Wednesday, June 13, 2012

6.8.12 Chicago: Willis Tower, River Cruise, MOTO and Scavenger Dash

This past weekend we headed to Chicago for a fantastic weekend with friends. We took the first flight of the morning. We headed from the airport to the Willis Tower – formerly known as the Sears Tower. I was really impressed with the waiting areas. Several displays highlighted some of the key attractions in Chicago. I recommend the movie that tells the history of the Sears Tower building. Then you head up in an elevator that goes 103 stories in sixty seconds.  They have a fun logo that shows all the building heights you are passing and you go up.

The views are incredible.

The Edge attraction features four windows that jut out past the building so you can look straight down.  Pretty fun.

After enjoying all those views, we walked over to Greektown to meet up with Bethany for lunch and check out her exhibit at the Hellenic Museum. It was so fun to get a personalized tour!

From Greektown, we headed across town to the Swissotel. We found a great last minute rate. The hotel was beautiful and our room was great. Here was the view:

I had really wanted to go on a river architecture tour. We tried to get tickets, but they said the 2:30 pm tour was sold out.  Where there’s a will – there’s a way! Glenn spotted a woman trying to return four tickets and promptly offered her the asking price. Away we went on the Wendella 75 minute river cruise.

The views from the river were great and the breezes provided a little relief on such a hot day.

Then it was time for MOTO! Moto is a fantastic restaurant. We took a cooking class with the Chef Richie Farina at the Rolling Pin in Brandon, Florida earlier this year.

We were excited to try his food. We were not disappointed.   To start, we didn’t get physical menu, but a taste of all the courses.

The popcorn course wowed us. The top item in the picture is popcorn ice cream surrounded by hand placed grilled corn that has been flash frozen. It was amazing. The bottom is a corn custard with a tortilla crust – also amazing.

The sea course fogged the table.

We were seated in tall booths that gave us almost complete privacy. It was the best dining experience I have ever had. It only got better when we lead down to the kitchen for a tour and a chance to say hi to Chef Richie. They kitchen is amazing. They have an automated expediting system so the kitchen is calm and quiet. It’s clear how they put out such fun food.

Saturday we participated in the Scavenger Dash. We got twelve clues. We had to figure out the clues, get to the locations and either take a picture or do a challenge. We were able to get to 8 out of the 12 locations. We really enjoyed it and will likely do it in Florida next year.
Saturday night we had a fantastic game night with friends. Sunday we were able to sleep in, have a nice brunch and then headed to the airport. Overall, a fantastic weekend.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

4 nights in Sydney

Sydney: May 16th - 20th, 2012

We arrived in Sydney in the last afternoon.  We took a taxi to The Travelodge Sydney. It was a great location – walking distance to Hyde Park, the Sydney Tower and right on the free tourist bus line. We unpacked, did some laundry and headed right across the street to the Schwartz Brewery Hotel. We were pleasantly surprised by the decent beer and well-priced dinner deals. We decided to make it an early night since we had to meet out tour at 6:45 am the next morning.
Day 2 Sydney
We booked the Hunter Valley Wine Tour. We boarded our travel van with seven others and set out on the hour and half drive to the Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley was beautiful – rolling hills of pasture and small vineyards. Due to the nature of the soil, the grape growers find the best patches of land and plant vines. Instead of acres and acres of vines, we saw clusters of vines dot the landscape.  

Our first vineyard was McGuigan Wines. This is one of the larger wineries in the area. They even have limited distribution in the United States.

