Four Days in L.A.

The summer’s end arrived early and was anti-climatic. One minute it was July and I was recovering from my summer vacation in London and the next it was August and I was teaching again. So, after two months of a new semester and 7 lectures it was time for another trip. One thing I have learned after 2 years and 8 months or so in Fort Wayne is that I require frequent breaks from Northeast Indiana.

Where to then? The short list was Portland, Los Angeles, or home. I spent Labor Day at home so that left Portland and L.A. Portland in October did not sound all that attractive. If I want gray and rainy I can get that in Fort Wayne. So, L.A. won easily.

I set up temporary housekeeping in Santa Monica at The Viceroy, which was fantastic. Some will tell you that the place to stay in Santa Monica is Shutters on the Beach (just in front of The Viceroy). While Shutters is nice and you may run into a celebrity or two there (if you care for that kind of thing) it seems to be more of a family spot – lots of little ones. If you are traveling alone and can bear to walk a block to the beach then The Viceroy (or one of the other boutique hotels in Santa Monica) is probably better suited for you – fewer children and traditional vacationers. If you go please give my best to John and Andrew who work the front door.

It was a near perfect vacation. No work, no writing, no drama. I took long walks on the beach, bought a shirt at Amoeba Music, had a chauffeured tour (note: the chauffeur is a friend, but still) through Beverly Hills and Hollywood, got to the Griffith Observatory on a reasonably clear day, walked Zuma Beach, cruised up PCH, wandered through Malibu, dreamed of working at Pepperdine, socialized with some lovely friends, saw the Endeavor, and watched three near-perfect sunsets.

Even better, every meal was a great gluten-free experience. I dined on lamb belly at Michael Voltaggio’s ink., then had octopus salad and rock fish at Son of a Gun, drank a juice blend called Bright Eyes with my huevos rancheros at True Food Kitchen, had ceviche at Border Grill, and finished up the trip with curry at Rock Sugar. It was fabulous eating. Traveling gluten-free in L.A. is so easy.

The trip was right on time in every way. I can’t even complain about the L.A. traffic, I did not experience any of the bad parts of the city. I’m not sure that I am west coast kind of girl, but 4 days in Santa Monica is really hard to beat. It made returning to the not very sunny Midwest painful. But I still have the pictures . . .

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Boston in Pictures

I just made my first trip to Boston. It is nothing if not charming. I stayed in the theatre district and spent two days walking the city. The location was perfect and Boston was easier to navigate than I expected. It was interesting, beautiful, and fun.

The Boston Common and Public Gardens were the perfect introduction to Boston. You get the history, the pretty, and, if you are lucky, nice enough December weather to be outside.

After a tour through the Common I wandered through Beacon Hill. It is a lovely urban community. A cross between Colonial Williamsburg and Manhattan with super cool doors.

Next, I picked up The Freedom Trail at the Massachusetts State House. It was getting dark at this point and I was hustling to see as much as possible before dark caught me, especially the burial grounds at the Park Street Church. This is when I punched myself in the stomach. Seriously. I was crossing the street from the Common to Park Street Church. Rather than watch where I was going I was taking a picture AND walking (see the picture below) and walked directly into a huge green rib-cage-level pole in front of two lanes of traffic. Full speed. I have never been punched in the stomach but I imagine that this is what it would feel like. I was embarrassed but could not be too concerned about the gawking bus driver and passengers since I could neither breath nor stand-up straight. So, for a time I sat at the foot of the Boston Common sign trying to decide if I was really hurt or if the pain would pass. I was not and it did. I just felt stupid. Live it, learn it.

My last day was spent wandering through Newbury and Boylston Streets doing some window shopping and taking in the view. This is where I learned that I sound Australian, at least to a sales representative at Brooks Brothers. Maybe she had talked with the taxi driver from the day before who asked me if I am British. Who knew the Appalachian twang was so hard to decipher?

The storefront used in Cheers made this leg of the tour as did the view from the Prudential Tower and the Boston Public Library.

