Monday, December 31, 2012

What are you doing for New Years Eve?

  I apologize for being MIA for the past month.  December ended up being very busy for me.  I visited my sisters in NYC and then they came home for Christmas to visit.  I was able to get in some nice family time and now it looks like the year has already come to an end. 
  I had originally thought that I would be in NYC for New Years but we ended up visiting a couple weeks ago.  Really any time of year is nice to visit NYC....well, except for during Hurricane Sandy when my sisters had no electricity for 5 days and there was a fire in their apartment building.  I will have plenty of future posts about my NYC trip but right now I wanted to focus a little on New Years.
  Reflecting back on traveling in 2012, I am grateful that I was able to take some very nice trips.  We kicked off the beginning of 2012 with Ecuador.  We left January 1, 2012 and arrived in Panama City for a 1 night layover.  We flew on to Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands.  I saw Lonesome George before he died in June 2012.  In March 2012, I visited a good friend in Los Angeles.  It was still a little too cold for beaches but we had fun at an Anaheim Ducks game, hanging out in Hollywood and people watching in Venice Beach.  We did an Oktoberfest weekend in Iowa in September and then ended the year in NYC. 
  2012 had its fair share of negative events like Hurricane Sandy devastating the East Coast and the loss of lives in the Sandy Hook and Aurora theater shootings.  We also had many positive and fun events like the explosion of Gangnum style and Kate Middleton's pregnancy. 
  Wherever you are....Times Square, Chicago, California, or anywhere outside of the United States...I wish you a Happy and Healthy New Year!
   Please enjoy my Times Square photo taken a few weeks ago.  I can only imagine how crazy and crowded it will be tonight.  Let the new year be a time of new travels, new adventures, and spending time with both new and old friends. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Galapagos Tortoise

  Recently I was at Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL.  The last time I had visited Brookfield Zoo was this past spring and I remembered that the zoo had taken in some young Galapagos tortoises.  At the time, I was very excited to see the little guys because we had just gotten back from our Galapagos trip in mid-January.  During our visit a few days ago, the Galapagos tortoises were in the second animal house that we visited.  They had grown some in the last 6 months and were very active.  They were definitely more active then the other types of tortoises that were in displays nearby.  Here are a few photos I snapped of the Galapagos tortoises from Brookfield Zoo.

Here are a few of my favorite young tortoise shots from our January trip to the Galapagos. 

A couple giant tortoise facts:

1.  There were 11 types of giant Galapagos tortoises but with the death of Lonesome George, there are now 10.
2.   They are the world's largest tortoises.
3.   They have common ancestors from the mainland South America and are believed to have traveled to the Galapagos by water.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where In The World? - November 19, 2012

  Besides my "Did You Know?" posts, I've also decided to do a new type of post called "Where In The World?".  I like to be tricky so look closely at the photos that I have chosen for these types of posts.
  Here is my first Where In The World? photo:

  Initially, one might think that I am in some part of Asia. However those smarties out there would notice that there are a few signs in English including a sign in the lower left corner that reads "Manhattan Bridge".

                                                     I am in Chinatown in Manhattan. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Croatia - Did You Know? Fun Fact #2

  I previously did a fun fact on Croatia but wanted to add a second one just because Croatia is on my top 10 list of places to visit. 

  Did You Know that the Best Preserved Roman Palace in the World is in Split, Croatia?

It is the Palace of Diocletian and was build in A.D. 295.  The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, had this palace built in preparation for his retirement and because he was originally from Dalmatia. 

This is from Joseph Rosendo's Travelscope "Cruising the Mediterranean".

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

November 14th Article about the Galapagos

  I just stumbled across an article on MSN and wanted to share.  Click here to read "Rat kill in Galapagos Islands targets 180 million".  It discusses the non-native rat problem in the Galapagos and how it is being dealt with to save the native animals of the islands.  I remember hearing about the rat problems when we were visiting last January, however I did not see one rat while we were there.  I got lucky.  When we were on Isabela Island, we visited their tortoise reserve and there were very young tortoises that were in locked up enclosures.  Our guide said that the baby tortoises had to be protected from rats that would eat them.  If the plan does work for these rats to be exterminated, then I hope it really helps the native species of the Galapagos to keep reproducing and creating more and more generations for all of our human generations to see.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Monroe, Wisconsin

  Monroe, Wisconsin, home of beer, cheese, sausage, and everything else that your cardiovascular system loves.  Today I enjoyed a little of all of that.  From Chicago's northwest suburbs, Monroe is between an hour and a half to two hour drive.  We enjoy visiting Monroe before the holidays so we can do a little early Christmas shopping but Monroe is fun to visit any time of year.  Cheese Days in Monroe is every September.
   Both this year and last year we checked out the Swiss Colony Shop and Alp and Dell Cheese Store.  Both have a variety of meats, cheeses, and gifts.  Today we checked out Brennan's Market for the first time.  I tried samples of cheeses and spreads that I had never even known existed.  Have you ever tried Cranberry Cheese?  This is probably nothing new for Wisconsin residents.
   Last year we had a lot of fun at Minhas Brewery.  We tried a bunch of different samples and checked out the beer museum in their basement.  This year we discovered that they opened a distillery with tours.  We found the gift shop and tasting area over-run with people getting out of a tour.  We did another quick run through of the beer museum and then picked out a 8 pack of their Lazy Mutt and two large bottles of Mystical Jack beer and Imperial Jack beer.  They have a variety of beers that are new to most people and kids can enjoy the cream soda and root beer.
   Despite the rainy weather, I enjoyed our day trip to Wisconsin.  If you're looking for delicious gifts or just a day of dairy, beef, and brews, check out Monroe.
   Seize The Day and Travel!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

  In the aftermath of this horrible event, I would like to say a prayer for those who did not survive the disaster of Hurricane Sandy.  Thankfully everyone that I know that has friends and family on the East Coast are saying that they are hanging in there.  My sisters lost power in NYC but are surviving.  They're cold but safe.  I know that people and communities will be there for each other as they piece their lives back together.  Disasters like this could happen anywhere, anytime and I want those suffering this hardship to know that people all over are thinking of them.

