Before I get to our visit to the Low Countries, let me finish up with the UK. On our last day in the country, J2 and I left our friends’ flat in town and headed to meet another friend (this one from DC, whom we even saw on our last day there) to introduce her to the British culinary tradition of fish and chips. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and not many good places were open, so we wound up at a rather poor example of the art and J2 and I left a bit disappointed (the f&c at Sally’s in Oamaru is far better). From there we set off to finish doing the shopping for the evening’s dinner that we were to make for my cousin David and his wife Cathy back in Windsor. Stopping at a Sainsbury’s in Slough (famous for some as the home of the British version of “The Office”) I was a bit surprised to find that some things that can be found even in our small New World grocery in Oamaru could not be easily found here, chief among them organic chickens and fresh basil. I finally did find one last chicken, a bit bigger than ideal, but workable, and would up having to go to the Windsor Farm Shop to find the basil.

When we got to their apartment, I set to work making dinner. For the starter, it would be a salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes with my mother’s Caprese sauce; for the main, chicken in the style of Treviso with chanterelles and baby artichokes, served with sweet potato gnocchi in a sage butter sauce; for dessert, zabaglione with fresh berries, followed by a selection of cheese from Neals Yard Dairy. Cooking in a strange kitchen is always a challenge, but they had everything I needed and the meal came together pretty easily and tasted OK.

Early the next morning we left for the airport and our flight to Amsterdam. Arriving in Amsterdam in the late morning, we made our way from Schiphol to our home for the night, an AirBNB in Regulierdwarstraat, right in the centre of things. Our hosts were an Irish-Scottish couple who could not have been nicer, especially given the fact that one of them had just had back surgery and was newly (but temporarily) confined to a wheelchair. We headed out to our meeting shortly after arriving, and as we left the meeting were confronted with the first real rain of the trip other than one day (July 4, as it turns out) in Connecticut. Unfortunately our umbrella was back at the flat, so we made our wet way to the apartment to collect it before wandering around town for the rest of the day. I have always liked Amsterdam, and this trip was no different; it’s a beautiful city, and I love the way so many locals get around on bikes. We even stopped at Rembrandt’s House, which we think we may have visited before on a previous visit to Amsterdam, though none of it was familiar to us. If you’re going to Amsterdam, we’d recommend a visit.

This was J2’s birthday, incidentally, so I told him he could choose whatever he wanted for dinner, figuring he’d opt for something with french fries or perhaps an Indonesian rijstafel, two typical Dutch treats. Instead, he said he wanted Ethiopian, so, turning to Yelp for guidance, I found a place that seemed promising, a reasonable walk away from our place. When we got there at around 7pm the place was deserted but for one table of diners, which gave me pause for a bit, but the aromas from the kitchen persuaded us to persevere. And a good thing we did, too, since the place was absolutely full by the time our dinner was served, and the food was extraordinary, better even than the famed Ethiopian restaurants of Adams Morgan in DC.

The next morning we left Amsterdam in our rented car (which it took a long time to locate, since the rental company had sneakily moved its depot between the time I made the booking and the time I was to pick up the car!) for our out-of-town meetings. The first was in a town called ‘s-Hertogenbosch (though everyone calls it “Den Bosch”), but when we got there we found that they had made a bit of a mistake with the scheduling so they could not see us then, so we had to reschedule for Friday morning. The second meeting was in Arnhem, famous as the site of the Battle of Arnhem, memorialised in the film “A Bridge Too Far”. The bridge itself is not at all interesting to look at, and so is the town (largely destroyed in the war, it was rebuilt in the period of European history when formless architecture was in vogue). After the meeting we took a quick visit to the war cemetery, which was moving especially to me, since the battle took place in late September 1944, so many of the headstones showed that the soldiers died on my birthday.

Our next meeting was to be in the early morning the next day in Utrecht, so we headed there to find a place to stay. We wound up in a very cheap (€45) hotel in the outskirts of town. The less said about the hotel, the better, but suffice it to say that it offered the bare minimum of comfort and service, but at least it was more or less clean. We of course wanted to minimise our time here, so we immediately headed out to check out the town for the rest of the day. First impressions were not too promising, but once we found the old centre of the city, our opinion changed–it’s a very pretty town, with canals and charming architecture, and some nice places to have a drink or eat. We chose a place at random and enjoyed some local beer and a bowl of mussels and proclaimed Utrecht to be a nice place after all.

After our meeting in the morning (which was another good one) we opted to make a detour for the night to Belgium, rather than stay in the Netherlands until our Friday meeting, and hopped in the car to drive to Bruges, a town I have long wanted to visit. We found a reasonably priced hotel near the centre (Hotel Fevery) and drove off, making it to the town by shortly after 1pm. Too bad for me that the weekly market closes at 1pm, so I just missed it! But even without the market, the town is simply beautiful, and the weather could not have been better (actually, it could have been a bit less hot for us, now that we’re fully acclimated to the moderate climate of New Zealand). For lunch we stopped a local brewery (“De Halve Maan”, or “The Half Moon”) for a glass of their wonderful beer and a snack (actually a large slab of local cheese with a pot of mustard), but the snack was so filling that we had little appetite for dinner later on, not that that stopped us from going out for dinner later on!

Bruges is clearly a popular destination with a lot of nationalities, as we heard just about every language imaginable on the streets. As a result of all the tourists, there are a lot of shops catering to their tastes, which apparently leans heavily toward chocolate–the sheer number of chocolate shops is dazzling! I don’t know how anyone can choose among them, so we did not try, since in any event any chocolate we’d have bought would have melted long before we got it back to our hotel, since the weather was unrelentingly hot and sunny all throughout our stay.

