A Travellerspoint blog

The best travel experiences of my life: 50-41

This is the third installment of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins here.

50. Hatikva market, Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv offers a good example of how easy it is to miss a city's best market by doing limited research. Search online or peruse any travel guide for Tel Aviv markets and the names that will come up over and over again are Carmel Market in the city center and the Jaffa Flea Market. We went to both of these and they were pleasant enough but clearly geared towards tourists. Mei Ling and I know that we're going to see the best stuff where the locals shop. The way we found Hatikva market was to ask a cabdriver where the Israelis bought their food and we weren't disappointed. The large market in a nondescript blue collar neighborhood had all the frenzied activity and gore we'd missed at the tidy tourist markets with their falafel and hummus. Much to my consternation Mei Ling started buying all sorts of awkward foodstuffs like calf brains and rooster testicles but I've learned to just let her run with it. Surely enough we came across a guy with a small outdoor kitchen who willingly agreed to stir fry her collection of offal. As I watched I suddenly felt a searing pain in my right eye and instantly realized that a rooster testicle had exploded and ejected boiling juice into my eye. As I struggled to open my eye I was certain my contact lens had melted to my scalded eyeball and our vacation was over. Someone guided me to a tap and I held my eye under cool running water for a few minutes until he pain had subsided. Much to my surprise there was no lasting damage and for good measure the offal fricassee was delicious.
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49. Rooftop breakfast in Sulmona, Italy
The central province of L'Aquila isn't on many people's short list of places to visit in Italy, but it was the site of two of my greatest travel experiences. There weren't any Airbnb's available on short notice in Sulmona but I was fortunate to find a room in a B&B in the heart of the town that was one of the best I've ever stayed at. In the morning we went upstairs for our breakfast and found ourselves on a beautiful terrace with unobstructed views of the town rooftops. Beyond the neat rows of clay shingles and the church bell towers was the Maiella massif, part of the Apennine range. The view was breathtaking in every direction. Breakfast was colorful and delicious and included a tapenade that our host had made from olives she had picked herself. I could not imagine a better way for us to have kicked off our last day of an amazing month-long Adriatic road trip. Little did I know that we still had one of our top ten all time travel experiences still ahead of us that day.
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48. Seafood restaurant in Hangzhou, China
One of my favorite things to do in Chinese coastal cities is to go to a seafood restaurant that looks more like an aquarium than a place to eat. Chinese people love to eat food that was alive just minutes ago, which is why you'll sometimes see a well-dressed office worker going home on the bus with a live chicken in a cage. Many seafood restaurants have a huge variety of live fish and shellfish on display and I've never seen a selection like I did in Hangzhou, a close neighbor of Shanghai. Having Mei Ling with me meant nothing was off limits, not even the silkworms or horseshoe crab. The crab was particularly fascinating, with delicious glutinous roe filling the crevasses in the shell. As with all my best experiences in China, it would have been impossible if unaccompanied by someone familiar with the culture and fluent in Chinese.
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47. Atwater Market in Montréal, Canada
Yes, it's another market and it's far from the last. Markets are one of the first things I research when I decide to put a city on our itinerary. There's no better way for travelers to integrate themselves into the natural daily life of a city. There's always new and unusual things to see and taste, people to talk with, and energy to absorb. The main produce market in Montréal is Jean-Talon in Little Italy but by far our favorite was the much smaller gourmet Atwater Market near the Lachine Canal. Not only was there excellent produce and a very appealing food court, but the indoor delis had the most appetizing selection of prepared food one could imagine. The self-catered lunch we put together in the market was one of the best meals we had on that entire road trip.
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46. La Rocca di Cefalù, Sicily
This massive rocky outcropping looms over the small coastal town of Cefalù as if to challenge visitors to scale it. After debating anxiously with myself if we should attempt it with three kids under five, I decided we would go for it and as usual I was rewarded for taking the bolder path. The climb was grueling but never hazardous and the ruined fort and views at the summit were magical. Possibly the best part was the feeling of accomplishment from overcoming such a strenuous physical challenge.
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45. Michelin three star restaurants, New York City
In 2013 we decided to reward ourselves for becoming a family by eating in four of New York City's most renowned Michelin three star restaurants on consecutive nights. We got off to a bad start with a heavy and uneven meal at Per Se, followed by much better outings at Jean-Georges and Daniel, and finally a spectacular dinner at Le Bernardin. It's impossible for the food itself to justify the the exaltation these restaurants are held in and their exorbitant prices, but it was a unique experience to eat at so many of these venerable institutions in one of the great culinary cities of the world. Ironically enough, on our last night in the city we ate at a relatively unheralded Italian restaurant that we both agreed was at least the equal if not superior to anything we had had the previous four nights.

