the dogs

Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:00 pm
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We of course ate out throughout our stay in Edinburgh, mostly at local restaurants in the residential part of town. (Part of the motivation for spending several days up there was visiting Kate's cousins.) Those were generally solidly good but unremarkable -- a good Indian restaurant for an adults-night-out dinner, a Scanadavian cafe for lunch with the kids (three small children will constrain the choices a bit), and so on.

The one really *interesting* meal was our last evening in town. We were on our own, so could experiment a bit, and were disinclined to wander back to the Royal Mile. (The area near Edinburgh Castle - scenic, but touristy, expensive, and a hard walk uphill.) So after poking around online for a while, we decided to try "the dogs". (Lowercase intentional -- yes, it's a bit artsy-fartsy.) The restaurant is on the Princes Street side of town, a few blocks away from Princes Street itself and around half a mile down from the train station.

The atmosphere is nothing too impressive -- it's a second-floor space, with old and worn tables, and tattoo'ed waitstaff in t-shirt. The decor is, as you'd guess, mostly paintings and photos of dogs. Basically, it comes across as a particularly bohemian cafe. But the food stood out as a notch above.

Everything was distinctively local tastes, with an experimental edge. We started with a salad of greens, green apple and a shallot vinaigrette, topped with whiting -- little roasted fish about the size of sardines. It sounds weird, but the flavors blended excellently, the savory fish balancing the sweet-tart of the apples, and the warm fish against the cool dressing.

Kate went for comfort food: macaroni and cauliflower with cheese. Simple, but perfectly prepared, with a luscious cheese (rich, but not the sort of chokingly thick bechamel that annoys me), cooked to a perfectly yummy brown on top. Far as we could guess, the cauliflower was lightly roasted before going in, so it didn't make the cheese watery (a common flaw in cauliflower and cheese); I'll have to remember that trick.

I decided to try the pork, which was the really weird win of the meal: a pork belly steak, topped with brown sauce, and a pear-cleriac mash on the side. On its own, the mash was weirdly sweet and a bit off-putting, but again the melding of the flavors was surprising and perfect. The sweetness of the pear balanced the salt of the brown sauce, and the lower-fat mash balanced the pork belly (which, as always, was pretty fatty). It was the mark of a really well-thought-out dish that it worked best if you always had a bit of each element in each forkfull.

To make it all the more satisfying, the price was quite good: we paid 47 pounds for dinner for two, including two drinks for each of us and coffee. That's probably $20-25 less than I'd expect to pay for a comparable meal at home.

So overall, a solid win. Recommended if you happen to find yourself in Edinburgh...
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[And now for the promised assorted notes from me]

Our hotel in Edinburgh was something I haven't encountered in the US: inexpensive without feeling cheap.

Motel 1 is apparently a German chain that is spreading around Europe, and has a very distinctive style. The best word I can come up with for our room is "spare".

It eschewed all the usual superfluities -- no pad of paper, pens, guidebooks and the like -- but went much further than that. There was no telephone, presumably on the theory that everyone travels with a cell these days. Nor was there a clock -- if you needed an alarm, you could set the TV to wake you up. (As we discovered the hard way our first morning there, when we were awakened at 8:30 AM by a children's show babbling in German with brightly-colored and rather abstract animation. As groggy as I was, the effect was rather trippy.)

It was very distinctly a bedroom, with none of the living-room trappings you usually see. Instead of a desk with a faux Aeron chair, there was a small table, with a stool underneath it if you needed. There was essentially a one-seater sofa. If you wanted more comfort, the hotel's lounge and bar is spacious, comfortable and open 24 hours.

(The only thing that felt slightly optional was the electric tea-kettle. But this *was* Britain, and one has to accomodate local tastes. And Kate quite appreciated it. OTOH, she was rather put out by the complete lack of any shelves on her side of the bed, which did seem like an error to me.)

All that said, what *was* there was very well-executed. The bed was solid, and more comfortable than average, not the saggy horror of a typical cheap hotel. The furnishings, especially in the bathroom, were fairly fancy Danish-modern in style -- probably not Kohler per se, but that sort of thing -- which suited the slightly Spartan approach.

And in return, the price was excellent -- 60-something pounds for a hotel room smack in the city center, across the street from the train station. (And the vastly more expensive Balmoral.)

All in all, I'd say the chain is a win, and a surprising one for me. I have an aversion to "economy" hotels in the US, precisely because I do find them "cheap" in the pejorative sense. Yes, I know my privilege shows here, but staying in a Quality Inn last month drove home why I don't do that: everything about it felt *chintzy* -- poorly-executed, old and decaying. (My go-to chain is usually the mid-range Hilton Garden Inn, which is the least expensive I've found that is reliably decent.) This was quite different: like I said, spare and inexpensive (for downtown), but nonetheless consistently high-quality.

Good stuff, and I hope the chain makes its way to the US.
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Kate and I spent the beginning of the month in the UK, visiting first her northern relatives and then our friends pir and Miko. Here are Kate's relatively complete notes; I'll follow up with a couple of my usual impressionistic posts about parts that caught my attention. My kibitzes below are in italics.
I didn't start this until day 3 so I may have lost some details on the early part of the trip.

