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No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

Spending the early part of 2013 in Switzerland had its ups and downs. The frequent flights were long and tiring, and being so far away from home had its drawbacks. But being in Europe is really nothing to complain about, and part of what makes it so wonderful is how close to the rest of Europe everything is.

So on the first weekend of February, I hopped on a train from Basel to Milan — a four-hour journey through the beautiful mountains and met my boyfriend Michael in the Northern Italian city for a quick weekend trip.

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Why Milan? Well for one, we could both get there. After my various traumas with flights in and around snowy Switzerland, I had a strong preference for a train destination. (And it was a good choice; it snowed in Basel that day and half the flights were grounded.) As a business metropolis, Milan also has frequent flights to and from the U.S. Milan also felt like the kind of city we would want to see in 36 hours — there would be enough to keep us occupied and interested, but not so much that we would be overwhelmed or feel like we had missed things. The allure of genuine Italian food didn’t hurt either.

Michael arrived early Friday morning, but I didn’t pull into Milano Centrale until the early evening. The train had been running with precision-like clockwork till we hit the Swiss-Italian border and then we seemed to putter around with no attention to schedule for a while, a true testament to the two nations’ stereotypes.

Determined to spend our few days as the natives would, we kicked our evening off with an apertivo. Italian bars traditionally put out a spread of appetizers, which a drink purchase entitles you to graze to your heart’s content. For many, this serves as a cheap alternative to dinner. We still fully planned to have dinner, but for experience’s sake, picked at a few different foccacias and antipasti while sipping our brightly-colored Campari cocktails.

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At the recommendation of an Italian friend of Michael’s, we found our way to the tiny Boccondivino for dinner. The restaurant is known for its incredibly expansive cheese selection, among other things, which was enough of an attraction for me on its own.

We arrived at the restaurant not entirely sure what to expect, were seated and immediately handed glasses of sparkling wine as a welcome gift. Our table was covered in a glass bowl filled with fresh vegetables — carrot sticks, bunches of celery, whole tomatoes. We were confused; was this decoration or consumable? We were promptly handed a small cup each, instructed to mix oil and vinegar in our cups, dip our vegetables, and repeat. (Passover-based jokes about dipping ensued.)

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Our waiter came over to greet us and more or less informed us that we would have no say in the food to come. He asked if we wanted to choose our wine; the right answer was clearly that we would leave it in his hands. When we responded by turning over responsibility, he smiled and told us we would enjoy our evening.

First, we were served a very large plate of cured meats. They were arranged in a specific order and they were explained, but that quickly went over both of our heads. Armed with a new bottle of wine, we dug into our meats. As I was struggling to finish my plate, our waiter came over with a new platter of offerings. And just as we started to make any sort of reasonable dent in them, he brought over an impressively large cutting board with a big leg of something on it, and artfully started slicing. I didn’t even know what to do at this point, but the wine helped.

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We digested our meat for a little while — one lovely thing about the dinner was that no aspect of it was rushed whatsoever — and continued to wash it all down with wine. After a short rest, the waiter came back with two kinds of pasta. One, pappardelle with lamb ragu, was served directly out of a parmesan rind — an innovative serving dish if I’ve ever seen one. The other came out of a normal chafing dish — a cheesy mushroom risotto. Both were rich and delicious, and a small serving of each provided a wonderful tasting.

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At this point, we were about two hours in — and it was time for the restaurant’s claim to fame. Out rolled the cheese cart, and I got extremely excited. (Anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this.) After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spread, we took in two courses. First, the soft cheeses: burrata, ricotta and mozzarella.

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We picked out our own hard cheeses, selecting a gorgonzola (the local region’s claim to fame), a pecorino (because when in Italy…) and whatever else our waiter recommended. And yes, the cheese came with a new bottle of wine.

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By the time dessert came, we were thoroughly overwhelmed. We were first each given a small bowl of sorbet — a light palette cleanser — but that wasn’t enough. We were then given a saucepan, filled to the brim with small biscotti, and goblets of sweet dessert wine. We were instructed to give our biscotti a bath before eating them, which turned into a really fun activity, but after losing a good number of mine to the bottom of my glass, it was time for us to call it quits. We had originally had ambitions of going out after dinner, but nearly four hours after we arrived, it was officially time to retire for the evening.

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Waking up was a bit of a challenge the next morning. After we were finally able to get up and put ourselves back together, we headed into the old part of the city. Historic Milan was built hundreds of years ago, with stunning Gothic and Roman architecture; the rest of the city grew out around it and today serves as the center of business and industry for Italy. Despite the city’s overall largess, it was manageable to see in such a short time because we stuck to just the center.

Navigating down thin cobblestone streets with every designer label you have ever heard of, we made our way to the center, home to the Duomo and several other historic buildings — including a majestic mall with incredible architecture. So what if it’s filled with modern clothing stores now?

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We spent the morning getting our bearings, walking through the old cobbled streets – and through beautiful food stores. When we got hungry enough for lunch, we located Paper Moon, a classic lunch spot recommended by just about everyone we asked for Milan recommendations.

I ordered linguini with clams, delightful in its simplicity. It tasted just like linguini with clams is supposed to taste. I was reprimanded for even asking if I could have some parmesan cheese (it is, after all, a taboo to add it to the dish), and I’m glad I was disallowed.

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IMG_4182Michael ordered the margarita pizza, which also arrived exactly as it should — simple, beautiful, and delicious. But a bit more food than we were able to consume, and so we left Paper Moon with leftover food on the table, but a recommendation we were happy to continue passing on.

We spent part of the afternoon at the Museo del Novocento — the Museum of the Twentieth-Century. My sister Jessica has discerning tastes when it comes to museums; in her review of Milan from a past visit, she said she didn’t remember one of the city’s museums, but found the Novocento “surprisingly good.” Taking that as more or less a rave review, we paid the museum a visit.

The museum was tucked into a corner of the old square. A tall and skinny structure, we made our way through six or so little floors of artwork – among them, some of the more impressive names in European 20th century art. Its height and position also gave spectacular views of the nearby Duomo, which we planned to climb the next morning.

After looking at some art, we naturally needed a snack. Living like the locals, we picked up two cups of gelato.

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We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the city, blurring the line between the old and the new parts. On one street, you have majestic buildings and cobblestones; walk through an alleyway and you are surrounded by every designer you have ever (and never) heard of. We walked into a few stores, said “buongiorno” and looked around, but you need to be far more serious than we to shop among the Milanos. The most interesting stop we made was not at the native jewel Prada or at the hilariously named Car Shoes, but at a store-slash-gallery-slash-cafe called 10 Corso Como, where we browsed art books, extremely bizarre photographs, and fun modern furniture.

For dinner, we followed another suggestion of Michael’s friend, since night one had been such a success. Once again, we did not order any of our own food and we had a delicious meal, but it turned out to be wildly different.