44. Old Town Square in Prague
It probably won't come as a shock that Prague's Old Town is quite beautiful. Those millions of tourists show up every year for a reason. At the center of it all, Old Town Square is on another level from the main squares of other renowned European cities. The sheer number of glorious and historic edifices in a variety of architectural styles is overwhelming. The gothic Tyn Church immediately catches the eye with its wicked-looking black spires, but there is also the fascinating Astronomical Clock and the imposing baroque St. Nicholas Church. Somehow all of these diverse structures come together harmoniously to create a space that might better be suited to a fairy tale than our modern Western society. It took us ten minutes standing in the center of the square just to soak in the immaculateness of what we were seeing.
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43. Mt. Ulriken in Bergen, Norway
Despite being Norway's second-largest city, Bergen has less than 300,000 inhabitants. It didn't take us long to walk through the interesting parts of the town, leaving time to explore one of the famous mountains that surround the city. Of the two that are accessible by public transportation we chose Mt. Ulriken, which has continuously-running cable car. We were amazed by the expansive panorama of town and sea once we disembarked. On the other side we saw people picking their way through the rocky hillsides and decided to see how far we could get. We made some pretty good headway along the choppy trail and eventually summited a hillock with far-reaching views over the otherworldly landscape. For a few minutes there were no other humans in sight and it felt as if our little family had landed alone on an uninhabited planet.
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42. French language immersion in Nice
The summer after I finished medical school I spent a month in Nice doing a French immersion course. It was a final blast of freedom before embarking on a grueling surgical residency. Although I made my decision impetuously and blundered into my chosen school and location without much consideration, virtually everything went right. Nice was a fascinating city, the beach was a hive of energy, and the director of a Brazilian modeling academy had chosen my school for the French education of his charges that summer. The month went by so fast that my head spun once I realized I would be returning home the next day. It was six years before I had the chance to try something similar, this time with Spanish in Barcelona. There weren't any Brazilian models this time around but I did have another of my top travel experiences of a completely different nature.
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41. Iguana roti in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
One of the many great things about Mei Ling is that once she puts her mind to something she will pursue it with fierce determination. Before our first visit to Trinidad she had read about the locals hunting and cooking iguanas and she decided she wanted to try it. She started out asking our cab driver at the airport and when he acknowledged having family who hunted iguana she convinced him to give us his phone number. She bugged him a couple of times over the next few days while we were doing Carnival activities and he seemed to be putting her off. I told her to leave the poor guy alone because I couldn't imagine any reason he would want to inconvenience himself for a couple of pushy American tourists. However on our last night he gave us a call and told us his sister-in-law had a freshly killed iguana if we wanted to come over for dinner. Mei Ling answered that not only were we coming over for dinner, we were going to help cook. Soon we were in their kitchen doing our part to butcher the iguana and roll roti pancakes. I can't claim that the iguana was delicious - it wasn't unlike other small animals that are hardly worth the effort of separating them from their bones, but the experience was incomparable. I'd rather spend an evening with a local family when I travel than see all the tourist attractions put together.
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To be continued with the best travel experiences numbers 40-31.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:25 Comments (0)

The best travel experiences of my life: 60-51

This is the continuation of the list of the top 70 travel experiences of my life that begins here.

