Big City Tales

A Summer’s Tale of Two Desert Cities

November 2, 2017
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As anyone who lives in a desert climate can attest, summer typically isn’t the best time to visit. Oppressive heat, turbulent winds and crowded pools top the list of reasons to stay away, but there are just as many compelling reasons to go. In 2014, I threw caution to said heat, winds and crowds and headed to Palm Springs, California in July and Phoenix, Arizona in August. Here is my summer’s tale of these two desert cities…

PALM SPRINGS – It’s Hip to Be Cool 

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Palm Springs has long been a weekend get-away and/or permanent residence for the rich and famous, but the city also holds a special appeal for the ever-growing breed of ‘snowbirds’ from Canada longing to escape the doldrums of winter or, in my case, a rainy spring/summer. With 350+ days of sunshine and very little annual precipitation, I eagerly soaked up the dry, warm air that hits you immediately like opening an oven door. Upon landing at Palm Springs International and strolling through the Sonny Bono Concourse, I was also reminded of the city’s show business/Hollywood playground notoriety first made popular by iconic stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore dating back to the 1940s and onward. It was hip then for the “Chairman of the Board” and his “Rat Pack” friends to hang out in Palm Springs, and it’s still cool in the 21st century to venture to this desert oasis.

Soak Up the Sun, Bask in the Color

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In the summer, traditional desert plants bloom in a frenzy of bright, bold colors and grow in a variety of interesting shapes and sizes, such as the Golden Barrel Cactus above.

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Surprisingly, flower beds and shrubbery also flourish. I was delighted to discover that the grounds of Indian Wells Tennis Garden were ablaze in shades of burgundy, fuschia, pink and purple with hints of white. Even though the facility is more active earlier in the year when it hosts the annual BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, it would appear that the grounds are immaculately maintained year-round making for prime picture-taking no matter what month you visit.

Find the Fun in Funky Public Art

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While window shopping at The Gardens on El Paseo, my eyes happily landed on a painted big horn sheep fittingly named ‘Spring Time’ owing to its floral motif and bright/cheery color scheme. As I subsequently discovered, the statue is not just a random, funky art piece; it’s part of an initiative that was sponsored by the Bighorn Institute back in 2002 to bring attention to the plight of the Peninsular desert bighorn sheep that are endangered in the Coachella Valley. There are 33 other sculptures found throughout the region and the project known as ‘Path of the Bighorn’ continues to attract positive attention for a good cause.

PHOENIX – The Valley of the Sun Heats Up BIG TIME in the Summer

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With the temperature soaring well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and barely a breath of wind to offer any cool relief, it did not surprise me to find the streets of downtown Phoenix pretty much empty during my mid-August visit. Even shaded benches and inviting water features in the city’s core could only entice a few people to venture outside the comfort of air-conditioned buildings. As I quickly discovered, the blazing sun (as depicted above in the decorative copper sculpture at City Hall) really heats up in the summer and taking cover is a must in order to keep from feeling like a wilted flower or fried egg!

Taking Cover in the Arts

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As luck would have it, West Side Story happened to be playing at the Herberger Theater Center and last minute tickets were available. Although it was a local high school theater group putting on the show, the teens gave it their all and it had the look and feel of a full Broadway production. Tonight, tonight, I was feeling all right in the comfort of a cooled room and a bunch of cool cat Jets and Sharks singing and dancing up a storm.

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With its permanent collection ranging from Western American to Asian and European, as well as Contemporary and Modern holdings, another great spot to escape the heat was at the Phoenix Art Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around this expansive space, the largest museum in the US southwest, and admiring some of its more than 18,000 objects. The Nude Man sculpture below was gifted to the museum on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms feature many historically accurate and highly detailed interiors, the one shown being an Italian dining room circa 1500.

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Taking Cover in the US Airways Center

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Having never attended a WNBA game, I was excited to learn that the Phoenix Mercury were in town and that the team was playoff bound boasting the best record in the league. On a steaming hot Saturday night outside, the temperature-controlled stands were a nice reprieve but the mercury would soon be rising.  Indeed, the Mercury Train inside was in full motion and the action quickly heated up with one roaring rally cry after another! The players were pumped, the fans were vocal and their boisterous support helped the home team come away with another win. Go Mercury! Turn It Up! NOISE!

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Taking Cover in the Cool-ish Morning Air

Not wanting to completely shy away from the desert heat, I figured an early morning walk was the best way to enjoy the outdoors. I was rewarded with crystal clear, electric blue skies, a slight breeze and just the right amount of warmth to make my stroll around the downtown campus of Arizona State University absolutely delightful (and, by the way, perspiration free!).

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The Moral of the Tale of Two Desert Cities Story

Truth be told, I do like warm, dry air but I have to admit that visiting the desert in the heart of the summer was too much even for this self-professed sun seeker. I’ll be back, but it will be in another season when it’s not so scorching hot out…all the better to appreciate and admire the beauty of the desert city landscape!

 

 

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A Colorful Time Out in Tucson

October 25, 2017
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Rubber Ducky, you’re the one. You make pool time so much fun. Rubber Ducky, I’m awfully fond of you…especially when you greet me in early spring on a much-needed time out in Tucson, Arizona!

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Aside from the promise of days on end of brilliant blue skies and sun-kissed golden pretty posies all in a row, mid-April turned out to be a magical time to visit the desert for other colorful reasons.

Shades of Pink

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Even from a distance, it was hard to miss the mass of pink that is the Pima County Courthouse. The surrounding gardens, full of vibrant shades of pink flowers and bushes, perfectly complemented and strikingly contrasted with the pale pink hue of the building’s Spanish Colonial exterior. Just like the soothing digestive effects of Pepto Bismol, the pinkness of the Pima County Courthouse washed over my being and definitely soothed my work-weary mind.

Purple Ribbons and Bows 

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The main entrance of Saint Augustine Cathedral beckoned me to its doors with regal — yet friendly — shimmery purple bows, presumably to coincide with the festive Easter season. The cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the building’s stone facade features numerous varieties of local desert plants.

