391

Spain: El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

My husband is an avid train traveller. If he were given modes of transport to choose from, the train wins, hands down. Having said that, given that our kids have just flown the coop, our wanderlust came to surface as we discovered the appeal of having the freedom and time to travel ‘at a drop of a hat’. We decided it was time to resume our nomadic lifestyle while we can, albeit in comfort. So, in the spirit of celebrating our empty nest status, I set about searching for train travels known for luxury and gastronomy. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, great food and wine were essentials and the entire travel experience had to be decadent. This was after all a celebration of some kind, our rationale for having survived parenthood.

Finding a list of famous luxury train travel was relatively easy. My Google search brought me to the International Railway Society’s website  which in 2011 was actively promoting FEVE’s recently launched luxury train trip across northern Spain. Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, is a state-owned Spanish railway company that controls most of Spain’s 1,250 km of metre gauge railway. It operates three tourist trains in Spain, one of which is the El Transcantábrico Classico. At the time, it was Spain’s answer to the luxury train trips of the world, providing train travellers an experience that evokes the same nostalgia of the fabled Orient Express, the exotic ambience of the Trans- Siberian rail and the romance of other notable deluxe trains of the world.
El Transcantabrico-Gran Lujo

Twenty seven years later, FEVE went one step further and in May 2011, launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo, an exclusive, grand luxury train designed to satisfy the demands of the most discerning train traveller. “Gran Lujo” is Spanish for Grand Luxury and FEVE conceived of a special train that will live up to its name which it has. In 2012, El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was named the “most luxurious train” in the world along with the Blue Train of South Africa.

Having decided on  El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo , we set off for Spain with great anticipation, imagining a Spanish version of train legends like the Orient express. Mind you, I stress the word imagine as we haven’t experienced the renowned Orient express either.Mapas Rutas El Transcantabrico

For various reasons, we opted for the west to east route that started from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia all the way to San Sebastian in the Basque region. The journey was to be over a period of seven nights and eight days.

Our tour group was told to assemble at the famed Parador Los Reyes Catolicos, located in the Plaza do Obradoiro in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, right next to its equally celebrated Cathedral of Saint James. We met our fellow train travellers for a group briefing at the lobby of the hotel, the best of Spain’s paradores. Paradors are government-sponsored hotels in buildings of important cultural and historical interest.

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

After the briefing and a tour of the town centre and its attraction, we were transported by luxury coach from Santiago de Compostela to the train station in Ferrol where El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was on the narrow track ready to take us on our trip of a lifetime. We were greeted by the crew assembled on the platform alongside the train, resplendent in their gold-trimmed uniforms and black bow ties. It was indeed an impressive way to be welcomed and certainly set the tone for our five- star experience!
cama matrominio suite gran lujo

But nothing prepared us for the experience that was the train itself .To say that El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo is the gem of the FEVE train fleet is an understatement. With only fourteen double suites (two compartments in a carriage, thus one suite occupying half the carriage); this exclusive train can accommodate an intimate group of twenty-eight people. Each large suite is wood panelled, air conditioned, fitted with a queen bed or two twin beds, a living room, large windows, and a private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Each passenger is provided with amenity kits of a full range of high-end toiletry brands and bathroom accessories such as a hair dryer and bathrobes. It also features private PC with Internet access, flat screen TVs with on-demand movies, and games console. Although, I should add that the Internet access seems dependent on where the train is travelling and in most cases, only works when the train pulls in a station.

Here’s a brief rundown of how the days unfolded during the eight-day journey. Passengers started with a full breakfast on board while the train chugged along the track. Soon after, the train stopped at the chosen historic and cultural site where, at the station, the luxury bus that surreptitiously tailed the train overnight met the travellers for a guided tour. This was followed by a multi- course lunch (usually three courses) at the operator’s chosen local restaurant of repute and then back to the train for a little siesta, or a drink or two at the train bar. Soon after, the train stopped again at the next destination where once more, the luxury bus took over to ferry passengers for a tour on the bus and on foot to attractions not accessible by bus. The day culminated with a multi -course dinner, needless to say, at a fabulous local restaurant. Finally, passengers were taken back to the train where entertainment was provided and more drinks at the lounge bar which was also some hybrid club and then, bedtime for most; but the adventurous also were given the choice to savour the town’s nightlife and make the most of the train’s overnight stop. As you can imagine, a full day with so much food to sample could cause digestive discomfort, which could lead to wakefulness, or worse, sleepless nights. Under normal circumstances, getting a good night’s sleep was not a worry at all.When I told a friend we were going to vacation in Northern Spain on a train, she was horrified with the thought of sleepless nights disturbed by the swaying and noise created by a rattling locomotive. With El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, this was not going to be the case. Each night, the train would remain stationary at the railway station to allow passengers a peaceful night’s sleep. I thought that this was paramount.

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

A word to the wise from me: If you are an obsessive weight watcher, you will find it difficult to resist the tempting cuisine. You’ll either have to miss out on the gastronomic delights or ditch the diet! Dieting is definitely not an option!

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

Another key point to note is with so much history and culture to take in, a tour guide can make or break an otherwise exceptional tour. With El Transcantábrico’s tour expert who spoke five languages fluently communication was not an issue. The guide’s every utterance about the facts, history and trivia of the places we explored made the tour one that wasn’t only fabulous but highly educational and entertaining.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain)

Available through online retailers: Barnes & Noble and Google Books

USA

Discovering Gods country by train boat plane and an awesome road trip

A person who is fond of France, or has a great affinity to things French is called a Francophile. So what does one call a person who loves the USA and everything Americana? Perhaps a word has not yet been officially coined but it seems that Yankeephile or Yancophile followed by Americanophile are the top most Google searched word for this.

Regardless of what is acceptable, either one of these words is what I would call my husband. His fondness for America,this beautiful and vast country started when as a child, he lived in San Francisco with his parents and spent considerable time with the locals. Since then over the years, trips to the West Coast of America to visit relatives and friends or feeble excuses of ‘business trips’ to New York were not unheard of. His interest in America centres on food; specifically ribs and cherry pie. And there is also the quintessential 50’s icon… ‘Elvis the king’ and his music. Among many other things are his obsession of American cars, with America’s luxury car the Cadillac (caddy for short) and Mustang heading the list.

Soon after our sons ‘flew the coop’, we decided to re-visit our list of globe trotting adventures. Between us, the joke was to do as much as we possibly can… while we can. Getting into the spirit of travel, the ‘inner foodie’ in us also wanted to infuse our intended nomadic adventures with food… to taste and eat our way through every destination we visit, so to speak. And so, when Qantas announced the launch of their non-stop Sydney to Dallas route which is a 13, 804 km distance between Sydney and Dallas Fort Worth, and almost 16-hours of non stop flying, we were tempted. Despite the fact that this route is considered to be the world’s longest flying distance, landing somewhere near the centre of America was appealing in the sense that Dallas was going to be an efficient connecting point to any part of the United Sates. Yankeephile won over common sense and the distance didn’t deter us from taking advantage of the specials Qantas had on offer. With no particular American destination in mind we booked our Qantas return tickets allowing a month to explore good ole United States of America.

How do we fill in a month in the heart of America? Well, considering Dallas Fort Worth is the major hub for American Airlines we figured connecting to many destinations within the USA was not going to be a problem. Furthermore, if flying in and out of cities in America wasn’t going to work, there is always Amtrak, the passenger train service partially owned by the government with the (US) National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Having just experienced once more the fun of train travel across northern Spain, my husband, an avid train traveller wanted to try out America’s train service. Mindful of the decline in popularity and numbers of train travel in the USA since the latter part of the 20th century, (partially due to the car or auto cult that has taken over American’s mode of travel), we were curious about what Amtrak had to offer. We wanted to see America without worrying too much about speed limits and driving on ‘the other side’ of the road. Plus… the idea of zipping across various destinations by plane and having to go through the necessary stringent security controls at US airports turned us off plane travel within the USA completely.

Amtrak has over 500 destinations within 46 states in the USA and 3 provinces in Canada. It covers 34,000 km of track with 300 plus trains operating each day. Surely, with the time we have, we should be able to see more of America than we ever had during our past visits?

One service we always wanted to try is the California Zephyr between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California ( close to San Francisco). California Zephyr goes through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Utah and Nevada. Considered one of the prettiest and scenic Amtrak routes, it covers a total of 3,924 km as it goes through the plains and valleys of mid-America and climbs through the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevadas( also called Sierra Nevada). The scenery should be stunning to say the least.

