30 November 2013

Oct 2013 MICHIGAN Up North 1 - Fast Forward

Almost every year since we moved back to Michigan we go Up North for Mike's birthday weekend. It is almost always the perfect time to see the trees change from their summer to fall colors. This was the weekend. 

We had a fabulous time, but this year was not so good for color. We believe in climate change and this year is a good example of what's happening. Usually the trees are brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows by this time. Not so on this trip. About 80 percent of the trees are still all green. Not great for our trip and not great for planet earth.

Our destination today was Petoskey, Michigan, and we had a lovely day for motoring. We traveled US-131 all the way from Kalamazoo to Petoskey, about 280 miles and just over 5 hours travel time. We made one stop on the way at a Big Boys in Kalkaska. We wanted something quick and simple, but it was a more memorable meal than we expected. 

As we sat waiting for our food, we noticed a lot of gals with goth-like attire milling around the lunch buffet station. There were shades of black, torn t-shirts, studs, fishnet stockings, cinched waists and bodices, and lots of black leather. It was a bit out of place for a noon time meal at Big Boys. Brother Bob, take note. You won't believe this.

I saw the word Killamazoo on one of the t-shirts and realized it might have something to do with our home town. I asked one gal what they were doing in Kalkaska. It turns out she is part of the Kalamazoo "Killamazoo Killa Crew" Roller Derby team. They were competing in the third annual Class B Mitten Kitten tournament hosted by the Kalkaska Small Town Outlaws team.

Her "rink" name is Wicked Wings, which made sense because she had beautiful set of angel wings tattooed on her shoulders and back. She said it was in memory of her mom who had passed away. Anyway, she said the team had lost their first bout with the Ann Arbor Brawlstars 355-122 the night before, but that we should come and cheer them on later this evening.

We said we were headed out of town after lunch but asked when was the next meet-up in Kalamazoo. She advised some time in January. We said we'd see her there. We learned later they came in 6 out of 8 teams, but were in good spirits. Not too many injuries.

If you want to cheer with us at the Kalamazoo Expo Center in January (date TBA), let us know. We plan a Killa party. Or if you really want to join the fun, there are openings on the team!!

To find out more about the Killamazoo Killa Crew or Class A Derby Darlins, see:  www.killamazooderbydarlins.com .

When we arrived in Petoskey we found our hotel was a little north of town. It would have been nicer right in town, but good for a quick getaway in the morning as we were to continue north a bit. In any case, our room was clean and adequate. We freshened up and cruised back into town.

Mike's dad was born in Petoskey and, although we don't get here often, it is one of our fave northern Michigan towns. It is located on Little Traverse Bay, right on Lake Michigan. It has a cool old town district, good for walking, and a lot of little independent stores to shop or window shop in.

There are beautiful views along this stretch of highway. Lake Michigan on the right and a row of gingerbread mansions on the left. On the lake side park was a kite flying event. Some looked like colorful rags flying in the wind and others had a dragon effect.

Petoskey is a resort town with a permanent population of about 5,700. It was founded in 1879 and is recognized as the location of Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. Hemingway was born in Chicago, but spent many a summer in this area as he grew up. Also, the Michigan State stone is the Petoskey stone, as many can be found in this area.

The town looks like a picture post card out of history. A small town feel, but tastefully updated. On the one hand there is the old J. C. Penny Company and on the other are galleries galore. One of the many shops is a huge kitchen store. If you use it in the kitchen you can find it here. Fabulous browsing and you can always find a new item you have not seen before. I think one time we bought an avocado slicer here. There is also a lot of green space in town and old cannons and military memorials. A mix of patriotic and quaint.

We made one "souvenir" purchase--a wooden sculpture of a raven. Mike especially loves ravens and we had been looking for just the right one for a while.

After the day's long drive, we were pooped. We were not up for a leisurely gourmet dining experience this evening. We opted for carry-out sub sandwiches and Dr. Pepper sodas at Jimmy Johns, and ate back at the hotel.

2013 NYC by Train 15 - A New York Wrap

We had the BEST time ever in NYC. This has been on my bucket list for oh so many years and it did not disappoint. Mike was not so enthused to start, but it did not take long for him to catch NYC fever. If fact, he so enjoyed it that he hopes to return for his birthday trip next year.

We enjoyed every moment, but several things stood out about this city. First, there are American flags everywhere. I don't know if it was this way before 9-11 or if 9-11 brought out the patriotism and courage that this city experienced as a result of that incident. It felt good to see them and reminded me that in spite of its downfalls, the USA is a great place to live. New Yorkers are not about to forget that or let any visitors forget either.

