Tag Archives: travel

2012: A Stellar Year

Okay, obviously I haven’t been posting much lately on my blog. I started a new job and that’s definitely changed my schedule a little bit! But I promise I have lots of content coming up in the next few weeks.

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I started this blog. Not that I’ve been the most prolific blogger by any means, but still – pretty cool.

2012 has been the best year of my life. It feels a little crazy to say that, almost like I’m bragging. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. I managed to squeeze in lots of adventure into the last year, and it will be a challenge to match it all in 2013.

We started with the discovery that there is a little German town in Georgia. It’s called Helen and you will be able to gorge yourself on great beer, spaetzle, and wienerschnitzel. This can be overwhelming.

German food in Georgia

German food in Georgia

Xavier and his bratwurst

Xavier and his bratwurst

We also enjoyed exploring our adopted hometown of Atlanta. It’s full of unique and beautiful sights – urban treasures, if you will – and it’s always fun to discover them.

Relics in Atlanta

Relics in Atlanta

Atlanta also has a gorgeous old cemetery that’s full of photo opportunities. While some might find it odd to hang out in a place full of gravestones, it’s actually a peaceful and beautiful place with dramatic views of the skyline. After volunteering there during a community service opportunity, my friend Marie reported back that the cemetery caretakers wish the place was more like a park.

Exploring the cemetery...

Exploring the cemetery…

But Atlanta has real parks as well, and we spent our fair share of time in Piedmont Park. I love living right down the road from there. It’s a wonderful place to spend time with loved ones, including dogs.

Battling for a stick

Battling for a stick

Riley and Parley

Riley and Parley

We ventured away from Atlanta as well. Our biggest trip of the year was to Ecuador. This was my first trip and very much worth the wait! It was so great to spend time with Xavier’s family. I also loved seeing the amazing landscapes that the country had to offer.

El Panecillo, the Virgin overlooking Quito

El Panecillo, the Virgin overlooking Quito

An alleyway in Quito

An alleyway in Quito

Many homes in the city of Quito have embedded broken bottles in the concrete walls outside their homes - apparently they deter burglary.

Many homes in the city of Quito have embedded broken bottles in the concrete walls outside their homes – apparently they deter burglary.

We did venture outside the city of Quito and saw some beautiful sights in nature. I loved the volcano Cotopaxi – Xavier’s favorite place on earth – and was so excited to come across real wild horses while we hiked up there.

The volcano Cotopaxi

The snow-tipped peak of the volcano Cotopaxi, visible just beyond the winding path

We found this wild horse just up the pathway

We found this wild horse just up the pathway.

Two other fun trips we took were to New Orleans, which we did for Xavier’s birthday, and to Key Largo. I loved those.

Pretty scenery in New Orleans

Pretty scenery in New Orleans

And this year, I finally got to try two restaurants that I’ve been dying to taste for quite some time! The first was in New Orleans: you can’t go there without beignets from Cafe du Monde.

Cafe au lait and beignets

Cafe au lait and beignets

And we also tried a delicious burger from Shake Shack in Philadelphia! I loved it – and the concretes. Danny Meyer, can you please bring this to Atlanta?

Burgers from Shake Shack

Burgers from Shake Shack

The only thing better would have been eating that stuff with this view, which we enjoyed during our trip to Key Largo.

Key Largo... beautiful sunset

Key Largo… beautiful sunset

I think it’s pretty cool that in the space of a year I managed to try both skydiving and scuba diving. Low pressure, high pressure. Both were awesome, and I can’t wait until my next shot to try both.

Swimming with the fishes...

Swimming with the fishes in Key Largo… also, great hair day.

This is actually me, falling from the sky.

This is me falling from the sky.

My exercising took a great leap in this year, too! I guess I’ve been running for about six months now. I can’t say I’ve lost that much weight since muscle is much heavier than fat, but it was amazing to complete two 5K races and a 10K. I truly never thought I could do it. But I could, and it was even fun. Now I’m training for a half marathon in 2013!

Goofy grin for my cheering section

Goofy grin for my cheering section during my first 5K

Aside from all of my travels and adventures, I am really glad that at the end of 2012, I was able to begin a new job that I’m really enjoying so far. Yes, all in all, this was a truly great year. I can’t believe how fast it went by, and I can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store.