Undaunted by the mixed feedback on Amtrak trains we sought the advice of Vacations by Rail USA, one of America’s train travel experts. Being looked after by Efi of Vacations by Rail made planning this trip so easy. Not only did she propose an itinerary that was adventurous and fun but it also allowed us to explore America at a very leisurely pace, in comfort and value for money. They call it a customised Amtrak Independent package. Vacations by Rail took over where Qantas left us at Dallas Forth Worth international airport. They booked all our hotels and train routes to make our first train adventure in America an experience to talk about and remember.

Amtrak

Jamón Ibérico

Food and Travel -The story of the Jamón Ibérico

San Sebastian

Food defines our travels…well almost. I mean, who doesn’t like tasting, savouring and indulging on food while getting to know a destination? In fact we think food and travel go hand in hand. Travel broadens the mind and food gives an insight to a country’s people. Food offers tantalising glimpses of its culture and history. To paraphrase a review on the book ‘Food is Culture’ by Massimo Montanari, everything there is about food embodies layers of different cultural significance of a place and its people. Food explores connections and is a unifier between what is eaten and through cross-cultural connections. It tells a great story of the evolution of a destination.
(Massimo Montanari is a Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University, and one of the world’s leading experts in Food studies)

Take Spain for instance. Historians say that life began as early as 32,000 years ago in the area we now known as Spain. Archaeological findings point to settlements on the Iberian Peninsula by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, while the Celts settled in the north as can still be seen in Galicia in northern Spain. In 218 BC the Romans came and shaped the culture and religion of Spain, its language and legal system. But then the Moors came along and banished the Christians. For nearly 800 years Hispania came under Muslim control. With the exception of northern Spain, Moorish Spain became known as Al-Andalus. Some historians consider this period a very interesting time inasmuch as they reason that the Moors (Arabs) added a layer of complexity to the Spanish culture. For example the much-loved Paella, one of Spain’s signature dishes is a Moorish legacy to Spain and the world. Rice, saffron and spices that dominate this ubiquitous Spanish dish tells a story of their occupation of Spain. We can also blame the Moors for the Spaniard’s sweet tooth considering the Arabs brought sugar to Spain and used in many of their dishes- not just for desserts but sugar is also evident in the confluence of savoury and sweet flavours in the same dish on some of their favoured meals such as escabeche or even the polvoron.

Christian Spain on the other hand also tells a tale of ham and pigs. It is common knowledge that Spain is the world’s largest producer and consumer of air-dried-cured ham. The Spaniards (per person) consume an average of five kilograms of cured ham per year. Now, that’s a lot of ham! Ham is so ingrained in the Spanish culture and daily meals that even a Spanish art-house film, an allegory for Spain itself and the many contrasts of Spain and the passionate Spaniards including their erotic desires and their reverence for food was given the title Jamón – Jamón. In the film, food was frequently used in puns and metaphors. I clearly recall the finale because of the bizarre twist with the male protagonists tangled in a duel using legs of ham for weapons.jamon iberico

The history of Spain is steeped in tradition and religion. The consumption of ham and pork has religious connotations too because during the Moorish period in Spain, there was a noticeable absence of ham and pork dishes as eating pork was prohibited because it was a religious taboo amongst the Moors. Then when the Christians regained control of Spain, the Muslims either had to convert to Christianity (and by inference, eat pork and ham I suppose) or flee. So, once again, pork regained its popularity and back in the menu. A very good reason for Spaniards to qualify as the world’s leading ham eater!

So you see, food does tell a very interesting story about a place, its people and culture. There are many more examples we can later discuss such as the fact that the French like to do their shopping daily, the regional flavours of Chinese food, the influence of food on people who have migrated to different countries…the list goes on and on.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at:  Barnes and Noble and Google Books

6088G

Montreal

Feature Image: Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and 1000 de La Gauchetière/ Downtown
Credit : © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin

It was the end of our sojourn in New York and time to depart for the ‘land at the top’. New York to Montreal is approximately 381 miles (613.6 km) and 11 hours on the train, not that far really. Ever since our first Amtrak train journey on the California Zephyr we had the Adirondack on our sights. Destination Montreal was the perfect excuse to board the Adirondack train from NYC Penn station, a daily service operated by Amtrak. Looking forward to simply taking our time to get to Montreal, we were content to take this 11 hour journey and indulge in the gradual change of scenery going north, along the Hudson River Valley to Albany and slowly up to Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, in the foothills of the Adirondack mountain range. Friends who have done this trip warned us of delays so we were pleasantly surprised it didn’t happen. However, we were somewhat disappointed that this much-touted scenic train route did not have the dramatic sceneries we saw while on the California Zephyr or the Rocky Mountaineer trains. Nevertheless, it was a delightful way to see the outskirts of New York and beyond plus the spectacular autumn foliage.

Montreal
Montreal
Montreal
Montreal

Montreal, the biggest city in Quebec province, certainly one of the most historic in North America, and the seat of bilingualism and culture in Canada was cold when we arrived in the evening. A sophisticated city juxtaposing distinct Franco features with Anglo characteristics, despite the rain and cold weather, Montreal stood with its bright lights, waiting to be explored.

I’ve always associated Montreal with the international jazz festival, Quebec French or Québécois French and the Québecoise (French-speaking native of Quebec) . The glorious food we have heard so much about at Au Pied de Cochon was another feature. Montreal is in fact more than these.

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Long before the Europeans settled in Montreal and Quebec, First Nations native people (aboriginal natives of Canada) the Hurons, Algonquins and Iroquois were its inhabitants. Sooner than later, seafaring European explorers reached the shores of eastern Canada. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier came across a large settlement, called the Hochelaga (it is an Iroquoian fortified village) on the St Lawrence River and Stadacona, another fortified Iroquoian village near present day Quebec City. In a few decades, French navigator Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post there, hence is credited for founding ‘New France’ and the French settlements.

As we know, the British began its colonisation of the ‘New World’ (the Americas) in 1607 and was considered a serious threat by the early French colonisers. Without delving into the various skirmishes and struggles for supremacy among the colonists during that era,the British won in 1673 and Canada was integrated into the British colonial system in North America. Despite the British rule, to this very day, colonial French influence is clearly stamped in Montreal’s culture, architecture and language.

As an avid Francophile myself, I was looking forward to hearing the charming and old-fashioned lilt of français québécois. It is said that it still sounds like the French language spoken 300 years ago apparently because when the British took Quebec, the French settlers were cut off from France and the French language used at the time, didn’t evolve to its modern day form.(Though written French and grammar is exactly the same as standard French). Despite British rule, French prevailed and is still widely spoken in Montreal with 56.9% of its population speaking French at home. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. In fact, French was named the official language of Quebec province after Bill 101 or the Charter of the French Language was passed in 1977.

We opted to stay in the historic and restored district of Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) for many reasons; one of them was its proximity to the cruise terminal on the Alexandra Pier (we were going to embark on the Seabourn Quest from Montreal for our Eastern Canada and New England, USA cruise). We chose to stay at Le Petit hotel, a hip and chic boutique hotel in a century old building. It came highly recommended and is well situated in the oldest street in Montreal, the Rue Saint Paul Ouest. This street is the heart of the art and food scene. Some of the buildings date back to the 17th century.

Old Montreal

Old Montreal, Credit : © Orlando G. Cerocchi

hotel

We didn’t waste time. After checking in, notwithstanding the light rain and freezing cold weather we walked down the cobbled stones of the narrow streets, to explore the food scene. We happened upon Bocata and Barroco restaurants.

Buzzing and lively, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Buzzing and lively, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Barroco Restaurants, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Barroco Restaurants, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the name suggests, we expected Italian food on the menu. We were pleasantly surprised however with the varied selection of modern fusion food and an extensive wine list, some served by the glass. It was crowded and having made no reservations, we sat right up at the bar and sampled various plates from the specials board and the menu. The restaurant had great ambience and a rustic décor but somehow managed to exude a very cool, funky feel, thanks to the trendy looking waiters and waitresses and young patrons. It was busy and vibrant. We enjoyed the whole experience so much we thought we would try another meal here before our departure.

