Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Maui, Hawai'i

What I love about Maui, is that it's exactly what everybody told you it would be: the water really is THAT clear, and the food really is THAT good, and the weather really is THAT warm, and the people really are THAT chill. Maui doesn't have to dress itself up as something that it's not, it doesn't need the superficial trappings of exclusive resorts (although it has them all the same) and it doesn't need shirts that button or shoes that tie, it just is what it is; and what it is an island paradise, and a trip that you will never forget! It's easy to fall in love with the laid back, island culture. And it's easier still to be amazed at the natural wonders that abound on Maui. Before our trip, we briefly considered staying a shorter time on Maui, and then hopping over to some of the other islands, but we wisely decided to stay just on Maui and found that there was more than enough to be done on that island alone to fill our entire 2 weeks.


The Hana Highway is an amazing trip. It follows the stunning eastern coastline of the island, and winds through the tropical forest, over dramatic river gorges, dozens of bridges, and awesome views. It's one of the greatest scenic drives in the world. It's not a long distance but because of the narrow roads and tight corners and the frequent stops for scenic overlooks, majestic waterfalls and hidden beaches to stop at it can take 6 to 8 hours. Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach is an outstanding site to see on the drive, as are the Seven Sacred Pools (though their name is a little inexplicable as that there are more than seven and they are not especially sacred). Past Hana, the roads get pretty narrow so be careful. When we rented our car at the Kahului Airport, we were pleasantly surprised when they offered us a complimentary upgrade. It wasn't until we got to the back side of the Hana Highway that we learned why everybody else was so keen on getting the smaller cars. Making it through the narrow, twisting roads in a Mercury Grand Marquis is pretty nerve wracking, and that was before a large plant fell off of a cliff face and clipped the back side of the car (fortunately there was no damage done).

It just wouldn't be a trip to an island paradise without a mention of the beaches. And they are everything you imagined they would be, but where you go depends on what you plan to do when you get there. Many of the beaches are rocky and have clearer water for snorkeling and scuba diving, while the sandy beaches are better for the more traditional beach activities. Either way you'll find no shortage of fun to be had in the water.
By far the most entertaining activity we did on Maui was the snorkeling. It's an amazing adventure that's beautiful, fascinating, and fun. There are many wonderful places around the coast of Maui to reach the water, our favorite was La Perouse Bay where we found a family of sea turtles poking around the reef. While there's plenty of snorkeling spots you can get to for free, it's definitely worth it to get boat over to Molokini Crater and Lana'i which are amazing! And with any luck will take you past a school of spinner dolphins.

During the winter months, hundreds of humpback whales converge on Hawai'i for mating and calving. There are plenty of whale watching tours to choose from but I personally prefer the ones offered by Pacific Whale Foundation not only because they do an excellent job but also because I don't mind spending money that goes to a good cause.

Without a doubt the best restaurant we found on Maui was Hali'imaile General Store. The menu was outstanding, chock full of fresh, local products prepared in creative ways. And the wine list was superb. Mama's Fish House is another outstanding place to eat. The food was great, and the ambiance was well crafted and the view was beautiful.

I would recommend going to a luau early in your trip to Maui to help you acclimate to the whole island experience. There are many to choose from and while the shows may vary somewhat, the food is usually very good (slow cooked pork with all the fixings) at any of them. We chose the Grand Wailea luau and were very impressed.
By the way, Hawaiian wines are often berry wines, and frankly not very good. But the Mai Tais are delicious and flow like water!

Home Cooking
One of the favorite local pastries is Mochi (named for the type of rice flour, Mochika). I absolutely cracked out on this stuff, and I have since had to limit myself to only making it for occasions in which I'll be going to someone else's house so that I can force any leftovers onto them, lest I eat them all myself.

Butter Mochi
1 lb Mochika (sweet rice flour)
2 1/2 Cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 Cup butter (melted)
3 Cups whole milk
5 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Cup sweetened, flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9"x13" baking dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla and milk. In a separate, larger bowl stir together rice flour, sugar and baking powder. Pour the wet ingredients into dry ingredients, and stir to blend. Then mix in butter and coconut and pour into the prepared dish. Bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Then cut into squares and serve at room temperature.


One show that should be on every tourist's Maui to-do list is 'Ulalena, a visually stunning mix of traditional and modern dance that depicts the story and mythology of the Hawaiian people, and the island of Maui.
If you're looking for some more contemporary music, there's a Hard Rock Cafe in Lahaina (we missed a chance to see new-wave rockers, The English Beat there). But there are also scads of high quality, local acts playing all over the island, check the Maui Times Weekly a free local paper.

