Big City Tales

Getting Some Culture in the ‘City of Champions’

February 7, 2013
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Image of church in Old Strathcona.

The Old Strathcona district plays host to Edmonton’s annual and highly popular International Fringe Theatre Festival.

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.

Lunchbreak statue at Churchill Square in Edmonton.

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

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.

Image of Fringe posters from the past.

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

The Fringe is a two-week celebration of 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.

Image of Fringe street performer.

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

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.

If theatre isn’t your thing, 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.

Image of Art Gallery of Alberta.

The Art Gallery of Alberta is a work of art 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.

Edmonton's City Hall is known for its glass and steel pyramids, as well as the adjacent Clock Tower.

Edmonton’s City Hall is known for its glass and steel pyramids, as well as the adjacent clock tower and water fountain.

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.

Image of Alberta Legislature building.

In 2012, the Alberta Legislature celebrated its centennial anniversary.

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!

Image of the High Level Bridge.

The historic and iconic High Level Bridge spans the North Saskatchewan River.

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.

Image of Rutherford House.

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

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.

Image of Queen Riverboat.

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

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!

Image of Ukrainian Famine monument.

The Ukrainian Famine monument at Edmonton’s City Hall.

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Every City Has A Silver Lining

January 24, 2013
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Image of Philadelphia's City Hall Building

Philadelphia’s City Hall is one of the finest buildings of its kind in America.

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.

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.
Exterior image of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia

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!
Image of LOVE statue in Philadelphia

Feeling the LOVE in Philadelphia!

  • 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.
Image of The Signer statue in Philadelphia

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

  • To the north, sights along the picturesque, Champs Elysees-like 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.
Image of Rocky Balboa statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Yo, Adrian, now that I’m champ we should 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!

Image of Independence Hall

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.

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 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. 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.

The south-east entrance into Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The south-east entrance into the MASSIVE and AWE-INSPIRING Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Redskins Play Spoilers on Thanksgiving

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!

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!!

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!!

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!!

Kenny Chesney performs at Cowboys Stadium, marking the kick-off of the annual Salvation Army Kettle Campaign.

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!

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

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

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!

The city of Dallas dazzles in the bright morning sun!

The city of Dallas dazzles in the bright morning sun!

Downtown 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.

The Hyatt Regency Dallas and Reunion Tower.

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

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!

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

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

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.

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

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

Y'all come back now, ya hear!

“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.


Operation Banish Winter

July 17, 2012
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The South Beach skyline seen from Biscayne Bay.

As my plane descended through the remnant clouds of a passing spring storm, the heat and humidity of southern Florida permeated my being like stepping into a steam sauna. Confirmed by the dewiness of my skin and the bead of sweat gathering at my brow, it was clear I had officially left behind the dry northern tundra of my Canadian homeland and arrived in a lush, moisture-rich tropical paradise. After a long and cold winter season, my arrival in the glorious “Sunshine State” could not have come at a better time.

Sure, I was taking my chances with a late April vacation in Florida – spring being notorious for generally unpredictable weather – but even one day in the sun, surf and sand would be enough to chase away the doldrums of my winter blues. Thankfully, Mother Nature more than cooperated and kindly delivered a nearly perfect forecast for this time of year. In the end, my five-day stay in the trendy art deco district of South Beach, or SoBe, as it affectionately known by locals, warmed the very depths of my sun-seeking soul. And it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start!

The view from the pool…not a cloud in sight!

Leaving my centrally located hotel on day one of “Operation Banish Winter,” a cloudless, electric blue sky wrapped its expansive arms around me in a generous, friendly hug. Meanwhile, the rays of the brilliant golden sun sealed the embrace with ever-increasing intensity. The sweet kisses of cool, gentle ocean breezes quickly followed; my senses awakened with the wafting aromas of freshly mown grass and exotic flowers fragrant in their full bloom.

A peaceful spot to get some R&R!

After a lovely morning greeting, I leisurely explored SoBe’s world-famous Ocean Drive. The kaleidoscope of art deco colours featured prominently in the beach-side hotels and restaurants were balanced out by long stretches of white sand and soft hues of teal and turquoise in the temperate ocean water. The waters beckoned with lapping waves that caressed the shore like the touch of a loved one`s hand. As I gingerly dipped my feet, a growing state of relaxation washed over me. I was definitely in the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the day.

A stroll along the beach…you can just smell that fresh, crisp and invigorating ocean air!

