that time we ran into justin trudeau: montreal memories with a million middle schoolers

ok, it wasn’t a million middle schoolers. but it was about 50, which is basically the same loud, crazy, cat-herding thing. i was a school field trip chaperone. it was insane. it was great.

our jam-packed itinerary took us to a lot of montreal’s key touristy highlights and gave us some unique opportunities for local flavor too. we learned a lot about montreal’s history, and the kids got to practice some french. based on this trip and a previous one with my dear husband, i have some insight to share.

and while you may not find yourself in a similar situation surrounded by 12 and 13 year olds, you absolutely should plan on a trip to montreal soon, because:

  1. the exchange rate is amazingly good for us americans with $.75 USD = $1 CAD.
  2. the location is easily accessible especially to northeastern/mid-atlantic folks.
  3. there’s no jet lag like going to europe, but…
  4. the culture there feels different enough to feel like you’ve traveled to someplace unique and almost-european (new france!) and…
  5. while everyone speaks french first, they also all speak english so it’s not out of the comfort zone for us no parlais francais americanos.
  6. also, poutine.

so what are the go-to things to do in montreal?

basilique notre dame (aka notre dame basilica)

Basilique Notre Dame Montreal

this amazing historic church was built in the 1800s, for a congregation with roots dating back to montreal’s earliest days in the 1600s. when it opened, “Notre-Dame Church was the largest house of worship of any religious denomination in North America,” according to its website, and it really is massive. while it is beautiful and impressive even from the outside, you should pay the price of admission to peek its interior. it is like being enveloped in a warm welcoming embrace with beautiful intricate art. the stained glass windows that line the sides are unlike many other churches because they depict scenes from montreal’s history as opposed to moments from the bible. and the original pulpit that winds up a staircase on the side is not only a work of art but functionally designed to amplify the voice of the priest in the era before microphones and electronics.

Montreal bank inside dome

bonus art find: out in the public square just outside the basilica (the place d’armes) to the left, there are two statues at the corners of the bank highrise — one of a masked englishman (known by his pug) with his nose turned up at the basilica and one of a frenchwoman (known by her poodle) with her nose turned up at the Bank of Montreal’s historic headquarters. symbolic of montreal’s history. learn more about these sculptures. that bank building (with its dome and columns) is also fun to pop into and reminds me of harry potter’s gringotts bank.

vieux port and rue st. paul (aka the old port area)

montreal’s old port area apparently reached its heyday in the 1800s and in the past 30 years, a lot of the old buildings and waterfront started getting preserved and revitalized to create this prime tourist spot. as a result, it is a very charming mix of industrial revolution era architecture, cobblestone streets, open space, hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and biking/walking paths. it’s a great place to wander and find tchotchkes during the day. you’ll find night clubs and bars at night.

Vieux Port Montreal Rue St Paul

while in this hood, check out:

pointe-a-calliere, a museum of montreal history that is built on top of an archaeological site with the remnants of constructions from the 1600s and 1700s through the early 1900s. this museum provides a really good deal of background information on the city that is useful as you play tourist. i recommend making this an early stop on any montreal trip and taking one of the guided tours if possible. we started with a “we are montreal” film that is semi-cheesy but i would still recommend it.

little stalls and booths with the wares of local artisans (and maple syrup purveyors) both in place jacques cartier and along the waterfront promenade. the maple syrup stall ladies were especially nice and allowed us to sample all sorts of maple goodness – syrup, jelly, butter… and yes we ended up picking up little jars of all three…

the promenade du vieux port, a pretty walkable and bikeable area by the water. there’s a science center and imax theater along the promenade, as well as ziplining, an indoor maze, horse and carriage rides, and lots of other activities, if you choose to do them (and pay for them)… but in my opinion you could pass on those things and just enjoy the open air and browse the converted shipping containers turned artisan stalls.

Vieux Port Montreal

cafe olimpico, a tiny coffeeshop tucked next to an alley on rue st. vincent with really friendly baristas, a bare bones but well-executed menu of espresso drinks and a few pastries. the lattes were very very good. there’s not much seating inside but it’s perfectly fine to take a cup to go and stroll the streets.

 

jardin nelson, a restaurant right on the place de jacques cartier that has a gorgeous back patio with flowers and interesting rain-catching canopies. do not sit inside – i repeat, do not sit inside. only sit in the back patio, which sometimes offers live jazz. the food is decent, but the ambiance is exactly perfect for vacation-mode dining.

2 pierrots, a rowdy bar with live music for your weekend party scene without the pomp or pretense. don’t take kids here, obviously, but if you want a fun and loud night out, i highly recommend. when we went, some of the songs were in english, some were french, the crowd sang along fiercely, and it was all good fun.

