Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 Amazing Things of 2012
10. Riding in a B-24 Liberator bomber from WWII and meeting a veteran from my grandfather's squadron
9. Flying an airplane
8. Spinning and sliding in the dirt at rally car school
7. Attending my first Summer Olympics
6. Starting the new year in Bali
5. Moving closer to D.C. in a neighborhood rich with history where I can walk in the footsteps of George Washington
4. Finishing the Nike Women's Half Marathon in San Francisco
3. Rowing again as part of a crew team, even if just one time this year (more often next year), just like in college
2. After 17 years of dreaming about it, I finally drove an indy car and got it up to nearly 170 MPH

and...the most amazing thing in 2012 and one of the top 10 amazing things in my life (especially as a lifelong Beatles fan):

#1. I met, held a (brief) conversation with, and shook the hand of PAUL McCARTNEY!!!  

Best and Worst

This has been an interesting year of new things I've tried or places I've visited.  Here are my best and worsts of living, learning, and exploring in 2012:

Best LIVE: Building a Lego Lamp
Worst LIVE: Working on my cake making skills with an ugly looking Peanut Butter Cup cake - still tasted good, though!

Best LEARN: Driving an indy car (mentioning it again) was just absolutely the thrill of a lifetime
Worst LEARN: Cooking with Biz Markie - an interesting combo, but a waste of money

Best EXPLORE: Even though I was sick for most of the time, I still really enjoyed Bali
Worst EXPLORE: Austin for the Formula 1 Grand Prix had to have been one of my worst travel experiences ever!

Other favorites from the year...
Best New TV Show: For drama, I pick Newsroom on HBO by Aaron Sorkin, and for comedy I love The Mindy Show on FOX. (Honorable Mention: since it's new to me, Downton Abbey)
Worst New TV Show: Awake on NBC with the guy who played Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter - I just couldn't get into it.
Best Book I Read: Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (check her out at out loud funny!
Worst Book I Read: It's a tie between A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (hated it from the start and skimmed most of it to see if/when it would change...never did...write another Harry Potter book!) and The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens
Best Movie I Saw:  James Bond - Skyfall....if you haven't seen it yet, there are so many good spoilers and I like the new Q!
Worst Movie I Saw: The first thing that pops into my mind is Magic Mike.
Best Music: We Are Young by Fun, just because it's one you can belt out in the car when no one is listening and feel better.
Worst Music: Gangnam Style...unless performed by the cadets at West Point or midshipmen at the Naval Academy (search on YouTube for it!)

Posted on Monday, December 31, 2012 by Julie

1 comment

Sunday, December 30, 2012

While visiting family in the Seattle region, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the Woodinville (and neighboring Redmond) area, best known as the state's primary wine producing region.  Instead of wine, though, this time I wanted to spend a day visiting some of the tasting rooms of its burgeoning craft beer brewing industry.
Woodinville's beer history began when the the Redhook Ale Company moved its Washington facilities to the town after outgrowing its other two breweries in the Seattle region.  Redhook still claims to brew craft beers but is part of the Craft Brew Alliance with Widmer and Kona Brewing, a publicly traded company (Nasdaq: BREW, Anheuser-Busch InBev owns about 1/3 of the company ). Due to its popularity and accessibility we decided to skip Redhook on our planned tour to focus on a cluster of micro and nano brewers.  I found a few online from other blogs, then the other two stops we made were added because of recommendations from some of the brewers themselves.  It really is a supportive beer making community, with just five small manufacturers and Redhook in Woodinville, plus Black Raven and Mac & Jacks in Redmond.
Twelve Bar Brews (12826 NE 178th St. Suite C, Woodinville) is named after a popular musical chord progression most commonly in blues.  The owner was on hand to give us a lot of attention at our tasting, answering all of our annoying questions, and a sneak peek of his operation in back.  On tap for tasting ($1 per taster glass) were:

  • Wicked Riff IPA (6.9%, 85 IBU) - strong and dry with five different hops
  • Pentatonic Pale Ale (4.5%, 30 IBU) - five grain ale with wheat rye, oats, and two kinds of barley
  • Supertonic India Black (6.9%, 80 IBU) - strong, black, and hoppy
  • Turnaround Red (5.7%, 45 IBU) - a crisp Northwest red ale with caramel malt and lots of dry hops
  • Guest Tap: Golden Hills Brown Lager