When beer o’clock struck we turned to Yelp and found a brewery near to the main square that seemed promising. Finding it was a challenge, since its address made it seem to be on a fairly big street though no sign of it could be found. Finally we asked someone for help and they directed us to a very narrow little alleyway leading off that street, and sure enough the brewery was at the end. This place, De Garre, is supposed to be the home of the world’s best-tasting beer, De Gulden Draak (the Golden Dragon), so we had to try that, along with another of their own beers. On the bottom of the menu where these beers are listed there was a warning–only in Flemish–saying that “for reasons of health, patrons will be limited to three servings”. Turns out, these beers are STRONG, around 11% each, so after one you definitely feel that you have had a bit to drink, even though the beers are served with a little bitty bowl of cheese to help soak up the alcohol.

For dinner we made our way to a place called Cambrinus, recommended by our hotel and clearly popular with both locals and tourists, and we were lucky to get a table. We placed our orders–rabbit in beer sauce for me and beef for J2–and promptly found that we were too stuffed–whether from the slab of cheese or the beer we could not tell–to finish our orders, but we enjoyed them both a lot.

The next day we spent wandering around town a bit more, including a stop at a candy shop that demonstrates the process they go through to make lollipops. We both thought that this would be a great idea for a shop in Oamaru–it’s “authentic”, artisanal, Victorian(-ish), and saleable, plus it would draw people to the historic precinct. We both also observed that, even in parts of town where the shops were closed, there were still a lot of people milling around in the evening because there were eateries and drinkeries nearby to draw them in. Perhaps a lesson for Oamaru? The rest of the day was spent in the usual way (for us), wandering the streets, having a beer at the same brewery (this time we both had the Golden Dragon) and then dinner at Dell’arte, a place we found on Yelp. Here I tried to order a “light” dinner of a salad, but what was brought was so enormous that despite my best efforts I could only eat around 1/3 of it. J2 did a bit better with his Carbonade Flamande, the supposed regional specialty, which was delicious but still too big for us.

On our final day in Europe we left our lovely hotel in the morning and drove the 2-1/2 hours back to Den Bosch for that meeting that we had to reschedule. With that out of the way we were officially on vacation, so we returned our car at the airport and awaited our flight to Bangkok and connection to Yangon, which will be the subject of the next post!

Posted by: JLG | 20 July 2014

Return to Blighty

After the horror of our flight from DC to NYC, you can imagine that we were a bit nervous about what might happen on our longer flight from NYC to London. The flight was a daytime flight, rather unusual for transatlantic crossings, on Virgin Atlantic, and left really early in the morning, so we had to be up and out of my mom’s place by around 5am to get to the airport in time to return our car, check in, go through security, etc. I had figured that the airport would probably be rather quiet at that hour of the morning, otherwise we might have left even earlier.

At check in for the flight, I asked if there was any chance of our moving from our rear-of-the-plane, middle-of-the-row seats to something better, and as it happened there were two exit row seats left that we could have, if we were willing to pay $100 each for the privilege. We leapt at the offer, but I made sure to advise the check-in person that, in the event of an actual emergency, I would require reimbursement of that $100 from the airline for opening the exit door (this was before MH17, so it was still funny then). What a great move this was, since our seats were very comfortable indeed, and we got to chat with the flight attendant who I guess became fond of us, judging by her bringing us glasses of champagne and offering us an additional meal during the flight.

Compared with the international flights that we have grown accustomed to living in NZ, this was ridiculously short and fast, and before we knew it we had landed at Heathrow. Being summer, it was still light out when we landed at 7pm or so. We were staying our first few days in Windsor with my cousin David and his wife Cathy, who live opposite Windsor Castle, which we could still see clearly when we arrived.

On Sunday, our first full day in the UK, after cousin David fixed my broken tooth (it helps to have a working dentist in the family!) we thought we might visit Windsor Castle with a possible eye toward gingerbreading it, but when we saw that the tickets were a whopping £37.50 each (that’s around NZ$75) we decided to pass. Luckily the gingerbread rules state that J2 must have been to the subject of the gingerbread, not that he actually visit it in depth. Phew. So instead we made arrangements to head into town to see friends of ours for a wander around Chelsea. The weather was stupendous, so we really enjoyed being able to amble around London with them, and just soak up the warmth and sun. In the evening we took David and Cathy to dinner at their local Chinese place, where we ordered from the Chinese-language menu (that has no translation), earning us envious looks from the neighbouring table, who kept asking us what dish that is since nothing looked like it came from the £14.50 all-you-can-stomach menu that they were given. This prompted us to take a copy of the Chinese menu back with us for me to translate, which I did while David watched the final of the World Cup.

After a few days of no meetings, we were back to the grindstone on Monday, leaving Windsor in the morning and joining the commuters on the train into London. This was going to be our single busiest day of the trip, with six meetings scheduled between 10am and 5:30pm. Miraculously, we were on time for all but one of them, and the only reason we were late there was that we were kept longer at our previous meeting, with Tourism NZ, since they were so intrigued by all the new stuff going on in Oamaru and the lodge and wanted to learn all about it!

Happily for us, our last meeting was to be held over drinks at the newly built tallest building in London, the aptly named “The Shard”. To get there we took the tube to Monument station and walked across London Bridge, and as we did this I realised suddenly that this was the path of my daily commute to work when I lived in London in 1989. But as we crossed London Bridge I realised that the building I used to work in was no longer there, having been replaced by…The Shard! Our meeting was at the 52nd floor bar of the Shangri-La hotel, so from up there we had a great view of London below. The drinks were not bad, but as expected, they were vastly overpriced at £10 each.