November 2nd Update:
Yesterday my sisters' apartment building gained power after 4 days without it, however it wasn't all good news.  One of my sisters was home alone in the building and a fire started in one of the lower apartments.  My sister got out of the building unharmed and actually because she was in the building, she was able to let the firemen in when they arrived to put out the fire.  She saved valuable time by letting them into the building and they were able to put out the fire before it spread.  I know people all over New York and the East Coast have been having tragic experiences all week and my heart goes out to these people.  

Happy Halloween 2012!!

  Happy Halloween Everyone!!  I am currently watching "Pumpkin Wars" on HGTV.  It showcases two towns, Highwood, IL and Keene, N.H., that are competing for the world record of most displayed jack-o'-lanterns.  Since I live in Illinois, I'm partial to Highwood but I am very impressed with Keene.  Keene is determined to win even though it doesn't have the population like that of the Chicagoland area.  Click on this link for more info from HGTV's website. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chicago vs. The World

  This past Friday night, we went to a charity hockey game at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL.  It featured the players from the 2010 Champion Blackhawks team and other NHL players including many that flew in from different states.  Also, former Cubs Ryan Dempster "coached" the Chicago team and Bears Robbie Gould "coached" the World team.  The game was to raise money for the Ronald McDonald Foundation and 11,649 fans showed up.  What made this really amazing was that it was all planned within 2 weeks and had no advertising besides a couple of write-ups in the newspaper.  People traveled from all over Illinois to see this game and I even saw some cars with Indiana license plates.  It was a fun game for a good cause.  Here are a few photos from the game that I thought I'd share: 


  Be on the look-out for other charity hockey games going on throughout the U.S., especially with the NHL lock-out.  Friday night one NHL player from Minnesota had mentioned that he was playing in a charity game tonight (Sunday night).  This game will take place at the University of Minnesota and will benefit the children of members of the military.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Croatia - Did You Know?

  Did You Know that it's believed that the Zinfandel wine grape originated in Croatia?

I learned this tonight on Joseph Rosendo's Travelscope:  "Cruising the Mediterranean".

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Who Has The Top Transportation Systems?

  After seeing how many people used the Metra train to get to the Ryder Cup in Medinah, Illinois this past September, I started to think about all the times I've used public transportation in other cities around the world.  In Madrid, we took the metro to get to a bullfight.  In Munich, we took the S-Bahn to get to the Hofbrauhaus.  I've taken a train from Saint Raphael, France to Italy and then from Italy to Monaco and back to Saint Raphael.  I can not ever recall having issues with the public transportation that I have taken so far.  I think Chicago public transportation is about average.  Some days I get to and from work without an issue but other days train delays really work my patience.
  So what cities have the best transportation systems?  Here's what a little internet research turned up:

CNN provided a list of cities on May 3, 2012:

 10.  Coppenhagen, Denmark
  9.   Singapore
  8.   London, England
  7.  Sao Paulo, Brazil
  6.  Paris, France
  5.  Montreal, Canada
  4.  Madrid, Spain
  3.  New York City, U.S.
  2.  Tokyo, Japan
  1.  Guangzhou, China

 Below is a photo we shot from the Cathedral overlooking the train system in Cologne, Germany.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Humboldt Park - Chicago, IL

  Despite the dreary weather, this past weekend we made it to a Chicago neighborhood for the Open House Chicago.  After much debate, googling, and mapquesting (I don't know my way around every neighborhood in Chicago), we decided to visit Humboldt Park.  For those movie-savvy readers, Humboldt Park was the backdrop for the movie "Nothing Like The Holidays".  The movie is about a Puerto Rican family coming together to celebrate Christmas.  It's true that Humboldt Park is a mostly Puerto Rican area and this is what makes it so unique. With its Boat House, lagoon, and gardens, Humboldt Park is a green oasis in an urban setting.

  Humboldt Park has gone through many different waves of immigrants.  It started with Germans and Scandinavians towards the end of the nineteenth century.  The Germans erected statues of Alexander von Humboldt (1892) and Fritz Reuter (1893).  Then in 1901, Scandinavians enjoyed their statue of Leif Erikson (below).  Poles immigrated to the area and cherished their statue of Thaddeus Kosciuszko.  The 1920s and 1930s brought German and Russian Jews as well as Italians.  Finally, the 1950s brought large influxes of Puerto Ricans with some Mexican immigrants.

   When we arrived in Humboldt Park, it wasn't raining yet so we seized the opportunity to check out the Boat House (1440 N. Humboldt Dr.) and surrounding lagoon and gardens.  Walking along the path was very peaceful and I was surprised at how many areas there were where people could get right up close to the water.  There was even one guy that was fishing.

  Next we visited the Field House (1440 N. Sacramento Ave.)  On the main level there was a workout area and basketball courts.  Behind the Field House was an area that used to be a beach.  Now it just looks like a bunch of water-logged sand.

  After the Field House, we headed over to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture.  We didn't really know what to expect but were pleasantly surprised when we were greeted by a trio of college students who gave us a tour.  We viewed a lot of interesting artwork and photographs.  We also got to see the former office of landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951). Originally from Denmark, Jensen at one time lived in Humboldt Park and designed the garden areas along with those of Garfield Park.  Jensen also helped to establish the Illinois State Parks system, the Cook County Forest Preserve, and the Indiana Dunes State Park.  The building that the Institute is housed in was once stables for horses.  Years ago, people would use the Institute building to park their carriages and have their horses tended to.