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In an effort to enhance the cathedral’s sacred space and worship experience, a major interior and exterior restoration project was completed in recent years. An outdoor stage featuring a charming and beautiful arched canopy decorated in flowers and butterflies immediately caught my eye. From top to bottom, inside and out, I was inspired by the entire cathedral complex that can’t help but appeal to parishioners and visitors both young and old.

Fiery Red-Orange Hues of Terra Cotta 

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Perhaps one of the most distinctive colors of the desert, terra cotta truly stands out. As soon as I walked past the El Charro Cafe with its quaint windows and arched doorway, trimmed in said desert color, I knew that I would be coming back to enjoy an evening meal. Offering authentic Mexican cuisine in a casual atmosphere, I was sure to leave room for some tasty sopapillas and churros for dessert.

Goodness of Green

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While I expected to see a lot of green in the form of cactus plants, I was pleasantly surprised by the other forms of greenery I came across in Tucson, most notably the plethora of trees and shrubbery around the campus of the University of Arizona. The soft green steel benches added to the oasis garden-feel of the grounds, and I thought the precisely cut-out ARIZONA lettering provided another layer of visual interest (and probably served the purpose of instilling a healthy dose of school and state pride!).

Colors of the Rainbow

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Finishing off my tour of Tucson back in the downtown core, this public art display captured the essence of this colorful southwest gem of a city. For me, Tucson in all its spring glory proved to be the perfect place for a quick time out!

“The ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty and truth.” ~ Albert Einstein


One Town That Won’t Let You Down

October 23, 2017
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With all the wind blowing through my hometown of Calgary this fall, it’s reminded me of another great city south of the border that also starts with a ‘C’ and also has its fair share of blustery days! The winds of Chicago, Illinois may knock you down, but the town itself won’t let you down…

Yes, if there’s one thing you can count on in Chicago, it’s the ever-present wind that is either welcomed or shunned depending on the weather conditions. In the heat of the summer, a gentle breeze off of Lake Michigan cools the masses; but in the dead of winter it freezes their toes! For tried and true Chicagoans, it’s just part and parcel of the charm that comes with living in the ‘Windy City’ and many wouldn’t want it any other way.

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As the sun begins to set, the Chicago skyline begins to glimmer, shimmer, and gloriously GLOW!

Architecture

One of the redeeming qualities in this fine mid-western city, and indeed adding to its charm, is the wide array of architectural styles in the downtown core that is best observed either on a walking tour or a river cruise. Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper and you’ll have to look up, WAY up to see the tops of the John Hancock Center and the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, two structures that, in the past, have both held the distinction of being the world’s tallest buildings. Although not nearly as tall, the iconic Wrigley Building located on Michigan Avenue along the Chicago River is nonetheless just as eye-catching and holds its own as a beloved city landmark. From modern, innovative designs to classical and Art Deco treasures, there are plenty of spectacular marvels of construction to behold and admire.

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Gather with the throngs underneath the Cloud Gate Sculpture (a.k.a. ‘The Bean’) and enjoy an altered perspective of the city’s skyline.

 

Culture

When you’re done surveying the exterior of the city’s superstructures, you’ll be equally ‘blown away’ (pun intended!) with what Chicago has to offer by way of arts and culture. Public art includes The Bean, The Picasso, Flamingo, Buckingham Fountain and Agora to name but a mere few of Chicago’s popular installations that now number over 500 and are spread out across the city. Museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry are world-renowned for their collections. The Art Institute is the second largest museum in the United States and includes pieces by Monet, Chagall, Rembrandt and Dali among other treasured artists. Both the Art Institute and the Field Museum are part of ‘Museum Campus’ in beautiful and peaceful Grant Park that also features the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium.

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Baseball fans in Chicago rejoiced when the Cubs FINALLY won the World Series again in 2016.

Sports 

Not unlike other large American cities, Chicago sports fans have the luxury of many teams to throw their support behind, including two baseball franchises. While the city has had its fair share of champions, there have been some lean years, most notably the Cubs baseball team that, up until 2016, sadly held the distinction of the longest National League pennant and World Series droughts in the history of Major League Baseball. Other heralded teams include the Chicago White Sox (winners of the World Series in 1906 and 2005, representing the American League), the Chicago Bears (winners of the Super Bowl in 1985, representing the National Football Conference), the Chicago Blackhawks (winners of six Stanley Cups in 1934, 1938, 1961, 2010, 2013 and 2015, representing the Western Conference), and the Chicago Bulls (winners of six NBA Finals in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998, representing the Eastern Conference). More recently, Major League Soccer has been added to Chicago’s sports offerings and the Chicago Fire made the playoffs in 2017. Chicago also boasts a team in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the Chicago Sky appeared in the 2014 finals.

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Ahoy, it’s Navy Pier…the Midwest’s number one tourist attraction located on the shores of Lake Michigan and home of the Centennial Wheel.

Entertainment

If watching sports isn’t your idea of a good time, there are other ways to have fun and be thoroughly entertained in Chicago. With its prime lakefront location, Navy Pier is open year-round and includes more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, family attractions and exhibition facilities. The area is currently undergoing a major upgrade with the Phase 1 “Centennial Vision” project completed in 2016 adding  amenities such as a new fountain and plaza at the pier’s main entryway; a greener and modernized promenade at the south dock; an authentic Chicago Food Experience featuring deep dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, rainbow ice cream, etc.; and the grand new Centennial Wheel, the only one of its kind in the United States.

Chicago also has great appeal for fans of live music, theater and comedy productions. Musical genres associated with the city include the blues, Dixieland jazz (Chicago style), gospel, and house (electronic dance). From large Broadway shows to small local productions, there is something for all theater goers to enjoy. For those just looking for a good laugh, Chicago is home to The Second City, the well-known comedy club that has brought fame to the likes of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Bill Murray and others who honed their skills and tickled the funny bones of Chicagoans before launching their careers on the national and world stages.

