Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top Five Things I Will Miss About Los Angeles

1. My friends, hands down. (You all mean the world to me, and I WILL keep in touch. Fortunately, you'll be just one hour time difference and a short flight away.)

2. The weather. It IS the perfect climate. No matter where you go, it's downhill weather-wise from here. I have tried to prepare myself for this.

3. The beach. There's nothing as relaxing as an afternoon reading, snacking and dozing at the beach. Once I got an umbrella (ahem, fair skin), I was sold.

4. The walkability. From my apartment, I could walk to get coffee, a fresh croissant, gelato, Thai food, prescriptions, dry cleaning, a pedicure and a haircut.

5. The food. So many ethnic cuisines. So many great restaurants. So much money spent at them. (Okay, I won't miss the last part).

Oh The Places You'll Buy

I apologize for neglecting my blog over the last two months. It's been an unacceptably long gap. But I DO have a good excuse. My boyfriend and I were on a fervent house-hunting mission that involved two back-to-back trips to New Mexico, one rejected offer, endless mortgage paperwork and last but not least buying our dream home in Edgewood, New Mexico! (It's quite a good thing our "first love" house didn't work out, huh? Thank you, divine intervention.)

Yes, the big news is that I am leaving Los Angeles, my beau of the last nine years, and committing to a rural area 30 minutes east of Albuquerque and an hour south of Santa Fe. If you've got a bit of whiplash, you're not alone. It happened fast. At the same time, it's the culmination of things that have been building for a long while. They include: my long-standing crush on Santa Fe, my growing love affair with small towns, a ticking real estate clock, the high cost of living in Los Angeles, the "turnoffs" of an urban mate and, of course, the quest behind this very blog ("Where should I take my lance?"/"What kind of place is right for ME?").

Then there were all the omens, as Paulo Coelho would call them. Colleagues kept telling my boyfriend he should really consider relocating to New Mexico due to the booming film production. My results from Find Your Spot skewed heavily towards New Mexico. U.S. News & World Report named Albuquerque the Best Place to Live for 2009. HGTV announced their 2010 Dream House is in none other than the East Mountains of Albuquerque. Friends gave us the first season of "Breaking Bad," which is set in Albuquerque. It was uncanny.

So, we did it! We followed the signs and let the momentum take over. The funny thing is that all the feelings surrounding relocation - excitement, jitters, fear, optimism, possibility, reinvention - are awfully similar to what you experience with a new romance. In both cases, you are taking the plunge based on some information, yes, but mostly gut instincts and first impressions. It's the kind of decision that makes you feel hyper-alive.

Just as in the early stages of a relationship, I will have to get to know this alluring place that has drawn me in but still has many secrets. Stay tuned for the the good, the bad, the weird and the wonderful about Edgewood (population 1,800), Albuquerque (population 800,000), Santa Fe (population 75,000) and New Mexico (1.9 million).

There are other unknowns, too. What does it mean for a girl with wanderlust to commit to a place? (Let's face it, buying a home is a big geographic commitment.) How will this flip-flop-wearing urbanite fare in the country, where her new neighbors raise goats? Or in a high-altitude, high-desert area, where six inches of snow fell yesterday? And what about dating other places - can I be platonic when I travel, now that I've found a match? These are just a few of the things I will be addressing in the coming months.

All I know is that it's about to get interesting, folks.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Somewhere in Time on Mackinac Island, Michigan

I saw the 1981 film “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour, as an impressionable preteen. And I admit...I cried at the end. (Go ahead and judge me, cynics.)

Ridiculed by some as a cheesy romance with a preposterous plot – the NY Times called it “the big-budget film with the highest giggle content” – and yet beloved by others as the ultimate time-traveling love story, “Somewhere in Time” does have a few things that are unassailable. There’s the beautiful Oscar-nominated score by John Barry, the fantastic costumes, and the thing that left the strongest impression on me: the magical setting of the Grand Hotel (opened 1887), which somehow lent credibility to the movie’s premise.

With the world’s longest porch, and a majestic position high over the water, the Grand Hotel is the world’s largest summer resort, and one of the best preserved from the 19th century heyday of refined repose. In the film, it seemed like a fantasy confection, too gargantuan and too luxurious to possibly be real. But it is real, and it’s still in operation today on historic Mackinac Island, an island off the coast of Northern Michigan in Lake Huron. Even the gilded, aristocratic feel remains, as the “Proper Attire” requirements below demonstrate.

