It was Heath who selected Boston and its neighbors to the north for our annual pilgrimage to Anywhere But Texas. A student of history and obsessive collector of revolutionary facts, New England — what with its statues of white men in tricorne hats, and old buildings in which to congregate those very same tricorne hat-wearing white men–seemed the ideal destination for scratching that colonial itch. (Fun fact: colonial itch was the term of endearment Ben Franklin gave to his STD).
Allow me to pontificate on the three important lessons learned from this jingoistic jaunt.
Boston’s Freedom Trail is maybe 90% cool and 10% tacky.
The Freedom trail is a walking tour of some of the can’t miss historical sites prominently featured in American history. It mostly encompasses places where our revolutionary heroes either died or thought about dying. I’m talking of course about massacre sites and churches. But all-in-all it’s an enjoyable way to spend the morning. And thanks to the National Park Service (a government agency so fine, even Ron Swanson can support it) you can get a docent-guided tour for free every hour on the hour. Highlights include: park rangers sneering at freedom trail buskers, lots and lots and lots of facts about Paul Revere, and the realization that the Declaration of Independence is one of the most tedious break up letters ever written.
New England’s seafood game is on point.
“Oh you’re going to New England, huh? Are you excited about the lobster?” I was a little surprised that question — or a variation of it — was the most consistent reaction I got upon telling people about our summer plans. But I get it now. New England is all about seafood, and maybe its because the memory is as fresh as the lobsters we cooked up at our campsite, but the seafood offerings here far surpass those of other coastal food hubs (I’m looking at you Seattle). And I’m not talking simply about your high-quality seafood restaurants here. Whether we were throwing back raw oysters at chic oyster bars, nomming on buttery fish and chips at English pubs, or drooling over foot-long lobster rolls at harbor-side restaurants, we were bowled over by the the most intensely flavorful and perfectly prepared seafood we’ve ever tasted.
If Ken Burns doesn’t feel stupid for omitting Acadia from his national parks documentary, he probably should.
Have you seen the documentary? The one where Peter Coyote waxes poetic about Yosemite and Yellowstone and Join Muir for 12 hours but doesn’t give Acadia a courtesy nod? It’s a conspiracy is what it is. Acadia is the oldest national park East of the Mississippi, and it may easily be the most beautiful. The sun supposedly rises first on Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain before anywhere else in America, and it has one of the largest expanses of naturally dark sky in the Eastern U.S.–meaning whether you’re an early bird or a stargazing night owl, this park is for you. It’s also a phenomenal place for cyclists thanks to our pal John D. Rockefeller who, in the early 20th century, had some 50 miles of carriage roads thoughtfully designed to weave about the park. We’re more of a hiking/camping duo ourselves, so we stuck to the trails that meander through the trees and along granite rock slabs that plunge into the ocean. Acadia is located on Mount Desert Island, which also plays home to the Bar Harbor, a charming resort town. But despite it’s proximity to this popular tourist destination, the park was relatively uncrowded, even during its peak season. While campsites require a reservation and fill up quickly, we very infrequently passed others on our many hiking excursions. Perhaps it’s because Acadia is not an easy park to get to, or perhaps it’s because few have ever heard of it before. If the latter, sorry Ken Burns. Looks like you did me a solid. My bad, I hope we’re square now.
All in all, New England is an invigorating region. The colonial callbacks that pepper Boston’s streets and sidewalks, while perhaps expected, are nonetheless deeply inspiring. They serve as reminders of the courage and ambition that motivated our nation’s founders to create a new society–one that would encourage self-determination and put mechanisms in place to secure unalienable human rights. Meanwhile, in Acadia, the salty aroma of the Atlantic permeates the air as waves unceasingly claw at the granite cliffs it may, one day, turn into sand. We came to New England to study its history and revel in its natural beauty. We left, whether by forces of man or nature, rejuvenated.
If there is one thing Berlin has plenty of, it’s patios. I like this. I don’t think there is any scenario in which I take umbrage with there being unlimited options for outside dining and wine drinking. It’s how I would spend all day every day if I had my druthers. And Graffiti. They like their chaotic street art in Berlin. Patios and graffiti. Oh, and their bicycles. Patios, graffiti and bicycles. And depressing, grandiose memorials. I should start over….
