CategoryTravel

Vacationing at North Padre Island Seashore

The North Padre Island Seashore is one of the hidden treasures of Texas. Located on the Coastal Bend, it’s one of the national seashores protected by the National Park Service and as unspoiled as beaches can be. It’s located more than 20 miles from Port Aransas so doesn’t get the crowds. It’s also as opposite as it can be from its Southern counterpart which is a spring break destination. All you can hear is waves crashing, wind blowing thru the sand dunes, and the sea gulls squawking. The beach is much cleaner than the other Texas beaches.

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Grand Canyon Vistas

I wrote about my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon previously which unfortunately was in fading light at the end of a long day plagued with travel delays. However, the next day was perfect and we started off with gifting my parents a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon for their 40th wedding anniversary. [1] By their accounts, it was nothing less than spectacular and I can only imagine given what we saw later standing at the rim.

Grand Canyon vacation

View from Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

We started out by first driving to the Desert View watchtower which is about 20 miles from the park entrance and then driving back to stop at various points for views of the canyon. Fortunately, the crowds weren’t bad since school was still in session and the season wouldn’t begin until a few weeks later. It was a slightly cloudy day and we even got a few drops of rain as we stood on the edge of the precipice taking in the sights of the canyon. I hestitate to repeat but the grandeur of the Grand Canyon cannot be understated and it lives up to all the hype you hear before visiting it. The watchtower is a newish structure built on the framework of an older rudimentary building by the Native Americans. This vista was discovered way before any white man stepped on this continent and I’m sure it must’ve been worshipped.

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon vacation

We stopped at two more points – Lipan Point and Moran Point – on the way back to the Visitor Center for more of the spectacular views. As you trace your eyesight down the serrated edges of the canyon, you see the river below that carved it as a thin green line making its way out. I wondered for a moment if the river will continue to burrow its way and the canyon would look different after couple of hundred years but the plaque on the edge said the river had literally reached the foundation of the continent and wouldn’t make the Canyon any deeper. Now it’s up to us to be as minimally disruptive as we can to this amazing natural wonder.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point - Grand Canyon

We made it to the Visitor Center by 1pm but unfortunately, it started pouring and we had to shelve our plans to continue and had to start driving back to Vegas. We’ll definitely back and maybe visit it from Phoenix to take in more of the dry and arid landscapes of Arizona.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point Panorama - Grand Canyon

Footnotes:
  1. It’s at least $200 a pop so obviously, we all couldn’t go plus it was meant to be something exclusive and special for them. More on experiential gifts rather than material gifts later. []

The Grandest of All Canyons

Thanks to an hour and a half delay due to a high-speed chase that culminated in a shootout on the famed Route 66 – now an interstate, go figure – we were racing down route 64 to catch a glimpse of the canyon that’s referred to in the grandest of the terms, before sundown. Add to that a wailing toddler frustrated at being strapped in a child seat for 6 hours and a fuming parent whom we never can make happy, nerves were frayed all around. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t make it as light failed rapidly as the sun went down at 7:30pm. We parked our car in the now-almost-deserted parking lot and rushed to Mather Point, the observation outlook near the Visitor Center. The biting cold, very different from the hot weather in Las Vegas that we left a few hours ago, hit us but we made it to the edge. All the frustration and tiredness simply vanished.

The view was even more spectacular than I had imagined. The Grand Canyon has never been described in subtle tones (hues maybe) but in spite of the hype, it completely lives up to it. “Holy shit” were the first words out of my mouth as I saw the vast expance from the South Rim of this gigantic chasm in the earth. I’m not sure what makes an impression. Maybe it is the sudden explosion of space after driving thru uncharacteristically tall trees, or the hues on the layers of the rock weathered by time, or the literal edge of the continent you’re standing at, or simply the stark beauty of the harshness of nature.

This is the view I got that evening. Not much of a picture considering the circumstances and the light and better pictures and vistas would come the next day but nevertheless that first sight of the canyon cannot be experienced again.

Grand Canyon Mather Point

More later.

Back in New Orleans

Kitchen confidential at Nawlins

I was in New Orleans for a conference last couple of days; the last time I was there was after Hurricane Katrina for a sustainable urbanism class field trip and before that, it was on our way to Texas from Atlanta. So I effectively got a before-n-after Katrina view of the city. This time around, I didn’t have much time to take in the sights. However, I still found time to take long leisurely strolls in the French Quarter at dusk. Honestly, although there is more to ‘Nawlins’ than the Quarter, it’s the only part that interests me. The architecture, the food, the antique shops, and apparently, it’s the only part that’s thoroughly scrubbed clean every night.