With our meetings of the day over (and incidentally they all went very well!) we had the evening off and had arranged to meet my college friend María and her husband Renaud for dinner at The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe. To get there we took the new (to us) river transport that zigzags along the Thames, which affords a great way to see the city, especially on a lovely evening. When María suggested this as our venue for dinner, I was initially surprised, since it seemed like it would be the height of touristy, but María is a very sophisticated diner (she and I decided, way back in 1986, to forego the class graduation dinner at some nondescript restaurant in NYC, in favour of dining together at the infinitely better Four Seasons, a meal that I remember to this day) so I figured she must know what she’s doing. Sure enough, the meal was excellent on all counts, and the only nod to the neighbouring Globe Theatre was the intrusion of a troupe of actors from the evening’s performance, in full costume, barreling through the dining room in character (we think they might have been performing Julius Caesar). After dinner we walked along the Thames, passing by countless new things that have arisen since our last visit in 2011, to the station where we caught a rather late train (11pm) back to Windsor.

Tuesday morning we bade farewell to David and Cathy and headed out in our hire car for meetings in the provinces. Our first stop was in Surrey, south of London, and then in Hungerford, west of London. When these were over we decided to drive up toward where our Wednesday meetings would be, in the Cotswolds, and find a place to stay near there. I had not counted on the popularity of the Cotswolds as a holiday destination, though, so rooms were hard to come by, but we eventually found a comfortable place in a town called Shipton-under-Wychwood, located between Witney and Chipping Norton, where Wednesday’s meetings were to take place. The owner of the B&B we had chosen asked what brought us to the area, and when we said we were visiting two nearby travel agents she told us, somewhat shocked, that they are very posh agencies whose itineraries are beyond her budget. When she realised that our place in NZ is also rather posh, she immediately set to apologising for all the perceived failings of her B&B, which frankly was perfectly fine. Happily she eventually became comfortable and we had a lovely time with her. She even recommended a nearby place for dinner that we enjoyed so much we ate there both nights of our stay.

On Thursday we left the Cotswolds for the Peaks District, a further two hours or so north, stopping along the way at a couple of gingerbread candidates. These places were all ones that I had visited on my first visit to the UK as a teenager in 1979, and only one was still how I remembered it. The first stop, Warwick Castle, has been completely disneyfied, with recreations of medieval activities, costumed performers etc. That, combined with the £22 entry price, persuaded us not to enter the castle grounds. The next stop, Kenilworth Castle, was a ruin when I saw it 35 years ago, and it remains a ruin today. Unlike in 1979, today they charge £10 to get in, which we did not want to pay (gosh, I sure sound cheap on this leg of the journey!). But a gentleman at the ticket booth noted our lodge shirts with the “Oamaru NZ” embroidered under the logo, and told us that if we became members of English Heritage we would gain free entry to Heritage NZ properties (and vice versa). That’s definitely something we’ll have to look into when we get home. The last stop along the way was at Coventry Cathedral, famously bombed in 1940 and left as a ruin (with a new cathedral built next door).

We got to our destination, Buxton in Derbyshire, on one of the hottest days so far this summer. Of course, nowhere has aircon in this part of England so we were wilting (as was everyone else) and took refuge at a funky little craft brewery in town after walking around a bit. There, too, our meeting went very well, and it seems that the agency there wants to put us on their website, so the travel to this part of England was worthwhile. The next morning, Friday, we left Buxton in the early morning for Cheadle, near Manchester, for one more meeting in the north, before heading south to Flackwell Heath for the last meeting of our English visit. All of these also were very positive, so we have a good feeling at the end of this trip to the UK.

Flackwell Heath is just an hour from London so we headed into town to spend the weekend. This time, we were going to spend a few nights in town, with an old colleague and his wife. In the evening we went to a nice local place for dinner, downing three bottles of wine in the process (in the spirit of full disclosure, we only had about two glasses of that wine ourselves…) and then afterwards we returned to their place to watch the final episode of a quiz show that has my name written all over it. It’s called “Only Connect” and the object is to find the connections among apparently unconnected things. I hope they show this in NZ!

Saturday started off a bit thundery and rainy, but by the time we headed out of the house it had cleared and we had a mostly fine day once again. We met another former colleague of mine (from Moscow days) for lunch at one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s places (NOPI), which was excellent, and then we visited the Gallery of Russian Art & Design (GRAD) for their exhibit of Soviet-era household goods, which was a real trip down memory lane for us. From there J2 and I headed to the Borough Market, again near my old office, to do some shopping for a dinner that I’ll make on our last night for David and Cathy (we’ll spend our last night with them, since they live so close to Heathrow and our flight to Amsterdam leaves very early), and after that we met yet another friend for dinner in the East End.

The East End used to be a rather down-and-dirty neighbourhood, but it has been undergoing a steady process of gentrification lately and the place was hopping when we got there. Dinner was at a very funky place called Les Trois Garçons, with extremely quirky interior décor (heavy on taxidermy and somewhat kitsch animal sculptures) but very good food. After dinner we wandered around the area for a bit before finally returning to our friends’ place for the night.

This has been a very good return visit to the UK, so much so that it seems likely that we’ll have to include the UK on our European visits a bit more regularly. We’ll see how the bookings shape up before making any final determinations.

 

Posted by: JLG | 12 July 2014

New York, New York!

Despite the rather unfortunate experience of getting here, or perhaps because of it, our time in New York proved to be just wonderful. Not only did we get to spend time with mom (who is doing a lot better than we expected) but we also managed to see a good number of friends (though by no means as many as we’d have liked to have seen, so apologies to those whom we missed) and snag some pretty good meals, too.

Meetings-wise, things went moderately well, too. We had one very nice meeting with a travel agency up in New Jersey, where the entire team stopped everything to hear our spiel, and we had a set of pretty positive meetings with people from Travel & Leisure and Bon Appétit magazines. We also had less promising meetings with Condé Nast Traveler (the editor who promised to see us was a no-show so we met instead with a completely uninterested minion) and at Food & Wine we also missed out on the editor, though the person we did meet with could turn out to be a useful contact. Our last meeting in the US was with a travel agency that we’ve met on our two previous visits, but they never seem that interested in us, even though their partner agencies in Chicago and LA both were extremely energised about Oamaru as a good option for their itineraries after our meetings with them.

