Culture

Things I LoveU.S. TravelWining/Dining

BACK IN THE WINDY CITY

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I absolutely love visiting Chicago.  It is a world-class city with great people, shopping, culture, baseball (none for us this trip) and fabulous food.  I have visited many times, first due to working for a company headquartered in Chicago (from their L.A. office), then for a variety of reasons — an All-Star game at the ballpark formerly known as Comiskey; another baseball trip for Wrigley; a trade show; a conference, etc.  It doesn’t take much prodding for me to visit.

This year’s road trip stopped first in Cleveland and Detroit, so the proximity to Chicago was an easy decision as the place of choice to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary (previous posts and links in bold).  Below are two different views from our hotel — of Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan.

So what was on the itinerary for the 3-night stay?  Pretty much everything listed above, plus a first:  a boat tour on the Chicago River to view the city’s stunning, historic and iconic architecture. Chicago is known for having some of the most interesting buildings, and many of the great talents in the field have contributed and continue contributing to this day.  Among those greats are the names Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Skidmore, Owings, Merrill.  (Click here for more about the buildings.)  And the weather gods cooperated by providing a perfect day in Chicago; timing is everything as they say.  Neither cold nor hot nor humid nor windy.  If only there were more of these days. Some of the photos from the tour:

Above — 333 West Wacker Street; below – Willis Tower (110 stories)

Above – Marina City complex; below – Wrigley building

Eating and shopping were next up on the agenda, even if the latter was mostly of the window type.  As for the eating, a great deal of advance research was done in order to savor each meal (three lunches and two dinners).

RL Chicago was first up.  Ralph Lauren has a penchant for doing everything “just so,” and that includes his namesake restaurants (NY and Chicago).  While it may be considered a “scene” by some, we found the service very hospitable and welcoming and the food is delicious.  Finding Pigs in a Blanket on an “upscale” menu might be surprising, but they were perfection which is not surprising in hindsight.  The other dishes we tried followed suit.  And, yes, it was fun taking in the scene.

A tried-and-true spot is Shaw’s Crab House, part of the epic group of restaurants from Lettuce Entertain You. It is amazing that they can do so many different cuisines so well. But they do, and we’ve tried enough of their restaurants to know that is the case.

Searching for Chicago’s “best” pizza might result in a debate over thin crust (my preference) vs. a classic deep dish, and many other types in between.  I read about a place called Spacca Napoli and decided that was the winner for us.

For our anniversary dinner, a Chicago stalwart was selected — Le Colonial — recently relocated from Rush Street to fashionable Oak Street (think upper Madison Avenue and all those glorious boutiques).  I loved the food in Vietnam and thought this would be ideal.  And it was.  Just a word about the dessert — it is up there in the annals of dessert perfection.  A chewy and crispy base of oatmeal and coconut and chocolate with a perfect scoop of vanilla gelato on top.  I’d make a trip back just for that (hence the top billing below).

A last lunch was squeezed in en route to O’Hare and recommended by an LA friend who is often in Chicago.  Gibson’s Italia combines the best of their reputation for steak with surprisingly delicious Italian food.  Both were excellent and a terrific way to bid the city goodbye (but hopefully not for long).  And that view of the river from the restaurant is just beautiful!  Separately, did you ever see two happier people around food?  I think not.

If the fondest visual is saved for last, then this shot of Michigan Avenue taken from our room qualifies.  I could just stare and stare ..

 

 

 

Things I LoveU.S. Travel

MICHIGAN FOR A DAY

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Of the U.S. states not previously visited, I can now check Michigan off the list.  What are the others I presume you are asking?  In no particular order: Maine, Alabama and Mississippi. So nearly there.

After spending a couple of days in Cleveland (click here), the principal reasons for going were twofold:  attending a Detroit Tigers game and seeing Kalamazoo, my mom’s birthplace.

The Detroit suburb of Dearborn was the location for our overnight hotel.  The town is synonymous with one word — “Ford” — as it adorns nearly every building.  And if not “Ford” then “Henry.”  Seen below is merely one of countless buildings that comprise the world headquarters.

Random sighting in Dearborn!

We took the opportunity to view some other areas, especially the grand homes in Grosse Point Farms along Lake St. Clair, half of which body of water is in the U.S. and the other half Canada (bordering Windsor, Ontario).

Lakefront family viewing in Grosse Point

As for Comerica Park, it is another of the classic ballparks right in the city that one can access by foot.  I’m so used to Dodger Stadium’s car-only access (or shuttle bus) that it’s really a pleasure to visit a park situated as Comerica is or Progressive Field (Cleveland) or PNC (Pittsburgh) or many others.  And Comerica was the final piece for visiting all 30 current MLB stadiums.  Checkmate.

