Friday, December 30, 2016

Traveling Near and Far in 2016

2016 is what I'm calling "the New Normal." It's been two-and-a-half years since we returned to Texas from our three year expat assignment living in Malaysia. There's no doubt about it. Malaysia was a turning point in family travel for us. Before that, we fell into the "One Big Trip a Year" category, typically during the summer. Most holidays were spent visiting our families who live 3 hours away in Houston where both hubby and I grew up. With the overseas move, we were in a rush to squeeze in as much travel as possible while living on the other side of the world. It really helped that almost all our friends were in the same mode.

The "New Normal" is a mix of both styles. We still drive to Houston for Easter, Fourth of July (USA's Independence Day), Thanksgiving, Christmas and other weekends here and there. But, we managed to take three big family trips this year, too. On top of that, hubby spends a total of one month in Malaysia and one month in Hungary on business.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Favorite Photos from 2016

As 2016 draws to a close, I am reminded how much I rely on my photos to jog my memory about all that I've done throughout the year. If I didn't take photos, I swear that I would completely forget half of it. That's part of the reason why I blog... to remind myself of where I've been. There are a few images, however, that stand out in my mind either because I like the visual or because of the story behind it. Here are some of my favorites from the past year.

Monday, December 12, 2016

GPSmyCity Travel Article App review & giveaway

On my family’s trip to England this year, I tried a travel article app for the first time after winning one in a giveaway. It was free, so why not? After downloading GPSmyCity and getting a few clicks in, I was already won over. I would gladly pay for travel assistance like this in the palm of my hand. What exactly is GPSmyCity? It’s an app you can download onto your iOS device that delivers travel articles, city specific tours and GPS-guided navigation all in one place. (Android version will be launched in 2017.)

Ever since I discovered travel blogs, they have factored heavily into my trip planning. After reading them, I usually use a combination of different apps to pin info about where I wanted to visit, to map where they were all located relative to each other and to figure out directions to get from one place to the next. Once I started using GPSmyCity, I realized that I could finally do it all on one app without having to switch back and forth.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

ICE! Sculptures at Gaylord Hotels

A life-size nativity scene carved entirely out of ice

Every winter, I get a little jealous when people visiting colder climes start sharing photos of ice sculpture festivals and ice hotels. In Texas, Mother Nature does not keep the outdoors cold enough for us to enjoy such things. December weather is all over the place. Some Christmases, it's been warm enough to wear shorts. On another, more magical Christmas, snow flurries fell from the sky, causing my children to abandon their half-unwrapped gifts to run outside. When I heard about the Gaylord Texan Resort hotel's ICE! Winter Wonderland, I knew that it would be the perfect mini-getaway during our holiday school break. Gaylord Hotels has four locations around the USA, each with a different themed ICE! exhibit.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Fading Art of Map Reading

What's your favorite way to figure out directions to a place? Maps app? Google Maps? Waze?

I'm all for using my smartphone apps now, but I remember how fantastic I thought the portable Garmin GPS Navigator System was when I first bought it many, many years ago. Just plug in my destination, and it gave me turn-by-turn instructions in real time. Miraculous! It was a pain, though, whenever the suction cup gave way, and the entire thing tumbled onto the floor just out of reach on the passenger side. Luckily, I could haul it over to me by grabbing onto the power cord.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tibetan Monks Debate at Sera Monastery

In a heated debate

I blame the altitude sickness. I was finally in Tibet, that isolated kingdom on the roof of the world, and I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm to leave the hotel. When our guide asked if we wanted to watch the monks debate at Sera Monastery, I initially declined. I pictured a stage with two podiums and a crimson robe clad monk standing behind each one droning on and on in monotone about the finer points of their religion. I don't know a word of Tibetan, and I know nothing about Tibetan Buddhism. How could it possibly interest me?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Thoughts on America's Presidents

The White House as seen from the Washington Monument

What a difference four years makes. For the 2102 Presidential Election, I was voting from overseas, and there was a sense of separation between whatever the outcome may be and how it would affect American expats. With Malaysia being a half day time difference ahead, I dropped my kids off at school just as the polls in America were closing then headed to a friend's home for an election watch party. The guests were an amicable mix of Democrats and Republicans, Americans and citizens from other countries with an interest in world politics. We attempted to explain the Electoral College with limited success and carried on jovially eating, drinking and talking throughout the morning until Obama was declared the winner.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tibet's Mountaintop Ganden Monastery

Mountaintop monastary

Three years have passed since I visited Tibet. For a long time, I was hesitant to write much about our travels there. In contrast to how most bloggers would react, I wanted to hold the journey close inside my heart and mind. Keep it private. Not share too many details. It was as if writing about the trip would chip off a little piece of the treasure to give it away to each reader, leaving me with only a fraction of what I started with. Maybe it's like Fight Club. The first rule of Tibet is "You do not talk about Tibet."