Dirty Bucket Brewing Company (19151 144th Ave NE Suite 101, Woodinville) was my favorite stop of the day. The owner was really inventive in the way he was brewing his beers, adding in certain elements that created some new flavors and incorporated historical brewing practices.  This brewery is a nanobrew that just opened in April 2012, so it is mostly available direct from Dirty Bucket either through growlers or just stopping by to have a pint or two.  In our tasting flight ($6), we had:
  • Ruski Porridge (5.5%) - oatmeal/coffee stout
  • Filthy Hoppin' IPA (6.5%, 72 IBU) - American IPA
  • XXX-tra Filthy IPA (9%, 100 IBU) - whiskey barrel aged Imperial American IPA
  • "Vixen" Christmas Pale Ale (6%) - Northwest pale ale with juniper berries and ginger
  • Bedraggled Irish Red (5%) - red ale

Triplehorn Brewing Company (19510 144th Avenue NE, #6, Woodinville) just opened in late August 2012 and is located up the street from Dirty Bucket.  I wasn't very impressed with the tasting room experience.  There was no interaction with the brewery representative pouring the flights, and all you needed to know was on a laminated page you are given.  For our tasting, we had six samples ($8 + tax):

  • Mystic Belgian (8.5%) - amber in color with subtle notes of caramel, spice, citrus, and pepper
  • Barrel Aged Harvest Porter (7%, 22 IBU) - aged for over 2 months in syrah barrels
  • Nemesis Milk Stout (9.5%, IBU 62) - dark roasted barley and chocolate malts, sweetened with milk sugar
  • Falcon Cloak Blonde (6.5%, IBU 25) - smooth and pairs with lighter foods, low IBU means less bitter but still flavorful
  • Landwink IPA (6%, IBU 58) - balanced malt to hop flavor, rested "dry hop" on simcoe to get piney, floral, and earthy notes on the back end. This is the flagship Triplehorn beer
  • Folkvang Red (5.8%, IBU 32) - malty beer without a big hoppy taste, light smoke flavor and UK hops
Mac & Jack's Brewing Company (17825 NE 65th Street, Redmond) is a popular brewery in the area and is still offering its beer in draft only.  Several local brewpubs offer the beers, and you can buy growlers direct from the retail store.  There isn't a formal tasting room, but they were more than happy to pour us some samples.  On the weekends, there are twice daily tours, but we arrived a little too late for one and too early for the other.  While they had several beers on tap, we opted to just try two, as this was the last stop on the tour and I had reached my beer limit.
  • African Amber - this is the original beer that the brewing company owners made in their homebrewing operation and is the Northwest's first unfiltered, dry hopped amber ale
  • Serengeti Wheat - an American style hefeweizen brewed with 50% locally sourced two-row pale malt and 50% locally grown northwest malted wheat
As a fun bonus to the day's self-guided tour, we were directed by both Twelve Bar and Dirty Bucket to visit the local micro vodka distillery because they were extremely friendly, very proud of their product, and offered free samples of their classic and infused vodkas.  They were absolutely correct about all three!

Project V Distillery and Sausage (19495 144th Avenue NE, Woodinville - right across from Triplehorn) is a source for handcrafted vodka that is created using wheat from the owner's grandfather's farm in Eastern Washington.  While there is a formal tasting room and retail store with homemade sausage and (coming soon) other pork products, if the crowds are small the owners are very proud to show off their operation.  Everything in their facility was thoughtfully designed and installed by the husband and wife team.  Currently, they are making four variations of vodka in their small industrial park location:
  • Single Silo Vodka (80 proof)
  • Distiller's Cut Vodka (100 proof)
  • Double Silo Vodka (160 proof)
  • Chai Infusion Vodka 
Unlike the craft brewers we visited today, it is actually possible to order this vodka anywhere in the U.S. by asking your local liquor store to contact the distributor (Click Wholesale).  
A vodka tasting accompanied by a classic reggae record

Posted on Sunday, December 30, 2012 by Julie


Saturday, December 29, 2012

If you are a diver, I know that the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list.  And if you're just a snorkeling enthusiast, I would presume you would not pass up an opportunity to observe one of the worlds finest collection of marine life!  Therefore, you must know one of the best ways to access the Great Barrier Reef is from Cairns in Queensland, Australia.

