A Getaway on the Breeze

Just last week, I escaped to the North Shore for a midweek getaway. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, a magical gap in my calendar, and a new-but-old accommodation destination that had a rare vacancy. I found a friend who could make the trip with me, sent the dog to camp, and pointed the Fiat north to Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior, which are found on “Scenic 61” which is the original, lakeside version of highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. Not to be confused with Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake in north central Minnesota, these cabins were built in the 1930s on a stunning rock perch on Lake Superior. Worlds away, but yet so close.

Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior
The view from the bed at Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior.

It surprises me how close Duluth and Lake Superior are to the Twin Cities. On a clear day with a good podcast to listen to, it seems like I just left St. Paul when suddenly I’m cresting the hill from which we can first see our beautiful Great Lake. That’s a golden moment of each trip. And it’s a trip that a number of people from the Twin Cities make at least on a yearly basis, to attend Duluth-Superior Pride each Labor Day Weekend, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. A number of people who belong to this community as members or allies live in Duluth all the way up through Cook County and into Grand Marais (also called “Gay Marais”) and they make this beautiful part of our state even more welcoming.

When I travel, I tend to go until I can’t. That means I get some coffee in me, I map out the day, I go, I see, I eat, and I finally stop. It’s a getaway, but a recreational one. Having a place of respite for the rest is crucial in order to achieve some kind of balance. And our three days/two nights of getting away was going to be chock full of get up, go, and stop. After I got the green light from my friend that he could take the time and accompany me, I had an itinerary set to go in a matter of minutes. I think I’m always in a state of being ready. Just give me a reason, some time, the means, and a direction and we’ll be off and running. Three days, two nights…it’s go time.

Nicoise, New Scenic Cafe.
Nicoise, New Scenic Cafe.

And off we went. Our first destination was the only reservation I made for the entire trip: New Scenic Cafe. It’s like visiting an old friend. Knotty pine walls are warm and bright, the colors are plentiful, and the food and drink are top-notch. Chef Scott Graden’s place, complete with a blue yurt on the property, is a North Shore jewel. The choice to eat there is never one I’ll regret, but having to narrow down my choices of appetizers and entrées is always something that takes some consideration. We started with an asparagus galette, which was a large square of puff pastry that framed what looked to be a landscape painting of stalks of asparagus over gruyere with a mound of prosciutto and a sun in the sky of a split soft-boiled egg. Absolutely divine in its salty-nuttiness. I thoroughly enjoyed my sandwich, a cochinita pibil, of pork shoulder, spices, avocado, and queso fresco with buttermilk creme fraiche, but the table’s entrée of the evening was the special, the Niçoise, of seared tuna, olives, tomatoes, green beans, and a light sauce, all of which was “Perfect, perfect, perfect.”

Huckleberry Mousse, New Scenic Cafe.
Huckleberry Mousse, New Scenic Cafe.

What I didn’t expect was that dessert could possible beat the thrice-announced perfection of the entrée. But it did. When I heard that there was huckleberry mousse on the dessert menu, I had to order it. And after I tasted it, I became angry, it was so good. No, that’s not the accurate emotion for the situation, but perhaps I was upset that I’d never had it before. Or might not have it again. Regardless, there was no getting around just how pleased we were by New Scenic Cafe. Again. As usual. And, alas, it was over.

Breezy Point Cabin view
Breezy Point Cabin view

The part I didn’t mention is that I made the dinner reservation for 5:30. There’s no getting around it, that’s an early dinner time. But I had good reason behind this planning. The days are getting shorter and the sunsets are getting earlier, and there’s no way I wanted to miss the sun setting on Lake Superior from our place on its shore. So, fed and happy, it was time to “get thee to Gitche Gumee.”

Upon checking in, I was sent off to the cabin with an armload of split logs, a kit of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows for making s’mores, and plenty of kindling for building our own fire. The light was getting lower, the breeze was languid, the directions were given, and we took our place in the cabin next to the “one with the gal with the Subaru.” (I’m sure if I’d ever met her, I would have liked her.) We parked, moved into the cabin, and immediately built a fire at which I made sure to take a bunch of photos, videos, and selfies, because the setting was stunning and it needed to be shared with the world on Instagram.

Breezy Point Cabin interior
Breezy Point Cabin interior

Recently reopened in June by Odyssey Resorts, Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior have been revamped to keep the rustic charm where possible, with twists of modernity. Our cabin was the 12th of 12, on the northernmost end of the property. A “studio” cabin, it has a modern kitchenette, a king-sized bed, two lounge chairs, a fireplace, a two-person granite-topped bar table with stools as a dining area, a bathroom with a sizeable shower with subway tile walls, and not only its own deck but also its own firepit and seating area on the lawn above the lake. The decor is Pottery Barn-meets-Fair Isle and trapper blanket stripes. When lying on the bed, the windows and the cabin’s proximity to the lake make it seem like we’re on it, rather than next to it. And the sounds of the waves lapping the shore only assist and reinforce that daydream.

It was the perfect place to call home base for a few days along the lake. But, more than just a place to land, it was a location at which we could spend time. Time, being something that needs to be grabbed and hoarded and consumed wisely, is not squandered here. Any moment spent yields great returns in peaceful moments basking in the sun, feeling the breeze, smelling the water and pine needles and campfire smoke. Our nighttimes were for chatting by the fire as we watched the lake disappear into darkness. The mornings were for reading and drinking coffee, taking time to be present in this place.

Gooseberry Falls
Gooseberry Falls

But the days? The days were for going. And both of them started at Mocha Moose with a large miel, the honey-sweetened cinnamon-y latte that was obtained just across the highway from the cabins. The first day took us north to Two Harbors, where we drove through the historic district and saw the first lighthouse of the trip, followed by a quick hike at Gooseberry Falls State Park to the middle falls, accessible for free with a state park sticker on your vehicle and open at 8:30 in the morning. When given a limited amount of time, it’s prudent to skim the cream off the top and that meant a quick stop at the highlights, the next of which was Split Rock Lighthouse.

Split Rock Lighthouse
Split Rock Lighthouse

Though our actual destination for the day was Judge C.R. Magney State Park, about 20 minutes north of Grand Marais (and, therefore, 2 hours and 20 minutes north of our cabin), none of the state parks or scenic stops are terribly far off the beaten path of Highway 61, so they’re all doable on an abbreviated schedule. The one that may give you pause if you’re a person who’d like to get more bang from your buck could be Split Rock Lighthouse since, though it doesn’t require a State Park vehicle sticker, a vehicle sticker does not get you out of a $10 entry fee. We gladly paid our way to be some of the first people through the iconic and pristinely preserved landmark at 10:00, while taking a quick hike along the edge of the cliff for some photo opportunities. Climbing up into the lighthouse and seeing both the view of the lake as well as the lens and mechanism up close was something I don’t recall doing in my earlier years and is, literally, worth the price of admission.

Naniboujou Lodge Dining Room.
Naniboujou Lodge Dining Room.

Hopping in the car and heading further north, we ended up passing on some rather irresistible stops, like Tettegouche River State Park, Temperance River State Park, Palisade Head, and Cascade River State Park, but our destination egged us onward and upward. Before our afternoon of hiking, we required lunch, and I chose the perfect spot for it. Pretty much across the street from Judge C.R. Magney State Park, where we’d spend the first half of the afternoon, is Naniboujou Lodge, which had been on my list of places to go for some time. And, since going there last week, it was published in the Star Tribune that the lodge is up for sale. So, while I joked with friends about checking out real estate north of Grand Marais (I was referring to Croftville along the lake), I do not have a spare $3.295 million lying around for this healthy dose of artful history. I did have $11 for lunch, though. And it was delicious, though the dining room is the showstopper for this destination.

Naniboujou Chicken Salad.
Naniboujou Chicken Salad.

Naniboujou is the Cree god of outdoors. Opened in 1929 as an exclusive lodge, Naniboujou Lodge has been a retreat place for respite and recreation for many travelers and diners. The centerpiece of the property is the dining room, a tall and colorful space that has a 20-foot high domed ceiling, reminiscent of a canoe, and colorful Cree designs painted on the surfaces of the 20-by-80-foot room, which is crowned by a 200-ton stone fireplace, the largest in the state of Minnesota. The lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public from the third week in May through the third week in October, but is also open for special events during the winter months when renovation and preservation take priority. After taking a number of photos, we finally sat down to take a look at the menu and were delighted to have what seemed to be a bit of a throwback of a meal for lunch, suitable for such a place steeped in the olden days. We enjoyed a chicken salad, some carrot soup, a superb sandwich called Kara’s Grilled Turkey and Swiss that also featured pear and honey mustard with orange raisin bread and a side of Babe’s Bean Salad that had a stunning and subtle cumin vinaigrette. It was an absolutely delectable sandwich and a nice hearty foundation for the hardy hike ahead of us.

Kara's Grilled Turkey and Swiss with Babe's Bean Salad.
Kara’s Grilled Turkey and Swiss with Babe’s Bean Salad.

Speaking of hikes, our afternoon plan to hike in to Devil’s Kettle along the Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park was not a lofty one. My pro tip is to make sure you’ve got water as well as have visited the restroom before heading to the park because there are no such facilities there. What’s somewhere between a 2- and 2.25-mile hike to the falls and back is a bit deceptive. Sure, it’s less of a jaunt than walking around Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, but it’s all hills with very little level ground and 175 stairs to climb both up and down. Years ago, I’d gone to the park to do the same hike with friends and had just plain given up on it. So, it was my dragon to slay. Or my white whale. Or just a really challenging hike that I wasn’t going to let get the better of me this time. And I’m so glad I didn’t. As it so happens, there are plenty of people who take the jaunt up and down the stairs and the hills with questionable footing quite easily. There are also plenty of people who aren’t accustomed to being active in such a way, but are doing it anyway, and the sense of camaraderie and goodwill is pretty palpable. In the stretch that is one long and steep stairway, there are a few places to step aside and sit on benches built into the wooden stair system, thank goodness, which means pacing is key. And the payoff is not only seeing some sights that few people get to behold, but also witnessing the mystery of a waterfall whose cauldron drains somewhere only the devil knows. Kind of like a toilet flushing to nowhere. Fascinating nature. See it for yourself.

Maple BBQ Chicken Salad with Wild Rice, Angry Trout Cafe.
Maple BBQ Chicken Salad with Wild Rice, Angry Trout Cafe.

After swapping out some sweaty clothes for clean ones, we went south again and grabbed the largest cold press coffee at Java Moose before romping around Grand Marais for the rest of the afternoon. Unfortunately, we got there just after World’s Best Donuts had closed (it opens at 6:30 in the morning and closes when it sells out), so heed my usual life advice and always eat the donuts first; we should have nabbed some on our way through town the first time. But, as it so happened, our timing served us well for not only being able to take a leisurely stroll and scramble out on the rocks of Artists’ Point, but also get an early table at the Angry Trout Cafe, something which is in such demand during the summer season that I considered this feat and victory to be akin to defeating Devil’s Kettle. It was a banner afternoon, to say the least. Artists’ Point looks to be an island just past the Coast Guard station at the harbor, but it’s actually a tombolo, which is an island connected to shore via a gravel bar. Also past the Coast Guard station is a rocky route out to the Grand Marais Lighthouse, which always gives us incomparable views of both Lake Superior and the little town that is so lovely.

Seated on the deck looking out on the harbor at Angry Trout Cafe, the skies were blue and the breeze was light. The sun was shining, but not beating down upon us. The day of hikes and scrambles was catching up as I sank into my chair and just looked out at Lake Superior. We’d done enough talking so that silence was just as suiting, he with a glass of sauvignon blanc, me with a glass of maple cream (a cream soda made with maple syrup). Known for its dishes made with fish that’s pulled straight from the lake that day, the Angry Trout’s menu was brimming with options that are healthy not only for our bodies, but also for our consciences. They were also a feast for the eyes with my maple barbecue grilled chicken breast entrée that came with a side of wild rice pilaf and a colorful salad that included fresh wild blueberries, carrot and beet shreds, cheese, onions, sweet corn, and an edible flower. Luscious and gorgeous. We lingered and shared a piece of avocado cheesecake before taking the sunset trip down the shore back to Breezy Point Cabins to enjoy the rest of the evening by the fire and the lake.

