Monday, December 31, 2007

We're back!

It's been one heck of a three months! Moving, job hunting, school hunting, house hunting, etc. We haven't gone away, and we promise to get back online right away with more reports on places to go.

Friday, October 5, 2007

King of Fruits (PEN)

"To eat durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the east to experience", declared Victorian naturalist Alfred Wallace. I heartily agree.

Native to the southeast asian region, the durian is pretty much the only fruit to have rabid fans. Folks may like apples, or they may like grapes, some may like strawberries, and some may like oranges, but only the King of Fruits, the durian, can have throngs of fans who absolutely love it.


Nectar of the gods

The word durian, is derived from the malay word for thorn - duri. The durian is covered in a thorny husk, reminiscent of a medieval mace. Once opened, the edible custard-like flesh within emits its distinctively strong odor. This is the moment where true fans start to salivate, and the others evacuate.

Durians sold today are mainly cultivars (clones). These cultivars were usually grown from prized seeds but are now usually grafted onto rootstocks. Cultivars are also have names like ang heh, or the famous D24. D24 is usually the yardstick other cultivars are measured against.

Surviving only in climates that do not go below 22C, durian trees thrive on the island of Penang. It may sound like I'm being biased (and I'm not), the best durians in the world, are from Penang - Balik Pulau to be specific.


You can't have just one

During the durian season, the wonderful aroma blankets Balik Pulau like a diaphanous layer of silk, its allure too tempting to ignore. We once had the fortune of being invited to a tasting there - it was phenomenal. Durian after durian was opened and served. These were reserved durians, the creme de la creme, never to be sold on the open market, only kept for special events and the well connected. I had never eaten so many amazing durians in my life. There were reds, whites, orange, bitter, sweet, bitter & sweet, citrus-like - a pandora's box of flavors blowing open the range of your taste palette. At this tasting, the D24 cultivar was pushed to the side, imagine - the yardstick was playing second fiddle for the afternoon. If you're ever invited to a tasting in Balik Pulau, two words - show up.


Best tree to plant in your backyard

What's the best way to find a good durian? Forget rattling the durian, or inspecting the stem. The key to a good durian is to network. Call your folks, your friends, or friends of friends. They may know someone who owns a plantation, or have built up a trusting relationship with a seller. Just ask, it's worth it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Taste of Bethesda (DCA)

What's better than live music and good food? Having them both outdoors of course!



The 18th annual Taste of Bethesda is set for October 6, 2007. At least 50 different restaurants will be there cooking up a culinary storm. Four stages will also be set up to provide for live music entertainment.

The list of restaurants reads like a who's who of Bethesda cuisine. I have a feeling I'm going to be really full that day. I was going to type out a list of my favorites, but then I realized my keyboard is not drool-proof...

Traffic tends to be quite bad on 'taste' day. I suggest either riding the Metro (red line to Bethesda station), or avoiding the main routes in like Wisconsin Ave or Old Georgetown Rd.

As the Iron Chef host would say, Allez Cuisine!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries (DCA)

I'll be honest, I got hungry just thinking about this post.



Started in Arlington, Virginia, Five Guys is now a growing chain along the east coast of the United States. The beef patties are hand formed and cooked to order. Cheese and bacon are extra and you have a list of toppings to chose from. The fries that are cooked in peanut oil are incredibly good.


Menu from their website

I usually have my burger simply with cheese, lettuce, and fried onions. Your burger and fries will be served in a brown paper bag, which is usually stuffed full with fries. You might want to just go with the regular order of fries, unless you're really starved. I have not tried the kosher dogs but have been told they are just as good.

I would write some more but I gotta go get me a burger and some fries!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Germantown Hour (DCA)

Got a spare hour?


Germantown Station

Unlike Union Station in Washington, DC, small train stations are a great way to spend some time with your kids trainspotting.


Right on time!

If you time it right, a mere thirty minutes at the Germantown MARC train station offers the chance to feel a CSX rumble through, catch a glimpse of Amtrak's Capitol Limited flying by, and then experience the powerful presence of MARC's GP40s as they pull into the station to pick up or let off passengers.


WV bound

After that, it's time to head on over to Tony and Linda's Country Cone Cafe to enjoy some ice cream on their patio.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

National Capital Trolley Museum (DCA)

Like the little engine that could, the National Capital Trolley Museum is a survivor that you just want to root for. The NCTM has lost a number of its streetcars through fires and an accident. More recently, there were rumors that the controversial ICC would lead to the demise of the NCTM. Fortunately, with its future move to new facilities, the NCTM will not only survive but be better than even before.