Mahalo, everyone!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Paris, France

I hadn't planned on posting my thoughts regarding Paris until later this summer, but a conversation with my dear friend (and at this point only official blog follower) Beep, made me decide to move it up on my schedule. So here's a couple of quick notes on visiting the city of love. One: invest in either a portable GPS device, or easier yet, a smart-phone ap to help you get around. It will be a lifesaver (though if you plan on the latter, make sure to contact your cell phone provider so you don't get hit with any surprise data charges). It takes a lot of walking, and metro hopping to get around Paris and it's handy to have digital street and metro maps.
Two: we were very happy that we rented an apartment on HomeAway.com as opposed to renting a regular hotel room. For roughly the same price as a hotel we received all the luxuries of home, and a more authentic Parisian experience.


There is no shortage of amazing museums to see in Paris and it is real easy to get burned out. If you went to the Louvre, the Musee d'OrsayCentre Pompidou, and, say the Rodin Museum, then you could use up an entire week of doing nothing but going to the museums, and, frankly, I don't know ANYONE who loves art THAT much. The trick is not to overdo it. If you had a month to spend in Paris, you would still probably leave some things undone, so don't let yourself get the feeling that you HAVE to do one thing or another. Relax and enjoy yourself. That being said you probably owe it to yourself to make it to the Louvre. . . and the Musee d'Orsay. . . and Centre Pompidou. . . and probably the Rodin Museum as well.

No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to it's stunning cathedrals, in particular Notre Dame. Though while you're in the neighborhood I would also recommend visiting the personal chapel of the King Louis IX, Sainte-Chapelle, which is just around the corner. The stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle are a 50 foot tall gothic masterpiece. Other cathedrals in Paris that are well worth a visit are La Basilique du Sacre Coeur which is one of the great landmarks of Paris, and Saint Sulpice which received much recent attention from the role it played as a setting for The Da Vinci Code. 

We were in Paris in late October, and so we chose Halloween to go visit Pere Lachaise, the amazing French cemetery where Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jim Morrison amongst others are interred. Most of the tombs belong to whole families and feature elaborate canopies over the resting sites. The trees had taken on their fall colors which made the grounds absolutely magnificent!

Lest I forget to mention the historic landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower or the Pantheon, which is a monument to the cultural heros of France. I would suggest seeing the view from either the top of the Arc de Triomphe or from the Eiffel Tower, but it's probably not worth it to see both. But all three of these iconic buildings are wonders to behold. On an interesting note: the body of the renowned French statesman, Leon Gambetta, is interred at both the Pantheon and the Arc de Triomphe. His body was first placed at the base of the Arc, then, later, only his heart was moved and reinterred at the Pantheon.


Paris is all about cafe dining. Stopping and sitting down at a small cafe, having a snack and a cafe au lait (coffee with milk) and people watching is one of the favorite pastimes of the French. This is in no small part because of the amount of walking one does to get around the city, after a day of seeing sites, you'll be begging for a place to take a load off, and the cafes are just the ticket.

Here's some things of note while dining in Paris. Drink the wine. I'm not saying this just because I'm a wino and in freaking Paris. I'm saying this because water and sodas are sold in small 10 ounce bottles, with no refills, and are usually the same price or more than a glass of fantastic French wine. So you can have a glass of Bordeaux or you can have a Dr Pepper, your choice.
The other important thing about French wine is that it is defined not by the type of grape (as we do in the United States) but by the region in which it was produced. So a wine made in the Bordeaux region may use a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc grapes but is referred to as an Bordeux. Also the wine label will indicate if the wine is produced by a large winery (called a Chateau) or a small producer (called a Domaine). If you're interested in wine I highly recommend a wine tasting with O Chateau. They hold wine tastings in the former royal wine cellars of Louis XV, near the Louvre. 5 wines and a champaign were wonderful and the sommelier was both informative and charming.

Another dining note: don't let the price of things fool you. Tipping is not the same customary practice that it is in the United States, and many establishments simply include service onto your bill. Meaning that if you occasionally get sticker shock when you look at the prices on the menu they likely are prices with service already factored in. If you don't know if they included service or not, it will say so on your bill as "service compris" or "service non compris".

Home Cooking
As decadent as French desserts are, you'll find that they're also fairly cost prohibitive, often costing nearly as much as an entree. For that reason I didn't have nearly enough of the available gastronomic delights. So I figured that I would make up for it now. This is an easy to make dessert, made from a simple crepe batter, that is a lot like one of my favorite breakfast dishes, a Dutch Baby.

Cherry Clafoutis
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
6 eggs
6 Tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 Cups milk
2 Tablespoons kirsch
pinch salt
3/4 Cup flour
3 Cups black cherries (pitted)
confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Generously butter a 9" cast iron skillet, and set aside.
Combine vanilla, eggs, sugar, milk, kirsch, and salt in a blender, and blend for a few seconds to mix ingredients. Then add flour and blend until smooth (about 1 minute)
Pour batter into skillet and arrange cherries in batter then bake for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the clafoutis comes out clean. Top with confectioners sugar if desired.