Montreal beaver tailsbeavertails, because who doesn’t like fried dough topped with all the sweet things? there are two locations within spitting distance of each other (one in the science center’s food court along the promenade and one on rue de la commune) that offer these very-montreal sweet snack with your choice of toppings ranging from nutella to apple pie filling.

mont royal (aka mount royal)

Montreal Mont Royal Belvedere

mont royal is literally a mountain (or hill) in the middle of a city. sounds weird, except it’s basically montreal’s version of central park — a dedicated public green space in the midst of a well-developed city. in fact, the park was originally designed by frederick law olmstead, the designer of central park, but his plans were never fully realized. we “hiked” (walked up a paved path) to the belvedere kondiaronk (the main lookout). there, you get a great view of the city from a wide open patio next to a chalet building. i’ve heard that in the winter months, it is brutal because of the cold and snow, but i imagine it could be especially scenic then too.

biodome and planetarium

the biodome is basically an indoor zoo. it was made in one of the olympic park buildings and showcases different ecosystems of the americas… so you walk through a “rainforest,” a “maple forest,” etc. if you like to see animals in natural-looking habitats, this can be a fun place to visit.

and while you’re there, i highly recommend getting a ticket for a show at the planetarium as well. instead of auditorium-style seating, this planetarium is outfitted with adirondack chairs and big bean bags. the most relaxing experience ever. we watched a show with a live narrator with a soothing voice and basically felt like we were hanging out and looking at the stars on a country field. i would tell you more but i don’t really remember because my mind basically entered the zone, it was so peaceful.

any nearby convenience store or grocery store

i love visiting grocery stores in new places because you can often find unusual and fun everyday things that make for good souvenirs and gifts back home, or snacks as you’re touring. and while canada is not soooo culturally different from america, you can still find gems especially in the snack and candy aisle.

like contraband kinder eggs.

why is america so concerned with the deadly threats of kinder eggs? i don’t know. but i’ve read news stories and heard tales of kinder eggs getting confiscated at the border, people getting hit with thousands of dollars in fines, the black market for kinder eggs in the states, and lots of general fearmongering about these little chocolate shells filled with joy. but they are so fun, kids love the little toy prize inside, and i love the quality of the chocolate… so rich and creamy…  anyway, pick some up at a grocery store or pharmacy, especially if you have kids.

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and don’t forget the ketchup chips.

while america has biscuits and gravy chips, pickle chips, wasabi chips, and jalapeno chips, we don’t really ~do~ ketchup chips.

but you can try them in canada! i am partial to the ketchup doritos myself.

 

another thing we did that you probably can’t do, unless you’re in a tour group: cbc/radio canada tv workshop

one of the coolest experiences these middle schoolers got to do was to run an entire CBC news broadcast. CBC/Radio Canada is canada’s public broadcasting company and runs its own major tv and radio news networks. in this tv workshop perfectly designed for student or tour groups, the kids didn’t just sit at an anchor desk and read off a teleprompter. some kids did that while others operated cameras, ran switchboards, set up microphones, gave a “live report” from a separate green screen… it was really neat to see and experience.

ok, so where’s a good place to stay in montreal?

obviously i can’t give a comprehensive comparison but what i can say is that the two hotels i’ve been to = two thumbs up.

Holiday Inn Montrealthe holiday inn centreville is located on the edge of chinatown and just two blocks from one of montreal’s major attractions, the notre dame basilica, as well as a walkable distance from the cute and touristy vieux port (old port) area, and across the street from a subway station. in other words, this is a great location, and the pricing is not bad. our tour group had breakfasts included at the hotel and it was VERY good. if you recall my excitement at the asian breakfast additions at the waikiki hyatt place, then you should know this hotel had congee with fixins and chow mein alongside eggs, ham, french toast, fruit, pastries and other standard breakfast fare. i loved it. the french toast was also an amazingly light and delicious french toast, not the frozen/sticks/superprocessed kind. the hotel also has a huge koi pond, a small indoor pool with grungy-looking hot tub and sauna.

the auberge du vieux port is a much more luxe and romantic option. this hotel in a building from the 1800s overlooks the st. lawrence river from its front side and overlooks the touristy-and-cute rue st. paul from the back side. we stayed in a room with exposed brick walls where you could open the old historic-looking window and prop yourself on the ledge looking down on the cobblestone street. it is really lovely.

what’s the best way to get around montreal?

Vieux Port Montreal stop signfor a place that spends half the year in perpetual winter, montreal is an amazingly bike-friendly city. the bixi bikeshare program makes renting a bike possible for almost anyone and there are places to park and lock a bike literally everywhere. and so many bike lanes! there’s a really nice path that runs along the st. lawrence river in vieux port that i would have loved to ride (if i had time and didn’t have all the middle schoolers and if it wasn’t raining), but there are plenty of other routes as well.

the montreal metro (subway) system is not bad either. if you choose to stay at the holiday inn centreville mentioned above, there is a station just across the street. you have to get a card and swipe your way through the gate, a lot like new york city’s subway system… except noticeably less grimy. a fun side note about montreal’s system is that there is a section where a few stations are connected via an “underground city” with miles and miles (or should i say kilometers) of shops like one gigantic underground mall. so if you want to take advantage of the exchange rate and get some shopping in while avoiding the elements, this is the way to do it. as for me, a mall is a mall is a mall and i’d rather be somewhere else less generic, in general.

as for whether you should drive around the city yourself or not, i’d go with not. driving and parking around montreal in my experience can be a tremendous pain. like driving around in any other major city, it can get very congested, there always seems to be construction going on on some major arteries, and the parking signs are confusing as hell–even more confusing than the multiple conflicting signs often seen in d.c., and that is saying something. all the road signs are in french, which is not that big of a deal (e.g. the Arret sign looks like a stop sign) but just provides one more small reason to ditch the car for the duration of your stay.

and don’t forget to eat poutine

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french fries topped with savory gravy and cheese curds is the classic version of this dish (pictured here with smoked meats and cole slaw from a restaurant called brisket montreal). but there are tons of variations from bacon/cheddar toppings to brie/red peppers. check out one of poutineville‘s many locations for a wide variety of poutine in heaping huge portions. or if you see it on the menu somewhere, just order it and try it. you can’t leave montreal without trying it at least once.