60. Easter weekend arts festival in Montevideo
One spring break a couple of years ago we found ourselves in Montevideo on Easter weekend, not out of any overwhelming desire to see Montevideo but as a byproduct of a trip to Buenos Aires and a gaucho ranch in Uruguay. Strangely enough, Montevideo turned out to have as much if not more to offer us than Buenos Aires. The highlight of our busy weekend was an arts festival I stumbled across on a Spanish language website while searching online for local events. The festival turned out to be a huge affair with areas for artwork, crafts, a rodeo, and an enormous parrillada that was feeding hundreds of patrons. We had a great time browsing the artwork and listening to spontaneous musical performances and we felt fortunate to have randomly stumbled across this opportunity to immerse ourselves in authentic Uruguayan culture.
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59. Jet Ski tour of Biscayne Bay, Miami
I tend to be judgmental about cities and my home city of Miami is no exception. It's the perfect place for me to live but I can't recommend it strongly as a travel destination unless you have an affinity for nightclubbing. I didn't discover some of Miami's best features until Mei Ling began coming to visit in 2008 and I needed to find activities to entertain her. One of the most fun things we've done in Miami was take a Jet Ski tour of the north section of Biscayne Bay, the body of water between Miami Beach and the mainland where one can see many of the spectacular waterfront mansions the city is known for. The most impressive was the enormous neoclassical palace of Philip Frost, the inventor of Viagra, on Star Island. The best part was the thrilling sense of freedom from driving the powerful watercraft along the choppy water surface and feeling the fresh sea breeze in our faces. The omnipresent water and sunny weather are my favorite thing about Miami, along with the Latin culture.
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58. Municipal market of Ocho Rios, Jamaica
For most tourists Ocho Rios is a cruise ship stop where you can climb Dunn's River Falls or go ziplining in a forest canopy. In 2009 Mei Ling and I were circumnavigating Jamaica by route bus so we got to see a different side of the city. One odd thing I remember was crossing from the town of Ocho Rios into the cruise ship port. It was almost like crossing a border between countries. Suddenly everything around us was gaudy and Americanized and prices were three times higher than in town. Back in the real Ocho Rios the municipal produce market was humming. Vendors had parked pickups laden with fruits and vegetables in front of the market and were selling their goods right out of the trucks. Inside the market were freshly-cooked food, a bar, and a DJ cueing up the latest reggae tracks. A sign on the wall requested that patrons remain from smoking ganja inside. There were no other tourists to be seen. Mei Ling and I circled around the market for hours eating, drinking, and dancing much to the amusement of the locals. It was the best market we found in Jamaica and an unusual chance to mingle with locals in a country where tourists normally move in a bubble.
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57. Saturday Market, Portland, Oregon
Our best travel year to date is still 2014. We kicked it off with our first European road trip to Iberia when Ian was just six months old and closed it out in central Mexico. In between we hit NYC, Israel, the Pacific Northwest, England, and the Adriatic coast. The genesis of the Pacific Northwest road trip was a desire to visit Seattle that got expanded to include Portland and Vancouver. As occasionally happens, we found our primary focus of Seattle to be a big disappointment but Portland proved to be an epiphany. Despite being a relatively small city, Portland had a range of fun things to do that rivaled or exceeded some of the largest metropolises in the United States. There was also an amazing food culture that included an impressive array of farmers markets and multiple delicious brunch options every day of the week. It's hard to select a single activity that we enjoyed most but the Portland Saturday Market is probably at the top of the list. This high energy outdoor market on the bank of the Willamette River was a showplace for a great collection of local artists and craftspeople and also had a live band and plenty of food. As usual, Cleo didn't mind at all being the only one dancing and the band made it clear how much they appreciated her.
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56. Yakitori Alley in Tokyo
This is another experience from our first round-the-world trip in 2013 when Cleo was almost a year old and Mei Ling was pregnant with Ian. It's difficult to pick a top experience from the nine amazing days we spent in Tokyo but I'll never forget the night we were out walking near our hotel in Shinjuku ward and stumbled across Yakitori Alley, a hive of tiny restaurants mainly offering grilled snacks on skewers. While yakitori specifically refers to grilled chicken, the restaurants offered a variety of meats from whelks to pork rectum. Typically the food was served from behind a U-shaped bar with stools packed around the circumference, and no room for any tables. Cleo was asleep when we sat down to eat but woke up halfway through dinner and suddenly popped her head out of my backpack, much to the surprise and delight of our fellow diners. Few tourists are comfortable enough to navigate this type of restaurant, so we were mostly surrounded by locals with a smattering of expats and backpackers. I've always been glad we chose to spend the whole nine days of our Japan stop in Tokyo rather than spreading ourselves over different cities. We spent every one of those days in a different ward and it felt like we were visiting nine different cities.
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55. Grand Central Market in Los Angeles
Anyone who reads my travel blog knows that I've loved food halls since we visited one of the originals, Mercado de San Miguel, in Madrid in 2014. The best are the ones that offer authentic dishes from a wide variety of different cuisines, and the best of the best was Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. The sheer number and variety of miniature restaurants was overwhelming and the quality of food was almost universally outstanding. If I could teleport just one of Los Angeles's great attributes home to Miami, it would be Grand Central Market.
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54. Callejoneada in Guanajuato, Mexico
One of the best things in traveling is feeling like you're being welcomed into the culture of your host country. Sometimes those experiences can be artificial, but the callejoneada we joined in the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato felt very warm and authentic. In this local musical tradition, groups of university students sing and play instruments in front of the cathedral and then take their audience on a tour of the callejons, a charming network of narrow staircases and alleys in the old town. Along the way the students tell jokes and stories and pour drinks. Fortunately I was trying my best to follow along with my rudimentary Spanish because at one point the speaker suddenly stopped in the middle of his joke to ask me what I thought the most important thing was to know about women. I can't remember my answer but it was comprehensible and pithy enough to elicit guffaws from the students and the rest of the audience. I remember that Cleo could tell something special and exciting was going on despite being only two years old, and she was very intently scurrying along keeping up with the leader of the group. This was one of many wonderful experiences I've had in Mexico, a country that I'm proud to have as a neighbor but is poorly understood by my fellow Americans.
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53. Ometepe, Nicaragua
The barbell-shaped island of Ometepe is what first caught my eye on Google Maps and drew me to arrange our guided journey to Nicaragua in 2016. At the end of our trip we spent a magical two days on the peaceful island taking nature walks, observing troops of howler monkeys in the trees, and eating delicious meals in our beautiful lodge. Through it all we remained under the silent authority of Ometepe's two majestic volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas.
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52. Summer Palace, Beijing
Over the years I've become more and more averse to historical tourist attractions and I'm proud of the large number of them that I've avoided during my travels. Two of my least favorite experiences in Beijing were the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and I feel compassion for anyone who believes they've experienced that amazing city after visiting those two places. On the other hand, just because a place is a tourist attraction doesn't automatically make it unworthy of a visit. I was on my own for the day when I went to the Summer Palace during my first visit to Beijing in 2008. At that time there was a public boat that went all the way to the palace from central Beijing via the canals. On the boat were some girls who were visiting from rural towns and hadn't seen many Caucasians before. Once we reached the palace they all took turns getting their pictures taken with me. The 18th century site is a beautiful complex of Qing Dynasty buildings and gardens at the edge of a large lake that is full of islands and bridges. I spent much more time walking the paths around and over the lake than I did in the buildings, but I was astounded by the beautiful Marble Boat which is actually made of wood painted to look like marble. Beijing became much less interesting for a traveler between my two visits in 2008 and 2020 so I will always treasure the memories of that first visit.
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51. Walking central Copenhagen
Copenhagen is even more of a water city than Miami, although the latitude makes it less amenable to sunbathing and watersports. Strolling around the city center is an amazing journey through lush gardens, ornate palaces, and canals whose banks are filled with vitality. The list of interesting sights that can be reached in just a few hours of walking is almost endless. We dedicated an entire day just to walking around Copenhagen and it was one of our most enjoyable experiences in Scandinavia.
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To be continued with the best travel experiences of my life numbers 50-41