You can’t miss the Grand Hotel as you approach the island by ferry. It’s big and long and white, and the closer you get, the bigger it gets. But by the time you’re in the harbor, there’s even more to gawk at, thanks to the charming Victorian homes dotting the hillside. Helping to preserve the feeling of a past era, the first thing you notice after exiting the boat is a very interesting sound: the complete absence of car engines. That’s because the only methods of transportation allowed on the island are your own two feet, horses and bicycles.

It’s hard to convey what a difference this makes. You really do feel “somewhere in time.” Or occasionally “multiple places in time,” such as when your cell phone rings just as a horse-drawn carriage passes. There’s also some timeless humor, too, such as watching the hotel bellboys struggling to cart luggage on bikes as well as the “poop scoopers" sweeping away the horse manure as soon as it hits. Yes, this really is someone’s job. (See the photo below for proof.)

After taking in the neck-straining Grand Hotel up close (as well as an equally grand burger at the hotel’s Jockey Club), we began to wander the back roads of the island, which are really more like lanes or paths than roads. It wasn’t long before we were beckoned into what literally seemed like an enchanted forest. The trees were evenly spaced. The yellow wildflowers made a lovely blooming carpet. The sun cast beams of light in selectively beautiful spots.

I couldn’t even roll my eyes when our little lane turned into “Cupid’s Pathway.” It really was the spot to fall in love. Carefree and semi-lost, we passed a beautiful old cemetery and eventually climbed some stairs to an old fort at the highest point in the island.

After our walk in the woods, we made our way back to the tourist congestion in town. Admittedly, it was a Sunday in July, which is the peak of the island's "season" (May-October). Canadians. Americans. Foreigners. You name it, they were all here, and like us, they seemed to be trying to decide on the best place for fudge. Why fudge? All I can tell you is that for over a century, Mackinac Island has been known for its legendary fudge. The trend apparently started when an island resident got tired of the maple candy exported from Canada and decided to make his own treat.

Finding a fudge shop is not hard. There are at least six main fudge franchises (including Murdick’s, Ryba’s and May’s), and each has several storefronts. So no matter where you are in town, you’re likely less than two doors from a fudge purveyor. It’s choosing the fudge shop that’s so hard. They all have different recipes and flavors. Some are more traditional in their offerings – chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, etc. Others have gotten pretty creative, offering flavors like Traverse City Black Cherry and Amaretto Chocolate Chip. Yet like a cartel as tight as OPEC, they all charge the same price – around $7/slice, or three for $16.95.

After several taste tests as well as observing the fudge-making process (it’s made daily in the stores on big marble tables), we settled on Joann’s Fudge. The main reason was that there were dark chocolate options offered among the 30 flavors. Most of the other shops only had milk chocolate fudge, which was much sweeter. We ordered the divine Double Dark Cherry Pecan for ourselves as well as several gift “slabs” to take home. We felt complete as fudge-eating trolls now.

With the pressure off, we headed to Mary’s Bistro for a drink on the waterfront deck before catching the ferry back to modernity. Above is a parting shot of the view of the Mackinac Bridge (connecting the Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula of Michigan) from the boat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A River Runs Through It in Grayling, Michigan

When I first “mapquested” Grayling, Michigan, I saw that it was three hours north of Detroit and dead in the middle of Northern Michigan. (Yes, the U.P. is farther north, but people call this area Northern Michigan. Yet another slight!) My initial thought about the town we’d be staying in can be summarized as: “Looks like the boonies.”

As it turns out, historic Grayling (population 1,952) has been “on the map” as a top fishing destination for well over a century. For that, it can thank the famed Au Sable River, which flows right through the middle of town and ends at Lake Huron. Back in the late 1870s, this lovely river began drawing trains full of fishermen looking to hook the town’s namesake species, the Grayling.

According to the Old AuSable Fly Shop, the fishing was ridiculously abundant at the time – upwards of 100 Grayling per person could be caught per day, with yields of three to four fish per cast. But that was soon to be all over, though. The logging industry began using the Au Sable River for transportation (inventing the flat-bottom “Au Sable Boat” to navigate such a shallow river), and in doing so, built dams, stripped the banks, cleared/leveled the river and essentially destroyed the Grayling’s habitat and spawning beds.