  At the Boat House, Field House and Institute, we were able to park for free.  We had to pay for street parking when we made our way down Division Street.  We stopped at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (2739-41 W. Division St.).  This is a charter school with an average class size of 12 students.  We got a tour of its rooftop green house which took a lot of money and effort by the school to make happen.  The green house is a hands-on learning tool for the students and they even grow and harvest their own vegetables there.  One of the science teachers told us what they went through to get the green house up and running and what kinds of things they were growing.  He also showed us tropical fruit plants that he had brought back from a trip to Puerto Rico.  Even with our harsh winters, Chicagoans still try to find ways to bring the tropics to the Windy City.
  Next we moved on to Cafe Colao (2638 W. Division).  After viewing the Cafe's century-old ovens in the back of the restaurant, we enjoyed an avocado sandwich.  Quite delicious!  Across the street from the Cafe is La Casita De don Pedro (2625 W. Division St.).  La Casita is a traditional Puerto Rican style house where cultural and educational events are held.  It has a zinc roof and porch and inside there are some traditional Puerto Rican decorations and furnishings.

    We ended our Open House tour with a visit to Architechs Inc. (2541 W. Division).  The owner gave us a nice tour where he described what he went through to acquire the office space and how he designed the interior.  All different types of materials were used and it was interesting to see what he did to make the space look and feel a certain way.
  As we walked back to our car, I had a big smile on my face just thinking about how much I learned in one day.  It's amazing how Chicago has all these nooks and crannies that I didn't even know existed!  Even though this is only year two of Open House Chicago, I'm hoping that it grows and envelopes even more areas of Chicago. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Open House Chicago

  Last weekend was Open House NYC, this weekend it's Chicago turn to show us what it's got.  Open House Chicago is the one weekend a year where different buildings around Chicago are opened up to the public.  The public can see areas of buildings that they would not normally be able to see.  Some buildings are giving special tours, others are showing off some of their secret gems.  These areas of Chicago have Open House buildings:  Downtown, Gold Coast, Pilsen, Rogers Park/West Ridge, Uptown, Hyde Park, South Shore, Bronzeville, Little Village, Garfield Park/North Lawndale, and Chinatown.
  For more information visit:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Pandas - Did You Know?

  I wouldn't call myself a huge TV person but I do have to share that I absolutely love the Nat Geo WILD channel.  Animal Planet and HGTV are tied for my second favorite TV channels.  The main reason I love HGTV is because they have House Hunters International.  Even though I've read online that this show is somewhat fake, I still enjoy seeing the different cities and what types of housing there is outside the U.S.
  Sometimes while watching Nat Geo WILD, I learn these really fun facts which I like sharing.  I've decided to once in a while do posts called my "Did You Know?" posts.  Then you have to tell me whether or not you knew these fun and interesting facts.

Today I have 2 facts on Pandas:

Did You Know that Pandas are rented from China (usually by zoos) for $1 million a year per Panda?

Did You Know that Pandas are only fertile for 36 hours a year?

Both of these facts I learned from "Miracles Babies" on Nat Geo WILD.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Amana Colonies, Iowa - Oktoberfest 2012

  This past weekend I took a 4 hour road trip to Iowa and traveled back in time 150 years.  Coming from the congested Chicagoland area, I always look forward to the more low-key lifestyle that most of Iowa provides.  My mom is originally from Iowa so I am no stranger to I-80 and the endless corn fields.  Sometimes we would drive to Iowa for a weekend away but this weekend we actually had plans to join in the rivalry of the Amana Colonies Oktoberfest.
  Amana Colonies are located about 5 miles north of I-80 and a little less then 20 miles west of Iowa City.  The Amana Colonies were created in 1855 and were a final destination for German immigrants escaping persecution and looking to form their own settlement.  These immigrants worked together in a communal way of life and began running farms, meat shops, wineries, woolen mills, and furniture stores.  Although many people believe Amana Colonies is Amish, it is not.  The immigrants came from a religious group called True Inspirationists that originated in southwestern Germany.  Finally after so many years, in 1932, the residents of Amana decided to stop living communally and begin owning their own houses and businesses.  Although there have been many changes in Amana over the years, visitors can still see original buildings and understand how life used to be 100 years ago.
  The Seven Villages that make up the Amana Colonies include Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, and Homestead.  As a little celebrity side note, Ashton Kutcher grew up in Homestead and went to Clear Creek Amana High School.  Amana does have modern homes and conveniences so don't worry about imagining Ashton living a "simple" German immigrant life.  I do have to say though that the Midwest can produce some beautiful people.  Amana is the largest village and the main setting for the Oktoberfest.  Amana Colonies have other festivals throughout the year that include "Maifest" in the spring and "A Prelude to Christmas" in the winter.
  The Oktoberfest parade started at 10am on Saturday and we had absolutely beautiful weather.  There were many locals but I'd say just as many, if not more, tourists.  Below are a few shots I got of the parade.


   After the parade the crowds dispersed into the restaurants and shops.  We made our way over to the Millstream Brewing Company to watch the high school jazz band play.  At one time Amana had three breweries however the Millstream has made a name for itself with its award-winning craft beers and delicious sodas.  Since it was about 11am when we sat down to listen to the band, we opted for a root beer and creme soda instead of their beer.  In the Oktoberfest schedule, I had noticed that the Amana Furniture Store had two public tours scheduled for Saturday but we had to call and make a reservation for the tour.  I called and was able to secure spots on their 1pm tour.  After the band finished playing, we made our way over to the Woolen Mill and enjoyed a short group tour that explained how garments were made over the years.  The Amana Woolen Mill is the only operating woolen mill in Iowa.  When the Inspirationists came to Iowa, they installed their German equipment and created a woolen mill first in Amana and then in Middle Amana.  By 1908, the mills were producing 20,000 blankets a year which were being sold around the nation.  The Amana Woolen Mill was destroyed in a fire in 1923 but was rebuilt while the woolen mill in Middle Amana closed in 1937.  Today, the Amana Woolen Mill is still operating and producing beautiful blankets and scarves. 

