Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Dingo Ate My Baby

If you’ve ever had the urge to cuddle a koala bear, hand-feed hopping kangaroos or watch sheep dogs at work – you absolutely must visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary located on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city. It’s a fun place for kids or adults and where else on earth can you interact so closely with native Australian wildlife? For only $20 a person you can hold an actual koala (mine was an adult male named Fitzroy) and have a professional picture taken with him. Fitz was pretty keen on chewing my hair as well as the eucalyptus leaves, but I forgave him since he was so damned cute.

There’s also tons of animals here you’d never see in an American zoo: Tasmanian devils, wombats and naturally, dingoes. I spent a good five minutes waiting for a zookeeper to come by so I could use my best Australian accent to tell him that “a dingo ate my baby” but sadly, it was raining and the zookeepers (like the dingoes) had taken to hiding where it was dry. In case you’ve never seen it that quote’s from Meryl Streep’s A Cry In the Dark – a fine piece of cinema based on the true story of an Australian mother accused of murder when her child is stolen by dingoes on a camping trip. So on that note, a list of my favorite Australia and New Zealand based movies:
10. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
9. Muriel's Wedding
8. Crocodile Dundee
7. Gallipolli
6. The Piano
5. Whale Rider
4. The Thorn Birds
3. Walkabout (1971)
2. Jindabyne
1. Rabbit-Proof Fence

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sydney: Like NYC Without Crap, Snow

Sexy, scantily-clad citizens and expensive outdoor cafes glisten in the sun as we arrive in Sydney, Australia. This is a glamorous city boasting hundreds of Asian fusion restaurants, towering skyscrapers and an iconic opera house perched on its harborfront. The locals are open, friendly and thoroughly unpretentious - a surprising fact given how closely they all resemble Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. If New York City was surrounded by gorgeous beaches, had better weather and less severe workweeks it might have a chance at being as beautiful as Sydney. Maybe.

Matt and I spent our first day here risking life and limb on the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb. For reasons that are still unclear to me, the government here actually allows people to harness themselves onto a small wire for $199 and ascend hundreds of feet into the air by clambering on the top of their famous bridge. It’s a great introduction to the city since you get a real feel for the lay of the land as you precariously balance on steel girders and try not to let the aerial view totally freak you out.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the swanky suburb of Paddington, an adorable section of Sydney packed to the gills with Beautiful People, Victorian row houses, tiny boutiques and quaint pubs. Each Saturday the Paddington Markets open to the public – this outdoor gathering of designers hawk their cutting-edge jewelry, clothing, and chic housewares to locals and tourists alike. The quality of the merchandise was impressive but the thrill of the day was discovering Dinosaur Designs , a shop that sells an impressive selection of unique jewelry and tableware made from resin and handblown glass.

Later that evening Matt and I dressed up and went bar hopping, hitting the neighborhoods of King’s Cross, Darlinghurst and the Rocks. There were more bars than I can count (or various sugarcane cocktails than I can remember) but the highlights were The Victoria Room (think bordello meets The West Indies as far as d├ęcor is concerned) whose drink list was about 100 pages long and whose settees appeared to be real antiques. Also at the top of our list was Minus 5, a bar created entirely of ice that looked like something out of a James Bond movie. Here we donned parkas, boots and gloves and sipped vodka cocktails out of enormous ice mugs while lounging on ice couches covered in faux-fur throws. After that…it’s a blur.

As you can imagine, the next morning we were too tired (and too scary looking) to do much else but don the sunglasses and retire to Bondi Beach for some R&R. Watching the surfers through glazed eyes we recovered enough strength to stroll down the street to Iceberg’s for lunch – a private club that houses two restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool connected to the ocean. American celebrities are rumored to have eaten here and although we didn’t spy any stars while we were lunching, the restaurant’s vast glass windows looking out upon the sea were enough to entice a large group of non-celebs to wait outside in line for an open table. Before we parted ways with Sydney for good we hit the opera house, a stunning piece of architecture overlooking the harbor and nibbled at some decadent artisinal ice cream while walking along the ocean. By far our favorite place we’ve ever visited we’re now looking for jobs here…or at least ones that will afford us the vacation time to come back to Sydney. And for your pleasure, a bit of Bondi Beach...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Australia: Wine Tasting in the Yarra Valley