Not surprisingly, the Grayling are gone. 100% wiped out. Wealthy individuals (including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and others in 1914) as well as the state tried to reintroduce them, but to no avail. It’s a damn sad story. But Grayling, the little town, held on. So did the fly fisherman, who now rent riverside cabins (much like the one we’re staying in, pictured below), put on fancy waders and set their sights on brook, brown and rainbow trout. (The Au Sable is designated a "blue ribbon" fishery for brown trout.)

But that’s not all this lush, beautiful area has to offer. In addition to being a fishing mecca, the Au Sable River attracts kayakers and competitive canoe paddlers. Yes, unbeknownst to me (and I suspect many of you), there is a sport involving racing in canoes, and it’s a big deal in these parts. Every July since 1947, the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon, one of three events making up canoeing’s Triple Crown and the longest such race in North America (120 miles), has started right here in Grayling.

I say starts here because it doesn’t end until roughly 14-15 hours later (and that’s for the first-place finishers, mind you.) It begins at 9 p.m. and goes all night, non-stop, until the next afternoon. The approximately 180 paddlers (in teams of two) must first sprint down the main street on foot, carrying their canoes over their heads, before jumping into the river in the center of town. Locals have told me it’s “pure chaos.”

From there, it’s about skill, speed (50-80 strokes per minute!), endurance...and good help. Paddlers have crews, much like race car drivers. But in this case, they’re known as “feeders” or “bank runners.” These dedicated folks position themselves at various points on the river and hand off food and water to their paddlers every two hours. That means a lot of standing in the dark in cold water.

(Photo credit The Bay City Times)

Making things even nuttier is the fact that spectators, too, stay up all night, driving and parking along the river and watching paddlers go by at various locations. The event guide recommends that the “the fully equipped spectator” have, among other things, a full tank of gas, toilet paper, an alarm clock, rain gear, a first aid kit, a battery-powered radio and a flashlight. Now you can see why the race has come to be known as “The World’s Toughest Spectator Race.”

Tragically, I fly out hours before the 2009 canoe marathon begins. So I’ll have to have my boyfriend report further. But consider yourself previewed – and myself enamored by yet another small town that’s way more interesting than I anticipated.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How to Speak Michiganese

We’ve been having a lot of fun trying to master the accent here in Northern Michigan, which primarily involves elongating your “o’s” by pulling in the sides of your mouth. For example, you say, “Oooooooh yeah.” Or “Minnesooooota.” But beyond the accent, there’s also a colorful regional vernacular, which I will now share with you.

The U.P. – Pronounced “the U-P.” This is the Michagenese abbreviation for the Upper Peninsula, the horizontal finger that is north of Lake Michigan and south of Lake Superior. Check out this state map if you don’t follow.

Yoopers – These are people who live in the U.P., which is pretty much an entirely different world. Case in point: the Yooper language was named the official state dialect by the Michigan legislature in 2003.

Trolls – What Yoopers call people who live “below the bridge,” or in other words, south of the famed Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula. Thus, folks in Grayling, where I am, or Detroit, three hours south, are all trolls.

Fudgies – This is Michiganese for “tourists,” particularly those who visit the popular Mackinac Island area. Apparently there are an inordinate amount of old-fashioned fudge shops on the island. I’ll find out how many when I head there this Sunday, so stay tuned!

Oh, and one more thing. Mackinac is not pronounced "Mak-in-nac," as it would seem. It's pronounced "Mak-in-NAW." Say it wrong, and you'll out yourself as a serious first-time fudgie.

Monday, July 13, 2009

From Polka to Perched Dunes in Cedar, Michigan

Cedar, Michigan, is the “Sausage Capital of the World." Yet it’s so small it doesn’t even warrant its own Wikipedia entry. (Rather, it shares one with the two other towns that make up Solon Township, a rural enclave 20 minutes west of Traverse City.)

How I came to know this was pure serendipity. We were driving to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which spans 35 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, when we saw a banner stretched across the road that said “Annual Polka Festival – July 2-5th.” As it was the 5th, there was only one thing to do. “Pull over!” I yelled. Soon, we were handing over $5 to enter a big tent in the middle of town.

