Back to Desert Hot Springs – I Need a Miracle

I have been obsessing over wanting a jacuzzi, so I booked a weekend at Miracle Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert. The place itself is like a no-frills motel, but the grounds are gorgeous, with a swimming pool, two wading pools, three big Jacuzzis and two small 2 or 3-person Jacuzzis that are fed with natural mineral water. The best part is that they don’t close the pools at 10 pm like most places. They are open 24-hours, which is awesome if you are going to Coachella or barhopping. You can come back at 2 am and still have a nice soak. Plus, they have a spa with really good massage therapists.

Friday, on our way out of LA, we stopped at Agnes in Pasadena for lunch, my new favorite place. I figured, we were on vacation, so why rush? We had a leisurely lunch starting with their beet salad with oranges nestled in a flavorful hummus, and an interesting if not mind-blowing BLT made with fried green tomatoes,

We also split an awesome pasta. Beef cheeks with homemade pappardelle, which they called a “stroganoff.” It came with shaved Gouda, but that was just too weird for me, so I went without the cheese.

I had made a big mistake leaving at around 2 pm for Desert Hot Springs on a Friday. It took us over three hours to get there! We had wanted to go to Cuistot’s “happy hour” between 5 and 6 with less expensive dishes and appealing-sounding bento boxes, but we didn’t get into town until 5: 45! We decided we were tired and ate at Miracle Springs’ Italian/Steak restaurant called “Capri,” which was another big mistake. It was like the worst rubber-chicken-style wedding food ever. Bob was fine with his pasta. I looked around the room and everyone else seemed perfectly happy. I wished I could be as easily satisfied as other people are. It’s a burden being so damned picky. We had a nice soak and turned in early.

I was pleased with the upgrades to the rooms since our last visit. They had painted, but not replaced the ugly carpeting. It’s super clean, but a little run down, like some caulking was cracked, and there were bleach stains on the carpet. I was worried about our room being between the parking lot and the stairs, but it was really quiet and HUGE. The beds had white comforters instead of creepy brown flowery prints, so I was super happy.

They have cool copper elevators. But they need to take out the carpeting. The elevator smells worse and worse as the weekend progresses.

Saturday, we headed into Palm Springs and had a fantastic breakfast at Wilma and Frieda’s. It’s upstairs in a courtyard where Sonny Bono’s statue holds court and is comfortable and hip. There is a big bakery with tempting treats like house made pop tarts.

The shrimp and grits was no great shakes–the grits were too thick, but the short rib benedict—oh my God! It was heaven! They baked their own rusk, probably out of biscuit dough, the eggs were perfect and the hollandaise…wow…I could eat a bowl of it with a spoon! Their biscuits, which you could order as your bread option were HUGE,,,like kitten heads! I could only eat half of the breakfast, and we were too full to even have lunch.

We had lovely massages. My massage therapist and I spent the whole time talking about Snoop Dog and South Park. When I knew the old Twilight Zone episodes he mentioned, he said, “Wow, you’re cultured!”

I laughed, “Because I watch way too much TV?”

He said, “No, I mean…you’re…cool.” So yeah, I over tipped him.

We had a nice soak, then got dressed up for our fancy anniversary dinner at Cuistot. Unfortunately, they no longer have crab gratin or foie gras, but we have to change with the times. We started out with a lovely asparagus dish.

It seemed so expensive for a vegetable dish, but it was loaded with morels and served in a rich truffle-morel sauce. I was trying to have good table manners, but the waiter suggested I sop up the sauce with my bread. That’s called permission, and I went with it.

For mains, I ordered steak frites, a 6-ounce flat-iron steak, that was the least flat flat-iron I’ve ever seen. It was so ridiculously tender. Bob went with Medallions of pork that were also ridiculously tender, in an ingenious mustard and viognier tarragon sauce. Viognier is a full-bodied white wine from the south of France (yes, I looked it up).

For dessert we tried the peach cobbler and creme brulee. The cobbler was a bit sweet for me, which is saying something when the other dessert has a sugar crust on it. It is still my favorite restaurant and “our place” in the desert. They gave us a card for a free appetizer when we return. The food is always amazing, the service is unparalleled. Cuistot may be the best restaurant in all of Coachella Valley.

Our room had a DVD player in it, so we stopped at Red Box to rent a couple movies. But we were so full and relaxed we didn’t even make it through a single one before we crashed.

We woke up early Sunday and had a final soak, then went around the corner to The Cottage Too for breakfast. We had planned on hitting the much-recommended Delicias, but they weren’t open yet. The decor reflected a very classic local roadside spot, and the food was OK. My biscuits and gravy would have been fantastic if it wasn’t room temperature, and their potatoes were above average.

