DISCLAIMER

"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.





Sunday, December 28, 2008

Texas Hold 'Em and Florida Sold 'Em - Caribbean Winter Retreat - Day 2

Saturday, December 27, 2008 As we anxiously awaited getting on the new Celebrity Solstice cruise ship on Sunday, we had a Saturday to kill in south Florida and of course there were many things to choose from to do but in the end we stuck to some of our old favorites - just in new places. Rob spent most of the day at the somewhat new Seminole Hard Rock Casino playing in a poker tournament and although he missed making the money by just a few spots - he placed 14th and the payout was for the top 7 - he had a great time and gave the casino and its surrounding dining and shopping complex high marks. Ashlee, her mom and Matt spent most the day shopping in the Seminole complex and then a little distance north at the huge Sawgrass Mills Mall. The shoppers had fair results but reported that the mall while very nice was extremely crowded with after-Christmas shoppers. The ladies were exhausted, and after we checked in our room in downtown Ft. Lauderdale, they were content with take-out food and watching movies on TV. Rob and Matt ventured out for dinner (and a few brews for Rob - see his beer blog entry: http://seerobsbeerblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/big-bear-hunting-in-south-florida.html) at Big Bear Brewing a half-hour north in Coral Park. The food and beer were excellent. The restaurant was busy and beautiful. Definitely a must-return when in this area again. We are on the boat tomorrow and cannot wait for the experience!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Travel and Taste Buds - Caribbean Winter Retreat - Day 1

Friday, December 26, 2008 Planning a major vacation right after Christmas has been a bit more hectic than we thought it would be. but fortunately day one of the trip went fairly smoothly after a bit of a crazy start. We (Rob, Ashlee, Ashlee's mom, Evelyn, and our 17-year-old nephew, Matt) departed Chattanooga at 3 AM - yes 3 AM! - on the Atlanta airport van-shuttle in the pouring rain. This was after we discovered that Rob had left the sun-roof open on our Honda CRV (packed to the gills with luggage) while the rain had moved in overnight. Except for a couple of wet butts, it wasn't a major catastrophe, but along with the inclement weather we had to drive in, it wasn't the smooth start we had been hoping for. The van-shuttle was comfortable for the most part and the driver did well although Ashlee and her mom thought he was a light lead-footed once we got to Atlanta, but he got us there in one piece and the always-busy Atlanta airport and the flight on Delta went as smooth as can be expected. We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale around 9 AM, gathered our ton of luggage for this ten day trip and picked up a rental SUV at "ACE Car Rentals" (it was the best deal we could find on a vehicle that could hold us and all of our luggage). ACE is a no-frills off-site rental agency that we discovered we had used before and forgotten about (their records indicated we had rented from them in 2003 - ah yes, that little Mitsubishi convertible that was so hard to see out of). Of course, you can't blame ACE for Mitsubishi engineering and they delivered us a Toyota Highlander this time that has worked very well so far in terms of our luggage and comfort. For the price these guys do a fairly good job and are a decent choice to use in the pricey south-Florida area. Another bonus this trip is that their off-airport rental site is actually very close to the cruise-ship port and they are going to give us a lift to the boat when we drop off the car on Sunday. All of us were fairly beat when we got to Florida after such an early departure (Rob, Matt and Ashlee basically pulled an all-nighter and only dozed off an on throughout the evening and early morning). We headed north from the Ft. Lauderdale airport bound for our first night's lodging in Juno Beach. We chose to stay in Juno Beach so we could have dinner at our favorite south-Florida restaurant, Captain Tony's Reef Grill. This saved us from a hundred-mile round-trip for dinner like we have done before when staying in Ft. Lauderdale (see May 4, 2008 blog entry: http://collagebarrage.blogspot.com/2008/05/100-miles-round-trip-for-dinner.html Our our way to Juno Beach we took care of immediate business and stopped for lunch in Lake Worth at probably our second-favorite south Florida eating establishment, Too Jays Deli, a regional chain that dishes out New York-style (and size) sandwiches and such. Lunch was huge and delicious, as usual at Too Jays, and it just made us all the more tired and sleepy. We were able to check in to the Juno Beach Hampton Inn a couple hours early and we all crashed for much-needed afternoon naps ( 5+ hours may be considered more than just a nap!). We woke from our slumber just in time to - guess what? - eat again, of course. We drove a mile or so north up Hwy. 1 and found Captain Charlie's Reef Grill overflowing with patrons at 6:45 PM on a Friday night - did we mention the food here is incredible? It was going to be a 30- to 45-minute wait, but we weren't going to let that scare us off. Fortunately, Captain Charlie has "expanded" his restaurant by adding a waiting bar in a suite a few doors up (don't forget it's in a strip mall). It was all of 45 minutes in our wait, but it was well worth it. The seafood was superb an included a snapper-cake appetizer, a rock shrimp and Gorgonzola cheese entree for Ashlee, a pepper-crusted swordfish entree for Rob and two dozen steamed mussels for Matt. Evelyn stuck with a house salad (which was also huge and fresh) but sampled everyone else's dishes as well. This was Evelyn and Matt's first trip to Captain Charlie's and they were impressed. This was the fourth visit for us and we are already planning a return trip as soon as we can. In regards to that, we ambled over to Hwy. A1A after dinner to take a peak at the ocean. Near the restaurant we found a Hilton property that we crashed so as to get to the beach and it turned to actually be quite the discovery. We are very Hilton-loyal in our travels because for the most part Ashlee racks up a ton of points with them when she travels for work, but also because their properties are consistently clean and safe. We will definitely return to this property, Hilton Singer Island, as proper guests. The hotel and grounds are very nice, it's right on the beach (and what a lovely beach it is), it's located in a quiet, mostly-residential area and it's only a couple of miles from Captain Charlie's. Need we say more! Day 2 will be spent back down south in Ft. Lauderdale as we excitedly prepare to board the Celebrity Solstice cruise ship on Sunday.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Well, it had to happen eventually....

