Mahabeleshwar

Alright – first things first – my driver (who will fully admit to this too), made a few boo-boos on this trip.  Firstly, he told us that it was only a 2-2.5hr drive, in actual fact, he should have added an hour to the total time.  It was a combination of his choice of road, coupled with the fact that the (extended) monsoon season here, has seemingly done real damage to the road surfaces – to the extent I was almost texting Col from the back seat and asking him to check the price of a flight to India for my lovely Chiro, Dr Jo.

Secondly, I’m not hugely thrilled at the fact that we ended up atop a mountain, surrounded by aggressive guys demanding money, on horses, so close to the car that their tails swept along the paint.  But anywhoo.  My friends driver tells us that this isn’t ‘normal’ practice at Table Land, maybe it was an ‘off moment’, but I know for sure, that I won’t be going back here.

Mahabeleshwar is a small town a couple hours from Houston, it’s pretty much famous for it’s strawberries, and, while it wasn’t strawberry season while I was in town – I was reliably informed it was only a matter of time before they’re flooding the shelves here in Pune.  They were right, strawberries have landed in Pune – and they’re tasty!  I’m excited, berries here are SO epically expensive, but, I digress.

Having done a little research before heading out the road, I had a short list of places that I wanted to visit.

First on my list? Was a boat trip around Venna Lake.  Venna Lake is one of the major tourist attractions of Mahabaleshwar, it is surrounded by trees on all sides and you can hop in a boat and take yourself on a tour.  There’s two options, you can either take yourself out on a paddle-boat tour, or you can have a guy come on the boat with you and row you around the lake.  You can take a full loop (30 minutes), or a half loop (15 minutes).   We took the 500r, dude doing the hard work, full loop around the lake (because I wanted to see the whole way around! LOL!) option.

Let’s just call a spade a spade, there’s very little by way of safety.  The boats are a little rickety, ours even had the occasional little leak and if you’re expecting life jackets – you’re in the wrong country – this is India, it’s all just a bit ‘thrown together’.  That said? I never once felt unsafe or like I was doomed!  The Boatman told us that the lake is 100 feet deep and this is the natural water that is supplied to Mahabalshwar as well as Panchgani and the lake was foggy and serene.

At the turning point, there’s a temple, you can’t disembark, or get out for a nosy, but you can get a decent enough picture as he’s rowing by.  You also pass-by a park up on the banks as you ‘sail by’, we didn’t pay it a visit, but it looked like a good park from the water.  Even Lewis enjoyed the trip around the lake, he was quiet, well behaved and our ‘guide’ even let him row the boat a little bit.  He was a happy boy. After we disembarked, we happened upon another item on my ‘to do’ list for Mahabeleshwar, strawberries and cream.  It’s a sickeningly sweet cup of syrupy strawberries, ice cream and a whipped, cool-whip-esque type whipped cream imposter – Lewis loved it.  From here, we went to Mapro garden – another jewel in Mahabeleshwar.  Where we took a beautiful walk around the gardens, snapping any number of photo ops as we went – Lewis and I both loved the various props and contraptions to climb in to for snaps. For lunch, we ate in the Mapro cafe, we ordered the (cheap) mocktails (they didn’t have diet coke) which were INCREDIBLY syrupy sweet, (but Lewis loved them, what kid wouldn’t? Basically we drove for hours and let our kid consume inordinate amounts of sugar) we ordered fries (which were delicious – though luke-warm at best), soup (none of us liked) and a pizza – which had way too much seasoning on it, but Col and I managed to eat it.  Reasonably priced, stupidly slow from some counters, and quick from others, it was a mix of hot and cold food by the time we all got to sit and eat.

After lunch, we took a walk through the Mapro shop – full of mapro products and goodies, from chocolate covered nuts, to syrups and gummy sweets – all at a 10% discount AND with taste testing to boot!  We picked up some delicious chocolate covered nuts, sweets for trick or treating, a jar of strawberry jam (couldn’t come and NOT get something strawberry-y) and a couple gifts for people for Christmas.

It was a lovely couple hours spent in a quiet, peaceful and beautiful place.  There was space for Lewis to run riot, you got to watch the farmers out back on the farm, tending to the premature strawberries, (and even the toilets were pretty clean!)  The views were incredible, the food was decent (and cheap) and the we absolutely lucked out on the weather, because it was cool, overcast and rained almost the entire way home.

We didn’t get everything that we wanted to do, done, in Mahabeleshwar and I could definitely see myself going back there in the (near) future (BRING ON THE STRAWBERRIES!) despite the intimidating beginning to the trip, and the drive alone was pretty to look at, if you’ve not yet gone for a visit, I think there’s enough to justify the trip – especially if you’re inclined towards horse riding.

Aga Khan Palace, Pune.

We drove past this place on our way to somewhere else, but you can’t see it from the road.  As we drove by, it was mentioned that Mahatma Ghandi was imprisoned here and it piqued my interest.

Aga Khan Palace, situated in the Yerwada area of Pune is one of the biggest landmarks of Indian history. Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III, had the palace constructed in the year 1892. The aim behind the construction of the Aga Khan Palace was an act of charity by the sultan, to provide employment to the people of the nearby areas, who were drastically hit by famine – this majestic building is considered to be one of the greatest marvels of India.

It took 5 years and 1000 workers to build it, at a cost of Rs 12,00,000.  The palace is spread across an estate of 19 acres with a built area of 7 acres.  The gardens are beautiful and well tended to, though the building itself is in a state of disrepair – I have since visited the national war memorial and museum and the contrast between the two tourist attractions, is stark.  As we walked around the grounds there were any number of people there for photo sessions – maternity, family, ‘seniors’, or even ‘just because’ pictures were happening all around – and with good cause too, the place was very pretty indeed.

   

Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his secretary Mahadev Desai were interned in the palace from 9 August 1942 to 6 May 1944, following the launch of Quit India Movement.  One of the major attractions of the Aga Khan Palace comprises of the samadhis (memorials) of Kasturba Gandhi (wife) and Mahadev Desai (long time aid).  Since both of them breathed their last breaths in here, Charles Correa got their samadhis built in the grounds of the palace itself.  Gandhi’s ashes are also interred at the Gandhi National Memorial of Pune.

The rooms that were used by the Gandhis, now serve as a museum to them. They are spartan and simple in taste. The museum inside the palace complex has a rich collection of pictures, depicting almost all the important incidents in the life of Mahatma Gandhi.  There are personal items of Gandhi’s on display like utensils, slippers, clothes, and letters as well as a number of statues – most notably one in the first, main room, of Gandhi and his wife, the palace also served as the venue for the famous movie ‘Gandhi’. Since 1980, the management of the museum, samadhis and campus of the Agakhan Palace is under the Gandhi Memorial Society.  Prince Karim El Husseni, Aga Khan IV, donated the palace to India in 1969, in the honor of Gandhi and his philosophy.

Opening hours of Aga Khan Palace:

Open all days 09:00 am to 05:30 pm

Entry fee for Visiting Aga Khan Palace:

The entry fees for Aga Khan Palace is mentioned below. We have listed the entry fees for Indians, the entry fees for foreigners, camera fees and other charges if applicable.

 Address: Pune Nagar Road, Kalyani Nagar, Pune, Maharashtra 411014
Telephone: 073857 46855
Approximate visit duration for : 1- 2 hours

On Saturdays, we sightsee!

So, Saturday’s have become our tourist days, we get up lazily, have breakfast, hop in the car – later than we tell the driver to expect us and off we go a-galavantin’.  Thus far, it’s been pretty local, but he’s encouraging us to go further afield over the coming weeks and months.