We hit the hay that night, me more tired than usual, with the windows open. I thought I’d sleep like death after a day of fresh air, sunshine, activity, and food, but Lake Superior pulled one of its tricks on us and the gentle lull of waves lapping the shore turned into a dull roar as the wind picked up during the night causing water to crash against the shores, relentlessly. Wide awake, I smiled at the lake and its mischief, but refused to close the windows to the roar. After all, I sleep to the sounds of the light rail transit system at home. If I could bring the lake with me as my soundtrack instead, I would. It was just one more reason to treasure the experience of that cabin on that lake at that spot at that time. Perfect.

In the morning we checked out of our cabin after spending some time reading and basking in the early sun, the waves loudly heralding our departure. The plan was to spend half the day in Duluth before driving back to the Twin Cities. If I were to do one thing differently on this trip, it’d be to schedule a third night to have a full day in Duluth to be able to get a bit more than just a taste of that fine town. But, as it was, the taste was still sweet, no matter how short.

Savory Crepe, At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe.
Savory Crepe, At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe.

I’ve heard for some time that the place to go for excellent food, that’s not found where the rest of the tourists are, is At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe in the Chester Park Neighborhood. We were hankering for a good and wholesome brunch, and we were not disappointed. In a prime corner location with plenty of parking and both indoor and outdoor dining spaces, owners Barbara Neubert and her wife Carla Blumberg have been making people happy with their brand of “creative cuisine with a conscience” since 2002 (be sure to read up on the “conscience” aspect of their business on their website in the blog entries full of insightful thoughts about food and the times we live in). The menu is brimming with choices for people who identify as vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or omnivorous (like me) with a preference for local and ethically sourced food. I had a difficult time deciding between the sweet and savory crepes, but eventually went with the savory, filled with Canadian bacon, raclette cheese, caramelized apples, and tarragon, while my friend was quite happy with the “Hippy Farm Breakfast” of basted eggs, sautéed vegetables, garlic, monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, sliced almonds, potatoes, and toast with raspberry jam. We were fed and fortified, ready to hit the waterfront.

Duluth Park Point
Duluth’s Park Point

I take Duluth’s waterfront for granted. It was the first vacation my family ever took, my parents had to make sure my brother and I wouldn’t kill each other if they took us in a car for a trip any longer than an hour. As it just so happens, we still haven’t killed each other over 30 years later and Duluth still holds a place in my heart and memories. In the short half day that was full of sunshine and blue skies, we ventured out across the lift bridge to Park Point Beach and wandered in the sand a bit. Then, we parked the car in Canal Park and went shopping for both art and activewear at Siiviis, a smaller gallery by the same people of Sivertson Gallery in Grand Marais, and the Duluth Pack retail store, a place that is so very Minnesota. Canal Park and its walkability makes for easy decisions and destinations. We just follow our feet and suddenly we’re at one of the lighthouses or in the Dewitt-Seitz building ordering sandwiches to go from Northern Waters Smokehaus. And, just before we left town, we made sure to hit Vikre Distillery when it opened at 2:00 p.m.

Vikre Distillery
Vikre Distillery

I’m not sure if we appeared a bit sad or just plain dedicated to be waiting on the sidewalk for a distillery to open; I’m not sure if I care, either. We were glad to walk into the historic building holding Vikre Distillery which has been refurbed for making and tasting spirits that are crafted from our northern surroundings. Cedar, juniper, and other botanicals from the watershed give the spirits their flavors. As said so poetically, Vikre is all about “a town still hiding rumrunners tunnels from prohibition. A lake so compelling that people tattoo its outline on their bodies. A Norwegian girl who dreams in flavors. And an American boy who can distill dreams into reality.” We bellied up to the bar, got friendly with the bartender, Ellen, and learned and tasted all we could about the various offerings of the distillery, from a meat and cheese plate that included caramelized caraway sweets to a flight of Boreal Gin for him to a lingonberry-lime soda for me. It was a shame we couldn’t stay for the daily tour at 5:30, but a flight of booze and some witty repartee was the most fitting way to end our flying trip to see our Great Lake and I give Vikre thanks for that.

Then, as quickly as we got to the North Shore, we were back in the Twin Cities. I dropped off my friend, picked up my dog, and sat in my loft on the light rail line thinking about the trip as I scarfed down a Big Dipper sandwich from Northern Waters Smokehaus, trying to extend the mini-vacation a little longer. As I savored the unctuous handheld porketta feast, I thought about the last 56 hours. These are the times when I want to repeat an experience like the one I just had. Immediately. For the rest of my life. I get an urge to own. And, if all my stars aligned, I actually could own a piece of Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior through the concept of “fractional ownership.” Or, do what is more accessible to more people and rent it. However it happens, I plan to be back for a longer stay. That’s for sure. And I can’t wait for the next “go time.”


Credits:

Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior
www.breezyonsuperior.com

New Scenic Cafe
www.newsceniccafe.com

Gooseberry Falls State Park
www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/gooseberry_falls

Split Rock Lighthouse
sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/split-rock-lighthouse

Naniboujou Lodge
www.naniboujou.com

Devil’s Kettle at Judge C.R. Magney State Park
www.northshorevisitor.com/attractions/state-parks/judge-magney

Grand Marais
www.visitcookcounty.com/communities/grand-marais

Angry Trout Cafe
www.angrytroutcafe.com

At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe
www.astccc.net

Duluth – Canal Park, Park Point Beach
www.visitduluth.com

Northern Waters Smokehaus
www.northernwaterssmokehaus.com

Vikre Distillery
www.vikredistillery.com

Kansas City: The Heart of America

Kansas City. Known as the Heart of America, I’ll always think of love and marriage when I think of my time spent there. I was anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court of the United States to rule on the topic of same-sex marriage while I was visiting Kansas City in June of 2015, just before coming back to Minneapolis for our own Twin Cities Pride celebration. Such a lens of love colored my view of the place in a romantic, rose-tinted hue. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway or midwest honeymoon, consider Kansas City, Missouri. Here’s a weekender package to put into your planner.

The Raphael Hotel. Photo by Andy Lien
The Raphael Hotel. Photo by Andy Lien

It’s often referred to as the City of Fountains, as it is home to more fountains than other city in the world, except for Rome. The history is deep and the culture is diverse. And while many different interests can be piqued in KC, from sports to barbecue to war to family-friendly attractions, I think back on my time spent there that was framed by art, parks, food, community, music, and architecture, which would all have plenty to do with how I’d choose to spend a romantic getaway or honeymoon of my own. What I found was a bit of opulence and grandeur grounded in modern-day trends and amenities.

No place was this more obvious than my hotel, The Raphael. Originally constructed in 1917, The Raphael Hotel is Kansas City’s best-known example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture. The Raphael features 126 guest rooms and suites with amenities and comforts designed for the modern luxury traveler. My suite was where I retreated at night in a three-room space which rivaled the square footage of my loft in St. Paul. The mornings were light and bright as I padded through the suite in my white terrycloth robe and slippers, sipping local coffee from The Roasterie before going for the chef’s special dish at the hotel’s restaurant, Chaz on the Plaza: Lobster Benedict with fried green tomatoes and caviar. It’s the perfect setup for a day of shopping and art. 

The Plaza in the evening, perfect for a stroll hand-in-hand. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
The Plaza in the evening, perfect for a stroll hand-in-hand. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
Day 1 – Thursday – Fine Arts

Kansas City is a particularly navigable city to drive and walk, with pockets and neighborhoods that make for easy activity planning. Out the front door of The Raphael is a picturesque view of Country Club Plaza, just across Ward Parkway and Brush Creek. Country Club Plaza, also referred to as The Plaza, has been called the “Rodeo Drive of the Midwest” and is a Spanish-inspired shopping district with a number of fountains and statues, restaurants, and close proximity to both the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

At the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, you will find works by modern and contemporary artists from around the world. The Kemper opened in 1994 and its permanent collection is rotated year-round to give people an opportunity to see “what’s new” at the Kemper at various times during the year. The museum is free and easily locatable by the giant “Spider” sculpture by Louise Bourgeois at its entrance, with works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Andrew Wyeth, Fairfield Porter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Robert Mapplethorpe as part of the permanent collection. It’s a small but mighty museum that also holds an award-winning restaurant, Café Sebastienne, which comes highly (let me say highly again) recommended for lunch before progressing to an afternoon of art at the Nelson-Atkins.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the United States, and currently maintains collections of more than 35,000 works of art. While I was there, I toured the current exhibits and left plenty of time to see the 22-acre sculpture garden.The lawn of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art resembles a badminton court with 18-foot tall sculptures, titled “Shuttlecocks.”

For a fun relationship challenge and a nod to our dearly departed David Bowie, wander down the lawn to the “Glass Labyrinth” by Robert Morris. The difficulty is in being able to see through it, but not be able to walk through it. Find each other. Kiss in the middle. Wander back out, hand in hand.

The "Spider" at the entrance of the Kemper. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
The “Spider” at the entrance of the Kemper. Photo courtesy of Visit KC

After a day of fine art, enjoy an evening of seafood and take a stroll along Brush Creek near The Raphael; a winding waterway surrounded by lush greenery, with gondolas to rent for an additional air of romance. Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar is a quick jaunt away from the hotel and serves up some fresh and sustainable seafood for a landlocked city. The fried calamari was light and accented by a dollop of lime aioli. The blue crab cakes were grilled and served with a light lemon sauce. I slurped down an oyster which, in coastless Missouri, was not necessarily part of the local fare, but what topped it was Missouri Hackleback caviar. I enjoyed an entrée of heritage bone-in pork loin from local Missouri vendors after which I devoured a dessert of a decadent dark chocolate s’mores torte accompanied by Jax ‘Flying Fish’ Blend Coffee by The Roasterie of Kansas City. A lovely end to a day of decadence.

Day 2 – Friday – Community and Culture

Kansas City is a place where minority culture and community flourished and I invite you to partake in some of its greatness. The 18th & Vine historic district was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1800s–1960s. It was the hub of activity for homeowners, business, jazz music, and baseball enthusiasts, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. At 18th & Vine, the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are housed in the same building, connected by a gathering space and small theater that plays an introductory film about the 18th & Vine neighborhood. Please watch the film. As I sat there, watching and learning about how the black community in the area formed its own community with its own rules and mores and culture within the larger context of Kansas City and the United States during a time when racism was the rule, I felt a great sense of pride on their behalf, not dissimilar to how I feel when reading about GLBT history. It expanded my empathy and interest in this place and these people with a very remarkable history that I gleaned as I toured the other two museums.

The American Jazz Museum is an interactive and attractive experience that makes my heart beat faster. Whether it’s a flashy dress worn by Ella Fitzgerald or Charlie Parker artwork or President Clinton’s sax or one of the many listening stations, I was enchanted at every turn. The spaces in the museum are designed with jazz instruments in mind and the educational opportunities include being able to build your own jazz song by changing the drum beats or guitar sounds at the touch of a button on a mixing board. Artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet can be visited and revered. Also deserving of reverence is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Founded in 1990, the museum is dedicated to preserving the rich history of African American baseball. The first professional Negro Leagues were founded in Kansas City in 1920, just two blocks from the museum. The tour, exhibits, photos, sculptures, and artifacts chronicle the history and heroes of the Negro Leagues from their founding after the Civil War to their demise in the 1960s. The appearance — and disappearance — of the leagues are significant to our history, both as Americans and as members of minority groups in America.

The Cubano with pork belly at Ophelia's. Might have been the "best bite" of the trip. Photo by Andy Lien
The Cubano with pork belly at Ophelia’s. Might have been the “best bite” of the trip. Photo by Andy Lien

For food options in the area, I present three very different options that also speak to community and culture in Kansas City. Just down the street in the 18th & Vine neighborhood is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue. Kansas City is known for barbecue and barbecue is known by Arthur Bryant. Grab your lunch there and get busy with the barbecue.

