Christmas 2012

After our awesome trip to Hawaii we only had a few days before Angela’s mom and grandma (and Thor) came for the Christmas holiday and we had another big week of busy craziness. Although we only had company for five days, we did a ton of stuff.

First, we went and picked up Angela’s certificate from her medical program. She finished at the end of November and did a really awesome job. I’m so proud of her!

WP_20130120_004

After that, we waited around the rest of the day for luggage to arrive which was a huge pain in the butt. I can’t imagine that United could have provided a worse experience in terms of delivery. The guy who delivered the bag parked in the middle of the parking lot and didn’t even come over and hand it to us. I had to go into his van and pull it out. It was ridiculous.

The next day we went to the Neon Museum here in Las Vegas. In summary, the neon museum is a collection of old signage and displays from various hotels, casinos and businesses from Las Vegas and the surrounding area. This was something that Angela was really looking forward to.

Unfortunately, the museum was really disappointing. Basically it was just a bunch of junk laying around a big open area. Our tour guide reminded us of Andre from The League (which was awfully lame). He even scolded me for walking a bit away to take a picture even though he had previously said that as long as stayed in eyesight we could go wherever we wanted. I was not a fan. Here’s some pictures of the stuff at the museum, though.

The day after the museum, Angela and her peeps headed to Jubilee (at Bally’s), the last remaining true showgirl show on the Las Vegas strip. It was really awesome and way better than Angela expected. Apparently, Bally’s cocktail waitresses are not trained appropriately, though, and act like huge bitches. Angela’s mom asked for water while they were gambling and the waitress blew them off completely. Angela then just stole the water off the tray. Later on, someone came up to Angela and congratulated her on doing so because the waitress wouldn’t give her water either. Angela was less angry after she got carded while gambling.

The next day was Christmas Eve and Angela made an amazing meatless dinner, a Polish family tradition. Here’s what we had:

  • Cheddar Bay Biscuits (homemade)
  • Mushroom Risotto
  • Garlic Shrimp
  • New England Beer Battered Fried Shrimp
  • Hot Crab Dip Appetizer

WP_20121224_004

WP_20121224_001

I ate so much food that night and it was all so delicious. We then opened presents and everyone got something they really liked. I got a train to go around our tree, which is something I’d definitely been looking for the last few years. Angela got an awesome Bears hoodie and pajama pants that she practically lives in now. Together we got some spices and some other stuff. We got Thor an awesome little ball that he couldn’t wait to tear into. Angela’s mom and grandma got their Christmas present, which was VIP tickets to Zarkana at Aria for Christmas Day. Everyone was super happy!

WP_20121224_006

WP_20121224_005

WP_20121229_001

train

Thor 2

On Christmas, Angela made us an amazing turkey and a bunch of delicious sides. I got to eating too fast to take many pictures, but here is one of the turkey itself. It was so good!

WP_20121225_004

Like I mentioned, the next day we went and saw Zarkana at Aria. We upgraded to the VIP seats so we could sit on couches instead of theater chairs and, in my opinion, it was well worth it. The story is that of a circus master and the acts that made up his abandoned circus. There was a crazy juggler, some dude who balanced a chick on his shoulders while claiming a ladder and a bunch of other crazy stuff. It was really awesome and well worth the visit. Here’s a pic from that night:

WP_20121225_008

After that, we pretty much just relaxed. Angela went out gambling with her mom and grandma at The M the next day (which was really nice) and the SouthPointe (which was super trashy, apparently). All in all, it was a super awesome Christmas season and I loved every minute of it.

Hawaii

Angela and I recently visited Hawaii (the big island) for our two year anniversary. In whole, it was an awesome vacation – it certainly didn’t start that way though. We were scheduled to leave Las Vegas at 12:40 AM (in the wee morning hours) but due to a series of maintenance delays, we didn’t end up taking off until a little past 3. The plane was small and cramped (it was a 767, I believe) and there wasn’t room for our carry on bag so we had to gate check it. Neither one of us could really sleep on the way over the ocean, so when we got to Honolulu to switch to our interisland flight we were already really tired. After going to get our bag from the checked luggage area (because the flight attendant who “helped” us didn’t even ask if we were making a transfer when he took our gate checked bag) we ventured over to the interisland terminal and made our way to the big island via the shortest plane ride I’ve ever been on. From there, the next seven days were awesome.

Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation

After securing our rental car (a silver Ford Mustang convertible), we set off to the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. Angela had scheduled us a VIP tour that included a tour of the plantation, an overview of the roasting operation and a chance for us to roast our own Kona coffee beans. The experience was amazing.

We met our guide shortly after arriving at the coffee plantation. He was a young-ish native Hawaiian who knew a ton about the local flora and fauna in addition to the goings on of the coffee plantation itself. The plantation itself was very unassuming.

IMG_0001

The first thing we did was walk right past a goose who had just given birth to a bunch of goslings. That was probably the most aggressive animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. Any time we got within a dozen feet of the newborn goslings cage, the goose would start stamping its feet and hissing at us.

After that, we were introduced to the plantation’s resident pig. It was a half-feral, half-domesticated hybrid and was a lot friendlier than the goose.

As we walked down towards the coffee trees, we encountered some interesting landscape features that are unique to volcanic regions. The coolest one, in my opinion, was definitely the lava tube that run under a part of the plantation. Our guide was kind enough to take our picture while we stood on top of it.

Lava Tube

Finally, we got to the coffee trees. Because Mountain Thunder is primarily an organic grower, they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer on their main coffee plantation. To make up for the absence of those things, they have donkeys and geese roam the area, eating the unwanted vegetation and promoting the growth of the plants through their droppings. As part of our tour, we got to feed these animals. The donkeys were miniature and super duper cute. The geese were really aggressive, going so far as to step on Angela’s foot (which was an especially interesting experience for her since she was wearing open sandals).

IMG_0020

IMG_0017

After the feed ran out, we learned a bit about how the coffee is harvested at Mountain Thunder. All of their coffee cherries are hand picked from the trees at the peak of their ripeness and collected into big bags of 100 pounds each. It is fairly labor-intensive and this process accounts for a lot of the extra cost of Mountain Thunder’s coffee.

IMG_0029

IMG_0025

The coffee tree is part of the gardenia family and has tiny little flowers all over it, which Angela found particularly fascinating.

We next ventured up to the coffee cherry processing facilities. The process has a bunch of steps, but Angela got good pictures of all of them. Basically what happens is as follows:

  1. The coffee cherry is checked for quality by seeing if it floats in a tank of water
  2. The cherry is stripped of its rind and fruit, leaving just the bean
  3. The bean is placed into a fermentation tank to remove it of its sugary coating
  4. The bean is removed from the fermentation tank and laid out to air dry in the sun
  5. If drying isn’t happening fast enough, the bean is placed with its batch in a large propane powered drier
  6. The beans are sorted and filtered based on quality and grade
  7. The coffee is roasted

The coolest part of the process (in my mind) was the sorting and filtering based on bean size and grade. The owner of the plantation had custom-built a ton of equipment to aid in this process and it was totally awesome. Here are some pics of the process (in order):

IMG_0040

IMG_0041

IMG_0044

IMG_0045

IMG_0046

IMG_0054

IMG_0059

IMG_0064

IMG_0067

IMG_0068

After the main part of the tour was over we ate some lunch that the coffee people procured for us from some local restaurant. It was fairly good, but I only mention it in particular because Angela got an awesome picture of a rooster next to Sriracha (rooster) sauce.

Rooster and Rooster Sauce

Finally, it was time for us to roast our own coffee. The owner of the plantation came over and walked us through the process on a small personal-sized roaster. We got the whole education about their roasting profile, why it is what it is and got to make it happen. It was a ton of fun. After we roasted the coffee, we got to bag it (which Angela was about a million times better at than I was) and take some home with us.

IMG_0076

IMG_0077

IMG_0087

IMG_0091

IMG_0093

IMG_0100

IMG_0104

IMG_0107

Overall, the Mountain Thunder VIP tour was well worth the cost. Angela and I both had a blast!

Hawaii Fairmont Orchid

After finishing up the coffee plantation tour, Angela and I finally made our way to the hotel. For this trip, we decided to stay at the Hawaii Fairmont Orchid. It was on the higher end of resorts on the island but wasn’t so expensive that it made our stay untenable. I am so glad that we decided to stay there as it was beautiful.

Hotel Lobby

Hotel Bay 4

Coconut Christmas Tree

Hotel Waterfall

Room view 2

Room view 1

We were so tired that first night that we just ordered room service. It was definitely underwhelming and something we did not partake of the rest of the time there. That was probably the only bad thing about the hotel, though.