After checking out, we hit a couple of shops in downtown Palm Springs on the main drag. The Little Shop of Treasures had some cool chairs and china that I liked, but I already have too much of both. There was a cute 2-person glider for $50 that would have been awesome for the backyard, but we couldn’t fit it in the car. Bob isn’t big on shopping, so I didn’t spend hours in all the little antique shops near there, but I did want to shop at The Frippery. Such a cool name! They had clothes separated by decade and color, from the 1930s through the 90s in a variety of sizes. It’s weird to think of the 90s as being “vintage,” but it was 30 years ago! It would be weird to take pictures in a little boutique, but I did take this close-up of the fabric of a 60s mod dress I bought.

We knew it would be hard to eat lunch anywhere brunch-y since it was Mother’s day. I wanted to go to Taylor’s Burgers, but as has happened before, I forgot that they aren’t open on Sundays. So we headed over to the Roadfood-recommended Sherman’s Deli. Waiting near the bakery counter for our table was like exploring the Land of the Giants. The cream puffs were as big as layer cakes, and look at the size of this Black and White cookie!!!

When I ordered corned beef on rye, the waitress stated, “Our most popular corned beef sandwich is the Reuben.”

I demurred, “That’s OK.”

“But the sandwich you’re ordering is just meat and bread.”

“Well, I don’t like sauerkraut or Russian dressing…or really, even the cheese.”

She snapped, “Well, you could order it WITHOUT.

I decided it was in my best interest not to point out that getting it without would just make it the exact same sandwich that I was already ordering. But she was sweet as pie for the rest of the meal. As expected, the sandwich was exceptional. The rye bread is fresh, soft and mild, and the corned beef is flavorful and tender. We wisely split the sandwich between us. We impulsively ordered fries, and they were the hottest, crispest french fries I can remember eating. Ever.

I had seen the “San Jacinto” cake in the display case and I just HAD to have it! It was like a tuxedo cake, with chocolate cake and cheesecake, but added a layer of chocolate ganache. It was awesome! It was so big we had to pack up half of it, so we also ordered sugar-free carrot cake and strawberry cake slices to-go, you know, for when we got back home and started being good. It was an awesome weekend and an awesome meal and we did not have to stop to eat on the drive back.

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Oahu Tuesday: Leonard’s Malasadas

Malasadas are Portuguese doughnuts that have taken over the island of Oahu. Leonard DoRego, the grandson of Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work the sugar cane fields, opened Leonard’s bakery in 1952. He then started making malasadas, a Portuguese tradition for Shrove Tuesday, back in 1953. They were such a hit, the bakery started making them year-round, and now the bakery has become synonymous with the fried treat.

Since OT and I were on EST and PST, we were waking up before 5 am. OT was able to stop at Leonard’s Bakery for malasadas when they opened at 5:30 am Tuesday morning and showed up with a box of the outstanding fried dough. they are crisper and a little denser than the jelly donuts they resemble. You can get them rolled in white sugar, cinnamon sugar, or Li Hing, which is a “thing” in Hawaii. Have you ever had those Asian preserved plum snacks? They are sweet and sour and salty, and a bit much for me. You can have your malasadas rolled in that stuff! I had asked for them to be rolled in plain sugar and filled with guava, macadamia nut, and custard. The custard and macadamia nut filled ones were almost identical.

We returned on Wednesday, and also happened upon their truck on Saturday, such luck!

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Oahu Monday: OT and Side Street

Yay!!! OT is here! My husband was so upset that I had accidentally sent the donuts he was craving to Hawaii, that we immediately sent him the above picture.

It was Valentine’s Day, so I wasn’t sure we would be able to get a table anywhere. Luckily, we were told we could get a seat at the bar at Side Street Inn, a heavily recommended Hawaiian place. It’s a family-friendly neighborhood hangout, which has also been visited by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold. The ambiance is a little 1980s Dennys mixed with a nice Chinese restaurant. The Uber driver dropped us off in an underground parking lot, where we encountered other groups of diners also searching for the restaurant. Finally, we found some stairs and made our way to the bar area.

I started out with a lychee martini, because it was vacation and I’m a sucker for anything lychee. It wasn’t a sweet drink, but the ice-cold top-shelf liquor made it smooth in spite of its strength. The server/bartender was cool and friendly. We loved her and immediately felt at home.

We were warned that the food was served family-style because the helpings were so large. We scoffed, because my nephew has an insatiable appetite, and can eat four times a normal serving. We ordered pork chops, which was their specialty, chicken, and fried rice. The platters that arrived could easily feed a family of five. We would scoff no more.

The dishes were so huge that I even forgot to take a picture of the chicken. I’m losing my edge. They’re going to revoke my Instagramembership. The crispy pork chops were good, and the fried rice, studded with bacon, char siu, and Portuguese sausage, was perfect and filling, but the chicken was awesome. Deep fried and drizzled with a slightly sweet shoyu garlic sauce, it was our favorite dish. Our order was so common, it was called the “Ohana Pack” and was priced at $70. Considering how many people it could feed, it was a great bargain. I was kind of suffering from high expectations, which made a lot of the restaurants on this trip seem not as impressive as I was led to believe.