National Capital Trolley Museum


I've spent many an afternoon with my kids here, enjoying the scale model, peeping into the maintenance barn, and of course enjoying the ride on the 1.5 mile track in one of their many streetcars. The NCTM usually has a different streetcar out depending on the day.


HTM 1329 from The Hague

Run entirely by volunteers, the NCTM is a true diamond in the rough and well worth the visit. Check out their website for more information.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sugarloaf Reservoir (MEL)

Bushwalking, trekking, hiking, whichever term you use, it is certainly a great way to see nature's beauty. Located in the Christmas Hills, Sugarloaf Reservoir Park offers great hiking terrain, great scenery, and abundant wildlife.


Sugarloaf Reservoir

The calming effect of water is very soothing, it is tempting to just sit there to contemplate and enjoy. However, you hear the beckon of the track and you march on.


We need more rain

Having spent a lot of time hiking through more densely forested areas (green tunnel effect), we look forward to hikes in open spaces. The 18km track around the reservoir offers both, lovely strolls through the woods, then popping out to wide open meadows.


Wide open meadows

The Sugarloaf Reservoir track is not that hilly, with only a few steep but short sections offering vistas that reward your efforts.


Great views


Almost there...

We spotted quite a number of eastern grey kangaroos, enjoying their lazy morning in the sun. We also came across this fella, couldn't quite make out what it was - till we were told it was an echidna. It was interesting to learn that echidnas are monotremes - mammals that lay eggs.


Echidna

According to their website, the park is open every day of the year. Access is possible from Simpson Road (Melway 273 A2).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Melbourne Museum

The biggest museum in the southern hemisphere, the Melbourne Museum is located in the Carlton Gardens. A lovely stroll through the gardens is a great way to start the morning.


Carlton Gardens



Melbourne Museum

The museum has a striking and contemporary look with lots of glass and steel. It certainly sets a different tone from the more formal look of its neighbor, the Royal Exhibition Hall.


Glass and Steel


Royal Exhibition hall

A favorite among our kids are displays of dinosaurs. The Melbourne Museum does not disappoint here.


Run away!


Can you pass the Grey Poupon?

We find the museum very kid friendly, and there are many interactive displays. There are also heaps of animal, insect, and other creepy crawly displays that will certainly keep their attention.


First time I've seen the queue to the men's loo this long


Mom, look out, it's a giant insect!

The redback spider packs a heck of a venom, and is often found in populated areas (immortalized by Slim Newton's Redback on the Toilet Seat). The female also tends to eat the male up after mating. Hmm...


I'm glad they're behind glass

Though born and bred in New Zealand, Phar Lap is Australia's most beloved race horse. Everyone walking pass the display did so in a reverent manner. A true chestnut lightning.


Ready for another win at the Melbourne Cup

The early trams moved by gripping a moving cable that was under the road. It took some skill for the drivers to grip and release the cable at the right spots using a clutch mechanism so that the tram would head down the correct set of tracks.


2-hour zone 1 please...

The Melbourne Museum has a lovely forest display that is just refreshing to walk through. The Lorax would be pleased.


Lovely and refreshing

Surrounding the museum are several quiet gardens, perfect for some quiet time reflecting, or just catching your breath.


Quiet gardens

For more information, check out their website. The museum also has an IMAX theater which has a variety of shows. Our kids say they can't wait for Transformers to start screening there.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Billy Goat Trail (DCA)

A trail description that promises “extremely difficult and dangerous terrain” is a clarion call that I cannot refuse. Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is located on Bear Island in Maryland’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.


Billy Goat Trail (source wikipedia)

Unlike most popular hiking trails, Billy Goat Trail Section A offers up lots of scrambles around or over boulders, plenty of rocky terrain, a short but steep scramble up a cliff face, and heaps of breathtaking views of the Potomac River. My favorite times of the year for hiking here are in the winter when the views are unparalleled, and in the fall when the colors are on full show.

billygoat1
Short Climb Up (source wikipedia)

A popular option is to hike the trail in one direction, and return via the towpath. You can link up with Sections B and C of the Billy Goat Trail for a longer hike. A good place to park is in the parking area opposite Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur Blvd. Show up early, as this parking area tends to fill up quickly. Download this map from the National Park Service for more information.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Day Out With Thomas

Have you ever seen a few hundred kids with eyes wide opened, jaws dropped, and speechless? Neither have we, till we brought our two sons to a event.