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:15 Comments (0)

The best travel experiences of my life: 70-61

Considering that our spring break trip to Belize and Guatemala has been canceled and our summer trip to Eastern Europe appears to be out of the question as well, I've decided to fill this unexpected hole in my travel history with a project I've been thinking about for some time. What have been my best travel experiences ever? Of course, that really means just the last twenty-five years because childhood memories are too hazy and I have very few pictures from back then. Most of the best experiences have come since I met my wife twelve years ago and we began traveling voraciously. I planned to make a list of fifty experiences which quickly spilled over sixty, and then I managed to extend it to seventy. Rather than struggle to stretch the list to a round hundred, I decided that seventy would be perfectly adequate for eight blog posts. Some of the experiences, like the Taj Mahal and Prague's Old Town Square, are obvious. Some like Rocca Calascio and Vestmannaeyjar are practically unknown. And others, like the times people brought us home to cook and meet their families, are unique. Of course the rank order is rough, life experiences are very hard to compare. However, there's no question that the ones at the top are some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of my life.

70. No Name Pub in Big Pine Key, Florida
Before Mei Ling and I were married we lived in different cities and would travel together when we could arrange free time. Once we decided to just stay local and drove down to Key West on the Overseas Highway. Most people are familiar with Key West but not many know that there is a whole chain of little islands between the mainland and Key West, some of which aren't much wider than the highway that crosses them. The Keys are home to an assortment of iconoclastic folk and have many hidden secrets. One of those secrets is the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Not many people stop in Big Pine, but if you make a hard right north from the highway you'll soon find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood with plenty of tiny Key deer. Decades of protection have made them fearless and they will come up to cars looking for handouts, although people aren't supposed to feed them. We happened to have lychees in the car and we couldn't resist, I'm sorry to say. At the end of the road in Big Pine before the bridge that crosses over to sparsely-populated No Name Key is the No Name Pub. Despite its out-of-the-way location the gravel parking lot always seems to be full. Inside the walls are completely blanketed with layers of dollar bills stapled to the walls. No Name isn't the only bar to have that tradition in the US, but I think it's the only one that doesn't have a single inch of the original wall or ceiling left uncovered. Mei Ling had never seen anything like it before and she thought it was hilarious. We made sure to staple our own bill to the wall before we left, with my message in English and hers in Chinese. No Name Pub doesn't get its traffic just from the decor. They have some of the best conch fritters I've ever tasted with plenty of pieces of tender conch inside them. Key West is a great place to spend a weekend, but if you just drive there nonstop from Miami you'll miss a lot.
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69. New World Mall Food Court