Your evening dining options can be paired with what you choose to do with your nightlife. At some point, a trip to the Crossroads Arts District is in order, and I recommend Affäre, a contemporary German restaurant using all natural, farm fresh, seasonal food, and supporting local producers as much as possible. The menu is both surprising and comforting. I ate octopus bacon. And liked it just fine. There was a light, delectable tomato bisque with fennel and house-made cheese cracker. My entrée was a humble sandwich with a nice tang: German sausage burger topped with cheese, sauerkraut, and Düsseldorf mustard. I was fortified and ready for some gallery hopping.

Home to more than 400 local artists and 100 independent studios, the Crossroads Arts District is one of the most concentrated gallery districts in the nation. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the “First Friday” of the month, be sure to go there in the evening during their monthly open gallery event. One of my favorite letterpress studios (I buy their goods at I Like You in Minneapolis) is Hammerpress, and going to their store made something of a fangirl out of me. Nearby is gay-owned Mid Coast Modern where the modern, handmade movement also reigns supreme with design-centric goods to buy from decor to apparel to Kansas City mementos. I love finding the local-made wares wherever I travel. Then, close the evening with some jazz within the red velvety walls of the Green Lady Lounge…the drinks and ambiance make for a sultry end to a day that filled the senses.

After dining at Cleaver & Cork, a stroll in the Power & Lights District is swoonworthy. Photo by Andy Lien
After dining at Cleaver & Cork, a stroll in the Power & Lights District is swoonworthy. Photo by Andy Lien

If you’d like a night on the town in the Power & Lights District, I’d steer you to Cleaver & Cork, one of the newest restaurants to come to downtown Kansas City, which is a gourmet, butcher-driven gastropub featuring Midwestern-influenced offerings. I devoured a beautiful braised pork jowl with jalapeño and fried grits cake. My entrée was the most luscious smoked ribeye with potatoes and asparagus. After dining, go ahead and explore the $850 million Power & Light District, which is the largest new development project in the Midwest and features eight blocks of dining, nightlife, and entertainment venues. And check out the gay nightlife at any of the handful of gay bars: Sidekicks Saloon, Missy B’s, Sidestreets Bar, and Buddies. For more information, go to Camp Kansas City at www.campkc.com.

Day 3 – Saturday – History, from Frontier to Fancy

There are a couple different day trip options for Saturday, depending on what strikes your fancy. About an hour north of Kansas City is St. Joseph, on the way to which we stopped and took the North KC and St. Joseph Harley Davidson factory tour. St. Joseph not only has the Jesse James Home Museum (where they’re almost 100 percent certain the outlaw was killed…there’s a sign that says “SEE THE BULLET HOLE”), but it’s also where the Pony Express Museum can be toured. Starting at the Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph, the Pony Express riders, with their saddlebags, traveled 2,000 miles west to Sacramento, California. If you’re like me and watched the deliciously awful Young Riders show as a kid (which may have been my first exposure to a primetime character cross-dressing as Louise turned into Lou to be a rider for the Pony Express) or are just fascinated by that short time in our country’s communications history, it’s a museum that is worth the visit.

Badminton, anyone? We can play a couples tournament at the Nelson-Atkins. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
Badminton, anyone? We can play a couples tournament at the Nelson-Atkins. Photo courtesy of Visit KC

Just east of Kansas City is the town and day trip I’d likely choose for a romantic day with my beloved: Independence. Not that I find President Harry S. Truman to be particularly swoonworthy (his home, the courthouse, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum are open for touring and very interesting for a glimpse into Missouri’s presidential past), but Independence is a town of many attractions for couples looking for a day of hand-holding and history. Start with a mule-drawn wagon tour via Pioneer Trails Adventures that begins at Independence Square and get a narrated history of the town as you clip-clop along its streets. After the fun and funny ride, grab lunch at Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn, which offers an infusion of cultural flavors in an eclectic American menu. I had a light salad followed by a ridiculously good Cuban sandwich with pork belly, which may have earned my “Best Bite Award” of the trip, no lie. I would have stayed for dessert if there hadn’t been history to be had across the street: President Truman worked at Clinton’s Soda Fountain as a lad, so I did my patriotic duty and had myself an ice cream cone. ‘Atta girl.

While romance may not be apparent while touring Independence Square and the town’s historic jail, what is sure to be fraught with drama and heartbreak is the visit to the National Frontier Trails Museum. Not only does the Trails Museum tell the story of the exploration, acquisition, and settlement of the American West, the interpretive exhibits guide visitors along the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails. Quotations from trail diaries are extensively used, allowing pioneer travelers to tell of their experiences in their own words. Adding my own tale to the mix, I would definitely check in on Facebook from the start of the Oregon Trail saying that the love of my life had died of dysentery. What’s more romantic than a white-lying virtual widow?

Okay, that’s not that romantic. But I’ll tell you what is: the Vaile Mansion. Independence has a number of lovely homes and estates (another tour-worthy visit is the Bingham Waggoner Estate); the Vaile Mansion is the crown jewel of the town. Built in 1881, the Vaile stands as one of the nation’s premiere examples of Second Empire Victorian architecture. It has been featured on A&E’s America’s Castles, and on HGTV’s Christmas Across America. The home has had a number of owners and uses, but its current state of elegance is due to a labor of love and money. The tour guides dressed as maids will explain all of the luscious architectural details as well as a few of the lascivious historical details such as how the erotic painting above the bed in the husband’s room got the wife ostracized by the women of Independence because she allowed it to exist. What’d I say? ROMANCE.

Kansas City A dark chocolate S'Mores Torte is the way to my heart at Jax. Photo by Andy Lien
Kansas City A dark chocolate S’Mores Torte is the way to my heart at Jax. Photo by Andy Lien

Return to Kansas City, get gussied up, and end your day with fine dining at Pierpont’s at Union Station. Built in 1914, Union Station fell to the same state of underuse and disrepair as St. Paul’s Union Depot, and also saw a similar revival and renovation, which was completed in grand fashion in 1999. Within Union Station, Pierpont’s has been called the “culinary jewel” of Kansas City, with food and service as memorable as the historic setting. Named for railroad baron J.P. (Pierpont) Morgan, Pierpont’s turn-of-the-century decor provides an elegant backdrop to casual, yet elegant dining. The aged steaks are not to be missed and the bartenders sling drinks from a sexy 30-foot-tall mahogany bar. Go back to the hotel happy and fat after a day of history and food.

Whenever you take a trip to Kansas City, whether for romance or not, explore and enjoy what it has to offer as the Heart of the Midwest. Find out more information at www.visitkc.com and www.visitmo.com.


Resources:

The Raphael
www.raphaelkc.com

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
www.kemperart.org

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
www.nelson-atkins.org

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
www.jaxfishhouse.com/kansas-city

18th & Vine Jazz District
www.kcjazzdistrict.org

American Jazz Museum
www.americanjazzmuseum.org

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
www.nlbm.com

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue
www.arthurbryantsbbq.com

Crossroads Arts District
Affäre
www.affarekc.com

Mid-America Arts Alliance
www.maaa.org

Hammerpress
www.hammerpress.net

Mid Coast Modern
www.squareup.com/market/midcoastmodernkc

Green Lady Lounge
www.greenladylounge.com

Cleaver & Cork
www.cleaverandcork.com

Pony Express National Museum
www.ponyexpressjessejames.com

Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn
www.opheliasind.com

Vaile Mansion
www.vailemansion.org

Pierpont’s at Union Station
www.pierponts.com
www.unionstation.org

Weddings: A Superior Wedding, a Great Lake, a Good Story

The view from the balcony at Eagle Ridge, coffee in hand. Photo by Craig Bares
The view from the balcony at Eagle Ridge, coffee in hand. Photo by Craig Bares

I can imagine the last morning of life as a single person. I’m drinking a cup of coffee on a private balcony, both on a mountain and overlooking a mountain, a great blue lake is in the distance. I can’t see across it. It’s as expansive as my future with my beloved. I would be getting married on Moose Mountain on Lake Superior, in front of friends and family, surrounded by beauty, gazing at beauty, being a part of the beauty.

The Lutsen Mountains are along the North Shore of Lake Superior, north of Duluth but south of Canada. Not only is there our Great Lake that is just so enchanting, but our flat state seems to rise to meet it, with the tallest mountains in the Midwest. We come here regularly. We hike the trails, we’ve made breakfasts and lunches and elaborate dinners in these rental condos at Eagle Ridge Resort. We love live music, we’ve seen some of our favorites on this mountain through the years. We’ve taken the Mountain Tram to the Summit Chalet and the sky has dumped fat snowflakes on us, obscuring our view of the surrounding mountains and trees. We’ve fallen on our asses and laughed them off. We love it here.

Even though we’re so familiar with everything here, it still feels like a destination. It will always be a destination. And this is our destination wedding.

When the Lutsen area isn’t the winter playpen for skiers and snowboarders, it’s an idyll of wildflowers, trees, and waterfalls. Our guests will enjoy seeing the mountains on what is ironically an off-season, though it’s gorgeous and lush, a spectacle of nature. Many of them will take advantage of the discounted package rates at Eagle Ridge Resort, some will camp, some will stay further away, on their own adventures. I hope they all get a good dose of the State Parks or art galleries or water views, whatever passes their fancies. Grand Marais is so close, as are so many parks and waterfalls, that it’s hard not to jest about playing hooky from our own wedding. Even if they’re just there for the day of the event, our guests will be treated to views from the Mountain Tram gondola ride to the top of Moose Mountain, ones that I am frankly quite surprised to see in Minnesota.

As we’ve been planning this grand event, we’ll learn much about having a wedding on a mountain. When we wonder how we’ll get our elders up the mountain, our guides at Summit Chalet ease our nerves by telling us a van can take our precious cargo up and down, rather than the Mountain Tram. Like our contacts at the Chalet, our vendors know the ropes as they’ve done many weddings here before ours; they know the mountain, they know the spaces, they know the views and how they fit into the setting. We’ll import our photographer, some musicians, and decorations; the rest will come from the vendor list.

Minnesota chic. A little rustic pomp and circumstance goes a long way with me at the lovely Summit Chalet. Photo by LaCoursiere Photography.
Minnesota chic. A little rustic pomp and circumstance goes a long way with me at the lovely Summit Chalet. Photo by LaCoursiere Photography.

We tasted delicious menu items and went with the Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper Crusted Prime Rib and you’ll laugh when I request an end because you know I like it well done. Our guests will also enjoy the Ginger and Maple Honey-Glazed Pork with Honeycrisp Apples because it’ll match the season of our nuptials, autumn, when the air is getting crisp and the flavors are deepening. If the coin flip had fallen differently, our choice would have been the Swedish Meatballs. Just because. Our gluten-free and vegetarian friends will be thrilled with the options of salads and sides, we made sure to choose plenty for their palates. The kids have their picks, the bar will be stocked, and we know I’ll be happy with unlimited Caribou Coffee, because I always am. It’s all very Minnesota. It’s all very us.

Photo by Emily Steffen
View of Summit Chalet from the mountainside of wildflowers. Photo by Emily Steffen

You had some very well-reasoned doubts. You know we’re not spring chickens. You wondered if we should elope. We checked; we could. Our friends at Summit Chalet can work a little magic if we’d wanted a small ceremony at the top of some of the meadowland ski runs or a really intimate, barely noticeable foursome ceremony elsewhere on the grounds. It was a fleeting thought, and you know that we both wanted our love more publicly displayed. We wanted to shout our vows from the mountaintop. We want the world to hear, to see, to witness. Microphones, music, dance, celebration. We want at least a little pomp and circumstance. Rustic pomp and circumstance. And then we’ll toast and dine and end the reception with a firepit on the deck, under the stars, on a mountain, within view of our lake in the dark.

The night before the wedding, we had the rehearsal dinner at Papa Charlie’s, in a private dining area upstairs, away from some of the hubbub, but still within reach of it. A rehearsal dinner likes a little hubbub, particularly after the rehearsal, itself, up on the mountain. There might be some nerves to mitigate. Papa Charlie’s had music, pool, darts, and plenty of food and drink to keep our bellies full. We needed to blow off some steam, and then we needed to wander back down the hill to our condos to get a good night of sleep; something that is easy to do on a quiet ski mountain in the summer. We’ll be together again on our wedding night, but that night before, we sleep alone.

