Friday, November 23, 2012

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ontario Legislative Building

Some locally themed graffiti art
On our recent road trip through Canada, Ursa and I made a special point to give ourselves an extra long stop over in the provincial capitol of Ontario, the exciting and beautiful city of Toronto.
Our arrival was met with lovely autumn weather, and light city traffic. And what we found was a thriving, bustling, metropolis. A city that is beautiful and artsy, full of culture and buzzing with activity.
Toronto graffiti
Around every street corner seemed to be some new fun sculpture, fascinating architecture, and especially graffiti art. I recall being at Seattle's Bumbershoot Music and Arts festival in 2010 where they had a whole exhibit dedicated to graffiti artists. I was amazed and enthralled by the skill and vision of these talented artists; but while those were on display in a gallery setting, the graffiti art that graced the walls around Toronto were every bit as good, if not better. Only the difference was seeing these pieces of art in their natural environment, the feeling of discovery that the viewer gets by noticing a clever and skilled mural on the crumbling brick of a random alley's wall.

The Sites

Koilos, by Michael Christian
With the opening of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery in 1837 the section of town now known as the Distillery Historic District began to take shape. This distillery had remarkable success until 1914 with the onset of both World War I and Prohibition which brought production to a standstill.
Toronto's Distillery Historical District
After that the distillery saw a rebirth as well as a new owner who focused on producing their very popular brand of whiskey, Canadian Club. They continued production at the distillery until 1990, when, after 153 years of continuous production the distillery finally closes down, but the buildings take on a new life as a film studio. During the 90's, more than 1700 films use the site. In 2001 the 40 buildings of the distillery district were purchased and transformed into a pedestrian only villiage dedicated to arts and culture. It is full of quaint shops, art studios, microbreweries, and fine dining.

CN Tower
Art wasn't just to be found on the walls of the buildings, sometimes the art was the buildings. The largest and most iconic piece of Toronto architecture is the Canadian National Tower (CN Tower). Completed in 1976 the tower, which stands an impressive 1,815 feet, was named after the railway company that constructed it, Canadian National. It is the tallest free-standing structure in the western hemisphere. From a visual perspective I would like to applaud the designers of the CN Tower who managed to build this style of tower without having it look overly phallic (I'm talking about you Las Vegas Stratosphere, and Calgary Tower). I know that sounds funny but it's true, it's hard to build something like this without having that look, Seattle's Space Needle is another good example of getting it right.

Yonge-Dundas Square
Another revitalized district of the city of Toronto was opened in 2002, Yonge-Dundas Square or, more familiarly, YD Square. The square resembles London's Piccadilly Circus, or New York's Times Square mostly because of the glowing billboards and naked commercialism. YD Square is built on a slight incline in order to more effectively play host to live events such as live music, festivals, outdoor cinema showings, and a variety of other local events.

Destination Libation

Toronto, like any number of other major cities, is full of great brewpubs and they're all worth a try. But Toronto will forever be best known for it's most iconic brew, Molson. While the original Molson brewery was first opened in Montreal in 1786, the company expanded to Toronto in 1955 and has subsequently moved it's headquarters there. Personally I like the idea that there are two types of beers: "nourishing" beers and "quenching" beers. Molson is a quenching beer like many mass produced lagers like Coors or Budwiser. While it's flavor may be pretty predictable, it remains one of the quintessential Canadian beers. This beer makes me channel my inner Bob & Doug McKenzie, eh!

One other very notable place that we visited on our trip to Toronto was their Chinatown. Many of the cities that we've visited throughout Canada have had Chinatowns, most of them featured some form of Asian themed architecture, but not here. This was just a cultural district. But it did have all of the really fascinating things that you'd expect to find in a really good cultural district. Where our hotel was strangely on the third floor of a mall in Chinatown, which, while it was a little odd to have a view out of our window being that of a shopping center, it did have the advantage of having some of the most fantastic, and authentic food downstairs. Our dinners were delicious and cheap every night. But the real treat was the boba. Ursa and I are both huge fans of bubble tea and there was this lady downstairs that made the absolute best lychee flavored bubble tea that I've ever had.

