Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kick Up Your Boots in Nashville

"Should have brought my cowboy boots."

I kept thinking this as I made my way through the throngs of people on Broadway Street, the place to be in Nashville, and the best place to be sporting the fashion accessory of choice: cowboy boots. Although my boots paled in comparison to the authentically crafted footwear the women and girls of Nashville were wearing. These were 100% leather with detailed stitching and immaculate, intricate designs. Mine? Well, I got them on sale at Marshall's, so that should give you a pretty good idea of the look and quality. So, maybe it's best I didn't bring my cowboy boots.

But one very important pair of footwear I did bring was my New Balance running shoes. Steve and I had driven down to Nashville to run in the St. Jude Country Music 1/2 Marathon. We'd pretty much done all the big Chicago runs, and decided to try an event in a different city. It was the perfect way see a new place, get some exercise and help out a good cause. Plus, it gave us something to train for, since this winter made me want to hibernate like no other.

So, we rose early the Friday before the race (4:15am--why do I do this to myself?) and began the 7.5-hour drive from Chicago to Nashville. In all honesty, it wasn't too bad of a drive. I mean, there wasn't much to look at along the way, although we did pass through Morocco (IN) and there was a sign for West Lebanon (IN), so you could say we did a little "international" travel. (I will have to explore these towns in a future post.) But I digress. The route was basically a straight shot South, and before I knew it, I could see the glistening buildings of Nashville's skyline, which I recognized right away thanks to the television show. (BTW, if you haven't seen it, you should!)

We headed straight to the Nashville Music City Center to the race expo and picked up our bibs and t-shirts. As expected, the expo was packed with people, so it was difficult to check out most of the exhibitors and vendors. We managed to grab a couple bites of Powerbars, but didn't have much luck getting anything else for free. We both bought an extra t-shirt at the expo shop, and then headed outside to try to find a place to have lunch, as we were both starving.

And since we were so hungry, making a decision on where to go is basically the hardest thing to do. We walked around for a good 45 minutes, before we ended up right back at the cafe in the Music City Center buying eight-dollar sandwiches. If you go here for a meal, opt for the pizza, it's half the price and the pieces are huge!

We were staying in the Aloft Hotel, just west of downtown, so we made our way there to check in. Our room was super modern and very different from a typical hotel room. There was no carpet, just a cement floor with an area rug under the bed, desk and television stand. And a bean-bag like chair sat over in the corner, but it wasn't very comfortable. It wasn't as homey as the hotel rooms I was used to, but it was still pretty cool and it definitely fit with the Aloft brand of being a contemporary, Millennial-focused hotel.

We quickly changed and walked back downtown (only a mile away) to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was around 3:45 when we got there, and it closed at 5, so we figured that was just enough time to see everything. But I wasn't sure it was worth the $24.95 admission. Luckily, the woman at the ticket desk informed us that if we waited 15 minutes, we could get our tickets for half price starting at 4pm. So, of course, we opted for that. I'm not much of a country music fan, but Steve loves it, so he really enjoyed viewing the artifacts from all these great country music legends from the past. It was actually a lot of fun, and it was interesting to watch as people sang along to the music in each of the different displays. Personally, I liked the contemporary exhibit that had interactive features and showcased more of the modern artists, of which I'm more familiar. Overall, I would recommend the hall of fame, even if you aren't a country music fan. You'll appreciate the costumes, musical instruments and various knick knacks from these artist's lives.

Afterwards, we walked up and down Broadway Street, the heartbeat of Nashville. Hundreds of people gather in bars, each of which has live music streaming out the open windows and patio doors, and even more people are wandering along the streets, popping in and out of stores, bars and eateries. We elbowed our way down the street, not sure where we were going. There wasn't a point going into a bar, since we had decided not to drink the night before the race, so we wandered aimlessly from block to block.

It was then I noticed how every group of girls was donning a fancy pair of cowboy boots and either tight short-shorts or a dress. I looked down at my flimsy flip flops and felt instantly out of place. At that moment, we came across a hat and boot shop, and I sprinted inside to see if I could pick up a pair. The store had three levels of cowboy boots with all kinds of cute designs, I was giddy with the hope of finding the perfect pair. But my excitement soon turned to disappointment as I turned over price tag after price tag...who pays $400 for some cowboy boots? I tried to rationalize that I was paying for a very high-quality product and I would wear them for years. But then I thought, that only makes sense if I lived somewhere like Nashville, where cowboy boots are a must-have item. But in Chicago? Not so much. So I left empty handed.