Day 0: did a busy day at work which got busier towards the end, but made my escape around 5:30 and walked to south station to catch the silver line. Finally got to the airport, later than I had told J, but we still had plenty of time until our flight. I changed out of workwear and then we checked our luggage and headed through the secret security line (the old southwest terminals are now international and do connect to the main international terminal) and headed to get some dinner. We'd hoped that terminal E would have gotten a face lift like terminal A, but no such luck. So a terminal with 80% of outbound flights between 6 and 10pm has relatively few dinner options. We stood in line for 15-20 minutes at Vino Volo and then got a teeny table in a teeny restaurant to get some small plates and mediocre wine. (The menu and wine list at the Vino Volo in A looked much better.) Then our plane boarded a little early and J faced the reality of international flights in coach class (he hadn't had to do that in years). I got some sleep in the very uncomfortable seats and he did not.

I've never done intercontinental in coach on British Airways before, at least under normal circumstances. The only time I've done so before was Virgin, I believe, and on the way back we had fortuitous timing: we were flying home on September 11th, and Americans are superstitious enough that the plane was *deserted* -- we had a row to ourselves. This time, though, the plane was packed solid, and the BA seats are insanely uncomfortable: the narrowest shoulder width I've ever seen, and slightly concave in a way that forced me to hunch my shoulders together the whole way. Thoroughly unpleasant.

Day 1: We arrived at Heathrow and did the usual walking of miles to get from one gate to the next including going through security again. We stopped at Starbucks while waiting for our flight to board and was quite impressed with the service and selection. We got toasties (basically grilled cheese from a panini press) and coffee drinks (and a chocolate-chip bun that we nursed for desserts for the next 36 hours) and headed to our flight to Edinburgh. Once we landed, we figured out the bus to the train station and then looked for our hotel. We found that after a little looking, checked in, and then quickly headed out again, me to get our prebooked train tickets and J to get a SIM card for the international phone. Then back to the room for a nap. The room is quite nice with a serviceable if small bathroom and a nice comfy bed. However it is very spare with almost no storage space or flat surfaces to put things on.

Around 7, we dragged ourselves out of bed and wandered over to my cousin Sus's for takeaway pizza with Sus, Si (her husband), Jen (her mother), and a brief early appearance by Ben and Nina (her kids, 14 mos and 3 years respectively). J had nduja pizza which was a spinach and onion pizza with a mild sausage (which was nothing like nduja, sadly), and I had the Vesuvio which was a sausage pizza with red and green chilies (very spicy). We decided the pizzas were excellent complements to each other. We made it to 10pm, helped by Sus providing millionaire shortbread, and then staggered to bed.

Day 2: We slept the clock around and woke up late with less than an hour to pull ourselves together and get to lunch with the crew from pizza dinner plus Rob (my other cousin) and Hannah Bea (his 13mo old daughter). Lunch was a madhouse but very tasty with panini a for us, Mediterranean for most of the others, pancakes for the children, and then cakes after. We then wandered the Royal mile and Victoria street to the haymarket and did some window shopping. We all (minus Si) took the kids to the play park and then J and I headed to the castle. Unfortunately we didn't know that the castle had just gone to winter hours and closed at 5, so we decided to do that Sunday and went shopping for scotch and other intoxicating beverages. We did find some, buying some toffee whiskey and some black currant gin. (The latter were from Demijohn, a marvelous store that sells all sorts of interesting booze.)

We met the family again at an Indian restaurant and had very tasty food. I started with scallops in lime and coriander while the others split more typical Indian starters. For mains we mostly split veggie dishes plus a Goan fish curry. It was a lovely dinner and after a quick round of some whiskey at Sus and Si's we headed back to the hotel room.

Day 3: We started by meeting the family again for brunch which was fine but inefficient. Then we made our way to the castle where we had 2.5 hours which wasn't really enough. J enjoyed a concert by a renaissance musician who demonstrated many period instruments and was quite funny besides. (Very talented guy -- Jim Tribble -- who showed off everything from hurdy-gurdy to bombard. I'm afraid I was a bit of a smartass and corrected him on which bransle he was playing, though.) We then did some touring of the castle exhibits. We headed back down through the Royal mile intending to do more touristing but it was quite cold so I ran out of cope and we headed back to the hotel for a rest.

For dinner, J found us a lovely restaurant called the Dogs. We had whitebait salad and then I had mac and cauliflower and cheese and J had pork belly with pear and celeriac mash. It was all tasty and a little quirky and was just right. We then wandered a little and got some lovely views of the castle lit up at night, and ended up at the Balmoral bar which was very expensive but tasty. Then back to the room for dessert of millionaires shortbread and toffee whiskey.

Day 4: We had a lazy morning and then J rushed me through packing and morning and we got to the train station in plenty of time to go to Simply M&S to get hoisin duck wraps for lunch (tasty but slightly messy on the train) with some fancy crisps (mediocre) and chocolate "sundaes" (more like mousse cups of multiple types of mousse and chocolate sauce with J's also having honeycomb and a brownie bits, nummy).