We walked into Antica Hostaria della Lanterna and were greeted by an older man, presumably the proprietor, who was more or less just hanging out. We tried to explain that we had a reservation and he pointed toward his wife — who was running from table to table as the only server in the establishment — and went back to minding his own business. Every review we read had discussed how Signora Paula commands the entire establishment, so we determined this must be she.

After several minutes of waiting, she directed us to a table and left us for a bit. When she came back, she started to us in a rapid-fire fashion. Only problem? Neither of us really speak Italian. And to further complicate, she was speaking a local dialect — making my seventh-grade Italian knowledge particularly useless. Upon realizing that we did not follow a single thing she had said, she walked over to a large table of young Italians and asked them loudly if any spoke English. She located a woman who did, and dragged her over to our table to translate. After a bit of back and forth, we learned that we were each supposed to choose a pasta to start. To be fair, we had caught the descriptions of the pasta dishes — we had just been a bit mystified about the ordering procedure.

With that taken care of, we were soon served one penne bolognese and one gnocchi in a cheese sauce, alongside a small carafe of a table wine. I felt like how I would imagine eating in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen must feel.

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Both pastas were very simple — there were few frills to our dinner at all. But these were clearly Signora Paula’s home-cooked recipes. Both pastas were also very large — and yet, intended to be consumed as an appetizer. Looking around at the skinny Italians packing away their pastas and their main courses, we were amazed as we struggled to clear our plates. Still, do as the locals do. When Paula came back to clear our pasta plates, we made our best effort to communicate that we each wanted one of the main courses and that we would share. We had absolutely no idea what we had ordered, and only reasonable confidence that our order had been transmitted as intended.

And yet, after only a few more minutes, we received two heaping plates. With our translator gone, we were left to figure out what we had received. Based on my limited knowledge of the Lombardy region — the part of Italy that contains Milan — I knew we would encounter some heavier, almost Germanic food items. We deduced that what we had been served included a veal dish, sort of like a veal marsala, and some sort of meat stew, both with a side of polenta. We put them both in the center of the table and attempted to make a dent in the very large platters.

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When Paula came back to clear our plates and saw how much the two of us had been able to eat, she basically shook her head at us and nearly forbade us from ordering dessert. She conceded, but we were permitted only one item. (Truly — she had more options; she just didn’t trust we could do them justice.) She let us have a single tiramisu, which, OK, we didn’t even finish. But it was very good!

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Full and content, we went to bed.

We then started Sunday morning as any good Italians would: with cappuccinos and a pastry.

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Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, making it perfect for climbing up the stairs of Milan’s duomo to take in a vista of the city. (I think duomo-climbing must be a required activity in any Italian city.)

On our way up, we encountered a few puzzling signs…

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…and some beautiful architecture.

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IMG_4242The climb was not all too strenuous — but everything else about it was pretty spectacular. Milan’s cathedral is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Italy. All of the old city was designed around the structure — and eventually the new city that grew out from it — putting us in the exact center of everything, and high, high above it. Streets radiated out from below us in every possible direction, with various religious figures looking out toward the horizon.

Despite having taken a train through them, I had forgotten just how close to the mountains we were. With the sky such a clear blue, we had a spectacular view.

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The top of the duomo was awfully spacious, and so we spent a fair bit of time exploring it along with all the other tourists.

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We eventually descended the stairs and strolled around square housing the duomo. We walked into Rinoscente, Milan’s major department store, where we zeroed in on the food floor, naturally, checking out homemade mozzarella, spectacular jarred vegetables and 100 euro bottles of water. (The bottles were covered in rhinestones, but still — we were confused.)

We waved goodbye to the duomo and Michael waved goodbye to Milan, off to the airport to make his way back to America.

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I had a few hours until my train back to Switzerland, so naturally, kept on eating. Given our wildly successful track record with suggestions from friends, I picked one last spot from our collective list, and one of the only open on Sundays. I navigated my way by subway to an adorable restaurant, filled with families coming from church. Not only was I the only solo diner, but I was the only person at a table smaller than six. But it still felt friendly to be among them. And to make it even better, I was once again welcome with a cup of crudite and instructions to dip.

I had been in the market for risotto — which Milan is known for more than pasta — but because it was Sunday, I was greeted with something slightly different. Risotto al salto is what you get on Sundays — it’s Saturday night’s risotto, packed into cake form, and pan fried till the edges get a little crispy. It’s a risotto latke! And mine came with sauteed mushrooms on top. It was not entirely what I was expecting when I went on a risotto hunt, but it was good all the same.

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Despite having just eaten my lunch, I was trained well. My departure was looming close and I had a four-hour train ride ahead, one that would land me in a country whose food I’m just less excited about. And so I sensibly did what my mother always taught me and got myself a packed dinner for the trip ahead. I headed back to Rinoscente and its spectacular rooftop food court, visited the Obika Mozzarella Bar, and got myself a to-go box. (One flaw: I forgot to get silverware and the train had none they would give me, save for a tiny spoon meant for stirring espresso. So I ate my cheese in very small bites.)

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As I sat in my train car, rolling north up through the Alps and passing spectacular landscapes before becoming blanketed in the darkness of the night, it was hard not to smile in reflection of a spontaneous, delicious and wonderful weekend.

Lake in the sky

Written by Emmy on 26 March 2013

We departed the cosmopolitan city of Cusco, and flew up, up and away. We landed in the small town of Juliaca, situated at over 12,000 feet up. Yikes.

We got into a van, opened up our picnic afternoon snack — Andean cheese and tomato sandwiches, and shortbread cookies — and started cruising south.

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We hit the city of Puno and there it was, Lago Titicaca — the highest navigable lake in the world. At this point, we were sipping our coca tea and trying to cope with the altitude adjustments. But the lake under the glow of the sunset was also pretty exciting…

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We drove around the perimeter of the lake for an hour or so before arriving at our destination, Titilaka. (We spent the next few days perpetually confused between Titlaka, the town and hotel, and Titicaca, the lake and region.) We were also now shockingly close to the Bolivian border, but the crossing is not recommended for those with American passports.

Our hotel was a beautiful lodge poised right on the edge of the lake. Climbing to the second floor of the hotel was a little bit of a challenge with the altitude, but we recovered and made it back downstairs for dinner.

We enjoyed a lovely meal composed of local ingredients while overlooking the lake. I started with a carpaccio of eggplant and zucchini, the hotel’s special for the night. I followed with chicken brochettes and quinoa risotto. Quinoa can in fact be used in anything, as the Peruvians regularly demonstrated.

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And then, just for good measure, we had some cheesecake with local berries.

We woke up the next morning to the beautiful light streaming over the lake, looked out on Lake Titicaca, and prepared for our day of adventure.

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We set out on a boat for the island of Taquile, about 45 minutes away from the shore. The island is filled with traditional people who speak Quechua, despite being surrounded by Spanish and Aymara speakers. For centuries, the island was totally isolated, and an independent culture and society developed.