The Yarra Valley, only an hour outside of Melbourne, boasts vistas of grapevines marching in rows upon rows followed in the distance by towering mountains, a hazy brown on the horizon. We are in the country – kangaroo crossing signs, wombat crossing signs and farmhouses dot the landscape. The weather is breezy, 70’s, sunny at this time of year and a perfect day for exploring the heart of one of Australia’s famous wine growing regions. To introduce us properly to the Yarra Valley, we hired Paul Robinson with Link Tours who led us on a four vineyard adventure: Kellybrook, Yering Station, Domaine Chandon and De Bortoli. Paul’s burgeoning knowledge and passion for Australian wine proved to be a huge advantage and his personal connections with local winemakers gave us VIP access to people and places we normally wouldn’t have been permitted on our own.

First stop of the day was Kellybrook Winery. This place has heart – it’s a small family vineyard that still hand picks their grapes. With a quaint restaurant using local produce and herbs from their garden outside, a shady French petanque court (where people take glasses of wine to linger on beautiful afternoons) and a tasting room that opens to the outdoors, you get a real feel for what the Yarra Valley is all about. Darren Kelly, one of two winemakers, was kind enough to walk us through the wine making and distillation processes (as they also make apple brandy here). After tasting nearly everything they had to offer, it’s evident that Kellybrook boasts a huge variety of eminently quaffable wines, but my favorite had to be the 2004 Chardonnay ($24) rated 93 points by James Halliday, the Australian wine authority. Stop here to really learn about wine from the winemakers themselves and to enjoy the feel of a European garden on a gorgeous day – there are no huge tour buses or impersonal experiences here – just an authenticity and Australian friendliness that sets it apart from some of the other vineyards in the region.

Next up was Yering Station, with its expensive manicured grounds and chic modern architecture. This is one of the most famous and impressive Yarra Valley vineyards and for good reason – their wines are sophisticated and delicious. The food at their spectacular restaurant (with floor to ceiling windows giving unparalleled views of the countryside) is to die for and considered the best in the area. While dining on barramundi and duck with glasses of wine, someone landed a helicopter on the property – apparently a big shot was flying in for lunch. And yet, the price list here is accessible. The Yering Station Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) was deep red, tasting of currant and chocolate is delightful now but should also cellar well until 2016.

After lunch we popped over to Domaine Chandon for some bubbly and weren’t disappointed by the wine (although the tasting room is gorgeous and looks out over the vineyards, it’s a bit loud and impersonal). My favorite was a Sparkling Pinot Shiraz (yes, sparkling!) which I’ve never seen before in the States – it’s the perfect thing for an outdoor bbq or to serve with some roasted lamb. It’s not too sweet and I’m looking forward to popping a few bottles of this exotic wine when I get home.

Our final stop was at De Bortoli, where we indulged in some wine and freshly made cheeses. Their Yarra Valley Estate Shiraz Viognier ($35) was silky and tasted of berries and pepper – I loved the flavor and was excited to try a blend I’d never experienced before. However, De Bortoli is perhaps best known for their Noble One ($58), a dessert wine made from Semillion that tastes of apricots and vanilla oak. It’s regarded in Australia as one of the country’s top dessert wines and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Their freshly made cheeses are also incredible – we took away a creamy blue called Saint-Agur and some goat cheese in olive oil and herbs to refrigerate in our cabin for an afternoon snack.

The day ended with a fabulous fireworks display in Melbourne Harbor. We sipped cocktails on deck as the colorful explosions illuminated the sea and night sky as we sailed towards Sydney – if only we had a few more days here – this is one place we’d definitely love to come back.

Details: If you love Australian wines, are planning on traveling here, or just want to know more I’d suggest picking up a copy of James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion. Paul Robinson from Link Tours is an incredible guide and resource – if you’re thinking of touring the Yarra Wine Region he comes most highly recommended. Our day simply wouldn’t have been the same without him.