Truthfully, I was taken aback by Berlin’s laissez-faire attitude. Particularly as it is located in a country who’s people are stereotyped as being strict and rigid and preoccupied with maintaining order. As evidence of its go-with-the-flow personality, I submit to you their aforementioned lax policy on building defacement, as well as the fact that in Berlin, it’s perfectly acceptable to stroll down the street with a beer in hand–in glass bottles no less! Definitely a no-no stateside. Further, during an afternoon outing to one of the city’s community pools, we witnessed no fewer than 3924761432342 children sliding down a water slide at once. And running on wet cement–an activity the American lifeguard community views as being on par with smoking a cigarette indoors—is not only not reprimanded, it seemed downright encouraged. Then, there’s the part where before Heath jumped off the diving board, he politely asked the pool’s only lifeguard whether doing flips was permissible. He was met with a befuddled response: Of course this is fine. Why would it not be? Perhaps I’m applying the community pool’s gentle policies a little to liberally to the entire city, but still, Berlin as a whole seems content to let its people be. It’s likely the result of a long and tragic history marked by a series of oppressive and totalitarian regimes. But Berlin seems to have learned a thing or two from its past, and today enjoys a vibrant and resilient atmosphere.
But I say all this before arriving at the crux of my argument. Berlin–like every place–is made more special by the people you experience it with. Our German vacation was made what it was by the company we kept. As I’m inclined to list off all the things that make Berlin unique, I’m also inclined to include Nick and Melissa on that list—two people who were pivotal to the good times had.
Prague is a fairy tale of a city, if not an idiosyncratic one.
First, I’d categorize Prague as perhaps the most claustrophobia-inducing city in all of Europe, at least in my experience. Prague’s old town is chock-full of bone monsters. (That’s Clickhole’s sardonic terminology for “people.”) Really though, the tourist headcount here is unrivaled—even by the crowds at New York’s Times Square or at Orlando’s bouquet of theme parks. Perhaps the human population seems so dense because of the close proximity of all the town’s biggest tourist attractions to one another. Maybe too, it’s the narrowness of the streets. It could also very well be attributed to the fact that we chose to visit at the peak of tourist season, but nevertheless, expect to battle your way through a current of slow walkers, pan handlers, and backpack toters when you visit Prague.
I don’t bring this up to in anyway hint that Prague is a city to be passed over on any European vacays that might be in your future. On the contrary, it’s a delightful destination where they deeply value Pilsner beers, bacon stuffed dumplings, breathtaking city views and a perplexingly popular astronomical clock.
Let’s start with the clock, as it’s where Heath and I pretty much began our foray into Prague’s Old Town. If you have never heard of Prague’s 15th century astronomical clock, allow me to enlighten you. It starts with a very novel concept: it chimes every hour on the hour. I know, it sounds…absurd, unfathomable, outrageous? But stay with me. There are also little figurines that, when the clock chimes, follow a mechanical track in a circle until the chiming stops. It’s the stuff of black magic, I say. This enchanting ritual lures people from all over the world who marvel at the clock’s mysterious wonder.
How the clock came to be Prague’s unofficial mascot I’m sure I don’t know, but people go apeshit for this thing. What’s even more frustrating is how crowds gather in unbelievable masses beneath the clock before the top of the hour to witness the “miracle” in person, only to obstruct their view by holding their cell phone cameras in front of their face. Though, with so many distracted tourists gathered in such close proximity with arms raised overhead, it does make for a petty thief’s dream. If I were the editor of Pick-Pocket Monthly, I would most definitely feature Prague’s Astronomical Clock in the “10 Places to Pick Pockets Before You Die” issue. One thing I will say for the clock, however, is the tower offers up some of the best views of the city. That experience is one not to be missed.