Of course, we were not only here for meetings, we also did a tiny bit of shopping at our favourite kitchenware store, JB Prince, and our favourite spice shop, Kalustyan’s, though we were held back by our fear of overloading our bags for our upcoming flights. We also made a quick visit to my old college, Columbia University, for a little walk through the campus and a visit to the bookstore to pick up a hat to wear in Burma later on the trip.

Tomorrow we depart at 7:40am for London where we’ll spend the next three nights before heading off for a bit of a drive through provincial England hitting up some more NZ specialist travel agencies, so our next post will be from somewhere over there!

Posted by: JLG | 10 July 2014

Connecticut and Boston

The morning after arriving in NY I woke up before anyone else (and after only about 5 hours of sleep…) and headed out to get provisions for breakfast–bagels, herring in cream sauce, Nova Scotia salmon and cream cheese–and brought them back for my mom and J2 to enjoy (me, too, of course). I somehow was still home before anyone else was awake, even my mom, who, when she did wake up, told me that she had woken every two hours all night long to see if we had arrived, but on seeing no suitcases in the hall assumed we had not (of course she had no way to know that we had no luggage or that we had brought her house key).

After breakfast, and arranging for United Airlines to look for, and then deliver, our suitcases to my sister’s place in Connecticut, J2 and I headed off to spend the July 4 weekend with my sister and niece. Traffic was light and we made it there in great time, arriving just in time for lunch, and for the rain to begin. The whole rest of the day was spent hunkering down at her house, since it was frankly too wet to do much outside, and J2 and I had only shorts to wear and it had got a bit too chilly for them.

We spent our time with my family in the usual fashion–shopping at the outlet shops (J2 found a shirt for just $15 that was originally $100) and eating. Even in the rain, my lovely niece persevered and cooked the traditional July 4 hamburgers and hotdogs outside on the BBQ (though we ate them inside). We did have one business thing to do–our USA driver’s licenses are from Connecticut and were due to expire this year, so we went to renew them first thing in the morning on Saturday. Happily for us, there was no queue at all, and we got them quickly. Unhappily for me, since I do not travel with my Social Security card (who does??) I could not get a “gold star” on my license, indicating that it can be used as identification when boarding a US domestic flight; J2, on the other hand, does carry his SocSec card so he is a gold star driver (never mind that he never, ever, drives).

With the much nicer weather on the 5th, we had an al fresco dinner of lobsters, grilled littleneck clams, corn on the cob and brownies (it does not get much more American than that!), and on the 6th my niece put together an outstanding dinner of smoked pork spareribs and chicken wings that she made in her Big Green Egg. That dinner was the occasion for celebrating my 50th birthday a few weeks early, and the gift she “got” me, was a real classic, one that elicited exactly the response it warranted from me.

On our last night in Connecticut we learned that my niece and her partner had begun a jigsaw some time before, and had only got so far as solving the frame. J2 and I love jigsaws, so we got to work, and wouldn’t you know, by the next morning when it was time for us to leave, we had almost finished it! Maybe we need to start keeping a jigsaw going at the lodge…

On Monday morning we left Connecticut for the drive up to the Boston area, about 2 hours away. There we stayed with my dear friends Cindy and Paul and their sons, Nicholas and Xander. It’s always a great treat to stay with them, and not because I can rely on Cindy to prepare a stupendous meal–though that’s a nice side benefit. Just like with Connie and Ken, and Abdo and Barbara, we are always able to resume where we left off, no matter how much time passed between visits.

After an all-too-short visit with our friends, and a fantastic dinner of more lobster, steamer clams and corn, and of course Cindy’s world-famous flan, we had to leave early in the morning of Tuesday to get to our Boston meetings. Driving in Boston during rush hour is no one’s idea of fun, but we managed to get into town just in the nick of time, parking our car near where our second meeting would be, in the North End, and taking the T to our first meeting, in the Back Bay. The meetings went well, so it was worth our effort to get up here, but the real payoff was in the lunch we had at a little hole in the wall (almost literally) in the North End.

If you’re not familiar with Boston, the North End was the historic “Little Italy” of Boston, and loads of Italian restaurants and shops still dot the streets. We had thought we’d eat at a place called “Il Panino”, at Cindy’s recommendation, but when we got there it turned out not to be a panino place but a proper restaurant, which was more than we wanted to eat. Luckily for us, the guy at the front desk of Il Panino was only too happy to recommend a place that he likes for a panino, so we went there, a small place called Bricco down a tiny little alley. There we ordered two sandwiches that turned out to be so enormous that really we could have managed sharing just one, but we liked them so much that we agreed that it was worth it having a whole sandwich each. We made further use of being in the area by buying some canolli and a sfogliatelle to take home to NYC for my mom and us to enjoy.

With that taken care of we headed back toward NYC, making a quick pit stop in Connecticut to say goodbye to my sister. We timed our departure perfectly, and were slated to arrive at my mom’s by around 5:30pm, until just after we exited the highway to head toward the Whitestone Bridge and our rental car crapped out on us! The car, a Jeep Compass, had never been terribly good, especially in comparison with the great Volvo we had in Seattle, or even the very nice Chevy we had from Virginia to NYC, but I didn’t actually expect it to die on us. The instruction manual said that when the light that came on on the dashboard comes on, that you are not to drive the vehicle any longer, since it is terribly unsafe to do so. So I phoned Budget Rent-a-Car and told them this, and they instructed me to drive the car to the next exit and park on a side street so the wrecker could come to collect it and deliver a new car to us. Fortunately for us, the car was able to restart, and I could limp in it to a very nearby exit and sit and wait.

My first thought as we proceeded to wait 2 hours for the car to be exchanged was, “where the hell are we, and are we safe sitting in a car that won’t move here for two hours?” But the neighbourhood seemed safe enough, so I gave it no further thought. Then I wondered, “won’t the neighbourhood residents phone in the presence of two men in a strange car just sitting there for two hours to the police?” When a cop car came by, we both straightened up as though we needed to look as innocuous and blameless as possible, but he paid us no attention.