A couple weeks ago, we went to Pune Zoo – I had intended on doing a whole big post about the zoo itself.  A weekly ‘sight-seeing’ post of sorts.  However, this zoo wasn’t quite like every other zoo in the world I’ve been to, so I’m writing a half-assed, deflated, ‘meh’ post about it.  Partly to remind me of the ‘meh’ when people come to town and go ‘OMG HEY LETS GO TO THE ZOO’ and partly in case anyone new to Pune thinks it’s a Zoo, like we know Zoos to be.  It’s not terrible, it just wasn’t quite what we expected and left Lewis a little frustrated is all.

Alright – first things first, you want to go for a couple hour walk around a pretty, enclosed, mostly shaded area in Pune? Go here.  The paths are good for skate boards, scooters and bikes, it was largely cool enough for even us to go for a dander around, and it was a pretty enough walk.

HOWEVER.  If you’re expecting exotic zoo animals – you may want to re-think this place.  So.  They have elephants, but they were in a little tin hut down a hill that you can’t get to, when we visited.  I dunno if our visit was bad timing, or this is where they lived, but even with maximum zoom on my iPhone, it was too far and too dark to get a picture of them.

They have two tigers, and while it’s great for the tigers to have such a wide open enclosure to roam around in (bigger than any Western zoo we’ve been to) but it made it *incredibly* hard for us to see them – we heard one of them roar, but we didn’t get o see either of them much at all.

They have monkeys, but, again, the enclosure is huge (yay for the animals!) and they have little caves they can run around in – we got lucky and they wanted to come out and play, but, again, this doesn’t fall under the traditional ‘zoo’ definition, which is hard to explain to a three year old who wants to see elephants and tigers!

They have plenty of antelope, deer and buck to look at.  We liked looking at the crocs, the turtles and the snakes in the snake park section – there was definitely plenty around that section to look at and Lewis was fascinated.

I think my ‘meh’ came from the extra 30 minute walk around to get to the elephant enclosure with a tired kiddo desperate to see elephants and when we got there, they weren’t out to play and we had to walk back, I was peeved.  If they just continued the path a little bit beyond the elephants you wouldn’t need to turn back on yourself at all, so it was frustrating and resolved in Col carrying an exhausted Lewis back to the entrance.

I felt like the biggest attraction at the Pune Zoo? Was us white folk.  We were stopped every few feet and asked for pictures of Lewis.  People constantly wanting to touch him, and be in his space – this one is taking a lot of adjusting.  For the first few weeks we have asked him if he wanted his picture taken, but, I have gotten slowly more firm at just outright saying no thank you.

It’s different if people ask me for pictures – which they do, and I feel like a freakin’ celebrity.  I mostly say yes, but only if I get to take one too.  Lewis (as you can see from the photo above) gets stared at.  A LOT.  This class of little kids were just fascinated by us every time our paths crossed.  It was draining.  My friend said that I’m probably giving them the one white-person picture they’ll get in their lifetime, and it doesn’t really do any harm.  But Lewis just gets overwhelmed and hides when people try and insert themselves in to his space, so we are getting actively more non-compliant, and in some cases maybe even verging on rude when people ask for his picture.

The weekend after the zoo, we went to the Shaniwar Wada Fort.  Now.  If you look at Trip Advisor – the list of things to do in Pune, and, India, both typically revolve around temples, dams and forts.  Shaniwar Wada was our first fort to visit, it’s in the centre of Pune itself – this was my first trip in to the actual city of Pune, so it was novel.

Shaniwar Wada was built in 1732, it was the seat of the Peshwas of the Maratha Empire until 1818, when the Peshwas lost control to the British East India Company after the Third Anglo-Maratha War.  Following the rise of the Maratha Empire, the palace became the center of Indian politics in the 18th century.

For almost 70 years, this fort remained home to the ruling Peshwas until the Maratha Army was defeated by John Malcolm of the British East India Company. In June 1818, then king Bajirao II, abdicated his throne to John Malcolm and went into political exile at Bithoor, near Kanpur in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India. After the British took over the region, fort became of residence of British officers for a decade until 1828 when a major fire broke within the fort. What caused this fire is still unknown but the entire fort was destroyed in it. The fire burnt for seven long days and after it was extinguished, only the huge walls and gates remained, everything else was destroyed. The fort was abandoned after the fire and no one has lived here ever since.”

Shaniwar Wada translates to “Saturday Building” since it was founded on that day. Around 1,000 people once lived in the fortress (though our driver told us 15,000 – slight exaggeration!!) Today, the site hosts important public speeches and events.

I believe the most important thing for kings when they built their forts in ancient times was that the fort should remain standing for centuries, as a sign of their power and rule over the region. They designed the walls to withstand any attack and keep the royal family and people of the kingdom safe…  Now after all the kings and queens are long gone, what remains is pretty much these strong and silent walls of several forts all over our country. There is no kings rule left anymore but these forts still remind people of the king who built them.” 

As I mentioned above, the common theme among all of our sight-seeing adventures, thus far (and probably forevermore) has been the white-girl effect.  The people are curious, but friendly and respectful – for the most part.  I have found the occasional man snapping pics of Lewis and I without permission – which, I guess, is only to be expected as I drive around the streets taking pictures of the people and the locale here, it’s just a little more uncomfortable when they’re in our personal space doing it.

Typically, it’s parents throwing their kids at us for snaps that they really aren’t convinced they want in the first place – but there’s always the one smiley kid who takes to me and wants to come walking along with me! LOL!

We’re knocking tourist places off our list brave and quickly here in Pune, we’ve also added Aga Kahn palace and Mahabeleshwar to our ‘done’ list over the last couple weeknds, and I’m trying to decide where we’re going to go this weekend, maybe some caves, or another fort!

Viva Las Vegas!

“Can you back the hell up outta my space please?”

That.

That, right there?

Is my lasting impression of Sin City.

I think my personal experience was a little skewed.  Firstly, during the day, I was by myself, my travelling buddy was at the hackers’ conference and I was wandering the streets of sin all by myself.  I think that makes a big difference – people see single women wandering aimlessly around, and it’s like dangling a zebra to a freakin’ lion.  Complete with overwhelmed, ‘Holy crap am I really witnessing all of this?’ doe-eyes, my first day really was spent wandering aimlessly up and down (and back up, and back down) the strip.  I was taking everything in (mostly heat stroke and golf-ball sized blisters over both feet) and everyone took this as an open invitation to get up in my business – It wasn’t.

Secondly, I’ve obviously had my wicked-cool ninja training from Houston.  My ‘be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to everyone and everything’ training.  From the second I woke up and stepped out of the hotel on to the strip, I was mentally exhausted.  I felt uncomfortable, constantly on edge, needing to stay focused and keep my wits about me, I had one hand free at all times and my phone wasn’t ever tucked too far away in case I needed to call for help.  I get that this sounds an extreme over reaction or an exaggeration, but it really did put me on edge and get my back up.

Here’s the first of my travel tips for Vegas – hydration is key.  Especially in the height of summer.  People tell you this all the time and you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got it.  No biggie.’ But it IS a biggie – if you’re drinking enough water to sink the Titanic and you’re not peeing? Drink more.  Carry a water bottle with you at all times.  If you get one of those novelty margarita glasses and you empty it? Before you refill it, down a round of H2O.  I landed myself with some (albeit mild) sunstroke, and it knocked me for six.  I thought I was drinking enough water, I wasn’t drinking all that much alcohol, and I didn’t feel too badly in the moment until it caught up with me.  Then I felt rough as hell.

Sunscreen – use it.  In ABUNDANCE. Usually I’m that idiotic pasty white Irish girl who doesn’t apply enough sun cream and winds up with second degree sunburn – and everything that goes with it, the peeling, the itching, tea baths, old wives’ remedies, aloe up the wazoo, and any amount of whining and moaning about my negligent-inflicted wounds.  But this time? I was ON POINT.  The Nevada summer sun overhead is intense, probably the most intense sun I’ve ever felt – and I lived in Texas for seven years.  But Vegas is hotter than Satan’s front porch, and it’s a dry, overwhelming, OMG I CAN’T BREATHE, kinda heat.  I could almost feel my skin cooking when I wasn’t in the shade, so I was on top of my sunscreen applications, I was applying in the middle of the street every half hour to an hour while I was outside.  Don’t be caught on this one, it’s painful and it’s dangerous.  Especially if you’re drinking, dehydrated and your mind isn’t at 100% – set an alarm on your phone if you have to.  Remind yourself.  Protect yourself.