The food in Prague is another topic on which I’d like to share a few thoughts. Now of course, it stands to reason that any urban center is going to have diverse offerings that hail from all regions of the globe, but where I want to focus my efforts is on what I understand to be traditional (yet modern) Czech cuisine. Suffice it to say, vegetarians ought to take heed in the Czech Republic Capital. In my limited experience, I encountered virtually the same menu at every Czech-oriented eating establishment: dumplings, bread, meat, cabbage and, if you’re lucky, goulash. Now, was there variety among the dumplings and breads and meats and cabbages? Oh sure. Sometimes the dumplings were potato, sometimes bacon. Meats, well, the sky is really the limit. Pork knuckle? Pork shoulder? Pork head? It it’s pork, they have most definitely got it. Cabbage comes both in red and white, though it is most definitely always stewed and sweetened. This might sound like I was not enthused with this steady stream of meat and potatoes, but that would not be the case. It’s rare I get to dive headfirst into a never-ending pool of dense carbohydrates, rich proteins, and syrupy vegetables. So I quite enjoyed this deviation from the typical shrimp taco or chicken sandwich that I’m known to plop onto my plate. Though, you’d be correct in assuming I didn’t experience many hungry evenings in Prague.
Bonemonsters, superfluous meat plates and clockster-f@#ks aside, Prague is right up my alley. It’s one of the only major European centers not destroyed in WWII or culturally annihilated by the subsequent oppressive communist regime. What I’m trying to say is, Prague has a lot of experience just being Prague. And it seems comfortable in its own, cobblestone-covered skin.
Granted, most of our experience there was limited to 3 days in a tourist-heavy area, but I’d still say it’s a delicious city that celebrates the old without bathing in nostalgia, and welcomes the new without moving too rapidly toward a complete industrial overhaul. Blackening castles tower over street musicians who serenade tourists with Bob Dylan covers. And Pilsner beers can be ingested by mug or by bathtub (we tried both). The red roofs and spires of the skyline can be viewed from modern TV towers or park-laden bluffs. And absurd black light theaters are positioned next to classical churches, while lights from modern, high end fashion retail shops illuminate centuries old Jewish cemeteries down the road. But the juxtaposition doesn’t feel dichotomous. On the contrary, it’s harmonious.
These are mostly observations taken while in Prague’s downtown, but as is true in any well-loved community, off the tourist-beaten path, there is a lot to appreciate about Prague and its people.
During our stay in Prague, we took up residency with Tomas and his equally blonde female counterpart in their first floor airbnb apartment in a idyllic Hradčanská neighborhood. Upon arriving, Tomas made a point to show us where we were, where the main tourist sights were, and recommended places we should see that aren’t also recommended to 234228394753986436 other people by way of Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, what have you. As a result, we wound up spending a few of our mornings and evenings wrapped in the warm cloak of the easy-going and cordial keepers of the Cafe Calma, Indian by Nature, and Restaurace U veverky.
Well, for lack of a more eloquent synopsis, here ends my Prague Blague.
It’s no secret it has been all quiet on the doodle house front as of late. Today, I’m happy to announce it is in part because most of our DIY dollars have been reserved for….
We depart tomorrow for a two-week trip to Central Europe–a first for both the mister and myself. We fly in and out of Germany, with side trips planned for Prague, Vienna and the Salzburg lake district, all before concluding our trip with a 4-day Berlin bender with our buddies Nick and Melissa.
We’ll be sure to tell you all about it. Prost!
A few weeks ago I tried to summarize my Portland and Seattle trip by making a venn diagram of every city we visited–incorporating my observations and favorite parts of each. You see, as we prepared for our summer travels the comparisons between Portland and Seattle could not be avoided. We also hear Portland frequently compared to Austin, though this article says it has recently surpassed Austin as the country’s most hipster-friendly city. Regardless, I made this graphic a few weeks ago that stacks the cities against each other, but then I shamefully forgot to post it. And then, in writing this, I realize I also neglected a post paraphrasing Portland. Shame on me on all counts: not writing about Portland, not sharing my clever, or maybe cliche, graphic and not posting in any kind of a timely relevant manner. I hope my journalism teachers aren’t reading.
Tardy though it may be, I clumsily submit this to you now. Hopefully it sheds some light on our experience and lets readers know what they may be in for should they visit any of these fine destinations. Though, full disclosure, our Austin perspective is slightly skewed. It’s the Doodle House home base after all.
It rains about 12 feet a year in the Hoh Rainforest. Depending on your particular origins that may not seem an impressive figure, but allow me to reintroduce this data point through this Texan’s particular perspective. Twelve feet is some serious rain. Really. For example, I attended freshman orientation at UT and walked away with my diploma before I saw that much rain in Austin. I voted in two presidential elections and did not see that much rain. I met, dated, and wed my beloved Mooshy before I saw that much rain. I thought a lot about the rain.
