Big Question Marks

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yes, We Really Did Go To The Jersey Shore (day 3)

For our last day in Philly, we thought we'd likely have covered the sights by now and decided to book a rental car and head to the beach. After all, we rarely get to see the ocean anymore, and the New Jersey coast was just an hour away from the city! So we said a teary goodbye to our giant hotel room and our giant free buffet breakfast, and hit the road in a Zipcar (yes, it's true — our Zipcar membership works for U.S. and U.K. cities too! Amazing to not have to deal with all the usual rental-car hassles.)

We took our time meandering through New Jersey on the way to the beach, stopping in towns we liked the names of — like Egg Harbor and Pleasantville — and later got sidetracked with some pirate-themed minigolf just blocks from the beach when we finally made it to Ocean City. By the time we set foot on the boardwalk, the sky was clouding over and the wind had whipped up. Ah, well! We got our beach gear on anyway, strolled past the "frozen custard" stands and saltwater taffy shops, and staked our place in the sand at the surfing beach (the ocean was ice-cold so there was no chance of swimming anyhow). Not five minutes later the sky turned a shade of black and we found ourselves sunbathing in the rain...

But even in the rain, Ocean City was as adorable as our Lonely Planet had suggested. It was definitely a family resort town, but perhaps that made it all that more full of kitsch: carnie rides, minigolf courses, t-shirt shops and the like. The seaside promenade definitely had that old-timey, living-the-good-life-on-summer-holidays, blast-from-the-past kind of feel with its old buildings and wholesome fun (reminiscent of Brighton Beach in England, I thought). I half expected to see sunbathers in those full-length striped swimsuits frolicking around in the surf. It was definitely not the Jersey Shore everyone now thinks of, thanks to Snooki and "The Situation" and their gang of supertanned reality TV stars; from what I hear, THAT Jersey Shore was several towns north of us, in Seaside Heights. There were, however, many Jersey Shore references on t-shirts and souvenirs in Ocean City, which I totally had to get my TV-savvy sister to translate for me from my photos later on.

Our doomed travel time-management skills caught up with us again, and after some moseying around the century-old Shriver's taffy shop, unfortunately we didn't end up with much time left to explore Atlantic City. Someday I'd very much like to go back to Atlantic City though, fully taking in the flashy town that Monopoly (the game) was based on, a little fact we learned just days earlier. Apparently the streets in the board game are all named after Atlantic City streets, and from what we heard, over the years the real-life property values have remained pretty proportionate to the properties in the game. I managed to get some photos of places like Kentucky Ave. and Ventnor Ave., we cruised by the massive casinos, did a wee bit of outlet shopping, and had to dash back to Philadelphia to make our overnight bus. I never would have thought that three days in/around Philly wouldn't be enough, but I guess I was wrong... and now I'm sure we'll be taking a trip back there one day soon. (-D.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

At the old ball game (Philly, Part 2)

On Sunday, the plan was to get up early, hit the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art, then head down to the Citizen's Bank Park for a Phillies game. Well, so much for planning. We made it to the museum withjust enough time to take a lot of silly pics of each other mimicking Rocky's famous run up the steps (c'mon, EVERYONE does it!), and sadly had to skip the art.

We made it to the south end of the city just in time for the start of the ball game. Was it ever a great scene! Unlike at a Blue Jays game, the day's attendance was over 40,000 and there was a real fan spirit in the endless sea of red shirts. We got into it as well, Adrian buying a Phillies cap and me a (ex-Jay) Roy Halliday Phillies t-shirt. The ballpark itself was very cool and had many levels, so we really only stayed in our nosebleed seats for three innings before we decided to go exploring, and didn't return for hours. What's great about the Phillies' ballpark is, if you don't mind standing at a railing, there's a great view from every angle and level. We snacked and drank our way around the park, trying soft pretzels, Budweisers in plastic pint-size bottles, nachos, Bud Light Lime in crazy-looking aluminum bottles, etc. And aside from the food and the views, it was actually a really good game, with several Phillies home runs and a great bunch of team-specific cheers — plus, what has to be the oddest mascot ever, The Phanatic (what kind of creature is it, exactly?). It was also a little jarring to have to listen to "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch (rather than "OK, Blue Jays").