The French Quarter

Although the lunches were mostly restricted to horrible conference food, I did manage to get out for two awesome dinners. First, at Brennan’s, a quaint restaurant with courtyard seating that serve exquisite New Orleans fine dining. Second, we were invited to a dinner at Emeril’s casual dining restaurant NOLA, also in the Quarter. Contrary to the fine dining place, this place had huge portions and yet amazing and we left absolutely stuffed.

Pork Chop at Emeril's NOLA Restaurant

I admit, I’m not a big New Orleans fan and don’t really prefer the crowds of Mardi Gras but someday I’ll learn to appreciate that too. We avoided the Mardi Gras crowds by a week so I’m sure the city will be crawling with revelers starting this week and leading up to Fat Tuesday.

It’s a big world out there, so we’ve narrowed it down for you. From ancient temples to crystalline waters, here are NYT’s top destinations to visit this year [Source: The New York Times]

The Land of the Blue Smoke

Shaconage, or the land of the blue smoke as the Cherokee Indians called what we now call the Great Smoky Mountains. Straddling the state lines of Tennessee and North Carolina, this most-frequented National Park in these United States, is literally that. If you stand atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, you can look out at miles of forests over old hills and the creeping civilization beyond. The mist rising from the valleys of the mountains has a distinctive blue tinge. The fall colors start from the top of these mountains and move to the lower heights as the season progresses like a time-lapsed Mexican wave of reds, yellows, orange, and greens. Somehow, we seem to have made a tradition of heading out to parts of the country with great fall colors every couple of years so this didn’t feel all that new. Still wonderful and glorious but not new.

We timed our long-overdue vacation for the fall season mostly for two reasons; one, obviously to take in the splendor of autumn that Texans are bereft of, and two, to avoid the madding crowds of the families with school-going children. In addition, we chose to time our visit on weekdays because with its proximity to several high-population centers, this park draws visitors in droves over the weekend even during the off-season. It turned out that was a prudent move because we learnt later that roads were packed the weekend we left. Even leaving earlier than usual in the mornings will help you escape the slightly-late risers. The car line waiting to get in at Cades Cove as we exited made us thank our stars for getting there early. We had learnt a lesson the previous day when we ran out of parking spaces near a popular hiking trail and had to park half a mile away.

View from Newfound Gap

The best way to take in the Smokies in a short time, is to drive through it. At a leisurely speed. You can go north-south on US-441 or otherwise called the Newfound Gap Drive or head west to Cades Cove on the Little River Road or east on a very short loop called the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. There are numerous trailheads along these roads that you can pull off and head into the forest. Either way, if you visit during autumn, the fall views are astounding wherever you look and after a while, you just have to stop trying to capture it all on your camera. The dappled light on the trails with various shades of green and red or the bright hills mottled with warm colors will not get old. To take it all in a longer time, well, you just have to stay for couple of weeks and hike a trail every day. There are trails as short as 0.5 miles and as long as 12 miles; not all are destination hikes, some are simply journeys unveiling a different version of fall and chances to come across bubbling creeks. You can sit on make-shift wooden log benches or stones cleared of moss and gape at the beauty around you or continue deeper into the forest to seek even more wonders.

View from Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Wildlife, I think, is smart to keep away from trafficked areas in the park and those that do venture, are often attracted by availability of easy food. Once a bear or an elk is spotted, hordes of people gather around with their smartphones pointed at the animal without any regard for safety. Thankfully park rangers are quick on the scene to prevent foolish people from getting too close. We encountered couple of black bears and elk but from a safe distance. The missus had been wary of running into them while on a trail but I’m sure such instances, given the crowds, are rare.

Farm at Cades Cove

Talking about crowds, the park at this time of the year is full of retirees toting fancy camera equipment gear; patiently setting up their tripods and clicking long exposure shots of the streams. You’ll rarely encounter families with children and even if you do, most with toddlers trying to push up a stroller on a trail. We wish them luck mentally and thank our stars that our kid prefers to walk everywhere. We haven’t used a stroller in six months. By the end of the trip, according to our pedometer app, he would walk nearly 20 miles and climb an altitude of 1,500 feet over three days. Not bad for a budding hiker. As long as he doesn’t go ‘into the wild‘, it’s good practice for a lifetime of adventures across the wonderful vistas that this country affords. Back to the old folk; it’s admirable that most are well into their 70s and even 80s but are walking up and down the trails as much as we are. Some are with grandchildren but most are with people their own age, all thanks to Medicare, I guess, that allows them the luxury of spending time and money on things other than healthcare. Also, missing are people of color. We went three days without seeing a black or Hispanic family and encountered only two Asian or Indian families. National Parks unfortunately, are still domains of white folk.