Yes, I'm the kind of guy who can have one of his best travel experiences at a mall food court. Of course, the version at New World Mall in Flushing, Queens is no ordinary food court. The expansive basement contains dozens of stalls serving up Asian food from different regions of China as well as Korea and Southeast Asia. For any lover of spicy food and Asian food it is the closest thing to Nirvana in the Americas, although it would be positively ordinary in East Asia.
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68. Savannah Historic District
I love to visit other countries and experience a foreign ambiance, but I also love American regional culture. In terms of historic American Southern charm, it doesn't get any better than Savannah, Georgia. The Historic District is a geometrically-pleasing grid of narrow streets lined with 18th century mansions and stately trees draped in Spanish moss. If there's a more beautiful residential neighborhood in the United States, I have yet to see it. The neighborhood has plenty of atmospheric restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques which make it easy to spend an entire day walking the area. Our third kid had just arrived two months earlier and this was a perfect way for us to spend a relaxed morning on a sunny late summer day.
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67. Spongebob Musical on Broadway

This moment makes the list because it was the first Broadway musical for Mei Ling and the kids. The show was beautifully done with vividly colorful costumes and sets, and the kids loved it. Outside the theater the neon billboards illuminated us as if it was daylight while thousands of people and cars packed Times Square. It was a regular Tuesday night but it felt like a raucous festival that would never end. Broadway and Midtown might not be for everyone but it is probably the most iconic spot in New York City.
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66. Flying Soul chocolate cake in Martinique
About a year before Mei Ling finally came to live with me for good we went to a friend's wedding in St. Lucia and then took a few extra days to visit Barbados and take a road trip around Martinique. It was our first time renting a car together and it was very eye-opening to see the variety of experiences we could have with the freedom of our own wheels. Our last stop in Martinique was the resort town of Trois-Îlets where we had one of the worst restaurant dinners in memory. The food looked and tasted as though it had been dumped out of cans onto the plates. We attempted to salvage our night by driving to another restaurant down the coast that was highly recommended by our guidebook. This was before we had unlocked phones and local SIM cards so we were driving along the coastal road in the darkness with only a map to guide us. The drive was much longer than expected and we were on the verge of giving up and returning when we spotted the restaurant. Fortunately our second dinner was good enough to make up for the failings of the first as well as the long drive. The evening was capped by the best chocolate lava cake that either of us had ever tasted, which went by the name of Flying Soul on the menu. The restaurant was right on the beach and after dinner we strolled onto the sand and listened to the waves gently lapping against the shoreline. I threw in one of the pictures from our trip that shows a typically verdant Martinique landscape.
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65. Noche Mexicana in Merida, Mexico
Most Anglos who could even think of a city in the Yucatan Peninsula will instantly name Cancun but the capital of Yucatán State, Merida, is larger and much more cosmopolitan. We enjoyed the sprawling community market of Merida as well as top echelon restaurants and an excellent food hall called Mercado 60. The most memorable part of our stay came on a Saturday night when we went out to experience Noche Mexicana, a weekly street festival with vendors, rides, and a walk through avant garde art installations. There were thousands of people walking in the center of town which had been pedestrianized for the occasion. There was a wonderful feeling of energy and we had the feeling we had stumbled onto a local secret few people outside of the area are familiar with.