With the sun now high in the sky, it was time for some people-watching at Lincoln Road’s eclectic outdoor mall. Lincoln Road is a 10-block stretch that attracts its fair share of “colourful” people traffic and is a hip place to be. But, more importantly, is the place to be seen! Offering an array of shopping and eating options covering every price point and palate preference, the rich and famous mingle easily amongst the ranks of the middle-class family vacationers, snow bird retirees, and intrepid singles all eager to experience one of SoBe’s most popular destinations. After a short break for lunch at Oprah’s favourite eatery, the Ice Box Café, my wandering ways continued in search of a little peace and quiet.

Lincoln Road offers shoppers a glorious outdoor shopping experience.

Not far from the frenetic fare of Lincoln Road, I came across the historic haunt of Espaňola Way, another delightful gem in this jewel of a city. “Discover, Explore, Celebrate” is the motto of this quaint, tree-lined corridor of art galleries, boutiques and Spanish-themed restaurants. Many of the buildings in this region are constructed with traditional materials, such as clay, commonly used in Spanish-style architecture. Colourful exteriors abound with bright green awnings, white window boxes, and copper-tiled terracotta roofs adding to the picturesque scenery of this old world setting. A visit to Espaňola Way is like taking a step back in time in the midst of a modern urban centre, and it’s a journey well worth taking. I was quite content to spend the balance of the day strolling through this treasure-rich district, but there was more to do and Cuban food was calling.

A little taste of Spanish culture.

Making my way over to Collins Avenue, I was soon returned to SoBe’s cosmopolitan clamour and the main hub of Cuban cuisine. David’s Café is known both for its 24-7 operation and its version of the medianoche sandwich, popular as a midnight snack in Havana night clubs, but served at David’s any time of day. This multi-layered treat consists of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and dill pickles all piled high on sweet egg dough bread and served warm, with a side of fried plantains. Sinking my teeth into this carb-heavy meal, I realized it was a good thing I was on foot for this trip…I was going to need a lot of exercise to work off the extra calories.

Collins Avenue is a hot spot for fine hotels and popular, trendy eateries.

With the day now fading into night, I arrived back at my hotel fully spent from “Operation Banish Winter” activities, but was looking forward to more of the same over the next four days. I am happy to say that SoBe delivered, and then some. It was the ideal spot for this weary traveller to enjoy a much-needed spring getaway and, who knows, it just may be the cure to your own case of the winter blues!

Another must-see sight: SoBe’s majestic Old City Hall.


The Miami / South Beach Experience

July 17, 2012
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The Freedom Tower in Miami – a safe haven and refuge for exiles fleeing Communist Cuba in the 1950s.

Islands and causeways collide,
making for a magical musical ride.

The famous white mansion where Scarface met his demise and, ultimately, his maker!

Neon lights aglow put on quite a show,
a kaleidoscope of colours explode wherever you go.

South Beach’s Art Deco style at its finest…what a cheery building to work at!

Biscayne Bay beckons with wide-open arms;
vessels of all shapes and sizes add to its charm.

Boat ride, anyone?

The Port of Miami sends cruise ships on their way…
off to exotic ports of call for many a day.

Miami is the cruise ship capital of the world.

The rich and the famous flaunt homes of excess,
leaving little doubt of their financial success.

What Viagra money buys…

Money flows freely from morning to night…
The “come as you are” party scene in South Beach is quite a sight!

Welcome to South Beach (a.k.a. SoBe)!

Ocean Drive stretches through the heart of the Art Deco scene;
it is the ideal place to be if you want to be seen.

The site of “Nick’s Bar” from Casablanca…Play it again, Sam!

Lincoln Road draws its fair share of people traffic,
designer shops and five-star restaurants cast a spell of enticing magic.

The Lincoln Road outdoor mall bustles from dawn ’til dusk.

Where palm trees sway in sun-filled days
of happy vacationers passing the time away.

Hotel Row along Collins Avenue.

White sandy beaches meld seamlessly into bright blue skies…
EVERY day in south Florida is a wonderful surprise!

Life is a beach!


It’s a Charmed Life in Baltimore

March 16, 2012
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Baltimore's Inner Harbor area aglow in the bright morning sun and clear blue sky.

As plucky Tracy Turnblad gleefully sings out the chorus of “Good Morning Baltimore” in the film version of Hairspray, it is readily evident that every day is a new and exciting adventure for her and the residents of Charm City.  Dancing around town free as a bird with her whole life ahead of her, Tracy’s voice oozes sheer joy as the day is likened to an open door, the night is compared to a fantasy and the sounds she encounters are registered as a symphony.  It is enough to make even the most melancholy among us perk up and want to visit this enchanted land and experience the magic and wonder for ourselves.  And so it was during a short two-day stay in this gem of a city that the “charmed life” was witnessed and most assuredly confirmed.