Having no fixed itinerary nor a booked tour we planned to indulge our interest in architecture and visit some of the old buildings that date as far back as the 16th century as well as check out the other cultural attractions in Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal). The district is so compact, about one square km (or 0.4 square mile) that we thought we would explore it on foot. The original quarter (known as Ville Marie) is bordered by Rue Saint-Antoine, the St. Lawrence River, Rue Berri and Rue McGil and can be explored with ease within a day. A self-guided tour map can be obtained from the tourist bureau located at 174 Notre-Dame St. East – corner of Place Jacques-Cartie.
So, the next day, armed with this information and useful advice from the helpful hotel concierge, for our first ‘must see’, we set off to visit the square known as Place d’Armes and the Notre Dame Basilica.

This beautiful church, the Notre Dame, is for me one of the focal points in the neighbourhood. Architecture, craftsmanship, history and religious heritage are evident upon entering this big church. Designed after the Sainte-Chapelle church in Paris, this Gothic inspired revival features beautiful stained glass windows by Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé. Commissioned in 1929 for the Basilica’s centenary celebration, the windows depict the history of the early settlement of Ville Marie. The blue and gold colours dominating the altar and glass are stunning. The craftsmanship of the pulpit, statues and other pieces deserved closer inspection. We went back later in the evening to see the multimedia ‘Let there be light’ show, a brief history of the church and the settlement.

Basilica

We then headed east on Notre Dame Street for the next stop, which was the Place Jacques-Cartier. Wandering down, on the way, we stopped to admire the town hall, built between 1872 and 1878 in the ‘Second Empire ‘ style. Though it was a cold day, the walk was made interesting by the surrounding buildings and shops (art galleries caught our eye). On reaching Place Jacques Cartier we needed to quench our thirst and were feeling a bit peckish so we had a light lunch at one of the cafés, dining al fresco albeit, in the somewhat fresh weather. ‘People watching’ was called for. Just like most squares, Place Jacques-Cartier is the heart of the old district where locals and tourists hang out. The cobbled square is closed to traffic but made lively by various street performers, the flower market and other touristy shops. Before the ‘Place’ was built in 1804, the Château de Vaudreuil was located there. For many years, the Place Jacques-Cartier was used as a public market and was restored in 1998.

Artists' Row

Artists’ Row, Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Revived from our pit stop, we proceeded down towards the edge of the road and found Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market) at 350 rue Saint Paul. The Palladian style domed two-storey building was built in 1847 and was a public market for over 100 years. Specialty boutiques, art and craft shops and restaurants lure the tourists. An hour of browsing and a brief visit to the adjacent Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours(Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel – or Our Lady of Good Help) was next on the agenda. Walking further down towards Rue de la Commune, we could see the old port and the Pavilion Jacques Cartier.

We intended to have dinner at Au Pied de Cochon, (Address: 536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2L 1A9, Canada) which was highly recommended by my cousin (another foodie who lives in Toronto) but Dolcetto and Co nearby from our hotel looked so appealing with its nautical décor and scrumptious menu of light fare. An Italian bistro serving share plates and antipastos, the bar was well stocked and the service friendly and efficient. Anticipating 14 days of fine dining on board the Seabourn Quest in a couple of days, we thought we would go easy on our meals while in Montreal. My husband and I shared several small plates but the capresse è burrata, fig and foie gras flatbread stood out, washed with a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio. Delizioso (delicious)!

To market to market… Next on our list was the Marché Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon Market) at 7070, Henri-Julien St, south of Jean-Talon St in the Little Italy district. The next morning, we took the metro blue line toward Saint-Michel and got off at Jean-Talon station then walked a few yards heading west. (The compass app on my iPhone helped us get our bearings) We easily found one of Montréal’s farmers market. This market was opened in 1933 and is well patronised by the locals. It was crowded when we got there as this market has also become popular among tourists although it was not intended to be a tourist destination. In fact this is where chefs purchase their produce and ingredients. It is a covered market with a diverse selection of fresh produce, meat, fish fruit and vegetables. Merchants and vendors of cheese, bulk food, food stands, spices and imported goods are also found inside the covered area. Specialty shops such as La Boite Aux Huitres (seafood shop), Havre aux Glaces (ice cream and sorbet shop), Boulangerie Première Moisson (artisanal bakery with lots of delicious pastries and quiches on offer) make the market even more interesting. Having said that, what really caught our attention were the giant pumpkins on display for the Halloween pumpkin competition. As we were there in October jut a few weeks away from Halloween, the theme was evidently those of witches and ghouls, pumpkin lanterns that made the market all the more festive. After taking lots of photos, we purchased a variety of snack food of diverse origin and had those for lunch. There were in fact tables made available for people who wanted to eat their take out right there.Great way to soak in the ambience while tasting the influences of various ethnic groups that make up modern Montreal.

Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Markets
Jean-Talot

If food tells a story about a culture, its people and history, then one can indeed get a glimpse of Montreal’s interesting past right at the Jean Talon market. The French influence layered with the British is evident in the array of food and produce available. Canada’s immigrants from all over the world also take credit for the evolution of dishes with its layers and layers of complex tastes and ingredients. Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Spanish, middle eastern food…you name it, Montreal has it.

A good 3 hours later, we headed back to the subway and took the train for downtown to the Underground city, known to the locals as the RÉSO. Well not exactly true, as it is not a city underground because it is in actual fact a réseau (network) of multilevel tunnels and stairs connected to metro stations and sheltered pedestrian complex of shopping malls, offices, hotels, metro stations, concert halls. This city started from the interconnected tunnels of the subway system. Completed in 1966, it was really built to make shopping and getting around the city a bit more bearable during the harsh winters of Quebec.
It didn’t take long to satisfy our curiosity with this ‘must see’ place in Montreal as historic Old Montréal was waiting to be re-visited.

Underground City

That evening we went to browse a few of the art galleries at Rue St Paul Ouest and nearly bought a beautiful (small) sculpture from the Galerie Le Luxart(66 Rue Saint Paul O, Montréal, QC H2Y 1Y8, Canada). Unfortunately, it would have meant carting this around for the next leg of our journey and to have it shipped was not practical due to the weight. So we didn’t buy it. Pity!

Because we loved the atmosphere so much, that evening we returned to Bocata for our final meal in Montreal. This time, we had a heartier main course of the milk fed veal chop with gnocchi for me, and the maple roasted duck magret for my husband- Italian and French fusion. This is what food in Montreal is all about. Fusion! It was a night to remember, a truly great way to end our stay in Montreal. Loved it!

The next day, we meandered around some parts of the old town again before rolling our suitcases (literally) from our hotel down the cobbled narrow street leading to the cruise terminal where we were to embark on the Seabourn Quest for a 14 day cruise of eastern Canada, New England USA, South Carolina and Florida.

Cruises

Cruises, Credit : © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin

Many thanks to Tourisme Montréal for allowing us to use these beautiful professional images

times-square-3

New York to Montreal via the Adirondacks

Autumn in New York and New England were on our globe trotting list so when our son went to Vancouver Canada for an indefinite stay, we decided to pay him a visit…in autumn. But, since flying out of Australia beyond the Asia Pacific region is a long haul we always make the most of a trip by visiting as many places as we possibly can. For this journey, it was an opportunity to revisit New York and to savour outstanding cuisine. It was also a perfectly good excuse to see the autumn foliage in the New England coastline before we make our way to Vancouver in the west Coast of Canada. As if these were not enough, it was a perfect time to satisfy our interest to try the Adirondack (Amtrak) service from New York to Montreal where we would board a Seabourn cruise bound for ports of interest in Eastern Canada, the east coast of USA- New England then Charleston and Florida. A ridiculously long way to get to Vancouver, but why not? So, from Australia, the first stop was New York.

During our last trip to New York, Central Park was knee deep in snow. It was a magical sight! At the time, my husband was in New York on business but we managed to include the usual sightseeing around Lower Manhattan and Wall Street, Battery Park and Staten Island, Tribeca and Little Italy. This time around, we wanted to see Central Park in autumn and enjoy the cool weather, that nip in the air conducive to sightseeing on foot and see the fabulous landscape and colours associated with autumn leaves…red, gold, orange. New York is always an exciting place to visit. So much to see and do but if a traveller only has a few days like we did, it’s best to plan and prioritise. On this trip, other than a stroll to Central park, we chose to explore the streets around the Upper East Side, Midtown and to visit a couple of our favourite galleries and museum.

