Monday, April 30, 2012

Trinidad: The Trip to San Souci

After spending two days hanging out at EAD's homestead we were free to head out and explore another piece of the island. We had discussed two options. The first wasn't even on the island, it was actually a few minutes by air away - we thought about visiting Tobago. The other option was to travel to the northeast coast of Trinidad to see the area where the turtles come ashore to lay there eggs.

This was an easy decision once we checked the flight schedule and availability: the day we wanted to travel had no available seats on the plane. Problem solved, eh?  We decided to leave Friday morning and drive up to San Souci.

If Trinidad is a clock, Port of Spain is at 11:00 and San Souci/Grand Riviere is at around 12:30 -- about 30 kilometers from each other. Unfortunately there isn't a road that goes along the north coast, so to get to where you must drive south a bit through the town of Arima.  We were also planning to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center on this little road trip -- and Asa Wright is just north of Arima, right on the way.

After heading out of Port of Spain we made our way to Arima and decided to head up to Asa Wright and check out the birds. Easier said than done. We couldn't find the road. We asked for directions. We still couldn't find the road. We drove around the narrow, unmarked streets of Arima asking for directions for nearly an hour -- then we said screw it. We'll try again on the way back.

Back on the main road heading east from Arima.  One thing I loved about Trinidad was the roads. In Port of Spain the roads are wide, paved and in relative good repair. The farther we got from the City the roads got worse and worse. Down from 4 lanes to 2, then down to 1.5 and then a single lane for both directions of travel.  The road went from a nice asphalt top to an old road that hadn't seen new asphalt in 10+ years and even dirt roads at certain points.

The folks in rural Trinidad drive like bats out of hell.  You are also driving on the right side of the car and on the left side of the road. This coupled with the poor roads make for quite a wild ride.

We stopped several times to take in the great beach views as well as on the way back we stopped to hike to a waterfall.

The ride was quite beautiful, but if you aren't use to driving on the wrong side of the car and road this might not be the best little road trip.

When you travel, do you often rent a car? I haven't ever driven on the wrong side of the car, do you find it hard?  Do you feel as out of it when you just can't find the proper road and even when you ask for help?
Port of Spain roadway
Arima roadway
Rural Trinidad roadway/bridge

EAD and I at the beach in San Souci

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Koval Distillery Tour - Chicago

There is a local distillery in the Ravenswood neighborhood that offers tours several times a day.  The tour has been on our to-do list for at least a year.  We finally decided to take this last tour of the day last Saturday.  The tour cost $10 per person and included a bit of history of the distillery, the family, the process of distilling and small tastings of about 10 different items (whiskey and infused spirits).

The tour had about 15 people - which I think was too many for the small space.  The tour guide was competent but didn't really have a passion for distilling or even a real outline of what she was talking about. Several times she had to ask us "Did I already tell you guys this?" -- which she hadn't.

The tastings were small, but very tasty -- having a larger pour would have made for a very sloppy evening.  Koval has a limited distribution network but can be found in many restaurants, bars and smaller liquor stores in Chicago.  You can also find this booze in New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia and other states.

If you are in Chicago and are looking for a unique booze related tour, I would recommend visiting Koval. The tasting is in the rooms where they distill and bottle their products.  They also have a small little shop up front where you can buy bottles, shirts, bags, accessories and books.  A great little place to pick up a gift for yourself or a nice host/hostess gift.

Have you been to Koval before? How was your tour? Do you have a favorite booze tour you constantly revisit? If so, tell me about it.  When planning a trip do you look for a winery or a distillery where you can spend an afternoon?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Trinidad: Homestay: Water, Food and an Infinity Pool

I didn't stay in a hotel while in Port of Spain, Trinidad. I stayed with my friend EAD.  He had a large condo (3-flat) with a view of the ocean and a lovely private pool. Just a day or two before my arrival, EAD bid farewell to a couple of guests who had stayed for a couple of weeks.  He used a good quite a bit of vacation during their stay.