...when you take two "trips of a lifetime" in a two-year period, it's gonna be hard to fit all that you have done in one frame. So, for the first time in 16 years, the years of 2007 and 2008 have their own separate collages. Putting these collages together is always a great way to remember what we've done and seen over the last year (or two). These "pre-blog" events were just some of the highlights: 2007: - Ringing in New Year's Eve in Times Square in New York City with 1 million others. - Our amazing trip to Europe which included a wonderful Mediterranean cruise from Rome, Italy, to Athens, Mykonos and Santorini Greece as well as Ephesus, Turkey. Then we flew to Zurich, Switzerland, then Venice, Italy, and finally one memorably perfect night in Paris. Man, what a trip! - Live performances by Dave Attell in New York City, Patty Griffin in Nashville, Pat Monahan in Nashville, Nightwish in Atlanta (for our nephew, Matt), Tennessee Vols football, The Tennessee Titans and Duke University basketball in Charlotte. - Great festivals like Bele Chere in Asheville, the Southern Brewer's Festival in Chattanooga, and the Americana Music Festival in Nashville. - Memorable movies like Blades of Glory, We Are Marshall, Oceans 13, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Simpsons and Fred Claus.
Early 2008:
- New Year's in Chicago including a great meal at Sepia Restaurant and the discovery of some great champagne at Pops of Chicago.
- Our great trip to Las Vegas that included some non-gambling activities such as a visit to the Ansel Adams: America collection at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay and a great meal at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Shall we gather at The Tabernacle

Saturday, November 22, 2008 Our road trip to Atlanta this past weekend was way too brief, but it was enjoyable. After checking into the Embassy Suites downtown and partaking in the manager's free cocktail reception in the lobby (woo-hoo!), we hooked up with Ashlee's long-time friend, Terry, for dinner at Spoon, a small Thai restaurant just off the GA Tech campus. Excellent food and fun. We couldn't talk Terry into going to the concert with us just down the street at The Tabernacle and that's too bad because he missed a pretty good show. There were four bands playing with one of our favs, Augustana, slated third to play and the show started at 7 PM - we arrived at around 8:30 - plenty of time to see Augustana's full set, right? Uhh, wrong??? They were more than halfway thru their set when we arrived and it was only an hour and a half into the show?? Granted, the two bands before them we had never heard of but what did they play? Two songs each?? It was a bit of a disappointment that the one time we plan to be "fashionably late" to a concert it bites us in the butt. On the bright side, we were able to see a half-dozen or so songs performed by Augustana including a nice acoustic version of "Sweet and Low" and a rousing cover of The Traveling Wilburys' "Handle Me With Care." It takes guts and talent to pull that one off and they did it flawlessly. They closed their set with another strong cover of the Delta blues-rock classic, "Baby, Please Don't Go." As we waited on OneRepublic to take the stage to close the show, we wondered around The Tabernacle and were very impressed with this venue. It's a beautiful old historic building with tons of general admission seating on the second and third floors plus the open first floor in front of the stage. Acoustics and sight-lines were good and the location in downtown Atlanta next to the Olympic Park was safe and convenient. We will definitely add this gem to our collection of places we would come to again. Back to the music. OneRepubic is a fairly new band birthed literally from the internet and MySpace. They have two songs that we had heard, so we weren't super-familiar with them. Reviews of their live performance were positive, so we were hoping for the best and actually got a pretty good show. The really surprising thing was that the 5-piece band is actually much more musically-talented than their poppy radio-friendly hits - "Apologize" and "Stop and Stare" - truly indicate. Lead singer, Ryan Tedder, has a strong voice with decent range along with great piano self-accompaniment. The most interesting aspect of the band was their use of instruments like the cello, the xylophone and the Spanish guitar that are not usually associated with a "rock band." While The Tabernacle is a fairly small venue, these guys might actually be more appreciated in an ever smaller more intimate venue (perhaps unplugged) to truly experience these instruments being used in their songs and not somewhat drowned out by rock-concert standard maxed-out vocals, guitar and drums. Overall, they put on a solid performance with good energy and flow that was worth checking out.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

From Vandyville to Rippavilla

Saturday, October 25, 2008 If you look up the definition of a perfect fall day in the dictionary, you will see a picture of yesterday as the weather was crisp and clear for the football game between Vandy and Duke in Nashville that we attended as well as the corn maze we conquered late last night at the Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Our allegiance was kind of torn at the game as we are both huge Duke basketball fans, but hoped that Vandy could continue their promising season and hopefully get a bowl berth with their sixth win. Throw in the fact that David Cutcliffe (of UT football coaching notoriety) is now the head coach at Duke increased the struggle of who to pull for. The game got off to a somewhat slow pace as the only score was a touchdown late in the second quarter by Duke. Unfortunately, the slow pace of the first half was not due to spectacular defense on either side but instead a series of mistakes and pretty poor play. The second half was much more lively and better executed as Vandy got on the board with a beautiful long touchdown strike and Duke pulled ahead again with a field goal. Late in the game Vandy got a chance to tie but missed a makeable field goal and the chance to win a sixth game will have to wait another week. Congrats to Duke and Coach Cutcliffe on a 4-3 record so far this season and their own chance at a possible bowl game invitation. Our seats were great and right on the 50-yard line on the visitor's side as promised by the ticket broker we bought them from. We will certainly use these guys again (VIPTICKETS.COM). Other highlights of the game were the food, the walk through the beautiful old neighborhoods that surround Vandy and Vandyville itself - a pregame tailgating party area that had a large turnout on such a beautiful day. After the game we headed toward Murfreesboro and stopped in the locally famous sports bar/restaurant, Toot's, to compare the taste of what we heard were "great fried pickles." Unfortunately, we beg to differ. We still give the nod to WOW Wingery in Mt. Juliet as the best. We did have a great little pumpkin-spiced beer on draught for dirt cheap prices. A few draughts later our friend, Emily, met us and we loaded up and headed down Hwy. 840 to Spring Hill to test our orienteering skills on the corn maze at Rippavilla Plantation. I guess you could say we had an a-MAZE-ing time. The maze was about an acre and consisted of 23 "check points" with a solar system theme. We found about half of them without the aide of a map, but gave up wondering (and wandering) around and resorted to the map to finish our quest. The night was brisk and clear but they were out of hot chocolate when we got done which was a bit of a bummer, but a Starbuck's in nearby Franklin did the trick without too much waiting. This was our first visit to the Rippavilla Plantation and we were really impressed. They have a lot of events going on there throughout the calendar year, so we hope to visit there again sometime in the near future.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Simply GORGE-ous