Central Park is huge…more than 750 acres of urban garden, the first landscaped park in the USA, and an oasis in a concrete jungle right smack in the middle of upper Manhattan. In the 19th century, thanks to the wealthy merchants and residents of New York who agitated for the state government to allocate land to create a park, a place of recreation for the public was designed. It was at the time, America’s answer to the gardens in Paris, London and other European cities. There are different ways to see and explore the park. On our first day, we devoted time to walk from the south entrance and see specific sights right up to the eastern side, the middle and the west. Having said that, there were many tourists who chose to cycle (rent a bike) hire a pedicab tour or take the horse drawn carriage. Of particular interest to us were the Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, the Obelisk, Conservatory Pond, Belvedere lake and Castle (mid –park) and up the northern end, the Harlem Meer and the picturesque Huddlestone Arch.

Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY

It took us nearly the entire day to enjoy the park but we still had time to have a quick look at the exterior of The Guggenheim museum on our stroll back along 5th avenue (corner 89th). The interesting cylindrical building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is now on our ‘must visit’ place for the next New York visit; one that will be exclusively for a trip to galleries and museums that dot Manhattan’s streets.

A visit to New York has to include a stop at the iconic Grand Central Station, regarded as the busiest rail terminal in the world. Built in 1871 this engineering and architectural marvel is linked to 19th century legendary American rail and shipping magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The New York Times has a very interesting YouTube video video about the Grand Central and its secrets.

Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY

Not only is this building one of New York’s famous landmarks, it is also where one of New York’s older culinary establishments is located (at the basement). Fondly known as The Oyster Bar, we think of this restaurant as the place to go to for some of the freshest and succulent seafood. I sort of knew that oysters were associated with ‘New York food’ along with hotdogs, pretzels and the like but it wasn’t until I saw an image at the New York public library that I was educated about the history of oysters as a staple in New York eateries. According to food historians, this was the case even as early as when the Europeans settled after Henry Hudson sailed into the Hudson river. In fact, even before the Europeans came, the Indians were already harvesting and shucking oysters which were abundant. Oysters were plentiful in the lower Hudson estuary and the waters around Ellis and Liberty islands. In time, enterprising colonists opened up what they called the oyster cellars which became commonplace in the city’s early history. The rich supply of oysters at the time meant that even those who were not wealthy could afford to have the large and succulent New York oysters from street vendors. These were consumed in the streets just like one does these days with hotdogs. According to a former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, oysters were regular and common ingredients to New York food. His book, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York is a fascinating read for foodies. It was with oysters in mind that we had dinner at The Oyster Bar. Not only does this celebrated restaurant have an interesting menu of raw and a variety of cooked oysters, there are options of other seafood and non-seafood meals as well. The Oyster Bar was established in 1913 in the lower concourse of Grand Central station and has become a New York attraction since then. We think it is a fine testament to New York’s early culinary history.

The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station
The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station
The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station

Celebrity travel writer, Paul Theroux said that travellers (as opposed to tourists) ‘observe’. On every journey, we are by definition ‘tourists’ trying to cram as many things to do, see and experience. However, we do try and make every effort to observe and engage other travellers and locals, simply because we learn from them. We found that by doing so , we are guaranteed to have travel experiences that are more enjoyable and unforgettable. At our dinner at The Oyster Bar, the waiter entertained and educated us with tidbits, trivia and facts about the restaurant, its history and the food we ordered. Next to our table, dining by herself was an elegantly dressed lady, an obvious regular client at The Oyster Bar. We initiated a conversation with her, seeing she was dining alone. We had a most interesting and informative evening as it turned out that she was a former resident of New York. She gave us plenty of advice to chew on for our next intended visit to New York; the one which will focus on galleries and museums. As it turned out, she is heavily involved with the arts herself and was in New York City for a few days to attend gallery function and exhibits.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
Location: Grand Central Terminal
Address: 89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, United States
Phone:+1 212-490-6650
Hours: Monday to Saturday 11;30 a.m. to 9:30 pm
Sunday and major holidays: Closed

MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) was the next on our list for this trip. A walking distance from our hotel in upper Manhattan, it is located in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Established in 1929, MOMA has almost 200,000 works of art from around the world; Picasso, Calo, Warhol, Dali… some obscure, most are by famous artists.The list goes on and on. One needs a day to explore the extensive collection and exhibition of modern art expressed in various mediums. Even then, it won’t be a comprehensive viewing. There is so much to see it warrants another visit.
Address: 11 W 53rd St, New York
Hours: Daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30

A leisurely stroll to explore Midtown was invigorating. New York has a unique and exhilarating energy, which is contagious. We could have just kept on walking, absorbing, observing and admiring buildings, monuments and surrounds. A stop at Bryant Garden behind the Public Library took us to the Bryant Park Grill, a charming Parisian style bistro set in the middle of one of Manhattan’s beautiful gardens. Resting our weary feet we could only have drinks enjoyed at their rooftop as we already have made dinner reservations at the Red Eye Grill, across Carnegie Hall. A pity, because a glance at their menu promised what I’m sure would be delicious options of good modern American cuisine. One can choose casual dining in the alfresco setting and the Grill for a more formal dinner.

Bryant Garden
Bryant Garden

New York is a major point of entry for immigrants. Haven’t we all seen and know of the statue of Liberty, an enduring symbol of welcome to those who fled their countries and seek freedom from oppression? A quote from Emma Lazarus ‘poem, The New Colossus, associated with the statue of Liberty- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – says it all. Consequently, New York is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America. From its early beginnings as a Dutch enclave, early European colonists populated New York but in the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, the Irish, Germans, Russians, many South East Asians, Central Americans and Caribbean came to America via New York and stayed there to call it home. Can you imagine then the variety of food that has since evolved and are identified with New York? The city’s cuisine is so varied and speaks of its rich history. One can find the ethnic influence on street food (stands or trucks serving tacos, hot dogs to name a few), bakeries and delis (bagels, pretzels, pastrami in Reuben sandwiches) diners (clam chowder, Waldorf salad) and yes, restaurants such as The Oyster Bar and the Grill at Bryant Park…both have food in their menu that speak of the layers of flavours influenced by New York’s multi ethnic population.

Our last meal in New York was at the Red Eye Grill, a buzzing and hip restaurant located at 890, 7Th Avenue. Needless to say, the offerings were varied, from seafood, steak and a very modern fusion American cuisine; the restaurant also has a sushi and oyster bar. Surely this has to be indication of the varied mix of cuisine in New York? We had a thoroughly fun evening served by very able hostesses and the live band providing the right mood.

Ending our last night in New York was a stroll back to Midtown to join the hundreds of tourists and pedestrians milling around Times Square. Renowned as the place to be on New Year’s Eve to witness the ‘ball drop’ from the roof of the old New York Times building (now known as One Times Square) this junction between Broadway and Seventh Avenue attract as many as an estimated 50 million tourists every year. The best time to visit Times Square is at night when, as you can imagine, brightly coloured billboards and other outdoor advertising are lit up and street performers and buskers entertain the visitors. Every night, Times Square being the hub of the Broadway theatre district is alive and buzzing and for the tourists, visitors and residents alike there’s a myriad of entertain options. It’s one big party!

Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square

Although excited to move on, we were hesitant to leave New York but Eastern Canada beckoned. The next morning we dutifully boarded the Amtrak Adirondack service for Montreal at Penn station.

mudpot1

Yellowstone National Park

We left Chicago behind, albeit reluctantly. When we booked our first ever Amtrak vacation, it was on a whim but at the heart of it all was to experience the California Zephyr. This train journey is considered to be one of the prettiest and scenic routes across the USA. It starts from Chicago Illinois to Emeryville California (San Francisco). To reach the west coast, the train crosses the state of Illinois, over the Mississippi River, then to the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Utah and Nevada. Without getting off the stops, the journey takes two nights and three days, covering 2438 miles (3923.5km). A truly fantastic and relaxing way to see the breathtaking views across America.

With the California Zephyr as our mode of transport, we were in a great position to see the rest of America from the Midwest to the West. We also had the opportunity to stop in Utah so we could make our way north to visit Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Well, not exactly just in Wyoming as this huge park, the first national park in the USA, and part of the South Central Rockies forests is actually in three states: most of it in Wyoming, then straddling Montana and Idaho.