Thomas1.jpg
He's a really useful engine

When we arrived at the in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, we thought we were early. We were wrong. It looked like we had stumbled onto a minivan convention. A man flagged us to the back of the parking lot. They had to open a new lot! Andrew was so excited he could barely get a word out. Alex was barely 2 months old. As we ambled towards the station, I was stunned to see so many children at this gathering. We felt like Gulliver at Lilliput. Everyone was talking about Thomas and craning their necks to look at the tracks, hoping to catch a glimpse of Thomas. We were in the presence of a Thomas cult! As we walked further to the front of the station, lo and behold there was Thomas the Tank Engine with his coaches! Andrew’s eye lit up, just regular coaches, not Annie and Clarabel he corrected us. We hurried to the front where kids were having their pictures taken with Thomas. Of course, Andrew was thrilled to be this close to Thomas. When it was his turn to be with Thomas, Andrew couldn’t stop staring at him. Thomas stared back at him with his big eyes and his cheeky grin.

Thomas2.jpg
Thomas and his coaches

After picture taking, we got ready to purchase tickets to ride with Thomas. Andrew was disappointed that there was no Annie and Clarabel. That’s fine though, he will be sitting in coaches pulled by Thomas! Even we adults were excited to be in the coach. The ride took us from the Strasburg station to the next station (which was about 15 minutes ride one way) and back. During the ride, you get to glimpse the Amish countryside. Alex didn’t even utter a sound during the ride. His eyes were soaking up the many new things to see. Everyone was enjoying the ride.

Alas, many good things must come to an end. It was time to go home. Before heading home, we had to visit the Thomas souvenir shop. They had more Thomas stuff then you could shake your wallet at. Andrew got a couple of Thomas things. He was grinning from ear to ear. What a trip! “Thanks mom and dad, this was totally awesome!”

No89
Canadian National No89 at Strasburg

The is a tourist railroad that operates pretty much throughout the year. Across the street is the , which houses an impressive collection of locomotives and rail cars. Lancaster County is an easy day trip away from Washington DC. Throughout the year, Thomas shows up at many different spots around the country, you’re not limited to just Strasburg.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

DC Ducks

Guided tours are a great way to see a city and to learn about it. One of the most unusual ways to see a bit of DC is to take the DC Ducks tour. The DC Duck is an amphibious vehicle that tours some of the streets in DC, and then desends into the Potomac River for a different view of the city.

The Duck is an fully refurbished World War II personnel carrier known as the DUKW. The DUKW's can now be found in several cities and countries operating as tour vehicles. DC Ducks has several in their fleet, each with cute names like Sitting Duck, or Capitol Duck.

From Union Station, the Ducks head to the mall past famous monuments and several Smithsonian Museums. The Duck then heads for Gravelly Point where it heads onto the Potomac River. At this point, you are directly beneath the flight path of planes about to land at National Airport. It's a great view!

The witty captains entertain the guests with anecdotes, historical facts and corny but funny jokes! Ducks depart hourly from Union Station for their 90 minute tour.

Click on these pictures from the DC Ducks webpage to get you to their site. They don't take reservations, so either book online, or show up early at Union Station.





Monday, September 3, 2007

Upcoming Melbourne Events

Melbourne City Romp

This looks like fun for the entire family. You romp from checkpoint to checkpoint solving puzzles and challenges, and picking up fun goodies. There are 50 checkpoints in total, and you try to hit has many as possible within a 4 hour period. Lots of fun to be had, prizes to be won, and all proceeds go to the Burnet Institute. Romp for a good cause on 14 October, 2007.


Thomas and Friends Live

Your kids crazy about Thomas too? This might be the highlight of their year! This new musical will be playing at the Vodaphone Arena on 25-27 of September, 2007. For more info click here.

Penang Hill Railway

The journey is the destination, goes a famous saying. Penang Hill is a wonderful hill resort destination on the island of Penang. A number of actual peaks around 2500 feet in elevation make up the hill resort that provides for a refreshing change from the heat of the island. Although lovely in of itself, I enjoy the journey of getting up there. You can hike up one of the many trails, like the famous Moongate Trail. Or you could take the funicular railway up which our kids find terribly exciting.

passing
Passing a car

Opened in 1923, the Penang Hill Railway takes visitors to Penang Hill from Ayer Itam. The journey takes about 30 minutes, and railway has two sections. You take the car from the bottom station to the mid-point station (very visible from many parts of Penang), and then change cars to get to the top. Cars on both sections run on a single 1 meter gauge track, with passing loops in the middle. There are intermediate stations along the way, where passengers may get off or get on from.