Our mountainside retreat; the one-bedroom executive condo at Eagle Ridge. Photo by Craig Bares
Our mountainside retreat; the one-bedroom executive condo at Eagle Ridge. Photo by Craig Bares

I hope someone brings you coffee as you sit on your balcony, separate from me, the morning of our wedding, because that’s my job for the rest of my life with you. I hope you eat enough so the nerves don’t get the best of you, we stocked your condo’s fridge to stave off the hangries. I hope you don’t worry about your vows because nothing you say to me will be wrong; it will be just right, just as we are. I hope that you take a morning hike and get to clear your head like you like to, because you’re in the perfect place for it.

I can’t wait to see you at the top of this mountain, in front of all of our loved ones, between me and the lake and sky. We’ll walk toward each other, toward the ledge, toward our future: a great expanse.

Our wedding ceremony with a view. Photo by Athena Pelton
Our wedding ceremony with a view. Photo by Athena Pelton

Weddings at Summit Chalet at Lutsen Mountains:

  • Moutaintop location with 100-mile view of mountains and Lake Superior
  • Ceremony is outdoors, with indoor cocktail hour, reception dinner, and dance for up to 165 guests
  • Price includes round-trip Mountain Tram gondola ride to the summit of Moose Mountain
  • Food is prepared by Summit Chalet, other vendors are negotiable
  • Group bookings at Eagle Ridge Resort at base of the mountain earn discount at Summit Chalet
  • A Group Coordinator from Summit Chalet is included in the booking to assist in the details of your wedding on the mountain
  • Papa Charlie’s is available for rehearsal dinners as well as parties after your reception

For more information, go to www.eagleridgeatlutsen.com/experience/weddings.


Note: this is a fictional account, based upon multiple visits to the locale; the writer is not getting married, so please don’t tell her mother.

How to Do Orlando Without Kids or Disney

Gatorland's inhabitants sunning. Photo by Andy Lien
Gatorland’s inhabitants sunning. Photo by Andy Lien

When thinking of how common experiences lend themselves to common desires, travel is no exception. For those of us who don’t have kids, respite often comes in childless packages. So, when I got the opportunity to travel to Orlando with some college friends, I got it into my head that I wanted to avoid kids and Disney, two of the most prominent features of that area of Florida. Nothing against kids or Disney, I like them both, but this was a challenge! An adventure! And I was up for it.

Hit the Adult-Oriented Tourist Traps

I rarely do the commercially tourist stuff, so when I looked at the attractions Orlando has to offer, the ones that are based on more adult themes were where I wanted to aim. I don’t know about you, but Florida leads me to envision Horatio Caine from CSI: Miami. While I can’t go find David Caruso whilst cavorting around Orlando, I can actually be him at CSI: The Experience. Suit up as either a vest-wearing detective or a white-coat wearing scientist and deconstruct the crime scenes at this attraction. There are three murders, three different crimes to solve, using multiple different high-tech tools as employed on the television show. While some of the clues and deductions were a little elementary, it was a learning experience and teamwork opportunity for both my friend and me. Beware, we’re talking autopsies and trashy back alleys, nothing for kids there.

Do you remember a time before shows about crime scene investigators? When things weren’t nearly as graphic as today? We couldn’t just turn on the television and see the gruesomely gory or the generally grotesque, we had to find it on our own. Which I did. I usually aimed for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! for my doses of shock and awe. I’m guessing that there’s an age group out there for which the body anomalies and abnormalities might not be intriguing or interesting, but I’m definitely still in the walk-around-with-my-mouth-agape camp. The Odditorium in Orlando has your shrunken heads, your pierced people, and over 600 more exhibits and artifacts in 10,000 square feet. Something that particularly struck my fancy was one boot of a set of galoshes for cows. Not everything was grotesque, but everything was fascinating.

The Heart of the Ocean at TITANIC The Experience. Photo by Andy Lien
The Heart of the Ocean at TITANIC The Experience. Photo by Andy Lien

TITANIC The Experience is something for the movie fanatic and history buff, both. Guests are given a ticket to board the Titanic, each with a different name and identity of someone who was on that ill-fated voyage. We’re introduced to our tour guide, a member of the crew in costume, and taken through the unsinkable vessel that met a tragic end so many years ago. Artifacts from the R.M.S. Titanic are juxtaposed with specific noteworthy areas of the ship that were relevant to both the luxury experience and the failure of the vessel, such as the Promenade Deck. Of course, what floated my boat was being able to have my photograph taken on the Grand Staircase, where Rose descended to Jack, mixing fantasy with reality. Likewise, the gift shop has dishes and other items that border on props, depending on how you view them, but I chose not to split hairs. I wouldn’t turn down The Heart of the Ocean necklace, whether procured from a fictional safe in a movie or a gift shop in Florida.

Since all of these attractions are located on International Drive, we were able to scope them out as we drove. One that was particularly eye-catching was Wonderworks, since it was upside-down. Within are over 100 interactive exhibits that test things like dexterity, cognition, reflex, wind-resilience, and motion-sickness…it’s like a science museum meets an arcade. I dipped my hand in the water that was the same temperature as what the Titanic sank in, my friend tested out the Bed of Nails, and I landed the Space Shuttle Discovery. Additionally, there was a rope course, Lazer-Tag, and a 4D Theater in which we “rode” a haunted mine ride. We followed up our trip to Wonderworks with The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show starring Tony Brent. Voted to be “Orlando’s Funniest Dinner Show,” you can enjoy all-you-can-consume salad, pizza, beer, and wine with about 125 of your closest friends while being entertained by a mixture of amazing magic, impersonations, and high-energy improvisational comedy. We laughed. We enjoyed the people who shared our table and our food. We were entertained, to say the least in this casual, fun-filled setting.

Costume piece from Madonna's Like A Virgin music video. Photo by Andy Lien
Costume piece from Madonna’s Like A Virgin music video. Photo by Andy Lien

In an effort to find a more nighttime activity that didn’t involve heavy drinking or too much neon, I booked us tickets at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows. Dinner and a show? Count us in. I won’t say that we were the youngest, but, actually, we might have been the youngest. Here’s the deal, though, people love showing the ropes to the youngest in the crowd and we were newbies to the whole mystery dinner show concept. At the “head” of our round table, an older gent told us the rules of the game. We’d eat a little, be introduced to the characters, eat a little more, see the drama unfold, eat some more, and have to come up with the “whodunnit” to solve the mystery…all before we finished our dessert. The drinks were bottomless, our shaman guide was resolute, the acting was funny, and my lasagna was delicious. The biggest rule of the night was to TRUST NO ONE. Except our guide. He’d been to so many of the shows before (and won a number of them) that each time he told us a new tale, his proverbial fish got bigger. And we ate it right up.

Gatorland. Photo by Andy Lien
Gatorland. Photo by Andy Lien
Get Outside

Want to get in on some ‘gator action? There are two great options for accessing alligators, one closer to the rest of Orlando than the other. Gatorland reminds me of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park. There’s a big, cartoony alligator mouth that forms the entrance and everything within has a hint of hokey. There are shows and photo ops for everyone, and plenty of gators for the viewing. There’s even the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line for those who are taller than 37” and dare to fly above Gatorland on a cable. It can get pretty packed and chaotic, but those facts shouldn’t keep you from going; everything is well-organized and there’s plenty of gators to go around. Kids are unavoidable, but not central to the attraction.

If you’re looking for an adventure that’s a bit farther out of town (there isn’t much of “civilization” in sight), make the drive out to Wild Florida Airboats & Wildlife Park. This was a highlight of my trip as I was bent on getting to ride an airboat like in that aforementioned show I can’t stop talking about.Wild Florida was less crowded and a bit more sophisticated; something that I appreciated, having traveled without children. There were spacious areas for different types of wildlife, including a large number of “rescue” gators…the ones that might have been flushed or been discovered to be problem guests in gated communities. I made friends with a touchy parrot and had the ride of my life on an airboat for nearly an hour. I kept thinking of how it was located on such a great lake for swimming (how Minnesotan can I get?) until I was repeatedly reminded of the alligators within. So, I may not want to bring a gator home with me, but I do want an airboat for up at my cabin.

Seuss-like garden delights at Bok Tower Gardens. Photo by Andy Lien
Seuss-like garden delights at Bok Tower Gardens. Photo by Andy Lien

There’s something about garden tours and carillons that just doesn’t scream “CHILDREN.” Bok Tower Gardens is meandering garden in Lake Wales designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. a couple of hours from Orlando, if you drive slowly. The founder of Bok Tower Gardens, Edward W. Bok, was a highly successful publisher, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, respected humanitarian, and an advocate of world peace and the environment. What he left for the rest of us to enjoy are almost 50 acres of a contemplative and informal woodland setting offering a series of romantic recesses and tranquil resting spots, picturesque vistas and breathtaking views, as well as a bird sanctuary, reflection pool, and the Singing Tower. The Singing Tower is a 205-foot neo-Gothic pink stone tower that houses a 60-bell carillon. Strolling the gardens during one of the two daily carillon concerts is a guaranteed afternoon of serenity.

On my life’s Bucket List is a hot-air balloon ride. Bob’s Balloon Rides did not disappoint. We woke up in the wee hours of the morning and rode out to the country with a bunch of other vans hauling trailers and tourists; like storm-chasers, the balloon pros know where to go. We assisted in launching our balloons and suddenly found ourselves up in the air with the only instruction being to listen when it was time to land and not touch anything we’re not supposed to. I followed directions and managed to not even throw my iPhone off the side, which is something that you’d expect would happen fairly frequently. We soared over swamps and marshes; the air turned a fragrant citrus scent when we were over an orange grove, and we landed without mishap in a pasture of cows. Our tour ended at a fruit stand at which we could buy some oranges to go, but our morning’s adventure ended with a champagne brunch back in town. It was full of incomparable sights and soaring, all with a knowledgeable and personable crew with Bob’s Balloon Rides.

Beyonce artwork made of candy. Photo by Andy Lien
Beyonce artwork made of candy. Photo by Andy Lien
Rent a Car

Unfortunately, we couldn’t ride around Orlando by airboat or hot air balloon all week, so I’d recommend renting a car. This was my first trip to Orlando and I kept trying to strategize using public transportation or taxis…but the economical and easy answer was a weekly rental. For what it would have cost for a taxi ride from the airport to our resort and back, we got a zippy little Chevy for three people for seven days. No brainer. The parking was easy, which I didn’t expect to be the case. If you’d like, you can ride a circulator trolley on International Drive called I-Ride, but when most of the attractions (listed in the Adult-Oriented Tourist Traps above) on this list have their own parking lots, it seems odd to take a trolley. Did I mention the part about a car being a little self-regulated civilization? Yes. With your own mode of transportation, nobody gets in without your consent and that includes people under the age of 36, in our case.

For more information about any of these attractions, go to www.visitorlando.com.

Nouveau Vegas

I recently went on a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas. It was all gay, all the time. We packed our nights with a number of gay bucket list items: Chelsea Handler at The Chelsea, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; the Chippendales at Rio Las Vegas; and the diva herself, Celine Dion, at The Colosseum, Caesars Palace. Or, you can do like we did, and mix your dining with your entertainment at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where, whilst listening to the most delightful music, I was ruined forever because I will never taste such wonderful beef stroganoff as I did at that meal. Each day was spent exploring and learning about what is new in Las Vegas, as well as what’s been renewed. Here’s the short list for you to look into for your next Vegas experience, but for more of what’s new and renewed in Las Vegas, visit the website of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at www.lasvegas.com.

ARIA - Jean Georges Steakhouse. Photo courtesy of City Center Land, LLC.
ARIA – Jean Georges Steakhouse. Photo courtesy of City Center Land, LLC.
Embrace the ARIA Experience

Our schedules were booked solid, the lights on the Strip never dim, the din is always that of lively noise…but I couldn’t tell from my cocoon of solitude, thanks to our accommodations at Vdara Hotel & Spa at ARIA Las Vegas. If you’ve never been to Las Vegas before, this complex will be just part of the busy environment of the Las Vegas Strip. But, if you’re familiar with the Strip, this might be a whole new development; one worth exploring. Snugly set near The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and the Bellagio, I spent my spare moments in a suite at the boutique Vdara. With no gaming, no children, and no smoking, it was an oasis of calm. I luxuriated in the sleek surroundings and drank in the view of the Bellagio fountains, the Eiffel Tower, and the High Roller from the windows of my suite as I devoured my Short Ribs Eggs Benedict with French Press Coffee that room service delivered prior to my morning spa appointment at ESPA. The spa was other-worldly in its tranquility, my 80-minute personalized massage was the perfect answer to getting our biggest issue of the year to press before winging off to Vegas; my own wings needed some loosening. One note is that I’d call ahead to discuss changing room accommodations for gender non-conforming individuals. We were split into areas for men and women, but you need to be comfortable if you’re going to be able to relax…and I’m guessing ESPA can make that happen.