The California Zephyr stopped at Salt Lake City, where we got off very late at night after having thoroughly enjoyed the scenery along the way (not to mention the food prepared on the train). An overnight stay at Salt Lake City prepared us for our road trip to Yellowstone on our rental car, going north to Wyoming and Montana that led us to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. (There are 5 entrances to Yellowstone; the west adjacent to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, the north in Gardiner Montana, the northeast entrance in Cooke city, Montana, East entrance in Cody, Wyoming and the south in Jackson, Wyoming).It was a very easy and scenic five hour drive through alpine forests and snow capped mountains visible in the horizon and approximately 370 miles ( 595 Km) from Salt Lake City.
Yellowstone National Park road map

It may have been spring but light snow dusted the roads and was a novel sight for us, having come from sub-tropical Queensland Australia where we don’t get snow.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

Food was not the motivation to see Yellowstone. When we included the stop at Salt Lake City, we asked for an independent package, with focus on seeing the main attractions we’ve heard so much about and seen on the National Geographic wildlife TV series. Yellowstone National Park, has an area of 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2), made up of mountains, lakes, geothermal areas, canyons, and rivers. It is known for its wildlife, protected and left in their natural habitat. It is so vast that to see the entire area would be impossible to do even if one opted to stay there for a month. The National Park Services (NPS) manages the park, making sure that while visitors enjoy what numerous activities and sights there are, the natural beauty is preserved and the wildlife and ecosystem are protected. Although archaeological evidence shows that humans( thought to be nomadic hunters and predecessors of Native American tribes) inhabited this area as far back as 11,000 years ago, the first Western man to discover Yellowstone was John Colter, who in 1807 was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific (Corps of Discovery Expedition from St Louis to the Pacific coast). No one quite believed his account of the geothermal wonders he stumbled upon. However proof of these discoveries was made in 1869 when the Folsom-Cook expedition made the first formal exploration to Yellowstone, followed in 1871 with an exploration by government geologist Ferdinand Hayden, photographer William Jackson and landscape artist Thomas Moran. With visual evidence recorded from the expedition, US Congress acted to allocate and protect the area as the first US national park. In 1872, President Grant signed the bill into law, known as the Yellowstone Act of 1872.

As we made our way to the entrance, we could only thank these men for having had the foresight to preserve this beautiful wild place for everyone to enjoy and experience. The sight of wild bisons and elk grazing on the snow sprinkled grassland and some ambling alongside our car, totally unperturbed by humans was certainly unusual. This shouldn’t have surprised us as Yellowstone is home to grizzly bears, wolves, herds of bisons and elk as well as mountain goats, ospreys, eagles… you name it, and Yellowstone has it.

Bison
Bison

Settling at the Yellowstone Park hotel, we intended to see as much as we could with the little time we had for this stop. Our priority was to see the geothermal features of Yellowstone Park, the mudpots, hot springs, mud volcanos, geysers notably Old Faithful (known for its frequent and predictive eruptions), canyons, waterfalls and lakes. We were informed that the wildlife is abundant and as long as we played by the rules, we should be safe. Many visitors were there to look for bears as they came out of their winter hibernation in caves, but we were just as content to blend in with the wildlife and experience the natural wonders of this vast place.

(Note: it is best to prioritise and plan way ahead. The NPS and Yellowstone Park websites and
have numerous information and trip planners for the visitors).

If like us, time is an issue, the best way to get around and explore Yellowstone is by car unless of course hiking and camping are the preferred options. With approximately 350 miles of sealed road, most areas are accessible for driving tourists. There is an entrance fee for visitors upon entry including private and non commercial vehicles.

As there are no shuttle buses in Yellowstone we booked a couple of days with Xanterra Parks & Resorts to provide us their bus tour within the park. At the height of the summer season there are many other commercial bus tours from outside the park offering tours from different entry points and towns.

At the NPS West Yellowstone Visitor Information centre, armed with various maps and literature, we waited for our bus to take us to our chosen first point of interest, the Fountain Paint Pot area within the Lower Geyser Basin. Here, four types of hydrothermal features were concentrated, namely; geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles. The number of thermal features in Yellowstone is estimated at 10,000. Following the walking trail, we were mindful of the toxic gases emitted by these steaming treasures and attentive of the warnings and stories of accidents or foolish actions of visitors that have resulted to death. One story in particular was of a man who jumped (head first) in the pool of steaming boiling hot water in an attempt to rescue his friend’s dog, which had jumped into the mudpots. The man of course died of burns quite slowly (he was still conscious and alive when rescued), went blind and his entire body covered with three-degree burns. Hence the BOLD warning with the sign: DO NOT TAKE YOUR DOG ON TRAILS IN YELLOWSTONE.

Old Faithful Geyser
Mudpot
Fumarole

The hot springs average a temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or 66 Celsius and can reach temperatures of 185 to 105 Degrees F ( 85-96C). That’s HOT in any language!
Numerous stories of this nature was chronicled in a book we picked up in a generals store at Gardiner, Montana ( at the north entrance) by Lee H. Whittlesey , called Death in Yellowstone. A very interesting read and may even be available on Amazon.com

Death in Yellowstone
The next stop was at the Old Faithful historic district , and the world famous cone geyser, Old faithful. It was the first geyser named by the members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870 and is also the most visited hydrothermal curiosity at Yellowstone. Old Faithful erupts regularly; hence the term ‘predictive’. To this very day, rangers can predict the eruptions which is about every 60-110 minutes depending on the duration of the last eruption. The geyser can emit about 3,700 to 8,400 US gallons (14,000 to 32,000 L) of boiling water to a height of 106 to 185 feet (32 to 56 m) lasting from 1.5 to 5 minutes. Hot water can shoot up to 140 feet into the air on average. If you’ve come all the way to this part of America, it is almost a crime not to wait and see this awesome sight( insert video 869). The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center on site provided visitors with information and holds an exhibit of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features, which is really educational and fascinating.

I couldn’t resist not talking a little bit about food, although as mentioned, food wasn’t on our minds when we planned the 3-day visit to Yellowstone. Despite my lack of culinary expectations, dinner at the Bar N Ranch restaurant was a delightful surprise. With its rustic setting, a view of the mountain and excellent service, we had no trouble enjoying the bison casserole ( for me) and the bison rib eye and filet ( for my husband) and side dishes of potatoes and corn. We also had a good meal at the Buffalo bar. In fact there are dining choices a plenty in West Yellowstone. Best to ask your concierge or explore the small town.

Bison casserole

The next day, Canyon trail and Lower Falls was on the agenda. Not as big as the Grand Canyon, this formation is nevertheless spectacular and breathtaking and is one of the most photographed features in all of Yellowstone. Viewed from several vantage points, the visitor can really appreciate the beauty and splendour of this little understood complex geological feature. At the time we were there, some areas were closed to vehicles but for our benefit,our guide pointed out the best available points for photo-shoots. We couldn’t get enough of the spectacular view and still regard this attraction one of the better sights in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone mountains
Yellowstone mountains
Yellowstone mountains

It is common knowledge that Americans are patriotic and love their country with a fierceness very few other nationalities have towards their own homeland. With what we have seen in this journey and for many other reasons (America is indeed a beautiful and diverse country to start with), it’s not surprising that many Americans spend their vacations within their country. During the height of summer, the camping grounds in Yellowstone are littered with tents, Winnebago, and other camper vans. Hikers also take this time of the year to explore the attractions of Yellowstone. It’s always best to plan your trip to Yellowstone and check the accessibility and opening dates and times of the various attractions, roads and other activities including fishing in the lake (summer) and snow boarding in winter. Here are a couple of links that are worth looking at prior to finalising a trip to Yellowstone.

http://yellowstone.net/intro/top-10/

http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

786

Chicago

We arrived at Chicago’s Union Station after an overnight journey on board the ‘58 City of New Orleans’ train from Memphis. The grand station was a sight for sore eyes. Situated right at the heart of the city, Union Station is a beautiful, old train station, completed in 1925 and regarded as one of the Great American stations,architecturally speaking .

Home to Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West (rap singer, better known as Kim Kardashian’s other half) and the town that fostered Barack Obama, Chicago is just as famous for its urban landscape, glorious food, superb gourmet dining, the NFL Chicago bears, Chicago Cubs and its home( Wrigley Field baseball park). Chicago has many things to entice the visitors despite its notoriety as a lawless city in the 1920’s (thanks to Al Capone’s reign during the prohibition era) .

Chicago reigns as the ‘architectural king’ in America, and known to be a veritable melting pot of so many ethnic groups, predominantly African American,Mexican, German, Irish and the Poles. Other groups like the Italians, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Bulgarian, Czech, Greek, Chinese, Asian-Indian, Filipino Lithuanian, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Ukrainian and Dutch are widely represented and have made Chicago their home. While they are now well and truly Americans, their cultural heritage and values are still reflected in food that grace various eateries and influenced the cuisine of Chicago. We highly anticipated the stop in Chicago as we knew there would be so much to see and experience but unfortunately, again, so little time.. so we didn’t waste it. We braved the chilly temperature and braced for the gusty winds which Chicago is known for. The moniker ‘windy city’, – which, incidentally Chicagoans object to – (We were advised to never refer to Chicago as the windy city, gusty as it may be at times) was thankfully not in evidence when we arrived.

