Hello from Nashville!

We’re on Spring Break this week, so we took the opportunity to hop over to Music City for a few days.

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When we got here the weather was significantly colder than back home in Colorado. That northern wind caught us a bit off guard, but luckily it’s died down over the last few days and we’ve enjoyed some good mild days in the 60’s. The most surprising thing to us was the layout of the city, with everything being so spread out.  It’s similar to Denver, where you really can’t get around unless you have a car. Luckily with our rental, we’ve been able to hop back and forth between downtown and over by the Opry (close to where we’re staying).  Driving by the Grand Ole Opry, it’s funny how the exterior resembles a civic center theater, parked between a mall and the Opryland hotel.  We spent most of Monday over in this area, on the backstage tour of the Opry.  The tour was definitely worth the $20, being able to see the Artists entrance and their dressing rooms, rounding off with the chance to walk out on stage.

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We also ventured over to the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center.  We were originally expecting Bellagio-style gardens to view, but were taken aback with a tropical landscape under this big glass dome. The immense size of the hotel and convention center is hard to explain. The pictures I took from my phone don’t do it justice.  In terms of size, the hotel would trump virtually any hotel in Vegas. I kept looking for the casino.

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The rest of our time has been spent down-town, checking out the Honky-tonks on Broadway – at least as much as having a two year old would let you.  Luckily there is live music going on all day long, featured in really small bars with most of the stages backing up to the front window.  Clara can’t get enough of the live music, and in the few places we’ve been in, she’s been out there tearing up the dance floor. Out little groupie even ended up with one of the drummer’s Vic Firth’s, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that she already has 20 more at home.

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With Clara traveling with us, we’ve had to limit ourselves to the daytime and early evening hours, so I’m not sure how much dancing occurs in these places during the evening. I’m also not quite sure if there’s a lot of original music as well, most of the day-time tourist attractions have been a lot of cover bands.  As much fun as it’s been to be traveling with Clara and watching her take all this in, I think that if we visited this place five years ago we would have had a fuller experience, shutting down a few bars.  Don’t get me wrong –this trip has still been a lot of fun.

On Tuesday we’re planning on making the trek to Lynchburg to see the Jack Daniels Distillery, then rounding out our trip with seeing Vince Gil at the Ryman, which is one of the best places on the planet to view live music. The outside resembles a giant church, and I’m told the inside is similar, complete with wooden pews.

Stay tuned, more from Nashville coming…

Travel Tech Hacks Mt. Rushmore

Hello from Austin! It’s been a while since I’ve needed to travel for work, I’ve actually hadn’t needed to since Baby Girl was born. After traveling with an infant, my “packing light” skills were a little rusty, but I didn’t want to take a big suitcase out for a four day trip. As I was packing, I thought about my “Mt. Rushmore of Travel Toys” – a few utilities that pack a big bang for their small size and help me get the most out of my travel.

Portable WiFi Router

My newest item I added to my Mount is my portable travel router. Ten years ago I used to travel with my old D-Link Router that was the size of a small book. I guess I was ahead of my time because now we have these portable routers that smaller than a pack of gum. When I bought this last week, I was skeptical of the low price, but this thing really delivered. I was able to plug in the network cable right into it and give WiFi to all four of my devices with only having to pay for fast internet once.  The one I ended up with is the HooToo TripMate Nano Wireless N Pocket Router.

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Quick Sidebar: Homewood Suites did offer free internet, but the speed test reported less than 100kbps down, so I paid the little extra to give me 4.5Mbps. It’s funny how many hotels claim they give away “free” internet, but just heavily throttle it.

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When I would go on long trips (or trips where’d I’d have a good amount of downtime) I would drag my Xbox along with me, packed in a laptop case. I’d have to bring it out to airport security, all in hopes that the hotel TV would at least have an RCA jack so that I could stream video. Currently 80% of my Xbox usage is video consumption, so with that in mind I was gifted with a Roku 3 for my birthday. This has turned out to be one of the best entertainment investments I’ve made. The Roku is the size of a hockey puck and is really easy to pack. I also travel with a 10-foot HDMI cable, and at this point it seems like most hotels have TV’s with available ports. If they don’t: no worries, as no big sacrifice was made. The reason I recommend the Roku 3 over the stick (or ChromeCast) is that you can load videos onto a USB stick and plug it into the Roku – no need to be online for that. However if you do have decent bandwidth, Plex makes my movie collection available wherever I need it. One lesson I’ve learned about traveling with the Roku: make sure you take a battery out of the remote before you put it in your bag. The buttons are a little too easy to push, and can easily drain mashed up in your bag.

