October 2011


 

 

It was gray and rainy in Philly as we headed into the Eastern State Penitentiary. This used-to-be-jailhouse known for its often copied spoke-wheel design is apparently one of the spookiest places in the City of Brotherly Love. I don’t believe in ghosts, but my two traveling companions do.

An audio guide is included with the price of admission.

“I don’t know if I want to wear this,” Chris says, looking dubiously at the headset.

He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to sense presence from the other side if he was caught up in listening to a tour guide. It turned out not to matter anyways because he sensed the first possible ghost in the Porta-Potties outside of cellblock one. (No audio narration was available for this stop in the tour). He dragged us out to the bathrooms and demonstrated how a piece of the soap dispenser randomly fell off during his initial visit.

Yup. Ghosts.

In all honesty, the whole place was a bit on the creepy side, especially when you step in some of the claustrophic former jail cells. ESP was known for its dedication to solitary confinement. Inmates could go their entire jailhouse stay without ever seeing another human being. At the time (1829) this was thought by many (including Benjamin Rush and Franklin) to be the human way of forcing individuals to contemplate their actions and repent. Charles Dickens (who visited the place in 1842) was one of the first to disagree with the humanity of such isolation, saying that “…solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…”

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in a castle looking building above the city at 2027 Fairmount Avenue. Admission is $12 and street parking was readily available.

After ESP, the four of us (three humans, one Porta-Potty ghost) headed downtown for what would be my favorite Philadelphia moment: Driving towards City Hall on Market Street. This is one cool city hall. The statues were so striking that I felt the need to continually grab my friend’s camera and take pictures of it out my rolled down window. (Obviously, blending in with locals wasn’t the main concern here). City Hall was built in 1901 and was the tallest building in of its time, at 548 feet. This includes the 15 foot statue of William Penn, Philadelphia’s famous city planner.

There is a curse attached to this building however. In reference to good ole’ Bill, City Hall was supposed to be forever the tallest building in Philadelphia. And until 1987 it was.

Then Liberty Place went up. At 945 feet, it was just a tad taller. William Penn is said to have exacted his revenge by cursing all four sports teams. The Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and Flyers all went many, many disappointing seasons. Philadelphia was the only city to have four major sports teams that produced no championship victories for 20+ years.

In 2005, construction began on the Comcast Center building, soon to be the new tallest peak in William Penn’s city. The architects (who I’m guessing doubled as frustrated sports fans) tacked a one foot statue of Penn atop the roof and hoped for the best. The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series the next year.

I think Billy Penn went pretty easy on his city. This “statue” wouldn’t have cut it for me. You can’t even see it on top of that Comcast Building. Then again my baseball team has never even BEEN to the World Series, so perhaps I’m a little bitter.

But I digress. In between Philly cheesesteaks (Geno’s was way better than Pat’s, by the way) my friends and I took the Spirits of ’76 Haunted Tour. Again, fitting in with locals was not our number one goal. Actually, many of Philadelphia’s fine citizens mocked us with supposedly creepy sounding “woooo” noises as we traipsed around Independence Square, but whatever. I like wearing glow sticks and asking tour guides annoying questions.

The scariest story from the tour was at Holy Trinity Church which began as an orphanage for children whose parents had died of the Yellow Fever. In the summer of 1793, one-fifth of the city died from the disease. Not having the proper knowledge of germs and how they spread, the orphanage doubled as a burial ground for all the children who caught the disease here and died. They continue to haunt this place today.

Ghosts are creepy enough, but children ghosts are truly terrifying. For more on the topic, check out Fever, written by YA genius Laurie Halse Anderson.

Not that we saw any ghosts on the tour – children or otherwise. If only there had been a Porta-Potty along the way.   

Catch the Spirits of ’76 tour outside Cosi coffee shop nightly at 7:30. Tickets are $17. And have a happy Halloween next week, whether you are in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

I spent two days in Kansas City and easily wrote four blog posts about the city. The fountains, the jazz, the Royals, the barbecue, the Spanish architecture…there was so much to write about.

