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Happy 2012 from the other end of the globe

Written by Emmy on 21 March 2012

We fled the big city on the morning of New Year’s Eve in an attempt to escape the urban heat and anticipated insanity. We started toward the coast and toward the famous Chilean city of Valparaiso, or “Valpo” as the locals call it.

Valpo is one of the most lauded Pacific coast beach cities, but it is also the major shipping port of the region, adding to our collection of epic container ship sightings.

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IMG_8198The hillside beach town is renowned for its elevators, bringing you from street level up to the top of the mountains. The elevators are a bit rickety and don’t look like they’ve been updated since they were built in the early 1900s.

We took a jaunt up the hill for the cost of mere pennies in order to check out the scenery. The streets were oddly quiet — everyone was inside resting for the New Year’s celebrations of the evening ahead — and so we walked the quiet, empty streets and observed all the graffiti.

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The weather was cold and dreary, and the hills were all fogged over. The mist in the air was throwing a chill into our summer day. We were all starting to get hungry, and what better item to cure the foggy blues than a grilled cheese with tomato. We ordered five of them.

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IMG_8218We took the elevators up and down in a few other spots along the cliffs, but the crowds were getting pretty heavy. Valpo is renowned for its New Year’s fireworks and people begin lining the hills with beach chairs and coolers hours before the fireworks are set to begin in order to claim good viewing spots. Said coolers and lawn chairs all come in the elevators, holding up the line to get to the top.

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We forewent the elevators because the wait was too long, plus we had left the rented SUV in a situation that seemed less than guaranteed. So we picked up the car and started up one of the big hills. Though the hill roads are all marked as being two-way streets, that’s more funny than true. So as we started up a narrow, narrow hill, another car — directly facing us — was starting down. Uh oh.

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My father masterfully guided the car down backward. I hopped out to help — and to document — but we also had another guide on hand. The looks of fear on all passengers’ faces really speak to the terrifying nature of the straight backward drop.

We made it off the hill and back onto the main road, thankfully in one piece. We continued onward along the coast. Though Valpo is THE New Year’s destination, we were looking for something a bit less scene-y. So we continued driving along on a road that looked not too dissimilar from the Pacific coast many hundreds of miles north.

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The drive was shorter and a little less harrowing than the version Chaz and I undertook on the northern Pacific. The Liss family arrived in the charming town of Zapallar, a far cry from the developed and bustling Valpo. We arrived just before dinnertime and so dropped our stuff quickly in order to make a quick trip down to the waterfront.

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The coastline was raggedy and the path curved up and down the hill, snaking past some of the more spectacular houses I have ever seen.

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We came back to our hotel and sat down for the New Year’s Eve banquet dinner, which began with pisco sours. Pisco is the national liquor of Chile and we had yet to sample it. I can’t say it was my favorite drink I’ve ever had, but how can you not entertain local customs?

Our fancy New Year’s dinner gave us a chance to get out of our beach hiking outfits and into the one fancy dress each of us brought on the trip.

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Dinner had a seafood focus, appropriately. We began with a platter of various customary appetizers, including shrimp on toast, bruschetta, spherical crab cakes and another form of shrimp.

The first course was a choice of two items: salmon with avocado or a seafood and potato cake. We ordered some of each in order to get the full sampling.

After appetizers it became far too dark to take photos — perils of outdoor eating by candlelight. I had a lobster tail, served in its natural form straight from the ocean, more or less.

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After we finished dinner, we headed down to the beach along with every other dinner guest and neighborhood resident. The town of Zapellar was said to put on an epic fireworks show, and that they did. The fireworks were alarmingly close to the shore where we were standing, making for both a beautiful show and a mildly terrifying one at that. It was quite the way to ring in 2012.

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The next morning, we headed back down to the beach where an aggressive clean-up effort was already underway. We took a long and rambling walk around the shore, winding back up through the “town.” The only open establishments were a handful of small grocery stores. All the activity was down on the beach itself.

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No food is allowed on the public beaches in Zapellar, a clear drive toward the one or two restaurants lining the beach. We paid a visit to the one busting with people (which also happened to be the one closest to us). We enjoyed another round of crab “cake” with a side of fresh avocado and tomatoes. Sitting beachside, feet in the sand, with our fresh crab soufflé was quite a way to begin the new year.

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Full from lunch, we piled back into the SUV to head to the Santiago airport. We had more than enough time to get there; in fact, we were poised to get back there much, much earlier than necessary. But the seemingly simple drive became a bit more complicated than initially assumed as the highways started to change names and then failed to mark the turn-off for the airport. We pulled off the highway a few times to ask directions, pulled back on, and repeated.