ESPA at Vdara. Photo courtesy of City Center Land, LLC.
ESPA at Vdara. Photo courtesy of City Center Land, LLC.

Because of its relationship with ARIA Resort & Casino, Vdara guests enjoy a number of dining options. The in-suite room service was dreamy, there was a grab-and-go or dine-in Market Cafe Vdara in the lobby, and every morning saw a line-up at the Starbucks that even brought the poor Starbucks-less souls from the Bellagio to our Vdara in zombie-like droves. ARIA offers expanded fine dining in multiple restaurants; our particular journey brought us to Sage for luscious craft cocktails and to Jean Georges Steakhouse for a feast to end all feasts. Having been to the Jean Georges in Vancouver (and not being a huge fan of fish or seafood), this steakhouse was sensual bliss. We shared dishes and I was able to sample nearly anything my heart desired, the favorites were numerous: Waygu Beef Carpaccio with truffle oil and wrapped around Comte cheese; Baby Iceberg Salad with blue cheese and bacon; and Aspen Ridge Dry Aged Rib Eye with the sides of Creamed Corn and Black Truffle Mac & Cheese. The desserts didn’t hurt my feelings, either.

High Roller Experience at dusk. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau
High Roller Experience at dusk. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau
Visit The LINQ

Just off the Strip, behind the Tropicana, is The LINQ. Shops and restaurants fill the needs (and wants) of any of the travelers. Sit down for a meal at Flour & Barley (the meatballs appetizer is so very tasty and the muffuletta sandwich was my drug of choice) and be sure to visit the Polaroid Fotobar where you can plug into your social media accounts and print photos and keepsakes from your trip or the life you’re escaping from while in Vegas. I chose to print photos for a shadowbox of my favorite Lavender covers of this year, which I was able to walk out with after spending some time at the Polaroid museum portion of the complex. It was fast, easy, and oh-so-satisfying for this photophile. Then, without a doubt, the High Roller Experience will give you the breathtaking views of Las Vegas as you are perched atop the world’s tallest observation wheel at 550 feet high. Go during the day or enjoy the view at dusk when all the lights are starting to glow against the scenery of the City of Sin.

Downtown Container Park. Photo by Emily Wilson/Downtown Project
Downtown Container Park. Photo by Emily Wilson/Downtown Project
Go Downtown

Away from the Strip is the Downtown area, with the brand new Downtown Container Park and the Fremont Experience. The Downtown Container Park is a family-friendly outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment attraction. Made completely of shipping containers stacked upon each other, this unique venue offers a variety of boutique shops and food outlets. I made sure to patronize the gay-owned Sweet Spot Candy Shop for some noshes after having lunch at Bin 702 where I reveled in the Avocado Wedge Salad (spinach, avocado wedges, spiced candied walnuts, and house-made honey mustard vinaigrette) and the Grilled Cheese (havarti on brioche). Delicious. After lunch, take time to meander over to the Fremont Street Experience (or do it all at night when everything’s lit up). Try your luck at some of the casinos or by ziplining above it all on the new SlotZilla Experience. (Since I don’t like leaving the ground, I got to hang out below and hold my travel companions’ belongings while videotaping them as they flew above my head. I can attest to the fact that much fun was had…which you can be certain that I posted on Facebook.)

SlotZilla. Photo by David Tingey
SlotZilla. Photo by David Tingey
SlotZilla. Photo by David Tingey
SlotZilla. Photo by David Tingey
Get Your Vitamin D with Family

There are two prominent gay pool parties in Vegas, both with different vibes and different crowds, both with a bunch of scantily clad people getting their share of Vitamin D.  Xposed! at The New Tropicana Las Vegas is set in a somewhat private pool area, keeping people close together and thumping along with the reverberating music. Cabanas can be rented and bottle service can be bought while watching dancers on platforms gyrate above the pools, and seemed somewhat necessary for a little bit of reprieve from the party. At Temptation Sundays at the Luxor Hotel & Casino, the vast pool area was populated by all sorts of swimmers and loungers; our party was just a fraction of the wide-open water fun. The atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, and more conducive to lounging in the pool and talking above the music, which is what most people preferred to do as the pool became standing-room-only as the afternoon progressed. Cabanas were more optional than not, since most everyone wanted to be out in the fun.

Temptation Sundays at the Luxor Hotel & Casino. Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International
Temptation Sundays at the Luxor Hotel & Casino. Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

Gay Columbus

I was sitting at the intersection of High and Gay in Columbus when I marveled at how I never knew about this gay-friendly gem of a town in Ohio. With a population greater than the Twin Cities, I didn’t know what to expect: comparable people, buildings, neighborhoods, and politics? Yes and no. While being the home of many corporate headquarters (such as Nationwide Insurance, VIctoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch) and one of the largest universities in the United States (The Ohio State University), the city itself seems shorter and broader than our Twin Cities. While its downtown seems less like Minneapolis and more like St. Paul, its historic neighborhoods seem more established and its arts district seems more concentrated than those of our own twin towns. Here is a list of some of the highlights of Columbus.

Piece from the of "Cuban Forever" exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien
Piece from the of “Cuban Forever” exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien
Short North Arts District

Named after an area of town designated by the police as being just short of the University campus in the northern edge of Columbus proper, the Short North is one of the grand destinations of Columbus. Not only is there a Gallery Hop on the first Saturday of every month when all the art spaces open to the public with music and food to enjoy and consume, but there are restaurants, shops, clubs, and the Pizzuti Collection to experience every day as well. The Pizzuti Collection is a non-profit 501c3 exhibition space dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art from the collection of Ron and Ann Pizzuti. Our visit was during the “Cuban Forever” exhibition, the most meaningful of the pieces were clear resin casts of guns and swords, bold mock propaganda posters, and surveillance-ducking smuggler pigeons named after film directors. An impressive collection of permanent art that also made plenty of room for traveling shows, the Pizzuti Collection is a must-see on the Short North list.

Piece from the of "Cuban Forever" exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien
Piece from the of “Cuban Forever” exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien

I recommend starting one of your weekend days with brunch at The Pearl, which is a restaurant, tavern, and oyster room. For small bites to ease you into your morning, have some Old Fashioned Deviled Eggs and Devils on Horseback, but save room for Chicken and Waffles with warm blueberry sauce and Ohio honey…it’s lip-smacking and finger-licking good, fortifying you for the day ahead. If you want to spend an afternoon drinking brew or tasting vodka, North High Brewing and Middle West Spirits will please your palate. You can sample the wares at North High Brewing and also buy supplies for your own home brew. Middle West Spirits shows off beautiful stills and bottles, and the tour ends with a tasting of the distillery’s “culinary” spirits offerings. The OYO Vodka is often referred to as the “whisky lover’s vodka,” which is apparent when you smell and taste what is carefully crafted from local Ohio fields.

Piece from the of "Cuban Forever" exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien
Piece from the of “Cuban Forever” exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection. Photo by Andy Lien

The Short North is home to a remarkable number of gay establishments. The arts are in the air; there’s a splash of rainbow—literal or not—everywhere. We spent some time in Torso, a store for men, where I admired a number of novelty shirts with text taken from Steel Magnolias and my travel companions bought some tank tops, because who doesn’t need a new tank top on a trip? Level Dining Lounge was not only a place to find tasty drinks and fantastic apps, but our apps of calamari and wings were a hit and my entrée of Pork Cacciatore was stick-to-your-bones hearty. It was all just what we needed before an evening on the town. Make sure you catch Nina West’s Excellent Adventure Drag Show at Axis while you’re in town. Nina’s a famous drag queen with a Choose Your Own Adventure Show that breaks the mold for drag shows; she’s got a talented ensemble and catchy show to (patent leather) boot. We ended each night at Union Cafe where there were plenty of seats on the patio, roaming drag queens, and strong drinks. Even though we weren’t at the intersection of two, there was plenty of Gay on this section of High Street.

Steel Magnolias gets its spotlight at Torso. Photos by Andy Lien
Steel Magnolias gets its spotlight at Torso. Photos by Andy Lien
German Village Historic District

German Village is a 233-acre neighborhood in Columbus that is on the National Register of Historic Places for its sturdy, red-brick homes with wrought iron fences along tree-lined, brick-paved streets. Settled in the mid-1800s, the Germans in this neighborhood made up as much as one-third of the population of Columbus. Today, you can take guided tours of the mostly residential area, enjoying the brick (but watching your step…particularly if you tend to be glued to your Instagram app on your phone) and the historic architecture around you.

The best macarons I've found at Pistacia Vera. Photo by Andy Lien
The best macarons I’ve found at Pistacia Vera. Photo by Andy Lien

Hausfrau Haven, opened and owned by life and business partners for over 50 years, Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns (now both deceased), is a celebrated hub of neighborhood activity in the German Village with a market and a Laundromat for tourists and residents alike. Nearby, The Book Loft of German Village is one of the nation’s largest independent book stores. I recommend grabbing a coffee drink (the chocolate and peanut butter “Buckeye Latte” is a must) at the Cup o’ Joe next door and getting lost in the 32 rooms of bargain books (okay…grab a map if time is of the essence). When you emerge, you have multiple options for your dining needs, depending on the time of day. A food tour of the Village yielded us Kale Caesar Salad, pizzas of Mushroom, Fennel Sausage, and Spicy Yuma varieties at Harvest Pizzeria for lunch; yards of the most fresh and flavorful French macarons I’ve ever had at Pistacia Vera for an afternoon snack; small plates and swoon-worthy sangria at Barcelona for happy hour; ending it all with supper at The Kitchen.

Community meal preparation and dining at The Kitchen. Photo by Andy Lien
Community meal preparation and dining at The Kitchen. Photo by Andy Lien

For an interactive cooking and dining experience, go to the lesbian-owned locale called The Kitchen. Renovated from an old video store in German Village, this attractive space is open and airy, with multiple work stations for you to get your hands dirty while having plenty of fun. They’ll do the prep, cooking, and clean-up, you and yours get to do the assembly and await your masterpieces, served family-style in the spacious dining area. Our dinner included multiple courses with crab salad, salt-roasted fingerling potatoes, herb stuffed chicken (by yours truly), and peach and blueberry cobbler. With a full bar and mixologist on hand, I recommend keeping the imbibing light until after you handle the knives.

Favorites

Nestled in Columbus’s Victorian Village, an old gas station has been turned into the most charming breakfast place with Sweet & Spicy Bacon and Pancake Balls to boot. For my best brunch pick, Katalina’s Corner Cafe loves our rainbow community and the rainbow community loves Katalina’s. Though I tried to swim upstream and get everyone to call the Pancake Balls on the menu “ebelskiver” per my heritage, I quickly gave in to the orbs of love and only used my mouth for eating. The varieties of filling for the Pancake Balls include Nutella, fig butter, apple/pumpkin butter, and other surprises for our senses. Other hit menu items included Boylan’s Biscuit & Veggie Sausage Gravy, savory soups, and deliciously hearty coffee. Then, to rub in how I lost the battle for “ebelskiver” but won the war, I was sent away with a sassy pink t-shirt that says “PEACE LOVE & PANCAKE BALLS.” Amen, Sister Katalina. Amen.

Nutella-filled Pancake Balls at Katalina's. Photo by Andy Lien
Nutella-filled Pancake Balls at Katalina’s. Photo by Andy Lien

Find local small businesses and merchants in the North Market, a market with butchers, bakers, and candy makers; fishmongers, greengrocers, and restaurateurs. The businesses grow, catch, find, make, produce, distribute, cook, create, and invent their wares to sell at the only public market in Ohio. I meandered through and bought coffee at the Taste of Belgium, bacon and cheese-flavored popcorn at Pam’s Market Popcorn, Buckeye ice cream and a few macarons at the market’s satellite locations of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream and Pistacia Vera. Being that I was traveling, I didn’t take advantage of the meats and farm vegetables, but would have gladly brought home a bounty of food for a fresh and local meal. As it was, the gourmet snacks had to do. And they did.