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Be it by the slice or by the whole pie, Chicagoans really, REALLY love their deep dish pizza!

Food

Considered to be one of America’s best food cities, it’s not just Chicago-style pizza and the classic ballpark hot dog that have critics raving. From fine dining in Michelin star restaurants to grabbing a bite on the fly from trendy street food vendors, the Chicago food scene has something to satisfy every palate and food craving. Local celebrity chefs include Rick Bayless whose specialty is Mexican regional cooking, Stephanie Izard whose passion is casual international cuisine, Art Smith who puts his heart and soul into southern comfort food, and three star Michelin superstar, Grant Achatz, who has skyrocketed to the top of the modernist cooking movement. Not to be overlooked are other staples such as Chicago-style popcorn, the original rainbow ice cream cone, and Bertha’s famous brownie. Can’t decide what to eat? Try out one of Chicago’s food tours where you can sample the best bites at the best digs in no time at all.

My Kind of Town

In the words of songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen and as sung with such incredible vim and vigor by Frank Sinatra, Chicago IS my kind of town and I think you’ll like it too!


Getting Some Culture in the ‘City of Champions’

February 7, 2013
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Once upon a time the city of Edmonton, Alberta was well-known for producing championship winning teams in both the Canadian Football League (CFL) and National Hockey League (NHL).

With a total of 13 CFL Grey Cup titles, the Edmonton Eskimos football team ranks as one of the league’s most successful teams, and one of its most impressive dynasties in winning the Grey Cup five times in a row between 1979 and 1982.

The city’s other sports dynasty to be reckoned with in the 1980s was the Edmonton Oilers hockey club. During this period, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times and the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson became household names and local heroes.

Some 30+ years later, the city’s haul of professional sporting championships has dwindled, but even though the lustre of the ‘City of Champions’ mantra has faded, the city’s cultural scene continues to shine brightly.

Culture Comes in Many Forms

From museums to art galleries, to folk festivals and symphonic concerts, to improv theatre and street buskers, there is no shortage of cultural activities to take in throughout the year.  But it is the summer months when live theatre enthusiasts from near and far flock to Alberta’s fair provincial capital, particularly mid-to-late August when the annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (a.k.a. ‘The Fringe’) takes place in the historic Old Strathcona district.

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One of many public art installations around Sir Winston Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton.

The Fringe

The Fringe celebrates a variety of theatrical mediums, including improv, comedy, drama, and mystery productions staged in both indoor and outdoor venues. The festival also features a large offering of street performers, such as acrobats, musicians, magicians, puppeteers and other acts eager to display their talents and earn audience applause, as well as a few dollars for their efforts.

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The Fringe is a ‘colourful’ two-week celebration and decorative posters from the past add to the festivities.

As summer festivals go, The Fringe is the largest of its kind in North America and for over 30 years has thrilled audiences with cutting-edge, world-class, unedited and uncensored entertainment. Add in a picturesque setting that spreads over multiple city blocks (not far off of trendy Whyte Avenue and close to the University of Alberta campus), it’s not surprising that The Fringe is a much-beloved cultural institution in Edmonton.

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Street performers come to The Fringe from around the world. This extreme cyclist/juggler hails from Australia.

Art & Architecture

For those who prefer looking at paintings over watching plays, the Art Gallery of Alberta in the city’s downtown core just east of Sir Winston Churchill Square and City Hall houses a collection of over 6,000 art pieces with both permanent installations and rotating exhibitions. Recently renovated, the building itself is a work of modernist architecture with interesting views from the street level and within its inner stairwell and exterior patio.

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The Art Gallery of Alberta is a unique work of art and a wonder of architecture in its own right.

More eye-appealing architecture is just around the corner at City Hall. Featuring two steel and glass pyramids, a 200-foot clock tower, and a water fountain, City Hall flanks the northern end of Sir Winston Churchill Square. It is a popular destination for the lunchtime business crowd, as well as weekend explorers.

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Edmonton’s City Hall is known for its glass and steel pyramid that towers high in the sky.

For history buffs and followers of Alberta politics, a trip to the Legislature Building and surrounding grounds is a definite must. Standing 176 feet high and made with 1,100 tonnes of steel, the legislature’s elegant dome dominates the western end of the downtown skyline. Meanwhile, the immaculately landscaped grounds include a water fountain, a memorial garden, a bowling green, and an assortment of statues, plus a towering totem pole.

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In 2012, the Alberta Legislature celebrated its centennial anniversary in fine style and the grounds looked lovely.

Not far from the Alberta Legislature is the iconic High Level Bridge connecting downtown Edmonton to the Old Strathcona district located across the North Saskatchewan River. Whether you cross the bridge by car, on foot, or on the High Level Bridge Streetcar, it is a marvel of construction that is designated as a Municipal Historic Resource. The High Level Bridge is also noteworthy for being the route to take from downtown to the High Level Diner, a local eating establishment that has gained wide acclaim for an array of mouth-watering comfort food menu items. Be prepared for a long line to get in, but your taste buds will thank you for waiting!

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The historic High Level Bridge spans the North Saskatchewan River and connects downtown with the University district and trendy Whyte Avenue.

Just west of the High Level Diner is the sprawling campus of the University of Alberta. Located in one of the city’s most established districts, the campus is dotted with fully grown trees along winding trails overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. Walking around the grounds, you can’t help but feel inspired by the beauty of nature and the beauty of century-old buildings such as Rutherford House, the home of Alberta’s first premier, Alexander Rutherford. Built in 1911, the house is now a provincial historic site and is supported by the Friends of Rutherford Society, a non-profit group dedicated to the home’s long-term preservation.

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Rutherford House is located on the peaceful and picturesque University of Alberta campus.

River Valley

The northern perimeter of the University of Alberta runs parallel with Edmonton’s River Valley, an extensive network of trails and parks where more natural beauty and historical gems abound. Chief among them is the Queen Riverboat, an old-fashioned paddle boat that sails day and night along the North Saskatchewan River and also offers a unique dining experience for those who enjoy partaking of a meal out on the open water.