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Zealand: Wellington

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital and certainly the most “bustling” of the three cities we visited. But in my opinion it lacks charm. For all of the Starbucks, bagel shops, and bookstores it could be almost anywhere in America – even the teenagers dress the same – wearing their leggings and skinny tapered jeans with flats. The only exception is that sadly, the magazines at the Borders in Wellington cost $20 a piece, rather than the $4.50 back home. So it was with great displeasure that I sulkily put back the Australian issue of InStyle with Kathryn Heigl on the cover and decided to go spend my twenty friggin dollars on four pints of beer, vowing to catch up on my celebrity gossip online. Twenty dollars…the nerve!!! And at this price, how do people afford to stay literate in New Zealand? Even the paperback books were $25!!! Note to NZ visitors: bring plenty of reading material with you on the plane.

Aside from my bookstore price disgust, Wellington turned out to be a pleasant and clean (if slightly boring) city. We popped into several taverns and sampled the beer, ordered local fare (beware: potato skins here are actually potato chunks thrown into a bowl with a lump of sour cream on top, you eat them with skewers…totally bizarre) and shopped at mini-marts for food and drinks we couldn’t buy back on the ship. Our favorite pub was General Practioner, a bar housed in an old-fashioned Victorian home with marble-topped tables and ultra-modern aluminum stools outside on the front deck. Here we sipped glasses of Monteith’s beer (try the black – it’s dark, but not heavy) and watched the twentysomethings pass by on the street below. The boutiques are cool in that Brooklyn-esque sort of a way with funky t-shirts and belts made out of vintage scarves for sale. Oddly, there were quite a few Christian bookstores selling God-related memorabilia with decals in the window posing questions such as “Got God?” or “Where will you be spending Eternity: In the smoking or non-smoking section?” Very clever, those New Zealanders. And to add to my confusion, just down the street were a number of sex shops. (Although out of respect for it being Sunday – or perhaps a lack of business on a church going day – they were all closed). One of their signs advertised “quality” sex gear…which made me wonder…are there a lot of people running around Wellington selling cut-rate vibrators? It’s a question worth asking.

All in all, Wellington is a nice city, but I think New Zealand’s real charm lays in its gorgeous countryside, small towns and bevy of thrilling adventure activities. Come to this country to stay at a fabulous B&B near a lake, to eat roast lamb, to paraglide, sea kayak or to wine taste…but if you’re looking for Manolo Blahniks, martini bars and big city nightlife, keep on movin. Wellington just can't compete with Tokyo, London or Milan.

New Zealand: Napier & Hawke's Bay

I’ve been completely addicted to New Zealand’s crisp Sauvignon Blancs, especially during the warmer weather months. So when I discovered that my husband and I would be traveling to New Zealand on our honeymoon I was ecstatic. Fresh, herbaceous white wines at an affordable price? A chance to tour the vineyards I’d read so much about? Nirvana. And then my heart sank when I realized we wouldn’t be stopping on the South Island at all, which is home to Marlborough, the country’s most famous regional producer of Sauvignon Blanc. Merde.

Yet all was not lost, as serendipitously, this is how I came to discover Hawke’s Bay, one of the most exciting wine producing regions on New Zealand’s North Island. Located just outside the gorgeous coastal city of Napier, Hawke’s Bay boasts over thirty wineries and offers up miles of bucolic countryside in which to sip and savor some of the country’s best vino. As an added attraction, this region is incredibly accessible to aspiring oenophiles in both price range and attitude. The lack of pretension among friendly vineyard staff and a favorable exchange rate makes purchasing wine here a pleasure, and is happily unintimidating even to beginners. One important fact to know before you go: they don’t exactly skimp on the “tastes.” In fact, they’re more like giant half glasses of wine. So if you insist on pedaling a bicycle (driving a car is completely out of the question) consider yourself forewarned, invest in a helmet and make use of the free crackers. We hired a professional to introduce us to the wines, culture and landmarks of Hawke’s Bay. Our five vineyard adventure included Matariki, Hatton Estate, Craggy Range, TeMata and Vidal. Given the difference in climate between Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, the type of varietals grown on the two islands differs remarkably (although there is some overlap). Be prepared to be blown away by the dynamic reds, something New Zealand is not particularly known for, at least in the American market.