The wine that impressed us the most there was the 2010 Late Picked Traminer. It’s their take on an ice wine. Since it doesn’t get cold enough for the grapes to freeze, they freeze the grape juice.  The water freezes before the alcohol so you end up with a very sweet, high alcohol wine. We were really impressed with the flavors. We also liked their 2008 Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon. Semillon is the premier grape of the Hunter Valley. It created a white wine that falls into a similar category with a Sauvignon Blanc. Botrytis is a mold that grows on the grapes. This mold sucks all the moisture out of the grape so you are left with only the sugars.  These moldy grapes are then used to make a very sweet dessert wine with a creamy texture and honey notes.  Another interesting wine was the 2011 Cellar Select Noon Harvest Merlot. The Australian Merlot is much closer to a Pinot Noir – smoother, subtler flavors than the big, fruity Merlots we see in Argentina. The 2011 Cellar Select Noon Harvest was very fruity. When chilled, it tasted like sangria.  Next stop was First Creek:

First Creek is the private label for a wine maker that produces wine for over thirty labels. The grape growers bring them the grapes and the specifications for the type of wine they want. Then, the wine makers at First Creek make and bottle the wine under their label. We like three of the wines there. 2011 Verdelho – We described it as a Sauvignon Blanc Lite. It was very drinkable with light citrus notes. We also like the 2008 Shiraz Viognier. Shiraz is another very popular grape in the Hunter Valley. This Shiraz had a good balance of spice and berry flavors with a dry finish. The award for most “fun” wine of the day went to their 2011 Raspberry wine. It tasted like candy and would be great in a champagne cocktail.  The third stop was Tempus Two:

This was a beautiful location. The tasting room was gorgeous and the location had two restaurants with outdoor seating. Tempus Two has two lines: Copper and Pewter. The Copper series is wines influenced by European styles. The Pewter line is the single vineyard, premium series of wines. The favorite wine there was the Tempus Two Copper 2011 Gewurztraminer. It had the classic sweet notes of a Gewurztraminer with a slight spice note at the finish.
We had lunch at the Blue Tongue Brewery. We tried the beers there, but none of them were really to our liking. The cider was the best. Next to the Brewery was a little wine shop that offered free tastings. We enjoyed the well balanced, very drinkable Pukka Sparkling Wine. Our favorite Shiraz of the day was the Polin and Polin 2009 Convicts and Catholics Shiraz.

It was well-balanced with nice fruit notes.  Another good Shiraz was the 2010 Kiss Shiraz from Thomas. 

Our last winery stop was a Boutique winery in the Lovedale sub region of the Hunter Valley. The winery produced under the Tin Solider and Warraroong Estate. The best wine we tasted was the 2009 Warraroong Estate Long Lunch White – a wine especially produced for an annual event called the Long Lunch. It was a fantastic, drinkable wine that would satisfy almost everyone’s palate. The 2009 Long Lunch Red was a great table wine. We really enjoyed the Tin Solider 2010 Rose. It was one of our favorites because it was refreshing with great flavors without being too sweet.  We had the tasting at an outdoor table overlooking some vines. It was a gorgeous way to end the day.

The last stop was a chocolate and cheese shop. We stocked up on some snacks for the road. Overall, it was a great tour. Our tour guide Robert was knowledgeable about the area and very open to taking us where we wanted to go.  Back at the hotel, we decided dinner of cheese and crackers would be a perfect way to the end the day.

Day 3 Sydney

We really wanted to get out on the water and explore the Harbor. We boarded the ferry to Manly Beach ($14 round trip).  It was a great ride that offered fantastic views of the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House.  

Manly Beach was gorgeous. It had a pedestrian mall similar to Lincoln Road in Miami with shops and restaurants.

The beach was filled with surfers, paddle boarders and sunbathers.  Along the water was a line of restaurants with outdoor seating. After a great breakfast, we decided to check out the Manly Scenic Walkway – a 9.1km walkway along the harbor.  First, we had to power up with a beer tasting at 4 Pines Brewery.

We were impressed with their beers. They had a good mix of styles. My favorites were the Hefeweizen and the Stout. We enjoyed the long walk along the Harbor.  

We didn’t go the whole way. Next time, I would consider taking the bus to Split Bridge, walking to Manley and then taking the bus back. After the walk, we decided to check out Ben Bry Burgers. It was recommended by Time Out as one of the Cheap Eats on Manley.  The burgers were very good, but too much bun.  We took the ferry back and hopped onto the Hop On/Hop Off Double Decker Sightseeing Bus Tour. 