Saturday, October 18, 2008 - Chattanooga, Tennessee
Despite the leaves not being close to peaking on the third weekend of October as we had hoped, the weather was perfect today for a boat ride up the Tennessee River from downtown Chattanooga aboard the Tennessee Aquarium's new River Gorge Explorer. This futuristic-looking catamaran that was designed especially for use on the Tennessee River is an amazing piece of machinery and the ride on it was worth the price of admission as much as the beautiful views it provided.
At full speed this comfortable 70-person vessel can go up to 50 miles an hour and skims along the surface with just 8-inches of the hull in the water. It's such a smooth ride that you don't realize how fast you are going and the real thrill comes when the boat comes to amazingly-quick stops for wake zones and such. The four big Caterpillar experimental engines are shut off at the same time and the craft comes crashing back into the water with a huge plume of spray going from bow to stern (gotta see this from land sometime).
The weather was perfect with an almost cloudless sky and slightly cool temperatures allowing us to remain in the top observation deck throughout the entire slow cruise through the Tennessee River Gorge with majestic views of Signal Moutain's Point Park, Prentice Cooper State Forest on Suck Creek Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Moccasin Bend, Williams Island and scores of other locations. The trip before us today had spotted some bald eagles but we were not as fortunate although several great blue herons were visible. This is definitely a trip worth taking again to hopefully catch some fall color and more wildlife. The River Gorge Explorer is another terrific addition to the Tennessee Aquarium family that has played such a vital role in the revitalization of downtown Chattanooga.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Germantown Invasion

Saturday, October 11, 2008 - Germantown neighborhood of Nashville
We met up with a small portion of the Nashville Wine Enthusiasts Group again this weekend at the annual Germantown Street Festival (it's in "German"town and it's held in "October" but they don't call it an "Octoberfest" -- must be copyright thing, or maybe an individuality thing). We bee-lined for the beer tent once we got there (our enthusiasm also leans toward beer if the setting is right!) and got our first mug of Boulevard brew which went down great in the above-normal heat and humidity of an otherwise beautiful afternoon near downtown Nashville.
The Germantown neighborhood consists of about 18 city blocks of historic homes in various stages of restoration. There are also local businesses sprinkled throughout giving it a very small-town feel despite the skyscrapers of downtown Nashville looming to the south. This was our first time at the free festival and we were very impressed. Tons of food, beverages (beer) and entertainment stages filled the streets of this family-friendly festival. Our second beer stop was for some authentic Octoberfest German brew, Paulaner, served up in collectable glass mugs. As we sat in the shade enjoying our beer and the company, Ashlee and another member of the group went off into the crowd to find the source of a reuben sandwich they saw someone eating. It took a while, but they returned triumphantly with delicious reubens served on marble rye bread and German chocolate cake for dessert. The wonderful German-themed afternoon concluded with a visit to the iconic downtown Nashville restaurant, The Gerst House, for...you guessed it - more beer and more German food (just appetizers for us - those reubens were filling!!).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Wine on Martin Avenue

Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008 Well, we had quite the soiree this weekend at our house as we hosted The Nashville Wine Enthusiasts Meet-up. We had around 30 people show up from around the area including several new members to the group that were attending their first function. It was a pleasant surprise to see so many people honor their online RSVPs and make the long trek out to Lebanon to spend their Saturday night. The meet-up theme was "Wines of Australia" which was a natural fit for us to present since we just got back from our wonderful trip "Down Under" that included tours of two of their larger wine regions, the Hunter and Barossa valleys. We had a vast array of different reds and whites to sample. Final count Sunday morning was approximately 16 dead soldiers (i.e. wine bottles). We also had some tasty food that Ashlee prepared including the very popular white chicken chili. The weather was perfectly mild allowing the party to flow outside onto the back patio late into the night. The party got several positive reviews on the meet-up website the following day which means we might just have to host one of these again...maybe after a trip to France or Peru?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Falling Slowly" for Glen and Marketa

Who says there are no bad seats at the Ryman? Well, there are if you are on the main floor and stuck behind one of the support columns for the balcony, and have to sway from side to side to see the performers. NOTE TO SELVES: Don't buy any more Z Row tickets at the Ryman. In fact, if you can't get in the first 15 rows, then choose the balcony.
Thank goodness for the superb acoustics. Despite the sore necks from craning around the historic pole we saw The Swell Season which is made up of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, put on a tremendous show with many of their songs from the movie, Once, including last year's Oscar winner, "Falling Slowly" and some great new ones as well. Glen was funny, energetic and humble on-stage and Marketa was a bit shy and focused....which was exactly how we saw them so many months ago at Bonnaroo when we caught the last half of their show and were so impressed we made it a point to seek them out again. It was well worth the hunt and the wait.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

NASHVILLE STAYCATION 2008: $20 for Dinner and "A Penny for the Band"