Tasting Notes:

Matariki 2004 Pinot Noir: A Gold Winner at the 2007 London International Wine Challenge, this was one of my favorites. Velvety, not too jammy and with just the right amount of earthiness, this $24 bottle tastes better than many of the more expensive bottles I’ve sampled from Washington and Oregon.

Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Sofia: A Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend, this $40 wine was so delicious that Rod Stewart’s managers had purchased several cases earlier that day to take back to the rock star himself. Although it’s not as much of a bargain as some of the others listed it’s a lovely wine to bring out to dinner and hey, if it’s good enough for Rod Stewart….

TeMata Chardonnay: Surprisingly subtle with none of that overpowering oakiness so often found in California Chardonnays and for $18, this would be a great accompaniment to a light, fresh summer dinner of seafood or salad. Exceptionally well-balanced, especially given the price point.

Vidal Sauvignon Blanc: Delicious passion fruit finish and at $14 a pop we bought more than a few bottles to squirrel away for casual Friday nights or summer brunches. Since it was fruity (but not overly so) this wine would even be great for a cocktail party or get-together with the girls.

Hatton Estate 2002 Tahi: This meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc offered a depth of flavor rarely seen in wines this cheap and reminded me of some of my favorite bottles of Bordeaux that are twice as expensive. Clocking in at $36 a bottle it’s within the realm of affordability yet would be perfect to serve at an intimate dinner party in the fall or to give as a hostess gift to someone who enjoys heavier reds.


The Masters Lodge – Owned by a friendly American couple, this hotel offers the ultimate in romance, luxury and privacy. Comprised of only two suites and set on a hill overlooking the South Pacific Ocean, your hosts can arrange activities like master cooking classes, private dinners with local winemakers and massages in the solarium. Prices begin at $800 per/suite.

Pacifica Kaimoana Restaurant – With a five course tasting menu and wine pairing option, this restaurant is the showpiece of Napier’s fine dining scene and consistently delivers fresh seafood and innovative cooking to its patrons.

Wine Tours:
Grape Escape – The charming Greg Beachen will pick you up and whisk you off on a specialized tour of Hawke’s Bay or New Zealand depending on your interests and preferred price range. Tours range in length from a casual afternoon jaunt to an in-depth twelve day wine trail. Prices start at about $60 and end at close to $8,000 per/person for a trip of almost two weeks in length.

New Zealand: The Waitomo Caves

Located deep in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, miles of pastoral bliss pass you by as you travel your way through the twisting country roads – grassy knolls, placidly munching sheep and big, blue sky. This scene repeats itself over and over again, grass/sheep/sky…grass/sheep/sky…grass/sheep/sky like some bucolic version of an M.C. Escher tessellation come to life.

Out here you will find the Waitomo Caves, a three hour drive from Auckland and famous for its system of underground rivers and glow worm grotto. The caves boast a natural auditorium nicknamed “the Cathedral” whose ceiling height soars hundreds of feet above the ground, the acoustics so perfect that the legendary Vienna Boys Choir has performed here amidst the thousand year old stalactites and stalagmites, their voices reverberating against the cavern walls. However, the real piece de resistance is the glow worm grotto itself, available only to those who will travel by boat or tube through the wending underground river system to the innermost recesses of the cave. Here there is no light save for that of the blue-green twinkle of the glow worms hanging up above – appearing like billions of tiny stars in a night sky. To glide through the water with your head back, staring at this constellation of sparkling creatures in silence is something that should not be missed, especially if you are already on the North Island.

Details: Caves are open daily, 9-5 every day of the year. Sadly, no photography or video is allowed inside the caves as it disturbs the glow worms, but it’s such a magical experience that it would be difficult to forget. Most people choose to stay in Auckland and make the caves a day trip as there’s not much else to do out here; however for those who’d prefer to stay overnight in the area there are a few options: for something on the swankier side there's the Waitomo Caves Hotel or for those on a tight budget there's a local Hostel. For a fun, cheap camping option check out Wicked Campers which are great for road trips around the country. You can also rent them in Australia as well. If you have children, a quick stop at the nearby Otorohanga Kiwi House, a native bird zoo featuring over twenty New Zealand species along with exhibits on local vegetation would make a lovely side trip.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fiji: Just Like the Corona Commercial

