Shenandoah National Park

As I’ve said before, autumn is the best season, not least of which is because of the fall foliage. Within two hours drive of Washington, DC, is Shenandoah National Park, set in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and a great place to see the area’s fall foliage.

So I rented a car and took a day trip out through the park’s famous north-south road, Skyline Drive. The day I went was particularly cold, so I didn’t get to have my lunch picnic or do any hiking as I had wanted to, but the drive was beautiful and the foliage was still nice. Certainly, not at peak, especially at the higher elevations, but my 42 mile drive from the park’s northern entrance to the highest point on Skyline Drive, Skyland, was well worth it.

I lent Michael my camera and in return, I borrowed his Leica M8.2. The camera had some significant drawback compared to more current cameras. For me, it’s biggest shortcoming is the LCD screen on the back of the camera. It was so low resolution that it was basically useless in terms of being able to display the image you had just captured and I used it more for deciding if the image was composed properly. Additionally, the images all required a small amount of work in Lightroom to get right – not that any camera is going to take perfect pictures without some work – but I tend to find my Sony NEX-7 images either look pretty great in RAW or requires a decent amount of work on each image. With this camera, all the images required a small amount of work. Not really a complaint, just something I noticed.

A few pictures from the trip are below with a good sampling on Flickr. The entire set is on Shutterfly.

Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive

Shenandoah foliage

Shenandoah foliage

Shenandoah foliage

Shenandoah foliage

Oregon

ice cream
Salt and Straw Ice Cream

I have family and good friends who live in Portland, Ore. I was going out there about once a year for the past few years and it generally worked out that I would be there in early December. Weather is a big deal in the Pacific Northwest. They get a lot of rain, and it rains a lot outside of the summer. Thus, while I enjoyed visiting the people I knew there, I do hate rain! So, the past year or two I’ve made it a point to go in the summer and the change the sunshine brings is easily recognizable. Therefore, today’s lesson is: go to Portland in the summer!

The Columbia River Gorge is less than an hour east of Portland and is simply stunning. I remember hiking up mountains and to hidden waterfalls when I was a kid. The scenery is picturesque, especially on a clear summer’s day.

The Oregon coast is also equally amazing. About two hours west of the city, the rugged coastline and large rocks of the coast make for a stunning backdrop.

I went on a day trip to the gorge and a two-day trip to the beaches around Lincoln City. A few choice pictures are below, with more at my Flickr page and the entire set on Shutteryfly.

gorge
Columbia River Gorge from The Vista House

Panorama Point
Panorama Point in Hood River

Nye Beach
Nye Beach With Yaquina Lighthouse in the Background

London

Wimbledon

I love London. I had the opportunity to live and to study there earlier in life. It’s a full, vibrant, ever-changing city. I had a large trip planned to visit the capital and then see southern Spain, but with additional expenses forthcoming (post about that soon), I decided to change the trip to only see London. I still have some friends there and my friend Claire was going to be there around the same time so the trip worked out well.

A highlight of the trip was getting lucky enough to get tickets to see Wimbledon on the second Monday of the tournament. The matches on this day, known as “Manic Monday,” are some of the best in the sport. Plus, getting to be at Centre Court, probably the most famous address is tennis, was something special.

I was able to see Serena William, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who went on to win Wimbledon!

Check out Flickr for some pics.

Mt. Rushmore

My parents and I always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore. Honestly, I was mostly intrigued by the idea of four men’s faces being blasted into the side of a mountain. I see it as the next step Americans would take after doing the normal statue-of-men thing. So, I went into the experience pretty skeptical as to if I would enjoy it.

And, truth be told, I actually enjoyed the monument a lot. It has a gravitas and really doesn’t come off as imposing or overbearing the way a statue of Lenin in the U.S.S.R. might. You can view the monument from a viewing platform and also walk along it’s base via the Presidential Trail.

Additionally, the area around Mt. Rushmore, especially Custer State Park, is very scenic so we also took the opportunity to visit Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (made famous by the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“) and Badlands National Park. Living in the densely populated East Coast, you forget how vast parts of the United States are.

We stayed in Rapid City which was only about 30 minutes from Mt. Rushmore. The town was small, but the downtown area was pretty quaint. People were very friendly, too, which is a nice change.

A few pictures are below and more can be found on Flickr.

rushmore
Mt. Rushmore

devils tower
Devil’s Tower

badlands
Badlands National Park

Japan

I recently got back from a trip to Japan that I took with my friend Debra. The trip was planned since July, and I was really excited for it. I had not been to east Asia yet, and I was looking forward to seeing a very different culture. We went for ten days at the end of March, and we both thoroughly enjoyed our trip. Debra lives in San Francisco, so we flew separately to Tokyo and met at the hotel we were staying at.