The train was easy enough and Linda (my aunt) picked us up at the station and took us to her house which is quite large for England with a lovely back garden. She took us to her local pub for dinner, which has pretensions to being a gastropub. Linda and I split a nice bottle of rose while J had beer and cider. We had bread with olives and a lemon herb butter as starter, and then J had the pork belly w the scallops, mash, black pudding, and cracklings; Linda had the linguini with prawns in a chilli butter sauce; and I had the lamb rack with dauphinoise potatoes, peas/onions/chorizo, and asparagus. It was all quite good, and then we had mini desserts and hot beverages, with Linda having the brownie, J the treacle tart, and I had apple and black current crumble with custard.

Day 5: We were again quite lazy, and when we woke up it was raining which made us lazier still. Linda had decided to serve us brunch at her house and served us lovely strawberries and blueberries with muesli, granola and yogurt. Then there was cheese, bacon, salmon and toast (including a lovely fruit toast). After we went to the station with a brief detour to tour Wolverhampton and see the high street. However our train was over an hour delayed (and the rain was constant) so we spent an ok but not great hour on the platform. Then onto the train and on to London and to Peter and Miko's where we found Peter laid up with a cold. J and I decided to head to Sainsburys to get some breakfast items (and millionare shortbread, which always makes a good host gift for Peter) and look for dinner but agreed on Indian takeaway instead which was tasty.

Day 6: We had been very lazy, so planned a lazy day with a slow morning of hanging out and breakfast mince pies and then we headed into London central. We went to Fortnum & Mason and looked around, then wandered Piccadilly and into the mall and over to Buckingham Palace and then wandered some more. During this we stopped at pret for sandwiches, a cafe for scones with clotted cream and coffee drinks, and the green bar for a cocktail for J and wine for me. Then we went back to Fortnum & Mason's for scotch eggs for J (mmm -- F&M sells eight different versions of scotch eggs, including Jalepeno), and then to M&S for pork pies for me, and back to Peter's to eat our dinner.

Day 7: Our plan for this day was to trek out to Hampton Court palace and the weather cooperated with bright sunshine and not too cold. We got up a little earlier and took the train to Waterloo to catch the Hampton court train since the Thames boats (the more scenic/historical mode of transport) were a little unpredictable. The train was easy enough and we'd bought our tickets to the palace the night before so we got in quite easily. We did a quick trip through some minor exhibits then caught the Tudor tour which was quite amusing and themed around the downfall of Catherine Howard with four actors playing parts in various parts of the Tudor state apartments.

Then we had lunch in the cafe which was quite tasty and appropriate, we split a chicken and leek pie and a jacket potato with cheese and a brownie for afters. We then did the audio tour of the kitchens, and did a quick walk through on our own of 3 or 4 of the other tour paths including the William and Mary state apartments and the Georgian rooms. The Georgian rooms were beautifully organized around the rift between George I and George II with paper costumed mannequins standing in for various players in the drama. That done, we went and toured the parks, completing the maze garden, and seeing much of the rest of the gardens with a stop for cakes and coffee drinks. (I got the Maids of Honour tarts, a theoretically-period recipe that reminded me a lot of Jane's Marlborough Tarts. I'm curious whether they can actually be dated to period.) Then home to Miko's Katsu curry.

Day 8: This day was scheduled to see the Tower of London, and the weather cooperated again. Unfortunately the crowds did not and there were multiple school groups (local and European) all over. However, we did manage to see everything but took no guided tours as they were jammed. The medieval palace and wall walk was my favorite but generally we agreed we liked Hampton better.

Then we wandered into the city to see if we could find a drink and a plan for dinner. We found a nice bistro and bar that had a wide gin selection for J and a nice glass of Pouilly Fume for me. Then we walked past St Marks and then towards Covent Garden, looking at menus all the way. We finally settled on Cichetti which is a small chain of Italian restaurants focusing on smaller plates. We started with the winner of the night with an nduja pizza and a duck salad. The nduja was pretty close to what we got in Rome (yay!), and the duck salad was lovely with pulled duck in a balsamic glaze over rocket and some apple slices. Then we did a pasta course with crispy (large) gnocchi in a cheese and truffle sauce and tagliatelle bolognese.

Day 9: We were exceptionally lazy this morning not getting out of the house until after 1, and then we headed to Spitalfields and got a quick British lunch of Scotch egg for him and sausage and mash with onion gravy for me. We then wandered the street markets on our way to the Geffrey museum which was quite a lovely look at living rooms/parlours from the 17th century to today. We got there a little late so didn't manage to finish the museum with time to see the gardens, but we did get a good survey of the indoors which was interesting. (Note for the future: both Spitalfields and the Geffrey are worth spending more time on.) Then back to Peter's for packing, takeaway, and hanging out.

Day 10: The flight home required an early start from Peter's, but we got to Heathrow in good time. It was another uncomfortable flight, and always seems interminible, but at last we were in Boston, and a quick taxi ride and we were home. It was good to be home.
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It occurs to me that folks might be interested in Kate's observations about our vacation -- as usual, she goes into a lot more detail than I about, eg, the food. (She does play-by-play, whereas I provide color commentary.)
Her notes behind the cut )
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Starting with the weak bits again: okay, what's the big deal about Pralines?  I've tried them from two places now -- one of the more common brands, and a stand in a farmer's market -- and our reaction is a resounding "shrug".  It's basically undercooked pecan brittle, far as I can tell, usually with too little pecan flavor and too much sugar to be interesting, with all the complexity of milk chocolate.  I sincerely don't get why every block in the French Quarter is apparently required by law to have at least one Praline shop, all of them in desperate competition.