The island is less isolated today than it used to be — we saw homes with solar panels and heard Rihanna blasting from one area. But on the other hand, the island is still governed by its ancient rules. Our entry fee to the island was collected by an older man — the mayor — who put the change inside his hand-sewn fanny pack. Families on the island are restricted to a limited amount of space and can only have two cows and twenty sheep because of a strong desire to protect the land.

Walking around, we met a group of little boys who begged us to take their photos so they could see the result on the little screen.

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The views from the island were incredible, especially as we climbed up into the hills. In every direction, all you could see was the very blue sky and the glassy clear lake. I would say that it took my breath away, but the altitude had already done that.

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After walking around the island for a bit, our guide led us to the home of Roberto and Alicia. Lifelong residents of the island, the two are its unofficial welcome committee, along with their two-year-old daughter, Martiza. They are farmers and weavers, and Roberto oversees several branches of the extended family who come by to do their sewing and work.

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The family showed off several of their wares and explained the island traditions to us. For example, all boys are required to learn to sew and the most important item they can make is their own hat. Starting at a young age, boys wear floppy colorful hats made from alpaca wool; any alternates they have are ones they have made themselves. Walking around the island, it’s not uncommon to see boys following sheep with knitting needles in hand. Once the boys enter their teenage years, they begin making a stiffer, sturdier hat, and when a boy has found a girl he wants to marry, he brings her father his hat. The father pours a cup of water inside and if none leaks out (meaning the boy is capable and industrious), he is granted the daughter’s hand. But if his hat leaks, he is considered an unworthy candidate.

Once married — which happens only after the couple has lived together for about two years in a sort of trial run — the boy becomes a man and graduates to a bigger, floppier, more colorful hat. This hat is adorned with a pom-pom, which carries a special meaning. On the island of Taquile, you never ask a man “How are you?” — if the pom-pom of his hat is on his right shoulder, he is having a good day; on his left, and you’re better off saying nothing at all.

For women, subtle communication is done through scarves. The more you are searching for a man, the brighter and more colorful the tassels on your scarf will be.

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After explaining and modeling the local traditions, Alicia and Roberto served us a lovely late morning snack — quinoa soup and fried bread with a spicy topping of peppers and onions. It was very authentic, and quite delicious.

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We bid our new friends farewell (only after giving Martiza an extreme number of hugs — she was easy to grow quickly attached to) and continued our journey around the island, pausing for epic vista after vista.

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We headed back to the boat and back to the mainland, leaving behind the somewhat magical little island of Taquile.

And because one lunch is not enough, we got back just in time for a very colorful quinoa salad, continuing my culinary journey through all possible iterations of the local grain.

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IMG_3171We went on a little canoe expedition after lunch, staying in the protected area of the reeds to prevent from flipping (as we saw several other people do). Nevertheless, it was not an adventure my camera was invited to attend — we got quite wet paddling around as the afternoon current picked up.

Since we had arrived at the hotel, we had been admiring the pillows and other weavings all around us. We mentioned this to one of the guides, who offered that we could go meet the family responsible for all of the beautiful handicrafts; we happily accepted the invitation.

We drove through fields and farms for about 30 minutes before coming upon a village made up of huts and farming plots. We were led into one of the homes, where we met three generations of weavers working together in the courtyard: the grandmother worked on embroidery, her son operated a large loom, his wife stretched out a carpet, and their 14-year-old daughter spun wool into yarn.

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The process is collaborative — meant to be a shared family experience as the four sit together sewing and talking. Midway through our visit, mother and daughter took a time-out from their separate projects to come together for an instructional lesson. Like we learned earlier in our trip, everything about weaving patterns is passed down through the family, and so it is critical for mothers to teach their daughters the special patterns and techniques.

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The older generations spoke only Aymara, in which we had not gotten much further than “Hello and nice to meet you,” but the shy teenage daughter spoke a bit of Spanish. After showing us around and telling us about the work her family does, she offered us an opportunity to play dress up. The blue coat she let me try on she had made for a school event of hers held earlier that year.

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We decided to take a couple pillow cases home with us, and when we went to pay, the matriarch of the family pulled the cash register and her cell phone out of her chest. That’s a tight security system. Jokes and costumes aside, it was a unique and wonderful experience to be so welcomed into the family’s home and to be given an introduction to the work that they do.

Back on the shores of the lake, we rose the next day to a similarly spectacular view as the sun climbed above the water.

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We piled back into a van and drove toward the largest town on the lake, Puno, which we had passed through in the dark on our way in. Puno has the largest harbor of the surrounding towns and instantly felt more touristy than where we had spent our previous few days. But Puno is the launch point for many areas of the lake, and that was the cause for our visit.

The destination of the morning was Uros, or the Floating Islands as they are better known. Until we came up upon them, I could not even begin to conceptualize what a “floating island” meant.

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The Uros islands are an old tradition, but even today, new islands sprout up all the time. The man-made islands are called the Floating Islands because the hunks of land, though somewhat anchored, are pretty movable. One tour guide we met at the hotel told us that he grew up on an island and his mother cared deeply about education; when he was in primary school, she relocated their island so it wouldn’t be such a far commute for him to go study.

Most of the islands are just a bit bigger than my Manhattan apartment, and over 70 of them dot the area.

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We pulled up to one of the islands and were greeted by Rita, her sister-in-law, Gladys, and their mother-in-law, Lucia. Rita is currently serving as president of her island and its neighbors, so she was more than happy to give us a brief explanation of life on the island. Only catch? The island dwellers speak mostly Quechua. But no problem — Rita had it down to a science.

Using a diorama, she showed us how the islands are constructed — a process that takes a better part of a year as the roots of reeds are laid down, and then covered in carefully piled reeds, with each layer interwoven into the next. Residents constantly add to the floor to make sure it’s stable. Then, families build small huts atop the island. Sons always stay with their mothers and their brides come to join them on their islands. Rita and Gladys both married onto the island we visited; Gladys, though younger, had a much nicer house. We learned this is because her husband is a better fisherman than Rita’s; much of the local people’s livelihood depends on the success of their men at hunting, and skill is rewarded.

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We spent time exploring Rita, Gladys and Lucia’s island — they also insisted in dressing us up in traditional costumes and showing us their weavings. It was fascinating, mostly because all the while we were standing on a man-made island. The only downside was our proximity to Puno, which has turned the Uros into a major tourist attraction spot and has made the area much more popular than Taquile and other islands. It colored our vision of the islands’ authenticity a bit, but it was still a truly unique spot to visit.

After bidding our hostesses farewell, we set our course back to the shore, where we piled into a van and said adiós to the beautiful Lago Titicaca.

