Travel

Follow me around North America and the world without having to leave your chair. Wander between the skyscrapers of Chicago. Follow the footsteps of of the Spanish missionaries in San Antonio. Stroll through time in Edinburgh. Here, you’ll find pictures, reviews, news and tips from my experiences.

A trip around the world with Coca-Cola

World of Coca-Cola
Exterior of the World of Coca-Cola building.

I’ve been a fan of Coca-Cola for the longest time, and during my day trip into Atlanta, Georgia, we stopped at the World of Coca-Cola, an interactive exhibit that is all about the carbonated soft drink. Atlanta is where Dr. John Pemberton first crafted his concoction back in 1886, and it’s here that the company has its headquarters.

We arrived just before opening at 10:00 am EDT; while there was a large tour group waiting outside, we were able to purchase tickets quickly when it opened and made our way into the lobby. Inside the lobby, a group of ladies welcomed us and presented a complimentary mini can of Coke (classic, diet, or life) to enjoy before entering the loft.

Our Host at the World of Coca-Cola.
Our Host at the World of Coca-Cola.

The loft is a darkly-lit hall with ramps surrounded by all sorts of Coca-Cola memorabilia from around the world, many pieces originating from the turn of the 20th century. Here, our host was as effervescent as the drink itself, doling out trivia before escorting us into the theatre where we’d watch a brief film of various groups of people doing fun and exciting things to upbeat the song “On Top of the World” by the Imagine Dragons.

Upon completion of the film, we were free to explore the rest of the museum. In the main hall we could have our pictures taken with the drinks’s polar bear mascot, try and guess the formula of Coke in the vault or watch a much scaled down version of a bottling plant. The Milestones of Refreshment has on display even more artifacts from the history of Coke, including items from the Olympic games (of which the company is a sponsor). A number of the torches used were shown, sadly lacking the one from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

On the second floor, there is a 4D theatre and rooms with artwork from around the world, and a pop culture gallery. For those old enough to remember, Coca-Cola changed their formula in the 1980s to much backlash from the public. It was interesting to see newspaper articles and videos from news broadcasts featuring the negative response from Coke fans — usually, most companies try and hide their mistakes.

Of course, a trip to the World of Coca-Cola isn’t complete without visiting their tasting room. Here, five kiosks representing the five continents on which Coke is served (Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and Latin America) was were we could sample the many drinks from around the world. Some of the ones I tried were Inca Kola (Peru), Delaware Punch (Honduras), Thums Up (India), Vegita Beta (Japan), Sunfill (Djibouti), Bjäre (Sweden), Beverly (Italy) and probably a few more I’m forgetting. Rather than fill my cup (reusing the plastic cup was encouraged) to the brim each time, I only took a small amount from each of the kiosks so that I wouldn’t be loaded up on sugar for the rest of the day. And yes, the refills are unlimited. But if you must try one, definitely pour yourself a cup of Beverly.

And like any good attraction, the exit was through the gift store. Coke lovers, rejoice, this is your paradise. Commemorative glasses, bottles, plushes, apparel, sundries and accessories, all branded with the Coca-Cola logo.

Overall, it was a fun experience and learn a little more about Coke, and sample some of their products that we may never get to try (unless you travel or visit a specialty store that imports it).

The World of Coca-Cola is located at 121 Baker Street NW, across the street from the Centennial Olympic in downtown Atlanta. Hours vary by day and season, so check the web site for details. General admission to enter is $17.00 USD, though if you buy ahead online, you can save four dollars.

A drive through the French Quarter of New Orleans

New Orleans ckyline
Skyline of New Orleans with the Superdome.

For the longest time, I’d catch myself dreaming about a visit to New Orleans, Louisiana. Ever since reading about it in National Geographic when I was younger, I was interested in the architecture, the food, the history of this city on the banks of the Mississippi River. The colours of Mardi Gras. The smells of creole cuisine. The sounds of jazz. It was something I thought I’d never get to experience.

When we were planning our drive from Birmingham, Alabama to San Antonio, Texas for San Japan, I asked if we could make a stop in New Orleans on the way back. During the return trip after the convention, we drove into New Orleans along the I-10 and while the initial downpour of rain threatened to ruin our visit into the French Quarter (or Vieux Carré in French) we were treated to the sun and that southern humidity for the remainder of the day.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
A row of graves seen through the back gate of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

Right off the highway exit ramp, we stopped at the venerable St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 for a look around, only to find out you need a tour to access the grounds. At $25 USD per person, we decided to skip the cemetery. Pressed for time (and the darkening skies), we hopped back into the car and navigated the narrow streets, with me hanging out the front passenger seat snapping away pictures on my phone.

