Archives

Atlanta 2018: Georgia Aquarium

Day 2, Monday, January 22, 2018

Monday afternoon I went to the Georgia Aquarium, where I was going to swim with Whale Sharks!  To say I was excited was an understatement!  I have wanted to do this for several years, and I decided this would be my Christmas gift to myself.  The Georgia Aquarium has the largest aquarium tank in the world, and is home to four whale sharks and four manta rays.  They purchased their whale sharks from the Taiwanese fishing trade, where they would have ended up in the fish market – Taiwan at the time had quotas on whale shark fishing, so they wouldn’t have been able to just catch more after selling their sharks to the aquarium.  But I digress.

Before my swim in the late afternoon, I had a chance to see all of the exhibits.  They had a really cool tropical reef exhibit, complete with wave action. I enjoyed watching that one for awhile.  They also have a bunch of penguins and puffins, doing penguin and puffin stuff, seahorses, sea dragons, and otters.  The otters moved constantly, so it was impossible to get a non-blurry photo of them.  The dolphin exhibit was closed when I was there, but I wasn’t too disappointed since I had the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins in Hawaii last year!  As a complete aside, did you know there is a Chocolate Chip Sea Star!??

The aquarium has a couple beluga whales, and two albino alligators!  Pirahnas, longcomb sawfish, Black Reeftip sharks, sea turtles, green sea turtles, cownose rays, and all sorts of other fish. The Ocean Voyager exhibit alone has an astonishing number of fish; the tank contains 6 million gallons of seawater!  You can see all the different animals in the Ocean Voyager tank.   It is a nice aquarium.

I checked in for my swim at about 4 pm; we were going behind the scenes at 4:30.  I was so excited!  There were 8 of us total, and we were paired up into buddy pairs.  We were led back into the back area to check out the tank – it was interesting to see the tank from above!  Did you know they have machines that agitate the water and spotlights at the surface so you can’t see what’s going on up there when you are looking at the fish from below?

We were fitted with our wet suits, gloves, booties and snorkels, and then headed into the dressing room to get changed.  Those suckers are really hard to wiggle into, just so you know.  Once we were dressed, we went back out to the surface of the tank, and they explained all the details.  We were to swim very slowly, mostly just occasionally paddling with our hands, to move in a lazy figure 8 around the tank.  The whale sharks stay near the surface, and they tend to swim close to the walls of the tank, so that’s where we would be.  We were told that we shouldn’t touch them, but we didn’t have to move away if they brushed up against us!

We got into the water and headed out, being wrangled by a lead diver and another bringing up the rear, in case we went astray.  A third diver was in the water getting video of the fish, and all of us.  The water is 76 degrees, which gets cold after a bit!

This was an amazing experience.  The whale sharks are so big and so gentle!  Being in the water with them was like one big, long WOW!  I literally said “WOW!” over and over again through my mouthpiece.  The manta rays move more quickly and come right up underneath you!  During the swim, one whale shark swam right underneath me and brushed my abdomen with her back and dorsal fin (I think they are all females).  None of the manta rays touched me, but they did brush against a few of the others in the group.

 

The water is really clear, so you can see all the way to the bottom, and can see the other fish swimming.  The Cow Nose rays, the Longcomb Sawfish, the Blacktip Reef Sharks, and countless other types of sharks and fish were all just moving below you constantly.  It was so cool to see from this vantage point!  The aquarium has a tunnel through the tank where the other swimmers’ family and friends could watch – it was interesting to see them standing down there under the water!

It is absolutely one of my favorite experiences so far in my life – I had so much fun doing this!

An added bonus was the fact that my swim coincided with an evening where they were switching over the computer software for the cash registers.  Since the registers were shut down for this, they gave each of us a video of our swim for free!  Normally you have to pay – it was an unexpected treat!

