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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.

San Francisco

San Francisco – Foodie Paradise and more…

Perhaps the song that Scott McKenzie made famous in the late 60s- “If you’re going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” – or Tony Bennett’s nostalgic song about leaving his heart in San Francisco are to blame for our love of San Francisco. Whatever the reason, this city has kept me enthralled for years. My husband also happens to love this pretty Californian city by the bay. In fact San Francisco is our ‘go to’ destination when visiting the west coast of America so he can indulge in a nostalgic trip and reminisce about his childhood adventures when he lived there as a young boy. Living there, he spent most of his leisure time pier fishing at the San Francisco Municipal Pier, fondly called Muni pier by the locals. He laments the fact that these days, only a handful of diehards take the time to enjoy the pier.

San Francisco
San Francisco

What makes us keep going back? Is it the steep hills, the cable cars, foggy mornings, the vibrant art scene, eclectic food and lively community that appeal? Or the sourdough bread from Boudin bakery at the wharf (and their classic San Francisco Wharf Clam Chowder on sourdough bread bowl), the Dungeness crab salad at the Franciscan, the seafood tower at Alioto on Pier 8, the classic cioppino (fish stew) at Cioppino’s or perhaps the Golden Gate bridge which highlights the enviable location of this city by the bay?

San Francisco
San Francisco
San Francisco

There is so much more to San Francisco that make this city special to us… the certain ‘something‘ that is exactly what Tony Bennett rhapsodises in the famous tune he first sang in 1954, at the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel.

Departing Yellowstone for Salt Lake City where we boarded the California Zephyr to complete the final section of our Amtrak vacation, we oohed and aahed over the magnificent scenery through Nevada and California as our train rattled its way to Emeryville. The stunning landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake and the American River as we went through Sacramento cemented the impression that America is indeed God’s own country. So beautiful, so diverse! Arriving at the terminus of Amtrak at Emeryville, we then boarded the shuttle bus to San Francisco, our final destination and felt we were home, where we left our hearts each time we departed. In no time, we wandered aimlessly around the pier area and Fisherman’s wharf then proceeded to dine at Cioppino’s where we treated ourselves to a hearty bowl of cioppino served with crusty sourdough toast, naturally. Needless to say we had a delicious meal. Cioppino’s never disappoints.

Cioppino’s
400 Jefferson Street
San Francisco, CA 94109(415) 775-9311

San Francisco
San Francisco

Seals sunning at Pier 39

Seals sunning at Pier 39

The next day, we went to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to meander and check out what was available that day. CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) a non-profit organisation operates a farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays held both in front and behind the Ferry Building. During market days, one can expect to see numerous stalls of fresh produce (some organically grown) – fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and not to be outdone, butchers have a fine selection of meats and meat products. There are eggs, breads, cheeses and jams and what outdoor market would be complete without the ubiquitous street food staples of wood-fired pizza, grilled meats, sandwiches, and tacos and many more delectable cooked meals. What about the crowd hovering at the Korean fish tacos stall ( Korean tacos?) side by side with the Paella and tapas stand as well as the ‘sushi to go’ kiosk? They were doing a brisk trade as well. What I really went there for was the pulled pork roll from the stall at the rear of the building overlooking the bay. The long queue spoke of the quality of food on offer- a variety of meats on rotisserie and fresh bread rolls that were still warm from the oven. I suffered the long queue under the sun just to get hold of one big pulled pork roll for lunch. It was worth it I tell you!

Inside the building, there is an interesting selection of food and wine merchants permanently onsite. Their shops have made this location a foodie paradise and we spent a few more minutes browsing, shopping (I always spend a lot of time browsing at one of my favourites, Sur la Table and having coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee. For us, the Ferry Building is a compulsory stop if only to indulge in the diverse selection of food or to simply soak in the ambience that is uniquely San Francisco. Here, one can really glean the history and culture of the city through the array of food selection and the obsession and reverence the residents have for good food. Thanks to the 49ers – no, not the NFL team of San Francisco, rather, the immigrants and residents who prospered at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849- the lure of gold brought people from all over the world and populated this well situated enclave. The Chinese, Mexicans, European settlers from the east coast (of America) Koreans, Japanese and many more nationalities all came and settled in San Francisco. They influenced how food was prepared and served, bringing their own recipes and sourcing food supply to satisfy their palate. Immigration and ethnic diversity is reflected in the modern day food and continue to evolve energising the San Francisco food culture.