Streets in the French Quarter are lined with elegant balconies and galleries (balconies are supported from the building, whereas galleries have pillars or columns from the ground), overflowing with lush greenery and bedecked with flags and banners. With resilient brickwork, weathered wood and intricate wrought iron, each building is unique and beautiful. Much of the architecture isn’t actually French, as it was destroyed during a fire, the buildings we see today were rebuilt during the Spanish occupation using materials and techniques available at the time.

Our drive took us down Conti Street south-east towards the Mississippi River, south-west along North Peters Street, up Canal Street to Chartres Street, back to Conti Street, onto Decatur Street. We meandered around the French Market including Barracks Street and Esplanade Street before returning to Decatur Street and leaving along St. Louis Street.

Rue Conti at Rue Chartres
The intersection at Rue Conti at Rue Chartres

While taking pictures, a number of pedestrians stopped to gawk at the vehicle, some snapping photos, others shouting how awesome it was to see a My Hero Academia-themed car in the Crescent City. And yes, this was where a fan parked their car in the middle of an intersection to grab a few shots of the car.

Sadly, due to time, (and trying to find affordable parking) I wouldn’t get to sample some of the food I’d been looking to try in their home: po’boy, jambalaya, oysters Rockefeller, or beignets. But just getting to see a section of this city with my own eyes, does help fulfill part of a dream, but doesn’t extinguish the desire to return. Perhaps on my next visit, I’ll get to explore more of the mystical city that is New Orleans.

View the rest of our brief trip through the French Quarter in New Orleans on Gallery.

A road trip across Texas isn’t complete without a stop at Buc-ee’s

Buc-ee’s in Temple, Texas.

Everything about Texas is big. The state. The food. The hearts of its residents. The drive. Driving across the Lone Star State isn’t complete with a stop at Buc-ee’s, a chain of gas stations with convenience stores, who’s mascot is a beaver wearing a red hat.

In true Texas fashion, Buc-ee’s is massive. The number of gas pumps offered ranges from as few as eight to 120 and above, with gasoline and diesel. There’s no waiting to fill up the tank at Buc-ee’s, but the real treat is inside. Open 24/7, these convenience stores put everyone else to shame in every category imaginable. Buc-ee’s shuns the stereotype of dirty gas station bathrooms; these are clean, comfortable and stocked. If caught between cleaning, stalls have foaming seat cleaner (not that you’ll ever need to use it).

A table overflowing with Buc-ee’s beaver merchandise.

One of Buc-ee’s claim to fame is their beaver nuggets, caramel-covered puffed corn, but they serve much more than just sugary snacks. From the standard jerky and candy bars, there’s also fresh fruit served in cups, drink fountains, and hot meals with grab-and-go tacos and burritos for breakfast to brisket and sausage sandwiches in the afternoon. Orders for fresh baked pastries and other items, including kolaches, are placed from kiosks near the kitchen. Doesn’t matter the time of day.

But there’s more than food and drink offered at Buc-ee’s, some of it necessary for a camping trip or a ride down the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels. There’s barbecues, folding chairs, coolers, hunting equipment, household goods, clothing and souvenirs, not limited to various sized beaver plushes.

Inside Buc-ee’s in Temple, Texas.

Buc-ee’s has locations mostly in the centre of Texas, around Dallas-Fort Worth and out east in the Houston-Gulf area. There are plans for expansion, and the beaver invasion has started, with a location in Robertsdale, Alabama of all places (and one I’ve stopped at).

So if you ever need to take a break and fuel up (both the car and yourself), look for the giant beaver sign. Buc-ee’s has you covered.

Three reasons why I don’t find air travel enjoyable

Thunderstorm at IAH
A massive thunderstorm halts ground operations at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like flying. Yes, I think airplanes are cool and such, but air travel for me is frustrating, stressful and expensive. I’ll break my reasoning into three pieces.