But…BUT! We were about to have the best thing we ate the entire week. Peanut Butter Crunch! How did I live so long without this in my life? Milk chocolate and peanut butter was combined with crumbled cookie wafers to make a cake, almost a cookie bar, which was topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. We started battling over it with our forks, until finally OT whined loudly and hilariously, “You’re RUINING Valentine’s Day!!!

I tried to get the recipe, but the server told me, “She won’t tell anyone!” They had better protect this lady.

As we let our food settle, my nephew mused, “If I came back, I’d order the dessert FIRST, then I’d order the chicken, and then just bring the leftover rice from last time.”

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Oahu Monday: HOMA and Ioloni Palace

I walked over to the Honolulu Museum of Art HOMA. It was closed down to prepare for an art festival, but I was invited to wander the small sculpture garden and check out the single interactive installation that was open.

Psych!

Fred Roster “Jax Bench.” The sculptor explains that the dogs are a metaphor for human change. I don’t get it either.


There was an indoor installation created with painted umbrellas forming a sort of yurt, with the artist in residence. There were several people sitting around inside, and a variety of objects. He said that it was his mind. We discussed the possible and intended meanings of objects as the little group left. I was focused on some suitcases that may have represented his baggage when he said, “That’s my family.” I looked for the objects representing them, then I realized he literally meant the people who had just left.

The Iolani Palace was just around the corner, Unfortunately, it is still closed due to Covid. But I was able to admire the huge gates and beautiful exterior. The Palace, which is the only official royal palace in the United States, is a registered National Historic Landmark. And for one unfortunate Queen, it was once a prison.

The story of the colonization and theft of Hawaii began as most of these stories do–money. And white men. Always white men. The Committee of Safety, comprised of men with interests in the plantations of Hawaii, were not happy with Queen Liliuokalani’s attempts to strengthen the Hawaiian monarchy. Their goal was annexation by the United States.  They took over the government, and when an attempt was made to reinstate the queen, she was imprisoned in an upstairs bedroom of the palace for almost eight months. I guess it’s better than the five years of hard labor in prison, which was the original sentence.

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Oahu Monday: Fete and Chinatown

The first reservation I made was at Fete in Chinatown, on my brother’s recommendation. I had to ask for a spot inside because there was an unhoused man yelling at us on the patio, and as a result, the table next to mine was saying uncharitable things, which actually bothered me more. The restaurant kindly squeezed me in at the bar, which is fine, because I was alone anyways. There was a couple on the corner of the bar who were super friendly and recommended more great restaurants for me to try. I just found their list on a napkin after returning home. Oops. This is someone else’s drink; it just looked so good.

Everything on the menu looked awesome, but I went with the beef cheek pot pie in spite of the warm day, because I LOVE cheeks. It was rich and delicious, with bits of potato and carrot nestled under a cozy blanket of pate brisee.

As you would expect, this was not your usual pot pie. The grass-fed Kua-aina ranch meat was more intensely flavored than your usual beef, or as Alina joked on her season of Top Chef, “Why is the beef…so…beefy?” The bill was also very reasonable for such an upscale experience.

Anyone from California will find this menu item amusing…if a little blurry

I wandered around Chinatown, which has some cool old buildings with dim sum shops and delis selling lacquered ducks out of tiny shops, like the little Hurricane booths in the French Quarter. The dim sum was tempting, but I was stuffed from that beefy pie!

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Oahu: Prix Fixe Dinner at XO

My nephew wasn’t scheduled to arrive until the next day, so I went out to an indulgent, chef-driven 7-course tasting menu at XO that I thought would be too fussy for him. The ambiance wasn’t fussy at all, with your standard cafeteria chairs and walls that looked like each one had been decorated by a different person altogether. The service was very friendly and personalized.

I ended up here because it had occurred to me that there might be such a thing as a foie gras Loco Moco in Waikiki. Maybe there is and I couldn’t find it, because, seriously. Foie Gras Loco Moco. I did keep seeing Crispy Rice with Foie Gras popping up online, and it was on the tasting menu at XO. It was a $75 tasting menu, with some courses having either an upgrade or addition available for not that much more money. Like $3 to $8. The server discussed their cocktail menu with me, and although it was tempting, we decided that the Ube Lemonade would be way too sweet for me. I believe this is a Lilokai (Passionfruit) Margarita, but I can’t remember exactly. Nonetheless, A+

The first course was deliciously crispy fried chicken skin, an underutilized ingredient in my opinion. It was lacquered with an intense sticky sweet and sour coating that was a bit much for me. It seemed like it belonged on little pork ribs on a pupu platter. But points for a creative fusion of cuisines. B