Ferry Building Marketplace 
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, California 94111
(415) 983-8030

San Francisco
San Francisco
San Francisco

The art scene in this city is another drawcard. We can never go past a visit to the downtown gallery district where some of San Francisco’s art galleries are located. For a comprehensive list of art galleries in San Francisco, it’s best to visit the:
Gallery Guide, Tourist Information Center.

Address: 1369 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Phone: +1 415 9211600

As it happens, a few of our close friends and family live in the bay area. A catch up with them always keeps us informed with trendy happenings, places to see and restaurants to try. And there’s always the shopping of course. The department stores and specialty shops in and around Union Square are definitely worth a visit. Whenever we do, I never go home empty handed .

On our last evening, we decided to stroll down towards the Embarcadero, to try Hillstone San Francisco, part of the up market restaurant group with restaurants throughout America… Manhattan, Dallas, Santa Monica to name a few. The menu offered a good selection of steaks, seafood, pasta and salads. I went for a simple meal of their free range half roasted chicken and selection of seasonal vegetables on the side and my husband couldn’t go past the roasted prime rib (on the bone).

Hillstone's succulent prime rib on the bone

Hillstone’s succulent prime rib on the bone

The ambience, live jazz music and décor added to a most delightful dining experience. Promenading back to have coffee and desserts at our cousin’s condo above on Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower can be glimpsed, even at night.

Address: 1800 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94111, United States
Phone:+1 415-392-9280
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11am-10pm
Fri-Sat: 11am-11pm.
Serves: Dinner, Lunch.

San Francisco

There is so much charm to San Francisco, what’s not there to love?

…Next article will feature, Union Street, the Columbarium, Japantown and Chinatown.

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

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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

642

Dallas and Fort Worth Texas

My mental images of Dallas Texas were inspired by the set of ‘Southfork ranch’ and the Ewing brothers. As an avid follower of the high rating TV series ‘Dallas’ during the 80’s, I was always keen to visit Dallas before I get too old to travel. A couple of years ago, a re-make of this series was created but was short lived. I guess the storyline of powerful families feuding over rich oilfields no longer appeal to young viewers. I was a fan of JR and Bobby Ewing so when Qantas decided to make Dallas Fort Worth a major route from Sydney Australia, my husband and I were easily enticed to book a return ticket despite it being the longest non-stop flight in the world, a total of nearly 16 hours from Sydney. We also decided to make Dallas the starting point of our first American train experience, a ‘vacation by rail’ on Amtrak.

Dallas is located in North Texas and the largest inland metropolitan in the USA. It has the distinction of having George W Bush as its 46th governor (from 1995 to 2000) and Dallas is where a homage to the former US president was established. Dallas is also the infamous place where President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Dallas and Fort Worth owe their development and growth to the construction of major railroad lines to service the cotton, cattle and oil industries around the county. Everything about Dallas and Texas for that matter is vast. It is spread out with major interstate highways converging and looping around and into the city.

We were keen to find out what Dallas Texas had to offer. For our first visit to this southern state, we were booked by Vacations by Rail at the Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre. The hotel was a good choice as it was a short drive from the airport and was a convenient place to get over our jet lag and the long haul from Sydney. The 4 star Dallas Hilton hotel boasts of the usual amenities one expects from this type of lodging. It is also a short walk to the Galleria shopping mall and 10.9-mile(17.54 km) drive to downtown Dallas. Furthermore, Amtrak Dallas Union station is close by, about 10.2 miles (16.4 km) from the hotel. To make it easy for their guests, the hotel provides shuttle services to the Galleria and the belt line , which was in fact full of good restaurants such as Chamberlain’s steak and chop house.