I thought about the rain as we meandered the forest trails, inaccurately guessing the height of the 300-foot spruce trees that towered over us, and as we marveled at the nurse logs on the forest floor. I thought about the rain as we forged the piercing cold Hoh River that flows through the valley carved thousands of years earlier by massive glaciers, and when we watched a family of elk take sips from the same flowing water that still wet our toes. I thought about the rain when we peered over streams so flawlessly clear they were nearly invisible, and when we reached out to touch moss that drapes and floats over the forest’s branches like seaweed. I thought about it as we built our fire, and cleaned our faces and fingers of sticky s’mores. I thought about how everything there—everything we could see and touch—was made greener, wetter, colder, taller, stronger by those 12 feet of rain.
This week the high in Seattle is 81 degrees. In Portland it’s 84 and in Austin it’s 102. Is it any wonder we chose the Pacific Northwest as the optimal location in which to celebrate three years of matrimony? That and a love of IFC’s Portlandia is what got us to Washington and Oregon for our annual anniversary vacay (see San Francisco and Mexico City), but it’s not what made the trip a memorable one. Maybe I’ve been reading too much David Foster Wallace lately, but the account of our trip will have to come to you in multiple lengthy segments. Beginning with the following…
We arrived in Seattle around 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, but the sun hadn’t completely set yet, which meant we could observe the dimly lit cityscape as we rode the light rail to the hotel. We watched the sunset over Ranier Beach and Century Link Field. We were captivated by this city.
The first night in Seattle was a short one. It was 10 p.m. by the time we dropped our backpacks off at the hotel, and though we craved exploration of the city, we also craved a meal, which we hadn’t had since breakfast. A sushi place next door, which in an attempt to rid itself of a fish surplus, was offering half-priced sushi on most of the menu. At $3- and $4-a-roll we ate till our heart’s content before returning to the hotel. One night on the king size bed was all we got before packing our bags for two days in the northwest wilderness.
We walked the three blocks from the hotel to the rental car office—a serendipitous location—and loaded our bags into the aqua-colored Ford Focus (whose headlights we would never master). It was a new day and the city looked different in the morning light: more fog, more people, more Starbucks locales than initially anticipated. Before hitting the highway to Olympic National Park, we had first to rent the sleeping bags and mattress pads to make our stint in the peninsula more comfortable. REI’s flagship store was just up the road, and having rented equipment from the chain before, seemed the easiest and cheapest bet for acquiring the necessary goods. But Heath’s face dropped from its normal aim-to-please state when the rental man told him there were no more mattress pads available.
“What do you want to do?” Heath asked me at hearing the news. I was stewing in my frustration, with REI and with Heath. What do I want to do? What does he want to do? Wasn’t he the one who just went on a 32-mile backpacking excursion in the primitive Weminuche Wilderness? Wasn’t he the camping expert? Shouldn’t he know what to do?! “I don’t know, this was your rodeo.” I said, grinding my teeth that the one part of the trip I had designated to Heath had suddenly taken an unexpected turn. We were advised to go across the street to a smaller local camping outfitter who would be more likely to have mattress pads to rent. When we got there and it wasn’t open, and we had 15 minutes to kill until it would be. It was nearly 10 o’clock and I had wanted to be in Kalaloch, which was still 4 hours away, by noon. We were both quiet as we waited; Heath afraid to say anything that would stir my anger, and me afraid to let my frustration kill the mood of the experience. When the shop keep arrived, she regretfully offered up the same mattress pad status proposed by the REI rental man and referred us back across the street. By now I was childishly negative. Hell, why go camping at all? I thought, ready to let the first hiccup of the trip spoil my good time. Our backpacks were already stuffed, but Heath suggested we buy some affordable mattress pads at REI and mail them home if we couldn’t fit them in our bags by the end of the trip. Two new mattress pads would cost us in the neighborhood of $200, so I wasn’t jumping for joy at the idea. But this was our anniversary, and I was acting like a Betty Draper brat. It wasn’t Heath’s fault that I had scheduled us to go camping during July 4 weekend, which was probably one of the busiest in the country. I knew I should relent and go with the flow. We picked out a couple of mid-grade pads and got the hell out of there so we could leave the negativity behind us and start the fun. Or so we thought.