 

After the swim, I walked back to the hotel (in the only pouring rain of the trip), and brushed out my wet hair.  I was hungry, so I headed right back down the block to Ted’s Montana Grill.  Ted’s is a chain, founded by Ted Turner (of CNN fame) and specializes in bison with a Western Saloon theme.  I had a delicious mushroom Swiss bison burger, with pickled cucumbers, and tomatoes drizzled with bleu cheese and balsamic.  It was sooooo gooooood…  I also had some Bison Ridge Merlot wine, which I believe is another Turner project – it was a great wine!  The meal wrapped up a fantastic day!

Cost: $45.95 for general admission during peak hours (there are significant discounts for online pre-purchase, early or late arrival, groups, etc, and it is included on the CityPass).  Swimming with the Whale Sharks (called the Journey with Gentle Giants) was $233.95 and included aquarium admission, the swim, a t-shirt, and a sticker.  There is also a dive option for certified SCUBA divers.

Advertisements

Vet’s Day Weekend 2017: Annapolis

Day 1, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Last fall, I decided I needed to take some time away, so I booked a long weekend to the East Coast.  Flying cross country is always tough; for this trip I had to be on my airport shuttle at 4:10 am, which means getting my taxi at 3:40 am!  I never get to bed before about 10 pm on nights when I am flying out the next morning, so you can imagine the sleep deprivation.  It is so worth it when I get to board that plane though!

My flight was direct – and absolutely uneventful.  I got my car, and made my way to Annapolis; it was only about a 25-minute drive there from the airport.  I stayed at the State House Inn, a historic hotel that was originally a house.  There are only 7 rooms, so it is really more an inn than a hotel – without breakfast though.  They do have an agreement for room service from the Italian restaurant below.  The State House Inn is over 200 years old, and perhaps as old as 300 years; however, there aren’t existing records that show when the house was built.

The State House Inn

The upper stories are home/inn, and the first floor is commercial space (this floor is only visible from the back side of the house).  It has undergone a variety of restorations, with the the most recent addition to the building in 1900. You can see the bones of the original building from Chancery Lane, which they say is the most photographed site in Annapolis because of the view of the illuminated dome of Maryland’s State House (you know I had to see that for myself).  The alley was supposedly used by George Washington returning to Mount Vernon on December 23, 1783, after resigning his commission in the State House (there are stairs, so he must not have gotten on his horse yet).

MD State House, from Chancery Lane

Their website indicates that it is owned and operated by Naval Academy graduate Lieutenant Commander Marc Lucas, but I talked with the manager during my stay and she had indicated that there were new owners, so it is likely that the website is outdated.

For dinner, I headed across the street to the Red Red Wine Bar for a flight of wine and a charcuterie plate.  The wine flights and meats and cheeses were delicious!  They have a huge selection of  wines by the glass and the bottle, and also have an extensive selection of whiskys, for my whisky drinker readers.  The atmosphere was very nice, and the server was excellent, explaining all the flavors on the cheeses and meats so I could choose what I wanted.  After my light dinner, I spent a little time wandering the quiet streets of Annapolis, looking in the shop windows, before heading back to the Inn for bed.  Overall, it was a quiet evening, considering that most of the day was spent traveling.  I was excited to see the sights the next day!

I chose an international red wine flight

 

My flight, with wine details

Moab 2015: Castle Creek Winery

Upon leaving Canyonlands, we had a little bit of time before we had to make the long drive back to Salt Lake City. And it just so happens that a little way outside of Moab is one of Utah’s few wineries! I wanted to go!

Castle Creek Winery is located 14 miles up Highway 128, a scenic drive along the Colorado River. It also happened to be the route of most of Jon’s half-marathon the previous day, so I had the opportunity to see what he was up against. There was a long… uphill section that looked really tough! There are lots of campgrounds and trail heads along the highway that look like they would be perfect for exploring – if only we had more time.

The winery is on the grounds of a resort ranch. You can stay there, and it looked like activities included horseback riding, swimming, rafting, hiking, and of course, the winery. There is also a museum on the grounds that we didn’t have time to check out.