As you head up the hill, you are treated to a first class view of the dense jungle. With the omnipresent ring of crickets, you try to spot various birds through the bamboo and ferns, and the odd monkey or two. As you get higher, it feels like someone has fortunately turned the a/c on, ahh, how refreshing.

passing again
You're going the wrong way!

Each section has two cars connected by a cable. The incline of the track in parts gets as steep as 51%. Each car has a luggage cart where you can dump anything big you happen to be toting. You can purchase round trip or one way tickets from the office at the bottom, or the top. Note that the cars tend to get very full (one size fits all!) especially during the weekends and school holidays. You can take the RapidPenang U204 bus to the bottom station.

viaduct
Penang Hill Railway (source wikipedia)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Firefly (PEN)

Psst! Work stressing you out? Need a short break? Hurry over to the Firefly airline webpage and book yourself a ticket out of Penang for a few days. Firefly is a new low cost airline (a full subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines) based out of Penang International Airport. It has six destinations (check out the route map from Firefly’s website below) and currently has a fleet size of two Fokker 50s (9M-MGI and 9M-MGK). Plans to expand the fleet have been set in motion with the order of ten ATR 72-500s.

route
Firefly route map

9M-MGI
Firefly 9M-MGI awaiting passengers

Flight fares are tantalizingly low. We flew to Langkawi recently for RM9.99 each way. After taxes, the tickets were a little less than RM50 each way. Check in is painless, due to the low number of passengers on a F50. Infants under two can fly with an adult for a fee. Strollers and car seats have to be stowed in the aircraft as lugguge.


Check In at PEN
Firefly counters at PEN

As with most LCCs, you have to pay for food and drinks onboard the flight. The cabin crew may or may not get a commission from their sales (like some other LCCs), but I’m not sure how much sales they drum up on the short flights. They could do with a better uniform though. There are talks about extending the sevice to KL, Johor Baru, and Kota Kinabalu (some Air Asia competition?). We enjoyed our flight and found the cabin and ground crew friendly and efficient and hope that Penang will remain the hub.

Interior
Interior shot

Engine
Pratt & Whitney PW125B

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Washington DC

If you are in Washington DC, you have to visit the Smithsonians. The wonderful thing about these museums is that they're free! What makes the area even more interesting is that the Capitol and Washington Monument flank the buildings on either end of the Mall. These are truly world famous structures, shown in movies and pictures everywhere.

The best time to make a visit to Washington DC is Springtime, around April when the Cherry Blossoms are blooming. What a sight to behold, especially around the Tidal Basin. Our favorite museums on the Mall (the long stretch of open space where the museums are situated) are the Air and Space Museum, the newly opened American Indian Museum, the Art Museums, Museum of Natural History, Museum of American History, and the Hirschhorn Garden. There are 19 museums altogether. For younger kids, I would recommend the Air and Space Museum and Museum of American History. You can always get more information from the Smithsonian Castle.

Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle

American Indian Museum
National Museum of the American Indian

Within walking distance of the Mall are the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Roosevelt Memorial (which I highly recommend), World War II Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and Jefferson Memorial. These memorials represent a lot of history and are highly worth the visit. A crowd favorite is the Albert Einstein statue outside the National Academy of Sciences building. Unlike virtually all other sculptures and statues, you are encouraged to climb onto Albert and spend some time with him. Take things easy, don't rush, after all time is relative...

Washington Monument
Washington Monument and Cherry Blossoms

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial

The most enjoyable tour we have taken around DC is with the "DC Ducks". DC Ducks uses amphibious vehicles that provides for a truly enjoyable jaunt around DC, on land, and in the water. They operate out of Union Station, tickets can be purchased at their desk there. We'll be writing about them soon.

Besides the museums and memorial, you can also make a stop at the Washington Zoo. Once again, it's free. The main attraction at the Zoo are the pandas. Currently there are three pandas, Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their cub, Tai Shan (well, he's no longer a cub, but a hefty 153 pounds).

Panda
Yummy breakfast!

If you stay in the suburbs of Washington DC, you can easily take the train "the Metro" into the city. The city itself is well serviced by the Metro. Additionally, when you are in DC, you can walk everywhere! That's how convenient and friendly the layout of all the attractions are. Of course once you are in the city, you have to try all the many different ethnic restaurants, from Mexican to Thai food. The variety and quality of food in DC is truly astounding.

This was a quick and short tour of DC, we will be writing many more in depth stories on things to do and places to eat in DC soon.

Useful links:
DC Ducks
National Zoo
Smithsonian
DC Metro
Places to eat in DC
-Mrs PEN.DCA.MEL