Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Too much to blog!

Howdy, folks! Well, New Zealand is just an amazing country, and I'm longing to tell y'all all about it. Sad truth is, I've been way too busy seeing it (and then sleeping) to have had time to tell you about it! If'n I don't have time to blog about it between now and when I get home, I'll have to talk about it when I get back into Boston. I'll break it up into daily chunks that'll be easily digested. Suffice to say for now that the Bear Squad is alive and well and having just an excellent time. It's possible I'll have time to blog extensively tonight, but we'll see what happens. ;)

Signing off for now.

- The Happy (and Exhausted and Ecstatic) Bear

Friday, September 19, 2008

New Zealand: The Arrival

Kia Ora! from New Zealand! After over 24 hours of solid traveling, we touched down in Auckland at 4:30 AM local time (about 12:30 PM the previous day back home in Boston.) We met our guide, who gave us a couple of hours to freshen up and then whisked us off for an orientation walk of the area around our hotel. I feel a bit conspicuous; these folks have obviously not seen many bears around their city.

Our hotel is quite interesting. It's called the Mercure Windsor, and it's in what seems to be the city's main downtown area. It's only been a hotel for about 3 years. Previously, it was a bank. So the room shapes are a bit...shall we say quirky? It's a nice hotel, though, with posh bath facilities and a large spa pool (think big, tiled jacuzzi.)

We enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch at a place called the Vulcan Street Cafe, in the nearby Vulcan St. area. I had a "Hash Brown Tower", which was a delicious pile of fried egg, bacon (closer to Canadian bacon than the strips back home), hash browns (imagine McDonalds hash browns...but good.), baked beans (they make theirs in a tomato-based sauce, mushrooms, and a savory gravy. There was so much food that I split it with my other half. The Otter had corn fritters with smoked salmon. All in all, tasty food and friendly service.

We then headed to the Auckland Museum. Should you find yourself in Auckland, you *must* go here. The Museum is amazing, with the world's largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, including Maori houses and a Maori war canoe. It also has an excellent exhibit about the New Zealand Wars and the participation of New Zealanders in the wars outside, like World War I & II and the Vietnam War. I was even willing to forgive them a stuffed black bear in one exhibit.

Dinner was at a harbor-side restaurant called Neptune. It was okay...the Other Half and I had Surf and Turf - a steak and two prawns. The prawns were small and okay in flavor, but nothing special. The steak was tasty, with a nice sauce and caramelized onions. The side was kumara potatoes, which are a sort of sweet potato that're actually fairly savory. The Otter had grilled snapper in an orange sauce served on steamed vegetables and kumara. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with bits of "hokey pokey" - a sort of crunchy honeycomb candy. The Otter and I liked it (bear and honey...go figure. ;)) The Other Half was not convinced. ;)

This morning, we had breakfast at our hotel. I created a sort of de-constructed version of my Hash Brown Tower, as well as having a bowl of granola cereal. Very nice and largely filling.

We set out by cab for the top of Maunga Fo, also known as Mt. Eden. This beautiful volcanic mountain is one of nearly 50 volcanoes around Auckland. The sides are terraced, because the Maori people would excavate terraces to live on, defending them as mountain fortresses. Our guide was Prince Davis, a Maori who can actually trace his lineage back to the last Maori King of the region. He was a warm, friendly guy, who, along with his two sons, showed us around the mountainside. He told us all about the Maori experience, racism, history, local flora, his own travels in the U.S. and more. At the end of the tour, Prince introduced us to his wife, Katherine, who served us tea (or coffee), camembert, brie, peppery crackers, and ginger kisses (spongy ginger cakes with a sort of icing center.) Then Prince and his sons performed the Haka, a Maori war-dance. That, along with the singing in the Maori language, was very moving and intense.

After that, we broke away from our main group, heading to the Sky Tower, a huge 600+ ft. "space needle" sort of tower. We headed up for spectacular views of the city, including Rangitoa, the 800 year old volcanic island which is the newest addition to Auckland's geography. We had some drinks in a cafe overlooking the city, before heading down and spending a few coins in the local casino.

One last food stop before returning to our hotel...we paused in a local McDonalds. Now, forgive me, but we had to try the Kiwiburger. Basically, think of a large McDonalds add beets and a fried egg. Very interesting!

We're heading out for pub grub tonight, and tomorrow is our departure to Rotorua. I'll sign on again before too long. Be good, y'all.

- The Happy Bear

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the Road...New Zealand

Howdy, folks. Well, the Bear Squad is off to exotic New Zealand. We're gonna be all over both islands, seeing th' sights and gatherin' info on restaurants, hotels, activities, and more. We'll try to keep up to date as we travel. Wish us a relatively crash-free flight. ;)

- The Happy Bear

Monday, September 8, 2008

How the Hell Do I Get Rid of These Tokens?

With our travels on the Kanc and our culinary endeavors behind us, we now headed south along 16. We picked up 25, and, finally, turned onto 3. Our goal was not home, however. Oh no. We were headed for Funspot, recognized by Guiness as the World's Largest Arcade.

