Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

Category Archives: Travel

So, You Want To Travel To Cuba

Just a building in the heart of Old Havana.

I spent my 38th birthday visiting Havana, Cuba. I wanted to get in before the travel regulations were more stringent or before the first McDonald’s showed up. As a photographer and a history buff, I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. A full detailed outline of their complex history can be found here. Something I rarely do, is hire a tour guide, but having never been, having no cellular reception and no credit card use, I thought it made sense. Our tour guide from Cuban Connections, was simply, amazing. His loose and high-level version of the island’s history was:

  1. Natives were here. Spain showed up. Slaughtered the natives. Imported slaves.
  2. Over time, you have large land owners. You have businessmen. There’s a revolution against the colonization. The slaves are told if you fight along side “us”, you’ll get your freedom. They do. The freedom isn’t exactly freedom.
  3. Post revolution #1, Cuba still basically has a free market economy. The original founders of Bacardi, for example, started in Cuba. The free market economy creates haves and have nots. There’s a 2nd revolution led by Castro, Guerra and others. They topple the government.
  4. To rectify the have and have not situation, the government tells the wealthy, you know longer own that, we do. Yes, they took someone’s business, house, land and their wealth. They take that and “give it to the people.” Sure, you can stay on, in your business and we will offer you a salary.
  5. The wealthy who are now robbed by the government, leave for places like Spain or Puerto Rico. Bacardi, based in San Juan, is only based there because after the government seized their assets, they fled to Puerto Rico to start anew. This is why Havana Club exists. The brand was built on the plantations, distillery and inventory of what Bacardi had left, before leaving.
  6. This habit of siezing wealth to fully redistribute to the poor drove out innovation and entrepreneurism, but provided things like government provided healthcare. The Cuban healthcare system is renowned and their medical advances, respected. It also meant that, no Cuban, would ever have to pay for a funeral. 
  7. When you “own” a house, you don’t own a house. The government owns the house. Your taxes pay for the upkeep of the outside. You are accountable for the inside, to a point. Think of this like the a country-wide Home Owner’s Association.
  8. Every restaurant we would eat at, is ultimately government owned. Restaurants fall into 2 basic categories. The first are called “Paladares” – these are restaurant concepts that are created and managed by a person. If you will, Adam’s Taco Joint. But, even though it’s my idea, concept and business, the government would need to approve it and they generally own the building being used. Most Paladares are above the 1st floor. The second category are government designed concepts. It’s their direct business. But, it employs the staff. If you’ve ever lived in Pennsylvania and contested with the state owned liquor stores, this is that concept, but for eateries. These restaurants are usually on the first floor. 

Pretty fascinating stuff, from a tour guide born, raised and trying to make a business work in Cuba. I’m not making a judgement on anything. I am and always have been a fan of history. Cuba’s is complicated.

La Guarida

But, you probably didn’t come here for the history, you came for the travel advice and the photos.

How to Travel to Cuba – The Basics

  1. We flew from Chicago through Ft. Lauderdale and into Havana, on Southwest Airlines. I can’t recommend them enough.
  2. You will need a Visa. If you book with Southwest, they help to decrease the cost of the Visa, to $50, per person.
  3. You will need to purchase Cuban Healthcare. Again, in your ticket purchase with Southwest, this cost is included.
  4. You can reserve a hotel online with a credit card, but U.S. credit cards are not accepted in Cuba due to the embargo. So, you’ll need to pay in cash for your hotel and everything else. We stayed at the Melia Habana. On a 2nd trip we would probably pick the Iberostar for it’s direct proximity to the city center.
  5. Customs in Cuba will require your luggage to be screened again. Total process is about 15 minutes.