A house, a chef, and a killer menu can be found at the Short North’s Basi Italia. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d name my favorite dish of a meal to be a salad, let alone one comprised of zucchini, but Basi’s julienned Zucchini Pronto tossed in a vinaigrette with almonds and pecorino cheese was simply superb. We sipped fresh watermelon cocktails and some of the specially-smuggled Middle West Spirits OYO made it around our table. While the inside dining area is in a charming house, we enjoyed dining al fresco on the patio. Second only to the zucchini primo, the Beef Short Rib with sweet corn mash, baby watercress, and espresso BBQ sauce was divine.

The most superb Zucchini Pronto at Basi Italia. Photo by Andy Lien
The most superb Zucchini Pronto at Basi Italia. Photo by Andy Lien
Overall

Columbus is an easy-to-figure destination. Our hotel, the Crowne Plaza Columbus, was centrally located and made for easy walking for some of the shopping and dining. As far as transportation goes, we took taxis, but now there’s an even better option for downtown Columbus, which utilizes public transportation. CBUS, which is a free bus that circulates downtown Columbus to connect the wonderful neighborhoods from north to south: Victorian Village, Italian Village, Short North, Capitol Square, German Village, Brewery District, Arena District, and back to Victorian Village. Beyond those options—and unlike our own program that just expanded from just Minneapolis to now include St. Paul and has yet to fully catch on—the Car2Go car sharing system is flourishing in Columbus. There’s a bike sharing program called CoGo, which is similar to the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride, for those who want to see it all on two wheels.

When we travel, do we want to compare where we go to where we come from? It’s unavoidable, to an extent, and I’d like to put out there that Columbus seems quite close to what we have in our own backyard, but with more and different for us to enjoy. Comfort zones are almost assured as Columbus is just really quite gay, day or night, from German Village to Short North to Victorian Village to the University. As far as additional attractions go, The Columbus Zoo is award-winning, the Franklin Park Conservatory is stunning, and the Columbus Museum of Art is a worthy stop as well.

Columbus. It’s not as exotic as it is familiar. Throw in how gay-friendly it is and you’ve got a home away from home. Great place to visit; would definitely want to stay there.

Resources

Short North Arts District: www.shortnorth.org
German Village Business Community: www.gvbusinesscommunity.com
Experience Columbus: www.experiencecolumbus.com/lgbt

Philadelphia: Fashionable Philly

If you’re like me and have been to before, you will have already gotten a glimpse into the history of the storied town. There’s Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Elfreth’s Alley, Rittenhouse Square, and so many more historic locations that can be covered in a sort of survey tour of the city. Here’s where we go further into the arts and culture scene that has elevated Philly to the status of being informally referred to as the “sixth borough” of New York, as well as visit the history that goes into greater breadth and depth beyond the basics. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia for a long weekend that coincided with OutFest, the fall GLBT festival which is the largest Coming Out Day street festival in the world, set in the Gayborhood. We had arts on the itinerary and fashion on the brain, getting an exclusive preview of the Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love exhibit that is currently showing at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With fashion on my mind, I give you this short list of what to do and where to dine, with the theme of Fashionable Philly at the fore.

 

 

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love

Fashion Forward: The Works

Artists push us forward, whether depicting the past, reflecting the present, or divining the future. Philadelphia’s museums showcase an impressive array of art and artists and, until November 30, you can find a stunning collection of fashions by Patrick Kelly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building. Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is an expansive retrospective showcasing around 80 fashion ensembles that were recently presented to the Museum as a promised gift by Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, and Bill T. Jones. Kelly was an American-born designer living in Paris who created bright, bold, and joyful creations and, I’d say, gave inspiration to such present-day designers as Paul Frank. Kelly died of AIDS on January 1, 1990, after too short a time in both the fashion world and the larger global community.  

Conveniently located near one another, the other museums provide an exquisite fix for the art aficionados. Of particular note are the Rodin Museum, the National Constitution Center (where I saw the most heart-wrenching touring exhibit, Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs), and the Barnes Foundation (to make it even more interesting, be sure to watch The Art of the Steal beforehand).

When you want to grab some food to go or eat in the hubbub of organized chaos, head to the Reading Terminal Market. Nowadays, it’s packed with vendors and eaters alike, but it was established in 1893 and is the nation’s oldest continuously operating market and, I’ve been told, the model that Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis might have been based upon. Whether a quick stop or a long stay, you’ll find plenty of what you’re looking for at the market (and plenty of what you didn’t know you wanted).

Note: The steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art were made especially famous when Sylvester Stallone climbed them to the triumphant tune of “Gonna Fly Now” in the movie “Rocky.”

 

Instrumental design at the Kimmel Center. Photo by Andy Lien
Instrumental design at the Kimmel Center. Photo by Andy Lien

 

Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia™
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia™

Come Into Fashion: The Arts

Our hotel was a stylish haven in the middle of everything. The DoubleTree Hilton Philadelphia in the heart of Center City is on the Avenue of the Arts, what Broad Street has been dubbed. Adjacent to the Gayborhood, it is within walking distance to many clubs, restaurants, and a number of arts- and entertainment-centered venues. Across the street is The Academy of Music with its flickering gaslights of yore and the sleek and modern Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts that was fashioned to accommodate multiple performances in four unique spaces. From large touring Broadway shows to small performances like the preview of Lisa Lampinelli’s stupendous one woman-show that we saw as it was being workshopped for Broadway, the Kimmel Center’s events calendar is something you should check as you’re making your plans for your visit. Dine at IndeBlue Indian restaurant for pre-entertainment fare in luxe surroundings; I savored a sampling of different flavors of Roti as well as the spice of Bacon-Wrapped Bison Sheekh Kabobs before my pleasing entrée of Osso Bucco Pork Vindaloo.

Note: Be sure to look up while you’re in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the first modern concert hall built in the 21st century, and note how it’s shaped and designed to look like a cello. So lovely.

 

 

The team behind Little Nonna's (and so much more) Valerie Safran (left) and Marcie Turney. Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia™
The team behind Little Nonna’s (and so much more) Valerie Safran (left) and Marcie Turney. Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia™

In a Timely Fashion: The Rights

“Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay” is the tagline for Philadelphia’s GLBT-oriented travel marketing campaign, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in November of 2013. Now, as the state of Pennsylvania celebrates a brand-new uncontested overturn of a same-sex marriage ban, there’s new history being written. Coming from Minnesota and cities that are younger than Philadelphia, it is heartening to stand where our Constitution was written and realize that the rights for the GLBT community are finding a place there as well. Just across the street from Independence Hall is a sign that says GAY RIGHTS DEMONSTRATIONS July 4, 1965 – 1969 marking the protests that preceded even the Stonewall Riots in our nation’s history and helped begin the fight for civil rights. To stand there, between the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, and realize the significance of events that happened there almost 50 years ago is a subtle, but worthwhile, experience. If you plan a trip to Philadelphia in 2015, check ahead of time for events commemorating this 50th anniversary. 

 

The fact that the nine-block Gayborhood exists just four blocks away from City Hall makes it central and visible. Learning about the area from the locals, there is talk that it’s becoming less relevant as a geographical safe spot for the community due to social networking apps and the ability to be out anywhere, but there is still plenty of history to be found in the Gayborhood. Unfortunately, the groundbreaking GLBT bookstore, Giovanni’s Room, which was as much a social and activist organizing spot as a place to buy books, recently closed, ending an era. But, other locations of cultural and historical interest to the community are still open in the Gayborhood, such as the William Way LGBT Community Center which we toured when it was open during OutFest.

 

Proud Gayborhood Signage. Photo by J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia™
Proud Gayborhood Signage. Photo by J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia™

If you’re visiting on a weekend, start your day in the Gayborhood with brunch at Mixto. While sitting in the gently lit second story of the restaurant, I cradled a cup of strong coffee and my companions rallied with mimosas. Then, we proceeded to eat our way through Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba (I had the Ecuadorian Breakfast of carne asada served with two eggs, sweet potato fries, white rice, and shredded lettuce topped with pico de gallo and tostones).

Or, for a fine dining experience at lunchtime (or any other time) in the Gayborhood, I highly recommend Little Nonna’s. Its owners, Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, not only have a number of hotspots in the Gayborhood but were also 2014 James Beard Semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurateur. At this charming little gem of a restaurant, I enjoyed the Shaved Salad of fennel, celery root, radish, olive oil, lemon, parsley, and locatelli, and happily made way for the Spaghetti and Meatballs of beef, veal, and pork fontina-stuffed meatballs, with smoky meat marinara and parmesan. The ambiance is casual chic and even the washrooms delighted our lunch party.

 

The presence of Gay Rights at Independence Hall. Photo by Andy Lien
The presence of Gay Rights at Independence Hall. Photo by Andy Lien

Note: A handy map of the Gayborhood is available for download on www.visitphilly.com. Also on the website, you can study up on BYOB restaurants and find them using an interactive map…bring your own bottle and bring your own fun. 

 

 

The ediface that is Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by J. Fusco for Eastern State Penitentiary
The ediface that is Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by J. Fusco for Eastern State Penitentiary

Old-Fashioned: The History

In Philadelphia, anywhere you go, you’re walking in history. The trick is to find what particularly strikes your fancy, and experience Philly’s fashion of the old-fashioned. For instance, if you are even marginally interested in the intersection of history and the paranormal,  you may have seen the SyFy Network’s show, Ghost Hunters, that takes investigators to different historical locations across United States and around the world that are believed to be haunted. One of my favorite locations that they investigated early in the series (season 1, episode 5) is Eastern State Penitentiary located in the heart of  Philadelphia. One of the most famous prisons in the world, the massive penitentiary is open year-round for tours. We were lucky enough to tour it at night, during the Halloween season, on the Terror Behind the Walls tour. Considering the fact that I had already seen much of the penitentiary on television, I knew some of what to expect. What I wasn’t prepared for was how I would feel knowing exactly what the investigators found when they stayed the night in that historic, creepy, national treasure. If I had, perhaps I wouldn’t have had such a large supper before our visit as my stomach was in my throat for the rest of the night.

Prior to our adventure at Eastern State Penitentiary, we fortified ourselves with plenty of food and drink at Jack’s Firehouse, just across the street from the entrance of the dark stone edifice. More people are hardier than I am when it comes to being scared out of my mind, so I still recommend dining before dashing around the haunted grounds. In fact, do like I did and start with the Cherry Wood Smoked Beef Brisket with Caramelized Onion Slaw and the Spinach Salad with Anjou Pears, Feta & Champagne Vinaigrette, followed by the Roasted Chicken Breast with Bacon Mac & Cheese and Mushroom Sauce. That smoky Mac & Cheese is what kept me going through the night, I’m convinced.

Note: If you time it particularly right and get to Eastern State Penitentiary during the Halloween season, be sure to take the Terror Behind the Walls tour. It’s a highly interactive performance-based haunted house experience in one of the seemingly most haunted places in United States. Of course, that part’s debatable; you tell me your verdict after you take the tour.

 

 

Gentle morning light at Mixto Restaurant. Photo by Andy Lien
Gentle morning light at Mixto Restaurant. Photo by Andy Lien

Fashionably Late: The Nightlife

The Gayborhood makes planning your nightlife in Philly easy. After you’ve gotten in as much culture as you want to absorb in the evening, go out for a night at the bars. Easily within walking distance of each other, the only challenge is stumbling along the cobblestone sidewalks and streets…which is hard enough to do without imbibing (clearly I need to not use my smartphone while in historic cities with uneven walking surfaces). Our party of travelers tasted most of the clubs, including iCandy, Woody’s, Tabu, and Voyeur, but I took a shine to the U Bar and Tavern on Camac, as lower-key places to gather, gab, and get a little dancing in. 

