My new go-to iPhone travel app

Once I am overseas, I travel blindly when it comes to finances. I just don’t want to know how much the Euro is really costing me. But this trip took us to Central Europe, and I was always curious about how cheap dinner – or how expensive a hotel really was.

As we romped around, my trusty financial wizard was GlobeConvert, a handy free iPhone app that I found myself using repeatedly. Known as Convert once downloaded from the Apple App Store, the app converts over 190 different currencies, temperature, weight, distance and speed, just to name a few. I also liked the fact that I could preset favorites in advance and easily flip to new currencies whenever we crossed the border.

The only catch is that you need to be connected to Wifi or 3G to use the app, but found most cafes will give passwords to customers.

You can find more about more Globe products on its website.

Back to Europe we go …

In 2011 husband and I drove over 4,000 miles throughout the United States for our summer vacation. Road trips are our specialty. We both love to see the countryside through a car window, and eight hours of driving is considered a good day.

However, it was the first year I hadn’t been overseas since 2005, and the thought of taking a big plane over the ocean began to pull on me almost as soon as we got home from the Great American Road Trip.

So back to Europe we go, starting in Prague, then dropping to Vienna for a few days (one of our favorite cities that requires another visit), and finishing off with a week in Budapest. Hopefully there will be day trips and stops along the way as we country jump on Eurail. Historically we dump our plans once settled into our vacation, so we’ll see where we really end up.

I am looking forward to street markets and language barriers and the smell of a neighborhood bakery. I am looking forward to the comfort that Europe brings to me, the quieting of my somewhat-chaotic mind and the reminder to enjoy life with family, good food and a glass of wine.

The map is the route we have sketched out so far. Do you have favorite sights or experiences from any of these cities? Let me know. Any and all suggestions are welcome!

Taking photos in Antelope Canyon

During a quick trip to Arizona, husband and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon, then swung north to Page, Ariz. to photograph Antelope Canyon.  I coined the trip “Our Rock Vacation” because when I came home, that’s all I had pictures of – beautiful vistas, soaring mesas and curvaceous rock formations.

For those interested in photography, here are a few tips about Antelope Canyon.

1. We read that Upper Antelope Canyon was more touristy and required a guided tour. While some believe the Upper Canyon is more beautiful, we opted for Lower Antelope Canyon to stay away from the crowds.

2. In Lower Antelope Canyon, if you show your SLR camera on a tripod, you are given a photographer’s pass for two hours that allows you to tour the slot canyon on your own.

3. SAND. The winds were 20-30 MPH when we were at the canyon, and sand was swirling in every direction. Make sure your memory cards and batteries are installed before you get inside the canyon.

4. In the upper part of the canyon, we were told light is best between 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. For the lower part of the canyon, light is better after 1:00 p.m. We were at the canyon between 12:30-2:30 p.m., and the light conditions weren’t bad at all.

The entrance into the canyon is very narrow. Photo bags need a shove to make it through the slot, and sucking in your stomach might be required for some! I was without a tripod and just had a small day bag. While my pictures might have been clearer if my camera was mounted on a tripod, I was glad I didn’t have too much equipment on me.

Happy shooting!

Antelope Canyon is part of the Navajo Nation’s Parks and Recreation Service. Lower Canyon is located on Highway 98 outside of Page, Ariz. Driving from Page, the turn-off to Lower Canyon is on your left, and is not well marked like the Upper Canyon entrance. If you pass the power plant, you’ve gone too far.

Weston, Missouri

In the bluffs of the Missouri River lies Weston, Missouri, a quaint town 30 minutes northwest of Kansas City. While some might know Weston strictly as a bed and breakfast town with good antique stores, Weston’s little-known history is based in slavery and the tobacco industry.