No trip of mine would be complete without some food pictures . . . the eating is good in Boston. I planned dinners at Market by Jean-Georges and Nebo, but oysters at Neptune was an impromptu stop and by far the best eating I did the three days I was there and I just had oysters. Super good.

There is plenty more of Boston to see, but for this first trip I feel like I covered some serious territory in a day and a half. My muscles are still sore and my feet are still recovering. I will go back, if only to hear someone say “wicked smahhrt.”

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: An Epic Friday Night

“Can’t you feel those hills around you, Can’t you feel that touch of home, And don’t you wish you’d never gone, There are some things memories can’t bring home.” Hazel Dickens

There is one weekend every year when State Street in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee turns into a haven for Americana, folk, and bluegrass musicians. It is the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (“BRRR”). I headed south into the mountains from the flatlands of Indiana for a visit with my precious family and Friday night at BRRR.

I have not missed a BRRR since 2003 (I think), back when it was just a couple thousand people and I was living in walking distance (if you had to walk). Now, it is becoming a top-notch festival. While I am biased, I would recommend BRRR to anyone. You can’t beat great bands, both new an old, kind people, and a fun atmosphere.

Sunshine and her hubby were my partners in crime for the evening. Sunshine’s man is an organizer extraordinaire, so our itinerary was well-researched and set. We started with dinner at 620 State with a prime view of State Street and the tunes of J.P. Parsons in the background. Bless the hearts of those folks at 620, they carefully helped me have a nice gluten-free dinner on a crazy busy night with a limited menu. From our dinner table I happily spotted friends and acquaintances from my former life. Oh, and former Governor and candidate for the Virginia Senate Tim Kaine.

Our line up for the rest of night was Whiskey Gentry, Lydia Loveless, Folk Soul Revival, The Black Lillies, Billy Joe Shaver, and City and Colour. All were good, if not exceptional. However, for me the night was epic because it was a delightful combination of some of my all time favorite tunes and one of my all time favorite people.

Folk Soul Revival not only played Sweet Virginia (I like to think it is what the Commonwealth is singing to me), but they covered Tom Petty’s Don’t Do Me Like That and Prince’s Purple Rain. Yes, Purple Rain. It was awesome. Also, Tim Kaine played the harmonica on a number with Folk Soul for Tennessee Shines, an excellent radio program for WDVX out of Knoxville, Tennessee. Folk Soul Revival laid it down, big time.

Speaking of Knoxville, Tennessee, The Black Lillies (based in my law school stomping grounds of Knoxville) played like their hair was on fire at the Paramount Theatre. I adore this band. Their music is independent, personal, and high order entertaining. As an additional bonus, they are nice people and Cruz Contreras and the boys in the band are all easy on the eyes. However, the lone lady in the band stole the show on Friday night. Trisha Gene Brady gave a moving (she was brought to tears herself) a cappella performance of Hazel Dickens’s Hills of Home. It was amazing. Sunshine looked at me afterward and said “that had to be worth the trip” and, indeed, it was. I would happily drive again from FW to Bristol to hear it. They also did one of my all time favorites – There’s Only One – which made me smile. If you haven’t bought the music of The Black Lillies, please do yourself a favor and do it now.

The cherry on my Friday night at BRRR sundae came from a music veteran. This guy was writing songs for the Outlaws . . . hello, Waylon. I have been listening to Billy Joe Shaver for years. He is a lovely man. Once a hell raiser and now a Jesus advocate. I met him twice, once in Houston and then in Knoxville, and he is just a joy (I like to think he was telling the truth when he said he remembered me). I wandered down to the State Street stage after The Black Lillies just in time to hear Billy Joe Shaver belt out I’m Gonna Live Forever. No one does this tune like him. And for the frat-boy next to me who thinks that is a Robert Earl Keen song, puh-lease. Billy Joe was writing those kinds of tunes when REK was knee-high to a grasshopper. Billy Joe wrote that song with his son Eddie, a talented guitarist who died too young. Hearing it live is almost a religious experience.