 We bought a 24 hour pass. Our master plan was to board the last tour of the day, ride the whole 90 minute route, and then use the hop on/hop off option the next day.  It was a great overview of the city. It was especially fun to see all the city lights at night. After the tour, we walked along the pier looking for a dinner option. We settled on Wildfire and sweet talked our way into a table with a great view of the Opera House. Wildfire had a Churrasco option – a tapas plate of appetizers with a never ending parade of grilled meats. It was a great way to sample a lot of the menu. We also had their signature Pinot Noir. We were surprised that it was fantastic. It was a great meal. We decided to take the 20 minute back to the hotel.

Day 4

Today we headed to the coast again. We boarded the Hop On/Hop Off Double Decker Bus tour to Bondi Beach. It was gorgeous!

We walked around the beach and then hopped back on to head back to Darling Harbor.

We explored the area, walked across the bridge and then headed back to the hotel. We had dinner reservations at Quarter 21, but I wasn’t feeling well.  Glenn headed out to pick up dinner and we spent the last night watching AFL football and cricket.

Overall, we liked Sydney. However, we really struggled to find things to do besides walk around during the day.  It may because it was the last stop and we were a little tired of museums.  We loved the Manley Beach area. If we would go back to Sydney, we would stay there and then ferry into the city if there are particular things we want to do.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

4 nights in Cairns, Australia

May 12th - 16th 2012 in Cairns, Australia

We arrived in Cairns around 1 pm. Security at the Melbourne airport was different than the US. We did not need a boarding pass to get thru security. We did not have to take off our shoes unless they set off the metal detector and we did not have to use 3 oz containers. It was great. Our Virgin Australia flight went well. Landing in Cairns was beautiful. The hills of rain forest meet right with the ocean. It is a gorgeous tropical place. The warm, humid air hit us as we exited the plane. A nice contract to the 40F degree weather we left behind in Melbourne.

We took a taxi to the hotel though there is a shuttle service from the airport. Our hotel was the Mantra Esplanade and it is fantastic.

We have an ocean view room with a king size bed with an ocean view. Awesome! After checking out the hotel, we meandered down the esplanade, had lunch at one of the pizza shops, and then walked around the lagoon. We also stopped at the grocery store to pick up some snacks and wine. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the balcony enjoying the sounds of Blues Fest in the park down below. We had a 6:30 pm "booking" at Ochre. Ochre is the fine dining restaurant in Cairns and it lived up to the hype. We got the tasting menu with wines. The wines were interesting because they were boutique wines from across Australia. The food was very good. The first two courses had some missteps but then the meal hit its stride. We tried the Taste of Australia platter with emu, kangaroo and crocodile. The flavors were pretty good. The kangaroo has a gamely flavor. The crocodile is a tougher, stringier chicken. The emu was served raw so it had a subtle game flavor and a nice texture. Our favorite dish was a quail presented in a fried chicken wing preparation with a soy, jalapeno sauce plus pickled watermelon and a native Australian leaf. When you ate it all together - it just worked.

We may be eating our Asian chicken wings with pickles from now on! It was an awesome, decadent dining experience. All we go do was head back to the hotel and go to sleep.

Day 2- The Great Barrier Reef aka I found Nemo

Today, we went on a Quick Silver Cruises snorkeling tour of the Great Barrier Reef. We rode about an hour through the mountains to Port Douglas on narrow windy roads that made us glad we didn't drive. We boarded a large, modern, catamaran yacht.

The crew and boat were fantastic. The passengers were mostly divers. Only six of us were snorkeling. The crew was very professional and safety-oriented. The water was a bit choppy so they offered us ginger or anti-sea sickness pills before we left. We both took them. It was a bumpy ride and a couple people were looking a little green. We battled the wind up on deck which helped a lot. We rode about 90 minutes out to the outermost reefs. We could see the waves breaking on the shelf which is a sheer drop off at the edge of the reef.  The crew said this was the best spot to dive and snorkel because the deep water comes in over the edge of the reef with all these nutrients to help feed the coral.

We went to three sites and had at least an hour at each site. The reef is amazing. Most sites were about 20 - 30 meters deep with coral coming up to with a meter of the surface in some places. The colors of the coral are just incredible. The fish were great and I even saw a sea Turtle and Nemo.