One issue in Port of Spain (or at least in the neighborhood in which I was staying) is that the water isn't always running to the house, so many homes have huge water tanks to hold them over until the public water is turned on.  The other issue? The toilet in the guestroom kept running while the previous guests were all three water tanks (15,000 gallons in total?) were dry.  What exactly does this mean? No showers, no tooth brushing, no toilet flushing, no tap water for drinking. Nothing.  After a long travel day, I really wanted a shower. The next best thing? A dip in the pool.

The next day EAD went off to work and I hang out at his home.  I opened all the doors and windows, sat on the veranda and read my favorite book - The Sun Also Rises.  Since EAD had been so busy before I arrived, there wasn't much food in the house. Although there were several beers, Carib of course.

I spent the most of the day enjoying the heat, drinking Caribs, floating in the infinity pool, reading and watching foreign TV. This continue for two days and it was truly relaxing. I was almost completely off the grid (as Verizon doesn't or didn't offer service in Trinidad).  Of course I did manage to get a bit of a sunburn on the first day.

A few days before I arrived in Port of Spain, several ex-pats were brutally murdered in their homes by militant xenophopic Trinis.  The first day I was alone in Trinidad I was sitting in the pool and saw a man climb over the fence/gate into the driveway/courtyard area. He then opened the gate and three more men came running in. Of course my first thought was that I was about to be butchered by a handful of Trinis. I decide it would be prudent to go back into the house and lock the caged doors/windows.  While every window and door was open the home had built in security bars.  My silliness was soon made evident when these four men began filling the empty water tanks and another man started to clean the pool.

Not the most glamorous ways to start a Caribbean vacation, but something that I really needed.

Do you like to kick off your vacation by totally decompressing before getting active and exploring? Have you ever stayed someplace where the water had just run out and you were out of luck?  Have you ever been on vacation and thought that you were about to be murdered?
My book, beer and ham and cheese wrap

The pool, the lanai and a waterfall

Quite a warm day

My feet floating in the infinity pool

View from the pool

Slightly sun burned on day one

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dollar Shave Club

Two weeks ago I received an email from a friend (more of a travel nerd acquaintance) telling me about this new service called Dollar Shave Club.  One thing that I really hate is how expensive razor blades are. You go to Target for toiletries and when you toss in a package of razor blades your bill jumps up by $20. Hate it.

Enter Dollar Shave Club. Basically you pay a subscription of either $1, $6 or $9 per month and you get a set number of razors delivered to your home.  My friend signed up for this a month or so ago and really likes the service. I decided to give it a try, but when I signed up I received an email that they were backlogged and would send me my first razor in mid-May.

I signed up for the $6 version (because those single blade razors just shred my delicate face and don't even cut my wild beard). With your first order the throw in a razor handle (stick).  I think the video is pretty funny too.

Full disclosure: If you follow my link and sign up, I get a free month of razors. Once you sign up you get a link too and when your friends sign up you get a free month for each new member.

I will fully review the razors when they arrive -- I'm actually looking forward to shaving for once, even though it is one of my lease favorite tasks (ranks right up there with cleaning the litter box).

What do you think of this idea? Do you hate the cost of razors as much as I do?

Friday, April 20, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Smoked Paprika Chicken Thighs

Last Sunday morning I watched The Best Thing I Ever Made: Chicken Dinners. Alton Brown (who I use to really like, but now find him to be a bit grating) made Smoked Paprika Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Onions.   The kicker is that you put an olive tapenade under the skin of the thighs.  I immediately knew I had to make this recipe.
Chicken as it enters the oven
I love chicken thighs: they are cheap and have the most flavor in the chicken.  I followed Alton's recipe exactly - I tried to buy a pre-made tapenade, but my grocery was sold out.  I even used my kitchen shears to bone (debone?) the chicken.
Potatoes, onions and chicken grease.

I had to buy a new piece of kitchen equipment too - a mandolin.  I will right a full review of this equipment and my history with this dangerous piece of kitchen plastic and metal.