We'll be taking some time off from our travel schedule this winter, which should give me some time to get caught up on my Destinations posts, and our recent road trips should give me plenty to write about. So, depending on how well my motivation holds up, I'll be in touch soon. Bye!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Commercial fishing boat setting out from Homer, AK
Hello everybody; sorry that I've been doing a poor job of posting this summer. Ursa and I have been enjoying being in Alaska for the summer months, but we've also been enjoying some peace and quiet, relaxing in our apartment as well. Part of why we've been such homebodies is because Ursa has been hampered with a back injury, and also I had to serve a week of jury duty which, while interesting, is also rather tedious. But we did manage to find enough time to explore our Alaskan back yard with a couple of road trips down to the Kenai Peninsula. The first trip was during last r&r when Ursa's aunt and uncle, Herman and Jenny, were visiting from Boston. We had a great time taking them down to Seward for a whale watching trip. The second trip to the Peninsula was this r&r when we traveled down to Soldotna to visit my aunt and uncle, Bill and Tracy.
The Kenai Peninsula lies just to the south of Anchorage, with Cook Inlet on it's west and the Gulf of Alaska to it's south and east. The center of the peninsula is filled with the Chugach Mountains and the Chugach National Forest. At the base of the Chugach Range is the massive Harding Ice Field which is responsible for creating the stunning glaciers that have carved out the fjords that make up Kenai Fjords National Park. The geography of this entire area is everything that you've ever read in a travel brochure. It was interesting to see the diversity of the little towns in the peninsula, from the cute, tourist-centric port towns of Homer and Seward to the more rustic sport fishing towns of Kenai, and Soldotna.

The Sites

The Boardwalks at Potter Marsh
The scenic Alaskan highway that takes you south to the Kenai Peninsula is the Seward Highway. And the first stop on the Seward Highway, just outside of Anchorage is Potter Marsh. This beautiful wildlife refuge is a man-made wetland created by the construction of the Alaska Railroad embankment in 1917. An elevated boardwalk has been added to allow people to move about and view the wildlife without impacting the delicate ecosystem.
Arctic Tern
Potter Marsh is one of the best places for birdwatching that you will find anywhere, and I've enjoyed birding there on multiple occasions this summer. For those of you who don't know, I've been participating in a birding program run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, called Wings Over Alaska, where birders receive certificates based on how many species they can identify within the state during the course of the year. The first level is at 50 species, which I've already passed (I'm at 63 at the time of posting) my goal is to try to get to the next level which is at 125 species. The fourth and highest certificate of participation is given for identifying 275 species, and is signed by the Governor of the State of Alaska.
Savannah Sparrow
As far as birding goes, you would be hard pressed to find a more perfect locale to view birds from. On any given afternoon you'll find arctic terns, mew gulls, bald eagles, canadian geese, yellowlegs, a variety of swallows, an assortment of ducks, as well as smaller birds like song sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and redpolls. It's a wonderful morning stop en route to the Kenai Peninsula.

Humpbacks bubble netting
During the first part of June, Ursa's Aunt and Uncle came to Alaska to attend and astrophysics conference in Anchorage. At a break in the conference we took them down to Seward for a couple days.
Whale watching with Herman and Jenny
The biggest highlight was taking a whale watching tour onboard one of the Kenai Fjords Tours catamarans. I've been on whale watching trips before and they've all been great experiences, but this one also featured a menagerie of other wildlife such as sea otters, dall porpoises, sea lions, puffins, and other sea birds. But the real attraction is the humpback whales who we got to observe using a technique known as "bubble netting" in which a group of whales swim in an increasingly smaller circle blowing bubbles to herd a school of fish closer together, then suddenly one of the whales swims up through the middle of the "net" and is able to swallow tons of small fish in one gulp. It was a fascinating view at the feeding habits of one of natures most amazing animals.
Ursa at Exit Glacier
The next day, we drove over to Exit Glacier and took the short hike up to it. This is a great opportunity because you can walk right up and touch the glacier itself! It is also compelling to look at the barren mud flats that lie along the base of the valley where the glacier used to be, and to see the road signs marked with dates which denote where the glacier used to be at various points of the last century, which go on for miles before you get to where the glacier is now.