What we found was this: a live polka band (called “PMS”), old folks dancing, lots of red and white outfits (the colors of Poland, where many area families hail from), long tables dotted with pitchers of beer, a “Polish Pride” souvenir booth, and, of course, sausages galore.

You see, Cedar is home to the famed Pleva’s Meats, known for premium sausages as well as the “Plevalean” burger. What makes it special is the addition of a little something extra. It’s – wait for it – cherries. Of course. Founder Ray Pleva got the idea from his daughter Cindy, the 1987 National Cherry Queen, who wanted to help the struggling cherry industry.

Today Pleva’s supplies “cherry burgers” for school lunches in 17 different states (!) and sells over 40 “cherry-enhanced” products, including the popular Cherry Pecan Sausage. I’ll admit, however, that I didn’t care for the latter. I tried a sample, and it was a bit too nutty/gamey for me.

Still in a Polka-induced daze, we piled back into the car and soon crossed into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It wasn’t until then that I realized I didn’t know where in the park we were going. After some scenic detouring (aka getting lost with no help from the GPS), fate again took over. “What’s that huge thing over there?” we asked simultaneously.

Amidst a sylvan backdrop, there appeared to be the largest, steepest sand dune ever. Just sitting there. As if it belonged. Mouths open, we turned into the “Dune Climb” parking lot, bought a $10 park pass and took our shoes off. Craning our necks to see the top, we took off, racing and sprinting like giddy children. It’s amazing what the unexpected sight of a gigantic sand dune can do to a person.

About three quarters of the way up, though, reality (aka near cardiac arrest) set in. Fortunately, this gave us the chance to look back for a stunning view of Glen Lake below. Like many lakes here, it’s a light, almost Caribbean blue color. Finally, after our breathing returned to semi-normal, we made it to the crest, where if you stand on top of the right mound, you can glimpse Lake Michigan, 3.5 miles away.

So how did this towering 110-foot sand dune (one of many in the area, some as tall as 400 feet) get here? The maddening question soon had me nose-deep in the National Park Service brochure. But alas, the answer is not simple. Let’s just it involves the Ice Age, glaciers, receding waters, sediment, “perched dunes” (like this one) versus “beach dunes,” strong westerly winds, dune migration, “ghost forests” and more.

In other words, I still don’t get it. But even that can’t take away the awe of stumbling across two very different wonders in one perfect afternoon.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries in Traverse City, Michigan

Summer in Northern Michigan is all about the cherries.

Case in point: we arrived at Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport on July 4th, the first day of the National Cherry Festival. We’re talking cherry pie eating contests, cherry pit spitting contests, “cherry d’vine” buffets, cherry pie make-and-bakes and more, as well as plenty of good old-fashioned Americana, including air shows, big wheel races, toddler trots and sandcastle contests. A whopping 500,000 people come to the grassy shores of Lake Michigan for this weeklong event, held every summer since 1926.

Why the cherry craze? Turns out 75% of the tart cherries in the US are grown here – a figure I truly believe. Driving the bright green countryside outside of Traverse City (population 142,000), cherry farms are ubiquitous, along with some of the prettiest old barns I’ve ever seen. You also see drive-in theaters named the Cherry Bowl and everything else cherry-themed you can imagine. (It reminds me of how no matter where you go in Atlanta, it’s likely to be named “Peachtree Place” or “Peachtree This-Or-That.”)

Naturally, we had to go to The Cherry Hut, the legendary restaurant that a friend told me was a must-see. Located southwest of Traverse City in the little lakefront town of Beulah, The Cherry Hut is exactly what I pictured – only better. It’s the epitome of unintentional kitsch, with its cherry wallpaper, red-and-white striped waitress uniforms and cherry-shaped menus. And of course, it’s home to the ultimate cherry pie. I kept the meal light – a cherry and walnut salad, which I split with my boyfriend – so that I could gorge on this signature item, which came with a gigantic mound of vanilla ice cream.

Meanwhile, our friend ordered the drowned turkey sandwich, which is the equivalent of Thanksgiving between two slices of bread, while my boyfriend got the cherry brownie sundae, which is the dessert of choice if cherry pie is too sweet for you. This is a complaint I hear from him and others, although as the possessor of the world’s biggest sweet tooth, I have no such gripe. I found the whole thing perfectly balanced thanks to the ice cream, which, by the way, I couldn’t finish. There was still almost a full scoop left after the pie was gone.