I added on a second app for $8. They started my meal out strong with an Oxtail Xiang Long Bao, or soup dumpling. There wasn’t any soup (which is made by putting a gelatinized cube of broth in the dumpling), but that didn’t matter, because it was fantastic. As I told my server, you can’t really go wrong with oxtail. A+

The second course was titled “Veg.” Everything in this course was vegan and gluten free. The heavily Instagrammed Beet Lotus with Emulsified Chimichurri was gorgeous. Unfortunately, the timbale of beets beneath the halo of radish was bland and mushy, with more of the texture of sweet potatoes. I was disappointed. C+

The third course, “Starch” offered a dish that didn’t appeal to me–Seaweed Potatoes Gratin. For $5 I subbed it out with the dish I had come for–Crispy Rice and Foie Gras. Although the foie was small, I was able to get three nice, fatty bites, and it paired perfectly with the crispy rice. If I could have ordered this as a full appetizer course size, I would have been ecstatic. It occurs to me now that I might have been able to add on more plates at $8 a pop. I think I missed an opportunity. A+

I was interested in adding the Herb Gnocchi with Arbequina (fancy olives) and a whiskey carrot puree. My server guided me instead toward the Mushroom Tofu Lasagne with Ma po Tomato and Crispy Tempeh. I expected the tofu to be crumbled between the sheets of pasta. I did not expect the tofu to replace the pasta. It looked so dull and gray I didn’t even take a picture, which you know is not like me. And it tasted dull and gray; it was nearly flavorless. The waiter forlornly took away 3/4 of this dish, and I felt our relationship start to crumble. D-

Things started looking up again with the three protein courses. The Scallops were perfectly cooked. I wasn’t fond of the Mussel Sinigang (A Filipino sweet-sour tamarind soup). But that is not their fault, because I am quite unfond of mussels. The Crispy Kale was purely decorative to me, like a parsley sprig. B.

Their signature dish, a 4-hour braised Adobo Fried Chicken, was a boneless chicken breast of good quality, like Mary’s in LA. It was probably Jidori. It was crispy and had a nice seasoning, plus a sauce made with a peppercorn Togarashi (a Japanese pepper, often used to refer to a spice mix containing the pepper). It was a hearty dish, and I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish it. This caused the waiter some concern, and he wanted to pack it up for me, but I was going back to a hotel. A-

The final protein was a Kalbi Pork Belly Ssam, with a Gochujang Aioli (Korean chile paste). A Ssam is usually something vegetable wrapped, but again we had the timbale. It was dense and hearty. Although it was meant to taste like Korean Kalbi, it still reminded me of Kahlua pork. It was just too much for me to eat, but this time I let the waiter pack it up in order to avoid an incident. A-

In spite of my full belly, their signature dessert, Fluffle of Brown Butter Bunny Butter Mochi, seemed small and not too filling (Wafer thin!). There was a cute little chocolate poop behind the bum. Rabbits actually poop pellets, but why get all pedantic about a rabbit-shaped confection? It was absolute perfection. Brown Butter is such a classic American flavor. Combining it with mochi was the pinnacle of fusion genius. I can see why it is so popular. Again, it occurs to me, I probably could have ordered a second one to take home. I’m just so used to eating whatever the chef gives me on a tasting menu and not making a fuss. A+++

It was definitely a mixed bag. There were a few dishes that would have made for a better meal had they been left off the menu completely. But the highs were very high. The restaurant is relatively new, so maybe they just need to find their legs. Vegans rave about the place, so maybe there was less seasoning on the night I was there. Or maybe vegans prefer less seasoning?

The mission of the restaurant group is to provide opportunities for chefs and restaurant workers to be able to collaborate and experiment more, feel supported, have opportunities for training, and better working conditions. Chef/owner Kenny Lee has hopes for “a massive variety of different concepts that are new and unproven.” XO wants to take risks and move Hawaiian food into the future. XO seems to be a step in the right direction.

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Welcome to Oahu!

I promised my nephew that I would use some of my inheritance to take him on a trip. I invited him to Cancun, but he wanted to go to New Orleans. Then he called me out of the blue two weeks ago and invited me to Hawaii! The RT airfare was only $199, so Honolulu it is! The hotel I got was only about $1100 for a week, but then I had to upgrade to get two beds (for obvious reasons), and the add-on “resort fees” are highway robbery, but standard, so the room ended up being 2 grand. But when I got here yesterday–what a room! Worth every penny! The view of Diamond Head is breathtaking, and I even got upgraded to a “partial ocean view,” which is a very flexible term here, but the bit of blue when you look to the right off the balcony is nonetheless wonderful.