From the center of Old Havana

How to Travel to Cuba – The Tips

  1. Bring lots of cash. I would recommend about $200 a day, per couple, to cover 3 meals, bottled water, tips, taxi, drinks. Beer and mixed drinks are generally $3 to $4.50, but can creep to $6 or $12 at finer establishments. It was rare to pay more than $5. If you exchange money, realize you can only do it at the airport, a bank or your hotel (if they offer it). The exchange rate + fees, means you get $0.87 CUC for every $1 USD.
  2. Havana was safe and very walkable. Walk, talk with the locals and explore. I can’t say this enough. Every street, every corner is a new adventure.
  3. Cabs, both new and classic, are all over the place. You’ll never pay more than $30. When you aren’t hoofing it, this is the best way to travel around the city.
  4. Your U.S. cell phone service won’t work, or if it does, it will be very expensive. If you stay at a hotel, most offer WiFi for free. To make that work, while on the go, I recommend downloading AlaMesa, the Cuban version of Yelp, that works without an internet connection. This was invaluable.
  5. Drink the rum. Specifically, drink the Ron de Santiago 25 year. Trust me on this. Also, drink the daiquiri at The Floridita. And make sure to have a mojito or pina colada at the Hotel Nacional.
  6. Facebook, twitter, Instagram and email will work. No dice on Snapchat and most retail websites. For example, good luck visiting Target.com. I found FB Messenger to be the best cross platform way for keeping in touch with everyone.
  7. Tipping for good service is not expected. But, if offered, the standard is 10%. Some restaurants and bars will include a 10% feel automatically. Read your bill, so you don’t “tip” twice. 

We had an amazing time soaking up the sights, culture, food and drinks. I can’t say enough about the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people. Every person we encountered was kind, patient, helpful and pleasant. If you can find the time to visit, I highly recommend it. A full collection of my favorite photos from the trip can be found here.

The Open Road

We did something a little bit different for Memorial Day weekend this year. We didn’t stay home. Although on Monday, we were back in Chicago and we smoked some 7 lbs of meat. We didn’t hit the beach. Although many of our friends did. We didn’t fly out of town. Although we looked into and it’s something we’ve done before. No, this year, we hopped on the Harley and followed the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, going from Chicago to Milwaukee. I won’t bury the lead; if you get the chance to do this drive, do it. It’s stunning.

Last year, we bought our first motorcycle: a 2014 Harley Davidson Sportster Iron 883. Unfortunately, we purchased it pretty late in the year and due to 2013 snowpocalypse and 2014 snowmageddon, we really didn’t get an opportunity to take it out very often. But, with the weather finally turning around, we’ve had it out pretty much every week. It’s  a perfect bike for a beginner. With 5 gears and the iconic Harley engine, you can get going pretty fast, but you’ll never go fast enough to put yourself in harm’s way. The 3 gallon tank will get you anywhere between 120 and 150 miles; just long enough to get away.

As we looked at the forecast for the weekend, taking the bike out for our first ride over 20 miles, was a no-brainer. This of course didn’t mean we weren’t nervous. To mitigate some of the risks that were causing the nervousness we made 3 decisions:

  1. We would leave at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Not only would the roads be emptier, but we’d also catch a spectacular sunrise coming over Lake Michigan.
  2. We planned to stop every 40 miles. The first time would be stretch out. The second would be for gas.
  3. We stuck to the Circle Tour route, which eliminated highways.

What a trip. I can see why people, once bitten by the motorcycle bug, are lifelong riders.

Our Harley Davidson Sportster Iron 883 Along Kenosha Beach

The photo above was taken at Kenosha beach, just after sunrise. As we were driving up, the shear beauty of the sand combined with the different hues of blue from the lake and the sky, made for unexpected stop. That’s the thing about riding a bike:

There’s always something waiting at the end of the road. If you’re not willing to see what it is, you probably shouldn’t be out there in the first place.

There was no GPS to listen to. We had no phones to distract us; they were tucked neatly away in our pockets. We even lacked music to sing along with. All we had were each other, the road and the hum of the engine. It was all we needed.