Friday, October 7, 2016

Austin's South Congress Street Art

Forget about Donald or Hillary
South Congress Avenue, also known as SoCo, in Austin, Texas is an extremely walkable street full of stores and restaurants. Another great draw is the cluster of fantastic street art. This summer, I took my daughter and her friends down to explore the area by foot, and the many murals we saw were a source of great fun.

Friday, September 30, 2016

5 Things to Do in Austin other than Austin City Limits or SXSW

The often photographed mural on the side of a building of West Annie Street at South 1st Street 

Hordes of festival goers descend upon Austin, Texas this week to attend the Austin City Limits Festival. Locals like me have two choices — either join the crowds to enjoy one live music concert after another or else studiously avoid the entire area until the festival is over. Personally, I like exploring Austin when there's less people around. This is getting harder and harder since the population has doubled since I moved here a few decades ago.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Shambles on Britain's Most Picturesque Street

You can't tell from the photo above, but in the middle of the day, this cobblestone street is packed. Throngs of tourists peer into store windows and pop into shops to buy picture postcards, jewelry or slabs of fudge. Walking tours wind through the crowds valiantly attempting to keep their group somewhat together.

What is this place and what's the big draw? It's the Shambles, a narrow street in York, England. This street is so old that it's mentioned in William the Conqueror's eleventh century Doomsday Book and is considered to be one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. In more recent memory, the Google Street Team named it the Most Picturesque Street in Britain, and it was part of the Olympic torch relay route in 2012.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory Tour

Tons of photo ops at the Ben & Jerry's factory

Visiting the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory has been at the top of my list of must-see food factory tours. Available in 35 countries, I hope that you've been one of the many folks around the world to enjoy their frozen delights with the catchy names. My hubby is an ice cream purist. He prefers vanilla unsullied with any sort of mix-ins. I, on the other hand, enjoy my ice cream fully loaded with chunks of deliciousness in every scoop. Ben & Jerry's is exactly the style I crave. Add in their support of social justice issues, and it's a product that I can willingly splurge on. (Actually, Ben & Jerry's is now owned by the international conglomerate Unilever who also produces Wall's, Good Humor, Klondike, Breyers, Streets, and 和路雪 ice cream. But I will continue to pretend that it's 2 hippie dudes mixing up ice cream in the Green Mountains of Vermont.)

A few of the flavors created by Ben & Jerry's

Ben & Jerry's got its start in 1978 after they spent $5 on a ice cream making correspondence course from Penn State. Now, it's manufactured worldwide with factories in Nevada, Ontario, Italy, the Netherlands, and Tel Aviv. While I'm not sure if any of those locations offer public access, the one in Vermont welcomes crowds of people with open arms. The factory is conveniently located only one mile off of Interstate 89 in the town of Waterbury.

Ben & Jerry's posters from around the globe

If you visit, the first thing you should do is go inside and get a ticket for a factory tour. That looooooong line outside? It's for the Scoop Shop. Tickets must be purchased in-person for a same-day tour and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Arriving mid-afternoon in the height of the summer tourist season, we had to wait an hour until our tour started, but I noticed that later in the day, the wait was only 30 minutes. Luckily, there is plenty to keep families busy while they waited.

The air around the factory smells like creme brulee... until the wind shifts, and then there's hints of cow manure.

Head up the hill behind the factory to the Flavor Graveyard. It's quite amusing to wander around and read all the epitaphs on the tombstones. I had a strange moment when I realized that Rainforest Crunch has been "deceased" since 1999. I thought I just kept missing it at the grocery store. The graveyard contains only a fraction of the retired flavors. There's always the possibility that one may be reformulated and reintroduced. Legend has it that Ben & Jerry's resurrected the White Russian flavor (coffee ice cream with coffee liqueur) in their Scoop Shops after multiple fans left a bouquets of flowers at its grave.