 I spent three days in and around Santa Fe, and I’m writing…one post. I just didn’t fall in love with the city. And I thought I would! Everyone always raves about this southwest town. Plus the red rock forests of New Mexico are stunning, and adobe buildings make great pictures, AND I like Mexican food.

 

Don’t get me wrong, New Mexico’s mountains and small towns I immediately fell in love with (hellooooo, Pie Town!), but I just couldn’t get attached to Santa Fe or Taos. The adobe was gorgeous, but the towns seemed a bit on the touristy side. I can’t wait to head back to New Mexico next month, but I’m glad I’ll be exploring the northwestern deserts, mountains, and pueblos with the Blue Desert Guide Company instead.

But even in Santa Fe and Taos, mountains salvaged my trip. After I got bored shopping I hit some trails. Here are a few day hikes if you are in town and are NOT in the market for dried chili wreaths or miniature adobe doll houses. 

Santa Fe

Luckily, Santa Fe is at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. An easy, 4-mile day hike in these mountains is the Borrego Loop. This is a hike that starts by heading downhill, follows a creek, and then climbs back uphill for the last two miles. Hikes that start off downhill can scare off some people, but don’t let a tougher ending dissuade you – it’s a pretty east hike. Actually, it’s a popular place for trail runners as well. For directions, specifics, and other hiking options, check out www.sdcmountainworks.com/hiking. The website claims that there is a meadow near the creek that is perfect for a picnic, but I would disagree. Scratchy, patchy grass is actually not perfect for a picnic. Take your eats to Fort Marcy Park after the hike instead.

Taos

Now to be fair, Taos isn’t only for shopping and trying to spot Julia Roberts (does she still live there?). The other touristy thing to do in Taos is to head just north out of town to the historical Taos pueblo. However, it was closed when I was there in late August. So again, up the mountains I headed. There is not a lot of online information about Taos hikes, so I went to the Camino Real Ranger Station, which is on highway 64 East/Kit Carson Road. They introduced me to several hiking options in the Taos Canyon and Carson National Forest. I decided on the Devisadero Loop Trail #108. (5.1 miles, 1,114 elevation gain, moderate difficulty). The trail head is on highway 64 just beyond the Ranger Station. You have to park in the lot on the right side of the road, but the trailhead is across the street on the left side of the road.

 This trail was long. It seemed longer than its 5.1 miles. Perhaps that’s because you actually climb about four peaks in succession before looping back down. I really enjoyed it though. The stubby trees provided scenic greenery but didn’t block views of Taos (a bigger city than I’d thought), the surrounding mountains and valleys, and rain storms headed my way. The trail was well marked and just challenging enough. The trail is open in the summer and spring for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. In the winter you can head up the trail on your cross country skies or snowshoes.

 Albuquerque

I hit a trail in Albuquerque too, but that wasn’t to escape trendy boutique shops. I actually didn’t get the chance to explore ABQ at all, so it could be nothing like the northern towns. I’d come here solely to tackle a trail. On my way to New Mexico I signed up for the Dirty Lil’ 10K, aka my first trail run. Signing up for a race a week in a half was uncharacteristically forward thinking of me. I was so unused to planning ahead that I forgotten that I’d signed up for the race and tried to sign up again. The system was idiot-proof and wouldn’t let me pay twice.

The Dirty Lil’ 10K starts at the base of the Sandia Mountains where the new Sandia Tramway (and the associated museum) is. This was a very scenic trail, I suppose. I looked up once to take stock of the city below me, glowing gold as the sun rose over the mountains with hot air balloon dotting the sky. Then I almost tripped over a tree root, reminded myself that I was running on a trail, and my eyes never left the trail again. Later on I was perusing the race website and they corroborated my observation with the following trail explanation:

“…trail of the Sandia Foothills with beautiful views if you have the ability to look around. Most single track with plenty of dbl track and opportunities to pass with a handful of small technical sections. Course is challenging and the last mile will definitely be faster than the first mile!”

This was true. The first ½ mile was pretty much straight uphill. We didn’t even get four minutes in before people were walking, swearing, and yelling “whose bright ideas was it to do this race?” at their friends.