The replacement car arrived at 7pm, just two hours after we called the situation in to the rental car company. The new car is to the old car as a perfectly prepared chateaubriand with truffle sauce and pan-roasted potatoes is to a Jeep. Why couldn’t they have given us one of these from the get-go? It has comfortable seats, several USB ports, a very comprehensive entertainment system etc etc etc. I will never accept a Jeep again!!

To treat ourselves after our ordeal, we made a booking for dinner at an Italian restaurant that Yelp users seemed to think highly of that was not too far from my mom’s place. Sure enough, it turned out to be fantastic, though there was one fly in the ointment–I managed to break a tooth on a piece of their homemade bread! The piece is not too big, and it did not expose a nerve, so I hope I can wait until I get home to get it tended to, or perhaps until we get to London, where we’ll be staying with a dentist friend…

 

Posted by: JLG | 6 July 2014

From DC to NY

On our previous trips to the US from NZ, we made a practice of hiring a car in DC and driving it to NY, giving us a chance to stop in Philadelphia along the way to see some important travel agencies. This time we decided that those meetings were not necessary, so we opted to fly instead. Of course, when we made that decision we had not considered the fact that we would be charged $25 per bag to check them in on the flight, but still, we were rather happy not to have to make the 4-hour drive, especially since it was going to be on 3 July, the day before a major national holiday and three-day weekend.

On the day before we were to fly, I contacted United to see if perhaps we could get on an earlier flight, since our flight had been changed since the time we booked the tickets way back in January from an 11am departure to a 2:30pm departure, putting us into NYC just in time to hit rush hour. The helpful agent was able to put us on a 1pm flight, and even put us on a larger plane (instead of the small commuter jet we were going to be on), and even got us to fly out of the more convenient National Airport instead of Dulles, and didn’t even charge us for the change, which we thought was fantastic. But after a few hours I had not received an email confirmation so I phoned back, and this time the agent told me that the first agent had not received confirmation for that change, so we were in fact not on the 1pm flight after all (which in any event had been cancelled for some reason). We had lost our 2:20pm flight, too, so we would now be flying out of Dulles on a commuter plane at 3pm. Oh, well, what can you do?

So we went to the airport and checked in for our flight at around 1pm, and just as we did so I received an automated text message from United advising me that our flight had been delayed until 5:40pm. When asked, the agent said that that was merely a precaution due to the impending hurricane, and that as far as her information told her, our flight was on time. I mentioned to her the kerfuffle with the flight booking, and asked if she could waive the baggage charges, which she did! Kaching!! So we went through security and went to the gate and proceeded to wait. And wait. Since at around 10 minutes before we were to board the flight, it was announced that the flight would be delayed till 4pm, and then at 4pm they announced we were delayed until 5pm. Finally, at 4:30pm, they announced that the flight had been cancelled, and told the passengers that we should proceed to one of two customer service desks to be rebooked, or alternatively we could go to the United website or phone their service number. We opted to walk to the further of the two desks while at the same time phoning the service number, to see which one would get to us first.

As it happened, we got through to the phone agent just as we arrived at the very very long queue for customer service. The phone agent told us that we had been rebooked onto a 9:50pm flight, but I doubted that the flight would go, since so many flights were being cancelled and the storm was only getting closer. but the agent told us that if we opted not to fly we would have to join the queue to get our checked bags returned to us. So that’s what we did, and after waiting a bit more than two hours we were finally close enough to the front that I decided to go to the computerised terminals that they have there for people to rebook themselves. When I did so, I could see that there was no option for us to take an early morning flight on the 4th, since all flights that day were either cancelled or full, and even on the 5th, the only flight available for us was the one at 9:50pm, which I thought was awfully coincidental… So I went to see what flight we were booked on and saw that it was at 9:50pm…on 5 July, more than 48 hours later!! Unfortunately, it took a further hour to reach the head of the line, and when we did, the agent told us that we’d be better off driving, a conclusion we had already come to, especially since a nice young Chinese lady had gone up the line asking for anyone to share a car with her, which we agreed to do. The agent then told us that if we had decided that earlier, we could have avoided the line and gone straight to baggage claim for them to get our bags for us. That was the first point at which I lost my cool, since this was completely at odds with what we had been told on the phone. The Chinese girl even suggested to the agent that she should perhaps announce the news that there was no need to wait in the line if people wanted their bags back, since no one knew that, but the agent said it was not her job.

So we headed to the baggage claim area to get the bags, a process that we were told could take 2-3 hours (please note, it was already 7:45pm). When we got there, the baggage agent told us that there was no sense in waiting, since it could take 1-2 hours (???) to get the bags, and after all it would be so much easier just to have them delivered to us later on. With that plan in place, we made our way to Budget Rent-a-Car to pick up our one-way rental (value: $180) so we could drive to New York. By the time we left the airport it was 8:40pm, and neither J2 nor I had had anything to eat since brunch, so we made a pit stop at one of the roadside rest stops for a truly dreadful Nathan’s hotdog that had been sitting there all day long and no coffee, since the new managers of the Maryland rest stops no longer have the Starbucks contract.

One advantage of our being so late was that there was no traffic whatsoever, and we made good time to NYC, arriving at our Chinese friend’s hotel at 1am. Since we had to pick up the car we had reserved at LaGuardia by 7am or risk losing the very good rate we had got (and Budget would not consider letting us pick up an equivalent car in DC and keep it till we go to London on the 12th, since that would be a one-way booking…), we headed to LaGuardia to turn in the car we picked up at Dulles and exchange it for the NYC car, which oddly enough had Virginia plates. Whatever.