Saturday, September 20, 2008 - Nashville, TN
We took advantage once more of the $20.08 prix fixe menus offered around Nashville this week with dinner at Mirror Restaurant with our friend, Carolyn. Excellent meal, huge portions and a white chocolate "soup" for dessert. Don't knock it until you try it. We then ambled back over to Flyte Restaurant for another flight of sparkling wines and a delicious plate of cheeses (yes, we were stuffed, but it's cheese!). We asked for Joseph again, our waiter from Thursday night, and he was happy to oblige us in the dining room even though we were only there to drink and nibble. We tried our best to close down the place, but then headed out about 10:30 PM for a cab ride over to The (Famous?) Station Inn in The Gulch for a late-night showcase set by Justin Rutledge as part of The Americana Music Festival going on around Nashville. Justin is a young singer/songerwriter from Toronto that we saw last year with Rob's favorite band, Blue Rodeo, at this same festival. The Station Inn is a tiny little place that only serves bottled beer (that's right, it's basically a beer joint) with a small stage and scattered chairs and tables. We were a little skeptical about acoustics and such, but with front-row seats and the new smoking ban in Tennessee those worries all fell away when Justin took the stage, plugged in and did his thing. His style of music is best described by what he said on stage a few songs in to the set..."As you can see, I play two kinds of songs...slow and slower." His ballads are full of strong and intelligent imagery, his voice is pure and clear, and his accompanying rhythm guitarist was simply a virtuoso. Carolyn, who was a little skittish about going with us and had never heard of him, liked Justin's performance enough to buy his new album, Man Descending, which includes the beautifully crafted song "A Penny for the Band." Justin was kind enough to chat with us a few minutes after his set and then sign both copies of his CD that we had bought.
After dropping Carolyn at her house in nearby Green Hills we had our cabbie drop us at the new Hilton downtown (did we miss Bob Dylan at The Cannery? That was the rumor our cab-mate was following, but it was late, we were tired and frankly we don't care that much about Bob Dylan). The Hilton is where we spent the rest of our "Staycation" thanks to some more frequent-stay points from Ashlee's work as we wait for gas to be shipped to our area....long lines and/or no gas available...where are we? in Russia? Oh well, we just rolled with it and didn't let it stop our enjoyment of some great food, beverages and music along the way.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hootie, Flighty, Fresh and Fruity

A nice Thursday evening in downtown Nashville was had thanks to two separate events that we were able to mingle together nicely. First was an early dinner reservation at the restaurant, Flyte, to take advantage of their participation in The First Annual Restaurant Week for Nashville Originals. The Nashville Originals are a large group of local Nashville restaurants which offered special prix fixe 3-course menus this week for only $20.08 (get it). We have been wanting to eat at Flyte for quite a while and this seemed like a great opportunity...and was it ever! Delicious food, incredible wine selection (over 150 choices by the glass), beautiful and spacious dining area and a large, cool bar. Our waiter, Joseph, was incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and professional. Thanks to the great meal price, we were able to settle on a fairly pricey bottle of verdelho wine from Australia (still hung-over from our trip I guess). It was very smooth and went nicely with both our entrees (Asian shrimp for Rob and pork carnitas for Ashlee). Dessert was a delicious chocolate mousse that we chased with a "flight" (get it) of sparkling wines and champagnes chosen by Joseph who promised something "fun." Nice choices, sir. After dinner we eased over a few blocks to Music Row and were able to find decent parking fairly close to Capitol Record's Pub Crawl 2 - a free concert out on Demonbreun Street featuring a quartet of their stable of recording artists. Even though they were all "country" artists and not our favorite genre, we arrived just in time to catch "Hootie" himself, Darius Rucker, of Hootie & the Blowfish fame who has released a solo country album. His first single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" is currently # 1 on the country charts. Congats, Hootie!! The song is pretty damn good and Darius sounded great live and did not disappoint his fans of the past with a closing number of "Only Want to Be With You." Big, literally and figuratively, country artist Trace Adkins closed the show and despite his unique baritone voice we only stayed for a few songs before heading back home since it was a work day tomorrow. Not sure why they call this event a "Pub Crawl" since the music is outside and not in pubs...we would prefer "Demonbreun Throwdown" or something but hey, it's their party, so whatever. Just keep up the good times next year!

Monday, September 1, 2008

"It Was a Total Barf-O-Rama"

Sunday, August 31st - Brisbane/Gold Coast, Australia - blogged from the LAX airport on Monday, Sept. 1st.
Yes, the quote was stolen from the classic movie, Stand By Me, but it sure did describe a good portion of our last full vacation day in Australia. The "barf-o-rama" we are speaking of occured on the whale-watching tour we took down off of Australia's Gold Coast about a half-hour south of Brisbane. The participants of this "barf-o-rama" were a large percentage of the 40 or so folks on the boat as it entered some pretty choppy water a few miles out. 50% of our group were also affected mainly because Ashlee was on the lower deck when the "barf-o-rama" began and the sights and sounds of it set her off briefly, but then she was quickly fine. That was not the case for 20 or so Asians on board who seem to have been hit the hardest including the five young girls who rode down with us on the shuttle bus from Brisbane. They were all chipper and laughing when getting on the boat, but started feeling the affects before we were even out of the harbor.
The captain was a real professional and actually did a great job of avoiding some huge swells that would have rocked us even more than it did. The whales were a little hard to find at first and we did see a few from a distance, but again the professional captain did a great job of finding a couple of small pods and getting us pretty close to them for a nice intimate encounter. These beautiful gray humpbacks were part of hundreds in migration currently in the Australian waters right now heading north to south as the waters grow warmer for them and breeding season approaches. The 3+ hour tour also gave us stunning views of the Gold Coast /Surfer's Paradise area with it's towering new high-rises and million-dollar canal houses. The area reminded us a lot of Ft. Lauderdale which has a similar beach-highrise condo-canals with houses topography. The afternoon was spent washing the ocean off of us, resting up and packing for our trip home tomorrow. We did get to slip across the river and ride the big new ferris wheel which was pricey (par for Australia) and only about half the size of the London Eye we were told....wow, can't wait to experience that.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Crikey! Riverfire Rocks!