Now those important things are out of the way, let’s talk about the fun things.  What to do, where to go, what to see and what to eat.

I gave a friend of mine completely free-reign over which shows I should go see.  They were comp tickets, she knows me well enough to know what I’d like, what I wouldn’t like and if it was left up to me I’d never have been able to narrow the BAZILLIONS of shows down to just the three nights I was there.

X-Burlesque

I guess most girls tend towards getting tickets to the Thunder Down Under, or some testosterone-filled male strip show.  But, having a friend as a burlesque dancer, having seen her troupe a couple times I was excited by this one.  I love burlesque.  That said, I was somewhat disappointed by this one.  I felt like a sardine in a tin can, kinda smushed up in behind the line of tables in front – so much so that my friend was able to manage some master level photobombing of the girls in front of us.  The venue is small, sure, but there was no real need to feel like my knees were wrapped around my neck.  Secondly, it was cold, freezing cold.  I get that the girls are constantly moving and they are hot under the lights, but I shivered the entire time – maybe that’s why the feeling of sardines in a can, so you can huddle together for warmth? I’m not sure.

So, from my previous experiences, I’d have said that the art of burlesque is about the seduction, the tease, the big-reveal.  It’s not necessarily always slow, but its sensual, tells a story, makes you use your imagination for a lot of it…it’s not just getting your clothes off, or from zero to bare boobs in 0.01 seconds.  This was more a naked dance show, and some tracks were just a little on the side of weird and totes awkward moreso than anything.  I mean, it was entertaining, and of course the dudes like it, naked girls getting their kit off multiple times to different genres of music, but I can’t in good conscience dub it ‘pure burlesque’.  I think I preferred the entertainment of watching the reactions of the men in the crowd, to the display of the dancers on stage.

Burlesque University

My friend thought she’d push me out of my comfort zone and pick me up a ticket to a burlesque class.  I was equal parts terrified and intrigued.  I’d jumped out of my comfort zone when I stepped in to Krav, so thought ‘What the heck?’ and walked in to the Burlesque studio with an open mind and a thumping heart.

Let me first say, that the majority of my problems with this class, wasn’t at all to do with the organisers, other than the fact that they didn’t interject much, they were WAY too polite, the other participants of the class spoke up before the ‘teachers’ did.  We had a boy in our class, a straight, heterosexual boy, with a full beard, learning to apply make-up and to do burlesque dancing – which is fine, but go with it.  He spent over twenty minutes asking questions about the waiver, legal questions, please explain this, what does this mean, well I’m not signing this type deal.  At one point the dancer turned and said, ‘look, I’m just a burlesque dancer, not a lawyer, we can’t go ahead with this unless you sign it’, so he amended it and finally signed it.  Then the make-up portion of the class started and he kept asking questions, what is blush? What is lipstick? What does this do? Where are my cheek bones? (Not even kidding here) Seemingly all deadly serious too – DUDE.  Give it up and GO WITH IT.  By the time we got to the dancing part, there wasn’t much time left for the dancing – the dancer even told me that if I wasn’t leaving a couple days later, she’d give me free tickets for a show the following week, because this guy was such a colossal disruption to the class.

Dancing wise, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the content, but, again, we didn’t have enough time cause of Mr-Questions.  So I think I’d need to do a do-over before I could give a fair and balanced review of this class.  The choreographer and the dancer were both lovely though!

Cirque du Soliel

I admit, I was a disbeliever.

I didn’t buy in to the hype, I didn’t buy in to the cost, I didn’t buy in to the experience, I just didn’t buy it.  And then I got handed tickets to the LOVE, Cirque du Soleil – the BEATLES Cirque du Soleil.

For me, the Beatles are almost a religious experience.  On my first trip to the US in 1999 to visit my big brother in Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to a campfire version of ‘Let it Be’ – I was besotted.  I hadn’t heard the Beatles before, and, horrified, my brother bought me the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ album as a Christmas gift later that year.  I listened, I repeated, I obsessed, I loved.  I was officially a Beatles fan.  Over the years, I listened to more of their back catalogue and, had a random guy stood on stage with a plastic bucket and sang Beatles songs – I’d probably have given him a shot.

This? This was SO. MUCH. MORE. Than that.

I’m not going to ruin it for you, but it was interactive, it was 360, it was audio, it was visual and it was utterly incredible – I got choked up a time or two, and – despite her objections to the same, I’m sure I saw my girl Courtney get a lil choked up too.  If the Beatles aren’t your jam – find something that is, and go see it.  I do want to see the Mystere show now that I’ve popped my Cirque cherry.  Though, that would require a return trip to Vegas and I’m not sure it’s my kinda thang at all.

Tenors of Rock

Lastly, (but by no means leastly), I got tickets to see the Tenors of Rock – the ‘in house’ act at our hotel, Harrahs.  Being a choral singer, I was curious – just, how *does* one put on a Vegas level show, singing contemporary rock songs, with classical Tenor voices.

I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I got goosebumps, I cried, I sang, we danced – and Courtney, who didn’t have high expectations to begin with, admitted to being blown away too.  These guys were great!

Another up-side was that after the show, the guys came out for a meet and greet, picture and autograph session – being largely from England (and the lone Aussie) it was nice to have a quick chat and get a few snaps and signatures before we headed on our way.  Don’t dismiss the idea of going to the ‘lower’ level shows, I really did enjoy this one a lot, even though it’s not something I would have maybe chosen on paper.

Let me take a second here to mention the hotel.  It was a decent enough hotel and all – on the flight to Vegas, a lady was very snooty to me about the hotel I was staying in (Courtney’s work picked it) and I couldn’t figure out why.  It was perfectly nice – ok, it is one of the ‘older’ hotels on the strip and needs a bit of a facelift, and, if you compare it to the other, bigger, brighter hotels on the strip, you’ll be disappointed.  But it was nice.  Aside from restaurants on the ground floor, they had an in-house Starbucks and a little bar-type area, that had a GREAT in-house act.  Dave the Sax Man and his brother played there the few days that I was staying there – I loved them so much so that I set an alarm on my phone to call in for a drink and listen the next day too.   Gorgeous soul singers and great sax playing had strangers (including me) dancing together on the dancefloor.  It was a really nice way to pass a couple hours and take refuge from the blazing sun.

Between the pan-handlers, the pick-pockets, the people trying to get in your space about going to different clubs and venues in the evenings, those peddling wares from shirts and hats, to margaritas and henna tattoos (that they claim will last for a month, but DON’T!) and the dudes and dudettes dressed in character garb wanting a few bucks for selfies – the concept of personal space just DOESN’T exist in Vegas.  Everything is very much in your space.  If you want some ‘me time’, it’s probably not the right place to go – especially as most people are drinking, so there’s stumbling and bumping elbows, there’s also THRONGS of people – even in the skin-frying-height-of-summer.

That said? There were some pretty cool things we did, places we went and things we saw – things I enjoyed (other than the amazing shows of course!)

Food

First real night in town, we had dinner in a cute little Mexican called Canonita – deep in the belly of the Venetian hotel.  You should nab a reservation – especially if you want a river-side seat to watch the gondolas sail past you (we did!)  The food was delicious, we had some thick cheesy starter and I got some yummy fajitas, but it was more about the atmosphere and just watching the world sail by to be honest.  It was a lovely place to eat dinner, and I’d happily go back there again – even though it takes FOREVER to get to it from the street – plan an extra 20-minute walk or so in to your ‘walk to the restaurant’ journey – cause you don’t wanna end up arriving a big ole sweaty mess, to such a lovely place!