On the other hand, we did stop for snack at Cafe du Monde yesterday -- 9 for food, 2 for atmosphere, but the place does live up to its billing.  Having to fight our way through to find a table was less than thrilling, but -- well, I've rarely seen such a simple menu.  They sell coffee (excellent) and beignets (also excellent), and that's pretty much it.  Points for sticking to what they have perfected, though, with a coffee/chicory combination that is delicious.  And never let it be said that they don't give you enough powdered sugar for your beignets -- after doing my damnedest to repeatedly dredge them in the mounds of sugar, I think there was still half a cup left.  I think the only way to use all the sugar they give you is to pick up the plate and simply pour it into your mouth.  I'm glad to have gone, and would love to have the food again, but I honestly don't know if it's worth the table-hunt.

Brunch today was Commander's Palace.  We declared that this was our fourth Dinnerversary (really, are you surprised that we celebrate the first time we went out for a fancy dinner together?), and it was well up to the expected standards.  Everything was quite good, but the standout dish was her Spring Lamb Hash with Lamb Belly.  The Hash was out of this world -- meaty, spicy, complex and flavorful -- and the Lamb Belly, like my Pork Belly last night, was meatier and less fatty than the interpretations I tend to get at home. We each got the right dessert: she took the opportunity to try a *real* Strawberry Shortcake by people who know what they are doing, with all the elements just right and not over-sweetened, while I had a Pecan Pie that I liked more than I would have expected -- less sweet filling than usual, but livened by crunchy roasted pecans (maybe with some spices?) providing more than enough flavor to make up for the reduced sweetness.

Service was as remarkable as you'd expect from a place of this caliber, livened by having my Esquire-brother Argyle (the second Silverwing Philosopher-Laurel), who moved from the East down to New Orleans about eight years ago, and who is now Floor Captain at Commander's Palace, waiting on us.  We got a good deal of schmoozing in amongst him needing to run around, along with lessons about things like the history and construction of a proper Sazerac cocktail.

Great stuff, and well-recommended.  Not cheap -- we paid about $150 pre-tip (including a good deal of booze) -- but a great splurge if you're looking for something elegant that still has powerful, punchy flavors...

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Kate and I are taking a long weekend down in New Orleans -- intentionally lightly planned, which turned out to be good, since she's still fighting off the remains of a nasty cold.  A few observations to start off with...

On the downside: wow, Bourbon Street has managed to hit the point of self-parody.  I mean, I remember it being a place of booze and boobs, but it appears to have actually hit an average of three strip clubs per block, and at 1:30 pm on a fairly unremarkable Friday it was already packed with twenty-something carrying cups of Huge Ass Beer.  We managed about three blocks before deciding that it was not only kind of tasteless, it was *boringly* tasteless, a sort of blandly uniform debauch, and found a different street to wander on.

We've noticed that we are in a sort of demographic gap in this city's tourists, at least the French Quarter.  Bourbon Street is full of 20-somethings looking for beer (or big frozen drinks); Chartres and Decatur are full of 60-somethings seeking decent restaurants (for their individual definitions of "decent").  Not so many right around our age -- I can only assume this is because N'awlins isn't viewed as a place to bring the family.  (But plenty of *locals* around our age, of course, since people still live here.)

One big positive: Kate and I are still good at judging restaurants from their menus.  Dinner tonight was at Tableau, and was exactly what we were looking for.  We pulled up a table in their courtyard -- not so much people-watching as the balcony, but relatively quiet and relaxing, pulled out our Kindles, and had our kind of date, working our way through small plates and cocktails at a leisurely pace while we read for a couple of hours.

We split the Redfish Beignets -- basically a nicely batter-fried fish with a remoulade that somehow cut the grease.  Then she had the citrus-glazed yellowtail bites, each with a tiny wedge of orange and a slice of jalepeno (on big toothpicks), while I had the Crispy Pork Belly in some kind of fabulous pepper sauce, a meatier and less fatty interpretation than I've usually found (on big toothpicks).  She finished with the "hot" chocolate, a pot de creme of Mexican-spiced pudding under a layer of soft marshmallow, while I had the Bourbon Pecan Monkey Bread, a small ball of wonderful.

Overall, a lovely, relaxing evening.  Highly recommended if you find yourself down here.  Note that the small plates aren't available in the main dining room, but the courtyard is beautiful anyway.

Tomorrow: brunch at Commander's Palace, and hopefully not getting drowned in the expected thunderstorms...

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Before I completely forget, I should continue to diarize about the high points of our vacation. So let's talk about the meat of any trip to Orlando: the rides. (Note, though, that I'm going to do "shows" separately, and the lines are fuzzy.)


