Alaska! & Seattle Day 5-9

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Another bright and early day where we hopped off the ship for another shore excursion. Day 5, we’re in Skagway and had planned to hop on the White Pass Railway for a 2 hour ride.

Actually, we only thought we were early because many others had already scored prime seats on the train by the time we got on. Don’t think kiasu-ism is a Singapore-only disease ok?

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Skagway was considered the gateway for the Klondike gold rush in the late 1890s. The railway was built specifically to transport prospectors to the gold fields 500 miles away. Prospectors then had to travel by foot and carry a ton (literally!!) of supplies to be able to get to the gold fields up near Canada. Unfortunately, the gold dried out shortly after the railway was built! Now, it exists only as a tourist attraction. And more appallingly so, only a Summer attraction mainly for cruise passengers like us! Ultimate touristy!

Thankfully, it was a really beautiful ride and we had great guides who pointed out scenic spots and points of historical interest to us. We also stepped out to the viewing deck from time to time to feel the breeze and get better views of the surroundings. A really relaxing and informative ride.

Random little nuggets I learnt from the ride… Most people made their riches during the gold rush not because of the gold itself but through the services that they provided to prospectors. Donald Trump’s grandfather made the family riches by opening a hotel and casinos for prospectors. The family name was also Drumpf and not Trump, he was a migrant from Germany!

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The surroundings in Skagway were beautiful but again nothing much to see in the city itself. Most buildings were also re-creations of old buildings and not really historical. We did have yummy King Crab (my current favorite now) and elephant ears, fried dough coated in cinnamon sugar!

We spent the rest of the cruise mostly out at sea back to Seattle. Days were spent chilling out at the pool, reading and snoozing. In other words, perfect. 😀 The ship did make a stop in Victoria, British Columbia but it was a short stop and I had a virtual class at that time. So I attended class online during the cruise itself, it was quite a cheap thrill really. But I ditched it halfway to get to a spa appointment. 😛 Don’t tell my professor!

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We decided to spend one night in Seattle since we both have never been there. It was a whirlwind trip but I think we covered most of the main things.

Seattle was especially exciting as there was a Din Tai Fung there! It was the first thing we went in search of after dumping our bags at the hotel. Hadn’t eaten it for the longest time and we definitely over ordered. The food there pretty much tasted the same as back home in Singapore although the sauce for the 红油抄手 was a tad sweet.

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Spent the rest of the day admiring the glass sculptures at the Chihuly Glass Museum. So so pretty. My favorite were the multicolored glass orbs in a boat. There were also several sculptures in a garden setting and I can so imagine the Gardens By the Bay commissioning Chihuly’s works one day for display.

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Of course we couldn’t leave Seattle without visiting Pike’s Place. Ate crumpets, bought multi-flavored Orzo (our current favorite pasta), drank homemade ginger ale and gawked at the crazy lines in front of the original Starbucks. Avoided the bubble gum wall (click if you dare) like the plague but still accidentally caught a glimpse of it. It’s as disgusting as you can imagine.

Alaska! Day 4

There wasn’t much research done before we went on this trip. We knew we wanted to cruise, we knew it was Alaska, we just followed the ship’s itinerary. I guess that’s the beauty of cruising? Just hop on and worry later. When Tracy Arm Fjord appeared on the itinerary, we really didn’t know what to expect. It was also suppose to happen between 6am – 10am. “What? 4 hours only for a port of call?! And so early!” were my first thoughts. Obviously  I was ignorant, because who docks in a Fjord!? We sail into it!

It turned out to be one of the most enchanting mornings of the trip. So you know those aerial photos of cruise ships sailing in a narrow passage between steep mountain sides and surrounded by icebergs? Yup, we did that for those 4 hours in the Tracy Arm Fjord. We’ve sailed through the Norwegian Fjords before but the Alaskan experience was so much more fun! Why? Because the cruise company hired an Alaskan expert to give a running commentary throughout those 4 hours!

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We woke up bright and early at 5+am and quickly turned on the TV to listen in on the live commentary by Brent Nixon, a naturalist who knows all things about Alaska and its flora and fauna. I would say that our whole trip was made more educational and fun mainly because of him. He gave live talks everyday, from things like Alaskan history to the 101s of whales, bears and bald eagles. The talks were extremely informative (useful when we tried to spot all these animals on our trip) and done in a very entertaining manner as well.

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Huddled in cosy blankets and eating breakfast on our balcony while we sailed into the Fjord was such a luxury. The crisp air, blue waters and the beautiful scenery added to my feelings of being so fortunate and blessed to be able to do this in my lifetime.