but what’s this about justin trudeau?

in a serendipitous crazy coincidence of time and place, we met the prime minister of canada justin trudeau on the streets of old montreal. actually, more accurately, i should say we screamed and waved like stereotypical american lunatics on an otherwise quiet street with a handful of calm canadian onlookers. and he waved back to us.

we had just found cafe olimpico as i was starved for good coffee, and found several suits with earpieces hanging around with a few black cars with tinted windows lining the narrow street. curious, my co-chaperone asked the barista what was going on… “oh the prime minister is having a meeting next door.” um what. JUSTIN TRUDEAU??! we went outside the coffee shop and then literally two minutes later, he was next to us, going for a jog. there was basically no one around except his security detail, some restaurant workers across the street and me, my co-chaperone and four girls.

i tried to explain to our group that this was the equivalent of being an overseas visitor walking around doing touristy things in washington, d.c., and happening upon the most popular president in recent history.

we should have gotten a picture but it was so unexpectedly quick, all i have is this story to tell. some of the other chaperones in the big group thought we were making things up… but trust, we know who justin freaking trudeau is, and it was really effing him! this was also during the time that the house had just voted to repeal the aca. sigh…

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so there you have it. an ode to montreal and trip report and guide all in one. and here’s a collage of moules frites, an exit sign, the olympic pool and a radio canada studio.

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surfing, sea turtles, sand, garlic shrimp and poke: oahu, hawaii with kids #takemeback

sometimes the universe hands you craziness and sometimes the universe hands you last-minute work trips to paradise that you must piggyback with a family vacation. so it was last fall. with about one month’s notice, we drained our reward points for flights, pulled the kids out of school for a week (don’t judge me brah) and experienced the wonders of hawaii.

seeing as how winter just gave us a pile of lame icy snow, i figure it is a nice time to revisit our magical trip to the land of aloha this past fall.

people on various local travel forums advised it was a waste of time to spend fewer than 10 days in hawaii especially because of the time change and long flights from the east coast, but we spent 5 nights (with a 6th on a redeye flight) and maximized the heck out of that time. even with the miserable redeye trip home with 2 kids who couldn’t get comfortable, i have #noragrats.

north shore oahu beach

we split our time between waikiki and the north shore on the island of oahu. this allowed us to experience both the hustle & bustle of the tourist epicenter of waikiki beach and also the more laidback, rural, jurassic park atmosphere of the north shore. (really, they filmed jurassic park on the north shore, who knew.)

now obviously this is not an exhaustive list of possible places to go or things to do, but these were the hits, and mostly i am just recounting them so i can relive the fun… (also recently i’ve been planning for other future trips, and i’ve realized that blog travel reports from real people–especially real parents–are gold. so if you are planning a family trip to oahu anytime soon, this might spark some ideas.)

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honolulu picks:

hyatt place waikiki beach: top bang-for-your-buck hotel
hyatt place waikiki breakfast
rice, kimchi, pickles, miso soup! (and froot loops, oj and the usual stuff)

waikiki hotels can really run the gamut from seedy grody looking places to high rise luxury. what i was looking for was a mid-range family-friendly spot within walking distance of the beach that would NOT be $300+ per night. hyatt place  was perfect. just a couple blocks from the beach, an abc store next door (we stopped by for bottles of water and chocolate covered macademia nuts), free plentiful breakfast included (with american fare and miso soup, japanese pickles and even kimchi, my korean soul thanks you), nice clean modern rooms and decent pricing (i wouldn’t call it a steal but it was in the low 200s/night when a lot of other mid-range hotels i found were in the high 200s or 300s/night without free breakfast). valet parking was the only parking and it was a bit pricey, but that’s standard at the hotels in waikiki. and there was no hidden resort fee as some hotels have started charging to cover for low-sounding rates (pro tip: check the fine print). in short, i definitely would stay here again.

kuhio beach: perfect for kids

“waikiki beach” actually has several sections, all of which are actually pretty small but known for different things, and as luck had it, we ended up in kuhio beach–arguably the most little-kid-friendly section of waikiki. because of a wall not too far from shore that blocks the waves, this section of water is very calm. in other words, there isn’t any surfing or bodyboarding in this little section of beach which makes for perfect floating and wading, especially for little ones.

kuhio beach

ono seafood: fresh, tasty and cheap poke

with almost 2,000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating on yelp, i figured if we were going to have poke (pronounced poe-keh), this was the place to go. it was amazing! ono seafood is a hole-in-the-wall, cheap, quick takeout place that offers deliciousness with punchy flavors. for less than $10, you can get a pile of rice and delicious cubes of ahi tuna or tako octopus seasoned in your choice of asian flavors and a drink on the side. not bad, not bad at all…. the only warning i would give is that even the shoyu option which didn’t sound spicy ended up being a little spicy. which is great if you like some spice, but not so great if you’re sensitive to it (like our kids). the only other warning i would give is that there are only two or three parking spots out front and only one little picnic table outside, but we had no trouble parking on the street around the corner, picked up more food at a restaurant across the street and took everything back to our hotel to eat in the open-air lobby.

aloha stadium swap meet: affordable souvenirs

apparently a lot of international visitors like to shop at high-end designer shops in waikiki so there are a lot of expensive stores on the main drag near the beach. for the rest of us wp-1489934288770.jpglooking for hawaiian and asian tchotchkes and bargains, i recommend the aloha stadium swap meet. on certain days of the week at certain times (check the website), you can drive in for $1/person to find vendors in endless stalls of souvenirs, hawaiian shirts, beach dresses, swimsuits, ukeleles, coffee beans and more, and the prices are good and low. you should aim to arrive early to get in easily and secure a parking spot. and just fyi, there were a lot of coffee stalls but i found most of it underwhelming (thankfully, they offer samples before you buy so you can make your own judgment) except for hawaii’s local buzz coffee, which was great. while there is a lot of the same stuff (and honestly a lot of junky stuff) from stall to stall, there are some great cheap souvenir finds and some great gems to be found… like this cute totoro backpack for $16!