This fantastic arcade, featured prominently in the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is really a great place to lose a couple of hours. We were able to get coupons from their website that essentially gave us $10.00 of extra tokens when we purchased $20.00 worth of tokens. So, each of us armed with $30.00 worth of tokens, we explored.

They have a lot of the things you expect to see at an arcade...up to date games, lots of pinball (the Otter likes it...I'm not such a fan any more), skee ball, a prize counter, etc. Where this place shines for me, however, is their classic arcade game floor. Donkey Kong? Of course. Along with Pacman (and its various variants), Dragon's Lair, Major Havoc, Popeye, Burgertime, Joust (1 and 2), and much, much more.

I was thrilled to see that Space Ace was giving away free games, and I played it a few times, recalling my more cubby days when my friends and I pumped endless quarters into it at a local bowling alley. Eventually I realized that it was getting late; if I didn't start spending tokens, I'd have a hell of a time getting rid of them before the end of the night.

I played some trivia games, a few games of Mappy, QBert, Dig Dug, and others. Finally, I decided to go for something for my tokens, and I went after various prize-games. After accumulating over 300 tickets, I cashed in and got myself a FunSpot mug. At least it was useful for holding the tokens we DIDN'T manage to spend before the place closed.

All in all, our trip to New Hampshire reminded me that there's a lot MORe to do in New Hampshire. We may have to go back there very soon.

- The Happy Bear

Of Nostalgia and Chocolate-Flavored Parafin Wax...

For some reason, members of the Bear Squad have been rumbling about wanting to find a Dairy Queen for a while now. There's something about chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream that seems to be of interest to them. So when I knew we'd be heading up northwards, I did some research to see if, just maybe, there was a Dairy Queen anywhere along our route.

As it turns out, in Glen, NH (just north of Conway) there is. So, after finishing our drive on the Kancamagus Highway, we rumbled our way north up route 16 (towards the nightmare of Story Land, which was mercifully, closed by the time we were in the area.) it took about 10-15 minutes from Conway to find the DQ, but find it we did.

Armed with my book about what I can and cannot eat on my diet, I made some tough decisions about my dinner, but I stand by them. I had a grilled chicken sandwich, a side salad with fat-free Italian dressing, and a diet coke (although I'm a Diet Pepsi lovin' bear, most times.) This...was not the best meal I've had on my diet. The chicken was too dry, but at least it tasted good. The salad was bland, little more than some wilted lettuce, and the dressing was very, very strong flavored...and not in a good way. Oh well.

The Otter proclaimed his shrimp platter "about as good as could be expected for $6.00 shrimp", which damns the meal with faint praise indeed. The Other Half, however, enjoyed his flame-broiled burger, saying it was just like he remembered.

Finally, we all got the nostalgic item that had drawn us back in the first place...chocolate-dipped soft serve cones. Essentially, this is a cone of soft-serve ice cream - either chocolate, vanilla, or a twist of both. The cone is one of those "quispy" Styrofoam-like cones...edible, but unremarkable. What makes it enjoyable, however, is that the ice cream is then dipped into a sort of chocolate-flavored paraffin wax which sets immediately, forming a crunchy chocolate shell.

This is no Klondike bar, but it's tasty enough. And the amount of ice cream is plentiful, even for a small. It made the trip north from Conway pretty-much worth it, even if the rest of the food wasn't very good.

I chuckled at one point that we were passing numerous signs for homemade ice cream in favor of a Dairy Queen. But, let's face it...sometimes nostalgia is just the flavor you want.

- The Happy Bear

Drivin' th' Kanc

As mentioned in my last blog post, the Bear Squad got back to nature, driving the Kancamagus Highway through New Hampshire. So, off to the woods we went, departing Lincoln, NH and heading east. We took it slow, stopping at anything that interested us.

Our first main stop (after BBQ) was at Otter Rocks. The Otter was very amused and got photos of the signage. This was a series of little cascades along several flat, shelf-like rocks. It was our first chance to take off our shoes and walk in the cold mountain waters. It was very pleasant, but nothing like what we would see eventually.

We proceeded to Sabbaday Falls, which, as its name sounds, was named for the Sabbath Day. When we saw the first little cascades, we were nervous that the Falls might not be terribly impressive. The walk was about 1/3 of a mile into the woods, and it was fantastic. The falls drops from one basalt dike, over a beautiful, clear basin, down to the rocks below, then turns 90 degrees to the right at a second basalt dike to form a second falls. This terminates in a pool that was so beautiful and aqua that we all wanted to defy the No Swimming signs. We managed to restrain ourselves, mostly. On our way back down the trail, we encountered a very cute little deer-mouse, which was pretty much the only wildlife we saw all trip, apart from insects.