Flavor Graveyard

A small playground keeps kids entertained while waiting for a tour to start. In the summer, they also have tents with activities like free SpinArt and Tie Dying Shirts ($13, cash only). Hot dogs, chips, lemonade and bottled water are available for purchase if you're looking for something other than ice cream to eat. Small shacks showcase whatever social justice issue they're currently promoting. While we were there, posters encouraged Americans to exercise their right to vote in this important Election Year. The introduction of the new flavor, Empower Mint (peppermint ice cream with fudge brownies and fudge swirls), celebrates that "Democracy is in Your Hands!"

A few months ago, there was a small batch, unofficial flavor called Bernie's Yearning after the Vermont senator and former Democratic candidate who Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield supported. Pints of Bernie's Yearning have a solid layer of chocolate representing the gains of the wealthy 1% that you have to break through to get to the plain mint ice cream beneath it that symbolizes the rest of us.

It's a craft project AND a souvenir.

The main building has a timeline history of the company along with maps of their global locations and international signs. The souvenir store contains everything from clever T-shirts ("I like to Spoon") to ice cream-flavored lip balms and pints of faux spilled, melted ice cream.

Finally, it was time for our 30 minute tour to start! It begins with a movie tracing the history of Ben & Jerry's back to 1978 when they opened their first Scoop Shop in a renovated gas (petrol) station in Vermont. To celebrate their first anniversary, they held a Free Cone Day, a tradition which still goes on each year. By 1980, they started packaging their ice cream in pints and selling it at stores. In 2000, they sold the company to Unilever but created an independent Board of Directors to maintain their brand identity and social mission.

The next stop on the factory tour is the mezzanine with windows looking down over the production floor. The guide pointed out the different machines and told us what each one did. While tours are offered 7 days a week, manufacturing only occurs from Monday to Friday. Since most of the the ice cream creation occurs hidden within enclosed tanks and pipes, the only big difference on weekends is that you won't see the "putting on the lids" machine in action or people walking around below you on the factory floor. After the ice cream is packaged, it goes off to the freezing tower to bring it down to the correct temperature for storage and shipping. The tower is too cold for humans, so we watched a short clip of the conveyor belt in action instead of seeing it first hand. Photography is not allowed in the movie theater or the mezzanine.

Welcome to the Flavor Room

The last portion of the tour is the Flavor Room, a workshop where wacky flavors are thought up by "Screamers." Be sure to read the labels on the containers behind the glass. There are crazy ingredient labels like Rainbow Ends and I Dunno. Most of the flavors created in this room are edible, experimental brainstorming and never see mass production. If you're lucky — or unlucky, depending on the flavor — the trial flavor will be part of the Samples that day. On the day we were there, Broccoli and Cheese was what the Screamers were offering up. Bleh! While one brave sole did try the cup of yellowish ice scream with green flecks, the rest of the tour group opted for the safer choice, Triple Caramel Chunk (caramel ice cream with a swirl of caramel and fudge covered caramel candies).

The tour has a sweet ending with a small scoop of the ice cream of the day.

After the tour, we got in line at the Scoop Shop. We had plenty of time to contemplate the menu while we were queuing. With 30 flavors of ice cream, 3 flavors of Greek Fro Yo, 4 sorbets and one non-dairy offering, it's a much bigger selection than what's in pint-size cartons at my local grocery store. The nearest Scoop Shop to my home is almost 100 miles away, so I was especially excited to be spoilt for choice. You can ask for tiny samples if you want to try a flavor before committing to it. I settled on a scoop of Empower Mint and a scoop of Coconut Seven Layer Bar.

The most impressive item on the Scoop Shop menu is the Vermonster Sundae made with 20 scoops of ice cream, four sliced bananas, three cookies, a large brownie, hot fudge or caramel or both, ten spoonfuls of chopped walnuts, whipped cream and an assortment of toppings like sprinkles and M&Ms. Weighing between 4-9 pounds, it's all served in a giant plastic tub and recommended for sharing. No way was I going to order one for my family, and I did not see anyone else eating it either. What a sight that would have been!

Full details about the Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour in Waterbury, Vermont can be found on their website. Tour tickets are $4 adults, $3 seniors, and kids 12 years and under are free. Cash, credit cards, and checks accepted at the tour ticket counter.

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It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, August 26, 2016

6 National Parks in the middle of Big Cities

Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge during a trip to the big city.

This week, America is wishing Happy 100th Birthday to the US National Park Service. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations".