We spent the rest of the evening carb loading at a cute little pizza place called Desano Pizza near our hotel. You order at the counter, and then go find your seat at picnic tables in a back room next to the kitchen, where you can watch the cooks prepare the pizzas from scratch. It's also a byob, which I'm always on board with, unless I'm not drinking. We headed back to the hotel after dinner and crashed early.

We woke up early the next morning, threw on our running gear, did some last minute stretching and headed back toward Broadway Street for the half marathon. Between all the runners, spectators and volunteers, it seemed like half the city was heading to the same spot as us. But unlike the runs in Chicago where it is mad chaos at the start line, it was pleasantly easy to walk over to the race and find our corral. It was a little chilly when we started, but it turned into an absolutely perfect day, with awesome running conditions. I was definitely thankful for that, since the course was much more difficult than I anticipated, and would have been worse had the weather not cooperated. You see, Chicago is flat. I mean, there are some small little bumps in the lakefront path, but, for the most part, it's flat. Nashville is not. Enough said.

But we made it through, finishing in less than an hour and 40 minutes! Definitely felt amazing when I crossed the finish line, and to end the race with Steve was very special. We're already signed up to do another half marathon in August!

We felt great as we walked back to the hotel, where we showered, changed and got ready to hit the town. But not before we crossed another item off the Nashville bucket list: The Grand Ole Oprey. I thought it would be right downtown, in some historic auditorium. But, in fact, it's a couple miles outside the city and it's a more modern looking building right next to a mall. Despite not being exactly what I expected from the outside, it was absolutely amazing inside. I know I'm not the biggest country fan, but I really appreciate the history of this institution. I won't go into it, but it's definitely interesting, so you should read about it. And I think the pictures definitely tell a story.

After we left the Oprey, we headed to a nearby restaurant, Caney Fork, for a late lunch. We got to sample some of the local beer (love Yazoo) and the fare (alligator tail, anyone). We also met some interesting folks who also ran the race. A guy from Jersey City sat next to us, and he had just completed his 30th marathon. He told us all about some of the races he had done, and where he'd gone, and part of me was tempted for a hot second to do a marathon. But then I felt my aching muscles as I sat up from the bar stool, and I reconsidered that.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Broadway street, hanging out in bars, tasting some ice cream from a local shop and just enjoying the atmosphere. We even found a nice little row of shops and bars just off the Broadway stretch, and I think some of those places were more enjoyable than the ones right on the strip. We ended the night with a complimentary concert hosted by the race at the Bridgestone Arena. We got to see nearly half the cast from the show Nashville, and it was one of the most enjoyable country concerts I'd been to. I admit, it would have been better if I hadn't been so sore and tired at this point.

We slept in a little the next morning and enjoyed our last few hours in Nashville. After packing up all our stuff, we made our way over to the Vanderbilt campus for breakfast at Fido, a cute cafe with pretty good food and great coffee. We could have gone to this pancake house a block away, but the line was around the block, and I don't any meal is worth that kind of wait. We had a nice breakfast, and then got on the road back to Chicago.

As we drove out of Nashville, I knew it wouldn't be the last time we would visit. This city has so much spunk and character, and there are so many places I saw along the course that I would love to explore a little more. I have no doubt that we'll be back again sometime in our lives, maybe just for a weekend or maybe for an extended period of time. Who knows. Only time will tell. But in the words of the show "I'll keep coming back, oh it's true. I'll keep coming back, that's what I'll do. I'll retrace my tracks to you."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Too Legit to Quit: Girls Weekend in Grand Rapids

After a memorable weekend in Western Michigan a few months ago, my roommate and I had planned to return with our friends. This past weekend, we made good on our promise and headed to Grand Rapids with three girlfriends in tow. My roommate and I had a pretty interesting trip last time, but with this crew of girls, we knew we were in for some crazy times.