The flight over to Japan was a particular treat as I cashed in some miles to fly Japan Airlines first class to Tokyo. The service was so outstanding it really must be experienced to be believed. Hopefully everyone will be able to experience something like it at least once in their life. When I was making my seat into a bed to get some sleep, one of the three flight attendants who were serving me asked if she could make the bed. She then brought out a mattress, made the bed, and tucked me in! They were very attentive to my seafood “allergy” (that I don’t like to eat it) and it was just out of this world over the top.

JAL Legroom
Tons of legroom
First Class on JAL
My first class seat on Japan Airlines
dinner
Steak dinner
dessert
Dessert

Tokyo was our main shopping portal to Japan. While there were plenty of the “normal” international shopping stores in the city, what’s great is there is so much you’ve never seen or heard of before. It was fun to take in these new shops and items, and I did restrain myself pretty well. But, when there are amazing stores like Tokyu Hands and Loft, it was easy to get a little carried away.

One thing about Japan was immediately evident: the Japanese love to serve you, they love stationary, and above all they love to wrap up your purchases in as many layers as possible. One item I purchased as a gift was wrapped in wrapping paper, placed neatly with a bow inside of a shopping bag, and then covered with a plastic bag to protect the shopping bag as it was drizzling outside. And honestly, they took such pleasure in offering that service.

We next went to Kyoto via the bullet train, or Nozomi Shinkansen. These trains go 190 mph, and what was amazing to me is the frequency at which they run. Not only are there bullet trains leaving every 3-10 minutes during rush hour, but also there are the slower version of the bullet trains and the “regular” commuter trains. Obviously Japan chose to invest in this mode of transportation long before other countries and that investment has clearly paid off with nice, fast, reliable train service. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar train service from Washington to New York?

Kyoto was simply stunning. We had the good fortune (and planning efforts!) to be in Japan during the height of their cherry-blossom season, and Kyoto is particularly well known for these gorgeous trees. I had pictured the trees showing up in large parks in Japan (similar to how they’re around the Tidal Basin in D.C.) but instead I was pleased to see they were just everywhere, lining streets and canals all over Japan’s cities.

Some of Japan’s largest and most significant temples were in and around Kyoto, and they all had such lovely gardens that were very well maintained. We even took a nice day trip outside of Kyoto to a monkey park and bamboo forest.

Lastly, we had a few days in Osaka before we headed home. It is Japan’s second most populous city and it felt very futuristic. The highways were elevated through downtown, so it felt very “Jetsons”-like at night seeing the cars “fly” through the metropolis.

All-in-all the trip was great. I was pleasantly surprised to find Japan not too expensive, either – definitely not cheap, but probably cheaper than most European cities.

We flew home via San Francisco, where I said my goodbyes to Debra. I’d love to go back and see Japan’s countryside so hopefully that wish can be fulfilled soon.

A number of pictures from the trip are below and more can be found on my Flickr page. The entire Japan album is on Shutterfly.

Cherry blossoms in Ueno Park
Cherry blossoms in Ueno Park
Tokyo Metro
Me on the Tokyo Metro
Mirrors
Debra and me reflecting through ceiling mirrors
Kumano Shrine
Kumano Shrine in Tokyo
Seikanji
Seikanji in Kyoto
Kinkakuji
Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto
Cat
Cats in Kyoto
Kyoto Canal
Cherry-blossom lined canal in Kyoto
Tenryuji
Tenryuji outside Kyoto
Tenryuji
Debra and me in Tenryuji
Monkey park
Monkey park outside of Kyoto
Monkey park
Monkey park outside of Kyoto
Outside Kyoto
Outside of Kyoto
Vending machines
Debra loves vending machines
Osaka Metro
Debra on the Osaka Metro
Glica
Glica running man in Osaka

Ireland

I went to Ireland earlier this month. I flew in and out of Dublin but I had visited the capital city about 10 years ago on a long weekend when I was studying in London so, I took the opportunity to quickly catch up there, but I tried to spend the rest of my time in other parts of the country. In that vain, I took a daytrip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and then went to Cork for one night (basically two days). I enjoyed my time in all the cities. Cork was very quaint and Belfast was larger than I imagined. All of the political murals in the city are pretty far from the city centre and I took a Black Cab tour to see them.