You know that beer commercial where all you can see is peoples’ bare feet as they stare out at the gently rippling waves? The one where the only sound you can hear is the ebb and flow of the ocean? Well people, this is Fiji. So if you’re a beach lover or you’re just trying to escape your annoying co-workers/family/crazy Aunt Edie then pack your suit and towel and get the hell out here already. Everything has been painted with unabashed strokes of vivid watery turquoise and golden sandy yellow, the blues of sea and sky blending indistinguishably into one another at the horizon line, little bits of cotton candy cloud puffs drifting languidly over the sea. The ocean is as calm and clear as a swimming pool, so much so that you can see tropical fish for what appears to be miles. Reggae music from the Cocktail soundtrack plays loudly in the afternoons, these happy island melodies spilling out of the remote, beach-side bars filled with tanned tourists drinking cheap, cold Fijian beers. Swimsuits and bare feet are happily encouraged at the bars packed with a combination of half-dressed co-eds and families, the waiters here claim that Fiji is a good place “to get lucky” if you’re single and handsome, shirtless men are dispensed to carry umbrellas and chairs down to the tourists lazing about on the beach. I feel as if I’ve stumbled into some sort of a preppy 80’s time warp – like an island party at a Princeton eating club, where UB40 is still popular and where men wear Docksiders without socks and madras blazers in a totally serious, un-ironic way. Perhaps it is because of this that I half-expect Huey Lewis to turn up at any moment, driving that golf cart from the “Happy to Be Stuck With You” video, showing up just in time to join Matt and I for a beer at “The Sand Bar” (oh yes, what a clever name) at any moment. Alas, Huey is nowhere to be seen and I give up waiting for him – but there are a few young men wearing Ray Bans and polo shirts (collars up, natch) who could pass for his sons, and the WASPY girl in the corner is wearing nothing but a bikini and pearls. Because honestly, the necklace just makes the outfit.
All in all, Fiji is a sun worshipper’s paradise. But a simple warning – this island is all about forced relaxation. If you’re one of the many (I know I am) who obsessively talks on the cell phone, likes late nights out and plenty of diversions in the cultural/shopping/adventure categories when traveling abroad then Fiji may not be for you. It is, well, isolated. It being a collection of tiny islands and all. So come here to read a book on the beach or to relax in a gorgeous place where there’s no cell phone service. But don’t come looking for South Beach – it isn’t here – just the sound of the waves gently lapping at your feet and cold, cold beer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

American Samoa: A Taste of Polynesian Culture

To say the Samoa islands are remote would be a vast understatement. Roughly 2,600 miles from Hawaii and nearly 1,000 to Fiji, this region was not only home to Robert Louis Stevenson, the king of castaway literature, but also home to a culture so isolated and intact that Margaret Mead conducted some of her most controversial anthropological research here. For the five days we’ve been traveling here from Hawaii neither ship nor land has been sighted, satellite TV service has been virtually nonexistent, and one can see only a mirror-like ocean for miles, this glassy sheet of lapis lazuli seemingly stretching out into infinity. It is as if our ship has floated off the map and into the great beyond.

So it is with great fondness that we approach the island of Tutuila, the largest and most populated of American Samoa’s five extinct volcanic islands, home to nearly 65,000 people. Upon first glance Tutuila is like something out of a childrens’ fairy tale – Polynesian music floats through the air, coral reefs fringe the sandy shoreline, and tree covered mountains jut sharply into the cloudless sky. At dawn the sun seems to rise out of the sea and settle her golden rays on coconut palms, air plants, mossy banks and papaya trees.

Matt and I were lucky enough to be introduced to the island by an outgoing and poised group of local high school students who narrated our journey in a mix of English peppered with bits of Samoan. Appropriately enough we boarded our brightly colored school bus for a pleasant, if rickety ride around the island, culminating in a final invitation to our guide’s village for a traditional Samoan meal and dancing. Here we learned how most Samoans use umus, or ground ovens to cook their food and we ate off of small plates woven from palm fronds as the villagers do. An overflowing feast of baked breadfruit dipped in coconut milk (the Samoan’s answer to chips and dip), spinach sprinkled with coconut meat (straight from the tree – one of the men climbed what appeared to be a 100 foot palm), ice cold Vailima Lagers and fresh roasted chicken was set out on picnic tables and we happily ate while chatting away the afternoon with our new friends.