Hopefully more love…

Love...

Love!

…. and a few more hot dates!

All dressed up and going out on the town

All dressed up and going out on the town

Happy New Year, everyone!

What was the best part of 2012 for you?

Adventure: Diving in Key Largo

Let’s get up to speed. I learned how to scuba dive, got my PADI open water certification, and fell in love with it all.

My partner-in-crime, coincidentally, is also a certified diver. When he lived in Florida, he dove all the time. He even has his own gear. So once I was certified, it was only natural that we would want to dive together. And thus came our next adventure.

Here’s the thing, and I write this for the other twenty-somethings out there who find their dreams limited by cash flow. Diving isn’t what you’d call a cheap hobby. Buying basic gear (fins, mask, snorkel, boots), scuba school, and my certification weekend set me back quite a bit. But once you’re certified, you can spend something like $50-75 and get on a boat. That’s a splurge, sure, but not completely unreasonable. The priciest thing is usually getting to the place you want to dive. To travel and stay in Mexico, Thailand, or Australia isn’t always cheap.

While you can travel all over the world to dive, we’re lucky to be within driving distance of a great choice: Key Largo. The trip is not what you’d call a short jaunt from Atlanta. But if you stop in Tampa and see friends, it’s divided into two very manageable portions. Since the dive season was starting to wind down, we found a stay-and-dive package for an incredibly reasonable price. So reasonable, in fact, that we will probably make an annual tradition out of this trip.

We drove. Down through Georgia, with a quick trip to Tampa. Andre and Catae graciously allowed us to crash at their place for a few hours of much-needed rest. Then we headed down through Alligator Alley. No forest fires this time, like last year.

Snapped out the window, somewhere on I-75 between Fort Meyers and Miami

Instead, we were graced with a lovely sunset hiding behind naked trees.

Upon our arrival to Amoray Dive Resort, it felt like we’d been taken back in time. Our room looked like it had been designed in the 1980s and never updated. With its white wicker furniture, neon upholstery, and a TV that had an antennae, it was like no hotel room I’ve seen recently. However, it was clean and comfortable. And furthermore, we could wake up, stumble sleepily down the steps, and be ten feet from the dock. We weren’t there for a fancy room, though. We were there to dive. And dive we did.

The next morning was simultaneously scary and awesome. We woke up early to grab my rental gear and secure our spots on the boat. It was packed! There were tons of people milling about, attaching tanks to gear, and stringing up weight belts. This was my first time as an independent diver and not a member of a class, so I took an extra-long time making sure that my stuff was properly set up. It was tough to focus. I was literally bouncing up and down with excitement, just like a little kid. I feel so bad for my boyfriend sometimes. He has to be seen in public with me. But just as quickly as my excitement mounted, it faded away when we anchored at the dive site.

Listen up, future divers. Here’s how you enter the water from a boat. You rarely just climb in like you’d enter a pool. Instead, you execute a “giant stride entry.” This involves standing on the edge of the boat, taking – you guessed it – a giant step, and then dropping into the water. From there, you float for a second, meet up with your buddy, and descend. Xavier went first. When it was my turn to follow, I stood paralyzed at the edge of the boat with all of my gear on. It was about four or five feet to the surface of the water, and with my crippling fear of heights, it was just too much to bear. Moments away from my first real scuba diving in the gorgeous Florida Keys, I panicked.

The first mate of the boat was a very nice guy, but he started to get impatient. “I’m going to give you a little push,” he told me, leaning over to knock me overboard. I thought about skydiving and just went for it before he could touch me. The drop was quick and easy, as these things usually are once you get over your fears. And then Xavier and I sunk beneath the surface together for the very first time.

Well, let’s talk for a minute about just how incredibly awesome scuba diving is. First of all, when you dive a coral reef, you’re going to view the most amazing things. You sink gracefully to the bottom of the ocean floor and at first it’s a little creepy because, you know, you’re sinking. But you can still breathe. And you can see! Imagine going to the aquarium, and looking through the glass at the schools of fish, the gently undulating coral, the occasional big fish that swims by and scatters everything in its path. When you dive, you’re not just watching that. You’re inside of that.