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The Queen Riverboat operates day and night, offering a unique fine dining experience on the water.

Whether setting sail on the river, enjoying the wonder of the great outdoors in the River Valley and university areas, feasting on a sumptuous plate of steaming diner food, crossing a historic bridge, milling about with political figures past and present, admiring the work of notable Western Canadian artists, or taking in a highly lauded theatre production, getting some culture in the ‘City of Champions’ is a sure thing. And, who knows, perhaps Edmonton’s sports teams will return to their glory days and the city’s winning ways will once again become a ‘sure thing’ as well!

 


Every City Has A Silver Lining

January 24, 2013
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Prior to visiting Philadelphia in the fall of 2010, a friend of my sister’s had this to say:

“Why do you want to go to Philly?  It’s a dump!”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a city of incredible historical significance to the American people, and one that is equally proud of its rich sporting traditions, renowned cheese steak sandwiches, and refined arts community.

Undaunted by the less than favourable review, we decided to keep Philadelphia on our list of East Coast historical cities to see and made it our mission to discover the beauty within this Pennsylvania landmark.

Truth be told, the beauty was at first hard to find.

Approaching the city from the north where industrial plants are abundant, my sister and I looked at each other in a moment of utter defeat for Philadelphia did, in fact, look like a “dump!” Further, it appeared to be a veritable barren wasteland. Granted, it was a rainy, overcast day so the grey of the dimly lit sky was not helping matters, but we still couldn’t help but think we may have been a tad overly optimistic about uncovering any hidden pearls in the midst of this less than awe-inspiring scenery.

Such was our mindset as we exited left off of the interstate and headed for the inner city. With each passing mile, our spirits were buoyed and even though the rain was still pelting down with a vengeance, the city’s silver linings were nonetheless all around us shining in all their splendor.

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Feeling the LOVE in Philadelphia!

Here is a sampling of what we took in:

On the city’s south side, Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and the iconic, still-standing at the time Philadelphia Spectrum formed the impressive cornerstones of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

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The Philly Fanatic is the well-known and much-loved mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.

In the city’s core, the downtown skyline beckoned with the resplendent and expansive City Hall complex as its prime showpiece.  Another feast for the senses was the Reading Terminal Market, a large farmer’s market boasting everything from Amish specialties to more urban street fair.  The Market is definitely the place to grab a bite to eat, but be prepared to have a tough time choosing from the many diverse options.  Of course, you can’t go wrong with a classic cheese steak, whichever way you prefer it prepared! 

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Until 1987, City Hall was Philadelphia’s tallest building.

Just east of downtown, despite being in the midst of a restoration at Independence Hall, the historical district glimmered as the clouds eventually cleared on day two of our visit and the sun cast a warm, welcome glow. There’s nothing like walking the grounds where the founding fathers toiled over the United States Constitution. And you can’t miss paying homage to the Liberty Bell or visiting the National Constitution Center.

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The Signer statue sits outside Independence Hall, where the U.S. Constitution originated.

To the north, sights along the picturesque, Champs Elysees-like feel of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway included Logan Square (where the famous LOVE statue is located),  the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, and la creme de la creme, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Yo, Adrian, now that I’m champ we should climb those stairs and go see the Museum of Art!

Yes, things may have initially looked very bleak from the outskirts of Philadelphia, but the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ opened its arms and we heartily soaked up what it had to offer.

Fast forward two years and the release of the new hit movie, Silver Linings Playbook. Based in Philadelphia, the film is more than just an exploration of recovering from mental illness, it is a celebration of a great city that does, indeed, have its fair share of silver linings.  Check it out and be your own judge!

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Independence Hall was the home away from home for America’s founding fathers.


Dazzlin’ Dallas

January 3, 2013
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The distinctive and distinguished logo of the Dallas Cowboys – you can’t miss the bright blue star!

All Hail to the Sacred Stomping Grounds of “America’s Team”

Growing up with a future sports broadcaster in the house, my sisters and I watched our fair share of football, hockey, baseball, basketball, and other assorted games on TV. While I certainly did not share my brother’s aptitude for citing team and player statistics off the top of my head, I did share his appetite for getting behind a winning team and being a boisterous, supportive and committed fan.

In those days, the NFL was just starting to gain a serious viewing audience in Canada and the Dallas Cowboys were the team of choice for many national broadcasts. With a star-studded player’s bench and Super Bowl championships in tow, “America’s Team” marched straight into this Calgary girl’s heart.

It didn’t hurt that the silver, blue, and white uniforms were among the nicest in the league; not to mention the iconic star on their helmets, which was a fitting emblem for this up-and-coming franchise. Even the team’s original stadium in Irving, Texas had a special aura about it, with some players quipping that the partially enclosed roof was done intentionally so that “God could watch his favourite team play!”

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“America’s Team” in action on Thanksgiving Day 2012…the Cowboys offense looked REALLY good on the first drive of the game. After that, NOT SO MUCH!

But the stylish uniforms and impressive stadium were really just the eye candy.  Beneath the surface was a team dripping with raw talent on both sides of the ball: offensive power coupled with defensive might made for a winning combination and legions of fans got on board.

“America’s Team” had me at the first snap of the ball and it’s been a football love affair ever since. Needless to say, when my sister and I were planning our trek to Texas, prime on the agenda was attending a Cowboys’ game. As luck would have it, we would be in Dallas during Thanksgiving and we very much looked forward to seeing the new stadium (a.k.a. “The house that Jerry [Jones] built!”), as well as the team’s latest crop of top players in action against the Washington Redskins.

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The MASSIVE and AWE-INSPIRING Cowboys Stadium is located not far from Dallas in Arlington, Texas.

Ann Wilson, lead singer of the rock band Heart, sang the national anthem; Kenny Chesney, super-star country crooner, performed at half-time; Former President George “W.” and First Lady Laura Bush were in the house. Welcome to the world of the Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones, the team’s charismatic, charming owner, and official number one cheerleader!