Photographers at Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Although there are only so many places you can go, every turn of the road presented a different vista and variedly so at different times of the day. It hadn’t rained a drop while we were there but the gushing streams along the Roaring Fork trail or the Lynn Camp Prong Falls road would make you think you’ve just missed a downpour. While we could easily spend more days hiking around, we had to get back to work and our lives in Austin. As we drove through the park one last time early Friday on our way toward Atlanta, we were presented with a glorious fall morning at the Newfound Gap and few minutes later at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center on the south entrance that truly caped off a great vacation. Even a herd of elk came up to the road to bid us farewell. Or they were simply welcoming the weekend visitors.

Morning at Newfound Gap in Smoky Mountains

Morning at Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Until next time. More photos for your perusal here.

Traveling to Ithaca & Upstate New York

Making a trip to New England or at least the Northeast to experience the fall colors has been on my bucket list for a long time. Living in Texas makes you completely oblivious to the fall season which lasts for about 3-4 weeks when it goes from being unbearably hot to pleasantly cool to frigid cold (no snow though). We took advantage of the fact that Ash’s sister attended Cornell University which is in Ithaca, right in central upstate New York. We were told that fall colors are brilliant and while it’s no Vermont, it promised to be a great experience. We just had to get the timing right.

I even moved up my plans for a long-overdue DSLR upgrade to Nikon D7100 just before we left on the trip. Getting away from the stifling Texas heat even as October dawned was only just below seeing fall colors. But as luck would have it, Ithaca was unseasonably warm so we almost never wore our warm coats that we packed. But warm by Ithaca standards is quite pleasant and cool by Texas standards so we were not complaining. People in Ithaca were in fact cheering the unseasonable warm weather and it helped them get out in droves for the Apple Harvest Fest.

Bridge Over Fall Colors

Triphammer Falls, Ithaca

We started off by visiting the Cornell campus that’s inconveniently located at the top of a hill so unless you’ve strong legs, it makes sense to take the bus up there. The views are definitely worth it too. ‘Ithaca is gorges’ is the official city slogan which apart from being a good pun is true. You don’t have to walk too far to see brilliant gorges that reveal layers and layers of sedimentary rocks carved by glaciers in the ice age. The second photo at the top is right in the middle of Cornell campus and my sister-in-law said, she walks by it every day without stopping to admire the sheer beauty of it. I guess, living and studying on one of the most prettiest campus can do that to you.

The campus by itself even without the fall colors is beautiful with college-catalog-type buildings. You know, the ones that you see on a typical college brochure in India but then end up landing at an urban campus in the middle of the city.

view from Cornell

Cornell Library

One of the libraries is something like Robert Landgon would run through in a hurry to find secrets of the Illuminati. Old Gothic style buildings that’ve been retrofitted to modern standards sit right next to modern architecture structures designed by Rem Koolhaas. But of course, we weren’t here to see the campus but to enjoy fall in its full glory.

To enjoy Ithaca and its surroundings, all you have to do is to drive to the umpteen state parks that surround beautiful waterfalls. Be it the majestic Taughnnock Falls or the cascading Buttermilk Falls, both offer very different landscapes that offer the best fall season has to offer. In any other place, Ithaca Falls (third photo below), mere walking distance from downtown Ithaca, would be a grand spot full of tourists but here it takes a backseat to its more impressive cousins.

Taughnnock Falls

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Ithaca Falls

Heck, even the kid who is otherwise bouncing off the walls these days took a moment to stand and stare at the beautiful colors all around him.

Enjoying the Fall colors

Walking through Ithaca in the fall is like walking through a plethora of photo moments. Armed with a brand new more-robust camera, I couldn’t help but go shutter-crazy. I’m all for enjoying the moment but I rather enjoy it and then stay a while to capture it in pixels. Even the simple walks from picturesque lakes back to the bus stop make you stop, turn around, and marvel at the colors.