Second of all, you’re weightless. You’re floating. You’re unencumbered by gravity, and you can play with that for fun and for utility’s sake. My dive buddy was the best at this. It’s considered an absolute no-no to touch the coral with any part of your body or gear; for one, you’ll damage a delicate living organism, and also, it very well might be poisonous. Xavier gets around this by floating upside down on his head to look under reefs. He’s the most fun person I know outside of the water, so it was only fitting that we had a blast thirty feet deep.

That was the only photo we got of us together underwater. If you think taking a self portrait is challenging in the best of circumstances, this was a nightmare!

For you lovebirds who are looking to dive together, I will also offer this piece of advice: kissing underwater is a challenge, but not impossible. Just remember that if you try to adjust your lips, your mouths will be flooded. This makes for somewhat awkward moments and will require you to stop kissing and immediately reach for your air supply. Fortunately, practice makes perfect – and practicing is fun!

On a whim, I purchased a disposable underwater camera. These exposures don’t even come close to doing justice to what we saw: a shark, an eagle ray, a manta ray, a sea turtle, huge barracudas, the most colorful little fish. But I brought it underwater for two of our six dives, and the shots are pretty cool.

This one was taken in a moment of utter awe. It’s upside down because that was my viewpoint. I was simply playing in the water. I’d somewhat mastered my buoyancy, and was enjoying the weightlessness by laying backwards and floating upside down. I was completely lost in my own little world when I looked up and saw a giant school of fish around me. It sounds really corny, but I was one with them, and for a second I felt like a fish and an impostor all at once. Most of all, it was so exciting to be there. The moment was overwhelming in the best possible way.

Next, we played around a bit. This is my boyfriend showing me in scuba-signs that he is okay.

And here he is in the midst of a school of largish fish.

Here I am, awkwardly trying to pose for the photograph and keep my fins above the coral reef.

And here I am exploring some more. I think that’s a grouper under the reef. You can see its creepy glowing eye.

In a nutshell, diving is amazing. I cannot wait for our next trip.

Although we spent hours underwater, there were plenty of sights and adventures on Earth’s surface. Our resort had kayaks, which we enjoyed after an initial hiccup in sea navigation. (I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say it wasn’t me – I was a coxswain, remember?). We explored the mangroves around the bay and worked on our tans under the strong rays of sun. Sunglasses? Who needs ’em?

The view from the resort was amazing, especially at sunset. We sat on the dock and enjoyed our own musical entertainment.

And for some reason, one morning I awoke early enough to catch my first sunrise in years.

The trip to Key Largo was a raging success. How could we not have a blast swimming with sharks? We enjoyed a very relaxing long weekend. It was also the grand finale to an action-packed summer that put my finances in the proverbial hole. Fall around here is going to be a lot tighter. But that means exciting budget adventures, creative recipes on the cheap, and lots of time to explore Atlanta with my camera. Sounds great to me!

(All photos are mine! If you want to use one, just ask).

On Learning How to Scuba Dive

It’s been a busy summer, friends. In the space of just a few short months, I set foot in thirteen states. We jumped out of a plane. And for good measure, I learned how to scuba dive. Why not? You only live once.

Before skydiving, I was nervous. Jumping out of a plane just didn’t feel natural. In fact, I hardly saw the point. Why strap a parachute to yourself and hurtle to the ground at 9.8 meters per second squared? It just didn’t make sense, not until I actually jumped out of the plane and felt the utter exhilaration. The view was amazing, but the adrenaline rush was something that I’ll chase for a long, long time. Now I get it.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, made sense to me. It was something that I’d always wanted to try. I love water – being in it, around it, on top of it – and I love marine life. Diving is the best way to experience all of that, with the additional benefit of feeling weightless and floating underwater.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – you’re not just allowed to don a scuba mask, strap on a tank, and jump into the ocean to swim with the fishes. Before the fun stuff, you have to get through scuba school. For me, scuba school was one long weekend divided between the classroom and pool time. Like a good neurotic student, I read the textbook in advance, endured the teacher’s ramblings and rape jokes, then rocked the test with a 96. The pool sessions were much more enjoyable. After getting hands-on experience in assembling scuba equipment, we learned “skills” like what to do when your mask floods with water and how to control your buoyancy.