 

Visiting The Bourbon Trail

I like Bourbon. I’m a late bloomer to Bourbon. My 20s were about Vodka. Mind, you good Vodka. Just before I turned 30, I started delving into brown spirits. Specifically, my drink of choice started to switch from the classic Vodka tonic to the old school Sidecar and the timeless Old Fashioned. Not every bar knows what a Sidecar is, let alone, knows how to make one the proper way. That meant, I was pretty much an Old Fashioned guy.

The past two years, I really started getting into Bourbon. One thing about me, when I get involved in something I get involved. The pursuit for knowledge becomes an intoxicating (no pun intended) rush. I guess it was only a matter of time then, that I traveled to Kentucky and traversed the famed Bourbon Trail. If you’re new to Bourbon, let me break down a few things:

  1. All Bourbons are Whiskeys, but not all Whiskeys are not Bourbons
  2. To be a Bourbon you have to be made in the USA, produced from at least 51% corn mash, aged in new, charred-oak barrels, distilled to no more than 160 proof,  entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof and bottled at 80 proof or more
  3. Bourbon does not need to me made in Kentucky, but 95%+ of Bourbon comes from Kentucky

Given such specific regulations you might wonder, wouldn’t all Bourbons taste the same? It’s a great question and I can tell you, they definitely don’t. But, why? The Bourbon Trail journey was designed to answer that question.

Our trip started in Nashville actually, not Louisville. The flights from Philadelphia were not only shorter, they were cheaper…as was the cost of the rental car we’d need. On Friday morning, bright and early, we hit the road to Maker’s Mark. Looking back on the trip, I’m really glad we started here. The tour was a small group, just me, the wife and two guys who drove 18 hours from Florida to experience the Bourbon Trail.

Maker's Mark

The tour guide was awesome. The history of Maker’s Mark was inspiring. To learn that they still hand cut ALL their labels, bottle everything on site and hand dip every bottle, was astonishing. To think that a company that big, still does things that old school was pretty damn cool.

We got to taste 4 different Maker’s Mark Bourbons.

Maker's Mark Tasting

Nichole, got to dip her own bottle. One note of advice, you can’t take these bottles on the plane. I know it seems obvious, but several people forgot this fact. I recommend bringing an extra suit case for all the Bourbon you’ll be bringing back.

Dip Your Own Bottle

Following the tour, we headed over to Jim Beam. With a 2.5 day trip, you’ll never be able to see very distillery. On a good day you’ll get to 4 distilleries, but plan for 2 to 3. Tours generally start on the hour, with the first one being at 9 am and the last one being at 4 pm. Each tour lasts an hour and you should budget another 30 minutes just to tour the grounds and gift shops on your own. To make Jim Beam work, we had to forego Heaven Hill, which was on the way. We had a tight schedule and needed to stay on track.

Jim Beam

I can’t properly rate the Jim Experience. We passed on the tour, when we found out it was 90 minutes. In hindsight, I wish we’d done the tour and passed on the Evan Williams experience. Here’s why. On day 2 we ran into the guys we met at Maker’s Mark, while we were at Wild Turkey. They raved about Jim Beam, with the highlight being you got to pick a bottle of Knob Creak off the line, fill it, had sign the label and dip it. That’s freaking awesome. We passed on the not tour, not just because it was 90 minutes, but because the grounds, including their visitor building seemed very modern, updated and lacking in charm. Apparently, we were wrong. We did taste a lot at Beam. The Honey Liqueur was surprisingly good; like a limoncello.

From Beam, it was on to Evan Williams. This was without a doubt, the worst of the bunch and the best of the bunch. Let me explain…Evan Williams is owned by Heaven Hill. We figured that we’d get a unique and tailored experience at Evan Williams, instead of a mass/generic one at Heaven Hill. The Evan Williams Experience is located at the original place where the 1st Evan Williams distillery existed. Cool, right? Well, the “experience” is more like touring a museum. You go from station to station watching videos the are reenactments of what might have happened when Evan Williams was establishing the 1st distillery. It was lame. But, the tour guide was outstanding when it came to helping us understand how to taste Bourbon. For example, if you’re going to smell the Bourbon, inhale with your mouth open, as well. He also explained how the aging process impacts the taste profile, how adding water to a Bourbon impacts the taste and why water impacts the taste.