Driving thru fall

Hobbit Tunnel

Fall Church

I couldn’t impress upon you the sheer number of beautiful places you see even as you drive through the countryside. I would’ve 10x more pictures if I had indeed stopped at all the places I went whoa!

Sin City

Caesar's Palace Lobby

Twelve and a half years. That’s long how it took me to visit the city that most tourists visit in their first trip to the U.S. The lure of Las Vegas never attracted me much. I don’t gamble, I don’t smoke, and I don’t even drink much so Vegas would’ve little to offer me. Well, I was partly right. As part of my new job, I travelled to Las Vegas last week for a ‘capacity building’ workshop. I say workshop, but it was a 1500-people strong conference with concurrent sessions and plenary breakfast and lunch sessions. We landed in Vegas on Super Bowl sunday so you can imagine the crowds especially in all the hotels on the strip with their Jumbotron screens and betting consoles.

Evening at Red Rock Canyon

Our conference was hosted at the Caesar’s Palace where we also stayed. Although it was not as tacky as I had envisioned it, subtlety is not the Vegas way. Huge faux Corinthian columns, Greek statues [1], and even a copy actual-size statue of David sculpted in apparently the same type of marble [2]. Luckily for me, my colleagues were not anymore enamored by Vegas so our first detour as soon as we landed was Red Rock Canyon State Park. It turned out to be a revelation with the evening light changing hues on red sandstone cliffs and wind-swept arid landscapes for miles; Las Vegas appeared on the distant horizon as a shimmering sea of lights. Perhaps we didn’t feel the way weary travelers on horseback felt after setting their eyes on a city after days of travel but nevertheless a great sight. We reluctantly headed to Vegas and two and half days of ‘workshopping’

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

I may not be the target demographic for Las Vegas since I didn’t end up gambling even one cent [3] but that doesn’t mean that there was nothing for me. Las Vegas has an embarrassingly rich array of food choices. Albeit expensive, you can’t beat Vegas for the sheer variety and exquisiteness of culinary delights; all in walking distance from any hotel you live on the strip. And this is excluding the plethora of buffet options that do not scrimp on quality. My boss treated our team one evening to a great meal at Bouchon at the Venetian; a French Bistro that is one of the three-Michelin star restaurants owned by Chef Thomas Keller. It was my first meal at a Michelin-star restaurant and with the company, it was a great experience. I had the roast leg of lamb which was good but ended up regretting not getting the steak which others raved about.

There are other sights in Las Vegas which may interest type of people like me. The fountains at Bellagio, although a cliched sight, was an audio-visual treat. I spent an evening just walking along on the strip after the rest retired to their rooms. The air was crisp and cool and much better than the smoke-filled casinos. EVen if you don’t smoke, you can come away by having smoked at least a pack of cigarettes if you just walk through the casinos. I’m told they have to pump in fresh oxygen to prevent people from passing out. You can walk around in the bright lights avoiding the people passing you little cards with discounts for peep shows. I didn’t get a chance to catch any of the shows but I have heard great things about Cirque de Soleil. Even performers like Cher, Celine Dion, and other entertainers are a treat in Vegas. Nowhere else will you get a plethora of choices for entertainment and food.

As much as I enjoyed my brief time in Vegas, perhaps I enjoyed it because it was brief. Looking at Google Maps, Vegas also seems like a perfect gateway for several state and national parks [4]; Red Rock Canyon wasn’t even on my radar before I visited. Next time, we might just fly to Vegas, enjoy a meal, catch a show, and get away as soon as possible to one of the several parks within driving distance.

Footnotes:
  1. Did you really expect Vegas architects to know their Greek from their Romans? []
  2. The one sculpted by Michelangelo []
  3. I had tried my hand at the slot machines in Atlantic City but stopped after I lost $5 []
  4. Grand Canyon is only a 3-hour drive to the east []

Our Last Vacation as a Couple

Birthplace of Texas, Independence, TX

The title sounds more ominous than it actually is. Before our baby is born in early June, we decided to take one last vacation as plenty of our friends warned us that we wouldn’t be able to take one for a while. They even referred to it as a ‘babymoon’. So we took the opportunity to plan and travel to the Hill County in Texas. Not all of Texas is flat and dry; parts of it is extremely green, hilly, and beautiful. Don’t expect the Rockies but if you live in the flatlands, you will love even the slightest geographic undulation. We booked a Bed & Breakfast (another checkmark)at Fredericksburg, a small quaint town about 90 miles southwest of Austin.