A kaleidoscope of color bounces off of the still water in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The Inner Harbor

Busy by day and bustling at night, the Inner Harbor stretches for blocks with one picture-perfect photo opportunity after another presenting itself along the way.  In the bright morning sun, the clear and calm waters of the Patapsco River beckon the boating crowd to launch their respective crafts for a leisurely exploration of the harbor leading out to Chesapeake Bay, while those who haven’t acquired their sea legs yet choose to remain on shore in search of their daytime adventures.  And there is much to choose from!  The National Aquarium, Harborplace and the Gallery, and the Maryland Science Center offer land-locked lubbers plenty to happily occupy their time.  When the sun descends and the air turns crisp and cool at night, seafarers return to land to enjoy the comforts of shops, restaurants and other treasure troves of evening creature delights.  The Hard Rock Cafe is not hard to miss with its neon blue larger-than-life electric guitar sign flickering bright in the night sky that does its job well as a lure for all the bar flies to come gather for drink and food.  Enjoy a succulent and scrumptiously seasoned plate of crab cakes or sample other fish freshly brought in from the day’s haul while gazing at a dazzling array of coloured lights reflecting like a rainbow off of the harbor waters.

The Bank of America Building shines bright as gold in the autumn sky.

Historic Camden Yards meets Modern MT&T Bank Stadium

On the western edge of Baltimore’s downtown core are two stadiums fit for sporting fan kings and queens.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the home of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles and MT&T Bank Stadium is home turf for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League.   These stadiums offer up the royal treatment with easy access from any quadrant of the city, gourmet food fair concessions that will have your mouth-watering with anticipation and leave your taste buds tantalizing with delight from the array of East coast delectables served up, and a host of amenities providing the creme de la creme of the sporting fan experience.

Baltimore Raven fans get fired up during the pre-game festivities and are ready for a BIG WIN!

Game day in Baltimore can begin with a brunch cruise in the harbor or taking part in the Mardis Gras/festival-like atmosphere outside the stadiums.  When the Ravens are playing, it’s like watching a sea of black, purple and gold waves crash upon the shore in a show of frenzy and sheer might.  Ravens’ fans LOVE their team colors and are not shy about dressing from head-to-toe in one, two or all three at a time.  And back to Mardis Gras feel for a moment, no self-respecting fan would show up in the stands without wearing their lucky beads in what colors you may ask…why black, purple and gold, of course!  Bedecked in team colors and bedazzled with team jewelry, it’s a regal experience to behold!

Camden Yards is home of the Baltimore Orioles.

The royalty theme continues with monumental and soaring statues paying homage to the sporting heroes of the past.  On the football side, a banner and statue of the legendary Johnny Unitas stand tall and proud outside of MT&T Bank Stadium.  One of the most prolific passing quarterbacks of all time, “The Golden Arm” is shown with his arm in motion ready to toss another bomb down the field for a touchdown.  Down the way at Oriole Park, hometown boy and baseball hero, Babe Ruth, stands in a dream-like state ready to raise his bat and crack yet another home run.  Not far off is Baltimore’s tribute to the player dubbed “Iron Man” for his record-breaking streak of consecutive games played.  Cal Ripken Jr.’s retired #8 is immortalized in stone, fitting for this “Rock of Gibraltar” type player who finished his career with a whopping 2,632 games to his credit.

Johns Hopkins University is a famous training ground for medical professionals of the future.

Blue Moon Cafe and the East Baltimore Cuisine Scene

Best known for its inventive specials and eclectic “rock and roll” interior design, a trip to the Blue Moon Cafe in the historic area of Fells Point will leave you feeling “over the moon” and wanting to “rocket” back for more.  Let the inner child in you guide your menu selection of Captain Crunch french toast, or perhaps your more refined side will steer you toward Maryland Crab eggs benedict.  From the sweet to the savoury, this menu has got it covered but be forewarned:  there’s no shortage on portions and there’s no shortage of full-fat and high-calorie options to drool over!  There’s no need for dieters to despair; however, healthy choices can be made without the requisite guilt, but it’s oh so worth it to give into your indulgences for a little taste of heaven served up here.

Have a hankering for something other than breakfast?  Look to your left and look to your right in the Fells Point district and you’re bound to find something that satisfies your cravings.  Be it Greek, Italian, American, Latin, Japanese or Gastropub, there are plenty of eateries to choose from including Salt Tavern, Red Star Bar and Grill, One-Eyed Mike’s and Pintango Gelato among a host of other cleverly named establishments.

By day or by night, Baltimore is certainly one charm after another and Tracy Turnblad had very good reason to jump out of bed in the morning with a song of pure joy on her lips!  Pay the city a visit to find out for yourself what all the buzz is about….

Rockin' out at the Hard Rock Cafe.


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