Finally, we got ourselves on the path to the airport and had only one stop left: filling the car with gas before returning it. We pulled into a gas station and the attendant filled the car. Once the SUV was again raring to go, we handed over a credit card to pay. It was rejected. We tried another. Rejected. Clearly the issue was with the machine, given that at least some of these cards had been used earlier that day. Also an issue: we were down to about 20 Chilean pesos. We offered dollars, but that was not kosher. (Mind you, this whole debate was taking place in Spanish.) Finally, we settled on a solution: she would follow me to an ATM across the street, I would extract the cash and then we would move on about our day. By the end of the debacle, we’d become close friends and avoided what could have been a disaster of sorts.

And so with one more cultural transgression under our belts, we boarded the plane and returned to New York, another successful foreign adventure well-spent.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Written by Emmy on 30 September 2011

We had barely left San Francisco before the scenery underwent a rather dramatic transformation.

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Just a few miles south of bustling San Fran, Highway 1 turns into a cliff-hugging roller coaster ride, with hills to the left and water to the right. Better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, the route runs all the way down the coast and the appeal of the journey is the drive itself. Our plan was to hit the highway and just get going. We had a couple destinations in mind, but otherwise planned to admire the scenery and stop impulsively when a whim struck.

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Our first planned stop was in the tiny town of Pescadero. Several of my trusty food-recommending sources had given a shout out to Duarte’s Tavern and so we had to check it out for ourselves. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but we know not to judge a restaurant by its exterior.

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We sat down and looked over the menu, which was dominated by artichokes and crab. We weren’t too far north of Castroville, Calif. — the artichoke capital of the world — and as for the crab, well, the ocean was obviously not too far either. We decided to sample the steamed artichoke hearts served with an aioli and the crab melt. The waitress commended us for ordering precisely what she would have recommended. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

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Neither of us was bowled over by the artichokes while we were eating them, but in later reflection, we determined that we had really enjoyed them for their artful simplicity. The crab melt was fantastic — like a lighter version of a tuna melt. With no extra frills, save for a pickle on the side, the freshness of the crab was really what made the sandwich.

In reading about Duarte’s, we had seen mention in several places about the pie. We had ordered light so that we would have room to try a piece and after examining the lengthy list of flavor options, decided to ask our trusty waitress for her recommendation. She said we had to order the ollaliberry. When we both looked at her somewhat quizzically, she launched into an explanation. The ollaliberry is a varietal of blackberry found only in particular locations, the northern California coast being one of them. The berry is smaller and redder than the blackberries I know and love, almost like a cross between the fat black berries and raspberries. Our waitress split our pie slice into two in the kitchen, which was probably a smart move because we would have had a hard time sharing the delicious dessert.

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IMG_4869What was so great about the pie was — you guessed it — its simplicity. Just like the other dishes we ordered at Duarte’s, there was no extra flair. Just berries sitting between a flaky crust, no extra sweetener or goo. The couple at the table next to us noticed our blossoming love affair with the pie and unprompted, offered to take a photo of the two of us with our slices. How could we say no to that?

From Duarte’s we continued south on Highway 1. (There wasn’t much else to see in Pescadero.) Just south of the small town we came upon Pigeon Point Lighthouse and having been thwarted in our attempt to visit a lighthouse the day before, decided that we needed to stop for a quick photo-op.

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South of the lighthouse, the road was largely rural and we passed farm after farm. One had a giant sign proclaiming “fresh ollaliberries” and so we had to stop. We sampled a few of the farm’s products before purchasing a jar of ollaliberry jam for each of our moms.

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The whole time we had been driving the road and the ocean were shrouded in fog. But by the time we hit Santa Cruz and its oceanfront boardwalk, the fog had lifted and the sun was shining. We parked Dorothy for a few minutes and ran to put our feet in the ocean.

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We stopped next in Monterey where we tried to find another recommended roadside eat, but found our destination closed. We continued along the Monterey Peninsula until we reached the exclusive and elusive Pebble Beach. The legendary golf resort boasts 17 miles of coastal driving aptly named “17-Mile Drive.” Pebble Beach charges cars to drive the 17-mile loop and we had heard that it was an absolute must-do, so we paid the toll and motored Dorothy along.

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Maybe it was the fog covering much of the ocean or maybe it was knowing that we had driven over 100 miles along the coast already (for free), but we were underwhelmed by 17-Mile Drive. We exited the loop in the historic village of Carmel-By-The-Sea and headed back to Highway 1.