After picking up tickets to my Burlesque dance class, I went in to Gordon Ramsay’s Fish and Chips, which was RIGHT next door to the Flamingo.  I had high hopes.  I wanted British sausages, I wanted British chips – not American sausages and American ‘fries’.  Being disappointed on the sausage (not British sausages) and being told they were ‘fries’, I was disappointed.  But I loaded my fries with cheese and bacon and got the fish – aside from the fact that it was all swimming in grease, it was pretty darn good.  The fish, in particular was light and flaky and delish!

While waiting for our number to be called for the dinner buffet, Courtney and I went to the Payard Patisserie and Bistro in Caesars Palace.  I bagged a delicious hot chocolate and we split a lemon tart, it was really tasty – though a little on the expensive side, a tasty treat for sure.

Most people typically hit up the all you can eat buffets in Vegas – and we were no exception to that stereotype.  We tried three buffets while we were there, Cravings buffet (Mirage Hotel), Bacchanal Buffet (Caesars Palace hotel) and Flavors Buffet (Harrahs hotel) and of the three, Cravings was my favourite – the bottomless wine and beer helped for SURE, but I also preferred the food selections and quality in the Mirage.  I know, I know, Caesar’s Palace is THE BOMB of buffets – right? Hell, we had to wait over an hour for our number to be called.  And, sure enough, if I was in to seafood, I bet that this buffet would be my favourite, but I wasn’t impressed.  It was grossly overpriced compared to the other buffets, it didn’t include wine or beer, and while I loved the lamb and potatoes, I wasn’t thrilled at the stale bread and the clumps of fat posing as beef in the beef dishes.  Flavours rotisserie pork and rosemary potatoes were good, but the crème brulee was more like crime brulee, plus the service was grumpy and I didn’t like how sweet the pasta sauce was.  Cravings, on the other hand, I liked.  The staff were friendly and made solid recommendations of food, the wine was free – did I mention that the wine was free? And bottomless 😉 and we liked the chef station, Courtney asked the chef to throw together a pasta dish (his choice across the board) and it was delicious! Worth it.

I didn’t drink much alcohol while I was there, but the margarita I got from La Salsa (on the strip close to M&M world) was delicious!

To do

So.  The M&M store may be one of, if not my *favourite* store in ALL THE WORLD.  There’s, like, FOUR FLOORS of M&M stuff.  From a WALL of M&M’s – in a variety of flavours and colours, to everything from t-shirts and pjs, to cups, glasses and aprons.

Of COURSE there’s a mark-up on, well, EVERYTHING.  I’ve NEVER spent so much money on a single bag of candy in my entire life, but you get totally caught up in the moment, and in the desire to test the fact that M&M’s are resistant to the Vegas heat (the crunchy shell prevents them from getting all melty and smushed – it’s pure genius.)  That said? My pj bottoms got a hole in them, before they even hit the wash for the first time – can you believe that? The most expensive pair of pjs I own and they got a hole.  UGH.  I spent a lot of time in here, I explored each floor, looked at ALL THE THINGS and came away with a bit of a haul of goodies.  It’s a great place to stop in and have a poke-around.  Plus? Who doesn’t want to get their picture taken with a giant M&M?

The Coke store didn’t really impress me much at all, but it may be worth poking your head in for a bit of a look-see.  They had a couple of cool things to see – plus, y’know, aircon.

The day we left, I had a late flight – Courtney wanted to head to the airport and hang out, however, upon arrival to the airport, we discovered we were in different terminals and we went our separate ways.  Being WAY too early for even bag-drop, I decided to pay an EXTORTIONATE amount of money for a taxi from the airport to Fremont Street (and back).  It was a quick trip, cause of traffic and the time of day and it was one of my fave parts of the trip.

This is what’s known as ‘old Vegas’, it used to be the old strip – and I felt MUCH more comfy and at home here, than on the current strip.  It was, I dunno, something.  More relaxed? A little more at home.  If you need souvenirs – go here.  Much better selection, and certainly a better price than on the strip.  I got a glimpse of somewhere I’d have LOVED to visit while I was there, the Mob museum, totally my cup of tea and very accessible from Fremont street.  If I ever go back to Vegas, I’d go to the museum, and probably spend my time in town, on Fremont street for sure.

I didn’t gamble a single penny while I was there, I wasn’t even tempted, I think if I hadn’t gotten sunstroke and busted up my foot (I truly thought for a moment it was broken) I may have been a little more inclined, but I think I was quickly over the ‘scene’, the cat calling and whistling, the propositioning and the indignation at being turned down.  It was off-putting.

I dunno, I guess I was over Vegas, before I was under it.  I didn’t have the same experiences that a lot of other people have in Vegas, I wasn’t blinded by the seafood or the gambling or the glitz and glam.  I enjoyed it, but different aspects to those that typically love it.

Would I go back? Maybe.  To see and do specific places and things, with specific people.  But.  And this is a BIG but.  It wasn’t, anywhere near close to my fave city in the US and I feel like for the same money you’d spend there, there’s any number of *better* places you could go – so, I’d rather go to those places instead.

‘Dipping my toe’ as a tourist in Pune!

While my first week here was largely defined by drowning in Amazon boxes, my second week? Well, there were yet more boxes.  What can I say?  I find it much easier to just Prime some chocolate chips, sprinkles and food colour to the door, from the comfort of my bed when I’m sick, than have to get up, face the world and have to go hunting.  Ok, so someone has to stay home to receive it, and, ok, their delivery dates haven’t yet been right a single time out of the 3498752304985723094785230 packages I’ve ordered – however, most of them come early and they are delivered *right here*, so I’ll cling to my Amazon obsession until I can cling no more.

Alright, that’s not *completely* accurate, Lewis is in school from 8.45am-11.15am, by the time I get back to the house it’s after 9am, shops don’t open til 10am and the types of shops I need to go to for international stuff, meats, baking supplies etc are a little further out, traffic here is simultaneously unpredictable, but terrible, I need to wait til Col’s home, or figure a longer time for Lewis to be in school before I can do much venturing out for a good hoke.

The power has just gone out – not the first time, not the last time.  It never lasts very long at all, but there’s no warning, it stays out for a few seconds, or minutes, and then it reboots and comes back up.  During those moments, I find myself, of course, scratching my head and wondering why my internet connection isn’t working.

Last Saturday, we had to wait in for deliveries (and to sort out the hire car).  Just like the US, they don’t group together all of your Amazon deliveries, so they turn up in dribs and drabs, multiple deliveries.  Sometimes they deliver one box, sometimes they deliver ten.  The days they tell you they’re delivering, aren’t always the days they deliver.  The tracking on your order says it’ll be here Saturday, and while nine times out of ten it comes early – which should be great, right?  It’s hard to plan your life when you don’t know whether your packages are coming today, tomorrow, or the day that it’s due to be delivered per the order info.

Anyways, we were waiting in, for packages, and for the car hire people to come by and pick up the car – our new car is officially legal – yay!  But once all the grown-up, boring admin was done, I got in to the car and asked Harish to show us something in the city.  He took us to Shinde Chhatri, the little fell asleep en route, so Col and I got to check it out by ourselves – just as well, cause he’d have run rings around that place.  There was a small fee to enter, and a slightly larger fee for foreigners, the sign made me giggle – not quite something you’d see in the very PC US of A.

Shinde Chhatri is a memorial dedicated to the 18th century military leader Mahadji Shinde who served as the commander-in-chief of the Maratha army under the Peshwas from 1760 – 1780.  It is one of the most significant landmarks in the city and is reminiscent of the Maratha rule. It is a hall that marks the spot of Mahadji Shinde’s cremation on 12 February 1794.