At the end of the Tracy Arm Fjord was the Sawyer glacier. The captain tried to steer us as close as he could. There were icebergs in the way and he joked that he didn’t want us to be stars of another movie you know? We lingered for a while to admire the glacier and the ship was even turned so passengers from both the port and starboard sides of the ships could have a good look. It was interesting to note that because Tracy Arm Fjord was so narrow and only has one way in and out, cruise ships take turns to sail into it, and sometimes they don’t get very far inside if there are too many icebergs floating around. Even the seemingly tiniest ones can cause big trouble. Remember we only see 10% of all icebergs above water!

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On the same day, we were dropped off in the Alaskan capital city of Juneau. One of two American state capitals that can only be accessed by air and water. Juneau was pretty much a non-event as it was again populated by yucky tourist traps. It wasn’t a very pretty town. It was also pouring rain when we arrived.

Thankfully, we got out of the city quick and took a short ride for a canoeing trip that we had pre-reserved. We thought maybe the rain would affect our excursion but nope, canoeing was one of few that would go on rain or shine!!! Many others who booked helicopter rides and white water rafting had theirs cancelled on them. We had planned to canoe to the Mendenhall glacier. The rain had actually made it really foggy that day, and canoeing up close to the glacier was really one of the only ways to see it. Even people at the visitors’ center would not have been able to see a thing.

We got suited up in ugly waders and raincoats for the trip to the glacier. People who know me well know that I am a total 姑娘 when it comes to outdoorsy stuff so this was an experience totally out of my comfort zone. After 45mins, we arrived near the glacier and stopped at a beach for a rest. I looked so unglam, my hair was plastered on my face because of the rain and my arm was sore from all the rowing. But know what? I had so much fun! And so did the husband, most likely because he has never seen his wife look like this before! Btw, we rowed another 45mins to get back!

Alaska! Days 1 – 3

Oh horrors, it’s already winter, albeit a very mild (only 3 days of snow so far) and warm one for Chicago standards. So before my memory fails, here’s what we did in Alaska!

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We’ve been cruise lovers since our honeymoon eons ago. So imagine our delight bumping into the ship that took us on our very first one, the Jewel of the Sea. Busied ourselves admiring it and snapping photos for cheap thrills. Seeing this ship really brought us back to wonderful memories of our 13 nights in Scandinavia and Russia. It was bar none the best trip we’ve ever been on and we always speak of it with great fondness.

I knew we had to do an Alaskan trip as we were already in the US and Summer 2015 was the perfect time for it. The husband had graduated and waiting to begin his full time job, I was having my long break between school terms, i.e. a perfect time where both of us had no worries on our minds and could fully concentrate on enjoying this long awaited vacation.

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It was our first time on a Celebrity ship, definitely swankier and newer than the Royal Caribbean ships that we have been on. We snagged a balcony room of course. *Pro-tip #1, if there is one cruise to splurge for a room with a balcony, the Alaskan one is THE one to do it. Spent many a day starring out at sea to spot humpback whales. Food quality was pretty good and we also spent many a day eating. 😀 *Pro-tip #2, skip the formal main dining hall food where you have to sit with strangers and have polite conversations, eat at the buffet because the food is mostly the same as the dining hall anyway! Besides, where else but at the buffet can you get Cantonese congee paired with whatever you want, like bacon! Have to say that Asian food was aplenty and yummy on this trip (no complaints there), probably thanks to the increase of rich Asian tourists from a certain country (insert complaints here).

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First stop – Ketchikan.

The port of calls we made in Alaska were nothing to shout about. In fact, pretty disappointing because most of them were tourist traps full of jewelry shops and kitschy souvenir shops. Btw, we saw this world map at a coffeeshop that tourists from different countries indicated where they were from and look at the exploding number of pins on Singapore! Of course I tried to squish just one more pin on it!

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Thankfully we had more interesting things to do than to explore the town because we went rainforest walking to look for wild bears and spawning salmon. Who knew parts of Alaska are considered temperate rainforests?! They get a lot of rain throughout the year.

We were lucky enough to spot some wild bears (thankfully from a distance), 2 adult bears and a cub. Learnt about their hibernation habits and how they eat this thing called skunk cabbage to help them poop after a long winter’s rest. Amusing! We also saw the bears hunting for salmon near a salmon hatchery (so smart if you ask me!). Apparently they only eat the female salmon because of all the delicious roe they have in their bellies – Ikura! Male salmon are most often promptly spat out.

The bald eagles we saw were so fascinating as well. They were not wild but live in a sanctuary that also houses other injured birds of prey. Our guide was however able to point out several eagles’ nests along the way to and from the sanctuary. Apparently each nest gets reused year after year by the same pair. They just lay a new layer of leaves, branches etc to make things clean and comfortable each year. Hence, some eagles’ nest can be several feet wide and humungous.