The journey began on the road from Chicago to Kalamazoo, where we planned to stop for lunch and a beer at Bell's Brewery. From the minute we hopped on the highway, the chatting, storytelling and playful digs began and just kept going. Within the first hour, we had at least three quotes for the trip (one of which is in the title of this post).

After a short two-hour drive, we arrived in Kalamazoo and found Bell's Brewery. It was surprisingly busy for a Friday afternoon. We figured most people would be working and we'd have the place to ourselves. But then it hit us that it was Good Friday and a lot of people probably took the day off. Since there were no servers, you had to order food and drinks at the bar, and with all the people, the line was incredibly long. But we were patient (for the most part) and waited with everyone else to put in our orders. There were a wide variety of options that we couldn't get in Chicago, so we made sure to try as many of those as we could. (see: Special Double Cream Stout and Consecrator Doppelbock Beer, just to name a couple.)
After a few brews and a quick bite, we got back on the road and drove the 45 minutes to Grand Rapids. Amanda's sister Lindsey had a lot of Marriott points, so she landed us on the concierge level of the J.W. Marriott. Incredibly nice rooms, with large bathrooms and even a separate bathtub. Another bonus: Complimentary happy hour drinks and snacks in a concierge lounge on the top floor. So, of course, we had to take advantage of that. After we dropped off our bags and cleaned up a bit, we headed to the lounge and enjoyed some wine and delicious treats, like salmon filled deviled eggs, brie cheese and crackers, dried fruit, and spicy trail mix.

The weather was particularly pleasant, so we walked about a mile and a half to Brewery Vivant, the church-turned-brewery-and-bar establishment that Amanda and I had visited last time and absolutely loved. Unfortunately, everyone else in Grand Rapids has the same sentiment, so the wait for a table was pretty long. We managed to squeeze into a small spot at the bar and ordered some drinks, along with a charcuterie plate, which I couldn't try since it was Good Friday. But I happily munched on bread while my friends noshed on some lovely looking meat. We also gave our friend Meredith a memorable first time experience: pickled cauliflower. (She had never eaten cauliflower before, so we made it extra special with the pickled aspect.)

After about an hour, we eventually got seated and ordered a couple more beers and snacks. It was pretty late when we left, so we thought we'd call a cab. Unfortunately, Grand Rapids is small enough, and we were far enough away from downtown, that cabs were in pretty short supply. In fact, the cab company couldn't even give us an estimate as to when one would arrive or if one was even coming to get us. So we braced the chill of the late evening and trekked back to the hotel.

In the morning, I decided to explore the city via the running path. I laced up my running shoes and ventured out into the cool morning air. I jogged on the riverwalk that runs along the Grand River. I ran through Ah-Nab-Awen Park, adjacent to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, and 6th Street Bridge Park. I noticed a number of fishermen hanging out in boats anchored in the middle of the river, as well as multiple people on the banks casting in their lines. It was interesting to see, since nobody does that (or can do that) in Chicago.

I returned to the hotel and grabbed a quick bite from the complimentary breakfast in the concierge lounge. Then we all got ready and made our way to Founders Brewing for their annual Black Party, which showcases all dark beers, as well as some lighter brews for those who aren't in the mood for something too heavy or dense. There were hundreds of people hanging out on the outdoor patio and around the two indoor bars. We situated ourselves outside near a fire pit and spent the next six hours trying various beers, socializing and having a genuinely good time hanging out together. There were some interesting moments, to say the least, which I think are best seen in the images below.

We decided to have dinner at a different bar, just to change the scenery. We went to HopCat, another local brewpub Amanda and I had visited before. It was pretty busy, so we put our name on the list and ordered a couple drinks from the bar, along with some of their famous crack fries (we tried the regular and the loaded) and they were phenomenal. We were seated pretty quickly and ordered some more food, which we devoured.
Unfortunately, the night was dampened by a bouncer who decided, for no reason at all, to kick two of my friends out of the bar. It seemed completely unwarranted, and none of us understood his rationale. I have never been treated with such disrespect, and I hope the manager takes disciplinary action against him, because no employee should speak to customers in that way. (I would like to emphasize that the rest of the staff was absolutely amazing, very pleasant and helpful, and I don't want this incident to reflect negatively on them.)