The major attraction of the Shinde Chhatri of Pune is its exquisite architecture, reflecting the style used in Rajasthan, India. The Anglo-Rajasthani style of construction exhibits a fine blending of two different cultures. The architectural grandeur of the building is appreciable with beautiful carvings and the building is the lively specimen of a structure constructed following the Vaastu Hara rules.  The memorial retains its architectural design and beauty till date.

The fine carvings and idols of saints on the steeple of the Shiva temple are made of yellow stone and the base and the sanctum sanctorum are constructed in black stone. The Chhatri (hall) not only has carvings and painting, but also houses a gallery in it. Coloured window-panes used for the windows are of English style.  The hall is beautifully adorned with paintings and photographs of members of Shinde family.

Chhatri means umbrella in Marathi. As a sign of respect to the great warrior, visitors are required to close their umbrellas inside the premises, even if it is raining.

This place was tranquil and serene.  It was calming and peaceful – and on the grounds we happened upon a Crossfit gym, complete with battle ropes out front.

It was a nice way to dip our toes in to the ‘Temple scene’ here in Pune.  If you go on the Trip Advisor website and look up ‘Things to do’, here in the city – you’ll find a long list of various temples, I’ve made a short list to get started on over the coming weeks and months.

Sunday was our first driver-free day since we got here, Harish very kindly worked the first Sunday we were in town so we could get our feet under us a little more quickly.  So we did some home-y things, hung pictures and sorted out some things around the apartment.  Monday was another big day, we went to the Police Commissioner’s office to sort out or foreigners registration – which took over three times as long as it did the first time Col did it (he had to do it again with an updated address).  Once the sweaty, waiting round with an impatient and crabby three-year-old in a crowded building was done, I hopped in to a car with a lovely lady called Ayesha, who works for the relocation company, Lexagent and off we went on a shopping spree – I mean, tour of the city.

Local bakery I need to try!

As we drove around, Ayesha pointed out places of interest, things I need to try, places to find everything from baked goods to jewellery and fabric.  We stopped off at a couple places and I came home with a trunk full of shopping.  Everything from the tall-sized squeegee and brush that I needed to find for Rani but I’ve been coming up empty on, to a kilo of cookies (in four different flavours) that we got at a stand in the biggest mall in town, Phoenix Mall.  I went to both Natures Basket and a three storey Dorabjees – two internationally inclined grocery stores (I’ve been to a smaller Dorabjees, but didn’t know this one existed!)

I had fun, I thought it would be like a red-bus-tour, when it actual fact, it was like a spin around the city with a BFF (though we didn’t selfie together – you can tell I’m off my game!)  Ayesha was fun, but also knowledgeable – she answered all my questions, she knew where to find what and even recommended a spa for me to try (I’d picked a couple out, but she said this one is better) and I definitely feel like I have a better feel for the city now that I’ve driven around it.

Thursday night I went to my first Schlumberger Spouses Association (SSA) event, here in Pune.  The group is in its infancy for sure, as it’s only recently that there has been a large influx of SLB transfers to the city, but the chapter has totally hit the ground running.  I also finally got together with the lovely Sylviane, my successor at the helm of SSA Houston when I stepped down as coordinator.

We went to a local restaurant called ‘Farzi’, which describes itself as an Indian Bistro – when we got there the maitre D informed us that they specialise in molecular gastronomy, well, my interest was piqued.

I’ve never been to a place like that before, somewhere that takes traditional dishes (for example, a Caesar salad) and adds a twist to it (butter chicken, instead of chicken).  Nor have I ever been somewhere were the tempura shrimp comes out with ‘bubble bath’ on top of it (foamed egg white), or where my cocktail requires pouring one liquid in to another to create a reaction.

It wasn’t just fun and quirky food – it was absolutely delicious.

Shina (the chapter coordinator) ordered an umber of small plates for us to share and try, I’m glad we put our trust in her, because they were all delicious (and mercifully not too spicy!)  Maryam ordered some lamb shanks to try too – holy crap, they were delicious! Served with garlic naan and in a tasty curry gravy-sauce, it was exceptional.

For dessert, I’d read a review that said I needed to try the Baileys lollipops (and, to be honest once I’d tried them I was unhappy that I hadn’t gotten a couple orders of them and hidden in the corner to eat them all by myself).  We also got a ‘chocolate dirt pile’ which was deliciously rich and luxuriously elegant at the same time.

From the staff, to the menu, from the food to the atmosphere – not to mention the company of twenty-odd SLB wives, this was a great first night out for me in Pune.

Friday after Lewis came home from school, we decided to check out the local indoor play area – coincidentally named the same as the place round the corner from us in Larne, ‘Funky Monkeys’ at a local mall called Nitesh Hub.

I think this is the biggest (ok, not true, Glasgow was the biggest), cleanest and absolutely the best indoor play area that we’ve ever taken Lewis to.  He and Col stayed there for just over an hour (when I got back Lewis was drenched in sweat) while I went out and around the rest of the mall for a look-see.  It’s an older mall, largely filled with Indian shops, not much for the Westerners, but I still managed to pick Lewis up a couple outfits for his upcoming Indian Nights night at school and whatever other ‘local dress’ days come up along the rest of the calendar year.  I did try on a couple things for myself, however, the Indian lines seemed to be more tailored towards those a little more flat chested than myself, so I’m gonna need a tailor!

Our second week was much busier than our first, we did a little more of the touristy check-some-local-things-out stuff.  Tried to find a little ‘normal’.  We seem to at least have our weekend routine down.  Saturday seems to be our big ‘tourist’ day, we get in the car and Harish takes us somewhere to visit (he’s already picked out this Saturday’s location, and the Saturday after that, too!) and Sunday is Harish’s day off, so it is our day at home.  We Skype family and friends, Lewis does creative play with things like his new easel or building vehicles with his magna tiles, there’s outdoor football with daddy and often a movie of some kind.

I’ve registered Lewis for Lego Club in the apartment building across the street, I have the name of a swim instructor for him in a local hotel, I’ve found a choir for me to try and a sports shop to go grab a punch bag from – I just need to call and arrange lessons and get my butt out the door and do things…but, I’m the queen of delay and procrastination right now – and I’m ok with that, I’ll shake it eventually, maybe staring at all the pink things on my calendar for a while will make me more inclined to actually go out and do it all!

Turoe Pet Farm

Right, so, I’m in Clifden, Co. Galway for my Uncle Robbie’s wake and funeral not too long ago, and I’m sat in the hotel foyer, waiting for my parents to get changed out of the funeral garb and come down for dinner.  Lewis is with me, doing his usual ‘running round like a hurricane’ kinda thing.  To be fair, he’d been pretty great for the travel, wake and funeral and was just crying out to burn off some energy – so where better place to do it than the hotel lobby?!

All of a sudden, he appears next to me, with a flyer from the stand of tourist leaflets sat in the lobby.  ‘Mama, this looks fun’, he says to me sincerely.  Taking the leaflet from him, I expected some fuddy duddy tourist place, or a local beach or what not.  In actual fact? He’d picked a leaflet for Turoe Pet Farm – which had a ginormous bouncy castle on the front of it – and, true as his word? It looked like a lot of fun.

“Can we go mama?” He asked eagerly.

“Let mama check that it’s open first and that it’s on our way home,” I replied.

As it turns out, from November to April they only open on weekends, from May to November they’re open all week – AND they were only a few short Kms out of our way on our journey back up North.  The weather was due to suck, so our original Lettergesh beach plan had been shelved, and I decided that since Lewis had been AMAZING on the six hour car ride, and at both the wake and the funeral that we’d take him and give him some time to blow off a little steam.

It was very easy to find off the motorway (ok, so my GPS found it, but we didn’t get lost), two adults and two kids cost around thirty Euro – and, considering that granted you access to all areas in the place, bags of animal feed, and you could stay til closing? That was excellent value for money.