We got to my mother’s apartment at 2am, and the last thing I wanted to do was to wake her up to let us in, but as luck would have it, I had had the presence of mind to put her apartment keys in my carry-on bag, so I was able to let ourselves in and go straight to bed. What a day!!

Posted by: JLG | 5 July 2014

James and I Split Up in DC

After leaving Chicago, our next stop was Washington, DC, the first stop on this trip where we both have a number of friends and a significant history so we were really looking forward to getting here. On arrival at National Airport we picked up our car and made a bee-line for Tysons Corner Center, a big shopping centre near where J2 grew up. The reason for the visit was to take his laptop in to Microsoft for repair, something that we put off until arriving in DC since we needed a few days to accomplish the upgrade he wanted to do. I took the opportunity to look at–and even to purchase–a replacement laptop for my PC back in NZ, getting a newly released Surface Pro 3 (“the tablet that acts like a laptop”), on which I am writing this post now! J2 left me at the Microsoft store taking care of his computer while he headed off to go “glamping” with a friend of his out at Bull Run. (That’s the reason for this entry’s subject line, which I suppose may be a bit misleading to some.) When I finally was able to leave the mall, I thought I had some time before I could go to my friends’ place where we’d be staying, so I killed time at the Tesla dealer, strategically located smack dab in the mall next to Microsoft. What an amazing car that is, and if it was available in NZ, or in 220V, or with right-hand drive I bet I’d have bought one.

My friends, it turns out, were waiting for me for some time (I had forgotten that government workers kick off at the spot of 5pm…) so we rendezvoused at a restaurant that they had selected for dinner, a very good Thai place that was recommended by Tyler Cowen, the guru of authentic ethnic food in the DC area. Sure enough the meal was excellent, and on the way out we saw that Tyler Cowen himself was sitting at the next table!!

I had a few days to myself before J2 came back from his camping, so I occupied myself with some shopping and seeing some of my friends, including the old Chowhounds contingent for lunch at a Burmese place that we have always loved (Myanmar). Lunch was great, of course, and so was catching up with these friends. J2 returned from his outing on Sunday and we got back to our regularly scheduled programming of meetings and get-togethers with friends. The meetings went very well, especially the one with National Geographic Traveller, where the cities editor seemed to think that Oamaru sounds like an interesting topic for an article or more (and in an example of fortuitous timing, I read an interview with the Russian National Geographic people who visited us just after the meeting, which I forwarded to the US team to help cement the idea of writing about us).

On our last full day in DC we went with Connie to the National Mall to see the Smithsonian Folk-Life Festival, which this year was showcasing China and Kenya. This festival has been going on since 1967, but when I lived in DC I hardly ever visited, and this visit proved why–it’s really more geared toward children and tourists than to DC-types, plus it takes place during the hottest time of the year. When we were there it was well over 35 degrees and very humid, so we were wilting just after getting there (but at least we managed to find free parking!).

It’s always great to visit the DC area, primarily because of the great friends we have there. We were very fortunate to be able to reunite with so many friends, including several of J2’s friends from childhood, and a lot of my classmates from both college and grad school, and even our dear friends Abdo and Barbara, with whom we’ll travel to Burma later on this trip. Thanks to everyone for coming out to see us, and sorry to all of those whom we missed!

Meal report: Elephant Jumps (Thai); Myanmar (Burmese); Chutzpah (Deli); Barcelona (Spanish); Yoshi Sushi (Japanese); Five Guys (Burger); Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot (Sichuan); District Taco (Mexican); Nick’s Diner (American).

Posted by: JLG | 4 July 2014

Chicago

Chicago deserves a post of its own, not because of how long we stayed here (just two days) but because of how much we enjoyed it. I have been to Chicago a number of times, the first when I was around 7 years old and accompanied my parents to the lighting show at the Chicago Merchandise Mart. Apparently, I got so incredibly bored sitting around my dad’s showroom with nothing to do that I told one of the salesmen that I was going to go visit the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and would return later on. Secure that my folks knew where I was, I headed off, taking a bus to the museum, enjoying a tour of the museum’s exhibits, and returning to the Merchandise Mart a few hours later to find my parents completely freaking out that I had disappeared without a trace (the salesman had forgotten to tell my parents where I was). I didn’t go back for many years, but on my subsequent visits I had a chance to see a bit more of the city each time, and each time I come back thinking how much I enjoy the place. (That feeling is a bit less strong after wintertime visits, which is probably why I never considered moving there.)

We arrived in Chicago in the mid-afternoon and took the L to Bucktown to where we’d be staying with our friend Jennifer and her new husband, Darren. They have an extraordinary house, quite unlike anything I have seen before. It’s a five-floor house in a very modern design, with beautiful wood and stone, and it even has an elevator. Jennifer had left us a little platter of salami and cheese, together with a bottle of wine, in the fridge (which we would never have found had she not helpfully put a post-it note on the door of the fridge, which blended in with the decor of the kitchen seamlessly). Even so, we decided to venture out for a bite to eat at a place recommended by the son of one of my Chowhound buddies, who highly recommended a taco and whiskey place called Big Star, conveniently located a short walk away. Now, we had had a few tacos in California at places that came highly recommended, but this place left them all in the dust!! The tacos were absolutely amazing, and really cheap (as was everyplace we went in Chicago), and they have a huge range of beers and whiskies, too (which we did not sample).

Our meetings in Chicago went, I dare say, even better than those on the West Coast. One meeting was a bit of a dud, since the people we met had never been to NZ and are a bit too generally-focussed to be likely to bring us much business, but the other two were both excellent, especially since one of them asked us to write up a three-night itinerary for their clients to come to Pen-y-bryn and really delve into the region. We also met with a former employee of that agency over lunch, who now does very bespoke itineraries for her clients, so that could suit us very well, too.

Chicago was not without its bad signs too, so to speak. This was the first place where we encountered signs on businesses’ doors that resembled no smoking signs, but instead of a cigarette the thing being prohibited was a gun. Not sure what to make of that…

Meal records: Big Star (twice!), Lillie’s Q, Ikram Cafe.