We spent the rest of the evening hanging out in the hotel rehashing the events of the day, drinking some wine and enjoying our last night in Grand Rapids. In the morning, we packed up our things, had a quick breakfast in the lounge and then hit the road. It was such a nice day, we decided to stop for some ice cream on the way home. Yes, it's finally ice cream season, and I'm very happy about that.

As we sat at the Dairy Queen enjoying our blizzards (no judgement, please), a mixture of sadness and appreciation came over me. Sad for the weekend to be over, and the reality of work and responsibility ahead of us. But grateful that such a simple trip could be so enjoyable and memorable. A clumsy moment made us roar with laughter, the slightest dig gave us one memorable quote after another, another beer gave us one more reason to linger over conversation a little longer. Life truly is about the small things.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beautiful Beaches of Belize and the Perfect Proposal

The stars aren't really visible in Chicago, with the exception of one or two super bright ones, and even those are tough to see most nights. But on this night in Belize, on the tiny island of Caye Caulker, the whole universe appears before our eyes. Tiny white specs pierce the deep purple sky and we sit back in awe, gazing up at the endless collection of stars. The sound of the soft waves brushing against the sand is calming, and I close my eyes and begin to drift off, when Steve reaches over and grabs my hand. It's the perfect evening...

We had arrived on Caye Caulker a couple days earlier after driving to Belize City from San Ignacio. After dropping off our rental car at the airport, we hopped a ride with one of the Budget Rental employees, who took us to the ferry. I bought our tickets as Steve ordered a quick lunch and a couple beers, which we gulped down before the boat departed for the island. Forty-five minutes and a head of windblown hair later, we stepped onto the white sand beach of Caye Caulker, a small limestone coral island that measures about five miles long and less than a mile wide. We could literally see from one side to the other, talk about tiny. But certainly not secluded. The island is bustling with dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops and bars.

Our hotel, Seaside Cabanas, was a quick walk from the dock. We checked in, dropped off our luggage and took a walk down the beach, stepping briefly into the clear sapphire blue water as we meandered on the coast. Despite the size of Caye Caulker, we still managed to get a little lost among the dirt roads and houses. We had walked south, and then turned west, but didn't account for the fact that the island curves enough that we couldn't turn back north without going back east--is your head spinning yet? We managed to make our way back to the hotel, noting a few places we needed to visit a little later.

Someone we met in San Ignacio had told us we had to watch the sunset at The Split, the waterway that divides the island in two. We thought there was a nice restaurant there where we could relax with a drink and watch the sun go down. Once we got there, however, we soon learned it was a party hangout spot for young travelers and locals. Most of them were lazing on the dock right next to the water, guzzling colorful drinks and dancing to the loud music blaring from the two-story bar that was surrounded by even more people screaming for drinks. It took a good ten minutes for me to get a bartender's attention. We ordered some fruity concoction and made our way upstairs to see if we could find some seats. No such luck. We stood by the bannister and watched as the sun slowly crept towards the horizon.

The excitement and noise from the bar was wearing on me, so we finished our drinks and walked along the west side of the island to find a quieter spot. There were a few small docks where other groups were enjoying the view, so we watched from there until the sun went down--or until our stomachs started grumbling uncontrollably, not sure which one happened first.

We ate dinner at Rainbow Grill, located right on the water. Service was super quick and we got our drinks and food pretty much right away. The jerk fish was delicious, and very spicy, which of course, I loved. After dinner, we decided it was way too early to head back to the hotel, so we stopped into a nearby bar called Barrier Reef Sports Bar & Grill. It was very lively inside and we soon found out it was trivia night. We met a nice guy from Canada, who recruited us to be on his team. We actually did surprisingly well, and would have won had we not wagered most of our points on the final question (which we got wrong). Despite our loss, we had a wonderful time meeting some interesting folks and throwing back some beers.

We decided to spend most of the next morning relaxing by the pool, since our whole trip so far had been go-go-go. Like I've said before, I usually don't eat much in the morning, but breakfast looked so delicious (and it was complimentary). I devoured the ripe fruit, yogurt and freshly baked pastries, and then we splayed out on lounge chairs and got some sun.