The sign seems more weathered than it should, given the age of the winery...  I sense a theme...

The sign seems more weathered than it should, given the age of the winery… I sense a theme…

Our tasting was interesting… A complimentary tasting included 5 samples, which let us taste all but one of the wines. They were decent but not complex, fine for everyday drinking but they wouldn’t hold up to age. None had much in the way of structure or tannins. But that isn’t what made it interesting. Our server did that all on her own. She was nice enough, but was an older lady who was very worn – I didn’t smell smoke but she had the look (and the voice) of a ‘several-pack-a-day-for-several-decades’ smoker.

I asked about the history of the winery, and her response was to urge us to go downstairs and watch the video. When we didn’t appear to be moving quickly enough, she kept prodding until we felt we had no choice but to go. Downstairs was odd. We found ourselves in a random cold, dimly lit hallway with glass windows facing out onto the dark production floor. And, as she promised, there was a 5 minute video explaining in extremely general terms the history of the winery and their production story.

Other than telling me that Castle Creek Winery played an integral part in changing Utah’s laws to allow for wineries, I learned nothing. Well, that’s not quite true… I had learned my lesson, and did not ask further questions upon emerging from the “dungeon.” That made the tasting go really quickly. That said, the wines were fine, and several had beautiful labels, so I bought one bottle to enjoy in our hotel room that evening and we got on our way…

Picturesque truck

Picturesque truck

And because the winery didn’t inspire me to take any photos inside, here’s a photo of what I hope is an authentic historic school outside of Moab.  I say I hope because it shares its parking lot with a gas station.

A historic schoolhouse - I hope...

A historic schoolhouse – I hope…

We made the long drive back to Salt Lake City in order to fly out the next morning. Another great vacation had come to a pre-mature end…

MI Road Trip: Douglas Valley Winery

Every vacation begins with a catalyst.  That “thing” that makes you decide that you are going to go there…  It could be a theme park, a museum, a fabulous hike, a concert, a beach – you get the idea.  Or a winery.  Let me explain…  Back in the spring, I won a prize – redeemable in Manistee, Michigan.  The value wasn’t much, but it got me thinking that maybe we could go visit the area.  We were heading out to visit family in Michigan anyway, so a little detour might be perfect!  A road trip was born…

In my last post, we checked out downtown Manistee – after our coffee we headed out to visit Douglas Valley Winery, just outside town. Douglas Valley’s tasting room is located in a historic building – an old bunk house along the railroad line at the turn of the century. The property is surrounded by apple orchards and vineyards.

A rusty farm wagon at Douglas Valley Winery

A rusty farm wagon at Douglas Valley Winery

UPDATE: My Dad, who grew up on a farm, let me know that the photo above is not a wagon.  Rather, it is a manure spreader…  So don’t go on a hayride in it, mmm-kay?

When we arrived, there was one couple wrapping up a tasting, and then we were all alone with our server. Tastings are normally $5 per person for 7 tastes (including a souvenir glass), but we had a certificate for a free tasting thanks to a prize from the Michigan by the Bottle blog. You can also opt for 2 complementary tastes, but $5 is very reasonable.

The Douglas Valley Winery Tasting Room – inside a historic bunk house

The Douglas Valley Winery Tasting Room – inside a historic bunk house

We picked out what we wanted. Here’s what I sampled (Jon and I tried to pick different wines and then shared, so there are more than 7):