It’s a bit like a Holiday Inn that has been hipsterized. The hallways are sprayed with an overly sweet air freshener that smells like the ones they use in ladies’ bathrooms. Otherwise, it’s super clean. No bugs. The workers are incredibly nice. Our room overlooks the bar and pool so it can be a little noisy. but by 10 pm it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Here’s a little story…I use a shopping service called Shipt. I was using them this week to send stuff to my brother’s care home, and to a friend, and I also checked to see if they deliver in Hawaii so I can save money there. In other words, I was changing the address a lot. So today I placed an order at Target. Bob said get ALL the drinks so I ordered enough for weeks. Then I ordered sooo many snacks for on the plane.

The shopper and Bob are texting back and forth because the guy can’t find our house.

Bob says, “You’re on Mariposa Street?”

The guy says, “No, man. I’m on Kapahulu Avenue.”

Bob shouted to me, “You sent our groceries to Hawaii!”

I convinced the front desk at the hotel to hold the SIX 12 packs of diet coke and SEVEN cases of La Croix, along with a big bag of snacks until I arrived, and told the delivery guy to just take the perishables home.

So we have plenty of drinks. Maybe I will wander the streets handing out Diet Cokes. There will be legends about me.

“…and on a very quiet, moonless night, you can still hear the clanking of her cans…”

I often ask taxi drivers on the way home from the airport to stop at their favorite spot, and I will buy them lunch. My cabbie wanted garlic shrimp, a specialty of the island.

Everyone here is so fuckin’ friendly! They get really excited to learn you just arrived, or that it is your first visit, in spite of the fact they must hear that a million times a day.

I tried an island specialty–shell-on shrimp with a creamy garlic sauce.

I was disappointed to see the “tempura shrimp” looked like fish sticks. I was so wrong. It was so hot you had to hold your mouth open after a bite, and the shrimp was so tender as if barely cooked.

…and the first thing you have to do in Oahu, is get a Dole Whip!

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Cancun Resort Day Two Part Two

Vidante Resort had an assortment of international restaurants that I viewed with a jaundiced eye, but you can’t eat tacos 24/7 (or CAN you?). We called for reservations, since some restaurants were only open on certain nights, and some had closed due to Covid. We ended up with GONG, an Asian-themed spot. A large part of this vacation is tram-riding and walking and trying to figure out where you are.

Walking, walking, walking…

Where are we???

We were told the restaurant was above the boutique, so we got in the elevator and pushed the button for the second floor. It was just a bunch of offices and their call center, with operators busily working in windowed rooms. There was no third floor. So we took the stairs down, and there it was! It was on the 1 1/2th floor maybe?

GONG is superfancy and decorated with a lot of Buddhas. We had a lovely table in the corner watching the kitchen, and I got to sit on the banquette. I was excited about the dim sum, so we decided to order a bunch of appetizers and see if we were still hungry. Then this guy appeared in his leather apron and leather gloves.

I said, “Bob, this man has come to kill us.”

Bob assured me, “I think he is here to make cocktails.” not wanting to cross this man, I ordered a lychee margarita.

It packed a wallop, and even only drinking about a third of it between the two of us, I had a pretty good buzz going. The food arrived and it was awesome. These dumplings were filled with short ribs and a little hoisin sauce. The combo of richness and sweetness was inspired and made one dumpling perfectly delicious and gorgeous, but you couldn’t eat too many of them.

This was not true of the shrimp and pork pot stickers, with a kiss of ginger and garlic in a paper thin wrapper that was almost like a crepe. I could have eaten them all night, and in fact, I ordered some to go for the perfect midnight snack.

Bob loved his hand roll, and we rounded out the menu with tempura shrimp and Vietnamese Spring Rolls. We definitely didn’t need to order main dishes.

We did decide to continue with our prudent consumption of alcohol and sugar by splitting an irresistible-sounding cacao and ginger mousse/creameux with macadamia nuts. It was served with vanilla and ginger ice cream. A lovely finish.

The pools looked dreamy and inviting with the soft lighting and without the crowd.

Too inviting for me to resist. I had foolishly ignored someone’s advice to always wear a bathing suit, but that never stopped me before. Especially after a lychee margarita.

At this point, I was about ready to sign up for a time share.

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Cancun Resort Day Two Part One

I had booked a couples massage for us, and we woke up less than an hour before the appointment. We had to rush and then take two trams and walk a ways, so we were a little late. They nevertheless accommodated us and gave us the full treatment. Starting off, they blessed us with elements of Earth, Fire, Air and Water. For fire, they used flameless candles, which I found hilarious, but it’s the thought that counts, right? It was a long and thorough massage, and then they gave us macarons. When I was booking the treatment in my terrible Spanish, I couldn’t understand what “macaron” was. Some exotic body treatment? Then I realized, “You mean cookies???”

I had wanted to lunch at Havana Moon, the resort’s Cuban restaurant on the beach, but they were closing up as we arrived. The beach was beautiful, but due to a buttload of a seaweed-like algae called Sargassum, it wasn’t really swimmable.