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64. Chao Phraya
It's hard to pick out a single peak experience from my three visits to Bangkok, but the one thing I would certainly do on every visit would be to take a water taxi on the Chao Phraya. This wide river is still a major conduit for transport and commerce in the city and is the source of the canals that have given Bangkok the nickname "Venice of the East". A leisurely ride down the Chao Phraya provides the best view of the amazing juxtaposition of ancient temples and ultramodern skyscrapers for which Bangkok is famous. Some of the city's best street markets are just steps away from the ferry stops.
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63. Venice gondola ride
When it comes to tourist traps, the Venice gondolas have to be near the top of the list. It's an extravagantly-priced phenomenon that would be non-existent if not for the hordes of tourists willing to fork out cash for an obligatory experience. I've learned to run like a deer from any travel experience that seems to be obligatory. From the Mona Lisa in Paris to the Forbidden City in Beijing they've turned out to be disappointments. During our full day of walking in Venice I rolled my eyes and quickened my step each time we passed one of the gondolier stations but at one point I caught a flash of disappointment on Mei Ling's face. I began to have second thoughts and realized that perhaps I'd dismissed the idea too quickly. Venice itself is a ridiculously over-touristed city but there's no question that it is still worthwhile to visit for its unique watery beauty. Could I be missing something about the gondola ride? I shrugged and shelled out the standard eight Euros for a forty minute ride. As soon as we reached the main canal I realized that Venice looked and felt completely different from the water. Something about the movement of the small boat and the low angle really brought home the impression that the whole city was floating like some kind of magical conjuration. The community of small boats on the canals was a different world from the pedestrians on the walkways and bridges. At the end I was very grateful to Mei Ling for preventing me from overthinking my way out of a valuable part of the Venice experience.
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62. Spanish immersion in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
By the time I was in the final year of my emergency medicine residency, I'd wised up enough to take advantage of an elective month by using it to travel internationally. I chose an immersion course in medical Spanish in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. There are so many American expats living in the center of town that in some ways it doesn't feel like Mexico, but the beautiful architecture and artwork of the city inspired a love of that unique country which has never abated. Sadly I've lost whatever photos I took during that time but I more than made up for it with my return visit for the annual bull festival, which I'll cover in a later entry.

61. The streets of San Francisco
In 2013 when Cleo was almost a year old and Mei Ling was pregnant with Ian we set off on our first trip around the world. Our last stop before returning home was San Francisco, a city I had spent time in before but Mei Ling had never visited. During that time we walked through most of the city's famous neighborhoods, from North Beach to Golden Gate Park. After that visit I concluded that San Francisco is the best walking city in the United States. The diverse ethnic neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and immaculate Victorian houses give it the edge over New York City. Throw in the energetic but uncrowded atmosphere and the eclectic local population and I have one of my ten favorite cities in the world.
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Next up, experiences 60-51!

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:04 Comments (1)