It was a perfect end to a perfect evening. Heck, even the weather was perfect. This was the best Friday night at BRRR in my memory. The music was epic and the company was perfect.

Thanks to Sunshine, her man, and Bristol for making it a beautiful night.

Second Stop: Niagara-on-the-Lake

My meandering through Niagara wine country ended in the tiny little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (“NOTL”). NOTL is a historic town that sits right on the Niagara River as it strays from or into (whichever it is) Lake Ontario. NOTL was the first capitol of Ontario, hosted battles in the War of 1812, and is home to the Shaw Festival. It is a wonderful spot for history buffs and theatre enthusiasts.

I arrived in the afternoon, just in time for lunch. I took up temporary residence at The Moffat Inn just east of the main drag in NOTL (Queen Street). The Moffat is small, quaint, and accommodating. Of course, immediately upon arrival I requested a different room. My original room was right next to the back door which stays unlocked all night. Um,no. The desk clerk was kind enough to move me (after calling to see if a sister hotel in town could accommodate me), very kind. I then set out to explore.

There is a town park is right across the street from the Inn that was filled with people, music, and children playing in the water fountain. On down was the grand Prince of Wales Hotel, where you can have high tea and dine in style. Passed the Prince of Wales is a street filled, I imagine everyday all summer, with tourists. It is a tourist town, which means it is required to be filled with random shops catering to the needs of tourists (needs that they don’t know they have until they get there). I was not in the mood to participate in tourist shopping (when you are traveling solo your budget tends to be smaller), but I was looking for food.

Doors of the Prince of Wales, which are constantly manned by a gloved gentleman.

I opted for something Greek at Yianni’s Mediterranean Cuisine. I enjoyed a full plate of stuffed eggplant, which the server kind confirmed was gluten-free. I know, the asking gets old but I have to do it. Sigh. I cleaned my plate and enjoyed the cool quiet back patio location.

One of the primary attractions in NOTL is The Shaw Festival. The Shaw Festival is an extremely active theatre organization that operates in four local theaters in NOTL and “produces and presents the work of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of Shaw’s lifetime.” I immediately took the position that if I was going to have a NOTL experience I needed to see a show. I went to the box office at The Royal George Theatre and bought a ticket for 8:00 p.m. performance of His Girl Friday.

I took the rest of the afternoon off. I sat on my deck at the Inn, watched people, and worked on my pictures from Toronto. It was a lovely break followed by a much needed nap. My nap was followed by a walk down to the water and enjoy the view. You can see the Toronto skyline from NOTL and many folks were playing, resting, and visiting in the park. Very pretty.

The theatre features a 30 minute talk on each production prior to start of the play. So, I wandered over to the Festival Theatre in time for the talk. Luckily, the theatre has a little cafe in the lobby so I snacked and listened to the history of His Girl Friday. It was a nice preface to what was a fun show. The theatre was crowded with locals and tourists alike. Once the show began I understood why, the acting was outstanding. The female lead was especially charming and engaging. It was a great time. The theatre is worth a trip to NOTL.

Admittedly, I used a chunk of my time in NOTL to recover from the marathon of walking I did in Toronto. NOTL is a great place to relax. You can enjoy your quaint old hotel or Inn, lounge in the park and people watch, or pound the pavement shopping and visiting art galleries and restaurants. Either way, it is a peaceful time in NOTL.

It is a nice little town, but be advised that there will be tourists, and plenty of them. Some like me and some worse. My visit to NOTL was short, but enjoyable. Next, I made my way out of NOTL and down the parkway thirty minutes to Niagara Falls, where this story ends.

The Niagara Peninsula in Pictures

The second stop on my Canadian adventure was Niagara-on-the-Lake, about an hour and a half drive from Toronto along the Queen Elizabeth Way (the “QEW”). It is a lovely drive and worth a stop of its own. If only I had known. So, head west from the big city and be sure to veer off of the QEW and enjoy the view.