If we had thought the earlier part of the day was along a desolate highway, then our whole perspective was about to change. As we approached Big Sur, the cliff we were driving along grew steeper. To our left, the hill stretched high into the sky and to our right, one wrong turn and we would have been fully in the ocean. We saw fewer and fewer signs of civilization, only rocks reaching out into the distant fog.

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We crossed over several majestic bridges, a few of which had been turned into one-lane roads because of the erosion. The roads were so narrow to begin with; it was easy to see how a few fallen rocks could displace the vehicles. Below is Bixby Bridge, one of the more well-known along the coastal route through Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of an actual town on the coast, found at the beginning of the long scenic stretch, but the whole region has come to identified by its moniker.

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We continued south down the coast, largely in awe of our surroundings. Despite having lived my whole life in close distance of the ocean, the east coast landscape is absolutely nothing like the splendor along the PCH.

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After a while, we finally arrived at our destination for the night, Kirk Creek Campground. Perched atop the cliffs just off of the main road, the whole campground overlooked the ocean and with one of the highest campsites, we had a perfect view for sunset. Chaz deserves all the credit for finding this unbelievable location. We set up our tent, shaking off the mud left from the apocalyptic rains of Yosemite, and laid out a picnic spread to enjoy while overlooking the ocean.

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We dug into turkey burgers (cooked, once again, in an impromptu stove-top fashion) with avocado and mango-papaya salsa, followed by s’mores, before drifting off to sleep to the calming sound of the ocean waves.

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Life’s a beach

Written by Emmy on 4 July 2011

We started Tuesday with yet another Singaporean meal. Breakfast consisted of soft-boiled eggs, sweet coffee and toast with kaya. We poured black pepper sauce over the eggs, but they were still a consistency foreign to my tastes. Kaya is a sweet jam made from coconut, native to Singapore and widely enjoyed by locals.

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After breakfast we headed for the Singapore cable car. Just south of the main island of Singapore is Sentosa, a beach-filled island self-advertised as “Asia’s favorite playground.” Once we had gained an extra day in Singapore, we decided one could easily be allocated for lounging on the beach. Dhiviya met up with the three of us and we boarded the cable car for Sentosa. You can just as easily take a bus or walk across a bridge, but we decided that when in Rome… do as the tourists do.

The views from the cable car were incredible, allowing us to see the entire port of Singapore, the new developments on the island’s shore and many of the sights we had seen on the ground the day before.

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The weather could not have been more perfect for a day at the beach. We landed on Sentosa and began walking toward the shore, stopping of course for a few photo ops along the way.

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IMG_3264If I had thought Clarke Quay looked like Disney World, then Sentosa was like Disney on steroids. The island has indoor skydiving, a Universal Studios and several beach clubs. A replica of the Merlion sits atop the island’s tallest hill, and the walk down to the water is punctuated by a fountain reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gaudi buildings. Brightly colored trams run along the coastline, and they are free to board at any stop. (The automated announcer was the one who so enthusiastically told us that Sentosa was Asia’s favorite playground.)

The island has three main beaches. Each of the beaches has at least one club, and for the price of a drink or two, you get to use the lounge chairs and umbrellas and swim in their pool. We first headed for what is regarded as the quieter, nicer beach. But the pool club we attempted visit, we discovered after our long walk and tram ride, is closed on Mondays. However, the closed beach club had left their lounge chairs out — albeit with covers on them. We decided this was a finder’s keeper’s moment and happily lounged in the sun. (We were told by the maintenance crew that swimming in the closed pool was not so kosher, but only after we had had a chance to jump in.)

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When it came time for a lunch break, we hopped back on the tram and made our way to the beachside food court. In American food courts, there’s always one token Asian restaurant. In Singapore, all the stalls are Asian. Obviously this makes sense, but it continued to amuse me — especially since we were back to English signage. (English is the main language used in Singapore, and one of four nationally recognized languages.)

Our lunch itself was pretty unremarkable, but after we finished, Vernie and Dhiviya insisted that we had to try one of the favorite local desserts. Ice kacang looks like a massive snow cone upon first glance, but once you break the surface and dig into the middle, it’s filled with jelly, beans, corn and other bizarre treats.

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After lunch, we checked out another of the beaches, where there was an open and bumping beach club. We claimed two shady canopy beds, hopped into the pool — which had a bar inside — and rocked out to music more appropriate for a nightclub than for a beach.

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Once we had finally had our full share of spectacular sunlight, we boarded the tram, connected to a free and equally bright colored bus, and got back on the cable car to return to “mainland” Singapore.