The next thing we so enjoyed was the architecture. Every style and era is represented. Our heads rotated from side to side 24/7 trying to take it all in.

Also outstanding was the public art incorporated within the architecture or standing alone. It is spectacular!! People talk of the richness of art in Europe. But even though we have a comparatively short history, our art and architecture rivals theirs. It may be a different kind of art and architecture, but no doubt in my mind, it is just as interesting and valuable to society. It has its own story to tell and we were "listening."

And you hear tales of how curt or obnoxious New Yorkers are. Not true. Yes, they are busy and directed to their personal task of the moment, but no one ignored us if we had a question or needed directions. They smiled and were courteous. And they were varied in their culture. A soup of society. Nice to see this cosmopolitan mix.

Can't forget the food. I'm sure no one has come close to eating in all the NYC restaurants and cafes. We started off aiming to eat a different culture's cuisine for every meal, but it just didn't work out that way. Too hard to really plan. When you are hungry, you are hungry and you eat at the next interesting place you see.

We got by pretty cheap for food. The Red Flame has a reasonably priced and hardy breakfast. After that we really nibbled our way throughout the day and into the night at the plentiful and varied food trucks, along with adult beverage and bakery stops, pizza and deli meals. Our biggest splurge was the one in Little Italy. We passed by Sardi's a few times, but they were closed when we headed that way to eat one night. Probably needed a reservation anyway. Eating at one of Mario Batali's restaurants would be a real treat, too, for next time.

I don't know what I expected when we traveled there. I thought all the things you see in the movies were hyped up and inflated. But no! I thought the quaint news stands and Broadway and Times Square, were re-done somehow to make them bigger than life. But no! What you see in the movies is what you get. The reality set in for us. Now when we watch movies set in NYC, we can say, "We saw that!" and we get a real kick out of it. It was a slice of heaven for us. You MUST go there if there is any way you possible can.

NYC is a place of living and liveliness. I'm not sure this is a place to grow old. The pace is energetic and passionate, but intense. We're sorry we had not experienced it before. We would have visited many more times if we had known how wonderful, inviting, full of culture, good food, good people it is. You just can't imagine until you experience it for yourself.

Places we want to see next time:
     The Statue of Liberty
     Ellis Island
     Completed 9-11 Memorial Park and Museum 
     Coney Island
     A boat trip around Manhattan
     Greenwich Village
     Actually, all the "neighborhoods"
     See a Broadway play
     Take an Inside Broadway Tour
     The Bowery Tour
     Walk the High Line
     Chelsea Market
     TV show audience (Jon Stewart would be great!)
     Museum of the City of New York
     A complete walking tour of Central Park
     Smithsonian Hewitt-Cooper National Design Museum (in Teshia's honor)
     Museum of Modern Art
     Museums (there is a whole list)
     Carnegie or Katz Deli
     Oyster Bar in Grand Central
     Battery Park
     Walk by The Dakota
     Brooklyn Zoo
     Harlem (all the boroughs!)
     Empire State Building Observation Deck
     Times Square, again

Hard to imagine hitting all of these. You would need months.

In any case, we need more ideas. If you have any "cannot miss" places, send us a comment.

29 November 2013

2013 NYC by Train 14 - The Long Road Home

We didn't have to get up too early today, because our train from Penn Station did not leave til 3:45pm. Check-out at the hotel was noon, so the morning was leisurely. We ate at The Red Flame again. This time getting a seat in the front. That was fun because we could watch folks strolling or hurrying by outside. We both had bagels and cream cheese. Mike added lox to his. Umm, so good. Wish we could get NYC bagels in Kalamazoo.

Back in the hotel we cleaned up, finished packing, and checked out. The Algonquin was a great place to stay--centrally located and with a true-blue New York City vibe. Although our room was small, it reflected the personality of old times and we would definitely return.

We had about 3 hours to fritter way, but we also each had a roll-away suitcase that we had to deal with. We decided to slowly meander the streets toward Penn Station, traveling down new blocks that we had not yet seen.

We made one last pass through Times Square. Always excitement there. We noticed one thing we had not seen before. Under the big Coke ad there were bleacher type seats facing the Square. On the top row, if you turned to face the ad, there was a camera set up. You could see yourself at the bottom of the ad on a big screen. We didn't try it, but how fun!! Folks were posing and acting out--"movie stars" for a moment.