Saturday, August 30 - Brisbane, Australia and The Australia Zoo in Beerbah, Australia - blogged Sunday, August 31st from the Brisbane hotel What a tremendous Aussie day! We got up (fairly) bright and early and caught the train north out of Brisbane (another great deal - ride all day for about $14 each) around 80 miles to the small town of Beerbah, Australia, and the home of The Australia Zoo that was created by the late Steve Irwin (The Crocidile Hunter from TV fame) and is still solely-owned by his wife and kids. Well worth the long train ride and admission. There were large natural habitats for all the animals with a focus on native creatures of Australia and this surrounding part of the world. Each exhibit was chock full of information on the animals. You can really tell that Irwin put his heart and soul into this place. Our favorite critters we saw in no particular order were: the wombats, the crocs, the lizards roaming free on grounds, the giant tortoises, the snakes (well, maybe not Ashlee's favorite) and the sex kitten (definitely Rob's favorite).
The train ride back was quite eventful because the closer we got to Brisbane the more crowded the train got to the point that there was no room left to even stand. The reason? Riverfire. Brisbane's biggest event of the year is Riverfestival which celebrates the beginning of spring, and the kick-off to it is a huge fireworks display downtown over the river appropriately called Riverfire. The crowds were tremendous. We likened it to New Year's Eve in NYC a few years ago that we attended. Newspaper reports say it was one of the biggest crowds ever and topped 600,000 people. A full half-hour of fireworks being launched from barges on the river and off the top of skyscrapers (bet you can't do that in the U.S.) along with two fly-overs by an F-111 doing an awesome "dump and burn" in the dark night sky over the city was nothing short of spectacular. What a lucky stroke it was for us to be there on the weekend of this great event. Thanks, Brisbane!!

Hello Brisbane!

Friday, August 29th - Brisbane, Australia - blogged from the hotel on Sunday, August 31st Wow, what a beautiful city! Split right down the middle by the Brisbane River, it reminds us both of Chattanooga, TN...only about 3 times as big. Lots of use of the river including walking trails along it, river taxis and ferries shuttling folks back and forth and up and down the river, attractions and restaurants overlooking the river, etc. Our lodging is at the Conrad Treasury Hotel and Casino (sorry, no poker tournies, Rob). The Conrad is a beautiful old building that was originally built as the land surveying offices, then it became an art gallery and finally the hotel that it is today. And we do mean old, the floors creak when you walk on them, it's only five-stories tall dwarfed by the modern high-rises around it, and the rooms are overly large and roomy. The casino is housed in the old treasury building (hence the name) right across a courtyard from the hotel. We spent the afternoon walking around the city and our best (and cheapest) find was the aforementioned river public transportation called The CityCat that gave us a perfect tour of the city from the water for $5.50 each that was good to use all day. We got off about dark on the "Southside" of the river across from our hotel and explored the walkways and parks that surround a couple of small universities there. Preparation was being made for the city's annual spring gala, Riverfestival, which kicks off tomorrow night with Riverfire (more on that in the next blog). Two attractions opening for the festival were Frogforest which allowed you to walk through a beautiful botanical garden and learn about the dozens of different tree and water frogs in the area. Each has a distintive call and you could hear those calls at each info station by stepping on a sensor in front of it. Very cool. The second attraction was not open for business yet, but is already an impressive site is this huge ferris wheel similar to one at Navy Pier in Chicago (we've been on that one) and The London Eye (not yet, but it's on our list). It opens tomorrow night and we hope to catch a ride on it before we leave. Dinner tonight was at our first-ever-to-try Vietnamese restaurant, Viet De Lite, and the food was great...especially the appetizer: prawn spring rolls. The service was brutally slow again. It seems that Australian folks working in the service industry don't really expect tips since most credit card receipts don't even have a tip line and people seem really surprised when you tip even a few cents for a beer (it's just 50 cents, dude, it's not like I made your car payment this month for you), but unfortunately that really seems to affect service somewhat (we encountered that in Italy last year as well). Not sure if it's a good trade-off to give up tipping for prompt service.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Barrossa Valley - Day 5

Thursday - August 28 -blogged from the airport in Adelaide, Australia So on our bus tour of Australia's version of the Napa Valley, the lovely Barossa Valley, we were asked by our driver if we were on our honeymoon. We were not sure whether to take it as an insult or a compliment, but the reason is pretty clear: We were the youngest, loudest and happiest people on this tour!! We should have known when we booked a Gray(hair)Line Tour that it would be a bit of a snooze designed for the elderly in body and spirit. But we made the most of it and the area was lovely. Our first of only two wine-tasting (what the ?? it's a WINE-TASTING tour) was Wolf Blass which had excellent wine and a fancy tasting shop. This is big business wine-making in the Barossa Valley for sure. Much different than the boutique-style wineries of the Hunter Valley that we visited while in Sydney a few days ago. Our time at Wolf Blass was too quick (as were all stops on this tour), but we made the most of it including trying a half-glass of their "Platinum" series that runs well over $150 a bottle....smooooooth stuff. Lunch was actually the highlight of the trip as we both finally got to try kangaroo. It was pretty darn good and can best be described as tasting like pot roast. Less gamey than venison and very lean. Lunch was served at another smaller winery called Kaesler's. Their wines were available for tasting after lunch and were very impressive. We bought two bottles of their Semillon and unfortunately one did not make it home....in fact, it didn't make it back to Adelaide...but don't tell our driver, Martin, who told us it was illegal to drink on the bus...oops. Our afternoon stop was in a little German-settled village of Hahndorf which was quaint and again could have used more time to explore than the 50 minutes we were given. Dinner back in Adelaide was served up in Chinatown and it was very good despite a bit of slow service and a less than aesthetic ambiance (i.e. the place was kind of a dump). We are off tomorrow back to the east coast and the city of Brisbane for our last leg of this memorable journey down under.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day 4 - Travel to Adelaide