Rocky Mountain Highs: The Rockies


View Colorado 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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Since it was the kids' first real winter vacation I crammed as many outdoor activities as I could on the way to Steamboat Springs, expense be damned. First up was snow tubing at Frisco Adventure Park. I had booked our time slot well in advance of the trip, which was fortunate because when we arrived we found the lodge completely packed and the day had been completely sold out. The sleds were large inflatable tubes with canvas floors that the kids could sit inside. There was a magic carpet lift up to the top of the hill where we linked up our tubes and then flew down the slope with a push from the attendant. It was the perfect speed to thrill our kids. Cleo felt a little sick from the altitude since we were now at 9000 feet, but she managed to get past it and enjoy a few runs.
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We had to hightail it back east to make our scheduled departure on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. I had hesitated to put this on our itinerary due to mixed reviews but in the end decided we had nothing to lose since there wasn't anything else to do at night in the area. Georgetown was a very cute and rustic town that was originally a mining camp. The railroad itself was kind of a bust. Our car was super crowded and the Christmas light displays outside were mediocre. The ride was far too long as well, forty-five minutes. The kids on the train were either too young to know where they were or old enough to be bored after twenty minutes. Cleo spent most of the last half of the ride asking me how much longer until we were done. The buffoonish Christmas Carol skit in the middle of the ride wasn't much better than staring out the window. When we disembarked from the train at the top of the windy hill, it was the coldest we'd been on the trip so far.
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There was no shortage of restaurants in Georgetown and we got a hearty dinner of pho before we drove to our motel in Idaho Springs and settled in for the night. Idaho Springs was another picturesque mountain town with a strip of hotels along the highway and a main street crafted for tourism. We were efficient enough getting out of the motel that we could grab a hasty but hearty breakfast before getting on the road.
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We were just 39 miles from our snowmobiling site in Fraser which seemed like it would have been an easy distance to cover in an hour and a half, but we barely made it. Soon after we exited the interstate onto Route 40, the road began a steep ascent into the mountains that was marked by sharp hairpin turns on unplowed asphalt. Fortunately it had already been two days since the snow fell and cars had left tracks that we could follow without getting into the slush. The snow-covered mountains and evergreens around us were beautiful, to the extent that I could take my gaze off the center of the road. At one point we even saw a good-sized avalanche taking place across the valley from the highway.
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We made it to the snowmobiling location in the nick of time for our reservation and quickly got suited up. We were well-prepared with three layers of clothing, fleece balaclavas that covered our necks, and polarized goggles. The departure point was a flat field surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The snowmobiling itself was fairly sedate, with the adults driving and the kids holding on behind. I was relieved that we never came close to the speeds of my first snowmobiling experience twenty tears ago in Iceland.
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After snowmobiling we ate at a surprisingly good Cajun restaurant in Fraser, then set off on what seemed like an interminable drive to Steamboat Springs. The Airbnb condo was fantastic, a spacious and beautifully-furnished two bedroom with a good kitchen and not a trace of a draft.
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I'd expected to have some hiccups getting ready for our first day of skiing, but it turned out to be more of an unholy cluster than I could have imagined. I had thought the parking at Steamboat Ski Resort would be obvious, but then I missed the closest lot which forced us to walk several hundred meters carrying all of our equipment. We had to drop the kids off for their lessons in two different locations, and once I got the little ones to the right place I couldn't get Spenser's boots on. His feet had slipped in fairly easily at the rental shop, but now they seemed to have grown two sizes. Finally a couple of employees were able to get them on and I was able to leave him at his lesson. I found Mei Ling dropping off Cleo and Ian at their lesson and then I was finally able to take all our stuff to the lockers. I tried to save a few bucks on a small locker and ended up losing a few bucks by having to rent a second locker. Then when I tried to get my own ski boots on it was a no go. I stretched them as much as I could but it was pretty clear neither foot was going to go in. I had to open up the locker again, grab my shoes, and head over to the ski rental shop at the resort. I guess my boots had frozen while I was getting Spenser ready, because the guy at the rental shop put them on a warmer and afterwards they went on just like they had the night before. Then back to the lockers to drop off my shoes and I was finally ready to hit the slopes at eleven AM, almost three hours after we'd arrived.
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For the next four hours I was on my own. I'd skied a fair number of times up until I was in my early twenties and then gone cold turkey. I decided I simply didn't enjoy it enough to justify all the logistical hassles, and I hadn't really missed it much over the last twenty-five years. I was curious to see whether my body memory would activate after so many years away from the slopes. The first lift from the main ground area was a gondola, which provided nice views over the resort and the surrounding valley.
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It felt very weird to surrender myself to gravity on the slopes, but fortunately it only took me a couple of runs before I felt that I was close to the mediocre skier I had been in my teens and twenties. One thing that helped was that the mountain was a lot less crowded than I had expected. One guy I shared a chairlift with said he thought it was because of the temperature. It actually didn't feel that cold and I was surprised to learn it was in the single digits. I guess I chose my ski clothing well. Eventually I made it to the very top of the mountain although I never got up the nerve to intentionally try one of the black diamond slopes. I did encounter a short segment of moguls after taking a wrong turn which accounted for virtually all of my falls during the day. The most embarrassing fall happened when I ducked too enthusiastically to avoid getting my head clocked by the lift as I jumped off at the summit and then fell backwards onto my butt. In the end my late start didn't matter because by three in the afternoon I was exhausted and bored. It seemed that no latent love of skiing had been born in my soul during my quarter century sabbatical. Back at the base I collected the two families and slogged all the equipment back to the car. In my exhaustion I completely forgot that it was New Year's Eve and that there would be a torch parade down the slope and then fireworks at dusk.
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The prix fixe New Year's Eve dinners in Steamboat Springs were outrageous, so we'd decided to make dinner at home. Our friends were supposed to join us at the Airbnb but fell asleep and never made it. I had a headache and no appetite whatsoever, which confused me until I realized that while we were currently under 7000 feet elevation, the mountain rose to 10500 feet at the summit. I was suffering from mild altitude sickness. Now I also knew why my stumbles on the mogul slope had been so exhausting. A couple of times it had taken me a couple of minutes to catch my breath just from getting myself back to an upright position. Fortunately everyone else was fine and by the morning I was back to normal.

The first day of skiing had been an expensive and arduous undertaking for me, but it was worth it after seeing how much fun the kids had had. Cleo had naturally done the best but it didn't seem like she had progressed enough to be able to manage even the easiest slopes at Steamboat. Personally I'd already had more than enough skiing and altitude sickness for the next twenty-five years, but the kids were very excited to keep going. Fortunately my extensive research had revealed a way for us to keep skiing without paying thousands for more lessons at Steamboat. The town of Steamboat Springs is also home to Howelsen Hill, the oldest operating ski area in North America, which has no affiliation with Steamboat Ski Resort and sells adult full day lift tickets for $50, a fraction of the cost of the resort. Howelsen Hill isn't the best choice for experienced skiers due to the small number of Alpine runs, especially on weekdays, but the bunny slope was open daily and seemed like a perfect option for us. In the morning we loaded up all our equipment and headed out for another day of skiing.