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and ukes… all the ukes.
island vintage shave ice: literally the best

THE BEST SHAVE ICE EVER EVER EVER. i may not be a shave ice expert but i know when something tastes really damgood. skip the other hyped places and just go to island vintage shave ice everyday twice a day. it was a bit hard to find because the front is facing away from the street, but man oh man, it is amazing. their fruit syrups are clearly made with real fruit, the mochi pieces are handmade, the ice is a pillowy consistency, there’s froyo/soft serve in the middle, and the flavor combos are on point. other places may be cheaper and have bigger mounds of ice but they also use those really artificial-looking and tasting syrups and this just holds no comparison. if for some reason you can’t get here, wherever you go, i recommend saying yes to the ice cream in the middle, condensed milk, mochi and azuki beans.

north shore picks:

north shore surf girls: awesome surf lessons for kids and adults

one simply cannot visit the north shore of oahu and NOT go surfing. home to the banzai pipeline and the little beach town haleiwa, it’s a thing here. it was my one thing i had to do. so after reading reviews and finding a highly rated woman-led outfit i signed up my daughter and myself for group lessons with north shore surf girls. our lessons took place at chun’s reef, a place with calm waves and beautiful surroundings without being too crowded. it was amazing, exhausting, beautiful, fun, crazy. our instructors were super kind and especially good with my daughter. she rocked it. i couldn’t believe my eyes watching this kid ride wave after wave. meanwhile i crashed and burned and crashed and burned. literally my arms were burning. the hardest part was not balancing on the board but fighting the waves to paddle out. i did manage to get up 2.5 times, considered that a win, and then called it quits, paddled for what seemed like forever to the shore, collapsed on the sand out of breath and said i’d never do it again. (still, i firmly believe everyone should do this at least once.)

laniakea beach: say hi to the sea turtles
sea turtle
dude, mr. turtle is my father.

just a bit north of haleiwa (and right near next to chun’s reef), there’s a well-known sea turtle hangout at lanieakea beach. it’s not marked, but there tends to be a horde of cars parked across the street and lots of people standing around the beach. while we didn’t see any sea turtles up on the sand, we did see a few of them swimming and getting tossed around the waves, living the life. the crazy thing is… when i was dying of paddling back to shore from surfing, apparently i paddled right by one of these guys. a woman on the shore was pointing wildly to a spot right in front of me saying “look at the sea turtle!!” but i couldn’t see it because of the glare of the sun on the water and because of the dizzying exhaustion.

waimea valley: swim under a waterfall!

in the spirit of continued bucket-listing, i found out about this botanic garden tucked in a valley that has a little waterfall and offers the opportunity to swim. waimea valley is, oddly enough, a converted ex-amusement park. but the best part is the waterfall. even the little ones can do the waterfall swim because they make everyone wear a life jacket and life guards are onsite, so it feels like a very safe, controlled adventure–perfect for young ones and nervous parents. the .75-mile walk through the garden was interesting too. we learned the big beautiful trees we kept seeing were monkeypod trees and we saw lots of pretty flowers and cool plants we don’t have at home. if you decide to go, there’s an admission fee to get in and you will want to check to make sure the waterfall is open (the first day we tried, it was closed for a movie shoot) and don’t forget your swimsuit and towels.

camaron food truck: garlic shrimp with a twist
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coconut shrimp (left) and garlic shrimp (right)

while checking out the north shore, the other must-do is to eat garlic shrimp out of a food truck. there are many of them. giovanni’s might be the most famous one and the standard-bearer, but after trying both, i think camaron is better. located in the thick of haleiwa’s cute little shops, it’s a great pick for post-surfing. what sets the camaron truck apart from the others is their thick luscious cream sauce. it’s not the “traditional” style of of shrimp being fried with a metric crap ton of minced garlic, but it is really very good. and still very garlicky. there are a few umbrellaed picnic tables in front of the truck AND–#winning–you can use your credit card to pay for your meal. i also appreciate that they put vegetables on the plate. most of the hawaiian-style places we visited would load you up with scoops of white rice and macaroni salad, so the glimpse of fresh veggies was a sight for sore eyes…

polynesian cultural center: like an immersive Moana experience

wp-1489934352322.jpgperhaps one of oahu’s biggest tourist traps, the polynesian cultural center is basically a living museum. now that moana is out, i think of it as a moana immersion experience and i mean that in a good way. while it is indeed very tourist trappy, i still think it’s a worthwhile place to spend a day. it’s educational and entertaining and provides a lot of information on cultures you don’t often have a chance to learn about. they have a lot for the kids too, from learning a hula dance to playing games to weaving palm leaves into hats and fishes. if the kids get their “passport” stamped enough, they can also get a little prize at one of the shops outside the gate.