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Past and present in the city of Cusco

Written by Emmy on 6 March 2013

We disembarked off of the Peru Rail train from Machu Picchu in the little town of Oyantalltambo and piled back into our van to drive to Cusco. However, we encountered a slight roadblock along the way. Turns out the typical-of-rainy-season rain we had experienced earlier that day was actually quite significant; one bridge on our planned route had collapsed and another was looking shaky. We cautiously detoured, and arrived in Cusco long after the sun had set.

We didn’t have much time in the city — which most locals would tell you is more exciting than Lima — so we used our limited stay wisely. Of course that meant starting off with a solid meal. We dined at Chicha, a recommended favorite of all those we spoke to.

The restaurant was somewhat tapas-style, intended for familial sharing, and so we obliged. We started with grilled octopus with tomatoes, quinoa-crusted shrimp, mushrooms baked with cheese, and a salad. I continued to find strength in Peru’s seafood dishes, preferring the first two appetizers.

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We split four entrees among the five of us: roast chicken with fried polenta, teriyaki salmon, fettuccine with mushrooms and chicken, and trout with fried gnocchi. The trout was my favorite; the fish had been cooked in a Thai style, with lemongrass and curry, and was very spicy. It helped cure any sense of the bland blues I might have been feeling.

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We went to bed full, but arose early the next morning, determine to make the most of our single day in Cusco.

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We met up with our guide for the day, Fernando, and set off for a whirlwind tour of the area. (I had a hard time asking our guide any serious questions. All I wanted to ask was, “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?”)

Once I was able to stop miming my favorite Swedish pop band, I returned my attention to the sites in front of us.

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Our first stop took us high above the city to the ancient site of Sacsayhuamán. The Inca and other ancient tribes designed Cusco to be in the shape of the puma, and this site was built to be the puma’s head. The ancient rock formation was used for special ceremonies, though the specifics have been lost to history. Some of the stones used in the structure weigh over 100 tons, but similarly, no record exists of where the stones came from or how they came to be placed in such a way.

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Like much of the other Inca construction, Sacsayhuamán was constructed to withstand earthquakes. As the city of Cusco was repeatedly devastated in the 19th and 20th century, residents of flimsy homes came up to the ancient site to poach rocks to build new homes. Sacsayhuamán used to be several layers taller than it is today. Only within the last 50 years has the Peruvian government begun to protect the site.

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We came back down the mountain and made our way to the highlight of every Liss family adventure: the local market. Cusco’s municipal market was at once organized and chaotic; there were people everywhere and the sanitation was somewhat questionable, but the market was systematically organized with an area for each type of food labeled in three languages. How else would we have known to avoid the innards section?

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We were surrounded at every turn by yellow flowers, which symbolize luck for the new year. And despite it being firmly breakfast time, locals were slurping down roasted chicken soup at long tables amid the market stalls. Similar to what Chaz and I found once upon a time in Singapore, the Peruvians seem to avoid distinguishing between which foods are appropriate for which meals.

The most bizarre thing we found in the market clearly illustrates the blend of the native and conquistador religions. While locals passing through the market would likely visit the enormous church nearby, they would also be sure to visit their favorite market stand for an important purchase: a llama fetus. The disturbing-looking carcass is used as a sacrifice to Pacha Mama, especially around the new year. Given the rapidly approaching festivities, the eerie-looking items were in hot demand.

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We did not make any carcass purchases. However, we did stop by the older women selling funny-shaped breads on our way out and picked one up.

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We spent the rest of the morning exploring more of colonial Cusco, the open plazas and churches that so clearly indicated the Spanish influence. Much of the beautiful tile work remains, and in certain more artsy neighborhoods, the old mansions have been turned to galleries and shops. Some of the older buildings still maintain their original shape and stay open to show visitors a glimpse of the past.

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Cusco was a much more beautiful city than Lima, built into the rolling hills, and simple in its layout and architecture. From high above, it almost made me think of Florence, with its low buildings and perfectly monochromatic roofs. The city stretches for miles and miles; urban sprawl dates back to the Incas, after all, who thought building out was the surest mechanism for protection.

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After running around the city for a few hours, we were ready for lunch. At Fernando’s suggestion, we popped into Inkaterra Grill, a restaurant serving local specialties just off of the central square. Sure enough, we were immediately greeted by more of the local mint we had come to love, this time as a dip for homemade chips.

I tried a dish that I could not identify based on its menu description, but decided was safe regardless since it was cleanly on the vegetarian side of the page. Tacu tacu, as it turns out, is a dish typical of the region, and it can be served with vegetables or with any of the local meats, like alpaca. The base concept of the dish is a large rice formation, made thicker by being cooked with pureed lima beans, and cooked plaintains flanking the rice pile. In the center of mine was a serving of very nicely stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables tasted a bit Asian, but the presentation and the starches were 100 percent Peruvian.

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That did not hold for all of the lunches on the table.

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Crossing a checkpoint and ending an adventure

Written by Emmy on 23 October 2012

We woke up with the sun on Sunday morning and discovered why we were the only people staying in the woods of Fundy: fall comes early. We snuggled into our sleeping bags for a bit longer before emerging into the morning fog. Originally we had planned to hang around, make some coffee and have breakfast straight from the backpacks, but the chill overtook us, and so we quickly packed up and made our way back to the parking lot and to Adrienne.

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We started driving south, back past Saint John and then through long passes of rural New Brunswick with spectacularly well-paved stretches of highway. We came to a southern tip of Canada and boarded a ferry, the first of the day. We were planning to take the boat to Deer Island, where we would take another ferry, this one from Deer Island to Campobello Island. Campobello, the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is home to an international park, co-managed by the U.S. and Canadian parks services. The island is actually part of Canada, but during the months when the ferry is not running, is only accessible by a U.S.-controlled bridge. It’s a bit of a brainteaser.

But given the season of our trip, we boarded the first of our two ferries for the day and hit the open seas.

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While on board the ship, I aimed to recreated what Chaz now claims was his favorite snack of America Part 1: Trader Joe’s multigrain crackers, sliced asiago and a spicy dip; in this case, it was the leftover spicy chicken salad. In keeping with tradition, I pulled out a cutting board and knife while the vehicle was moving. I like a little adventure.

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IMG_1865We arrived on Deer Island, which, as part of New Brunswick, has all its signage displayed in English and French. Because of the prevailing religious traditions and the fact that it was Sunday, we found very little to see or do on the sleepy island. We hadn’t planned to do much, truthfully, but were at the whims of the dual ferry schedules. So we meandered our way from one end of the island to the other, pausing to check out what is rumored to be the largest lobster pound in the world, and ending up at the largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere.

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The lobster pound was uninspiring, but the whirlpool was very cool. The somewhat mesmerizing rush of the currents was captivating enough that we nearly missed our ferry, ending up last in line of the cars waiting to board a boat that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in about three decades, give or take.

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Seriously, the boat was really old. So old that the steering part detached from the car part. The ocean was looking awfully cold, but despite its creaky parts, the ferry ferried us across safely.