Resting Chicken
This recipe was super easy. Interestingly enough, the recipe turned out almost exactly as it did on TV, except for all the grease that came from the chicken and just drenched the potatoes and onions.  Very shocking.

The chicken was delicious. The potatoes were great, despite the pool of chicken thigh grease they were swimming in.
Greasy potatoes
Would I make this is unclear.  The chicken was very flavorful. I don't know about the tapenade under the skin. It was good, but I don't think the olives added enough for the work involved.  I'm also super surprised about the amount of grease/liquid too.

If you like olives and chicken thighs, you should give this recipe a try...and let me know what you think.

 Have you made an Alton Brown Recipe recently? Do you have a nasty mandolin accident you want to tell us all about? What is your preference: Breast or Thighs (Chicken, I mean).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trinidad: POS Customs/Immigration

We arrive in Port of Spain and I was hit with the thick warm air that had a subtle sweet smell of a nice cigar.    I wander through the terminal to customs.  I didn't realize that the mayhem that was customs and immigration was typical for all governmental services in Trinidad.

There really was no organized line, we all just grouped together in a big mass slowly moving towards the less than efficient immigration folks.  I handed over my passport and immigration form (eventually) and was asked what my purpose was (pleasure) and where I was staying (with EAD) and the address (unknown, let me look): "Eh, not necessary", she said as she stamped me and waved me through to immigration.

Baggage claim was a mess too.  I don't understand why people who fly to the Caribbean travel with half a dozen suitcases each.  Luggage carts were stacked high as the passengers pushing them to the large gymnasium sized room that housed two x-ray machines.  I didn't see any proper lines or directions, so I start walking towards the exit, bypassing the machines and heading straight outside.  Evidently I was supposed to go through some other sort of screening/review process.

Such is life, right?  I made it through the three ring circus that was customs relatively quickly and found EAD waiting with a ton of other folks for their friends and loved ones to emerge from the gymnasium.

I am here Trinidad!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Trinidad: Flight Review: ORD-SJU-POS

I really don't fly American Airlines and the only reason I did so on this trip was because it was really the only viable option.  I didn't really know what to expect. I must admit I was surprised. I stand about 6' tall -- not monster tall but tall enough to be concerned about leg room.  I had ample leg room on this flight - and I was in a standard row: not exit or bulkhead.  Unfortunately I didn't take photos of the leg room, but it was enough to make me think about switching my preferred airline (well, we know how that turned out, don't we?).

The flight was surprisingly empty. I would say it was about 60% occupied, which I don't understand since there was another flight to San Juan earlier in the day that was cancelled. Where were all of those people?

The service, food and entertainment were uneventful.  I must admit each time I fly to San Juan, I am surprised how far it is.  It is 2,072 miles from ORD to SJU. 300 miles more than any place on the west coast and 600 miles more than Cancun.  It makes sense when looking at it on the map, but sans-map I am just at a loss.
Flying into San Juan
We got to San Juan on time (new adjusted "on-time"). I had 35 minutes to make my connection -- so once that door opens I take off.  Come to find out SJU is a small airport.  Large enough that I couldn't use my lounge pass here though. I head off to my gate and arrive just in time for us to board our bus. Ugh. We all know what I think of remote stands (unless you are flying Lufthansa through FRA).
SJU is glamorous, eh? 
We flew a Dash 8 from SJU to POS.  The plane was hot and we couldn't turn the A/C on until the pilots got there which took nearly 30 minutes from the time we all were seated.  The pilots arrive, carrying to-go meal bags. They tell the stew they were hungry and decided to stop for dinner...but don't worry, they only ate half their meal at the restaurant and will finish it in air.  Now that is service.

My notes indicate the flight took 3.5 hours (can that be right?), this plane was horrible.  I was lucky enough not to have a seat mate.  These planes had no entertainment (other than the loud passengers telling tales of their lives) and limited service. I did manage to get a beer.  The flight was so loud and vibrated so much I was just waiting for a wing to shear off. Luckily that didn't happen.

