Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pour and Pedal NJ

Pour and Pedal - wine + biking = winning!
New Jersey is home to close to 50 wineries (39 of which are officially part of the Garden state wine growers association), and is surprisingly the 7th largest producer of wine in the country! Fittingly, I recently made another great discovery on the Living Social website. For around $60 per person, we were signed up for an event called Pour and Pedal, which was a 15 mile bike ride between two wineries, including wine tastings and a picnic lunch. 

Brian and I joined up with Larissa fromThe Traveling Mortician  and her husband Angel, and yesterday the 4 of us got to finally experience this unique event we were looking forward to!

We arrived in New Egypt at Laurita winery, which was the starting point of the tour. After signing in and selecting our lunch order, we chose our bikes, were given some safety instructions, and off we went.

Pour and Pedal NJ
Ready to start the tour!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Zorbing - Great Smoky Mountain Tennessee

What is zorbing, you ask? This is a “sport” in which you roll downhill whilst inside a clear plastic ball, either strapped inside or completely unharnessed with the addition of some water. First invented in one of the adrenaline capitals of the world, New Zealand, Zorb and Zorb impostors have started popping up all over the world in recent years. 
zorbing in tennessee
If you look really closely, you can see me feet first inside

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Learning to surf in Kauai

Being from New Jersey, surfing is not something most kids learn how to do growing up. Our ocean water is rough, brown, and cold, which aren't the most attractive conditions to make anyone want to give it a try. Hawaii, however, is one of the first locations that come to mind when people think of surfing, and is that cliche item on many bucket lists. Of course it was on mine as well and something I have always really wanted to try, but I was hesitant to give it a go as an adult. As the week wore on and we got to Kauai, I became even more hesitant as I was worried I would be in a group lesson full of kids that were surfing circles around me as I humiliated myself by failing to stand up on the board.
Luckily, Brian knew I would never forgive myself if I didn't at least give a shot, and urged me to inquire about a lesson in this small shop behind Poipu beach. We learned it was a slow time of year, being the week after Thanksgiving, and that so far no one else had signed up that day. The probability that I would end up with a private lesson for a group rate was enough for me to sign up, and it worked out because it really did end up being just me and the instructor! It was a little bit pricy at $75 for an hour lesson, but it was still a deal as private lessons were going for $100+ per person.
poipu beach kauai
Poipu beach - not a bad place to learn!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Suzhou - not quite Venice

Suzhou is deemed "The venice of the Orient" by guidebooks. We had the opportunity to take a day trip here from Shanghai, and as an added bonus we got to stop at the Masters of the net gardens on the way.

 The garden was beautiful, but was very similar to the Yu Garden we had seen the previous day while visiting the market. We did get some spectacular pictures at this garden, so it was all worth it.

masters of the net garden suzhou
Beautiful Masters of the Net Garden

masters of the net garden suzhou
Plenty of photo ops in the garden!

We stopped for lunch, then headed to the canal for our boat ride!

The boat was on the smaller side, low to the water, and exactly what you would expect it to look like. The water was calm, but was a dark brown color and had the slight stench of a sewer to it. I can see why the comparison is made to Venice, as we rode through the town down narrow waterways, shops, homes, and restaurants lining the path. However, having been to Venice before, this is where the comparison ended for me. I couldn't help but feel sad for the people that live along this water because it was so obviously polluted. Unlike Venice, Suzhou also has drivable streets, so the canal is no longer the main means of transportation in the area. On the day we were there, it seemed to be primarily used as a tourist attraction.

suzhou canal boat ride
Our boat for the canal ride
 It was an interesting perspective to see the local homes up close and personal, decorated in the red oriental lamps that we have all seen so many times on TV and in pictures. Some locals even had their laundry hung up.Chinese tourist eating at waterfront restaurants waved as we went by. It was overall an enjoyable experience once you overlook the color of the water, and a great contrast to the modern city of Shanghai that is less than 2 hours away.

Suzhou canal
These red oriental lamps lined the canal

Suzhou canal
Narrow alleyway in the canal

suzhou canal
Not as pretty as Venice, but still an enjoyable ride

Brian and I really enjoyed seeing how extremely different each city was from each other, all wrapped up into a single country.. From the historic and somewhat run down Beijing, to the old but up and coming Xian with it's bustling nightlife and crowded streets, to the ultra modern Shanghai with it's big business and designer stores -each stop changed our view on the country. Just when we thought we had things figured out, we would arrive at the next city and see a whole new way of life. We were thrown out of our comfort zone more than ever before in our lives, between the cuisine, non western bathrooms, and the haggling of the street vendors, but we are really glad we picked China as our first journey to Asia.