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We docked at Campobello and drove to the interior of the park, where we were directed to photo opportunities and to the house that FDR spent his summers in. We walked through an interesting exhibit about the history of friendship between the U.S. and Canada. I was most excited to see that friendship manifest in an international stamp for my parks passport.

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We weren’t interested in waiting for someone to come show us around, so we took the self-guided version of the FDR house tour, pausing of course, in the kitchen.

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We drove around the island a bit, but without planning to take a hike or bike ride, there wasn’t much to tour; we stopped at a few rocky overlooks to gaze out on the water and identify distant land masses. I was more amused by the traffic signs that pointed to “U.S.A.”

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After cruising around for a bit, we selected the only completely empty picnic spot and overlooking the water, emptied the contents of our cooler onto a table – of course using a Delta blanket as the picnic cloth. Using a couple different containers of already-ready ingredients, I whipped up sandwiches of turkey, grilled eggplant, and red pepper and feta spread.

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Once we had finished our sandwiches and packed back in all the cooking implements, we loaded the car and made haste toward the tip of Campobello. We made the requisite lighthouse visit before approaching the bridge to the other side.

We were briefly reprimanded at customs. Evidently, limes cannot cross the border between Maine and Canada because of some weird soil disease; we think the border attendant just needed a spritz for his drink. (This was not my first time being stopped at a border crossing for a citrus infraction, but this stop was a little less alarming.) We entered the U.S. into Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the country. The town itself didn’t have much going on, but we made a pit stop at West Quoddy Head lighthouse, noted for being the easternmost point in the country.

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IMG_1998Now able to say we’d dangled out feet over the eastern edge of the modern world (or, you know, something dramatic like that), we headed a bit south to the entrance to Cutler Coast. Cutler is an area of land preserved and maintained by the state of Maine, but in a much more rugged way than the national parks. Cutler’s waterfront campsites are first come, first serve, and you claim them by logging your name into a guestbook at the trailhead. But when we found a completely packed parking lot and a fairly empty guestbook, we were a bit confused. If we chanced it and found the campsites totally full, we would have to turn back – a challenging feat given threatening rainclouds, vanishing daylight (ok, it was 3 p.m.) and a relatively lengthy hike (almost 10 miles to do the full loop past the campsite and back to the lot). But if we gave up and found the campsites empty, it would have been hugely disappointing. So we decided to hedge our bets, assume most of the parked cars belonged to day hikers and charge forward. The only people who had signed the guestbook were a pair from New York, Adam and Jake, who we kept calling for as we hiked through the brush, assuming that they would take us in under their wing if all else failed.

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IMG_2015The hike took us almost immediately down to the water, where we could see several bits of Canada off in the distance. But mostly, we were just surrounded by the very vast ocean – a truly beautiful site. We could feel bits of rain beginning to fall from the sky, but luckily had brought layers and the majority of the trail weaved through trees, providing cover. The only catch was that the state of Maine seemed content to let the wild run wild and so maintains their trails a bit less than the NPS, leading to overgrown brush. I think that might explain the mosquito bites I later discovered in somewhat inexplicable places.

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As we hiked, we could hear a dim noise in the distance, growing louder and louder. Chaz was convinced it was an owl, but I was determined to prove it was mechanical. We had to round several craggy corners and summit many slippery rocks, but eventually, a lighthouse came into distant view. To keep myself entertained, I yelled back to it every time it yelled hi to us.

After the yelling, beeping and raining went on for a while, we found ourselves at the first campsite, where a woman was standing guard. We kept walking until we came to the second site, where we found Adam and Jake, setting up fancy hammocks in the trees. Excited as we had been to make friends, we abandoned the cause, and like Goldilocks, tried out the third campsite, which was just right. We set up shop and I began to prepare our gourmet dinner, beginning with a cocktail hour of G+Ts (yes, we had managed to import them), cheese, crackers, sliced veggies, and Annie’s bunnies.

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Dinner was going to be a fancy home-cooked affair, which required a series of spices. In lieu of bringing spice jars with us, we had mixed Thai spices in a ziplock bag, to which we added peppers, celery, scallions, cashews and spiced chicken sausage.

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As we dined, we enjoyed the bright, glowing sunset over the water. We could still see our lighthouse friend blinking and beeping in the distance.

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IMG_2146We awoke the next morning, rolled up our sort-of soggy tent and hiked the five or so miles back to the parking lot, which was significantly less full than it had been the prior afternoon. We started the drive back south, where we encountered a rather strange site – several towers looming in the near distance. Ever the journalists, we got closer to investigate, stopping just short of the “Property of the federal government” and “No trespassing” signs. We later uncovered that we had happened upon the VLF Transmitter Cutler, which provides one-way low-transmission communications with U.S. submarines. Having completed our journalistic mission of the morning, we picked up the scenic Route 1 and a bit of speed, making our way back down past the turnoff for MDI and toward new pastures. As soon as we regained cell service, I was hot on the pursuit of little-known and well-regarded lobster rolls, figuring I should get one more in before leaving the state. Our other major planned stop was to be Freeport, Maine, birthplace of L.L. Bean. Our attempt to stop at the famous Red’s in Wiscasset, Maine proved a bit fruitless when we encountered its 30 minute line. The food did look good from a distance. Just after Freeport we stopped at Cindy’s Lobster Rolls, which had been hyped on the internet for its lobster roll (what I was most excited about) and its fried clams (which Chaz had requested as a final item).

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IMG_2165We had a little fun at the kitschy roadside stand while we waited, but at 2 p.m. or so, we were among the stand’s only patrons and so our lobster roll, clams and mix of french fries arrived quite quickly. We dug into our seafood, hob-nobbed with Cindy’s eclectic owner and after not too long, hopped back into the car for the less scenic portion of our day’s drive.

From Cindy’s, we left behind the scenic highways of Maine and merged onto 95, making our way south through traffic-filled New Hampshire. But with shocking expediency, we found ourselves back in Boston. We undertook the great feat of unloading the car, making quite a mess of Chaz’s sidewalk in the process. We hadn’t been back in the urban world for long before Chaz walked me to the train, where I boarded my New York-bound Amtrak, and he walked back across alone. It had been nearly a year since we had bid each other farewell from our last road trip adventure, as we ran to our separate gates in the Detroit airport. We were older (definitely), wiser (debatable), and heading home to our grown-up lives and real person jobs. But really, we’re still the same people as when the checkpoint began. We’ve still got backpacks full of unnecessary electronics, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and a sense of adventure tuned to the open road ahead.

The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

Icy cold water and red hot lobsters

Written by Emmy on 26 September 2012

Monday morning began early for half the group, as Ben, Chaz and I set off to conquer the Precipice Trail in the post-dawn sunlight. Precipice was advertised as a very steep ascent; parts of the trail are comprised of iron rungs stuck into rock, requiring you to hoist your full body weight up while sort of dangling in the air. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

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Truthfully, it wasn’t that scary. (I’d put it at comparable to Angels Landing and far less terrifying than the final moments of our Half Dome ascent, which I use as my barometer for holy-crap-I’m-nervous statements.) We gained height quickly thanks to the vertical ladders and iron bars, and before long our parked car was like a tiny ant on the ground below.