Instead of taking the highways and getting there as soon as possible, we took the scenic route through Independence, TX which apparently is the birthplace of Texas and drove along the Devil’s Edge, the one of the few scenic ‘ghat’ drives in Texas. Often, the only car on the desolate country roads only dotted with ranches, we stopped plenty of times to take pictures or just to take in the view of early spring.

Fredericksburg

Our cabin at the Chuckwagon Inn B&B was an old historic log cabin replete with Confederate memorabilia including a rusty old gun and a sword. The hot tub was separated from the bedroom with only a shower curtain and the toilet was in a small enclosure with a board ‘Outhouse’ outside the door. The swing on the porch was perfect to enjoy the plentiful breeze. The cabin however had a sordid history that Ash only read at the end of the stay lest nightmares of ghosts kept her up at night. We had our breakfast with the inn’s owners in their dining room along with other guests. It was a simple Texan breakfast with eggs, sausages, biscuits, and grits with orange juice and coffee with plenty of interesting conversation about the history of the area.

Enchanted Rock

Apart from the town which had charming storefronts and German restaurants, we visited couple of state parks nearby – Pedernales Falls and Enchanted Rock. Given how awesome state parks can be in Georgia, I had low expectations for parks in Texas. But I was very impressed with the Pedernales Falls State Park and the Enchanted Rock Natural Area; both within driving distance from Fredericksburg. Enchanted Rock is especially beautiful and is second largest batholiths (Stone Mountain, Georgia is the largest) in the U.S. The view from the top after a short hike that even children and daschunds can make, it breathtaking especially in the evening where you can watch glorious sunsets. The wind at the top can be deafening but gives you a heady feeling. It is like the Uluru of Texas.

Pedernales Falls

Pedernales Falls, on the other hand, is focused on the river and natural springs that run through its limestone rock bed and crevices. In early spring, you can see the fresh greens sprouting from the rocks and the water can look very tempting. The limestone beds at the bottom of the small pools can be seen clearly through the crystal clear waters. This river however is prone to flash flooding and can turn deadly when it rains.

We had a great and relaxing time before the baby arrives although we are pretty sure that we would be back to traveling with the baby in tow. He better learn to deal with it.

Visiting Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol

We traveled to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States or dare I say, the political power center of the world over the past weekend. I had already made a brief visit in 2004 but Ash has been wanting to go for a while. We got off the Metro to be greeted by a burning building at 13th Street and H Street that was soon swamped by fire rescue services. Not a cheery start to a vacation, I say. After realizing that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3pm, we stored our bags with the concierge and headed out to see the sights.

White House North Lawn

The White House was a stone’s throw away from our hotel although we resisted throwing any stones. The building looks smaller than you expect and generally is surrounded by non-American tourists who are kept away by the surprisingly light metal fence. We kept seeing lines of gently ambling Segway tours all across Washington and as we would realize at the end of three days, Segway is perhaps a better way to see Washington, D.C. than trying to walk everywhere. Of course, it didn’t help that we were breaking into our Nike Frees’. We spent the afternoon taking in the sights at The White House, walking past the Washington Monument, and through the World War II Memorial. We walked along the central axis of the National Mall and detoured through the Constitution Gardens to the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, past the World War I memorial gazebo before making it to the uber-crowded Lincoln Memorial. Considering that capitalism and individual ingenuity built this country, the National Mall surprisingly has lot of memorials to wars. Perhaps war and not business made this country. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We tried walking across the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial but our feet were killing us.

Reflecting Pool

The next day we browsed through the National Museums notably the ones of Natural History, the American Indian, Air & Space, American History, Art, and of course, the National Archives (last three on the next day). I say browse because it is literally impossible to see all of any museum in a short visit. I would like to spend at least one entire day in one museum and even then I’m sure I wouldn’t have seen everything. I really envy the people who live in the vicinity of the city just for the museum. The collections are fantastic and museums as architectural spaces are unparalleled.