We only encountered one logistical issue this time around. I had entered "Howelsen Hill" instead of "Howelsen Hill Ski Area" into Google Maps which took us on a completely wrong route up the hill on the opposite side from the ski area. Eventually we encountered a snowy uphill slope that I valiantly attempted to summit and failed. Fortunately I never lost control of the car and was able to maneuver to the side of the road. Our friends in their 4WD were able to reach us and we realized the discrepancy in our destinations. I worked the car back around and down the hill and soon we had found the correct place. The ski area was actually quite simple to get to from the center of town and didn't require any uphill driving at all. There was a magic carpet lift to the top of the bunny slope which proved to be very slippery. The kids would slide backwards into me if they tried going up on their skis and a couple of times we fell off completely. It was all I could do to go up with my skis on if I leaned forward and dug my poles into the rubber treads. The slope was great for the kids to learn how to control their speed by turning instead of the silly "pizza" moves they insisted on teaching at the resort. We skied at Howelsen Hill for the next three days, although by the last day the boys had enough and it was just Cleo and me. I was quite proud of how skilled Cleo had become after just a few days of practice. At the end of the last day we decided to attempt the Poma lift to the long beginner trail. Of course it had been a long time since I'd ridden one of these but I remembered they were trickier than they looked. I wasn't too worried about myself but I wasn't sure Cleo would be able to handle it. Surely enough, Cleo got on but immediately got her skis caught in the snow and was tossed to the side. I tried to convince her to get back on but she wasn't having it. I really wanted to see what was at the top of the hill so I told her I'd just be a few minutes and took my turn at the front of the line. I mounted the Poma without a problem but I forgot about the strong recoil after the lift took my weight and I got unceremoniously thrown as well. The two of us slunk back to the lodge in disgrace and packed up to go home.
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It snowed about six inches on our second morning in Steamboat Springs. Once again we had lucked out by getting all the benefits of fresh snow without the hassle of having to drive long distances through it. Cleo helped me shovel out the car and later we all climbed the huge mountain that was left by the plows. On the last day when Cleo and I went skiing on our own, Spenser and his friend Bao Bao made their first snowman.

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We didn't see much of Steamboat Springs until our last full day in town. Until then we had just gone to the supermarket and a couple of the more heralded restaurants on the small town's main drag, Lincoln Avenue. The most impressive was Bésame, a two level Latin fusion bistro where we sampled most of the menu and every dish was on point. Even more impressive were the waitresses on the upper level who glided between the crowded tables like birds, never missing a beat or getting flustered no matter how hectic the scene got. It was an exceptional dining experience. Our other dinner out was at a sushi place called Tahk. Because of the kids we couldn't opt for the omakase but I got a picture of their cool set-up before we left.
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There isn't much to see in Steamboat Springs outside of the stores on Lincoln Avenue. On our last afternoon we spent a couple of hours browsing through a consignment store and an art gallery, eventually purchasing a couple of beautiful horse sculptures that were the work of a local artist.It's a pleasant town but I doubt it would be much of a draw if it wasn't for the year-round outdoor activities.
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On our last day we took the kids on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster at the ski resort which they enjoyed but probably wasn't worth the $25 a pop to share a sled. The drive back to Denver seemed excruciatingly long and was only brightened by the snow-covered landscape we passed through.
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W got back to Denver early enough to take the kids bowling for the first time. We drove out to a suburb instead of making another attempt at Lucky Strike downtown. Bowling is another activity I haven't participated in for about twenty years. The alley had rails blocking the gutters that came up when the kids bowled. Did those exist when I was a kid? Not that I recall. Anyway, they certainly made the experience a lot more fun for the kids. After bowling, we found a hot pot place that provided us with a very satisfying final meal for the trip.

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We crashed in a very basic Airbnb near the airport and got up before dawn for our flight back to Miami. It had been a very different kind of trip but I think the children will remember it more than any of the others we've taken. It's hard to underestimate the impact of a full week of winter with sledding, snowmobiling, and skiing on Florida kids who have never even seen fresh snow before. I was content with having seen how much fun the kids had and also with having crossed another major American city and state off my travel list. I'm pretty sure we're going to have to do an annual ski trip now, and I'm excited to try it in some of the states we still haven't visited like New Mexico and Michigan. The kids are also pretty close to the age where it would be fun to start hitting the national parks in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah on summer vacation. As usual, the more trips we take the longer our wish list gets.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


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Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

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One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
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One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
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Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
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Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
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The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
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At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
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In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
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Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
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Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
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During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
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It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
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Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
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We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
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Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
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On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
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Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
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We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman Comments (0)

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