wp-1489877375546.jpgtickets are expensive and vary based on whether you want to stay for the luau, have dinner, watch a show and other things. if you are DoD, i highly recommend stopping by one of the mwr offices in honolulu to get significantly discounted tickets. if you don’t know what that means, i highly recommend at a minimum buying your tickets online in advance (save 10% when you book 10 days in advance). you can also look into getting an entertainment book coupon. we did a package that included a luau and the evening show. i liked the luau, which included a fresh flower lei, buffet food and some fire-throwing and audience dancing. we also paid a little extra once we got there for a smoothie in a cut-out pineapple, because why not. the show looked like it would be great too but we didn’t last more than 20 minutes because, exhaustion. it was a long day and i think staying awake through the show was too high of an expectation. thankfully, we stayed at the hotel right across from the parking lot of the center which made getting to bed easy.

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so that about sums up the top highlights. there were some things we didn’t get to do, because of limitations with time (i would have liked to snorkel at hanauma bay) and limitations with patience (there’s no way we were taking the kids to pearl harbor)… but in all, it was an amazing trip. we did so many fun things, and people were so friendly to us. maybe it’s because i’m asian american, maybe it’s because the kids are hapa, but people often asked if we were locals and everyone we encountered was so nice to our kids. (one person even gave us a locals discount at a shop even though we told her we were mainlanders…”well, your kids are cute so i’ll give you the discount anyway”)

we live pretty far, but one day we will go back and do more, see other islands, stay longer, eat more spam and eggs…

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so many rainbows, everywhere, all the time.

happy christmas

it was a negative billion degrees outside but i had a brilliant idea.

the kids would stand in the middle of historic main street, with its cute brick pavement and sidewalks, cute little shops, and the glimmer of the water in the distant background.

so we waited for a break in traffic.

and risked our lives…GO GO HURRY STAND IN THE STREET AND HUG AND LOOK HAPPY SAY CHEESE OK NOW GO BACK IN THE CAR, the camera battery died, and we went home.

after downloading the pictures, we realized….

“mom, this looks like we’re in front of a green screen.”

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happy christmas everybody.

 

now i ain’t saying she a clam digga: your beginner’s guide to clamming…mostly if you’re going to cape henlopen in delaware

for the first time in a bazillion beach camping trips, we finally had no rain and no crazy storm where i thought the tent would collapse and we would die from a lightning strike. it was amazing!

it had been so long since we had nice weather while camping that i forgot exactly how pleasant it could be. it was nothing like the time that a thunderstorm whipped the tent around so violently i stood up holding the poles inside praying we wouldn’t die while the kids slept like logs. it was not like the time the sky kept spitting rain on us so we lit a fire while holding an umbrella over it only to have the fire keep smoking us out. it was also not like the time our whole entire site was sitting in 3 inches of rainwater so we set up on higher ground but then it rained and water leaked into the tent anyway.

this time, it was perfect — sunny, 80s, no real humidity, not too many bugs.

AND this time, we discovered new things… like clamming. as in digging. for clams. also known as quahogs.

none of us really knew what we were doing. so i looked up youtube videos and online forums to figure out what we needed to do…. and little of it was actually helpful in the end. like, i watched videos like this one and thought: ha! easy peasy! i can totally do this! you just take the rake and push the mud around and voila….

yeah. it didn’t exactly work out like that.

so i’ve decided to document some tips. from one beginner to another. keep in mind i’m obviously not an expert. but clamming also isn’t rocket surgery either.

tips for clamming… (especially for quahogs at cape henlopen state park in delaware):

first things first. obey the law: if you are an adult and want to go clamming in delaware, you need a fishing license. kids under 16 years old don’t need a license. and don’t try to go without — because chances are, you’ll get caught as natural resources officers make their rounds. luckily, cape henlopen makes it easy to get one on the spot at their tackle shop. note that it’s cash only to get one though. and looky here, it appears you can even purchase your license online. (fun fact: in maryland, if you’re a maryland resident, you don’t need a license to clam.)

also know the legal size for clams you can keep. the tackle shop can give you a ruler that has a notch for easy clam measuring. if a clam fits in the notch (1.5 inches long), it is too small and needs to be put back into the wild. if it doesn’t fit, it’s good for keepsies. the officers checked the sizes of our small ones… so don’t try to get away with keeping illegals!

equip yourself: we brought one trusty gardening hand rake and a plastic bucket and dishwashing gloves. it worked out ok, but with three of us clamming, we pretty quickly ditched the gloves and took turns using the rake. next time, i would make sure each person has either a hand rake (which is good) or a long-handled rake with sturdy tines (which is better) or a smallish shovel (which we saw a lot of other people using so i assume is good too). if you’re feeling fancy, you can get a rake with a built-in basket. or even waders to get out into the water. or rain boots to keep your feet out of the muck. but are these totally necessary? nah… some people also swear by just using your hands, but i found the rake a lot easier for finding a clam. for storing your clams, you can get a bucket and just put ocean water in it. or you could use a net or a bait bucket or an onion bag suspended in the water. i like the idea of an onion bag inside of a bucket for easy water-changing. think i’ll do that next time.

this was all we had between three people…. *sob*

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timing is everything: look up the time for low tide, then plan to clam within the timeframe from a couple of hours before to a couple of hours after low tide. note in delaware, you can’t clam at night, which should leave you with one time for low tide during the day. if you have to buy fishing licenses, give yourself time to do that too.