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By the time we reached the summit, the sun was already blinding overhead, making us all very glad for our crack-of-dawn departure time. The views both along the way and from the very top were positively stunning.

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After scrambling down a more rock-based and less iron-rung-reliant trail, we arrived back at the car and headed home to pick up the rest of the troops. The five of us and Chaz’s mother Liz set out for the Great Head trail for an oceanfront jaunt and the moment of the trip I was most excited about.

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We had been discussing the need to brand ourselves for quite some time, and in advance of the trip to Maine, I finally took the plunge and designed our 120 T-shirts. A note about this group: We were all, to some degree or another, friends before we took on the newspaper reins in early 2010. But while serving in our role and in the subsequent semester, we formed a bond that I have to believe is truly unique. It has its roots and its heart in our shared commitment to spending time at The Herald when we could have been in a million other places, though it has come to stand for far, far more than that at this point.

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Our shirts did inspire a bit of amusing confusion, as passersby inquired as to why we all had the same number on our backs. Call us a less-than-standard sports team.

From our perch atop Great Head, we could see Sand Beach, one of the island’s most popular sunbathing and dip-your-toes-in-the-ocean settings. We looked down on it from up above, but decided to bypass it in favor of installing ourselves somewhere quieter.

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IMG_0141We set up shop on rocks and picnic blankets (thanks Delta!) at Little Hunters Beach, a quiet alcove where we were the only picnickers in sight. We dined on sandwiches of turkey, avocado, muenster and spicy honey mustard, a checkpoint picnic lunch favorite.

We did dip our toes into the ocean, largely for the shock effect. The last time I visited Acadia, I was 14 and on a trip with my sleepaway camp. We visited Sand Beach and standing in a line, walked into the ocean. The wager was simple: last person standing would be exempt from cleaning the bunk (or something similarly lucrative). I made it to the final five, but surrendered when I lost the feeling in my toes and emerged with them slightly purple in color.

The water this time around was just about as cold as I remembered, but we braved it briefly as a group.

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Given our inability to get further than ankle deep, we relocated back to our personal swimming pond and lounged about in the significantly warmer water. We learned that despite being, in some senses, a professional swimmer, Joanna is terrified of touching the bottom. Thankfully Seth was willing enough to hold her upright. (And really, Chaz and I lost at a competitive game of chicken fight to the pair completely out of courtesy to Joanna’s fears; I’m less worried about hitting the bottom of the pond.)

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We returned to the house and began cocktail hour a bit early in anticipation of an early dinner to follow. The selection of noshes was quite generous, including 120’s absolute favorite, and fresh summer rolls from the cleverly named Chow Maine. Joanna had infused gin with cardamom in preparation for the trip up north and we splashed it into our drinks for a bit of fancy flair.

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We had one minor mishap during our otherwise calm and relaxed cocktail hour.

After cocktail hour, we squeezed ourselves into one car and made our way to Thurston’s Lobster Pound, a noted lobster shack poised right above the water.

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We walked up to the restaurant and took a quick look at the menu before walking in. Basically our options boiled (no pun intended) down to what size the lobsters would be.

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Hi friends!!

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With our sea beasts boiling in their pots, we picked out a picnic table on the roofed-in patio and settled down with crab dip and crackers and a pitcher of Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale. We switched tables a few times, concerned there wouldn’t be enough room for us and all of our clawed friends. But we finally committed to a table and before not too long, received a tray full of bright red lobsters, ready for the taking. I could barely contain my excitement.

 

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Because we had a few novices at the table, Liz provided an instructional lesson on how best to handle the whole lobster.

For some, her lesson created great success.

The before: 

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…and the after: 

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What was most exciting (or rather, a bit alarming) about the whole experience was Seth’s display. Seth has been a vegetarian for as long as I’ve known him, but a fresh Maine lobster left even him weak in the knees. Growing up as a Long Island lobster eater, I’m all about getting every last morsel out of the thing. Seth really did a number on his, extracting more meat than I think I knew possible.

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It was messy. It was aggressive. It was delicious.

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IMG_0456We returned home, covered in a combination of lobster juices and lemon juice to mask the lobster juice smell. Back at home, Liz produced a triple berry pie that she had picked up at the farmer’s market down the road that morning. Well, when in Rome…

With pie and port in hand, we decided to play a round of Celebrity, a game I learned from a good friend in college. The competition was fierce, but after a couple surprise moves by Liz, she, Chaz and I triumphed over our competitors, who sat watching in awe. (Or something like that.)

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Another wonderful day.

Beasts of the northern wild

Written by Chaz on 26 September 2012

I had planned for us to rise early on Saturday morning in Bangor and high-tail it down to Mount Desert Island for an early hike to introduce the newcomers to the park. But a canceled flight got in my way, and so our Saturday turned out to have a more relaxed cadence than I had originally envisioned. But no matter — we more than made up for that on Sunday.

We woke up at four, poured coffee into a thermos and piled into the car for the drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the U.S. East Coast, where the sun’s rays first hit the United States each morning. We made it to the top with plenty of time before sunrise, and were among the first to settle onto the granite ledges and hunker down under blankets to protect ourselves from the chilly morning. There was already a bunch of fire-red light on the horizon, and morning fog was rolling across Schoodic Peninsula and Frenchman Bay.

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Before long, the sun was peeking up over the horizon. It was a perfect, clear morning to watch the sunrise.

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The sunrise was one of many moments that I have loved all my life and loved even more as I shared it with some of my closest friends.

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We drove back down the mountain and over to Upper Hadlock Pond, where we left the car and began our morning’s hike, which one guidebook lovingly calls Peak Bagger’s Delight because you can summit four peaks with relatively low mileage. Sure enough, before long, we had make it to our first peak, Bald Peak.

We had made such an early start that we had the trails entirely to ourselves, and we were on our second summit, Parkman Mountain, by 8:00. We continued to have stunningly gorgeous weather, which we were very fortunate to have for almost all of our time in Maine.

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The troops began to tire as we approached the top of Gilmore Peak, but our hike was far from over.

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Another push took us to the top of Sargent Mountain, Acadia’s second highest peak, where there were more panoramic views, a bit of a rest, and, best of all, snack.

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From Sargent, we were due to head back down to the car. But it was still very early, much too early for lunch, and though there was a bit of dissent among the ranks, I guided us onward to the top of yet another mountain, Penobscot Mountain. The hidden benefit of this added effort was that we would pass one of Acadia’s few truly hidden gems, Sargent Mountain Pond.

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By the time we got to the pond, we were all hot and tired, and we peeled off our clothes and dove in to the small body of water (allegedly Maine’s first lake). It was unbelievably refreshing, and so quiet and secluded, and we swam and splashed for a while.