National Mall - Capitol View

We reserved the last day for The Capitol which had a swanky new visitors center since I had last visited. Unfortunately I saw less of the Capitol this time than I had during my last visit when I was lucky enough to have seen Ted Kennedy speak in the Senate Chamber. Since it was a federal holiday, the House and the Senate Chambers were closed for visitors (why? Wouldn’t it be safer). All we could see was the Rotunda, and the old House Chamber. We weren’t even allowed out on the deck from which the view of the National Mall all the way to the Lincoln Memorial is awesome. However, the tour of the Library of Congress was fantastic thanks to our guide who made all the difference. Seeing the first printed book (The Gutenberg Bible) was an awesome experience (Nope, we weren’t shown the tweet archive). The National Archives was fascinating as well simply for the sheer importance of the historical documents it displayed. The Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution are display in original in a low-light rotunda. The documents were more faded than I thought and there is no way there is anything inscribed on the back like National Treasure would like us to believe :)

Capitol

One of the aspects we or rather Ash plans before we go out on any vacation is the research on places to eat. We are foodies and love to sample the best the city has to offer. Or at least the best we can afford. We ate at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House, the Mitsitam Cafe at the American Indian Museum, Ella’s Wood-Fired Pizza, the Good Stuff Eatery for burgers, and Haad Thai. The Old Ebbitt Grill and the Ella’s were disappointing both for the food and the service. Perhaps their name and location is what keeps them going. The Mitsitam Cafe was interesting especially the braised pork belly although it was pricey. One interesting experience was at Good Stuff Eatery where we saw Michelle Obama and her kids who came in to eat at the adjacent We, the Pizza. We hung around for a while like paparazzi to see her again and take a picture. That is as celebrity sighting I’m going to do.

Union Station

The trip to Washington, D.C. was a welcome break for us from the drudergy of routine. However, I would like to recommend either better shoes or opting for a Segway tour.

Shooting Hay While the Sun Shines

We have always seen these circular bales of hay while driving between College Station and Houston but have never stopped to take a picture. We finally stopped and captured a few shots. Fields stretching long into the distance interspersed with these bales almost like scattered randomly make for an interesting sight that this picture hardly captures.

The title is courtesy a comment by @gauravsabnis in response to the picture posted on Twitter. The photo is HDR-processed. More here.

Google LatLong: Plan a trip in one click

Why should trip planning be any more complicated than opening your browser and entering the name of your favourite city? [Source: Google LatLong: Plan a trip in one click].

Google may not exactly live up to it’s Don’t Be Evil mantra everytime but it sure churns out useful products in its labs. For travel enthusiasts, combination of Google Maps and tips on walking tours in cities is a welcome addition. Not only does it effectively crowdsource suggestions but makes it simple to access such tours with text and graphical support.

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 1.16.37 PM.png

Recently, we visited San Francisco and Ash planned out our daily itinerary complete with transit routes and places to eat at. But sometimes, the lure of walking was too strong to resist and in spite of San Francisco’s famed steep inclines, we managed to do quite a bit of walking. The cable cars although convenient can be cramped especially if you have a camera bag with a tripod attached. This walking tour of San Francisco started right on Union Square where we were staying and meanders through most of the city’s neighborhoods. Noteworthy is the fact that this suggested tour tries to minimize the climbs up the hills. We found out the hard way when we decided to trek up to Lombard Street from Ghirardelli Square. On the map, it looked like 5 blocks but the last two blocks were near-45-degree angled streets; nearly had a stroke going up. I hope as this feature gets more popular, more cities will be added. Having walked around a lot, I would love to see one for Mumbai down D.N. Road.

iPhone – Indispensable for Travel

Our recent trip to San Francisco was the first one equipped with the iPhone. We decided to get the iPhone after the towing truck guy fleeced us on our trip to Galveston. And now we can safely say that the iPhone is an indispensable part of our future travel plans. It was immensely useful during our trip and in fact, enhanced our experience. I assume this would be true of any smartphone.

San Francisco Streetscape

San Francisco is a public transit-friendly city to begin with and given its proximity to Silicon Valley, is also home to tech professionals and enthusiasts. That means, there is no dearth of apps for the iPhone. We downloaded quite a few free ones that provided basic information on maps, train & bus schedules but even if you didn’t have any apps, the basic features of the iPhone couple of web-friendly websites for the city are adequate. The iBart app gave us the exact arrival times of trains when you punched in two points in its system including the travel time. Similarly, the Next Muni website is awesome (when it works). It gives you the arrival times of the cable cars or buses on your route provided you know where you are.