 

Posted by: JLG | 4 July 2014

US West Coast

After we left cool and drizzly Vancouver, we arrived in cool and drizzly Seattle, our first stop in the USA. Our plan to avoid the queues at immigration and customs worked like a charm, since all those US arrival procedures took place in Vancouver, so we streamed through Sea-Tac airport in no time at all. On arriving at the car rental stand we were very pleased to learn that we had the opportunity to upgrade for just $10 a day (from our $25 a day el-cheapo car) to a brand-new Volvo S60 sports sedan, so of course I leapt at it. What a sweet car that was, and what a contrast with the Avis jalopy that we got–for NZ$115 a day–on our first visit to New Zealand in 2010!

In Seattle we stayed at the home of my last Chinese teacher, Anna, and her Australian husband, Brad. It was great to see them again, and reconnect after a few years, and I gave Brad some gentle ribbing about being from the land of the underarm bowling incident of 1981 (something I know about because of the weekly quiz). We only had a handful of meetings in Seattle after all, so our first day in town was spent doing some shopping at the premium outlet mall north of town, stocking up on such hard-to-find-in-NZ items like decent socks, underwear and shoes that don’t cost a fortune. Of course, by the time you factor in the cost of shipping these things back to NZ the pricing probably comes close to parity, but you sure don’t find the variety of goods in NZ that you do in the US. We also paid a visit to the Pikes Place Market, where I had my first-ever taste of a bhut jolokia, until recently the hottest chilli in the world. I can attest that it is indeed very hot, but it also has a very nice flavour, so we have ordered seeds to try to grow them in Oamaru.

Our meetings in town went well, with the agents confirming that forward bookings are looking good from the US and that NZ remains a hot destination, and that the high-end is still looking for unspoiled destinations that are still somewhat “undiscovered”, so Oamaru seems well positioned.

Meal-wise, we very much enjoyed a lunch at Mario Batali’s father’s place in a grimy corner of Seattle, where he serves Italian-style cured meat sandwiches. It’s called Salume, and when we got there the line stretched quite a way out the door, and got considerably longer as we waited to be served. Happily, the sandwiches lived up to their promise! We also were surprised to find the best bagels I have had in a very long time at a small place called Blazing Bagels in Redmond (though they have several other locations). Not only were the bagels of the perfect consistency–not too dense, and not too fluffy–but they also had a tremendous range of flavours, including “everything pumpernickel”, which solved for us the perennial problem of reconciling our preference for pumpernickel dough but also wanting “everything” toppings (which comprise poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic flakes, onion flakes, salt etc, for those of my readers who are not au fait with bagel terminology). And for Abdo, they even have blueberry bagels, but we left those unsampled, as God intends.

From Seattle we flew south to Los Angeles, where we finally encountered sun and warmth! Here we imposed on the hospitality of a very close friend from college, Kristin, whose home in Santa Monica serves as a flophouse of sorts for new-to-the-film-industry types whom she knows through her vast network of contacts. So, in addition to us, there was a kid from nearby who uses the upstairs office to develop his animation reel to get started in the industry, as well as a kid from Colorado who is interning for the summer at an advertising agency. These kids also help look after Moose, the rescue pit bull that Kris adopted after her beloved poodle died in 2012.

Our meeting schedule in LA was much busier than in Vancouver and Seattle, so we were shuttling all over the place to get from one meeting to another, including a stop at the Americas office of Tourism New Zealand, who were very helpful as we went about setting up these meetings before we left NZ. We also made a quick trip to San Diego to see two agencies based down there, staying overnight at Kris’ parents’ place. We also prepared a dinner for Kristin, her mom, and her friend Kim, since Kristin has long been seeing photos of our food on Facebook and hasn’t eaten my cooking in years. I think it turned out pretty well.

Our Dinner Menu

Our Dinner Menu

One thing that we observed while visiting the west coast was the preponderance of electric vehicles in the area, especially the very beautiful Tesla, which we had never seen before. We are very encouraged that these less polluting vehicles seem to be establishing a base in the US, and hope that they will make it to NZ before too long!

West Coast Meal report:

Seattle: Salume, Blazing Bagels (three times!), Bamboo Garden, Bellevue Brewing Company.

Los Angeles/San Diego: Tlapazola Grill, Paco’s Tacos, Langer’s, In-n-Out Burger (of course), Hikari Sake House.

Posted by: JLG | 29 June 2014

Back in the USA (I mean Canada)

During lunch today with some of my Chowhound buddies in DC I was reminded that I have been neglecting this poor blog of late. I apologise for this oversight, and will try to make amends over the coming weeks during our travels away from New Zealand.

You may recall that during our first two winters since moving to NZ we made trips to the northern hemisphere to promote the lodge to travel agents, recharge our batteries and escape the cold. Last winter, while we were manoeuvring the NZ immigration system and remodelling two guest bathrooms, we opted not to travel, so this time around we are two years out of date with our North American information and are even more like deer in the headlights with some of the things that are either new to us or just a bit of a change from our quotidian life in small-town New Zealand.

Our first stop on this trip was Vancouver. The main reason for opting to go to Vancouver first was a desire to avoid flying into LAX and having to go through customs there, and since our other main West Coast destination was Seattle–which has no flights from Auckland–we figured we’d throw Canada into the mix and ease our re-entry into North America a bit. For some reason we expected the AKL-YVR flight to be not too full, or at least comparable to the USA flights they run, but in fact the plane was chock full, and since we were flying in economy, it was the most uncomfortable flying experience I can remember having. The 13 hours somehow passed though, and we arrived in Vancouver before we departed Christchurch, some 18 hours earlier.