Given we had limited time in Dallas, as soon as we checked in, we headed to the Galleria, a big shopping and dining mall, in search of good Texan food. A sumptuous meal of the fabled American steak would have been a good start but being a bit disoriented with the change in time zone, we wanted to start with something lighter. Besides, isn’t Texas known for Tex Mex food? The first restaurant we saw at the Galleria that looked inviting was Mi Cocina . On their menu was a selection of classic Tex Mex food prepared and served with an innovative twist. But what is Tex Mex and is it different from Mexican food? According to our ebullient waitress, Tex Mex is a fusion of Mexican and American cuisine. It is basically the type of food one finds in America particularly in the southwestern sates north of the (Mexican) border. The major differences between classic (and regional) Mexican cuisine and Tex Mex food would be the heavy use of ingredients such as shredded cheese, beef, pork and spices such as cumin and the cooking or preparation time on the latter . It would seem that there is a lot more to the preparation of traditional Mexican cuisines to the Tex Mex version. In fact a lot of dishes identified as ‘Mexican food’ is Tex Mex. Typical examples are, chilli con carne and fajita. The evolution of this style of cooking was born out of heritage and the need to adapt to local taste preference and ingredients. Tex Mex has its origins to the early *Mexican settlers in Texas who were mostly from Northern Mexico or the Spanish settlers when Texas was still a Spanish colony.These were Spanish or Mexicans who lived in Texas before it became a republic. To this day Tex Mex dishes continue to evolve but it’s interesting to note that in the earlier days, out of necessity, the Mexican cooks or chefs liberally used beef, which was also the preference of Texan Gringo ranchers who raised and traded cattle so naturally, beef was an abundant staple. In fact even today , beef is hardly used in Mexico.

*Tejano culture, a Texan of Criollo Spanish or Mexican heritage

Having said that, at Mi CModelo beerocina ( a chain of family restaurant with locations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Houston and Atlanta) for my first Tex Mex meal in Dallas, I opted for the Tilapia Veracruz; fresh Tilapia fillet sautéed with garlic and lime served with sliced avocado, vegetables and arroz verde ( green rice) with a side of their house made Veracruz sauce. It was delicious and just what I needed, washed down with a couple of glasses of frozen Margarita. It was sort of mid afternoon and my rationale then was it had to be cocktail hour somewhere in the world. Besides, I was certain we were going to just ‘crash’ after this foray as soon as we got back to our hotel. My husband had the shrimp brochette; grilled jumbo shrimp (or prawns as we call it here in Australia) stuffed with Fresh Jalapeno and Jack cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon, served with bean soup, rice and guacamole. Modelo beer was the choice of beverage with his meal.
We strolled around the Galleria to digest our food and try and get into the time zone but alas, an early night beckoned when we could no longer fight the tiredness from the long flight.

The list of tourist ‘must sees’ in Dallas and surrounds is quite long. We really only had time for the legendary Ewing mansion, Southfork Ranch, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas. Obsessed as I was with the TV series, I wanted to see where the series was filmed. It didn’t disappoint. The Ewing mansion was what I imagined it to be and there were lots of other activities and even rodeo shows.

Now that we’ve had glimpses of Dallas, we wanted our final evening to focus on food once again. The famous Texas Steak was on our sights so with the help of the hotel’s concierge, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Chamberlain’s Steak and Chophouse on Beltline Rd, known to be the best steak house in Dallas. Owned by Richard Chamberlain, who is considered one of America’s leading chefs, we knew from the moment we walked into the restaurant, that the evening would be special. The ambience was reminiscent of many fine dining establishments , the service impeccable and the food and wine were excellent. It would be one of our 4 star rated meal during this train trip in America.