From the Woolen Mill, we made our way over to the Amana Furniture Store.  It appeared that our tour was a special tour because of the Oktoberfest and is not a regularly scheduled tour.  I went to the Furniture Store's website and I could not find tour information.  If you ever are able to do a tour of the Furniture Store, I would highly recommend it.  We learned a lot about how Amana furniture is made and how the store can do all kinds of custom work for its customers.  Our tour guide talked about the different woods that are used and the high skill levels of their woodworkers.  One unique offering of the Amana Furniture Store is that they are able to replicate any of their furniture pieces that have been created in the last 30 or so years.  If a customer bought chairs for a table 25 years ago and he wants more chairs made, the Furniture Store has no problem building exact replicas of the chairs.

  After the Furniture Store, we wandered into the Village Winery and sampled some of their fruit wines.  Dandelion wine is a unique Amana wine that many tourists love to buy, although a winery employee told me that their cranberry wine was the most popular.  We purchased a bottle of cranberry wine and a bottle of raspberry wine for ourselves and a bottle of elderberry wine for a friend.

  Next we headed over to the area where the games and contests were being held.  There was the "keg throw", the "saw the log", and then a "hammer the nail" contest.  I was tempted to try the "saw the log" contest but in the end just opted to watch.


We ended up wandering more, just taking in the different Oktoberfest activities.  There was live music and a village carriage ride along with fun food vendors.  We also bought a huge bag of kettle corn that I am still working on finishing.

  We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day to enjoy an Oktoberfest, especially in the Amana Colonies.  I would highly recommend spending a day at the Amana Colonies, whether it's for a fest or just a simple get away. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Presentation on Morocco

  This past Monday, my husband and I attended a wonderful presentation about Morocco at the Roselle Library (Roselle, Illinois).  It was given by world traveler, Bill Helmuth.  Mr. Helmuth has traveled to places that many people would not think of traveling to.  Morocco is on my list of places to visit, however, I'm curious to see his presentations on countries that I would be more hesitant to visit such as Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. 
   Here are some interesting things that I learned about Morocco from Mr. Helmuth's presentation:

  • Morocco welcomes tourism and is easily accessible. 
  • It is located in the upper northeast corner of Africa and is easy to reach from Spain.
  • Morocco is ruled by King Muhammed VI.
  • Morocco is primarily a nation of farmers.
  • Morocco has had multiple capitals over the years with Rabat being its current capital.
  • Rabat has a Jewish Quarter.
  • Morocco is a religiously tolerant country with Muslims and Christians peacefully living together.
  •  Besides speaking Arabic, many Moroccans also speak French.
  • Muslim women in Morocco do not want to be photographed.
  • When visiting Morocco as a tourist, always be careful to drink bottled water.
  • A camel with one hump is called a Dromedary and is from Arabia.
  • A camel with two humps is called a Bactrian and is from Northern Iran.
  • Yves Saint Laurent, the fashion designer, is buried in Marrakesh.

  For more information about Bill Helmuth's travels, please visit his website:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Going to the Ryder Cup?

  The 2012 Ryder Cup is just around the corner...literally.  The official first day of the competition at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois is September 28th with some practices starting tomorrow.  Chicago and its northwest suburbs have been preparing for it all summer.  Chicago's northwest suburbs is where I call home so the Ryder Cup is also literally around the corner from my humble abode.  Our local high school will be closed during this time and their parking lot will be used for shuttle buses.  Hotels have been happily booked up and now its time for restaurants and shops to jostle in this influx of customers.
  I'm an avid train commuter and Medinah is one of the stops on my train route.  Medinah station is an easy walk to the Medinah Country Club.  Medinah Station is about a 45 minute train ride from Chicago.  Visitors can also board trains to Medinah from many of the nearby suburbs on the train route including Elgin, Schaumburg, Roselle, Itasca, and Franklin Park.
  I'm not an expert on the inner-workings of the Ryder Cup and Medinah Country Club but if you have any questions about the area and area attractions, please feel free to message me. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What's Your Interesting Eat?

  Yesterday I watched a show called "Street Foods International" on the Travel Channel and it made me think about the most interesting food I have ever eaten.  The show visited different cities and talked about different street foods and how they were just as good as meals prepared in restaurants but were much less expensive.
   Bangkok boasted grasshoppers, locusts, bamboo worms, scorpions, and giant water beetles.  All were cooked or fried and were ready to be snacked on.
   Curry wurst was an interesting bite in Berlin while Amsterdam was known for its eels and herring.  Not to be outdone in the eel department, Tokyo offered freshwater eels and marinated seaweed.  Hong Kong was one of many places were people dined on pig intestines.  Finally rounding out the show was Israel which seemed the most tame with juice stands, dates, and sesame paste.
  What's the most interesting thing I've ever eaten?  In Spain, pig seems to reign supreme.  We got very used to seeing a pig's leg on a holder and watching people take slices off the leg, as they pleased.  Spain was also where I tried my first taste of pig's ear.  One bar in Seville had snails boiled in garlic water out on their counter similar to the way our U.S. bars have pretzels sitting out for patrons.  We enjoyed a nice beer with some garlicky snails that night.  I have also eaten curry wurst in Berlin.  I found it different but fairly enjoyable.  My taste buds did not particularly care for the froie gras I ate in France.  I found it to have a texture similar to a stick of butter.  I hope I did not offend my friend and her parents too much!
  Below is an "eclectic" lunch that we tried in Seville.  It was at a cafe and we didn't exactly know what we were ordering.