After scuba school, you must complete four “checkout dives” in an open-water environment. For me, these dives took place at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. We went through The Scuba Shop and I’d recommend those guys to anyone. The staff is incredibly awesome. They went above and beyond in getting my paperwork from the original scuba school, even when that owner (see ‘rape jokester’ above) proved to be less than helpful. And when we finally got out to dive with them, both Xavier and I had a blast.

Getting suited up for scuba diving is no joke. The first thing to be concerned about is your temperature. Your body loses heat up to 25 times faster in water than in air, so you want to be sure you’re wearing a thick wet suit to ensure comfort. Since we’d be doing a lot of floating around in cool water, the instructor gave me a 7mm neoprene suit for my checkout dives. Putting that thing on was the most challenging part of the whole weekend, requiring maneuvering and contouring like the sassiest music video you’ve ever seen. After the suit is finally in place, you’ve got a BCD: a vest that fills up with air and allows you to float. This vest has a little hose with a button that adds air and another that deflates it. You depress the deflate button to descend underwater for a dive. The descent is aided by the weights that you wear, strapped to your waist by a thick webbed belt. And of course, you’re carrying your tank, your fins, and the regulator hose that winds around your shoulder and allows you to breathe underwater. It’s definitely awkward, adjusting to wearing so much bulky equipment.

I was incredibly excited for my first open-water dive. When my class and I clustered around the buoy and obeyed our teacher’s instruction to sink, mine was the first index finger to deflate its BCD. I waited to sink with bated breath. Nothing happened. I released the breath and its buoyant properties. Still nothing.

Three minutes later, my first scuba experience took place after my instructor hauled me down the rope by my ankle, imploring me with a raised palm to stop flailing. Apparently, my little kicks had no effect in helping me swim down to the bottom – I was supposed to wait patiently and allow the fifteen pounds of weight strapped to my hips to sink me. But finally, I made it. I was greeted by a cloud of lake silt, 20 feet below the surface.

Lake Jocassee is gorgeous from above. But underneath, everything looks golden-brown and muddy. For a first dive, it was awesome. The lack of scenery gave me a chance to focus on the task at hand: performing my skills so I could earn my certification.

In clouds of silt, we demonstrated “skills:” removing our scuba masks, replacing them, and clearing them of water. We swam to the surface without air, simulating an emergency ascent and exhaling lots of little bubbles the whole way up. We breathed from our buddy’s alternate air source, pretending we had run out of air. And after we’d demonstrated that we could handle emergencies, our instructor led us through fun swims in the underwater world.

Breathing underwater with scuba gear is really one of the coolest things you can ever do. I think it’s the closest most of us will ever be to the weightless environment of space. Imagine what it feels like to effortlessly hover above the ground. If you want to rise a little higher, simply take a deep breath and feel yourself float and glide. It’s simply amazing. I can hardly imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do dive.

(On that note, the biggest concern I’ve heard is that people are afraid of underwater life. To that, I say: that is the other amazing part of diving! Do you love going to the aquarium and watching the fish interact? Imagine being a part of that. As long as you don’t act like a jerk and intimidate the big guys, it shouldn’t be a concern. [Provided you’re not diving somewhere like Australia, where a thumbnail-sized jellyfish can kill you in three seconds with its venom]).

Anyway, despite Lake Jocassee being cloudy and less than ideal for seeing amazing fish, it was still a great experience. I saw a sunken boat (with ‘Dive Naked’ written on the window) and practiced swimming through a little field goal. Also, the lack of external stimuli allowed me to focus on adapting to the whole experience. The lake wasn’t completely lacking in life. I did see the occasional sunfish, and remembered myself as a kid, fishing them out of the lake at camp.

How funny to be on the other side of the fishhook.

Earning my open water certification was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It literally opened up an entire new world for me. The next weekend, we would explore that world for the first time. Stay tuned!

(All photos are mine – if you want to use them, just ask!).

Sightseeing New Orleans

It’s embarrassing to see how far behind I’ve fallen with blogging. We spent a weekend in New Orleans in July, and if you follow this blog at all you’ll know that it was an excuse to eat like tourists. We hit all of the classic places.