Evan Williams

Following Evan Williams we made camp at our hotel in Louisville. On day 2, we hit Four Roses at the crack of dawn. It was about a 45 minute drive from Louisville. Everything Evan Williams wasn’t, Four Roses was. Similar to Maker’s Mark, we had a small tour, just the two of us and one other person. Our guide was really fantastic. He was patient, informative, knowledgable and loved Bourbon. He was exactly what we needed to kick off the day. Of all the Bourbons we tried over 2.5 days, Four Roses was our favorite.

Four Roses

From Four Roses, we headed off to Wild Turkey. It’s massive. It’s gigantic. I don’t even have an adjective for describing the size, adequately. As our guide explained, Wild Turkey uses more grain in a week, than Four Roses goes through in a year. The tour was awesome, the guide funny, but the Bourbon wasn’t for us. As our guide said, it’s WILD Turkey, not Mild Turkey. There’s a lot of bite from the high composition of rye in the mash and it was just too abrasive for us.

Wild Turkey

We ended the day at Buffalo Trace. What don’t they make? They own what seems like a million Bourbon brands, including the iconic Pappy Van Winkle. Our tour guide was knowledgable and funny. It’s amazing how the size of a aging house, the materials used to make it, the number of windows and the angle of the roof all impact how quickly or slowly the Bourbon matures.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and Four Roses are all within 25 minutes of one another. We probably could have added a 4th location, like Woodford Reserve, to the day and still been able to leisurely explore each location.

If you’re planning a trip to the Bourbon Trail, let me offer the following 4 pieces of advice:

  1. Plan on 3 full days. That means, fly in on Wednesday and plan to tour Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I’m leaving out Sunday because nearly all distilleries open at 1 PM on Sunday. So you might get to 1 distillery before having to fly back.
  2. This trip works better with 4 – 6 people. Two people is great. But, you can’t really partake in too much drinking, since one person has to be the designated driver. With 4 – 6 people you can rotate the role of DD.
  3. Prepare to hear a lot of the same material over and over, but don’t look at it as annoying. Look at is as helping you retain knowledge. I’m serious. The process for making Bourbon is strictly governed and the general process is the same at each distillery. It doesn’t mean there aren’t unique nuances though. Pay attention to the nuances.
  4. Don’t visit with a preconceived notion of what you like. As our tour guide at Buffalo Trace remarked, if you like cheap bourbon over expensive bourbon, you’re lucky and you’re wallet will thank you. This is why knowing #3 is so important. We came back realizing that in general we preferred lower proof bourbons that come from a high corn ratio mash and where wheat, not rye is incorporated. That lead us to ordering some W.L. Weller 12 year. That’s a Bourbon we would never have tried, had it not been for the trip.

The Bourbon Trail is a blast. It appeals to be people who love history, people who love beautiful scenery and people who love Bourbon. In my opinion, there’s something for everyone. Well, unless you’re under 21. I’m serious. If you’re under 21, you won’t even get through the door.

I can’t wait to head back and visit the locations we didn’t get to this time around. I have a feeling that even if we re-visit a distillery we’ve already toured, we’ll learn something new!

Back From Greece

I’m a geek when it comes to Greek and Roman history. In college, Age of Caesar 3001 was the first non business class I took, that I got an A in. Not an A-, an A.

Greece has always been on my list of places to visit. In the past I’d looked into Mediterranean cruises and it was a topic of conversation as a honeymoon destination.

Having visited Rome in 2005 and being underwhelmed overall, but loving the photos I came back with I had hoped for a more balanced visit to Greece.