  • Bunk House White – A semi-sweet blend of un-oaked Chardonnay, Vignole, Riesling and Pinot Gris, with flavors of apricot and peach.
  • 2013 Lakeview White – A semi sweet blend of Chardonnay and Riesling.
  • Bunk House Blue – A tart blueberry wine with spice on the back of the palate.  One of my favorites.
  • Bunk House Cherry – A sweet blend of tart and sweet cherries.  Also very good.
  • Northeastern Sweet Red – A light, semi-sweet red wine; a blend of Foch and Chambourcin grapes. It had some Pinot Noir characteristics.
  • Bunk House Red – A blend of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Merlot with flavors of raspberry and blackberry.
  • Stone House Sparkling Cider – A low alcohol (7%) sparkling cider made with several apple varieties from the Douglas Valley orchards.  Excellent.
  • Stone House Semi Sweet Cider – A blend of Jonathan, Macintosh, and Northern Spy apples. Fruity with flavors of apple (duh…) and honey.
  • Caramel Apple Cider – One of two specialty ciders that they had on tap and available for sale in growlers, this had a nose of heavy caramel, but the caramel flavor was very light on the palate, with pleasant, light bubbles.

Our server was very friendly and offered information about the wine, and the history of the property.  Currently Douglas Valley grows the fruit and grapes, and the winemaker from another Michigan winery, Black Star Farms, makes the wine.  I think there is a plan to begin making their own wine at some point in the future, but this method seems to work well, as there were several good wines.

I purchased my favorites… The Northeastern Sweet Red, the Sparkling Apple Cider, the Bunk House Blueberry and the Bunk House Cherry. Thinking back, I should go find one of these bottles to open tonight…

Douglas Valley also had a large selection of local food products, and since it was close to lunchtime, we decided to get a picnic lunch to go. We picked out some Great Lakes tortilla chips, beef jerky, cajun beef jerky, Michigan made jalapeno pickled asparagus, asparagus salsa, and a big bag of fresh Winesap apples.

Apples at Douglas Valley – Waiting to be Picked

Apples at Douglas Valley – Waiting to be Picked

We said our goodbyes and headed out on our way to our next destination – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  En route, we found a roadside viewpoint with a picnic table and enjoyed our picnic lunch.  The weather was still cold, but had warmed up enough to allow us to sit outside for 20 minutes and enjoy our chips and salsa, beef jerky and asparagus.  What a great lunch!

A few of our Michigan Picnic Lunch items – YUM!

A few of our Michigan Picnic Lunch items – YUM!

But we couldn’t linger too long, because I couldn’t wait to see Sleeping Bear Dunes!

 

The Applegate Valley Wine

After our visit to Jacksonville, Oregon, we decided to check out a couple of wineries!  The Applegate Valley is one of the most overlooked wine regions in the country, with outstanding wines and a quiet, relaxed atmosphere.  Our first winery stop was Wooldridge Creek Winery. We pulled in to find an amazing covered seating area with cushioned patio furniture, a classy yet inviting tasting room with several books available to read, and another outdoor patio with tables and chairs. Jon’s dad wasn’t interested in wine tasting so he plopped down outside in the shade to read his book.

The winery named after the Wooldridge family who first settled on the property in the 1850s – this isn’t the same family that owns the property and the winery now though.  The first grapevines at Wooldridge Creek were planted in the 1970s; it has now expanded to 56 acres planted in twelve varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo.  However, until 2002, the owners sold all their fruit to other wineries; at that point they met and partnered with a wine-making couple to start the winery.

We began our tasting in the tasting room, but soon the draw of the warm sunshine was too much. Our server was very gracious about loading up our tasting on a tray with mini decanters and tasting information for each wine. As I think back on it now (on a gray, rainy day in frigid January), I wish I were back there soaking up the warm rays of the sun!

Wooldridge Creek Winery

Wooldridge Creek Winery

The wine was delicious – I did find that I liked the reds more than the whites though.  The French oak aged Chardonnay was a hit with Jon, but a little too oaked for my taste – good for a taste but too much for a whole glass. There was a Viognier that was quite enjoyable – which was a bit unusual because I don’t typically like many Viogniers. Jon’s mom really enjoyed that one. The reds were wonderful – balanced and approachable while still having lots of structure.  We tasted Merlot, Pinot Noir and Malbec.