Fortunately, New Orleans has lots to see for those awkward times when you’re too full to eat and just waiting to eat again.

(Not that that happened much. Let’s just say I was enamored with the daiquiris littering Bourbon Street. There’s a lot to be said for liquid sustenance).

This is Bourbon Street, home of dreams, overpriced-and-under-liquored frozen beverages, and a scene from the most recent season of True Blood.

This is what Bourbon Street looks like on Sunday morning. Be grateful that nobody’s invented Smell-o-vision, because the assault on our nostrils as we strolled down the trash-slicked street was incomparable.

New Orleans is home to some interesting graffiti. I loved the juxtaposition within the architecture: fading grandeur tagged by street artists.

This sign, while not graffiti, made me laugh. I guess my sense of humor is twisted. But really? Really? Can you imagine the dedication ceremony that took place in 2001? “We gather here today to remember countless balls of cells… “

Maybe it was the excitement of being in a new city, but everything was beautiful – even abandoned doorways.

Aside from just strolling around, we made a couple of dedicated sight-seeing stops. One was at St. Louis Cemetery #1. This cemetery is famous for a few reasons, the most interesting being that it is completely above ground. Instead of traditional graves in the ground, these folks have found their eternal resting places in crumbling crypts.

The cemetery is creepy, like most are. But for added unease, the lined-up mausoleums form silent alleyways. As you edge around a row, another explorer might just appear out of nowhere. Some say that this is a very dangerous neighborhood.

Two days in New Orleans wasn’t nearly enough. I can’t wait for our next chance to explore the city!

Eating like Tourists in New Orleans

My amazing boyfriend had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. Of course I wanted to do something fun for him – he had me making pizza at Antico on my big day this past year, after all. He’s a difficult person to buy gifts for, so there was really only one option: an adventure. We love road trips and in surveying the cities we can easily reach by car from Atlanta, there was really only one option. Neither of us had been to New Orleans. Shocking, right? I think NOLA is a city for those who love to eat and drink, two activities that Xavier and I excel at. A quick trip to Priceline resulted in an amazing deal for a birthday weekend. Shockingly, I managed to keep this information to myself for approximately six weeks. Birthday surprise!

Then we made the mistake of whipping up frozen beverages to enjoy with homemade tacos al carbon, whereupon Xavier learned that my threshold for keeping his birthday surprise under wraps is a lowly two margaritas.

We reached New Orleans in late afternoon. There was plenty of daylight left, but thanks to some traffic in Mississippi, Central Grocery closed as we were pulling into town. We would have to wait until our next trip to try the best muffaletta in town. But our disappointment was quelled as we drove down Decatur Street to the hotel. We couldn’t believe how many people were milling around the streets, watching street performers, looking at merchants’ art on display, and drinking. Everyone had a beverage in hand, and most were the alcoholic variety.

I couldn’t believe that people were allowed to drink in the streets here.

Our first night in the city was a Saturday. The hotel was right down the road from Bourbon Street, so we decided to walk around and check out the scene. But first? Dinner.

Two iconic oyster bars were so close that we literally stumbled across them. Then I said, “Hey, I know this place – we’re supposed to eat here!”

The line to Acme was really long, so we checked out Felix’s across the street first. They were cash-only and had just lost their liquor license. It seemed generally sad and sketchy. So we braved the Acme line, which stretched down the street.

Were we ever glad we did! We were seated at the oyster bar, right in front of a shucker. As we waited for our food, he kindly handed over freshly shucked oysters that couldn’t be plated. In this moment, it did not bother me one bit that Xavier doesn’t care for raw oysters. I got them all!

This is the face of a happy oyster eater

If you find yourself in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and order charbroiled oysters. Our shucker recommended them so enthusiastically that we couldn’t say no, despite the fact that – honestly – the description didn’t appeal to us very much. But how wrong we were! Oysters, garlic butter, and Romano cheese – that’s all they were, but how amazing they were. We demolished the plate in approximately three seconds, sopping up every last drop of garlic-butter sauce with the French bread.


Our other choices were a “New Orleans Medley” with gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and sausage. It was a good opportunity to sample a few of the local specialties, but I was disappointed in the rice to other stuff ratio. The shrimp po-boy was fine, but nothing special.