I spent the last week in Greece; 4 days in Athens and 2 in Santorini. Before I left, everyone had cautioned me that I was doing it wrong. Instead of 4 days in Athens and 2 in Santorini, I should be doing the opposite.

Well, let me say, I think I chose the right balance. My 2 days in Santorini were enjoyable, but more than enough for me and how I travel. And I travel through the photos I want to take.

Athens was a great experience. It shared a lot of similarities with my trip to Rome. The food was great and the wine wonderful. You have to love a country where the wine and beer are cheaper than the soda. Though I speak not a word of Greek the city was easy to get around and the people easy to converse with. Few people and signs I encountered were Greek only.

I came to Greece wanting one photo. Years ago, I created a list of places/things I wanted to photograph. The Acropolis was on that list. More specifically, the Parthenon. On day 2, I was up early and one of the first through the gates to experience the Acropolis. I couldn’t have asked for better light. The early morning Greek sun warmed the location and the deep blue skies provided a beautiful backdrop to the hero of my shot, the Parthenon. I captured it from multiple vantage points and a collection of angles. This was the winner.

The Parthenon

It’s already been sent off for printing and will be ready for pickup when I’m back.

Beyond the Parthenon, I traversed the streets like a local. The bakeries, cafes and street vendors helped me add on a few extra pounds, I’m sure.

Athens, even in its current state of political and economic turmoil…complete with riots, tear gas and armed military guarding government buildings, is a beautiful city. Not beautiful in the way Paris or New York are. Not beautiful like the Caribbean islands. But beautiful in the way the combination of old and new will leave you hypnotized. Beautiful in the way Rome was. Earlier I commented that I was disappointed with my visit to Rome, yet here I am talking about the similarities of the two cities. The problem I had with Rome is that it’s a very hard city to enjoy. The topography makes it a non walking city. Which would be fine if the train system complimented those shortcomings. But, the train system in Rome is built around their history. This means there’s rarely a direct route anywhere, for fear a piece of history would be disturbed.

Athens on the other hand had a train system to rival the wonderful London Tube, New York City’s subway system and Paris’ metra. It seems like a small thing, but when a city is easy to travel, you can see more of it. Athens made it easy.

It was a wonderful week abroad. Here’s a few photos from the trip.

Adam Stands Tall

The Parthenon

The Roman Forum In Greece

Food

Santorini Coast

A View From The Roof

View From The Hotel

Lastly, a special thanks to all of the people who offered me great advice on what to do and see. Most of the advice came via social media, from people I’d never met. The advice made this trip so much better.

Countdown To Vacation

About 10 years ago I came up with a list of places I wanted to photograph. All the photos would ultimately end up hanging in a room I called, in my head, the gallery. On my list was the Eifel Tower, The Colosseum, Stonehenge, El Castillo, The Pyramids Of Giza, The Great Wall Of China and The Parthenon. Sure, there are other things I want to see, that I want to visit, that I want to photograph. Christ The Redeemer in Brazil, The Taj Mahal in India and a few other locations have caught my eye. But, I had to keep my list a bit focused.

To date, I’ve knocked off the Eifel Tower, The Colosseum, Stonehenge, and El Castillo. You can see the body of work below.

The Eifel Tower

The Colosseum

Stonehenge

El Castillo At Chichen Itza

Well, this year, I aim to knock one of the remaining three off the list. The countdown begins:

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My Love Affair With New York City

The Empire City, The City That Never Sleeps, The Big Apple, Gotham City and the Concrete Jungle. All nicknames for the greatest city in the world, New York. They say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And why not? New York city is tough. It moves at a pace that overwhelms and demands your very best all the time. We love our heroes, but are just as quick to boo as we are to cheat, if we don’t think we’re getting their best effort. The streets aren’t paved with gold, but not unlike a rainbow each street may lead you to a pot of that shiny coin. I’ve been in love with this city of dream makers and dream takers since I first breathed it’s air in 1979.

