so I was prepared to shell out a few extra bucks.

At least Seattle isn't the most expensive. No, that honor goes to Honolulu, Hawaii. A night there will cost a whopping $504.94. But that's only 69 cents higher than the second highest-priced city, New York City ($504.25). Seattle is also still cheaper than Boston ($473.59), San Francisco ($471.89), Chicago ($448.45), Los Angeles ($447.61) and Washington, D.C. ($446.13).

More Leisure Travel
Leisure travel is on the rise, as Americans continue to feel more confident about the economy. TravelClick released a study indicating that totel bookings for leisure travelers in North America for the next 12 months are up 4.6%. While this is great news for the hospitality industry, it could mean higher prices and fewer available rooms for travelers. While summer is always a high travel season, the forecast could mean high tourist volumes well into fall and the early part of winter.

American to squeeze in more seats
In an attempt to cut costs and boost revenue, U.S. airlines have reduced flight capacity, dropping less popular routes and reducing the number of flights per day to other destinations. As a result, fares are much higher and planes are more packed than ever. As if things weren't bad enough, American has decided to make it even more cramped onboard with the addition of more seats.The airline said it plans to squeeze in more seats on its Boeing 737 and MD-80 planes, which accounts for more than 60% of the fleet. So while this may make more seats available, it also steals away precious leg room, which is particularly nice to have on long flights--or anytime for that matter.

Marriott Rebrands for Younger Generation
 Marriott Hotels launched a new campaign aimed at younger travelers. "Travel Brilliantly," as the campaign is called, seeks to show consumers that the hotel can cater to both business and leisure travelers. The effort includes a revamped logo and a heightened social media presence, as well as television, digital and mobile advertising. At, travelers can learn about new innovations and share their own ideas about how to improve the travel and hotel experience. The goal is for Marriott to redefine the future of travel, according to the company.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Vacation With a Cherry on Top

"Boil Over!" These are the last words I hear before a container of kerosene hurtles toward a bonfire, sending the flames a good five feet above my head. The cast-iron cauldron of boiling water bubbles to the brim, and two men quickly grab the wire baskets of boiled fish and potatoes and set them down. "Enjoy your fish boil!" one of them says, as people slowly make their way to their tables. I just witnessed my first fish boil.

Door County, Wisconsin, is known for its fish boils, a Great Lakes culinary tradition that has been going on for decades. While the meal itself is pretty basic, it is the cooking presentation that truly makes a fish boil special. It is tough to pinpoint exactly how fish boils first began, but many in the area claim Scandinavian fishermen started the custom. Regardless of its roots, the one-pot meal has grown into a local specialty everyone enjoys, and an attraction thousands come to see.

My boyfriend and I drove up to Door County on a Friday afternoon from Chicago, which is about a four and a half hour drive, without traffic or construction delays. We made it in roughly five--we had to make a pit stop in Milwaukee to see our Alma Mater and enjoy a quick bite at the Public Market. Even though it wasn't the longest drive I've ever done, it can still get tedious, so I recommend some quality music mixes or podcasts to listen to along the way--since most of the scenery is just hills of grass and crops.

However, after passing Green Bay, the terrain starts to morph into lush greenery, making for a much more interesting view. We made our way slowly through Sturgeon Bay, one of the larger cities in the region, and continued north through a variety of local vineyards, which I would have liked to try, but Steve insisted we needed to keep going so we could get to the hotel. We drove through Egg Harbor, a village of about 200 people, filled with adorable shops and quaint eateries. Six more miles north and we finally reached our destination: Fish Creek, a place small enough that it registers as unincorporated on highway signs. And as we navigated through the streets, I felt as if I had been transported to a completely different time. All the buildings were reminiscent of an early century fishing town, complete with a general store and boat docks. Many of the homes, hotels and condos were more modern, but, for the most part, things felt a little behind the times. And yet, that is totally normal in Fish Creek. Things slow down, take on a completely different vibe, and leave you feeling more at ease.

Our hotel, the Hilltop Inn, was located near the edge of town. It's a group of condos that operate as a hotel when the owners aren't there, so we had a very nice unit with two floors, a full kitchen and living room, and two bedrooms--even though we only needed one. After quickly dropping off our luggage, we changed our clothes and headed out to explore the town. It surprisingly warm out, which we both didn't expect, but certainly welcomed. The main street was lined with tiny stores, boutiques, and eateries; and as we meandered down the road, we made a few stops along the water to gaze out at the bay. After a little back and forth with dinner, we decided to indulge in a traditional fish boil, and headed toward Pelletier's, a local restaurant. There were dozens of people gathered behind the restaurant, sitting in tables or standing around a pot being loaded with water, fish, salt and potatoes.