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The family that cheers together stays together! It also helps when everyone dresses the same – even grandma was clad head-to-toe in Cowboys colours!!

Redskins Play Spoilers on Thanksgiving

While the fans heartily appreciated all of the special ‘bells and whistles’ that came with the annual Thanksgiving contest, the one thing they wanted most of all — a win by the home team — alluded the good guys in blue.  Yes, the Cowboys staged a valiant comeback effort in the second half, but in the end the Redskins’ defense held strong, sending disappointed fans home with a serious case of indigestion prior to their turkey meal!!

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Kenny Chesney and a VERY large supporting cast perform at Cowboys Stadium, marking the kick-off of the annual Salvation Army Kettle Campaign.

Fort Worth – A ‘Worthwhile’ Trip to the Suburbs

Still reeling from the Cowboys’ loss at home, we hoped to salvage our stay in Dallas by checking out local hot spots, including a trip to the suburbs.

Located a short half-hour drive away along the I-30 West, the city of Fort Worth beckons students, foodies, farmers, tourists and the like to partake of its infinite bounty. Among its valuable treasures, the Trinity River flows through the heart of the city offering locals an extensive and impressive trail system with plenty of places to visit along the way.

The patio of Chef Tim Love’s restaurant, The Woodshed Smokehouse, overlooks the river and patrons can enjoy a true feast for all of their senses while they sample Chef Love’s unique and exotic BBQ cuisine.  A little bit of pit fat soaked up with fresh tortillas never hurt anyone, nor did a rack of goat ribs or other wild game!

In the city’s downtown core, Sundance Square attracts shoppers, art lovers, and history buffs eager to experience a quaint slice of the Texas good life. On this day, preparations for the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas Parade were well underway with patrons showing up hours in advance to stake their front-row seats awaiting some BIG Texas fun.

When in Dallas, a jaunt out to Fort Worth is time well spent!

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The Woodshed Smokehouse in Fort Worth serves up some tasty and unique Texas-style BBQ!

Downtown Dallas – A Weekend Ghost Town

Notwithstanding the fact it was the Thanksgiving Day weekend, as we strolled around on a bright, sunny Saturday morning it was surprisingly quiet on the streets of downtown Dallas. Sure, there was a line-up to get into the Sixth Floor Museum and there was a crowd around the JKF Memorial, but aside from those paying homage to the presidential assassination the people traffic downtown was pretty much non-existent.  All the easier to get around one could argue and, yes, this was most certainly the case.

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The Hyatt Regency Dallas and Reunion Tower glitter in the morning sun – pretty as a postcard!

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The city of Dallas dazzles in the bright morning sun!

In short order, we managed to visit all of the major attractions situated in roughly a 10-block radius, including a stop at Neiman Marcus on Main Street, the store’s flagship location.  On the first floor of the ladies department, a spiralling tower of holiday pumps attracted our attention. In particular, one ornately jewelled pair on sale for a mere $1395.00 caught our eyes.  Very pretty, but oh so pricey – maybe next year!

Before our window-shopping side trip, we admired the view from Dealey Plaza and marvelled at the accomplishments of its namesake, George Dealey, as well as other fine citizens of Dallas who lobbied over the years to revitalize the city’s core.  Dealey Plaza is unfortunately also infamous for being the site of the JFK assassination. It thus attracts a fair share of eager tourists in search of the ‘grassy knoll’ and book depository building, now known as the Sixth Floor Museum.

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X marks the approximate spot of where JFK was shot in downtown Dallas.

Other points of interest in the downtown corridor include the Old Red Courthouse, the Main Street Garden, Pegasus Plaza, the JFK Memorial, and a highly original stone sculpture garden called Pioneer Plaza.  There’s nothing like coming across a group of rugged cowboys shown in action rounding up a rambling herd of longhorn cattle to make you stop and take notice! The plaza takes up a good couple of blocks and is a fitting piece of art work celebrating the reality of the rustic cowboy life.

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The Old Red Courthouse is home of Red Museum, documenting the full history of the city of Dallas.

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Cowboys round up a large herd of longhorn cattle at Pioneer Plaza, a VERY cool outdoor sculptural exhibit.

All told, three days in Dallas is a good introduction to the city but to really get to know the home of “America’s Team” more time is needed to explore every nook and cranny.  A return visit to this grand southern city is definitely in order and, who knows, maybe on our next visit the much beloved (and equally bemoaned!) Cowboys will be back to their winning ways!

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“MOO!” Translation: Y’all come back now, ya hear!


Amazin’ Austin

December 8, 2012
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The Frost Bank Tower in downtown Austin, Texas is the city's third tallest building.

The Frost Bank Tower in downtown Austin is the city’s third tallest building.

Austin is alive with history, the arts, music, and SO MUCH MORE!

Before I sing the praises of this lovely Texas city, a quick comment regarding a major traffic jam encountered on the I-35 North between San Antonio and Austin. Even though my sister and I thought this would be the shortest jaunt between stops on our 10-day tour de force exploration of Texas, we were sadly mistaken. We also did not take into account the fact that it was the day before American Thanksgiving, so the interstate was bustling with holiday-related traffic. Further, we did not expect that our travels may be impeded by a stretch of construction. As to the end result of all of these miscalculations, a full hour’s delay prompted a mental note to be made: DO NOT travel the roads in Texas the day before Thanksgiving!

The Driskill Hotel in Austin's historic district is where the likes of Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities choose to stay when in town.

The Driskill Hotel in Austin’s historic district is where the likes of Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities choose to stay when in town.

Whole Foods – A Foodie’s Mecca

After getting off the bustling interstate, our first stop was the Whole Foods store on North Lamar Boulevard. No self-respecting foodie would miss the opportunity to pay homage to the chain’s flagship store — a massive structure of over 80,000 square feet — offering professional chefs and at-home cooks alike access to a bevy of high quality, specialty food products.

Having arrived just before noon, the store was packed with people stopping in for lunch, as well as those trying to get a jump on picking up the fixings for their Thanksgiving meal. Good thing the store’s outdoor parking is supplemented by a two-level underground parkade. Believe me, every spot was in use and there were even attendants on hand to help direct traffic and manage the mayhem.