Dip-netting for salmon on the Kenai River with my Aunt Traci
After being holed up for a few weeks in Anchorage during our more recent r&r, Ursa and I made a point to get out and explore the state a little more by driving down to visit some of my family in Kenai. My Uncle, Bill and his wife Traci live there as well as my cousins, Molly and Billy. It was great to see them all, though we did miss out on seeing Billy, who had some scheduling difficulties.
The towns of Kenai and Soldotna are a pair of quaint little fishing towns cut out of Alaska's boreal forest. They are not as touristy as the port towns of Seward and Homer which play host to a lot of cruise ships. The real draw for Kenai is the fishing, particularly in the silty waters of the salmon rich Kenai River. We had a great time dip-netting for red salmon. There is not much science to dip-netting, I would love to tell you that it took a tremendous amount of skill and perseverance to perfect this technique, but that would be a lie. Just wade into the water, drop in net, when a fish hits in it you'll know. Then drag said fish to shore and repeat. I got 10 which was more than enough to fill our freezer to the brim. But more important than the fish was the community involvement of it all. Standing in the river, talking to your neighbor, waiting for a fish to hit your net makes you feel a part of this community in a way that I hadn't before. Dip-netting on the Kenai River is an activity that just feels distinctly Alaskan.
Sea Otter floating in Cook Inlet
We also got another opportunity to do some fishing, this time in the more conventional method with poles and bait. My Uncle, Bill, has recently purchased a new boat and we decided to take it out into Cook Inlet for a little bit of halibut fishing. It really wasn't the best time to be fishing, and we had very little luck, catching only one halibut, but it was mostly fun just to get out on the boat and have some quality time with loved ones.  It was also great to see all the wildlife; the sea otters were adorable and plentiful, and of course (me being a bird nerd and all) I was excited to see the sea birds. Lots of murre, pigeon guillemot, and short-tailed shearwaters.
Downy woodpecker
And speaking of birds; every morning that we were in Kenai I made a special point to wake up extra early and go for a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It was a beautiful place to go explore nature via a very well kept system of trails. There was some great birding to be done there: I saw a Harlan's Hawk, red-breasted nuthatches, plenty of bald eagles, a pair of gray jays and this busy little downy woodpecker.

The Food

Kenai and Soldotna are rather small towns, so consequently my expectations of what to find there in the way of fine dining were rather low, but as it turned out I was pleasantly surprised by the places that we ate at. Our first night in town we had a lovely dinner at Mykel's, which was good but like most of the places to eat during the tourist season, is overpriced. The next night, we had a wonderful dinner of steak and smoked salmon with our friend, and Ursa's old boss, Joe Conte. Thanks Joe, it was all fantastic and we look forward to seeing you guys in New York, hopefully sooner as opposed to later.
Our favorite place to eat on this trip was at St. Elias Brewing Company where we had sandwiches wrapped in the best pita bread I've ever had. And yes, the beer was delicious as well. I sometimes wish that I was more of a beer nerd, and could better appreciate a good microbrewery but unfortunately I'm only a nerd in every other sense of the word. Ursa knew that she would love St. Elias before we even sat down, based upon the mural on the wall of Bieres de la Meuse, which was originally painted by her favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha.

Destination Libation

The Salty Dawg Saloon
Every Alaskan that I know, and I do mean EVERY, has at least one t-shirt or hoodie from the iconic Salty Dawg Saloon. I don't think they let you into the state without one. Located on the Homer Spit, the cabin portion of this landmark was built in 1897, and was one of the first buildings constructed after Homer became a town site. This building served as the town's first post office, a grocery store, a railroad station, a school house, and a coal mining office. In the late 1940's it was used as the office for Standard Oil Company, until in 1957 it opened as the Salty Dawg Saloon. After the "Good Friday" earthquake in 1964 the substructure was moved to it's current location on the Homer Spit, and the distinctive lighthouse was constructed to cover a water storage tank.
For this week's Destination Libation, I would have rather included something new or exotic or especially something regional, but it just didn't work out that way. By the time that we got to the Salty Dawg, we had just come in from a long day of fishing and I just wanted something familiar, so I ordered my go-to drink, a whiskey and 7up. I suppose that I could give you the recipe, but the ingredients are kind of in the title. . . add whiskey, add 7up, and keep 'em coming.