  One food that I would never try again that I actually had here in Illinois is shark fin soup.  This is popular in Asian countries and I actually tried it at an Asian restaurant.  I didn't really understand the appeal.  To me, the texture of the pieces of shark fin was similar to human snot.  That was about 10 years ago and at the time I didn't know very much about sharks and about how many people want to ban the consumption of shark fins.  In the shark fin industry, sometimes when a shark is caught, only the fin is removed and the rest of the shark is thrown back into the ocean still alive.  Since it is not able to move about normally, it dies of suffocation or is eaten by other predators.  There are many advocate groups protesting this practice and hopefully this will have some kind of impact on the shark fin business.
  While I'm on the topic of food, I had to share a fun treat I had in Panama City this past January.  We had "snow cones" that were made from scratch.  It's hard to see in this photo but there is a block of ice on this snow cone cart.  One person shaved off ice and put it into a cone while the other added the toppings and served the customers.  One of the "toppings" was condensed milk which I was a little hesitant to try at first but actually really enjoyed.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Wine Festivals 2012

  I needed a little Wine Time before the summer ends so this past weekend I went to a wine festival in Geneva, Illinois.  This was my second time attending the Geneva Festival of the Vine.  It was busier then ever with oenophiles enjoying chocloate, spice, and peach and yoghurt wines. 

  For the last couple of years I've been wanting to go to the Nouveau Wine Festival in Galena, Illinois but haven't gotten a chance to.  This year it's the weekend of November 16-17, 2012.
  Some other wine festivals across the U.S. include:

Naples Winter Wine Festival Florida - January
Nantucket Wine Festival Massachusetts - May
Wine and Food Festival National on the Harbor Waterfront in Maryland - May
Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival Winchester, CA - end of May/early June
Finger Lakes Wine Festival New York - July
Hawaii Food and Wine Festival - September
Snowmass Wine Festival  Colorado - September 14 - 15, 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bus Tour Expectations

  Since my last post was about the bus tours I've taken over the last few years, I decided to create a follow up post about what to expect and what not to expect with bus tours. 

  What To Expect: 

-Expect to see a lot of the big tourist spots and highlights of the towns and cities
-Expect to meet many new people and even make some new friends
-Expect to get up early every morning
-Expect most if not all breakfasts to be included in the tour plus some lunches and dinners
-Expect to pay for extra optional excursions and expect some to be on the pricey side
-Expect to bring your medical insurance information for the tour company because most do ask for it
-Expect that most tour companies limit the weight of your luggage so that it doesn't drag down the bus
-Expect to bring enough money to tip the tour guide and bus driver at the end of the trip

What Not To Expect:

-Don't expect the bus to make bathroom stops every hour, it usually stops only every couple hours
-Don't expect a lot of free time to explore the smaller towns, some stops are only for an hour or two
-Don't expect 5 star hotels unless you have paid for a higher-end, luxury tour
-Don't expect the group to wait for you to primp yourself every morning....some tours will leave without you

  Every bus tour and bus tour company is different.  Some tours are more fast paced, whereas other tours are more leisurely.  The tours that have a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time seem to like to keep things moving.  Many people also keep in touch with each other after the tour is over.  One older couple from our Germany tour even invited us to visit them in Scotland!

This photo is of me and some tour-mates on our last tour night all together in Madrid.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Traveling in a Bus Group

  I had previously mentioned that my husband and I have taken a few bus group tours over the years.  Even though bus tours can have their downsides, we've found them to be very rewarding.  Despite having to wake up early every morning, we were happy to see all the villages and cities that we did on each tour.  Each day we would cover a lot of ground and get to see many hot tourist spots plus get some time for ourselves.  One of the downsides of group tours is having a tight set schedule of sights to see.  During the day every stop is timed.  Sometimes we would stay out late at night but for the most part, we tried not to since we knew we had to get up very early the next day.  In our tours, we would only stay in each city for 1 or 2 nights at a time.  Thus, we would try to see as much as we could in each city and not get very much rest and relaxation.  I remember sleeping a lot on the bus.  I do, however, find bus tours to be enjoyable and would do one again in the future.
  In 2006 we did our Eastern Europe bus tour through Contiki.  Contiki is a tour company that provides vacation tours for people ages 18-35.  Before our trip we thought it would be a nice age range to be with.  Everyone would be our age and we would all want to go out at night and have fun.  We saw a lot on our tour and have a lot of fun memories however we decided to look at different tour companies for our next group tour.  We met some very nice people on our Eastern Europe tour but there was also the typical gossip and "cliques" that formed.  I was in my mid-twenties at the time but I was still amazed about how some of these people could party all night and get up and tour the next day.  One thing I have to say that I didn't like about our tour guide is that she didn't seem to have a lot of tolerance for young people even though she was in our age range as well.  She flat out told us that if we were not on the bus at a certain time, the bus would leave without us.  There was one guy that did get left behind one morning and he had to find his own transportation to catch up with us in Prague.  The 14 day Eastern Road bus tour can still be found on Contiki's website.  The travel route starts in Berlin and goes to Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw, and back to Berlin.  According to Contiki's website, you will pay $2,295 per person if you leave this September.  6 years ago we paid less for this trip.
  In 2008 we decided to try a different travel company so we booked a tour of Germany through Cosmos.  Cosmos provides tours for all age groups however in the 2 tours that we took through Cosmos, there were not any young children in our groups.  There were many older, retired people on our Cosmos tour and actually we liked hanging out with them better then we liked hanging out with the people our age.  They still liked to drink and go out at night but they drank more casually and were overall more laid back.  Our 12 day tour of Germany is currently called Highlights of Germany and is currently priced at $1,679 for a September departure date.  We traveled from Frankfurt to Cologne, to Hamburg, to Berlin, to Nuremberg, to Munich, to the Black Forest and back to Frankfurt.
  I forgot to mention before that almost all the people in our groups were from English speaking countries.  Americans, Canadians, Australians, and British made up a large part of our groups and there were also a few "Kiwis" or people from New Zealand.  In our 2006 Eastern Europe Contiki group I remember there was one really nice Italian girl and another girl that was Dutch.  Our tour guides and bus drivers all spoke English well and ranged from being Dutch and German to Canadian and Spanish.  
  Our last group bus tour was in 2010 for our honeymoon.  This tour was also through Cosmos and we again were probably the youngest in our group which suited us just fine.  It was 9 days from Madrid to Madrid and included overnight stops in Coimbra, Lisbon, and Seville. Current prices for September departures are $1,209 per person.  Even though the tours usually only stay overnight in larger cities, there are still plenty of smaller cities and villages that the buses stop in.  For example, in Portugal, one of the towns we stopped in was Fatima.  In 1917 Fatima is where 3 shepherd children saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary.  It is now a place of pilgrimage for many people.
  All in all, I think bus tours can be great depending on what you're looking to get out of a trip and what kind of person you are.  If you like to visit and see a lot every day of your trip then a bus tour is a great travel experience.  If you enjoy wandering around on your own and not being on a schedule, then a bus tour isn't something you'll particularly enjoy. 