For two fanatics of all things Whole Foods, my sister and I thought nothing of grabbing a snack-to-go, then making plans to return for dinner later in the day! Upon our return visit, we approached the store from the NW side of the city and noticed a very unique scene.  With the sun setting in the sky behind us, the local telephone/electricity poles and hundreds of birds perched on the wires were silhouetted in the fading light.  It was a spooky and surreal sight, especially when flocks of them suddenly took flight circling the building, perhaps in search of food scraps falling out of shoppers’ bags!  While this was likely a typical sight for local residents, we were completely enthralled with what we saw, but dinner was beckoning inside. No time for bird-watching with so many gourmet goodies waiting to be devoured!

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A view of the pathway leading to the Texas State Capitol Building.

State Capitol Building – An Architectural Wonder

Modeled after the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the Austin version is actually slightly higher in elevation and is made of a soft pink granite. The Lone Star symbol of Texas is featured prominently on the mosaic floor and painted ceiling of the interior rotunda, as well as outside in the hand of the Goddess of Liberty statue that sits proudly atop the building. Portraits of past presidents of the Republic of Texas and past governors of the State of Texas are hung on the walls inside the rotunda. Elsewhere in the building, statues of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin can be found, along with a portrait of Davy Crockett.

The Republic of Texas seal inside the dome of the State Capitol Building.

The Republic of Texas seal inside the dome of the State Capitol Building.

Taking up 360,000 square feet, the Texas State Capitol is the largest capitol building in the United States and sits on over two acres of land, decorated with 17 monuments. It truly is the crowning jewel of Congress Avenue.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum – An Educational Experience

History buffs will appreciate the exhibits found within this three-level structure that tells the story of Texas from its early days as a fledgling republic to its recent past as a thriving state.  The travails and triumphs of prominent cowboys, oilmen, astronauts and sports figures are told celebrating the themes of land, identity, and opportunity. It is a striking building with many interesting architectural features, particularly the 35-foot-tall bronze star sculpture that sits in the exterior courtyard. Another distinctive aspect of the museum is that it is a non-collecting institution, meaning that artifacts are provided on an on-loan basis and exhibits are regularly changed. What this also means, however, is that photography is prohibited to protect the items that are showcased in the museum.

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Too bad you can’t take pictures inside the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, but it’s still a pretty cool building to photograph from the outside.

UT Tower – A Panoramic View

Located at the heart of the sprawling and scenic University of Texas campus, the UT Tower stands tall and majestic, offering a full 360 degree view of the city of Austin. The tower is the beautiful centre piece of this lush and expansive campus that extends south to the State Capitol building, and includes the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.

The UT Tower is located in heart of the University of Texas campus, offering some of the best views of the city of Austin.

The UT Tower is located in heart of the University of Texas campus, offering some of the best views of the city.

The LBJ Library and Museum is undergoing a major renovation and is set to fully re-open all exhibits in mid-December 2012.

The LBJ Library and Museum is undergoing a major renovation and is set to fully re-open all exhibits in mid-December 2012. What won’t change is the interior of the Oval Office during LBJ’s term as president.

Laguna Gloria – A Peaceful Refuge

A short drive to the west end takes you to the shores of Lake Austin and the site of Laguna Gloria, an area that is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Sites. Notable for its picturesque views and peaceful grounds, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along meandering pathways or wander through Driscoll Villa that contains some holdings from the Austin Museum of Art. There is also an exterior sculpture garden to admire.

The Italian-style villa at Laguna Gloria that overlooks Lake Austin.

Overlooking Lake Austin, the Italian-style Driscoll Villa at Laguna Gloria is the former  home of socialite Clara Driscoll, and was the original site of the Austin Museum of Art.

On the Road Again

Crossing our fingers that holiday traffic would certainly be abated by the evening, we ventured with trepidation out onto the I-35 North on our way to Dallas.

Just when we were thinking we were making good progress, yet another (thankfully to be our last!) traffic backlog occurred. By comparison, this one was a doozy and was particularly aggravating as it wasn’t just one delay, it was a series of delays over a long stretch of the interstate.

Then, to add insult to injury, when we were finally in the homestretch and minutes from reaching our downtown hotel, the interstate suddenly forked and we were steered off course now heading southeast.

It took what seemed like an eternity for an opportunity to turn around and get back on track, but our navigation smarts came through and we rolled in ragged and weary to the Hyatt Regency.

Sleeping in was prime on the agenda for Thanksgiving morning in Dallas!


Sizzlin’ San Antonio

December 3, 2012
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This statue of San Antonio stands outside of the Cathedral of San Fernando in the Main Plaza area.

San Antonio is a feast for the SENSES!

Scenic, Spanish-infused, and sprawling; yet simple, sombre, and sentimental – all good descriptors of this southern locale. The city has much to offer, appealing to history buffs, arts enthusiasts, and sports fans alike.

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The Alamo is small in stature, but mighty in its memories of the famed 13-day Battle of the Alamo, a loss that would eventually lead to Texas independence being established at San Jacinto in 1836.

The Alamo, one of the city’s (and state’s) most popular tourist attractions, is located in the heart of downtown in Alamo Plaza. Although small in size, the Alamo is large in its symbolism as the site where the fight for Texas independence was fueled. After suffering a devastating loss to Mexican forces, “Remember the Alamo!” became the famous battle cry of General Sam Houston as he led his troops to a follow-up victory at San Jacinto, ultimately paving the way for the creation of the Republic of Texas.

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The cenotaph in Alamo Plaza pays tribute to the fallen heroes who lost their lives defending their fortress at the famous Battle of the Alamo.

Not far from Alamo Plaza is the Cathedral of San Fernando, the oldest sanctuary of its type in America. Founded in 1731, for nearly three centuries the parish has served the spiritual and physical needs of San Antonians. It is also the mother church of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, is the seat of its archbishop, and houses the remains of some of the defenders of the Alamo.