We land smoothly and quickly taxi to a remote stand and quickly head into Customs and Immigration.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Trinidad: Chicago - New Air Travel Experience

It goes without saying that I'm a United man. Unless absolutely necessary, I won't even consider another (non-Star Alliance) airline.  My options to Port of Spain, Trinidad were limited. This trip was before Continental joined Star Alliance (long before the merger).  My only real option to Trinidad at the time on Star Alliance was through London.  Love the miles idea, but for a 5 day trip this just didn't make sense.

Yes, I had to opt for a flight on American.  Good god, I know!  I hadn't flown American since I was in college and using Priceline tickets all the time (and I haven't been on American since I took this trip either).

I woke up early this mid-April morning to find 1-2" of snow and ice on the ground.  Great.  I check the flight status and all flights are on time (ahem, no one has bothered to change the status, ugh).  I hop in a taxi - and it appears the taxi driver was as surprised by the snow as I was, as half of the back seat was covered in snow and ice.  This is a great way to start a vacation.

I arrive at the American terminal and it is total mayhem. Dozens of cancellations caused hundreds of confused people just milling about.  I used the self check-in Kiosk, check my bag and head through security.  Since I'd have a layover of 2+ hours in San Juan, I decided to buy the Admiral's Club Pass.  It was a day pass, not a single use pass like you often see now.  I had this pass and a delayed flight, so off I go to my first Admiral's Club experience.

The club was larger than I was expecting and my favorite part, it had a pretty good view of the tarmac.  There were two people delivering drinks and giving us flight updates -- they were very attentive.  The club was pretty empty too, surprising considering all of the cancellations that day.

My notes from the day indicate that over 250 flights were cancelled in the morning alone - including every OTHER flight to San Juan.  We were delayed two hours.  Which means if we kept this schedule I would have a whopping 20 minutes to connect to the last flight of the day to Port of Spain.  I was a bit nervous as I had no idea how big the airport was in San Juan (HA!).

As I made it to the gate and found a plane full of nervous people checking their watches and commenting on how they will be missing their connections.  At least we are all in the same boat, eh?  As soon as I walk to the boarding area, I hear my name being called from two separate areas. Upgrade maybe??? No, two separate friends that I met from two different charitable organizations with their wives heading out on vacation.  Small world, eh? While it was great to catch up with these people (and introduce them to each other) I think I would have preferred the upgrade.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trinidad Trip Index

I went to visit my friend EAD in Trinidad a couple years ago because...well, I had never been, he was there and it was winter in Chicago. Do I need a better excuse? He had just said goodbye to friends from home who had stayed with him for nearly a month -- so he didn't have a lot of time to take off and hang out with me.  We still made my 5 day trip pretty exciting and it was a great way for me to relax.  It was also my first international trip as an adult -- I hadn't traveled abroad since college, perish the thought.  Over the next few days I'll be providing you my thoughts on this island nation.

I hope you enjoy!

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Trinidad Travels...really?

I've been reading several travel bloggers who are planning trips to Trinidad and Tobago. Some are building a bit of vacation onto a business trip, others are just going on their own accord.  I must admit, T&T never really made it to my list of dream vacations. Nothing against T&T, I just never gave it much thought.  I think in my heart I want to visit every single country on Earth, but if I were making my list of destinations, T&T would be lower on the list.

That being said, I have visited Trinidad (I didn't visit Tobago though).  A dear friend was stationed there for work for a couple years so I decided to fly down for a few days and see him and take a tour of the bigger of two islands.

I will not spend a great deal of time with restaurant reviews or even a hotel in Port of Spain review as it has been a few years since I've been there and well...I didn't stay in a hotel in the City.  I will provide what hopes to be timeless advice on T&T and perhaps an amusing travel anecdote.  There will also be a big surprise for you all when it comes to transport.

Have you recently been to Trinidad and Tobago?  Is it high on your list of places to visit? If so, what moves it to the top: the beaches, the business, the wildlife?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Recipe Review - Linguine with Shrimp, Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes (Giada De Laurentiis)

I have been physically unable to cook since my accident. Cooking really is a nice stress reliever for me -- and the past six weeks have been quite stressful. I needed to cook. Why couldn't I cook, you may ask?  My right arm has had some severe mobility and strength issues. I am recovering quite well though.