We highly recommend seeing China - the good and the bad! Take advantage of one of the many travel zoo deals out there, and make sure to include all 3 cities - Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai in your visit!

So, What countries should we see next year??? Leave us some ideas in the comments section!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Xian night market - China

It's 9pm on a Tuesday... The streets are filled with thousands of locals, seemingly not worried about getting up for work in the morning. We make our way through the crowd towards the famous drum tower, which is also where the night market is located. It is a long street lined with small shops and food carts, and full of life. There is music playing on the street, which sounds like a chinese version of techno.

xian china night market
The chaotic night market in action 

We walk slowly down the street, the smell of fried street food filling our nostrils, and try to figure out the different things on the menu, which is not translated into English. One of the first things we notice is squid on a stick. This is not the calamari that we know and love, but the entire squid, uncooked, baking in the heat, sure to destroy our stomachs if we dared to order. A local purchases one, and we watch it being cooked for a minute before moving onto the next stand, which has even more interesting treats.

xian night market menu
These menus didn't help us figure out what the food was..
xian night market food
Shrimp, one of the only recognizable food items besides the squid

Xian night market food
Unidentified meats on a stick

xian night market food
Close out of the night market fried goodness

xian night market squid on a stick
Squid on a stick cooking

“What animal is this?” We asked each other as we had never seen anything other than chicken and turkey legs for sale back home. Maybe its dog or lamb, or maybe something even bigger? The head, probably from the same animal, is also for sale, and the teeth are even still attached. We don't stare too long as we really don't want to know the answer to our question.

xian night market food
Large unidentified animal.. Lamb? Dog? Pig?

xian night market food
As seen on our know before you go post, animal head, teeth included

 Next we pass what I am assuming are Chinese desserts, and they almost look like dumplings with Chinese writing on them. We are tempted to try them, but our tour guide warning us not to eat anything from the market has scared us into just taking pictures.

xian night market food
These look tasty! 

 We also pass 2 men using what appears to be a long mallet, banging out some sort of bread. As we go over to take a closer look, a motorbike speeds past, weaving in between the vendors and the pedestrians on the street. There seems to be no rules for motorbikes, as they are even able to ride on the sidewalks if that's what it takes to get to their desired destination.

xian night market
The men hard at work in the market

After a while it becomes clear that the vendors all sell the same type of foods, so we start taking a look at the shops for some souvenirs. Most of it is the usual stuff - magnets, postcards, imitation terracotta warriors, keychains, etc. We walk inside a few stores and see some toys and other cheap things, but nothing really catches our eye. In the back of one store we even find weapons - brass knuckles, nun-chucks, even knives, which we find interesting since our guide told us the Chinese never carry weapons on them and they are not even sold in most of the country.

xian night market
Stores in the market

Xian night market
Cheesy Souvenirs 
 Once we have seen it all, we start to head back to the hotel, but not before we are stopped by a women standing in front of an entrance to what looks like an alley leading to a basement shop. "We have a children's art exhibition in here, sponsored by the University, come have a look" she says. Sureeee.... Obviously there would be such an exhibition down a dark alley at 10pm on a school night in the middle of a market... This is our first time actually being propositioned for one of these scams, and as we decline and walk away, we can't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.

We walk back to the hotel, happily satisfied that we finally got to experience China away from the tourist crowd. What was the strangest thing you have ever seen at a night market?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

China Foodie Post

We heard mixed reviews about the food in China before we arrived. We love Chinese food at home, but knew what we eat home was the Americanized version of the cuisine. So, just to be safe, we brought 2 boxes of protein bars with us on the trip. We did need them, but only a few times!

Let's quickly go over how to make a safer choices when looking to eat in a non westernized country:

1.  Look for some sort of refrigeration system at restaurants to prevent food from turning. This   may not always be obvious, so beware. But if the food is sitting out, it is really hot inside the restaurant, or you see multiple flies around the place, keep walking.