The boat had morning and afternoon snacks and a very nice buffet lunch. We left the hotel at 645 am and returned at 6pm. This tour is definitely for people who are serious about snorkeling. The seas were a big rough so it was hard to snorkel the full time in each of the spots. One of the couples on the trip skipped the third stop entirely because they were tired. Some other trips in the area offer a boat ride out to a platform where you can sunbathe, snorkel or eat at your leisure. That would be a good option for people who just want a taste of snorkeling the reef. We relaxed with some snacks and wine on the Balcony. Then we headed out the back door of the hotel to The Courthouse for some dinner. The food wasn’t memorable but the $4 Coronas hit the spot. We were surprised how popular Coronas were!

Day 3 Cairns
Today Glenn made a list of fun places to check out around town. We started at Coffee Works, a gourmet coffee shop. The beans are grown about an hour from here. The coffee was really really good.

Next up was Meldrum's Pies in Paradise. These pies are like chicken pot pies, but they fill them with all combinations of meat, cheese and sauces. They are incredible popular in Australia. I had the steak, bacon, and cheese. Glenn had the steak and kidney. So good.

We headed over to the Cairns central shopping district - basically a mall. We were surprised it had a Target, several "chemists" (pharmacies), two grocery stores right next to each other, and about 8 coffee places. Otherwise the clothing and electronics stores looked very familiar. Across the street from the stores is the Grand Hotel which boasts a bar carved from a single log into the shape of a crocodile. Of course, we had to get a drink there.

We then tried to find the Blue Sky Brewery. The brewery is advertised all over town. We found the address, but the place was deserted. It was so weird. There no indication of what happened or that is was even closed. We solved the mystery a couple days later when we found out there was an issue with the sewage pie that runs under the building. It would have been nice if they at least had a sign. We headed to the Reef Casino. It was small. It had high table minimums even though it was empty. We found a couple penny slots and had fun. They were definitely older games than what we have in the US. We walked out to the Pier and had a fantastic lunch at Salthouse.

We ordered a dozen Tasmanian oysters. They came with bloody Mary caviar and an awesome lime ginger granita. I had dill risotto with smoked rainbow trout and fennel. Glenn had a lamb chorizo burger with fries. It was one of the best meals we had in Australia. After a mandatory rest period, we headed out to a trio of the popular backpacker bars. Cairns is a backpackers’ playground. Everywhere you look there are young people from all over the world. They get a one year work/holiday visa and then go from town to town until the money runs out and they have to get a job. The most common jobs are farm hands – picking apples, grapes, etc. The good thing about the backpacker bars is that the prices for food and beer are slightly less expensive. We tried some more Aussie beers, had a $12 dinner, and watched a AFL game. Overall, a fun day.

Day 4 Cairns

We booked a tour with Wilderness Eco Safari. We headed out on a 4 wheel drive Eco tour of the rain forest. It was us, another American couple, and our guide. We picked this one because it was small and that allowed us to get into harder to access areas. We were not disappointed.

We drove over two different mountains. We got to see lots of amazing plants and tree. One type of tree grows around a host tree and chokes out the sunlight so the host tree dies. Then huge roots shoot down form the top of the tree. This leaves a void in the middle.

The guide set out lunch in the middle of the rain forest. It was a terrific experience.

We also swam in a rain forest stream.

We stopped at a local fruit stand to try the custard apple - very soft and sweet.

We covered a lot of ground and got to see a lot of the rain forest. By the end of the day, we were both itching to get out of the car. I would highly recommend the tour. After the tour, we went to a nearby Italian restaurant for a very good dinner and said goodbye to Cairns.

Overall - Cairns is a worthwhile stop. The downtown area has a backpacker vibe with some very nice accommodations and great restaurants. The day trips options are terrific. Downtown Cairns does not have a beach - they have a lagoon right along the water. A number of resorts dot the landscape between Cairns and Port Douglas if you are more interested in a resort experience. I don't think we will be back. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, but we have checked off rain forest tour and snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef off our bucket list.