I was born in Brooklyn. My fondest childhood memories almost always have a New York City connection. Learning to ride a bike, watching the Mets beat the Sox in the ’86 World Series, the Bronx Zoo, laying on my back at The Museum of Natural History and wondering how they got that big blue whale in there, our version of a beach, drinking quarter water, eating real pizza from L&B, sitting on the stoop outside my grandparent’s house with my cousins in the Summer or chasing down the ice cream truck still stick out today, fresh in my mind as the day they happened. Keep in mind all of this happened before I was 7.

As I grew older, my romance with “the city” grew stronger. After we moved to New Jersey, I lamented not being able to walk, bike or take a train to my desired destination. I missed the diversity of sounds and would gladly have traded my sky full of stars for the neon and bright city street lights. Many weekends, during my adolescence, were spent in New York. Even today I remember the excitement I had when we’d start crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. It meant we were almost there.

In college, my parents would ship me real New York food, over night and packed in dry ice so that I could enjoy a little bit of home. Bagels, pizza, pastrami, cheese cake and rainbow cookies were just a few of the reoccurring deliveries. The wide eyes and big smiles of my friends as they sampled the goods still make me smirk.

Come this time next year, I will have lived in Chicago longer than I ever lived in New York. My time spent living in the Midwest is more than twice as long as my time spent living in the concrete jungle. Yet, despite that imbalance of time, I’ve never considered myself anything other than a NEW YAWKAHR. It’s become quite the excuse for why I am who I am and why I act like I do. I think fast, I move fast, I eat on the go, my patience for lines caused by people’s indecisiveness is non existent, I cross the street when there are no cars…not when the light says walk, I speak my mind even if what I say will sting and of course I believe anything is possible.

I love bringing people to New York. Even if it’s not their first time visiting, the experience is usually memorable. Because to see the Big Apple through the eyes of a real New Yorker is to see the city like it aches to be viewed…with a slice in one hand. Last year one of my best friends, a true Midwest girl, who now lives in New York City, showed me my city through her eyes. What a treat. I visited places I’d never been to, ate food I’d never enjoyed and experienced the city like an explorer. Honestly, that trip was one of my best trips back “home.”

The city and I have a love affair like I’ve never had with any person. Ironic, since the city served as a backdrop for falling in love with young lady…once upon a time, as we strolled through the village, stopping to steal a kiss in the park. Like a Woody Allen or Scorsese film, if you took away the city, the story would still be there, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as emotionally riveting.

True story, I know that it’s more of a “woman” thing to dream about your wedding day.  But, I’ve always imagined  getting married in the city I’ve always loved.  On the famous Bow Bridge, during the fall as the leaves burst with shades of red, orange and yellow was where I always envisioned it would happen.  Why the Bow Bridge?  For starters it’s located near the center of Central Park…the heart beat of the city…geography-wise.  The bridge has a limit for the number of people who can be on it during the service.  By design, this forces you to choose only the people who matter most.  In a city of millions, you’d be sharing one of the most important moments of your life with only a handful.  There’s something beautiful about that juxtaposition.

Traveling the world is great. London, Paris, Rome; I know these places. I walked the cobblestone of Paris, alone the Senne, while eating a warm baguette…it is no substitute for a warm bagel and the pavement running through Central Park. The same goes for the gelato I ate in Rome while strolling amidst monuments and buildings that were born during the great Caesar’s rule. For a moment these places capture your interest. But, they never capture your heart like New York City will.

New York is the only real city-city. Whether you believe it’s the heart of the universe or not, there’s no denying that New York has an unparalleled pulse, an excitement that’s contagious.

Those were the brilliant and eloquent words of Truman Capote. He said in 2 sentences what I’ve been rambling on about for the past 8 paragraphs.