Targus Laptop Podium Cooling Pad

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There have been fancy USB-powered laptop cooling pads for a while now, and they do work great. However my non-battery-powered podium pad has been a great trade off for comfort and functionality for these long meetings. The podium elevates the back of your laptop to give a little extra space for circulation for your fan (and is obviously silent as well). My favorite part is that it makes it also makes it a little more ergonomic to use your laptop all day (both at work and home, I’m lucky enough to dock my laptop and have a full keyboard and monitor experience). The cooling pad is really easy on the luggage as well – the legs are removable and the biggest piece is a flat pad, smaller than your laptop.

Update: This product actually doesn’t look like it’s being made anymore!  The closet thing I’ve found is this Cooler Master NotePal.  If that’s the case and there’s not a product out there like this – that’s really too bad.

Portable Speaker

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This has taken many iterations over the years, but my current version is my water-proof shower speaker. As a podcast addict, I’m willing to give up the sound quality for the ability to listen in the shower and steamy bathroom – and with it being Bluetooth I don’t have to expose it to the elements. Although I watch a decent amount of TV, I always find that in the hotel rooms I just have the TV on for the sake of background noise. Bringing the speaker enables me to have something that I at least would like to listen to.

There are a few honorable mentions, one of which I don’t own yet.

  • USB-based power strip/charger. Given that most things are micro-USB-based, I’d like to just have this in my bag with a couple of extra cables and quell my constant fear of leaving my phone or tablet charger behind. Right now I’m researching the one that offers the best value, but will definitely have it on my next trip.
  • Bluetooth Mouse. No one wants to be stuck with their sub-par track pad all week.
  • Bluetooth Headphones. In absence of the Bluetooth Speaker, the headphones make it easy to get around the airport or the hotel gym without dealing with the pesky wires.
  • A suction-cup hook. This is a must-have if you use a loofa and are traveling with others. There’s only so many places in the shower to hang yours, and this little piece of plastic ensures yours isn’t touching anyone else’s.

So there’s my Mt. Rushmore. What kind of things (tech or otherwise) that you can’t do without (and let’s leave out the obvious things like your laptop, tablet or phone)?

Why I haven’t written: Part One–Summer of Balderramas

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As a justification to you (but mainly to myself) as to why I haven’t posted all summer, I wanted to share of some of the cool stuff that kept me away from blogging.  Up first is our SOB trip – Summer of Balderramas.

Our family is trying to get on the pattern of setting up a reunion vacation every 3-4 years.  We did the first one in Breckenridge, CO back in 2011.  This year we put one together in Daytona Florida for a week in June.  We had a bit of a smaller turnout compared to the last one, but we actually had different family members come out to this trip and had an awesome time.  At one point, there were 18 of us all together.  As with all vacations as of late, we once again booked a VRBO house that sat right on the beach.  The shot below was taken from our back yard on a wooden walkway.  This house was amongst of group of five others that were right on the beach.  Neighboring them were groups of hi-rise buildings with condos, hotels, restaurants and shops.  It was really neat to think that we were occupying the same footprint as a hi-rise with hundreds of people.  During the day folks would drive their cars onto the beach, which then became pretty funny when they got stuck in the sand – similar to folks getting stuck in the slush out here.  For the most part though we had the area right in front of the house to ourselves.  Every day I had Zac Brown Band’s “Toes” playing in my head.

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We couldn’t fathom going to Florida and not going to Disney World, so we had that in our agenda.  Given that we were traveling children that were 1 and 2, we didn’t think the lines and 48”+ height requirements of Magic Kingdom would have been best for two little ones that were likely going to skip naps, so we opted for Epcot.  There was plenty for them to see and interact with, as well as letting the grown ups do the “Beers Around the World” crawl by drinking in each country of the lagoon.  The girls spent the morning doing a breakfast with the Disney Princesses, and Clara got lipstick on her cheek with a kiss from Snow White.  We did a couple of low-key rides which were on par with “It’s A Small World”.  Clara also loved seeing all of the musical features as well, as the Taiko Drumming.

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Epcot definitely wore her out though.  She took a mini-nap in the USA part of the lagoon, but she stayed up through the fireworks show, easily making this her longest day ever.

Later in the week we drove across the state to visit Clara’s Great Grandparents, enjoying a great lunch with them. Clara loved exploring all of the cool things they had.

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The rest of our trip was spent hanging out at the beach house, drinking a lot of beer, eating raw oysters and clams, playing games and staying low key.  Clara was a champ during her first plane ride, staying sane through most of the 4 hour flights.  The trip home turned out to be pretty rough, as weather shut down DIA and forced us to stop in Amarillo for a refuel, making our trip home interesting. All-in-all: this was a fantastic vacation.