But our cherry spree wasn’t over. The next day, we discovered the Cherry Soda at Dawson and Steven’s Classic 50’s Diner (aka The Bottle Cap Museum) in Grayling, an hour east of Traverse City. And no, I don’t mean cherry-flavored soda pop, as they’d say here. This was dessert in a glass, a true fountain soda with cherry syrup, fountain water, ice cream and whipped cream. It was pink and frothy, and it went down awfully quick. So we, ahem, ordered a second.

And since we’ll be staying in Grayling for a few weeks, chances are there’ll be a third - which is why I'm going out to exercise this very minute. Right after I have a peanut butter sandwich with my new favorite, cherry raspberry preserves. (The latter, by the way, is made by Food for Thought, an organic, fair trade company located right here in Honor, Michigan. Order your own!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Baydreaming in St. Michaels, Maryland

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about two hours from DC, there is a tiny fishing village known as St. Michaels (population ~1,200). Some know it as the place where Wedding Crashers was filmed. Others know it as the place where Washington politicos (including two by the names of Cheney and Rumsfield) own second homes. Natives, however, call it “The Town that Fooled the British.”

Strolling the charming, walkable downtown, it’s easy to see why residents are proud of their history. The well-preserved colonial, Federal and Victorian architecture shows how long the place has been around – since the mid-1600s. But it was in 1813 that the town’s reputation was made. Facing attack by British war ships, the crafty Episcopalian settlers – who grew tobacco, and later wheat – hung lanterns on top of masts and tall trees. As a result, the cannons overshot the town, and only one home was damaged.

Unscathed, St. Michaels went on to become a shipbuilding center, inventing an oyster dredging vessel known as the Skipjack. Chesapeake oysters and blue crabs were caught and sold by generations of watermen. But when the oyster and crab populations dwindled in the 1990s (thanks to two oyster viruses plus fertilizer runoff in the Chesapeake Bay), the town morphed into a weekend tourist destination. Now former oyster fisherman give ecological bay tours, and “boatiques” sell mementos from “the Shore.”

If you can get past the sad fact that local restaurants now have to import crabs frequently, your first meal in St. Michaels should be at the legendary Crab Claw – just as ours was. Overlooking the harbor, it’s THE place to don a bib, crack some claws and watch the ships. We arrived to find my friend’s wedding party and other early guests slurping down mounds of crab and pitchers of beer amidst a rather strong aroma of fishiness. They didn’t seem to mind the smell, but I opted for the tasty crabcake sandwich. I know, I know – heresy.

But it’s not just about the Old Bay Seasoning here. Two days later we found our way to Sugar Buns Bakery (pictured above), where I enjoyed a sweet potato biscuit drizzled with honey. It was rich and dense and more like a meal than a biscuit. Sugar Buns is also known for its cakes, including the St. Michaels/Smith Island Cake, aka the Official State Cake of Maryland. It’s a yellow cake with seven thin layers of chocolate icing. We’d enjoyed a slice the day before while the wedding party took a tour the bay with Captain Ed aboard the restored H.M. Krentz Skipjack.

I managed to not get sunburned (which for me is a real accomplishment), but unfortunately, none of us managed to completely shake off Captain Ed’s long and depressing assessment of the Chesapeake Bay’s health. Let’s just say the largest estuary in the US is in real bad shape – and getting worse. Fortunately, after an open bar rehearsal dinner and further drinks at the Carpenter Street Saloon, we perked up enough to mingle with the locals. For all of St. Michaels' growing affluence and famous residents/visitors (Jenna Bush was spotted in town when we were there), the rollicking dive was a reminder that real people live here too.

By Saturday, though, we had stepped back into the fantasy life. The bridesmaids got ready at the gorgeous “estate home” my friend’s parents had rented, which had a fantastic old barn – converted into a game palace with ping pong, pool, air hockey and more – as well as a swimming pool, a pool house, a rose garden and a big blue sailboat docked in front. Though nowhere near as posh, our own rental house, Swan Harbor, had exceeded expectations too. A rambling white brick waterfront home, it sat on a tree-lined drive with its own private dock. Though I fawn over B&Bs, St. Michaels rental homes are surprisingly affordable and the way to go here if you’re with a group.