The country side of the peninsula is littered with scenic vineyards and gorgeous views. They don’t call it the Niagara Peninsula Wine Country for no reason. This is the De Sousa Wine Cellars Vineyard in Beamsville, Ontario.

At the Tawse Winery, 2010/2011 winery of the year, you can get a glimpse of the Toronto skyline on a clear day across the lake. It is breath-taking.

While at the Tawse Winery I met a kind gentleman named Dieter. Dieter met me at the door and gave me an interesting and enlightening tour of the winery. The picture on the left shows the gravity fed wine processing system, which is “based on the natural slope and contours of our property. The use of gravity as opposed to pumps allows the wine to move gently from pressing to bottling with minimum manipulation.” Fascinating stuff.

Dieter is also an interesting fellow. I told him that I was living in FW and he assured me that he knows all about FW. How, you say? He worked for GM, retired early, and took up the wine business with Tawse. My new friend Dieter is living the dream. I only spent little bit of time with him and it was clear that he is a happy guy. There is a lot to be said for doing what you love!

Tawse is a gorgeous place, whether you drink the wine or not.

This is the Tawse celler. One interesting fact I learned is that the red markings on the barrels that appears to be from the wine bleed-through is not. No, some poor wine intern has to go around and use the grape scraps to paint the center ring of all the barrels so that they will look neat rather than show the stains from samplings. Poor kid. Also, for the Celiacs out there that are wine drinkers – the wineries I visited make their wine in brand new barrels, not used ones. So, you do not have to worry about cross-contamination from used barrels. How is that for cheers to you!

Another lesson I learned on this trip was that grapes are fun. Fun to photograph, that is. I thought it would be boring, even though I love a farmer’s market. I am glad I tested my assumption and found I was wrong. The way the light moves through and around the grapes and leaves is really interesting and challenging to catch. And, they are pretty, especially the dark grapes – the purple on the green is lovely.

The drive from Toronto the Niagara-on-the-Lake should have taken an hour and a half. Lucky for me it took 3 hours. Three hours of peaceful driving, gorgeous views, and visiting. This area is really a must-see in Ontario. Also, it is impossible to get lost in (there are maps everywhere and great signage) and the people are super friendly and generous with recommendations for where to go next or where to have lunch. All you need is time, a car, and a camera.

Toronto, Day 2

So, what do I do before going on a walking tour? I walk. My day 2 in Toronto can be summarized easily – “walking around like my hair was on fire.”

I woke up got my Bible time in, had a LaraBar, and I was on the street. I enjoy a city in the morning. So I wandered east from the hotel along the harbor and then turned north in search of the St. Lawrence Market. The St. Lawrence Market is a large daily market that features a farmer’s market on Saturdays and an antique market on Sundays. It is in an old brick building surrounded by old and new construction.

The market was super lively with shoppers. Parents with children sifting through the produce and fruit for the best stuff. Elderly folks getting their flowers for the week. City dwellers pulling their small grocery carts with them so they can cart their loot home. Tourists, of course, taking pictures and admiring the fruit of the nearby farms and local vendors. I bought a container of fresh blueberries and finished them off as I walked the market. It was a lovely start to the day.

I started walking west to meet the walking tour group. It was a great stroll as I walked from the old part of town toward the areas were most new buildings have been constructed. It is interesting to see the new and slick rising up next to the old and grand. I found my meeting location – Ray Thomson Hall – ahead of schedule. So I decided to have some tea and admire the Ritz Carlton next door. The lobby was a great place for a pit stop and a photo opp featuring the freshly placed flowers adorning the gratuitous lobby furniture. Pretty.

The architecture tour was great. The tour was led by a volunteer who had been a banker in his former life and since his retirement he volunteers as a tour guide. I immediately liked him, he and his wife have spent time at Mount Rogers near my home in Virginia. It is a small world, after all. The tour group was small – me and my new friend David from Kenya. David has been in Toronto for 4 months. He and his wife, both architects, moved there from Africa. Super interesting.