When most people think of National Parks, the panoramic landscape of the Grand Canyon, the towering waterfalls of Yosemite or the iconic Old Faithful geyser nestled in Yellowstone come to mind. But the National Park Service is not tasked solely with preserving the natural wonders of America. They also take care of its historical sites, many of which are located in big cities. Would you believe that more than a third of all national park sites are located in metro areas? Forty of the nation's fifty most populated urban areas have national parks in them. 36% of all National Parks visits occur at urban sites. According the Urban Agenda, it's part of the service's goal to reach Americans where they live and be relevant to their everyday lives, not just be part of a postcard perfect vacation in the Great Outdoors.

In honor of their mission to satisfy both the country mice and the city mice, here are a few of my favorite urban sites managed by the National Parks Service

Friday, August 12, 2016

At the End of the Universe at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Kusama's Love is Calling

The At the End of the Universe exhibit by Yayoi Kusama first caught my eye on my cousin's Instagram feed (@wanderng). Polka dotted, neon colored tentacles rose up from the ground and twisted down from the ceiling. An infinite field of incandescent lights exploded across a dark room. Curiously drawn to wanting to immerse myself in this experience, I knew that I would visit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH)  the next time that I was in town.

Friday, June 24, 2016

36 Hours in Cody, Wyoming

The town of Cody, Wyoming is a popular stopping point for travelers making the long drive between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore. While I considered resting my head here for just one night, I'm so glad the family decided to spend an extra day exploring this cowboy town which was founded as a tourist magnet in 1896 by the already famous Buffalo Bill Cody.

The historic Irma Hotel and home to the Cody Gunfighter show

Gunslinger Showdown

We arrived in the late afternoon of a sunny June day. Driving through downtown, I noticed that quite a crowd was gathering in front of the historic Irma Hotel. While most cowboy stories tell of gunfights on the street taking place at high noon, the Cody Gunfighters put on a performance in front of the hotel at 6PM every Monday through Saturday during the summer months. It's like the Old West come to life.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Let Me Take a Selfie

I'm a big fan of art in public places. As a parent, dragging all my kids into an art museum is a bit of a hassle. So, it's nice when we encounter art as we are out and about. Bonus: Docents don't yell at your kids if they touch the art that's out in public like they would in a museum. After all, art that is exposed to the outdoor elements tends to be rather sturdy. (Well, except in this poor guy's case.)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Night Falls on Venice

St. Mark's Square under an indigo sky at night

Venice at night is a different creature than the one you'll encounter in broad daylight. While the sun is high in the sky, people are on a mission to squeeze in all there is to see. For many of the tourists, they only have a few hours in this glorious city. Hordes of people queue up at the entrances of St. Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace and the Campanile. Tour guides lead their people through St. Mark's square from one sight to another while waving their tiny flags in the air.

Friday, April 22, 2016

In Search of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Long before I became an expat and started reading travel blogs, I was an ardent fan of expat books and travel books. Admittedly, many of them had to do with food such as Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo or chef David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris. I laughed at Bill Bryson's attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods and tried to immerse myself in Parisian expat life with the classic Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast. I developed a better appreciation for PBS's Europe through the Back Door host, Rick Steves, when I read his book, Travel as a Political Act which I highly recommend. 

Celebrating New Year's Day 2013 watching surfers --  Tamarama Beach, Sydney, Australia

However, what I've never had an interest in is surfing books. My book club recently decided to read Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, an autobiography by Willian Finnegan. That's what I like about book clubs. They expand my horizons and get me to read books that I may not have chosen on my own. Looking back through my photos though, surfers apparently appeal to me enough that I snap pictures whenever I see them.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Delectable Desserts at Remy onboard the Disney Dream Cruise

Only Disney can get away with using a rat as a restaurant decor motif

Last year's Spring Break voyage onboard the Disney Dream cruise ship was so fantastic that everyone in the family couldn't wait to go again this year. I was keen to try Remy or Palo, the romantic, adults-only restaurants, but hesitated since the no-extra-cost dinners at the family restaurants were already on par with the type of fine dining we'd splurge on for an anniversary dinner. As I was looking through the Onboard Activities, the Pompidou Dessert Experience at Remy, also listed as the Remy Dessert Party, immediately caught my eye. Scheduled mid-afternoon during our Day at Sea, it was the perfect opportunity to indulge in my favorite food category. This was definitely a far cry from the free flow of soft serve ice cream that I would have otherwise had for my afternoon snack. And instead of replacing a fine dining meal, I was adding an additional one into my day. Great idea, if you ask me.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

