Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Puerto Vallarta

In mid-February one of my well-up-the-chain-of-command bosses at work surprised me with an offer of a free trip to Puerto Vallarta, all expenses paid, as part of an annual rewards program. Wendy and I were a last-minute addition to the group that was going -- someone had dropped out, and I was apparently next on the list -- and we were temporarily in a bit of a bind. Forest was coming for a visit at the end of the month, and we had a party planned for her, just when we were now supposed to be in Mexico. Fortunately, Wendy is neither one to turn down a vacation nor one who's afraid to change plans, so after a quick consultation with Forest we moved her party back a week and started packing the sunscreen.

Our Friday morning flight was made lass-than-pleasant by having to sit next to an extremely inebriated man who proceeded to get more drunk throughout the flight and give us all sorts of "useful" advice, such as "Don't buy drugs from Mexican cops." Thanks buddy.

Although this was a work-sponsored trip, at an all-inclusive resort (our first time in such a surreal place), we only had a few organized activities with my co-workers. The first evening we had a sunset reception / cocktail party next to the pool, which was a great way to get into the vacation mode; afterwards Wendy and I went to Piaf, the on-resort French-styled restaurant. The wine at Piaf in also complimentary, but they do have an up-sell menu (for additional, and outrageous, prices) that looked a lot better. When the sommelier realized that we weren't very enthusiastic about the standard wines, he brought us one of the better wines that had a water-damaged label and gave it to us at no charge; now that's service! We had a nightcap at the lobby bar after dinner and enjoyed the warm evening air before turning in.

On Saturday elected to spend most of the day lounging around the pool (with a swim-up bar!), soaking our Seattle-pale skin in the sun. That evening, however, we went into Puerto Vallarta proper to have a rum drinks at La Bodeguita del Medio, a great Cuban place, followed by dinner at the unusually-named Daiquiri Dick's, where the ex-wife of a friend of ours was a chef and manager. Not only did we have a fantastic meal next to the beach, after dropping off several hard-to-find-in-Mexico American amenties, were given a 2 kg bag of coffee beans to take home.

It was on Saturday that we also discovered the 'all-inclusive' moniker means just that; we could order a full bottle of liquor per person per day to the room (and ice and vermouth were freely available) so we knew immediately what that meant: home-made martinis!!

Sunday was our day to wander around Puerto Vallarta's downtown and beaches, and buy some tequila to bring home. Being Sunday, many of the shops were closed and the whole city was pretty sleepy.

Monday was ziplining! Neither of us had ever been before. We took a bus for about an hour and a half up into the mountains north and east of PV, had a brief instructional class, and started zipping between the trees. I was very proud of Wendy; heights are not her favorite thing, but she did great and ended up having a lot of fun. We did a total of 19 lines, and finished with a rappel from about 65 feet. I was about twice the size, or more, of any of our guides, so they had a little difficulty manipulating me at the transition points, but they were all very professional.

When we got back to the hotel, we had a company dinner, including fireworks on the beach, and finished up at the lobby bar.

On our final day, we enjoyed the poolside bar until the last possible minute, not knowing when we'd see the sun again.

Our full photo set can be found here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A day trip to Inari and a farewell to Japan

Our last day in Japan, tomorrow we all would leave at different times, 3 separate taxis scheduled to pick us up and take us to various train stations and airports.

We started with breakfast in a nice tea house we had seen on our first day's walk of Kyoto. The garden here is so pretty and the koi are HUGE!

After breakfast Dayne, Matt & I decided to take a day trip to Inari. It was an easy and quick train ride to the small town where the streets were jammed with people making their way to Fushimi Inari Shrine and the the 1000's of torii that wind their way up the small hillside.

The streets were also lined with food vendors, a street carnival feel going on although very different than the street foods we see at home. Here there were whole mackerel grilling on sticks, skewers of chicken, soba noodles being griddled, candied fruits, whole grilled squid on sticks and Sapporo beer everywhere.

We spend some time walking up the hill, through the thousands of orange torii gates. Small "neighborhoods" of shrines would be grouped together here and there, most covered with offerings of sake, sushi, rice, etc. It was a very pretty walk, the higher you got up the hill the less people there were.

After some street food and some beers we headed back to Kyoto to meet up with Forest for our last night. One last cocktail hour in the apartment, one last night out for dinner which would consist of kushi skewers and then okonomiyaki (our favorite food in Japan) and finally a go at karaoke!

We got a private room and immediately ordered up some Japanese whiskey and set about trying to figure out how to work the equipment. There was a good assortment of song choices and even some holiday tunes. We had forgot our animal costumes so just had to sing in normal clothes!

It was a great last night spent with good friends!

Dayne and I had a bit of trouble getting out to the airport the next day. After a quick and uneventful bullet train ride up to Tokyo I accidently got us on a train to the airport which stopped at every town between Tokyo and Narita, making the trip over 1 1/2 hours! We arrived 45 minutes before our flight departure but no one seemed to mind. We rushed to our gate and stood in the long line to board and were then informed that they were moving us from our coach seats at the very back of the plane to row 6 in First Class!! We were so excited as we sat down and were served champagne. This was real international First Class which I had never had a chance to fly on! I spent about half the flight home playing with my seat which fully reclined and had a massage feature. We were also served this lovely dinner

Thanks for following along on our trip and thanks for the nice comments. As always if you'd like to see all the pictures from Kyoto you can click here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Starting 2009 in Japan

For the first day of 2009 we decided to do our own walking tour of the Gion and Pontocho Street. Forest took the lead and off we went exploring our neighborhood. It's amazing how beautiful the area was! People, many in traditional dress, were still streaming in mass to the shrine so it was good to be walking in the opposite direction.

You know the saying "sometimes the best things in life are free"!

It's always fun to just wander and take it all in. We found a little noodle restaurant and decided to stop for lunch, it is traditional to have noodles on New Years Day to bring you prosperity for the months ahead.

We had to break out the language books (thanks Lauren!) to order as there was no English menu, but we did well and received big bowls of delicious noodles in an amazing broth and a huge tempura prawn on top! We sat crossed legged on the floor slurping noodles and listening to all the others diners slurp too.

Continuing our walk we headed across the Kamogawa River to Pontocho Street. This is an interesting area, originally the red light district and now crammed with restaurants, bars, tea houses, love hotels, etc. The first street is so narrow that you can barely pass people walking side by side, the second a bit wider. It's a very interesting area and I only wish we would have had time to go at night. We did spot a big kareoke parlour...

We had decided that evening to check out the Touzan Bar at the Hyatt Kyoto . Although Dayne makes a mean martini and we had had some delicious Japanese whiskeys we were all jonesing for a nice, well made cocktail and had heard really good things about Touzan. The bartenders were great and after a drink or two we were so happy with everything that we decided to just have some sushi and make ourselves at home for the night. We took a great video of just how much care goes into the making of cocktails! Thanks to the iPhone application of Cocktail DB and our bartenders who were very excited to make different things we had a great night, I highly recommend Touzan!

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