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The highlight of the day though was an All-You-Can-Eat Dungeness Crab feast. We had 90mins to eat all we could. The crabs were simply boiled and had accompanying melted butter for us to dip the flesh into. So so fresh! We were so crabby smelling after eating that the whole tour bus reeked of crab.

The Pig

Before I go on, I must first warn and apologize to my vegetarian friends because the photos below could be quite disturbing…

Summer has been super tiring and we’ve been quite packed with activities almost every weekend. Chicagoians really go all out to enjoy the warm weather. What with the crazy winter we had, everyone just wants to make most of the sunshine. We’ve been having lots of fun too.

Interestingly, the weather has been quite unbearable for me on some days. Coming from the tropics, you would think that the heat and humidity would be no sweat. But I seriously think I’m going to suffer when I head home for a short break next month. I definitely prefer the cold. Temperatures around 15C-18C is actually my favorite range. And I’ve grown a thick enough skin here to head out in shorts and t-shirts on those days!

One of the husband’s friends in his internship programme invited us to a party over the weekend. We went to a new neighborhood that we had never explored before, Wicker Park. It was suppose to be one of the happening neighborhoods in Chicago, lots of young people and hipster shops and restaurants. The party was held in a gorgeous house with an awesome rooftop view of the Chicago skyline. Unfortunately it was a little hazy this day to get a really clear shot.

The highlight of the party was most definitely the roast pig. We had expected a pig on a spit roast provided by a caterer or something. But no… the host built a wooden box from scratch, brined the whole pig, shoveled sand and charcoal and roasted the whole thing herself for 3 whole hours! All guests including us were in disbelief when we heard and admired her effort tremendously. The guys at the party pretty much felt quite ashamed of themselves.

I did feel quite sorry for the pig when it was laid on the table though. Kinda looked like it was still alive somehow. *shudder* It tasted incredible and the meat was so so tender. The skin was also all crackly and yummy. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay till the end of the party to pick up the leftovers because I think whatever bony bits, or even the trotters leftover would make a kick ass stock for porridge. I hope they weren’t thrown away.

It’s such a Chinese thing to save all the leftover bits isn’t it? I have fond memories of my mom lugging home suckling pig leftovers that we’ve had at banquet dinners and having porridge cooked in its stock for days after. Yummers.

A Greedy Weekend

I’m so greedy when it comes to food that I get really moody when I don’t get what I want.

We wanted to catch the “Taste of Chicago” food festival in downtown Chicago on Saturday. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. After taking a long train ride downtown and braving the rains, we reached the festival grounds only to be told that the festival was closed for the whole day due to flooding in the park and an impending weather threat that was coming later in the day. Was really really bummed out and terribly moody immediately after. Even the very patient husband’s attempts to cheer me up was quite futile. Yes I can behave irrationally when greedy and hungry. Poor him.

Because we had no clue where to head to next, we ended up at Park Cafe near the iconic Chicago Bean. It was a pricey meal but sadly not too satisfying. Disappointed with my lobster roll. While the lobster was fresh and fairly generous, it wasn’t the cold, sweet lobster salad that I was expecting. Instead, it was served hot and slathered with a cloying creamy sauce.  And the simplest thing on the plate, the fries, really missed the mark. Not sure what oil it was fried in but it had a taste that was heavy and not something I was used to.

I went home very sad this day. The only redeeming thing was my Sang Mein which I cooked for myself for dinner that night. I only cheered up after that. Hilarious me.

The plan on Sunday was to head to Eataly Italian market to catch the World Cup and lunch. But on our way over we stumbled onto an Oyster bar and decided to head in to try instead.

Am starting to think that Chicago really isn’t the place if you want to enjoy good seafood. No surprise since we are so far from the ocean. The oysters we had weren’t terribly impressive. A bit on the tiny side, but am glad we got to try different variaties from different locales in the east coast. My chicken and waffles were passable. I wished that they had used chicken thigh as the fried breast meat was really dry and wasn’t served piping hot. Though the husband’s shrimp and grits looked like baby food, it was the tastiest of all we ordered that day.

Our main event this day was the World Cup. Silly-ly thought that the place we chose would be crowded with other spectators. It wasn’t. The Americans really aren’t too hot about football huh? (I refuse to call it soccer ok?)

The husband happily enjoyed his game while I savored my cheese plate with soft fresh slices of Italian bread (not pictured). Loved the fig jam, spicy apricot and almond honey that was served alongside. nom nom nom. Even discovered a new beer, Zombie Killer, a honey and cherry concoction that was more a mead than an actual beer. Me thinks I will start searching for more meads to try out in future.

Am glad my greedy weekend ended on a good note finally. 😀 Now, what should I eat this coming weekend?!