12 Things to do at Yellowstone that aren't Old Faithful

Old Faithful is the big draw at Yellowstone National Park

I'm sure you've heard of Old Faithful, the most iconic feature of Yellowstone, the oldest of all the U.S. National Parks. It's not the tallest blasting geyser at the park. That honor goes to Steamboat Geyser whose eruptions can be anywhere between 4 days to 50 years apart. Although no longer shooting into the air with the near clockwork regularity that gave the geyser its name, Old Faithful still has an average of 17 eruptions a day. It's an ideal natural tourist attraction since there's a 90% success rate of predicting the next eruption within a 10-minute window. If you're willing to hang around and amuse yourself for up to ninety minutes at the excellent museum or nearby hotels and restaurants, you are pretty much guaranteed to see it blast.

Guess what? There are other things to do at Yellowstone! They may or may not be as crowded as the boardwalk around Old Faithful, depending on how far off the beaten track you wish to go.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Austin's Graffiti Park at HOPE Outdoor Gallery

My favorite piece

Street art started catching my interest when I was living in Penang, Malaysia. Taking a photo next to the Kids on Bike mural  and going on street art scavenger hunts has become one of the must-do activities for visitors there. As I've traveled around the world, this particular public art form has been a draw for me whether I'm in Paris, France or Rapid City, South Dakota. So, I was excited to discover that the street art scene has taken off in my hometown of Austin, Texas during the years that I was overseas.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery

Most of the popular street art around town seems to fall into the wholesome category suitable for using as a backdrop for the holiday card family photo. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a.k.a. Graffiti Park, has a edgier feel to it. It first came to my attention when a friend posted photos of her daughter's hip hop dance crew taken at HOPE. "What?!," I thought to myself. "Something this cool exists in Austin?" I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised what with the "Keep Austin Weird" motto of this Portland-of-the-South.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery launched five years ago as part of SXSW. Spread across three tiers of concrete walls that are supposedly what remains of an abandoned condo construction project from the 1980's, it's said to the be the largest outdoor mural project in the city. The original info I found for it asks artists to submit applications to be considered for displaying their creations here. In magazine and travel blogs, it shows up as a place that everyone, both Austin residents and tourists alike, must visit.

A few weeks ago, I was finally in that part of town and decided to pay HOPE a visit. On this quiet weekday afternoon, parking was already scarce. I imagine it must be rather difficult on a fine weekend. With the tiers rising up before me as I approached the outdoor gallery, it was a little hard to take in. There was so much going on visually. 

There's now a trailer near the street entrance that supposedly sells cans of spray paint if you want to get in on the action. It was closed when I visited, so I didn't get a chance to leave my mark. I was glad that I'd worn sturdy shoes as the hike uphill alongside the concrete walls was a little steep and uneven. No stairs were in sight anywhere. I wanted to get closer to the art on the upper tiers but didn't feel like I was quite agile enough to hop over walls and drop-offs.

Heading through a gate at the top of the hill, I was surprised to find myself in front of an office building disguised as a castle. This city landmark belongs to Castle Hill Partners, owners of the property where HOPE is located and sponsors of the original art installation launch. Hmmm... it also seems like the parking here (West 11th Street off Blanco Street) was a much better option as long as the gate to the gallery is open. I've always wanted to get close to Austin's famous Castle, so stumbling upon it during this outing was a bonus.

As I walked around HOPE, I didn't quite know what to think. I really had, pardon me, high hopes for this place. It is so hyped up as a essential part of the Austin experience. But compared to what I've seen elsewhere, I was disappointed. It may have started out great and semi-curated, but the current practice of letting any person let loose with a can of spray paint has diminished the quality in my apparently not-so-humble opinion.

My favorite piece, the woman's face in the first photo of this post, has probably survived unscathed because it is up high and out of reach to anyone without a ladder. Every other surface was covered with layers and layers of random scrawlings, like the kind you see at restaurants where you can grab a marker to write on the wall. Empty spray cans littered the ground. Broken beer bottles were scattered around, too. I must be a hypocrite because I found this urban art experience that I sought out a little too urban for me. How I long for Singapore sometimes. 