I knew I wanted to try to cook a meal on Sunday, but what would I make. Flipping through the channels on Sunday morning I stumbled upon the Spring Lunch episode of Giada at Home.  The entree was a Linguine with Shrimp, Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes.  This sounded great - it wouldn't require me to use both hands while eating and I really love shrimp, asparagus and of course tomatoes.

I made my shopping list and hit the store -- twice. I forgot to put asparagus on my list. Ugh.  I also got the wrong shrimp - I didn't get peeled shrimp, but easy peel instead. More on that later.

This recipe was super easy to make. It didn't take a lot of chopping or other prep work.  It was quite a quick meal too.

My tomatoes really liquefied before the everything else was done - and since I love tomatoes so much, it was a bit disappointing.  Perhaps the heat was too high or I let it cook too long.  If I thought about it at the time I would have reserved 25% of the tomatoes and pop in the pot about 5 minutes before serving.

I mentioned earlier that I purchased the wrong type of shrimp.  The unpeeled shrimp added a huge amount of flavor -- way more than I expected.  I didn't even realize they were unpeeled until I dumped the sauce on the pasta.  The sauce it self was quite runny, but within a few minutes the pasta had absorbed this very flavorful liquid.  The worst part was peeling the scalding hot shrimp with a gimpy hand.

Would I make this meal again? Probably not. It was quite tasty and easy, but it just didn't sing to me. I must say, using the unpeeled shrimp really kicked the flavor up a bit.

Monday, April 09, 2012

New Series - Favorite Things.

To help me focus some of my writings I have a couple series that I work on from time to time. "Where I'm Staying" and "What I'm Cooking" is being joined by "My Favorite Things".  I was never a big fan of Oprah, but I did like her "Favorite Things" episode. I didn't like all of her favorite things, but I usually found a little something that I wanted or just had to have.  Now that Oprah is gone we are now stuck finding our own favorite things.

Even Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother got into the Favorite Things Game.

One of my favorite things is the combination of dark chocolate and sea salt. I could eat the Intense Dark Sea Salt Soiree for every meal for the rest of my life and be a very happy man.

A few weeks ago, MS arrived at my house with all the fixin's for dinner (he has cooked almost every Sunday since my accident, how great, eh?).  He has to have dessert -- not "likes to have dessert", but "HAS to have dessert".  He saw something new in the ice cream case and knew I'd enjoy it.

Enter Haagen-Dazs Limited Edition Ice Cream - Salted Caramel Truffle.  This is a simple vanilla ice cream with ribbons of salted caramel with little chocolate truffles.  I usually don't like chunks of stuff in my ice cream, but this stuff is absolutely amazing.  I have actually turned into a dessert guy now -- I really love finishing off a meal with this very rich treat.

My two biggest concerns?  One: I will eat so much of this I will get fat and the sugar will rot my teeth. Two: This limited edition of this ice cream won't be around when I go to the store next. According to the website this stuff is around until December. That means we have only 9 months of this wonderful little bucket of heaven is gone forever.

Have you all tried this yet? What about the other Limited Edition Haagen-Dazs flavors? Which ones should I try?  We need to tell the good people at HG to make this a permanent resident of our grocers freezer. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Where I'm Eating...The Pig (Memphis)

When you think of food and Memphis I would be surprised if you didn't think of BBQ.  I didn't do much planning before this business trip so I didn't have a list of restaurants to try. When making reservations at the DoubleTree Downtown Memphis, I noted on my reservation that I would love a list of recommended BBQ restaurants available upon arrival -- which they surprisingly provided.

One of the restaurants was closed, but the second choice, which came highly recommended was The Pig.  The Pig is on Beale Street, just a 3 minute walk from the DoubleTree.