Each night, when my partying compadres decided to soldier on into the night and past my bedtime, I would wander back to the DoubleTree on a well-lit and seemingly safe stroll. If you decide to also stay at the DoubleTree and take no other advice of mine than this, make sure you stop for a slice of pizza on your way back to the hotel at Mama Angelina’s Pizza on Locust Street that is open into the wee hours of the night. It’s across the street from your bed and seems to beckon for you to stop by. You can walk in and blink in the bright commercial lighting as you focus on countertops of thin-crust pizzas with pieces the size of your head, just waiting to go home with you to your hotel room after a questionably good-but-bad judgment call. Just do it. You’ll be happy you did.

Note: Whether you fashion your trip to Philadelphia to check out the history, the arts, the food, the gay scene, or something I haven’t even mentioned, you can get all of the resources you need from Visit Philadelphia at www.visitphilly.com

 

Slice: Wisconsin's Pizza Harvest

Dining on the farm: Bring your own blanket, table and chairs, or find room in The Coop.
Dining on the farm: Bring your own blanket, table and chairs, or find room in The Coop. All photos by Andy Lien

Fall food made with just-harvested vegetables on a farm is a delicacy. Though there are now a number of “pizza farms” near the Twin Cities that serve pizza made in outdoor ovens throughout the summer and into fall, I always choose to wait until fall to go to what I consider to be the original, AtoZ Produce and Bakery, just across the border in Wisconsin. I could just give curt instructions for getting your grub: Check the menu, place your order, watch for your number to be flipped to, and wait a matter of five minutes for your piping-hot pizza to be sliced and handed to you as you pay your bill. Find a place to eat and take your garbage with you. I’m a bit too wordy for that, though. Through the years, I’ve gathered a few more tips to share for making your own trip to the place where pizza grows in country idyll.

Leave Early and Know How to Get There. AtoZ Produce and Bakery (aka, the “Pizza Farm”) is closest to Stockholm, Wisconsin. Every Tuesday they make pizzas from 4:30 to 8:00 at night which means that people can leave their 9-to-5 job, travel through rush hour traffic, and make it to the farm in time for pizza, but I’ve done it and I wouldn’t recommend it. If possible, leave a couple hours early and give yourself time to get through the East Metro with as little frazzle as possible. Depending upon your start point, the trip could take an hour or two. I usually take I-94 East through St. Paul to US-61 South, and the cross over to Wisconsin on US-10 East. Then, once across the river in Prescott, Wisconsin, I immediately turn right onto WI-35 South, the Great River Road. Follow that famous road all the way to Stockholm and take in the scenery. Once you’re in Stockholm, it’s a good idea to either use a GPS or printed directions to the address of AtoZ Produce and Bakery. Those methods have never let me down and always bring me directly to the country road with the Liberal Catholic Church on it, which signifies that I’ll be seeing the Pizza Farm next.

Pre-Order Your Pie and Plan for Ambling. Stockholm, the town closest to the Pizza Farm, is located on the Great River Road of Wisconsin. Low in population but high in charm, Stockholm has a variety shops and welcomes the GLBT community with open arms. I always visit the art and home gallery, Abode Stockholm, and get some coffee (while my friends pick and choose their beer) at Stockholm General, owned and operated by Alan Nugent and Steve Grams. Ingebretsen’s has a charming store in a historic building and I also swoon over kitchen wares at The Palate. We called ahead to the Stockholm Pie Company and ordered two pies to pick up on our way to the Pizza Farm, a chocolate cream and a apple-berry cardamom crumble pie. You won’t regret incorporating that step into your trip. Then, since the stores close around 5:00 but we didn’t want to get to the farm until later, we went up the hill to Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery for apples, wine, and cheese. Find more information at www.stockholmwisconsin.com.

Three slices of three pies.
Three slices of three pies.

Pack as Much Ambience as You Want and Pick Where You Want It. You’re going to have dinner on a farm. Some people choose to do it picnic-style and bring blankets to sit on with paper plates and plastic utensils, which is a fine way to enjoy your pizza supper. I’ve seen people bring a dîner en blanc with them, wearing all-white clothing and dressing their table and chairs in white linen, all of which paint a romantic picture against the country setting in the twilight hours. We had a little drizzle this last time I was there, so we went directly to the one building with chairs and tables, The Coop, and found two tables that could be pushed together to accommodate our nine-person party and, though we weren’t out under the stars, we very much enjoyed our dining experience in the warmly lit coop. These fall nights when the sun goes down early call for lighting, so bring your own flashlight or candles. Do not do as I did and carefully prepare and bring a centerpiece of mason jars with lovely green candles in them that were scented–nobody wants spiced pear competing with their pizza fragrances.

Appreciate the Process and the Product. This is a working farm with real animals and crops. Care is taken to provide an attractive and environmentally friendly gathering place with well-kept buildings and a composting restroom. The beauty and draw of the Pizza Farm is the fact that we’re eating pizza on a farm with food that was grown there and baked in an oven right before our eyes. Something I just learned this last time I was there is that to get the oven hot enough for baking our pizzas with speed and efficiency on Tuesday nights, it’s lit on Sunday. And on these chilly fall nights, it’s nice to hover by that fire watching the pizzas emerge, bubbly and hot, aromatic and crisp.

Order a Variety of Pizza and Watch the Magic Happen. When you approach the buildings on the Pizza Farm, the one with the oven is where you should aim. Just this year, to comply with Wisconsin laws, the Pizza Farm no longer allows people to carry in their own alcoholic beverages, but you can buy beer and wine in the same building as the pizza oven; enjoy the local favorites at reasonable prices. There’s a large chalkboard with that night’s menu on it and, though the pizzas run a little high in price, they are of great quality and flavor. The pizzas are the destination, so plan to savor them. Instead of a tomato sauce, sliced tomatoes are incorporated with the toppings and then roasted atop the pizzas as they bake in the hot ovens. These are not your cheese-monster gooey slices of pie as found in traditional pizzerias, but are artisan-style in their carefully chosen combinations of flavors. My favorite version of all time incorporated slab bacon, but all of the varieties have proven to be popular with the pizza eaters in my parties through the years. Squash, beets, lamb, pesto, olives–all sorts of flavors can be found at the Pizza Farm. Order a number of pies and share liberally. Our party of nine had three pizzas this year…but a party of four scarfed four a few years ago. It all depends on what else you bring for side dishes and how ravenous rush hour or shopping have made you.

The new "bar" for beer and wine.
The new “bar” for beer and wine.

Follow the Rules. No pets. Bring cash or check, no plastic. Don’t touch the electric fences, consider all fences to be electric. Park where the signs indicate. It’s an operating farm, not a petting zoo. Don’t go tromping through crops, stay on mowed paths. Mind your children and your unruly friends. And, most importantly…

Pack It In, Pack It Out. Bring a bag for garbage or recycling because everything you bring that has packaging has to leave with you, as well as your new pizza boxes that your meal comes in and the bottles of beer or wine that you buy. We split up the garbage and recycling between the people in our party and each took some of the waste home to continue our Pizza Farm experience by being environmentally responsible.

Mostly, Eat Slowly and Breathe Deeply. You’re away from the city and rush hour and obligations. Put the smartphone down (or Instagram everything like I do), just make sure you relax as you’re doing it. It’s a sensory experience, so use your senses and actually experience the farm as a last hurrah before the snow flies.

 

AtoZ Produce and Bakery (the “Pizza Farm”)
Tuesdays, early Spring – Thanksgiving
4:30-8:00pm
N2956 Anker Ln.
Stockholm, WI  54769
www.atozproduceandbakery.com

Pizza menu.
Pizza menu.
Make time for pie from the Stockholm Pie Company.
Make time for pie from the Stockholm Pie Company.
Waiting for our number.
Waiting for our number.

 

 

Winter What To Do – WHERE: Whistler, BC

Winterpride. Photos courtesy of GayWhistler.com
Winterpride. Photos courtesy of GayWhistler.com

Far-Flung Ski Trip: Where Else But Whistler?

It’s winter and you want to get away.  The Swiss Alps might not be an option, but perhaps somewhere in North America will sweep you off your feet in British Columbia, Canada.  Try Whistler for downhill skiing, snowboarding, shopping, eating, drinking, and hot-tubbing.  Go during WinterPRIDE and turn it into one big party–we could use a cool winter counterpart to our sundry summer Pride celebrations.  Surrounded by mountains in a snow-covered wonderland, you’ll feel far away from anything resembling your daily routine.  It’ll even feel a little worldly in an Olympic sort of way with plenty of updates and enhancements that were made for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when Whistler hosted many of the downhill skiing events.  Keep an eye out for the five rainbow rings–Olympic reminders are both in the Village and up the mountains.

Where to Go:

Your trip starts before you get to Whistler.  Accessible by train, car, airport transfer, bus, taxi, helicopter, or ride-share, you need to get yourself to Whistler, somehow.  But, just because you can’t fly there, doesn’t mean you should dismay–you get to witness some of the most beautiful coastal scenery along the Sea-to-Sky Highway.  Prepare a good soundtrack for this trip, we chose dramatic movie scores by the composer Hans Zimmer and it felt like it was a film…and ran about the same length of time with sweeping views set to majestic music.

Whistler is comprised of an Upper and Lower Village and two mountains that are connected at the top by a gondola.  Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains used to be two separate skiing areas until one was sold to the other.  How do you buy a mountain?  How do you sell a mountain?  I can’t quite fathom the transaction, but the result is a good one–a skiing package includes both mountains.  The winter average for snowfall is 39.1 feet and the temperature is usually around 22°F.  With over 200 trails, the 37 lifts can accommodate transporting over 65,000 up the mountains per hour.  It’s popular and it’s ready for you to join the fun.

Whether you’re wearing skis or not, there’s one big red reason to take a lift upward–the Peak2Peak Gondola.  Built in 2008, Peak2Peak joins Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains as a 1.88-mile long, completely unsupported lift.  The ride between the mountains is 11 minutes of breathtaking views of all sides–up, down, and all-around.  And, as Dean Nelson of GayWhistler.com told us, plenty riders have mastered the art of shaking up some cocktails to enjoy in those 11 minutes: Fly the friendly skies.

WinterPride-PinkFlight

Back down on the ground, the Village is rather dense with shops, restaurants, and hotels in the Lower Village while mostly hotels and access to the lifts are in the Upper Village.  A short walk between the two can find you suddenly in the mix of an outdoor shopping mall with the same sorts of stores you can find at home (or anywhere…like GAP, Eddie Bauer, North Face).  We shopped the sales racks and found better deals in Whistler than at home, even given the difference in US and Canadian dollar values.  There are plenty of places to buy souvenirs and even at least one bookstore to tuck into and find a quiet read for the spa.

Many of the hotels have spas in them, but we ventured out to the Scandinave Spa outside of the Village, set on a hill in the mountains…surrounded by trees and privacy.  If you’ve never experienced a Scandinavian style spa, it is based on the principles of heating and then cooling, somewhat rapidly. Having a eucalyptus-scented steam room, some saunas, some cool pools and showers, hot tubs, and solariums, the Scandinave Spa lets you choose your own style for your heating and cooling road to Wellville.  Relaxing in a steam room would be followed by stepping into a cold shower.  Or, opening up the pores in the sauna would be followed by closing them in a shockingly cool pool.  You create your own circuit of sorts which could last as long or as short as you’d like, but each must end with some quiet time in a solarium, warming back up.  The rule is that there’s no talking at Scandinave Spa, which is remarkably easy to follow the whole time while relaxing, but remarkably hard to adhere to when being doused by cold water.  Be sure to check the massage options as well, the Scandinavians know how to knead out a knot or two.

Finally and most importantly, more alluring than just the fact that Whistler is the top ski destination in North America is the fact that it holds a week-long WinterPRIDE.  GayWhistler.com coordinates an annual celebration of all-things-GLBT with special rates and activities; this year, WinterPRIDE is February 3-10, 2013.  While there are no gay bars in Whistler, WinterPRIDE pretty much takes over the Village and the slopes for a week with special parties; daytime activities like ziplining, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and talks about social issues; guided ski and snowboard trips down both mountains; and plenty of apres ski food and fun.  There’s drag to be found and drinks to be downed.