Before I get into reviews, though, I'll put in a plug for the Lines App, from touringplans.com. This is a crowdsourced app for keeping track of how long the lines *actually* are on all of the rides, and it's a godsend. It was often more accurate than the officially posted times, and made the whole thing less frustrating. During the latter days of the trip, I got into the game of setting the timer when I got on line and reporting actual waiting times, to help keep the data current -- it's a fun little distraction. Between that, judicious use of FastPass to make reservations for some of the more popular rides, and simply the fact that we deliberately traveled during Very Low Season, I got a lot less annoyed by waiting in line than I often do at Disney.


One thing that's really striking about doing Disney and Universal on the same trip is just how *different* they are. In a nutshell, Disney has vastly more variety -- lots more shows and things to see, as well as more variety of rides. OTOH, Universal has doubled down on rides per se, pushing the technology hard and producing a much more intense experience. By and large, rides are the one area in which Universal really excels.

That said, they're starting to go to the same wells a bit too often. For example, the Gringott's ride in Potterland was pretty great, but it's largely the same technology as their classic Spider-Man ride, which is one of the best. Worse, their Transformers ride was one of the low points: it is *exactly* the same ride as Spider-Man, but with (and this seems impossible) even less coherence and plot. Of these three, while Gringott's gets all the attention, I still think Spider-Man is the best ride.

That said, of everything in Potterworld, the older ride inside Hogwarts ("Forbidden Journey") is my favorite: very active, twisting, twirly, near-upside-downy, fun. Kate didn't care for it so much, though: she doesn't love upside-down, and found that the ride made her a tad motion-sick. (Doing it shortly after ice cream may have been unwise. But the Butterbeer soft serve is very tasty.)

Roller coasters: Universal wins, hands down. The Dueling Dragons in Potterworld is a very good crazy coaster, and Hulk remains one of my all-time favorites. That's for crazy-coaster fans only, though: it has at least seven loops of one sort or another, so you spend a large fraction of the ride upside-down. (Needless to say, Kate stayed off that one.) Honorable mention goes to the Everest coaster in Disney's Animal Kingdom, which was just about the perfect compromise for me and Kate: interesting and crazy enough for my tastes, with some unusual twists, while not doing any of the upside-downness that she dislikes. That one is recommended to anybody who likes coasters.

Another honorable mention is the very odd Toy Story Midway Mania. This was one of Disney's few 3D rides, and in this case it's actually necessary. It is a "ride" only in the technical sense, but it's definitely not a show -- you are basically driven around from screen to screen, each of which is a carnival midway attraction of the "throw Things at Things in order to win prizes!" sort. You have an odd little controller, and pulling that shoots whatever is appropriate to the current screen -- balls, pies, suction-cup darts -- at the targets on the screen. The whole thing manages to be very accurate to the midway theme, but somehow much more exciting and interesting. Not worth the 60-minute line, but a great choice for a FastPass.

Out of everything, though, my pick for the best ride out of both parks is (and I was not expecting this) The Simpsons Ride. (AKA Krustyworld.) This is a completely insane motion simulator, one of those rides where you get into a car that holds about 20 people, and wind up watching a full-surround screen as you get jostled, turned and tilted. It is probably the best example of the concept I've ever seen (and I've been a fan of these things since Star Tours first opened, probably 20 years ago): the technology is smooth and convincing (despite, or perhaps because, it eschews the 3D), and the ride is nuts. Perhaps most important, this is the Simpsons, and is totally faithful: it is basically a mini-episode of the show, so it's not just frenetic, it is quite funny at the same time, with a storyline that runs through the entire experience from the waiting area onward. (The waiting area isn't quite as good as Muppetvision 3D, but it's up there.) Highly recommended.


Important caveat: Universal loves, loves, LOVES 3D. If you don't like 3D glasses, it may not even be worth going -- I think that over half of the better rides required the silly glasses. To be fair, they've gotten good at it -- the 3D *worked* much better for me on the newer rides than the older ones. But it started to get annoying after a while. (By contrast, very little of Disney uses 3D glasses.)

Also, Universal has gotten into the habit of requiring Absolutely No Loose Articles on many of their rides, and they're pretty strict about it: I had to get into arguments twice to make the point that yes, my belt pouch is firmly attached and is not by any reasonable definition "loose". So we wound up wasting a lot of time putting our stuff into lockers and getting it back out again. They've made the locker tech about as smooth as can be: it's free for all of the rides where it is required, and uses thumbprints to provide adequate security without needing keys, but it's still a hassle. (And, y'know, thumbprints.)

All that said: if you like "thrilling" rides, Universal is currently the park to beat. They've got an impressive density of power rides, and while a few are duds, most are solidly good...
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Today's project is reviews of the highlights and lowlights from vacation, for my own future reference and that of anyone planning on visiting Orlando. Since I always like to compare and contrast, I'll do it by topic. First up, hotel rooms.


We spent the first two nights at Universal, at the Portofino Bay Hotel. Generally speaking, this was a win. The hotel basically mimics a waterside Italian town, and strikes a nice balance -- atmospheric without being *too* kitschy. It has the usual assortment of touristy shops, including a relatively nice art store, and a few restaurants. It has a lovely little boat that takes you from there to the front gate of Universal (about a mile -- we walked it once), which is a pleasant way to start and finish the day.

The bed was a bit soft for our taste, but that's a minor detail. My only *major* complaint about the Portofino was the Excessively Clever Thermostat.