While we were in Paris, we were fortunate enough to catch the lovely and talented Miss Anne Ducros, singing an homage to Ella Fitzgerald, at a wonderful theatre named La Cigale. On our entire trip, this show felt like the most Parisian thing we did. It was full of charm and class, and a lot of great jazz. 
The dinner show at Moulin Rouge is a total package of an evening. The world famous cabaret includes a 5 course meal and a bottle of champaign, and culminates in their legendary can-can dance. It is absolutely worth the hype!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Seattle, Washington

I've decided to use Seattle as one of my first blogs, because it is both one of my favorite cities and one of my most frequent stops, therefore I will probably feel the need to revisit the subject of Seattle in subsequent blogs. But I've always loved my visits to the Emerald City. I love the city's culture, it's music, and it's weather. . . yes, it's weather. Seattle's mild winters and temperate summers have always been a welcome change from 90-100+ degree summer days or equally harsh winters.


Sooner or later, everybody who visits Seattle needs to go to Seattle Center, home of the iconic Space Needle, and the Experience Music Project (EMP). The EMP is an amazing rock museum dedicated to the music of the Pacific Northwest. The Frank Gehry designed building hosts a wonderful collection of rock memorabilia including their Jimmi Hendrix collection and their new exhibition, Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.
I love to visit farmers markets in any city that I travel to, but Pike Place Market is easily my favorite. The fish market is a must, but be sure to check out the produce and the flowers. And one might as well stop for a cup of joe at the original Starbucks location while you're in the neighborhood.
Whenever I find myself in the Seattle area, I never miss a chance to pop over to Woodinville, and have a day of wine tasting. Chateau St Michelle is the best stop, but there are over 80 wineries here, and tasting rooms galore. After a long day of wine tasting, it's time to head over to Redhook Brewery to finish the day off. Remember to take a designated driver folks.
It's also well worth the time to take a tour downtown. Try either the Underground Tour from Pioneer Square, or if you're near Seattle Center, take one of the Duck Boat Tours which will take you out to Lake Union for a lovely view of the city.


Every trip to Seattle for me features one of my mornings having breakfast at The Shanty Cafe, followed by record shopping at Easy Street Records. To say that The Shanty is "no frills" would be an understatement. It's not the high point of modern cuisine, it's just a good, solid, hangover curing breakfast.
For lunch, take a walk down to the waterfront and get some fish and chips from Ivar's, sit down, try the chowder, and toss a couple fries to the seagulls. Or, if you need some food on the go, don't miss out on Dick's Drive In for a good burger.
Seattle has some outstanding sushi as well. Rain is probably my favorite, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
One of the best evenings out in Seattle is at Teatro ZinZanni. A wonderful show of comedy, music and cirque interwoven around a 5 course meal that is heavenly. I can't recommend it enough, it is sure to be the high point of any trip.

Whenever I go to Seattle, a trip to Pike's Place Market for some fish is a sure stop. I love to get a nice big piece of halibut and fix this dish.

Poached Halibut with Bacon Vinaigrette
1/2 lb bacon (finely chopped)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup shallots (minced)
2 Tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 Cups whole milk
6 Cups water
4 6oz pieces of halibut

Cook bacon and oil in saucepan at medium/low heat until all fat has been rendered from the bacon (about 5 minutes). Reduce heat to low and continue to cook until bacon begins to brown (about another 5 minutes).
Add shallots and cook, stirring often until they have softened and are starting to take on a little color. Add vinegar and lime juice and remove immediately from heat. Scrape vinaigrette into a small bowl and set aside.
Pour milk and water into large pot and bring to an active simmer over medium heat.
Season halibut pieces with salt, then slip fish into the pot and reduce heat to low. Poach fish for 3.5 minutes then carefully turn the fish over and poach for another 2 minutes. Remove fish, and blot dry with a paper towel. Cover fish with vinegrette and serve.


Some of the better touring acts traveling through Seattle will be found performing at the Paramount Theatre. The last time we were there, was Christmas of 2010, when we saw Michael Franti and Spearhead. But one of my favorite trips to the Paramount, involved a spur of the moment road trip from Boise, Idaho, to see Eddy Izzard live.
Another great venue to see live music is the Showbox at Pike Place Market. Great venue, good bands.
But if you really want to get a taste of Seattle's music scene it's time to visit Belltown's living room, the legendary Crocodile. The Croc has had it's stage graced by the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and REM amongst others. It's the CBGB's of the left coast.