       This is a photo of our 2010 Spain/Portugal tour group.  We met a lot of fun, nice people on this trip.

Friday, August 31, 2012

How Affordable is the Galapagos Islands?

  In January of this year, my husband and I visited Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  Most people that visit the Galapagos Islands take a boat cruise but we decided to do the land route.  We based ourselves out of Santa Cruz Island and visited a couple of other islands by speedboat.  We also spent 3 nights in Guayaquil, Ecuador and 1 night in Panama City.  Our night in Panama City is a choice we made while booking our flight.  With Copa Airlines, we had a stopover in Panama City and we had the choice of deciding how long we wanted our stopover to be.  We ended up deciding to do an overnight stopover since it was our first time in Panama City and we wanted to do a little sight-seeing.
  In future posts I will delve more into our Ecuador trip but in this post I wanted to focus on financial information.  I also want to share how we came up with our trip and how we were able to financially make it happen.  For the longest time it had been my dream to visit the Galapagos Islands but I really never thought it would become a reality.  For some reason I had it in my head that the Galapagos were extremely expensive to visit.  I believed that airfare would be thousands of dollars and that the only way to see the Islands was by boat which would also be thousands of dollars.  The latter is is expensive to see the Islands by boat. 
  Now originally my husband and I had our sights set on visiting Buenos Aires in January 2012.  I saw that flights out of Chicago wavered around $1,500-2,000 for January.  Spending $3,000 alone on transportation was not in our budget so I began researching other options in South America.  Brazil and and Chile both had similar price ranges as Buenos Aires.  Then one day I stumbled upon Guayaquil, Ecuador.  We booked our roundtrip flights from Chicago to Guayaquil (with an overnight stop in Panama City) for $597 a person. Then we booked our roundtrip flights from Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, Galapagos for $302 a person.  We were getting two flights each for $1,000 a person compared to Buenos Aires flights that were over $1,500 a person.
  I have seen many Galapagos packages that travel companies have put together.  I have nothing against these packages but sometimes I wonder how they calculate the costs per person.  One recent package I saw was $2,500 per person for airfare out of Miami, 3 nights in Quito, and 3 nights on a boat in the Galapagos.  I'm sure this is a perfectly nice package but it would have been too expensive for my husband and I.  Plus, our trip was 9 nights instead of 6 nights.  Moving forward with our partial trip breakdown....there are 2 additional fees that foreign visitors have to pay when they go to the Galapagos.  The first fee is a $10 visitor fee and the second fee is a $100 park entrance fee.  All of our hotels had hot, running water, air conditioning and private bathrooms.  Our 9 nights of hotels totaled about $580.  Granted it does cost more to stay on a boat in the Galapagos.
  The total that we paid per person for 2 airfares, hotel costs (divided by two), and entrance fees was about $1,300.  This does not include food, drinks, and activities.
  Hopefully this post has put a little perspective on the costs to visit the Galapagos.  Does it seem a little more affordable for interested visitors?  Are you interested in visiting the Galapagos?

     A view from the shore of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Presentation on Mongolia

  This past Wednesday evening, my husband and I enjoyed a presentation on Mongolia by Cynthia Clampitt at the Schaumburg (IL) library.  Cynthia is a world traveler, writer, and author.  She wrote "Waltzing Australia" and also writes for National Geographic.  Her presentation explored Mongolia's geography, culture, food and people along with her personal travel experiences there.  Here's a list of a couple of the many interesting facts that I learned about Mongolia during her presentation:

  • Mongolia has both extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures
  • During winter, there are only a couple hours of light each day
  • Mongols in the rural areas live mainly on meat, milk and cheese
  • Mongols in the rural areas do not usually eat fish and rarely eat fruits and vegetables 
  • The capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar and it has more modern amenities compared with the rest of the country
  • In 1990 Mongolia gained its freedom from the Soviet Union but Russian influences can still be seen
  • The major religion in Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhism
  • Genghis Khan united the tribes of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire had the most conquered land in history
  • The desert in Mongolia is called The Gobi
  • A traditional Mongolian dish is called Huushuur and its a fried meat-filled pastry

These are just a few things I learned at this wonderful presentation.  I haven't visited Asia yet but it makes me want to plan a trip even more now.
For more information about Cynthia's book on Australia, please visit her website Waltzing Australia.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hockey Stadiums

  In my previous post I had mentioned that on my still to do Bucket List, I want to see hockey games in at least half the NHL stadiums in the U.S. and Canada.  So far we've got four stadiums under our belt and plans for more.

We saw the Chicago Blackhawks in Fall 2010, a few months after they won the Stanley Cup.  I remember the stadium was packed with people going crazy over the Windy City's new champions.  The Blackhawks play in the United Center.  I like this stadium and feel that there's a decent view from almost every seat.  Outside the stadium, there isn't much to do but it's a short drive to other parts of the city for post-game partying.