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After leaving the game, the hubby insisted we see one more sight before heading on.  It is a great one and well worth the short detour — the birthplace of Motown.

 

We set out on the 4+ hour drive which traverses the lower part of Michigan through Ann Arbor, Battle Creek and then Kalamazoo.  But the traffic Gods were not on our side with road closures, so we diverted south.  Sorry, mom.  I’ll have to come back another time to see the city of your birth.  We proceeded through the northern part of Indiana (South Bend) with a stop for dinner in Michigan City, Indiana, and then on to an all-time favorite city — Chicago.  Stay tuned.

International TravelThings I Love

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DESTINATION

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In just a week’s time, the hubby and I got a true taste of Uganda — from the bustling international Entebbe airport to the Congo border, the vast Queen Elizabeth National Park  and even crossing the Equator.  It is a country with spectacular landscape, welcoming people, adorable children eager to waive hello plus countless species to view.

But, there’s also considerable government control as evidenced by the banning of Facebook.  And, were it not for citizens planting small crops to take to market or consume at home, hunger can be a challenge for much of the population.  With that, we were very happy to do whatever we could to help those dependent upon tourism with their livelihoods.

Wide load — but not the widest by far!

We had two more animal encounters, both unique in their own way  ~~

MOTORBOAT SAFARI

The 40 km Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park flows between Lake George and Lake Edward through the heart of main game viewing area.  The different perspective of water viewing versus the previous land viewing was enjoyed for a relaxing couple of hours.

Above and below:  Many have asked if I ever felt nervous or scared on safari.  The short answer is no.  But, one must be VERY careful around these massive creatures — especially when there is a calf in tow as pictured here.  One could caption this:  “Proceed at your own peril.”  We backed the hell up.

Below is the ingenious work of the black and white Kingfisher birds who dig holes to protect their eggs from any prey.

One of many crocodiles seen in the area.

Co-existing seen everywhere among the species.

WARNING! BABBOONS …

CHIMPANZEE TREK

Unlike the mountain gorilla trek covered in the last post (click HERE), our descent into the Kyambura Gorge was relatively short, significantly less steep, and ultimately very manageable.  While the hubby opted out midway upon arrival at a difficult passage (below), I proceeded with a park ranger and our driver/guide William.   After immediately spotting a group of fast-moving chimps, we went quite a bit further to have an up-close encounter that made the trek and completed our trip sightings.

On the lookout — flat and muddy.
The help is greatly appreciated.
Barely visible at first
Camera shy

That face ..

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION MOMENT

I was laser focused on not slipping in the muddy and wet (but flat) terrain.  My glasses fogged up from humidity and my phone (used for photos) was in my pocket but was somehow very dim, so basically I have zero visibility.  And then I hear “Hello?  Hello?? I can’t hear you!”  And I look at my phone and realized I accidentally dialed my sister Margie in Los Angeles, who came through clear as a bell.  In a deep gorge in Western Uganda near the Congo border.  But try making a call from Coldwater Canyon in Los Angeles and there’s no reception.  No, we didn’t actually speak.  In a panic I disconnected from just being baffled at the whole incident.  We’ve of course had many a good laugh since via text.

At this point, our formal itinerary from Africa Travel Resource came to an end at the (literally) picture perfect Ndali Lodge.  I encourage you to click on the link to read the story of this amazing place, which land dates back nearly 100 years.

The open air gym
With gracious owners Aubrey & Claire Price

There’s just one caveat for staying at Ndali :: Must love dogs.  Or at least not mind them.  Personally they were a sight for sore eyes having been away from our three for so long.  Two were mere puppies — not more than 10 weeks at the time.  One of the older ones slept on our porch all night.  How can you not love Basil, the brown guy upper left.

Cocktail hour

And, finally, two last incredible views.   Next post :: Africa Hits & Misses plus R&R in Bermuda

International TravelThings You Should Know

GORILLAS IN THE FOREST

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Wait; what?? There’s gorilla trekking in Uganda?  Now that’s something on the proverbial bucket list.  My thoughts that both the exorbitant cost along with adding Rwanda to our itinerary were deal breakers.  Upon learning the experience is the same in both countries but the cost is significantly lower in Uganda (the respective governments set the fees), the decision to go was fairly easy.   With either destination, there is a lengthy list of warnings and precautions one must consider carefully.

Following an Entebbe overnight after our remarkable experience in Tanzania (see previous), an 80-minute flight to the southwest corner of Uganda in a 12-seat Cessna Caravan took us to our next destination.  Again, we were a party of two plus the co-pilots for a great flight.  Both the smooth ride and the view were spectacular.  At the other end, William — our guide for the six-night, three-location stay — was there to meet us.