As an observer, I give this place 3 or even 2 out of 5 stars. I think the magic must be in getting to be a participant. To be the one wielding the spray paint and leaving your mark without fear of repercussion.

Do you consider this art?

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Postcards from The Library of Congress

The Great Hall of the Library of Congress

Libraries have always had a special place in my heart. Growing up, books were a way to travel around the world and throughout time without ever leaving my cozy chair. I swear that in 6th Grade, I went to the school library every morning to check out a new book which I would read from cover to cover that night. Even now, I volunteer at my kids' school libraries and find a zen-like peacefulness in each book having an precise place where it belongs.

When we visited Washington, D.C. last fall, I wanted to go to the Library of Congress for no other reason than it has the second biggest collection in the world. I had no idea how drop dead gorgeous the building is inside. Tall windows flooded the room with light. Vivid colors popped out in contrast to the ornately carved marble. I had yet to lay my eyes on a single book, and I was already captivated.

Friday, February 5, 2016

China Two Ways

For the longest time, I thought EPCOT's China Pavilion at Walt Disney World would be the closest I would ever get to visiting China. Standing in the middle of the huge theater and watching the CircleVision 360 movie that surrounded me on all sides whet my appetite for a journey to the homeland.

If you're not familiar with EPCOT, half of the park is the World Showcase where pavilions from eleven different countries encircle a large lagoon. Each country sets the mood with iconic buildings such as the Eiffel Tower in the French pavilion and the Chichen Itza pyramid in Mexico. In Italy, you feel like you've just stepped into Venice's St. Mark's Square that happens to have a fountain evocative of Rome's Trevi Fountain on the side. In just a few hours, you can pretend you are hiking around the world as you walk from pavilion to pavilion.

The China pavilion at Walt Disney World EPCOT

As a kid, I was puzzled by the China pavilion as I didn't recognize the building. It was neither the Forbidden Palace nor the Great Wall -- the only two famous Chinese structures I knew. When I finally visited Beijing (the real one, not a Disneyfied version) a few years ago, I was excited to figure out that Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest within the Temple of Heaven complex is that building from EPCOT.

Friday, January 29, 2016

11 Free Activities Onboard the Disney Dream Cruise

I was worried we would run out of things to do on the Disney Dream cruise ship, especially since our sailing had an entire day at sea. As it turns out, we ran out of time to do everything we wanted. What I liked best is that tons of activities are included without additional charge — or as my kids call it, "Free!" You probably already know about the Youth Activities Clubs. Goodness sakes, I bet that's why you picked a Disney cruise in the first place. There's so much else to do together as a family or just for adults that don't involve spending extra money on your vacation. Some activities are ongoing throughout the cruise. Others are special events, so be sure to check the schedule in your Personal Navigator.

1. Gawk at Fireworks at Sea

Disney cruise
Buccaneer Blast Fireworks

One of the unique things about a Disney cruise is their fireworks at sea display. On our sailing, the Buccaneer Blast Fireworks capped off the night's Pirates on the Caribbean theme. After getting in the mood with pirate bandannas and paper hats at dinner then a celebration on the pool deck, the ship blasted "cannons" that shot fireworks high above the crowds and over the water. Afterwards, head down for the late-night Pirate buffet if you're not still stuffed from dinner.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cattle Drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards

This is why Fort Worth is nicknamed "Cowtown"

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Heck no. That's why I spent the end of the year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area reconnecting with my old university and high school buddies. As a way to squeeze in some sightseeing, I suggested we do our catching up while strolling through the Forth Worth Stockyards. And to be honest, my kids don't do well sitting in a restaurant for hours and hours while mamma chats with her friends. Gotta keep them moving.

Some people have a stereotypical image of Texas where cattle walk through the streets while cowboys ride horses beside them. This is the place to go if you want to reinforce that picture.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Future of Travel

Buddhist monks staring up a the Washington Monument... and a teeny, tiny Lincoln Memorial in the background

The beginning of the year always seems to turn my thoughts to the future. What does 2016 have in store? What will it be like when my kids get older and the family trip becomes optional for them? How will my travel style change when it's back to being just hubby and I exploring places? My youngest is only 10 years old, so I'm really getting ahead of myself with that last question.

I took the photo at the top of the post as I was exiting the Washington Monument in November. After spending so much time in Asia taking photos of Buddhist monks at temples, I enjoyed seeing them being tourists just like me. I also bet that this was the first time some of the other people at the monument had ever seen a monk.
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