Monday, March 24, 2014

The USS Midway Museum

On Thursday, my friend L and I drove down to San Diego for a little day trip. We arrived around noon, ate lunch, and then spent our afternoon touring the USS Midway Museum. The Midway is a former aircraft carrier, and it's now permanently docked in San Diego as a naval aircraft museum.

Here's a little photo dump of the various things spotted along the highly enjoyable and informative tour. I absolutely loved exploring the ship--we spent three hours on the ship listening to the audio tour, talking to the docents, and reading all of the plaques. If you have a few hours to kill, I would recommend visiting.

And after our tour, we decided to pull a proper Spring Break move and head to Mexico. Of course we didn't actually go to Mexico, but we drove up to the border fence and took a few pictures. Maybe next time I'll bring my passport!

We got back to LA just in time to catch Scandal, but I was far too tired to watch. I was asleep by 10:30, drained after our long day. After traveling almost five thousand miles across the country over Spring Break, I'm happy to rest my head at home. Another thing I'm excited about? Getting back to my kitchen!

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled content after this post--but I've loved sharing the week's adventures with you!

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Friday, March 21, 2014

The World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium

On Tuesday, my mother and I ventured into Atlanta to visit the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. They’re right next to each other, conveniently, but a five or ten minute walk from the train station. Now, I do expect all weather to stink in comparison to California’s, but I was not expecting 37˚F. I could see my breath. Suffice it to say that mum and I walked pretty darn quickly into the World of Coca-Cola.

Let me interject and say that nobody in my family drinks Coca-Cola. While we may have the occasional bottle of cranberry juice in the fridge, my family normally only consumes water, milk, tea, beer, and wine. Call us boring, but we don’t consume soft drinks. However, many friends had informed me that the World of Coca-Cola is extremely interesting, even to ambivalent parties. So, with this in mind, mum and I thought we’d check it out.

Once we bought our tickets and went through a bag search and x-ray scanner (not kidding), we were ushered into the lobby and then to a memorabilia-filled room where we received a quick welcome and orientation. As you can see, there was a lot to look at, and mum and I busied ourselves with finding the weirdest things that we could... and we couldn’t pick just one that stuck out!

From the orientation room, we were lead into a theater where we watched a twelve-minute film about the Coca-Cola polar bears. You know those Coke commercials with the polar bears drinking from the bottles? Ridley Scott directed this animated “feature” that stressed the importance of family and understanding... mum and I may have snarked under our breath for most of it.

When that little short was done, we were finally allowed to tour the exhibits as we saw fit. Orderly people that we are, mum and I just followed the general flow of traffic. The bottom floor held three features—the Vault, a memorabilia exhibit, and a terrifying polar bear character that you could take a picture with. We avoided the latter, since I have never seen such a nightmarish polar bear in my life.

The pre-vault was a “security check” featuring a wall of screens and cameras that “confirmed” that the guests posed no security threat. This was actually pretty cool, I will say. After a two-minute overview of the security surrounding the secret Coca-Cola formula, our access was granted, and into the vault we went. 

The following rooms held a brief history of Coke, its creator, and information about the secrecy of the formula. Did you know that the formula is not patented, because then that would make it too public? The more you know.

Apparently the only written copy of the formula resides in this vault here. I'm going to call BS on that one, because that looks like the least secure vault that I have ever seen in my life. However, I don't think this exactly the place for a skeptic, so on we go.

After we learned some of the history of the company, we headed into the next feature, a memorabilia exhibit. This included a replica soda fountain, an old Coca-Cola car, original vending machines, assorted print advertising campaigns, and various Olympic paraphernalia, including ten torches and a pin collection. Coca-Cola has been a major Olympic sponsor for many years, because of their marketing efforts to brand their various Coke products as “happiness”. Ignoring the obvious, it’s a brilliant way to try and connect the enjoyment of life and sporting events with consumption of a simple soda. But, I digress.