In my recent post about Sydney, I mentioned how challenging it was to plan out my itinerary for my short stay in Australia. On my "must do" list, I had listed several things, two of which were dive the Great Barrier Reef and hold a koala.  The great thing about staying in Cairns is that Queensland does not have the restrictions on koala holding that other states do in Australia, so by heading to the city, I was going to be able to accomplish two of my major goals!

Cairns is a relatively small, beachside town.  And when I say beach, I mean more of a coastal walkway with some sandy areas, but not many.  It still has that seashore feel, though, with the cheesy tourist shops and average restaurants with the water views. For my hotel, I opted to stay at a place that, conveniently, had a name I could not forget: The Hotel Cairns. Not only were the accommodations nice, with daily breakfast buffets, but it stood out from all the other hotels in the region for one reason:  free daily car rental.  They maintain a small fleet of Mercedes Smart cars that are available for hotel guests' use, first come-first served and reservation required.  There was no way I was going to pass up this convenient way to get my shot to drive on the "wrong" side of the road.  Plus, it opened up the number of things I could do in the area.  I ended up taking my Smart car up north to the Daintree National Forest on my last day in Cairns.
I actually only got to enjoy one night at The Hotel Cairns before I was picked up by my diving tour company to be taken to the transport boat that would head out to the liveaboard boat's location, anchored on the Great Barrier Reef.  After one night on board, I planned to head back to the hotel, though.  The dive company I selected was Divers Den.  They had all sorts of liveaboard duration options, and having not done an overnight diving trip, I hesitated to commit to more than the 2-day tour.  Of course, you don't have to (a) do an overnight or (b) even dive to be able to come with Divers Den out to the Great Barrier Reef!  I have to say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed my experience.  The plan was to do 7 separate dives over the course of my tour:  two on the way to the liveaboard, one before dinner, and one night dive on the first day, then three additional dives on the 2nd day.  I actually skipped the night dive for several reasons: I was exhausted, the thought of putting on my soaking wetsuit made me shiver, and I had never done a night dive before and was a little scared.  No matter, I still had fun because the atmosphere on board was very similar to some of my university travels around Europe, where solo travelers at the hostel all band together as a bunch of strangers-turned-immediate friends because everyone is looking for and is open to new companionship.  There's nothing like it in my traveling experience, and makes me wish there was a way to combine that instant camaraderie with the comfort of nice hotels, as opposed to the bunk bed filled/shared bathroom hostels.
With dives complete, and that bucket list box checked, I returned to The Hotel Cairns for more Queensland exploration.  There are several tour companies operating in the region that provide a plethora of options for things to do, but the main attractions are Kuranda and Daintree.  Remember, I wasn't going to leave this town without getting a fuzzy grey bear into my arms and taking a souvenir photo, so Kuranda was first on my list.  There are two ways to reach this mountain attraction: by cable car or by train.  If you're me, you do both by buying a package ticket that included hotel transportation to the Skyrail terminal.
Midstation on the Skyrail
Taking the Kuranda Skyrail up the mountain over think rainforest canopies can take up to an hour and a half because it makes two stops at mid-stations, where you can get out and wander around paths in the rainforest to learn more about the ecosystem and various flora through ranger guides or frequently posted educational displays.  The last stop of the Skyrail is the village of Kuranda, known mainly for its Koala Gardens - my end goal for the day!
That cannot be comfortable!
To return to Cairns, you can book a passage on the historic scenic railway.  Built in the 1890s as a supply line for local miners working in the mountains, the railway is now primarily moving tourists to and from Kuranda.  It is a slow-moving train with some great opportunities for photographs of the Barron Gorge National Park and waterfall.  The train conveniently takes you straight into Cairns Station.
Barron Gorge
Reserving the complimentary car for the next day, I headed north towards Cape Tribulation with a fellow solo traveler I had met on the diving liveaboard to wander the Daintree National Rainforest.  I was surprised how easy it was to drive on the opposite side of the road, and on the opposite side of the car, to which I am accustomed.
The drive along the coast is absolutely beautiful.  Stop in Port Douglas if you need a break.  If you're more inclined to hike under the rainforest canopies, Mossman Gorge is a great option.
Mossman Gorge
When you get to Cape Tribulation, there's an area where you can park your car and take a short walk to reach the beach for a beautiful view of the turquoise blue water and lush greenery.  If you prefer not doing the driving yourself, there are tons of tours available on off-road vehicles that will pretty much cover the same areas in this part of the Daintree Rainforest more efficiently.
Cape Tribulation