We drove up Highway 5 to Edmonds to take the ferry to Kingston. From there the plan was to drive around the North side of the park and down to the west coast where we had a site reserved at Kalaloch beach. By using the term “the plan was” you may have correctly surmised that that is not what happened. We got to Edmonds at 10:40 and zipped into a McDonald’s drive-thru to gobble up a quick breakfast before the long drive to the beach. I ordered some kind of McNuffin and Heath some kind of McBiscuit. The total was surprisingly high when we pulled up to The First Window to seal the deal, but we were too hungry and too on-edge to care. When we entered the ferry traffic line it all became clear. Heath turned and asked, “Doesn’t McDonald’s stop serving breakfast at 10:30?” (I smugly admit that I was ignorant to this fact because practically the only time I eat McDonalds is at airports and the breakfast-or-lunch conundrum has never presented itself.) He was right. In our aqua colored Ford Forcus (whose headlights we would never master) were three cheeseburgers that paired quite awkwardly with our two scalding hot coffees. I was disappointed, yes, but not too much so to not eat. I had glumly swallowed the last of my breakfast cheeseburger as I noticed the sign overhead that read “Ferry Traffic Two Hours.”
WHAT?! By now it was near 11 and we weren’t even out of the Seattle metro area and likely wouldn’t be till 1. I had wanted to get to Kalaloch by noon, which clearly wasn’t happening, as it would be another 4 ½ hours to get there once we did board the ferry.
I had started to let this get the best of me when I remembered what Mark told me when I started to let my Type A personality go overboard in India (Drink every time she references going to India.) “That’s the lesson of traveling in India. No matter how much planning you do ahead of time, you have to be able to roll with the punches.” Mark’s right. I’ve got to chill. We aren’t even in India. We are in an air-conditioned aqua Ford Focus (whose headlights we would never master) with a reserved campsite on the beach and three years of sublimely happy marriage to celebrate. It is a little first-world-problemy of me to get so defeated and agitated by what is, at it’s core, a non problem. I’ll put on my big girl pants, lose the ‘tude and celebrate where we are and why we are. The magic that is 3G internet found us an alternate sans ferry route through Olympia that would get us to Kaloloch in 3 1/2 hours, plenty of time to enjoy a beach picnic and the perfectly breezy July 4 weather.
We rolled into Kalaloch at 4:30 and stopped at the information center where a comically unenthused park ranger (or maybe just a counter worker, I’m not sure of the national park hierarchy) not-so-politely told us how to check in, which was essentially not to. We browsed the marked numbers along Camping Loop D for our campsite and in record speed set up the tent. We could hear the ocean roaring but still had yet to catch a glimpse of the sea. (Our campsite was on a hill and surrounded by lush trees and ferns, but the ocean was just out of view.) We followed the sounds of the rolling tide down to the beach where we were met by sprawling sands, cold ocean water and beach logs that were larger than telephone poles. Heath said the view was like a scene from The Land Before Time rolled out before us—ocean in the foreground with misty mountains in the periphery.
For a good 2 hours we relaxed by the water, which really wasn’t that “by the water” at all since this was low tide and the sandy beach spanned some 100 yards before your toes could touch the cold Pacific Ocean waves. We cartwheeled in the tide, ran through the shallow water, photographed the expansive coast, lay in the sand, read in the sun, watched kite flyers fly and dog walkers walk and devoured with every sense the surroundings where we found ourselves.
Despite our breakfast hamburgers, hunger crept in and we returned to the campsite for requisite Independence Day hot dogs and to swap stories about the camping experiences we each had growing up, and agreeing without qualification that this trumped all those past childhood memories. Now, we had the glorious beach, and the unbelievably comfortable weather, and, most importantly, each other.
After stuffing ourselves with hot dogs and jalapeno-flavored kettle chips we wandered back to the water a final time to take in the sunset. There’s nothing about beach sunsets that I can describe more adequately than what’s already been said or experienced, so I won’t attempt to here; though, I will add the scenery was made more memorable by Bota Box (I have a deep, deep love for the bargain enjoyed by consuming boxed wine) and a pair of Pro-America, Franzia-drinking (fellow boxed-wine enthusiasts) military men who took it upon themselves to impressively carry a 250-pound log up to their campsite for the purpose of who-the-hell cares.