The place starts with a little ice cream shop, right next to a wee park, with a rather large sand box – it was pretty tough to convince Lewis that there was anything better to go play with, or see, than the sand box – the kid LOVES sand.

This leads you to a one-mile loop that you can walk around and feed the animals.  From cows and calves, to goats and donkeys – they’re all hungry and incredibly friendly when they see those white bags of feed.

At the end of the loop, there’s another park – a little bigger, and more modern.  We had a quick swing, before we headed over to check out the indoor side of things. The jungle gym section was totally packed, so Lewis didn’t go off exploring.  We ordered food at the restaurant/café – and, in spite of there being, like, ten kids parties there at that moment, the food was quick, hot and delicious – it, again, cost us maybe thirty Euro to feed the four of us including drinks and it was tasty.

Lewis’ favourite part of the whole day, was the indoor bouncy city.  He LOVED it.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice – it was ginormous! After his first trip down the sheer-drop slide, he didn’t want to come out.  He just kept going up those steps and sliding down the slide.

When it was time to go home, I had to go ask one of the women working there to go nab him for me.  The facility was excellent.  Spacious, plenty to do, reasonably priced, plenty of toilets and fascilities, on site restaurant with lots of seating and a total of three hours from us here in Larne (and two hours from my parents in Newry) – and it was worth the trip, for sure!

If you’re looking for something to do this summer – that covers both Summer and potential downpour, Baltic, winter weather? Half-term getaway?

Check this place out!

It says ‘Galway’, but it’s the nearside, about 110 miles from Newry for those of you in the hometown!

To the lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour…

Dear stranger-lady on the Boston Harbour boat tour, 

My son was an out and out horror today. 

He was so epically, UNBELIEVABLY, naughty, that after our brief encounter on the tour boat, we made our way back to our hotel – where, I admit, the day momentarily picked up with games of hide and seek, milkshake (cause no where delivers margaritas to my hotel room) and a dance party to Fat Man Scoop, but, when bed time rolled around, he was just as bad as ever.

I don’t know what his deal is, or where I’ve gone wrong…he was such a good two year old, but three? Three is…well, it’s…it’s…something.  Someone told me a couple weeks ago that I was essentially a bad mother to my son, those words have rung in my ears every day since they were written to me, and make me question myself constantly.  

Especially today.

At some point, I sat with my son in my lap, carefully pinning his arms to his legs to avoid him hurting himself, or, from being on the receiving end of one more punch, kick, or elbow from this tiny ninja and waiting out the storm.  I had, against all odds, kept my cool and was trying to reason with him, shush him, calm him – I think I even offered him cookies at one point, bribery? Whatever it took.  Trying to explain my desire to keep him safe, trying to encourage some deep breathing, and assuring him that once he exorcised the shrieking, thrashing demon from inside of him and listened, with his listening ears, that I’d let him sit, nicely, on his bottom (not standing jumping on a chair next to an open window) and leave him be.

You see, the three year old demon, clearly did not want to obey regular human being rules today, the rules that strongly suggest that when you’re on a moving boat you don’t run like Ussain freaking Bolt, in circles, up and down flights of stairs and generally put yourself in dangerous situations, or, essentially run any which place your parents are not – thinking this careless and reckless behaviour is funny, it is not.  

Prior to the boat tour he had also not taken heed of those other tricky little regular human rules, y’know, like, 

• Thou shalt not run on the train platform.  Never.  NEVER run on the effing train platform.

• Thou shalt not drop hands and bolt from your parents in a busy tourist area for any insane person to kidnap, or car to smash in to – or, for that matter, in any public place.

• Thou also shalt not clobber thy parents with moves that have clearly come directly from Conor McGregors back pocket.

And here’s where the double standard lies for parents. Let your kid run away from you on the train platform and get smushed by a train? Or jump out the window of a moving boat? Terrible parent.  Neglectful.  Absent minded.  Tut tut.  Head shake.  Clearly an utter hot mess who deserves to be burned alive at the stake.

Shout (or use that STOP FUCKING RUNNING YOU’RE IN IMMINENT DANGER” yell that parents have), put your kid in time out, or make any threats about tech-time, toys, candy or grounding them til they’re 35? and you’re too heavy handed, too strict, that poor child.  Terrible parent. 

Anywhoo, I digress.  After enduring more punches than I have in the ring, I tagged daddy-C in to the fight and sat longingly gazing in to Boston harbour wishing the waves could open and swallow me up and praying his, inexplicable and monumental meltdown would pass quickly, then you appeared.  

“Mama, I’ve been there,” you said to me quietly over my shoulder as I bit my lip and fought back my second wave of tears of the day, “could I maybe try to help?” you asked.  “Perhaps I could play a game with him and distract him somehow?” You suggested, your voice filled with empathy and understanding.

“Sure” I said, defeated, go for it” 

“Hey buddy,” she said confidently, “would you like to play a game with me to distract you?” She asked him.  

He instantly stopped melting down, looked at her curiously, and nodded.  His wet-with-sweat hair was matted to his forehead and his crocodile-tear stained cheeks were hotter than the Red Sox logo.  But he was listening.

“Let’s distract you,” she continued, “because I’m not mama or daddy and you may even listen to me.  Can you play patty cake?” She enquired,

He nodded to the affirmative (even though he cannot) and she requested he put his hands up.  He stared at her as she demonstrated her expectations.  “I’ll just leave my hands here until you’re ready to do it too”, she said to him calmly.  

He pauses for a second, glances at me, glances back to the lady, and double hi-fives the stranger.
She began singing and clapping with him, explaining the process as she went along – and for maybe 30 whole seconds he was my happy little boy again, before he plopped off the chair he was calmly sitting on and made a bee-line for the stairs to the upper levels on the boat.
I wanted to cry.  I wanted to curl up in a ball, admit defeat and have my parenting pass withdrawn.  I wanted to offer my small child up to this, clearly superior-to-me parent, and say ‘Hey, go for it’.  He’s yours to fuck up now.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong”, my voice quivered at her.
“You’re going to be fine”, she replied, “you’re doing great, mama.”
“It doesn’t feel like it” I sighed.
“You gotta love an independent, strong-willed child.  It will serve him well when he’s older, but it’s so hard to endure right now.  Stick with it” she encouraged.
Turns out, she has two girls herself, 6 and 8 year olds and was one of the most genuine, least “other mother”-y type parents I’ve ever met.  She’s been there, done that, and enjoying a little nice-time before gearing up for puberty and the bitchy-ville wars that she’s soon to be staring down.
Ok, the rest of our day was blown to shit, our hundred dollar day passes to the kids museum, swan paddle boats and trolley tour, among other things were completely wasted.
Ok, I had to physically hold him in his bed to stop him climbing, jumping, running and causing mayhem and throwing things at bed time.
Ok so I wanted the ground to swallow me up from embarrassment, anger, frustration, resignation…but for an instant, this absolute stranger, sat in my space, reached out a little branch of calm and made me feel even just a teeny tiny little bit better about myself in that awful moment.
So, thank you, lady on the Bostonian boat tour, in the chaos I didn’t even catch your name, for agreeing with me that 3 years old, is a whole nother level of hell, than 2 was.  For taking a moment out of your sight-seeing trip, in blissful solitude all by yourself, away from your own children, to try and help better my day, even just for an instant and to give me some relief from the hellish demon that has seemingly all but replaced my loving and kind little boy.  For making me feel better about my defeated-feeling self, when all I really wanted to do was drink, eat chocolate, cry and disappear.
As I stepped off the boat behind Col, who was getting his glasses smacked off his face for the 38559295th time, I received a text from a friend, “I get that he’s an asshole kid right now.  But you fought hard to have that little asshole and you’ll fight hard to figure out what his damn problem is and set him straight.  Even if it’s emotionally exhausting and there are days that you just want to quit.”
Today? Today I want to quit.
And so, I’m going to bed, teary and deflated, I don’t want today to last even another second.  And considering Col and I both all but passed out on the bed the second we got back in to the hotel room, I don’t think a good sleep in the bank is a terribly bad plan.  Hopefully tomorrow is a better day, because I can’t take another one like today so soon on its heels, especially since tomorrow? We fly again. Lawwwwd in heaven, help me.
Today was a bad, bad day.  I’m praying that tomorrow is better.
He wasn’t all bad – see? This cute, adorable, sweaty-faced, sun-kissed smile? Yeah.  He was grinning because he went running around the sidewalk next to a busy bus pick-up/drop-off area at the airport like the Tasmanian devil.  Causing high blood pressure, severe heart palpitations and shrieking.  All the while yelling ‘Ha Ha! You can’t get meeeeee!’ at Colin and I – and he’s right, we typically *can’t* get him, unless we cut him off from different sides and swoop him up when he can’t see us coming.  He’s a slippy one.
Why do kids gotta be such little a-holes sometimes?  All we have tried to do on this trip is bring him fun places and do fun things.  Screw it, our next vacation will be spent at Presidential libraries, WWII ships and state capitols and he can just live with it.
Ugh! He’s lucky he’s cute.