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2012 by Julie


Friday, December 28, 2012

I know it's a long flight from the U.S., but sometimes you just have to suck it up in order go to the opposite end of the world to experience all of the amazing features of the "Land Down Under."  It's hard to appreciate just how big the country/continent of Australia is until you start to plan out an itinerary and realize just how little you can cram into a 1-2 week period.  Originally, I knew I wanted to go to Sydney and to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, but I had also thought I could fit Ayers Rock and Melbourne in as well.  First, there's no way to realistically drive between the cities because the distance from Sydney to Cairns is greater than the entire stretch of Western U.S. coastline, and is approximately the same amount of time it would take to drive from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas.  Who does that?  No one!  Add to that Ayers Rock, located in Uluru in the middle of the country, and Melbourne on the Southeastern coast, and the total driving time exceeds a roundtrip drive from LA to NYC.  So to do all 4 cities, I was looking at the tricky task of timing flights and layovers with things I wanted to accomplish.  When I had finished my draft itinerary, I asked an Australian friend to give me his opinion, and he was quick to say, "You're doing too much, mate!"  So, I heeded his advice and saved Ayers Rock and Melbourne for another trip/excuse to return.  In doing so, though, I will admit that I came back thinking that I should have compromised and done three stops during the time I was there because I did find myself struggling for things to do in Sydney, but I'm not sure if that's because of my normal rapid sightseeing pace or due to a lack of options.  Regardless, it was a great trip!
First piece of advice, if you have the miles or are able to spend the money, by all means do whatever you can to upgrade into business class.  When I went to Australia, United had just finished upgrading its fleet to include the lay-flat business class seating.  After such a long flight, getting a relatively restful six to eight hours or so of sleep makes a huge difference in what you're able to do once you land.  I'm also a big proponent of staying awake as long as you can after landing when jetlag is a concern in order to rapidly force your body to adjust to the new time schedule.  I landed in Sydney in the early morning, and fortunately my hotel was able to check me in early.  I opted to stay at the Menzies in the city, on Carrington Street just off Waynard Park, because it was located in a safe neighborhood within close walking distance to the Opera House, Royal Botanical Gardens, Harbour Bridge, and the Circular Quay (that's pronounced "key" for all people who don't know English nautical terms - dumb, I know!).  So basically I was going to be able to cover all of the major sightseeing with little effort.  The hotel wasn't anything fabulous, and you were paying mostly for the location.
The Rocks
Staying close, just in case I needed to crash, I wanted to hit up the major photographic subjects in the morning light.  First stop was the waterfront and Dawes Point Park to get good vantage points for the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.  In order to get down to the park, you have to pass through the oldest part of Sydney, called The Rocks, where I stumbled upon a weekend outdoor market and started my souvenir purchasing early - buying a working boomerang decorated with painted aboriginal patterns.  The history of this part of town is spectacular and there are a few remnants from its colorful past when the area was occupied by the first European settlers in 1788 - British convicts!  It still amazes me that a country could be in a position to ship a significant portion of its jail population to the other side of the world and create a giant penal colony.  Today, this part of town is an interesting dichotomy of the area's long history as, basically, a slum (now represented by public housing) and the very high property value of the land and buildings that have been sold for private use and historical renovation.  In the main, touristy part of the neighborhood, you will find small shops and some cute pubs, which are nice to visit if you're there when the open air market is closed.  If you follow the water to the left, you will eventually end up at the viewpoints for a photograph of the famous bridge span and an across-the-water shot of the Opera House.  This was as close I was going to get to the bridge because I have an issue with heights, so the option to do the Harbour Bridge Climb was not even considered!
When done with my photographs, I walked through the Circular Quay shopping area to the Opera House itself to see the intricate white tiling that is often not noticed in photos.  With time to kill in the afternoon trying to stay awake, and with kangaroos and koalas on the brain, I made my way over to the Darling Harbour area, with all its average shops and big restaurants, to go to the Wildlife Sydney Zoo and Aquarium.  I knew I was going to go to the big zoo across the bay in Taronga the next day, but I couldn't resist a sneak peek at the country's famous indigenous animals!  It was a really hot day, so I felt a little bad for the kangaroos who were doing whatever they could to keep cool.  The Sydney Zoo is not a big zoo, rather it's more a large building with several animal exhibits.  But it has the major things a tourist would want to see: wallaby, kangaroo, koala, wombat, tazmanian devil, kookaburra, etc.