Stress – Flying, for me at least, is stressful. Having to wait in endless lines at the check-in counter, unprepared people fumbling with their documentation or not having a clue of what they’re doing. Security and customs are another favourite of mine. I won’t argue that we need security to prevent incidents at the airport and onboard aircraft, but the current model is designed to add frustration to an already taxing experience. Yes, I could pay an additional fee for expedited clearance (see below) to make this portion easier, but that’s besides the point. It’s even more frustrating when you grab a bin from the stack and the person ahead of you steals it from you because they forgot to remove their own belt. Come on. Then of course, there’s the waiting. Waiting to board, heaven forbid there’s an issue with the plane or missing crew members, or even weather. There’s often very little information being passed around and what we’re given isn’t always useful. The delay could be three minutes or three hours. And that’s super important if you have connecting flights (or if you want to run to a nearby restaurant for a last minute snack/meal). Want to deplane in a timely manner? Forget about it. Even before the seat belt sign is off and the door is open, others have already unbuckled and jumped into the aisle to grab their belongings. Finally, it’s the aircraft itself. I’m six feet tall, I don’t fit comfortably in those tiny seats, much less in any of those smaller planes, especially the ones made by Embraer. I have to hunch over when boarding or exiting, pull my knees up close and hope that my seatmate isn’t as large or larger than I am. It’s not enjoyable at all.

Expensive – The cost of flying is almost as high as the planes at cruising altitude. You have your base fare, then all the additional fees: airport improvement, fuel surcharges, immigration, security, agricultural, and so on. If booking online, there’s a few airlines that will charge you in Canadian dollars; other will charge you in American funds. Should the exchange rate be less than desirable (when isn’t it), that price of the flight is going to increase. But don’t forget, cheaper flights exist if you don’t mind hopping around the country. Then, there’s fees for checking baggage. Want to clear security faster and not spend five minutes pulling off your belt and removing your shoes? Have your wallet ready! Upgrade from economy to premium economy? That’s more money. You want to buy a snack box, not a meal, a small box that is more cardboard than snack? Better bring your credit card. Now you’re thinking, “Why don’t you just bring all your stuff in carry-on and save a few bucks?” I’m not turning into those passengers who insist on bringing full-size suitcases and claim them as “carry-on”, violently shoving them into a small overhead bin. Please stop doing that. I’ve had my backpack crushed far to often because someone is trying to save thirty dollars by cramming something that’s not portable into a small cabinet. Frugality is sometimes a bad thing.

United Airlines Window Seat
A window seat is my favourite place on the airplane – for the view and a place I can rest against.

People – Granted, many people I’ve flown with were amazing, they made small chitchat, they were quiet when I wanted to attempt some shuteye and sometimes even beyond helpful (such as pulling my backpack down from the bin upon landing so I would be ready to deplane). I love those people. However, there are some, who insist that upon purchasing a ticket, they’re entitled to anything and everything. You know who they are. These are the people who will line up and try and board in group one when they’re clearly group four. These are the people who will bring full-sized suitcases (sometimes more than one) as carry-on and then verbally berate gate agents and flight crew when challenged. These are the people who will bang on the toilet door when you’re in for more than thirty seconds. These are the parents of small children who let them kick seats and pull my hair because now it’s the flight attendants’ responsibility to look after their own offspring. These are the people who cut in line when trying to grab a last minute meal. These are the people take their shoes off and roam the plane barefoot or in socks. There’s more, plenty more, but I could write a small novel on their antics. These are the people that make my flight a few hours of hell.

I know I have made a pretty grim picture of flying, but my recent flights into and out of the United States got me on this topic. However, I must give thanks to the flight crew and attendants for putting up with this on a daily basis. I try to make myself a low maintenance passenger; I don’t get up during drink service, I avoid pressing the call button during the flight and most importantly, I greet the crew with a smile and a friendly “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” each and every time, no matter how bad things are going. I know it seems small, but if I can keep to myself and get a few minutes of rest with my eyes closed, then it certainly is a good flight.

Riding the bus in Matamoros

In Canada and the US, we’re all accustomed to taking the bus with these shiny new vehicles, accessible ramps, air conditioning and displays showing the next stop. In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, taking the bus is a whole new adventure and for the uninitiated, an eye-opening experience.

The vehicles are former school buses from the United States; they’ve been repainted from their traditional yellow and sometimes fancifully decorated with images of patron saints or soccer teams. The sides of the bus advertise their route, namely large shopping centres like Chedraui, Soriana or HEB. Maintenance is an afterthought; the tires are balding, some of them have rust, and even holes in the floors. However, you won’t find trash lying around or anyone smoking. The only form of air conditioning are the windows; most of them open and when the driver brings the bus up to speed, it’s refreshing. Gone are the rows of seats; they’ve been rotated to the side so they face the centre and railings along the ceiling help keep balance once the driver is under way.