The next morning, we meandered over to Cafe du Monde for a meal I’d been anticipating for approximately four years.

Beignets did not disappoint. 

We discovered, as so many tourists to New Orleans have learned over the years, that cafe au lait and beignets make the perfect breakfast combination. They are the perfect combination of crispy, yet light and fluffy. An avalanche of powdered sugar on top seals the deal.

At lunchtime, we made another attempt at a po-boy. At Johnny’s, where this stuff was heralded as the best po-boy in NOLA, we tried a shrimp sandwich. It looked delicious.

It was here at Johnny’s that we finally sadly admitted to ourselves the truth: po-boys just didn’t do it for us. Don’t get me wrong, they are perfectly decent and definitely tasty. But they had been built up as the Michael Phelps of sandwiches. To me, it tasted pretty similar to a sub from Wegman’s or a hoagie from anywhere in Philly. Delicious, yes, but not worth driving 450 miles to eat one. In typical fashion, Xavier slathered mayo on his and proclaimed it delicious. I ate mine plain and was satisfied.

The most exciting story about eating in New Orleans comes from our pursuit of the muffuletta. Have yo heard of a muffuletta? It’s a sandwich consisting of Italian meats, olive salad, and cheese. It basically sounded like the perfect food for my boyfriend. We’d heard about a place called Central Grocery from everyone – my mom to Serious Eats. Unfortunately, Central Grocery closed approximately ten minutes before we rolled into NOLA, and they weren’t to reopen until after we left. We were forced to find other options for this treat.

That brings us to Sunday evening. Walking around the Bourbon Street area, we happened upon somewhat of a street fight in front of Acme Oyster House. An angry gentleman was screaming and cursing at another man down the road. He looked like a local, and I enjoyed his creativity in unleashing insults. So when he finished fighting, I asked him where to find the best muffuletta in New Orleans.

He immediately cheered up. “Oh, I can show you that! It’s right down the road. Just follow me.”

Thus began our six-block power-walk down Royal Street.

“Where are you taking us?” we asked, struggling to keep up.

“Just a little ways up,” he answered. We learned that he has a daughter in Atlanta, but has lived in New Orleans his entire life. He did stay in Atlanta during the hurricane, and he really enjoys Piedmont Park. He’s still married to his wife, although they haven’t spoken in years. Getting divorced is a pain in the ass, he said. He fired a line of questions at us: what did we do for work? Were we married? Why were we in New Orleans? And silently, we wondered what was going on, what game he was running, and where the hell he was taking us.

Finally, we arrived to the hallowed location that serves the best muffulettas in New Orleans: a grocery store.

“This place?” we asked, doubtful.

“Yeah! The ingredients here are so fresh, and the girl working in back is really cute!”

We perused the shelf of sandwiches. No muffulettas to be found. He led us to the back, where a grizzled old lady curiously sporting pigtails asked what we needed.

“Muffulettas!”

“Is that the girl you think is cute?” I asked.

He shook his head empathetically. “Hell no!”

We received the muffuletta in a plastic clamshell box, and our friend – whose name, we had learned, was Richard – began his next campaign.

“Man, I need to ask you something. I got you this great muffuletta. Will you guys buy me a Bud? I need something to get this night started!”

“A beer? Really?” I asked, already knowing I was going to buy him one.

“Yes! Come on, Coach, put me in the game!”

“Okay, fine,” I allowed. “But we’re here on a weekend trip, and I want to have some memories. So can I take a photo of you guys?”

“Let me see that,” he requested when I’d taken the photo. “Oh man, I look like OJ Simpson!”
And so he did.
The muffuletta was decent, but I think we’ll make it a point to plan our next trip around Central Grocery’s hours of operation. Although an adventure is always fun.
Eating like a tourist in New Orleans was fun. Since it was our first trip and time was limited, we had to check out the big-name places like Cafe du Monde and Johnny’s. Next time, though, we’ll have to go beyond the beaten path. I have so many food recommendations from friends that our next time in New Orleans is already planned!
Have you been to New Orleans? What were your favorite food experiences? Do you think asking a local for recommendations is always a good idea?