It was fun though. Check out http://www.trisportcoaching.com next summer to sign up. The race was September 11th this year (a veteran who was at the Pentagon ten years before gave a speech to commemorate the day, and all the participants softly sang The Star Spangled Banner after), and will hopefully take place next year around the same time. The 10K was $35, which proceeds going to fund the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. There is also a Half Marathon run ($55) if you are so inclined. The race is capped at around 100 people, so beware. I signed up in late August, but the race did close a few days later.

So here’s to the Sandia Mountains, the Carson National Forest, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, for salvaging my New Mexico vacation and saving me tons of money that would have otherwise been spent on touristy items (sorry New Mexican economy…)

My friend and I followed a rainstorm from Miami to Savannah. We’d planned on continuing on to Charleston, but decided it was wiser to wait out the storm where we were rather than follow it up the coast. Plus we liked Savannah. So our one night stay turned into a three night stay. Since it was raining for the majority of our time there, we had to find indoor activities. Due to our general dislike of museums, art galleries and touristy shops, we settled on hanging out in pubs. Luckily there was a pub plethora in Savannah.

Our first night began at Moon River Brewing Company. We sat at the bar and had fried green tomatoes (which were good! They tasted like fried onions, but juicier), crab cakes and beer. We especially liked this place because the bartender spent most of his time bitching to us about his other customers. In between commiserating with him we learned where we should eat pizza (Vinnie Van Go-Go’s), where we should hang out the next day (Bull Street), and the best place to watch Monday Night Football.

He told us to watch football at a bar up the street called Wild Wing. Thinking he had directed us to a Buffalo Wild Wings, we dismissed the suggestion (we can go to b-dub’s at home, thank you very much). However, when time came to watch the game the next night we followed the crowd to Wild Wing Café. The wings were fine and the spinach artichoke was above average, but the game festivities were the real highlight.

The folks at Wild Wings host a Monday Night Football Bingo session for each game. Bingo cards feature some football activities (RB goes 10-15 yards, QB sac, Point scored after touchdown), some fan highlights (“strahan teeth” “hot skanky chic,” “fanatical fan,” “shirtless moron”) and other during-game bonuses (“erectile dysfunction commercial”). A guy narrates the game via microphone so everyone is on the same page on what plays to cross off and what counts as a hot skanky chic. The first three winners get a bucket of beers, and the game starts over at halftime.

 

As someone who meticulously keeps track of the pitch count during baseball games and player fouls during basketball, I like paperwork with my sports. Football bingo was exactly what had been missing in my pigskin appreciation. Blue crayon in hand, I enthusiastically crossed off bingo squares as the Detroit Lions trounced the Chicago Bears.  

There was no football the following night, so we went to Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub and Grill. As a Scottish pub, they obviously had soccer on the big screens. Luckily, there was no haggis on the menu, so we had two rounds of spinach artichoke dip and then decided to join a group of tourists on a haunted pub crawl.

There are a couple haunted pup crawl options in Savannah. The pub tour that we joined was through Cobblestone Tours. It was $10 and actually started at the Moon River Brewing Company.

The haunted pub crawl was pretty fun, if only for the other pub crawlers with us. Among the crowd of ten increasingly drunk people, we met a pair of loud Canadian moose-hunting/ice-fishing/curling-enthusiasts, and an adorable newlywed couple from Huntsville, Alabama.

As we ventured from Molly MacPherson’s to Pour Larry’s to Hang Fire (37 Whitaker Street, Savannah, GA 31401. Call 912-443-9956), we learned a bit about Savannah. First and most importantly, we learned that Savannah allows it’s revelers to drink outside. Yay! I thought that was only legal in Las Vegas. Plastic beer glasses in hand, we stood outside of pubs as our period-costumed tour guide regaled us with stories about fake-suicides-gone-wrong (in the apartments above Molly’s), illegal shipments of African slaves (who were imprisoned at what is now Pour Larry’s), and Hang Fire, the place where one-legged/one-armed/pregnant strippers went to dance their final dances. The tour guide’s funniest one-liner was his quip about Savannah Queen Paula Deen: “she thinks she invented the word y’all and she wants to kill you with butter.”

 On a non pub-related note, Paula Deen’s gooey butter cake is fabulous.  