Weston was once the second largest port on the Missouri River, just after St. Louis. The call to settlers was “fertile soil, river traffic and beautiful landscape.” Quickly Weston became a booming town of 5,000, which helped it soar past Kansas City’s population in 1850. However, the boom was short-lived. A fire nearly devastated the entire downtown in 1855. Cholera killed hundreds of residents around the same time. In 1858 Weston saw severe flooding, and the port was destroyed. But perhaps the most damaging element to the town was the slave trade, which was legal in the state of Missouri. Hemp was a major cash crop in Weston during the boom, but it had a tedious growing process and required slave labor to produce the crop. Abolitionists from across the river in free-state Kansas regularly caused unrest in the streets. The disputes climaxed with the Civil War, and Weston crumbled as quickly as she was built. In 1870 there were only 900 residents left, and with no slave labor to assist growing season, the hemp trade ended in 1875.

One could possibly argue that what kept Weston on the map was tobacco. While not as large and profitable as hemp, Weston’s second cash crop yielded 25 million pounds in 1861. Today Weston produces approximately 2.5 million pounds of tobacco each year, and until 2001, was the only tobacco market west of the Mississippi.

If you visit Weston, I recommend strolling the downtown to take in the historically preserved buildings. Check out the antique stores and be sure to peek inside the Weston Burley House, which was used for drying and selling tobacco during the heyday. Have lunch or better yet, a slice of pie at the Weston Cafe. But no visit to Weston is complete unless you take a drive in the rolling hills to see the tobacco farms. While the port on the Missouri River may be gone, the soil is still fertile, and the landscape just as beautiful as it was in the mid-1800s.

What I did on my summer vacation

It’s been nearly a year since I attended a Meet, Plan, Go! seminar in Minneapolis. The organization teaches individuals how to take career breaks and travel for months or even years at a time. I knew that I would never be able to take that much time off, but I did promise myself after that seminar that I would take a two week vacation – something that most never do during their working career. With husband’s family reunion planned for July 2011, we decided to wrap an extended vacation around the reunion. I dubbed it The Great American Road Trip.

After 16 days and nine states there are too many stories and too many pictures to put a summary of my summer vacation into one blog post. Every state was beautiful and unique in its own way, so it’s impossible to say what my favorite thing about the trip was. I do, however, have favorite moments that took the trip from good to great.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is a 48-mile scenic drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Sweeping up to over 12,000 feet, you are eye-level with the mountains. The trees disappear. Elk and marmots romp in wildflower fields. The clouds seem close. So close, I felt like I could reach up and push them away with my fingers. The drive is harrowing; I encourage not to look over the edge while winding through the mountains. But a definite must-see of purple mountain majesty. I could come up with nothing more than “wow” when we crested the first curve at the Continental Divide, and still can’t think of a better description.

Somewhere in Wyoming on Hwy. 85, we came upon a field that looked like a river of wildflowers spilling below. Husband pulled off the highway at a gravel inlet with a gate. There was a sign at the barbed-wire fence stating that the landowner welcomed visitors to explore the land, provided the gate remained closed and no animals were approached. What a find. We let our selves into the pasture and carefully walked to the edge of the highest point, listening for rattlesnakes along the way. The field was spellbinding.

In New Mexico we watched the light, which reflected golden off the earth. The area around Taos was hazy because of wildfires, which I think just made the pictures more mystical looking. At the Rio Grande we walked across the bridge that crosses the river. It is not for anyone afraid of heights. Even I gulped when a stiff wind came up as I was hanging over the ledge, clutching my camera and I trying to shoot as steadily as I could. But sometimes you have to dangle.

More than one person has said, “I bet it felt good to come home and sleep in your own bed.” I’ve even caught myself saying it when I don’t want to bore people with my travel stories. But in reality, I could have kept going. The discovery of each place, those little moments like finding a field of wildflowers – that is what fuels my wanderlust. I can only hope that desire never goes away.

New Orleans Nice

My first trip to New Orleans was full of the expected, classic tourist attractions. Husband was photographing location shots for a client, so his assignment was to capture easily recognizable images of The Big Easy. While our days were full of Bourbon Street, pretty iron balconies and po-boys, New Orleans turned out to be a graceful yet mysterious lady, revealing her charm once you got to know her.

I repeatedly say that travelers should get off the beaten path and avoid tourist traps at all costs. However, some how, New Orleans has the tourist thing right for the most part.