I think the only thing I’d add to Truman’s sentiment is that after you’ve experienced the greatest city in the world your perception of every other city will change…nothing will ever live up to New York City and all that it has waiting for you to see, feel, touch, taste and remember.

A Magical Disney Adventure

I just got back from spending 6 days in Disney World with the kids and the ex-wife. You might be scratching your head about “ex-wife” so let me explain. Cheryl, my ex, and I get along great. Unlike most divorces, there’s no hate, animosity or awkwardness. We’re two people that are great friends and realized we shouldn’t be married. Believe me, I know I’m blessed. When we were getting divorced we agreed that Disney was something we wanted to do together with the kids. I you’ve ever been to Disney then you know how monumental of an event your first visit is. Visiting Disney isn’t so much a trip or a vacation, as it is an experience. From how you tell the kids they’re going to Disney, to the costumed characters, to the themed rides, to the parades and fireworks…oh yes, it’s an experience.

We were blessed with great weather throughout. The sun was out every single day and the temperature was consistently between 68 and 82 degrees. In short, it was exactly what you’d want it to be. We agonized over when to visit and finally settled on early November. This was definitely the right decision. The parks were rarely crowded which meant the was it times for the rides were short.

Over 6 days we covered Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. I think 6 days was a day too long, but the price for passes was actually cheaper than a 5 day trip. Crazy. We spent most of our trip at Magic Kingdom and Epcot; Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios were each 1/2 day experiences. There’s so much to see and experience; you never felt like you were repeating anything.

John and Cora had a blast. I was so proud of my kids. From how well they were behaved relative to other kids to how adventurous they were. For example, Cora rode the Kilimanjaro roller coaster at Animal Kingdom, TWICE, The Tower of Terror, Thunder Mountain and Test Track. Not bad for a 4 year old.

Of course the kids also wanted to see and visit with the characters. Over 6 days they met with: Pluto, Mickey, Minnie, Flick, Pinnochio, Daisy, Donald, Goofy, Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Tigger, Whinnie The Poo, Buzz, Woody, Mike, Sully, Chip and Dale. Crazy, right? John even got a kiss from Tinkerbell!

I can’t say enough about how amazing the Disney staff were. There was always a smile and a bounce in their step. You don’t realize how impressive this is until you head to the airport and interact with the surly and grumpy TSA staff. Disney proves that you can operationalize core values to each and every employee. The only nit I have with the Disney experience is how poor the food was…which could be overlooked if it weren’t so expensive. Hey, no one’s perfect. There’s not much I’d change about the experience. I’m really happy that Cheryl and I were able to give our kids a life time of memories.

Here’s a few photos from the trip all taken with my Nikon D700:

John playing the drums at Animal Kingdom

Cinderella’s Castle

Cora after getting her face painted

John driving a car (I can’t even describe the laughter and pure enjoyment he had driving this car)

A caricature of the kids

Me with Tinkerbell

 

A Tourist In My Own City

I spent some time in New York this week. I’m a New Yorker. Born. Raised. And, still in love with the city that never sleeps. For years, I always thought I’d eventually want to move back to New York. A few months ago I was in New York and I was stuck by the realization that I have no burning desire to get back to New York. I’ve outgrown it. I think when we’re young we have the energy to live in New York, but not the financial means, and when we’re older we have the financial means, but not the energy. I’m ok with that realization.

I still love the city. It’s the best city in the world for more reasons than I can write. But, the one I want to call out is that the city is never the same. It’s a living, breathing organism that’s constantly changing. The other day, I spent an amazing night out in the Big Apple. I hit up several new places for me: The Ace Hotel, The Breslin, Crif’s, Schiller’s and Please Don’t Tell.

Please Don’t Tell (a place I’ve never been to before, but can’t believe I hadn’t) was the last stop of the night. At roughly 1:30 AM, I stepped out, looked up, saw ACTUAL STARS, and had the realization that I’d become a tourist in my own city…and the person leading me around was the real deal New Yorker. The irony was not only was she a transplant, but had only been living in the city for the last 10 months. Just too damn funny.