Things to do in Texas: Texas State Railroad (Fall Foliage Brunch Train)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, we went home to the UK for a few weeks, I’ve been under the weather (before and since), and Lewis is keeping me on my toes.  But, we recently embarked on a fun activity here in Texas, that I wanted to share with y’all, in case you are interested in doing the Polar Express train before Christmas.

Col and I have been married for five years as of October, the traditional gift is wood, and, after having bought him his record player (affectionately named ‘Maggie’), I wanted to find something for us to do together, to mark the occasion.  As many of you know, we love our little getaways, a weekend here, an overnight there, we love exploring Texas and think, as a state, it has so much to offer.  To get to the train ride took exactly three hours from Houston (though, on our way TO the train, it took five hours, an hour in traffic, an hour stopped for lunch, plus the three hour journey – yawn!)

We went up the day before, spent the afternoon in the hotel pool (the Hampton inn and suites, if you’re interested, was excellent, and we’d go back without question and, while I’m at it, grab a delicious pizza in a restaurant called ‘Switch’).

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For those of you who say that Texas doesn’t have a ‘fall’ season, you’re wrong.  I just saw it, out the window of a hundred year old steam train as we traveled across East Texas ‘Pineywoods’ forest country.  You pay $55 per person, you board the train at one of two Victorian-style train depots at either Palestine (where we boarded), or Rusk.

They ask you to be there almost an hour early, to pick up your tickets from the ticket desk – don’t groan – that gives you plenty of time to watch the steam engine come out of her little shed, down the track and connect to the carriages, and to take pictures of the train, the depot and the surroundings, it’s very picturesque.

Once on board, we found the table with our family name place card, took a seat, and enjoyed a delicious platter of fresh fruit, fruit dip, orange juice, apple juice, water and coffee, as we waited for the train to disembark the station.

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The journey through the trees was glorious, the sun shone, the trees were a multitude of colours, and the atmosphere onboard, was excited anticipation.  The family carriage, was filled with both adults and kids alike, I was amazed to find linen table cloths, real glasses and cutlery on the tables and fully uniformed staff ready to wait on us hand and foot.  It was a real experience, we even traveled through a rainbow – which was pretty darn cool!

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As we approached our one and only stop at Rusk, Texas, they brought us slices of quiche (bacon or veggie), with a side salad and some dressing (in hindsight I should have ordered a third portion because Lewis decided he loved it and ate a chunk of mine and Col’s!)

We disembarked for our forty-five minute pit-stop, watched the engine disconnect, and pass the carriages to reconnect.  In Rusk there are bathrooms (though the lines were seriously long, I’d say just go on board the train whilst no one is on board!), the men’s bathroom had a koala care station – which is definitely worth noting for those with little ones, as many restaurants, even ‘big name’ restaurants don’t have facilities in even the Women’s toilets, let alone the men’s.

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There is a gift shop for you to peruse and some nice grounds if you’d like a wander around.  When we got back on the train, there was a platter of crackers, cheese and tomato/cucumber waiting for us and about half-way back to the Palestine depot, they brought out a selection of muffins and cinnamon rolls.  Informing us that we could ‘pick two’ (and then offered us a cinnamon roll separate), Col had the blueberry muffin and the mini lemon and poppy seed muffin, I chose the banana nut muffin and a mini lemon and poppy seed and we picked up a cinnamon roll to share.  What we actually ate, on the other hand, was half the cinnamon roll, Lewis and I shared the mini muffin and Col had his mini muffin – so much food! (We bagged the two larger muffins to take home with us on our journey home).

The thing that surprised me on this journey, other than the food being really tasty (for some reason I always expect those type of things to be quite Ming), was the service, the servers on the train were exceptional – better than many of the restaurants I’ve been in lately.  They were friendly and warm, interested (mostly in Lewis, obviously!) but not imposing, efficient and generous (one lady even gave me some diet coke and offered more if/when I fancied it).  They definitely added to the whole experience and were full of smiles the whole time.

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We both loved this experience, it was romantic, fun, different and we got to see a part of Texas that, previously, had been uncharted for us, and the train was pretty damn cool – I won some serious wifey points to boot.

Their 2015 calendar includes a romantic Valentine’s night dinner and an Easter train ride – both of which sound fun.  If Lewis was a little older, we’d take him on the Polar Express Christmas train ride for sure!

Y’all should check this train out, really – it’s worth it!!

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A pleasantly surprising discovery – Beaumont, Texas.

When hubby announced to me last Wednesday that we were going away for the weekend for my birthday celebration, I was *almost* disappointed.  We can’t fly, can’t sail and can’t endure long car rides (especially since my chest pains arrived a couple weeks ago), so that leaves short-car trips.  One would assume San Antonio or Austin.

While I do enjoy both of these cities, (scrambling to sound less of an ungrateful mare) we favour trying somewhere new when we travel.  I should have had more faith in my wonderfully curious, explorer-husband, because he did in fact stick to our preference of trying out somewhere new, and his description of our weekend was, and I quote, ‘a gamble’.

Hmmm.  He told me the night before we left, where we were going, Beaumont, Texas – a city around an hour and forty minutes from us in Missouri City, so closer still than San Antonio or Austin (bonus points for a shorter-than-expected car journey!) and that we were going to take in a show, the Blue Man Group.  I can’t/won’t tell you too much about the show, mostly because I’m not sure that it’s something words do justice to, so, instead, I’ll tell you it’s musical, it’s visually stimulating, it’s hilarious and to go and see it, if you have the opportunity – you won’t regret it.  My mind was BLOWN.

Why bother with Beaumont?

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Beaumont to be honest, I’d only ever considered it as a venue for concerts by people who didn’t make it to Houston – but had never considered it as being in our ‘somewhere to go’ catalogue.

Beaumont is probably most famous as being an old oil ‘boomtown’, in 1900, the Lucas gusher blew, putting Beaumont on the map for being the home of the greatest oil well in history.  It’s success lasted around a decade, at the end of which, the oil well was drained dry, Gladys city was a ghost town of wooden shacks and all that was left, was the memory of the Lucas gusher.

First things first, this IS a manageable day-trip from the greater Houston area, that said, Beaumont, in whatever wacky wisdom they believe to work for their city, close a lot of the tourist attractions on the weekend – two days of the when, in my opinion, would be the most beneficial time to keep the places open for tourists.  That, or they open at odd hours, or request you book appointments in advance.  But, what do I know? I’m just a tourist, right?

What did we do?

We arrived on Friday afternoon, had lunch, did a spot of shopping (just in Target) and hit up the Blue Man Group in the Julie Rogers Theatre – a beautiful theatre, if you have a chance to see something here, do it.  Parking was free at the back of the theatre, it’s a great size, not too big, not too small, acoustics are good and the décor is absolutely beautiful!