Wednesday, August 27 - Sydney to Adelaide, Australia - blogged from the Adelaide Hilton Hotel Not a whole lot to report today. It was a travel day for us most of the morning and we got on a flight from Sydney westward to Adelaide in South Australia (state name). The trip was smooth and fairly uneventful. There was a computer glitch that made us about a half hour late taking off and that coincided with Ashlee reading that there had been major delay in air traffic in the U.S. yesterday due to computer problems. That had us a bit concerned that it was going to repeat here in Australia, but "no worries" as the folks down here say when the problem was solved fairly quickly. Another nice flight served up by Qantas including a delicious and bountiful breakfast during the two-hour flight. We spent the afternoon exploring Adelaide and we have to say it's...kind of strange, actually. The cabbie from the airport said 1 million plus lived in the area, but what do they do?? There do seem to be some corporate headquarters downtown, but we have yet to figure out what employs the masses here and what aids them in the cost of living...i.e. stuff in Adelaide is priced HIGH. We looked at Keen and Merrell shoes we could buy in the U.S. and they were the double the price here. Everything has been high in Australia: food is high, drinks are high (bottled water $3 in a convenience store), souvenirs, etc. but Adelaide prices have been the worst so far. Our favorite Australia staple has become their potato "wedges" that have a nice coating of some sort of mild spice and come with a chili/sour cream dip.
Perhaps our bus tour tomorrow or Wikipedia can provide that answer as to what makes Adelaide tick. The city is a large planned layout that looks fairly clean, but honestly is a little bland. Nothing too exciting to gaze upon unless it's through a wine glass or the bottom of a beer mug (finally some good ales for Rob - thanks Cooper Brewing). I guess Sydney spoiled us. They do have a nice beach area a few miles from downtown called Glenelg. We rode a (free to us) trolley to it (we just couldn't figure out how to pay - no ticket booth, no ticket machine, that had ticket vendors but they didn't ask us directly for a ticket?? - as we said the prices are high here, so it was about time we got a price break from Australia - thanks City of Adelaide - we don't mind an honor system, but at least make it easy to understand how to pay. We ended the evening back in the Executive Lounge of the Hilton (thanks to Ashlee's many nights spent alone working in Arkansas, Memphis, etc.) and enjoyed some tasty snacks that were bountiful enough for us to call it dinner and some complimentary beer and wine. Australian TV sucks by the way (they have some odd obsession with "Two and a Half Men" - we've seen it on the plane, on TV in Sydney and now again on TV here in Adelaide - funny show, but not that funny. So we opted for "Oceans 13" on Rob's laptop, but we both fell asleep within a half hour with dreams that our tour to the Grand Barossa Valley will rescue our hopes of an interesting trip to South Australia.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blue Mountains Majesty

Tuesday - August 26th, 2008 - Sydney to the Blue Mountains, Australia - blogged from the Sydney hotel room Another day down under and another very good day-long tour under our belts. Our tour guide today was Johnny, our head-count was still small at 11 (still not a full bus which would have been 14) and our destination was The Blue Mountains which lie a couple hours west of Sydney. Johnny was an excellent guide full of great information about Sydney, The Blue Mountains and Australia in general. Our first stop about an hour out of town was the Featherdale Wildlife Park where we had breakfast with a beatiful young koala named "Maddie." Maddie's fur was very soft and she was a bit shy, but she was an amazing little thing. Featherdale is a wonderful little zoo/wild animal recovery station right in the middle of the suburban sprawl of Sydney. The park was there first, but now it sits amid a bustling neighborhood. This little santuary had an amazing array of native animals, birds and reptiles. Everything from colorful parrots, kangaroos you could hand feed and a big sleepy saltwater croc that I am sure would like to have been hand-fed...or fed a hand. Moving on to The Blue Mountains was next on the agenda and the views were outstanding.
Rising 3,000 feet above sea level at their highest point, these sandstone beauties are where Sydneysiders (that's what the natives call themselves) "go for some mountain time." Quaint little villages, acres of orchards and pristine national park land surround you instantly. Despite being in drought conditions we were able to see two nice tall waterfalls. The highlight of The Blue Moutains (and the whole day) was a walk through and above a real rainforest via a boarded trail. This area is a World Heritage Site and we could have definitely spent a lot more time here. The day concluded with Johnny promising and (finally) delivering kangaroos in the wild (we had to hunt for them a bit). These young males are protected in the national park lands and tolerate humans pretty well. Gentle natures with powerful potential strength in claws and strong muscles make these animals quite interesting to observe. Johnny did a good job of not doubling-back over areas we had already seen and gave us glimpses of Sydney's Olympic venues on the way back into town as well as great views of Darling Harbor and other areas on the far end of Sydney from where we were staying. What a magnificent city. We are gonna miss you, Sydney! We concluded the evening with a superb seafood dinner at "Fish at the Rocks" near our hotel (a Johnny suggestion - thanks, mate!). Ashlee had the Atlantic trout (similar to salmon in color and taste) and Rob had baked barramundi (first time ever) which is a meaty white fish with excellent flavor. It's off to the west early tomorrow morning to spend a couple of days in Adelaide.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hunter Valley PTA (perfect tour acquired)