Drive Around the Island

After a day of relaxing, we set our alarms and woke up early for a tour of the island. We hopped in our car and headed to our first destination, the Punalu’u Black Sand beach. Before we had even gone five miles, we found this tribute to Angela written in rocks.

IMG_0115

Followed by this exceedingly creepy warning sign.

IMG_0116

Anyways, back to the black sand beach. Angela found this little gem while browsing around for “off the beaten path” spots that tourists weren’t likely to see. It was, by far, the coolest little beach that I’ve ever been on. The sand grains were like little black beads. Walking across the beach just felt different than on any other beach I’d ever visited.

IMG_0136

IMG_0138

IMG_0151

IMG_0178

IMG_0169

IMG_0163

One interesting thing that happened there was some hippy tried to give me a CD of cello music. I declined but he handed me some pamphlet prompting me to accept Jesus. Nice guy.

The next step on our journey was Volcanoes National Park. As we drove there, we discovered one of the neatest things about this drive, which kind of goes along with the fact that the island is a volcano, is that the landscape outside of our windows changed completely about every half hour. It was crazy.

IMG_0133

IMG_0131

We arrived at the park the same time as a cold and windy storm, which was unfortunate. Crater Rim Drive (the road that circles the Kilauea Caldera) was closed for the most part, so we didn’t really get to see a ton. We did stop at the caldera look out point and saw a bunch of steam rising from the opening to the red-hot earth. That was pretty darn neat.

IMG_0195

IMG_0190

IMG_0197

We left the park and continued our trip around the island. Our next stop was Akaka Falls north of Hilo. It was still cold and rainy and I was kind of being a whiny little baby about it, so we waited in the car for a few minutes for the worst of the rain to pass so I wouldn’t be cold. Angela was smart enough to purchase a hooded sweatshirt at our previous stop but I had been stubborn so was just wearing a white t-shirt.

I am glad we waited, though, because the scenery at the falls was absolutely beautiful.

IMG_0262

IMG_0259

IMG_0273

IMG_0212

Here’s a cool picture of me in our rental car at the falls.

IMG_0290

After the falls we were pretty darn tired so decided to head back to the hotel across the island. On the way there, we stopped at this little coffee shop called Hilo Shark where Angela and I had the best chocolate we have ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate). If you like your chocolate super dark and delicious, I can definitely recommend ordering some.

We drove towards the north part of the island and ended up going through the town of Waimea and up into some mountains where we saw an awesome double rainbow.

IMG_0301

Finally, we made it back to the hotel. Rather than eating at the hotel, we ventured out to the local Tommy Bahama’s restaurant. It was surprisingly delicious. I had steak and Angela had ahi tuna. We ended up going back there several times.

Tommy Bahama Steak

Tommy Bahama Ahi Tuna

Macadamia Nut Factory and End of the World

The next day it was a little rainy and wet. Instead of sitting by the pool and dealing with that, we decided to go visit the local Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. They have a little glass walled production environment where you can watch everything happen and they have a ton of samples that you can try. There were a lot of different flavors, including one that Angela and I wanted no part of: Spam.

sign

Nuts

Spam nuts

After we left the factory, we decided to take a short little drive to see some different parts of the island. What started out as a short little drive turned into a several hour long venture down a “highway” that consisted of about ten one-lane bridges, crazy twisty turns around cliffs and speed limits of 15 MPH. All of a sudden, there is a sign that says “highway ends” and the road just terminates in a parking lot that looks over one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the parking lot was full and we didn’t get a chance to stop (and I had to do the tightest three point turn I’ve ever done) but here is a photo taken by someone else. This place seriously looked like something out of time.

north_coast

After turning around, we went back to Waimea and had some Kona coffee mochas before heading back to the hotel. That night we ate at one of the Fairmont Orchid’s on site restaurants, Brown’s Beach House. It was definitely overrated as the food was absurdly expensive and, quite frankly, just mediocre. We still don’t understand why Yelp was all up in arms about how great the place was.

Relaxing

The last few days at the resort we just relaxed. One of the things we did while we were relaxing was drive four miles over to the sister resort near the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Lani, and hung out there for a little bit. It was nice and there were sea turtles there, so Angela really liked it. We also found that Mountain Thunder had an affiliated coffee shop at the resort.