It didn’t take long get to our place of lodging, The James Hotel on 55 East Ontario St, conveniently situated near the famous Magnificent Mile-the 13-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs from the banks of the Chicago River to the south, to Oak Street to the north- and a stone’s throw from the legendary restaurant- Lawry’s, the Prime Rib. The James boutique hotel is also home to American celebrity chef and restaurateur David Burke’s Primehouse restaurant. Named the best steakhouse in Chicago by Chicago Magazine and highly recommended for its dry aged beef, it featured highly on our list to experience.

Google Map of James Hotel Chicago

But first the sights…In our view, if one has limited time, the most efficient way to explore any big city’s attractions is to take the ‘hop on- hop off’ tour buses. These double deckers, which travel in a loop, allow visitors time to stop and explore. It’s now common to find these touristy buses in major cities all over the world. In our case, we opted for the 3-day pass and chose to discover Chicago and get a feel for the lay of the land at our own leisure guided by a list of priorities. Chicago downtown didn’t disappoint with its interesting buildings designed by some of America’s great architects and the many notable landscapes, pretty little gardens and parks. For instance, The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, is a Gothic Revival style Presbyterian Church built in 1912,designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram who was inspired by similar buildings in France and England. It has a beautiful courtyard designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, an oasis in a city of concrete and a good place to stop when in need of rest from walking the Magnificent Mile or Michigan Avenue. This building was added to the National Historic Register in 1975.

Chicago
Chicago
Chicago
Chicago

We next decided to hop off and see the view from the observation deck of the 110 story Sears Tower, (renamed Willis Tower) and was once the tallest office block in the world. It stands 1,453 feet tall with an observation area, called the SkyDeck on the 103rd floor, and one can really get a bird’s eye view of the city’s architectural marvels. For those who don’t suffer from vertigo, there is also the ‘Ledge’ , a glass box with a  floor also made of glass, that juts out from the SkyDeck where visitors can stand and look directly down at the city below. Certainly wasn’t for us, as we do have an aversion to heights!

By the time we walked a few more miles, we thought it was time to sample the infamous Chicago-style hot dog, (aka Chicago Dog, or Chicago Red Hot )and also nicknamed the ‘dragged through the garden’ dog because of its abundant variety of toppings such as yellow mustard, chopped white onions, green sweet pickle relish, a large( can’t be missed) dill spear, tomato slices and peppers. No tomato sauce though (ketchup in American parlance). Surely, this beef frankfurter on a puppy seed hotdog roll with all the toppings can’t need another condiment? My husband disagrees. He thinks a hotdog must have the ketchup too! We found Portillo’s at 100 W Ontario St near North Side, River North and had our fill of “the hotdog”. This lunch was huge and we needed to walk it off, so we next strolled down to The Art Institute of Chicago and spent the entire afternoon to view a few of its hundreds of thousands of diverse collection of artworks. The Art Institute in fact has the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside the Louvre in Paris. But we were not really there for the Impressionist paintings (that’s for a visit to the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, both in Paris) .We were in fact in search of the iconic painting of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Chicago
Chicago

Contentious when first bought by the Art Institute, this painting nevertheless represents American art and deserves its place in The Art Institute and pop culture. Needing more time to digest our hotdog, we then strolled down to nearby Millennium Park. There was so much to see here and the adjacent Grant Park that we decided to do the Grant Park walking tour the next day.

Grant Park walking tour

That evening however was earmarked for what we came to Chicago for ……Food! For our first dinner in Chicago, what better way to experience fine dining than at Lawry’s The Prime Rib, located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile and very close to our hotel? Since 1974, this establishment, famous for its Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef is in fact housed in the 1890’s McCormick Mansion and is regarded as one of Chicago’s pride and finest dining establishments. The ambience was reminiscent of traditional old English clubs with wood panels and elegant décor, discreet but warm hospitality.

Lawry's The Prime Rib Chiacgo

My husband and I both had the Lawry Cut, the original and their most popular cut, carved tableside from silver carts. Prime rib dinners include sides of : the original Lawry’s salad, Yorkshire pudding , mashed potatoes and Lawry’s Whipped Cream Horseradish. The meat was tender, juicy and succulent. My husband, a true carnivore was in his element. It was a night to remember and Lawry’s claim to have Lawry’s garnered awards was justified. Unfortunately, we were so full; we didn’t have room for desserts.

Together with what have been delectable food experiences in Chicago so far, we couldn’t get enough of the magnificent architecture this great city had on showcase. So on our second day, after a walking tour of the two lakefront parks (Millennium and Grant) we continued to meander along Michigan Avenue to have a closer look at the John Hancock Center, the Wrigley Building, and the Tribune Tower. Along the way, at Pioneer Court, we encountered Forever Marilyn, a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe designed by Seward Johnson. A representation of one of the most famous images of Monroe taken from the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch, this work of art made of stainless steel and aluminium stands26-foot-tall (7.9m) and weighs 34,000-pound (15,000 kg). It has polarised views among the locals; with some not too impressed with what many say has encouraged outlandish and scandalous behaviours of tourists perving and looking up her skirt, admiring or making fun of her giant derrière and knickers. It certainly was a novelty and I for one was not daunted and had my photo taken underneath Marilyn, hanging on to her long legs. My husband was too proper and decided he wouldn’t be labelled as one of the leering tourists. The sculpture is a depiction of a scene from the movie, when Marilyn gleefully tried to hold on to her skirt the moment her white dress was blasted by hot air from a vent. Once again, our timing was perfect. It would seem that we got to Chicago just in time to see this attention-grabbing modern sculpture as it was soon to be packed and moved to Palm Springs, California. It remained there from June 2012 and in 2014 was once again transported to an exhibition in New Jersey, to honour Seward Johnson.

Forever Marilyn
Forever Marilyn
Forever Marilyn

Capping a most interesting day filled with art and culture, we didn’t have far to go for dinner to sample David Burke’s aged beef with his restaurant situated right at our hotel. Food always has a story to tell about a place and Chicago has one long interesting history of food. Many say that this town’s very existence is in fact founded on food. Although its migrants heavily influence what we now know as Chicago cuisine, beef remains its most important staple and this is due to its historic stockyards that emerged in the 1800’s. Can you imagine the number of meatpackers and livestock that influxed to Chicago? Always known for its great meat, Chicago was called the “Hog Butcher to the World” by poet Carl Sandburg. For over a hundred years Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and Packingtown provided thousands of jobs and economic prosperity to this town. The Mississippi River blockade during the civil war and westward expansion of the railway between 1850 and 1870 also contributed to Chicago’s wealth and made it the Midwest’s food collection and shipment centre. With technology and refrigerated railcars and the knowledge brought by immigrants, Chicago was soon the meat-processing centre of America.

David Burke’s Primehouse restaurant, considered the best modern steakhouse in Chicago was buzzing when we got there. We swear all of Chicago’s beautiful people, yuppies et al populated the restaurant that evening. Just as well we made reservations or we would have missed out on what has been touted as the best restaurant for dry aged beef. Unfortunately we were seated next to a table of exuberant foodies whose conversation was a bit too loud. This was soon remedied by the maître d’ who obligingly and discreetly transferred us to a quieter section of the restaurant. The quality and taste of our 55 day dry aged rib eye accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables compensated for the noise. We had to agree that the meal was exceptionally good, creative in its presentation and worth another try in any of David Burke’s restaurants throughout the USA.

Cramming is the word that comes to mind on our last day, which turned out to be windy with intermittent rain. It was early spring after all and should have been expected. Nevertheless, it wasn’t welcome as we were on our way to view the Lakeside along the shores of Lake Michigan and the attractions nearby . Despite the weather, we nevertheless walked along the Lakefront trail, had a glimpse of Navy Pier amusement park and an hour at the Field Museum of Natural History. We even had time to wander through Hershey’s chocolate world on our way back to the hotel and would have wanted a bucket of Chicago’s celebrated Garrett mix pop corn from their city store but anticipating another big meal, our last dinner in Chicago, we refrained.