Fares are reasonable at $9 MXN ($0.62 CAD/$0.50 USD); the drivers keeps their change in a little wooden box up front with the coins all neatly stacked. Even with the passengers being jostled by the uneven streets, the coins don’t topple over. Don’t expect to tap in with a pre-paid card or anything of the sort; it’s all cash based.

Sometimes there’s live entertainment on board. A musician will board with their guitar and amp and play for a portion of the ride, asking for donations before hopping off.

Most importantly, despite their worn down appearances, these buses are critical to Matamoros as everyone rides them. Students going to school, mothers out for their daily shopping, people going to work, and yes, tourists like myself.

With the bus, you get to see much of the city and it’s an easy way to get around. Matamoros retains a lot of its historic colonial-style architecture with brightly coloured homes, many surrounded by vibrant trees and greenery. There are some rough-looking parts, though looks can be deceiving. There’s a lot of charm and the bus helps you reach it in Matamoros.

Spanish Governor’s Palace

Main courtyard of the Spanish Governor's Palace.
Main courtyard of the Spanish Governor’s Palace.

Tucked away behind San Antonio City Hall is the Spanish Governor’s Palace. While this single-storey white adobe building hardly invokes the idea of a palace, it may have felt that way when Texas was still part of the Spanish Empire.

Finding it, for me at least, was a little confusing as I thought the location was named the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar (the “palace” was part of the presidio, which was a much larger fort). After wandering around the San Fernando Cathedral, we were able to get directions to the actual site. Later on, I discovered that the Spanish Governor’s Palace is listed on the directional signs throughout the downtown.

The name Spanish Governor’s Palace is a misnomer as no-one who held the title of governor ever resided in the structure; instead housing the captains of the presidio. Famed Texan historian and preservationist Adina De Zavala came up with the name during her quest to save the house.

Plates and jars adorn the table in the late 1700's dining room.
Plates and jars adorn the table in the late 1700’s dining room.

Built in early 1700s, the Spanish Governor’s Palace is all that remains of the fort. Constructed of adobe bricks and timber, the building has expanded to ten rooms over the centuries as it changed ownership. Each room is furnished with replica and antique fixtures to emulate what life was like back in the 18th century. Behind the house is a massive enclosed courtyard filled with lush plants and trees to offer relief from the intense Texas heat. Over the course of time, the house has served as a residence, pawn shop, grocery store, school, saloon, tire store and clothing store before being purchased by the city for transformation into a museum.

When we visited, the palace was relatively quite and we took our time admiring the history, architecture and courtyard garden. It was neat going back in time and learning a bit about San Antonio’s Spanish colonial history. Photos of the Spanish Governor’s Palace from my tour can be viewed on Gallery.

The Spanish Governor’s Palace is located at 105 Plaza De Armas, San Antonio, Texas, west of City Hall on West Commerce Street. Admission to the museum is $5.00 USD.

Bok Tower Gardens

The Singing Tower
The Singing Tower

Escape the hustle and bustle of central Florida’s theme parks by enjoying a relaxing stroll through the lush greenery of Bok Tower Gardens.

Located in Lake Wales, just south of Orlando, Bok Tower Gardens sits atop Iron Mountain, one of the highest points of land in peninsular Florida. Named after Dutch-born publisher Edward W. Bok, the gardens and the Singing Tower were given as a gift to the American public upon its completion February 1st, 1929.

The centrepiece of the grounds, the Singing Tower, comes from the 60-bell carillon that can be heard throughout the gardens at various times of the day. Crafted from local stone, Georgian marble and colourful tiles in the Gothic Revival and Art Deco style, the Singing Tower also houses the extensive Anton Brees Carillon Library and Chao Research Center Archive. At the base, a massive bronze door is engraved with scenes from the Book of Genesis. The tower is not open to viewing of the public. Concerts of the carillon are performed daily, at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm — a monitor near the tower provides a view of the carillonneur playing inside the tower.

Koi in the tower moat
Koi in the tower moat

With the help of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., Bok’s dream of preserving a part of nature for the enjoyment of others was turned into reality. Nestled in the gardens is the Pinewood Estate, a restored 1930s mansion that was one home to steel-making executive Charles Austin Buck. Winding paths provide respite among palm, oak and pine trees with azaleas, camellias, lavender, magnolias and many other flowering plants.

Our visit to Bok Tower Gardens started on a late Wednesday morning, so not too many people wandering about. Weather was perfect — partly cloudy, warm with a nice breeze. In the courtyard of the visitor’s centre, a small display of the flowers in bloom lined a table. It’s a neat way to introduce you to plants you might not know the name of.