Heading left for the landing strip
Guide/driver William at our vehicle

Seeing the small villages and towns in the west of Uganda is an eye-opener; sadly not in a good way.  There is tremendous poverty and primitive living along with way too many unpaved roads.

Departure point, where we received our orientation and assigned ranger.

Our stay at Mahogany Springs requires almost no “commute” for the main event — trekking Silverback mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  In fact, sometimes the beasts venture onto the gorgeous premises.  And head chef Abraham did a terrific job with every meal!

Mahogany Springs view of the forest from the dining room

Trekking is a stunning and very challenging experience.  The forest is wet, steep, slippery, and full of fallen trees (mostly pieces of the trunk or branches).  Plus there are the tangles of vines which are impossible to avoid.  So a foot could easily get stuck and cause a trip or fall.  Walking sticks from the lodge are an essential component along with gaiters, long socks (for tucking in pants), gloves (for gripping), sturdy walking boots (mine are below — before and after our trek), and a lot of the strongest insect repellent.  Our pre-trip documents had this extensive packing list.

Here’s some million dollar advice:  Hire “sherpas” on the spot — porters who push you and pull you and hold your hand and tell you where best to plant your foot to avoid slipping (or worse) and carry your stuff.  And hire an extra.  They were invaluable, had significant training, and saved us from any accidents which could have easily occurred.

Above with the porters when we were clean and had no idea what lay ahead.  Below, one of many rest stops.  Not even close at this point (at least another hour to go).

Our three porters help the hubby navigate the slope

Once in the presence of gorillas, trekkers have just 60 minutes to observe and take photos.  If the gorillas move, so does everyone else (a team of armed guards in front and back; ranger; porters and trekkers).    Our successful viewing:  One large Silverback male, four adult females and two babies.  The photos:

Below — the silver “stripe” goes horizontally across the back at the mid-point.

The giant Silverback in repose after eating. Note the foot.
Can you spot all four??

Opposable thumb!

When it was time to leave, we had to call in reinforcements due to utter exhaustion from the trek at that point.  For the most part, the hubby and I are pretty healthy 67-year-old’s.  The time for doing this kind of hard-core physical endeavor has an expiration date in the not-to-distant future.  We are very happy to have it in our rear-view mirrors.  And thank the Ugandan Gods for the exit strategy from deep in the forest:  A “helicopter” evacuation.  I was expecting the real deal, but the photos show the actual ride. Had it not been available, we just might still be there.

About the evacuation experience:  It is a very smart and entrepreneurial solution for repurposing car seats.  Someone came up with the genius idea to mount a seat on two parallel metal poles and add an extra seatbelt.  Then, the team executes some Olympics-worthy choreography for changing positions (to shift the weight burden) while the chair and passenger are in the air.  On incredibly steep terrain.  Without missing a step.  Bravo, just bravo.  We (they came back for me too) probably went one-half mile via this mode to get to flat ground for walking.

Immense gratitude for this team

What an amazing experience.  One that shall be savored for a long time.  Next post:  The rest of our Uganda stay — boat safari, chimp trekking and some amazing scenery.

 

 

International TravelThings I Love

DOWN ON THE FARM AND INTO THE CRATER

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Down on the farm in … Tanzania??  That would specifically be Gibbs Farm, ideally located in the green and fertile hills near the Ngorongoro Crater.  It’s difficult to convey the sheer beauty in that part of the country.  And it was a complete departure from our time spent in the Serengeti (see previous posts).

View from the Gibbs Farm terrace
Our cottage at Gibbs

The concept of “farm to table” food could have originated at Gibbs with it’s 10 acres of vegetable and fruit gardens, picked and consumed twice daily as shown below in the menu and salad.  Then there are 200 chickens providing nearly as many daily eggs, cows, pigs, ducks, goats, a turkey, rabbits and a few domestic cats.

The vast produce beds

Impressively, nothing goes to waste.  There’s a very sophisticated composting system with 14 staff tending the garden’s needs.  The essential crop rotation is a lot of hard work — most by hand.  Then there’s the need for night security to keep the local elephants and baboons away, who will otherwise eat the crops.

Coffee Beans

The main crop in the area is coffee and it’s everywhere.  I learned it’s a six-year investment from seed to usable beans.  That is a commitment to say the least, but the end result is a delicious and aromatic product.  Corn and bananas are the other enormous crops; the by-products are staples in the Tanzanian diet.   With an ideal location near the equator (reminiscent of a 2014 visit to Ecuador), this so-called (by the hubby) “gardener girl” was in heaven and more than a bit envious.