All said, we had a wonderful time getting to see some of the attractions that Alaska has to offer. Because of Ursa and I's work and travel schedule whenever we are at home, in Alaska, we tend to just skulk about around Anchorage, and relax in our apartment. It sometimes takes a concious effort to force yourself to treat your back yard like a tourist would and apreciate it for all that it has to offer. It was refreshing to get a chance to see more of Alaska than we typically bumble into.
It was also Ursa's birthday this r&r, so I would like to say, happy birthday Ursa, I love you so very much! We had a wonderful party for her at her favorite sushi restaurant in Anchorage, Sushi & Sushi, and our friend, Autumn, did all the decorating and made a fantastic, 3 tiered cake, sugar cookies, and homemade truffles, it was such a great time, and a stellar effort from Autumn. Thanks again, Autumn.
Looking forward, I will be having a bunch of new posts coming up this month. Ursa and I will be driving my car up from Idaho to Anchorage, making stops in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, as well as Calgary, AB, and then a lovely drive through Canada. I'll be keeping everyone posted on here with a travel log during the trip, and later converting that log into my more conventional posts. I'm especially excited to see some of my old friends in Boise and Twin Falls. So we shall see you all soon. Bye!
Happy Birthday Ursa!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This trip was intended to be Ursa's birthday present. Her birthday however is in July, and I thought that Mexico in July would be oppressively hot, so we went in March instead. Happy Early Birthday, Ursa! I love you!
While it is always wonderful to get a chance to thaw out in the tropics, Ursa and I have to be very careful on trips like these. The change in temperature between work in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico was a difference of 109 degrees F (74 F in Puerto Vallarta and -35 F in Prudhoe Bay), so it can be hard on your body to acclimatize, and while in a weakened state, your body can be susceptible to all manner of illnesses. Also, 4 months of Alaska winter will make you a nice shade of pasty white, so sunburns can get nasty, very fast. And lest we forget about the infamous traveller's diarrhea known as "Montezuma's Revenge". An uncomfortable cross section of these is what awaited us on our arrival in paradise.
The view of Banderas Bay from our patio
We took a nice stroll along the beach, and splashed in the waters of Bandaras Bay just long enough to get our sunscreen good and worn off. Then we went back to the resort and sat under a beach umbrella to read our books and drank some sangrias. The next morning when we woke up, we both had ridiculous sunburns (Ursa even had blisters!), as well as a cough, runny nose and a mild fever. So the bad news was that we spent the next 4 days recovering in the condo, but the good news is that we had an outstanding place to recover in. Our room was on the 16th floor of the Holiday Inn Resort, and had a breathtaking view of the whole bay! If you're going to be holed up sick for a few days THIS was the place to do it, with the patio doors open and the ocean breeze blowing on you, and the sounds of the waves lapping on the beach all night.

The Sites

The most notable area of Puerto Vallarta is it's endearing boardwalk, El Malecon. It is home to a unique array of restaurants, clothing shops, street artists, bars, tequila tastings and junk shops; seemingly all of them offering time shares for sale. Ursa and I bought a lovely Catrina Doll for our condo in Anchorage and before we had a chance to even pull out the credit card the guy behind the counter had flopped a book open and was trying to direct us to attend a sales pitch. No gracias.
Amongst the usual charicature artists, singers, and extraordinary living statues the local street artists also have the option of working with another medium, sand. The sand sculptures up and down El Malecon were outstanding. Each of the sculptures had a small donation box in front of it, and I kind of used the rule of thumb that if it's cool enough for me to photograph, then it's cool enough for me to drop it a couple of pesos. That seemed a fair policy to me.
El Malecon is also the heart and soul of Puerto Vallarta's nightlife. The boardwalk is lined with bunches of bars, clubs, and tequila tasting rooms. Great spots for afternoon cocktails or dancing the night away.

As a consequence of having a bunch of down time at the beginning of our trip, all of the activities that we had booked got pushed together during the second half of our vacation. So we had one week of laying about followed by one week of run, run, run. It all worked out though.
To start our activities off, we went swimming with wild dolphins. It was an exhilarating experience to get in the water with these amazing animals. Seeing a shadow pass in front of you through the murky water, so close you can nearly touch it, then in a flash it's gone. When they appear on the surface you realize that they were farther away then you thought, because they were much larger than you understood them to be. These are large and powerful animals, and sharing the water with them has a way of making you feel very small. Sadly, the dolphins were not feeling terribly playful on the day that we were there, though they showed some curiosity towards one of the other people in our group. But even for him, they really never stuck around very long; they mostly would approach the boat, then swim away as soon as we got into the water. Which was a little unfortunate, but we had a wonderful time swimming in the ocean nevertheless. On the way back we got to see a female whale with her calf swimming in the bay which was an awesome bonus to the trip.
Our fun in the water did not end with the dolphins, we also spent an afternoon snorkeling at the Marieta Islands. These islands are best known as a bird sanctuary, and are an important nesting site for more than 90 species of marine birds, in particular the Blue Footed Booby, which is more famously associated with the Galapagos Islands, but is known to nest here as well.
This archipelago is also home to a wide variety of fish. It is this biodiversity that made the Marieta Islands one of the favorite destinations of famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, who was instrumental in helping this refuge be designated as a protected natural zone. The water was frankly much colder and cloudier than other places we've been snorkeling, but it was still a great location. There was a huge array of vibrantly colored fish. However  Ursa was the only one that got a look at the rays which were playing around in the sand, I unfortunately missed them.
The island had the beautiful Playa del Amor (lover's beach), where we had to swim through a volcanic archway and to the hidden beach where we could take a rest and explore a secluded and romantic sea cave. It was a very good trip, which was made better by the wonderful family that were on the tour with us. Good times are always made better by good people.