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From the pond, we bee-lined back to the car, where the scene was quite a bit more crowded than when we had left it before 6:30.

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By the time we returned to the car, it was noon, and we were all more than ready for a hearty lunch. So we drove down into Northeast Harbor to one of my oldest favorite places, the Docksider. Though the restaurant is world-famous for its lobster roll, I’m a relative newcomer to that menu item, as my seafood odyssey is much newer than my family’s Maine tradition. But lobster roll it was, except for Seth, our resident vegetarian. We each also began with a cup of chowder.

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Though I of course was overcome by nostalgia, temporarily incapable of rational analysis, and completely in love with the food, there was not overwhelming delight with the lobster roll at the table, unfortunately.

After lunch, we headed home for some much needed naps and relaxation after a quick grocery stop in Northeast Harbor. We drove back across the island for an early movie at Reel Pizza, my personal favorite movie theater. You order pizza in the lobby and are alerted that your order’s ready using a bingo board in each theater. Even better, the pizza is phenomenal. We went for the Babette’s Feast — chicken, avocado, roasted garlic, walnuts and sweet red pepper sauce — and the Five Easy Pieces — breaded eggplant, spinach, garlic, summer squash and tomato. Both excellent.

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Our film for the evening was “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fantasy based loosely on the real-life location of Isle de Jean Charles, where people continue to live on land that lies outside the levee system and is therefore sinking into the sea. The film, which had a mixed reception among the group, seemed to ask more questions than it answered, and for me personally, it was difficult to enjoy a story described as fantasy without desperately trying to understand how much of it pertained to actual lives in coastal Louisiana. We spent much of the drive home frantically researching the movie’s origins and the reality of the Louisiana bayou.

We continued the vigorous discussion over port when we arrived home, and before long, we were all heading off to bed, exhausted by the day’s agenda.

In which we reassemble and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 20 September 2012

On a Friday afternoon in late August, I triumphantly put my out-of-office auto-reply on my work email, grabbed my debatably excessive luggage and made my way to LaGuardia. It was a good dry run, for the flight Ben and I were set to board was canceled immediately upon our arrival at the airport. But we returned early the next morning, boarded our flight and by 10 a.m., were on the ground in Bangor, Maine, with Chaz, Joanna and Seth waving frantically at us from baggage claim. We all piled into a rental car — who Chaz had named Adrienne, which I never found as fitting as our dear Dorothy’s moniker, but never thought of a substitute — and off we went!

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Less than 90 minutes later, we were pulling into Acadia National Park. Chaz immediately went into tour guide mode, pointing out the various mountains, water views and trails. Our first stop was naturally the visitor center, where we watched a quick movie about Acadia and its history. I also picked up an official National Park Service passport; after playing assistant to Chaz’s stamping mission all last summer, I was jealous and ready to graduate to my own copy.

From the visitor center, we headed to the Jordan Pond House, an Acadia landmark where we had planned to meet Chaz’s mom, Liz, and her friend Maureen for lunch. We were a bit early, so took a quick walk around the pond. Eager to begin documentation of our reunion, we asked a nice looking man with a camera similar to mine if he wouldn’t mind taking our photo. Turns out he was an official photographer for the Friends of Acadia magazine; look for us on a cover near you soon.

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We sat down to lunch on the lawn overlooking the pond and the mountains, and eagerly ordered our first round of local seafood dishes. At the recommendation of the regulars, nearly all of us sampled the lobster stew.

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Compulsory at JPH are the popovers, which have made the restaurant famous. Everyone’s dish came with at least one of the fluffy, crunchy bits of deliciousness. Though at first perplexed by my photography, our waitress eventually got into it and came over with the basket to give me an opportunity for a close-up.

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Stuffed with our first Maine meal, we set out for our first group hike (following a scenic drive that allowed for a bit of digestion). We quickly ascended Flying Mountain, a short hike with spectacular views. It was a good way to get our aerial bearings of Mount Desert Island, which is home to the majority of the park. (Only one small piece can be found on the mainland of Maine, in addition to Isle au Haut.) Though it pales in size when compared to some of the western park locales — I was amused last summer to learn that Yosemite is larger than Rhode Island (most things are) — MDI is still pretty substantial, a land mass three times larger than Manhattan. And on a day as clear as our first in the park, we could see miles and miles of it from Flying Mountain’s low summit.

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After our hike, we made a quick stop at Chaz’s favorite swimming hole, a deserted corner of Seal Cove Pond with water far warmer and far less crowded than that of the ocean beaches on the island.

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We made our way to the home we would be staying in for the week on the southwest side of the island. Poised right on the water, it was a postcard-perfect setting. Chaz had sent out an advanced email about the trip with a pretty regimented “daily cadence” and we had all carefully noted the inclusion of a daily cocktail hour at home. With a view like the one outside our porch, we had no objections. (We would have had few objections to a cocktail hour regardless of the setting; but the view was an extra special added touch.)

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We sat outside with our drinks and a snack of spiced nuts imported from Joanna’s kitchen until the sun began to set. While Maine, as the easternmost state in the country, is generally noted for its sunrises, being on the western side of the island afforded us some pretty spectacular views over the course of the week.

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As the sun dipped below the horizon line, we piled back into the cars and made our way to Burning Tree, one of Chaz and Liz’s favorite local restaurants. Notable for both its seafood and vegetarian entrees, it was a perfect fit for our group.

Overwhelmed by all of the excitement on the menu, we settled on a game plan of appetizers for the table and individual entrees (on the condition that sampling would be permitted across the table).

Upfront, we ordered seafood fritters with a spicy aioli, clams with crispy kale, crab and mango salad, stuffed squash blossoms, and a gorgonzola and beet salad. (The latter two are not photographed below, possibly because I was last in the circular rotation to receive them and was too focused on making sure I didn’t lose out against anyone eagerly seeking seconds.) As a huge seafood fan generally, I was already thrilled about what the week ahead looked like it would offer.

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Our main courses were all gorgeous, in addition to being positively delicious. Depicted below: halibut and mussels in a coconut curry sauce, ordered by both Joanna and Maureen; Ben’s monkfish with eggplant in a Thai chili sauce; Chaz’s chicken, clams and chorizo pan roast, cooked in its own savory juices; Liz’s sole, one of the evening’s specials, served in cream sauce over spinach; Seth’s Indian stuffed cabbage (have you identified the vegetarian?); and my very delicious swordfish cooked with lemon, almonds and roasted tomatoes.

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We were all too full for dessert, but sampled the two most exciting options anyway: a blueberry lemon tart (which I loved, but Chaz called “too lemon-y”) and a peach ginger cake with Persian vanilla ice cream.

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With plans for a very early rise the following day, we returned to the house, dispersed to our respective bedrooms — Ben and I took the bunk beds with an epic water view — and fell into a restful slumber.