Below:  Masses of italian parsley, broccoli (top); artichoke field, kohlrabi which made for a delicious soup, pineapple and a pumpkin field

Below: the duck pond in foreground.  The goats climb up the ramp around the tower and enter the top to escape hot weather.

We made the drive to Ngorongoro Crater where one must first ascend to the rim before descending to the floor of the immense area created many millenia ago by volcanic eruption.  Unlike the Serengeti where zebras or gazalles would scatter if the vehicle got too close, in the crater they are near enough to touch (but not allowed nor advised).  Additionally, the different animals seemed to congregate more freely.  And the landscape is just breathtaking.

NOTE:  The following photo was just awarded PHOTO OF THE WEEK by the esteemed travel site Peter Greenburg Trusted.Travel.News.  I am honored!

Driving down to the Crater floor

Very pregnant momma
The (not very bright) warthog — aka “Pumba”
Cape Buffalo
Pink Flamingos
Picnic in the Crater
Fortunately, safari vehicles are made for this kind of driving

After our stay, we made the four-hour drive to Kilimanjaro International Airport for the hour flight to Entebbe.  We should have had our results from covid testing (administered more than 48 hours prior) at the Serengeti departure.  A negative result is necessary both to leave the country and enter Uganda, our next destination.

If you’ve seen the fabulous movie Argo, with the nail biting ending, that is a good metaphor for our experience.  Not exactly life or death but still there is never a desire for an “oopsie” to occur and go to a Plan B.  Fortunately, with the assistance of our ATR agent in London and the local Asilia team on the ground, the results magically appeared minutes before the gate closed.  I even offered a bribe of the airport personnel with our plentiful boxed lunches from Gibbs, but to no avail.  I was happy to give the food away regardless.  Everyone was very kind and simply abiding by the rules.

Proof sent to our agents that we made the flight!

Next post:  Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Forest

 

 

International TravelThings I Love

SAFARI IN THE SERENGETI

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Many recent travel articles report that animal sightings are greater since the pandemic kept many tourists from African travel.  We’re here to confirm that is true in a significant way at our first stop after the overnight in Arusha (see previous post).

Our ride to the Serengeti
Just the two of us (and two pilots)

Whether it’s lack of human presence or the area in general or the season, the hubby and I were the grateful beneficiaries of remarkable and immediate sightings after arriving at Seronera airstrip.  Penuel met us and was our guide/driver from start to finish.  We went for some six hours in the open-air vehicle before even setting eyes on Namiri Plains, one of the Asilia brand’s amazing camps.  Not even a “loo with a view” (potty) break during that time.  What an extraordinary way to begin our stay.

He was very careful not to promise anything in general. The best philosophy is “under promise and over deliver.” We generally do not have trip expectations which mitigates any disappointment. But seasoned and experienced guides know their audiences.  We just said we’re happy with whatever you think is the best experience.  He proved a remarkably talented and knowledgeable leader.

Above, as we leave for our morning drive at 6:30 which early departure is crucial for the best viewing.  Coffee and wake-up “call” come at 5:45.  That “tent” behind us conceals a permanent structure housing a wonderful bed and bath with indoor shower and outdoor soaking tub.  The back is completely enclosed in glass for viewing.   Breakfast (below) is enjoyed a couple of hours into the drive.

Dual guides

The traditional “Big 5” (lion, leopard, rhinos, elephant and Cape buffalo) are what most visitors understandably want to see.  While we did not see any rhinos, we got extremely lucky with the others.  Sightings included cheetahs plus giraffes, zebras migrating with wildebeest, gazelles, hyenas, crocodile, tortoise, ostrich, baboons, hippos, silver-back jackal, serval cat, eagles and likely some I’m forgetting.

Spectacular sunrise

A big benefit of this particular time is the lack of other safari vehicles jockeying into position to view the animals. The most we saw at any point was four others and one was from the Cheetah Conservation program.  The proliferation of animals coupled with sparse guests made for a most remarkable time. But, without the expert operations at Namiri Plains — and the initial guidance of Africa Travel Resource — one could arguably visit and come away with a lesser experience. Ours exceeded any ideas we might have had.

I’ll let the photos tell you the best stories.  Next post:  All the “Cool Cats” in the Serengeti.

Migrating zebras by the thousands
Oh, hi.
Wildebeest
Beautiful gazelle

In the camp — near the staff village
And outside the camp en masse
Playtime
Babboon family
Beautiful shell
Keeping cool
Amazing staff: managers Sam & Brian on the ends, guide Penuel, Hassan & chef Stanley
Lions on approach