We did not see any ghosts on our haunted tour though. No siren spirits sang through the hanging trees, and we witnessed no paranormal activities in the rain showers and thunderstorms. Maybe we should come back to Savannah closer to Halloween.

In the meantime, here’s to pub crawls, drinking outside, above ground cemeteries, and the most haunted town in America.

Cheers to Savannah, y’all!   

My friend Denise and I were in the Florida Keys for one cloudy day. We had Kenny Chesney’s “Key Lime Pie” song on repeat for the majority of the Miami to Key West drive. Yes, this day was about one thing and one thing only:

 

The first bites of Key Lime Pie were at Bob’s Bunz in Islamorada, which is the second “town” you hit after leaving mainland Florida (Key Largo being the first). We shared a slice and to top things off I also had a Key Lime bundt cake. A mini one. I’m a little ashamed to say that I liked the bunt cake better than the pie.

 

After driving the rest of the way to Key West and visiting the Southern Most Point in the Continental USA (which was next to the Southernmost House in the Continental USA, the Southernmost Deli in the Continental USA and the Southernmost Seventh Day Adventist Church…) we headed to Jack Flats restaurant for mahi-mahi sliders and more key lime pie. Both were good, but key lime wise, the mini bund cake was still my favorite desert. Denise liked Jack Flats pie better than Bob’s Bunz, but possibly because of the whipped cream presentation (see the picture above). Jack Flats is in downtown Key West at 509 Duval Street, Key West, FL, 33040. Call them at 305-294-7955.

 

I was getting pretty full, but was prepared to soldier on with the task at hand. So we headed to the dollar-bill-infested Willie-T’s. Apparently the thing to do here is to write something cute on a bill and staple it to the bar. This made me realize that I hadn’t brought my stapler along on this road trip. I had scissors, tape, and markers. How could I have forgotten my mini-stapler? Quite the oversight. Anyways, I ordered a Key Lime Pie Mojito, which was disgusting (as evidenced by the picture below). I tried to drink it all because it was $8 (apparently Willie T’s thinks they are a hot Las Vegas nightclub). I failed.

 

Not that I was particularly hungry, but when we passed Upper Crust Pizza and saw the sign for chocolate covered frozen key lime pie on a stick, I had to check that out. It came individually wrapped, and I was afraid it would just be an ice cream bar with a lime-flavored ice cream, but oh, no. It was WAY better. The lime-y flavor was tart and delicious and there was even a layer of graham-cracker crust.

 

After vowing to run twelve hundred miles the next day, I ate the whole thing. Denise got one bite. A small bite. The ice cream bar trumped the bundt cake.

On our way out of town the next morning we had to stop at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for one last key lime pie. I really didn’t want a frozen chocolate covered ice cream bar to be my favorite key lime dessert. According to my friend’s friend’s friend who spend a couple of years in the Keys, Mrs. Mac’s is the best.

 

It’s a cute dive-y type restaurant, and when we ordered a slice of pie to go the waitress gave us two because apparently the first slice she’d dished up was too small. We grabbed our to-go pie and hit the road. Somewhere after West Palm Beach we remembered about the pie sitting on the floor. It was melted.

I ate it anyways. It was like key lime pie soup with graham cracker crust crumbles. If it hadn’t melted, Mrs. Mac’s pie would have probably been the best. The crust was especially good, all buttery and rich.

So to re-cap: I went on a key lime pie tour, liked a stupid chocolate bar the best and melted a slice of pie. Good thing I’m not a food blogger.

If you are heading to the Keys and want some real food advice, check out the blog of a “Florida Keys Girl.” Amongst other entertaining posts, she has reviewed most of the restaurants on Key West. There’s no way this chick would let her key lime pie melt.  

If I lived in Kansas City I’d count all the fountains in the city. I’d have elaborate maps and grid systems and city plans. And I’d come up with different symbols for different types of fountains, I’d have a database of city grids cross indexed with photographs.

Um, I think I miss teaching geography. Plus it really disturbs me that nobody knows exactly how many fountains are in the city. I’ve read that only Rome rivals Kansas City in fountains-per-mile, but I want to know for sure. If anyone would like to sponsor such a project, just let me know.