When we got to the hotel, we found that our room was set to 75 -- not crazy, but I live in the northeast for a reason: I can't sleep well above 74, and in Florida humidity even that is problematic. So I set the thermostat to 72 and forgot about it, until that night.

In the middle of the night, I woke up, gently roasting. Odd: I was sure that I had turned down the temp. So I got up to check it -- and as I did so, the fan turned on. Okay, I simply caught it at the top of the cycle. I went back to bed.

Fifteen minutes later, the fan has turned off again and I'm still too hot. I get up again, poke at the thermostat, turn it down to 71 on the theory that maybe its readings are wrong, confirm that yes, the fan is running, and go back to bed.

Fifteen minutes later, the fan is off again and I am now *very* awake. I get up and go to the thermostat -- and the fan turns on again.

I get the distinct impression that my room is giggling at me like a mischievous eight-year-old with a light switch.

I stand there, and about five minutes later the fan turns off. I move, and it turns back on again. I begin to realize, with dawning horror, that some idiot has wired the thermostat to a motion detector.

So I basically stand there and wiggle slowly for ten minutes or so, until the room is back at a decent temp and I can get to sleep. I repeat this process at about 4am, and by then am finally exhausted enough to sleep through the rest of the night.

In the morning we went down to the front desk, and discovered that, no shit, this is by design -- yes, all the thermostats are on motion sensors. I didn't bother to ask the nice girl behind the register *why* they do that (I would bet that it's some over-zealous ecological instinct), but she was nice enough to call maintenance and have them change the default setting in our room.

All of which is essentially a lesson in UX design, and in particular an illustration of one of the cardinal rules: Don't Lie to Your Users. If they had said upfront how this worked, and told us to call the front desk to set the nighttime temp, I would have thought it clunky and dumb, but not overly annoying. But by presenting me with a device that *seems* to work just like any other thermostat, but is programmed to actually be Much Too Clever in an important way, it left me, well, steamed.


At Disney, we decided to stay at the Contemporary Resort, one of the original Disney hotels -- neither of us had ever stayed there, and Kate is a huge Magic Kingdom fan, so being within walking distance made sense. It got a major refurbish a few years ago, so was generally quite nice: it kept the "contemporary" (now somewhat retro) flavor, while doing a good refit on all the details. Amusingly, it had what appeared to be the exact same model of thermostat as the Portofino, but without the misfeatures.

Overall, we were quite happy with it: the Contemporary is pricey, but has a lot going for it. It was good for our schedule issues -- Kate likes to get up an hour or two before me, so she could go sit on the balcony (every room has a balcony), or even wander over to the park for a few rides before the crowds got bad. The bed was firm (which we generally prefer), and while the room wasn't huge, the layout was quite smart, so it didn't feel crowded. We got the park-side view, which had the downside of facing the parking lot, but the upside of being able to see the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks from our room.

The building itself is a fine little city. I expected the gift shops, but one benefit of having the Disney Vacation Club now attached to it is that it also has a small but real market. (Which in our case meant that we could buy water for $3/gallon instead of $4/pint in the parks.) It has several restaurants at various price points (including one of the best restaurants in Disneyworld, but we'll get to that), a couple of bars, and a big pool with a good waterslide. (I got to demonstrate to Kate how, by lying on your back and pretending to be a missile, you can get impressive speed on the slide.)

I was slightly disappointed by the HVAC: not nearly as much as at Universal, but it didn't seem to dehumidify as well as I'd like, so the room felt just the tiniest bit swampy at night. And Disney's version of Too Clever was the nightlight. We thought there wasn't one, and the front desk couldn't send us one, so we thought we had to leave on the bathroom light in order to not trip in the middle of the night. As I eventually figured out, no -- there were two nightlights in the bathroom, but they are very dim and motion-sensor based, so they're basically invisible *except* when it's pitch-dark. All of which is very sensible but very unobvious: a one-liner mentioning it somewhere would have saved us some tsurrus.

(Yes, I see everything in UX terms these days.)


And this seems to be a reasonable time to mention the Magic Bands. These are part of the serious Disney experience now: a brightly colored rubbery wristband, relatively comfortable and adjustable, that your entire vacation runs off of. Seriously: it serves as your room key, your park pass, your FastPass reservation, your credit card, everything. Far as I can tell, you can basically wander around Disneyworld wearing nothing but bathing trunks and a Magic Band, and have the full experience with few issues.

Just *how* ubiquitous it is was driven home at the Be Our Guest Restaurant, which we had lunch at in large part because, hey, we kind of had to try The Grey Stuff. You come in, place your order, wave your Magic Band at the reader to pay for it, and go choose a table from the three large dining rooms; a few minutes later, a waitress comes by and delivers your food. Note that nowhere in this process do you actually *tell* them where you are sitting -- your food just magically arrives. My best guess is that the tables have RFID readers, scanning your Magic Bands and feeding them into a routing computer.