De rigeur feet on the beach shot

There had been a lot of pictures online of a hut at the end of a dock, taken from the other end of the dock. I went looking for the dock, for the ‘Gram, but it wasn’t going to happen.

We ended up at Balche, the poolside cafe. Even though it was open-air, they run a lot of fans and keep it cool and comfortable. They also have a very convenient box of outlets to charge your phone, and cute little birds flying through. Although when one flew right at my face full speed it was a little startling. I avoided a Fabio incident though, just by a beak. I ordered the ribeye tacos, and Bob had a shrimp burrito. Once again, every single thing, down to the french fries, was delicious. If this place were near my home I would definitely eat there again.

Then we walked, we walked and we walked. We passed a big swimming pool full of revelers. Not as many kids as drunks, especially some howler monkey guys near the swim-up bar. I told Bob, “That’s somebody’s vacation, but it’s not mine.”

We took two trams back. You always have to go to a central station and then you can take a tram to wherever you’re going. Riding through the jungle, it’s kind of like being at Disneyland. In fact, if the tram is your favorite thing at Disneyland, and you think, “Like Disneyland, but every. single. ride. is a tram,” this is YOUR place. Numerous iguana sightings made it more fun.

In fact, they also had coatis, a relative of the racoon that look like monkey cats, that everyone kept insisting I would see, a crocodile pit, a “flamingorium,” Cirque du Soleil, a water park, and trees randomly dropping coconuts. I even saw an employee board a tram with a falcon on his arm.

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Cancun Resort: Day One

During the height of Covid, a lot of places were offering ridiculous deals, with the promise of traveling any time within the next two years. One place advertised on Facebook. A week in Cancun for $250 bucks. I decided I would take that bet. Well, here we are almost a year later, and I am comfortably ensconced in a big comfy bed, full of margaritas and ready to go out looking for little local racoonish cat things. We ended up paying $250 more for an upgrade to a much nicer hotel at the resort. Well spent. I never used to like the idea of resorts because of this philosophy, nicely summed up by Camper Van Beethoven:

We had a long and annoying flight, with the people in front of us slamming backwards in their seats at random, and a coke spilling all over me. Changing clothes on a plane is not fun. The check in process was extensive, with us being dropped off by the van, doing paperwork with a bellboy, then taking a tram to our hotel’s check in. The bellboy told me to take a picture so I did.

Then I realized that he meant I should take a picture of the number on our luggage cart so we didn’t forget it. So yeah, I was tired. By the time we got to the check-in around 10:30 pm we were so done. It turns out the resort requires a $1,000 deposit on your card. I only had $500 on my card, and I swear he was just going to kick me off the resort and let me sleep on the beach. No one warned me of the deposit, and he insisted they did. Luckily Bob had his work card, and I hope he doesn’t get in trouble for using it for the hold. But when we finally made it to our room it was really nice. Everything was marble, which is so refreshing in hot weather.

I immediately called room service, then took a soak in this giant tub

Room service blew my mind. It was awesome. The steak was accompanied by a mole enchilada and a little hard taco. The guacamole was fresh and flavorful.

This did much to improve my mood and my estimation of touristy resorts. The bed was firm but gentle and I slept until noon the next day. The view from our window:

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Ich bin ein Berliner: Monsterkabinet is Awesome!

If you ever find yourself in Berlin, you absolutely must go to Monsterkabinet. It was the most creative and fun attraction I have ever seen. It is something of a cross between a haunted house and an art exhibit. It is quite literally underground, which makes it a little spookier. All i knew about it was that an artist’s collective had made giant machine monsters that move. I arrived early and had a moment to chat with the tour guide and she promised that nothing would touch me.

There are about a dozen people on the tour. We are all gathered near the entrance, and the next thing you know, a giant spider the size of a VW comes crawling menacingly towards you. And it doesn’t stop. A lot of people screamed and tried to back away as far as possible. I broke into hysterical laughter. It was shocked laughter, my mind was more blown than frightened, but there is a little edge to it. It was just so outrageous. I haven’t had a full body laugh like that in i can’t remember how long.

I don’t want to ruin all of the surprises, but after the spider they have lost your trust and there is an overlay of uneasiness and excitement throughout the rest of the show. At one point a mechanical monster was grabbing at us, and another person in the crowd tried pushing me in front of them. Every man for themselves!

Each of the mechanical monsters has a spiel and hidden talents. There is a lot of cool music and some compulsory dancing involved. One of the last monsters reminded me of being in the tiki room. A scary tiki roof with gnashing jaws and unpredictable movements, but it had that same sense of fun, plus good harmonies.

There are no pictures allowed during the show, but I was allowed to take a few on my way out.

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Ich Bin Ein Berliner: Lutter & Wagner at Gendarmenmarkt


“In 1811, the wine merchants Christoph Lutter and August F. Wegner opened a wine shop on Gendarmenmarkt, which in no time at all enjoyed an excellent reputation. They became purveyors to the court of the Prussian crown prince, Frederick William IV of Prussia.”