In March 2011 we saw the New York Rangers play at Madison Square Garden.  Unfortunately we weren't very fond of "The Garden".  Some seats had blocked views which I didn't think was fair considering tickets were pretty expensive.  Also, I didn't like the setup where the bathrooms were in the arena with the seats so there were lines of people waiting to use the bathrooms right next to the seats.  Madison Square Garden is a historic stadium and I do recommend a visit.

In March 2012 my husband, my friend and I went to see the Ducks in Anaheim.  The area around the stadium is nice and nearby is the Angels' baseball stadium.  I liked the setup of the stadium and each seat seemed to have good views of the rink.  On our way to the stadium from Los Angeles we stopped by a couple of hockey stores and the popular In and Out Burger.  My friend suggested the "Animal Style" burgers which were as good as it gets.

 Our Tampa Bay Lightening game in January 2009 rounded out a nice Tampa Bay/Carnival Cruise trip.  My husband proposed to me at the beginning of this vacation.  Then we boarded a Carnival Cruise ship and headed to Cozumel and Grand Cayman.  When we arrived back in Tampa Bay we ended the trip with a fun Tampa Bay Lightening game.  Before the game, there was a pre-party around the stadium with food, drinks, a band, and games.  The weather was so mild compared to Chicago winter weather and we were secretly wishing that the Blackhawks could have these kind of pre-parties outside the United Center.  We both liked St. Pete Times Forum and had no complaints about the rink views from our seats. 

We're hoping the NHL players and owners are able to work out their differences in the next month so we can have a hockey season this year.  If so, our plan is to hopefully see the New Jersey Devils and NY Islanders this year and the L.A. Kings next year. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The NHL Has The Blues....

....and no, I don't mean the St. Louis Blues.  As of today, we still do not know if there will be a 2012-2013 NHL season.  The NHL team owners and the players are in disagreement over a couple of issues including player reduction in salary and player contract terms.  Due to the increase in "big" contracts being handed out to players, for example Zach Parise's contract of $98 million over 13 years, the owners want to limit the number of years in a contract to a maximum of 5 years.  Yesterday key NHL stars flew into Toronto to have another meeting with the NHL team owners.  If these issues do not get worked out by September 15, there will be a NHL "lockout".
  This would not only be a huge bummer to avid hockey fans everywhere, it would also affect some of our plans for our NYC trip.  Last year we saw the NY Rangers in Madison Square Garden.  This year we were planning on seeing both the New Jersey Devils and the NY Islanders while we are in the Big Apple.  One of the items on our "Bucket List" is to see at least half of all NHL teams play a game in their home stadiums.  In my next post I will blog about the NHL home games we've seen so far in our quest to check off another item from our "Bucket List".

Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Short List for New York City

  I've been to New York City twice before and did a lot of touristy stuff.  I saw the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, The Met, The Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History, Little Italy, and Chinatown.  I love touristy stuff but I think this time around I'm going to focus on trying to "blend in with the locals".  As you read in my previous post, I just booked airfare to NYC for $177, nonstop, round-trip for this winter.  On a whim, I decided to check out a book from my local library called "Pauline Frommer's New York City:  Spend Less, See More".  I actually really enjoyed this book.  It gave me plenty of great ideas to try new, creative things in New York City.  Some ideas are still touristy which I don't mind but then I have some fun "local" ideas as well.
  Here's a short list of ideas that I've jotted down so far from Pauline Frommer's book:

1.  Eat Dim Sum in Chinatown.  Dim Sum is small portions of Chinese cuisine traditionally served in steamer baskets.  The food is pushed around the restaurant on carts and customers can choose what items they would like.  I first saw Dim Sum in New York City in the movie "Made of Honor".  Two of the Chinese Dim Sum restaurants that Pauline Frommer listed in her book were Jing Fong and Golden Unicorn.

2.  Try a restaurant that uses peanut butter in a majority of its recipes.  Peanut Butter & Co. on Sullivan Street was recommended by Frommer.  They have all kinds of sandwiches and desserts made from peanut butter.

3.  Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  o.k. this is touristy but I've never done it before and Frommer said that there are great views of the city from the Bridge.  Plus, I've never been to Brooklyn before.

4.  Do a Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour in Astoria, Queens.  See how the famous Steinway pianos are made.  I play the piano so this is right up my alley.

5.  Go to a Japanese Tea Ceremony at Cha-an in the East Village.  According to Ch-an's website they have Japanese tea ceremonies the first and third Sundays of the month between noon and 4pm.  Reservations are needed.  I've read the food and teas are great even if you can't make the tea ceremony. 

I plan on discovering many more great ideas for my trip to NYC which I will share in future posts.  I would love to hear more fun tips and ideas from anyone else that has visited NYC.

Below is a photo from our March 2011 trip to NYC.  A fun touristy NYC activity is ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza.  It's a little on the expensive side.  For $35 you can get a combo ticket for a skate plus a visit to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck.  This could be a very memorable and fun experience.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Flight Frenzy

So I just booked a flight to visit my sisters in New York City.  I never really thought about it before but I have a quirky way of booking flights.  I consider it strategic but outsiders may view it as being nit-picky or controlling.  Whenever I book a flight no matter where it is, I consider a wide variety of factors.  Depending on where I'm going depends on how many choices I get to make and believe me, I love choices.

  One of the first factors I consider is timing.  For trips outside the U.S., I'm limited on departure and arrival times.  Planes from Chicago to certain cities in Europe only leave at certain times of the day.  However, planes from Chicago to New York City leave almost every hour.  If possible, I prefer to be one of the first planes out to whatever destination I'm going to.  For example, my flight to New York City is leaving O'Hare Airport at 6:30am.  I have my own scientific reasoning behind this but the main reason is that most early morning flights depart on-time.  It's not a guarantee but I can't think of the last early morning flight that I had that was delayed.  If the flight does get delayed then I should still be first in the line-up of flights for the day to depart.  Another simple reason why I like to leave in the early morning is because when I arrive in whatever city I'm going to, I still have almost a full day of sight-seeing ahead of me.  Another part of timing that I consider is who is taking me to the airport and who is picking me up.  When flying in and out of O'Hare Airport, my dad is always my ride.  I'm ever grateful to him for this, therefore I basically never pick flight times that coincide with rush hour traffic.  Believe me, rush hour traffic is bad in Chicago.  I wouldn't say it is the worst in the nation but it is up there. According to different online flight forums, many people also seem to recommend flying out in the early morning as the best time to fly.  As far as best days of the week to fly out, the consensus was Tuesday.  I also saw many people recommending Wednesday as being the cheapest day of the week to fly out.