Australia trip - Day 3 - from the hotel in Sydney - Monday, Aug. 25th
We took our first tour today in Australia and it was to the picturesque wine region of Hunter Valley, a couple of hours from Sydney. We had no idea what a large concentration of wineries were in this area - try around 150. We had a nice small group - only nine brave souls and our driver, Neville...or was it Nigel...inside tour joke...it was definitely Nigel and he was superb. He took us on a rather customized tour and got us off the regular beaten path. The morning was spent at two small boutique wineries who only offer cellar-door sales (i.e. you can't run down to the corner liquor store and find these wines, you can only buy them at the winery). The first was Mistletoe. They had a nice array of wines for us to sample (our group was the only one there). We chose to purchase the incredibly different sparkling red, Petillant (an effervescent red served cold like champagne) to bring home with us. Since it's early spring here the vines are, of course, dormant but despite that the beauty of this large valley dotted with vineyards was still evident.
The next stop was just a few doors down the road at Tintilla where the owner herself conducted the private wine-tasting (again, we were the only folks there...well done, Neville). The wines were varied and tasty but our real find here was flavored olive oils from the Pukara Estate in the Upper Hunter Valley region. These dipping oils have been infused with an array of different flavors (we settled on pepper, lime and garlic) creating a savory taste sensation...Hunter Valley, if you haven't guessed is also an olive-growing region.
Lunch was next on the agenda and it was served (with more wine samples of course) at the Hunter Resort which had it's own winery as well as a microbrewery called "Bluetongue" which derives its name from an indigenous lizard in the area with a bright blue tongue thought to be used to fool predators into thinking it is poisonous, evidently it is not, but we did not have an opportunity or a desire to test that theory. Rob had a sample "paddle" of their beers and was just happy to find a somewhat dark, hoppy beer choice in this "land of pilsners and lagers." An excellent meal followed with good camaraderie with our fellow tour-mates - three fun gals from New Zealand on a short "shopping holiday" - a mother and son who reside in Lebanon but she grew up in Australia (Lebanon, the country, of course, what would be the odds of meeting someone from where we live in Lebanon, TN, although we did meet a group of ladies from nearby Murfreesboro when we were in Greece last year) - a well-traveled older lady from Colorado who had ditched her husband who was working back in Sydney, and a fairly quiet but nice young lady from Malaysia.
After lunch we stopped at a amazing chocolate shop for dessert (did I mention there was wine sampling available here too). Ashlee's purchase of the Rocky Road Fudge per Nigel's (OK, enough with the "Neville" stuff already) recommendation has not been sampled yet as of this writing, but will be soon. Penguins and snails have nothing to do with Australia but that did stop Ashlee from purchasing these little chocolate fellas who we can't wait to bite the head off of later.
The next stop was McGuigan's - a much larger winery than the morning boutiques but still not available in the U.S. (yet). Their specialty is ports (wine infused with bourbon or brandy which not only increases the alcohol content, but the body and flavor as well). We settled on purchasing the amazing Tawny Port from the personal reserve of the owner, Brian McGuigan. The selling point on this one was when our excellent pourer, Geoff, served us a second sample of it in a heated glass - now that's a smooth finish for a cold winter's night! It was surprising that we both liked this enough to purchase a bottle since our recent visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (see previous blog) did not leave us with great impressions in regard to the taste of whiskey.
Just before the last stop before heading back to Sydney, Nigel made good on his promise that we would see a kangaroo "in the wild." Evidently, kangaroos are as common here as deer are in the U.S. out away from the cities. We saw two different ones (Nigel says there were three) grazing in the valley pastures. They don't bother the grapes or the vines in the region. The last stop was Drayton's. Nigel told us that just a few months before there had been a freak explosion at this winery that had killed one of the brothers/owners. Rebuilding was still under way when we stopped, but it seemed to be business as usual. Strangely enough the single biggest purchase from the group here was Toohey New Beer - another Australian lager - Rob stopped being a beer-snob and joined the Kiwi gals in purchasing a bottle as well. The ride back started off rather boisterous with some singing and hand-clapping to Meat Loaf's "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" - nice CD choice, Nigel, and then we all just settled back and enjoyed the ride back to Sydney as the sun was setting. Another great Aussie day. We settled in the room early as we prepare for another day-long tour tomorrow to the Blue Mountains.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sydney's grand old "opry" House

Sydney, Australia - Day 2 (blogging from our hotel room)

14 hours, 14 smours...what an easy flight! All our praise goes to Qantas Airlines for a smooth flight, comfy chairs, decent food and great entertainment including plenty of movie choices and the Australian comedy hit soon to be Americanized, Kath and Kim...freaking hilarious. We touched down as the sun was coming up over Aussie-land. Customs was a breeze and the cab ride downtown was quiet in the early Sunday morning hours. We checked our bags at the Four Seasons Hotel. Before all the "well, la tee da"-s begin, it's not as fancy as you think. We are staying on a buy two get one free special and we have stayed in nicer places (I say Bellagio and Ashlee says Ritz Carlton). They promised us we could get in the room around 10 AM. So with a couple hours to kill before we could take a much-anticipated shower, we strolled around Sydney Harbor with very few people around. We met a nice couple from New Zealand who were "weekending" in Sydney and we each took the others' picture with the famous Sydney Opera House in the background. Just as inspiring as the Opera House is the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It's massiveness and architectural beauty are hard to ignore. Sydney is a beautiful city with tons of greenery and amazingly cool buildings and quirky little streets and alleys full of neat stores, eateries and pubs. After our morning stroll, we headed back for our showers and a short nap before venturing out again. This time we headed for the Opera House and stopped for lunch with a view of the Harbor Bridge. We roamed around the Opera House grounds and we were surprised to see it actually is composed of three different buildings and not one large structure as most of the pictures you see seem to indicate. We continued our afternoon walk around the Circular Quay of Sydney Harbor and finished with a stroll through the incredibly beautiful, incredibly large and incredibly FREE Sydney Botanical Gardens. Great first day in Australia ended with a pint of western Australian Pale Ale called Little Creatures and an interesting sparkling Grant Burge Pinot Noir Chardonnay (see our new wine and beer blogs) http://seerobsbeerblog.blogspot.com/ http://robandashleewine.blogspot.com/ consumed in our room with a view of Sydney's grand old "opry" House here on the other side of the world.

Friday, August 22, 2008

R.I.P. --- Saturday, August 23, 2008 --- We never knew ya...

Day 2 - sort of - Thanks to the International Date Line we take off from LA on Friday, August 22 at 10:30 P.M. and land 14 hours later in Sydney where it will be 6 AM on Sunday, August 24. We hope everyone enjoyed their Saturday that we lost. Let us know how it was.

We love LA....sort of...

LA & Hollywood, CA - Friday, August 22nd - Posted from LAX on the way to Australia - Day 1 Los Angeles is smoggy, dirty, busy and not much to look at. Hollywood was less smoggy, less dirty, still busy, but sure had plenty to look at and is definitely worth coming again when we can spend more time here. We found cheap valet parking just around the corner from where our 10 AM Hollywood Blvd. walking tour started which was a surprise since we were expecting to pay out the nose. The Walk of Fame stars were everywhere you looked (photo above). Our tour guide, Mick, was a friendly Brit who was a former Beefeater Guard at the Royal Palace in London. His story of how he got from there to Hollywood was, a little strange and of course, involved a woman who is now his wife. Although the tour was a bit short (or seemed so at one hour), it was very informative and chock full of Hollywood nuggets of history, insider details and the comings and goings of stars and starlets all around this little town in the hills of L.A. Despite all the glitz and glamour that is "Hollywood" it's still business as usual in this town including the fact that such a famous star as the one above would be situated in front of a busy McDonald's. We spent the afternoon down the coast a ways visiting Ashlee's boss, Michelle, and her family. Much thanks to them for showing us a great time in such a brief period including a visit to beautiful Laguna Beach. We have now made it back to LAX and are sitting in the terminal waiting to board that "big old jet airliner."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"with a 50-cent [Phoenix Hill] lighter and a [Maker's Mark] whiskey buzz"...