The privacy-advocate part of my brain is just an eensy bit creeped out by the whole thing. But I have to give Disney credit for demonstrating just how *convenient* a universal ID can be when coupled with good programming...
jducoeur: (Default)
In case anyone was expecting to hear from us last week and didn't, that's because Kate and I were down in Florida, at the Temples of the Wizard and the Mouse. We're now home (adjusting to the sudden 20-degree temperature drop), everything went well, and assorted notes will be forthcoming...
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I didn't announce it widely, on the "don't tell the world that you're away from your house" theory, but Kate and I have been planning a trip to Europe for a good six months now. That's done now -- we headed out on August 31st and returned on Sept 11th -- and it was a fine and fascinating time.

There are going to be a whole bunch of LJ entries coming, chronicling the trip. For once, I actually took a fair number of photos, so those will be heavily cut-tagged. I'm starting to assemble that now, but for anyone who is curious, a fair chunk of the story of the trip can be found (in reverse chronological order) in this Picasa album of cryptic pictures.

Anyway -- that's why I was semi-incommunicado for a couple of weeks, and why I've been heavily distracted for the past month. And the travelogue starts next...
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Frosty the MightyWhile we were out and about on Monday, we began to notice that, as at home, Sanibel is prone to lots of inflated statues of Santa and friends. But y'know -- it's just different in this setting. Whether you're talking about Santa being pulled by dolphins, or a parrot perched next to a stocking, the juxtapositions are truly curious to my cold-and-snow-minded brain.

Since it was already Christmas Eve, and we didn't know how long everything would be up, I grabbed [livejournal.com profile] msmemory's camera and did a high-speed ride down Periwinkle Way (the main drag of Sanibel), taking snaps of the fun. So click on Frosty the Mighty to see The Silly Santas of Sanibel...
jducoeur: (Default)
Frosty the MightyWhile we were out and about on Monday, we began to notice that, as at home, Sanibel is prone to lots of inflated statues of Santa and friends. But y'know -- it's just different in this setting. Whether you're talking about Santa being pulled by dolphins, or a parrot perched next to a stocking, the juxtapositions are truly curious to my cold-and-snow-minded brain.

Since it was already Christmas Eve, and we didn't know how long everything would be up, I grabbed [livejournal.com profile] msmemory's camera and did a high-speed ride down Periwinkle Way (the main drag of Sanibel), taking snaps of the fun. So click on Frosty the Mighty to see The Silly Santas of Sanibel...
jducoeur: (Default)
Family Priorities: The open question about the new condo is whether to sacrifice some of the kitchen space in order to build a den. Dad thinks that this could increase the appeal of the unit to larger families, but some of us have been skeptical.

Tonight, we found ourselves with seven adults in the kitchen simultaneously, all cooking. We have tentatively agreed that making the kitchen smaller is probably *not* a good idea...
jducoeur: (Default)
Family Priorities: The open question about the new condo is whether to sacrifice some of the kitchen space in order to build a den. Dad thinks that this could increase the appeal of the unit to larger families, but some of us have been skeptical.

Tonight, we found ourselves with seven adults in the kitchen simultaneously, all cooking. We have tentatively agreed that making the kitchen smaller is probably *not* a good idea...
jducoeur: (Default)
Starting the Sitcom: Having the family together always produces moments of comedy. Today's -- well, one of Dad's guests, some time ago, had claimed that he'd managed to lock himself out on the lanai. We had always wondered how someone could do that -- and then came today. We had just finished moving all our stuff from E2 to D47, and Dad, [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and I had wandered out onto the porch to enjoy the afternoon. Sandy came out to join us, and closed the door behind her. Which was fine, until I tried to get back in.

So here we are, on a fourth-floor screen porch, locked out. All the members of the family who have keys to the unit are here. We realize that, in the future, we need to be prompter about investigating strange guest problems.

Fortunately, the lady from the cleaning service is still down in E2, and we have her cell number, so we call her up to rescue us. Dad and I spend the next fifteen minutes playing with the door, figuring out *how* you can lock yourself out. It's not easy to do, but we eventually reproduce the problem. Something to fix soon.

Biking through twilight: One of the delights of the island is biking around. The whole thing is flat, and covered in bike paths, so we never bother to get a car. [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and I decide that we want a few staples in C36 (the unit we wound up in), so we bike on over to Bailey's, the local general store. It's about a mile down Tarpon Bay Road, right through the middle of the nature preserve. Lovely and bucolic -- no noise except for the occasional passing car, thick brush all around us, and the sky slowly turning pink above us. You just can't hold onto stress in such a place.
jducoeur: (Default)
Starting the Sitcom: Having the family together always produces moments of comedy. Today's -- well, one of Dad's guests, some time ago, had claimed that he'd managed to lock himself out on the lanai. We had always wondered how someone could do that -- and then came today. We had just finished moving all our stuff from E2 to D47, and Dad, [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and I had wandered out onto the porch to enjoy the afternoon. Sandy came out to join us, and closed the door behind her. Which was fine, until I tried to get back in.

So here we are, on a fourth-floor screen porch, locked out. All the members of the family who have keys to the unit are here. We realize that, in the future, we need to be prompter about investigating strange guest problems.

Fortunately, the lady from the cleaning service is still down in E2, and we have her cell number, so we call her up to rescue us. Dad and I spend the next fifteen minutes playing with the door, figuring out *how* you can lock yourself out. It's not easy to do, but we eventually reproduce the problem. Something to fix soon.