Once we finished with the memorabilia, we avoided the possessed polar bear and climbed the staircase, stopping for a brief photo op with the decorated giant Coke bottles.

Upstairs, there are four exhibits. We started with the one at the top of the stairs, a rolling reel of various Coke commercials over the years. My mom and I stayed here for probably fifteen minutes, watching the wide variety of advertising campaigns over the years. It was interesting in that the older, pre-Katherine commercials had no real emotional impact on me, but the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad had my mother singing (yikes) along. And then, when one of the 2010 World Cup commercials came up on the screen, I got a rush of feelings... to which I realized that their advertising team is truly brilliant.

We eventually tore ourselves away from the screen only to enter the 4D show and stare at another screen for another ten minutes. This feature’s premise followed a female researcher’s efforts to determine the Coca-Cola secret formula. I won’t spoil the conclusion for everyone, but the ride’s 4D experience included effects such as lurching seats, spraying water, wind, lasers... you know, the usual. While the story was clichĂ© and contrived, the effects did make it more fun.

After we escaped the theater, we beelined for what I thought was maybe the coolest exhibit—it included original Norman Rockwell paintings as well as a vintage Coca-Cola room. Mum and I got a quick photo on the pimp couch (am I right, though?) and continued to see the bottling in action. The World of Coca-Cola is the slowest Coke bottling facility, filling about twenty bottles per minute as opposed to two thousand, and it was interesting to see the dumb names they allegedly have for their machines, like the Elevator Lowerator. Regardless, I always enjoy seeing how products are made.

The World of Coca-Cola proudly boasts 64 flavors available for sampling in this final room. They’re soft-drink dispensers organized by continent, with eight flavors at each station. While mother and I thought we’d only end up trying a few, I’m fairly sure we tried most of them. My teeth hurt by the end. Our favorites included Vegitabeta, from Japan, and Bitter Lemon, from England. It was definitely interesting to see what’s popular in other nations. Take a leaf from our book--don't try too many flavors. By the end, everything tastes nasty.

On our way out through the gift shop, we grabbed a complimentary bottle of Coke from their very own factory that we had toured, and stopped to comment on some of the obscure Coca-Cola branded products in the store. We escaped the store and briskly walked across the plaza to the Georgia Aquarium.

Another interjection—even though it may come across that I hold Coca-Cola in a weird place (I do), it was certainly fascinating to see how the company has built a literal world surrounding soda because of their successful marketing. If you’re interested in a more unbiased history of Coke, I recommend reading The Coke Machine, which details the company's sometimes unpleasant history. The World of Coca-Cola is literally a trophy of successful marketing, and has enough appeal to draw skeptics and unbelievers to pay money to experience it firsthand. It feels like the Disney World of soft drinks. While I don’t think it’s going to be a regular outing for anyone in my family, it was captivating to see Coke in action.

Anyways, after our World of Coca-Cola experience, we bought tickets and went through the same bag search and x-ray debacle at the Aquarium that we did just a few hours previously. Be warned—tickets at the Georgia Aquarium are expensive. They’re approximately $35 per person, but a season pass is only $70. You can buy a ticket, keep the ticket and receipt, and then put the purchase towards a season pass. My parents are holding onto our tickets so that future guests to our home can use them.

The Georgia Aquarium is highly regarded as the best aquarium in the United States. I had ridiculously high expectations—I secretly love aquariums—and I was not disappointed. While the facility was smaller than I expected, and the number of exhibits fewer, the aquarium is of such high quality. There’s a dolphin show, two whale exhibits, and the largest living aquarium coral reef.

We didn’t have time for the dolphin show, but we managed to see all of the other exhibits. We started with the reef exhibit—not only did they have a beautiful, huge reef, but jellyfish, seahorses, and anemones in smaller tanks.