It was about 19h00 and raining. Beale Street was pretty empty.  I was dining alone. The sign at The Pig said I should wait to be I waited and waited and waited and waited.  I noticed one of the bartenders waving me in -- they seemed to be quite annoyed that I was waiting for service (as the sign required). I choose a seat and waited for a server.  A young woman who looked about 17 months pregnant came up and asked what I wanted to drink. I followed up with "What beer is on tap". She was unhappy I asked her this and she walked away. Almost immediately a replacement server came up and list the limited number of beers on tap. I went wild and had a Blue Moon.

After spending a few minutes looking at the menu I decided to order the Jumbo BBQ Pork Sandwich with Fries and Slaw.  The sandwich was delivered very quickly. The meat was flavorful but the bun was cold and stale - not even toasted. I ate this quite quickly despite it being of average quality.

After dinner the preggo server asked if I wanted dessert, of which they had two selections:  Peanut Butter Pie and Pecan Pie.  I asked the server if the desserts were homemade. She appeared to be confused and then insulted by this. I explained the question again and said that I wasn't really excited about eating a mass marketed dessert, but if it was homemade I would give it a try. The server then understood and said the desserts are made fresh every morning. I ordered the Peanut Butter was also average.

I thought the whole experience was quite average. The food was extremely reasonably priced. When I'm in Memphis again, will I return to The Pig? Probably not. It was perfectly fine, but I am sure I can find a better BBQ Joint in Memphis.

Where do you recommend I go next time I am in Memphis?  Is Beale Street too touristy to get good food? Other than BBQ what should I get while in Memphis?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

DoubleTree Memphis Downtown - Hotel Review

I had my first business trip following my accident two weeks ago. I went to Memphis for a mediation. The work trip itself was successful and I got to see a tiny bit of what appears to be a great small City.  I took an expensive United flight (nearly $1,100 to fly less than 500 miles, that's crazy!) landing at 17h30.  Being a Delta hub, I was surprised to see only one other plane at the airport (not counting FedEx, of course).  I was in a taxi less than 10 minutes from touchdown and was in the lobby of the DoubleTree Downtown Memphis by 18h00.

I had left a note when I made my reservation saying this was my first trip to Memphis and that I  am interested in recommendations for BBQ joints.  When I arrived at the check-in desk I was greeted by Lenee. She pulled my reservation, thanked me profusely for being a Gold Member, gave me a welcome cookie, tickets to the lobby happy hour and immediately started telling me about her favorite BBQ joints within walking distance. She and her colleague along with one of the valets began telling me the good and bad of these places.  I then explained to Lenee that I was nursing a severely broken arm and I would need more pillows for my bed.  She said I already had 6 on my bed but if I needed more just ask.

I headed up to my room and was surprised by its size.  There weren't enough pillows for my cocoon that I need to sleep now (damn aching/healing arm).  The room was large and relatively clean, but it looked like it hadn't been refreshed in quite a while.  It was just a bit old and tired.  It was quite comfortable and suited my needs for one night.

I did have two complaints (which I did not raise to management). The first, it appears the sheets on my bed were stained with something red (blood, ketchup, BBQ sauce, lipstick???) - the sheets had been washed but were just old and stained.  I decided to cover the stained area with a towel and sleep on the other side of the bed.

My second issue - the shower.  The tub itself was so slippery I nearly fell. This of course really scared me since I've been very skittish since my accident.  The hotel should either change their cleaning supplies or provide one of those gross anti-slip mats.

The staff at this hotel really did provide top notch service - as good as I received at the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton.  The housekeepers on the floor called me by name both in the evening and in the morning.

The location of this hotel was really great. It is immediately across the street from the Autozone Park and just a two minute walk to Beale Street (queue Walking in Memphis by Cher).  I didn't really get to explore the City since I was only in town for 24.5 hours and was working most of this time. I did get BBQ - I'll review the BBQ Place in my next entry.

Would I stay at this hotel again? I'd say yes. Was it perfect? No, but it was more than adequate with truly top notch service. Kudos to Lenee and her colleagues. Thank you for truly making my stay enjoyable.