Just before golden hour, I arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt, a huge square in Berlin that is home to three enormous and gorgeous buildings, the German and the French Cathedral, and Schinkel’s Konzerthaus.

There is even a painting in the restaurant depicting a waiter admiring the view.

The dining room is relaxed and upscale. But that’s not the story.

There was a special white asparagus menu. An entire menu. When white asparagus, or spargel, is in season, the whole city goes nuts. It’s like being in D.C. for cherry blossom season, but much tastier. Spargel is the word for asparagus in German, but it is mostly used to describe the tender, delicate stalks that are grown underground to avoid photosynthesis. It is estimated that 82,000 tons of Spargel are actually produced in Germany each year — which only meets a little more than half of consumption needs. On this evening I enjoyed a rich cream of asparagus soup. It was unbelievable.

For my main dish, I ordered asparagus with a small wiener schnitzel. Again, tender, succulent spargel with a tender schnitzel that was not greasy at all.

One of the restaurant workers wanted to make sure I understood, as a matter of national pride, that the wiener schnitzel is not German food, but Austrian. He complained about his employers, saying, “You know how it is when Austrians come to Berlin. They lose their minds. Especially short Austrians.

“Did you just make a Hitler joke?” I asked.

“Well, umm, yes.”

He kind of walked straight into an old joke, which I won’t mention here for obvious reasons. But I did give him a slight scare.

For dessert I tried the ugly but exciting Karamellisier Kaiserschmarrn. It was delicious. There was a waitress there with a bob cut and heavy, black round rimmed glasses. She looked SO German I asked if I could take her picture, but she declined.

You really can’t help but laugh. If you have the mind of a 5 year-old.

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Ich bin ein Berliner: Welcome and The Zoo

More than any other place I have traveled so far, I had a difficult time in Germany. There were a lot of complex procedures and rules of conduct that I was unaware of, and when you break them, Germans get very angry. I really felt like I needed to have a friend living there to show me the ropes. I was also kind of obsessed with WWII, and obsessed with avoiding the subject of WWII. Nonetheless, there were a lot of fantastic things to see and do and eat.

When I first arrived in Berlin, I took a cab to the hotel. There are no Ubers in Berlin because they violate transport laws. As we neared The Brandenburg Gate, a march/ride to encourage bicycle riding was taking place. The taxi driver rolled down his window to shake his fist and scream at them. I’m sure the last thing he needed was for people to give up on cars. The hotel, Titanic Comfort Mitte, was no frills but the people were friendly and willing to assist me with my almost non-existent German.

Once I settled in, I walked down the street to have lunch at the non-touristy and unappetizing-sounding Spitteleck. I ordered a nice, cold hefeweizen and settled in. The menu was kindly translated–into French. But sometimes, English and German coming from the same language family really helps. I ordered Schweinefleisch. It was delicious.

I hopped on the U-Bahn, which was only a block away. Well, I didn’t exactly “hop.” First you have to buy the ticket from a machine that is in German. Finally, I realized the British flag on the screen would translate the screen to English. For almost my entire trip, every time I went to the station, I helpfully pointed out the flag to befuddled Americans. Then you have to get your ticket validated by sticking it in some kind of a slot that I could not find. I did manage to accidentally summon an elevator before someone showed me where to stick it. See, I told you I needed a German friend. Hans? Greta? Where are you?

I took the train to check out the zoo. It sounds stupid now, but in the Netherlands they had a Galapagos turtle, and I didn’t find out in time to go see it. I wanted to see if the German zoo had any animals we don’t have in American zoos. So here is what a German panda looks like

This is what a German koi and bonus German child look like

They did have this crazy snake-necked turtle, which for some reason reminded me of the punchline of a joke my brother often repeated, “Dig that crazy necktie!”

Across from the zoo is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Kaiser Wilhelm II built it to honor his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was bombed in WWII, losing the top of its turret. When helping rebuild Berlin, the allies didn’t want to restore a symbol of nationalism, and the missing spire has remained as a reminder of the horrors of war.

The steps of the church were covered with flowers, candles, and photographs, so I knew it was the site of something terrible. Another person standing next to me staring at the photos saw my inquisitive expression and said something like “Christmas. Terrible…” then walked away crying. I realized then this was the site of the 2016 terrorist attack on Berlin’s famous Christmas market. Two years before my visit,
Twelve people were killed when 24-year-old Tunisian Anis Amri drove a truck into the market on December 19, 2016, the deadliest attack in Germany.

There was a heartbreaking and beautiful tribute…a gold-filled crack tracing the truck’s route to the steps. It felt disrespectful to photograph any of this.

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Rotterdam: A Perfect Day


My favorite things about traveling are art and food. On this particular day I stuffed myself with both.