The Dagwood Challenge

I love food.  I love the taste, the smell and occasionally I even love the “presentation” of the food.  I’ve also got one heck of an appetite.  My eating habits are nothing short of horrible, but according to my last physical, I’m a perfect picture of health…so go figure.

This love of food has lead me to become a huge fan of the show Man Vs. Food.  There’s something fun about watching someone take on crazy food challenges.  From insanely spicy wings to 5 lb. hamburgers, Adam Richman (the show’s host) tackels challenges across the country.  As someone who values portion over presentation, Adam Richman is a guy after my own heart.

Man Vs. Food and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives have become a staple of my life because they impact my travel plans.  For example, the minute I knew I was going to Columbus, Ohio for a wedding this past weekend, I Googled, “Man vs. Food Columbus Ohio.”  Yes, I was on the hunt for an eating challenge in Columbus.  Well, I found one that was less than 5 miles from the hotel I was staying at.  Hmm, there was no way I could pass this up.

My Man Vs. Food adventure took me to the Ohio Deli And Restaurant for the Dagwood Challenge.  What’s the Dagwood Challenge?  Well, the challenge is based on the fictional character Dagwood, from the comic strip Blondie…which means we’re talking an insanely large sandwich.  To be more specific, it was a 2.5 pounds of cold-cuts and cheese (ham, turkey and roast beef, american and swiss) coupled with lettuce, tomato and onion, doused in mayo and then stuffed into a long and thick bun.  That alone would be a massive challenge to eat, but the folks at the Ohio Deli took it up a notch by adding a pickle and a mountain of fries to the plate.  Oh, and you had to eat it ALL in under 30 minutes.

Your reward for beating the challenge was a T-Shirt indicating you had survived the challenge and your picture on the wall of fame.  Seems like a fair exchange…of course what they don’t tell you is you’ll also win a stomach ache.  I was pumped, a little nervous and confident…initially.  That confidence wained when my plate appeared…and then wained even more when I realized that red onions were part of the challenge.  I can’t express enough how much I loath red onions.

My strategy from the beginning was:

  1. Save the fries for last
  2. Take the lettuce, tomato and onion off the sandwich and save for the end
  3. Eat quickly so my stomach didn’t realize what was going on
  4. Pull the roast beef off the sandwich and eat separately; this made the sandwich easier to eat because it was smaller

I cut through the first half of the sandwich in under 4 minutes.

I thought this was awesome until I later learned that the current record is the entire challenge in under 4 minutes.  Ok, bruised ego, but at the time I was feeling good.  It took me another 16 minutes to knock out half the fries and 3/4 of the larger remaining half of the sandwich.

My jaw was hurting from chewing so much.  I was slowing down and feeling the effects of nearly 2.5 lbs of meat in my belly.  From there it took me 4 more minutes to eat the rest of the sandwich and get the fries down to a small handfull…oh and the lettuce, tomato and onion was still staring at me.  With 6 minutes to go I caught a pseudo second win.  I ate the rest of the fries very quickly and finished them with 3 minutes to go.  All that remained was the lettuce, tomato and onion…oh and the pickle  This was going to be tough.  I broke the pickle in 2, stuffed it in and swallowed.  Then I put the tomato and onion in the lettuce…a la lettuce wrap…folded it, brought it to my face and almost lost my lunch.  The smell of the onions was nearly too much.  I had to improvise.  I shoved it all in my mouth at once, took a swig of Pepsi to mask the taste and then swallowed.

With 2 minutes to spare I had taken down the challenge.  I felt stuffed.

I waddled over to the wall of fame, got my t-shirt, posed for a picture and then marched out with my head held high.  What an experience.  What a trip.  What an event.  As Adam Richman would say, on that day man was triumphant.