Sunday, August 2, 2015

Our Great Big Western USA Roadtrip

On the road with a bug splattered windshield


After years of planning, it's done. Our great big roadtrip to see the scenic wonders of the Western USA. The seed was planted ages ago in 2006 when we came up with our 10 year plan of summer vacations, and Yellowstone National Park made the list of places to take our kids before they grew up. The first attempt to visit in 2010 was thwarted when I discovered that the Old Faithful hotels book up a full year ahead of time for the peak summer season. In 2011, I had to cancel our reservations for lodging when we moved to Malaysia, an event which opened us up traveling all over the world, not just the USA. 2015 was the year when we finally succeeded.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Gardens by the Vineyards

"Short days ago/ We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/ Loved and were loved..." from In Flanders Fields

Like a bee drawn to a flower, I can't resist a gorgeous garden. While I admire the grand expansiveness of Versailles' chateau grounds on the outskirts of Paris or the futuristic wonder that is Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, it's the simple vegetable garden that most captures my imagination. I can close my eyes and pretend that it's mine. That it's attainable.

Driving through the countryside of Dry Creek Valley in Northern California, what I mostly see when I look around is this...

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery

Vineyards stretching hither and yon, as far as the eye can see. I am in the birthplace of California wine making.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Non-Alcoholic Tour of Dry Creek Valley Vineyards

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Dry Creek Valley's most famous crop

A day touring vineyards and wineries in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley may seem like a strange outing for someone who has no intention of actually sipping any wine. After all, the main reason why most people visit is to drink wine, duh. Just outside of the town of Healdsburg, California, this official American Viticultural Area is only 16 miles long and 2 miles wide. Families first began growing wine grapes here in the late 1880's, and it now has more than 70 wineries.

The wonderful thing about these vineyards is that many are more than just a tasting room and wine shop. They are surrounded by acres of lush gardens as if you had stumbled upon some modern day Eden. Walking through the gardens is typically free of charge and can end up being a relaxing and cheap way to spend the day. It's a great outing for kids and adults who don't drink but still love nature and the outdoors. If you want to add extra adventure to your day, Wine Country Bikes has cycling tours of the area as well as bike rentals including tandem bikes and child trailers.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Castello di Amorosa: Medieval Castle in Napa Valley

Castello di Amorosa
Am I in Italy, or am I in California?

I wasn't planning on seeing a medieval castle when I awoke that summer morning. On a rare vacation without the rest of my family, I spent a few days in the heart of California wine country visiting my friend, Julia. She and I are similar in that we both love food, are especially fascinated by chocolate, and can't hold our liquor due to a bad case of Asian glow. The day's itinerary included a trip to the Farmers Market and then heading to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for a casual lunch and a little browsing. As we sped down the St. Helena Highway, Julia's daughter exclaimed, "The castle gates are open!" All we could see from the road was the sign for Castello di Amorosa and a long driveway leading through the gates and up to who knows where. In a snap, we changed our plans and turned in. As we made our way up the driveway, it suddenly came into view. A 12th-13th century Tuscan castle surrounded by vineyards rose up spectacularly before us. This was definitely worth delaying our lunch.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Postcards from Intramuros, a Spanish walled city in the Philippines

Intramuros, Manila
Main gate of Fort Santiago
(My son obviously did not get his height from my side of the gene pool.)

Someone once told me that they can tell if a person is from the Philippines if they look Asian but have a Hispanic name. Indeed, the Philippines is an independent, island nation in Southeast Asia which was under Spanish rule for over 300 years, promptly followed by a few decades as an American colony. My parents were born and married in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, before moving to the USA. Visiting my extended family there was one last thing I wanted to do before leaving Asia. We spent most of our time feasting at restaurants, hitting the many malls, and just hanging out with my aunts and cousins, getting to know each other better. My kids say it's one of their favorite vacations because they went bowling and played Minecraft with their 2nd cousins instead of spending the whole day sightseeing. Indeed, a morning excursion to Intramuros was the extent of our touristy activities there. So, instead of showing you snapshots of our bowling scores, here's a few postcards from Intramuros.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Natural Wonder of Hamilton Pool

Hamilton Pool
Behind the waterfall

I stood behind the waterfall enjoying the cooling mist and thinking about the year that's passed since we left Malaysia to return back to Texas. One of my biggest worries about repatriating was that life would become humdrum and routine. That returning to the city that I've called home for the last 20 years couldn't possibly be as exciting as exploring an exotic, foreign country. So, I reminded myself that I had perhaps taken Austin, Texas for granted.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Farewell to FAO Schwarz

I was a little sad when I heard the news. FAO Schwarz's flagship store in Manhattan will close its doors on July 15. When we visited New York City last November, stopping by this famous toy store was high on our list of child-friendly activities in the Big Apple. It wasn't hard to convince the family. "Hey kids, lets go to a TOY STORE." They probably thought some alien took over their mom since I usually drag them to see Buddhas or cathedrals on our vacations.

Browsing around FAO Schwarz, said to be America's oldest toy store, is an Experience with a capital "E." It's a curious combination of super expensive items that only people with lots and lots of disposable income would consider actually buying (e.g. 60-inch Patrick the Pup plush stuffed animal for $300) mixed with regular toys that are readily available at your neighborhood Wal-Mart or Toys'R'Us.

That Thanksgiving week, the store was packed just after opening time. Two door men dressed as toy soldiers greeted us as we ran up, shaking the freezing rain off our umbrellas. Eager to escape the wet cold, we didn't pause to take the customary photo with them.  A constant stream of people made its way in the door and up the escalator, swiveling their heads back and forth to take in the abundance of toys surrounding us. Lack of traffic through the store is clearly not a problem.


Dancing around and making music on The Big Piano


Ever since I saw the Tom Hanks movie Big, I've always wanted to play "Heart and Soul" on The Big Piano. After realizing that the movie has some PG-13 scenes, I settled for showing my kids a YouTube video of the famous piano sequence. With their interest piqued, that was the first place my family headed, figuring that the queue would get longer as the day went on. It turns out that you don't get the piano all to yourself. They let about five or six people on it at a time. The resulting sound is sheer cacaphony. Imagine a bunch of toddlers banging on a regular piano, and you'll get the general idea.
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