Speaking of lodging, St. Michaels is home to over 20 B&Bs, but the Inn at Perry Cabin (an 1812 country manor turned into a hotel in 1990) is the town’s best-known and swankiest option – a massive compound with big white columns and Adirondack chairs dotting the waterfront grounds. It’s old-school luxury with all the modern amenities, including an Aveda spa. See below for a stunning view of the Inn from the water. The wedding reception was held here, and it began with a sunset cocktail hour on the patio. Let’s just say it simply doesn’t get better than that time of day at this kind of location.

Crab Claw place setting photo credit: Ron Lynch.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rating the Dates

The pictures have been posted and the thrills described. But how did my back-to-back trysts with Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Austin stack up?

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: This is going to shock people, but the three best gastronomic experiences I had were in New Mexico, and two of those in Albuquerque. First the Golden Crown Panaderia’s Green Chile Bread rocked our worlds. Then I had a divine trout and leek sauce dish at Zinc in Nob Hill. Finally, my delicious Ayurvedic meal at Annapurna in Santa Fe can also be enjoyed at their Albuquerque branch.

Winner: Santa Fe

Reason: No-brainer here. It’s just gorgeous, like the genetically blessed supermodel who could never be mistaken for anyone else. As if more justification were needed beyond the fact that the Spanish settled here in the 1609 (duh – you pick the best spot first!), it consistently ranks as a top 10 US vacation destination - it was number four in this year's Conde Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - and is one of those places whose name alone evokes a dream lifestyle.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: Austin is known for its friendliness, but we had a few instances of rudeness that really startled us, such as a bike store employee yelling, “Can’t you see we’re closed?” Santa Fe is friendly, but a little tourist-weary. But in Albuquerque, everyone was warm, chatty and uber-helpful, with strangers taking 30 to 45 minutes to talk to us, draw maps, tell us where to eat, etc.

Winner: Austin

Reason: It’s like no other place in Texas or even the US, really, thanks to its defiant weirdness. It’s the legendary hipster mecca. It’s the home of South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. It’s a big party year-around…and never lacks a blazingly good soundtrack. (There’s even live music in the airport, for crying loud.) It makes you wish you could only be half as cool.

TRAFFIC/CONGESTION (between the two “big cities”)
Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: We didn’t encounter ANY traffic – not even during Friday “rush hour.” For the largest city in New Mexico (population 800,000), that ain’t bad. One reason may be that it has two 75 mph interstate freeways (25 and 40) connecting perpendicularly to disperse traffic. In comparison, Austin (population 1.5 million) has one main artery, and we got stuck on it twice.

Winner: Austin

Reason: Kiplinger’s 2009 Cost-of-Living Index puts Austin ahead – it scores a 94, whereas Albuquerque and Santa Fe come in at 98 and 100, respectively. (100 is the average, so anything lower is cheaper than average.) The biggest factor? According to CNN’s Cost-of-Living Comparison Tool, housing in Austin costs 16% less than in Albuquerque.

p.s. A huge reminder about why I’m on the prowl: Los Angeles scores a painful 142 on the Cost-of-Living Index.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: I wasn’t sure who’d come out on top on this one between Austin and Albuquerque. (Santa Fe, at 75,000 people, is just too small.) Then I see Kiplinger’s 2009 Best Cities rankings, which this year “focuses on places that have stable employment plus the talent to create new, well-paying positions.” Both cities make the list, but Albuquerque edges Austin out (#2 vs. #8).

Winner: Austin

Reason: I don’t think I even need to explain this, do I? Sleepy New Mexico’s got nothing on Austin’s wild scene, thanks to its countless live-music venues, bars, and festivals. Also, let’s not forget those 48,000 very thirsty University of Texas students. Or that Travel & Leisure “America’s Favorite Cities” rankings put it #2 for live music and #4 for singles/bar scene.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: Santa Fe just doesn’t have the real estate bargains and job opportunities that make for a win-win. Austin and Albuquerque have both, which means it comes down to tiebreakers. If I were single, Austin would probably win out. But I’m not, and these days, less congestion and niceness matter more than nightlife. Clinching the deal, US News & World Report just named Albuquerque the Best Place to Live for 2009, putting Austin #3. So close, but “the ABQ” takes it!