The default Maps app on the iPhone is handy to figure out where you are located by activating the Current Location feature. This feature also live-tracks you as you are traveling in a bus or a cable car in order to help you figure out how far your destination is. It’s actually fun but you rather not be transfixed at your screen otherwise you are missing out on the sights as you travel and likely to be mistaken as a snob on Nob Hill. The food apps, Yelp and Urbanspoon are extremely useful in looking up places to eat near your current locations and the corresponding reviews let you avoid a potential health hazard. It also prevent you from impulsively dashing into the first place you see when in fact, the place around the corner is rated highly. We discovered Shangri-La, a Nepalese restaurant, and XOX Truffles, a coffee shop using these apps.

There were two times when we were absolutely relieved to have access to the Internet. Once was when we were checking up a bus route back to the Palace of Fine Arts from the Golden Gate Bridge. We had hiked all the way from the Marina to the Golden Gate through Crissy Field and were in no condition to walk back. The Next Muni website gave us the exact time and location of the bus that would take us back. (We highly recommend buying the 1-3 day pass if you are using public transit in San Francisco. It pays off easily since each trip is $5 if you buy individual tickets.) The second time was when our flight was canceled at the airport and the only way we found out was when Ash checked her email to get a notification from Expedia. We were quickly able to look up rental cars in Dallas to see that none were available helping us decide to postpone our flight back by a day instead of being on constant standby. We looked up a hotel nearby, called it up and asked for the shuttle service. Without the iPhone, it would’ve be virtually impossible looking up a phone on a chaotic airport on Christmas Eve.

If you have been contemplating getting a smartphone, go ahead and buy it. It is definitely worth it when you are traveling and with unreliable flight schedules, it can be your savior. Having an iPhone makes carrying a laptop redundant provided you’ve enough memory on your SD cards and get reliable 3G coverage from your provider (We didn’t have any infamous AT&T coverage issues). Other apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr help you stay in touch with your social network while you are traveling but I recommend not posting or using it too much for obvious reasons. Since I use an iPhone, I recommend it but am sure users of other smartphones have similar tales.

Chicago Times with Old Friends

I was in Chicago over this past weekend. I was meeting friends from high school (and junior college). The five of us were quite close in India and stayed in touch even though we were in different professional colleges. Of course, living in the same small town helped. And so did the fact that two among us got hitched. Amrut, a Lieutenant Commander in the Indian Navy, was coming to the U.S. (specifically Cincinnati) for training and since Kshitish lived 3 hours away in Toledo and Divya lived 5 hours away in Chicago, I was asked to fly down to Chicago over the weekend for an impromptu meetup (kids, see you don’t have to have a Twitter first to meet up). We were only missing Shilpa, Amrut’s wife who couldn’t join him since their kid had her exams…kindergarten exams…in the kindergarten that my mom owns and runs. Dude, I could’ve wrangled a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Now Chicago and I share an unique bond. I always have visited the windy city to meet people. The first time was a blogger meet and the second to meet up with an ex-roommate who had hitched up with another common grad school friend. And both times, it was in winter. The first was around Christmas and the second around Thanksgiving. Those aware will know Chicago winters to be a bitch. At least this time it was much warmer at 40F. I could even get away by not wearing gloves for ten whole minutes. I will spare you the details of our ‘joyous’ reunion except the fact that it wasn’t really that momentous. Of course, people change and so do things yet everyone expects them to be the same. But it was nice catching up and getting updated on everyone’s progress in life. Everyone is married now and three of us have kids so everyone worldview is not exactly the same but I’m guessing eventually we’ll all get there.

Since this wasn’t my first time in Chicago, I had already taken in the sights; how much ever you can in winter. And of course, we did them once again. We drove down to the Millennium Park, goofed around with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, stared in awe at Frank O’Gehry’s concert stage, and walked the Magnificent Mile. We concluded our short jaunt with spiked coffee and hot chocolate at the Signature Lounge atop the John Hancock Tower. This was the only time I could see any trace of fall colors although thanks to Chicago’s windy nature, there wasn’t much either. However, there is one thing I did different this time. I did not take my precious Nikon with me on this drive to downtown. Instead I decided to shoot photos with my iPhone. The results were not bad at all and a little tweaking in Aperture, they turned out to be not half bad. As long as there is enough natural light, the iPhone camera works pretty well. Some of the photos are shown below:

Fall Colors Millenium Park

Fall Colors at Millenium Park

Fall Leaves

Fall(en) Leaves

Lake Shore Drive

Lake Shore Drive from atop John Hancock

Travel to Titan

Interested in a once-in-a-lifetime journey to space and get paid $25,000 instead of shelling out millions for a joy ride? There is a catch – the trip is one-way.

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