the reason why you want low tide is because of access. we walked out to sand bars exposed by the waning tide and did most of our digging above water, in the wet sand. you can rake under the water like i’ve seen on youtube but… we obviously did not want to be using this stumpy little hand rake in water where we can’t see anything and don’t know what we’re doing… so we stuck to the exposed sand bars. it was easier to rake and see what we’re raking.

location is everything: at cape henlopen, there are some areas where you’re allowed and not allowed to clam. by the fishing pier, clamming is permitted to the right of the pier if you are facing the ocean. so like noobs we started at the exposed sand bars along the closest point from the beach access next to the pier. and we got nothing. then we started noticing people farther out were getting clams, so we moved out and hit our tiny jackpot too. so i’d recommend going out farther from the pier as opposed to going closer.

what we realized from this exercise of digging for 1.5 hours before hitting anything was that the location was more important than any skill or tools. duh, you say. well we thought maybe we were just lacking in our ability to dig fast enough or lacking in our ability to find the right kind of air holes in the sand. but it turns out, we were just in unproductive locations at first.

so how do you actually do it then: when digging for quahogs–aka the hard clams–what you are looking for while walking on the exposed wet sand bars is a small slit of a hole that looks like someone jammed a key into the sand and pulled it out. then you dig under it with hopes of revealing a beautiful clam of legal size. that’s the short version of the instructions.

those squirtholes supposed to be the telltale signs of clams underneath. HOWEVER… there are lots of holes and we couldn’t always distinguish between a round one v. a key-shaped one v. something else, so we just dug everything. what i do know is if you don’t hear the clang of your rake hitting a sturdy shell pretty early on, you probably won’t find anything so give up and move on. they were merely 2-3 inches beneath the surface, and while people told us to dig quickly because they’ll move, we didn’t find them especially mobile. i think the razor clams are known for being faster.

if you have a long-handled rake, you could alternatively rake the sand under shallow water until you hit something, like i saw in some other youtube videos… but then you’d really have to rely on feeling your rake hitting something and pulling it out to check. i’d have no idea how to do this based on feeling alone because even while looking at our piles of raked up sand/mud goo, i sometimes got confused by the clang of small snails and shells.

once you find a clam, rinse it off, measure it, and keep it if it’s big enough!

keep the clams alive: once you start catching clams, keep them alive until you’re ready to eat them. we kept ours in  bucket filled with ocean water. you don’t want them to die because you shouldn’t eat dead or damaged ones… something about bacteria and poison and the plague.

you caught ’em, so cook ’em: before you dine on your harvest, you should give the clams somewhere between 1-3 hours to spit out their grit. what we did was soak them in salted tap water in a pot for a couple of hours then lift them up out of pot so as not to stir up the grit, and rinse them. i’ve heard of other people keeping their clams suspended in the ocean water overnight in a net or bag, and i’ve also heard of people using straight tap water for a shorter amount of time so as not to kill them prematurely. but the idea is that you want to give them some time to have a final purge so you don’t bite into pockets of sand.

i suppose you could eat the quahogs raw if you really wanted to, but i usually prefer my clams steamed or chowdered or battered/fried. since we were camping and short on equipment, we grilled them over the fire until they opened up then dipped them in melted butter heated over a little camp stove. SO FRESH. SO GOOD. TOTALLY DOING THIS AGAIN.

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and maybe now would be an appropriate time to mention that we only ended up getting seven legal buggers in about 3 hours. so hopefully we’ll hit a bigger jackpot next time since we are now one step closer to knowing what the hail we’re doing.

 

 

 

survived my first (disney) cruise. ask me anything.

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guys, i have a problem. since returning from our first disney cruise for spring break, i’ve been eyeing future potential cruise dates with a crazy obsession. that was back in march, and i’ve been checking prices at least once a week since then. how did this happen?

i never thought i’d be a cruising person. mostly because i get horrifyingly barfy from riding anything that moves: trains, buses, vans, ferry boats, cabs, any cars driven by other people…

when i used to commute via the local subway system, i used to have to sit sideways and do breathing exercises to stop myself from puking. even now, when i smell the stale air of an enclosed metro station, i feel uneasy.

i also never thought i’d really get into the all-inclusive/resort-life type of vacation. one of the best parts of being in a new place is spending hours in the weeks before a trip researching the crap out of every non-chain restaurant and finding the perfect hipster coffee shop to swing by.

so there was never any way i was going to trap myself on a moving buffet cabaret over the ocean.

but then the kids started bugging me, the commercials started looking interesting, the strangers on the internet started talking about the special nature of disney cruises, blah blah, spent an arm & leg, feared we’d regret it but #yolo.

and…it was faith-trust-and-pixie-dust awesome.

our kids had a blast, we parents didn’t lose our minds, the shows gave me the warm nostalgic fuzzies (i know all the words to a lot of disney songs), the food was surprisingly pretty good, and i only felt sick for a bit on the first night.

so since nobody really wants to read a chronological play-by-play about anything these days, here are some of my personal highlights from this trip.