Life does not appear to be easy here. Subsistence farming is a means of survival for many, families sleep together on the floors of their humble one-bedroom homes and professional employment opportunities are few. Evangelical Christian churches seem to outnumber people, their imposing presence and sheer multitude a testament to the fact that religion is a comfort to the many people who struggle beneath what I would imagine at times, is the weight of a very difficult existence.

Yet even with these challenges, the Samoan people appear to be far from unhappy. The laughter and love that I witnessed between families and loved ones completely dispelled this notion. Their friendliness is unparalleled - welcoming strangers into their villages and homes is something that they pride themselves on, so much so that the National Park Service will assist visitors in setting up a stay with a Samoan family in advance of traveling here. Spending the afternoon with these people so generous in spirit made me ashamed of myself, for all of the times I had wished for silly, foolish things I didn’t need, and to see people so thankful for the simple joys in life – to witness people gracious enough to invite complete strangers into their homes to share with them their food, their culture, their way of life – it impressed me beyond belief. They truly possess a richness of spirit, something so uncommon in today’s world.

However, make no mistake: these islands are for true adventurers and castaways only. Don’t come expecting five-star resorts, or even frankly, air-conditioning. Come with an open mind and a sense of discovery…this is a place where you can lay on the sand beneath the stars and literally, not see a soul.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hawaii's Natural Splendor

There’s a reason Oprah has a vacation house here. I should’ve realized that the All-Knowing-She would never lead me astray. But here’s my guilty admission (sorry Oprah!) – that before actually setting foot in Hawaii, I mistakenly imagined America’s 50th state to be a cesspool - albeit one full of Sandal’s resorts (kill me now), beaches full of screaming, white middle-class children (whose parents aren’t conversant with the word “no”), and corporate-sponsored luaus (where married sales directors might wear plastic leis and simultaneously gawk at the hula dancers while “talking numbers” with the boys). So in other words: my personal idea of Hell.

Yet Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated island is nothing like this...instead it's all wide boulevards, well-trimmed green grass, and coconut trees. There are high end stores – Bulgari, Prada, and Ferragamo with mannequins in the windows dressed to kill. Dozens of affordable sushi restaurants, well-stocked convenience stores, and breezy sit down cafes where one can repair with a Mai Tai to a shaded corner line the side streets. Although these conveniences are certainly nice, they're amenities one can find in most large cities - and to me, Oahu’s real attractions are those of the natural variety. Its rainforests, volcanoes, waterfalls, surfable waves, and the cultural history of its people - these wonders are stunning both in their splendor and sheer enormity.

We spent the morning hiking near the Ko’olau volcano range on the windward side of the island, about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Waikiki. Climbing the steep trails was fun in that sort of a “hey if I don’t die this is going to be a really, really awesome experience” type of a way since the recent rains had reduced the paths to slick, muddy ski slopes with nary a railing or guard in sight. At points, the switchbacks up and down the mountain were treacherous, the corners crumbly and I could nearly hear the inaudible gasps as people clung onto vines, trees and anything that might help them keep their balance as we all gingerly navigated hairpin turns and silently contemplated who would get our cd collections should anything go awry. Yet it was all worth it upon reaching the falls…the thrill of standing beneath a wildly rushing curtain of water, of looking out at the horizon and down at the rainforest below, and of having trekked to a part of the mountain where wild boars, orchids and a panoply of birds chattered in the rainy mist – these are things that are worth returning back to the ship with muddy legs for, nevermind the insect bites and dreadlocks created by the use of Off! insect repellent in my hair.

After successfully navigating this four hour hike we rewarded ourselves with some Japanese food in downtown Waikiki and popped into The Royal Hawaiian Resort, colored in a Strawberry Shortcake-pink-and-white decorating scheme. Their Mai Tai Bar sits directly on the beach so from the cover of our umbrella we lazily gazed at surfers and sunbathers while sipping the Royal Pineapple daiquiri (served in the fruit itself), frozen Rose Cosmos, and naturally the Mai Tai. This vista, accompanied by the relaxing strains of live Hawaiian music and hula dancing, was perfect in that hazy summer afternoon kind of a way, and we ended the day with a few local beers before being forced to re-board the ship. The Kona Big Wave and Longboard brews were light and tasty, but the Mehana Volcano Red Ale was by far the best with its hoppy, slightly bitter finish.