We continued our walk at a slow stroll and happened though the Fashion / Garment District. This is a mid-town neighborhood around 7th Avenue and 34th Street, at least that is where we found ourselves when we discovered it. It has a high concentration of fashion and textile manufacturing and design businesses, and showrooms for major fashion labels. It is geared mostly to the wholesale market.

There we passed by lovely outside cafes with lots of big, colorful potted plants and shade umbrellas. There was also a "Fashion Walk of Fame," similar to the one you see in Hollywood for the film industry. A huge billboard displayed a continuously morphing design--it looked liked masks or insects or just an abstract composition. We watched it for a while and never saw the same arrangement repeated.
Yes, we got to Penn Station way early with about 2 hours to wait before boarding. That was fine though. We weren't the least bored. As airline employees, we had spent so many hours waiting in airports for our plane to depart. We are always prepared with reading material, iPad solitaire, and playing catch-up on my notes for this blog.

In the early 20th century, different companies used different RR stations, so they were named after the company using it. If a train station was shared by several companies it was then called Union Station. That is why there are so many Union Stations around our country.

Penn Station is named for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. We had not explored here the day we arrived, but had plenty of time to do so today. It handles up to 1,000 passengers per 90 seconds per Wiki. It services local transit, as well as regional routes and Amtrak. It is located on underground levels beneath Madison Square Garden. There are lots of little stores, cafes, news stands, and carry-out places to browse. We picked up sandwiches to eat later on the train. 

In the Amtrak waiting room, we enjoyed the ever entertaining people-watching parade. For a while we observed several security dogs being trained as bomb-sniffers. A police officer would "plant" a decoy bag and let the dog weaved through the crowd until it spotted the decoy. As soon as the decoy was spotted, the dog sits next to it and gets high praise from its handler for a job well done.
Our train was delayed for 30 minutes. No surprise and, again, as transportation employees we are used to that and actually expect it most of the time. If something is right on time, that's a bonus.

We chose good window seats so we could see out the opposite side of the train from our inbound journey. With an afternoon (instead of midnight) departure we were able to view new territory. We enjoyed the route out of Manhattan, through the tunnels under the Hudson River, and then along side the river for many miles.

We saw more of northeast rural American. We stopped in Albany again to add several train cars from the Boston route who joined us going west. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset in Schenectady. We saw Cleveland Stadium at dawn. Interesting graffiti art was everywhere along the way. Except for the new views, our train ride home was uneventful.

By the end of our journey to Elkhart, we were a couple of hours late, arriving about 10:30am. We had stopped or slowed a few times for construction and to let faster moving freight trains pass. We were soooo ready to be HOME. If we were college kids, able to sleep in any position with any amount of noise, it would have been better. But our oldish, achy bones did not handle this type of travel well. Next time we will definitely ante up for a sleeper-ette arrangement as suggested by some of our fellow travelers.

All in all our trip was fabulous. We loved NYC, Manhattan craziness, the food, the people, the whole experience. We are already planning another trip for Mike's birthday next year. Yahoo!

26 November 2013

2013 NYC by Train 13 - China and Italy

The WTC Path led us out of the part to the corner of Greenwich and Liberty Streets where we happened by the FDNY Memorial Wall. It is a 56-foot long bronze sculpted wall on the side of the Ladder Company 10 Engine 10 Firehouse. It remembers and honors the 343 firefighters who perished in the 9-11 collapse of the towers. The names and photos of each are listed there. The bronze depicts the struggles these fine men and women went through in the battle to save lives. This was not our last thought, but our last physical glimpse of the 9-11 story today.

Our plan was to walk back to the hotel through Chinatown and Little Italy, so we checked our NYC Travel Advisory Bureau map for the best route. It is quite detailed and pointed out many interesting places along the way. We started north on Broadway heading in the direction of Chinatown on the map. The varied and interesting architecture kept our attention.

We came across a little farmer's market along Broadway, selling fresh fruits and veggies and crafts. We browsed there for a minute and then noticed an especially imposing building ahead us at the end of Chalmers Street. From notations on our map, we thought we had discovered City Hall. All eyes were on that magnificent building, but we found out later that this was actually the NYC Municipal Building.

We missed City Hall completely. Turns out it was a much smaller (but still impressive) building within the little park next to the produce stands. We were so mesmerized by the Municipal Building that we made assumptions. Not good. Anyway today I learned the real scoop while doing some fact-checking. 

Anyway, the Municipal Building was built between 1909-1914. Per their website, it is among the largest government office buildings in the world, housing over 2,000 employees from a dozen municipal agencies in nearly 1 million square feet of office space. It is 25 floors high with 33 elevators. There are an additional 15 stories in the central tower. The building is rich in art and architectural details. A most impressive building for this most impressive city.