GayWhistler-Bearfoot-Iceroom

Where to Stay:

The Village and surrounding area have multiple hotel, condo, VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and timeshare options–choose your style and price and most everything is within a short distance to all the action.  We stayed at the Fairmont Chateau, which looked like a modern angular Neuschwanstein Castle set in a Bavarian forest, especially the further we traveled from the Village up the mountain. Heavy wood beams and colorful folk-inspired art carried through the Chateau feel inside, while the views from all sides were spectacular.  Since everything is accessible by walking or taking a taxi, we parked the car (for a $20-$25 cost/day) and enjoyed what the accommodations had to offer us: plush comfort and proximity.

Where to Eat/Drink:

Choosing a restaurant in Whistler can be as easy as choosing your hotel–most of the hotels have casual cafes as well as more formal dining destinations.  The Wildflower at the Fairmont Chateau had the most luscious breakfast, something I’d heard of from foodie friends who’d already eaten there–the brunch is tremendous and spectacular.  Lunch at Nita Lake Lodge south of the Whistler Village Area had a lovely lighter soup and sandwich fare for pre-trudging in nature.  Stay where you eat or eat where you stay–there are plenty of options.

As for restaurants that weren’t attached to accommodations, we went with places that people had personally vouched for–places that have thrilled previous foodie friends when they’ve dined at them: RimRock Cafe and Araxi Restaurant + Bar.  RimRock Cafe is a modest, warm lodge-like restaurant, just south of the Village.  Separate from the hustle and bustle, RimRock is relaxing and the ambiance is embracing.  A nice menu with lovely variations of fish, seafood, meats, and seasonal vegetables and grains, we chose the Prix Fixe option that was the most affordable splurge of our dining endeavors.  Our beginnings included a Roasted Beet Salad with apples, avocado, and a champagne vinaigrette.  My friend ordered the fish while I ordered the Scallops and Pork Belly, but asked them to hold the Scallops since I don’t eat fish or seafood.  That’s right.  I got Pork Belly with Pork Belly–and was very happy.  We ended with the Sticky Toffee Pudding.  Read that again and know that it was as good as it sounds, rich and gooey.

GayWhistler-Shred-Betties

Despite the superb meal we enjoyed at RimRock, the culinary winner of our trip to Vancouver and Whistler was Araxi Restaurant + Bar.  We spent hours there; bantering with the servers, sipping the different wines, slurping the coastal oysters, and munching the dessert macarons.  Araxi is the place to see and be seen right in heart of the Lower Village.  A wide-open room full of tables upon tables, you can look around and make eye contact with people you’ve been spying on all day while riding the gondolas and lifts, or perusing the sales racks.  Starting with special oysters chosen after studying the list and consulting the Australian server, we moved leisurely to our main entrees.  The menu has changed since our visit but Roasted Saddle of Rabbit with pork cheek looks to be similar to one of the succulent dishes we devoured, something which we would write home about.  Thankfully, the dessert menu still features our favorites: Poached Anjou Pears with chevre cheesecake and hazelnut streusel crust which was more of a fork-food paired with the Fuji Apple Beignets, pecan donuts filled with apple which we happily dunked in caramel-milk chocolate sauce.  We gilded the hell out of that lily.  When it was finally time to bid adieu to our meal, we took some macrons to go for enjoying back in the hotel…it helped ease the departure.  Too bad they don’t deliver to Minnesota.

Where to Go Online:

WinterPRIDE (Feb. 3-10, 2013)/GayWhistler.com – Dean Nelson
www.gaywhistler.com

Shopping and Attractions in the Village
www.tourismwhistler.com

Skiing/Peak2Peak Gondola
www.whistlerblackcomb.com

Fairmont Chateau Whistler
www.fairmont.com/whistler

RimRock Cafe
www.rimrockwhistler.com

Nita Lake Lodge
www.nitalakelodge.com

Araxi Restaurant + Bar
www.araxi.com

Scandinave Spa
www.scandinave.com/en/whistler

Winter What To Do – WHERE: Vancouver, BC

Putting Vancouver in perspective. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver
Putting Vancouver in perspective. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver

A Look Into the Future

by Andy Lien with Carson Riutta

Vancouver, British Columbia.  The place where so many of our favorite television shows are filmed happens to be a destination in and of itself.  A winter one, even?  Indeed.  There’s nary a flake of snow to be found and sidewalks tend to be much safer to traverse when that’s the case.  Instead of leaving home in search of warm and sunny beaches, I find it easy to recommend Vancouver, a place that seems to peek into the future, while holding onto history and academia and recreation and sports and art and culture and shopping and food and so much more…all in a small, accessible area just north of Seattle, Washington.

What’s so futuristic about Vancouver?  Most specifically, the state of GLBT rights.  Go there. Be comfortable. Get married if you want. Enjoy the future.

Where to Go:

Davie Village is Vancouver’s gay neighborhood and gay pride is literally hanging from every lamp post.  Rainbow banners flank the street for miles and give the neighborhood a bright colorful vibe even on the greyest of days.  The Village has everything: coffee shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, markets, night clubs, and bookstores.  If nightlife is what you’re after, you will be sure to find your scene here.  Don’t forget to check Gayvan.com for any special parties and events going on in the Village during your stay.  Stop in at the award-winning Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium which has been serving Canada’s adult GLBT community since 1983. If you’re looking for shopping in a lesbian area of town, you can cross the bridges and get to Commercial Drive to check that action.

If you or your partner is a foodie or an artist, you’ll want to carve plenty of time out of your trip to enjoy all that Granville Island has to offer.  It’s a small place, but is jam-packed with gorgeous farm-fresh foods, art studios, unique shops, and beautiful views of the water.  Be sure to show up hungry, but make the rounds before you decide where and what to eat; with each stall in the market the food only seems to get better and better.  Had we thought about it ahead of time, we would’ve bought satchels of the amazing food in the market to bring back to the kitchenette in our hotel.  Learn from our mistake.  Take it with you.

Granville Island. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver
Granville Island. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver

We planned our Granville Island adventure to start with the Aquabus on False Creek…little did we know that the trip would be about four minutes long on a vessel that was actually a pontoon (which was a bit hilarious to this Minnesotan).  Our departure from the Island for Yaletown was a bit longer a boat ride, so we encourage you to incorporate the Aquabus into your travel plans to see more of Vancouver from the water.

Getting off the Aquabus at Yaletown was the beginning of a stretch of neighborhoods.  Other neighborhoods of note in Vancouver are Yaletown, Chinatown, Downtown, and the theatre arts district of Granville Street.  Our favorite neighborhood was named for the gregarious man who opened the first saloon in Vancouver, John “Gassy Jack” Deighton. “Gastown” has stayed true to its roots.  It is a funky neighborhood, with great restaurants on every corner, tourists on every cobblestone, and a seedy element that gives Gastown its gritty vibe.

The on-and-off trolley or bus idea is great for Vancouver in the respect that the trolley will take you everywhere you might want to go–but you can actually get off where you want to see in greater depth.  Good for reconnaissance, great for transit.  With attractions like the Aquarium, Maritime Museum, beyond the compact downtown area, it’s important to know which of the on-and-off services can get you places…and where might require taxis.  The Vancouver Trolley Company served us well for most everything we wanted to see, though we often just hoofed it due to the fact that everything is fairly close in proximity.

What’s a little bit out of the way is the University of British Columbia with Botanical Gardens and the world-famous Museum of Anthropology.  When I surveyed people as to what CANNOT be missed in Vancouver, the Museum of Anthropology was the resounding answer.  Sure, it shows that I run with nerds, but it is worth a trip to the campus to see the amazing collection of culture and art.  It’s extensive.  Masks and weapons and sculptures and drawers upon drawers full of artifacts…totem poles and so many beautiful dishes.  My nerdery has a threshold and it was hit a few hours into the Museum, which was perfect in timing to move on to the next great thing Vancouver had to offer.

With 1,001 acres of West Coast rainforest, Stanley Park is an impressive natural space right next to the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver.  You can book a horse-drawn carriage tour to see a portion of the park and hear its rich history.  Or, if you would rather get some exercise, then cycle or walk the 5.5 mile sea wall trail that circles the park. Don’t miss the majestic hand-carved Totem Poles and definitely keep your eyes peeled for the mounted police.

Coast Plaza Hotel near English Bay and Stanley Park. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver
Coast Plaza Hotel near English Bay and Stanley Park. Photo courtesy of Tourism Vancouver

Where to Stay:

Stay near the action.  Everything is close in Vancouver.  The Coast Plaza Hotel by English Bay was our Vancouver home and within blocks of it were not only Davie Street, but also the beach and Stanley Park, an urban public park that’s even bigger than NYC’s Central Park.  The Coat Plaza was a little aged, but provided a comfortable suite with kitchenette for us and also had a mall beneath it, with a grocery store. (Have you had potato chips in Canada, yet? Stock up on the ‘exotic’ flavors.)

This is a city that can be enjoyed on foot, trolley, ferry and by taxi, so leave your cars at home and the hassles of parking behind.  If you do drive or rent a car, please keep in mind that parking in Vancouver proper is very tight and hotels can charge upwards of $25/day.  Get yourselves an on-and-off trolley pass and get ready to see the sights from comfortable, clean, and convenient public transportation.

Something that may not be entirely obvious as you look at the maps of the Vancouver area is that it’s really not that big.  I had to repeatedly adjust my plans as I figured out that it was easier to walk most places than I’d imagined.

Where to Eat/Drink:

Being a global hotbed, I did some significant research when it came to planning the most important part of our visit to Vancouver: the food.  From the New York Times and other online reviews, I found that Market by Jean-Georges was one of the places to eat in Vancouver, housed in the opulent and elegant Shangri-La Hotel, downtown.  I’m not going to go into that one in great depth because it was a disappointment in the quality and taste of cuisine.  Market’s service was stupendous, the atmosphere was chic and sexy, but the fare was bland.

Also heavily lauded in reviews is the Salt Tasting Room in Blood Alley, located in the Gastown neighborhood.  It is worth the hype.  It’s also hard to find, which made it a little more fun for a lunchtime destination.  If you find yourself rounding a corner into what looks like an alley with cobblestones underfoot, look up at the second story of the buildings and see if there’s a flag with a salt shaker on it.  Yes?  You found it.  The Salt Tasting Room is a tasting room, indeed, for wines, beer, and finger foods.  Without a stove on the premises, you pick and choose your food from lists of artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats, and different condiments.  Delightful.  And, for the sherry connoisseurs, it happens to have the best sherry collection in Vancouver.

Word of mouth is what brought us our favorite breakfast of the trip.  Medina Cafe in the Crosstown neighborhood was what were were ordered to find if we wanted the best breakfast in the city.  Got it.  A funky space with a front room and a sunny back room, Medina served us rich and throaty coffee as well as both a Fricasse (of eggs, braised short rib, applewood cheddar, and balsamic onions) and a Saumon Fume (a ciabatta sandwich of egg, smoked salmon, caper cream cheese, and avocado)…all after we’d had our amuse bouche of a waffle with lavender-flavored milk chocolate for dipping.  Ridiculous and worth a return trip.

Finally, the Cactus Club Cafe is what we found on foot from the Coast Plaza Hotel late at night.  Set on the beach at English Bay, we judged a book by it’s hip, mod cover and went to the Cactus Club for late-night noshes and cocktails and were not disappointed.  She sipped her classy highball while I sipped the au jus sauce for my Short Rib Sandwich and we were pleased.  To enjoy the ambience and view of the beach during the daytime will have to wait until the next visit.

Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Photo by Andy Lien
Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Photo by Andy Lien

Where to Go Online:

All Things Vancouver
www.tourismvancouver.com

GLBT Vancouver
www.gayvan.com, Angus Praught

Little Sister’s Art & Book Emporium
www.littlesisters.ca

Cactus Club Café
www.cactusclubcafe.com

Coast Plaza Hotel
www.coasthotels.com

Granville Island
www.granvilleisland.com

Aquabus
www.theaquabus.com

UBC Museum of Anthropology
www.moa.ubc.ca

The Vancouver Trolley Company
www.vancouvertrolley.com/

Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours
www.stanleyparktours.com

The Salt Tasting Room
www.salttastingroom.com

Market by Jean-Georges
www.shangri-la.com/vancouver

Medina Café
www.medinacafe.com