At the base of the Singing Tower is a moat filled with koi. As I leaned closer to get some pictures, one of the fish surfaced, most likely thinking I would toss something edible into the water. I didn’t, but it did give me an opportunity to get a few good pictures.

Camellia
Camellia

The tower itself is quite intricate in details. The massive bronze door, from a distance, doesn’t clearly show the lovely details. With my 300 mm zoom lens, I was able to get a couple clear shots of the story from the Book of Genesis. Further up the tower, elegant carvings of birds line the balconies, while various pastel-hued tiles form creatures great small over the windows and carillon housing. Statues of herons grace the tip of the tower. Apparently, just steps from this door is the grave of Edward W. Bok; unassuming in size, a rectangular slab of stone is inset into the grass ringed by small white flowers.

A refreshing breeze wafted through the trees on the summit of Iron Mountain. Just past the tower is a break in the Spanish moss-draped trees with sloping field which provides a rare sight in Florida — a vista of the lower lying lands, many of which are covered in neatly planted rows of orange trees. What a view!

We took lunch in the Blue Palmetto Cafe after touring the grounds. With a selection of salads, wraps and even hot dogs, it was a great compliment to a day out. Don’t forget to try the ice cream!

Admission is required to visit Bok Tower Gardens, but is reasonable considering the time you’ll spend admiring the flora and fauna as well as the music from the Singing Tower. The visitor’s centre provides a greater look into the life of Edward W. Bok and the tower’s and garden’s architects. There’s also a gift shop, flower shop and cafe so you can take a little bit of the tower and gardens back home with you.

Enjoy a selection of photos from the gardens and the detailing of the Singing Tower on Gallery.

Sabal Palm Sanctuary

A sabal palm tree
A sabal palm tree

Brownsville harbours a unique natural treasure tucked up against the Rio Grande. It’s here that a variety of flora and fauna call the Sabal Palm Sanctuary home along the winding shores of the river that separates the United States and Mexico.

Getting to the sanctuary required us to pass through the intimidating border fence that snakes its way through most of Southern Texas. Our first attempt didn’t fare so well as we arrived just after the sanctuary had closed for the day. While the second trip proved successful, I wouldn’t have much time to spend there as I would be flying home in the early afternoon.

Once on the other side of the fence, the area seems as if you’re not in Texas anymore. The lush green foliage is a complete opposite of what general perception gives the Lone Star state. Save for the dirt road and a historic house undergoing renovation, the land appears relatively untouched by human hands.

After paying admission and protecting ourselves with a bottle of bug spray (offered as a courtesy), we took to the trails. Just outside of the visitor’s centre is a bird feeder and web cam to broadcast the feathered visitors who stop by for break.

Branching out from the visitor’s centre is a series of paths that meander around the last remaining grove of sabal palms in the United States. Starting on the Forest Trail, my friend and I wandered beneath the towering palms, stepping over the lizards and other reptiles. Sadly, since it was quite hot out already, we didn’t see many birds, save for one, hiding in the branches.

The trails wind their way through the grove of sabal palms, around a resaca – Spanish for an oxbow lake, and to the banks of the Rio Grande. Platforms and viewing huts make for great vantage points when taking pictures – patience is also key.

I would love to return, perhaps earlier in the morning when the sanctuary first opens. It’s nice, quiet and relaxing – provided you have the time. Bring plenty of fluids and spray to protect yourself against mosquitoes. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary is open from 7:00 am until 5:00 pm CDT every day, except for Christmas Day. Donations are welcomed as they help ensure this preserve remains available for future generations.

Pictures of the Sabal Palm Sanctuary are available on Gallery.

An afternoon in Matamoros

Northern Mexico has been a spot of notoriety due to the feuding between rival drug cartels and government forces. Caught in between is Matamoros, a sprawling city on the edge – the Mexican border, with the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite all the negativity, I had an opportunity to visit Matamoros – my first ever visit to Mexico. I won’t deny that I wasn’t nervous about crossing over, but I certainly wasn’t frightened. Invited and escorted by my friend, his wife, and my friend’s grandfather, I ventured across to experience Matamoros. Continue reading An afternoon in Matamoros

Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is the largest amusement park/resort in the world, and I got to experience it first hand to see why. Although I was only there for two days, it was quite the adventure and I didn’t even get to see half of the attractions. This was the first trip I have ever made to a Disney park, so I had to take lots and lots of pictures. Continue reading Walt Disney World