Dallas food

calle real

New Orleans, Louisiana- The Big Easy

When we decided to explore America by train, the first stopover on our Amtrak train journey from Dallas was New Orleans. The city that typhoon Katrina devastated in 2005 was always on our- ‘must visit before it’s too late’- list. Celebrity travel writer Paul Theroux wouldn’t have approved of our planned itinerary as it was really jam-packed and resembled a typical ‘tourist junket’ of things to see in 3 days. A traveller would, as Theroux says in his books, observe, blend in with the locals and learn as much about the destination and its soul. Well, in this instance, we didn’t want to pretend. We wanted to see it all in 3 days with ‘food’ first and foremost on our minds .We figured this would surely reveal what New Orleans’s complex heart and soul are made of. Layers and layers of history and heritage are reflected in food and its preparation, right? We wanted to take a few bites of typical New Orleans food and guzzle their beverages to have some insight on this town’s eclectic and fascinating heritage.

traces of New Orlean's French and Spanish colonisers

traces of New Orlean’s French and Spanish colonisers

After settling in at the Doubletree by Hilton, we wandered off to Bourbon St. in the old part of the city otherwise known as the French Quarter. Notorious for its hedonistic attractions: bars, strip clubs and so close to the red light district on Basin St, we would have loved to be right in the heart of the French Quarter for the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) , the annual carnival celebrated, the day before ash Wednesday. But as we were there in early Spring, we missed out but coincidentally, the annual New Orleans Jazz festival was starting on our last day there which kind of makes up for the missed Mardi Gras opportunity. What luck!

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

A friend recommended we start the bar hopping at the historic Sazerac Bar, Grand Roosevelt Hotel. The setting and décor is homage to the magnificence and opulence of classic days gone by. The Sazerac bar is named after what many think is America’s first mixed drink, created by Antoine Peychaud way back in 1838 from his favourite French brandy, Sazerac de-Forge et fils. Sazerac is the designated cocktail ‘must have’ when in New Orleans and synonymous to this party town. Its main ingredient is of course the brandy or cognac but some bars substitute rye whiskey. It is mixed with sugar cube, and Pechaud’s bitters in a glass swirled with absinthe or Herbsaint…the result which many say is interesting. (the jury is still out on that)

We were then in search of a meal and headed straight to Court of Two Sisters primarily because we wanted to experience the ambience of this historic property and dine al fresco in what is said to be New Orleans’ largest outdoor dining courtyard. The building itself has a long history dating back to the 18th century and the restaurant is named after two sisters who belonged to a prominent Creole family.

Court of Two Sisters

Court of Two Sisters

The Creole seafood gumbo on the menu caught our eye, a stew of seafood served on rice. What gives this food a distinct flavour are the mixture of spices such as sassafras and bay leaves and the okra, a vegetable from West Africa which were introduced to the Americas by the West African slaves. For our first meal in New Orleans, we shared this as starters followed by the Corn fried Louisiana Catfish for me and the Charboiled Tenderloin of Beef served with marchand de vin and béarnaise sauces, potato mash and haricorts verts for my husband. I thought my catfish was typical New Orleans food more so than my husband’s tenderloin beef. Nevertheless, enjoying the dinner was not a big ask. Who could complain when we dined in a superb setting; relaxed by the soothing sound of the water in the fountain, entranced by the fragrance of flowering shrubs under the trees which were adorned with fairylights. The ambience was just fantastic! The French Quarter reminded us of its many distinct French heritage but caught glimpses of Spanish too. The food and drink we’ve had so far had the eclectic characteristics of the colonial past of New Orleans peppered with the distinct influence of the African slaves bought to the Americas in the early 17th century.

Next on our list was breakfast at the historic Café du Monde known for its beignet and chicory flavoured coffee. Once again, the undeniable French influence was evident insofar as Beignets are square-cut pieces of yeast dough heavily dusted with powdered sugar, much like donuts but do not have a hole in them. This treat was introduced by the Acadians, (descendants of the French colonialists) and has become somewhat of another ‘must try’ when in New Orleans. The chicory flavoured coffee by tradition must be served ‘au lait’ (although some have been know to order this ‘black’) and according to the Café du Monde, coffee was also introduced to the Americas by the French and sometime during the American Civil War, they added the roasted and ground root of the endive plant into the coffee to soften its bitter taste. This resulted to the unique blend of coffee and chicory.