We braved the blustery weather that evening and went to Pizzeria Uno on 29 E Ohio St. where the original deep-dish style pizza was invented. Come rain or come shine, we were not going to leave Chicago without tasting the celebrated Chicago style pizza, the extreme opposite of the thin crusted version of pizzas in New York. It is made with a thicker crust baked in an iron skillet with cheese sprinkled directly over the crust, followed by fillings of meats, like pepperoni and sausage, vegetables, such as onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Unlike other styles of pizza, the sauce is poured over the top and liberally topped with cheese. We ordered one with the famous Italian sausage, which was hearty and filling. We had the foresight to order just one to share or it would have been really too much.

Chicago thick pizza

Well, there you have it. Chicago is a fascinating city and a food lover’s delight, carnivore or not. I would go back to Chicago in a heartbeat.

memphis1

Memphis Tennessee

It took approximately 16 hours to travel by plane from Australia to the southwest of the USA. Quite a distance really, so how can one not include a stop at Memphis, Tennessee? Missing a visit to Memphis would be a crime! The largest city in Tennessee is known for its good food and music… home of the blues, jazz and as many maintain, is the birthplace of rock n’ roll. For music lovers, Memphis is a compulsory destination and for avid fans of Elvis Presley like my husband, (who would have thrown a fit if we missed this stop) Graceland- is the mecca for Elvis believers. I, on the other hand wanted to experience Beale St for its famous nightclubs and cafes and its world-renowned barbecue (pork) ribs in America. Memphis style barbecue hold its own when pitted against the other southern states of North Carolina, Kansas and Texas also renowned for their barbecue culinary techniques.
Memphis-ribs

‘Chasing the American barbecue’ and learning the history and culture of the American south through this mouth-watering cuisine was my underlying excuse for going to Memphis. Food historians believe that in the South, the technique of smoking meat slowly over low hickory fire became the conventional method of cooking large amounts of meat to feed a mass of people. By the 19th century it became the accepted staple for social gatherings. Pork was also considered the main meat because it was inexpensive, abundant and therefore affordable to the poorer classes, particularly the Southern African Americans. In addition to the barbecue, fried chicken, corn bread and hush puppies have strong links to the African-American community and known simply as “soul food”. Juxtaposed with music-the soulful Mississippi blues or the delta blues- the obvious influence of southern American cooking is largely contributed by the Africans, brought to America in the 17th century as slaves. Much of American cooking in the south were contributions from Africa- red beans and okra, were integral ingredients to their staple food.

Memphis is really known for its pulled pork-shoulder, smoked, slow cooked and served either “wet”, with sauce, or “dry”, without sauce. Either way, Memphis ribs are delicious, savoury and tender, falling off the bone.
For foodies and rock n’ rollers, Memphis is definitely worth the long haul from home. And so, continuing our train journey from Dallas, and New Orleans, we boarded Amtrak’s ‘58 City of New Orleans’ train departing New Orleans, Louisiana crossing the state of Mississippi to stop at Memphis, Tennessee. Approximately 400 miles and about 8 hours later on the train, we arrived late at night (10 pm) and went straight to the Memphis Marriott hotel downtown to recover from an overload of senses, seeing the marvellous sights along the train track going north.

The next day, we set off to explore Graceland mansion. (What else?) . To get there, we took the free shuttle bus from Sun Studio in downtown Memphis to Graceland, only a 20 minute bus ride. Sun Studio runs a free shuttle bus to and from Graceland every hour on the hour. For more information on this free shuttle service, please contact Sun Studio at 1-800-441-6249 or visit the Sun Studio website.
Elvis’ Graceland colonial style mansion was what I expected, only smaller than what I imagined.

formal lounge- Graceland Mansion

formal lounge- Graceland Mansion

graceland
A true reflection of the glitz and glamour associated with Elvis, Graceland was home to the king of rock n’ roll for 20 years. The organised tour takes the visitors from the foyer, to the living room, kitchen, TV and poolroom and the ‘King’s’ favourite relaxation place, the Jungle room. For me, other attractions such as the Elvis Presley Automobile museum housing over 15 of his vehicles as well as his customised jet were just as interesting as his abode. The 1958 Convair 880 jet named after his daughter Lisa Marie is an extravagant bespoke mode of transport that features a living room, conference room, sitting room and private bedroom.

Ending the Graceland tour at the Meditation Garden, millions of fans would have paid their respects (as we did) to the place where Elvis was laid to rest. Seeing this, I convinced my husband that Elvis is well and truly dead! I say this, as it seems millions of true believers still have hopes he is alive and some think Elvis is still really alive! In fact just before his 25th death anniversary (August 16,2002 marked the 25th anniversary of the official death of Elvis Presley) a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 respondents found that eight per cent who participated in the survey said that they believe there is a chance that Elvis could be alive. The poll estimates that there would be approximately 16 million American adults who believe Elvis is really alive. In Australia, the new compilation (If I can Dream) made number one on the ARIA (Australian recording industry association ) album chart
No wonder then that the long queues of visitors to Graceland have not abated to this very day.

Is Elvis really dead???

Is Elvis really dead???

From Graceland, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Sun Studio which is a ‘must’ for anyone who has an interest in music, specifically, rock n roll and the blues.

sun-studio

with Sun Studio recording icons

with Sun Studio recording icons

A guided tour in this quaint little studio is undeniably an education on the history that introduced legendary rock n rollers to the world… like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and many more. The small studio is a treasure trove of relics, memorabilia and rock n’ roll history. So with limited time, it’s best to plan ahead. Sun Studio is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Beale Street was the other reason why we had Memphis on our itinerary- our next ‘must experience’ destination. Known as the USA’s most iconic street, Beale St is right in the heart of downtown Memphis; runs from the Mississippi River to East Street and is approximately 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long. The street has a long and interesting history that started in the early colonial years of the USA. Due to its proximity and easy access to the Mississippi River, in those days, Beale was a place bustling with merchants and traders doing their business. From here it was inevitable that in addition to merchants, entertainers flocked to the street. In the 1860’s musicians started performing there, which soon led to the transformation of Beale as a place where the population would congregate to socialise; where music was the common denominator. Beale’s heyday was in the 1920’s to 1940’s as blues and jazz greats like Albert King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King (B.B. stands for Blues Boy) graced Beale St with their presence. Historians argue that this was when and where the Memphis Blues or Delta Blues style of music was born.

Beale Street comes to life at sundown

Beale Street comes to life at sundown

If New York is a town that never sleeps, then Beale St must be the street that never sleeps – a serious contender to New York’s Times Square. The carnival atmosphere was undeniable the night we were there. People in cafes and bars, music blasting from the clubs that lined the street; the young frolicking with various cocktail concoctions in their hands, some half boozed, very boozed but all seemed harmless and merry, having a fabulous time as we did.

The Blues City Café was our chosen place to try the famed Memphis barbecue ribs. On the menu, there was quite a large selection of Southern style food but we couldn’t go past the barbecue ribs. In fact, I had the combination platter of half rack of ribs and a catfish fillet served with baked beans, cole slaw, new potatoes, Texas toast, and tartar sauce. I didn’t regret this choice. It would have been the best ribs I’ve ever had and Blues City Café’s claim of having the best ribs in Memphis was justified. So much so that we purchased their ‘secret’ seasoning in a jar.

dining on Memphis tucker, Blues Cafe

dining on Memphis tucker, Blues Cafe

On our second and unfortunately last day, we took the MATA heritage streetcar to explore Memphis resulting to an impression that during the day, the town lacked the glitz and glamour we witnessed the night before. Because of this we thought we would head back to Beale St. It turned out to be a good move as we were rewarded with the parade of various interesting floats. Apparently it was part of the annual Memphis music festival. Not quite the same as the Rio Carnival floats but a hoot nevertheless.

As luck would have it, our visit to this incredible food and music town coincided with the event dubbed as ‘Memphis in May’. It is a month long event held each year to celebrate what I believe is Memphis’s undisputed reputation of dominance in music and food. We settled down to enjoy and experience The Beale Street Music Festival held at Tom Lee Park on Beale with an entertaining line-up of musical local and national artists. The bonus was watching the uninhibited audience dancing to the rhythm and blues. It was a great afternoon.
Memphis in May is also known amongst serious foodies in America for the World Championship Barbecue Contest, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.