Our third main stop was at Rocky Gorge. Here, we were happy to see that swimming was possible in some areas, and we were quickly into the waters, taking care because of the strongish currents. After our need to be in cold water was sated, we took a little side-walk and realized that the strong currents were because we were swimming just above a waterfall. Lucky we obeyed the signs that told us not to swim any further in that particular direction.

Our final stop before leaving the Kanc was at Lower Falls. Tis is where we want to swim next time, as it has larger, deeper-looking pools. Predictably, it also has more people swimming. Ah, well. Next time.

The Kancamagus is easy to get to by following route 93. From the Boston environs, you go north. The Kanc itself is route 112, heading east from Lincoln. If you do drive the Kancamagus, you need to be aware of a few things:

1. There is no food or gas along the road. Once you start the 32 or so miles, there's nothing til you get to Conway.

2. There are plenty of restrooms. Almost every designated site has one.

3. Parking is $3.00 a day. You pay at any of the unmanned payment sites along the way by putting $3.00 cash or a $3.00 check into an envelope and dropping it into a payment tube. A strip from the envelope then becomes your parking permit.

4. My wild cousins, the black bears, are supposed to be all over the place, so just be careful. Not all of them are as civil as I am.

- The Happy Bear

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Happy Accidents...

One of the nicest things that can happen is when you choose a restaurant you've never been to before...a little hole in the wall, that you have no or low expectations for...and then it blows you away. That happened to me yesterday.

Let me explain. The Bear Squad was taking a tour up into New Hampshire to drive the Kancamagus Highway (nice to get into the wild sometimes, even for an urban bear like me.) We hopped off 93 in Lincoln, NH to begin the drive, and we were ravenous. We spotted a sign for a place called Texas Toast Eatery and another for a Pig's Ear BBQ. We decided to investigate...and found they were pretty much the same restaurant.

We were seated in the little dining room in the "Village Shops" area, which you can find just to the right as you head east on the Kanc, and we were baffled by the decor, which seemed to be trying to combine New Hampshire and Texas together. A poster of a black bear (which I found homey) competed with cowboy hats for wall space. The menu was full of odd little combinations. We were waited on by Mary, the owner, and she was charming. We tried their iced tea, as well as their Texas sweet tea (move over McDonalds), and both were excellent.

As we waited for our meals, they brought over one of the side dishes the Otter had ordered - grilled corn muffins with jalapenos and cheese. We each tried a half...and they were amazing! Cheesy, warm, spicy, and comforting. We dipped them in their homemade BBQ sauce (I love a BBQ place that leaves a squeeze-bottle of sauce and a roll of paper towels on each table) which was also fantastic. Suddenly excited about our meals, we now waited with anticipation.

The Other Half and I both got the Big's Ear 5-Star sandwich. This consists of delicious, well-seasoned pulled pork with just a touch of BBQ sauce (why drown it when the customer can sauce to taste at the table?) served on two slices of delicious, garlicky Texas Toast. For sides, we both got the unbelievably delicious BBQ baked beans (loaded with bacon - how can you go wrong?). He got the potato salad, which was the only "Well, that was okay" item we had. I had some corn on the cob that was sweet, crisp, and delicious. The Otter got another order of them uffins (we had sort of devoured them) and a salad which lots of fresh, tasty, and interesting ingrediants, including cornichons, sliced cherry tomatoes, and shaved sides of corn!

After our meals, we pondered and discussed dessert. You see, there was only one dessert item - strawberry shortcake. And to have, frankly, the balls to only put one dessert item on your menu...well...that'd better be some damned good strawberry shortcake. We'd chuckled over this before the meal. But now, with them eal over, we wondered just how good this strawberry shortcake was. We decided to order one and split it, as we were all fairly full.

My friends...let me testify. :) We all pretty much agreed it was theb est strawberry shortcake we'd ever had. Seriously. And I've eaten a lot of strawberry shortcake. It's one of my favorite desserts.

The biscuit was warm from the oven, and homemade with cream, blueberries, and blackberries mixed into it. It was topped with a thick strawberry compote, dollops of an almost-frosting-like whipped cream, flavored with cinnamon, and garnished with fresh, ripe strawberries and blackberries. I wanted to cry, it was so good. Or better yet, order another. ;)

We chatted with Mary, and she told us that the phantom gourmet had given her place 9 out of 10 stars. He must've been in a bad mood that day, because I can't imagine what he held back a star for. The potato salad?

Mary also showed us their breakfast menu, which included French toast (made with that thick Texas toast, minus the garlic, I shouldn't wonder), pork chops, an "eggs-a-dilla", and so much more. She also asked us if we liked hot wings. She told us next time we came (and we all agreed there would be a next time), we'd have to have the hot wings. Their recipe for the sauce includes a pork rub, Pete's hot sauce, butter, and honey. It just sounds as amazing as the rest.

Take my advice - if you're going to do a foliage drive up along the Kanc, stop in Lincoln and eat at the Pig's Ear. You won't need to eat again for hours. Seriously, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by missing it.

More reviews of our trip down the Kanc will follow.

- The Happy Bear