Music

Preservation Hall – Visitors should not leave New Orleans without seeing a 30 minute show of traditional Dixieland jazz at Preservation Hall. We met a family from England that had come to New Orleans just to see a performance. It’s that good. Being that legendary, you will need to wait in line for the $12 ticket if you want a seat. There are six benches that hold 20 people in the hall, and everyone else stands (it holds about 50-60 people). So it pays to wait outside about an hour before the show to guarantee a great seat.

Fritzel’s – If you want the traditional New Orleans sound, you can find it at the tiny but crowded Fritzel’s on Bourbon Street. There’s no cover charge but the music is solid and they play all the old favorites.

Sing Sing – Walking up and down Bourbon Street, we were continually attracted by the sound coming out of Sing Sing. It wasn’t another jazz bar, but a blues bar. The night we went in to listen to music, a nice older gentlemen sitting in the back showed me where the “alternative” ladies restroom was as a lined formed at the regular restroom. About 10 minutes later the band leader announced a name I can’t remember, and there was my restroom angel on stage. He proceed to belt out a Muddy Waters tune that made me think the blues master had come back from the dead. His voice slid into song after song, and when he was done, the band leader thanked the 73 year old for sharing his voice. For the rest of the night, the guests they invited on stage sang old style blues, and the patrons danced. Don’t miss this place.

Neighborhoods

For a casual day away from the French Quarter, visit the Garden District for lunch and a view of old mansions of the deep south. Lafayette Cemetery, the most elegant of all the NOLA cemeteries, is located here. Just catch the St. Charles Street trolley and step off at Washington Avenue.

If you are looking for a brush with the locals, check out the Bywater neighborhood. It’s a hike from the French Quarter but gives you a good perspective of the varying neighborhoods of New Orleans. Art and coffee shops pepper the streets. If you need an iced latte and a sandwich, stop at Sound Cafe at 2700 Chartres Street, which is between the Bywater and Marigny Districts. If you need a place to rest you feet, Mimi’s in the Marigny is full of locals and an excellent break on your way to the Bywater District. Located at 2601 Royal Street, they serve a nice selection of beers and cold tapas in the afternoon.

Food

The Ruby Slipper was recommended by two random people before we set foot in NOLA. Walkable from the French Quarter at 200 Magazine Street, we hit the spot for breakfast. The menu combinations were impressive, and husband declares he experienced the best French toast of his life.

I tried red beans and rice at several establishments, and Evelyn’s Place was the best. Located at 139 Chartres, you have to ignore the serious level of dust attached to all of the wall ornamentation while you’re eating. But the banter between the owner and his daughter, along with the local chatter is classic, perhaps more New York than New Orleans. The rice and beans are a must if you like saucy entrees. Skip the bad grocery store French bread served with it. Not worth the calories.

Cafe Du Monde is the famous coffee stand next to the French Market. Order a coffee and an order of beignets. It’s one of the most touristy things to do in town, but it’s worth it. Just have cash. Cafe Du Monde does not accept credit cards.

Need a cheaper alternative? Rouses Market at St. Philip and Decauter is perfect for picnic food and cheap beer to take to Jackson Square.

Cemeteries

As I mentioned earlier, the Lafayette Cemetery #1 is a must see. The unadventurous might want to avoid Lafayette Cemetery #2, which is near Lafayette in the Garden District, but a few blocks in the opposite direction. Husband and I ventured there during the day, and while we felt safe, the neighborhood isn’t the best. You will not feel like you missed anything by skipping this spot.

While the trolley will take you to a cluster of cemeteries located near City Park, they start to feel the same. If you’re not a history or cemetery buff, skip the trolley cemetery route and visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, located just blocks from the French Quarter near the Iberville housing project (which means probably best to avoid at night). St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest Catholic cemetery in New Orleans. Located at 3421 Esplanade Avenue, it opened in 1789. Legend has written that Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen,” is buried in the Glapion family crypt, although there is no proof of the fact. Yet, the grave is marked with souvenirs and triple X’s visitors have marked after leaving coins for good luck. The most interesting statistic to me is that over 100,000 people have been laid to rest in #1, and it’s just one city block today.