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The Cathedral of San Fernando was completed in 1873 and is an interpretation of Gothic architectural style.

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The Cathedral of San Fernando is the final resting place of the remains of Davy Crockett and some of the other brave defenders of the Alamo.

Other Spanish-inspired buildings in and around downtown include the Governor’s Palace, El Mercado at Market Square, the Omni La Mansion Hotel, and La Villita, a quaint shopping/dining area.

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El Mercado at Market Square features festive restaurants and shops, and is the largest Mexican marketplace outside of the country of Mexico.

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An inner courtyard area at La Villita with the Tower Life building in the background.

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A colourful mosaic pattern at one of the entrance ways into the River Walk, near the Omni La Mansion Hotel.

A trip to San Antonio would not be complete without fully exploring the famous River Walk, a meandering network of walkways located along the banks of the San Antonio River in the city’s core. At one level below street traffic, River Walk pedestrians have no worries about being delayed by cars, and can leisurely stroll about enjoying many a unique shopping, dining, or entertainment experience. While it is visually appealing year-round, during the Christmas/New Year’s season the River Walk transforms into a stunning festival of lights. With trees, hotels and office buildings all decked out, a further level of charm is added to this very popular attraction.

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The County Line restaurant along the River Walk served up some good old-fashioned Texas-style BBQ, complete with all the yummy fixin’s!

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This stretch of colourful umbrellas along the River Walk have been featured in many ad campaigns to draw tourists to San Antonio. Guess what…it works!

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The Hilton Palacio del Rio features a large Christmas tree in lights above its main entrance.

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San Antonio`s famous `flat`building is located across the street from the Omni La Mansion Hotel.

For a city of over 1.3 million people, San Antonio’s downtown core is remarkably uncongested and seems to be dedicated to primarily tourist traffic. A quick drive out to the suburbs confirmed that this is where life in San Antonio happens for its residents. Be prepared for wall-to-wall cars on bustling freeways, complete with elaborate overpasses, and extensive frontage roads to get on and off the interstates running through the city. While it all appeared very confusing at first, getting around San Antonio was basically quite easy – another good reason to one day go back and explore more outside the downtown core.

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The iconic Torch of Friendship statue in downtown San Antonio with the Tower of the Americas looming in the background.

Speaking of outside the core, this is where the AT&T Center is located, home of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. As San Antonio does not have a professional football team to cheer for, the number one team to support is the Spurs, who play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

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Time for tip-off…let the game begin!

Now, I’ve attended a few NBA games in the past — including seeing the Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles — but I must say that this was the loudest, most raucous, most in-to-it crowd of basketball fans that I have ever witnessed firsthand. And it wasn’t even a playoff game!  The razzing the referees received had me fearful for their post-game safety, particularly if the Spurs were to suffer a loss (and they were looking to be headed in that direction).

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The San Antonio Spurs have a great Fan Zone area within the AT&T Center.

Despite the boisterous fans, and a late scoring rally by the Spurs to close the points gap, the good guys came up just short of a win. Regardless, it was a game that I won’t soon forget!

Nor will I forget the city of San Antonio…

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The Tower of the Americas stands over 700 feet high, offering a panoramic view of San Antonio`s suburbs.

Two days in this southern city was all too short a stay, but Austin was our destination the next day and not even heavy traffic could keep us away!

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Night shot of the Tower Life building as seen from La Villita.

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Night shot of the Torch of Friendship statue with the Tower of the Americas lit up in the background.


Happenin’ Houston

December 3, 2012
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A walkway in the Discovery Green area in downtown Houston, which also features an outdoor skating rink, a large playing field, and a great playground for kids.

Houston has it ALL, and then some!

After flying into Dallas, renting a car, and experiencing a wrong turn on the interstate (yup, we had a few of those moments!), my sister and I successfully made our way to the south side of Dallas en route to Houston via the I-45 South.

It was pretty much clear sailing on this stretch of highway and, despite what seemed like an inordinate amount of road kill, we enjoyed a leisurely and scenic drive.

Caught up in some clever billboard advertising, we made a couple of unplanned stops to check out the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, famous for its fruit cakes that are shipped across the country; and Buc-ees in Madisonville, a Texas souvenir haven!  These side trips were well worth the time lost, but with the sun beginning to set in the late afternoon sky, we had to get moseyin’ again.

Back on track, we admired the larger-than-life statue of Sam Houston (state founder and former Governor of Texas) located outside of Huntsville before getting bogged down in rush hour traffic as we entered the Houston suburbs, which is pretty much akin to being on the 401 in Toronto. The slow down allowed us to get a sense of our surroundings and we both agreed that there was a lot to explore on this side of the city, but it would have to wait as check-in and dinner downtown was a-callin’!

Getting into downtown off of the interstate proved to be fairly straightforward and, after we got a handle on which way the one-way streets were going, we rolled into the Hyatt Regency, unloaded our luggage, and headed out to explore the streets on foot.

While we had heard that San Antonio was known for its holiday light displays at this time of year (i.e. around American Thanksgiving in November), we quickly discovered that Houston (and, for that matter, all of the other cities we planned to visit) got into the spirit of things as well.

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In America, Thanksgiving is also the kick-off for the Christmas holiday season, and there were plenty of light displays to admire around downtown Houston.

We came across more than a few areas decked out for the season and appreciated the efforts to help cultivate a festive atmosphere, particularly along Main Street where the city’s transit line runs, and at the Houston Pavilions, a large indoor/outdoor shopping mall.

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The Houston Pavilions is a popular indoor/outdoor mall in the downtown core – quiet at night, busy by day.

Agreeing that Houston sure is perty at night, we looked forward to what the day time would reveal…it did not disappoint!

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A view of downtown Houston taken from Tranquility Park, a peaceful area commemorating all of the Apollo human flight space missions undertaken by NASA from 1961-1972.

The morning brought a bright blue, sun-filled sky. Yes, it was breezy at times, but the humidity was manageable and it made for perfect conditions for a power walk through the downtown core.