The finale of our Memphis visit was another meal of barbecue ribs and fries while being entertained by blues music at BB King’s café on Beale. At the time of our visit to Memphis, BB King was still alive, but alas, he was nowhere in sight.

beale-st

queimada

Spain: Queimada

Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galicia in northern Spain is bordered by Portugal in the south. Because of this close proximity, most wine connoisseurs liken the style of Galician wines to Portuguese wines. On our visit to Santiago de Compostela where we later on boarded El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, RENFE’s tourist train, we had the pleasure of trying some of the local wines. In one of our meals at a restaurant, we met the owner, a delightful man from Uruguay. He made us sample scallops and some of Galicia’s delicious seafood dishes. We also learned from him that Galicia has always been Spain’s provider of white wines, normally consumed with fish and seafood meals. Amongst these is the famous Albariño, regarded as the most outstanding grape of the Rias Baixas, a Spanish Denominación de Origen (Denomination of Origin – established only in 1988 although wine cultivation in Galicia is said to have originated in Roman times) for wines located in the province of Pontevedra and the south of the province of A Coruña in Galicia. He encouraged us to visit some of the town’s wineshops so the next day, we ventured to search for the right bodeguero, (cellarman) which we found in the old part of Santiago. However, it was really the Galician liqueur that caught our interest when we went to browse at this particular bodega or wineshop (or wine cellar) in Santiago.

Earlier on, I read somewhere that this liqueur has something to do with Galicia’s Celtic past. This was enough incentive to blatantly enquire about the Orujo.
“So, you have heard about our Galician Aguardiente or Orujo?” The charming bodeguero graced us with a cheeky smile. He said: “Orujo is the alcoholic spirit that is produced by distillation of fermented grape skins from the residue of winemaking. It is infamous for its use in making a potion- our version of punch. It is called Queimada, and is a product of a tradition that dates back to Celtic times. This ‘magical’ drink is believed by many Galicians to purify the soul and the ritual that surrounds its preparation is intended to ward off evil spirit. According to convention, the Aguardiente is poured into a traditional earthenware bowl, flavoured with herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon and then set alight. Whilst the alcohol is burning a Conxuro, a sort of a spell or incantation is read out to ward off demons, evil spirits, and witches; in particular, las meigas, the famed Galician witches said to haunt our region’s men and women… and then more brandy is added. This ancient drink is usually savoured late in the evening…..the dead of night when anything is possible.” Flashing his pearl white teeth as he grinned, I was already enchanted by the good looking cellarman.

The golden liqueur on the shelf looked harmless and my curiosity was sparked. He must have sensed this as he continued to educate us with this particular alcoholic beverage.
“But you know sometimes it’s okay to drink the Queimada during the day. Here in Galicia, we get a lot of rain and when we don’t see the sun, sometimes, we have la melancolía ; el blues, you know?”

“So, the Queimada is the potion to help get rid of the melancolía?” I interjected, hoping for an excuse to savour the drink.

“Well, the importance of the preparation ritual is to protect the drinker from the bad spirits but now, we think all occasions are good for a queimada: a party, familiar meetings or gatherings of friends.”

Well then, no need to wait for sundown. Cheers! He said with a twinkle in his eye.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at: Barnes and Noble and Google Books

San Sebastian

Spain: San Sebastian – gastronomic epicentre of the world?

The last and final stop on our short but epic (in many ways) train journey on El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo was San Sebastian in the Basque country of northern Spain. True to form, the rain in ‘Green Spain’ continued during the last leg of our travel. We were transported by our luxury coach from Villasana de Mena to the doorstep of the grand Londres and Inglaterra hotel in San Sebastian, located right next to the beach and overlooking the La Concha Bay. “I need another pair of walking shoes,” I moaned. A final guided tour of San Sebastian was an inclusion in our El Transcantábrico package but with the teeming rain and my already soaked shoes, my husband and I decided to wander on our own, as soon as the rain eased off. Luckily, we independently booked another three full days to explore this pretty seaside enclave, on the coastline of the Bay of Biscay.

So close to France, about twenty kilometres away, rumour has it that the French aren’t too happy with San Sebastian. The likes of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has declared that San Sebastian is now the mecca for food lovers, the centre for where innovative and progressive cuisine is created. Now considered by foodies to be the culinary hub of the world where food creation is an art form, for the ultimate stopover of our Spanish trip, we wanted to see for ourselves if this claim is justified. According to one of our American travel companion, a keen follower of Anthony Bourdain herself, San Sebastian boasts of having 16 Michelin starred restaurants in its doorstep and two of these are on the top ten restaurants in the world list. …Mugaritz and Arzak and let’s not forget Berasategui, voted as number 32. Spain has overtaken France for the honour of producing creative food; where art meets culinary science.

Having dined very well on our eight day tour of northern Sain aboard El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo , we needed to give our stomachs a well-deserved rest. It was simply impossible to indulge anymore on multi course fine dining. As I continued to mull our options, the travel gods seemed to be with us during this first reckless and decadent adventure. As luck would have it, while waiting for the rain to stop at the hotel lobby, we came across a foodie blogger, a traveller like us.

“Australian?” She asked. She then told us she was there to write a story about the culinary competition, San Sebastián Gastronomika, to take place some weeks later in November. She gushed enthusiastically, (her Melbourne Australian accent unmistaken) about the forthcoming food congress that will feature world renowned Spanish chefs like Ferran Centelles of El Bulli, Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca and of course San Sebastian’s very own Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Arzak Restaurant. In the meantime, before the food congress, she was going to explore northern Spain and spend some time and head west, basically covering the very trail we just left behind. She gave us good advice. In the food scene, we couldn’t leave San Sebastian without experiencing the pintxos-crawl (pronounced pinchos). No, it’s not a new dance craze, it simply means joining the locals after 9 pm across the old town to wander from bar to bar, drink, socialise and sample bite size snack foods, usually food in toothpicks, cocktail sticks or skewers to attach the main ingredient on sliced bread that accompanies it. “Aren’t those tapas?” “No, no, no..,” the horrified blogger warned. “Get informed. Not all of Spanish food is Tapas (or paellas for that matter). Essentially, there are several ways of serving small dishes, one of these are tapas or snacks usually served with cerveza-beer, wine or any soft drink. Pintxos are bite- size food on a skewer or toothpick.” Tapas as we know it, are thought to date back to the 15th century comes from the verb tapar, meaning to cover. Then, the Andalusian traveller quenched his thirst in taverns and used the bread or plate to cover his glass of wine, beer or sherry from buzzing flies. Many say this is the connection, the origin of the word. On the other hand, Pintxos or pinchos, originating in the Basque comes from the verb pinchar meaning to pierce.”
Okay, we get it; let’s not get too pedantic about this, I thought. Regardless of semantics, pintxos, tapas, platos or raciones, this way of serving and enjoying food is deeply rooted in the Spanish way of life and I had no trouble wanting to experience the ‘crawl’ in the short while we were there.

pintxos barSan Sebastian has indeed a lot to offer the wandering bon vivant. With a concentration of 500 bars in the Parte Vieja or old quarter, it is a ‘must do’ while there. That night despite the rain, we energetically descended on the old part of town ignoring the numerous and impressive historical buildings around us and headed straight to Calle 31 de Agosto. We were told that this is where some of the best pintxos bars are found. Indeed, the narrow street was lined with bars. Our first stop was A Fuego Negro, a bar highly recommended by the food connoisseur we met earlier. The place was packed with locals and we could hardly move but wasn’t this a good sign? They say, one should always go to places where the locals go. Anticipating the promise of haute cuisine in bite size form, we pointed to a few colourful items in different shapes and sizes: olives, cheese, ham, anchovies and even barnacles, grabbed a plate each which the waiter filled with our choices. We paired these pintxos with the Rioja wine on display. I would have wanted to have a glass of txakoli (pronounced Chak-o-LEE) a slightly sparkling Basque white wine, poured by the bartender from a height to create the bubbles (pretty much like our cider experience in one of the cider houses in Galicia and Pico de Europa) but we wanted to try more bars, more pintxos and more drinks so we can do the proper ‘crawl’ starting from one end of the street to the other. Six bars later, we had our fill of hot and cold pintxos, wines of various colours and sizes. “No more”, I groaned. Once again, I overdid the pintxos sampling and couldn’t fit in another morsel, even if I tried. “Tomorrow, we will have to try the other pintxos strip she recommended”. With pintxos so inexpensive at an average price of €3 (some were as low as €1 each), we were looking forward to another night of crawling, sampling, drinking and a lot of fun.

tapas

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at: Barnes & Noble and Google Books