After Wooldridge, we visited Troon Winery. Jon and I had been there before, and Jon had wanted to go back. We wanted to be outside again, so we shuttled back and forth between the tasting room and the seating area outside. That was a little bit awkward, but it was to be expected as the server had her hands full with other customers. She did tell us a bit about each wine when we came in to get our sample, but it seemed a bit more impersonal than our visit in 2011.

Troon Winery from our covered seating

Troon Winery from our covered seating

That said, Troon’s wine is excellent – not a bad one in the bunch. Ironically, when we visited in 2011 the Druid’s Fluid red blend was my least favorite wine, but it is the biggest seller for the winery. This year, they didn’t have Druid’s Fluid on the tasting menu, so I don’t know if I would have liked it more now.  We ended up getting several wines to bring home with us.  For some reason though, I always forget that Troon now has a tasting room in the Willamette Valley, so we will have to stop by there sometime when we are down that way.

After our two tasting room visits, we wrapped up our day and headed back to the rental house to enjoy one last quiet evening on the river before heading home.  We swam in the pool, read books, watched the Canada Geese flying overhead to their night roosts, and heard the hum of the jet boats as they took tourists back home after the dinner tour (I so want to take that jet boat tour one day!).

Canada Geese flying home for the night

Canada Geese flying home for the night

We had to be up before dawn in the morning, because Jon had misunderstood what days he was supposed to get off from work.  I had planned for us to spend a leisurely day Tuesday driving home and then go back to work Wednesday, but Jon thought we were coming home on Monday.  He had scheduled himself to work at 2 pm on Tuesday, expecting that he would have a quiet morning at home to sleep in and get some things done.  Obviously that wasn’t going to happen!  Considering that the drive home (without traffic) is 8 hours, we set the alarm for 3 am to get home in time.

We were on the road at 3:17 am! It’s not often that I watch a summer sunrise from the road, but I caught this one. Our early morning travel all worked out in the end though, as we made it home with enough time to get some lunch and essentials at the grocery store before Jon had to go to work.  And I had the whole afternoon to take a leisurely nap, unpack and relax for going back to work on Wednesday. It was a nice end to a great long weekend…

 

Breaking out of a Wine Rut

I’ve been in a wine rut.  Our travel this year hasn’t been wine focused, so we haven’t sampled very many new wines during tasting room visits.  In looking at the wine we have around the house, most of it is higher end Washington wines and Oregon Pinot Noirs.  While I love Pinots, it isn’t every random Wednesday that I want to open a more expensive bottle.  And trips to the grocery store leave me wandering the wine aisles, not able to get excited about all of the wines I’ve had before, and uncertain about trying something new.

So I had an idea.  I popped down to the local wine shop this afternoon and told the owner that I had a challenge for him, should he choose to accept.  I have been pleased with all the recommendations he has given me before, so why not trust him again?  The challenge?  Put together a mixed case of wines I have never tried.

The parameters:

  • Value wines – nothing over $15.00, closer to $10.00 is better
  • No Pinot Noir (while I love them, we have plenty already)
  • 8 or 9 reds, 3 or 4 whites.

That’s it – no other rules.  If he offered it, and it fit within the parameters, it went into the case.  Of course he accepted, because what wine aficionado wouldn’t?  Here’s what I ended up with.

My Mixed Case of Wine - my descriptions below begin with the wine on the left.

My Mixed Case of Wine – my descriptions below begin with the wine on the left.

Scaia – 2013.  This wine is a 60% Garganega, 40% Chardonnay blend; an Italian wine from the Veneto region.  Garganega will be a new grape for my Wine Century Club efforts! – $10.99

Atteca – 2012 Old Vines Garnacha.  This Spanish red is 100% Garnacha, and is the one wine I have tried.  They were tasting it this afternoon, and I loved it.  I’ll be curious to see what Jon thinks!  – $14.99

Trentadue – 2012 Old Patch Red.  This red blend from the North Coast of California is 85% Zinfandel, 6% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane, and 4% Syrah.  – $10.99

Oinos Les Cardères – 2012.  This red blend from the Corbières region of France is 50% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 25% Carignan. – $11.99