Our next tour took us away from the ocean and into the scarcely populated areas in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Our guide, Juan, took us via Jeep back to a little pueblo in the hills were we visited a local home with a garden that was unbelievable. The family cooked us the best meal we ate on our entire trip, a lunch of home made blue corn tortillas which were ground by hand and cooked on the back patio.
Aside from a plethora of tropical fruits and vegetables, they also had the strangest looking chickens running all over. The chickens had no feathers on their necks or faces, but did have a little tuft of feathers on the top of their head like Moe, from the Three Stooges. The family also had about a dozen fighting cocks in cages out back, and a little boy training them by holding another rooster in front of the cage to prompt it to attack. The strange thing about the roosters was a box that one of them came in which sat nearby; it read "Fighting Fowl, Best Quality" which was strange not in it's message or it's presence but in the fact that it was written in English. I'm not sure what I make of that.
photo by Ursa Davis

After our experience at the farm, we got back in the Jeep and continued our trek through the jungle. What made our tour so much fun was that Juan was so endearingly obsessed with the local plant life that the tour might have been called a "Botanical Tour". Regardless of whether or not botany is your bag, when someone is that excited about the topic they are talking about, you can't help but be sucked into what their talking about. Juan was just awesome. At one point, while he was explaining the inner workings of a termite mound, he flagged down a passing pickup, and persuaded the passengers to lend him their pet macaw then proceeded to give a full lecture about the breeding habits of the Military Macaw.
Lost in my description of this tour was the most special activity. Juan had made sure that we all picked up a bag of candy to hand out to the local children. Every village that we passed through the kids recognized Juan and came running. It was a wonderful touch for the day.

Masked Tityra photo by Ursa Davis
After all of this running around we were pretty worn out. Even to the point of considering cancelling our final tour. Thank goodness we didn't, bird watching was just the pace we needed. The area around Puerto Vallarta is home to over 350 different species of birds.
Crested Caracara photo by Ursa Davis
I've got to say though that this was one of those rare occasions where I had a serious case of camera envy of Ursa. Her and our guide, Fernando, both had awesome cameras with great lenses and zooming capabilities, well suited for photographing small specimens at a distance. Fortunately, the tour included the use of binoculars for assistance, but my camera was a little outmatched. In one afternoon, Ursa and I managed to see 64 species of birds. It was a fascinating excursion, where we got to take our time and spot large birds like turkey vultures and brown pelicans, and small birds like the vermilion flycatcher and the blue grosbeak, and raptors such as the crested caracara and the collared forest-falcon.
Brown Pelican Photo by Ursa Davis
Every tree seemed to have two or three new species of colorful, tropical birds that we had yet to see. After several stops to view the tropical birds we finished our birding expedition by going to the shore and seeing how many of the sea birds we could identify. The most common in the area were the pelicans and the frigate birds, but I was surprised by the wide variety of herons, seven different species of them. All in all it was the most interesting and relaxing tour that we took on our whole trip.

The Food

One reoccurring theme of our trip to Mexico was that, above all, Puerto Vallarta is a resort town. Every resort is going to have at least a couple of nice, albeit overpriced, restaurants, our favorite of which was a beach restaurant called Si Sinor which featured outstanding traditional Mexican fare.
But for all the glitz of the resorts, we still felt a little underwhelmed by all the places that were supposed to wow us. Far better were the restaurants a little off the beaten path, not associated with the facades of the resorts. Our favorite of these places was Las Adelitas which was a delicious local barbecue restaurant. Delicious BBQ, good drinks and the best chili rellenos we had in Mexico.
blue corn tortillas getting fried up
Honestly though the best meal that we had was, as I said earlier, eating a homemade lunch at a farm on our jeep safari tour. There is simply no high end restaurant anywhere that can compete with authenticity. Grinding corn into maize on the back patio and cooking blue corn tortillas over a wood fire was one of the best culinary experiences that I could have hoped for.
Also, the street vendors have some awesome eats. While we were laid up with sunburns and sickness, we hit a nearby rotisserie chicken vendor that was fabulous.