Beignet Cafe

Fortified with these, we explored the city, in and around Jackson Square, taking in the party atmosphere and enjoying the music from different buskers.
Most interesting was this man.

Bourbon Street Busker

Bourbon Street Busker

We then ventured on to Canal Street and hopped on a cruise along the (muddy) Mississippi River aboard the Steam Boat Natchez, with one of the remaining four steamboats with the celebrated ‘Steam Calliope’. Considered a uniquely American instrument and linked to steamboats since 1865, the ‘Steam Calliope’s ‘music came from the steam plumes shooting from each whistle played. It aint jazz or rock n roll, but this quaint sound added to a distinct atmosphere to our cruise.

Our concierge was kind enough to get us a table at Arnaud’s that evening . Located at the French Quarter just a few meters away from Bourbon St, this fine establishment boasts of classic Creole food, allowing diners to choose from any of their 3 dining areas; the more relaxed atmosphere at their Jazz Bistro, fine dining at the main dining room or simply sipping cocktails at their French 75 Bar. We chose to dine casual at the Jazz Bistro and was entertained by live jazz music. After all, isn’t New Orleans the birthplace of jazz? (Memphis and Chicago will disagree). But we really came for the food. We couldn’t go past the ‘Arnaud’s signature dish’, a starter of Shrimp Arnaud , marinated shrimp in tangy Creole remoulade sauce and mains of Speckled Trout Meunière for me and the Roast Louisiana Quail Elzey for my husband. Both didn’t disappoint, our dinner was delicious! We skipped dessert to make room for an intended night cap at the Old Absinthe House.

Old Absinthe House

On our last day, we shunned the organised tours. Instead we took the streetcar to have glimpses of the past, of days gone by. There are 3 streetcar lines operating in New Orleans: St. Charles, Canal Street, and the Riverfront. Our interest was in the antebellum mansions so it was the St Charles line for us. The 13.2-mile route (21.2 km) from Carondelet at Canal Street in the Central Business district through to the oldest section of uptown New Orleans and through St Charles Avenue can only be described as ‘grand’. Populating the St. Charles Avenue has got to be the most superb collection of historic mansions in the South of the USA. Lined beautifully with old trees covered with Spanish moss, St Charles Avenue stretches from Uptown to Downtown . The surrounds and antebellum houses do take one back to the glorious epoch of 19th century New Orleans.

Old World New Orleans

Old World New Orleans

It was indeed a sight to behold and later, while I devoured my Po- Boy for lunch, still impressed with what we saw, images of the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler came to mind. I couldn’t shake of this imagery for some reason.

The quintessential Po-Boy, a typical New Orleans sandwich has a history that dates back to the Great Depression. Legend has it that during that era, enterprising streetcar workers who were on strike opened a sandwich shop for a means to survive. They used cut potatoes and roast beef gravy for fillings at the time. However this popular New orleans sandwich has evolved since then. Ask any native of New Orleans and he will tell you that the Po-Boy is the best sandwich in the world. Yet , what is sacred about the Po-Boy is the quality of the bread. It has to be crunchy and crusty on the outside and soft in the inside. Add the filling of whatever you may fancy, may it be fried shrimp, ousters, catfish, soft shell crab, or roast beef, the finale will have to be the “fixin’s” – pickles, hot sauce, lettuce, mayo, etc. We were advised to order and eat the Po-boys the way locals do and that is ‘dressed’ or ‘with all of the toppings.

The final evening was spent at the Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro along Frenchman St. We could have gone to the famous Preservation Hall but wanting to see and feel the heartbeat of the famed ‘hub of jazz and culture’ in New Orleans, we chose to walk to our destination. The party atmosphere was palpable and felt as though the hype on the heavily touted jazz festival was paying off. Pity we were only going to witness glimpses of it as we were set to take our train to Memphis the next morning.

French Quarters New Orleans

Mississippi River