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1. motion sickness didn’t kill me! hooray!

in the time that i did feel motion-sick, it was more like a dizzy/floaty-headed feeling, not nausea. i felt like i needed to lie down. i felt sort of hung over. it was weird.

so then i became friends with meclizine, which is offered for free in the medical center in packets of chewable tablets. accupressure “sea bands” didn’t do it for me. (now a fun drugfact, because a lot of people don’t seem to know this: meclizine is the name of the actual drug, listed as the “active ingredient,” but you can buy this as bonine or even as dramamine in its less drowsy version. those are brand names. you usually pay more for brand names. but they have the same active ingredient. so don’t ask a large forum of people whether you should buy bonine or dramamine or generic meclizine if all three packages list the exact same active ingredient, as i’ve seen others do…)

2. disney literally owns the place where childhood nostalgia, happiness and innocence intersect.

play just the first few seconds of a song from peter pan and suddenly the world feels warmer and cheerier. add in turquoise waters, palm trees, and unlimited ice cream, and that magical happiness stuff is on. lock.

there was a point during one of the shows, where they ran through every major disney movie song from the past 30 years, and i just kept smiling and exclaiming to my side-eyeing daughter: this is SO AWESOME. she gave me an epic side-eye.

there are also lots of chances to meet characters. and lots of fun infused into everything, like our dining servers crafting green cloth napkins into peter pan hats.

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they told him he was a codfish.

3. kids’ clubs are the best thing ever.

why have we never vacationed with a kids’ club before??? this was amazing! it helps that the ship had a super cool marvel avengers section with special programs for superhero-loving kids like my son. “become iron man”??? yes. “train in the marvel avengers academy??” yes. they also had a constant rotation of interactive activities going on, from cooking classes to crazy science demonstrations. there was also a neat play area that looked liked andy’s room from toy story. as much as family vacations are good for family bonding time, it was also really nice to get a few breaks here and there where the kids would go off and do their own thing and we could hang out in the quiet adult-only pool and drink some capirinhas.

we also bought one of the kids’ club wristbands and used it to unlock the cruise ship & the places we stopped on the disney infinity game system. that’s a fun souvenir if you have disney infinity 3.0. if you don’t, be glad because it’s a total moneysuck and now is going under anyway.

 

4. nassau is nice.

for whatever reason, *coughcough*shelteredupbringing*cough*, i don’t know, a lot of internet people on these cruising forums and groups do not like the bahamas. in my trip planning, i saw a lot of advice from people saying to stay on the ship and skip nassau entirely because of reasons like it’s “scary” and “dirty” and people selling things are “pushy.”

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so of course we got off the ship and wanted to see what we could see. immediately, we encountered a lot of people selling stuff… hair braiding, bus tours, fishing tours, horse & carriage rides, trinkets, drinks… it was lively and busy and fun. i respect the hustle. it wasn’t obnoxious. we went to dunkin donuts for some iced coffees because we are addicted to them, paid in dollars and got some pretty bahamian coins in change. then we walked to junkanoo beach, which is close to the port and a public beach, therefore free to access. there were beachside bars, shacks renting all sorts of tings and lots of locals and tourists hanging out. then we continued on to experience the freshest seafood at arawak cay. this area is also known as the fish fry and has a ton of seafood restaurants and shacks with delicious food with local flavor. we went to a place called twin brother and had fresh conch salad, whole fried snapper, grilled fish, rice, beans, fresh mango smoothies… the kids loved it and it was totally worth the short walk.

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the straw market had stalls of goods for sale, like t-shirts, bags, hats and other trinkets and we haggled over fedoras and a hand-carved wooden sword with my son’s name etched into it. the salespeople were great fun to haggle with.

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5. private islands are pretty awesome.

disney’s private island, castaway cay (pronounced “key” btw), was beautiful and pristine and not too crowded and the kids played on the beach literally all day. it also has playground structures in the water, a splash pad for little kids, hammocks, beach chairs and umbrellas aplenty, and a snorkeling section with disney character statues underwater…. but we never made it out that far because my daughter freaked out after we were about 50 yards off the beach.

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we packed a lot into 3 days. next time, we’ll aim for 7 days with more ports to explore…. #takemeback

 

escape tales

once upon a time in my life, i used to escape by reading every novel on the special bestseller shelf at the bookstore.

at another time in my life, i escaped by sweating it out at clubs and parties.

 

i also used to escape by going online and doing absolutely nothing for hours on end…. ok fine, i still do this.

but now, as a completely grown and responsible adult human, i have, for the most part, developed healthier, better ways of dealing with stress.

like drinking 3 cups of coffee a day

and taking a lot of short getaways.

in fact, last month was basically a month of condensed encore vacations including great wolf lodge, assateague camping and sonoma/napa valleys. i’ve previously blogged about all three but i thought it might be worth mentioning some new things i’ve learned… so here are my tips and lessons in no particular order.

  1. don’t go camping in assateague immediately after a bad storm. our assigned site was completely underwater. as in 4″ of water that wasn’t trying to dry up. the storms also swept sand in piles and stuff that hid the road, partially hid electric fences and made some sites uneven. on the upside, the bathroom renovations look really nice at the state park!
  2. staying in sonoma is cheaper than staying in napa, and possibly even nicer. turns out sonoma valley has more of a farmy, less-commercialized feel. we stayed in a cool historic farmhouse b&b originally owned by a woman who was a freed slave turned millionaire. the garden, vineyards, horsies, olive groves and breakfast were all amazing. driving through the mountains from sonoma to napa is also fun in a dont-swerve-or-you’ll-die kind of way.
  3. if you are a beer fan in sonoma valley and decide to visit russian river brewing company, prepare to wait. even at 11am on sunday, which is when they open, the line was down the sidewalk. thankfully, if you only want to pick up some cases of pliny the elder beer, you can stand in a shorter separate line.
  4. beer and wine both hold up exceptionally well in styrofoam or cardboard-padded wine boxes when flown as checked luggage.
  5. there’s a charles schultz museum in santa rosa, ca. all the shnoopies!!
  6. at lava vine winery, you not only get to taste their wines, you get treated to the guys pouring your wines busting out a guitar and banjo to sing a soulful ballad!
  7. great wolf lodge is pretty fun at halloweentime. the kids get to trick or treat at a handful of spots around the place and collect a bagful of candy. and we all got orange wolf ear headbands!