  Price is a big factor for many people when choosing flights.  I play the "price is right" game.  I already have a set price in my head that I feel is the right price for a flight for a city during that time of year.  For example, I wouldn't pay more then around $200 to fly from Chicago to New York City or Chicago to Los Angeles.  Many people would think that as the years go by, airfares would increase with inflation.  I paid $180 in December 2004 for a flight to California and I paid $180 per person, round-trip nonstop this past March for a flight to California.  My New York City flight that I just booked was $177 per person, round-trip nonstop.  Granted, there are times when I might need to be in a city for a wedding or graduation, thus airfares are not as flexible.  However, one cheap flight tip I would give out is to have a reasonable price in mind that you would pay for a flight and keep checking and checking and checking for that price.  If possible try to be flexible on your travel time frame as well.  My favorite airfare search engine is  Many times I do go to the airline's actual site to check prices there too.  For my New York City flight, Kayak told me that the cheapest flight was $192 with Spirit.  I went to both Delta's and American Air's websites and found my round-trip airfare for $177 a person.  I chose Delta because it flies into the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia and this terminal is always quiet.  Some of my friends choose to get email updates once a fare is around a certain price which may be favorable for people who don't like to constantly check flight prices.

  As I mentioned above, I booked Delta to fly into LaGuardia because it uses the Marine Terminal which is a separate terminal from the rest of LaGuardia airport.  This terminal is almost always quiet and getting through security is super fast.  Over the years I've found some "studs" and "duds" for airlines.  This is just my personal opinion based on my experiences.  One of my favorite airlines is Air France when I flew into Berlin during my Eastern Europe trip.  Each seat had its own personal TV that was in the back of the chair in front of it.  We each also got eye masks among other little amenities.  I flew Air India into Frankfurt during our Germany trip.  I loved our flight attendant.  When he realized that we were having trouble eating the spicy Indian plane food that he gave us, he tried to bring us other non-spicy things to eat and also gave us a bunch of mini bottles of beer and wine.  I think he was trying to make up for the fact that we were struggling to eat the food.  Air India even gave out mini bags of what looked like Indian-style flaming hot cheetos.  There is nothing wrong with Indian food, I just have trouble eating spicy food.  The airline that I didn't care for the most was Iberia Airline.  The flight attendants were extremely rude.  They really turned me off to the airline and made me wonder if they hated their jobs. We took Iberia to Madrid on our honeymoon.  When we checked in for our flight home, Iberia told us that they didn't know if we had a place on the plane because they had overbooked our flight.  My husband and I went running through the airport to get to the gate to demand to get on the flight.  We did board that flight but were given seats in separate areas of the plane.  So during the 8 hour flight home from my honeymoon, I did not get to sit anywhere near my new husband.

Now here is my favorite airport.  The photo is a little blurry but can you guess where it is?


My favorite airport is in the Galapagos Islands.  We walked from the plane right into the airport.  There was no conveyor belt for our luggage, it was all dragged from the plane and set in a group.  There were no walls to the airport, just an overhang.  Oh, and we didn't have to take off our shoes or give up our liquid items that we wanted to carry on the plane.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sweet Home Chicago

  Yes, I live in a suburb of Chicago so I am a little biased about the City of Broad Shoulders.  Chicago has been the backdrop for many historical events.  Just like New York City, Chicago had its own group of gangsters.  The "Chicago Outfit" was at one time led by the infamous Al Capone.  Race Riots and the 1968 Democratic Convention sparked other kinds of violence in Chicago.  However just like any other large urban city, through the dark marks in Chicago's history shine many wonderful aspects.
  Chicago is bursting with culture.  One can visit Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown and Ukrainian Village without leaving the city.  There are also other ethnic enclaves that include Polish, Puerto Rican, and German heritages.  I would highly recommend visiting an ethnic area during a visit to Chicago.  The most popular tourist attractions include Navy Pier, The Field Museum, The Art Institute, and The Museum of Science and Industry.  Plus, Chicago boasts Championship sports teams along with biking, boating, and ice skating.
  One of my favorite times in Chicago is when the "Magnificent Mile", also known as the Michigan Avenue area, is having its tulips days in the spring.  There are so many beautiful colors and I see photographers on a daily basis snapping away.
  Here are a few of my own Chicago tulip photos.

  I do have these photos posted on my other blog, Chicago Daily.  I started that blog a couple years ago and have slowed down on it as I've started this new blog.
  As far as vacationing in Chicago, really any time of year is great to visit.  For first time visitors, Chicago in early summer or early fall are my favorite times of year.  Mid-summer is wonderful for the beach but as we've seen this summer, can sometimes get uncomfortably hot.  Winters in Chicago are full of beautiful Christmas decorations and Thanksgiving parades but can be extremely cold.
  For accommodations, some hotels run seasonal specials.  I have also seen some good Chicago hotel deals on sites like Groupon and Living Social.  Areas like Michigan Avenue tend to have higher prices across the board as far as food, accommodations, and activities.  Navy Pier is free to walk around but Imax Theater ticket prices run around $18 a ticket and Ferris Wheel ticket prices are $6 per person.  Other fun free activities include walking around Millennium Park, checking out The Bean, and visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo. has a "Deals" section that is worth checking out.
  All in all, this "Second City" is a wonderful place to visit no matter what time of year you come.  Carpe your trip to Chicago!