Mum and I then marched through the masses of schoolchildren to the largest tank the aquarium offers. The main features in this feature are the four (four!) whale sharks and numerous manta rays swimming through the exhibit. There’s a moving walkway through a tunnel in the water so you can observe the marine life from the inside, and it’s truly spellbinding watching such huge beings majestically cruising through the water.

Our next stop was the cold-water exhibit. This one featured a kelp tank, beluga whales, otters, starfish, and penguins. My mother and I spent ten minutes standing in front of the beluga whale tank... they are truly incredible creatures. They move playfully through the water, coming right up to the glass and spinning around. The more we watched, the more in awe we were—these whales are enormous yet graceful.

We also watched the otters for a while. There was a spot where you could see inside the biologists’ room as well as the rocky bit of the tank, and the otters scrambled up and to the door when they saw an aquarium worker entering the feeding area. They are such smart little animals! They would dive into the water and then tread, watching the door. If they saw movement, they’d jump up and waddle over. The otters even play-fought as we watched!

The last exhibit of interest was the river exhibit. We saw piranhas (eek), turtles, and two albino alligators. It was weird seeing the alligators, but it was strangely comforting to see that there were two. Huge wimp and sympathizer that I am, I felt bad for their abnormality, but their companionship reassured me (however misguided that may be).

Now, it was about two o’clock at this time, and we were starving. My mother made a joke about wanting sushi, but we headed to the little cafĂ© and split a wrap, chips, and a mini fruit tart. While the vegetable wrap was surprisingly good, the tart was pretty gross. It tasted alright going down, but my mother and I both felt queasy a few hours later.

We had to leave the aquarium right around 2:30 to take the train back to Alpharetta, since my parents had some business to take care of. However, had my mother and I had more time, we definitely would have tried to tour the CNN building. Maybe next time! It was a pretty busy morning/afternoon and definitely a great experience seeing some touristy Atlanta attractions. I’m already excited for my next visit!

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Headed Down South...

Well, I've kind of been keeping a secret for the past few months. But now, the cat's truly out of the bag, so I can fill you all in! On account of my dad's work, my parents are relocating from Boston to Alpharetta, Georgia! My dad's been down south since January, and my mom has been splitting her time between Massachusetts and Georgia. However, they move into their new house at the end of this month!

Since it's my spring break, I figured I would fly out to spend a few days with my parents in their current digs in Alpharetta, and to see what the town's all about. I flew out on a red-eye on Friday night, and landed in Atlanta ready to boogie. Dad picked me up from the airport, and we spent a quiet morning at home with mum. Then, off we went for a busy afternoon!

We started off by walking the Big Creek Greenway. The Greenway is a trail system through the towns of Alpharetta and Roswell, meandering about eight miles through the woods along Big Creek. Apparently, we went at a pretty quiet time--however, we still saw tons of walkers, joggers, rollerskaters, and bikers traveling both ways on the trail. We only walked a few miles, but took our time enjoying the beautiful weather.

After our walk, we headed into downtown Roswell and parked along Canton Street. Downtown is a short, bustling bit of the street, packed with restaurants and little shops.

We poked around in stores like The Chandlery and The Painted Monkey, pictured above. While we didn't leave with anything, it was fun to explore some of the different things they had to offer!

We then headed across the street to Roswell Provisions, where we poked around the deli (so much cheese) and decided on a little afternoon treat! It's not a vacation without a mid-afternoon afternoon ice cream, let's be honest. My parents each got Moose Tracks, which was apparently good, but could have benefitted from more chocolate and peanut butter. I ate the coconut ice cream, which I really enjoyed. I love coconut, so this was an unexpected surprise. It was creamy, sweet, and perfectly coconut-y.

After our ice cream, we drove back home and I promptly took a nap on the couch, then groaningly rose to do some laundry, then headed off to dinner. My parents have sampled many of the local restaurants, and decided on Spice, a tapas-style restaurant. To take advantage of the nice weather and to escape the too-loud live music, we enjoyed our meal outdoors.