La Playa Block Selection Reserve Red Blend Claret – 2012.  Wow, that’s a mouthful for this red blend from the Colchagua Valley of Chile.  60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc. – $11.99

Pelassa Mario’s – 2012.  A red blend of 50% Barbera, 25% Merlot, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Piedmont region of Italy. – $12.99

H-Henriques – 2011.  This French wine from the Côtes du Roussillon region is 50% Carignan, 35% Grenache, and 15% Syrah. – $7.99

Gerald Talmard Chardonnay – 2013.  French labels are hard…  This wine is from the Mâcon Uchizy region in France.  – $11.99

Torre Gajo Pinot Grigio – 2013.  This wine is from the Delle Venezie region of Italy and comes in a 1000 ML bottle – extra!  – $11.99

Linen Sauvignon Blanc – 2013.  This Columbia Valley wine is produced by Bergevin Lane Vineyards in Walla Walla, WA. – $10.99

Scaia Corvina – 2012.  We are going to try the Scaia white wine, so why not the red?  This one also comes from the Veneto region of Italy and is 100% Corvina. – $10.99

Sagemoor Farms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – 2013.  This wine is produced by The House of Independent Producers (HIP); it is a second label for Hedges Family Estate in Benton City, WA. – $12.49

So there’s the line up.  I can’t wait to start sampling.

Have you had any of these wines?  Which one do you think we should open first?

 

Winter Day in Woodinville: Dusted Valley

A few weekends ago it was another rainy, windy weekend, so Jon and I decided to spend the day tasting down in Woodinville, WA.  It had been awhile since we were there, and we didn’t have anything else going on, so we piled in the car and hit the road.

Ninety minutes later we had reached our destination, and after a stop at Panera Bread for lunch, we were ready to taste.  We decided to try some wineries that we had never been to before, and we ended up near the historic Schoolhouse building.  On the other side of the roundabout are several tasting rooms in a retail development that has only been there a few years.

We started our day at Dusted Valley.  The Dusted Valley winery facility is located in Walla Walla, but they have a tasting room in Woodinville as well.  We were greeted warmly by the server, and started off on the 2010 Cinsaut.  It is a light blend of 80% Cinsaut and 20% Syrah, from the Stoney Vine Estate in the Walla Walla Valley.  It is a excellent light, acidic wine, perfect for drinking now.

Next we had the 2011 Rachis Syrah, a wine containing 98% Syrah with 2% Petite Sirah blended in.  The grapes are sourced from the Stone Tree Vineyard in the Red Heaven area of the Columbia Valley.  After that we tried the 2011 Cabernet Franc – a Columbia Valley wine with 91% Cabernet Franc and 9% Merlot.  It is a big, smooth red wine.

The 2011 V.R. Special Cabernet Sauvignon was next – it is a 99% Cabernet Sauvignon with just 1% of Petit Verdot blended in.  It is named for the V.R. Special Chocolate Chip Cookie created by the winemaker’s grandfather Vernon Rhodes in the Midwest.  The 2011 Petite Sirah contained 95% Petite Sirah and 5% Syrah.  It is a dark, inky red color with strong balanced tannins.

And we finished off the tasting with the 2009 Late Harvest Syrah.  It is not a fortified wine, but is a heavy, syrupy wine with a strong alcohol content.  Jon really liked this wine.

Dusted Valley Tasting Room

Dusted Valley Tasting Room

All of the wines were excellent – there weren’t any that I didn’t like.  That said, my favorites were the Cinsaut and the Petite Syrah.

Dusted Valley also produces a second, value label – Boomtown.  They don’t taste or sell it at the tasting room, but I purchased a bottle later in the day that I found at Cost Plus World Market – given how much I liked the Dusted Valley wines that we tried, I am looking forward to tasting the Boomtown wine we bought.

Our next stop was Trust Cellars – I’ll blog about that next!

Have you tried Dusted Valley wines?  What did you think?