WP_000860

WP_000823

WP_000821

WP_000820

WP_000819

WP_000818

WP_000817

WP_000816

Also, we went to a Luau at the hotel called “The Gathering of Kings”. It was the story of the migration of people through the Polynesian islands (including Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand). There was fire twirling and tons of native foods from each of the islands profiled. Angela and I tried a bunch of new foods including a Hawaiian favorite Poi. I would not recommend it as it tasted like eating Play-Doh.

WP_000857

WP_000856

WP_000853

WP_000852

WP_000850

WP_000849

WP_000848

WP_000846

WP_000845

WP_000842

WP_000840

Finally, this was the first time I had gone on vacation without doing any kind of work in about four years, so it was really awesome to be able to just lay by the pool, read and drink milkshakes.

Nick by the pool 2

The Journey Back

Our flight back was a lot better than our flight to Hawaii as we flew on an Airbus A330 with tons of room. There was no gate-checking involved and our flight left on time. After we got back, I took some more time off to hang out with Angela and just celebrate our anniversary. We both loved our trip to Hawaii and are already looking forward to our next trip to somewhere tropical.

Brocation in Phoenix, AZ

My brother and I recently met up for a 5-day long vacation together in Phoenix, AZ. About 4 months ago, I decided it was time for us to see a major college football game. I’d never seen one (having only played at the Division III level) and my brother had only been to one before (and that was an IU-Purdue game, which isn’t usually a very fun one to watch). We talked about it a bit and then I decided to buy some tickets to the Fiesta Bowl because it had been of consistently high quality the last few years.

We ended up lucking out because the game featured the two squads we both wanted to see the most: Kansas State and Oregon. I was cheering for Kansas State because of Colin Klein, but mostly I was excited about seeing a good football game and hanging out with my brother.

WP_20130103_010

WP_20130103_011

WP_20130103_012

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Glendale, AZ. It was really nice for the price and was within walking distance of several shopping centers and the stadium. We had a good time just hanging out together, but the highlight of the visit was definitely the game. If you’ve never been to a big college football game before and you genuinely like the sport, you almost owe it to yourself to attend one. The atmosphere and pageantry were amazing. Every time one of the schools’ cheer squads stood up and rang out a cheer, the entire population supporting that team would ring back in reply. We got lucky, too, in that the view from our seats was amazing for watching the game. You could see all the action!

WP_20130103_013

We had a great time, and I think this is something I want to make a tradition. We’re still trying to decide whether to rotate bowl games or go to the same one every year, but whatever we decide, I know it will be a blast.

Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris

Angela and I decided to try something different this year for Thanksgiving. Because we were in San Francisco until the day before the holiday, neither one of us really wanted to spend time preparing a home-cooked meal. As such, we ventured out to the Las Vegas strip (which was a nightmare to drive on) and stopped at Paris to try out Gordon Ramsay Steak.

In short, the food was pretty great but not better than any other restaurant we’ve been to on the strip. It was more expensive than other high end restaurants we’ve been to down there and the atmosphere wasn’t our style. The music was way too loud and it just seemed like the place was trying too hard to be hip and/or cool. We don’t think we’d go back or recommend it to others.

Like I said, though, the food was good and we were happy with the way things tasted overall. Here’s a rundown of what we enjoyed. First, we had some small breads. We were served three different kinds, but only one of them was any good.

After that, we ordered some soup and salad. Angela had British ale onion soup while I chose to have a Caesar salad. Both tasted good.

For our entree, we decided to split the porterhouse (because that’s pretty much what we do at steakhouses now). The steak was cooked correctly and was seasoned really well. The seasoning was kept simple and allowed the steak to really shine through. Here’s some before and after pictures:

After the steak, we partook in some dessert. Angela ordered the carrot cake with cream cheese ice cream and pineapple relish. I ordered a chocolate dish that had passion fruit in it along with some ice cream. We enjoyed coffee with our dessert and it came in a French press. The coffee came with three liquor infused chocolate spoons that Angela really enjoyed. They were Amaretto, Bailey’s and Chambord.

It was definitely a nice experience to have a Thanksgiving meal where we didn’t have to clean up afterwards but, again, we wouldn’t go back or recommend this restaurant to others.

Javier’s Mexican Restaurant at Aria

The other day, Angela and I were on the strip looking for somewhere to eat lunch. We had originally planed on stopping at Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio but we accidentally walked the wrong direction and ended up not making it there by the time it closed for lunch.

As such, we made our way over towards the Aria and, as we were walking into the resort, we saw a sign for a place called Javier’s and decided to try it out.

Short version – it was delicious.