We started by splitting the spinach salad, which featured sun-dried tomatoes, onion, crumbled walnuts, and blue cheese. The bacon was omitted for obvious reasons, and it was dressed with a lemony vinaigrette. It was pretty darn nice! Nothing too special, but executed well. There was a minor debate over whether the nuts were bacon or not, but they turned out to just be nuts.

My parents then ate the blackened tilapia fish tacos, which were quite good, but could have done with more fish and slightly less seasoning. They both agreed that they enjoyed the tacos, which is sometimes a rare thing.

They then had the mussels fra diavalo, which were mussels in a spicy pomodoro sauce served with toasted focaccia. I nibbled on some of the focaccia, which was buttery and awesome, but mom and dad said that the mussels were somewhat drowning in the sauce.

Finally, finally, the grilled vegetable flatbread came out of the kitchen. Crispy flatbread topped with zucchini, onions, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, tomatoes, and goat cheese, this was exactly what I wanted. It just worked really well and all of the vegetables held their own flavor-wise.

And in a surprising move, we ordered dessert! We generally don't order dessert at restaurants, but we were told that the tiramisu was the kitchen's specialty... sadly, it wasn't that good. It could have done with less cream, more liqueur, and more powder atop.

We rolled on home and I immediately fell asleep, exhausted after a long day.

On Sunday, eleven hours later (yikes), I woke up to pouring rain outside of the window. We spent the morning inside watching a few Premier League matches and doing various work, and then mum and I did a spot of grocery shopping at the local Publix. I almost had a bit of a freak-out because I couldn't find any hummus in the whole store, but at the last minute, we found some tucked away in a small display. Phew, am I right?

Later in the afternoon, we went to see The Monuments Men. It's a movie based on the true groups of art historians and scholars rushing to save stolen European artwork during WWII and the fall of Nazi Germany. While it may have been a bit lacking in terms of historical accuracy, it was certainly a fun watch! I would definitely recommend it--there's some serious acting talent represented and the true story it's based on is absolutely fascinating.

We're cooking dinner on Monday to avoid the St. Patrick's Day crowds, so we ate out at PURE tacqueria following the movie. It's this cool little converted gas station, and it now has five locations throughout Atlanta. Ours is the original though!

We were greeted with some really dang salty chips. Nevertheless, we inhaled the first basket and were immediately given a second basket without question... unnecessary, but the second batch were fresh, hot, and less salty, so they were a lot better.

I thought I ordered one of the specials, the vegetable quesadilla, but I'm pretty sure this was the vegetable enchilada. I didn't realize it wasn't what I had ordered until about halfway through, but I had thought about the enchilada anyways, so whatever. It was filled with cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and onions, and had a pretty serious kick to it! The corn salsa atop was also a nice touch. It wasn't what I had wanted, but I'm glad I got it!

Mum ordered the chicken burrito, which was easily larger than her head. It came with black beans and rice on the side, and the (apparently tasty) burrito was topped with green sauce, onions, lettuce, guacamole, and cheese. She said the guacamole was nothing special, but she did get the uneaten half of the burrito wrapped up for lunch tomorrow, so I'm assuming she liked it quite a lot!

Last but not least, my dad ordered the fish tacos. I'm not sure he thought it would be a DIY operation, but he said they were alright. He didn't like the tortillas, since they allegedly tasted "like cardboard" and had a bit of a strange texture, but the fish and vegetables were nice.

A huge part of the charm of PURE was definitely the atmosphere. It has a funky, almost Los Angeles vibe to it, and the restaurant proudly proclaims their reliance on sustainable and organic ingredients. The restaurant felt like it could have been in Venice, not the South!

So that's a little summary of the weekend! I'm here through Wednesday morning, so expect a few more posts from the south detailing our various shenanigans. I'm making dinner tomorrow, and on Tuesday my mom and I are exploring Atlanta itself, so stay tuned!

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