The sky was ominous and it eventually started raining hard enough to cause a rain delay... by this time we were hanging out at field level behind right field, and it was the 8th inning. While a lot of fans left sometime during the hour-long delay, we were loving it, as rain delays are non-existent during Jays games at the Rogers Centre! We met some quirky locals as we all huddled in the sheltered areas, and marveled at the amount of water on the field (as ballpark staff squished and plodded through it). After the rain ceased, it took nearly half an hour for the groundskeepers to squeegee the water off the field, and the Phillies managed to score a few more runs before the end of the game, when the giant neon-lit Liberty Bell above the outfield came alive and started ringing (love these ballpark quirks!).

And though the rain dried up for the rest of the game, we somehow got caught in another downpour between the field and the subway station, and found ourselves drenched all over again! We spent the evening wandering the area around South Street (a place one of our friends from the ballpark told us "is full of freaks and weirdos"), which wasn't all that full of weirdos on a Sunday night, but pleasantly full of kitschy shop signs, tattoo shops, and restaurants. By the end of the first two days we'd done so much walking we felt like we could draw a map of downtown Philly with eyes closed!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Weekend in Philly! (Part 1)

We weren't sure what to expect when we booked a weekend in Philadelphia. But the lure of free bus tickets proved to be too much and so, off we were to a new city! Back to our old ways of 'book first, plan later' (remember Hong Kong?).

It all began back in June, shortly after we'd returned from visiting New York City, and the travel bug had returned in full force. I was casually surfing travel sites when I learned Megabus — a budget bus company with routes around North America — was launching a Toronto-Philly route this summer, and was giving away 10,000 free rides between the cities. Amazing! Without a clue about what we might possibly do with a weekend in Philadelphia, I booked us a couple of tickets.

So armed with our backpacks and my brand-new Canon DSLR camera (my new amazing birthday present!), we made our way down to the bus terminal on Friday morning for our 10am departure. Unlike the bus to NYC, we were surprised to find barely anyone waiting to board — for the NYC routes, it's necessary to line up with elbows out to fight for a seat. We scored the the very front seats on the upper level of the double-decker Megabus, and off we went. The ride was long — it was supposed to be 10 hours, but a back-up at the border meant we didn't get into Philadelphia until almost 11pm. Were we ever ready to stretch our legs after that!

At first glance, downtown Philly was a combination of grand old buildings, glassy new skyscrapers, and sadly, a lot of homeless people. We found our hotel, the Embassy Suites, located along a grand Parisian-style boulevard lined with neoclassical buildings and a majestic fountain. Amazing! The hotel was a killer deal found online on Hotwire, where we booked a "mystery" 3-star hotel for $59 a night (the catch is, you find out where you're staying after paying for it). We are happy to say for that price, we got a room larger than our apartment, with two TVs, the biggest bed we've ever slept in, and free buffet breakfast at TGIFriday's as well! Not too shabby for a couple of budget travellers who aren't at all strangers to shared bathrooms with cold showers.

The next day we kicked off the day by gorging ourselves on the free buffet breakfast and set off to see Philly's many historical sights. Borrowing a walking tour from a Lonely Planet borrowed from the library, we set off toward the Old City. Turned out nothing in Philly's core was very far, and ambled along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (aka. grand old Parisian-style boulevard) to Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture (we'd seen a replica in NYC just two months earlier), majestic City Hall (apparently the largest municipal building in the US), and then to the area around Independence Hall to get our fill of early American history. And while we can really only take so much flag-waving patriotism, it was pretty fun to meet the many enthusiastic historians decked out in costumes, just dying for the chance to explain the musket or the fife to the web generation. Interesting, and GREAT photo ops for sure!