No amount of snootiness from those who say Hawaii is “too” accessible can take away its charm – it really is an island that has something for everyone. Yes it's still American, but it feels more international than that. Plus - that beach, those frozen drinks, the vistas and the adventure – Hawaii rightly deserves all of its accolades. For a couple or a family looking to get away, it offers boundless options. Where else can you climb volcanoes, play a round of golf on a top course, swim in a waterfall and get pampered at a four star resort? Oprah, I stand corrected. Now if only her cute interior designer Nate Berkus would come and decorate my place….

Friday, February 1, 2008

L.A. - Expensive, Beautiful, Bitchy

For those of you from the East coast, it bears mentioning that Los Angeles is absolutely nothing like Manhattan. It’s beautiful, clean, and full of people who look like they’re trying to look like they’re not trying too hard but really are - if that makes sense. Due to time constraints I’ll admit that we really only saw Beverly Hills and Hollywood rather than South Central but still…I’m pretty sure most of the folks we passed were models or actors or European royalty that had been Botoxed within an inch of their lives. *Sigh* You know, people living the good life.

This overpopulation of gorgeous rich people perhaps explains why when we visited the Versace store on Rodeo Drive we had a very Julia Roberts/Pretty Woman experience complete with frosty saleslady following us around and yelling at us for taking pictures in the store. Ooops. The only difference between Pretty Woman and our lives is that we left with our tales between our legs instead of coming back with Richard Gere and throwing wads of cash at the bitches. But whatever. Nevertheless, this small snafu did not prevent us from peeking into the windows of more luxury shops or from using the (free!) ginormous marble bathrooms in the Regent Beverly Wilshire. BTW, the handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom is definitely bigger than my bedroom was in Manhattan. (Editor’s Note: If you happen to be on Rodeo Drive and need to use the facilities (or are just really bored) definitely check these out – they even have Molton Brown hand soap…lovely! Personally, I like to know where all the good bathrooms in town are because you never know when that nonfat soy latte might take take a turn for the worse. On a side note, if you’re in NYC, the bathroom at the Pottery Barn in SoHo on the lower level is equally as clean, although far from luxurious.)

Besides window shopping in Beverly Hills, we absolutely had to do the tourist thing and so for $5.00 we bought a map of the stars’ homes and drove around the city with our friend Danny. We insisted on taking pictures outside all of the big celebrities’ houses, but unfortunately in most of the pictures all you can see is a gate. Elitist bastards. I guess people like Madonna (see picture of Danny w/map) got tired of people like us taking pictures outside their homes…I can’t imagine why…

For lunch we headed over to West Hollywood and cruised into one of my new favorite dives. It’s called the Saddle Ranch Chop House and presides over Sunset Boulevard with a woodsy, saloon-like exterior complete with balconies full of busted mannequins dressed up as Old West prostitutes and cowboys. Need I say more? The food is cheap and tasty and the portions are big enough to satisfy Jared pre-Subway diet. Plus, for under $50 you can order a 3.5 liter “Tower of Beer” or giant martini glasses full of cotton candy. All this and they’ve got a mechanical bull. Sadly for us the bull was broken while we were there, but we were given 2 free shots each on the house (woohoo!) in something the size of a juice glass, and frankly I can’t say enough good things about the service. My husband is still talking about the candied yams served with marshmallows in a cast iron skillet.
Following lunch we walked next door to Carney’s Hamburgers and Hotdogs - a tiny little restaurant set up inside an old train car. Their motto “Probably the World’s Best Hamburgers and Hotdogs” was not put to the test as we didn’t eat, but their food looked greasily delicious and there was a line (always a good sign) of locals waiting to be served. We took one of the picnic tables outside the train car, ordered a few beers and watched the parade of people traipse down Sunset as the afternoon wore on. All in all a beautiful day in a beautiful town.