When lunch rolled around, we made our way down the beach and found a spot right near the water called Brisas del Mar. Unfortunately, the location was the only good thing about this place. It was super overpriced and service was very slow. I ordered the fish tacos, which were basically a wrap cut in half. Steve's fish sandwich was soggy and fell apart the minute he unwrapped it. We were disappointed in our decision, and promised ourselves to think before picking a place based solely on location.

We spent the afternoon shopping, but it was a lot harder than I anticipated finding good gifts for everyone. Each vendor had the same stuff, and nothing really stood out to me as being uniquely Belizean. Thinking back, I'm not really sure what that means. I think what stopped me from buying more was how cheap most things looked, and I couldn't bring myself to spend money on something that seemed mass manufactured for tourists. I did buy some traditional coffee beans at Ice and Beans Coffee Shop, a super cute shop that makes delicious gourmet donut holes, which they let us taste for free!

Since it was our last night on the island, we decided to get dressed up and go to a nice dinner at this place just down the road from our hotel. Habanero only has seats on the porch, and it was pretty busy when we got there. We lucked out, though, and snagged the last table. It was much more romantic than we anticipated, but it was a nice surprise. I ordered a snapper salad and Steve got the Rainforest Snapper. Normally, I would try to order something completely different than him, but the snapper just sounded too good to pass up. And I wasn't disappointed. The restaurant was a little pricey, but considering how much food we got, it was very reasonable, especially compared to prices in the U.S. As we dined, a guitar player serenaded everyone with classic and popular songs. It definitely added to the ambiance.

When we finished dinner, we took a short walk around the island before heading back to the hotel and relaxing out by the pool. As Steve held my hand, I kept thinking how incredible Belize is and how lucky we were to experience as much of it as we did. I was ready to call it a night, but Steve pleaded for me to wait a little longer. This was such a perfect night, and he felt we had to soak as much of it in as we could. It was a little suspicious, but I went with it. A few minutes passed, and I started to fall asleep. I sat up and told him I was going to the room, but he held onto me. He was shaking and tripping over his words a little, and I suddenly knew what was happening. He didn't get down on one knee, he didn't even have the ring, but the night was too perfect, he couldn't plan anything better at home, and so he went for it. He proposed right there next to the pool and I accepted. The perfect end to an already unforgettable evening.

The following morning, I was still in a post-proposal haze when we went downstairs to grab some breakfast before checking out of the hotel. We still had a snorkeling excursion planned that afternoon, so we left our bags at the front desk and headed over to pick up our gear. A small group of us boarded the boat and headed over to the barrier reef. At our first stop, we followed the guide around the reef for about an hour as he pointed out coral residents and various sea creatures. We ventured over to another part of the reef, where we were allowed to explore on our own. Then, we ended our trip at Shark/Ray alley, which is exactly like it sounds. A spot in the reef brimming with Nurse Sharks and large stingrays, all swimming within inches of us. I managed to stay in the water for a few minutes, but a close encounter with a ray made me scramble back to the boat.

When we got back to the island, Steve and I grabbed a quick lunch at an open-air restaurant called Roses Bar and Grill. We got there just in time, as it started to pour once we sat down, the first time it had rained the whole trip! The seafood ceviche I ordered was super fresh and delicious, but Steve's Hawaiian Sandwich was a little lackluster. Still, it was a nice final meal on the island. We picked up our luggage and caught the ferry, but not before buying some homemade banana bread from a local vendor.

We arrived back in Belize City and made our way back to Villa Boscardi, the same bed and breakfast we stayed in our first night. Looking back on it now, we should have stayed one more night on the island, and then taken an early ferry in the morning to catch our flight, but you live you learn. We kept it simple our last night, ordering some pizza from a local shop nearby and enjoying some wine as we relaxed in our room and nursed our sunburns (didn't realize how much sun we got while snorkeling).

As we packed our bags the next morning, I was sad to leave Belize. We had such an incredible time and created so many memories. It was truly one of the best trips I've been on, and I know we'll be back. There's so much we didn't see, and I want to explore more of this beautiful, friendly country. I'll keep Belize in my heart, always.