I gather since September 11, the admission process for some of the historical sights have changed. While most sights remain free (which is rad), they now limit the number of people [potential terrorists] in the building where the Constitution was signed, and at the Liberty Bell, by giving out timed tickets. We had a couple of hours to wander before our turn, and wandered the historical area, finding Ben Franklin (or at least some trace of him) at every corner: we checked out Ben's post office, his printing house, found his likeness painted on signs everywhere and his name on a bridge and a major road. If we were really gung-ho about Ben Franklin, we could have even had breakfast with him! But the free buffet won this time. (Plus, all this Ben fandom made us giggle, as our most recent encounter with Ben prior to Philly was on "Drunk History" — Google it if you must. :) But despite all the Ben-loving, Philly's Old City was beautiful, well-preserved, and extremely friendly to the camera — and we totally fell in love with Elfreth's Alley, a quaint little cobblestoned street that's been inhabited since the 1700's. By the time it was our turn to head back to Independence Hall, we were exhausted from the heat and kind of whizzed through the Liberty Bell building too. :S

Feeling full of history, it felt well-deserved to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. My friend Angie lived in Philly for a few years and recommended a few places — we decided to hunt down La Viola, an Italian restaurant where she said everything on the menu was great. Angie warned us ahead of time of one common Philly restaurant quirk — it was BYOB. Strange, especially for an Italian place. But apparently Philadelphia's liquor laws are still totally archaic and many excellent (and higher-end) restaurants don't have liquor licenses. It's a great way to save some cash from our end, and we had a delicious white-tablecloth, al fresco, fresh-pasta/seafood multi-course meal for under $50! Definitely a good spot to hit if you're heading to Philly. However, we were so full after that it took hours of walking to even entertain the thought of going out for a drink, so we kinda failed at finding Philadelphia's nightlife. We did, on the other hand, check out the scenery on nearly every street in the west part of the downtown...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Goodbye, pad thai?

Last night we caught an amazing show on TV that really started us thinking. "The 100 Mile Challenge" follows six families living in B.C. who agree to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile radius of their homes for 100 days. Sound simple? Not exactly. The idea comes from a book written by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith called The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, in which the authors began thinking about what was actually on their plates, and decided to see if they could survive (happily) solely on locally-cultivated food. The authors were successful in their mission, and many others who've followed in their footsteps have been as well, and so we began wondering if we could do so ourselves. Surely we must already eat many foods grown in Ontario, right?


After a look in the fridge, we found asparagus from Mexico, strawberries from California, and even our eggs were American. We started to think about our daily staples — rice would be out, our regular cereals, and more than likely our bread. (One of the biggest issues the families on the show had was sourcing wheat grown in their area — imagine craving BREAD!) A few of the other foods the families in the challenge would have to give up grudgingly included coffee, tea, sweets, and beer — in fact, one woman decided to drive around her locale searching for chicory root, which she'd heard was something of a substitute for coffee when roasted and steeped. What could we actually eat if we were to take on the challenge? We started doing a little research of our own.

A 100-mile radius around Toronto luckily takes in the bountiful Niagara region (hooray fruits and wine!) and from driving around Ontario, we do know there's plenty of farmland. Still, we definitely have a lot to learn when it comes to our local produce. In Toronto there are a number of weekly farmers' markets held in parks around the city, including nearby Trinity Bellwoods, Dufferin Grove, and Riverdale — so we might not starve entirely. But if we were to do it, would we run into the same troubles as the families on the TV show with sourcing wheat? Sadly, it would also be goodbye to pad thai, dumplings, mangoes, and all of the Asian staples we've so grown to love since travelling. And sourcing local food also seems to necessitate having a backyard garden, a car, and a lot of time (a few things we don't have).

Still, we applaud the people who are taking the 100 Mile Challenge, and will continue to mull over the idea with the hopes that one day we'll do it ourselves. We all should be supporting our local producers and reducing our carbon footprint by NOT importing our food thousands of kilometres if we can help it. At the very least, we'll try to buy more local food — and we can tell you from experience that the Niagara cherries we bought at the Cambridge farmers' market were far better than the ones purchased at the grocery store, just as one example. Take a look in your fridge and tell us what you find! Just a little... err... food for thought.

A few other resources: : A Canadian site that eases the search for local food.
The 100 Mile Challenge : The 100 Mile Challenge TV show site.
The 100-Mile Diet: Authors Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon's site. : An online community helping Canadians eat locally.