We hurried inside to grab a table, figuring it must be packed, but to our delight, there were plenty of open seats. As fish boil newbie's we were a little uncertain about what to do, so we headed to the front where we saw the menu written on a chalkboard. A full fish boil included two fillets, potatoes, coleslaw, bread, and a piece of cherry pie, all for less than $18. What a deal! So Steve ordered a full, and I got the light--only one fillet--and we shared a bottle of local cherry chardonnay. The lady told us the boil would happen in about 15 minutes, so we needed to hurry and get a good viewing spot outside. She also informed us that we had just made it, as this was the last boil of the night--it was only 7:30. I realized then why it wasn't that busy, the rush must have hit about two hours ago. And it made sense the more I looked around, a lot of older folks and families dominated the restaurant, meaning prime eating times were probably a little earlier than what we were accustomed to in Chicago where 8 pm is one of the craziest times at restaurants.

We grabbed a table by the window, poured ourselves a glass of wine, and headed outside. The boil was not exactly what I expected, although I really didn't know what to expect. I imagined it would consist of boiling fish in a big pot--which it does--but what happened beyond that was unknown to me. So when the fire was doused with kerosene and pot went up in flames, I was definitely shocked--but in a good way. It was exhilarating and fun, and definitely something I never thought I would experience.

Eating the meal was also new to me, or at least getting the fish into a consumable state. Basically, the fillets come out complete with skin and bones, and it was our job to remove it all. Needless to say I struggled a bit, mostly with the skin, since it refused to peel off the fish. Steve had to help me a little with it, but eventually it was clean of scales and I went to work on the bones. I kept my face uncomfortably close to the fish, meticulous in my method of catching every tiny, white bone--I felt like a surgeon. Once I felt it was sufficiently deboned, I doused it with lemon and took my first bite. The whitefish was perfectly cooked, so tender that it easily melted in my mouth. The potatoes and coleslaw were simple and very tasty, as was the basic wheat and white bread slices that came with the meal. I could see why this was called a poor man's feast, nothing fancy, and yet well prepared and filling. The whole meal was topped off with a lovely piece of cherry pie--which is probably my favorite kind of pie--and we devoured our dessert without reserve. We sat and chatted for a bit as we finished our wine, and then around 9 pm, we noticed we were some of the only people left in the place. It had completely cleared out, with the exception of us and one other table and few people hanging out at the bar. That was our cue, so we walked back to the hotel, and relaxed for a bit before calling it a night.

The next morning, we headed over to a local cycle shop to rent bikes so we could ride around the state park. Peninsula State Park is 3,776-acres with 17 miles of biking and hiking trails that wind through the peaceful forests and along sandy beaches. After we got our bikes ($6 per person per hour, helmet and lock included), we headed into the park to explore the various sites. Speeding along the mostly dirt trails, we enjoyed the serene scenery, stopping at a small 18th century lighthouse and an outdoor theater. In total, we biked a little over nine miles, which was enough for me, since it was a little chilly out.

We returned our bikes and walked into town to grab brunch. It was around 11 am at this point, prime brunch time--at least in Chicago--so I feared we would face big crowds and long lines. But once again I was proved wrong. There was no wait and plenty of tables at The Summertime Restaurant. We had a nice meal, quick and simple, complete with omelettes, potatoes, toast and jam. Afterwards, we wandered around the town in search of gifts and souvenirs, and we quickly discovered the go-to trinket of Door County: lawn ornaments. Every variation of this somewhat tacky item could be found at these stores, from garden gnomes and lawn signs, to intricate wood sculptures and humorous quotes. Each boutique had their own random selection of items, although there were some constants that we saw at each place. Even though I've always considered lawn ornaments a little gaudy, I have to admit that some of them made me wish I had a lawn to adorn with these crazy knickknacks. 

Steve and I scoured through the items at each store, finding some entertaining gifts for our friends and family, as well as some items for ourselves. One shop in particular that I liked was the Stone Cutter, located in a tiny colonial cabin refurbished as a jewelry and gem store. The owner cuts and polishes all the stones right in the shop, creating some beautiful necklaces, earrings and bracelets. I saw some stones from Italy, and immediately selected a necklace with lovely tear drop setting. 

After walking around a bit more, we came across a wonderful artisan food and wine shop, featuring all locally made products. Along the left wall were samples of various olive oils and balsamic vinaigrettes, which we happily tasted at our leisure. In the middle of the room, there was free wine tasting of varieties from the region--and again, we gladly indulged in a few sips. Cherries are big in Door County--probably bigger than fish boils--so the sweet fruit is often used in many of the regional foods and spirits. (The Cherry Chardonnay was good, but probably a little too sweet for me). On the right side, we found samples of different dips and spreads, including a cherry wine cheese that I snapped up immediately. I bought a couple bottles of wine, some vinaigrettes and olive oils, and the cheese spread, excited to bring back a piece of Door County to enjoy at a later date.