As we made our way from the plane to the immigration process we were shocked to find an extraordinarily long queue snaking through the airport. The queue was so long, in fact, that there was one queue just to join the actual queue! And then, in defiance of Canada’s reputation for straightforwardness, at the front of the queue it became unclear whether all of us were in one long queue waiting for the next available officer, or if instead we were supposed to pick which officer we wanted to wait for and queue in front of him or her. It was chaos. But once we got through that ordeal, and got our bags, we had to queue again with our luggage to proceed through customs, which was a more sensible process, though again very slow-moving.

Eventually we made it to Vancouver, a city I had never visited before, and reached our place for the night, a small apartment in downtown Vancouver that we found through Airbnb. This was my first time using Airbnb, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be lovely, with a nice host who had a huge English mastiff (Hugo) who barely took notice of us. The dog was so big, and the apartment so small, though, that the poor dog was forever backing up to get from one room to another.

Since it was only 4pm when we got there, and we were determined not to let ourselves fall asleep at an unreasonable hour, we took ourselves out on a walk to explore the city. I had long looked forward to visiting Vancouver, but I have to say that it ended up being a disappointment. It’s basically just a tidier version of Seattle, with fewer homeless people (though they are still present) and QEII on the currency. We walked through Chinatown (meh) and Gastown (meh) and picked a random little pub for a beer before dinner at a random restaurant chosen because it has the same name as a place near Oamaru. Both the pub and the restaurant were pretty good, though the poutine that accompanied one of our main courses–the first I had ever tried–made me wonder what all the fuss about this dish is. It’s just french fried potatoes with cheese and gravy. Big whoop.

We set ourselves up to have a weekend in Vancouver before our meeting in the city, so we spent Saturday wandering around the large and interesting Granville Island Public Market, which we enjoyed, taking a little ferry from downtown to the island. The market is certainly extensive, and full of beautiful foods, but we neither wanted to eat too much or buy anything to have to carry with us on our world-wide trip, so it was purely a photographic and observational visit. One highlight of the visit was a stop at Liberty Distillery, where they make vodka, gin and whiskey that you can sample in their little tasting room in front of the distillery. This place is tailor-made to be set up in Oamaru, so we took loads of photos and peppered the guy behind the bar with questions to relay to anyone back in NZ who’d like to replicate the idea.

The rest of our weekend was filled with roaming aimlessly and trying to keep ourselves occupied. The weather was nothing great–in fact it was comparable to what we had left behind in wintertime Oamaru–so we were not overly interested in spending time outside. But on the Sunday we did have a bit of sunshine just as we hit a festival to promote a day of carlessness, at which we signed up for a free year-long membership with Zipcar (irony?).

For those of you interested in where we dined in Vancouver, here’s the list:

Cafe Brixton, The Flying Pig, Go Fish (Taco), Guu with Garlic, Dinesty, Red Chicken.

Here are some highlights of the Vancouver leg of the trip:

Posted by: JLG | 11 May 2014

Judging another Cooking Competition

A few weeks back I was asked if I would judge a cooking competition that was to take place in Timaru on 10 May. I was also asked if Ashley, my sous chef, would like to enter some of the categories, and both of us said yes. Ashley entered two “classes”, a “hot presented cold (HPC)” class comprising an entrée and main course that are judged solely on appearance, and a “chocolate fantasy” class where she had to prepare a dessert consisting of no less than 70% chocolate. She was also going to enter a live competition but in the end was not able to get time off from her other job, and had to drop it. I’m pleased to report that she won a silver medal in the HPC class, getting the highest score, and that while her chocolate entry was very good, she unfortunately did not get a medal in it.

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As for me, I was asked to judge two classes, both live. The first one, at 9am, was a cooking class, where the entrants had one hour to prepare a pork dish. I was both a kitchen judge and a tasting judge, so I was to wear chef whites including a toque. Having never worn a toque before I was unsure how they worked, but it turned out they are one size fits all, and are stapled together to suit each particular head. I cannot say that toques particularly suit me, but I did take one photo just to satisfy your curiosity:

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There were four entrants in the pork class, three who are students, and one who is working in a restaurant in Christchurch. It was immediately obvious that the restaurant chef had a lot more experience in the kitchen–he was more orderly, methodical and somewhat less wasteful than the other chefs, he used his knives more deftly, and his menu looked a bit more thought-out. Unfortunately for him, one of the rules was that when time runs out the chefs have to have all their plates off the bench and he didn’t manage it so we could not taste his dishes. One of the other dishes was so raw that we opted not to taste that one, either, so that left just two to taste and score. It was very interesting scoring them, since there were a slew of things in the kitchen I didn’t pay enough attention to. For one thing, it’s worth a demerit if you leave your knife on the cutting board (I don’t know why), or if you waste anything more than necessary. As a result, my scores were a bit generous, so I had to reconsider a bit in the course of our judges’ deliberation. On the taste front, we were all pretty much equal in our scoring, though, and in the end only one of the two that we scored merited a medal (a bronze). In case you’re curious, here’s what the dishes looked like:

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Later I was supposed to taste-judge a secondary school class, where the kids were supposed to cook a leek entrée and a lamb main. In the end, I was pulled off of that and instead went to kitchen and taste-judge an adult class, where they were producing lamb dishes. This one had seven competitors, one of them a working chef from the same restaurant as the one from the pork class. Again, she was very methodical, especially in comparison with some of the others, who were all over the place. Since I had learned a bit from the first class, I was a lot tougher on these entrants, and when it came time to deliberate I actually had to come up a few points on some of them. Again, the professional chef did not manage to get her plates off the bench on time (she had three of them, but not the fourth) so we could not taste her dishes. We ended up awarding two bronze medals, but nothing else. Perhaps you can see why from the photos:

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If there was one thing I got out of the experience, other than learning to be more critical of others (LOL) it was a little bit more confidence in my own abilities in the kitchen. Also, I really enjoyed being called “chef” by everyone who saw me walking around the campus where the competition took place. I think I may make people call me that in general from now on.

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