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These decorative towers feature various scenes depicting aspects of Houston’s local economy, entertainment scene, and numerous area attractions.

We discovered an eclectic mix of modern skyscrapers, historical sites and monuments, arts and cultural offerings, sporting facilities and green spaces, shopping venues, and — oddly enough — a large number of bail bonds companies, which literally seemed to be on every other corner! Notwithstanding our new-found curiosity about the city’s criminal element, we felt perfectly safe walking around and our complete loop of downtown was without incident.

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City Hall in downtown Houston.

The afternoon took us to Houston’s south side and a tour of the highly lauded Museum of Fine Arts with a collection that spreads over two buildings and features an exterior sculpture garden.

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This church is located in the Museum District, just south of downtown Houston.

Back downtown for the evening, we enjoyed a superior movie-watching experience at Sundance Cinemas in the historic arts district and turned in early to be ready to “tackle” the NCAA football experience Texas style the next day.

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The George Bush Library in College Station, Texas is located on the campus of Texas A & M.

Crazy College Station

Deep in the heart of Texas lies College Station, home of the Texas A & M Aggies, the George Bush Library and Museum, and the Corps of Cadets Marching Band, among other highlights. College Station is also the place where legions of football fans come from near and far to support their beloved Aggies at Kyle Field.

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The sea of maroon and white at Kyle Field. Most fans on this side of the stadium stand and scream from the opening kick-off to the final play of the game. Yes, it was really, REALLY loud!

Adding to the frenzy on this particular game day was the fact the Aggies were coming off an upset win of #1 Alabama the previous weekend, and it was also Military Appreciation Day. Veterans and active members from all branches of the military were in attendance, and the world-famous Corps of Cadets Marching Band wowed the crowd with their intricate and perfectly timed formations at half-time.

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It is a long-standing tradition for the Corps of Cadets, including the Marching Band, to form the Texas A & M symbolic “T” as part of Military Appreciation Day.

But I’ve jumped ahead…lest I forget the growing din of the crowd leading up to kick-off that basically never waned in intensity as the loyal Aggies fans belted out their traditional cheers and jeers. Here’s what we picked up:

  • When the Aggies are kicking off, the crowd roars AAAA and when the kicker makes contact, the chant continues with GG AGGIES GIG ‘EM!;
  • After a first down, the crowd yells WHOOP!;
  • After a touchdown, all couples exchange a kiss;
  • When the opposing team has a third down, the volume goes up a level (if that is even humanly possible) and the noise doesn’t die down until the play is done; and
  • At the end of the 3rd Quarter, the full stadium breaks out in song that involves linking arms and swaying back and forth in unison.

It was truly quite a scene and you just gotta love college football in Texas!

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Dusk begins to settle over Kyle Field at College Station marking another win for the home team.

Terrible Texas Traffic

OK, we all know the adage: Everything is BIGGER in Texas, but we did not expect this to apply to traffic!

Case in point, when driving from Houston to San Antonio on a Sunday night we experienced a traffic backlog of MEGA proportions. At times we were basically at a standstill, barely progressing a car’s length at a time, with no indication of what the delay was ahead as it was pitch black outside. Finally, an ambulance with sirens wailing whizzed by, so it was apparently an accident.

That said, given the sheer volume of vehicles travelling on both sides of the highway, it made us think that maybe this is status quo on the I-30 West and perhaps a lot of people commute back and forth between these two centres. If so, we could certainly empathize with those Texans who are frustrated about poor traffic flow in some areas of the state.

Little did we know that this was just the beginning of things to come on our intrepid road trip…for now, it was on to the Alamo, River Walk, and other San Antonio treasures.


Takin’ on Texas

December 3, 2012
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The lone star symbol of Texas represents the feisty spirit of independence characteristic of the state’s proud defenders, founders, and its people!

No doubt about it, Texas is a HUGE state! So, when it came to making a vacation plan, there was only so much my twin sister and I felt we could bite off and chew in a single visit.

We settled on the four major cities of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, and were intrigued to discover a triangle formation when we plotted our destinations points on a map. Being someone who has a thing for not only alliteration, but also code names, I couldn’t help but dub our forthcoming adventure as T6 (a.k.a. The Twins Takin’ on Texas Triangle Trip).

Code name established and travel strategy in place, we looked forward to hitting the ground running and seeing as much as we possibly could. In another happy coincidence, we had “ten” days to accomplish our mission!

This introductory post features pictorial highlights from our full trip, to be followed by individual posts for each city – enjoy the scenery!

Happenin’ Houston

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Decorative umbrellas hang over an inner courtyard area at the Houston Pavilions shopping mall.

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A view of downtown from the peaceful and beautiful Sam Houston Park / Historical Village area.

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Kyle Field is home of the Texas A & M Aggies football team. The stadium is located in College Station, a 90-minute drive NW of Houston. There’s nothing like a good ol’ Saturday afternoon NCAA football game deep in the heart of Texas – GG Get ’em Aggies!

Sizzlin’ San Antonio

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The Alamo is small in stature, but mighty in its memories of the famed 13-day Battle of the Alamo, a loss that would eventually lead to Texas independence being established in 1836 at San Jacinto.

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Take a stroll, ride a boat, buy a souvenir, or have something to eat. So much to do, see, and experience along the world-famous (and ALWAYS very busy) River Walk in San Antonio.

Amazin’ Austin

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The State Capitol Building in downtown Austin is the highlight of the Congress Avenue Historic District.

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The UT Tower on the University of Texas campus offers stunning panoramic views of the city of Austin.

Dazzlin’ Dallas

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The Dallas skyline looms large on a bright, sunny, yet crisp and cool morning.

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Exterior view of the truly massive and mighty Cowboys Stadium (a.k.a. ‘The house that Jerry built’).

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Interior view of Cowboys Stadium prior to kick-off of the Thanksgiving Day game vs. the Washington Redskins. Let the Turkey Bowl begin!

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The downtown Dallas skyline at night.


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