The visit there was pretty quick and there was a lot of time spent on Irish Rail, but it was nice to get away and relax and not be hurried into seeing a million things.

A few photos from my trip are below and the rest can be found on my Flickr page.

The MAC
Lobby at The MAC
streetlight
Streetlights in Cork
Cork
View of Cork from the Church of St Anne
pews
Pews in St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork

747-800I and Dolomites Ski Trip

I had the opportunity to take a ski trip to Italy where my father was working and was fortunate enough to be able to fly Lufthansa’s newest aircraft, the latest Boeing 747, the 747-800 Intercontinental. Lufthansa was the first commercial airliner to take delivery of this plane, and service between Washington Dulles and Frankfurt launched last April, the aircraft’s first route. The bird features Lufthansa’s redesigned business-class seat (the upper deck is all business class), and I was excited to get to try it out.

Since I was flying business class and have gold status within the Star Alliance, I was able to go into the Senators Lounge in Dulles (as compared to the “regular” Business Class Lounge next door). I mostly fly United and am pretty familiar with the fare offered at their United Clubs, which mainly consist of free beer, wine, trail mix and chocolate-covered pretzels. To say I was wowed by the Senators Lounge would be an understatement. Servers were always walking around the lounge making sure everything was okay, offering you more beer or food, and picking up your empty plates and glasses. The food spread was pretty remarkable, and it allowed me to get an early dinner thus creating more time to sleep on the plane.

lounge entrance
Entrance to the Lounge
sandwiches
Sandwiches and Salads in the Lounge
dinner
The beef and the potatoes were my favorite
desserts
Desserts

On the plane, the seat was extremely comfortable and it did fold out into a 180° lie-flat bed. I found the firmness of the bed to be particularly conducive to a sound sleep (and the Ambien I took after dinner). Note for next time: even though I enjoy the aisle seat, there is a large storage space at the window seat so next time I will pick a seat there.

Lufthansa Business Class Seats
Lufthansa Business Class Seats
Leg Room
Ample Leg Room

The dinner was fine but seeing that I had somewhat of a dinner service in the lounge and not wanting to waste valuable time not sleeping, I chose the express dinner service, which was the dinner meal without the hot item (beef or fish in this instance). To make up for it, the flight attendant was pretty insistent that I have both desserts – the cheese plate and chocolate cake – and really, who am I to resist?

dinner
Dinner

The one “problem” with these flights (and this is about the ultimate in first world problems, I know) is that you are served a breakfast before landing in Frankfurt, you have access to the lounge in Frankfurt with ample breakfast options, and when you board your next flight, you are given a descent breakfast, too. I didn’t eat in the lounge so I figured that two breakfasts wouldn’t kill me. The breakfast on the flight from Frankfurt to Milan was quite good, actually, and the muesli may have been one of the best I’ve ever had. Of course, then I realized that the milk they give you for the cereal is whole milk and when you are used to skim, it’s hard not to notice the difference.

breakfast 1
Breakfast on the Flight From DC to Frankfurt
breakfast 2
Breakfast on the Flight From Frankfurt to Milan

Once in Milan, we made our way to the Dolomites to go skiing. The Dolomites (Dolimiti in Italian) are in the northwestern part of the country, just south of Austria. In fact, German is widely spoken in this region of the country. We chose to ski here since we hadn’t yet, the scenery is amazing, and on the recommendation of friends. And it truly was a great experience. We bought the “Dolomiti Superski” pass, which provides access to 12 different ski areas (all connected by runs and lifts) with 1,200 km (750 mi) of slopes making up 1,300 runs. Each day was €45 ($61) as compared to the measly hills available about a two hour drive from my house at Ski Whitetail, which charges $67 for a day to access its 23 runs.

Dolomites 1
The Dolomites
Dolomites 2
The Dolomites
skiing
Me skiing

Before hitting the slopes, I downloaded a program to my phone from the Google Play store called “Ski Tracks” that uses your phone’s GPS to track your day’s ski trek. You can output the data to GPX files and load the information into Google Earth to visualize your run. It was a lot of fun.

day 1 map
Day One in Google Earth

day 1 data
Day One Ski Tracks Profile

day 2 map
Day Two in Google Earth

day 2 data
Day Two Ski Tracks Profile

The flight home, in United and back in economy, was long and uneventful. The lunch, a chicken in white sauce, was not the worst meal I’ve had on an airplane, but it did show off the difference between economy and premium cabins pretty sharply.

lunch
Lunch from Milan to Newark