Since we had a wedding celebration to attend later that evening, we decided to head back to the hotel to relax for a bit. The weather was perfect, so we sat outside and read for a little while before changing for the party.

My graduate school friend Laura and her husband Gaurav got married a year ago by a justice of peace and her parents acted as witnesses. It was a small, simple ceremony, but unfortunately, they were not able to have a reception. So a year later, they invited a small group of us up to Door County for the celebration. There were about 40 of us at the White Gull Inn, where we enjoyed drinks and appetizers, as well as our very own personal fish boil. (Luckily I ordered the chicken for both Steve and myself, since we had fish the night before.) It was lovely catching up with Laura--who had moved to New York last summer--as well as getting to know some of her other friends. After dinner, we made our way to another bar for an after-party, which ended with a small group of us closing the place around 2 am. (Like I said before, Door County is not a late night place, so naturally the place was deserted by 11 p.m..)

Sunday morning, Steve and I woke up early and headed up north to Sister Bay to have brunch at one of the most popular restaurants in the area: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant. Why is it so popular you ask? Well, there are goats on the roof. Yes, that's right, real life goats graze on the grass-covered, sod roof. What their purpose is, I'm not exactly sure, but they have made the place famous. When we arrived, we quickly circled the place, but the goats were nowhere to be found. Inside, waitresses dressed in traditional Scandinavian outfits served us some Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. I had a side of Swedish meatballs--because I had to--and Steve had the sausages. It was quite delicious, but very filling. Our waitress told us the goats would start "work" at about 9:30, so we would definitely catch them leaving. And sure enough, we did. There were four grouped along one slope of the roof, prancing around happily for all to see.

After snapping some pictures, we got back on the road and headed south for the long drive to Chicago. As we made our way through more small towns in the region, it became more and more evident to me that Door County was not only a place to retreat for a peaceful weekend, it was also a place to escape many of the modern amenities that we have grown accustomed to. (Fact, my cell phone lost all service and data coverage just north of Sturgeon Bay, so I was disconnected for the whole weekend.) Sure, our hotel had Wi-Fi and cable, but, for the most part, technology does not play a big role in the culture of Door County. The architecture is reminiscent of the early 1950s and people are a lot more likely to be seen conversing with neighbors on the street than chatting on a cell phone. It is a time machine back to simpler times when things were more laid back and personable, and I have to say--despite being completely helpless without my cell phone--that was a welcome feeling.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The World Cometh to Chicago

Chicago is known as a running town. It hosts some of the biggest races in the country--and even the world--with thousands of participants speeding through the streets of downtown almost every weekend between March and October. There are also plenty of off-season competitions for those dedicated souls unafraid of the frigid Chicago winters. And in the next couple years, Chicago will become home to two more major racing events.

Australian Triathlon. Source: AP
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) announced last week that it chose USA Triathlon and Chicago to host events as part of the 2014 and 2015 World Triathlon Series. The series brings the world's top athletes together to compete head-to-head in eight regular season events, culminating in a Grand Final race.

Starting June 27-29, 2014, Chicago will welcome top triathletes from all over the world, as it becomes the third-ever U.S. city to host a WTS race – joining San Diego (2013 and 2012) and Washington D.C. (2009). It will join other stops such as Auckland, New Zealand; Stockholm, Sweden; Hamburg, Germany; London, England; and Edmonton, Canada. One-hundred and fifty of the world’s fastest triathletes – 75 elite men and 75 elite women – will compete in the Olympic-distance race, a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run. Amateurs can get in on the action, too, as sprint- and Olympic-distance age-group races will be among the divisions offered.

Chicago will also be the first U.S. city to ever host the WTS Grand Final, where overall champions will be crowned based on points earned throughout the season. The race course will include such famous landmarks as Navy Pier, Soldier Field and Millennium Park.
Chicago Triathlon

Chicago already hosts an annual triathlon that draws thousands of competitors to the city. But this kind of international sports event is not only a great platform to promote triathlons, but also a smart way to put Chicago on the map as a top athletic and leisure destination. Race participants, their families and friends, and thousands of spectators, will descend on Chicago, where they will discover everything the city has to offer. Not only that, the elite women’s and men’s races will be broadcast live to an international audience and streamed online, so millions of people around the world will witness the wonder of the Windy City.

I am excited to have such a prestigious event come to Chicago, and hopefully I'll be able to catch some of the athletes racing toward the finish line.