Save some money and buy a combo pass for the Sydney Zoo, Aquarium, and the Tower Eye - the tallest building in Sydney with an observation deck for 360 degree views of Sydney.  I hadn't planned on doing the Tower, but I thought what the heck!  I needed to stay up anyway, and this was a great way to get some bearings on where things were located in the city.  Needless to say, after all the walking to get my photographs of landmarks and animals on Day 1, I was exhausted when I finally returned to the hotel for an early bedtime.  After all, I had a big day planned for Day 2 at the bigger zoo and touring the Royal Botanical Gardens!
When thinking of things to do in Australia, I knew there was one box that must be checked - hold a koala bear!  Unfortunately, I soon realized that most states banned the koala holding and limited you to only being able to "pat" the grey bears.  New South Wales is one of the "pat only" states unfortunately, but I wasn't going to pass up on any opportunity to get up close.  The way to do that in Sydney at the Taronga Zoo is to either pay to do a Koala Encounter experience for about $20AUS, where you can get up close to the Koala sitting in a tree and take a souvenir photo, or opt to upgrade your zoo experience and take a VIP tour.  Yes, it's about 4x more expensive, but you gain the advantages of a small group tour that sees a lot of the "backstage" action.
Because I was there during a less busy time of year (November), I actually ended up getting a private VIP tour where I not only "pat" a koala and got my photo, but fed giraffes and interacted with and fed a wallaby and other small Australian animals at the Education Centre, to name a few of the many stops on the tour.  The bonus feature of the Taronga Zoo is unrivaled views at certain points on the property of the city of Sydney, and all her famous landmarks!  Getting to the zoo is very easy - just a quick ferry ride from Circular Quay that docks right at the zoo entrance at the bottom of the hill.
Arriving back at Circular Quay, I took advantage of the proximity to explore the Royal Botanical Gardens.  Of course, I didn't appreciate how large the gardens and how long the footpath distances would be based on my map printouts until I started the walking tour.  My suggestion is to wear very comfortable shoes!  The main points of interest in this green space are the beautiful views of the Opera House, with the Harbour bridge in the background, near Mrs. Macquerie's Chair and the Governor's House and associated gardens.
For Day 3, I followed the suggestion of my Australian friend and went on a tour of the Blue Mountains that I had booked prior to my arrival in Sydney.  There are several tour companies that offer packages up to the Blue Mountains, but I opted for Activity Tours because they stopped at a wildlife conservation area (Featherdale Wildlife Park), several overlooks of the scenic mountains, and finished with a tour of the Sydney Olympics complex then a boat ride back to Circular Quay that traveled under the Harbour Bridge.  At the wildlife park, you were able to walk among groups of wallabies, pat another koala, and see many other extremely cute animals - my favorite of the visit was the wombat.
The Blue Mountains are the foothill region just outside of Sydney that have a lot of natural attractions, including rock formations and waterfalls.  There's also the popular attractions in Katoomba, including the scenic railway that is the steepest cable-operated funicular originally used for some of the coal mining done in the valley.  The day I went, our views and hikes were disrupted by a light, misty rain that just would not quit and a damp cold that no one in the tour was prepared for based on clothing choices.  The tourist shop in Katoomba had many sales of sweatshirts that day!
On my 4th day in Sydney, I realized that this probably should have been the day that I left the city because I was getting pretty restless.  I had seen all of the major sights in my first three days, so I had to scramble to figure out how to occupy my time. Traveling on your own, I have found it's always good to have a lot of things to do because you have no time to even recognize that you're doing everything solo, but once the dust starts to settle, the loneliness attempts to invade your fun vacation time!  As a seasoned solo traveler, to combat this, I decided to head back to Circular Quay and take a ferry out to Manly Beach.  The ferry ride was spectacular, with great views of the city.  Manly Beach is a common day trip for locals and tourists, alike, to just get away from the city for a time to relax and refresh.  The shops are commercial and touristy but small, and were located in restored buildings dating back to the late 1800s, painted in bright pastel, retro-looking colors.  And the beach was perfect for some light reading and some planning for the next day when I was flying up to Queensland to catch a boat to take me out to my diving live-aboard accommodations on the Great Barrier Reef!  That will be my next installment in my Australian adventure story coming soon!

Posted on Friday, December 28, 2012 by Julie