The tour was specifically about contemporary buildings but the guide was also knowledgeable about the older buildings as well. So, we got the best of both worlds. We saw the TIFF building that is home to the Toronto International Film Festival, the Princess of Wales Theatre named in honor of Princess Diana and featuring beautiful murals by Frank Stella, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts specially designed to insulate the building from the city noise and subway, and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) designed by Frank Gehry and featuring a Henry Moore sculpture at the front doors. All the buildings were stunning in their own right.

We also stopped at the Umbra Concept Store on John Street. Umbra is a popular maker of household items that started in Toronto and now sells to companies the world around (including Bed Bath & Beyond). The concept store on John St. is the only place you can buy straight from Umbra. As the guide described the unique pink plastic facade of the building a striking gentleman came out of the store to greet us. Paul, the owner of Umbra who works at the concept store every other Saturday, introduced himself and gave the most wonderful talk about Toronto. Frankly, if I were a development person for the city I would hire him to do my marketing. After he stopped talking about the good things about Toronto I felt persuaded to move to Toronto immediately (my Daddy does not approve of this plan because Toronto is “not in the U.S.”). Paul is good. Paul was also kind enough to give David and me $25 gift cards to Umbra. After the tour, David and I headed to Umbra to get free stuff (of course I went over my gift amount . . . but wasn’t that the idea?).

As for old buildings on the tour, we saw the William Barber Building built in 1880 featuring “Toronto Brick”, which is yellow in color and everywhere in old Toronto. The Barber building was once a Whitewear underwear factory, which I thought was neat. We saw The Wesley Building on Queen Street West. The Methodist Church built this building and named it for the denomination’s founder John Wesley. The building is covered with Gothic detail. It is gorgeous.

The tour ended at the super cool and contemporary Ontario School of Art and Design with its black and white aluminum wing that is supported by giant multicolored pillars meant to resemble pencils. Very cool.

After the tour and my shopping excursion I stopped at a small Vietnamese restaurant called Ginger (recommended by the ladies at Umbra) for lunch and plotted my next move. By plotting I mean figuring out the quickest way to get back to the hotel to lay down. I was exhausted. I returned to the room did some reading and made a call to Daisy’s Aunt, Aunt Sharon, who lives in Toronto. Aunt Sharon was kind enough to give me her afternoon. So, after a rest I met her on the waterfront and we explored the Museum of Inuit Art, where I learned that Eskimo is an offensive term for the Inuit people outside of Alaska. Note to self. The art was gorgeous, carving in bone, tusk, and stone along with wall hangings, and basket weaving. If you have an opportunity to explore Inuit art, do it. It is my new favorite.

Next, we wandered through the international market where I scored a gray pashmina for $7 and now regret not getting the black cashmere one for $8. I hate when I do that to myself. Aunt Sharon found the perfect beach top to accompany her on her trip to the Carolina coast. Everybody wins!

We then settled in for people watching, great conversation, and dinner with a view. It took a couple of tries and a great deal of much appreciated patience from Aunt Sharon but we found a restaurant that could work my diet. The Pier 4 Restaurant served us some excellent orange roughy with a scallop and a beautiful view of the sunset and moon rise on the lake.

Aunt Sharon saw me off at the parking garage where she left her ride. She was lovely company.

I went up to the fancy Westin rooftop restaurant and had a decaf cappuccino and looked at Toronto at night. I like it there. It is a great city and I left plenty to see and do undone (like go up in the CN Tower, yes, I skipped it, don’t judge), so there will be a next time.

First Stop: Toronto

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is the northeast anchor of the Golden Horseshoe region of Ontario – a horseshoe around Lake Ontario from Toronto to Niagara Falls. I arrived in Toronto on Friday afternoon after about seven hours of driving. I snagged a room at the Westin Harbour Castle with views of the lake and Old Town Toronto. Not bad for someone with only 3000 or so Starwood Guest Points.