The words of Scott Miller & the Commonwealth's "I Made a Mess of This Town" never rang truer [for the most part] than describing our weekend trip to Louisville to see the boys as well as those Texas twangers, The Gougers, who opened the show at the legendary Phoenix Hill Tavern (Happy Birthday PHT - 32 years and going strong).
This was our first visit to this river city icon and we were pretty impressed. The acoustics were good in "The Saloon" part of this multi-level, multi-room, multi-themed nightclub.

Both groups put on great shows. We gave the edge to Scott and the boys (photo above) since his performance seemed to improve when fueled by some of that world-class Kentucky bourbon whiskey. We were up close and personal again with both bands not only during their performances but afterward as well when Jamie from The Gougers sat at our front row table for a couple of songs after her set to see Scott and the boys do their thing. We also both talked to Scott during and after his performance. Well, it was more like we "love-heckled" him during the show when Ashlee implied early on out loud that Scott hated babies and he asked that she please "stop stealing his jokes" and then late in the show when Rob was introduced to the crowd by Scott as "The Human Kazoo" just before he brought out the actual instrument for his great new song, "People Rule."

http://www.thescottmiller.com/scottmillervideo.html

After the show despite our rude harrassment during his performance, Scott was a big enough person to speak with us cordially as he signed a copy of his new acoustic EP of the upcoming SM&TC album "Appalachian Refugee" for us. It's gonna be a good one! Fire in the hole!! Before arrving in Louisville we also made a stop along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail at the tiny village of Laretto to visit the Maker's Mark Distillery. Beautiful grounds, interesting free tour and a nice tasting room/gift shop (photo above) made for a nice detour. While we both can appreciate the effort and craftmanship it takes to make their bourbon whisky (not a typo - there's no "E" - that's how they spell it - check the bottle), it's just not our "cup of hooch." We will stick with the beer and wine I guess...and that's probably enough.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christmas in July with Larry the Cable Guy

We scored a couple of free tix to attend the live taping of "Larry the Cable Guy's Star-Studded Christmas Extravaganza" special at TPAC in Nashville for CMT that will begin airing in late November (the 22nd to be exact) and then coming out for sale on DVD just in time for Christmas this year. It was quite enjoyable with great comedy, good music and a rapid pace despite being filmed (i.e. there were very few do-overs). Larry's low-brow humor has always been kind of a guilty pleasure for us, so it was great to see him live and he did not disappoint whether the camera was rolling or not. Live guest appearances included singing legend, Tony Orlando (he and Larry are a strange comedic combination together but it works); comedian/actor Fred Willard (of Best in Show and Everybody Loves Raymond fame); SNL veteran, Victoria Jackson; Joey Fatone (of n'Sync and Dancing with the Stars fame, but we loved him in My Big Fat Greek Wedding); country music duo Montgomery Gentry played a couple of songs including their Robert Earl Keen, Jr. cover of the hilarious "Merry Christmas from the Family" (very appropriate for this type of show), another Christmas song by young country star, Rodney Atkins; and the amazing singing ventriloquist, Terry Fator.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's Key West...with Mountains

Year 3 of our yearly jaunt to beautful Asheville, North Carolina, for their annual Bele Chere Festival is now in the books and it was another great trip. This was the 30th anniversary for this wonderful (basically free) festival held in downtown Asheville every last weekend of July. And we do mean "downtown. " They block off dozens of their main streets for this event and stick music stages at the end of several of them (photo above) along with crafts, food vendors, etc. tucked in every nook and cranny. The real beauty of this festival is that it embraces dozens of unique downtown stores and restaurants and most of them stay open for the festival and don't gouge their prices during it either...in fact some of them run really great bargains (Ashlee bought a couple of really nice tops in a small retail store)...and the biggest bargain of all is....BEER. There is an amazing array of beer for sale (domestics, imports, hand-crafted local microbrews) and they can be consumed while walking down the streets enjoying the festival, or sitting on a restaurant patio watching the crowds go by. The prices never exceeded $4 that we could find and the bargain of the night came late when we followed a suggestion to check out the "Weingarten Store" who were selling huge pints of English ale for $2. (photo below - Ashlee's cell phone has been placed beside one of these monster beers for scale). We listened to some great sets of music by "13 Stories" and "Cowboy Mouth" who have an incredible amount of energy onstage. We ate dinner during the festival at a downtown vegetarian spot called "The Laughing Seed." Rob's skepticism quickly passed (besides the fact that they had a locally-brewed IPA on tap for $3.50 a glass) when the delicious food arrived and filled us up quickly. Despite the amount of beer flowing and the big crowds, the festival always feels very safe for all ages. There isn't a ton of security at least visible either, but the reasoning is probably more about attitude. In our opinion, Asheville is "Key West with Mountains." There is a laid-back feeling in this little city hidden in the mountains very similar to Key West, another of our favorite places to visit, which is kind of "hidden" way down at the end of Florida. Folks in Asheville and Key West just seem to "get it," They know how to enjoy themselves and life without bothering their neighbor. They share a love for life that just seems to come without much effort at all. We woke up Sunday morning just in time to have brunch at the very popular West End Cafe in W. Asheville near the university. This local institution is great and their homemade pimento cheese pannini's are to die for. After another great meal in Asheville we headed a few miles north to Whisper Mountain to take a look the Southern Living Idea House on display there. The house was stunning and the fact that it and the new development it was built in are every eco-friendly and "green" made it all the more amazing. We cruised on eastward (make that WESTward - thanks Craig, edited 7/28) after that through the mountains and wound up in Cookeville, TN, right about dinner time. Wanting to continue our streak of great eats we found "Crawdaddies" near the square which had been recommended by our friend, Woody, and Woody was right on the money. What a great little restaurant and the food was superb. Authentic jambalaya and garlic shrimp were the choices and the were both exceptional. Great weekend, great food, great beer, great time.