Final tally: Albuquerque 5, Austin 3, Santa Fe 1. Let the planets re-align!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dazed and Amused in Austin, Texas – Part II

(Read Part I for the beginning of this tale.)

Our second day in Austin we found our bearings. If we’d done our research properly, we probably would have made a beeline to this funky and happening area. But the delay only amped our appreciation.

For anyone who knows Austin, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m talking about historic South Congress (“SoCo”). Dilapidated and seedy not so long ago, SoCo has been revitalized and reborn. It’s now home to the most popular South by Southwest “musician’s hotel,” the Hotel San Jose, the longtime holdout Austin Motel, several carefully curated thrift stores, the Allens Boots megastore, numerous cafes and, of course, the legendary music venue, The Continental Club, which has seen SoCo through good, bad and back.

If you need any further evidence that you’re in the hippest part of town, just walk past Hey Cupcake, which sells cupcakes out of a Airstream trailer accompanied by live music (see photo below).

We knew we were on track as we bit into our uber-rich Carrot Cake French Toast (complete with warm cream cheese sauce) during brunch at South Congress Café. High from all the sugar, an impromptu shopping spree took over us, leaving us with bags full of gently worn retro duds as well as some handmade jewelry from Ten Thousand Villages, the fair trade retailer that sells the wares of artisans from developing nations around the world. (Yes, that was a plug.)

If we hadn’t just had dessert for breakfast, we surely would have given into not only a cupcake but also the weirdo ice cream flavors at Amy’s Ice Creams, including Shiner, which is flavored with the beer Shiner Bock. (Did I mention this is a big drinking town?)

After a nap, we set out again to grab some (more) comfort food and hear some live music. Our greatest hits tour took us first to Threadgills, a local institution for 76 years, and also where local "Roots & Rock" star James McMurty was performing that night.

Unfortunately, our grubbing on fried pickles, meatloaf, mac ‘n cheese, “Texas black-eyed pea caviar” (pictured below) and more in the restaurant adjacent to the outdoor stage ran a little long. When we emerged, there were no seats left, and our nascent food coma was making standing seem out of the question. So we headed back over to The Continental Club, where we were early enough to score table seats and hear some jazz.

That night, we slept extra hard thanks to the turbocharged air conditioning in our room. (We never did figure out how to turn it down, a sign that such as desire was clearly abnormal in these sweltering parts.) We awoke refreshed, and the sun, which had hidden a bit the day before, was out in full force. The obvious thing to do was to go biking. I mean, we were in Lance Armstrong’s hometown after all. But first we needed to fuel up, and we hadn't had a nibble of Mexican food yet.

We made our way to the famed technicolor shack that is Taco Xpress. You can't miss it thanks to the huge, wacky and welcoming bust of owner Maria Corbalan out front (see photo below). We arrived at the tail end of “Hippie Sunday Church.” I’d read something about it a while ago, but I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate it until you’ve experienced it. We’re talking about some serious rocking out.

Young and old, boho and yuppie, everyone was on their feet, dancing, shouting and clapping (with greasy hands from eating tacos, of course) with a true religious fervor. The lead singer of the band was absolutely going for broke, whipping her head to the point that I was concerned for her spinal column. It was perhaps the moment where I really got Austin. This place lives for A) music and B) brunch, and when you combine the two, well, prepare for nirvana.

Still decompressing from that raucous scene (above is the beer line afterwards), we rented bikes at one of the nicest bike shops I’ve ever been in and pedaled the short distance to Town Lake (renamed Lady Bird Lake in 2007, but no one seems to call it that). And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. A lovely lake (formed by damming the Colorado River) right in the middle of town, with big corporate offices just a block away in some cases, but with the added amenity of 10 miles of interconnected trails around the perimeter. Everyone, their brother and their brother’s dog was out walking, jogging or biking.

We had to conduct some high-stakes crowd navigation, but we didn't mind. Biking around Town Lake is darn fun, except when you’re lost, as we were twice. This did allow us to see a rowing competition in progress as well as talk to some natives, but next time, we’ll take a better map. (Talk about the recurring theme of this trip!)