As we had our destination in mind and not so much time, we didn't go inside except for the official City Souvenir Store. I got an "I Love NY" t-shirt and we bought an "A" rated dishtowel for our gourmet cook friend Susan. Her kitchen and the food that she creates is actually A++, but they don't have a rating for that.

We had wondered about the letter placards we saw in restaurant windows. Turns out the City restaurant inspectors make unannounced visits at least once a year to each restaurant in NYC!! Based on a point system, each is given a designation of A, B or C rating (C being the lowest). This does not account for how good the food tastes, but mostly cleanliness.

For more info about the restaurant rating system, read: www.nyc.gov/html/doh/down .

For photos and info about the actual City Hall see, www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_Hall . 

For more info regarding the the Municipal Building above, go to: www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/about/man_munibldg.shtml

We continued a few blocks up Centre Street, passing more old and imposing edifices. This housed historic churches and courthouses. We walked by a small park where they were filming a movie. We craned our necks to spot a famous actor, but no luck there.

At Canal Street we turned right and entered the Chinatown area. I say "area" because after living near San Francisco's Chinatown, this seemed minuscule. Buildings did not have the Asian flair we were used to. There were several nice fish markets, gold shops, and varied Asian-style (Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese) restaurants, but all in all we were a bit let down. The aromas there were wonderful though.

We wandered a bit further and came to Mulberry Street with its big Welcome to Little Italy sign. Now we're talking. The street was more lively with people, shops, cafes, green-white-red (Italian colors) everywhere. Even the fire escapes were delicately designed with artistic curlicues. Again, not quite as authentic feeling as San Fran's North Beach, but pretty close. We were happy.

We wandered up and down Mulberry, the main street for the area and onto some side streets. We stepped into a few stores including a hallway-sized wine shop and La Bella Ferrara, a wonderful Italian bakery. We noticed signs saying that Bertolli was the official olive oil of Little Italy. Yep, we use that brand all the time.

There were so many inviting restaurants to choose from, we just could not make up our minds. To settle the question, we decided to call our friend Al Ceniglio, whom Mike had worked with for over 20 years in San Francisco. Al grew up in this area and visited many times over the years. We figured he would have a good recommendation. He was so excited to know that we were in his Little Italy on Mulberry Street at that very moment. He was also sad to report that Italian town had been ten times this size when he was growing up. It looked now to be maybe a 6-block area. We had a great talk, reminiscing about here and about San Fran. But, alas, he had no particular restaurant recommendation.

So Mike and I ventured back down Mulberry and stepped into Cafe Napoli. We figured we couldn't go wrong no matter where we ate. This particular place had a nice outside table, young dark curly-haired Italian waiters, and maitre d' that looked like a mob boss. It was a good spot to watch the pedestrian traffic and street commotion. It turned out to have excellent food and cheap entertainment.

We started with Bellinis (an Italian cocktail made with fresh and "healthy" peach juice and champagne). We shared a caprese salad (fresh and thick slabs of buffalo mozzarella cheese, tomato slices, basil leave slivers all drizzled in olive oil and served with a fresh baked baguette). Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is just writing about it.

For our main course, Mike chose his favorite chicken piccata (in lemon sauce) and Peroni Italian beer, while I had eggplant parmigiana with a glass of wonderful Sangiovese (red) wine. We topped off the meal with dessert, of course. Mike had very traditional spumoni (Italian ice cream) and I had a cannollo. All was delicioso!! We were the most stuffed we had been on our whole trip so far.

We were still talking about our meal as we waddled north toward our hotel. The Empire State building was our guide. See it towering in the background of this photo.

We passed by so many interesting things--many murals, street artists and musicians, quaint news stands like you would see in the movies, public works of art, the Woolworth Building (a cashier in Woolworth's was the second job I had as a kid), the flagship of the Brooks Brothers clothing store (you must be a little older to recognize that name), parks, street food vendors, and so much interesting architecture. We meandered passed the Empire State building with its King Kong history. No sign of ol' K.K. here today.  

It was a LONG walk back to 42th Street, but a lovely day. So much to see, smell, hear, that our feet did not hurt until we sat down in our hotel room. Then, oh, boy, they were talking back to us big time. Sore and aching, it had been a full day and our stomachs were certainly still full. We decided to lay low for the rest of the evening. Watched a little TV, reviewed the highlights of our wild and crazy time here, and organized our bags as we had to depart the next day. Before we new it, we were soundly asleep.