What left the greatest impression on me were the people of New Orleans. Of all the places I have visited, New Orleans comes in right after Ireland. Tourism is their mainstay, but instead of being neutral toward visitors, the people I met were warm and interested in your life. Most won’t approach you. You have to ask a question or make a comment. But then you’re in, and the conversations can last seconds or hours if everyone has the time. New Orleans is just nice from top to bottom.

What to know before you go

  • Trolley rides are $1.25. If you plan to ride the trolley frequently over the course of one day, ask for a day pass for $3.00.
  • Trolley transportation will take you to City Park, several cemeteries, Audubon Park and Zoo, the Garden District and the Fairgrounds, among others. If you don’t plan to see more than the French Quarter and some of these sites, you can easily forego renting a car.
  • New Orleans has an open container policy, so you can walk down the street with an adult beverage in hand anywhere in the city. Yes, you will look like a hobo, but so does everyone else.

Soundset 2011

The tagline for Soundset 2011 is “A Festival of Hip Hop,” which is a modest description for the full-on celebration Soundset has become in the last four years. Created by Minneapolis record label Rhymesayers Entertainment in 2008, Soundset has grown from a show in a downtown Minneapolis parking lot to the largest hip hop festival in the Midwest, bringing nearly 20,000 to the outskirts of a south Minneapolis suburb on May 29.

This was my first year for Soundset and I didn’t know what to expect besides a little rain that had been predicted. While there were a few people in the 50-60 year old range, the crowd was predominately young, teens to 20-somethings. But age didn’t matter. The crowd was open and friendly, sharing the love of music with fist bumps and dancing in the mud. At one point when two young women started talking with me about their experience of meeting phenom rapper Mac Miller, one of the girls asked how old I was. When I told her she squealed “You’re the same age as my mom!” And I could tell it was a compliment.

Today Soundset asked its Facebook fans what their favorite part was from the festival. I paused to think about the question, seeing if I could pin-point down one moment. Instead, the word “celebration” kept coming to mind. In addition to 10 hours of non-stop hip hop, Soundset featured a live painting wall where you could watch graphic artists show off their work. There was a skateboard ramp for demonstrations and a final showdown. There was a sponsored DJ academy where anyone could try their hand at scratching. Professional DJs kept the beats booming in the Elements tent, while “B-Boys and B-Girls” (known as breakdancers in my day) threw down their moves.

While big name headliners like Big Boi and De La Soul were part of the festival this year, Rhymesayers works hard to keep Soundset a Minnesota focused event, highlighting their signed artists. Meet and greets are also a part of the plan to bring the music to the masses. Rhymesayers had meet and greet tents set up in both VIP and general areas, and other artists were selling their CDs and shirts in standalone tents. I have never been to a festival where I could walk up to an artist and chat them up. But at Soundset its the norm.

If you’re thinking about Soundset 2012, there are a few things to consider.

  1. VIP tickets are not terribly expensive considering the festival is 10-hours long, and there’s a goodie bag of fun stuff included. The private VIP section has bleacher seating, lounge seating, its own food and beverage area, smaller lines for meet and greets, and above all, VIP Biffs.
  2. Wear comfortable shoes that you don’t care about or that can be hosed off easily. They will get trashed in the mud, but that’s part of the fun.
  3. Back to those Biffs. Even if you have VIP tickets, do yourself a favor and buy a travel roll of Charmin for your bag. By the end of the day, every Biff is out of toilet paper.
  4. If someone is handing out free CDs, take one. You never know what new music you could be exposed to.
  5. Always have a Sharpie on your person. Many of the artists are more than gracious enough to spontaneously give autographs out.

Fans pose with one of my new favorite hip hop artists, Grieves and Budo.

Thankfully husband had a Sharpie on hand when he had a chance encounter with Minneapolis favorite, Brother Ali. The Brother signed husband’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” he had packed along for the day. If anyone can translate the phrase in Arabic, let me know!

Rusty Taco arrives in Minnesota

A Dallas-based taco shop looked North when deciding to open up its newest franchise. Rusty Taco, named after its co-founder, Rusty Fenton, debuts in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Tuesday, April 5.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Rusty Taco is sure to draw a crowd from the Saint Paul/Highland Park neighborhood, right across the parking lot from Trader Joe’s on Lexington Parkway, at the 35E and Randolph Avenue interchange.