 Although there are fountains all over the city, the best place to hang out amongst the dancing waters is the Country Club Plaza. There are some great hotels downtown (plus a farmers market with very reasonable prices and my new favorite museum in 18th and Vine district), the park-lined Crown Center is nice, but I HIGHLY recommend you stay on Country Club Plaza. The clusters of shops, illuminated horse-drawn carriages, Spanish inspired architecture and the nearby Westport bar district makes it the best part of the city.

 

There are several hotel options right in the Plaza (Courtyard Kansas City Country Club Plaza, the Kansas City Marriot Country Club Plaza), but save yourself some money and stay at the Best Western Seville Plaza. Yes, it is right across the street from a liquor store, but it is also steps away from the Plaza. The Spanish-style lobby is cool and you can have your free breakfast (including biscuts and gravy!) on the patio grounds outside the hotel. Plus Kala and Jason at the front desk really made our stay with their maps and suggestions on what we should do and where we should eat.      

 

So whether you want a relaxing visit to a seriously underrated city or want to embark on a mapping adventure with me, your stay should center around Country Club Plaza. Happy fountain viewing!

If you are headed to a Disney Park anytime in the near future, get to know a cast member first. For those not in the know, “cast members” are anyone who works for Disney. The people switching out trash can liners outside of Splash Mountain: Cast Members. The cast member I was traipsing around Disney World with (aka my kind-of-sister-in-law Brigid) has worked in Disney hotels, parking trams, and she’s been a tour guide for The Great Movie Ride. This coupled with her general hotness has inspired the nickname ‘Tour Guide Barbie.’ Anyways, here are a few tips that I picked up on while traveling through the parks with an ex-cast member.

 

You don’t have to do the “Disney Death March”

This is otherwise known as the we-will-see-everything-and-ride-every-ride-because-we-paid-a-million-dollars-for-these-tickets syndrome. Guess what? If you’re not having fun, the tickets aren’t worth it. Brigid and I wandered around at a leisurely pace, went on a few rides with short lines, actually sat down to enjoy our Epcot food, and only saw a fraction of the park. It was nice. We weren’t exhausted or cranky at any point and I felt as if I was actually on vacation. My feet didn’t even hurt the next day. This was especially nice because I’d ran the Disney ½ Marathon the evening before and was not in the mood for another physical feat of endurance.

 Don’t miss the hidden Mickey’s

All over the parks are hidden images of the gigantic-eared mouse and his friends. Whether it’s on the golf ball flying towards you on the Soarin’ Ride or in the place settings on the Haunted Mansion Ride, these hidden images are fun to be on the lookout for. I am naturally an oblivious person and I needed Brigid to give me lots of advance notice. (“okay, look here…it’s coming up…right there! Oh, you missed it” was her typical run down) If you aren’t hanging out with a cast member, pick up a “Hidden Mickey” book before your next Disney adventure.

Engage with Cast Members: Cheer loudly and wave exuberantly

I don’t just mean with those who are in costume. Every single Cast Member is trained and usually wants to “play” with guests at the park. Laugh at the corny jokes that your tram operator tells. Applaud wildly when your tour guide escapes the evil clutches of some bad guy. Make eyes at characters on floats during the parade. The Cast Members appreciate it (they are on stage after all, give them some love!) and you’ll have fun being cheesy.    

Special events are worth it:

If you can swing it, don’t go to Disney on any old day, make it special. I was there for Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival, wherein one can eat/drink “around the world.” We also went to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween (which runs from late September to the end of October). We dressed up and got tons of candy. Where else can two almost-thirty-year-olds do that? Check Disney.com to stay abreast on all special happenings. One word of caution though: the parks do reach capacity on New Years, Christmas and the 4th of July. Get there early and don’t leave. Once the parks are full, you can’t get in, even if you purchased your ticket weeks in advance.

 

If you can’t go to Disney with a Cast Member, don’t feel too bad. My buddy also talked along with all the ride commentaries and sang along with obscure theme songs. This could annoy some people…

 Love ya Brig!  

 

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