Destination Libation
I've decided to forgo the "Home Cooking" segment of my blog, in lieu of a "Destination Libation" segment. While I still love to cook, let's face it, I'm a better drinker than I am a cooker. So these will henceforth highlight a wine, beer, or cocktail that reminds me of this particular destination.
So I know that this being a post about Mexico, I should be dropping the ubiquitous margarita recipe but to tell you the truth the margaritas just weren't doing it for me in Puerto Vallarta. I pretty much stuck with sangrias and my new favorite warm weather drink, the Ron Collins. Collins drinks are a pretty simple idea featuring your favorite flavor of alcohol mixed with lemon and soda water. The traditional version of this mix is the Tom Collins which is a gin drink, another common version is the Vodka Collins (betcha can't guess what's in that), but I was feeling rummy and went with the Ron Collins, which uses Ron Bacardi rum. This recipe is courtesy of everyone over at Drunk Man's Guide.

Ron Collins

2 oz light rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 Tbl sugar
3 oz club soda
Lime slice
Maraschino cherry

Add the first three ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain into a tall glass and garnish with the lime slice and the cherry.

To be perfectly honest, what appeals most to me about travel is getting a taste of local culture. Unfortunately we ended up renting a condo at a resort, and resorts by their very nature are designed to insulate people from getting too much local culture. It's nothing against resorts or cruise ships, it's just that we vacation in a different way. The room did have a stellar view though, which we were grateful for.
I don't want to disparage Puerto Vallarta though. The beaches were amazing and the drinks were frequent, the tours were fascinating, the food was good, and overall we had a great trip. Relaxing at first, exciting at the end, and overall a great break from winter in Alaska.
I can't believe that it has taken me this long to bring up our last day. On March 20, 2012, Ursa and I were sitting on our patio on the 16th floor of our building, having some morning coffee and doing some reading on our Kindles. I started getting a strange sensation, almost as if the whole building was swaying. My immediate reaction was to chalk the feeling up to vertigo or perhaps a head rush from too much coffee. Then I looked over at Ursa who was staring at me with a terrified look on her face, and that's when I realized "Oh shit! That wasn't vertigo!" Little did we know that a magnitude 7.4 earthquake had struck to the south of us in Acapulco. Fortunately the epicenter was far enough away from us that the effects were not to bad, other than to give us a little scare.
photo by Ursa Davis

Saturday, March 31, 2012

I want to Go with Oh to Prague

Everyone has their list of dream destinations and Ursa and I are no exception. Near the very top of our "to visit" list is the capitol of the Czech Republic, Prague. "The most precious stone in the crown of the world" according to Goethe. A city whose culture and beauty rivals Paris, Rome or any of the other great cities of Europe, or the world. I would like to Go With Oh! to be their guest blogger. (Check out their site, and the very cool Facebook competition where you could win 4 fantastic prizes). Should I get the privilage of being Go With Oh's guest blogger here are my top five things that I want to see while in Prague.

#5 Prague Castle

The first stones were laid in 880 AD and more than 1100 years later it continues to function as the seat of power for the Czech Republic; serving now as the home of its President, as well as being a national heritage site, storing priceless relics, historical documents, and the Czech Crown Jewels. Prague Castle is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest castle in the world and represents virtually every architectural style of the last millennium. In the 1300's it began serving its first of two stints as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Charles IV. Though as the seat of power moved between Prague and Vienna the castle has gone through periods of disrepair, today it has been restored and once again acting in its intended role.

#4  Beer

Would you even believe me if I told you that I planned to go to one of the beer capitols of Europe intent on sipping nothing but Dr Pepper? If so, I've got a "can't miss" investment opportunity for you. Look, I'm not a college student looking to get twisted and hit on "hotties" anymore, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to pass up on some indulgences while at the home of Pilsner Urquell!
The Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other country in the world, swilling down a remarkable 158.6 litres per person, annually. The Irish are a distant second with 131.1, followed by the Germans, Austrians, and Australians to round out the top 5.
So, we've established that beer is taken very seriously around Prague and I'm sure that even my beer-snob buddies would be interested to hear the opinions of the locals when it comes to brew.