Biking through twilight: One of the delights of the island is biking around. The whole thing is flat, and covered in bike paths, so we never bother to get a car. [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and I decide that we want a few staples in C36 (the unit we wound up in), so we bike on over to Bailey's, the local general store. It's about a mile down Tarpon Bay Road, right through the middle of the nature preserve. Lovely and bucolic -- no noise except for the occasional passing car, thick brush all around us, and the sky slowly turning pink above us. You just can't hold onto stress in such a place.
jducoeur: (Default)
Vacation time, and so it's time for another impressionistic set of posts recording That Which Catches My Attention. As usual, these will be locked until we get back.

The Southwest Scramble: That really sounds like it should be some sort of breakfast preparation involving chipotle, but it actually refers to the mad dash onto the fully-booked airplane. (For those who haven't flown Southwest: it's lovely, but you don't get assigned seats. Instead, you get assigned a numbered boarding pass when you check it, up to 24 hours in advance. You line up in order, and then grab seats as you get onto the plane, so strategy is important.) Neither [livejournal.com profile] msmemory or I are terribly fond of rubbing shoulders with a potentially 300-lb stranger for five hours, so we make a beeline for the two-seat exit row. It doesn't recline, and it doesn't have as much leg room as the exit row behind it, but the elbow room is lovely.

First Night in the New Place: Just for tonight, we stay with Dad and Sandy in E2, our new condo. A few years back, Dad bought a rental property here on Sanibel, and it's been his toy ever since, gradually turning it into quite the luxury joint -- lovely decor, fine appliances, and all the toys a geek is likely to want. So a month or so ago, he took some of my sister's and my trust fund, and invested it in another unit.

It isn't as fancy as Dad's original condo at this point, and it'll always be slightly smaller, but it's ground floor -- practically right next to the pool, and feet from the beach -- so it looks like it's going to be a popular rental. And of course, now it is Dad and Sandy's new toy. They're already having fun with a little redecoration, and the family will be talking this week about what we're going to do with the big renovation next year.

Anyway, it's already pretty nice, but a bit odd for [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and me -- we get the kids' room for the night, so we're in separate twin beds. First time we've done that in a bunch of years...
jducoeur: (Default)
Vacation time, and so it's time for another impressionistic set of posts recording That Which Catches My Attention. As usual, these will be locked until we get back.

The Southwest Scramble: That really sounds like it should be some sort of breakfast preparation involving chipotle, but it actually refers to the mad dash onto the fully-booked airplane. (For those who haven't flown Southwest: it's lovely, but you don't get assigned seats. Instead, you get assigned a numbered boarding pass when you check it, up to 24 hours in advance. You line up in order, and then grab seats as you get onto the plane, so strategy is important.) Neither [livejournal.com profile] msmemory or I are terribly fond of rubbing shoulders with a potentially 300-lb stranger for five hours, so we make a beeline for the two-seat exit row. It doesn't recline, and it doesn't have as much leg room as the exit row behind it, but the elbow room is lovely.

First Night in the New Place: Just for tonight, we stay with Dad and Sandy in E2, our new condo. A few years back, Dad bought a rental property here on Sanibel, and it's been his toy ever since, gradually turning it into quite the luxury joint -- lovely decor, fine appliances, and all the toys a geek is likely to want. So a month or so ago, he took some of my sister's and my trust fund, and invested it in another unit.

It isn't as fancy as Dad's original condo at this point, and it'll always be slightly smaller, but it's ground floor -- practically right next to the pool, and feet from the beach -- so it looks like it's going to be a popular rental. And of course, now it is Dad and Sandy's new toy. They're already having fun with a little redecoration, and the family will be talking this week about what we're going to do with the big renovation next year.

Anyway, it's already pretty nice, but a bit odd for [livejournal.com profile] msmemory and me -- we get the kids' room for the night, so we're in separate twin beds. First time we've done that in a bunch of years...
jducoeur: (Default)
A quick public note: for the past week we've been off on vacation. On the occasions I managed to have an Internet connection, I've been posting some longish word-picture descriptions of the trip, but keeping them locked down on the "don't tell the world you're not home" theory. Those are now unlocked, so if you're interested, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Suffice it to say, the trip home was uneventful -- the main thing that stuck with me was a big, incongruously chirpy billboard in Orlando for "Vasectomy.com -- It's Easier than you Think!". Oh, and Southwest Airlines gave us a final Disney experience with a half-mile-long line for baggage checkin: managing two suitcases and a cup of coffee really ought to be some sort of juggling-school entrance exam...
jducoeur: (Default)
A quick public note: for the past week we've been off on vacation. On the occasions I managed to have an Internet connection, I've been posting some longish word-picture descriptions of the trip, but keeping them locked down on the "don't tell the world you're not home" theory. Those are now unlocked, so if you're interested, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Suffice it to say, the trip home was uneventful -- the main thing that stuck with me was a big, incongruously chirpy billboard in Orlando for "Vasectomy.com -- It's Easier than you Think!". Oh, and Southwest Airlines gave us a final Disney experience with a half-mile-long line for baggage checkin: managing two suitcases and a cup of coffee really ought to be some sort of juggling-school entrance exam...

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