Fire Museum of Texas

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Saturday morning we hit up the Fire Museum of Texas – and quickly discovered, that it was closed (BOOO!) But, thankfully, the worlds largest functioning fire hydrant wasn’t inside, so we had a walk around the grounds and took some fun pictures of the HUGE hydrant painted like a cow.

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Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum.

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Once we were done taking pictures in the sunshine, we headed out to the   A reconstruction of the old Gladys City from back in the days of the Lucas Gusher.  It was a very interesting museum, you move from building to building around the town, learning what life was like back in 1900, when the gusher blew and tens of thousands of oil-folk flocked to the city.

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Also you have model Spindle Tops, a gift shop, and, if you are so inclined, a function room that can hold up to 75 people – we spent just over an hour here at this museum and there was a lot of open space for kid-lets to run around and wear themselves out!

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This museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admission at 4:20 p.m.) Sunday, 1-5 p.m. (last admission at 4:20 p.m.) Closed most Mondays, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter and Memorial Day. Information: 409-880-1750 or gladyscityinfo@gmail.com and parking is free.
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Being married to a guy who works in the oil and gas industry, a visit to the Texas Energy Museum was pretty much, unavoidable.  Full of interactive, educational exhibits on how oil is drilled for, processed and what it is used for, this place was quite fun.  That said, it wasn’t as extensive as I expected, and we probably were in and out in about an hour to an hour and a half.
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It still focuses a lot on the Lucas Gusher and the boom in Beaumont, but I feel they could have done a lot more to encompass the actual oil process.  It was definitely worth the entry fee and I think it would be particularly interesting for kids of people in the oil services industry, to learn what mum or dad’s company does.  Plus they’ll all enjoy pushing the buttons – right?! 🙂

Free parking adjacent to the Museum (always a bonus) and open Tuesday through Saturday 9am to 5pm and Sunday 1pm to 5pm.  Adults pay $5, children over 5yrs old and seniors pay $3.

Notable mention: Raos Bakery

We went here, under the false pretenses of lunch.  Trip advisor and Yelp said they did sandwiches, paninis and soup – as it turned out, they were all pre-packaged and didn’t look overly appetizing at all.

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That said, this place is a bakery, so the sweet counter got our attention in an instant.  As it was valentines weekend, they had a lot of both Valentine’s themed goodies, as well as some King’s Cakes on hand for the upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations.  We opted for the last Napoleon that was on the shelf.  Mostly because it looked like this:

IMG_8245Sweet Lord above we died and went to heaven.  Puff pastry, sweet cream and strawberries – simple, but so totally delicious (and very unladylike to eat!!) – and their chocolate dipped strawberries were fantastic too.

If you fancy a coffee and a treat, go here.  You won’t be disappointed!

Where did we stay?

Probably the newest (at the time I’m writing this, Feb 2014) hotel in the Beaumont area and one of the nicest ‘budget’ hotels I’ve been to in a loooooong time.  The Holiday Inn Express.  It came very highly rated on Yelp and Trip Advisor and hubby got a good deal on a room (around $85 a night).  For that, you get free internet (which worked pretty well for hotel internet), free breakfast (again, surprisingly good considering most hotel breakfasts – my favorite was the industrial pancake making machine and I left wanting Col to buy me one for Christmas!) free parking, close access to all of the attractions in Beaumont.

The room also had a fridge (which worked better than our own at home), a microwave (which was ace since hubby brought along some popcorn to pop – just in case!) and a decent sized bathroom.  The pool was an outside pool, which, normally wouldn’t bother us in February in Texas, but after our freakishly cold winter this year, the pool was left empty for the weekend, which was a shame.

I can’t recommend this hotel enough, we got great sleep (with a hot water bottle for a husband, a good AC unit is of paramount importance), it was quiet, we were able to watch the Winter Olympics on the flat screen and the staff were lovely and friendly.

What else can you do in Beaumont?

Here is a couple of places we couldn’t make work, due to timing, but would have interested us, had they been open over the weekend.

Places like the Beaumont Police Department Museum is free to visit, but is only open on weekdays and viewable by appointment only (call 409-880-3825).

The Fire Museum of Texas, was somewhere we were DYING to go see (we love going to see local fire museums), but, again, it’s not open on weekends (unless by special appointment).  Another free institution to go and visit (Beaumont is a really GREAT city for free museums!!) this museum is open Monday to Friday 8am to 4.30pm and ranks as the #1 attraction to visit in Beaumont.  We are sad to have missed out!

Thomas Edison plaza museum, is another free-to-visit place to drop in on your day/short trip visit to Beaumont, and, as of June 2013, they are open Tuesday through Friday 9am-2pm and Saturdays 10am-2pm and reviewers say to allow yourself an hour to an hour and a half to enjoy this small museum.

Clifton Steamboat museum, this museum (and accompanying tug-boat) doesn’t even appear on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in the city of Beaumont – so I didn’t know about it’s existence until I got home – a little too late, right?  It is open by appointment only, costs $5 per adult, $4 per child and is free for children under 5 years old.

Road Trip! Springfield, Illinois

Did you know that Chicago is NOT actually the State Capitol of Illinois? Well, as it turned out, our brief trip through Springfield, Illinois, was the most surprising and, in many ways, most enjoyable.  Being poly-sci geeks it wasn’t too difficult, this place is coming down with politics and history and is well worth the visit, even just for a day trip!

What to do in Springfield?

Well, it’s mostly a city paying homage to this dude…

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…honest Abe.  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.  And very worthy homage it is, he was a great man – a very interesting man – and this city, by extension, is a very interesting city.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

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Website: http://www.illinois.gov/alplm/Pages/default.aspx

Cost: $12

Hours: 9 AM – 5 PM DAILY

This is not my first presidential library, but by George, it was my favourite! It was moving, inspiring, educational and fun.  There wasn’t too much going on, it wasn’t heavy and boring and I feel like I got a real insight into this legendary president.

The exhibitions are thought provoking and much of what you see/read is still largely applicable to today.  There are 4 main exhibition ‘halls’ and they are all separate, yet intertwined at the same time.

Lincoln tomb and war memorial

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Website: www.lincolntomb.org/

Cost: Free

Hours: www.lincolntomb.org/tomb_directions.php

When my friend said ‘visit the tomb’, I thought she meant go to the grounds and have a walk around.  I had no idea that you could go inside, walk around, see sculptures, read about the legend, take pictures, see his actual tomb – it’s amazing, it’s awe-inspiring, it gave me goosebumps.

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It’s free, so that’s good, though there should be big collection boxes everywhere cause it’s awesome in the true sense of the word.  I told my hubby I wanted a tomb just like that when I die, he just laughed at me.  I’m serious, it’s epic.  GO!

Illinios State Capitol Building

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Website: http://www.ilstatehouse.com/

Cost: Free

I LOVED the IL state capitol, it was definitely one of my favourites!  There’s lots to look at, both inside and outside the building, lots of interesting statues, exhibitions, information – we spent a while here and took tonnes of pictures.  They have a cool map that lists all of the points of interest, inside the building and on the surrounding grounds –

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 Would you go back to Springfield, Illinois?

Had we more time, there was a never-ending list of places we’d have gone to visit, Lincoln’s home (national historic site), Old State Capitol building, Illinois State Museum, Illinois State Military museum, Camp Butler national cemetery, Shea’s Gas station museum and the Grand Army of the republic Memorial museum – were all on our ‘short list’ of places to try and squeeze in during our time there.

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Aside from politics, our short trip to Springfield included a quick blurt down a section of Route 66 (which neither of us expected and we both thought was pretty cool), but Springfield also has a lot to offer for those non-politics people out there.  From shopping and art galleries, to tours and outdoor fun, I’m confident that should you find yourself, for whatever reason, in Springfield Illinois, you’ll find something fun to keep you occupied!