2. This isn't fool proof by any means, but if #1 above is met, look for a place that is crowded. An empty restaurant may mean low turn around of food, giving it time to rot. A busy restaurant may mean fresher ingredients.

3. Stay away from cold items that may have been washed in the unsafe water - think salads, fruits, vegetables, and any drinks with ice or smoothies. Some of the places we went with the guides were deemed safe and had water filtration systems so we ate the fruit without trouble. But as a general rule if your not sure, stay away.

4. Do not eat anything fried on the streets - e.g the night market items. The oil is used over and over again, and is not clean! We were warned by all guides that this will make us very very sick if we tried anything!

Back to what we did eat...

Fast Food

Sadly this was some of our only choices on 2 occasions, but at least we know what to expect from these places, right? Wrong!

McDonalds - The first night of our trip in Beijing we were jet lagged and looking to grab something quick, and McDonalds was right across the street. The place smelled pungent, like a sewer, and while the burger tasted mostly the same as home, the fries were undercooked, unsalted, and completely inedible. We popped some Tums that night just in case!

Chinese Mcdonalds
Looks the same, but looks are deceiving!
KFC -  At a day market in Shanghai, we were warned by our guide that KFC and McDonalds were the only safe choices in the area. I ordered the popcorn chicken while Brian ordered a chicken breast and we both had mashed potatoes. The popcorn chicken had some the the blackest meat I had ever seen, and I couldn’t eat it. The mash potatoes, however, were edible and were the only thing I ate that afternoon.

Tourist Restaurants

Many of the lunches we had, and a few dinners, were included as part of the tour package. It seems China has a good handle on the tourism industry, and the menus are created with Western taste buds in mind. We had things like sweet and sour chicken, sticky rice, spring rolls, etc. On a few occasions some unique things popped up, most notably the fish with the head still on it, which is how it is served in China as it means wealth and luck. All meals also included a free beer, which was always Tsing Tao, the main beer of China. The food is served family style and is on the middle of a round table on a lazy susan that you can spin around to taste the different dishes. Most of these restaurants are also attached to a factory or store of some sort, to entice tourist to make a few purchases after eating.

Chinese dining style - lazy susan
Chinese dining style - Lazy susan

chinese beer tsing tao
Tsing Tao - the official beer of China


In Beijing, we had limited dining choices due to the location of our hotel being out of the city center. We, along with another couple from the tour, found a restaurant full of locals and gave it a try. Even though the menu had pictures and was translated into English, we still had difficulty communicating our order to the waitress. We ordered pork, chicken wings, and sweet potatoes, but when the food arrived it was only 2 pieces each on skewers. Since this wasn’t enough food, we ordered some pork over white rice in a mushroom sauce to supplement.   It soon became clear the pork was actually pieces of fat, so we ate the rice and went to bed hungry that night!

So, up until now it seems like the food isn’t so good huh??? 

I saved the best food for last!

Famous Peking Duck Dinner

 Our tour guide recommended this restaurant 10 minutes from our hotel, and it was a fancy place. We went with 3 other couples and ordered 3 ducks plus an additional dinner and it was more than enough food. They bring out the entire duck, head included, and carve it right in front of you. It was delicious!

Peking duck menu
The Peking Duck menu

Peking duck beijing
They carved it right in front of us - notice the head in the back

 We also just happened to notice that scorpion was on the menu.... Hello Adventure eating! For only 7 Yuan each (a little over $1US), three of us were served these tiny scorpions on a sort of chip:

scorpion in Beijing
Yup... I actually ate one of these
Someone at the table told me the poison was still in them, making me extra squeamish at the thought of eating one... We decided to take them like a shot with a water chaser, and they surprisingly didn't taste bad. They were fried really well, so they were mostly crunchy and the flavor of the chip was stronger than the flavor of the scorpion, easing the blow. And, since I'm still alive over a week later writing this, I guess I didn't get poisoned!

scorpion beijing
I'm smiling here - but actually terrified!

Dumpling Banquet

As an optional part of our tour, we were taken to a restaurant in Xian known for their steamed dumplings. They are prepared two hours in advance, and have a variety of different meats inside as well as tofu, mushrooms, and an assortment of other tasty things. Other than the Peking Duck, this was one of the best meals we had on the trip.

dumpling banquet xian
Dumpling banquet display in Xian

Overall the food was interesting and I’m glad to have tried so many different types of authentic cuisine. Would you eat scorpion?