#3 Architecture

Fantastic examples of architecture are to be found throughout Prague, especially in the historic city center. Another great place for beautiful buildings is the residential district known as the Vinohrady or "vinyards" is renowned to be an elegant blend of architectural styles including: Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic, and Pseudo Baroque; most coming from the late 1800's through the turn of the 20th century. The area also features a number of parks and gardens.
The Frank Gehry designed EMP in Seattle (Photo by Ursa Davis)
To tell the truth though, one piece of architecture that I'm really excited to see is from my favorite architect Frank Gehry, a dancing building known as "Fred and Ginger". I've been fascinated by Gehry's work ever since the first time I saw the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and again by the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  His expressionist post modern style is at first shocking, gaudy, and bombastic but the more you look at them the more complex and beautiful they become. Gehry's work is an elegant break from the expected and visually intoxicating. I cannot wait to see Fred and Ginger in the context of their natural settings, as photography rarely does justice to architecture.

#2 Catching a Show

Flying Lotus at the Melkweg in Amsterdam
Culture is more than museums and folk dancing. It's as much modern as traditional, and is often found in the minutiae of everyday life. How do people dress, how do they interact, how lively or reserved are they? I like getting a sense of this by making a point to do something abroad that I would do at home. My favorite way is to go to a rock show at a local concert house. Not a big name stadium show but a mid level touring act at a 1000 seat or so venue. One memorable show was seeing the emerging electronic sensation Flying Lotus play at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. It was great not just because of the show or the music, but because of the people. Amsterdam's love affair with electronic music is well known and it was cool to see their enthusiasm for that style of music first-hand, unencumbered by other tourists.
Anne Ducros at La Cigal in Paris
In Paris we got tickets to see the lovely and talented Anne Ducros perform at La Cigale. It was a beautiful, big band homage to Ella Fitzgerald full of all the ball gowns and black ties of a bygone era. Ursa and I had a wonderful date night, and the evening was without a doubt the most Parisian thing that we did during our time in Paris. Jazz clubs are another favorite place of mine to mingle with the locals. Finding these shows can take a little research but it's well worth the extra effort. For rock shows I would recommend searching the website Jambase. Good jazz clubs on the other hand are as relative as good jazz, so that can be a little trickier, and may require more legwork.

#1 The Municipal House

To say that Ursa is a fan of Art Nouveau would be a monumental understatement. A mere fan wouldn't have a full sleeve tattoo of Alphonse Mucha art on her arm! I am a fan, but Ursa is a true devotee. We both look forward to seeing the myriad of examples of Art Nouveau found throughout Prague. Be it art in its museums, or the facades of its buildings, or the seamlessly flowing decor for which the movement was also known. But the crown jewel of the Art Nouveau movement in Prague is the legendary Municipal House.
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the civic landmark, concert hall and art nouveau masterpiece, which opened it's doors in November of 1912. The exterior was designed by architects Osvald Polivka and Antonin Balsanek while the various halls and concert area inside were decorated by a variety of famous artists of the day including the Mayor Hall which was designed by Alphonse Mucha himself and contains several of his greatest works, as well as furnishings and objets d'art by the artist.
Listening to the philharmonic play the music of a composer from Prague, (Antonin Dvorak would be appropriate) played at one of Europe's finest symphony halls/architectural masterpieces on the building's centennial celebration would indeed be worth flying half way around the world to see.

But, let's face it, all of those reasons are really just window dressing. None of that is the driving force that inspires me to see what Prague has to offer. The REAL reason that I want to go to Prague is the same reason that I want to go anywhere and that is that there, ultimately, will always be something unforeseen and unexpected that is gained through the act of travelling. Something that latches onto you like a barnacle to be carried with you to every subsequent port of call. Sometimes it is profound, sometimes mundane; it could be palpable, tangible or emotional; an unforgettable smell or the stirring memory of a sunset. You could learn something new about the world, you could learn something new about yourself. Whatever IT is, that discovery is the very essence of why we travel. It is that mysterious, unknowable something that compels us to venture to the places that we have never before explored. A friend told me recently, "The hardest thing to learn, is how little you actually know." I don't know what fresh nugget I might uncover in Prague, all I know is that I don't know enough. All I know is that there's something there to be found, and I think it's time that I find it.