Alaska Adventures: Ketchikan and Whale Watching

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After a 1 & 1/2 days at sea, we arrived at our first stop: Ketchikan. Ketchikan calls itself “Alaska’s First City” – not because it’s the first city established in Alaska, but because it’s the first stop for many cruise ships along the Inside Passage.  This is a quant town with a population of 14,000, so on a day like ours where there are three ships in port, the population can double.  We were greeted with weather that was overcast, but nice and cool with no rain.  For the two of us who have experienced a hot summer in Colorado, this was a welcome change.  This was the view that greeted us from Jim & Pam’s balcony window:

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Like many of these port cities, a significant part of Ketchikan’s history includes their Red Light District.  In this case, it was Creek Street, a boardwalk passage by the river that contained many brothels.  What is surprising is that the district wasn’t shut down until 1954, and according to the signs along the street, many of the Madame’s lived in those houses until the 90’s.  Many of those houses are now shops and museums.

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Further up the boardwalk was the Salmon Ladder.  As the “Welcome” sign reads, Ketchikan is considered the Salmon capital of the world.  One of the coolest attractions is this ladder, which the salmon swim upward to lay their eggs before they die.  It was incredible watching these salmon fight their way up these rapids.  We staked out on the observation deck, with my finger on the camera, trying to capture the moment when the salmon would jump in the air.  Giving up, I decided to take a video to show off the rapids the salmon were trying to climb, when I was rewarded – keep you eyes peeled the last few seconds of this video.

Further up from this rapid, we saw the calmer waters where the salmon were either resting, spawning or dying. The cluster of dark in this photo before was a large group of salmon.

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At the top of the hill was the Totem Heritage Center, which houses various totem poles from the 19th century, retrieved from Indian villages.  As you may know, Totem Poles were used to convey stories or share family history. We were awe-struck with the level of craftsmanship used to carve these poles.

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They also had other artifacts from the Tsmishians as well, including these intricate masks.  We found the one with hair to be a little scary.

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Also as we were walking around town, we found supposedly the best pizza in town… at a Mexican restaurant??  We didn’t stop for lunch, but instead headed back to the ship.

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We departed Ketchikan in the mid-afternoon and made our way up to Juneau.  We had an early dinner that night so that we could get on the observation deck to go through Snow Pass, an area known to have waters favorable for whale-watching.  We were in luck and did encounter a few whale sightings, but only was able to catch quick glimpses of their fins while they came up for air.  The reason we didn’t see tail sightings is because the whales are essentially walking to their next destination, so they only have a need to briefly come up for air.  Those big tail sightings occur when they need to come up for a large breath, usually when they are going to feed or rushing to get something.  I’m still glad we got to see what we saw.

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The scenery was still breathtaking. In the second picture below you can see just how calm the water was by these islands.

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We spent the rest of the evening down in the Wheelhouse bar, a lounge with live music, taking in the breathtaking scenery from the warmth of indoors.

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Next Up: Glacier-watching and Juneau!

Sleeping In Seattle: To Market We Go

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Our last two days spent in Seattle gave us the opportunity to explore Pike Place Market.  For my birthday, Bethany’s mom gave me a card with a list of their favorite activities in Seattle and some money for each, so we used that as our guide to explore the market.  Our trip started off at the very first Starbucks, which opened in 1971.  Given the explosion in popularity, this location is basically a tourist trap and pilgrimage destination for serious coffee drinkers.  There’s a line that leads down the street, and once you get in you can pick our some merchandise or order a cup of coffee.  I decided to simply do the latter.  It’s definitely worth the experience of going, especially if you put a Starbucks barista through college.

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After getting caffeinated up we headed down a block to Beechers, which boasts the best Mac & Cheese in the world.  After eating the bowl that Bethany and I split, I would have to agree that it’s definitely up there.  I’m not sure what criteria you use to judge Mac & Cheese: whether you prefer the soft and cheesy Mac, or if you’d prefer the cheese to be baked on and crisp at the top.  I’m more of a “crisp at the top” kind of guy, but either way – if you’re a Mac & Cheese fan, this is worth a stop as well.

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When you walk down the Market, you’re treated to various samples: smoke salmon, jams and fruits.  One of the items we got money for was for peaches, and we samples some ones that were incredibly juicy.  They made for an awesome breakfast the next day.

The next day when Bethany’s family game in, we scratched another item off the list: Clam at Pike Place Chowder. Seattle has no shortage of the stuff, but in terms of richness and flavor, we definitely got our money’s worth.  They actually had a sampler platter, which I used to try four different types.  Their New England style clam is excellent, but my favorite one is the bisque.

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Rewind back to Friday night: We decided to split from the craziness that was downtown and headed north west to a recommended restaurant called Ray’s Café.  There are actually three locations in Ray’s: a fancy restaurant, a boathouse event center (which was actually hosting a wedding at the time), and an upstairs café with an awesome patio.  All of them had an awesome view of the shore. We spent the rest of the evening ordering seafood appetizers and soups while taking in the spectacular view.

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One of the final sights we took in before leaving Seattle was a wall along the ally behind the Pike Place Market known as the “gum wall”, where you guessed it – people stuck their chewed gum to decorate everything.  You might not want to stand too close to this attraction.

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Next up: Alaska!