Rusty and some of his Dallas crew were in Minnesota this weekend, and I got to sample the tongue-tingling delights at a private opening.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am a strict vegetarian, but Rusty Taco has one taco for me – the Rajas. The “meat” is grilled poblano, mushrooms, onions, red pepper, cilantro and queso fresco cheese, which I skipped. I liked the smokey, grilled flavor and how the mushrooms were used as the dominant ingredient. Husband is a big fan of the Rusty Taco, filled with achiote pork, pineapple, onion and cilantro. He also enjoyed both brisket offerings, slow roasted and served with onions, or with BBQ sauce and slaw. I also heard several people comment about how good the Baja Shrimp Taco was.

In addition to the Rajas, I made the mistake of diving into a side of chips and salsa, pretty much inhaling the entire thing. The chips are warm and thick, fried to perfection, and the salsa is red tomato fresh, with a slight kick. While I took down the chips and sauce, my table mates devoured chips and guacamole, saying it was excellent.

A few fun facts:

  • D Magazine named Rusty Taco one of the top breakfast taco joints in all of Dallas, and Minnesotans will get to enjoy the same fare.
  • There are 11 tacos on the menu, and they are all $2.50, including the four breakfast tacos.
  • If you run out of chips before you run out of salsa, the staff will gladly refill your basket.
  • If you have little eaters who do not like tacos, Rusty Taco will make a cheese quesadilla for the kids.
  • The guacamole is made fresh in the restaurant.
  • Mexican sodas and Mexican Coca-Cola are available, and beer is on tap for $3, featuring Minneapolis brewery, Fulton Beer. Bottled beer is $3.50, and big cans are $4.
  • Rusty Taco will cater your event, with a minimum 40 taco order.

Opening this Tuesday at 7 a.m.

Rusty Taco, 508 Lexington Parkway South, Saint Paul, MN 55105

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Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove State Park is an unlikely place just off Pacific Coast Highway in the Newport Beach area. You can either walk the beach or stay above the ocean on the cliffs above, looking down from several vantage points. In either place you can take in the natural beauty of the California coastline, just minutes from elite shopping and high-end housing.

I was intrigued by the park after hearing that abandoned cottages peppered the beach. While the historic area is known primarily as the location where the movie, “Beaches” was filmed, I went for another kind of history. In the 1920s Japanese farmers leased land from The Irvine Company, which still owns the same land today. The farmers sold their produce on the side of the road in the surrounding area. However, with the dawn of World War II, the Japanese were packed up and shipped to internment camps. Their cottages still remain on Crystal Cove Beach, worn by sun, wind and sea.

One of the abandoned cottages once occupied by Japanese farmers.

Some of the beach is rocky, offering visitors a chance to climb closer to the surf – with caution.

Walking path above the coastline.

You can truly walk for miles.

Check out the Crystal Cove State Park brochure if you would like to learn more.

Warner Brother Studios

I had two immediate objections to going on a Warner Brothers Studio tour:

  1. I typically dislike most tours; and
  2. I really, really dislike commercial tours.

The flip side? I love movies enough to at least be curious about why the Warner Brothers VIP tour was so special.

At the end of my three plus hour tour, I walked away with a better understanding of how movie and television sets work, and a greater appreciation of how they put together blockbusters in such tiny areas of a back studio lot. I also marveled at the engineering and detail work that goes into every set. These people are masters at their craft, and the Warner Brothers VIP tour made me appreciate that.

Hooray for Hollywood.

Entrance to the emergency room doors on “ER” – with the “L” train tracks above. And those tracks look like steel, don’t they? Nope. Just painted wood.

Considered one of the greatest runs for Warner Brothers, the set of “Friends” is still intact, if not exact, on a corner of the furniture and supply rental space.

Need to rent some furniture for your movie? Warner Brothers rents by the week. There are floors and floors of crystal chandeliers, rugs, chairs and antiques. And isn’t that psychedelic 1960’s chair from an “Austin Powers” movie?

Not just “a” Gran Torino, but the Gran Torino from the Clint Eastwood flick.

At the end of the day, it’s cool to be on the back lot.

Shhhh. Filming in progress!