The Mariners Museum was right behind the hotel, so I stopped in. It turned out it wasn’t the right museum. It was the Museum for their Navy. But there were several old retired seamen playing cards and I would have felt like a jerk walking out. There was a lot of dull ephemera, like the plates they used on Naval ships. Not nearly enough weapons. Inexplicably, they had a makeshift alley skate park diorama in one corner.

Willem Joseph Baron van Ghent, the subject of a painting and sculpture, bore an uncanny resemblance to our friend, Heath, and also to Ludacris.

I made my way to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen to see “Vorm – Fellows – Attitude,” an exhibit of four enormous scultures of excrement. It took four years for the Vienna-based art collective Gelatin to finish the sculptures after being commissioned by the museum.

Next to the poop exhibit was a collection of anatomically correct “naked” suits. The gallery was empty and I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to wear them, but apparently that is what they were there for. According to one of the artists, the naked suits are “a gift to visitors” that enhance the exhibition and their own experience of it. I didn’t know we were allowed to–much less encouraged to–wear the suits. I apologize that my pictures from this day are missing except for a few I took on my phone, so you will just have to imagine the suits. here is a Yayoi Kusuma infinity room to make it up to you.

I then  wandered through a kind of arty neighborhood to Warung Mini, a highly recommended Surinamese hole-in-the-wall.

As had become my habit, I ordered a variation of Nasi Goreng, which is Indonesian fried rice piled high with a variety of meats, stews, noodles, a fried egg, or krupuk cracker…whatever is handy. The food, the ambiance and the general groove of Warung Mini was awesome. Everything I look for.

I finally made it to the Maritime Museum, which was my goal all along. There were dozens of old boats docked outside, and I got a little emotional thinking how much my dad would love to be there. Then in an unusual moment of faith, I thought, “He is here – with me.”

In the evening I went to an Indonesian place called Sari Koering for dinner. It was literally a mom and pop place. The pop’s accent was exactly that of our old family friend Corrie. His Indonesian wife cooking in the kitchen even reminded me of his wife, Mis, so I felt very at home. Their Nasi Goreng was more homemade, and made with love.

 

 

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I amsterdam: Dutch Culture

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I have 2 questions whenever I arrive at a new place.

Question 1. Can you jaywalk?

Yes. But cars and bikes will run you over–even if you are in a crosswalk! Between the street and the bike lane, it is a bit like playing Frogger. I finally figured it out over time. there two kinds of crosswalks. the ones with broken lines. will not protect you. They appear to be for bicycles. Cars will stop for you in crosswalks with solid lines.

People always complain about getting run over by bikes. The bike lanes are clay-colored, so just stay off of anything clay-colored. I forgot this rule ones and cried, “Shit!” as I jumped out of the way of a passing group of bicyclists who had a good laugh at my panic.

Do not walk on this clay path:

Question 2. Do you greet strangers on the street?

No. You do not nod or smile or even look them in the eye unless you are taking part in some transaction, then eye contact is pretty much the same as in American culture. I had a hard time not looking people right in the eye and smiling, which I gather is being overly familiar. People do respond nicely to questions like, “Is this the right bus stop?” Or “Which way to the museum?” But if you are just passing on the street, don’t look at them. Stop it! They have nothing to do with you.

We take our sunshine for granted. My first day in the Netherlands was a sunny one, and I took a long nap. The next two days were overcast and rainy. So even though I didn’t want to go on a boat ride, as soon as the sun came out I took a boat ride.

I noticed most people in the cities and who work in hotels and shops speak English. Those who don’t are game to speak a patois with you and use a lot of pointing and gestures. Some people act offended if you ask if they can speak English. They respond with “Of course!” in a tone that sounds like, “Do you think I’m stupid?”

People say, “Good morning,” and “Hello,” but they don’t ask, “How are you?” If they do ask, they genuinely mean it and expect a real answer.

They are also very conscious of class issues. If you order an Uber, you sit in the front seat with the driver. To sit in the back like you are something special is very classist.

One difference between Southern California and Europe in general is that people do not walk around staring at their phones there. High School kids do it on the U Bahn in Germany, but that’s about it.

Another thing–we are really serious about hydrating in L.A. No one else I saw on my entire trip walked around with a drink. Even serious bike riders in spandex bodysuits didn’t have plastic bottles of water.

The cokes were small, so I would order them two at a time, which freaked people out. They would bring me a separate glass for each coke I ordered, which I didn’t really need. I tried to ask the front desk to stock my mini fridge with Coke Zero, a service the card says they offer. They just kept telling me to order room service. So I ordered 3 diet cokes and 3 sparkling waters, planning to keep them in the fridge. Communication breakdown.

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Other things to love about Dutch people:

They always have Drost chocolate sprinkles on the breakfast buffet.

They charmingly call the train drop off point “the Kiss and Ride.”

They are extremely apologetic.

They have done away with so many of those pesky vowels.

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