I could not be bothered to spend much time in the room as I immediately realized that I forgot to pack a book (although I did remember my Bible). So, my nerdy little self decided that my first mission was to find a book store. Yes, really. Thanks to my trusty iPhone. I was able to locate a Chapters bookstore in the entertainment district (I would find out the next day that the building Chapters is in is worthy of a stop on the Toronto Architecture Tour). I set out to find the Chapters and some mealtime entertainment (eating alone = need book).

I know it sounds bizarre, you just got to the largest city in the entire country where there quite literally are a million things to do and places to see and you go to a bookstore. Yes, I did. But on the way to the bookstore I saw the entertainment district, The York Hotel (when it was constructed it was the largest hotel in the British Empire), the harbor front parks (including this huge sculpture that resembles the Death Star), a super cool grocery store in the terminal building (I like city grocery stores), various views of the CN Tower, and the general sights, sounds, and feel of the city. And such was my personal introduction to Toronto.

I made it to the bookstore, after numerous detours. The Chapters in the entertainment district is just around the corner from a row of brownstones and a small dining/shopping area with a very village atmosphere. The Chapters is a huge glass structure with a giant rubix cube on top (seriously, it was designed to be a rubix cube) with all red tiles. The building jumps out of the landscape from the smaller surrounding buildings. The store has very well-organized recommendation sections, which is awesome for someone who is looking for a book but not a particular book. There were popular, recommended, classic, etc. selections. I was looking for fun reading that would not require a lot of brain power – I chose I Don’t Care About Your Band. Mission accomplished.

Toronto, surprisingly, is a city that you can figure out easily on foot. It took one afternoon walk to figure out the primary streets and feel comfortable with the city grid. It was also easy to recognize that Toronto is truly an international city. Every single place I ventured you could hear languages other than English and French and see people from all walks of life. I recently read that nearly 50% of Toronto’s population is born outside of Canada – having just been there, I am not shocked. To use an Americanism, it really is a melting pot. But what can you expect, I am told that 100,000 new people move to Toronto every year.

En route back to the hotel I took a whole new path through the financial district. This is the most concentrated area of skyscrapers and it feels very New York. I enjoyed how different sections of Toronto had very different personalities and cultures. Very cool. As I walked on it became time to make the all important dinner decision. I opted to bail on my reservation at the fancy place in hopes of having a non-event dinner at a local joint. I approached the concierge and the sweet lady was kind enough to think carefully about where it is best to dine alone and where I could get a “grill” menu (translate: gluten-free). She sent me to a spot where she likes to eat alone – La Bettola di Terroni. She also reassured me that I was safe walking in the neighborhood. I love good helpful people the most.

Before dinner I took a trip up to the circular restaurant on top of the hotel and admired the lovely view of the lake and city. It was quiet and peaceful so I sat and looked and read. Unfortunately, this Westin tower restaurant does not spin like the one in Atlanta. You can’t have it all.

On the walk to dinner I walked past the hockey museum, which is in a beautiful old building with elaborate stone work and beautiful wood and iron doors. I did not go in but I certainly admired the structure. As you know, I don’t get hockey. I arrived at the restaurant and was extremely pleased. It was small and cozy with lots of little tables – perfect for one and its own DJ. I had a great experience there. The server was attentive, helpful, and reassuring that I was at an Italian place that could provide me a great,  gluten-free, experience. I had the best grilled tuna I have had in a long long time.

In addition to my book (which I unexpectedly found to be quite lewd) I was entertained by the Asian couple next to me who were very clearly on a date and so close to me that I could hear almost all their conversation. At one point they were examining the heels of each others hands to determine whose was the fattest. Apparently the size of it determines wealth or success or something like that. You just miss out on those kinds of details when you are traveling with others. I tried not to giggle aloud. The night time walk back to my Toronto home was gorgeous.

I covered some serious ground on first afternoon in Toronto, even if most of it was in search of reading material, and concluded with certainty that it is my kind of town. It is one of those places that is easy to love.