Beginning with the outer islands

Written by Chaz on 18 September 2012

We began this blog over a year ago, fresh out of our graduation robes. We set out immediately on a grand journey through southeast Asia, writing our first real post from the Detroit airport, where we later ended our second journey of the summer after climbing the highest peaks and exploring a canyon’s depths. We then started our jobs, and while this greatly restricted how much time we could spend gallivanting all over the world, we still managed to visit quite a few wonderful places.

But we needed more. And so, in late August, we embarked on our most ambitious adventure since the halcyon days of last summer. Since I was born, I have visited Acadia National Park in Maine almost every summer, and not infrequently, in the winter as well. I invited the members of the 120th Editorial Board to join me and my mother in Maine, and Emmy, Ben, Joanna and Seth all planned to make the trek (really, the short flight) up to experience my favorite place in the world. Though Ben, Joanna and Seth could only stay for part of the week, Emmy took the whole week off, and we planned a side adventure up into New Brunswick and far downeast Maine for Labor Day weekend.

But before anyone else arrived, I drove up from Boston a day early, on a Thursday evening. My mother and her friend Maureen had been staying across Blue Hill Bay from Mount Desert Island for the week, and we had figured that this would make a good starting point for a trip out to Isle au Haut, one of the so-called outer islands of Maine that contains the national park’s most remote, rugged and untouched section. Isle au Haut can only be reached by an hour-long passenger ferry from Stonington, a town that is itself far out on the island of Deer Isle. So we began our day with breakfast in Stonington and were before long cruising out into the Gulf of Maine, with ideal conditions for our day. Our voyage took us past lobster boats, wooded islands and a rock covered with seals, out to the adorable village of Isle au Haut. It was an extremely clear day, and the ferry driver pointed out that we could see all the way out to Matinicus, one of the farthest outer islands.

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We stayed on past the village and got off the boat in Duck Harbor, which is tucked into the park section of the island. A short but strenuous hike took us to the summit of Duck Harbor Mountain, one of Isle au Haut’s only mountains that offers a view, and what a view it was. We could see down to the harbor and across Penobscot Bay to the Camden Hills.

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Our hike then took us down to the water on Isle au Haut’s southern end, where my mother extracted a gourmet operation out of my backpack and created sandwiches of crab cakes and tomato on freshly cut bread.

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The rest of our hike took us around the island’s Western Ear, where the trail alternates between the top of rocky cliffs and smooth, tranquil stone beaches. The best part about visiting Isle au Haut is how utterly abandoned it is. For much of our day, we didn’t see a single other soul on the trails.

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Though we ended up having to make good time on the last section of the trail to make it back to Duck Harbor in time for the ferry, we still had time to put our aching feet in the cold ocean water before the boat pulled up to the dock for the trip back to Stonington.

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We stopped for dinner on the way back from Stonington, and I dropped my mother and Maureen off at the house they had been staying in. I continued on to Bangor, where I had gotten a hotel room at the airport in anticipation of the near-midnight arrival of the flights that my friends were on — Emmy and Ben from New York, and Joanna and Seth from Washington. Though the D.C. flight arrived with no issue, the New York flight was not quite as lucky — their flight never made it off the ground. Luckily, they were able to rebook onto a flight the next morning, so Joanna, Seth and I had a fun night catching up, awaiting the rest of our crew the following morning.

Up a mountain (and back down again)

Written by Emmy on 17 September 2012

I learned to ski at a very, very young age. There are photos of a year-old Emmy bundled up, smaller than the scarf thoughtfully draped around me, standing between my parents’ legs as they prepare to take on the mountain. Many of my childhood vacations centered around snow-filled mountains and days spent in ski school. (Fun fact: I met Chaz’s friend Diana when we spent a week together shuffling around the mountain at age 9.)

This is all to say that a snowy mountain crowded with skiers is a familiar sight to me. This, less so:

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Vail Mountain, a place I have been many times, looks very different without snow covering its sides. On a quick weekend trip with my family in late July, I could not stop commenting on how strange the mountain looked with chairlifts running and trails visible – but lined with grass and mud, not snow and ice.

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The back story: My dad had a business trip that took him out to the area and never a group to pass up on an adventure, the Liss family followed along. So on a Friday night in July, I landed in Colorado very late at night, following a crazy work week, and in just the right mood for an open-air vacation. So we all woke up on Saturday morning, surrounded by trees and mountains, and ready to go.

Given our historic visits to Vail, we’ve skied down the front of the mountain many a time. But up? In summer, that does seem to be the way to go. So we walked our way to the base of Golden Peak, one portion of the Vail area, and started up the side of a familiar mountain face.

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The hike was strenuous (steep mountains + altitude + a lifestyle of sitting at my desk in front of a computer) and unbelievably gorgeous, but also the source of a bit of cognitive dissonance as we came across posts for ski trails and markers for where the snow makers normally reside.

IMG_9191A familiar stance for the Liss family patriarch

Several hours after we began (and it’s only a 15-minute chairlift ride; truly quite deceptive) we arrived at the top and were provided a bird’s eye view of the mountain and its surroundings.

Before having to head back down for a work meeting, my father paid tribute to the beautiful landscape surrounding us.

The other four of us – my mom, sisters Jessica and Alix, and me – took the when-in-Rome approach, or rather the when-on-top-of-a-mountain-in-the-Wild-West approach, and tucked into a hearty lunch at the smokehouse on top of the mountain. We felt very deserving of our (aggressive) barbecued brisket sandwiches.

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To complete the somewhat reversed nature of our journey, we hopped onto the gondola atop the mountain and rode it down to the bottom, looking out at the tree-lined hill as we went. (Well, some of us looked out. It can be a bit disorienting and nauseating to descend in such a fashion…)

IMG_9216Alix Liss, woman of the mountains

Back a bit closer to sea level, we sat ourselves down by a lovely creek to read and bask in the afternoon light. A very welcome change from the hustle bustle of my usual Saturday afternoon.

We spent the rest of the weekend maintaining a similar balance between family time, aggressive athletic activity and delicious local eats. On Sunday, we boarded a raft and made our way several miles down the Colorado River through a handful of raging rapids. (My camera did not make this journey with us.)

The following day, we attended a cooking demonstration, where local chefs showed us what exactly you should do with the fish that come from the Colorado.

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During the course of the lunchtime cooking tutorial, we learned all about the fresh ingredients grown and sourced from the area. The main attraction was a local fish, sliced and deboned, and then cooked with crab on top of it. We learned the secrets of fruit-based gazpacho (who knew??) and fancy Italian dessert cookies.

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We spent a decent amount of time riding around the area on bikes, which was another new way of seeing Vail. Biking on ice-covered roads is not something we’ve ever entertained as an option, but grassy summertime paths are a different story altogether.

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All in all, it was a great long weekend with my family, a nice escape from the city, and a wonderful trip to a familiar place.