and here are some pictures.

galbi // korean bbq beef short ribs // the secret formula recipe is still legit // let me see your grill

korean bbq galbi on grill

when people say they love korean food, this is what they’re talking about.

korean bbq.

galbi.

slabs of sliced beef short ribs marinated and grilled to perfection, with a healthy bit of char, typically served with rice and fixins and wrapped up in a lettuce leaf with a smear of korean hot sauce.

as as the summer winds down, and grilling season starts to make way for soup season, i wanted to share this recipe that brings so much joy to my life. such garlicky, sweet, salty, smoky joy.

even the most “ethnic”-averse tastebuds tend to love galbi. it’s that good.

it also happens to be pretty easy, with simple ingredients. the real challenge, however, is in the marinade ingredient proportions. too much soy sauce, and it’s too salty. too little sugar and it’s just missing a bit of somethingsomething. the trick here is the same as with the braised brother of this dish known as galbi jjim:

galbi secret formula

usually, 1 part = 1 cup for me, but if i find i need more marinade, i just increase all 3 ingredients accordingly.

now let me be clear. this secret formula is my aunt’s secret formula, and it is FOOL.FREAKING.PROOF. there have been so many times when i’ve been lured by the scent of grilling beef in a restaurant or in someone’s home, only to be let down by the flavor. but this recipe does not fail. ever.

in fact, while you could sub out sugar for honey, fruit, juice, or even sprite or jam, i don’t love the risk of messing up the ratio, so in 99.9% of cases, i just use plain jane white granulated sugar. (i used maple syrup in my galbi jjim recipe, i know, i know)

if you think it seems like a lot of sugar, too much sugar…. you’re wrong.

just give it a try.

korean bbq galbi

galbi aka korean bbq beef short ribs

makes enough for about 6-8 normal appetites, or 3-4 really hungry people who can eat a lot, i.e. me

ingredients you need:

  • approx. 3-4 lbs beef short ribs that are sliced against the grain & bone, if it’s not boneless (sometimes i see this in american grocery stores labeled as “korean style” or “korean cut” or “kalbi” or “galbi.” apparently they could also be called “flanken cut” although i’ve never seen that myself. i buy the big pack of boneless beef short ribs at costco that are thick-cut, and then just slice each thick cut into two thinner slices.)
  • 1 onion, sliced into half-moons
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 scallion stalk, chopped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame oil (you can usually find a small bottle of this in any grocery store’s ethnic food aisle)
  • a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds (also typically in the ethnic aisle)

additional ingredients/fixins you might want for serving:

  • red lettuce leaves or romaine leaves for wrapping
  • cooked white rice
  • chopped scallions
  • ssam jang, also known as a korean spicy bean paste/sauce, which adds a punch of flavor to korean lettuce-wrapped bites of bbq meat. i also like to use this as a dip for plain slices of cucumber, lettuce leaves, baby carrots… while this sounds like a really obscure thing to get a hold of, i’ve bought it from my local wegmans. it looks like this, unrefrigerated in the asian food section, and i store it in the fridge after opening.
  • kimchi (it’s ok, even if you don’t like kimchi, you will still like galbi, and i will forgive you.)
  • quick-pickled veggies like cucumbers or chayote squash or radishes

ingredients i sometimes see as galbi fixins in other people’s recipes that strike me as just plain wrong:

  • cilantro
  • wasabi

i mean, i’m all for creative freedom, so you do you… but i just can’t.

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what you do:

marinate your meat the night before. this way, you’ll get the maximum effect of flavor.

to start, rinse off your galbi meat or let it soak in water, just to let out some of the blood and get rid of any bone bits if you’re using bone-in slices.

place the meat, onion slices, minced garlic and chopped scallions in a big baking dish or other container/ziploc bag. (i find a big baking dish easiest). pour sugar over the meat slices, then add the soy sauce, water and sesame oil.

massage it all together to get the ingredients combined. (the main thing i try to do is to get the sugar on all sides of the meat)

sprinkle sesame seeds on top.

cover with plastic wrap and/or foil (or seal your ziploc bag) and place in the refrigerator overnight.

the next day, when the meat is good and marinated, fire up your grill and cook the slices for a few minutes on each side over medium high heat to get a good char on the outside, then turn the heat down, cover the grill and let it go a few minutes longer until it’s to your preferred level of doneness. if this seems imprecise, it’s because cooking galbi is a little like cooking steak. you might prefer it with a pink middle, or you might prefer it fully cooked. personally, i like my steak medium but my galbi well done with crispy edges.

grilling offers the best results, but if you can cook this on the stove or under a broiler. i highly recommend starting with high heat to get a good caramelized sear before cooking it through.

serve with lettuce leaves, rice, chopped scallions and ssam jang. or just eat it plain off the grill.

korean bbq galbi beef  korean bbq galbi