We started out (as is customary for a Mexican restaurant) with some delicious salsa and chips. They were actually quite good. You could definitely taste how fresh they were.

After taking a look at the menu, Angela settled on the lobster enchiladas. She said they were good.

I took the boring route and ordered steak fajitas. Surprisingly, they were really great. They had an interesting flavor to them and had a great little sauce.

Anyways, we would recommend Javier’s for a quick meal. It was relatively inexpensive (for the strip at least) and tasted really good. The atmosphere was definitely pleasant.

Mon Ami Gabi in Las Vegas

Last Saturday night Angela and I went to Mon Ami Gabi and enjoyed a nice dinner. I wasn’t really expecting much after learning it was a chain (and after our experience with another notable premium chain restaurant earlier this month in Ruth’s Chris) but dinner was very tasty. Special shout out to Theresa for the gift card that prompted us to visit the restaurant.

We each decided to enjoy a full three courses. Before that, however, the waitress brought out a beet slaw and some French bread. Both were quite enjoyable.

Per my usual boring self, I started off with a Caesar salad. Angela opted for the French onion soup because:

  1. She’s a sucker for French onion soup
  2. Mon Ami Gabi is a French restaurant

My Caesar had dressing that was a tad bit watery for my taste. Angela said her soup was delicious, though.

I decided to order the special, bacon wrapped filet medallions, for my entree and Angela decided on scallops. Both dishes were delicious. My steak was cooked properly to order and Angela’s scallops were done appropriately.

My steak came with a few potato wedges which were tasty, but not exceptional.

Angela’s scallops came with pureed cauliflower which must have tasted good because I didn’t get to have any.

To seal off the meal, we both ordered Americanos and shared profiteroles with ice cream. It was a nice way to cap the evening.

I can’t say I would go back (there are just too many good restaurants in town) but it was a nice place to enjoy an evening and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone staying at Paris who didn’t want to walk the strip for something else.

The Best Cupcakes in Vegas

Nick and I stumbled upon a Las Vegas gem – the Retro Bakery. The bakery is run by a husband/wife team and I think it’s really neat that one of them has been there every time we’ve gone in. It’s just a friendly little shop that specializes in amazing cupcakes (way better than any of those shoddy Cupcakery cupcakes you’ll find on the strip – ick).

As a mini-anniversary celebration, and to make sure we don’t eat cupcakes every day and weigh 400 lbs, we go get cupcakes on the 18th of the month. This month I tried the ‘Coffee and Donuts,’ a vanilla cake covered in donut glaze with coffee buttercream, and Nick had the ‘Mint Chocolate Chip,’ chocolate cake topped with green mint buttercream and mini chocolate chips.

So if you’re coming to Las Vegas, I highly recommend you give Retro Bakery cupcakes a try. They even offer delivery to the Strip – deliciously convenient!

Renaissance Festival Disappointment

Wow, the renaissance festival that we went to was awful. I think I had expectations that were totally out of line with what a renaissance fair actually is. In my mind, it was going to be a somewhat interesting and educational experience that would show off the garb and customs of cultures during the renaissance period.

What a disappointment! It seemed like a renaissance fair is just an excuse for big fat people to drink beer and wear less clothes than normal. Also, I think my friend Ben Smith said it best:

Ren fairs tend to be a horrible catch-all for people who are waaaaaaay too into their subculture.

That seems totally accurate judging from the number of furries, goths and more that I witnessed walking around.

San Diego – Day 4

Nick and I were seriously underwhelmed by the San Diego Zoo. We took some good pictures and tried to make the best of it and now we can say we’ve seen pandas for realz. I really liked the reptile house with all the neat snakes and lizards. Nick’s favorite part was the petting zoo where we took some pictures with goats. (Nick really super likes goats; almost as much as penguins.) In summation, it was a pretty expensive day to do 3 hours of nonstop cardio, but we like being active.

Some interesting animal facts:

Blue Spotted Tree Monitor – First discovered in 2002. It is only found in the Batanta Island rainforest off the coast of New Guinea. In case you couldn’t tell from what’s going on in the picture above, they are part of a successful breeding program to increase their numbers.

Angolan pythons are seldom seen in the wild. They live in the dry, rocky foothills of Angola and Namibia–areas that are remote and mostly unpopulated. Only a very few of them have been exported for scientific and educational purposes.

This two-headed California King snake would have been twins, but the embryo didn’t split all the way.